A Breath of Fresh K-drama Air: Angry Mom Korean Drama Review
As I said before the show even started, I had some big qualms about how the premise could be executed in a way that wouldn't leave me rolling my eyes for half of the episodes. I mean, who in their right mind would believe that a 37-year-old actress could pass as a high school student? Not me!
I'm happy to admit that I completely underestimated Kim Hee Sun.
Without Kim Hee Sun, this show wouldn't work. Period. She not only managed to look much younger than her age through styling (though admittedly still not like a teenager), but she also carried herself like a teenager, taking on the swagger of her alter ego Bang Wool in a way that was both hilarious and convincing.
Of course, the humor of watching Kang Ja/Bang Wool take over the school isn't enough to carry an entire series. More than the fact that she made the show's premise possible, the series worked because she was its heart. Kang Ja felt like a real person, and a complex one at that—she was at once furious, fragile, temperamental, loving, jaded, hopeful, rash, and loyal. As someone who is often frustrated with one- or two- dimensional K-drama leads, I found Kim Hee Sun's Kang Ja to be a breath of fresh air.
It's possible that Kang Ja could have made the show bearable on her own, but fortunately, she was also surrounded by a full cast of well-rounded characters. The vast majority of the characters started with very realistic flaws (not just the all-too-common flaw of "I'm rich and evil and love to murder people!"), and they grew throughout the series. Even some of the characters who initially appeared to be stock characters surprised me with their development. Watching everyone in the core cast of characters learn and change together made the series immensely satisfying to watch.
Naturally, if we're talking about characters who won our hearts and made us care, we've got to give a shout-out to this guy:
I know I'm not the only one who developed an itsy bitsy Bok Dong obsession over the course of the show and may or may not have spent some time Googling actor Ji Soo just to find out what else he's been in (nothing, basically) and just how creepy a noona crush would be (For the record, he's 23, so not that bad)....
But in all seriousness, this was a breakout role for Ji Soo, and with good reason. Sure, he's a good looking guy, but that's not really what made me take notice—if looks were the only thing that mattered, they could have dropped any chocolate-abbed idol into the role and called it good. As the troubled kid with a side of puppy love, Ji Soo had a powerful screen presence. Even at the beginning of the series when his part wasn't all that big, I often found myself drawn to his character, even if I was just watching him react in the background.
It's kind of the same way I felt watching Ji Chang Wook in Healer. Honestly, Ji Chang Wook is not the "hottest" Korean actor I've ever seen, but something about him draws me in and makes me keep watching. The same goes for Ji Soo. As much as I may joke about having a noona crush, the kid's got some serious on-screen charisma that worked in tandem with an immensely likable character to create some K-drama magic, and I'm excited to see where he goes from here.
I heard some complaints about the writers adding in fan service scenes once Ji Soo's popularity skyrocketed. To be honest, I didn't see it as a detriment to the series. From a narrative perspective, it actually made sense to develop the character of Bok Dong, who was intricately connected to the major players in the drama. If they included random scenes of him shower brooding, that would be one thing, but making us care about his character arc? There are worse forms of fan service.
(Side note: If you loved Bok Dong as much as I did, dewaanifordrama over at Samsoon Down the Rabbit Hole kindly put together some translations of interviews with Ji Soo. Go ahead and feed that Ji Soo obsession!)
Of course, with a cast as massive as this one, there were bound to be a few cardboard cutout characters. I know they were trying to depict the scope of the corruption, but with so many bad guys, about half of them were regular ole villains with nothing really interesting going for them. There are only so many hours in a day to spend on baddie back stories, ya know?
Aside from the characters, the writing itself really shone in this drama. The premise came from a screenwriting competition, so I wasn't surprised to see some originality in the pilot episode, but I was delighted at how well the writing held up throughout the series without falling into too many typical K-drama cliches.
One example jumps out in particular. Everything I know about K-drama writing led me to believe that there was no way Ji Hyun Woo could be the lead male without the entire series revolving around an angsty romance between him and Kim Hee Sun's character. Then, after meeting the lazy husband in episode 1, I figured it was only a matter of time before he had an affair or did something else terrible to clear the path for True Love. I mean, that's K-drama 101, right?
|He's as surprised as you are.|
Maybe it says something about the state of K-drama writing that I was so surprised (and pleased) when the writers chose not to go down the obvious romance route. Wait, what? You mean to tell me that a man and a woman can work together and have a friendship without wanting to jump each others' bones?
Shocking, I know.
The lack of a romance allowed the writers to turn the series into a moving story of the love between mothers and daughters rather than love between men and women (though I did take some issue with the moms=good/dads=bad dichotomy that was pervasive through the vast majority of the series). It also gave Kang Ja's husband a chance at his own character development instead of shoehorning him into a villainous role out of necessity.
The lack of a Kang Ja/No Ah love story was a good move, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the series was impervious to the siren song of love. Honestly, one of the weakest plot points for me was the Baro/Kim Yoo Jung loveline. It almost felt like they got distracted by Ji Soo and then were like "Oh crap! We only have four more episodes, and Baro's been on the payroll this whole time! Quick, quick! Make the kiddos fall in love!"
Overall, though, the series was a really well-executed blend of serious subject matter injected with just enough humor to keep viewers from feeling bogged down. It was a smart series, and a series with a lot of heart.
Spoilerville! Read on at your own risk!
For those of you who actually watched the series, let's talk about episode 14 a little. I'm generally wary of big tragedies as tear-jerking plot points, but I actually thought this was (mostly) done really well. For the entire series, the characters (and the viewers, by extension) had been told over and over and over again just how dangerous the school annex was. Not only were the characters dismissive of the threat, but as a viewer, I also didn't take it that seriously. I just figured it would be used as evidence that the bad guys were corrupt, and then everyone would move along their merry way. Then when the catastrophe hit, I figured some anonymous students would die and it would be sad, but it would help them catch the bad guys. When they killed characters we knew and loved (like the glasses kid), I was completely blindsided. I don't know if they did that on purpose or what, but for me, it was like they pulled the rug out and said "SEE? We've been saying this was serious, and even you, the viewer, didn't take us seriously! This is exactly the problem!" The way the episode was set up in close proximity to the anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy especially made it feel like more than just a cheap emotional ploy and more like a serious reflection on society.
I'm on the fence about Jin Sang's death, though. The second he stayed in that school, I knew he was a goner. As I already said, I appreciated that the deadbeat husband got his own redemption arc. Unlike some of the people I saw commenting throughout the series, I never hated him. He wasn't as courageous as Kang Ja, but he made little comments throughout the series that made it clear—to me, at least—that he loved Ah Ran as his own and that some of what we saw as weakness was his own attempt to protect his family. That's why I was so happy to see him and Kang Ja moving towards understanding each other better before his death.
In the context of a redemption narrative, I can see why having the coward die to save his daughter makes for a satisfying ending, but it all felt a little too neat and tidy to me. He gets turned into a martyr, we all cry with Kang Ja for a scene, and then everybody's back to catching the bad guys again. I liked that they closed with Kang Ja's wistful tribute of "and the fathers" in the final scene, but the immediate effects of losing a spouse (and, in Ah Ran's case, a father) were handled in a way that made it feel too much like a plot convenience to make us cry. Am I the only one?
So what did you think of Angry Mom? Were you as taken with it as I was? Did you get caught up in the Ji soo hype? If Kim Hee Sun walked into a high school claiming to be a student, would you believe her? Let's discuss it all!