The Korean drama Tree Of Heaven (2006) is a great choice to introduce someone to the beauties of Korean drama for the very first time. Why do I say that? Yes, it features an amazing story-line, magnificent acting with attractive actors, stunning scenery and cinematography (shot entirely in Japan with a Korean and Japanese cast and crew), one of the best romantic soundtracks ever recorded for any Asian drama, and intelligent direction in the capable hands of director Jang Soo Lee, who also directed the first two shows in the "heaven" trilogy, Beautiful Days and Stairway To Heaven (our two stars here were in that latter show together and displayed good chemistry there as well).
However, the REAL reason I suggest you use Tree Of Heaven as a first introduction for friends and family who are new to the beauties of K-drama, is that it is short. At only ten episodes it tells its story with rare economy, compared to the typical sixteen to twenty or more episodes of most Korean dramas (and it makes you think that many other Korean dramas could easily follow suit with more cohesive writing!). Many Westerners with short attention spans won't bother watching a long drawn out Asian show with subtitles, but Tree Of Heaven's story is economically told and doesn't waste any time on non-essentials, like introducing multiple inconsequential secondary characters and sub-plots that are not really necessary to its powerful main story of true love, pain, redemption, and sacrifice. My sixteen year old daughter (at the time) watched this drama with me and thought that ten episodes was just perfect.
The Story: One of Korea's top actresses, Park Shin Hye plays Hana, a cheerful and bright teenage Japanese girl who lives in rural Japan near the mountains with her mother Michiko (Aika Mire), who owns a tourist hot springs inn. Her father had passed away when she was young. Michiko marries again, choosing a Korean man named Soo Ha Yoon (Dong Hwan Jung, Nine: Nine Time Travels and all the 4 Seasons' dramas) for her husband, who then brings his teenage son Yeon Seo (Lee Wan in a remarkable, raw performance) to Japan to live, taking him from everything familiar he knew in Korea. Because of the death of his mother at the age of ten, Yeon Seo had become emotionally withdrawn and mentally fragile, almost autistic. He doesn't speak to Hana when they first meet and for quite some time thereafter, even though she has studied some Korean language independently, and cheerfully greets him as her new brother in his own language. (Park Shin Hye did amazingly well with the Japanese language here when she's really Korean!).
When their parents leave on their honeymoon, the children are left with Hana's paternal aunt Yoko (Chung Kim) who tells Hana's mother that she will happily take care of Hana and Yeon Seo when they are gone, as well as manage the inn. However, the two-faced evil aunt and her spoiled and bratty daughter Maya (Japanese actress Asami Reina) abuse Hana and ignore Yeon Seo and make secret plans to sell the inn out from under Hana's mother, in order to pay for Yoko's gambling debts and Maya's college.
Despite all of this, Hana finds comfort in her new step-brother Yeon Seo, who finally begins to warm to her and open up to her, even speaking to her for the first time. They spend time frolicking in the snow, planting a tree, and Yeon Seo shares his love of drawing with Hana. Hana's best friend Mika (Sonim) starts to like Yeon Seo and while he is kind to her he doesn't encourage her, for it's obvious he is becoming more than a little bit infatuated and smitten with Hana, due to her extreme kindness and patience with him.
Hana meets her step-brother
for the first time
However, when a celebrity former student of her school named Fujiwara Ryu (Japanese actor Asahi Uchida) shows up and remembers Hana, asking her out on a date to visit Tokyo with him, Yeon Seo cannot control himself and becomes jealous of the attention Hana wants to give to Ryu. He follows them a long distance to Tokyo in the cold weather, ruining Ryu and Hana's time together.
When Yeon Seo makes it clear to Hana that he doesn't just have brotherly feelings for her, but that he passionately loves her, Hana is afraid to reciprocate and love him back. Meanwhile, Hana wonders why she has only received one phone call from her mother while she is on her honeymoon. Aunt Yoko discovers that both Hana's mother and Yeon Seo's father had died in a car crash, but she doesn't tell them the truth, so that she can quietly and quickly finish her private sale of the inn, and so that she and her daughter Maya can skip town for the big city, plans that would cause Hana to be completely homeless, an orphan with no one to turn to for help.
