February 13, 2012

For My Son | For the Sake of My Son - Review

아들을 위하여 (For My Son), or “For the Sake of (My) Son” is a 4-episode KBS drama that first aired over 4 weeks in December of 2011. Part of the story is set in North Korea, and all of it revolves around dastardly doings by denizens of that country. Kim Jong-il died on December 17, right in the middle of the series (his death is briefly mentioned in what must have been a hastily inserted extra scene). After initial high anxiety about what this meant for South Korea, overtures towards talks have been made on both sides. Which may explain why the January re-release of the drama on KBS World took place in the middle of the night, under the generic name “Drama Special” in the TV listings. [Update: This turns out to be the normal time for the KBS World Drama Specials, which typically air in the US 2-4 weeks after they air in Korea, and have 1-5 episodes.]

The again, maybe it’s just because it isn’t very good. If you’re a fan of Choi Soo-jong or Hwang Soo-jeong, or would like to see a mid-life romance for a change, the actors offer enough redeeming value to stay up late for. Indeed, KBS awarded Choi Soo-jong a prize for best actor in a one-act special for the series (though “For My Son” doesn’t quite seem to fit the category). However, if you demand any degree of verisimilitude in a plot, this series will not meet your expectations.

SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t seen it yet and plan to, stop here.

It goes something like this: North Korean woman (Hwang Soo-jeong) with young son, whose husband has defected to South Korea, is conscripted by the army to go to South Korea and kill him. Oh, and along the way, just to maximize her risk of getting caught, she’s supposed to “get close to” a small-time police detective (Choi Soo-jong) so she can get access to police records. And if she doesn’t, they’ll kill her son.

Her handler (Kim Hyun-sung) is exuberantly sadistic, and her ajumma spy contact in Seoul (Hwang Seok-jeong) is as tough as Claude Rains’ Nazi mama in Notorious after she finds out Ingrid Bergman is a plant. Until episode 4, that is, when she has a change of the heart we never suspected she had. There’s a fun moment where she flips from a raucous village accent and persona to a reserved, soft-spoken Seoulian matron in the blink of an eye. The setting of daily urban life in a working class Seoul neighborhood was one of the more interesting features of the drama for this American viewer.

Choi Soo-jong is perfectly cast as an average guy with above average sensitivities. He is mis-employed as a mediocre police detective, hampered by a tendency to believe the best of people, and a boss who is more concerned with politics than justice. When Choi Soo-jong and his partner discover evidence of senatorial corruption, we see that Choi is a man of principles. He leaks the information to the press in defiance of orders, and at risk of demotion. But most of the time he’s busting small time crooks (or letting them go), and being an ineffective single father to a teenage son with issues. Seo Hyeon-seok is spot-on as the son, who is a lot more messed up than his father realizes.

When he was a young child, Seo Hyeon-seok let a stranger into the house. The stranger, a criminal sent up by Choi Soo-jong and just released, retaliates by murdering his wife. Of course father and son don’t actually talk about this, even though it’s perfectly obvious where the trouble lies, just act out in their respective ways (son fights, father drinks), and argue a lot.

Enter Hwang Soo-jeong, whom Choi Soo-jong hires to clean his house. He hasn’t dated since the death of his wife, but he falls for her swiftly, and although he is clueless about dating, his heart-felt overtures are quite sweet. Under orders to “win his trust,” Hwang Soo-jeong was expecting something coarser, and is not immune, although (as we know) she is married, not to mention supremely reserved. She becomes deeply conflicted about exploiting this nice man’s affections, particularly when his interest in her becomes a bone of contention between Choi Soo-jong and his son. However, her mega-bully handler is always lurking in the shadows to slap her around and threaten her son to keep her in line. Desperate motherhood trumps all other considerations, for awhile at least.

Meanwhile, there is a subplot with the husband (Jang Hyeon-seong) and the Korean NSA that I didn’t fully grasp. Switching sides has been lucrative for him, though he didn’t really do it for the money, but he’s tired of the game, and regrets leaving his wife and son behind. He has been under guard and undercover, but the North Koreans have gotten wind of him, and decide he must die for sharing information that led to the death of several North Korean military officials. Now why wouldn’t the evil spymaster and his lady cohort just do the killing themselves, since they are seasoned professionals who are already in position?

But no, they draft poor Hwang Soo-jeong, so obviously not cut out for either violence or subterfuge even after the harshest conditioning, smuggling her into South Korea, establishing a false identity for her, and holding her son’s life over her head, so that the one person in the world least likely to want to kill this man can complete this assignment. Seriously??!

After her attempts to negotiate a more peaceful solution are brutally crushed by her fascist handler (he is SO mean. We really hate him a lot), she reconciles herself to doing as she must to save her son. The spy madam detects a note of martyrdom and confides that Hwang Soo-jeong is to be liquidated after the mission, encouraging her to run off with Choi Soo-jong. We have never suspected her of empathy before, and wonder if this is some kind of tricky test, but even she finds the handler’s ruthless exploitation of any shred of human decency, and his off-handed violence, to be a little over the top. And maybe she’s a little envious of Choi Soo-jong’s unshakable faith in Hwang Soo-jeong’s underlying goodness, even when he learns she has lied to him and used him.

However, Hwang Soo-jeong has other plans. She doesn’t want her son to have to live with a mother who murdered his father, so she is ready to die in the cause of saving his life. But when it looks like Choi Soo-jong will become collateral damage in the assassination of her husband, she abandons desperate motherhood and reservations about violence in one fell swoop, and shoots her nasty handler, for which the viewers thank her heartily.

Choi Soo-jong, still too smitten to think straight even when he finds her standing over a bleeding man with a gun in her hand, risks his career to hustle her off before the other police arrive, then leaves her alone in his car with his gun in the glove compartment even though she has refused to offer an explanation or an apology (like I said, not a stellar cop). Needless to say, he winds up on the wrong end of that pistol.

Hwang Soo-jeong tries to get him out of the situation unscathed, but her evil handler has survived (drat the man. Why won’t he die?!), and kidnapped Choi Soo-jong’s son for good measure. He still wants her to be the one to take out her husband, and handcuffs Choi Soo-jong to the steering wheel of a bus wired with a bomb, with his son tied into the back seat, in case saving her own son isn’t incentive enough.

Then there’s a big dust up on the docks (where else?), as wave after wave of guys with guns (cops, spies, NSA agents – it’s hard to keep track) arrive on the scene to capture each other, and the bus explodes. Spy lady has released Choi Soo-jong and son in the nick of time, of course, but Hwang Soo-jeong doesn’t know this and tries to kill herself. On the plus side, sadistic handler finally meets his just deserts.

As it turns out, defector dad was getting out of the spy game because he had a plan of his own to bring his son to South Korea without bloodshed. Well, not entirely without bloodshed – he trades the name of his North Korean contact. Wouldn’t the South Koreans be miffed that he gave up their spy to the enemy? And shouldn’t he have a little empathy for the South Korean sympathizer marooned in North Korea, a position he of all people can understand? Apparently not. I guess spying erodes morality, even when it’s for the good guys. But we are supposed to forgive this in the name of parenthood.

Jang Hyeon-seong decides any woman who meant to shoot him must not love him anymore. Especially when she was far more torn up about the apparent death of Choi Soo-jong and son than about killing her own husband. This isn’t really fair – she still holds far more affection for him than he deserves – but it’s necessary to advance the romance with Choi Soo-jong, so we let it go.

Jang Hyeon-seong pretends to Choi Soo-jong that he never really cared for Hwang Soo-jeong, and hands her off to live a safer life with him. Uh, this is the guy whose last wife was murdered in her own home due to his dangerous line of work, remember? Oh, never mind. He will probably be demoted to a rural village for fleeing a crimescene with the suspect (and giving her a chance to steal his gun), so maybe it will be safer.

With the husband’s blessing in hand, Choi Soo-jong visits Hwang Soo-jeong in the hospital and talks her out of her suicidal depression by telling her how much his house needs cleaning. Who could resist an offer like that? The most unbelievable part of the story is that the son has not already been killed and is ultimately reunited with his mom.

If this sounds like a lot of plot for 4 episodes, it is, and full of gaping, screaming holes. But if you surrender all expectation of logic and keep your eye on the romance, For the Sake of My Son is saved by excellent performances.

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