3 OST Vocal Selections: Firebird by Lee Seung Cheol Love For You by Jae Hong Shin After That Day by Namoo
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 sad story.
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!
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
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
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 much more.
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
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
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
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.
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!