THE SHORT VERDICT:
A lovely family drama that is completely refreshing and that has a wonderful harmonious, comforting tone throughout its 63 episodes.
There is no trace of melodrama in this one. People don’t hate each other; no one is plotting revenge on anyone; there is no web of birth secrets; there is no long-suffering Candy character and no chaebol prince. The beats are relatively small, and yet I never felt like they were insignificant.
As a bonus, this drama is set in gorgeous, glorious Jeju Island.
Criminally underrated, this gem is a completely enjoyable watch from start to finish.
THE LONG VERDICT:
Life Is Beautiful is the kind of drama that makes you feel like you’re sinking into your fluffy down comforter after a long, hard day. Immediately, your muscles unknot and you relax your whole body as you exhale in relief. Ahhh.. Bliss.
The premise of the show is simple: It is the story of a large multi-generational family that runs a pension on Jeju Island.
On the surface, it sounds like possibly any other family drama, coz really, aren’t all family dramas pretty much all about some large multi-generational family, and it’s just that this one has prettier scenery?
The way I see it, there are a few big things that set Life Is Beautiful apart from other family dramas.
One is the treatment of the characters and how they resolve their problems. Nothing is ever dragged out for too long, and many of the smaller problems are quickly resolved with a laugh and a smile.
It’s also in how they interact with one another; this is one of the most overtly loving families that I’ve seen in dramaland. Yet, they are never excessively sweet, and the family always manages to feel real.
Oh, and one other thing. There is an actual arc exploring a character’s homosexuality, a complete rarity in the kdrama-verse. Not only does this arc exist, it’s treated with respect and sensitivity.
To get a better sense of how this all looks and feels, let’s meet the family members one by one 🙂
KIM MIN JAE (KIM HAE SOOK)
The mother of the family, Min Jae, is brought wonderfully to life by Kim Hae Sook, who is my favorite kdrama mother of all time.
Min Jae manages to be a talented celebrity chef who has her own cooking show on TV and several cookbooks to her name, all while running a massively demanding household.
She is the glue that holds this family together; the go-to person when you’ve got a problem as huge as the sky falling down, or as small as stubbing your toe.
She is warm, energetic, smart, bubbly and even a little cheeky as she dispenses motherly wisdom, a band-aid &/or comforting soup. I love her.
Check out this screencap of her being a little cheeky even with her stern-faced mother-in-law.
It’s easy to make a character like Min Jae invincible, but this show chose not to do that.
In the later episodes, we actually explore her personal struggle to be all that her family needs and seeks from her, and this felt so down-to-earth and so real.
A lovely, thoughtful beat.
YANG BYUNG TAE (KIM YOUNG CHUL)
Min Jae’s husband Byung Tae (Kim Young Chul) is the anchor to Min Jae’s glue.
He is the rock that stabilizes the entire family, from his own children, to his grand-daughter, to his two younger brothers, and to his parents, as they all live together under one figurative roof.
There is a gravitas about Byung Tae that draws people to him, and he is often the first person in whom his family members confide. His brothers, in particular, seek him out as a sounding board when they are at a loss.
His most important role, though, is being a pillar of support for his wife. There were numerous scenes of Byung Tae bringing his wife a tub of hot water to soak her feet in after a long and exhausting day, and following that with a good shoulder massage.
Yay for perhaps the only husband in kdrama-land who regularly pampers his wife with his own hands and isn’t a hen-pecked spouse. 😉
It is often while Min Jae soaks her feet that this couple exchanges little gestures of affection as they share the day’s developments with each other. I really enjoy their sweet, matter-of-fact relationship.
Here’s a screencap of Min Jae dyeing Byung Tae’s hair in the privacy of their bedroom. So cute.
YANG TAE SUB (SONG CHANG UI)
Reserved, introspective Tae Sub (Song Chang Ui) is the eldest child, and Byung Tae’s son from his first marriage.
He is a doctor of internal medicine, and he’s also a terrified homosexual hiding as best as he can in the closet, while doing his darndest to be the ideal son to his family and to society.
The show handles his arc with a sympathetic yet realistic touch, and I was often moved by his journey of self-discovery.
In particular, there are two relationships that stand out for me in this show, and both of them involve Tae Sub as half of the equation.
One of these is Tae Sub’s budding relationship with lecturer-cum-photographer Kyung Soo (dreamy Lee Sang Woo), and the other is Tae Sub’s relationship with Min Jae.
TAE SUB + KYUNG SOO
The thing that struck me most about Tae Sub’s interactions with Kyung Soo was that they were really sweet together. There was a distinct sense of purity about their relationship, and the show spent a lot of time exploring their budding relationship and its implications on each of them personally, as well as on their respective families.
I couldn’t help but regard the two of them with affection; they just looked so happy and natural together. Check out this screencap of one of their playful alone-times.
Kudos to the show for not only treating their relationship with respect, but for exploring each family’s very different nature and response to their relationship.
In the context of conservative Korean society, I’d say this was a very bold move on the part of the show.
TAE SUB + MIN JAE
Hands down, the most moving relationship in the show was between Tae Sub and Min Jae.
Because she is his step-mother, Tae Sub had always closed himself off from her, and theirs had always been a polite, somewhat awkward relationship despite her best efforts to shower him with motherly love.
Their turning point came when Tae Sub made the decision to come out to her. He had felt that since she wasn’t related to him by blood, that she would be the most neutral choice, ie, she couldn’t get as upset as a blood-related parent.
Min Jae’s instinctive, tearful response was to hold him close and assure him of her love, support and protection.
From that point on, she protected him fiercely against any and every person who threatened to hurt him, and their relationship as mother and son blossomed beautifully.
So, so moving to behold. ♥
YANG JI HYE (WOO HEE JIN)
Ji Hye is the second-eldest child, and Min Jae’s daughter from her previous marriage. She runs a tight ship and has husband Lee Soo Il (Lee Min Woo) firmly under her thumb. Daughter Ji Na (Jung Da Bin) is the youngest member of the extended family, and is precocious to a fault.
Without being too spoilery, let’s just say that over the course of the drama, Ji Hye has her own journey of growth where she learns to overcome her insecurities and deals with emotional baggage that she didn’t even realize she had.
YANG HO SUB (LEE SANG YOON)
The third among the four children, Ho Sub is cheerful, easygoing and very likable. He runs the pension and leads the pension guests on scuba diving expeditions in the Jeju waters.
Early in the show, he is intrigued by his mother’s assistant Yeon Ju (Nam Sang Mi) and a love line ensues.
♥ ROMANCE ALERT!! ♥
Lee Sang Yoon’s love line with Nam Sang Mi is of particular interest, because this is where the real-life married couple met and fell in love!!
Uh-huh. This means that all the lovey-dovey-ness we see onscreen in the later episodes is for real! *Squee!!* ♥
[EDIT: this couple wasn’t married, sorry. But they were really a couple, even though they’ve now parted ways, sniff.]
I present to you Exhibit A: real-life lovey-dovey googly eyes!
And Exhibit B: some real-life onscreen lovin’ 😉
Ok, so it’s tamer than Ji Hyun Woo & Yoo In Na’s crackling real-life onscreen romance in Queen In-hyun’s Man, but hey, that was cable, and this was a weekend family drama on network. 😉
It’s still awww-inspiring watching them, knowing this was real-life romance unfolding before our eyes 😀
YANG CHO RONG (NAM GYU RI)
Cho Rong is the youngest of the siblings and is perky, energetic and very likable. She’s frank and focused about her quest to find the perfect boyfriend, and happily keeps a whole string of potential boyfriends on her cellphone’s contact list.
I’d last seen Nam Gyu Ri in 49 Days, where she’d been rather tepid, so I was pleasantly surprised to find her so spunky and natural here.
Perhaps it’s because she is the youngest child; it is particularly with Cho Rong that we see the familial love and affection that I mentioned earlier overtly expressed.
Here she is, making a late-night visit to her parents to sidle up to daddy’s forehead:
And here she is cuddling up to mum for no reason in particular:
Aww.. Isn’t that the sweetest thing? 😀
YANG BYUNG JOON (KIM SANG JOONG)
Byung Joon is Byung Tae’s second brother, and the general manager of a golf resort. He’s rigid, disciplined and stuffy, so it’s extra awesome to see him get unsettled over a woman.
I think it’s fantastic that Kim Sang Joong gets a love line, coz he’s a hot ahjusshi and I dig him. He’s one older man that I genuinely find attractive.
He’s usually too busy being badass to spend time on a love line (see City Hunter), so it’s extra delightful to get to see him fall for someone in spite of himself. I honestly enjoyed his love line even more than the one between Ho Sub and Yeon Ju.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will tempt you with this hot ahjusshi kiss! 😉
YANG BYUNG GUL (YOON DA HOON)
Byung Gul is Byung Tae’s youngest brother, and the pesky, stubborn one that we all find annoying.
He doesn’t have a regular job and is casual help to whoever needs an extra hand. He also makes it a habit to shoot off at the mouth at every opportunity, which makes him tremendously irritating at times.
But, he does have a supreme soft spot for his mother, and spends a lot of time with her, which is rather sweet.
He also has an affectionately contentious relationship with Byung Joon, with whom he shares living space.
MUM & DAD (KIM YONG RIM & CHOI JUNG HOON)
Dad is a serial philanderer who abandoned his family 30 years ago, and now has nowhere else to go because he’s been evicted by mistress #6.
Mum is bitter but deeply religious and decides to try to take him back.
The bickering interactions between this couple are down-to-earth and mundane, but there is a slow arc of growth towards forgiveness and acceptance which is sweet to witness.
Other than the familial relationships intertwining in heartwarming ways, another big plus in this drama is the gorgeous Jeju scenery.
Here, have a photo spasm of the beautiful backdrop of this drama:
Pretty stunning, isn’t it? 😀
All in all, Life Is Beautiful is lovely, through and through. It’s easy on the eyes, and a treat for the heart.
The greatest thing going for it, is the harmonious atmosphere that it maintains throughout. There are plot tensions too, of course, but the harmony is a big overarching presence, and it’s always very nice to enter their world and their family where most things are resolved with a laugh and a smile.
It soothes a frazzled heart and assures us that life can indeed be beautiful, if we choose to let it.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Make time for it; enjoy it; savor it. It will be 63 hours well-spent.
Fabulous as a night-cap just before bed ♥
FINAL GRADE: A+