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KDRAMALOVE KOREAN DRAMA REVIEWS



Phoenix

불새
MBC (2004) 26 Episodes
Romantic Melodrama
Grade: A
Korean Drama Review by Alison, USA



2 OST Selections:
Firebird by Lee Seung Cheol
Love For You by Jae Hong Shin

In Ancient Greek folklore a phoenix is a long-lived bird that can emerge from fire and be born again. While watching the 26-part Korean romantic melodrama Phoenix, I couldn’t help wishing that its lead actress, Lee Eun Ju (from films Lovers' Concerto, Garden Of Heaven,Taegukgi, K-Dramas Look Back In Anger and KAIST), who committed suicide in 2005 at the age of twenty-four, could likewise magically be given a second chance at life. This delicate and radiant young actress is the heart and soul of this drama, giving a multi-layered performance that enhances its rather familiar story-line of star-crossed lovers who can’t seem to stay out of each other’s lives. The fact that she is gone, with Phoenix as her final K-drama, creates an extra sense of melancholy, as you watch her character go through various trials and tribulations. So from the beginning I knew that even if Phoenix managed to wind up with a happy ending for its heroine, it would be difficult to disassociate it from Lee Eun Ju’s own personal sad story.



Lee Eun Ju
1980 - 2005 (RIP)


However, I found Phoenix to be wonderfully entertaining and romantic, with moments of humor and swooning romance, and it’s not surprising that it was quite popular when it first aired more than fifteen years ago, with average viewership ratings of 25.3% and a peak of 31.4%. I’ve mentioned before to my friend Jill that to me a really good K-drama is one that causes me to scream aloud at the TV screen, either rejoicing with or scolding the characters. I must have yelled at the TV during every episode – that’s how involved I became with the lives of its leading characters and their families and friends!

There’s nothing terribly original about Phoenix. Boy from poor background meets girl from rich background, loses girl, and maybe will be able to get girl back after life has dealt them both a change in attitude and financial circumstances. The charm in this sort of romantic drama isn’t in its story-line, but rather in its familiarity, and how much emotional investment you make in the characters. Phoenix is old school Korean drama, focusing more on everyday life than extraordinary experiences. Although I was initially skeptical about spending 26-hours watching ANY K-drama, Phoenix was well worth my time. Yes, there definitely were lags in the action, some repetition, and subplots and characters I could have done without entirely as they added nothing to the story other than to annoy me (namely, the heroine’s selfish younger sister and her antics, and the dopey would-be boyfriend of the heroine’s best friend). But overall I had a great time, totally absorbed by the acting of Lee Eun Ju and her two handsome co-stars in the romantic triangle, Lee Seo Jin (Damo, Shoot For The Stars, Lovers) with his square jawed and clean cut good looks, and dangerously sexy Eric Mun (Que Sera, Sera and Discovery of Romance) with his irresistible smile. I was surprised to see that his bio lists him as being leader of the South Korean boy band Shinwa, and enjoyed checking out some of his music clips on YouTube. (Both he and Lee Seo Jin do a little singing in the show, and in some scenes display their bare chests and well-toned figures in bathing suits).



The Story:

So let’s begin. If you’re a fan of K-dramas, you’ve heard this set up before. Jang Sae Hoon (Lee Seo Jin), is a poor, intelligent, proud young man (and an orphan to boot!) who has ambition and is working his way through college. Lee Ji Eun (Lee Eun Ju) is a spoiled, strong-willed and impulsive young woman from a wealthy family who takes her privilege for granted. Their paths cross with a literal bang when Ji Eun crashes her red sports car through the window of the garage where Sae Hoon works, knocking him to the ground. He is indignant, she refuses to apologize, he slaps her across the face for her rudeness, and when he isn’t looking, she retaliates by stealing his book bag, which contains an essential term paper he needs in order to graduate. He tracks her down, and humbly asks for the return of the book bag. She refuses to even admit she has it, but then agrees to give it back to him only at a price: she wants him to pretend to be her boyfriend so she can prove to her catty friends that she is capable of getting one (they think no one likes her, but it’s not very credible; she’s gorgeous, rich and vivacious, and her high spirits are pretty infectious. I mean, women might not like her, but men surely would).



Ji Eun takes Sae Hoon shopping so that he has a nice suit when he meets her rich friends. She starts to notice that he is pretty easy on the eyes. During their first date, sparks fly and she decides she wants him. (They bond over a painting of a phoenix, and the Perry Como song ‘And I love you so’). Although he is adamant about not wanting a relationship with her, since clearly it could never work out between them, Ji Eun won’t take no for an answer. She practically stalks him, insisting that they be a couple. He is so enchanted with her that eventually he gives in to his feelings. They are a good match, bringing out each other’s equal capacity for affection and caring. The courtship of this young couple is delightful – there’s a lot of chemistry between these two leads, and they really LOOK at each other with loving expressions. They are glowing and seem to have great fun together. Since I  am still a sucker for on-screen romance, I was hooked by the end of episode two.



