2 OST Selections: Firebird by Lee Seung Cheol Love For You by Jae Hong Shin
In Ancient Greek folklore a phoenix
is a long-lived bird that can emerge from fire and be born
again. While watching the 26-part Korean romantic melodrama Phoenix,
I couldn’t help wishing that its lead actress, Lee Eun Ju
(from films Lovers' Concerto, Garden Of Heaven,Taegukgi,
K-Dramas Look Back In Anger and KAIST), who
committed suicide in 2005 at the age of twenty-four, could
likewise magically be given a second chance at life. This
delicate and radiant young actress is the heart and soul of
this drama, giving a multi-layered performance that enhances
its rather familiar story-line of star-crossed lovers who
can’t seem to stay out of each other’s lives. The fact that
she is gone, with Phoenix as her final K-drama,
creates an extra sense of melancholy, as you watch her
character go through various trials and tribulations. So from
the beginning I knew that even if Phoenix managed to
wind up with a happy ending for its heroine, it would be
difficult to disassociate it from Lee Eun Ju’s own personal
Lee Eun Ju
1980 - 2005 (RIP)
However, I found Phoenix to be
wonderfully entertaining and romantic, with moments of humor
and swooning romance, and it’s not surprising that it was
quite popular when it first aired more than fifteen years ago,
with average viewership ratings of 25.3% and a peak of 31.4%.
I’ve mentioned before to my friend Jill that to me a really
good K-drama is one that causes me to scream aloud at the TV
screen, either rejoicing with or scolding the characters. I
must have yelled at the TV during every episode – that’s how
involved I became with the lives of its leading characters and
their families and friends!
There’s nothing terribly original about Phoenix.
Boy from poor background meets girl from rich background,
loses girl, and maybe will be able to get girl back after life
has dealt them both a change in attitude and financial
circumstances. The charm in this sort of romantic drama isn’t
in its story-line, but rather in its familiarity, and how much
emotional investment you make in the characters. Phoenix
is old school Korean drama, focusing more on everyday life
than extraordinary experiences. Although I was initially
skeptical about spending 26-hours watching ANY K-drama, Phoenix
was well worth my time. Yes, there definitely were lags in the
action, some repetition, and subplots and characters I could
have done without entirely as they added nothing to the story
other than to annoy me (namely, the heroine’s selfish younger
sister and her antics, and the dopey would-be boyfriend of the
heroine’s best friend). But overall I had a great time,
totally absorbed by the acting of Lee Eun Ju and her two
handsome co-stars in the romantic triangle, Lee Seo Jin (Damo,
For The Stars, Lovers)
with his square jawed and clean cut good looks, and
dangerously sexy Eric Mun (Que Sera,
Sera and Discovery
of Romance) with his irresistible smile. I was
surprised to see that his bio lists him as being leader of the
South Korean boy band Shinwa, and enjoyed checking out some of
his music clips on YouTube. (Both he and Lee Seo Jin do a
little singing in the show, and in some scenes display their
bare chests and well-toned figures in bathing suits).
So let’s begin. If you’re a fan of K-dramas,
you’ve heard this set up before. Jang Sae Hoon (Lee Seo Jin),
is a poor, intelligent, proud young man (and an orphan to
boot!) who has ambition and is working his way through
college. Lee Ji Eun (Lee Eun Ju) is a spoiled, strong-willed
and impulsive young woman from a wealthy family who takes her
privilege for granted. Their paths cross with a literal bang
when Ji Eun crashes her red sports car through the window of
the garage where Sae Hoon works, knocking him to the ground.
He is indignant, she refuses to apologize, he slaps her across
the face for her rudeness, and when he isn’t looking, she
retaliates by stealing his book bag, which contains an
essential term paper he needs in order to graduate. He tracks
her down, and humbly asks for the return of the book bag. She
refuses to even admit she has it, but then agrees to give it
back to him only at a price: she wants him to pretend to be
her boyfriend so she can prove to her catty friends that she
is capable of getting one (they think no one likes her, but
it’s not very credible; she’s gorgeous, rich and vivacious,
and her high spirits are pretty infectious. I mean, women
might not like her, but men surely would).
Ji Eun takes Sae Hoon shopping so that he has
a nice suit when he meets her rich friends. She starts to
notice that he is pretty easy on the eyes. During their first
date, sparks fly and she decides she wants him. (They bond
over a painting of a phoenix, and the Perry Como song ‘And
I love you so’). Although he is adamant about not
wanting a relationship with her, since clearly it could never
work out between them, Ji Eun won’t take no for an answer. She
practically stalks him, insisting that they be a couple. He is
so enchanted with her that eventually he gives in to his
feelings. They are a good match, bringing out each other’s
equal capacity for affection and caring. The courtship of this
young couple is delightful – there’s a lot of chemistry
between these two leads, and they really LOOK at each other
with loving expressions. They are glowing and seem to have
great fun together. Since I am still a sucker for
on-screen romance, I was hooked by the end of episode two.
