Tamra, the Island
탐나는도다 (2009) MBC Director's Cut 21 Episodes
Historical Melodrama, Romance, Comedy,
Grade: A

Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA


This epic, sprawling Korean historical drama - romantic comedy, with rich touches of fantasy, Tamra, The Island (2009) is just plain addictive fun from beginning to end. I watched it with a friend when it was airing on Instant Netflix years ago, and we had a blast enjoying it for days, crying at times, and other times laughing our heads off (and ogling a certain cast member! shhhh! top left!). It's entertaining on so many levels, sometimes inspirational, and even educational. Although some people think it's a silly drama I think it's incredibly FUN. In fact I call it "My Guilty Pleasure." When I'm down in the dumps I put this on and soon I am smiling and laughing.

If you have any interest at all in Korean history, particularly of the Joseon Dynasty, or learning the Korean language, or even learning Hangul, their alphabet, then this is the show for you! Because it takes place in 17th century Korea, specifically the island that was then called Tamra but which we now know as Jeju Island, and an English-speaking Westerner character becomes shipwrecked on the island, there are many scenes where the Korean characters communicate with him and teach him the Korean language -- you can learn along with him; then there is an exiled nobleman character (top right), a literary man who is on the island filled with illiterate Koreans, and he tries to teach them how to write Hangul. This is a lot of fun; keep your English-Korean dictionary handy while the show is ongoing and freeze the screen and look up each new word as it's introduced. You'll probably come away from this show with at minimum thirty new Korean words permanently lodged in your brain, and maybe some new phrases as well! This Korean series was so popular in Japan that a manga series was published based on the story.

The cinematography is also particularly magnificent and breathtaking in this K-drama (Jeju is like Hawaii) and especially underwater camerawork is superb. Be aware that the television broadcasts in Korea were shortened to 16 episodes, but if you buy the DVD boxset from YA Entertainment you will receive the full Director's Cut 21 episodes. Yay for YA! After buying that DVD set I re-watched the show with my daughter and loved it even more in its complete version. The OST (soundtrack) is also exceptionally beautiful, which enhances all that gorgeous cinematography of Jeju Island. Here is the bittersweet main theme. Let it run as you read the rest of the review. It will make your heart melt. Or at least it did mine. ;)

The Story: The year is 1640, the land is Korea, and an island named Tamra is our setting. Tamra is a place where the women villagers are the primary economic providers for the men and children; they dive into the sea to harvest abalone (sea snails / molluscs); it's grueling work but it makes the women strong and resilient. It's a time when foreigners were not allowed to visit or live in Korea, and trade with foreigners was also prohibited. (This time period is called "the hermit kingdom"). Most of the abalone that is harvested is taken for the King and so Tamra villagers subsist on only a fraction of what they produce. They remain loyal to the King but the situation does cause political instability, with some wanting to make Tamra its own independent state. It's a hard and simple life for the villagers but the people are admirable, and filled with energy and good spirits. The women divers, in particular, are so enjoyable to watch; their camaraderie and sense of competition among themselves make them seem quite modern (women's concerns have been pretty much the same all throughout history). I remember my friend and I in particular got a kick out of one woman diver who flirted with every man she met and she was always turned down. She was a laugh riot!

Female divers don't take guff from anyone!

A Korean nobleman named Park Gyu (Joo-hwan Im from The Snow Queen and Boys Over Flowers) is apparently exiled in Tamra after a sexual scandal (but that's not the real reason he's on the island, which we will discover later). He is book learned but has never worked physically a day in his life (it would be similar to the privileged gentry at that time in England who lived on inherited family money and didn't have to work). No one wants to take him in and feed him, especially because he seems so arrogant and lazy, expecting hard-working "common" people to do everything for him. He scoffs at their food, their toilet facilities (a hole in the ground where droppings feed the pigs!), their clothes, their lack of manners, their lack of formal education, etc.

Finally one family with the surname Jang says he can live in their outdoor shed but he has to work along with everyone else - no work, no food! The mother,
Jang-nyeo (Mi-kyung Kim, veteran actress of many dramas) is the head diver and therefore somewhat of an authority among the women. She is frustrated by her oldest daughter Beo-jin Jang (Seo Woo, who played the Cinderella character in Cinderella's Sister) because she is the least successful diver out of all of them, even after eight years of experience harvesting the abalone.

Beo-jin and Park Gyu meet at first by accident and do not get along at all in the beginning; the ice only begins to break between them later when he helps rescue her loving father,
Won-bin Jang (Woo-min Byun), and herself from being imprisoned due to their falling asleep while guarding the King's batch of abalone (it comes out later they were drugged), which had resulted in some of the King's food being stolen. He goes to work to find the thief and Beo-jin goes diving to try and replace the amount of abalone that was stolen. The family are grateful to Park Gyu afterward for his assistance and start to treat him better, and his feelings start to become more tender toward them too. The person he watches a bit more closely than the others is Beo-jin, although she doesn't seem that savvy about his growing protective feelings toward her....yet.

Beo-jin seems unaware that Park Gyu has growing feelings for her

Part of the reason Beo-jin doesn't realize Park Gyu is starting to care about her is because she has been distracted for weeks after rescuing a beautiful blond haired, blue eyed Westerner, an Englishman named William Spencer (actor
Pierre Deporte) who had been unconscious after a shipwreck. She makes a little temporary home for him in a cave she frequents, and helps him to recover, making him warm and bringing him food. He is very sweet and grateful and after a few false starts they manage to understand what their names are (it's funny because William originally thinks she is saying her name is Virgin (Beo-jin) and he starts to laugh)!

The stuff that dreams are made of

She starts teaching him basic words and phrases in Korean and eventually they become attracted to one another. She does worry about him though, for if a foreigner is discovered on the island he may be imprisoned or executed (and those harboring them can be too!), so she very secretly visits him as often as she can to check up on him and bring him food. (I think this is the only K-drama I've ever watched where the Asian leading lady falls in love with a Caucasian man).

If Beo-jin is found to be harboring a foreigner she could be arrested or executed ... no wonder Park Gyu wishes William would leave!

William had been shipwrecked after a storm; he had been interested in going to Japan to open a trade route and to collect historical ceramics (though a side reason was he wanted to escape an arranged marriage that his aristocratic mother wanted to set up for him). His mother wants him home and hires a Japanese man and friend of William's, Yan
Kawamura (actor Sun-ho Lee, who played the brother who committed suicide in The Snow Queen) to go get him. One day Yan shows up on Tamra! Now Beo-jin has TWO foreigners she has to worry about protecting from the authorities. They begin to wonder how they can escape the island and get to Nagasaki, Japan, their original destination, but nothing looks promising. If they just show up in the harbor they'll be arrested.

Beo-jin at least gives Yan some native island clothes so he isn't conspicuous as a Japanese man, and he is then able to move around in public. It turns out that he had lived near a section of Nagasaki that had some Korean citizens so he had grown up learning both languages. He had also studied English while in Britain, and he has lived in the Netherlands too and knows Dutch, so he is fluent in four languages (this amazingly good-looking actor did a great job seamlessly speaking all four languages! I was very impressed with him here).

Then an alarming moment: a xenophobic official finds Western style clothing in Beo-jin's cave (thankfully the two men were not there at the time) and arrests her when she refuses to answer where the clothes came from. "Who are you hiding?" she is asked; she says nothing, and is about to be whipped when Park Gyu comes forward with a young Korean maritime friend named Boksun who lies and claims the clothes are his. Beo-jin is let go, so Park Gyu has saved the day once again! Beo-jin is grateful to him but still doesn't see where his concern is really coming from (though I think Beo-jin's mother is starting to catch on by this point). Park Gyu figures out what is going on in Beo-jin's life and tells her to turn the foreigners in to the authorities but she says she won't. She is already in love with William and wants him safe. 

William and Yan try to figure out some way to get boat passage to Japan -
Hey, would you guys consider Florida? I'd gladly put you up for the night!

Meanwhile, a diving competition is held among two groups of women, and Beo-jin is selected, with much misgiving, with diving for her group. Someone from the opposition group hands her a cup of water with drugs in it and when she dives she almost drowns in the water because she passes out. William, watching from afar and fearful for her life, jumps in the water and rescues her. When he lifts her to the beach he gives her mouth to mouth resuscitation and puts his hands on her chest to push out water from her lungs. Jealous Park Gyu comes upon them, and knowing nothing about CPR, he thinks William is molesting her and he slugs him, picks her up, and carries her home to her worried family. Once more Park Gyu is credited with rescuing Beo-jin and all the villagers come together to celebrate and offer him alcoholic drinks, a sure sign that he has finally earned their respect and been accepted as one of them. He's no longer the "Banished One".