After a whirlwind marriage – pointedly orchestrated by Ji Eun (when this girl loves someone she goes out all to get him) things go south pretty quickly. Ji Eun had always figured that her parents would help her financially, but Sae Hoon is too proud to take their help (and I don’t blame him). They live in a tiny walk up apartment, Sae Hoon is either working or going to school, and Ji Eun is lonely and bored. And she’s useless: Sae Hoon even has to do the cooking and cleaning. Ji Eun is frustrated being married to a poor man; Sae Hoon refuses to take a penny from her parents even when they offer it, and they treat the poor guy like trash (one of the mother’s favorite tricks is to throw water in his face. I was again yelling at the screen since Ji Eun doesn’t even defend her own husband from her parents).

Deliberately getting herself pregnant, in order to force the marriage sooner rather than later, she suffers a miscarriage after an argument with Sae Hoon and sinks into a depression. She blames him for the argument which led to her racing out of the apartment and falling down a flight of stairs (even though I thought he was perfectly within his rights during that argument!). She can’t envision returning to her impoverished life with Sae Hoon and rejects him emotionally and physically. He pleads for her to come back to him, even getting down on his knees to apologize. (At which point I was yelling at the TV, “Why are YOU apologizing to her? She’s so mean to you!”). Despite his efforts, she shuts him out and allows herself to be convinced by her parents to file for divorce. Heartbroken, Sae Hoon takes the opportunity to leave for the US on a study grant/scholarship. He’s determined to forget her and Korea both.



This decision leads us to a turning point. When Ji Eun learns her now ex-husband is leaving the country, she has a change of heart (“NOW you want him back?” I shouted at the TV) and tries to intercept him at the airport. She’s racing there in her red sports car, and her father is following, honking his horn and trying to stop her. At that point, a tragedy ensues which will change the course of her destiny, introduce a lot of wailing and crying and feelings of guilt, and we fast forward ten years.
 
Ji Eun is now the breadwinner for her air-headed mother (Lee Kyung Jin, whose character is obsessed with Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and her sullen bratty younger sister (Kim Bin Woo. Perfectly obnoxious). The father (Park Geun Hyung, veteran actor from The Suspicious Housekeeper, Sandglass, and many other dramas and films) died while pursuing Ji Eun to the airport, and Ji Eun is not only wracked with guilt, she is made to feel even worse  by her sister. She is working as some sort of personal assistant / housekeeper/ maid at a big textile corporation where they make a lot of ugly clothes. All her vivaciousness has been muted, she barely smiles, even her haircut is more severe. (She reminded me of actress Lee Yo Won’s wonderful performance in 49 Days). Her mother sits around the apartment still mourning her dead husband and the fact that after his death the family lost its business and all their money (partly due to her own extravagance and bad decisions). The younger sister dresses like a tart and comes home drunk, blaming Ji Eun for the father’s death and everything that happened since. I wanted to slap them both, but Ji Eun accepts being their scapegoat and has become a very hard working young woman with a quiet dignity about her.



Meanwhile, Sae Hoon triumphantly returns to Korea from the US with an Americanized first name (William) and a prestigious job as a highly paid executive for – wouldn’t you know it?  -- that same big corporation Ji Eun is working for. He is engaged to Yoon Mi Ran (actress Jung Hye Young from 90 Days Time To Love, Playful Kiss, Gu Family Book, deceptively sweet on the surface, but more resourceful than she might seem) who is – another BIG coincidence -- a former friend of Ji Eun. She is also in a wheelchair, after being in a car accident, which left her paralyzed. Can you guess who was driving the car at the time?  Sae Hoon feels guilty, and believes it is his duty to be ‘by her side’ and take care of her. Mi Ran is another familiar K-drama character – the seemingly docile woman who has hidden strength and who is determined to keep her man by any means necessary.



Naturally, the exes wind up crossing paths again. They treat each other coldly but keep exchanging these long, awkward looks that telegraph they still are still harboring romantic feelings. But wait! There’s another complication, because Ji Eun is now being courted by the extremely charismatic Seo Jung Min (Eric Mun). He’s her boss’ son, and a self-proclaimed ‘player’ who is attracted by Ji Eun’s looks and poise -- his nickname for her is ‘tough girl.’  (In another K-drama cliché, Jung Min actually ‘ran into’ Ji Eun years ago and has never forgotten her). Jung Min has some demons of his own, a good bit of self-loathing and guilt, and the traditionally rigid and demanding rich father so prevalent in these dramas. He’s also spontaneous and fun-loving and pulls out all the stops to win Ji Eun over. In one charming scene, he starts dancing in front of his car’s headlights, drawing Ji Eun into his arms. He is just so full of energy and joie de vivre, he literally lights up the screen, and soon I was again screaming at the TV for Ji Eun to ‘choose him and forget about that glum Sae Hoon. (Not that she listened to me). Ji Eun has become pretty glum herself, and she’s afraid to lose her heart again. But she and Jung Min agree to be ‘friends’ and share a strong, playful chemistry, thus setting a stage for the classic K-drama dilemma where the second male lead is often more appealing than the first male lead, but the heroine just can’t see it. Needless to say, Ji Eun’s mother, who would practically spit on Sang Hoon, just adores her daughter’s new and wealthy suitor.



Neither Sae Hoon nor Ji Eun want their current partners to learn of their past relationship, supposedly to spare their feelings -- even though Mi Ran and Jung Min both know that their love interests were married before and are now divorced and that each has a mysterious ex he or she won’t discuss. Do I need to say that they both learn the truth in a much worse way than if they had been told upfront? Of course not. Mi Ran finds an old wedding picture and love letters, and Sae Hoon slips up and calls Ji Eun ‘honey’ right in front of Jung Min. (Yelling at the screen again – Oh, expletive!). In many K-dramas (as in real life) trying to avoid hurting someone often leads to hurting them much more.

I won’t reveal the remaining twists and turns for Ji Eun and Sae Hoon as they try to move on with their lives, because it’s much more fun to see where life is going to take them. A great opportunity arises for Ji Eun to advance herself professionally, which will keep her working even more closely with Sae Hoon. You can imagine how well Mi Ran and Jung Min take to that idea, and it’s fun seeing what lengths they will go to.
 
As cliched as it is, Phoenix is really about something quite profound: how easy it is to fall in love, and how difficult it can be to make a relationship work. And I wanted to find out how these characters that I became so fond of would resolve the messiness of their lives.

 

The performances in Phoenix are flawless. Lee Eun Jun was a splendid actress, just radiant in the early episodes, and convincingly subdued in the later ones. I found her to be very appealing, and she conveys both dignity and vulnerability in her role. It’s heartbreaking to know that a year later, she committed suicide in her apartment, slitting her wrists and hanging herself. The family blamed the suicide on severe bouts of depression and mental illness and said she had been suffering from insomnia and distress after she had done nude scenes in her final film, The Scarlet Letter.  She left a suicide note scrawled in blood, in which she wrote, "Mom, I am sorry and I love you." Another note said, "I wanted to do too much. Even though I live, I'm not really alive. I don't want anyone to be disappointed. It's nice having money... I wanted to make money."  It’s a tragedy and a great loss, like the suicides of so many K-drama actors.
 
As Sae Hoon, Lee Seo Jin is likewise excellent, transforming himself from an awkward, determined young man with a not very good haircut to a smooth and polished businessman with a much more becoming haircut. He’s quietly convincing as a man who has been burned in the past but can’t give up on true love. Although I found his personality to be a bit stiff, he’s still very attractive. Eric Mun as Jung Min was a revelation to me, as I had never seen him before. He’s mischievous and charming, and sexy as anything, and I found him pretty hard to resist. Jung Hye Young gives a complex performance as the rather pathetic Mi Ran – she does some hateful things (I yelled at her several times) but you can’t really hate her. She has a great smile that lights up her whole face, and an equally darkening scowl that lets you know you shouldn’t try to cross her.



In supporting roles, I particularly enjoyed Lee Yoo Jin, an exotic looking beauty, as the heroine’s sensible and energetic best friend (who has to endure an annoying ‘Noona romance’ subplot with a dopey guy she used to tutor) and Kim Byon Se as the hero’s older friend and colleague, who keeps shaking his head over the tangled relationship of the two ex-lovers.



I’m old-fashioned, so I have a soft spot for the more ‘traditional’ K dramas that don’t rely on time travel, ghosts, aliens, spies, murder or espionage, and just present a good romantic story about ordinary people (even though some of them are very rich). It reminded me of the classic K-dramas like Beautiful Days, Ruler of Your Own World, Sad Love Story and Shining Inheritance. An added bonus is the wonderful OST, my favorite was the catchy After That Day theme song (which plays incessantly; I was constantly singing it to myself).



So if you want to settle in with a leisurely Korean soap opera, and pay tribute to an actress who aces the demands of her final K-drama role before her suicide, Phoenix is the series for you.

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What Happened To Film Star Lee Eun-ju?
By Acclaimed Poetess Kim Seung Hee (1952 - )

What happened to film star Lee Eun-ju, I wonder?
They said that after a first attempt at suicide,
that didn't succeed, she took decisive action
a second time, and finally ended her life.
They said she firmly shut the door to her room
the day she died, as if to shut out the world.

Some people always look melancholy somehow;
She was like that, blue as a blue height.
They said she was earning a lot.
They said she was renting a house by the month.
They said she was depressed.
They said she was a Christian.
They said she felt ashamed for playing
a nude scene in the film The Scarlet Letter.
They said there was no knowing in the end
why she did it, but she wrote a letter to Mom,
"I'm sorry, Mom."

Somewhere there is someone in charge
of the color blue.
There's a dull blue,
but there's also a vivid blue.
A white horse high as the sky
lightly carries the color blue.
It waves, bearing on its wings
a crystal coffin.
Enough! Quickly, look, look!
Fly away, do!