Predicated on a stock catalogue of clichéd themes and story points, Korean dramas – as popular as they are – can sometimes be a chore to watch, especially for discerning viewers craving innovation and not formula from their televisual narratives. And so, it’s rather refreshing that early on in Someday, the 2006 drama from director Kim Kyong-Yong and writer Kim Hee-Jae (Hanbando), the issue of K-drama clichés is tackled head-on.
In the very first episode, one of the main characters, an animation studio producer named Hye-Young (Oh Yoon-Ah), is listening to two of her head writers pitch story ideas for the next anime project. When they suggest K-drama staples like buried family secrets, terminal illness, and the old “ugly girl caught in a love triangle between two men and a mean girl” storyline, Hye-Young immediately dismisses their ideas as clichéd tripe. In so many words, she announces that their studio will not resort to tired concepts and instead will look for fresh ideas and new directions.
Hye-Young’s offhand remark is a delightful meta-moment that may seem like a throwaway joke, but also plays like a brash, perhaps even daring move in the larger context of the overwhelmingly popular K-Drama oeuvre. What’s wonderful about this small bit of dialogue is that it essentially announces that Someday will be different from any K-Drama you’ve ever seen. Of course, that’s a tall order, so I had to wonder if Someday could live up to its own spunky meta-declaration of originality. Strangely, the show proceeds to do precisely what it derides, albeit while still striving for innovation.
In many ways, Someday is the kind of drama Hye-Young lampoons. Although the press surrounding the show suggests that it is revolutionary in its focus on a manga artist as well as its integration of art, animation, and live action, Someday occasionally betrays itself as just another typical K-Drama dressed up in a shiny, new package. In a way, this aspect of Someday is mimicked in its visual style. Shot and edited like a film, the first episode suggests that this will not just be another typical shot-on-video Korean drama. And yet, as the show wears on, it occasionally looks and feels like a perfunctory Korean drama, complete with camera setups and simple edits that wouldn’t be out of place in an American soap opera.
And so, for all this talk of breaking the mold, it’s obvious that the show’s protagonist, Hana Yamaguchi (Bae Doo-Na from The Host and Linda, Linda, Linda) is, in fact, the “ugly” girl caught between two potential suitors – one rich, the other not. The only difference from the scenario pitched and rejected early in the show is that the “mean girl” – Hye-Young, herself – is probably the most likeable, honest character in the entire series.
As to the other clichés, the show possesses a fair share of family secrets and, while I won’t reveal whether anyone has a terminal illness, I can say that the story begins with three people already dead and one person in a coma. As the story progresses, at least four characters end up in the hospital and two characters even kick the bucket! As I soon found out, Someday knows how to milk drama like nobody’s business.
The premise of Someday will likely pique the interest of manga and anime fans, as it involves half-Korean, half-Japanese Hana Yamaguchi, a manga wunderkind in Japan who has lost her creative juices as her staunch belief that love doesn’t really exist became increasingly apparent in her work. Due to declining fan interest and her unwillingness to change her methods and pet themes, Hana finds herself unceremoniously dropped by her Japanese publisher.
Things heat up when Young-Gil, an elderly Korean man in her neighborhood keels over dead in the street. At the wake in Hana’s house, our protagonist notices that one of the local Japanese women, Gumiko, has taken an intense interest in the deceased street sweeper. Later that night, Gumiko sneaks into Hana’s house and tries to abscond with the dead man’s ashes. Hana catches her, but upon realizing that some prior relationship must have existed between the two, she allows her to leave in peace.
Later, Hana’s grandma decides that her granddaughter needs a vacation and buys her a ticket for Seoul. Upon arrival at the airport in Korea, Hana sees a woman who resembles Gumiko, reigniting her interest in the woman’s secretive behavior. Impulsively, she hires, for lack of a better term, a private investigator who specializes in finding lost people.
That investigator is Lee Seok-Man (Lee Jin-Wook), a perennially cheerful guy who actually harbors painful guilt under his devil-may-care exterior. Previously, Seok-Man’s father, mother, and brother perished in a car accident of which he was the only survivor, save for a young cyclist, who remains comatose in a local hospital. Burdened by debts accrued after his parents’ untimely demise and fixated on the belief that he bears the sole responsibility for the young man’s coma, Seok-Man has to work extra hard as an investigator to pay off the boy’s hospital bills.
One of the people he works for is Go Jin-Pyo (Kim Min-Joon), a doctor in a convalescent home who occasionally has to deal with patients who wander off the premises without permission. Jin-Pyo is a huge manga fan who is particularly enthralled by the work of Hana Yamaguchi; in fact, he possesses more than a few pieces of Hana Yamaguchi memorabilia stashed away in a private Batcave-like bedroom hidden in his office. By all accounts, Jin-Pyo is the consummate professional and all-around nice guy, who is not only kind to his elderly patients, but even takes time to play chess with Chief Park, the head honcho of Hye-Young’s animation studio, who has taken an unofficial leave of absence to court one of the elderly patients at Jin-Pyo’s convalescent home.
With Chief Park abdicating his duties at the animation studio, the responsibility falls on the aforementioned Hye-Young, an attractive, tough-talking, and brazenly independent professional who has maintained an intimate, but apparently non-sexual relationship with Jin-Pyo for as long as either can remember. It seems that both of them have put their feelings for each other “on hold” to attain their career goals – with Hye-Young especially thinking that Jin-Pyo will be on standby for as long as she needs him. Her suppressed feelings for him get challenged when Hana, Jin-Pyo, and Seok-Man cross paths.
It would be difficult to summarize what happens next with any real accuracy or depth, but for what it’s worth, I will say that the search for Gumiko unearths a hidden love story, one that inspires Hana to create a new manga called, appropriately enough, Someday. After travelling and bonding with Seok-Man, himself a natural storyteller, the two end up collaborating on the project upon the suggestion of Hye-Young, who spearheads Someday with the idea of creating not just a manga, but an anime, video game, and a toyline from the concept.
As Hana and Seok-Man work closely together, a burgeoning love bubbles up between them. However, Jin-Pyo will not be denied. Believing that Hana suffers from some psychic trauma due to her abandonment as a child, he retains Seok-Man’s services to find Hana’s mother. Jin-Pyo believes that if he can heal the relationship between Hana and her mother, then Hana will finally understand what love is and finally open up her heart to a man. In this case, Jin-Pyo expects that he will be the one enjoying the spoils, not Seok-Man.
Upon completion, Someday is an increasingly frustrating and - considering its deftly executed finale - ultimately satisfying drama, However, at times the characters seem romantically retarded and breathtakingly imperceptive about the actions and thoughts of other human beings. It also doesn’t help that a few contrived situations make for tedious viewing. Ultimately, the show is saved by the chemistry between the quirky Bae Doo-Na and the mostly happy-go-lucky Lee Jin-Wook, as well as Oh Yoon-Ah’s intensely sympathetic and enticing performance in an otherwise thankless role.
For her part, Bae Doona plays Hana Yamaguchi with an awkward, saucer-eyed moroseness that adequately conveys why other characters would jokingly refer to her as “the alien.” She’s a bit of an odd duck amongst all these traditionally beautiful faces, but her natural look is refreshing, as her face seems practically untouched by the plastic surgeon’s scalpel, unlike the majority of her Korean peers. One minor narrative quibble I have is that while it’s clear that she has feelings for Seok-Man, there is no indication that she has any feelings for Jin-Pyo or feels compromised by his overt generosity. Considering the way her character is portrayed, one would expect her to be forthright in her lack of interest in the good doctor.
And while Hana doesn’t encourage his advances, she doesn’t exactly discourage them either. Scenes in which he professes his love for her inevitably end with her saying nothing and instead staring blankly at him right before the scene cuts away to a different location. Do the filmmakers believe that this is how people actually communicate? In real life, staring out into nothingness as a response to a very serious declaration of love simply isn’t going to fly.
Another problematic choice is the characterization of Jin-Pyo. Initially, he is presented as an ideal Prince Charming, and thus, a viable suitor for Hana’s affections. But from episode two onwards, his nice-guy demeanor comes across as patently fake, manipulative, and more than a little smarmy. Sure, he’s rich, good-looking, and everything comes a little too easy for him, but the even bigger problem for this love triangle is the fact that there’s nothing behind the façade. On paper, Jin-Pyo might melt the hearts of viewers easily swayed by a man with tousled hair, a toothy grin, and a fancy medical degree, but his attempts to “heal” Hana are based completely in self-interest.
