Shining Inheritance (also known as Brilliant Legacy) was one of the most successful dramas of 2009. At 28 episodes, the fortunes of its plucky heroine Eun-sung Go captured the hearts of its viewers, including me. It has a fascinating story, an endearing protagonist, a fabulous supporting cast, a frustrating love story, and one of the best character redemptions you will ever see. In addition, it features an addictive, energizing theme song and a terrific original soundtrack. What more can you ask for in a drama?
It should be no surprise that given its length, the story is a complicated one with numerous subplots and loose ends that need to be tied up by the end. The main story revolves around a young woman who is devoted to her family, determined to make something of herself against all odds, and who, even when she is most down and out, still exhibits kindness and generosity. That incredible spirit is what ultimately elevates her to great success in work and love despite a series of travails.
The Story: Eun-sung Go (the irresistible Hyo-joo Han from Spring Waltz) has been studying in New York. She returns to Korea, planning to bring her autistic brother Eun-woo (wonderfully talented Joon-seok Yeon, who would later play the younger version of Nam Gil Kim in Shark), back with her to the United States to study music (he loves playing the piano). Coincidentally, Sunwoo Hwan (Seung-gi Lee, of My Girlfriend is a Nine Tailed Fox), has also been studying in New York. He is going back home not by choice, but because his grandmother, a self-made woman who rules with a tolerant but iron fist, wants him to take his place in the family food business. Grandma is played by the great Hyo-jung Ban, and she will figure significantly not only in the fortunes of her grandson, but also in those of Eun-sung, for whom things go terribly wrong once she comes home.
Eun-sung and Hwan, who were on the same flight to Seoul, accidentally have their luggage switched, and Eun-sung has the devil of a time trying to retrieve her bag from the selfish Hwan, who cannot be bothered to meet with her to make the exchange. He is resentful of having to be back in Korea, and taking it out on the world, so he treats her horribly. In fact, he treats most people horribly. For the first half of this drama, it is very difficult to tolerate Hwan – which is why it is so rewarding once he finally begins to show some signs of humility and humanity.Eun-sung is dealing with a lot more than a missing suitcase. Little does she know, her father’s company is going bankrupt, and he is desperate with no way to prevent it. His second wife, Baek Sung-hee (Mi-sook Kim), was a widow with her own young daughter Yoo Seung-mi (Chae-won Moon) and thought she was marrying into a life of financial security. She feels betrayed when she learns her husband is losing his money and is furious that he has put her in this position. Although he tries different avenues to resolve his debts, he realizes it is hopeless.
In the midst of all that, Mr. Go has his wallet stolen by a thief, who later dies in a gas explosion accident. He decides to play dead so his family can collect his life insurance benefit and pay off his debts. However, his wife decides to keep all the money for herself and her daughter, and throws her stepchildren Eun-sung and Eun-woo out of the house to fend for themselves. Although Seung-mi does not entirely approve of her mother’s actions, she will not go against her either. She also does not want to compromise her own financial position, as she fears jeopardizing her close friendship with the wealthy Hwan. She is interested in him, and he is fond of her (she is probably the only person to see his caring side), but he does not view her romantically. She hopes to change that.
Meanwhile, most of Eun-sung’s friends are unwilling to help her now that she is essentially destitute (some friends!), especially since she comes as a package deal with Eun Woo, who has some behavioral challenges. At first, she finds work as a waitress at a nightclub. There Eun-sung meets Park Joon-se (Soo-bin Bae, playing the quintessential nice guy for once before graduating to being a heel in dramas like 49 Days and Secret). She also runs in Hwan again and confronts him about her suitcase; he is just irritated with her, and breaks her cellphone, just when her brother most needs to contact her. It turns out that Eun-Woo knows something he shouldn’t about his stepmother, so she whisks him away and leaves him stranded in another town, basically unable to find his way back or communicate with others. Eun-sung is frantic to find him, but comes up empty. Throughout the drama, the search for Eun-woo and her guilt over his disappearance haunt her terribly.Eun-sung believes her father is dead. His wife knows differently, because he reveals himself to her (honey, I’m home!). However, Sung-hee is far from overjoyed. Instead, she is afraid about being charged with fraud for accepting the life insurance money. What’s more, she doesn’t really want to resume her life with this husband who has always disappointed her. She insists that he must continue to lay low, and lies that Eun-jung has gone back to the U.S. Eventually, this cunning woman will want to make sure no one knows he is alive (including his children!) because she is hoping to land another wealthy suitor who will keep her in the style to which she wants to become accustomed. Mr. Go is forced to live in the shadows, concealing his true identity and finding work when he can (it takes him a while to wise up to the fact that his wife is not on his side).Eun-Sung knows that she needs money to hire investigators and pursue her search for her brother. She rents a small room and becomes self-employed, with her own dumplings stall, cheerfully selling this food on the street. She starts saving her money, while mourning her brother, and building a friendship with Joon-se, who is actually from a well-off family (and knows Hwan). Joon-se falls in love with Eun-Sung, but though she likes him very much, she is not interested in a romantic relationship with anyone.
One day, Eun-sung comes to the aid of an old woman who is injured and disoriented. She brings her home with her, takes care of her, and shares what little she has with her. That old woman is actually Hwan’s grandmother, who has temporary amnesia due to a blow to the head. As she convalesces, she gives Eun-sung a decidedly hard time. The scenes showing how the young woman deals with this will win you over completely, if you haven’t already developed an enormous affection for her character.Gradually, Grandmother recovers her memory, but for a while pretends still to be ailing so that she can spend more time observing Eun-sung and testing her mettle. Impressed with the young woman’s cheerful disposition, generosity, and ambition, she makes a decision that will affect the future course of Eun-sung’s life and bring her even more firmly into the orbit of Hwan and his wealthy family. The fates also conspire to reunite her with her wicked stepmother, and to introduce Hwan to young Eun-woo, who has found his way back to the city but does not know how to find his sister. Eun-sung and Hwan will become rivals for his grandmother’s approval as well as her business. Surprisingly, though they initially have no use for each other, as the story evolves these two find that they have more in common than they think – and enmity turns to love.
It is fascinating to follow the ways that all the characters’ lives intertwine. Will Eun-sung be reunited with her little brother? When will she learn that her father is still alive? Hwan knows her brother, but does not know he is her brother. Jon-se knows her father, but does not know his identity either. It’s so frustrating! When will the treachery of Eun-sung’s stepmother be revealed? Who will be the victor in the competition to run the food empire? There are many subplots, and they all keep you glued to the screen.This drama really caught me by surprise. I adored the heroine, and I was completely engrossed with what would happen to her. However, I just could not understand how anyone could tolerate Hwan; he was just so selfish and unpleasant. Sure, the drama tries to elicit sympathy for him because of a traumatic experience when he was a child. Yes, he does show genuine affection for his friend Seung-Mi. However, for much of the series, he is just a jerk.
Then, his grandmother throws out a gauntlet to him – if he wants to inherit her business, he has to fight for it and prove his merit. Otherwise, she will turn everything over to Eun-sung, whom she has taken under her wing and given a great deal of authority to. With both his pride and his financial future at stake, Hwan begins to grow up. As he learns to act more like a real human being, he also comes to admire and respect the abilities of his adversary, Eun-sung. Once he realizes how special she is, his personality starts to soften, and he demonstrates the kind of traits that make him worthy of her. The fact that Shining Inheritance actually pulls this off makes it a very rewarding drama indeed.Credit for the ultimate believability of the burgeoning love relationship goes to actress Hyo-joo Han. She is so winning and likeable that if she decided she liked Hwan, there must be a very good reason. I began to see his character development through her eyes, and this lessened my dislike of him. Despite feeling that Eun-sung was quite crazy not to fall for the sweet Jon-se instead, I accepted that she was gravitating toward the man who was right for her. By the end of the series, I liked him too.As Hwan, Seung-gi Lee is sullen, scowling, and not very attractive, rarely cracking a smile and behaving like a spoiled brat – most of the time. However, once he begins transitioning into a kinder, gentler mode, he makes a convincing transformation. He has some wonderful scenes with Eun-sung as he slowly changes his mind about her, noticing how terrific she is (in spite of his determination not to like her). He also has endearing moments with Joon-seok Yeon as Eun-woo. In fact, his easygoing rapport with the young boy is so matter of fact and endearing that again, I felt, if Eun-woo trusts him, there is something special about this guy. Joon-seok Yeon handles the difficult role of an autistic young boy perfectly, showing the character’s intelligence, awkwardness, frustration, and love for both his beloved piano and his sister.
I am a big fan of actor Soo-bin Bae, and this role was my first impression of him. Now, even when he plays a villain, I am charmed by his essential sweetness. Like so many other characters in this drama, he is extremely engaging. I also enjoyed the performance of Mi-Sook Kim as the wicked, avaricious stepmother. No matter how evil her behavior, she has a vulnerable quality that makes her hard to hate entirely. She has been burned in life by men, and now wants one who is capable of taking care of her. Chae-won Moon (Good Doctor, The Princess' Man), as Seung-Mi is delicate, pretty, and conflicted, not always in agreement with her mother, but longing to get what she wants. As for the grandmother around whom so much of the tension is built, Hyo-jung Ban is fantastic. She is not some sweet little old lady, but a force to be reckoned with, and she is also decent, clever, and generous and fair – qualities she sees reflected in Eun-sung as well, which is why she likes her so much.I relished spending time with the individuals in Shining Inheritance, and I was sorry to have to let them go, even after our long 28-episode acquaintance. I think I could have continued to watch their stories unfold even longer. I ended up constantly humming the cheerful theme song. Ultimately, once the romance between Eun-sung and Hwan takes flight, they seem so right together – finally Hwan cracks a smile! They made smile, too – and wish I knew Eun-sung in real life.
I highly recommend Shining Inheritance, which has all the romance, suspense, tension, tears and excitement that are part of the best K-drama tradition.