Of course Park Gyu remains silent about who really rescued Beo-jin; he tells Beo-jin what he thinks he saw on the beach and why she has to be careful of William. "Men can change at any moment," he warns her. He privately writes home to his father and asks for money so he can give it to Yan and William for boat passage -- there's more than one reason he wants them out of Dodge -- oops! I mean Tamra. It's obvious to Park Gyu whom Beo-jin is in love with, and it's not him. Park Gyu gives Yan the money for their passage out of the island. (At this point even I am starting to think, "Good riddance!" even though I love staring at hunky William and Yan!). Everything would be much more calm for Tamra if they were not around! 

You are one of us now -- take a drink! Beo-jin's parents make peace with Park Gyu

William tells Beo-jin he and Yan have passage on a boat to Japan and will she come with him? After some inner struggle Beo-jin says she will - even though she will miss her family she will never be a good diver, so what is the point of staying on Tamra? She loves William, or so she thinks. Park Gyu asks her where she is going, whether she is leaving to go with William and she lies to him and says no, but sneaks out anyway.

Officers arrive at the boat because they hear there are foreigners on it and Yan and William jump into the water and swim to shore. Beo-jin watches helplessly from a distance. They are discovered by the villagers, who think the blond haired, blue eyed young William is a goblin. They are amazed when he speaks to them in Korean (he sure learned fast!). Yan is allowed to leave since he is Asian but they bring William to the local priest who is the authority in their town and ask him if he should be turned over to the magistrate (who likes to have people whipped at the slightest provocation). The priest says "no"; since it was a shipwreck it was not his fault. He shelters William for a few days, allowing Beo-jin some quiet time with him, but then the magistrate discovers William for himself when he spies him climbing over a wall. Park Gyu is able to stop William's arrest by interrupting the magistrate and showing him a royal seal in his possession. It proves that he is on a special mission on the island for the King, so his "exile" had all been a hoax so he could spy on certain people in the village whom the King suspects as thieves and drug dealers. (Park Gyu had found canisters of illegal white powder called mabisan (a sedative) in several places in town). The magistrate is shocked at Park Gyu's real identity and backs off his questioning about William.


Only Park Gyu is aware that the chief person he is suspicious of as the rebellious gang leader, thief, and drug trafficker against the King is ... none other than that local trusted priest who has been sheltering William!!! The priest even orders the killing of the magistrate because he's on to the truth about him! (Watch out for your most trusted leaders in society - religious, political, social - they are the ones MOST likely to betray you!).

Meanwhile (I am sure to relieve building tension with the growing spy subplot) some comic relief is in store. The divers have found some shipping chests in the water that came from shipwrecked boats -- inside are jugs of brown bitter beans. William informs them that these are coffee beans and if they are prepared just right they make a drink that is popular in England. "If you drink too much of it though it won't let you sleep!" he warns them but no one listens. William makes the drink and everyone in the village starts to get addicted. So much for their traditional green tea! So in one corner you have a priest who is pushing a sedative on the people to put them to sleep so he can steal from the King, and in the second corner you have the people drinking something new to Tamra that will make them hyper and keep them awake! No wonder the people of Tamra are oddballs!!! (The crazy loon who sees ghosts everywhere is a prime example - how I laughed at this wacky dude).

Park Gyu once more becomes the hero on Tamra when he squashes the priest's rebellion and it is revealed he never was exiled, that he was indeed on a secret mission from the King. "Here comes the Royal Investigator!" the people shout happily as he rides into town. Everyone waves and cheers and all the women swoon. He is now the object of their worship, whereas once he had been the greatest object of their scorn.

Even Beo-jin has to admire how much he's done to clean up Tamra's corruption and to save William's life in the bargain. However, there is a price to be paid for William; Park Gyu has to be sure and remove William off Tamra, even if it means taking him himself. Yet Beo-jin and William are heartbroken to be parted. Park Gyu plans to leave Tamra with William and go back to the mainland permanently in continued service to the King. He says a tearful goodbye to the people, and especially to Beo-jin's family who had grown to love him as a son. Beo-jin and William say tearful farewells at the dock, with Park Gyu standing nearby, heartbroken to see the one he loves crying over another man. Out of the grief of his heart he insults her as a commoner so she will leave the dock, and she looks at him in shock. Their parting is not a good one. 

