You know how, when you drive past an accident on a highway, and your brain says not to waste time staring, since that’ll just slow down traffic even more, but as you crawl past in your car, the curious cat in you can’t help but stare in morbid fascination anyway?
Yep. That’s sorta what happened with me and Cheese In The Trap. Because I wasn’t able to keep current with the episodes as they aired, I was only at episode 8 (ish?) when all the behind-the-scenes drama erupted and everyone got really upset with Park Hae Jin’s heavily reduced screen time in the last third of the drama. A big part of my brain said then, that I ought to just drop the drama and look away while the going was good, but the curious cat in me was morbidly fascinated by it all. Was it as bad as everyone said, I wondered.
I guess there’s something to be said for spoilers, since I went into the finale stretch having had the ending quite thoroughly spoiled (I couldn’t help reading ending spoilers, even though I’m usually much more spoiler-phobic; not only was I morbidly fascinated, I was also – at times, anyway – trying to decide whether or not to keep watching). That prepped me for the ending really well, and in the end, I didn’t actually hate it. Gasp!
STUFF I LIKED
Even though it feels like everyone’s talking about this show’s ending, almost to the exclusion of everything else, I feel like a quick section highlighting the stuff I liked about this show is warranted. After all, even though it was never love at first sight with me and this show, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of, “I like it. It’s good. I don’t love it, but it’s clearly well-made.”
1. Creating the drama world & the use of narrators
From the indie-flavored background music, to the thoughtful details in set, costuming and styling, it’s clear that a lot of care went into the creation of this drama world. Even though Cheese is manhwa-inspired, Cheese’s drama world feels lived-in and real, and the characters all feel like they’re dealing with very real and believable struggles, with the breezy tunes in the soundtrack adding just a touch of philosophical whimsy.
Show uses voiceovers a lot, which I liked. Very occasionally, we get a voiceover from Jung (Park Hae Jin), but by and large, our voiceovers are by Seol (Kim Go Eun).
Almost everything we see is from Seol’s perspective; this is, clearly, her story from her perspective, for the most part. I really enjoyed how her voiceovers gave me regular access to her thought processes, raw, unpolished and imperfect as they are. I found her inner monologues realistic; exactly the kind of thought processes I can imagine a real person going through. Because of this, I felt drawn into her world, and I felt like I understood her decisions, even if her thoughts sometimes seemed to border on the neurotic.
2. Kim Go Eun as Seol
I found Seol highly relatable because for the most part, she’s quite a typical introvert (like me!). I fully understood her desire to live life minding her own business, with minimal interaction with others outside her small but tight circle of friends. Her introversion is why she often seems like a deer in headlights when stuff happens. An introvert often needs to process stuff before acting, and while she’s processing, stuff’s already happening, and she often gets caught in unfortunate circumstances because of her relative slowness to react.
Through it all, her voiceovers color in her world with everything that she’s thinking, and I found it easy to understand her and relate with where she’s coming from. Her emotional issues feel real and believable, and I couldn’t help but empathize with Seol’s weariness from living so hard, and her sense of unfairness at the various circumstances present in her life.
I love Kim Go Eun’s delivery as Seol, coz she makes Seol adorably awkward. As Seol, she flails a lot, and I found her delicately elegant hands quite captivating even as she does so. Best of all, Kim Go Eun delivers Seol with layered nuance that feels organic and restrained; Seol’s quiet inner conflicts are expressed delicately in every silent blink of her eyes, and every quiet sigh. Really good, I thought.
3. Eun Taek & Bo Ra
Even though Bo Ra and Eun Taek (Park Min Ji and Nam Joo Hyuk) are relatively minor characters, I really enjoyed having them on my screen.
As Seol’s friends, they bring positive energy to the screen to balance out Seol’s muted, subdued energy. Plus, with Seol facing so many situations and people that seemed pitted against her, I liked that these two besties always had her back.
Best of all, I love that these two cuties had their own little loveline. It never becomes a very large plot point, but I really enjoyed their little romantic arc. I found these two exceedingly cute together, and I would love for them to get their own little spin-off show or something.
4. Seo Kang Joon as Baek In Ho
Prior to Cheese, I’d seen Seo Kang Joon in Cunning Single Lady and Beauty Inside, and both times, I hadn’t been all that impressed with his acting. What a happy surprise, then, to find that he’s really quite good in Cheese, as Baek In Ho. Seo Kang Joon in Cheese is literally the best I’ve seen him.
Not only does he make In Ho likable, I believe his emotions, as In Ho. I was particularly impressed with Seo Kang Joon’s delivery of some of In Ho’s quieter, more vulnerable moments. He plays In Ho’s times of tentative thoughtfulness and his poignant emotional journey very well.
Really nicely done, and I’m happy to say that I find myself warming up to Seo Kang Joon as an actor.
STUFF THAT ADDED UP TO NEUTRAL
1. Treatment of Yoo Jung’s character
First off, let me just state for the record that Park Hae Jin is fantastic as Jung. His delivery of Jung’s mysterious character is muted, unreadable and yet, undeniably layered.
It’s Park Hae Jin’s delivery that made me curious to know more about Jung and what makes him tick. The fact that I didn’t run screaming from a male lead whose behavior seemed so cruel and disturbing is also thanks to Park Hae Jin imbuing Jung’s cryptic expressions with a touch of pathos.
Show also does a good job of making Jung a more sympathetic character over the course of its episodes, so that I rooted for him even though he demonstrated few signs of growth. In fact, I found Show’s positioning of Jung’s behavior intriguing and quite thought-provoking.
Even though Jung’s often portrayed as the “bad guy” who causes bad things to happen to other people, it occurred to me that Jung’s modus operandi, a lot of the time, is to act as a facilitator of sorts. He doesn’t get involved personally, but he sets the stage so that the people involved act on the catalyst he provides. In that way, he only provides the opportunity for people to show their true colors.
However, it’s his intent behind the facilitator sort of role that can be disturbing. When he does the whole facilitator thing with Young Gon (Ji Yoon Ho) and Young Gon’s crush on Seol, it’s with dark intent. With Seol and Min Soo (Yoon Ji Won), he basically creates a catalyst that forced a confrontation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there is still a distinct tinge of dark intent towards Min Soo.
At the same time, it also occurred to me that the way Jung dishes out his attention as power play (like with In Ho and the other pianist in high school) reminds me of how a king might do the same. And that includes the roundabout politics. Like how Jung reports the guys, in order to get them to gang up against In Ho, who then beat up In Ho without Jung having to lift a finger himself. It’s brilliant, and is the stuff of court politics and kings. But, it’s also disturbing, because out of the context of a royal court, it’s manipulative and creepy. Still, it did give me pause, to consider if Jung simply had been born in the wrong era.
The upside of having a male lead like Jung, is that it messes with your mind, at least a little bit. When his cold tendencies show up, they are unmistakable and quite troubling. Yet, when he’s warm, my instinct is to try to rationalize everything negative that came prior, so that I can like him freely, as a character. It’s that constant internal dissonance that makes watching this show feel a bit like it’s messing with your mind, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it keeps the watch experience interesting.
Where Show’s treatment of Jung didn’t work for me, is in how our screen time with him essentially doesn’t evolve very much. We spend many episodes observing how different he is from other people, and how disturbing that can be. However, we don’t ever get true visibility into his character. Even in the later episodes when Jung achieves some kind of personal insight and realizes he needs to change, he remains largely a cipher to us.
As a viewer, I was curious to know more about what was really going on, with Jung. I wanted to understand him better, and I wanted to root for him as he made that journey of self-discovery, healing and growth. Because I was denied the opportunity to do that, I came out of my watch still feeling disconnected from Jung as a character.
2. Treatment of the OTP [MODERATE SPOILERS]
It’s actually refreshing to have Jung, the cold, aloof male lead, show interest and be proactive in pursuing his leading lady early in the show. In fact, Seol is the one who’s suspicious and hedges about allowing him close. Yet, just 3 episodes in, Jung’s proactively seeking her out, which definitely makes this OTP feel different than the OTPs in most other dramas. Another upside is, Jung and Seol are sweet and quite adorable when they are together and in a happy place, as evidenced by the screenshot above.
My struggle to get fully on board with this OTP lies largely in the fact that Show keeps Jung cryptic and mysterious for almost its entire run. There are peeks into Jung’s inner conflicts, but those are fleeting and short-lived, and we spend the entire show not quite getting to know him properly. By extension, since the show is mostly told from Seol’s perspective, I felt like Seol didn’t know Jung very well either.
I also felt like I wasn’t ever really clear on why she wanted to go out with him, when she seemed to feel awkward around him more than anything else. Also, all the times we see Jung being cold makes his moments of being nice feel like the niceness could be an act, in a way. By the end stretch of the show, we do see that Jung and Seol sincerely care about each other. However, their inability to really be comfortable and truthful with each other made it feel like they were going on good faith and not much else. What made it worse, was that this OTP actually doesn’t spend much screen time together at all, in the overall scheme of things.
In this sense, I feel like this couple liked each other, but really barely knew each other, and that made it hard for me to invest myself properly, in their loveline.
WHAT FELT WEIRD
1. So many weirdos in this drama world
When you stop to think about it, there really are a lot of crazy-esque people in this drama world. There’s In Ha (Lee Sung Kyung), who just always seems to be one flip-out short of losing her marbles. And there’s Stalker Boy Young Gon, who consistently legit looks like he’s losing his mind. And there’s Min Soo, who appears increasingly unhinged as the episodes progress.
All that, on top of Jung himself, who seems to almost have a dual personality thing going on, with his dark side and sweet side existing in the same body.
I honestly wish Show had fewer crazies in its wings, because it feels jarring, considering Show’s everyday, lived-in sort of feel. It feels like two very different worlds trying to coexist, and not succeeding very well.
2. Show’s shifting emphasis
Soon after the midway point, Show’s emphasis starts to shift. There’s a lot less of Jung on our screens, and more and more of In Ho’s and In Ha’s stories. The narrative flow feels weird and the overall balance, off-kilter, because we spend so little time with our male lead.
While I had little to no interest in In Ha, who made my blood boil more than anything, I actually found In Ho a sympathetic character. In that sense, I didn’t have an issue with In Ho’s arc per se, because I found him an interesting character. In fact, I thought Show did a good job of making the characters feel real and textured.
It’s just, the balance was really wonky. I got distracted wondering why there was so little movement on Jung’s arc.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
Overall, I don’t hate the ending.
For the record, I do find not seeing much of Jung in the final episode, and Jung having his growth journey off-screen, rather strange. But I rationalize that Seol’s been our narrator this whole time, and so this is a story from Seol’s point of view. She doesn’t get to see Jung’s growth arc either, and so it sorta makes sense that we don’t get to see it either, since we are experiencing this story from her point of view. This story and how it ends, is about her grappling with life and coming to terms with it, and living it, in the best way she knows how, even when she doesn’t always have the answers. When I look at it that way, I find that I can embrace this show’s ending a lot better.
Additionally, Show’s spent its entire run convincing me that Jung’s an extreme case who has serious difficulty understanding why people feel the way they do. Because of this, I feel like I can buy that it takes something seriously bad happening to Seol, who’s made it into his heart, and his dad, who’s just like him, to treat him the way he’s treated others, for Jung to have an aha moment. And therefore, I take back any eye-rolling that I might’ve done, when Seol landed in that accident at the end of episode 15.
Admittedly, I found Show’s treatment of In Ha overly indulgent, since by the end, she’s still loud, screechy, and demanding, and yet, she gets a happy-ever-after of sorts, with a guy who is crazy about her in spite of her distinct brand of crazy. I thought that was way too generous of Show, really. In the last stretch, In Ha did have her flashes of pathos, but I’d have rather seen her more noticeably mellowed out, in Show’s final minutes.
Once I get past Show’s, er, unconventional choices in terms of where we leave our characters, though, I actually liked the themes it leaves us with.
In episode 15, the theme of “you reap what you sow” shows up pretty strongly: In Ha’s terrible behavior coming back to bite her, when she finally gets cut off; Jung’s manipulation coming back to bite him when In Ha pushes Seol into oncoming traffic; Jung’s father, eating the fruit of years of manipulation, with an alienated son; In Ho, suffering from an inflammation in his hand, for allowing his anger to get the better of him. Like it or not, our decisions shape our lives, and this episode was a showcase of where our characters’ decisions have taken them.
In the final episode, there’s also a strong theme of living with your choices, and living without regrets. Of choosing to embrace your choices, even if they bring you pain along the way, and treating that as part of growing up.
All in all, the ending’s got an open-ended indie feel about it, with lashings of contemplative hope and sprinkles of spark. Importantly, I rather like the hopeful note on which we leave Seol, and that counts for a fair bit towards how I feel, leaving this show.
Certainly, this show could’ve been better in a lot of ways.
We could’ve seen Jung’s development. We could’ve had a proper happy, hopeful ending with Seol and Jung reuniting in the present on our screens, instead of via a flashback. We could’ve spent less time on the second leads. Ultimately, though, this show chose what it wanted to be, for reasons that will probably remain a mystery to us.
The question, though, is, when all is said and done, can it stand on its own, as a vehicle for the story it wanted to tell?
In my estimation, I’d say Show did ok, even though its choices upset a lot of viewers. The silver lining is, for better or for worse, Show’s choosing to live with and embrace its choices, so at the very least, I give it props for walking its talk.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A solid if sometimes bemusing watch, if you’re able to keep a (very) open mind about Show’s narrative decisions.
FINAL GRADE: B-