KDRAMALOVE KOREAN DRAMA REVIEWS
Sang-doo, Let's Go To School!
KBS (2003) 16 Episodes, Grade: A
Romantic Melodrama / Comedy
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
Sang-doo, Let's Go To School (2003), a K-drama starring a fabulous actor trio with lots of chemistry: Gong Hyo Jin (Master's Sun, Thank You, It's Okay That's Love, Pasta, Snowman, The Greatest Question, Ruler Of Your Own World), who has never made a bad K-drama, Rain (A Love To Kill, and film I'm A Cyborg But That's Okay) and Lee Dong Gun (Stained Glass, Super Daddy 10, Friends), was a total surprise to me. I really enjoyed this unusual oldie but goody, an unorthodox story where the female lead had more on the ball intellectually and socially than the male lead, but who chose to encourage him to excel academically and to make up for lost time after getting in trouble with the law as a teenager and going to jail for a few years.
I've never seen another K-drama like this one, where the female lead has the most power in the relationship to improve a guy's life: usually it's the other way around, as befitting the patriarchal Korean society: the rich male chaebol controls the poor scatterbrained female employee and stabilizes her life through love. This drama also received superb ratings, from 20% to 39%, dwarfing most current K-dramas airing today, even the major hitters. The huge ratings were probably due to its uniqueness, its sympathetic story, and marvelous cast.
Rain, in particular, blew me away with his performance, and he was really the newcomer to acting here; Gong Hyo Jin and Lee Dong Gun had been acting in major projects for years before Rain came along. That was very generous of them, to give him so much screen time to shine and become a star through this drama. Real professionals do that kind of thing, not superficial prima donnas. It's also fun for die-hard fans of certain Korean actors to see their earliest works and notice their transitions and growth curves as thespians. A bunch of awards were won by the cast for this drama, the most important one was the Baeksang Arts Award for Most Popular Actor going to newcomer Rain. Due to the high ratings and awards won I consider this an Essential K-drama.
Considering the wonderful cast, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised at all at how entertaining and inspiring this was; I both laughed uproariously, especially at Rain's antics in the beginning, and I cried buckets as the show progressed and it became more serious ... I was completely engrossed in it. Time flew and before I knew it, it was over, and I felt sad it was over, even though it had a happy ending! Who cares if Sang-doo was a 2003 show; the classics are often the best, anyway! Remember: as long as you haven't seen a K-drama it's a new one to you! It really doesn't matter what year it was made.
Teenagers Sang Doo Cha (Rain) and Eun Hwan Chae (Gong Hyo Jin) are best friends growing up, and their friendship turns to love during high school. They live out in the beautiful countryside and have lots of time to spend with one another after school, often talking about what their futures will bring. However, life doesn't go at all as they planned.
Eun Hwan's family goes bankrupt and loan sharks descend on her house, forcibly taking away their furniture, clothing, and other possessions. When Eun Hwan sees them taking away her late father's prized vintage Victrola record player she tries pleading with them to at least leave that behind, but her pleas fall on deaf ears. Sang Doo arrives to her home so they can walk to school together as usual, and from a distance, unseen by Eun Hwan, he notices the loan sharks taking the Victrola away and he sees Eun Hwan crying and upset. When the collector puts the Victrola in his truck Sang Doo blurts out that he himself will pay for a better one for them, but they refuse. There is a physical struggle for it and one of the debt collectors falls from the truck, then off a bridge into water, and ends up in a coma. Sang Doo is arrested for assault and is sentenced to prison for several years. Eun Hwan has no idea that Sang Doo tried to save the Victrola for her, for her mother Gong Shim Ran (Ae Ri Jung) takes her and her younger brother Ji Hwan (Yeo Seung Hyuk) away from the scene and they quickly move out of town to escape the creditors, with just their clothes on their backs. (That Victrola is going to make a reappearance much later in the drama, in a most touching way).
Rain makes an hilarious gigolo
When Sang Doo finishes his prison term he ends up with no job prospects since he didn't finish high school, now he has a crime record, and his family moved to Miguk (America) and basically deserted him, all except one uncle, Cha Man Do (actor Young Ha Lee who played Eunchae's father in I'm Sorry, I Love You), who stays in touch. The uncle in his youth had been a gigolo and he encourages his nephew to follow in that line of "work". Out of financial necessity he becomes a gigolo to older women with money to spare, and his uncle becomes his "pimp", arranging rendezvous with the rich older ladies. Sang Doo becomes very good at what he does! The women all think he truly loves them! It's actually quite funny to see how he smooth talks them into giving him thousands of dollars because he always cries poverty or sickness to them. Meanwhile, he has lost all traces of his childhood love Eun Hwan, since her family moved away from the area that very day he was arrested. He tries to forget her.
More years melt away and Sang Doo now has a daughter, Bo Ri Cha (Min Joo Song - what a cutey pie and what a fantastic, natural child actress!), from a one night stand with a flighty, crass, uneducated, poor but pretty young woman named Sera Han (Soo Hyun Hong from The Princess' Man, Jang Ok Jung, Living In Love, Roommate). She is hung up on Sang Doo but it's obvious he doesn't love her, though he tries to show her respect as the mother of his child. She uses Sang Doo's love for his daughter to keep him close to her, hoping a relationship will grow eventually. She also harbors a terrible secret that is not revealed till near the end of the drama. When you know how delicate and prim and sweet actress Soo Hyun Hong is in real life, it's rather a jolt to see her as this often selfish and nasty character -- she must have enjoyed playing this character, so different than her own.
