Cinderella's Sister
신데렐라의 자매 (2010) KBS 20 Episodes
Melodrama, Grade: B+

Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA


A big trend in entertainment over the last few years has been to make new film interpretations of classic fairy tales -- for instance, in the animated film Frozen Disney changed the traditional "true love's kiss" of The Snow Queen story to one sister kissing another sister to bring her back to life. In the Disney film Maleficent the Sleeping Beauty story gets a weird twist when the witch of the title loses her evil nature by beginning to love the princess as she acts like a parent substitute for her, and it's her motherly "true love kiss" given to Aurora which wakes her up from her enchanted sleep ... the sleep that she herself had condemned the princess to sixteen years earlier through a curse.

Likewise, in the Korean television drama Cinderella's Sister (2010) we have many odd and unexpected twists written into the traditional story - for instance, the Cinderella character is cutesy instead of beautiful, pampered and spoiled, not very smart in school nor has she any real talents, she cries a lot when things don't go her way and is generally annoying, and she is in love with the "prince" character, who only seems to have eyes for her step-sister, a lonely beautiful girl who rarely smiles but who constantly strives to earn a better life for herself through education and hard work.

This K-drama is a complex character study of a damaged girl who really had to act more as an adult from an early age against an avaricious, selfish, childish mother who puts financial security before love or her child. The mother has gone from one abusive man to another, and her daughter has to suffer through years of difficulties because of her mother's bad choices. Although there are many moments of humor in this show that are woven into the midst of tribulation, this show is generally serious and contemplative; it may not be for sensitive types who want their K-dramas written in a nice straight happy story line and all sewn together with pretty pink bows at the end. However, it is necessary with Cinderella's Sister to look beyond the step-sister's sadness and anger, to use compassion and understanding to see that this girl has been hurt time and again by situations that you and I most likely have never faced. This is not the easiest K-drama you will ever watch, but the performances, from a superb ensemble of top Korean actors, are first-rate.

Some Favorite Scenes
Golly, can this girl act!

Actress Geun Young Moon first came to fame playing a young girl who had been switched at birth in the landmark
2000 K-drama Autumn In My Heart. I felt she was the absolute best thing about that show. Then Geun became internationally famous as the younger sister character in the Korean horror classic hit A Tale Of Two Sisters (2003). In the years since, she has proven herself to be a fine actress in many different roles in films and television dramas. I've pretty much kept an eye on her developing career over the years and admire her greatly. I'll watch her in anything, knowing I'll be getting a great performance.

For one brief moment, Eun-jo considers abandoning her mother on the train,
but can't do it: she turns back and saves her from the thugs who are chasing them

The Story: In Cinderella's Sister Geun plays the title role, a teenage girl named Eun-jo Song who is the daughter of a single mother, Kang-sook Song (the great Mi-sook Lee from the film ...ing (2003)), who is a weak and warped parent, dragging her daughter from house to house over the years, where she sponges off various abusive men. While Eun-jo does most of the housework and the cooking, the mother spends her time trying to charm the wastrel men she beds for as much as she can get out of them financially. Her mother never enrolls her in school because they rarely stay in one place for very long, so Eun-jo grows up street smart but not book smart (though she is anxious to correct that flaw).

As the show opens, Kang-sook is being beaten by her latest drunk boyfriend, while Eun-jo prepares kimchi and rice to feed the man's young son who fondly calls her "noona", Jung-woo Han (played as a child by Suk-hwan
Moon and then later by heartthrob actor Taecyeon Oh from Dream High and Who Are You?). When the drunk takes a baseball bat to her mother, Eun-jo has had enough - she throws some things into bags - including an expensive ring the drunk had planned to give her mother - and runs with her mom to board a train out of town. The drunk sends his henchmen to intercept them but mother and daughter hide in two train lavatories. In the one Eun-jo enters there is a young girl her same age named Hyo-sun Goo (Woo Seo). Chipper and adventurous, Hyo-sun ends up leading them to where she lives with her widowed father, Dae-sung Goo (Kap Soo Kim, who played Geun Young Moon's father in A Tale Of Two Sisters so it was nice to see them reunited here).

When they come upon Dae-sung Goo's spacious, nice home in the country, and Kang-sook learns he is a financially secure widower with a successful rice wine business adjacent to the home, she immediately tries to use her womanly wiles on him. She plays up to his daughter Hyo-sun and tries to make herself indispensable to her. The girl becomes thrilled at the possibility of perhaps getting a new mother (her biological mother had died of cancer when she was six). Kang-sook arranges for herself to have private time with the father, telling him she needs to go to the grocery store to get food to pack a school trip lunch for Hyo-sun; he takes her on his bicycle and Kang-sook keeps kicking the bike so that her breasts go into the Dae-sung's back when he loses his balance, and they eventually fall off and roll down a hill (what happened at the bottom of the hill is not explained but it probably was a doozy!). Eun-jo is wary of all of this -- she has seen far too many men come and go to trust this new one with her mother, even though he does seem very nice.

Kang-sook smells fresh rich masculine blood and uses
Dae-sung's daughter Hyo-sun - and a bicycle! - to get close to him

When Eun-jo tries to run away, to strike out on her own, Dae-sung sends a maternal uncle of his daughter (this fellow annoyed the heck out of me!) and an employee at the wine factory named Ki-hoon Hong (actor Jung-myung Chun, whom I adored in the Korean film Hansel and Gretel (2007)) to fetch her home. This scene is a beautiful sequence where Ki-hoon (he is to be the "prince" character, though not always charming!) grabs her hair during the chase and pulls out a cheap pencil she was using to pull her hair back (later he tries replacing it with a much nicer clip as a gift, but it gets lost). Her short hair suddenly becomes long and beautiful and wows Ki-hoon. He manages to stop her and he tells her that he knows how she feels because he was once just like her (coming from a broken, violent home), and that it would be wiser to wait till age 20 (the Korean legal age) to leave home. She listens, and goes back to Dae-sung's home where dinner is prepared for her and her mother. Sometime later Eun-jo meets Ki-hoon again as she hears him sing a Spanish song in the family home courtyard. She asks him what language he is singing and then files that information away for a later date - perhaps knowing a second language would get her out of this place that she hates. 

Meanwhile, Hyo-sun is thrilled to have someone stay over and share her bedroom. She chats non-stop until Eun-jo tells her to shut up. Eun-jo tries to use the sink in the bathroom but Hyo-sun has to explain to her how it works because it has sensors ... Eun-jo had never seen such luxury before. Eventually Dae-sung proposes marriage and a big ceremony is planned. Many of the relatives, friends, and workers at the rice wine factory attend, but no one really seems to trust Kang-sook the bride at all, except for her new husband. (He later threatens to fire any employee who gossips about her behind his back). He tries to be super nice and encouraging to Eun-jo, telling her she can have dance or music lessons if she wants, but all Eun-jo wants is to go to school and have some tutoring help with math. He arranges a tutor for her, who just happens to be Ki-hoon. It's obvious that Eun-jo is intrigued by Ki-hoon and even attracted to him, but she doesn't let on, never smiles, and has trouble even saying "thank you" to him properly for the tutoring help. She doesn't like being in debt to anyone. It doesn't help matters that Hyo-sun has had a big crush on Ki-hoon for years and has staked her claim to him many times, though Ki-hoon obviously sees her more as a little sister. Eun-jo asks him to tutor her in Spanish in addition to math, so Ki-hoon himself has to hit the books because he isn't fluent, he only knows that one song.

The suspicious Eun-jo, burned too many times by false friends, finds it difficult to trust
the kindly Ki-hoon, who challenges her to come out of her shell

As in all step-families there are great challenges which occur after the wedding. The two girls continue to bring their parents grief. They fight over academic achievements; Eun-jo wins a math achievement certificate but Hyo-sun hogs the parents' attention instead after failing her dance audition, and no one praises Eun-jo but Ki-hoon (who is the only one she really cares about anyway). They fight over Ki-hoon and another boy who brings flowers to the house, which Hyo-sun thinks are for her when they're really for Eun-jo; despite the stresses the family live under, Eun-jo ignores every olive branch Hyo-sun offers. She doesn't seem to believe they could be real and perhaps she is right. Perhaps only Eun-jo knows that the human heart is really black and capable of all kinds of evil.

Then the worst happens when Hyo-sun and Eun-jo have a cat-fight over Eun-jo calling Hyo-sun out as a fake; they tear each others' hair out, and the father disciplines them both with corporal punishment. While Hyo-sun immediately admits she was wrong and apologizes after only receiving one blow, Eun-jo is her usual stubborn self and does not admit she was wrong, so she receives multiple blows to her legs, not showing any pain, until Ki-hoon, who is watching, can't take anymore and pulls her out of the room away from her father. He brings her to the building where the wine is fermenting in big jugs, and while she listens to the gentle "pop! pop! pop!" sounds, Ki-hoon applies healing compresses to her legs - the pain is so bad that Eun-jo hallucinates and imagines she and Ki-hoon are floating in a bubble to the moon (beautiful sequence).

... Fly Me To The Moon ...

Later the remorseful father carefully dresses her wounds while she pretends to sleep; however, the next day his punishment brings some measure of peace to the house because Eun-jo finally admits she was wrong at the dinner table, simply and matter-of-factly, and the episode is forgotten. Then more strain is added to the new marriage when Kang-sook begins getting phone calls from the old drunk she had lived with previously; he wants her back. Kang-sook even disappears for a day to see him and then lies to her husband and says she went to a temple to pray! More and more we are seeing the dark soul of Kang-sook coming out.

