THE SHORT VERDICT:
A drama that positions itself as a breezy rom-com, but that also happens to have birth secrets and corporate politics hidden up its deceptively fluffy sleeves.
Because of plot pacing that jerks between campy comedy and more melodramatic arcs, watching this drama can be a very uneven experience at times. Still, if you’d care to peel away this show’s flaws – layers made up of sudden melodramatic dips, lots of yelling and screeching by two-dimensional secondary characters, and more overacting than I’d care to mention – there might be just enough cute and just enough heart to keep you hanging in there.
Plus, there’s quite a lot of Kim Kang Woo pretty on display. Depending on where you’re coming from, that could potentially count for a lot.
Haeundae Lovers OST – Smile Again
THE LONG VERDICT:
Y’know, when information for this show first came out while it was in its casting stages, I was really very taken with the premise that was reported: Kim Kang Woo is an elite detective who goes undercover as a gangster in order to infiltrate a crime family in Haeundae, and loses his memory in an accident while undercover. With his memory gone, he assumes that he’s a real gangster, and proceeds to go about his gangster life, and falls for the mob boss’ daughter in the process.
I thought that sounded all kinds of awesome, seriously!
…Except, this reported synopsis didn’t end up matching the drama that we were eventually served. Which just goes to show how much can change between conceptualizing the drama and actually making it. That, or they just like messing with us.
Let’s set the record straight, then.
Kim Kang Woo is a prosecutor, not a detective. And he goes undercover as a bodybuilder, not a gangster. And he’s trying to nab a drug lord, whom he (wrongly) assumes Jo Yeo Jung’s character, Go So Ra, is dating. So Ra’s father (Go Joong Sik) is not a mob boss, but an ex-gangster chief. Oh, and he’s now got the intellect of a 6-year-old, thanks to a gang war. Which means that Kim Kang Woo’s character, Lee Tae Sung, doesn’t join a gang when he wakes up amnestic, but instead, joins – wait for it.. – a fishery. Coz that’s how the ex-gangsters are now making a living.
Ok, that doesn’t sound like such a bad trade-off, coz the comedic possibilities in this set-up are still rife.
The thing is, even with my drama lens tuned to its most extreme, nonsensical, OTT campy setting, I still found myself faced with several large obstacles when it came to enjoying this drama.
Here, I highlight the 3 biggest problems I had with the show, before I go on to talk about what helped to keep me on board to the end.
THE SHOW’S 3 BIGGEST PROBLEMS
To be sure, this show is full of flaws. It’s definitely not the kind of show that could withstand careful deconstruction, and I went into this show fully aware of that. In fact, I went in prepared to shrug off a whole lot of nonsense and plot fails.
Despite that, there are 3 problems that I found myself struggling with for significant portions of the show.
[SPOILERS THROUGH THE END OF THE REVIEW]
1. Tae Sung is Married
For the life of me, I fail to understand why Tae Sung (played by Kim Kang Woo) as a character had to be married.
I mean, he starts off the show single, and literally gets married within the first episode, mere hours before first going undercover as a bodybuilder. Where he soon gapes appreciatively at Go So Ra (Jo Yeo Jung) being all sexy on stage (the scene is given the slo-mo, Magic Moment treatment), and thereafter, ends up in a hot ‘n bothered, up-close-and-personal sort of situation with her, like so:
So on the one hand, my fangirl instincts are going, “He’s attracted to her! And, OMG, skinship! Plus, Kim Kang Woo is so hawt: such taut, sculpted muscle; such gorgeous, bronzed skin; drool..”
And on the other hand, my brain is going, “Wait. He’s married! He just got married a few hours ago! His new wife’s in hospital, and he’s snuggling up with another woman?!???”
Maybe the writers were trying to gun for the same kind of mess-with-your-head, yet, quite delicious sort of conundrum that That Winter The Wind Blows managed to serve up via its use of fauxcest. Y’know, the whole “OMG! Skinship!” response from one part of the brain, colliding directly with the other part of the brain that’s protesting, “But she thinks he’s her brother!!!”
