Can a thug be a decent human being? Can kimchi save a life? Can a cable drama which left me baffled and underwhelmed at first become both crack and comfort food eighteen episodes later?
How strange the past few nights. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, this feeling of trepidation. As I begin a new episode of Fermentation Family (aka Kimchi Family), I brace myself for a stupid plot twist, or filler fluff, or a yawns-inducing lull. It’s become all too familiar, hasn’t it, when a promising drama enters its second half and decides Crap Town should be its final destination.
But my fears do not materialize. On the contrary, when I think I can’t possibly love this drama more, it serves up yet another episode that makes my heart leap. Had I watched it last year, it might even have been my pick for best drama.
Fermentation Family is yet another example of why first impressions can be misleading and why sometimes you just need to trust your memories and stay the course. Here is a writer-PD pair who gave me two gems in a row — revenge thrillers Rebirth (2005) and Devil (2007). Both dramas I love ardently; they held me spellbound with their masterful storytelling and directing. With such a track record, their new drama with the odd title (but not odder than Fermented Family which just conjures up eerie images of shriveled human specimens) should not disappoint, should it?
I must pause here to clarify that I did not choose to watch this because of its writer and director. In fact, I had no idea they were behind the drama. After more than a month of zero drama-watching, I suddenly missed two pirates. One stray thought led to another and somehow, in a bewildering array of new fare (because this spoilerphobe stubbornly refuses to read synopses or watch trailers), Fermentation Family became the drama I most wanted to watch. Just because I saw Song Il-guk’s face on a poster.
As first impressions go, mine weren’t negative as much as they were confused and fairly indifferent. Song Il-guk’s Ki Ho-tae character is beaten up and rescued, by one Lee Kang-san played by Park Jin-hee (she did the rescuing, not the beating). She brings him home to Chun Ji In (literally, “Earth and Man”), a traditional restaurant at the foothills outside Seoul. He finds the place disconcertingly familiar and decides he wants to stay on as hired help. His decision is so abrupt and weird I felt sure I was missing some cues but did not care enough at that point to want to rewind and check.
Meanwhile, Kang-san’s dad takes off for an unknown place in search of an unknown person, leaving his restaurant under the care of his two daughters. Chun Ji In, incidentally, is famous enough to be featured on TV but not famous enough to be financially successful. There are talks of overdue loan payments and possible takeovers by some food enterprise. Kang-san, who works as a sous chef in an Italian restaurant and harbors dreams of becoming an executive chef one day, comes home to save Chun Ji In after her father disappears. The saving is going to take some major effort, though, because Kang-san’s older sister, Woo-ju, is fond of giving food away for free. And oh, also taking in abandoned kids.
Much is happening in the first two episodes and yet the pace feels leisurely and even languid in places. There’s frenzy and calm and then frenzy again. The thugs are coming! Run, Ho-tae, run! (So is this a drama about food or about gangs?) Colors are soft and warm; an old-world atmosphere permeates the scenes. (But this is set in modern-day Korea, isn’t it?) Everything feels ordinary but is not dull enough to make me bored or sleepy. (So do I stay or do I bail?)
Thinking I should at least check the writer’s name before deciding whether or not to quit, I was floored when I learned that Fermentation Family is written by Kim Ji-woo and directed by Park Chan-hong. Oh my, I know these two! As in, not personally, but you know what I mean!
Episode 3 still did not win me over, but I was determined to stick around for a couple more episodes. Maybe the drama would bide its time like kimchi (or fine wine) and take a while to ferment? By then I was already noticing, with heightened sensitivity, the exquisite composition of many scenes. It became more and more apparent how carefully and thoughtfully the shots were framed. Be it an indoor or outdoor scene, I found myself repeatedly going, “Wow.”
Take a look at what I mean; these are all from Episode 3.
In the top picture on the left, Ho-tae is sitting on the steps outside a school. Next to him sits a little girl; her name is Eun-bi.
So many people come and go at Chun Ji-In I didn’t pay attention to Eun-bi at first. Until one scene where she cries.
When did my heart start to stir for this drama? When a little girl, once hungry and alone, shrieks with delight as our ex-thug tosses her into the air and then spins her around, the two of them happier than they have been in a long while. He understands her more than anyone else at Chun Ji In. What it means to be lost and afraid. To wait and wait and wait, for a parent who never shows up.
Last night I finished Episode 18. Six more episodes to go. (Thank you for not extending yourself. And thank you for being just the right length because that makes it easier for me to recommend you to people who dislike long dramas.)
On the surface and from its title I thought this would be just another food-themed drama. But gradually it dawns on me, and with immense relief, that this is not a Dae Jang Geum or Gourmet (to name two examples) where food sparks competition and such unpleasantness (stealing carving knives and poultry; sabotaging days of preparation; staging all-out wars). So what the food porn if it’s the result of intense rivalry and underhanded means? Wherefore the envy if food is used to score points and gain favors at the expense of others?
Not so at Chun Ji In, although I admit thinking initially that the way food is prepared and presented at the restaurant feels a tad preachy and even moralistic. Must every meal be a lesson? Ought vegetables be treated like friends and accorded such reverence? It’s just kimchi, c’mon!
(My brain reels, though, from the newfound knowledge that there can be so many types of kimchi. Kimchi-looking kimchi, and kimchi looking nothing like kimchi!)
At Chun Ji In food is a form of caring. It is nourishment not just for the body but for the soul. Cooking and serving. Eating together. Food is an expression of love.
But lest I give you the impression that Fermentation Family is all about food, it isn’t. The main setting is Chun Ji In, yes, but the central story is really Ho-tae and his past. How did he become orphaned? Why is there an old photo of him with Kang-san’s dad? Why does a certain man look and sound familiar, and why is he denying all knowledge of Ho-tae? What is this man hiding?
The first few episodes give no indication that there are dark twists ahead and that what will keep me glued to my seat is a 22-year-old mystery.
Slowly, and so skillfully you gasp as yet another piece of Ho-tae’s mysterious past is revealed, a picture begins to form. The dots begin to connect. “Everything is going back to the starting point,” says the old detective pursuing clues to a seemingly unrelated crime but now sucked into helping Ho-tae uncover the truth.
Helmed by a wonderful cast and aided by a fabulous soundtrack (so mood-enhancing, so reminiscent of the gorgeous score in Devil, ah!), the plot is unfolding with the sort of assuredness that this is a writer who knows the end even before the beginning and that everything that has happened so far has happened for a reason. Nothing is random. I haven’t had a single opportunity to slap my forehead and swear, “What the hell is going on?” Instead, I’m constantly in awe at the layers in the writing. There are such depths here!
Take characterization, for example. Ho-tae is prickly, sure. His past — what he does not know about it — bugs and occasionally overwhelms him. But he is also sweet and astute; he does his chores at Chun Ji In with minimal grumbling; he makes great kimchi chigae. He isn’t your typical wounded kdrama hero with the angst and baggage; when love comes knocking, he opens the door and lets it in, as naturally as one welcomes the sun after days of rain.
And Kang-san. Funny, feisty Kang-san. Thoughtful, sensible, daring Kang-san. Eighteen episodes in and she hasn’t changed, becoming a spineless doormat that so many kdrama heroines become after they fall in love. No, she is as strong and as opinionated as she was at the beginning and yet she has also gotten stronger. She yields when she has to; she leads when necessary.
How much do I adore this couple?
Do not believe character descriptions that suggest that Ho-tae and Kang-san begin on a contentious footing and are always bickering; otherwise you will be surprised when you see how cute and comfy they are with each other. When I watch them together, I am reminded of my favorite Jejoongwon couple from two years ago. A relationship that’s rock-solid. A relationship that just makes me grin and feel all toasty-warm inside.
Absolutely adore this couple.
Fermentation Family has so much heart and yet it’s not a drama where I need to keep reaching out for a tissue to blow my nose with. It’s the small moments that move me. Ho-tae giving Eun-bi a pair of new shoes. The grouchy grandpa (who is nobody’s grandpa at Chun Ji In and yet belongs there as much as Kang-san and Woo-ju) making me teary with an unexpected gesture. This old man irritated me at first and then grew to become as loved as the other characters. When I see what our haraboji does for the oriental medicine doc (he with the awful hairdo), I cry and giggle, at the same time.
There is so much warmth here. So much love.
And humor, too.
See how the thug boss behaves when Cupid’s arrows strike him. (To think he seemed so hateful at first but now is just another lovelorn guy making a fool of himself!) See how the characters tease and banter. See how playful they become.
(This is hands down my favorite drama for Song Il-guk and Park Jin-hee. Superb acting, both of them.)
There is more lightheartedness here than in Rebirth and Devil, yet in its own way Fermentation Family is just as gripping. With six episodes left to watch (Episodes 19-20 aired this week), I have no idea how everything will end but feel confident the ending will not disappoint. As a fan of our writer-PD combo, I can hope, can’t I?
A food-themed family drama that’s also an expertly crafted mystery thriller? I’ll have extra helpings, thank you.