Always up for any drama or film made by the two impressive lead actors, Gong Hyo Jin (Master's Sun, It's Okay, That's Love, Thank You) and Kang Ha Neul (Angel Eyes, Missing Noir M, film Dong Ju: Portrait Of A Poet), I settled in with high anticipation to watch their 2019 Korean drama When The Camellia Blooms, not knowing what to expect from it when I started. I didn't even read a short synopsis beforehand: I wanted to be surprised.
On many fronts I was surprised by this drama: I thought it was rather formulaic at first ("Not another single Mom against the world story! didn't she already make a masterpiece on that subject, Thank You, way back in 2007?"), but as it progressed it got its hooks into me big time, exploring topics the earlier drama did not, but I should have expected that, knowing how profoundly these two thespians have always bowled me over with their drama choices and acting performances in the past. Gong Hyo Jin, in particular, tends to choose above average drama vehicles for herself, stories with an emphasis on social inequities found in the fabric of South Korea's paternalistic society that need to be addressed in the public consciousness, and not swept under the rug. I think she succeeded very well here: the drama's ratings broke 20% (when that happens the cast and crew of any drama celebrate) and ended up at 23.8% nationwide for the last episode.
Not only the two leads, but several of the supporting cast members gave unforgettable performances as well, fleshing out difficult characters with complicated backgrounds through some highly charged, emotional scenes, especially the veteran actress playing Gong Hyo Jin's mother, Lee Jung Eun (Remember), and Son Dam Bi (film Too Hot To Die) who played her friend who was murdered. So many scenes that they were in had me in a puddle of tears. So beautiful! I'll never forget these ladies and I hope to see them in great roles again in future.
Son Dam Bi (above) and Lee Jung Eun (below) played
fascinating characters important to Gong Hyo Jin's character
Single mother Dong Baek (Gong Hyo Jin) and her young son Pilgu (Kim Kang Hoon) move to a seaside city called Ongsan to start a new life, as Dong Baek opens her own cafe / bar called Camellia. Men in particular seem to be the most frequent guests, since she is licensed to serve liquor. At first ridiculed by other nearby residents, no doubt due to jealousy, and gossiped about in the streets near her cafe, slowly Dong Baek tries to make friends with them through kindness and compassion, and eventually she begins to succeed.
Sometimes it seems that some of the male patrons are hitting on her, since she is so much more physically attractive than most of the working ladies in the district, particularly one boastful fellow who always proclaims he will be Mayor someday, No Gyu-tae (Oh Jung Se). However, he is married to a high profile attorney, Hong Ja Young (Yum Hye Ran, Goblin), so, although Dong Baek is kind toward him (as she strives to be with everyone) she does not encourage him.
Then there is a more mysterious, threatening, anonymous male patron who wrote alarming messages on her restaurant's wall when she wasn't paying attention, and since they were concealed by a table and its tablecloth they aren't discovered for awhile. This mystery eventually sets up a sub-plot about a serial murderer in the formerly sleepy town of Ongsan, which helps to band residents together to protect each other. This serial killer seems to start with stray cats, leaving out poisoned cat food in the street to kill them (so you know he's wacky right off the bat!), and then moves on to people.
A kindly, shy police officer, who took one look at Dong Baek and fell instantly in love with her (can't say that I blame him), named Hwang Young Sik (Kang Ha Neul), starts to pursue her more and more; at first she tries to dissuade him, but eventually the stern facade she put up in front of him begins to crack. He becomes essential to her life and her happiness by the end of the story. The thawing and growing of their relationship is so beautiful to watch. Even Young Sik's mother, Kwak Deok Sun (Ko Do Shim from The Snow Queen and Dear My Friends) eventually warms to her, even though she's a bit of a spitfire at first.
It's just impossible not to be in Young Sik's corner because he seems like the perfect man, to the point where he sometimes seemed unreal. (It would be nice if more men were like him: truly kind, principled, not using women for sexual dalliances but willing to commit to them 100%, no matter what. Alas, this type in the world today is like trying to find a needle in a haystack; maybe that's one of the reasons the drama received excellent ratings - most women do not have this type of genuine sacrificial fellow in their lives).
The drama moves toward a finale where the serial killer is supposedly caught - but brilliant cop Young Sik is doubtful and pursues additional leads and questioning of the suspect. The real serial killer finally targets Dong Baek, but can she defend herself when the time comes, or does she need her knight in shining armor Young Sik to protect her and save the day? The climax to that question is quite brilliantly funny in the end, and I was both giggling and clapping in those scenes.
Then, as predictable as death and taxes, Dong Baek's ex-boyfriend, a baseball player named Kang Jong Ryeol (Kim Ji Suk, Personal Taste, Chuno) re-enters her life, just as she is getting close to Young Sik, and wants to have more of a say in raising Pilgu, their child. He also seems interested in striking up the old relationship he had with Dong Baek. This causes a lot of conflicts. Jong Ryeol is married to an online celebrity named Jessica (Ji Ee Su) and their marriage is troubled. They have an infant daughter but Jong Ryeol spends little time with them, preferring to stalk Dong Baek and his older child Pilgu, whose life he had been shut out of before. Can there ever come a time when past hurts can be dealt with effectively so they can all go on with their lives in more productive ways?
Their Last Conversation
Before The Murder
While working in her cafe Dong Baek had hired a part-time girl as waitress and food deliverer named Hyang Mi (Son Dam Bi). The compassionate Dong Baek had taken pity on the girl since she was broke, and she tries to give her some security and friendship, despite the girl's mental issues. Eventually poor Hyang Mi is targeted by the mystery serial killer when she goes out to deliver food from the restaurant and she is murdered. The police in Ongsan have their work cut out for them for months as they try to figure out who this killer could be. Dong Baek is devastated and blames herself, thinking Hyang Mi wouldn't have been killed if she hadn't gone out of her way to deliver the food that night.
On top of the Hyang Mi murder, Dong Baek has her hands full with her supposedly Alzheimer's afflicted mother Jo Jeong Suk (Lee Jung Eun) who re-enters her life after many years, and tries to become indispensable to her, being a cook in the cafe and taking care of Pilgu. However, Dong Baek has problems with their relationship stemming from the fact that her mother abandoned her to an orphanage when she was seven years old, since she could no longer afford to raise her. When Dong Baek discovers her mother has kidney disease and needs a transplant to live, she begins to suspect her mother only returned to her, not because she loves her, but only so Dong Baek could donate her own kidney to save her life. A dramatic tussle back and forth between mother and daughter on the issue leads to some powerful forgiveness eventually (and sure made me cry a lot! forgiveness is so much better than anger).
All in all, if you are a devoted fan of Gong Hyo Jin and/or Kang Ha Neul simply do NOT miss this drama. Though it was a bit slow to grab my affection in the beginning of the drama, by the second half I was majorly addicted and committed to the story. So this is the only time I felt I should split up my grades for a K-drama: the first half gets an A, and the second half an A+.
Enjoy When The Camellia Blooms. Gong Hyo Jin's character is the real camellia, not the cafe, and she blossoms beautifully during the course of this story.
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