After a whirlwind marriage – pointedly
orchestrated by Ji Eun (when this girl loves someone she goes
out all to get him) things go south pretty quickly. Ji Eun had
always figured that her parents would help her financially,
but Sae Hoon is too proud to take their help (and I don’t
blame him). They live in a tiny walk up apartment, Sae Hoon is
either working or going to school, and Ji Eun is lonely and
bored. And she’s useless: Sae Hoon even has to do the
cooking and cleaning. Ji Eun is frustrated being married to a
poor man; Sae Hoon refuses to take a penny from her parents
even when they offer it, and they treat the poor guy like
trash (one of the mother’s favorite tricks is to throw water
in his face. I was again yelling at the screen since Ji Eun
doesn’t even defend her own husband from her parents).
Deliberately getting herself pregnant, in order to force the
marriage sooner rather than later, she suffers a miscarriage
after an argument with Sae Hoon and sinks into a depression.
She blames him for the argument which led to her racing out of
the apartment and falling down a flight of stairs (even though
I thought he was perfectly within his rights during that
argument!). She can’t envision returning to her impoverished
life with Sae Hoon and rejects him emotionally and physically.
He pleads for her to come back to him, even getting down on
his knees to apologize. (At which point I was yelling at the
TV, “Why are YOU apologizing to her? She’s so mean to you!”).
Despite his efforts, she shuts him out and allows herself to
be convinced by her parents to file for divorce. Heartbroken,
Sae Hoon takes the opportunity to leave for the US on a study
grant/scholarship. He’s determined to forget her and Korea
This decision leads us to a turning point.
When Ji Eun learns her now ex-husband is leaving the country,
she has a change of heart (“NOW you want him back?” I shouted
at the TV) and tries to intercept him at the airport. She’s
racing there in her red sports car, and her father is
following, honking his horn and trying to stop her. At that
point, a tragedy ensues which will change the course of her
destiny, introduce a lot of wailing and crying and feelings of
guilt, and we fast forward ten years.
Ji Eun is now the breadwinner for her
air-headed mother (Lee Kyung Jin, whose character is obsessed
with Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and
her sullen bratty younger sister (Kim Bin Woo. Perfectly
obnoxious). The father (Park Geun Hyung, veteran actor from The
Suspicious Housekeeper, Sandglass,
and many other dramas and films) died while pursuing Ji Eun to
the airport, and Ji Eun is not only wracked with guilt, she is
made to feel even worse by her sister. She is working as
some sort of personal assistant / housekeeper/ maid at a big
textile corporation where they make a lot of ugly clothes. All
her vivaciousness has been muted, she barely smiles, even her
haircut is more severe. (She reminded me of actress Lee Yo
Won’s wonderful performance in 49 Days).
Her mother sits around the apartment still mourning her dead
husband and the fact that after his death the family lost its
business and all their money (partly due to her own
extravagance and bad decisions). The younger sister dresses
like a tart and comes home drunk, blaming Ji Eun for the
father’s death and everything that happened since. I wanted to
slap them both, but Ji Eun accepts being their scapegoat and
has become a very hard working young woman with a quiet
dignity about her.
Meanwhile, Sae Hoon triumphantly returns to
Korea from the US with an Americanized first name (William)
and a prestigious job as a highly paid executive for –
wouldn’t you know it? -- that same big corporation Ji Eun is working for.
He is engaged to Yoon Mi Ran (actress Jung Hye Young from 90 Days
Time To Love, Playful
Family Book, deceptively sweet on the surface, but
more resourceful than she might seem) who is – another BIG
coincidence -- a former friend of Ji Eun. She is also in a wheelchair,
after being in a car accident, which left her paralyzed. Can
you guess who was driving the car at the time? Sae Hoon
feels guilty, and believes it is his duty to be ‘by her side’
and take care of her. Mi Ran is another familiar K-drama
character – the seemingly docile woman who has hidden strength
and who is determined to keep her man by any means necessary.
Naturally, the exes wind up crossing paths
again. They treat each other coldly but keep exchanging these
long, awkward looks that telegraph they still are still
harboring romantic feelings. But wait! There’s another
complication, because Ji Eun is now being courted by the
extremely charismatic Seo Jung Min (Eric Mun). He’s her boss’
son, and a self-proclaimed ‘player’ who is attracted by Ji
Eun’s looks and poise -- his nickname for her is ‘tough
girl.’ (In another K-drama cliché, Jung Min actually
‘ran into’ Ji
Eun years ago and has never forgotten her). Jung Min
has some demons of his own, a good bit of self-loathing and
guilt, and the traditionally rigid and demanding rich father
so prevalent in these dramas. He’s also spontaneous and
fun-loving and pulls out all the stops to win Ji Eun over. In one
charming scene, he starts dancing in front of his car’s
headlights, drawing Ji Eun into his arms. He is just so full
of energy and joie de vivre, he literally lights up the
screen, and soon I was again screaming at the TV for Ji Eun to
‘choose him and forget about that glum Sae Hoon. (Not that she
listened to me). Ji
Eun has become pretty glum herself, and she’s afraid
to lose her heart again. But she and Jung Min agree to be
‘friends’ and share a strong, playful chemistry, thus setting
a stage for the classic K-drama dilemma where the second male
lead is often more appealing than the first male lead, but the
heroine just can’t see it. Needless to say, Ji Eun’s mother, who
would practically spit on Sang Hoon, just adores her
daughter’s new and wealthy suitor.
