I think I am about to pronounce 2010 as the year of underappreciated dramas in k-dramas. Discarded somewhat cruelly by popular opinion (or so it seems), dramas like Jejoongwon, Comrades and Life is beautiful are well conceived stories that put a lot of the stories featured in most of the popular productions to shame. I despair, at least a little, that dramas like these get little to no recognition. Some spoilers follow, though perhaps minor ones as I do not delve into the details of what happens, just present more or less revealing outlines of characters and their situation in the story.
Life is Beautiful is a Story of a multigenerational blended family living on Jeju Island. Its cast consists largely of household TV names. They all work rather well together, though. The story is told with a lot of affection. If you enjoyed the parents in Reply 1994 and 1997, I think you may go absolutely nuts over the parents in Life Beautiful. They are a loving, stable couple. An ordinary family but not always ordinary circumstances. They live on Jeju island and there are some really pretty shots of the area as well. Here’s a little break down.
I. The Grandmother and Granfather ( Kim Yong Rim and Choi Jung Hun)
Oh the grandfather is quite the character. He fathered a lot of children with different women but returns all of a sudden, to his first wife. She has problems accepting him back but ultimately relents. She shows not only strength but integrity and concern for her very frivolous cheating husband.
II. The Parents, Min Jae and Byung Tae (Kim Hae Sok and Kim Yeong Cheol)
They stand at the center of family life, of course. They both had sad past experiences and the fact that they found enduring love with each other is very precious. They are extremely loving and supportive and act as real parents do, especially important in the story of their eldest son, a gay. I absolutely loved them. Finally, Kim Yeong Cheol plays actually a good, proper dad, and a very loving husband not the evil one he is so frequently typecast as, poor man. I absolutely love him and Kim Hae Sok here. And Kim Hae Sok’s character is quite the strong, loving and understanding woman too. There are a few things she becomes adamant about but her sense of understanding always seems to overcome even the things she initially cannot seem to let go.
III. The Big Uncle, Byung Jun (Kim Sang Joong)
Portrayed by Kim Sang Joong he is, next to the parents, my favourite character. A confirmed bachelor in confirmed celibate of 20 years, he eventually has a run in with a woman CEO who kind of changes his celibacy plans. ByungJun is as rigid as they come, and Chief Jo is as childish as they come. They make a wonderfully compatible pair after all is said and done. I loved observing the developments in their relationship. Kin Sang Joong is as always rather magnetic as a TV actor and he does well in a role that, though at first seemingly at odds with the other characters he has portrayed, is one that is extremely likeable and endearing. I found it very rewarding to observe how he – very reluctantly- reopens to the idea of marriage and love after such a long time only to find some comfort and joy in it. This side-story is definitely my favourite. The source of hilarity here lies exactly in the contrast between her childishness and oftentimes selfishness (albeit one she reflects on) and his severity and rigidity. Byung Jun is also the son who is always most concerned about the grandmother’s well-being and most judgmentally strict about the grandfather. He can be insensitive sometimes. I absolutely loved this.
IV. The younger Uncle, Byung Gyul (Yoon Da Hoon)
A bad mouth and a slob, Byung Tae’s youngest brother also has his very sympathetic moments. He is kind of even more relatable I believe and very well portrayed indeed with his petty jealousies and struggle to accept some of the events he finds difficult to accept. He really likes his nephew TaeSub, hence why he has the most difficulty with accepting TaeSub’s choice. He also feels inferior towards his elder brother, Byung Jun and seems extremely desolate sometimes. I do like him.
