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In anticipation of Uhm Tae Woong’s Man from the Equator starting soon after the end of Wild Romance (I’m still sad about that), I’ve been thinking about some earlier dramas I have seen him in.  Even though I don’t generally like him, he was in one of my favorite dramas of all time – Sassy Girl Chun Hyang (Kwae-geol Chun-hyang – KBS 2005).  This is one of the earliest dramas I’ve seen, and still one of the best.  Sassy Girl Chun Hyang was so awesome when I first saw it, and it still holds a special place in my maum.

This 17-episode drama is an update/retelling of the famous Legend of Chun Hyang (Chunhyangga) which told of the beautiful gisaeng, Chun Hyang, and Mong Ryong, the handsome aristocrat who falls in love with her.

In this modern-day reimagining, the story has been transplanted to a high school in the countryside (Namwon – the historical setting) where Sung Chun Hyang (Han Chae Young) is a beautiful and smart student who spends all of her free time trying to make money.  Really, her money-grubbiness was one of the best things about her – the scenes of her counting her money were classic.

Her mother is kind of a disreputable cabaret singer (and also one of the worst parents in Korean drama history), so her social status in town is pretty low, notwithstanding her beauty and brains.  She is also kind of a loud busybody, as is any respectable K-Drama heroine, defending her friends and stuff like that.

Her life gets a little messy when Lee Mong Ryong (Jae Hee) comes to town, banished there by his police bigwig father for misdeeds in Seoul (it totally wasn’t his fault).  There he meets the town belle, Chun Hyang of course, but it’s not love at first sight – or at least they don’t admit it is.

He sets about terrorizing her in that way only immature drama heroes can – it’s like the equivalent of pulling on a girl’s pigtails in elementary school – but of course all this bickering soon turns to love.  Sort of.

After a series of mishaps, they wind up spending a chaste night together, with the result that they “have” to get married in order to preserve her reputation.  Or something.

But there are some snags to that plan, and their being high school kids is the least of their problems.  Mong Ryong is not only terribly immature, but he’s had a crush ever since he can remember on his nuna, Hong Chae Rin (Park Shi Eun).

She behaves as evilly as only the second girl in a Korean drama can, though the Hong Sisters’ second girls really tend to outdo themselves.  Chae Rin is no exception, and I took great delight in hating her.

But she is nothing compared to the other man in Chun Hyang’s life – Byun Hak Do (Uhm Tae Woong), the director of an entertainment agency who becomes obsessed with her.  That’s pretty skanky of him, isn’t it, since they meet when she’s still a high school student.

He is based on the evil magistrate from the legend who was determined to make Chun Hyang his, and his modern-day counterpart is no different.  He uses his considerable clout to separate Chun Hyang and Mong Ryong, even stooping so low as to try and get Mong Ryong sent to prison unless she marries him.

Being the heroine, Choon Hyang makes a lot of sacrifices in order to save her love.  The drama actually covers a considerable stretch of time, following Chun Hyang and Mong Ryong from high school through college, and ending with them as adults – and there are problems throughout.  With everything going against them, how will Chun Hyang ever get to be with Mong Ryong, in the past or in the present?

The drama also weaves in highly campy nods to the legend with short scenes (usually at the end of an episode) which take considerable artistic license with the original story.

These were pretty cute because they didn’t just put cell phones in the Joseon, but they also tweaked the legend, making Chun Hyang much more active and shrewd in her quest for Mong Ryong, and showing her to be super sassy even to the evil magistrate – no need for Mong Ryong to rescue this damsel in distress.

The legend of Chun Hyang is super popular and pops up a lot in Korean pop culture, whether in serious movies or more fun fare like this drama.  There is another short 2 episode drama that I kind of want to see because it’s supposed to be so good, The Legend of Hyang Dang, which turns the story on its head – instead of Mong Ryong (Choi Si Won) falling in love with the scheming Chun Hyang, he really likes her long-suffering servant, Hyang Dang (Seo Ji Hye).  A recent movie, Bang Ja Chronicles (2010) did something similar, only this time Chun Hyang didn’t like the lame Mong Ryong, but instead fell for his handsome servant, Bang Ja.  This movie was a little more risqué, just to warn you.  This movie was also turned into a recent cable drama of the same name which I’m more interested in seeing since it stars Lee Sun Ho whom I loved in Tamra, the Island.  He’ll always be Yan to me!  Anyways, these two lovebirds have kind of taken on something of the status of Romeo and Juliet in the East, only that theirs is a happy ending.  There is even an annual Chun Hyang Festival held in Namwon – it’s that big.

