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MY LOVELY SAM SOON


My Lovely Samsoon (2005, MBC miniseries)

My Lovely Sam-Soon was the most popular TV drama of 2005, and it's easy to see why, though the series doesn't fully work for me. Kim Seon-A is totally convincing and likable as the title character: a brassy, unglamorous, vulgar young woman with her own mind, but who still feels the tug of social expectations. They are her expectations too.

Kim Sam-soon is a high school graduate who went to France to study as a pastry chef. Returning to Korea, she acquired a boyfriend, a spoiled and disturbingly pretty rich boy. When she discovers, at the beginning of Episode 1, that he has been cheating on her casually, she flees to bawl her eyes out in a restroom stall. A knock on the stall door interrupts her; she learns that she'd run into a men's restroom by mistake. The man who knocked is another disturbingly pretty rich young man, Hyeon Jin-heon (played by Hyeon Bin), and even if you hadn't seen him in the opening credits, you'd know by the conventions of TV drama that he's the one. The question, as Sam-soon flees again, is how to get from this embarrassing first meeting to Happily Ever After.

Before you know it, Sam-soon has stumbled into a job as pastry chef in Jin-heon's chic restaurant, so you know that it's only a matter of time -- sixteen episodes, to be exact. All they have to do is get past Jin-heon's Gorgon of a mother, President Na Hyun-sook (Na Moon-hee); his former true love Yoo Hee-jin, returned from several years in California (Jung Ryeo-won); Henry Kim, the studly Korean-American doctor (Daniel Henney) who followed Hee-Jin to Korea from California; and all the other obstacles that a talented and sadistic writer can throw at them.

Another obstacle, of course, is Sam-soon's age: she's on the verge of 30. In Korea (and not only there) she's no longer prime meat in the marriage market, even if she weren't slightly plump, loud, and stubbornly self-willed. Even so, she has three disturbingly pretty, rich, younger men pursuing her. (I don't remember the third one's name. He's mainly a fall guy: every time he and Sam-soon sit down together in the hotel lounge for a lust-filled chat, a jealous Heon-bin intervenes and sends him on his way.) She isn't really overweight, just a normal Korean woman instead of a supermodel, and her appeal to men is more realistic than surprising. This clash between romantic fantasy and reality is the force that drives the series.

I don't have space to do justice to all the characters who thread in and out of Sam-soon's life, from her widowed mother to her glamorous, divorced older sister; from the restaurant staff to President Na Hyun-sook's icy lieutenant. There are more, all performed beautifully by the fine cast, except for Daniel Henney as Henry Kim, the studly Korean-American oncologist. He's game, but wooden; still, his model's good looks ensure that he's going to turn up in more TV dramas (and commercials, and Buddha only knows what else), despite his still practically non-existent Korean. Sweetest of all is Sam-soon's late father, who loved and encouraged her all her life, and who turns up often in flashbacks and Sam-soon's fantasy. In Sam-soon, Heon-bin like so many men is falling in love with a woman much like his mother; Heon-bin, unfortunately, is not at all like Sam-soon's father. That may be why, despite her attraction to him, she can still look at Heon-bin with a critical, even cynical eye.

My Lovely Sam-Soon, then, takes some believable and interesting characters and runs them through the meat grinder of TV drama conventions, from raucous slapstick to gothic melodrama. By the sixth episode I often felt as if I were sitting through the sixteen-hour director's cut of My Sassy Girl, but I was hooked by then and had to learn how it all turned out. The ending is surprisingly realistic, resisting the temptation and pressure for a Cinderella resolution; so it satisfied me even though it might not please everyone. What I love most is a long scene near the midpoint, between Sam-soon and Henry in a hotel lounge in Chejudo. Upstairs, Heon-bin has been reunited with his lost love Hee-jin, whom Henry also loves. Henry speaks no Korean. Sam-soon sizes him up and then, while he beams at her uncomprehendingly, she tells him (in French, Korean, and bits of English), about the role of pastry and memory in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a book she learned about during her training in France.

Can you imagine a long, funny, moving dialogue on literature and love, conducted in three languages, in an American TV comedy? Me neither, but it works. I only wished for more scenes like it. Still, because of the hodgepodge of incidents and styles, there's probably something in My Lovely Sam-Soon for everybody. (Review by Duncan Mitchel)




My Lovely Sam-Soon ("Nae ireum-eun Sam-Soon"). Alternate title: "My Name is Samsoon." 16 episodes. Written by Kim Do-woo. Produced by Kim Yoon-chul. Starring Kim Seon-A, Hyun Bin, Jung Ryeo-won, Daniel Henney, Na Moon-hee, Kim Ja-ok, Lee Ah-hyun, Suh Ji-hee, Yoon Ye-hee, Lee Kyu-han, Kwon Hae-hyo. Aired on MBC in Korea from June 1 - July 21, 2005 on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 9:55pm. Official website (in Korean): click here. Episodes can be downloaded for a fee here. Released on DVD in Korea by Bitwin with no subtitles.
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