Neither Sae Hoon nor Ji Eun want their
current partners to learn of their past relationship,
supposedly to spare their feelings -- even though Mi Ran and
Jung Min both know that their love interests were married
before and are now divorced and that each has a mysterious ex
he or she won’t discuss. Do I need to say that they both learn
the truth in a much worse way than if they had been told
upfront? Of course not. Mi Ran finds an old wedding picture
and love letters, and Sae Hoon slips up and calls Ji Eun
‘honey’ right in front of Jung Min. (Yelling at the screen
again – Oh, expletive!). In many K-dramas (as in real life)
trying to avoid hurting someone often leads to hurting them
I won’t reveal the remaining twists and turns
for Ji Eun and Sae Hoon as they try to move on with their
lives, because it’s much more fun to see where life is going
to take them. A great opportunity arises for Ji Eun to advance
herself professionally, which will keep her working even more
closely with Sae Hoon. You can imagine how well Mi Ran and
Jung Min take to that idea, and it’s fun seeing what lengths
they will go to.
As cliched as it is, Phoenix is
really about something quite profound: how easy it is
to fall in love, and how difficult it can be to make a
relationship work. And I wanted to find out how these
characters that I became so fond of would resolve the
messiness of their lives.
The performances in Phoenix are
flawless. Lee Eun Jun was a splendid actress, just radiant in
the early episodes, and convincingly subdued in the later
ones. I found her to be very appealing, and she conveys both
dignity and vulnerability in her role. It’s heartbreaking to
know that a year later, she committed suicide in her
apartment, slitting her wrists and hanging herself. The family
blamed the suicide on severe bouts of depression and mental
illness and said she had been suffering from insomnia and
distress after she had done nude scenes in her final film, The
Scarlet Letter. She left a suicide note scrawled
in blood, in which she wrote, "Mom, I am sorry and I love
you." Another note said, "I wanted to do too much. Even though
I live, I'm not really alive. I don't want anyone to be
disappointed. It's nice having money... I wanted to make
money." It’s a tragedy and a great loss, like the
suicides of so many K-drama actors.
As Sae Hoon, Lee Seo Jin is likewise
excellent, transforming himself from an awkward, determined
young man with a not very good haircut to a smooth and
polished businessman with a much more becoming haircut. He’s
quietly convincing as a man who has been burned in the past
but can’t give up on true love. Although I found his
personality to be a bit stiff, he’s still very attractive.
Eric Mun as Jung Min was a revelation to me, as I had never
seen him before. He’s mischievous and charming, and sexy as
anything, and I found him pretty hard to resist. Jung Hye
Young gives a complex performance as the rather pathetic Mi
Ran – she does some hateful things (I yelled at her several
times) but you can’t really hate her. She has a great smile
that lights up her whole face, and an equally darkening scowl
that lets you know you shouldn’t try to cross her.
In supporting roles, I particularly enjoyed
Lee Yoo Jin, an exotic looking beauty, as the heroine’s
sensible and energetic best friend (who has to endure an
annoying ‘Noona romance’ subplot with a dopey guy she used to
tutor) and Kim Byon Se as the hero’s older friend and
colleague, who keeps shaking his head over the tangled
relationship of the two ex-lovers.
I’m old-fashioned, so I have a soft spot for
the more ‘traditional’ K dramas that don’t rely on time
travel, ghosts, aliens, spies, murder or espionage, and just
present a good romantic story about ordinary people (even
though some of them are very rich). It reminded me of the
classic K-dramas like Beautiful
of Your Own World, Sad
Love Story and Shining
Inheritance. An added bonus is the wonderful OST,
my favorite was the catchy After
That Day theme song (which plays incessantly; I
was constantly singing it to myself).
So if you want to settle in with a leisurely
Korean soap opera, and pay tribute to an actress who aces the
demands of her final K-drama role before her suicide, Phoenix
is the series for you.
Happened To Film Star Lee Eun-ju? By Acclaimed Poetess Kim Seung Hee (1952 - )
What happened to film star Lee Eun-ju, I wonder?
They said that after a first attempt at suicide,
that didn't succeed, she took decisive action
a second time, and finally ended her life.
They said she firmly shut the door to her room
the day she died, as if to shut out the world.
Some people always look melancholy somehow;
She was like that, blue as a blue height.
They said she was earning a lot.
They said she was renting a house by the month.
They said she was depressed.
They said she was a Christian.
They said she felt ashamed for playing
a nude scene in the film The Scarlet Letter.
They said there was no knowing in the end
why she did it, but she wrote a letter to Mom,
"I'm sorry, Mom."
Somewhere there is someone in charge
of the color blue.
There's a dull blue,
but there's also a vivid blue.
A white horse high as the sky
lightly carries the color blue.
It waves, bearing on its wings
a crystal coffin.
Enough! Quickly, look, look!
Fly away, do!