Freeze is a 5-episode Korean vampire drama from 2006. Vampires and Korean drama are a great match. Freeze features a charismatic, brooding, damaged hero (Lee Seo Jin), the Spunky Heroine (Park Han Byul) so familiar to any Kdrama lover, and Son Tae Young as the Opposing Woman (see 7 familiar characters in Korean drama).
SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t seen this drama, and plan to, stop here.
Lee Seo Jin and Son Tae Young are modern vampires – they sleep in beds, go outdoors during the day, eat food, and buy their blood in neat little bags. They live separately, but own a nightclub together, and Son Tae Young thinks their life is just fine. But Lee Seo Jin is suffering from an impenetrable, self-loathing ennui that exasperates the heck out of her (and us) for the first couple of episodes. He wants to end his overly long and miserable half-life, but believes he can’t be killed (he can, of course – Son Tae Young is just holding out on him. Hard to understand how a vampire with a cell phone could be so oblivious to a common method of vampire disposal that will not surprise a single viewer).
Enter Park Han Byul. Her mom has just died, and she’s estranged from her father and at loose ends. After a teacher makes advances, she abandons school and her small village for Seoul, where she seizes on working at a tattoo shop for something to do, but soon seizes even more tenaciously on Lee Seo Jin. They met at her mom’s funeral. He doesn’t explain how he knew her mother, but she finds him in a photo of her parents’ wedding day, and assumes he is the son of her dad’s rival for her mom’s hand. Having no digs in Seoul, she moves in to his sterile apartment, and proceeds to awaken him in best Spunky Heroine style, much to Son Tae Young’s distress.
Meanwhile, there’s a serial killer on the loose who drains his victims’ blood, which is putting a real damper on the illegal blood market. Son Tae Young gets entangled with the wrong blood broker and a seedy, corrupt police inspector (Kim Kwang-Gyu). Throw in a little gangbanger attitude and a usually non-murderous but seriously hungry vampire, and complications ensue.
The romance is lovely and authentic – although initially bold, Park Han Byul soon doubts her girlish attractions in comparison to the more mature (little does she know) charms of Son Tae Young. Meanwhile, Lee Seo Jin is flashing back to the mutual heartbreak of his relationship with her mother, who (unbeknownst to Park Han Byul) wrote him from her deathbed, begging him to look after her daughter. In spite of all this, the developing intimacy between the two is delicate and charming. Even when most of his feelings are articulated by her, you can see she has him dead to rights. She goads him and disrupts his reclusive, precise lifestyle until he can’t help but be first engaged and then seduced. His transformation is impressive. You hope and believe they will live happily ever after.
But it can’t last. He goes into blood withdrawal again, and decides they can only be together if he tells her what he really is. She does not take the news well. Meanwhile, outside of this cozy cocoon, the net is tightening around Lee Seo Jin & Son Tae Young. Unwittingly, Park Han Byul is their downfall.
The vampires take off, but it’s too late. During a lengthy and rather leisurely police chase, everyone pauses for a goodbye scene. Park Han Byul has reconciled herself to Lee Seo Jin’s vampirism, because she knows him, and is certain he can’t be a killer. He explains that accidents can happen when a vampire is peckish, and we finally learn that he hates himself so much because he killed his little sister (who Park Han Byul strongly resembles. Eww.). Their love affair has been redemptive, but he won’t risk her life. As they are cornered by police, he and Son Tae Young, who has also killed someone, and at last revealed there is a permanent exit strategy, take off (literally) for the next world.
Park Han Byul is heartbroken, but she has a sweet and devoted boy friend her own age, and has begun to reconcile with her father, so we know she will be be OK.
There are a couple of notable side stories. One concerns a younger, rather careless gigolo vampire (who knew) who is responsible for the serial killings. Son Tae Young tracks him down and hustles him into hiding, hoping to reduce the heat on the blood market. He repeatedly visits an institutionalized elderly woman with dementia. We finally learn she was the lover he planned to elope with, but instead he ran away alone and encountered the vampire who sired him. As the police close in, she finally recognizes him, and his lifelong angst about leaving her behind in his youth is lifted as she forgives him. This foreshadows the resolution of Lee Seo Jin’s own lover-abandoning issues, and the irresolvable conflict between living forever and loving people who don’t.
To my surprise, since I’ve heard Korea is pretty intensely homophobic, the owner of the tattoo shop where Park Han Byul works is openly gay. He is well-developed for a minor character – gayness is only one of his many characteristics. A homophobic event is shown from his point of view, a nice touch of understated consciousness-raising. Park Han Byul gets her job with him by playing into his love for dramas, and creating a tragic (and false) story for herself. One of the things that keeps Korean drama grounded is this ability to poke fun at itself, which appears frequently.
There’s also a mini-sageuk backstory, where we learn how Lee Seo Jin and Son Tae Young became vampires. Vampire traditionalists may frown, but Kdrama fans will love it.
Freeze was my first exposure to Lee Seo Jin, a popular Korean actor who coincidentally appeared on 2 Days and 1 Night* the same weekend I watched Freeze. One rarely has the opportunity to view an actor in a role, and in a (relatively) real-life context back-to-back. Both his charisma and his reserve carry over, which made me appreciate his acting skill that much more. The ability to communicate emotional volumes through facial expression alone is one of the chief attractions of Korean drama for me, and he did not disappoint. Volumes are spoken in Freeze without dialogue.
I first stumbled upon Freeze right around the time I realized the Korean dramas I’d been watching were dubbed in Chinese. I came across Lee Seo Jin’s backstory monologue near the end of the last episode while channel-surfing. I had no idea what it was (my first thought was of Ingmar Bergman, though it was obviously more modern). However, I knew it was Korean, and was entranced by the richness and liquidity of the language. A year later, I still am.
Freeze would be a great choice to introduce someone to Korean drama, especially a younger person, or one who thinks it’s all just soap operas. It’s short but full, and has a number of signature Kdrama features. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I recommend it!
*2 Days and 1 Night – A sort of Korean reality program that doesn’t compare to anything in American TV. I’ll write a review of it one of these days.