There once was a train named BAYOR (Board At Your Own Risk).
People stood on platforms or along the tracks just to watch BAYOR hurtling past, even taking bets as to where it would stop. You see, there was no telling which station might be the train’s next fancy; there was no telling anything at all. A couple could board the train and find at the end of the trip that they were no longer joined at the hip or heart; they could blink and in that instant gain or lose a child. A man could enter a restroom and emerge a completely different person, doing things that might cause his girlfriend to slap him once, twice, thrice.
Everything (crazy) was possible on Train BAYOR.
Likewise, everything is possible in New Gisaeng Story. Twenty-four episodes down, my jaw is now permanently fused to my feet. The drama has gone insane and I’ve gone loony along with it. Finally, my first crack drama of 2011.
Up to Episode 14, I was still undecided whether I really liked the drama or was just amused by it. Between Episodes 15 and 21, I had half a mind to bail because of the absurd turn of events. Episode 22 had me reeling; Episode 24 had me squealing. With everything that has happened so far, this is going to be one wild ride. Something tells me, though, that it might be pretty wonderful as well. That optimism is the reason I don’t plan on getting off this train any time soon.
But first let’s talk about the crazies that sprung up like some inebriated beast around the mid-teen episodes. Prior to that point, we have our young couple in love. (Okay, not exactly young since Da-mo’s 29 and Sa-ran’s 25.) Reticent with others, they were uncommonly open with each other, sharing sweet and memorable dates. They drank tea that he had brewed for her in the park and ate kimchi that she was able to marinate to perfection in just thirty minutes. They were physically affectionate; time together was treasured, whether spent in long conversations or just pitching and batting a ball. Although they had a spoken agreement that theirs would be a no-strings-attached “clean love” contract that could be broken off if one or both should decide that their relationship had run its course, they seemed to be falling deeper in love.
And then it happened. He went off to Japan without telling her, turned off his phone so she could not contact him, and returned on the day of his birthday with a bombshell: he wanted out because he had tired of her, a plaything. They weren’t compatible because his father would never accept her, a pauper. He would date others, which he promptly did, so that he could snare someone more befitting of his own station in life.
But since she kept invading his mind like some pesky voice of conscience (having left his own in Japan), he hatched a brilliant plan that she would surely welcome: she would enter his house as an adoptive sister so that his father could provide for her financially and so that he, Da-mo, could keep seeing her. That way they would be a jolly family of six: dad, mom, Da-mo, Da-mo’s wife, ‘little brother’ Andre, and Sa-ran. (It would have been a family of seven if the grandma had not gone off with nary a “farewell, my darlings” to meet her maker on that day when bombshells dropped like hail.) If he worked fast enough, he might even add an heir to the family within a year.
Across the world a collective wail arose as viewers realized, after frantically rewinding their videos to check if they had accidentally skipped an entire episode, that Da-mo had indeed morphed WITHOUT WARNING into a first-class jerk.
Just like that a romance I was rooting for evaporated into nothingness. Just like that a Da-mo that I loved became a cad I despised. Waaahhh!!
But still the writer wasn’t done. In one fell swoop characters dropped like flies. Besides Da-mo’s grandmother (RIP, Halmoni), two other grandparents exited the stage, all three in quick succession. One of these deaths was greeted with quiet jubilation. Now two women could finally realize their long-cherished dreams: one to be rid of her husband, the other to be reunited with her forced-to-be-given-away-at-birth daughter.
And why stop at overturning just a few tables? Why spare Sa-ran from more heartbreak? Let her learn from her witch of a stepmother that she’s not even her father’s flesh and blood. Let her react impetuously to that realization with a bombshell of her own: she would enter Buyonggak as a gisaeng. Let Da-mo reel from that news. Let the two former lovebirds have their fiercest face-off yet along the banks of the Han River; let him slap her and she slap him back, three times. Let me stagger from the force that is Im Soo-hyang’s acting in that intense and unforgettable scene.
When I think the writer has drained her crazies coffers, she socks me with one more: Sohn-ja and Ra-ra could be siblings. Hell, everyone could be related by the drama’s end.
