My original intent for writing this review was to start off the “writers’ series” which explores the various works of some of our favorite writers…uhm I got a little carried away with writing this so consider it an excerpt of the “writers’ series” for Noh Hee Kyung.
This is my first time in writing such a comprehensive? review of a drama. I think I have gone through several drafts in my attempt to coherently write something along with some technical difficulties. The review below is from an emotional retrospective. I am unsure if writing from this perspective is any more effective than going through a straight re-cap. I will depend on the feedback I get from you folks to determine which is better or preferred.
I suppose this review would be more comprehensive if I actually re-watched the drama again considering I spent an exorbitant amount of money on it. And once I find it under a plethora of packed boxes, I will edit the post as needed to fill in some blanks.
It’s been several years since I’ve watched this drama in its entirety and the scenes that I reference are strictly from memory with the exception of one. This said, I sincerely hope that I have given this drama some justice in my review of it. Because this drama truly deserves your full attention, a couple boxes of tissues, about 2 days where you have no or limited distractions (i.e. work/school), and a phone nearby to call (not text/email/facebook) people that are important to you.
After 20+ years of watching dramas, I think I can say that for me, More Beautiful Than a Flower embodies simplicity at its best. It’s also an affirmation that a good storyline and acting don’t require lots of flash to make it appealing or even interesting. If you are expecting some eye candy in the form of some questionable presumption of a “multi- talented” boy/girl band member to parlay his/her acting skills to the small screen, pretty people trying to act, an awakening of dormant and unknown pedophillic tendencies, enough product placements to make you green with envy, questionable logic, an exotic locale (or several locales), and playing conversational “English” with the extra of the day- then run far far away because this drama is not mindless entertainment (fine it has 1 exotic locale!) if this is what you are seeking. I have enjoyed and LOVED my fair share of dramas with the aforementioned characteristics above (just look at my all favorite’s list) but this drama, at first glance is not all that appealing.
Rather, it’s a family drama that is not trite. Instead it’s heartwarming, meaningful, relatable, and above all REALISTIC- firmly grounded in reality.
Generally, I am not a big fan of the family drama genre for several reasons. One, because the characters are so…blah. If not overly saccharine, pure, or boring (that I feel violent enough to knock some sense into), then there is the typical one-note baddie. Two, the dialogue is uninspiring. Three, a storyline that I felt could have been wrapped up in about 3 episodes instead of 15. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy them because when the right one comes along, I really do. In fact I enjoyed several like Since We Met, Solitude, Her House, and some of Kim Jung Soo’s prior works that I can’t think of the title at the moment(circa 90s to 2003) <<speaking of Kim Jung Soo- is it just me or do her recent family dramas just really really suck? What the hell is going on with Dandelion Family? Anywho, I digress>>
Out of the numerous dramas that I have seen, this is the most personal to me because I can truthfully say that a feeling, a sentiment, an incident, circumstance conveyed onscreen could be something I could connect to at one level or another.
When this show was first airing (2004), it was competing against that unholy, hot mess of makjang dramas, Stairway to Heaven featuring two lisping but oh so pretty protagonists, admired more for their beauty than their talents. And if any of you say that you haven’t watched at least one episode, I say “liar, liar pants on fire!” It was the de-jour drama choice, on every freaking television screen and discussed in every restaurant, sauna, clothing store I frequented when I was in Korea at the time. Which is enough to attest to the drama’s popularity.
On the flip side, you have a solid veteran cast, some unknown and vaguely familiar actors/actresses, and everyone else. Not an atypical set up when you are trying to gather your ensemble cast, by any means. We had Kim Myung Min, an unknown actor who at first glance doesn’t necessarily grab you but turned out to be such a revelation in terms of talent (I mean really, this guy sold me on his acting alone, not the fantasy package marketed by their management team but on his sheer charisma as an actor. I never would have imagined the day!) Then there is Kim Heung Soo with his crazy hair, and Han Go Eun aka the Korean American with ho-hum acting abilities and the ex-girlfriend of Park Joon Hyung, leader of the now defunct G.O.D.
After reading all of this and you are not cheese-d out or intimidated by the massive word count, here goes…
Before we delve into the story, let’s meet our cast of characters:
Door 1- Kim Doo Chul: an asshole of the highest order who has abandoned his paternal duties, is living with a younger woman and their child together. A selfish character who still insists upon being part of his older children’s lives although he has given up that right long ago when he left them.
Door 2- Lee Young Ja: a sweet, soft-spoken, slightly forgetful, pure, innocent, a “chunsa” mother who lives for her family. Traditional, conservative, and a glorified doormat.
Door 3- Kim Mi Ok: Eldest child of Kim Doo Chul and Lee Young Ja. The sole breadwinner, loud, brash, typical ajummah, bossy, fishmonger. A divorcee and single mother pursued by a piss poor gentle professor.
Door 4- Kim Mi Soo: She’s cosmopolitan, beautiful, driven, ambitious, educated venture capitalist living the ideal single woman’s life. Also in love with a married man.
Door 5- Kim Jae Soo: an ex felon, mama’s boy, unmotivated, and a good for nothing loser. He cowers in fear from the temper of his older sisters, works at a club, and is searching for his brother’s killer.
Door 6- Park Young Min: An educated, penniless, and kind professor way past his prime. Family consists of a conservative and ignorant father and younger brother. He’s passive and for years, has harbored a secret crush on Mi Ok.
Door 7- Jung In Chul: A womanizer, guilt ridden, insomniac, suave, charismatic, lonely figure who is constantly lecturing his mother on her brazen behavior. He is desperately seeking stability and peace in an indifferent wife despite her infidelity.
The title role of this drama is the beloved mother, Lee Young Ja (a magnificent Go Doo Shim) but really the dysfunctional lot can also be bestowed the same honor. The flow of this review is going to follow the various themes featured in MBTAF and you have been forewarned that there are major spoilers below.
Long ago, a tragedy had befallen this family and each of them is living with the consequences of it. A beloved brother and son (Jae Shik played by Kang Ji Hwan- seriously I didn’t realize it was him until years later!) who ironically enough , died just the way he lived, with his fists. It’s been some years since this accident and everyone has moved on with their lives. He is briefly mentioned here and there, enough to know that his death was an accident and a complete waste of potential. His death really affects the youngest, Jae Soo. He is the one who can’t “move on” from it, his life is on pause until he can find his beloved brother’s killer, who escaped justice due to his affluent parents.
Forgiveness, redemption, and healing:
In Chul the masochist, suffers his own private hell from his actions. His guilt is never ending and because he didn’t suffer the consequences of his actions due to his mother and step father at the time, he atones for his sins by serving as an open bank account and at the beck and call of the so called perpetrators from that youthful accident. He is the true romantic in this story, like the mother who is so unconditionally loving when it comes to her family. He seeks the white picket fence, the simple and mundane things that are not considered glamorous or passionate by any means. There is a lovely scene where he reads a favorite passage in a book to Mi Soo. In the passage, it describes what the wife would like to do with her husband: throw out the trash, be silly for no reason, grill together, etc etc that illustrates his yearning that above all, he is looking for family, for a home. He has never known love or rather true love. His marriage is an open one and he permits it because his wife is his family. She is his anchor although she is not reliable, her mere presence is enough. His mother and the revolving door of husbands never provided the family he so craved. What was initially considered a fling on his part with Mi Soo has evolved into a true and loving relationship. A real relationship that he is truly happy in, of mutual understanding, stability, and the security that he never had growing up.
I have wondered if In Chul loves MiSoo for her family, as she so bluntly asked him but in fact, one can see that this isn’t the case, it’s the icing on top of the cake. By all appearances, it’s not the most ideal of circumstances. He is still considered a married man in society’s eyes despite the fucked up nature of his relationship with his soon to be ex- wife. Separated, no doubt but still legally bound by law. He refuses to grant her a divorce, not out of spite but prior to getting serious with Mi Soo and emotionally ready to move on, he clings on to the hope that they will be a real family. How refreshing is it that the wife is begging for a divorce, hounding her soon to be ex mother in law to plead her case on her behalf.
Indeed, In Chul and Mi Soo’s relationship is not conventional by any means, the fact that Mi Soo is jumping into it knowing how her family and society will perceive it to be should forebode to its demise but on the same token, her pursuit of him makes her very noteworthy and daring. What are the multitude of labels can we say of a woman seeing a married man- a home wrecker, whore or a tart with no self respect? Prior to her family enveloping him into their fold, she kept her relationship a secret from them. And I can’t say that there is no validity behind their objection- really, who wants to see their sister, their beloved sister and daughter who is so cool, the true success story of the family, and who they are so proud of be with a man who is not best of the best? Emotional psychological warfare was unleashed when Mi Soo chose to be with In Chul. She had the most to lose from this relationship, not him. The guilt, gratitude that her family put her through school so she can study abroad, everyone working so hard to see their own “make it”- all are valid reasons expounded upon ad nauseam. Even her mother, her chunsa (angel) of a mother, who is so proud of her daughter, was against it- to not cave under such pressure is admirable.
What is truly beautiful about In Chul and Mi Soo’s story is that it’s a realistic portrayal of “mature” love. There are no hysterics, psychotic 2nd or 3rd parties to wreck the blossoming relationship, class issues, etc. Both come with some emotional baggage and they are also each other’s worse enemy. Their story comes full circle because Mi Soo initiated the relationship knowing that there might not be a happy end to it, she initiated it and in the end, she also ended it with a glimmer of light peeping through that their ending could have a happy conclusion after some time. She is the risk taker and she took a huge gamble by being with him because he told her upfront he didn’t know if he could do it, that he had the ability to make her happy. She had a chance to back out but instead forged on ahead.
Unfortunately, it is the discovery that In Chul is the culprit responsible for her older brother’s accidental death and the subsequent ramifications of that youthful mishap which will separate them. This is what makes their love story so bittersweet. It’s that damn cliché- that it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all – echoed throughout. It’s my interpretation that In Chul truly found his salvation and redemption when he was forgiven by Mi Soo and her family and he in turn, allows himself to be forgiven. He may have lost the love of his life (if only temporarily) but he could heal and in time, meet Mi Soo and start with a clean slate.
This is when Mi Soo met In Chul prior to his departure. This scene reaffirmed their love for one another but both know that it’s not feasible at this time to continue as well. She wants him to be happy, to move on with the lingering hope that she too will go to him when their separation is unbearable. He jokingly says that he won’t wait for her when it is all too obvious that he would.
In Chul’s voiceover:
Mi Soo ya, even if you don’t seek me out again I think it will be okay, even if I won’t be able to see you again I know it’s not because there wasn’t any love. But I think that I will be waiting for you for a very long time. Even if you don’t come, the time spent waiting is not in vain. Ever since I’ve met you, I feel as though I have found solace in my life. Thank you, Kim Mi Soo.
I know I am not capable to forgive (love or not) under any circumstance. But then you see or hear of a story, a mother forgiving the dumbass driving drunk on a Saturday night and killing her son/daughter, who had so much potential with so many dreams for the future. Metaphorically speaking, is that comparing apples to oranges? Maybe not. In this case, Mi Soo and her family could do it and in turn, makes them so “beautiful” as human beings. After I finished this drama and years later, I read some blurb of when Noh Hee Kyung came out on a show. On the show, she discussed her painful childhood and the resentment she carried through the years for her father who had abandoned them and found a new life with his wife and kids. However, in the end she reconciled and took care of him when he was terminally ill until his death. And I would hope that I remembered this quote correctly because in a nutshell this is why they (Mi Soo and family) forgave him, because at the end of the day, “… it hurts to hate others…”
Abandonment is also an underlying theme of this drama: the father left the mother, left the kids, wrecked his reputation, all out of his own selfishness. He was unhappy with his wife but I guess you can say that at their age and with so much history together, what is the point of leaving? This harkens to the age-old dilemma of one’s comfort level vs. seeking greener pastures. The outcome is that he married a woman who is around the same age as Mi Ok and has a son similar in age to his granddaughter.
It could be out of culture, paternal love, or balls of steel but he continues to be a meddlesome nuisance in his older children’s lives. A couple of examples: the jae sa (an annual event generally a day before the anniversary of the deceased family members death. It’s also led by a male figure. If there is more than one son in the family, led by the eldest. Females have a periphery role, mainly they are responsible for setting it up i.e. food, cleaning, etc), meeting of the future in-laws, and he insists on walking his daughters down the aisle too.
Despite the fact that he really is a despicable bastard, it’s difficult to hate him. In fact I admire and can sympathize with this guy, because he truly goes against the grain. He’s shameless and I can’t help but be in awe of him. A little cultural background but “shame” or “cheng pi” is what some would say is the foundation of the Korean identity. Deriving from the influence of Confucian teachings, that shame is the basis of our morality.
A prime example of this is asking his ex-wife to donate a kidney to save his current wife at present (she does). Playing (manipulation?) upon the naiveté of his ex-wife for his own selfish needs, for the sake of his own happiness. He knows that it’s wrong but he still does out of desperation. He’s not just a bystander, he takes action and shame be damned. He doesn’t consider his wife’s death, due to his own sin, be his atonement for his misdeeds but rather is willing to stake everything he has to keep her in the present. I thought that this was the beauty of his characterization. When I first saw this scene unfold, I can recall screaming and throwing all sorts of things at the TV. Really, who the fuck does this guy think he is to ask his ex-wife for such a thing. But he had enough tact to back out of asking Mi Soo, the family’s ATM machine for money. He knew better than to ask Mi Ok – to save a woman who has been the cause of their suffering in their younger years.
And then we have In Chul’s mother, his confidant, best friend, and all knowing Yoda? She’s shameless and brazen. She lives life on her own terms by her own rules with a big middle finger to conventionality and morality , she marries at whim and if isn’t working out, she divorces just as fast. Her son on the other hand, is unable to fathom this and is just the opposite. He confides to Mi Soo that he wanted his mother to be like a typical mother-coming to see his games, overbearing , loving and warm. How awesome is it that Mi Soo reminds him that the maternal figure does not equate to a saint. What we have in In Chul’s mother is a woman, a flesh and blood woman with desires and dreams in addition to being a mother. In fact she said to him that she doesn’t regret a thing that she has done with the exception of indirectly inflicting pain on her son. You will find this type of character in No Hee Kyung’s other works as well. The complete opposite of Mi Soo’s mother but linked in their fierce love for their children. (Snark moment: I guess it does help that she is wealthy too, that such behavior could also be perceived as eccentric as well)
Lee Young Ja is a glorified doormat or is she characterized as so kind hearted because she is too simple-minded? She’s passive aggressive by nature but when it comes to someone insulting her kids, she isn’t afraid of a mothafucking throwdown with ajummahs who insulted Mi Ok in this one scene- which by the way was priceless and AWESOME (if anyone can post this scene via youtube I would be forever grateful!!!!) I have always said that seeing a couple of ajummahs throw down the gauntlet and go at it is truly a spectacular sight and could give the boys a run for their money. In fact they do!
As much as I love Young Ja for her unconditional support to her children and kindness, it’s difficult to say that she made any true sacrifices. In spite of Mi Ok’s often abrasive, uncouth, and headstrong behavior, she made the true sacrifices for the love of her family. After her father left, she stepped up to the plate when no one was willing or capable of doing it and took the responsibility of raising her siblings and even her mother at the expense of her youth, beauty, and dreams. Let’s face it, kindness does not put food on the table.
The most endearing factor of this drama is that Noh Hee Kyung calls people out for their actions. She emphasizes that we are responsible for our suffering as a result of the choices we have made. No magic, voodoo or karma but the consequences of our own actions. This confrontation was set up in which Mi Ok was ripped to shreds by her future father in law at a dinner on their first meeting. In so many words, she was told that she was unsuitable for their country bumpkin family, she had no redeeming qualities like youth, money or beauty. And because there are only so many things you can change, she is a divorced single mother too. It’s this stigma as a single, divorced mother that is pounced upon that sets up the next scene where she attempts to leave her daughter with her ex husband; in a moment of insanity, grief, and frustration. A futile effort to mode herself into something “acceptable” in society’s eyes. In Korea, generally custody of the children is given to the father. (Like in the case of Go Hyun Jung in which her ex husband has full custody and rarely to the mother in a divorce. Although this is changing i.e. Choi Jin Shil fighting tooth and nail to keep custody of her two children. She was also successful in giving her children her maiden surname, documented in the Choi’s family hojuk (family register).
In effect it is Young Ja who pulls Mi Ok from the depths of despair, to slap some bloody sense into her. However, Mi Ok’s retort to this made this scene all the more poignant for me as I have seen this happen years ago in my own family. She asked her mother that she too could have been like Mi Soo, successful and cool. Why was it that she had to take on the role of a mother and father to her own mother, that Young Ja wasn’t an angel but a spectator. Why did she have to give up her dreams of going to college for Mi Soo, why couldn’t her mother take responsibility after their father left and let her pursue her dreams. Why was her mother so weak and pitiful that she had to be the breadwinner of the family when typically it’s the parent who would do whatever he/she had to do to ensure that their children would have better lives than their parents. Why did she have to sacrifice her youth, her dreams for them. A classic “coulda woulda shoulda” and I love that Mi Ok called her mother out on this and that Mi Soo and Jae Soo overhead it.
Young Ja knows that she was not a responsible parent, in a way she isn’t any different from her ex husband. Neither does Mi Ok’s outburst justify her actions of “abandoning” her daughter because she is no different from her father as well. Is Noh Hee Kyung trying to infer that selfishness is wrong but contradictory, no less? That my own admiration of the father (shirking his responsibilities for the pursuit of his own happiness at the expense of ruining his family) vs. Mi Ok’s attempt to abandon her daughter (so she can finally be free of something that is such huge baggage in the form of her daughter and pursue her own happiness and start anew). Or could it be that there are degrees to the consequences as a result of one’s selfish act? Her father, while happy in his new life with his wife and son is also pitiful because he did it at the price of losing his daughters. There is no comfort to say the least that his wife and son will be okay in terms of familial support after he passes along. At this point in time, he lost that as well as a result of his actions. If Mi Ok was unable to reclaim her daughter from her ex, there is no certainty that she would have been any happier with her husband, her in laws, or herself.
And by now you are probably wondering, “Bella what the hell is so great about such a depressing drama?” There really isn’t a happy ending- Mi Soo and In Chul broke up, Young Ja is in the late stages of Alzheimers, then there is the pain of having a beloved mother and sister figure lose all cognizance of her loved ones, and the inevitability of the stress in the undertaking of caring for someone who is unable to care for themself. But the family, as dysfunctional as it is, reconcile and unite for Young Ja- setting aside all their prejudices and hate.
And there are a couple of ways to answer the question that was posed. It could go something like this:
- In the face of human tragedy, as long as you have family, hope, and love you can face anything coming your way
- Life always has a way of working itself out. What goes up must come down, with every action there is a reaction, yin and yang. You do the best you can with the given circumstances and move on.
- Life is too short, reconcile and let bygones be bygones
And a part of my response is a culmination of all that is stated above. But ultimately, the message that I take away from this drama was that in life, there will always be shades of gray. That I should try to step back and consider the whole picture and not just my own perception of it. Too often we are forced by the situation or circumstance on hand that make it difficult for us to look beyond our own subjective perspective- as rational individuals, we get irrational when it is us in the proverbial frying pan. After watching this drama, I re-assessed a lot of my own family’s feuds and though I do not agree with some of the outcomes, I did ”get it” and understood why certain situations ended the way they did- that as an individual, I saw my own evolution of emotional growth. And that is why I consider this drama more than just good storytelling.
Also, I can’t end this post without this: