More Beautiful Than Flowers
(a.k.a Prettier Than Flowers/Beauty Beyond Expression) - KBS TV 2004
32 Episodes - 60 Minutes p.e.
Aired from January 1 to April 14, 2004 on KBS2
그린로즈 (Green Rose) - SBS 2005
신입사원 (Super Rookie) - MBC 2005
겨울연가 (Winter Sonata) - KBS 2002
네 멋대로 해라 (Ruler of Your Own World) - MBC 2002
다모 (Damo) - MBC 2003
김철규 (Kim Cheol-Gyu)
노희경 (Noh Hee-Kyung)
[Best Theater 세리와 수지 (Sallie and Suzie) - MBC 1996, 세상에서 가장 아름다운 이별 (The Most Beautiful Breakup in the World) - MBC 1996, 내가 사는 이유 (The Reason I Live) - MBC 1997, 아직은 사랑할 시간 (It’s Still Time To Love) - KBS 1997, 거짓말 (Lie) - KBS 1998, 우리가 정말 사랑했을까? (Did We Really Love?) - MBC 1999, 슬픈유혹 (Sad Temptation) - KBS 1999, 바보같은 사랑 (Foolish Love) - KBS 2000, 빗물처럼 (Like Rain) - SBS 2000, 화려한 시절 (Wonderful Days) - SBS 2001, 고독 (Solitude) - KBS 2002]
고두심 (Go Doo-Shim) as Lee Young-Ja, 배종옥 (Bae Jong-Ok) as Kim Mi-Ok, 주현 (Ju Hyeon) as Kim Du-Cheol, 김명민 (Kim Myung-Min) as Jang In-Cheol, 김흥수 (Kim Heung-Soo) as Kim Jae-Soo, 한고은 (Han Go-Eun) as Kim Mi-Soo, 박상면 (Park Sang-Myun) as Park Young-Min, 추소영 (Chu So-Young) as Kang Ji-Ni, 조은지 (Jo Eun-Ji) as Je-In, 김보연 (Kim Bo-Yeon), 방은희 (Bang Eun-Hee), 김영옥 (Kim Young-Ok), 맹상훈 (Maeng Sang-Hoon), 박성미 (Park Sung-Mi)
가족주의, (familism), one of the most popular subjects in Korean culture, has always been a staple of Korean TV Dramas and films ever since their inception. Sometimes this sense of family gets filtered through political ideology, and the family becomes something bigger, like the entire country. That sense of separated brotherhood which permeates most of the Korean films about the North/South divide is one of its consequences, and using the postwar tragedy to define the collapse of the prototypical Korean family was often used in 60s Cinema, like in Yoo Hyun-Mok’s 오발탄 (The Aimless Bullet) or Kang Dae-Jin’s 마부 (The Coachman).
Sometimes the various layers forming a family go through a complete deconstruction, like in Im Sang-Soo’s 바람난 가족 (A Good Lawyer’s Wife). And finally, sometimes this familism flows through the veins of people who would perfectly embody the opposite sentiment, just to return to their primal instincts once they find a way back into life, like in Ryu Seung-Wan’s incredibly poignant 주먹이 운다 (Crying Fist). But the story is a little different in TV Dramas, where the larger canvas gives you more space to develop the characters and convey the existing bond, but it’s also much easier to fall into the minefield which the tropes of familism can leave behind. Since it was born as a surrogate of Cinema and Theater, TV in Korea always tried to exploit this strong bond right from the beginning.
Most of the first few TV Dramas shown in the 60s, when TV was a source of entertainment for just a few people, and Korean Cinema was enjoying its most shining Golden Age to date, were shows centered around the concept of family. And when the format of the 일일연속극 (Daily Drama) took off a decade later, with shows like 1972’s 여로 (Journey) on KBS and 아씨 (Lady) on TBC, the field was ready for an all out war between the stations, trying to up the ante every time. But while many Family Dramas could be highlighted from the two decades preceding TV Dramas’ first real Golden Age in the 90s, one stands out at the top of the list, 전원일기 (Lifetime in the Country).
Starring Choi Buram and Kim Hye-Ja, who would become THE couple on TV for over two decades, the show would re-write all the rules about Family Dramas, taking more than 20 years [1980~2002] to develop its story through the ups and down of a Korean family. The show had such a strong impact that viewers sometimes call actors with their TV Drama name, like in Kim Ji-Young’s case, who is often nicknamed 복길이 (Bok-Gil, her name in the show) even though the show has been over for years. Family Dramas were perfect for TV consumption, since their structure allowed to cast the entire acting spectrum, from child actors to new stars and seasoned veterans. And, until the advent of the Korean Wave, it was always the most popular genre amongst Korean viewers.