I pop an aspirin and survey the carnage. Not in recent memory have I watched a drama where so much happened in so short a span, all of the happenings surreal in their abruptness. What was the hurry, seriously? Not that I do not appreciate a zippy pace, I do. But why kill off Da-mo’s grandma and Ra-ra’s grandpa when they were neither ill nor evil? Why tease us with a Da-mo who seemed so obviously principled and well-intentioned at the beginning, a man who was willing to swallow his pride to please the girl he loved, and then mock us with a complete turnaround in his character, one that made no sense whatsoever? Why?
For crying out loud, prepare us, Writer Im.
But nothing could have prepared me for what Da-mo was about to do at the end of Episode 23. When his intentions became clear the next episode and he indeed became part of the big and happy Buyonggak family, I fell off my chair clutching my sides.
Because it just kills me to watch this new and altogether hysterical side of him, one that’s suddenly so charming and compliant. He waits on tables, even earning a tip for being good-looking. He mops the floor, dons gardening gloves, bears with flatulence (not his own) that can fell an elephant, and calls Sa-ran a deferential “Assi [아씨]” or “Young Lady” (although how many retainers do you know who wink at their young mistresses and even steal a kiss or two in a pool?). He is determined to do everything he can to regain her favor and take her away from Buyonggak.
So, I’ve given up trying to understand what the writer is doing to the character of Da-mo. Nothing surprises me now. Instead, I’m just lapping up the latest developments and allowing myself to glide along with the new crazy. Because suddenly the drama has become so cute. Suddenly characters I didn’t care about previously I now enjoy a whole lot more. Take the three Buyonggak male employees who room together, for example. The one who sews and the one who sings. The one with a crush on Sa-ran’s sister, Gong-joo. Now Da-mo has become their fourth roommate; he sleeps literally at their feet and is in the direct path of anything gaseous
polluting perfuming the midnight air. See how well they all get along; see how frequently Da-mo smiles. He has smiled more in Episode 24 than in the previous twenty-three episodes combined.
And can I say how thrilled I am that Da-mo and Gong-joo are, in a sense, accomplices in Mission Get Sa-ran Out Of Buyonggak? I adore Gong-joo to bits. In one of my most favorite New Gisaeng Story scenes so far, she dances a slow dance in her room and is joined by sweet Sohn-ja, the two of them swaying in tandem. What a magical moment.
Speaking of Sohn-ja, I love watching him with Ra-ra’s father. And how about Ra-ra with her mom, the one who gave birth to her? Such emotional scenes, this mother-and-daughter pair, and such powerful acting, too. Someone better sit up and take notice of Han Hye-rin and make her the female lead in her next drama.
There’s more. The way Sa-ran has reached out to embrace and forgive Da-mo, sensing intuitively that he’s sincere in making amends for hurting her so badly. Contrast her gentleness in Episode 23 with her fury in Episode 22 and suddenly you think: “There’s a plan here somewhere; there’s growth and change and a long road ahead that I want to keep in view. I’m not giving up on this couple or this drama.”
Because we’re only halfway and there are so many delicious possibilities lying in wait on this crazy and entertaining ride. Since Da-mo and Sa-ran’s war of words in Episode 22, the one that left her finger-prints on his face, I’ve stopped fast-forwarding scenes. On the contrary I’m taking longer to watch each episode because I’m replaying more scenes than ever, of more characters this time. Somehow I’ve become smitten, what can I say?
I quiver in excitement whenever Sa-ran is getting ready for a new Buyonggak night; I wonder what exquisite costume she is going to wear and what she is going to perform. Will it be another mesmerizing dance or a surprise to knock one’s socks off, a fusion-trot number replete with a guitar and a microphone? I even like prickly Manager No now, simply because she can’t resist Da-mo’s shameless (and agenda-filled) flattery. The woman beams and blushes like a giggly schoolgirl. Me? I just go, “Da-mo, you naughty boy” and grin like someone who has totally forgotten that she wanted to spank said naughty boy three episodes ago.
Ah, Show, how did I become putty in your hands?