Weeks and months pass and Beo-jin is alone on Tamra without William or Park Gyu. She decides to work harder than ever as a diver and basically dives for the abalone day and night to try to escape from the pain she feels. Then she finally snaps and decides she will leave Tamra and go to the mainland in search of William. Her loving father gives her money he has saved, to help her on her trip. (Whatta Dad!).

Then the story takes on a second phase, as Beo-jin gets on the boat and who should be a passenger on it with her but Yan, who is also planning on tracking down William. Oh my goodness, are we going to have a THIRD romance for Beo-jin, with the hunkiest man of all in this show??? Things are looking more intriguing than ever! "Let's go together!" suggests Beo-jin. "Two is better than one." Yan agrees. LUCKY GIRL!!!

On the mainland Park Gyu and William had been attacked by bandits and Park Gyu was seriously hurt. It was William's turn to save Park Gyu's life. Both were imprisoned but able to escape -- and when they do, in a very funny scene, they break through a clay wall and ... run smack dab into Beo-jin and Yan! How convenient! What a great reunion! Now Beo-jin has three men who care about her welfare! (many of us find it hard to find ONE!). All four of them live together for awhile in the country, due to the protection of a local ceramic artist, partly to allow Park Gyu to heal from his wounds before deciding their next paths. It's tough for Park Gyu to watch William and Beo-jin all lovey dovey again, it's tough for him to allow her to take care of his own wounds. When he is right next to her it's harder for him to conceal his real feelings. I kept wishing he would say SOMETHING to her, but he still plays the aloof game. (It's unspoken but I feel one of the big reasons he remains silent is that he finds it hard to be in a contest with a Westerner when he thinks he will lose). 

Park Gyu is expected by the King eventually, Yan wants to return to Japan and pressures William and Beo-jin to come with him. William dyes his blond hair black, with the intent of trying to hide his race when they get to the boat. Then on the night before their sailing Beo-jin suddenly begins to get cold feet! What could the meaning of this be? Does she really not want to go to Japan with William? She nervously tells Yan and William that maybe they should wait longer because Park Gyu isn't healed completely yet. This doesn't sit well with William. It's the first time he doubts Beo-jin's love for him.

Beo-jin tends to Park Gyu's sword wound ---
very K-drama has these "let me fix your boo boos" scenes,

they give the characters an opportunity to dwell
on personal attraction feelings they are repressing

The next morning Park Gyu and William shake hands and Park Gyu asks William to take care of Beo-jin for him. "She's never left Korea before. She will only have you. Look after her well." William can finally see that Park Gyu loves her, but takes his farewell as if nothing has changed.

In a gut-wrenching good-bye through closed doors Beo-jin talks to Park Gyu over and over again as she begins to walk away with William, "I'm going, Banished One. I'm leaving. Come out, come say goodbye. I'm really going. I'm leaving now." Inside his dark room that's really like a jail cell of his own making Park Gyu sits on the floor and doubles over in grief. He never does come out to say goodbye to her. His pride won't allow him, after all he did for the girl and her family and community. I remember how my friend and I were passing each other Kleenex to cry into during this killer scene, then shouting at Beo-jin "Go in there and give him a hug, girl!!!". Here it is on video:

This review takes us up to episode 12 out of 21 on the DVD set. There is much more to the story of William, Beo-jin, Yan, and Park Gyu, including a captured into slavery story and an unexpected re-union between Park Gyu and Beo-jin that leads to all kinds of bittersweet surprise romantic complications, and much more, but you will have to discover all the beautiful, fun complexities for yourself. We do have a happy, beautiful ending - of course with humor thrown in - and that's how I will conclude this review.

On a filming break, lead actors Seo Woo
Joo-hwan Im share a sweet laugh

I would STRONGLY suggest you buy the
DVD boxset from YA Entertainment. If you watch most videos streaming online you will ONLY see the truncated series of 16 episodes, not the more satisfying 21 episodes of the Director's Cut. Isn't it worth it to get 5 more episodes of scenes with Beo-jin, Park Gyu, William and Yan? Be aware that all YA Entertainment DVD boxsets have gone out of print because the company went out of business recently, so they are all starting to go for a lot of money on sites like Amazon. Get yours before that happens to Tamra. This is such a lovely and fun series, with great performances by its cast, it's unique to see a romance between an Asian and a Westerner, and I wouldn't want you to miss it.