Black Dog
검은 개
tvN (2019 - 2020) 16 Episodes
Melodrama, Comedy, Education, Women
Grade: A
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA

For the vast majority of school-themed Korean dramas made the emphasis has traditionally been on students - their crushes, their social and family problems, their ambitions to succeed at whatever talents they have, etc. - but here in this wonderful, warm, and realistic Korean drama called Black Dog (2019-20) the emphasis is primarily on the teachers, their struggles both professionally and personally, and their concerns for the students' welfare above all other things. This is probably the ideal Korean drama to watch and enjoy if you are in the teaching profession yourself and you love and understand kids.

You may wonder: what does a black dog have to do with this drama? If you watch the clip below, a flashback scene, you will start to understand how symbolic it is that the lead female character in this story, whose dream it is to become a professional teacher, is finally hired as a temporary teacher after many rejections; she is actually a real underdog, to be chosen out of 101 applicants to a high school. Most schools would have rejected her, like the poor little black puppy was rejected in this scene, but she finally succeeds at an interview and is hired (although later she is accused of some nepotism, which isn't really true). So here in this drama we take a fascinating journey into the extremely competitive world of the South Korean educational system.

If you've ever worked in an educational setting you are bound to identify with all the issues that come up at the private high school that is the setting of this drama. You've got to hand it to tvN to break convention with putting together a contemplative, thoughtful drama like this one that will appeal to thinking adults as well as teenagers who are interested in what makes their teachers "tick".

The lead actress is Seo Hyun Jin (Three Musketeers, Jung Yi Goddess Of Fire, Another Oh Hae Young) who plays the "black dog" teacher character, and she acquits herself very well here. In the first one or two episodes she barely speaks a word as she adjusts to her new teaching position in the school, but you generally have no confusion about what she's thinking and feeling by her gentle, shy mannerisms, thoughtful reactions to situations, and her inner narrations using voice-overs. It's very difficult for any actor to play a quiet, reserved person well and keep the audience interested in them! Kudos to her for an acting job well done. Honestly, this was the first time I really warmed to her in a role. I couldn't finish her most well known drama Another Oh Hae Young because her character in that drama so annoyed me. I feel so much better about her now and will keep following her career with interest. She finally found the right "fit" in a good role for herself.

Second female lead is the absolutely wonderful and brilliant veteran actress Ra Mi Ran (King 2 Hearts, films The Last Princess with Ye Jin Son and Ordinary Person with Jang Hyuk) who plays the main college preparation career counselor and teacher at the high school. Giving another beautiful, dignified performance here in this drama, she continues to keep me mesmerized by her vividly emotional acting prowess. I've never seen her give a bad performance. She was just born to be an actress!

Two of the dedicated male teachers the lady teachers end up bonding with over time are played by Ha Jun (far right in the above picture, who appeared in Gap Dong and Three Days) and Lee Chang Hoon (far left, Something In The Rain) and they are both simply wonderful to watch too, the kind of teachers we all wish we could have had consistently when we were growing up, instead of some of the fruitcakes we all had to endure (now you know you did!). A male main administrator with a more brooding personality is played by older veteran actor Jung Hae Kyun (Signal, Doctors, Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, My Mister) and I always know when I see his face in a drama I'm going to end up being surprised by unusual reactions in many scenes. He's very versatile and was perfect casting for his role here.

The Story:

Korean language education college graduate Ko Ha Neul (Seo Hyun Jin, adult, Ryu Ji Eun, teen, Baek Seo Yun, child) has been trying to become a teacher for quite some time, but she doesn't manage to get hired anywhere. Like the proverbial black dog in a puppy shop, she is constantly rejected, as people tend to choose the more attractive white puppies first. She is the daughter of a married couple who run a dry cleaning business together (Ko Sung Cheol, Kim Jung Young) and still lives with them, and they are very supportive of her, although she often hides herself in her room and scans her computer for any teaching job openings available. This is one very determined young lady!

Finally, she gets a job opportunity at a private high school called Daechi High, but there is a catch: the school only hires short term teachers since they are full up on their permanent teachers. Now, she has to fight with everyone already hired as temp teachers for a chance to get a rare permanent position at this school. On top of that, rumors start to spread among the teachers that she was hired because her uncle Moon So Ho (Jung Hae Kyun) works at the school as the main administrator, and most of them tend to isolate themselves from her.

Yet Ha Neul doesn't give up. She has been dreaming of being a teacher who helps her students and connects with them since she was a high school girl herself and was saved from death, after a bus crash while on a field trip, by a dedicated temp teacher
(cameo appearance for actor Tae In Ho, Descendants of the Sun) who ended up losing his life while rescuing her. For years afterward she feels devastated by his death and wants to honor him in some way. What better way than to become a teacher herself?  Although Ha Neul wants to honor his memory she finds it difficult to blend in with the other teachers at first.

Actress Ryu Ji Eun, in the bus accident scene here,
looks remarkably like older actress Seo Hyun Jin
- great casting! 

However, even at the beginning she starts to impress female Admissions' head Park Sung Soon (Ra Mi Ran) and two fellow male teachers Do Yeon Woo (Ha Joon) and Bae Myung Soo (Lee Chang Hoon). For instance, she helps calm a visiting parent to the school who is concerned about her child, and she doesn't make a stink at all when a troublesome female teacher yells at her for changing a class lesson plan without notifying anyone else first. When male teacher Yeon Woo confronts her on her calm reaction to this angry teacher she quietly and with great composure tells him, "Inside I was cursing, but how would that help me on this job if I said what I was thinking aloud?"

Practicality and dignified composure like this in the midst of many different tensions at work become Ha Neul's chief modus operandi. While other teachers and admins have their various problems (which often become evident during teacher meetings at school and off campus - sometimes at the local bar!) Ha Neul just keeps right on going like the Energizer Bunny. She also eventually becomes a special favorite of the students because of her patience and kindness toward them. When the time comes for the school to finally decide on a new permanent placement for a teacher out of the temps available will Ha Neul finally make the grade and succeed?

Story-wise, the drama was pretty decent. Apart from the last episode, that felt a bit rushed to me, the rest of the drama was really good. The main character, Ha Neul, was admirable and interesting, and her story about how she became a successful teacher was surprisingly quite entertaining. Another plus was that they didn't add romance to the mix, as that would have shifted the focus of the drama from the slice of life style of story to a more overused romantic trope which we have seen so often before. Also, it was refreshing that they focused more on the teachers rather than the students, making this more of a drama for thinking grownups. The human relationships that were presented in Black Dog were sweet, simple and humane. Check it out and see if you enjoy it as much as I did.