It’s also a bit perplexing that Jin-Pyo proposes marriage to Hana midway through the drama despite the fact that they haven’t even so much as kissed. In fact, Hana never utters a single word or initiates a single gesture that could be interpreted as either love or even budding affection for Jin-Pyo. The idea that a hyper-educated man like Jin-Pyo, one shown to possess so much insight into those around him, could be so completely clueless about his own romantic situation is fairly ludicrous. Of course, this discrepancy may be an intended irony on the part of the drama’s writing staff, but coupled with Jin-Pyo’s complete lack of warmth or sincerity, it doesn’t make for a very compelling character.
The fact that Jin-Pyo is neither an out-and-out villain nor a sympathetic, but ultimately failed suitor for Hana’s affections is a bit bizarre, as Jin-Pyo instead comes across as perhaps the world’s nicest sociopath. Ultimately, despite his and Yun-Ah’s talk of his feelings for Hana as “falling in love for the first time,” there is instead the more plausible feeling that Hana is, if not just another trinket like the rest of the manga memorabilia that litters Jin-Pyo’s private office, perhaps meant solely as his prized possession. There’s little sense as to what he’d do if he actually won her heart.
So if Jin-Pyo comes across as completely inappropriate for Hana, how on earth can the drama sustain the tension of a love triangle? In other words, how could there be any doubt that Seok-Man is Mr. Right? After all, Lee Jin-Wook delivers a winning performance, and the drama presents his character as an intensely likeable, good-natured young man unfairly shouldered with a financial and emotional burden through no fault of his own. Unlike Jin-Pyo, Seok-Man is able to awaken Hana’s artistic creativity, not to mention her long-dormant emotions.
And so, if Seok-Man and Hana’s romantic destiny is all but assured, where’s the drama? Well, in light of Jin-Pyo’s obvious deficiencies, the powers-that-be decide to level the playing field by piling misfortune after misfortune upon Seok-Man, which in turn plunges him in a downward spiral that threatens to permanently alienate him from Hana. He becomes an angry drunk, throwing episode-long self-pity parties and generally acting like an idiot.
Even after seeing the error of his ways, Seok-Man’s behavior remains erratic; at one point, he flies all the way to Japan to see Hana, only to have their meeting devolve into an infuriating conversation in which the already close-mouthed Hana is consistently interrupted by Seok-Man, who now seems more interested in high-handed platitudes and unnecessary martyrdom than actual reconciliation. Can scriptwriter Kim Hee-Jae salvage this infuriatingly contrived, somewhat out-of-character rupture by story’s end? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
One person that I must single out is Oh Yoon-Ah, who delivers a wonderfully consistent performance in a fairly thankless role as the fourth corner in this pointy love triangle-turned-square. Perhaps the most admirable and mature character in the entire series, Hye-Young is the consummate hard-working, independent woman. Although she harbors a secret love for Jin-Pyo, she knows she can’t do anything about it. It would be easy to make her the “evil bitch” in this love equation, but thankfully, that cliché is sidestepped completely.
While her encouragement of Seok-Man does bear a whiff of self-interest, it’s also clear from the writing and Oh Yoon-Ah’s performance that Hye-Young recognizes not only the young man’s suitability as Hana’s lover, but her old friend’s complete incompatibility with the object of his affection as well. It’s incredibly disappointing that her character isn’t given more romantic attention, either through a flirtation with Seok-Man (who becomes her protector at one point) or more romantic sparks with Jin-Pyo earlier in the series. Oh Yoon-Ah does a fine job, despite the script’s limitations.
Someday isn’t as groundbreaking or original as it initially purports itself to be, but despite all the frustrating aspects I listed, there is still a lot to like here, thanks in large part to the performances of the main cast, an interesting work environment that isn’t explored half as much as it should be, and a masterful finale. Personally, I could’ve done without all the soul-crushing personal tragedy and been happy with a breezy look at the world of manga and anime artists, albeit with a touch of personal discovery and romance – “How Hana Got Her Groove Back,” for lack of a better title. Perhaps I’m being too hard on a format loved by viewers around the world. I mean, will there ever be a Korean drama that totally satisfies my expectations? Probably not. I guess I’ll just have to settle for Someday. (Calvin McMillin, 2009).