Sandglass 모래시계
(1995 SBS Classic Korean Drama Ratings Blockbuster)
Historic Melodrama, Grade: A

Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA


In October 2014 I finished up the historical ratings blockbuster 1995's Korean drama Sandglass. Each episode was less than an hour, so my viewing went a lot faster than I expected, even though it was 24 episodes. It was addictive and hypnotic, and showed scenes that probably would not pass the current censors in Korea (I don't mean regarding sex, but the violence that ruled that nation from 1960's through much of the 1980's, the politically turbulent dictatorship time period reflected in the drama).

Sometimes real events that were filmed, like many riots everyday Koreans held against their various right wing, martial law, dictatorship governments in that time period, were interwoven with the 1995 actual filming of Sandglass (sometimes called Hourglass) to give the show added authenticity. Maybe someday some brave souls in modern day Korea will write a Korean drama focusing on the tyranny of Japanese rule in Korea from 1910 to 1945; I'll bet it would be another ratings blockbuster, although completely politically incorrect, of course! (UPDATE! Since writing this review for Sandglass I discovered and watched a cool K-drama written about the Japanese control of Korea from the 1920's through the 1940's called Bridal Mask.)

The gorgeous main theme of Sandglass

I can see now after watching it why Sandglass is so highly respected as a formative K-drama that set the bar high for other dramas to follow. If all you watch are Korean romantic comedies, run of the mill melodramas, and flower boy shows, you are missing a lot of Korea's important modern history that helped make them the nation they are today. Watching Sandglass will clue you in.

Written by a woman, Song Ji-na (The Legend, Faith) and directed by renowned Kim Jong-hak  (The Legend, Faith) who committed suicide in 2013, it received a record average 50.8% share ratings, compared to today's dramas which average only between 5% and 10% ratings, and Sandglass saw a peak rating of a whopping 64.7% for one episode, episode twenty-one in the series. During its airing stores would close early and hardly anyone would be out on the streets; they were all home (or in bars!) watching Sandglass!

This was depicted in a rather amusing way in a flashback scene in the popular romantic comedy A Gentleman's Dignity (2012) when four male friends were shown watching the series together during its original airing and singing along to its incredibly beautiful soundtrack (one of the best I've ever heard - just the main theme alone, above, brings out the tears for me!)  Then you have the other amazingly beautiful song called Cranes, a Russian folk song, that reflected the liberty that Koreans longed to have in their country. That liberty only attained through blood, sweat, and tears. 

A real demonstration for freedom in 1980 Seoul

The Story: Sandglass is basically the "bromance" story of two men, Tae-soo (the brilliant actor Choi Min Soo from Pride and Prejudice and Father's House) and Woo-suk (Park Sang Won from Healer), friends since high school, and how their lives evolve through the backdrop of much political upheaval and turmoil over three decades.Tae-soo becomes a low level gangster because he lacks formal education and because his father was corrupt, and the other one, Woo-suk, excels in the military, then passes his bar exam to become a lawyer and then a prosecutor. Eventually he has to prosecute his own best friend, which provides us with the saddest part of the drama.

From left to right: actors Choi Min Soo and Park Sang Won,
actress Hyun Jung Go, actor Park Geun Hyung, and Lee Jae Jung

Both Tae-soo and Woo-suk fall in love with the same woman named Hye-rin (Hyun Jung Go from Queen Seon Duk), the daughter of a rich casino owner named Jae Young Yoon (veteran actor Park Geun Hyung; who played the crotchety old grandfather in The Suspicious Housekeeper two decades later); although Hye-rin enjoys Woo-suk more in her youth, the older she gets she starts to like the gangster Tae-soo the best (even while she has a handsome bodyguard named Jae-hee, my personal favorite character, played by hunk Jung Jae Lee, who obviously adores her and would walk through fire for her). Hye-rin ignores the devoted Jae-hee because he works for her father and her relationship with her father is not good, stemming from a kidnapping that occurred when she was a teenager, in which he would not pay the ransom for her -- the bodyguard Jae-hee independently saves her life instead).

I feel Hye-rin never gives Jae-hee the appropriate respect and attention and affection he deserved for saving her, she just takes it all as a given.that Jae-hee was always there for her, while the two other guys, Tae-soo and Woo-suk, were not. I wondered if she wasn't so gosh darn beautiful if any of the three men would have given her the time of day, because she was often opinionated, spoiled, and sometimes even arrogant.

Could you continue to ignore a bodyguard
who looks at you with love like this? Not me!

Hye-rin gets involved while in college with leftist activities on campus, is arrested, tortured, until she spills the beans about her fellow students who are involved in the subversive activities, and then they are arrested. When she is released for spilling the beans and goes back to school everyone ostracizes her and she drops out. Her life is in transition and she is caught between three men who love her but who are swept up in national causes and their own desires to succeed financially. Hye-rin's father eventually dies and Hye-rin cuts her hair, dresses in pant suits, and takes over her father's casino, a business she had professed to hate all her life. In her activities to protect the business she often runs into Woo-suk, who tends to give her a hard time about issues she wants resolved so that her business isn't threatened.


Perhaps I would have had more sympathy for Hye-rin if I sensed she really was committed to her cause of a free society against military dictatorship - but some part of me felt she was only doing it to get back at her father for the kidnapping of so long ago. She always held a grudge against him for not paying that ransom, wondering if she was a boy if he would have paid it. In the end, however, she realizes that in his own way he loved her, and that seems to help heal her broken heart. 

Everyone moves on with their lives as best they can. All of them had started their friendships off very idealistically; by the end life has hardened them and they seem estranged. Woo-suk gets married but deep down you know he still has feelings for Hye-rin. Tae-soo ends up in jail for gangster-related crimes and Hye-rin appeals to Woo-suk to do everything he can to release him. Woo-suk finds a loophole, Tae-soo is set free, and then Hye-rin and Tae-soo become lovers at a country home belonging to her family. Our lovers don't have a lot of time together, but when they do it is memorable and haunting. The audience senses these days together will have to hold them until their end days.

The ending is painfully beautiful. Actor Choi Min Soo should have won every acting award in the universe for how he played the last scenes in Sandglass. None of these characters are romanticized in any way -- that's what makes them so refreshing and different. They're like real people, with real reactions to life's troubles; there are a lot of memorable side characters as well, but I would be writing a book length tome if I described them all, you just need to watch it for yourself.

The deeply moving Russian song Cranes, an unforgettable part of the Sandglass OST

Honestly, online prints could be a lot better. They are too dark in general and show its age. I had to squint during all the nighttime scenes in order to see what was going on. I wonder if the official YA DVD boxset print, now out of print, would be any better? I see it's still available on Amazon and I'm half tempted to buy it because I'd like to revisit this show in future in a better source print; for its historical importance it deserves to be restored from its original camera negative and placed on Blu-ray for new generations to enjoy. (Update: The DVDs are still available for rent through Netflix).

Bottom line, if you have a love of history and politics, or any interest in understanding how Korea evolved into the nation it is today, then put Sandglass on your list to watch. To me it is Essential Viewing. This is similar to watching a Korean version of the American film The Godfather. In my opinion you can't really consider yourself a true K-drama fan unless you watch it. It's 30 years of Korean history in a "sandglass", from the 1960's through 1980's. It's also the most poignant "bromance" you will ever see in a K-drama; although Woo-suk's years in the military and the law hardens him, you can tell he still loves his old friend despite everything. Sandglass gives voice to many Koreans who suffered through those conflicting, modernizing years.

Your best bet to see this historic program is to get the DVDs from Amazon by purchasing, or through Netflix by renting them. Do not watch ANY videos online of this program, trust me they all look like mud in comparison. :)



If supplies out of stock on Amazon, then you can:

(your best bet for high quality)