In a nutshell: This is not a rom-com. There is romance; there is comedy. But if you go in expecting a romantic-comedy of the usual order, you’ll soon find yourself lost in strange plot turns and never-before-seen character decisions. Instead, this drama dives deeply into standard rom-com myths and blows them apart. At the same time it takes a sharp, almost cynical, look at the current economic state of S.Korea and the vast, seemingly uncrossable, gulf between the haves and the have-nots. (Though, like any good story, the economic truths carry out past Korea, I would say.) I adored both the depth of what the drama was saying and also the style in which it was said. My advice? Follow the white rabbit.
White Rabbit…? This would fall under the “Style” heading. I adored the drama’s clever use of the Alice in Wonderland motif. The title was more than a cute pun and that honestly surprised me. I expected a few callbacks but was delighted with the amount of symbolism used. (Honesty, I went a little mad about catching it all — posts contain massive spoilers) But they also managed to avoid the trap of becoming too beholden to their source material. The motif informed on and underlined the story and theme, it didn’t overwhelm it. Which also meant the characters breathed instead of clunking around wearing a “Mad Hatter” mask (to pick a random example).
Rom-Com Myth…? Alice in Cheondam-dong took on the most popular K-Drama trope of them all: the Candy and the Chaebol. A poor, hardworking, always optimistic no matter what, girl (it was a Manga character, Candy, who fully embodied the ideal and gave the type her name) has an adorable run in with a spoiled, rude, but actually a teddy-bear beneath it all, rich boy. She sees the teddy-bear beneath, and has nothing but contempt for his money. He loves her for the way she brightens his world, and is especially charmed that she cares nothing for his money.
Our heroine, Han Se-kyung, is poor and hardworking. But when we meet her, her hope and optimism have been ground down to almost nothing. After slamming again and again into the “but you didn’t study abroad; you aren’t wearing the right brand names; you have no connections” ceiling, she’s tired and she’s giving up. (The currently tough job-market is fully evoked.) But it’s just as she’s giving up that she crosses paths with our Chaebol, Jean Thierry Cha / Cha Seung-jo, who believes women are only interested in money and care nothing about love (but would really, really like to be proved wrong).
So the myth is turned inside out in that Seung-jo actually wants to find a Candy (rather than being won over by virtues he didn’t know existed), and Se-kyung actually wants to find a Chaebol (rather than thinking money doesn’t matter).
Economic state…? This is where I dive deep into nerd-dom and reference an article from The Economist, “South Korea’s economy: What do you do when you reach the top?”. To nutshell the article (or cherry-pick the bit that interested me regarding this drama): the chaebol system is unfriendly to entrepreneurs; college graduates are having a really hard time finding steady work. It’s those realities that are grinding Se-kyung down. But it’s those realities that Seung-jo doesn’t have active knowledge of.
By setting up the wealthy neighborhood of Cheongdam-dong as a Wonderland Se-kyung would like to break into and a place where Seung-jo has the power to create his own dream of how the world works, the drama explores the reality of poverty versus the fantasies of wealth. And it explores the dreams and myths of romance versus the cold calculation needed to get and protect what you love. Incredibly meaty stuff for something that looks, on the surface, to be a rom-com. (Though of course, this isn’t.)
The players: We had such a solid, solid cast. Moon Geun-young plays our realist, Se-kyung with a depth of intelligence and tenderness that kept her from becoming an icy manipulator — even when she tried to be. Se-kyung has ideals and she’s fully aware when she’s compromising them and it hurts. And we see that as viewers.
Park Shi-hoo is… Okay, he’s my bias. I’ve watched so many dramas because he’s in it and someday I’ll have to do a post about the awesomeness of him. But I really do think this was an excellent role for him. As Seung-jo he dances between fantasy and reality, manic and depressive. There were times I was afraid PSH was maybe going a little too big, but then he’d pull back and show the fear and hurt beneath the crazy, and I’d appreciate the contrast he was giving.
A surprise for me, not so much because of the actress than the part, was So Yi-hyun as Seo Yoon-joo. The role seemed a pure cliché — the evil, money-loving, man-eater. But, of course, this drama delighted in destroying clichés. Which meant SYH was able to stretch out her wings and really bring a strong level of sympathy and thought to what could have been a paint-by-numbers character. (By the end of the drama, Yoon-joo was my favorite character. And the one I was most worried about.)
Kim Ji-suk was another actor who benefitted from the depth of character the drama provided. His deliciously scheming (and at first despicably smarmy) Tommy Hong was a blast to watch. Even when he was working directly against our Se-kyung I enjoyed seeing him on my screen. (Part of it was probably his “I know something you don’t know” smirk. That was a pretty awesome smirk right there.) I also really liked that he had a girl-friday. For some reason, that his right-hand man was a woman was pretty cool for me.
I should also mention Han Jin-hee. Mainly because he played the most evil of evil daddies in I Miss You (which aired around the same time as Alice in Cheongdam-dong) while playing a teddy-bear-underneath-it-all daddy here. And even when I was watching both shows at the same time, I didn’t confuse the two and easily despised the evil daddy while loving the hidden teddy-bear daddy. Which I think says good things about the actor.
In conclusion: I’m really looking forward to watching this drama again, especially now that I know what I’m getting. (The original advertising was misleading, probably because Alice in Cheongdam-dong broke molds rather than slipping neatly into them. Which tends to give advertisers headaches, from what I’ve observed.) It drops you down the rabbit hole, but it steers you carefully through its labyrinth and you leave entertained but with plenty of thoughts to digest. If you’re in the mood for a meaty story, Alice in Cheongdam-dong is a good one to follow.