The approach worked in That Winter because, despite all the mind-messing, ultimately, we know that our male lead really isn’t our female lead’s brother.
And the reason that this somewhat similar kind of mind-messing doesn’t work in Haeundae Lovers, is that Tae Sung really is married.
Which means that every time the show served up something like this:
…my brain would go to war; a phenomenon that made watching the show much more uncomfortable than it needed to be. (But really, how hot does Kim Kang Woo look in this screenshot? So strong, so dapper, and so sexy, with that look of cheeky mischief on his face to boot. Uungh!)
Post-amnesia (I have never been more relieved at the onset of amnesia in a drama than in this one, seriously), it felt mildly better because at least I could tell myself that Tae Sung couldn’t remember that he was married, and that any and all gazing and skinship was innocent, at least in his mind.
But, the problem of Tae Sung being a married man didn’t go away, coz the writers continued to dangle it in our faces, with Tae Sung’s wife Se Na (Nam Gyu Ri) continuing to pine for her “dead” husband on our screens, almost all the time. It’s just hard to squee over romantic developments when you see his wife pining and sometimes literally fainting dead away, out of grief over her husband’s supposed death, y’know?
To the show’s credit, the issue of Tae Sung being a married man isn’t swept under the carpet and made to magically disappear. Instead, Tae Sung gets to face his old life head-on and make some pivotal choices in order to protect his love for So Ra.
On the downside, this doesn’t happen until episode 13. This means that for 12 out of 16 episodes, it’s a constant! uphill! battle! to root for our prescribed OTP.
And I’d venture to say that a show that makes it feel wrong to root for the OTP has some core issues.
In a show where cheating/infidelity isn’t a core theme, and where the writers seem to want viewers to focus primarily on the rom-com cute, it would’ve been much more palatable to have Tae Sung be single.
Y’know, so that when we are shown Tae Sung making dazed googly eyes at So Ra like this:
…we can just enjoy the moment without wondering what his wife would think.
2. Show is Bipolar
The show’s second biggest problem is that it harbors a split personality.
The continuous tonal flux, from beginning to end, makes the experience of watching this show have a bit of a drama whiplash flavor about it.
The show starts out fairly normal, then goes overly hammy once the amnesia arc hits. Once the amnesia arc gets settled, the show then offers glimmers of rom-com, before diving into the depths of serious melo in the final stretch.
Essentially, I think the show tries to do too much. It tries to be all things, at all angles, to all people, and it just doesn’t mesh well.
I mean, just consider this: the rom-com doesn’t mesh with the melo doesn’t mesh with the hotel politics doesn’t mesh with the birth secrets. And I haven’t even thrown the gang wars in there yet.
I say the writers should’ve concentrated a lot more on the rom-com, emphasis on the romance, thankyouverymuch.
Focus can be a beautiful, beautiful thing.
3. Annoying Characters Get Too Much Screentime
Y’know, in the early episodes of the show, I’d felt pleasantly surprised that our second leads and secondary characters all didn’t seem to fall into “evil character” territory.
Even Bok Ja / Tam Hee (Kim Hye Eun), our resident crass troublemaker, leaned more amusing than annoying.
At around episode 6, though, that changed. Bok Ja crossed the line from fairly harmless, amusing side character, to Annoying Evil Bitch, and I didn’t like that so much.
In the final stretch of episodes, the number of annoying characters suddenly mushroomed, when Se Na and Joon Hyuk (Jung Suk Won), who’d both been fairly harmless second leads heretofore, suddenly started showing serious shades of scheming, crafty manipulation.
Both second leads then effectively went to pot for me, as they became key players in the show’s determined trudge on the Melodramatic Path of Doom.
Long stretch of bickering, fighting and scheming later, after we’re made to lose any last shreds of sympathy for these characters, the writers suddenly let up and throw in large handfuls of Reconciliative Sunshine, so that we can sail into the Land of Happy Endings together.
It all boils down to lazy, manipulative writing, really.