Suddenly Ki-hoon leaves to join the army (it seems partly to get away from his own family troubles). He writes a letter of explanation to Eun-jo in Spanish and then rather thoughtlessly hands it to Hyo-sun to give to Eun-jo after he's gone. Of course Hyo-sun can't read it since she doesn't know Spanish. She weeps when she gets home and tells Eun-jo that Ki-hoon is gone, whereupon Eun-jo runs to the train station to try and stop him. Sadly, they miss each other, and Eun-jo leaves the terminal, heads for the beach, and weeps as if her heart is breaking. Nearby in the sand is the pretty hairpin he had bought Eun-jo a long time ago, which had gone lost. The symbolism can't be missed - his gifts to Eun-jo too often miss their mark because of her dark, sad soul and his timidity. Love cannot be reciprocated in a healthy way when two people are caught up in their own turmoil and grief.

Then we skip ahead eight years. Dae-sung and Kang-sook are still married and have a little son. Eun-jo is all grown up, a seemingly less severe person, and working in her father's company in a management position. All her education had really paid off and she is quite successful and the company has prospered under her watch. The same can't be said for our "Cinderella", Hyo-sun, because she continues to live on credit cards, has no job, and goes up for dance auditions she always fails. Even her father is fed up with her. The more of a failure she is the more she dislikes "Cinderella's Stepsister", Eun-jo. Even when Hyo-sun teases her sister that she is dating Ki-hoon, who is back in the area looking for a job, Eun-jo plays it cool, and even compliments Hyo-sun and tells her she is pretty, which floors her. She challenges her sister, "What is your dream?". (THIS Cinderella doesn't have a dream that's a wish her heart makes). Ki-hoon comes and interviews with the company (very awkward for everyone due to the questions Eun-jo asks him) and he is hired, and now Eun-jo is thrown together with him again on a daily basis. It's obvious that there are residual feelings between Ki-hoon and Eun-jo, unanswered questions about why he had departed so suddenly and for so long, but for whatever private reasons she has Eun-jo does not feel like concentrating on those questions. She tries to keep their new relationship strictly business.

Another person from the past shows up as well, the young boy Eun-jo used to live with before her mother married
Dae-sung, Jung-woo (handsome Taec in an early role), who had been so enamored of her years earlier and had never forgotten her. At first she doesn't recognize him but at a meal they share together his mannerisms while eating trigger her memory. Later they go and hang out by a lake and in a very sweet, delightful scene he dances for her to try and cheer her up and it's the first real laugh we have ever seen out of Eun-jo. She keeps imagining him as he was when he was little, portly, red-faced, and funny looking. Oh, but look at him now! Off in a distance sits Ki-hoon in his car, watching her laugh, and feeling sad that he doesn't seem capable of making her smile.

Then tragedy strikes. Ki-hoon fields a call from his father's company, and they want to execute an hostile takeover of the rice winery. When this message is relaid to Dae-sung he has a heart attack and dies at the hospital. Everything is about to change for Eun-jo, Hyo-sun, Kang-sook and her little son, Ki-hoon (who blames himself for the man's death) as well as the company. On a personal level, Eun-jo thinks back to all the great talks she had had with her step-father over the years; he was a man who truly had been a good influence on her life. He had always timidly asked her if she wouldn't mind calling him father. She never could manage to do it. Even as she weeps in a stairwell after his death, she struggles to say the word, "Fa - fa..." and still cannot do it. Now she finally realizes that she had been given someone she could depend on, and now that he is gone who will fill the void?

Suddenly, Kang-sook openly reverts to her true nature, because she doesn't have to impress a man anymore. Overnight she starts being cruel to Hyo-sun, becoming the Wicked Stepmother of fairy tale lore, and Eun-jo warns Hyo-sun that now she is alone, and that there is no one in her corner to protect her. Her usual baby cries for attention won't work; she needs to grow up fast. Ki-hoon's evil estranged family try to make a play for the floundering rice wine business and Eun-jo has to work harder than ever to save the company, even bringing in Hyo-sun to help. Events become violent at one point and all the hard work to save and improve the company may end up being in vain. 

Will Eun-jo and Hyo-sun ever bury the hatchet over their past and come together as true sisters to help one another? will the stepmother self-destruct because she is left to her own evil devices, or will she end up as someone who is capable of reformation? Who will Ki-hoon end up with romantically, Eun-jo, or Hyo-sun? He's fond of both women, but really only loves one.

Many people claim the first four to five episodes of Cinderella's Sister are some of the finest K-drama episodes ever constructed, and others find the later parts of the drama more realistic and believable. The ratings were respectable for this show in Korea, averaging close to 20% share (most dramas average between 5% to 10%, with anything over 15% considered quite excellent and 20% or more considered outstanding).

I simply enjoy all these actors tremendously and I wouldn't miss this lineup of stars for the world. You've got seasoned pros working in a wonderful ensemble with good direction, cinematography and music; if you love an unique melodrama then check out Cinderella's Sister and judge for yourself if it's your cup of tea. As for me, I enjoyed the earliest parts of the drama the most, and especially loved the chats between Geun Young Moon's character and
Kap Soo Kim's character; I recall that in the Extras' interviews on the DVDs for A Tale Of Two Sisters that both female stars made a special point of saying they missed the fatherly Kap Soo Kim very much. I am sure it pleased Geun to learn she would be working with him again on Cinderella's Sister. 

You can buy a DVD set for Cinderella's Sister on Amazon.