White Tower aka Behind The White Tower
하얀 거탑
MBC (2007) 20 Episodes
Medical Melodrama, Grade: A
Korean Drama Review by Jill, USA
Re-watched Early 2019 After It Was Remastered

A big ratings' hit medical drama without a drop of typical K-drama sappy romance in it, White Tower (2007) aka Behind The White Tower, broke the mold for Korean dramas in many ways, shattering old stereotypes that a drama couldn't be a hit without a young couple's romance as the cornerstone of the story. This is a drama for older, more savvy viewers who are yearning for entertainment that satisfies their intelligence and mature worldviews.

We go inside a busy city university hospital and watch various doctors dealing with patients and their families (sometimes reacting to them well, other times not so well), complicated surgeries, medical research, and most fascinating, their relationships with each other, often as competitors. When the president of the hospital decides to retire the drama heats up as we see what several doctors are capable of doing for personal ambition, to take his head position after he leaves. Sometimes it's not very pretty. The man has a shrewd head on his shoulders and isn't about to make the most obvious choice just because it's expected of him. His decision making process keeps the audience on their toes mentally.

Beautifully Remastered and Aired Again In Korea Early 2019

Many of Korea's best actors are in this production, including a personal favorite of mine Kim Myung Min (who played Maestro in Beethoven Virus a year later), Lee Sun Gyun (who was so delightful opposite Gong Hyo Jin in Pasta three years later and wonderful in My Mister in 2018), handsome Cha In Pyo (who played the South Korean president in the blockbuster film The Flu in 2013), Lee Jung Gil (who played Shin Sung Rok's and Park Hae Jin's father in 2013-14's My Love From Another Star), Kim Chang Wan (who played Kim Soo Hyun's adoptive "father" in My Love From Another Star), and Byun Hee Bong (who played the wacky father in the worldwide hit 2006 film The Host). In short we see a lot of "grey hairs" but I happen to LOVE that -- often the secondary characters played by veteran actors in these K-dramas are just as interesting to watch as the younger leads. But for all that it is -- not surprisingly if you've watched his acting prowess before -- Kim Myung Min who SWEPT all the drama awards as Best Actor that year: 1) the most prestigious Baeksang Award, 2) the MBC Drama Awards, 3) Grimae Awards, 4) Producers' Awards Of Korea.

Kim Myung Min as Doctor Jang Joon Hyuk

The Story: Brilliant physician Jang Joon Hyuk (Kim Myung Min) is a rising star in the Myeongin University Hospital surgery department. His impressive research, diagnostic, and surgical skills are undeniable, especially in the field of pancreatic cancer where he does his best work, but his rather cold personality has not warmed him to many on staff, including the head of the hospital who is about to retire, Dr. Lee Joo Wan (Lee Jung Gil). Everyone expects Dr. Lee to hand pick Dr. Jang as his successor but he is hesitating and watching other candidates closely too. Dr. Jang has a sexy girlfriend named Hee Jae (Kim Bo Kyung from the horror film Epitaph) but is really married to his work.

Doctor Choi Do Young (Lee Sun Gyun) is another doctor the administrator is considering for the head position: this doctor seems equally committed to the well-being of his patients as Dr. Jang is, but he is a more sympathetic person: he listens more carefully, and he cares more about their fates as human beings and not just as patients, which sometimes leads to frequent clashes with other personnel within the hospital. Dr. Choi is happily married to a nice lady named Yoo Jin (Song Seon Mi) and has a sweet little daughter. As the series progresses it becomes obvious that Dr. Jang's lady is very attracted to the married Dr. Choi. Will Dr. Jang ever figure this out, or is he too wrapped up in his work at the hospital?
Dr. Jang and Dr. Choi start out in the story as good friends and then eventually become enemies, especially when later a highly publicized malpractice lawsuit hits the hospital and turns it upside down. Will the White Tower come crumbling down into ruins?

Lee Sun Gyun and Kim Myung Min

Then a third rival emerges on the scene for the head administrative position in the form of newly hired Doctor Noh Min Guk (Cha In Pyo), who is smooth and clever at dealing with politics as well as medicine inside the white tower. He seems to quickly gather the favorite recommendation of the retiring Dr. Lee. The ambitious Doctor Jang, however, is determined to win the head appointment at all costs.

Actor Cha In Pyo as Dr. Noh
There were some obvious differences to me as I watched this series in South Korea's medical practices versus the United States'. For instance, informed consent is a legal right for the patient in our country, but in South Korea, depicted in this series, the doctors seem like they have carte blanche to withhold certain crucial diagnosis from their patients if they deem them incapable of handling the truth. To me that is where the family should step in and demand that the truth be told so they can prepare their family members for possible medical treatments and even the possibility of death. The lawsuit that threatens to tear the hospital apart stems from this withholding practice of the doctors on staff, including the charismatic Dr. Jang. I found my sympathies completely with the family members in these cases and not with the doctors. I think a malpractice lawsuit is inevitable when doctors think they can play God with patients' lives.

In one case the patient goes to another hospital for a second opinion and discovers the truth. I always like a doctor who is completely up front with me and does not beat around the bush. This was the most frustrating part of the story for me. In fact, over the course of twenty episodes, three different patients face the likelihood of death while in the hospital, while the entire hospital colludes in a concerted effort to distract the patients from the truth in the stated belief that knowing a diagnosis of cancer, even before it reaches the terminal stage, is bad for their health. (?)

The respect for the integrity and pride of the patient has a long history in medicine in the Western world, although it seems to be lacking in the East, if you go by this series. I feel that doctors are often reluctant to face a patient with the truth because it puts them face-to-face with their own mortality, and their own impotence and fallibility as human beings. I will never forget the doctor's reaction in my own case when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. He never actually said the words "you have cancer". Rather he walked in without looking at me, looked at an x-ray instead, and said, "This is how we are going to handle this ..." as if I was not there at all. I soon enough changed doctors and let someone else "handle this" who saw me as a valuable human being and who gave me choices about treatment. :)

Tell the Truth: Even When It's Difficult

That which has been the hallmark of Korean television drama – emotional honesty and integrity – is developed to a fine pitch in this series.  Characters and situations are even more textured, more complicated, less obvious, less morally straightforward. This is especially true for Dr. Lee who eventually engages in some pretty unethical practices in order to ensure the hospital remains in the hands of someone who cares for patients as much as he did during his tenure. I have to confess I didn't see that coming.

What exactly is he doing here?
Practicing surgical techniques in his sleep?
Or getting ready to lead an orchestra
in his next drama?

Despite the frustrations in the story I really liked this series and would recommend it to anyone who is sick and tired of the same old, same old love triangle romances of twenty year old couples so prevalent in KdramaLand. And anyone who loves Kim Myung Min do not miss it for the world. He's so fantastic an actor, and so complex, that it's beyond belief! You can watch this series on Viki.com, look for the remastered version - night and day in quality. Enjoy.