Scent of a Woman: Review So Far
Scent of a Woman is a throwback to an older kind of drama, and I mean that in the best possible way. With its unabashed romance, its linear, focused plot, its beautiful cinematography, and its fairly simple story propelled by fiery chemistry between the leads, it reminds me of nothing so much as early 2000 Kdrama classics such as Lovers in Paris and Winter Sonata. There's a particular setup which is very common to those older dramas, and Scent of a Woman is patterned on it. The male lead is a very succesful businessman while the female lead has a respectable but low-end job, usually at his company or related to in some way. The hero has a blue-blood fiance his family is throwing at him as an excellent business match, and once hero starts falling for our poor heroine, things become very difficult for her at the company as her co-workers gossip about her and hero's family pressures her to leave. This is almost the classic Kdrama set-up, but modern dramas, moving away from that, have tended to vary this somewhat, with heroes or heroines who are extremely poor/jobless (Mary Stayed Out All Night), golddigger heroines (Miss Ripley), or heroines who have relatively high-profile jobs (Lie to Me).
Scent of a Woman goes back to this basic formula, and it's oddly refreshing, mostly because it's well-done, but also because there were genuinely excellent things about that formula which made those early dramas such big hits. Lovers in Paris had no particularly startling plot twists, but it was eminently watchable and deeply romantic. Lie to Me was a throwback in many ways also plot-wise, but it was unfortunately bogged down in the first half in dull writing and poor cinematography (it did have that unusually scorching main-couple chemistry however). Scent of a Woman is more successful. The cinematography is lovely, not just when they're filming in the beautiful Okinawa locations (the new Jeju for Kdramas?), but even when they're filming in Seoul. There's a tender luminousness to the way this drama is filmed, as they manage to find magic even in urban areas, such as with the pool Yeon-jae jumps into in episode six, all flickering lights and blue-green shadows. As for the way the tango scenes are shot, multiple angles capturing every single detail and movement and nuance, don't even get me started, or I may rave forever.
It took me a while to warm up this drama, which is why I'm posting a first impressions post a good ways into it. Yeon-jae began as one of my least favorite drama character types, and the one Kim Sun Ah seems to inevitably play, which is why I never enjoy her dramas: that of the stubborn, clutzy, downtrodden working woman. She rolls over if anyone so much as looks sideways at her. Fortunately, she starts to throw off those shackles when she finds out she's dying (nothin' like a little limited-time-left-to-live to throw a little backbone into a woman) and by episode four she's quite satisfyingly spunky and outspoken. By episode six and on, she is fantastic - the first Kim Sun Ah character I've ever been able to thoroughly like and get behind. All of her decisions just make rational sense - the way she doesn't tell her mother about her cancer, the way she asks Ji-wook straight up if he's interested and when he doesn't respond breaks things off with him because he's engaged, the way she refuses pity money from Ji-wook but takes it from Se Kyung so she can pay back her friend . She has integrity and has developed a backbone of steel, but doesn't cling blindly or stupidly to pride, either - she needs that money so takes it from Se Kyung who owes it to her.
Ji-wook, while initially your average rich, bored kid, albeit with a good sense of irony about his situation, is becoming more and more interesting. Lee Dong Wook is a strong enough actor that he's able to inject complexity and nuance into a character which initially at least isn't overly-developed; Ji-wook and Kang Woo of Myung Wol the Spy are similar in that both are written as types rather than individuals. This drama gives Ji-wook development much earlier than Kang Woo however; there's already interesting hints that his background is not what it seems, as when he tells Se Kyung with a hint of bitterness, "You should at least check into my background properly" when she's mocking him about always having been a spoiled rich boy and not being able to identify with Yeon-jae. With Myung Wol, we just discovered the truth behind Kang Woo's background. Lee Dong Wook is delivering a fantastic performance as always, however, projecting into his role all the loneliness of an isolated man, and layers of intense longing and attraction to Yeon-jae, even beyond what is called for. One of the things I've always liked about him is his versatility, because he's great at comedy too - the faces he pulls (especially that one in episode eight when he offers Yeon-jae a ride, immediately withdraws the offer, then realizes that means he has to leave without her, was hilarious). He, Kang Ji Hwan, and Park Shi Hoo are among the handful of Kdrama actors equally skilled at drama and comedy and able to switch back and forth with ease within the same drama.
Kim Sun Ah, as expected, is also delivering a powerhouse performance. Quite a number of rabid fans came out of the woodwork and berated me when I stated in a previous post that I'm not a big fan of hers; however, to clarify, I never said that she wasn't a good actress, merely that I don't like the role she tends to get typecast in. As I've said, however, in this particular drama she's finally playing a slightly different role, and doing it wonderfully. She portrays the wistfulness and pathos of a woman who knows she's dying with such realism and restraint; it would be so easy to overdo this role, but she doesn't. She's also slimmed way down and as is at her most beautiful; I was wondering why she clearly put so much effort into looking good for this role (beyond that it's the role so far which allows her to look the most glamorous) and then I realized - of course, as a sick woman, she needs to look skinny - chemotherapy knocks the weight off real fast.
And now I need to talk about the tango scenes. Because holy smokes. I predicted before this drama began airing that Kim Sun Ah and Lee Dong Wook would have great chemistry, because both are exceptional at creating chemistry with co-stars. And sure enough, when you put them together....they have great chemistry at all times in the drama. But their chemistry when dancing is off the Richter scale. I have seen hundreds of dramas. And I don't think I've ever seen a scene as scorching as their tango in episode eight. The build-up and the exection were perfect - I mentioned before how the director uses multiple shots to capture every single angle, focusing in turn on every part of their body to portay that intense physical and romantic tension. The sexual tension stretches to the breaking point - and again - and again - and holds. I have seen both Dirty Dancing and Scent of a Woman, the film which is the drama's namesake, and neither had a dancing scene so intense and exquisite. The Kdrama-watching web lit up like a scoreboard after episode eight, and all anyone could talk about was that scene. Definitely going down in Kdrama history.
I'm usually the type to avoid terminal illness dramas - in fact the only two I've seen are Jdramas 1 Litre of Tears and Taiyou no Uta. But Scent of a Woman thus far has utilized that theme so well - it's very much not the dominant theme, but has served to give the romance that extra edge of urgency and immediacy that is making it so compelling. This love could all-too-easily vanish in the near future, so there's a sense of fragility about it, and that gives the Ji-wook/Yeon-jae interactions an emotional depth that makes the romance not just fun but downright enthralling.
Another thing I appreciate about this drama, and another of the ways it lifts itself above its fairly basic plot, is that both secondary characters are given depth. I'm not much of a one for secondary male leads - many drama watchers fall for them and root for them over the main lead because they're almost invariably the "good-guy" types, but with the distinct exception of Ji-hoo in Boys Over Flowers, I generally find them a waste of screen space, a necessary evil if you will. Euk Seuk in this drama is a great character, however, because for once, as Yeon-jae's doctor, he's a necessary part of the drama, and not just a Roadblock in the Path of True Love. He's intrinsically tied in with the storyline, and he's also given a quirky personality - neurotic and slightly socially awkward is not your usual Secondary Lead. I also, unexpectedly, love Se Kyung, or at least love the fact that she has a reason to be psychotic and bitchy - a broken heart and insecurity issues from a previous boyfriend make her so much more interesting and understandable. As long as her storylines don't start invading the space of our Main Romance.
It's my opinion thus far - this could change in the future - that Yeon-jae will not die at the end. Thus far this has been set up very definitely as a romance, not a melodrama or tearjerker, so unless the stakes get upped majorly, I'm going to go with my instincts and say that it will work out in the end - whether the doctors turn out to be wrong about her having cancer (though this is starting to look unlikely now that she's actualy beginning chemo), or whether she miraculously survives, or what. If she does die, the drama Powers That Be and I will have words.
What do you think? Do you think she'll die at the end?
And if you haven't started this yet, what are you waiting for??