When the writers needed dramatic conflict, second leads who’d been fairly harmless suddenly became delusional, clingy and scheming. Conveniently, this also helped to solve the problem of viewers feeling sorry for Se Na all series long.
And when the writers reached the end of the story, said second leads then turned back into reasonable people.
But what’s even worse than the lazy writing messing with character arcs, is spending so! much! screentime! on these characters being annoying.
Honestly, there is so much bickering, fighting and hollering going on in the final stretch, that the show became a serious drag to watch.
Let’s just say that I made it to the finish line, but just barely.
WHAT KEPT ME GOING
There are a couple of things that kept me going to the end, and while they aren’t ground-breaking in any way, they were.. enough.
1. Kim Kang Woo is Pretty
It’s a shallow fangirl reason, sure. But I hafta be honest, it’s the biggest reason that kept me going. (Just look at that shadow of a smirk; so sexay~! Mmmph.)
Kim Kang Woo is a very handsome man indeed, and watching this show sometimes felt like watching a Pure Pretty post in motion. (Heh. Which is why I ended up making a Pure Pretty post for Kim Kang Woo. Go here to see it.)
One of the biggest highlights in terms of the Kim Kang Woo Pretty, is that he gets to spend literally half of episode 3 gloriously shirtless, wearing nothing but a beautiful bronze sheen and a white bath towel.
Egad. So, so delicious, seriously. Such perfect proportions, and with just the right amount of bulk. YUM.
Here. Have an extended taste:
LJHF LHDSFJKLS JDHFLS KJDHL. FLAIL. THUD.
I wasn’t kidding about the shirtless awesome, right?
Besides the magnificent display of Shirtless Kim Kang Woo, we also get treated to a very nice bit of Athletic Kim Kang Woo, like so:
And not forgetting Kim Kang Woo being handsome just walkin’ around in a tux:
Heh. Or being handsome not walkin’ around in a tux:
Giggle. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
The point is, Kim Kang Woo’s brand of handsome played a big part in keeping me going, even when the drama was disappointing me on many other levels.
The sad truth is, I wasn’t pleased with Kim Kang Woo’s delivery at parts.
When Tae Sung’s character woke up amnestic, the show went really hammy with it, and I found Kim Kang Woo’s delivery lacking in emotional resonance for that stretch. I wouldn’t have minded the OTT campiness so much if he’d imbued Tae Sung’s response with pathos and vulnerability, particularly in episode 5, when Tae Sung felt most lost and scared upon losing his memory.
Other than that stretch, though, Kim Kang Woo brought a nice amount of badassery and intensity to his prosecutor periods, sufficient cute and comedy once the amnesia had settled, and most importantly, believable poignancy and emotional resonance when he eventually regained his memory.
Plus, he was real pretty through it all. 😉
2. The promise of cute
Notice that I say “the promise of cute” instead of “the cute.”
That’s right, the OTP cute wasn’t served up as much as I would’ve liked. The show teased with sparks and glimmers of cute, dropping the cute on us in small-ish doses.
When allowed the luxury, the OTP was cute, and brought us breezy, bickering fun, and sweet, tender romance in turn.
It’s too bad that the show wasn’t more generous with moments of OTP charm, but I willingly ate up all that the show served up, and hankered for more.
Here’s a collection of OTP highlights for ya:
How sexy is Kim Kang Woo in that black tank, with and without his arms wrapped around Jo Yeo Jung? Mmph. And, how handsome is he in that suit, smiling and sitting on the dock???
Er, sorry. Got distracted, heh.
Point is, the OTP was very sweet and endearing when they were allowed to be, and the hope of more OTP cute helped to keep me going. Too bad I didn’t get as much as I would’ve liked.
3. I just wanted to see the happy ending
One thing I’ll give the show, is that it’s not predictable, even though it’s not very good.
On the one hand, the publicized synopsis for this show was so woefully off that it messed with my expectations of the show. I kept expecting it to keep to what was outlined in the synopsis, but it never did. Aggravating, yes, but it did help to keep things feeling fresh.