V. The eldest Son, Tae Sub (Song Chang Ui)
Shy and studious as child, Tae Sub has a secret lover who is gay. This story is rife with heartbreak for everyone involved. So depending on your perspective you may either sympathise with him and his lover or hate them for breaking the hearts of their families. Kyung Soo (Lee Sang Woo), his partner, in particular has had some really tough choices to make but ultimately wants to live according to his nature and choice. The problems these two face are the ones one may expect. You may find their choices selfish, as Kyung Soo’s mother does. Kyung Soo’s mother (Kim Young Ran) displays behaviour that is understandable, yet a little callous on the outside. Tae Sub’s parents, in turn, demonstrate an entirely different approach to the situation, much to my joy too. They also treat Kyung Soo’s mother’s concerns very kindly.
The story tried to convey understanding about the position and situation of everyone involved, not just the perspective of the gay couple alone. Everyone and their perspectives on this relationship, as well as how the relationship affected them, were actually considered. It is the drama’s fairly original point, probably the center of interest for many viewers, and it is handled rather well too.
VI. The eldest daughter, Ji Hye (Woo He Jin)
She keeps her husband, portrayed by the ever likeable Lee Min Woo, on a very very short leash and when she loosens that control, hell always seems to break loose as well, as her husband gets into all sorts of things that can only mean trouble with his wife. A kind of volatile and perhaps a little imbalanced relationship, since he is so henpecked and she so controlling…it does become a source of humour as well, though there were times when it really got to the point of annoying. They have a daughter at the start..and other offspring potentially on the way. Actually on the subject of henpecking, I do think it’s fair to say all men in his drama are henpecked in one way or another…or is it just that all women have their own ways of dealing with them? Makes me wonder about the scriptwriter. When I look back, practically all women have been cheated by someone in this drama, in one way or another. But it still does not take away from the humour and warmth of the entire story, just a point to note.
VII. Younger son Ho Sub (Lee Sang Yoon)
His story was perhaps less engaging and more straightforward for me since he falls in love with his mother’s assistant, though granted the assistant has a sad backstory of her own and is a more closed-up character overall. There are numerous bumps along the way as well. Given his older brother’s situation, he is “next in line” to assure that grandmother sees a grandchild. He’s not the character I was most invested in, as likeable as he is. But then they are all likeable, but others are more magnetic.
VIII. Younger daughter, Cho Rong (Nam Gyu Ri)
A rather lively, resolute sometimes really annoying, bratty girl who has her own fan following her around, but she does not appear to be really fond of him…He sticks to her like a glue, she seems to want to get rid of him, but only half-heartedly and so their antics continue for a very long time. She’s really close with Ho Sub.
There are some other characters close to the family that have their own little or greater problems and worries. The story is told with great affection and warmth. It feels like a lot humanity and understanding has been written into it instead of rash, one-sided judgmentality or condemnation. That’s why I really liked it. The parents feel as parents should be. There are some comedic elements, plenty of them in fact, to keep the mood more light-hearted than melodramatic. There is some drama but drama that stems from relatable concerns, such as the coming out of the gay son. If you want detail from everyday life, this drama has it in the heaps. If you want great family, this one has it and some! Lots of things happen, but principally what distinguishes this from other similar titles for me is the affection, the warmth, the palapable and genuine love and humane understanding of others that shines through characters actions and motivations, especially the parents. And everyone in this drama is given proper and satisfying closure. Not Oyjakgyo Brothers (which resorted to cheap makjang in the end) not any other similar title that I have seen came even close to the warmth and understanding this drama has. Furthermore, you will not find a trace of makajng, birth secrets or anything of this sort here, which is even better. Dramas can be engaging without the sort of shallow plots and twists that makjangs require and Life is Beautiful is a proof. In this way, Life is Beauitful feels more authentic though to be sure you may also find that certain motives repeat themselves consistently, as if to make a point of highlighting the strengths of the women featured in the story.
Drama like this being underapreciated seems a bit of a crime. A Korean drama has surprised me yet again. I really love such surprises. Such dramas prove that Koreans are not all about all pretty-faced, shallow makjang-y “popular oppa” type dramas that are overhyped left and right but that they can actually produce something a little more satisfying that is warm, affectionate and humane.