Han Chae Young is one of my favorite Korean actresses – when she cries, I cry.  This has so far been her best drama, but she’s good in every role I’ve seen her in.  You wouldn’t think she’s so funny and goofy, but she can carry a comic drama and do the emotional scenes as well.

Though I think it was mean that for one of the NGs they showed her “sexy” dance scene – it wasn’t that bad.  I’m so glad the PD took a chance on her and cast her against type as the sassy Chun Hyang, thereby saving her from endless roles as the lame babe.

I saw her first in Only You, a kind of weird drama that I couldn’t stop watching.  I also liked her in Exhibition of Fireworks, where she played someone a little more mean and petty, so of course I liked that.  It’s too bad that lately she’s been doing more mature, boring dramas like A Man Called God or movies that I don’t want to see.  But I get it – she’s a married lady now, so no more goofy roles for her.

I also liked Jae Hee in this one since he plays a jerk really well.  And that image of him dressed as Juliet’s Nurse kind of stays with you for life.

I haven’t liked him so well in the other dramas I’ve seen him in, though.  All I can really remember about him in Witch Yoo Hee with Han Ga In was how he got bitch-slapped by her father.  Not the best vehicle for him, I think.  He was a little better in Three Daddies with One Mommy, but he was no longer the first guy and that made me uncomfortable.

I want to see 2008’s Hometown Legends, but that’s more for the spooky stories than for him.  He’s recently come out of the army, so maybe he’ll make another good drama soon.

Uhm Tae Woong didn’t leave much of an impression on me here.  I don’t think I hated him, but I hated his evil character.  Those thankless roles must be hard for actors.

This wasn’t the first drama I had seen him in, though.  That one was the slightly older gem Nine Tailed Fox (so fun) where he played a lethal cane-wielding gumiho (the cane was way better than the lethal yo-yo).  He eventually made it to lead actor in twisty dramas such as Resurrection and Lucifer, and I liked his movie Cyrano Dating Agency, but I’ve just never really been into him.  He’s currently on a popular variety show, 2 Days & 1 Night, and he’s just had a hit movie, Introduction to Architecture, so people tend to like him, I guess.  What I like the best about him is that his sister is the diva Uhm Jung Hwa (He Who Can’t Marry).  What talented siblings!  And I don’t think he’s aged a day.  Is it because he’s a gumiho?

Two other standouts in this drama were Mong Ryong’s parents who are Hong Sisters staples.  Ahn Suk Hwan and Choi Ran have usually been in a Hong Sisters drama together or singly, and when they haven’t you really felt their absence.

Ahn Suk Hwan was so cute as Mong Ryong’s gentle father who tried to impress his daughter-in-law with his non-existent sword skills.  And I liked Choi Ran too, but I think her best Hong Sisters performance has been in You’re Beautiful as Go Mi Nam’s “Leader” aunt.  When did she make the transition from fancy wife to earthy comic relief?

Since this was one of the earliest dramas I saw, I was not yet used to the dastardly ways of the second leads so I nearly went crazy every episode, crying and yelling and running around in circles (one of those is an exaggeration).  Those were the days.

I also marathoned this drama, watching into the wee hours of the morning, which is one of the best ways to watch a K-Drama, I think.  I saw My Girl (where Chun Hyang and Mong Ryong made excellent cameos) at around the same time, and that sealed the deal for me and the Hong Sisters.  Such fun dramas, even with the angst.

Those two dramas also paired them with the same PD – is that the secret to those dramas?  So you can imagine how much I’m looking forward to their 2012 drama (the Big one with Gong Yoo, Lee Min Jung, and Suzy) which reunites them with that PD on KBS.

This being one of my first dramas, it introduced me to so many things that would appear in nearly every drama I saw after, like the joys of bike rides, which might be illegal over here.  This was also my earliest piggyback ride, you know.  You don’t forget your first Korean drama piggyback ride.

I also learned that prosecutors in Korea have to be accomplished fighters in order to uphold justice.  You just can’t find that kind of information anywhere else.

This was one of the first super fun dramas I saw, and I think it was influential on the rom-com dramas which followed.  I don’t know how I’d watch this now after having seen so many other dramas, but at the time it was so shiny and new.  And I still totally love the OST – a standout, really.  I loved this drama, and if you have the means (and 17 or so hours to spare since you can’t stop watching), I highly recommend it.

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