What a difference in parenting styles!
Bo Ri is diagnosed with leukemia and Sang Doo has to up the ante in his life as a gigolo to pay her hospital bills. He will often make a beeline for the hospital as soon as his latest fling with a rich woman is over. His daughter adores him, since he obviously spends more time with her than her own social butterfly, silly mother does. The child trusts him completely. Rain's scenes with the little girl were some of the most beautiful in the drama.
High School Sweethearts (left),
meeting again years later (right)
Then Sang Doo's life begins to change when he suddenly meets up with his old high school love again, Eun Hwan, who has come back to their hometown as a high school math teacher. The old spark is still there and Sang Doo is a goner just looking at her again. However, he soon figures out she's "taken"; she is engaged to a nice and handsome doctor named Min Sook Kang (Dong Gun Lee) -- who just happens to be his sick daughter's primary cancer doctor in the hospital! Now this will make for an interesting love triangle -- Sang Doo feels very warm to this doctor who has been saving his daughter's life with well planned cancer treatments. Yet now he is the fiance of the love of his life!
But what can Sang Doo offer Eun Hwan? He's a bum, he knows it -- he doesn't even have a high school diploma and she is an employed teacher with a rich doctor who wants to marry her. How can he possibly hope to compete with that?
Eun Hwan, at first not knowing he is a gigolo or that he has a daughter, plays the whole situation quite coolly and professionally at first after meeting him again, encouraging him to improve his life and get an education and a good job. She is still unaware that he went to jail in the first place simply because he was protecting her feelings, trying to take back her dad's Victrola.
Sang Doo saves a high school kid from committing suicide -- he climbs up the side of the building to coax him down. His actions impress the school's principal, played by veteran actor Shin Goo (who played Gong Hyo Jin's grandpa in Thank You), and another teacher at the school (a young Kim Mi Kyung, who also played in Master's Sun and It's Okay That's Love with Gong Hyo Jin). In the drama they act like parent substitutes for Eun Hwan, guiding her during certain crisis situations in her life. Eun Hwan's own mother has been a disappointment to her for years.
The school administration offers Sang Doo a job as a security guard at the school and later, to impress Eun Hwan, Sang Doo decides to complete his GED degree to get his high school diploma. What's even more amazing is that he ends up in her high school math class, and is a big hit with the other students. They consider him cool, hip, and fun, even though he is older than they are.
Just as life seems to be stabilizing for Sang Doo, and he seems to be achieving better goals for himself, he discovers that his daughter Bo Ri's leukemia has taken a turn for the worse. She will need a bone marrow transplant immediately, but who can be a donor? How will he find the money? Even though he doesn't want to, he feels the only way to come up with the money is to go back to being a gigolo to older rich women again, so off he goes, leaving school and his security job, doing anything he can to save his daughter's life. The kids in Eun Hwan's class miss him like crazy, not understanding everything he's been going through.
One scene absolutely had me in a puddle of tears -- they try a new chemo on Bo Ri and this chemo will make her lose all her hair. She starts crying when her hair starts to fall out in clumps, and then Sang Doo, to distract her, secretly plots with the doctor to have it appear Min Sook finds bald women the most attractive in the world (little Bo Ri has had a girl crush on the doctor for quite awhile). Once Bo Ri finds that out she agrees to Sang Doo's suggestion that he shave her hair off so that the doctor will love her best of all. Sang Doo has her sing a song repeatedly as he shaves off her hair, sitting behind her with tears streaming down his face. This scene, and a scene in A Love To Kill, where Rain takes care of his brain-damaged older brother in a hospital, wiping away his brother's tears with his own hands, are the two best scenes I've seen from Rain in K-dramas. They totally eclipse the stuff he's been making since he got out of the army, which doesn't show him off the way his earliest dramas and films did, with quiet dignity.
At first the love triangle between doctor Min Sook, Sang Doo, and Eun Hwan is played for some laughs, but it intensifies and turns darker as the wedding day approaches. Eun Hwan keeps deflecting her feelings away from Sang Doo because of past misunderstandings and because of her own complicated feelings, torn between the two men. She finds out some important truths about Sang Doo and confides in a friend that she never loved Sang Doo because he was perfect, rather she loved him because he needed her, but so now, too, does doctor Min Sook. A lot of it will be up to the doctor, how he reacts to Eun Hwan's lingering feelings for Sang Doo. What will happen on the wedding day? Will it go through, or will it be called off?
The last episode was very cleverly written so that you don't know until literally the last ten minutes who ends up with whom. Love that kind of twist ... keep me guessing, writers, so I don't get bored! This show had every element that combines to make a perfect K-drama: characters you deeply care about, who experience a lot of personal growth during the story, a nice combination of sad scenes and happy scenes, good direction which doesn't waste time on non-essentials just to plump up a drama with additional episodes that aren't necessary (to make more money from advertisers), and of course a cast of actors who know their stuff and deliver in every scene.
Sang Doo, Let's Go To School! felt like Old Home Week to me, with so many actors I love! I am sure I will be watching it again sometime in the future; it's just so well acted that it shines better than many other dramas. You can watch Sang Doo, Let's Go To School at THIS LINK. Enjoy Rain and Gong Hyo Jin!
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