Though their dissemination in America so far has been negligible, Korean TV dramas have spread like wildfire across most of Asia. In Japan for instance, entire sections of video stores are devoted to such shows, and Korean television dramas have become a constant presence on Japanese television networks and cable/satellite channels, seriously threatening the popularity of homegrown product, while Korean movies adapted from these shows and / or featuring its biggest stars have become popular.
The audience for these shows is predominantly women over 30, especially women 50 and older, some of whom have become such hardcore fans they swarm airports when Yong-jun Bae - Yon-sama in Japan - flies over to film a TV commercial, with these middle-aged women literally dropping to their knees weeping like prepubescent teenage girls at the height of Beatlemania.
One of the most popular Korean shows thus far has been My Lovely Sam-Soon (Nae ireumeun Kim Sam-soon, or "My Name is Kim Sam-soon, 2005), a 16-episode, nearly 16-hour comedy-drama miniseries likened to Bridget Jones' Diary and which reportedly earned a 50% ratings share when it first aired in South Korea.
Seon-a Kim (aka Kim Sun-Ah) stars as Kim Sam-Soon, an overweight (supposedly, more on this below) 30-year-old unemployed pastry chef whose boyfriend callously dumps her on Christmas Eve. Sam-Soon creates an enormous scene at the hotel restaurant, which is witnessed by Hyeon Jin-Hyeon (Bin Hyeon), the young owner of a fashionable Seoul restaurant. When she retreats to a nearby restroom to bawl uncontrollably Jin- Hyeon is mercilessly hard on the poor girl, and they take to one another like oil and water.
Coincidence, always a big part of Asian comedy and drama in general, brings them together and he hires her to replace his restaurant's departing pastry chef. (She insists on working under the name Kim Hee-Jin; "Kim Sam-Soon" apparently is an embarrassing name for reasons untranslatable.) He is endlessly critical of her petulant attitude and supposed obesity, and many of her co-workers treat her like dirt. She spends her off-hours going on blind dates which Jin- Hyeon seems determined to sabotage for no clear reason. It soon becomes apparent that the two are destined to embark on some kind of romance, this in spite of the objections of Na Hyun-sook (Mun-hee Na), Jin- Hyeon's domineering hotelier mother, and by the appearance of a woman out of Jin- Hyeon's past.
Korean television drama is definitely an acquired taste, and you'll either be sucked into My Lovely Sam-Soon's story and characters to the point where you'll want to consume all 16 hours in one sitting or, like this reviewer, you'll find it overwhelmingly irritating and insufferable.
That its melodramatics are so hysterical as to make the films of Douglas Sirk seem restrained by comparison is forgivable; this is an accepted style common in much of Asian television and film. But My Lovely Sam-Soon is irredeemably shallow and superficial, with disingenuous main characters who rarely act like real people, with a teleplay and style that has unseemly obsessions with superficial beauty and materialism.
Text on the DVD's box makes a Big Deal about how star Seon-a Kim gained 15 pounds for the role, and throughout the series her character is constantly referred to as fat, grotesquely overweight, as a glutton, etc., while at the tender age of 30 everyone thinks of her as an "old woman," "an old maid" and so forth. One almost expects Sam-Soon to look like Edith Massey, or at least Joan Blondell during her later character actress period. Though her face is a teensy bit fleshy, Seon-a Kim probably didn't weigh more than 125 pounds and by western standards looks anything but fat, and though like Sam-Soon the actress really was 30 when the show was in production she easily could pass for a women in her early 20s. This contrast between what people are say about the character and the woman actually shown onscreen borders on the absurd.
Seon-a Kim is indeed cute and charming when her character is in good spirits but that's rare. Most of the time Sam-soon is quite obnoxious, a mean drunk that at best is cynical and completely self-absorbed when she's sober. She's constantly petulant and surly to everyone around her, often resorting to a gratingly nagging tone that transcends all language barriers.
If anything the male characters are far worse. Almost without exception they stand around posing like arrogant male models, with unchanging expressions of bored superiority toward everyone around them.
With Sam-soon's passion for pastries the screenwriters feebly try to inject the character with some sort of raison d'Ítre, but neither this nor the character's basic loneliness ever seems sincere. That the program overflows with characters that endlessly tease when not openly insulting Sam-Soon while she lashes back like a wounded lion doesn't make for great entertainment.
The labyrinthinely-plotted but predictable story is well-produced but irritating in other ways. The first episode is besotted with fantasy scenes, with Sam-Soon day-dreaming about her ex-boyfriend, committing suicide, etc. The filmmakers pull a fast one on their audience the first time this happens, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, but then repeat the trick so often that these scenes quickly become merely irksome.
Viewers unfamiliar with present-day Korea may find its over-glamorized views of Seoul interesting all by itself though, like the rest of the show, locations tend to be as ostentatious as the male characters, with everything antiseptically modeled in nouveau riche: marble and glass with gold trim.
Each show's soundtrack is crammed with songs performed by Elvis Presley, Paul Simon, Nat King Cole and the like. Either South Korea's television industry has a killer deal with ASCAP, including them as background music is considered "fair use," or they were "acquired" the same way Hong Kong martial arts movies used to back in the 1970s.
Video & Audio
My Lovely Sam-Soon is presented in its original full frame format. The shows were shot on tape but look fine for what they are and the Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack is well-mixed with a fair amount of directionality. The first five single-sided discs have three shows apiece (running 58 minutes each), while the sixth disc includes the last episode plus, as an Extra Feature, the first two episodes of Dae Jang Geum (2003), one of the seminal Korean television dramas of the last quarter century. (It's really a great idea: after you're hooked what else is there to do except buy the entire series?) The optional English subtitles are quite good.
Besides the added shows the boxed set comes with an unusual supplement, a My Lovely Sam-Soon mousepad. Why not?
Negative criticism aside, the right western world audience will likely adore My Lovely Sam-Soon just as several hundred million Asians already do. YA Entertainment is providing a real service making this and other Korean dramas available in the U.S., and interested viewers should at least sample one such series to see what they're like.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.