Three writers in particular shaped this ‘Family Drama craze’ in the last twenty years: Kim Jung-Soo, Kim Soo-Hyun and Noh Hee-Kyung. The oldest and most respected of them all is certainly Kim Soo-Hyun, who started her career in the late 60s, writing some parts of the 미워도 다시 한번 (Love Me Once Again) series, which eventually became the most popular melodrama saga of the decade. She debuted as a TV Drama writer pretty late, considering she was already 44 when she wrote her first masterpiece, the 1986 MBC Drama 사랑과 야망 (Love & Ambition). Throughout the 90s, she developed a knack for creating glorious characters out of human tragedy, wrapped around the familiar (but never predictable) tropes of the genre.
사랑이 뭐길래 (What Is Love) in 1992, 목욕탕집 남자들 (Bath House Men) in 1996 and 청춘의 덫 (Trap of Youth) in 1999 were all major hits, confirming the writer as perhaps the most important in the country, with every new project gathering the attention of the whole media. Her last two shows 완전한 사랑 (Perfect Love) and 부모님 전상서 (My Precious Family) brought to the forefront the immense talent of veteran actress Kim Hee-Ae, who despite rarely ever acting in films has become one of the most respected actresses in the country. All of Kim’s Dramas show a certain sense of pride, that strength which makes her characters move with confidence even in the most desperate of situations.
Kim Jung-Soo is a little different. Her Dramas never had the gloomy and depressing mood of her other two colleagues, but she’s been rather uneven in her career. When she gets it right, her Dramas explode with energy, like the aforementioned ‘Lifetime in the Country’, and especially 그대 그리고 나 (You and I), my favorite Family Drama of all time. Drawing a portrait of Koreans from all walks of life during the IMF crisis, the show had the kind of poignancy and intelligence you rarely find even in films, with even the ‘poor vs rich’ dichotomy Korean TV Dramas love so much crumbling under the weight of the worst economic crisis the country had seen since the postwar.
Starring Choi Jin-Shil, Cha In-Pyo and Park Sang-Won, the 68 Episode Drama managed to show how Korean people survived through the painful period and used the theme of family love to highlight its characters and their development. And, even though they never reached the brilliant level of her past shows, her last three Family Dramas have been good, especially the 2001 MBC Drama 그 여자네 집 (Her House), with the Kim Nam-Joo/Cha In-Pyo couple going through a crisis after their sweet honeymoon period ended. Whereas Kim Soo-Hyun seems to favor the characters’ strength and willpower, Kim Jung-Soo’s Dramas are more about breaking the barriers between rich and poor, and exploring the dynamics of those ‘mixed marriages’, without all the obnoxious tendency to generalize which afflicts other writers.
But the most eclectic and original of them all is certainly Noh Hee-Kyung. Like most modern TV Drama writers, she started writing one-two episodes Dramas for the various ‘Best Theater’ series (which started as adaptations of popular best sellers, but have later turned into merely one-two episode shows) in the mid 90s. But it was with her 1996 4 Episode special 세상에서 가장 아름다운 이별 (The Most Beautiful Breakup in the World) that she first tasted the acclaim of her peers and critics alike. A year later, she started one of the many writer-producer collaborations—the most famous being Song Ji-Na and Kim Jong-Hak—with PD Pyo Min-Soo. The two worked on four Dramas: 거짓말 (Lie) in 1998, 슬픈 유혹 (Sad Temptation) in 1999, 바보같은 사랑 (Foolish Love) in 2000 and finally 고독 (Solitude) in 2002.
Still, despite writing some of the best TV Dramas of the last ten years, real success always escaped her. ‘Lie’ started the ‘Mania’ Drama trend in the late 90s, but it always struggled in the ratings. And, even though many people were nearly obsessed with the show—including Choi Min-Shik’s character in 해피엔드 (Happy End)!—1999’s 우리가 정말 사랑했을까 (Did We Really Love?) had a hard time emerging from the ‘Mania Drama’ label (which usually means it’s a good show, but in most cases it’s not popular with the general audience). Even if it was excellent, 바보같은 사랑 (Foolish Love) had to compete with a little Historical Drama called 허준 (Hur Joon), just about the best thing on Korean TV in the last 5 years. The result? While the fantastic MBC Drama about the rise of Joseon’s most famous doctor was flying around the 60% ratings, ‘Foolish Love’ touched the bottom of the barrel, with some episodes around the 1%.
Her only real hit was the 2001 KBS Drama 화려한 시절 (Wonderful Days), but she continued to write excellent Dramas mostly avoided by the big audiences, like Lee Mi-Sook’s return to TV Dramas in 2002’s ‘Solitude’, where she plays a married woman facing a mid-life crisis and falling in love with a man 15 years her junior (played by Ryu Seung-Beom). But what’s so off putting about Noh’s Dramas, what’s the reason the average viewer tends to avoid her shows? The fact she never walks the easy road, she doesn’t try to add layers of saccharine ‘cuteness’, nor loses herself in the safe cover of syrupy melodrama. The most important reason, though, is that she never lets that familism invade the realism she embeds her characters with. Because if you show reality, then it’s only inevitable that sense of family love will emerge, sooner or later.