On the other hand, because the show doesn’t follow the usual rom-com rhythm, due to its very different set-up, I didn’t know what to expect either.
Even though the writing isn’t great, and unbelievable events are often used to force the narrative (as just one example, So Ra suddenly falling overboard in episode 11, so that Tae Sung could jump overboard to save her, so that they could be stranded, just the two of them, on a deserted island. Yes, really), it became really hard to predict what would happen next or when.
The show kept me curious, and that kept me going, even when the going got tough.
On the downside, the finale was a serious drag to sit through at multiple points. The writers were clearly trying to wrap up every! little! thing! and in my opinion, they overdid it. Majorly.
We didn’t need so much screentime dedicated to Joon Hyuk and Se Na’s new “Fate” and we certainly didn’t need so much screeching and hollering from Bok Ja.
It’s the last few minutes of screentime by the time we finally get to see our OTP on their honeymoon, and even then, the writers decide to bait us with a kiss fakeout, coz Tae Sung’s and So Ra’s boat suddenly and randomly goes missing. Seriously, why???
I was so annoyed with the writers by this point. Couldn’t they have just given us a little more sunshiny happiness with our OTP? Coz after enduring the final stretch of melodrama and politics, surely we’d earned that much, right? Tsk.
In any case, the silver lining is that Tae Sung and So Ra do get a happy ending, and here it is, so that you don’t have to wade through the mud to get there:
MY FAVORITE SCENE IN THE ENTIRE SERIES
To end this review on a happier note, I wanted to talk about stuff that I really liked in this show.
I thought of the breezy OST, which I genuinely enjoyed. Every time the happy boppy OST came on, it effectively lifted the mood of the show.
I also thought of the hilarious arbitrary plot point in episode 10 where Uncle Young Do (Park Sang Myun), an overly emotional ex-gangster who sports a Hello Kitty tattoo, leaves the fishery in a huff, and finds that he’s actually quite the gifted hairstylist. So random, so illogical, and so funny.
Hands down, though, my favorite bit of the entire series is this scene in episode 13.
It’s a sober moment in the series; Tae Sung has been dealing with the deluge of consequences since regaining his memory, and every family member, as well as every ex-gangster in town, seems to want to tear him and So Ra apart.
Almost absent-mindedly, Tae Sung recounts an incident from his childhood when his brothers had tried to abandon him in the mountains. He’d found his way back home and confronted them, but had gotten beaten up to a bloody pulp instead.
Taking a deep breath, Tae Sung turns to face So Ra, “Go So Ra… Please don’t blame me for something I’m not responsible for. I… will abandon being Yang Man Ho’s son.” He looks at her with subtly pleading eyes, “But I need you to forget one thing too. The wrong that my biological father has done to your father.”
So Ra softly protests, “But you still… have to live as Lee Tae Sung.”
Tae Sung averts his gaze for just a few moments, then turns to So Ra again, exhaling as he articulates his decision, “I’m going to throw him away. I’m going to throw away the name Lee Tae Sung, the son of Lee Sae Jo.”
Tae Sung pauses as his words sink in for So Ra. With a shadow of a smile playing at his lips, Tae Sung finishes, “That way, I can come to you.”
As So Ra struggles to process what he’s saying, Tae Sung teases gently, “I’m sure you’re sick of hearing this… But I’ve never felt this way before.”
His little throw-back joke finally teases a smile from So Ra. She gazes at him, clearly moved by his words.
At her smile, Tae Sung finally smiles for real.
And I swoon.
That Tae Sung would be willing to give up everything – even both of his identities that tie him to any sort of family – in order to be with So Ra; just, swoonnn~.
So, so good.
This show did a lot of things wrong, but this scene – this plot point; this character point – was done so very, very right.
Honestly, it was the moments like these that made this show worth watching.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
Moderately bipolar. But at least Kim Kang Woo is pretty.
FINAL GRADE: C+
For those who don’t mind spoilers, here’s an MV that effectively sums up the first few episodes of the show: