THE SHORT VERDICT:
This drama had a somewhat raw, rough-around-the-edges sort of feel to it, which gave it a sense of realism.
Several plot-lines felt under-developed, which made the show feel a bit off-kilter, but some great characters and a couple of meaningful plot-lines which did get nicely fleshed out made this unassuming little show one that I enjoyed quite a lot more than I thought I would.
The characters snuck up on me and made me start to care about them, which is always a plus in my books.
A character piece with songs.
THE LONG VERDICT:
While Shut Up and Dream High were very different tonally, they each offered their own brand of a heightened sense of reality, and I felt like everything in both shows was larger-than-life. In contrast, What’s Up has a more understated, everyday feel that makes it less exciting, but very relatable.
At its heart, What’s Up is a character piece dressed in Glee-like clothes but with none of the Glee polish. The production values are not that high, and this means that our characters navigate their journeys in a world that has a bare, unvarnished finish. This provides just enough grit to make it all feel like this particular musical-theater-cum-school ecosystem is just another corner in our regular world.
Each character has his or her own arc, and sometimes those arcs intersect and collide in ways that are much too coincidental to ring true, but other than that small(ish) gripe, this drama felt pretty real.
Since the show is character-driven, I decided that it was fitting that this review should be character-driven as well.
OH DOO RI (IM JOO EUN)
My hands-down favorite character was Oh Doo Ri, played to perfection by Im Joo Eun.
Brash, uninhibited, and without a shy bone in her body, Oh Doo Ri was refreshing and intriguing at the same time. I loved that she had a sardonic curiosity about her that caused her to observe the world around her with an unflinching gaze while wearing a droll smile laced with a touch of contempt.
Everything about her was unabashed and unapologetic, from her alternative-rock approach to music, to her clear disdain for classmate Eun Chae Young (Jang Hee Jin), a star wannabe who was really just a B-lister, to her frank crush on her teacher Sun Woo Young (Oh Man Suk).
She was different from everyone else in school; she was the devil-may-care student who spoke her mind and pursued what or who she wanted, never mind what the rest of the world said.
Never one to be easily dissuaded, her pursuit of Sun Woo Young was dogged and unrelenting. Despite being brushed off again and again, she remained resolute and determined. She was also refreshingly candid and forthright in confessing her feelings to him, a pretty rare sight in the drama-verse.
With her free-spirited, fearless, and rather reckless persona showing most of the time, it might be easy to think that that’s all there is to Doo Ri’s character. As the show progresses, though, we realize that she is a complex mesh of opposites, fearless yet fearful, all in one.
Im Joo Eun is a very engaging actress and she did an sensational job bringing that complexity in Doo Ri to life. I thought some of her scenes were truly outstanding.
[MAJOR SPOILER ALERT]
Im Joo Eun delivered crazed grief and fear amazingly, amazingly well. She is just brilliant.
She had several scenes where Doo Ri goes crazy with grief and fear, and she delivered a heart-wrenchingly moving performance each time.
In particular, there were three difficult, significant scenes for Doo Ri, where I thought Im Joo Eun was just flat-out fantastic. One, when she first found out the professor could be sick, and another when she realized he was dying, and then another when she realized he’d died. Doo Ri was on a collision course with a whole rollercoaster of conflicting emotions, not least the helpless, crippling fear of losing Sun Woo Young, and Im Joo Eun nailed it, every single time.
Doo Ri’s fear and hopelessness facing off with her dogged resolve to make it all work somehow, was delivered with sensitivity and aplomb by Im Joo Eun. I just couldn’t look away; Doo Ri’s onscreen meltdowns were simply riveting.
[END MAJOR SPOILER]
SUN WOO YOUNG (OH MAN SUK)
I had found Oh Man Suk unremarkably tepid in Wild Romance, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that he was really quite impressive as the quirky professor Sun Woo Young.
When I first came across people raving about Oh Man Suk, I thought they must’ve had pretty low standards, since I’d only ever seen him in Wild Romance, and he was completely forgettable there. But he delivered a much stronger performance in What’s Up, and I now have a better idea of why people were raving about him.
In What’s Up, he delivered what I thought was a solid performance, which I enjoyed. He drew me in, and was very believable in his role as the reluctant professor.
His arc was the one that anchored the show. Amid all the other character arcs, his story was the one that turned into the heart of the show.
He was the foil against which each of the other characters grew and developed, and it was in figuring out their responses to him at each stage of the show that each of the other characters found learning, insight and growth.
[MAJOR SPOILER ALERT]
The drama basically built around his impact on the students: in the beginning when he was an alcoholic trying to deal with the guilt and grief over the death of his girlfriend, and then later when he was dying of liver cancer.
This was basically the story of his own journey as a man struggling with his own demons and his mortality, and how in the process, he learned to give to and empower others, leaving behind a powerful legacy even in death.
His story brought tears to my eyes, and I mourned and celebrated him together with his students, who were all left deeply affected by their unforgettable and all-too-fleeting encounter with the reluctant professor.
[END MAJOR SPOILER]
HA DO SUNG (KANG DAE SUNG)
The plot-line that I felt stood out the most as being neglected, was the story of Ha Do Sung, played by Kang Dae Sang. It seemed more obvious than the rest because the undercover concert was featured quite a bit in episode 1, and it seemed like his would be one of the main plot lines. I felt it all the more when they showed the auditions and he sang so well that the TA clapped for him involuntarily, like a mesmerized fangirl. I really thought he would be the anchor of the ensemble cast.
Instead, his story was handled quite off-handedly, in the sense that it felt like not a lot of thought went into his story. Many episodes would go by without any movement on his story, and then suddenly, towards the end, his plot line was hastily tied up, without him having shown much of his vocal prowess throughout the drama. It felt off-kilter to me, and made the show feel unbalanced as a whole.
I’m thinking that the reason for this could be the fact that he’s from Big Bang, so they wanted to draw in Big Bang fans by showcasing his singing in the first episode. And then perhaps they didn’t have a lot of confidence in him as an actor and therefore didn’t use him to greater effect during the bulk of the drama? Maybe.
For an idol-actor, I thought that Dae Sung acted very decently and was quite convincing in his role as Ha Do Sung. I thought it was a waste that his plot-line wasn’t fleshed out more thoughtfully. I felt like if they’d done a better job plotting his arc, that they could have explored his story better, and given him a chance to stretch his acting range, plus put his singing prowess to better use.
As it is, I thought this was a case of over-promise and under-delivery. I was drawn into the intrigue of his undercover turn as Hades, and thought that this would form a big anchor to the overall plot of the show, but I came away dissatisfied with the lack of screen time dedicated to his arc, and the lazy writing around the resolution of his story.
KIM BYUNG GUN (JO JUNG SUK)
Jo Jung Suk turned in a solid, heartfelt performance as Byung Gun, who struggled to overcome his extreme stage fright for the sake of his love for singing.
As he does with every single one of his roles – most memorably for me, in his turn as Eun Shi Kyung in The King 2 Hearts – Jo Jung Suk gave Byung Gun’s personality facets that probably weren’t even in the script. His Byung Gun was shy and quiet in front of everyone else, but brassy and even a little cocky when he was on his own.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
A small little scene which brings out the duality in his personality is when a truck whooshes a little too close to Byung Gun for comfort one evening while he’s blithely half-skipping, half-dancing his way back to the dorm. He starts to boldly scold and nag at the driver, who clearly can’t hear him, but when the truck stops and starts to reverse in his direction, his self-righteous scolding peters down to a squeak, and he fidgets desperately as he wishes that he could find a place to hide.
[END MINOR SPOILER]
As the show progressed, I enjoyed seeing his saucy side peeking out every now and again in his interactions with the others, and one of my favorite plot-lines in the entire show was how Byung Gun overcame his stage fright to finally sing in front of other people.
PARK TAE HEE (KIM JI WON)
Park Tae Hee was our resident Candy character, and I felt rather conflicted about her.
On the one hand, she was sweet and innocent, and had led a hard life, so I knew that I was supposed to feel for her and root for her, and to some extent, I did. At the same time, though, I found her brand of extreme naivete annoying.
I don’t know if it’s to do with Kim Ji Won’s acting, or the writing, but I didn’t love her character.
What I did love, though, were the recurring “visitations” that she had from her dead father (Kim Chang Wan).
