Early in June, a drama about baking with no well-known actors started airing on KBS.  I ignored King of Baking then, for the obvious reasons - hello, no known actors, a theme that makes me yawn at best, a 30-episode drama so there's probably less emphasis on the romance. And then Baker King starting climbing in the ratings. When it got into the 30% range, I sat up and started taking notice, and when, 3 months after its debut, it passed the 40% mark with its 17th episode, I decided it was time that I check out what all the fuss is about. How was it possible that a drama about baking with unknown leads had become a national drama? Well, I started watching it a few days ago, and the verdict is in: it's because it's good. I can't believe it either, but Baker King is incredibly solidly written, and after speeding through the first 12 episodes in the past few days, I've come gradually to the conclusion that it is in fact one of the better Korean dramas of the past two years. I wasn't too fond of the first few episodes - the first 2 episodes were decent but unexceptional and childhood stories, especially in dramas, bore me to tears, so I skipped episodes 3-6 entirely, re-entering the drama with episode 7 when the child characters grow up. And that's when Baker King got unexpectedly good. The premise is (relatively) simple: A wealthy, unhappily married couple is desperate to have a male child and heir. Seo In Sook (played with cold brilliance by Jun In Hwa) is a neglected society wife to cold, business-obsessed  husband Goo Il Jong (the equally good Jun Kwan Ryul), the president of a major baking company. (If you're wondering what exactly a baking company is, he owns factories that produce bread). What's interesting about this dynamic is that it would be easy for the drama to show In Sook as the sympathetic figure here - and indeed we do feel sorry for her at first -but In Hwa's performance, portraying In Sook as a brittle, calculating wife and later a ruthless mother, turns the tide of favor inevitably away from her and toward Il Jong, who comes across as deeply flawed and selfish, but not consistently cruel or ruthless. The premise is very cliched - straight out of a soap opera - but the actors' performances here lift it into something more. Anyway, Il Jong is desperate for a little warmth and affection, and In Sook is desperate for a male heir. He cheats; she cheats (lest  you consider this spoilery, this is all revealed very early in the drama, within the first episode or so). I won't say who they cheat with, but suffice to say that Il Jong's mistress has a son at about the same time that In Sook has a son by her lover (unbeknownst to everyone, who thinks that her son is Il Jong's). So to recap: Il Jong-mistress ➔ Tak Gu (bastard son) In Sook-lover➔Ma Jun (supposed legitimate son, but in fact no relation to Il Jong at all) Things happen and the two sides of this happy family (the mistress and her son and the wife and her illegitimate son) are separated for a number of years. When next we reconvene, Tak Gu and Ma Jun have all grown up, Tak Gu on the streets and Ma Jun in the somewhat less-than-loving bosom of his rich family. When the two meet again, they quickly become rivals, not least for the affections of Tak Gu's childhood love, Yu Kyung (Eugene). eugene2 And there you have the premise. And now I really can't go any further without mentioning how absolutely fantastic Yoon Shi Yoon is in this drama. tak gu 2 I haven't seen him in High Kick Through the Roof, his only previous drama to this one, but all I can say is, if he was half as good in that drama as he is in this one, then the High Kick series has lived up to its reputation as a career-starter for young acting talent. As an occasionally cocky, mostly warm-hearted, streetsmart ruffian who grew up on the streets surviving on his wit and fists, he grounds and centers the drama, refusing to yield an iota of screen presence to the older, veteran actors surrounding him (Jang Hang Sun being a notable presence). He's not perfect - he was a little awkward in several of his first scenes in episode 7, and tends to over-act when portraying rage/anger in particular, but he steadily improves over the course of the drama. An incredibly charismatic actor, especially for someone so young, he's possessed of a crazy grin that lights up the whole screen,  and absolutely throws himself into his role as a boy who has spent most of his life cheerfully beating other people up and getting beaten up himself on his quest to find what he's looking for. This, in a nutshell, is Yoon Shi Yoon/Tak Gu in this drama, and I think we'd all agree with the sentiments expressed, about both the character and the drama- tak gu You know that an actor is good when he is still compelling with half his face covered, and when Tak Gu is injured and the upper half of his face bandaged in a later part of the drama, he is just as riveting and convincing to watch (Shi Yoon is particularly good at grief/breakdown scenes). Tak Gu, as a character, is also gold for an actor - he's complex and fully-rounded, part charming scapegrace, part rough-and-tumble fighter, a stubborn, blunt, lonely kid who grows gradually into a dedicated baker as he finds a home among the bakery members. One of the things I like the most about the way this character is written is that he has not been at all hardened by his rough life - he's a naturally ebullient, outgoing person, quite willing to befriend the nearest person (as he shows when he makes advances to Ma Jun, not knowing who he is) and equally willing to stand up in defence of those being hurt (as he shows at the subway station). At the same time, the drama doesn't shy away from showing the deep darkness and loneliness that has nevertheless been engendered in him by a lifetime alone on the run and on the hunt - when he's injured, he nearly falls apart completely.

Lee Young Ah as the baker girl he eventually falls for is also quirky and adorable, though I have some major issues with the romantic denouement of this drama which will be discussed in another post. Joo Won as Ma Jun is also great - another complex figure brought to fascinating life by a good actor. Ma Jun is cool, collected, icy by nature and upbringing, prone to cruelty and ruthlessness, driven to bring Tak Gu down - and yet it's so clear that barely skindeep underneath that poised exterior is a lonely little boy just craving his father's approval and an ounce of genuine warmth and attention from anyone. ma jun Eugene as Yu Kyung is possibly the most complex figure of these four, and while I've said before that she's not a great actress, she has a natural warmth and screen presence that generally carries off her characters, and that is the case here.

Baker King is not perfect - it's certainly not tightly written, for one thing (solidly written ,yes - good plot, great characters, the right emotional notes - but not tightly). The Goo family story-lines with Il Jong and In Sook and to some extent their children are inevitably less interesting than those of the younger actors/those centering around the bakery, and they do take up a good deal of the drama's time. I've never seen a 30-episode drama which was tightly-written, and Baker King is no exception. Nevertheless, it's surprisingly fast-paced - my attention has not flagged once between episodes 7 and 13, and it is very much not at all the drama I was expecting. Baking has surprisingly little to do with the drama's themes - this is not a cooking drama at all. Rather it's a drama in which bread is a kind of motif and occasionally a metaphor which runs underneath all the other story-lines, drawing them together when necessary, and often reflecting back on the characters truths about themselves. There's a lot of themes at play here - family, poverty, class and social injustice, courage, persistence - and they're all deftly handled and woven in through the characters' lives. If there's a drama that Baker King reminds me of, it is, oddly enough, Shining Inheritance - both dramas are premised on a fairly standard plot, but lift it above that plot through excellent writing, acting, and directing. More importantly, both dramas strike a perfect balance between light-hearted and tragic elements, and in the process become wildly addicting. I highly recommend Baker King (though I do suggest skipping at least some of the first 7 episodes).