용팔이 (Yongpal)

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20 Episodes
An HB Entertainment Production
Timeslot: Wednesday and Thursday Evening, 10:00 PM
Genre: Medical Action
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 65 Minutes
Runs from: 2015/Aug/05~Oct/01

WITH 주원 (Joo Won) as Kim Tae-Hyun/Yongpal; 김태희 (Kim Tae-Hee) as Han Yeo-Jin; 조현재 (Jo Hyun-Jae) as Han Do-Joon; 채정안 (Chae Jung-Ahn) as Lee Chae-Young; 정웅인 (Jung Woong-In) as Lee Ho-Joon; 배해선 (Bae Hae-Seon) as Nurse Hwang; 조복래 (Jo Bok-Rae) as Park Tae-Yong; 차순배 (Cha Soon-Bae) as Chief Shin; 김미경 (Kim Mi-Gyeong) as Chief Nurse; 송경철 (Song Gyeong-Cheol) as Du-Cheol; 정석용 (Jung Seok-Yong) as Anaesthetist; 안세하 (Ahn Se-Ha) as Man-Shik; 박혜수 (Park Hye-Soo) as Kim So-Hyun; 유승목 (Yoo Seung-Mok) as Detective Lee; 정경호 (Jung Kyung-Ho) as Du-Cheol's Sidekick; Stephanie Lee as Cynthia

CREW Production Director 오진석 (Oh Jin-Seok) Main Writer 장혁린 (Jang Hyeok-Rin) Executive Producer 문보미 (Moon Bo-Mi) Planning 박영수 (Park Young-Soo) Producer 김시환 (Kim Si-Hwan) Director of Photography 윤대영 (Yoon Dae-Young) 최제락 (Choi Je-Rak) Lighting 전홍근 (Jeon Hong-Geun) 이동완 (Lee Dong-Wan) Editor 이현아 (Lee Hyun-Ah) 정일원 (Jung Il-Won) Art Director 노상순 (Noh Sang-Soon) Action Choreography 최태환 (Choi Tae-Hwan) Music 박기헌 (Park Gi-Heon) Assistant Writer 조재경 (Jo Jae-Gyeong) 최가영 (Choi Ga-Young) Assistant Producer 이정림 (Lee Jung-Rip) 한태섭 (Han Tae-Seop) 서용호 (Seo Yong-Ho)

AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 21.5% (09/16 - E13)
LOWEST: 11.6% (08/05 - E01)
AVERAGE: 18.27%



Despite being as pervasive as it's been the last twenty years, longtime K-drama viewers will lament how rarely the medical drama genre has managed to make a mark over the years, perhaps because of inherent flaws that have yet to be addressed. Historically speaking, the genre started either in 1976 or 1980 depending on where you draw the line: if Hur Joon's Joseon medical escapades in Lee Eun-Seong's original 집념 (Tenacity) don't qualify, then next in line would be KBS' 1980 daily morning drama 소망 (Hope), starring Shin Gu as a Kildare-type ER doctor. But in the following 35 years, very few medical dramas would draw attention for pushing the genre's envelope in this industry – you can literally count them on one hand, with 1990's hits like Choi Wan-Gyu's 종합병원 (General Hospital) eventually giving way to a short-lived late 2000's resurgence led by Ahn Pan-Seok's phenomenal 하얀거탑 (The White Tower), which for all intents and purposes is a political drama donning gowns.

A lot of what is thrown out there as a medical drama these days does nothing more than adhering to the age old mantra of the “dating with gowns” in-joke many a Korean would make about their domestic TV product in the past, with jargon playing the equivalent of the old Star Trek canon's technobabble (whenever losing your narrative bearings, throw a few complicated terms people won't understand out there and they'll somehow think that this is still proper genre fare!) and the heightened realism on the operating table being compensated for by an abject lack of realism everywhere else. While works like 골든타임 (Golden Time) managed to set themselves apart, the overwhelming majority of today's medical canon turns into dubiously compelling potboilers of little merit, one of the major reasons why 용팔이 (Yongpal) was a tough sell from the get-go. At least on paper?

For instance, because of its leading quartet: Joo Won, like many of his fellow musical star-turned-actor colleagues, has often shown a tendency to act by way of extremes – his dramatic acting is operatic and at times even caricatural, while his comic timing and cadence is way too broad and punctuated. In short, he knows no middle ground whatsoever. A bit like Kang Ji-Hwan, albeit with a little less charisma. Kim Tae-Hee's sudden thespian epiphany in 장옥정, 사랑에 살다 (Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love) was one of the most inspiring stories of 2013, but as I said back then, that was only the beginning of her real career as an actress: now she has everything to prove, both with her choice of projects and her performances, so not exactly a surefire winner. While the ancillary cast did have some reliable veterans (Kim Mi-Gyeong, Jung Seok-Yong, Song Gyeong-Cheol, Jang Gwang), Jo Hyun-Jae and Chae Jung-Ahn are little more than trendy drama filler, actors who never even hinted at the possibility they might do anything better than “acceptable” on the acting scale. And then there were two big question marks – the talented but tremendously uneven and erratic Jung Woong-In, and theater mainstay turned last-minute-actor Jo Bok-Rae, who in two years of Chungmuro escapades has shown lots of misdirected charisma fall flat on its behind (because there is such a thing as excessive pathos in your acting, especially when you sound like the grumpy Asian version of James Earl Jones). A look behind the camera didn't promise all that well, either, as director Oh Jin-Seok has spent the better part of his career helming (or assisting on) home dramas, while writer Jang Hyeok-Rin only made a belated drama debut on insipid “CJ genre” fare like 리셋 (Reset). So, what… the usual creatively bankrupt mix of glaring tonal shifts, self-important theatrics and predictably forced romance?

Not really. Which is already a shock in itself.

As openers for mainstream star vehicles go, this is one of the most effective of the year, because it manages to work with the future in mind instead of the present – a concept that nowadays is lost on most writers, and seemingly even viewers. What does it mean? For instance, that since Kim Tae-Hee's character needs to be built up gradually and not introduced until Tae-Hyun's arc catches up to hers, she spends most of these two episodes tied to a fancy, high-tech bed inside a maximum security VVIP room, wrestling in between painful flashbacks where she is barely allowed to make an expression that isn't functional, let alone utter a word. And then, shock of all shocks (or perhaps pleasant confirmation of her good work in her last drama), when she does get a chance to do so at the tail end of this opener, she delivers. Joo Won, in his first ever SBS drama (!), is a more complicated matter: he's still prone to bi-polar acting histrionics (especially in the way he overemphasizes comic relief), but it's being judiciously toned down by director Oh, in turn giving us a chance to focus more on the character than on the histrionics – mistake that the star often made in the past, chief being his overbearing emoting explosions in 각시탈 (The Bride Mask). And Tae-Hyun is quite an intriguing character, an anti-hero without being too in your face about his ethical pragmatism (mostly because his motivations are well conveyed through flashbacks, tangential deduction requested from the viewer without shoving it down his throat, and circumstantial evidence). We'll have to see how Chae and Jo Hyun-Jae perform (the latter was the obvious weakest link in the few minutes he appeared), but the leading couple and a good number of supporting characters are doing quite the functional job – especially Song Gyeong-Cheol, one of Korea's most eclectic and under-appreciated character actors.

But acting is not even the issue here: everything that surrounds it is classy enough to satiate the discerning, more serious viewer, but never too dense and demanding to intimidate the casual one looking for escapism. Particularly when the story needs to be punctuated by action, Oh doesn't indulge in the usual schmaltzy over-edited theatrics, but generally sticks to long takes with very little editing (which makes the action a lot more believable and fun, and doesn't disrupt narrative flow). Medical scenes are competent, but that's something you've come to expect from this industry as of late – it's the least of their problems, obviously.

Decent acting, surprisingly poised directing, but also an acceptable script that keeps a satisfying balance between the genre-specific “gimmicks” (the everyday life of the hospital resident, the job's inner politics, “surgical knife action,” et al) and the need to progress the story, without rushing into the histrionics to impress the viewers and beg for their attention. The premise is rife with dangerous possibilities and it could eventually turn into yet another trendy drama wearing gowns down the line, but when you make as good a first impression as this, you're more than willing to give someone a chance.


...before it all goes to hell.

I'm not going to bother lamenting the fact that yet another alleged “genre” drama is going down the romantic potboiler route with the urgency of your ordinary 6 AM cue at the barracks' toilets. It probably was in its dramatic genes to do so, with the only caveat that the opener suggested it would at least show some poise in dealing with it. But two things are the chief culprit in pushing this show's quality off a cliff in the last 3-4 episodes, culminating with that rushed kiss that smells so fondly of desperately wanting a 20%. Which they did get, obviously.

One is that of pretty much throwing in the towel when it comes to painting Tae-Hyun as a bonafide anti-hero, one of the aspects that made his character premise somewhat compelling: the idea that he would not have second thoughts in the face of ethically borderline situations because of his bottom line (making enough money to save his sister) made him look like a sort of younger, more modern Jang Joon-Hyuk – Kim Myung-Min's character in the aforementioned The White Tower. Just about everything our “courageous quack” has done since that promising start seems to negate that notion, and suggest that we've got another pouting grump who deep down hides a heart of gold on our hands. Or who deep down really doesn't care all that much about his sister, but just wants some blissful petting with that mysterious VVIP patient of his. Logic be damned.

I know, I know… “It makes him more endearing, because it shows he's a good person after all” and all that. Maybe it does, if you're looking for sycophantic, garden-variety sentiment that belongs on a Hallmark TV movie. If you want something with a little more verve that for once refuses to be just another Korean drama, I'm afraid you'll once again be disappointed. Jang Hyeok-Rin is doing exactly what SBS wanted: dumb that premise down so that it'll be accessible even for people who refuse to think, accept a little diversity and complexity as salad dressing to their TV dinner, or have the decency of thinking about the untapped potential of this industry. Which still remains untapped, because why make compelling TV when you can just tongue surf with Kim Tae-Hee?

The other is our good old multitasking, a once very endearing (here's that word again) sign of having multiple talents, and now a dirty word thanks to many of Korean entertainment's offspring: can't we just do one thing right? This show wants to be an eclectic medical drama, a mystery thriller, a potboiler melodrama, a Scrubs-like medical comedy; it wants to impress us with flamboyant surgeries that absolutely make no sense, action interludes which started sedate but are turning increasingly ridiculous, company intrigue that subscribes to the same old clichés of Korean Drama Sociology 101. All the while nothing is given enough focus to become compelling.

It's a jumbled mess. A bit like Bob in Minions donning the royal crown and promising a random list of future accomplishments to an incredulous British crowd (Chiche kebab para tutti!), and then ending with a “King Bob!” (that's your episode 8 kiss, if the analogy didn't work) cheer-leading plea. The removal of everything that made this show intriguing – by increasingly sugarcoating Tae-Hyun to the point of turning him into a fluffy puppy seeking love, and trivializing the slow-burning, genre-blending poise of the first two episodes – has essentially made it much more accessible to more “palates,” but a significantly less tasty dish. It did so for a 20% which could turn into something more, now that we're in full love mode – which is probably all we'll be getting, given the desperate live shoot constraints this show will increasingly have to face.

But at the expense of what?

Its soul?


72 송경철 (Song Gyeong-Cheol)
70 유승목 (Yoo Seung-Mok)
68 주원 (Joo Won)
68 정경호 (Jung Kyung-Ho)
68 정웅인 (Jung Woong-In)
68 정석용 (Jung Seok-Yong)
65 김태희 (Kim Tae-Hee)
65 박혜수 (Park Hye-Soo)
64 배해선 (Bae Hae-Seon)
64 김미경 (Kim Mi-Gyeong)
64 안세하 (Ahn Se-Ha)
60 조복래 (Jo Bok-Rae)
56 조현재 (Jo Hyun-Jae)
56 차순배 (Cha Soon-Bae)
55 Stephanie Lee
51 채정안 (Chae Jung-Ahn)


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