The warmth of their personality comes from being true to life, not artificially good hearted, like so many inferior TV Dramas try to do. The beauty of her characters is the roughness, that often unpleasant feeling between family members which doesn’t emerge out of petty issues, but simply because it’s part of being a family. Ever spent a week without fighting at least once with your parents, or your sister/brother, to then act like nothing happened the day after? Ever resented some family members for a long time, knowing how easy it would have been to let bygones be bygones and reconcile, but also how hard making that first step was? That’s the world of Noh Hee-Kyung. Coldness hiding warmth, rage and resentment hiding love, bleak realism hiding the real nature of the family union. Describing why her characters act that way, Noh commented: “My father was mean and pretentious, my mother hypocritical and double-faced ... and I inherited some of those personality traits myself. I just want to accept characters the way they are.” Noh’s latest Drama 꽃보다 아름다워 (More Beautiful Than a Flower) was the same.
The ‘flower’ of the title is the mother of the family, played by veteran Go Doo-Shim. Naive like a kid and too nice for her own good, she keeps swallowing her pride whenever she has to confront her son and daughters. She can’t remember things like she used to, and often ends up in trouble because of that. Her husband (Ju Hyeon) abandoned her for a younger, prettier woman (Bang Eun-Hee) who ends up falling ill, and they rarely communicate, if not to reopen old wounds; her oldest daughter (Bae Jong-Ok) resents just about the whole family, for forcing her to drop out of college and support her younger sister’s (Han Go-Eun) studies. She was left alone with a daughter by her first husband, and now spends her days as a fish vendor.
Her sister deceptively seems to look down on the whole family and their sacrifices, living the life of a career woman, dining at expensive restaurants and driving imported cars. Their only brother (Kim Heung-Soo) is a good for nothing bum, who keeps fighting, going to bars and enjoying the presence of women. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg of many apparent cliches populating this show. Then, how did Noh manage to make something interesting out of all that, and why is this show such a glorious and triumphant way of showing what families are all about? Because of a simple, often overlooked, thing… truth, sincerity. That feeling completely absent from the pretty star vehicles this show was competing with at the time, 천국의 계단 (Stairway To Heaven) at the very top.
If you watch TV Dramas to sympathize with characters, don’t watch this show; if you think of TV Dramas as an escape from reality, something to enjoy in your free time, without thinking too much about what you’re looking at, avoid this show like the plague; if you want your dose of pretty stars acting cute in front of the camera for no apparent reason other than making a fool of themselves, don’t touch this Drama with a ten foot pole. But, here’s the trick, if you’re willing to get past the initial cliched setup, you’ll find a mountain of elements to enjoy. For instance, not a single character is sympathetic in this show: from Go Doo-Shim’s ridiculous naivete, to Bae Jong-Ok’s stubbornness; from the utopist view Han Go-Eun has of life, to the womanizing of Kim Myung-Min. And then there’s someone even worse, Ju Hyeon’s character, who commits one despicable act after another. But I fell in love with all these characters, because they’re so realistic it almost hurts watching them. From embarrassing situations ringing true, to finding beauty in great little tragedies, this show throws just about everything at those characters, but they somehow make it out, they survive. And, pardon the cliche, it’s all because they’re family.
This is truly one of the best ensemble casts of recent memory, and I didn’t necessarily think so at the beginning of the show. Han Go-Eun had always showed very little in terms of acting skills, just like Kim Heung-Soo. But the acting here is so good, it changed their career. And when I say changed, I don’t mean a simple transformation in terms of characters they played, but a maturation itself. Kim Heung-Soo improved by leaps and bounds with this role, and Kim Myung-Min was cast in the superb 불멸의 이순신 (The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin) thanks to his top notch performance here. But besides the younger actors, the older cast is incredible: Ju Hyeon, a longtime veteran who never disappoints went the extra mile here, making a despicable character sympathetic by the end of the show; Go Doo-Shim, who’s the highest paid actress on TV for a reason, shows once again her limitless talent, and I don’t think I need to talk about people like Park Sang-Myun and Bae Jong-Ok, already well established in the film world.
I won’t lie, this is not a show for everybody. It’s very gloomy, depressing, and rarely ‘entertaining’ the way shows like 내 이름은 김삼순 (My Lovely Sam-Soon) are. But if you’re willing to look a little inside yourself, to possibly experience situations you can relate to, painful as they might be, watch this. It has the kind of intensity and humanism that’s hard to find today, with so much time wasted on vapid pretty stars and playing the same old tricks all the time. The acting is amazing, the characters feel like people you’ve always known, and despite the longer length, it rarely ever drags. And, if you ever thought Korean TV Dramas were too superficial, too concerned with hyper-unrealistic situations, this show will change everything for you. Because even when people might seem as hateful as possible, there might be a flower ready to blossom inside them. That’s the magic of Noh Hee-Kyung.
DVD - Korean Version (English Subtitles)
Not much to choose from, and quite an expensive purchase (at more than $100), but truly worth checking out. Hopefully YesAsia Entertainment will get around releasing it, so you’ll have more options. I can’t say it’ll work for everyone, but as far as Family Dramas go, this is the best of the last few years. And definitely one of my favorites.
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