Previously, in the series review for episodes 1-8, I discussed my first impressions of the strange but sweet characters living in the tight-knit seaside town of Ongsan. Back then, our heroine was just finding her feet and new relationships were developing. We’ve come a long way from that, to what I feel is one of the most adorable romances of the year and to a female protagonist who is both vulnerable and strong. For all its idiosyncrasies, When The Camellia Blooms has a very pure heart, and I’m not the least bit surprised to see that it has gone on to become one of the biggest hits of the year both domestically and internationally.
Where we left off in the previous review, our main couple Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul) and Dong-baek (Gong Hyo-jin) was just embarking on a very complicated love story. Their relationship began with a rather cliched ‘love at first sight’ trope, which excited me in the beginning because it signaled the potential for interesting developments. The complications in their relationship are all external—from the disapproval of Pil-gu (Kim Kang-hoon) and Ms. Kwak (Go Du-shim) to the interference of Jong-ryeol (Kim Ji-suk) and the threat of the serial killer. The odds stack up against our lovely couple. And this is why I loved that the show, till the very last episode, kept the heart of their pure, almost childlike dedication to each other alive.
For me, the major selling point of the show was that Dong-baek and Yong-sik were just ordinary individuals willing to support each other through the big and small terrifying moments of life. The lack of repugnant antagonists, mysterious partings, and unnecessary love triangles make the drama so refreshing. It isn’t easy to love someone and also have them reciprocate your love, so it was nice to watch two people cherish each other unabashedly. This is the energy I would like to see in all rom-coms.
But one major complaint I have was that when Dong-baek finally opened her heart to Yong-sik and began dating him, their dynamics stayed the exact same. I wanted to see the messy side of a romance between two adults with complicated pasts but what we got was the same complications rehashed over and over. Where I hoped Ms. Kwak and Pil-gu would warm up to the idea of Yong-sik and Dong-baek being together, the show almost stubbornly kept those arcs going, and then, instead of resolving things slowly and steadily to allow for a more emotional pay-off, we got a quick 20-second resolution to every complication in the final episode.
Meanwhile, I really enjoyed the character development for Dong-baek. It was nuanced and realistic, and never fell into cliches or gave us the impression that something about her needed to be fixed. She was an independent, headstrong woman from the beginning who just needed someone to believe in her so she could stand up for herself. Having been abandoned twice in her life, Dong-baek’s story emerges as one of hope and kindness. Gong Hyo-jin doesn’t disappoint with her choice of dramas, and it’s hard to think of anyone else who could have played the naive but feisty Dong-baek as she has. (Fact: The writer and director of the series had Gong Hyo-jin in mind when they were writing and developing the story. They created the character specifically for her.)
Dong-baek is not perfect. She displays anger and annoyance at those who have hurt her, but it is never at the cost of her gentle heart. Sometimes her kindness borders on becoming a flaw, but how she deals with Hyang-mi (Son Dam-bi) and her mother Jung-sook (Lee Jung-eun) proves that good karma always comes back to you. While initially, we saw Pil-gu and Yong-sik protect Dong-baek from the neighborhood ahjummas’ bullying and the serial killer, eventually, it was Dong-baek who took charge and resolved these issues herself. This story was about Dong-baek, and I liked that her romance with Yong-sik did not overshadow her growth process.
Kang Ha-neul’s character stays adorable throughout the series. It is rare that we get male leads who are so unapologetic and unabashed with their affection for their special women. And that’s exactly why despite being the furthest thing away from a cool and detached guy, a simple small-town guy like Yong-sik became everyone’s dream man. Just endlessly supporting his lady, complimenting her, and being genuinely amazed by her strength while respecting her personal boundaries make him a perfect boyfriend. Kang Ha-neul has never tackled a lead role in a rom-com before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect but by the end of the drama, I was smitten. I hope more romance dramas are sent his way.
After Dong-baek and Yong-sik, the major showstopper of the show was Pil-gu. His consistently good performance throughout the drama impressed me. In his own way, Pil-gu dealt with the changes in his mom’s life the best way he could—from the reappearance of his dad to his mom falling for Yong-sik. And he wasn’t some saint-like kid who never got jealous or annoyed. In fact, I was almost relieved when Pil-gu disapproves of Dong-baek and Yong-sik simply because it was adorable. However, despite Jong-ryeol dangling the promise of a grand life in front of him, Pil-gu’s loyalty to his mom didn’t waver.
Among the supporting cast, the stories of Hyang-mi and Hong Ja-young (Yum Hye-ran) stood out the most, especially Hyang-mi who starts off looking distrustful but is shown later in the series to be dealing with her own demons. I always knew there was more to her story than just being a gold-digging kleptomaniac, but when her past was finally revealed, I sobbed. Her character’s fate was made obvious several episodes before her backstory was revealed, but Dong-baek and Hyang-mi’s final parting scene still managed to be one of the saddest moments in the show.
Yum Hye-ran, meanwhile, injected a much-needed dose of badassery into this show with her character. She’s stuck in marriage many capable women find themselves in—with an inept husband and a mother-in-law who shows her off like a trophy but treats her unfairly behind closed doors. I was afraid that the resolution to her arc might get lost amidst cliches, but what we got instead was an unapologetic woman pointing out that there’s no one in her life she’s subservient to.
When The Camellia Blooms will go down in history as a drama with a stellar supporting cast. But while I started out by enjoying multiple arcs involving their characters, I noticed that these parts sometimes took the focus away from the main arc—which should have been the relationship between Yong-sik, Dong-baek, and Pil-gu. Instead of multiple arcs that I’m minimally invested in, I wish more screen time has been used to develop Yong-sik and Dong-baek’s relationship. And despite all the adorableness, it felt like there was something missing. In a drama where there is no real villain, the emotional pay-off resides in a well-fleshed out relationship where a couple works through their issues. But our lovebirds hardly left the puppy love stage of their relationship.
Drama extensions almost always drag out the plot for too long, and this is exactly what happened in Camellia too. On the one hand, it was gratifying to watch an affection-starved Dong-baek reconnect with her mother, but on the other hand, Jung-sook’s constant dropping in and out of Dong-baek’s life and the final revelation of her illness kept being rehashed. Even Jong-ryeol interrupting our couple’s romance after the 47th time tested my patience just a bit. In the last two episodes, where I was expecting much-need fluff involving our lovebirds, the screen time was hogged by these two arcs. This is my one gripe with the show I’ll find difficult to let go of. We needed Pil-gu connecting with his new dad. We needed some happy domestic realness with Dong-baek and Yong-sik!
The repetitiveness of some plots also hampered my enjoyment of Go Du-shim’s character, whom I had really liked in the first half of the drama. Her resistance to Yong-sik dating Dong-baek was kind of understandable in the initial episodes, but when her character did not develop, her attitude began reeking of hypocrisy and my patience ran out. It was especially unbelievable when her stubbornness stayed the same despite Pil-gu overhearing her calling him a burden to his mom and making the drastic decision to leave Dong-baek’s side. For a grudge that huge to be resolved in just one episode was a bit iffy.
The parallels between Dong-baek and Ms. Kwak as single moms and Yong-sik and Pilgu as sons of single moms left scope for so much connection and character development but they ended up being criminally underutilized. Jong-ryeol’s existence also served as a good opening to introduce angst into the relationship, but once again, he was so repetitive that he ceased being interesting. A lot of this repetition is a direct result of the extension, in my opinion, and made for a very rushed ending. Ironically, the additional episodes did no good in further developing the plots and avoiding such a hasty finale.
The biggest positive development of the second half of the show, besides Dong-baek learning to stand up for herself, was the town ahjummas opening up to her. The show began on a very antagonistic note with the ahjummas treating her as an outcast for being a single mom who runs a bar, but the tough hearts of these ladies melted as they saw Dong-baek deal with one obstacle after another. The instances of them ganging up to protect her from the serial killer, and later, the whole town coming together to save Dong-baek’s mom from dying, made even my cold heart thaw. We saw the most bullied girl in town turn into the most loved one.
This brings me to the serial killer ‘Joker’ arc, which left me hot and cold. In a show as light and fluffy as this one, there was never a realistic chance for serious horror/thriller. But the initial episodes did paint a genuinely terrifying picture of the serial killer, which lead many of us to expect a well fleshed out storyline and modus operandi. Midway into the show, the writers began planting seeds of doubts against almost every character in the show—Jung-sook, Jong-ryeol, Hyang-mi, Gyu-tae, Jessica, you name it. Adding so many characters to the pool of suspicion made it seem painfully obvious that none of them were guilty, and took a bit of fun out of it.
The terror came back to the plot when Hyang-mi goes amiss, and briefly, I was interested again. Especially because of Heung-sik (Lee Kyu-sung), who did a terrific job of switching between someone we wanted to pity and someone who looked genuinely unhinged. But the final reveal, yet again, kept going around in circles. Despite all the elements to make this reveal a good one—a likely suspect, motivation for killing, a modus operandi—the time it took to get there hampered my enjoyment. All in all, however, I’ll give credit to Joker for spicing up what is otherwise a feel-good plot.
Despite my frustrations with the writing in the show, I feel that all the actors really elevated the script, particularly supporting cast members Kim Sun-young, who was underutilized but still a delight; Jun Bae-soo, whose character is probably the only cop I’ll trust after Yong-sik; Lee Jung-eun, who keeps on delivering solid performances this year; and Oh Jung-se, who infused the plot with comedy. Every actor gave it their all and made Ongsan a place that I would love to live in myself.
The ending of When The Camellia Blooms felt slightly rushed and deprived us of a whole episode of cute Yong-Baek moments, but I think with time I can forgive that, especially with how beautifully all the loose ends were tied up. After a whole 20 episodes with Dong-baek and Yong-sik dealing with insurmountable obstacles in their way, seeing them finally be together had me heaving dreamy sighs of relief. And this is what I feel this show will be most remembered for—the healing it gave to all of us.
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