Given the maelstrom that was May when six new dramas joined the fray and caused many a kdrama addict to flail in “so many dramas, so little time” despair, I need another crack drama like Shrek the Sheep (RIP) needs more wool on his shaggy seven-years-evading-the-shears self.
Yet in the last three days I’ve watched twenty episodes of an April drama. And become hopelessly addicted, egads. If the remaining yet-to-air ten episodes of Can You Hear My Heart? retain (or even surpass) the quality of the first twenty, then it will likely be my drama of the year.
At first it was the sheer happiness of watching two favorite veteran actors together on the screen. Playing a mother-son pairing, too. But then it became more than that. A warmth crept out of seemingly nowhere and enveloped me. It carried me along the lanes of that little town in Pocheon and onto the fields. A man sang with off-beat gusto a song that his mother loved, the two of them beaming as their bicycle sped through the town. A boy and a girl ran hand in hand, she clad in a dress several sizes too large. Barely an hour into their first meeting, she had given him her prized hacky sack. He in turn had announced, to this nine-year-old girl with the impish smile, “You’re cute.”
Just like that I was smitten. I’ve never felt this much love for a drama this soon. Literally within minutes I knew I was watching something special. It was a feeling that would grow exponentially by the time I finished Episode 20.
What sets CYHMH apart from the dramas I’ve seen this year is the gentleness imbuing it, from the characterizations to the relationships to the story arcs. Perhaps because the heart of the drama is a middle-aged man with the gentlest of souls. You can’t watch this man and not feel whatever ill disposition you might possess soften somehow.
Jung Bo-seok is Bong Young-gyu, a man with the intellectual capability of a child but whose heart is golden and giant-sized. Young-gyu may sing only one song and that one song repeatedly. He may not know how to read or write or crunch numbers. But he knows that you can turn your face toward the stars and make a wish. You can talk to the flowers, name them one by one, and watch them return your affection wordlessly, their blooms a joyous celebration of life. Bong-gyu doesn’t get upset if a child accidentally snips off two inches of his hair. But he will get upset, very upset, if someone hurts the most important people in his life. To the very end he will protect them, because they matter more to him than anything else in the world.
I can’t write about Young-gyu and not feel the tears welling up.
The dramas that stay with me, that crawl under my skin and burrow into a corner of my heart, are not the ones with the cleverest of writing, the most impressive of production values, or the most commanding of acting prowess. The dramas that linger, cling even, long after the ending credits have rolled, are the ones that simultaneously hurt and heal me. Yes, the ones that make me cry. And then make me smile, sometimes before the tears have dried.
Just several episodes into CYHMH and Young-gyu is faced with two losses that will take an ordinary man years (and perhaps even a lifetime) to overcome. But Young-gyu tucks away the pain in the innermost recesses of his being, picks himself up, and continues to live each day with a clarity of purpose that’s extraordinary for a man whose mind is unmistakably childlike. Because Young-gyu never forgets that he is both a son and a father.
Playing Young-gyu’s mom is Yoon Yeo-jung, in a performance so searing she makes CYHMH a must-watch for anyone who has long admired this amazing thespian (26 years in the business; 40 dramas; 9 movies). Hwang Soon-geum has two children: a daughter she birthed and a son she adopted. Her daughter Shin-ae gets pregnant out of wedlock, dumps her child on her mom, and then disappears. Soon-geum passes off the baby as Young-gyu’s; the child, Ma-roo, grows up resenting his father for being slow-witted and poor. When he’s fourteen years old, an opportunity presents itself and Ma-roo is finally rid of the family that he despises. His grandma and father will spend the next sixteen years waiting and searching for him, without avail.
In one of the drama’s most powerful scenes, Soon-geum and Ma-roo face each other on a deserted and dimly-lit street. The grandson lashes out at the old woman, blaming her for messing up his life. The words fall like blows, hard and relentless. She sobs like one bereaved, overcome by her guilt and sorrow and pain. Her beloved Ma-roo. So eagerly awaited by the father who daily sets aside a warm bowl of rice for him, who sits by the front door each night hoping to hear his footsteps. She’s found him… and also lost him, again.
If Young-gyu is the gentle heart of the drama, then his mother Soon-geum is its open arms, warm and welcoming. Little is known about Young-gyu’s past; we are told early on that he isn’t his mother’s flesh and blood. Later, when dementia flits in and out of the house, she calls him her “Young Master,” suggesting that perhaps she was once upon a time a servant in his household and that somehow the young Young-gyu became hers to raise, on her own. But, as we are reminded again and again in CYHMH, family isn’t formed by blood lines. The one who loves you the most may not be related to you; the one who is in fact related to you may discard you without a moment’s notice.
“Even if she no longer knows me, that’s all right because I will always know her. Even if she forgets me, I will always remember her.”
See how tenderly Young-gyu loves his mom. See how she loves him back.
Now watch, unmoved if it’s at all possible, as Soon-geum’s heart breaks into many pieces, shattered by Ma-roo’s fury.
Ma-roo. Bastard Ma-roo. Disowning the grandmother and father who raised him. Disappearing without a trace for a dozen years and counting. Now come back like some wraith. With a new identity and some fancy title to boot. Who gave you the right to hurt everyone so badly, Bong Ma-roo?
Nam Goong-min is Ma-roo aka Dr. Jang Joon-ha. Remember this actor well. Because here is acting so nuanced and controlled I’m kicking myself for not discovering him sooner. Of all the characters in this gripping and tightly-plotted drama, Mar-roo’s is the most riveting to watch because it is the most complex and unpredictable. He is aloof but also needy, avenger but also guardian angel. His eyes burn with rage when confronted with the truth about his past and parentage, yet those same eyes are soft and gentle when gazing upon the woman that he now calls “Mom” and upon the woman’s son.
Ma-roo’s relationship with Cha Dong-joo is one of the many reasons why CYHMH owns me completely now (and why I get tearful just thinking about it). Their backgrounds so disparate (Dong-joo’s the heir of a chaebol family), they have lived as brothers for the last sixteen years. They share the same bed, roughhouse like puppies, and genuinely care for each other. Although it’s not shown, I believe Dong-joo’s ability to lip-read so well is due to Ma-roo’s personal coaching. Given their mother’s domineering ways and impatience, and given the young Dong-joo’s own frustration at losing his hearing, his rehabilitation would never have been successful if Ma-roo hadn’t been by his side all those sixteen years.
With ten episodes to go, and with events rapidly escalating as more and more people discover that Jang Joon-ha is in fact Bong Ma-roo, my fervent hope is that even if Ma-roo tips over into that abyss of hatred and revenge (directed at the birth parents who abandoned him), he and Dong-joo will continue to trust and look out for each other.
I have reason to hope because no matter how dramatic the setups (this is a drama after all) and how anguished the outbursts (and it’s a 30-episode drama, too; pent-up emotions need an outlet or we would otherwise fall asleep just watching the characters grin at each other all day), that palpable sense of joy and warmth that I felt in the opening minutes hasn’t gone away. The writing remains coherent and cohesive, the directing assured. The characters have not begun acting in ways that defy logic and common sense (as is sometimes the case when a drama is too long or tries to be too clever). The ones that I loved at the start I have grown to love even more twenty episodes in.
Remember the nine-year-old girl who gave her hacky sack to Dong-joo in Episode 1? Yes, the one who taught him that if he covered his ears and listened to his heart, he could see anyone that he wanted to see, even if that person was miles away. That girl that he thought so cute because of the way she kicked her red shoe into the air. That girl knocked my socks off with her stupendous acting.
As Little Mi-suk, and later as the young Bong Woo-ri, Kim Sae-ron reminds me of Shim Eun-kyung, one of Korea’s best young talents. In fact, the former’s crackling chemistry with Jung Bo-seok mirrors the one in the four-episode dark comedy, Gyeongsuk, Gyeongsuk’s Father, where Shim Eun-kyung also plays Jung Bo-seok’s daughter. Unlike that 2009 drama, though, the father-daughter relationship in CYHMH is marked by mutual affection and affirmation. Before they became father and daughter, Young-gyu and Woo-ri were pals first. He was more than four times her age, but mentally he was even younger than she was. They laughed and played like best friends.
Kim Sae-ron may steal the show in the first five episodes of CYHMH, but I found Kang Chan-hee’s acting to be just as strong and mesmerizing. Playing the young Dong-joo in what I believe is his first drama (someone correct me if I’m wrong), he’s a natural. The concern that Dong-joo displays for Little Mi-suk feels real and almost adult-like; all their scenes together are just a delight. Together they form one of my most favorite young pairings in a kdrama.
But Kang Chan-hee’s best scenes aren’t with Kim Sae-ron, they are with Lee Hye-young, who plays his mom, Tae Yeon-suk. In a scene that gave me the chills, mother and son wrestle on the edge of a cliff, the two of them going berserk because they can’t accept his sudden deafness. Years later, as a grown man with nary a hint of his disability (because he has learned to mask it so well in order to please her, public appearances of control and normality being all-important to Madam Tae), they will continue to fight on and off like that day on the cliff. Only this time he refuses to yield and even finds her tirades rather amusing.
Well, some of the tirades, not all. Wait till possessive Madam Tae learns that she isn’t the only woman in her son’s life.
This is my first Kim Jae-won drama. Yes, I know he’s been around, but I’ve never felt the urge to watch anything that he’s in (due mostly to the
stubborn notion that he resembled an actor that I was allergic to). I confess I wasn’t looking forward to his adult Dong-joo since I loved the young version so much (and just all the young actors in CYHMH generally) and didn’t want him to leave, not for another ten episodes at least.
But you’ve got to hand it to the writer and PD for the absolutely lovely way in which young Dong-joo morphed into his adult self (a well-used and much-treasured hacky sack being the instrument of transition). I could not believe how alike they looked. Or how instantly I liked Kim Jae-won’s smile.
I can’t say I’m blown away by Kim Jae-won’s acting (Nam Goong-min impresses me more, but then again his role is more demanding and also emotionally more draining). But I like his portrayal of Dong-joo a lot. Fresh from his two-year army stint, Kim Jae-won seems to have slipped into his character without skipping a beat, acting as naturally as the veteran actors in the drama. I love that his Dong-joo is sweet and playful, astute and ruminative, strong and determined. I especially love how gentle he is with the members of the Bong family.
Thank you, dear writer, for creating that warm and endearing friendship between Dong-joo and Young-gyu. For making me giggle at how cute and funny they are together. For giving the two men a shared appreciation for nature (flowers and fishes). For letting them share secrets and life’s lessons.
Have I mentioned yet how much I like Kim Jae-won’s smile? And also his voice?
If one has several dozen reasons for loving a drama, adding two more (trite though they may seem) should not be an issue, right?
I knew you wouldn’t mind.
I guess it’s also time that I let you in on a secret. Or a confession, if you like.
Some years back, when a certain drama was all the rage on Soompi, an unpleasant war of words broke out between two groups of Soompiers. On one side were fans who were so enamored of the lead couple they began posting (with gleeful abandon) about how much they wanted this couple to be a couple in real life. Never mind that the male lead was happily married, thank you very much. On the other side were fans who were aghast at the first group’s “wishful thinking” and wanted to reclaim the thread for discussions of the drama itself, not for flights of fancy that were frankly distasteful. As a silent member of the second group (thundie is a coward who hates confrontations of any kind and prefers to stew in private, thus giving herself hives and heartburn), I vowed at that time that I would never ever engage in “I want this couple to fall in love for real!” musings. It was a vow I had no problem keeping because in all these years of watching kdramas I’ve not liked an onscreen couple to the extent that I want them to hook up offscreen and make babies.
Until now. The hooking up bit, I mean.
I don’t know what’s wrong with me, seriously. And I can’t even pinpoint exactly when it started.
Now in every Dong-joo and Woo-ri scene, especially the ones where there’s skinship or some intense eyeballing, I watch and rewatch, scrutinizing their expressions and gestures for the “Aha, I knew it. They like each other for real!” telltale signs.
Because they’re so sweet together I just want to eat them up.
(I have no idea where this review is going at this point, but at least we got some of my favorite screencaps in.)
Okay, now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself by being silly and contradictory (so much for “I’m never ever…”), ask me about my favorite kdrama kiss. Yes, please ask.
For years I’ve had favorites upon favorites when it comes to kdrama kisses, but since this week I can’t recall a single one of them. Just vaguely I think the one in City Hall was sizzling but don’t ask me to describe it to you.
Because the only kiss that’s daebak now is the one that recently transpired in CYHMH. Where she kissed him first, to his surprise. And then he reciprocated as any gentleman would. Gently. Lovingly. So gently, ahhhh!
What really got to me was how he kissed her once, then gently pulled back to look at her, as if he was etching that whole magical moment on his brain forever, then leaned back in to kiss her again…
How many times have I used the words “gentle” and “gently” in this review? Bear with me because I’m not done, not yet.
As a child, Woo-ri was the girl who could outrun anyone, except when wearing her mother’s dress which reached all the way to the ground. She was feisty as could be, and fairly cheeky, too. Sixteen years later, Woo-ri has become decidedly more subdued, although she hasn’t lost any of her spunk. But what strikes me the most about her now is…
You guessed right. It’s her gentleness. With her father Young-gyu. With her grandmother Soon-geum. With her Mar-roo Oppa (right from when she begins to suspect that Joon-ha is Ma-roo), and with Dong-joo, the boy who promised to teach her to play the piano sixteen years ago. The four most important persons in Woo-ri’s world.
This is my second time watching Hwang Jung-eum and it tickles me that she’s playing Jung Bo-seok’s adoptive daughter. Because when I first watched her in last year’s epic gem, Giant, she was the prospective daughter-in-law that Jung Bo-seok’s villain of a character wanted to banish to some godforsaken cave in some godforsaken mountain, figuratively speaking.
I love how this time she’s his rock in CYHMH. The child who daily reminds him of the woman who continues to reside in his heart.
“Together. We’ll always be together.”
The last time I cried this much watching a drama was during Comrades, my pick for third best drama of 2010. Yet CYHMH isn’t intrinsically a sorrowful drama; neither is it at all depressing. I’ve laughed as much as I’ve cried.
Yes, there are birth secrets (just one, thankfully) and meddlesome parents and villains (two, shoot). There’s bad blood. A lot has happened. A lot has yet to happen. We have ten more episodes.
For now I will cherish Can You Hear My Heart? for its ability to move me, more deeply than any drama this year. For being one of the finest in the family drama genre. For the amazing, amazing acting. And, above all, for making me feel so happy.