Park Shin Hye blasts it out of the ballpark
in this, her best performance ever, at
only age 16!
Yeon Seo and Ryu have a fight at the school in front of Hana's high school classmates, a fight that Yeon Seo loses, since Ryu is a champion martial arts expert. Yeon Seo begs Hana to love him but she isn't mature enough to see how deeply Yeon Seo needs her. She tells him she is leaving with Ryu for Tokyo, that he will give her a job at the hotel his family owns, so she can earn her own money right after high school graduation.
Yeon Seo is devastated and disappears from Hana's life, it seems forever, at which point Hana breaks down in grief that she has lost him. She blames her own cowardice for their breakup. She sadly leaves her hometown and goes to Toyko to start work at Ryu's hotel as a maid. Her best friend Mika goes with her, and they both attempt to start a new life. Hana doesn't find out for a long, long time what happened to her mother and Yeon Seo's father, her step-father.
Two years pass and Hana and her high school friend Mika are still close, working at Ryu's hotel as maids. They both study the Korean language formerly in a classroom setting, so that if Yeon Seo ever comes back into their lives they will be able to communicate with him more fluently. Hana also gets another part-time job as a tour guide because of her new understanding of Korean. Ryu, meanwhile, continues to make it clear to Hana that he loves her and wants to marry her, but Hana simply considers him a friend now; in her heart she waits for Yeon Seo.
The different stages of Yeon Seo's life:
Troubled teen, and gangster
A shadowy man who never shows Hana his face is one of the new residents at Ryu's hotel and Hana is put in charge of cleaning his room; the audience quickly catches on that this is Yeon Seo, who now looks very different than he did before, and it's obvious he has become wealthy. He now uses an alias as a hotel guest, to avoid detection. Hana thinks she spies Yeon Seo walking around the shopping mall and streets and she chases him, but she keeps missing him; yet he lets slip clues to her that he is nearby and watching her.
It turns out that Yeon Seo has now become a gangster and may even have killed a man to get into the good graces of a mob boss. Yeon Seo doesn't want Hana to find out about this drastic change in his life because if she does that could put her life in peril. Yeon Seo also reluctantly gets mixed up with Maya, who was forced to give up her dreams of college and become the kept woman for the man Yeon Seo works for, the crime Boss played by veteran actor Gil Lee Jung. Maya decides she likes Yeon Seo and plays a risky attraction game with him, which imperils the trust the boss used to have in him. Maya even saves Yeon Seo on a number of occasions from the ire of the Boss.
Eventually, Yeon Seo's longing for Hana is so overwhelming he finally meets with her in secret, and they have a joyful reunion.
Although the ending of Tree Of Heaven is a very sad one, there is also a ray of hope, since Yeon Seo's love for Hana is eternal. Everyone loves a great sacrificial love story, and this is it. Make sure you have at least one box of hankies ready for this memorable Korean drama. It's a tearjerker in the best of traditions.
Although I have enjoyed Park Shin Hye in other dramas I think Tree Of Heaven is her masterpiece and nothing else she has done (to this point) has surpassed it in my eyes, no matter how much publicity she receives for her other works (hint! hint! the deadly dull and unoriginal Heirs). Actor Lee Wan is a revelation in this drama as Yeon Seo. This was a part of a lifetime for him, playing such an intense character at two separate stages of life. I also enjoyed him very much in Swallow The Sun, In Soon Is Pretty, and most recently Our Gab Soon.
I would strongly suggest you simply purchase the out of print DVD box-set from YA Entertainment. They have by far the best print of this treasure, with the best subtitles. Don't mess with cheap bootlegs or online prints if you can avoid them, they will hamper your enjoyment of this intense series. The music soundtrack CD and accompanying DVD set is also a very worthwhile investment, if you fall in love with the music as much as I did. Enjoy!
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