I’ve had a soft spot for Kim Chang Wan ever since his bittersweet, heartwarming turn in Queen of Reversals, and here, he was fantastic in his little scenes with Kim Ji Won.
His portrayal of a dead father’s enduring affection for his daughter was very sweetly matter-of-fact, and I perked up every time he appeared on my screen. I was charmed by their conversations, and loved his gentle, wistful demeanor as he offered sage advice and wise perspective to his daughter as she struggled with the various issues in her life.
JANG JAE HUN (IM JOO HWAN)
Even though Jae Hun’s arc was one that received a lot of attention from the writers, this was one of the arcs that didn’t resonate with me.
I don’t know what it was, but I didn’t feel much for his character. Perhaps it was his sudden discovery of his desire to get involved in theater.
[MINOR SPOILER ALERT]
I found it unbelievable that a petty thief with no ambition or dreams or interest in music, even, would suddenly wake up to his heretofore dormant love for theater, just from watching someone else sing on the stage.
That seemed too random and too convenient to me, and I couldn’t buy into his character’s motivation for wanting to learn about theater.
[END MINOR SPOILER]
I found Jae Hun’s foray into theater and directing frustratingly ineffectual, all the way to the end, and I just couldn’t fully get behind his choice to do theater.
I also didn’t enjoy his OTP arc with Tae Hee and the related complications.
On one hand, I found the coincidence contrived, that Jae Hun was guilt-ridden by the role that he played in the death of Tae Hee’s father. It’s makjang-esque, to have your supposed OTP fall in love in cheesy scenes laced with singing and dancing, only to have them be torn apart by the I-killed-your-father card.
On the other hand, there were moments when I did feel the burden of his guilt, and I did feel rather sorry for him as he wrestled with his conscience.
Still, the rather large amount of noble idiocy that was introduced into his arc was rather frustrating, and I really would have preferred if the writers had taken a different approach with this plot-line.
EUN CHAE YOUNG (JANG HEE JIN)
Chae Young was the resident bitch that we all love to hate, and Jang Hee Jin did a decent job portraying her.
I don’t have a lot to say about her character except that I found her suitably hateful throughout the show, as she pulled both rank and pranks on her peers. At the end of the show, there is some amount of redemption for her character, but she seems to remain – in my opinion, at least – a slimy snake that one really shouldn’t trust.
LEE SOO BIN (LEE SOO HYUK)
Lee Soo Bin plays a fairly minor supporting character, but I’m paying him some attention here because I find him rather interesting, with his unusual voice and looks.
I first noticed him in his role as the pale assassin from Tree With Deep Roots. He’s got a very deep, languid voice, which suits him well in his assassin role in Tree, as well as in his genius composer role in What’s Up. He’s also one of the vampire bodyguards in Vampire Idol, and I have to agree that he certainly looks the part, with his super pale skin, sharp cheekbones and long languid limbs.
In all three roles, his striking, unusual, pale features combine with his deep, languid voice to create a pretty riveting onscreen presence. I’d be interested to see him move out of this type of role, though. I feel like he’s in danger of being typecast already, with three roles in a row featuring him as a mysterious, unhurried sort of presence.
RED TRACKSUIT GHOST
One of the unexpected touches that I really enjoyed in What’s Up, is the inclusion of the ghost in the red tracksuit.
Since the show was never promoted as one with fantasy elements, the inclusion of an actual ghost took me by surprise. I could rationalize Tae Hee’s father’s visitations as figments of her own imagination, but this ghost appeared to multiple characters and even acted as an exposition fairy at times. He was no figment of their collective imaginations. He was a bona fide ghost.
I liked that he was treated with a matter-of-fact yet comic touch, and I even found him endearing as the show progressed.
What’s Up as a whole is not a perfect drama by any means, and there are times when the show’s imperfections are pretty glaring. Some storylines weren’t fleshed out satisfactorily, and some weren’t tied up well. But, it was an engaging ride, and towards the end, I was surprised by how this show managed to bring tears to my eyes.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
An unevenly-written show with some worthwhile gems. Kinda like a diamond in the rough.
FINAL GRADE: B
This scene of Byung Gun singing is one of my favorite scenes in the show. He sings his heart out thinking he’s alone, but at the end, we see that not only is his singing witnessed by our favorite ghost, but his brother is there to see him sing as well. Check it out: