I first heard of Korean TV dramas a couple of years ago. While I've only read good things about them, I knew they often involved love triangles and unrequited emotions, which sounded too melodramatic for my tastes. When DVDTalk reviewer Jeffrey Robinson reviewed a few series and raved about them however, (including Jumong and Dae Jang Geum) I decided to see what all the fuss was about. Which brings me to Super Rookie, my first K-Drama. I was expecting a mildly enjoyable program, but this 20-episode series knocked me off my feet. Filled with well defined and fleshed out characters and one of the most engaging story lines I've seen in a while, this was an unexpected pleasure.
Kang Ho (Eric Mun) is a slacker who can't seem to find a job. He has a college degree, but it's from a second rate school and he studied 'recreational sports' which isn't very marketable. When a bright friend of Kang Ho's encourages him to apply to the prestigious LK Corporation during their annual recruitment drive, he does even though he has little hope of getting in. LK is renowned for only hiring the best of the best, and the written test that applicants have to take is harder to pass than the Bar exam.
During the written test, Kang Ho realizes that he has no hope of passing, so he just bubbles in a pattern on his test answer sheet. Predictably, he does badly, but the new computer system that was activated prematurely so an executive wouldn't loose face misreads his score of "0" as "100." When word gets out that someone actually achieved a perfect score, something that had never happened before, everyone is excited at Kang Ho's prospects.
Well, not everyone actually. Kang Ho's classmate from elementary school, Bong Sam (Oh Ji Ho), has worked hard his entire life to become an LK employee, and resents the fact that a worthless slacker like Kang Ho can just waltz into the prestigious company without breaking a sweat. He's sure that there's no way Kang Ho could really be as good as everyone thinks, and sets out to prove it.
The bosses soon discover that their young super rookie didn't really make a perfect score either. It would be professional suicide to admit that their computer system made a mistake however, and so they hush it up and try to get Kang Ho to quit. When he doesn't, they start to apply a lot of pressure and hope that he'll be so miserable that he leaves.
A concurrent plot involves Bong Sam and his ex-girlfriend Mi-Ok (the incredibility gorgeous Han Ga In) who works as a secretary at LK. Bong Sam was with the quiet girl while he was in college, but as soon as he meets the daughter of an LK board member, Hyun-ah (Lee So-Yeon) he drops Mi-Ok like a rock. After all, Hyun-ah is rich, attractive, and connected a trifecta for the ambitious young man. Mi-Ok tries to kill herself after Bong Sam's rather cruel dismissal, but her suicide is foiled by Kang Ho. When all four end up working in the same office, the tension ratchets up to an unbelievable level. Since Hyun-ah thinks that there's a good chance Bong Sam still has feeling for the mere contract worker she sets out to get her fired while coming on to Kang Ho in order to make Bong Sam jealous, which it does.
This story, spread over 20 hour-long episodes, was incredibly engaging and easy to get lost in. The plot was character driven, with all of the main characters (with the possible exception of Hyun-ah) being well defined and having a complete back story. It would have been easy to make Bong Sam, for instance, a totally evil character. In a US series he would be and that would be that. In this series however they show why he resents Kang Ho so much, and why he's willing to go to great lengths to get him fired.
The other surprising thing was how Kang Ho's position in the company was handled. In a US show, his street smarts and quick thinking would have made fools out of the other 'book smart' employees. While there was some of that, in general Kang Ho had a really hard time. Given an inch-thick report to summarize, he couldn't understand what was being said, much less pick out the salient points. Though there was some license given, the show made a point of realistically showing hard it would be for someone of Kang Ho's background to fit in.
The show is billed as a humorous drama, and while there are some amusing bits, it's not a laugh-out-loud comedy. The funny bits sometimes fall flat, such as Kang Ho's mother beating on her sons for basically no reason, and even the ones that work are more smile-inducing that out right chuckles. The humor does serve to lighten the story a good bit and keeps the show from ever becoming too maudlin or sappy.
While this is a very enjoyable and engrossing show, there were some aspects of the production that left me cold. There were too many quick flashbacks, sometimes even to events that happened earlier in that episode. This was a technique that the director used to illustrate what a character was thinking about, but it was overused and these moments of reflection often lasted longer than they should have. If I had to guess, I'd say that these were used to pad out the show to the appropriate running time each week.
Throughout the production the same three songs were also used over and over to set the mood. There was the 'everyone is sad' song, the 'am I doing the right thing' song, and the energetic 'Kang Ho is revved up and going to kick some butt' song. These were used as shorthand to set the tone and they were effective in that regard, but like the flashbacks they were employed too often and the show started to drag when they were played towards the end.
The 20 episodes that make up this Korean TV show comes on 7 DVDs which are Region one NTSC discs. (Which means that people in the US can play them without any problems or special hardware.) The discs come in two double width keep cases which are housed in an attractive thick board slipcase. It's a nice package.
This show comes with the original Korean language audio track in stereo and optional English subtitles. The audio track fits the show very well, with the voices being easy to hear and the music mixed at an appropriate level. Common audio defects such as background noise, distortion or dropouts were absent making this a nice show to listen to. The English translations were pretty good over all. There were a couple of oddly worded sentences scattered through the 20 episodes, and I wondered about some of the translations (a common insult was to call someone a 'jerk') at no time did the subtitles pull me out of the moment or wreck the atmosphere of the show.
This series is presented with a nice full frame picture that looks better than I was expecting. The image is sharp, the lines are tight and the colors are solid and bright. The show was recorded on video tape so it doesn't have that warm look of film and that lead to a couple of scenes where the lighting was a little harsh. That's about the worst I can say. On the digital side things also look fine. There is some minor aliasing and when the camera passes over vertical blinds in the background they tend to shimmer just a little. It's never distracting however.
Unfortunately the only extra is the first episode of another Korean drama, Phoenix. I was hoping for a behind the scenes documentary, they include some on-the-set shots in some of the closing credits, but they decided not to.
I was quite impressed with this first exposure to Korean TV Dramas.
Super Rookie had much more heart and substance than the dramas that
air on TV in the US. With rich three dimensional characters that
are easy to love (and hate) and a plot that moved at a fairly good pace
and didn't become repetitive over the 20 episodes that it took to tell
the story, this is a great DVD set. It comes Highly Recommended,
especially for someone who wants to see what the whole Korean Drama buzz
is all about.