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Series Review: My Name is Kim Sam Soon

13 Aug

I’ve never watched My Name Is Kim Sam Soon prior to this week and I’ve got to say, “damn”. That was really good. This hugely popular (reached more than 50% viewer ratings for the last episode and averaged about 37% throughout its whole run) series featured two of the biggest stars on Korean television, Kim Sun Ah and Hyun Bin. I recently decided to watch the whole series because of my current infatuation with Scent of a Woman and my recent viewing of Secret Garden and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I watched twelve episodes back to back of this incredibly hilarious and nuanced drama.

The story is about Kim Sam Soon, a 30-year old baker who specializes in French cakes and sweets. From the beginning, we can see something out of the ordinary with this lead character. Whereas other dramas feature skinny, perfect-bodied women play essentially heroines that are out of proportion with how they live (most of the time poor and shabby yet they dress so nicely), Kim Sam Soon is a plus-sized figure (or as Tyra Banks would say, “real-sized women”) whose frumpy attires are matched by her mess of a hair. In the beginning of the story, Sam Soon is dumped by her deuschy boyfriend after she finds out he’s cheating on her. With three years down the toilet, she cries her little heart out in the men’s bathroom.

Therein lies the attraction of this show; it’s dramatic scenes flow nicely into its comic scene and none of them ever feel out of place. We are made aware from this first scene of how desperate and pathetic Sam Soon’s life must be (but not the woman). We are also introduced to Jin-Heon, the son of the hotel’s owner who goes on a blind date but ends up listening to Sam Soon’s breakup the whole night instead. He’s pretty much the typical male lead character in a drama; jerk-face attitude, check; mother trying to set him up blind dates, check; egotistical, check; hot, check check check. Everything is in that whole package.

Somehow both of these characters meet up by coincidence again and along the way Sam Soon gets a job in Jin-Heon’s restaurant as a cake-maker with the condition that she changes her name to Kim Hee Jin instead of her awful-sounding name. At the restaurant, all the young women are in love with Jin-Heon and belittle Sam Soon for her appearance and age (she’s the oldest of them all). But that won’t let Sam Soon down. Despite her early appearance as a pathetic girl, she is anything but pathetic. She uses her age to make sure the younger ones show her respect and her authoritative and booming voice and “don’t-mess-with-me” attitude shows how strong she is.

We are also introduced to other principle characters: Yoo Hee Jin (Jeong Ryeo-won),  Ji-Heon’s ex girlfriend who left him after an accident without reason, and Kim Ja Ok (Daniel Henney) her doctor who can only speak English for the most part. All four make up the central love quadrangle that is a prerequisite for any K-drama.

The writing of this drama crackles with wonderful mature jokes with the occasional childish ones mixed well with the physical comedy. In addition, the drama is filled with dream sequences wherein the characters envision themselves doing something different. This juxtaposition between what they want to do and what they do in real life. The drama also features a lot of words of wisdom that characters employ to each other that never once felt like devices to make a notion about love. Instead, they feel natural and there is such rich truth-telling in the drama that none of what it says fall flat or feel false.

For me, what makes this drama so compelling is the rich acting present. Kim Sun Ah delivers a bravura performance as Sam Soon, perhaps the best I’ve seen in drama. She makes Sam Soon so sympathetic but falling short of pitiable and pathetic. Instead, Sam Soon is brave, headstrong, and admirably grounded. She knows very well that she’s not as attractive as most women and that Jin-Hoen is someone beyond her but that doesn’t make her feel any lower. Sun Ah instills a pride in Sam Soon that is very real that even when she is down on her luck, she refuses to lower herself. Her nasally voice is used to perfection for both comedy and drama. Her stares give multiple meanings and feelings, often contrary and complimentary.

Elsewhere, Hyun Bin is delightful as the cliche hot rich guy but adds much needed angst and nuance to his portrayal. His temper seems organic and I love that it slowly fades as the story progresses and as his love for Sam Soon grows. His lighter moments are stronger than his dramatic parts mainly because his natural charisma (which is so damn adorable) works wonders to display his insecurities about loving someone like Sam Soon (man’s pride, sheesh) but also making sure that we see him resolve it along the way. I especially love the scenes where he try to ruin Sam Soon’s dates. They’re full of such selfish jealousy yet he makes it so hard to dislike him at the same time.

Jeong Ryeo-won is also good at showing her character’s fragility while also revealing so much complexion with simple facial expressions: Her smiles and laughs show hints of anguish and pain. Her scenes where she gets rejected by Ji-Heon’s mother and breaks up with Ji-Heon are both packed with emotional wallop especially given her initially sunny disposition. Her English is also impeccable. Unfortunately, Daniel Henney, as good look as he is, cannot act to save his butt. With few spare moments where he sucks up the space of the screen with his charms but leaves no impression on you when he leaves. His line readings are so wooden I felt like I was watching some bad audition reel.

My Name is Kim Sam Soon is a fine drama with so much good acting, hilarious comedy and compelling drama. It fully deserved the enormous following it received because it manages to create a character so rich in personality and originality (how many fat girl heroines do you see on TV nowadays?).

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