K-dramas have a knack for giving us the most weather-appropriate content. It’s fall in most parts of the world—there’s nostalgia in the air and most of us just want to be home, snuggling into ourselves. And what better way, for us drama fans, to spend days than indulging ourselves in the most adorable romantic comedy? Lead by rom-com veteran Gong Hyo-jin, who is always a treat to watch on screen, and Kang Ha-neul, who is returning to TV after three whole years (two of which he spent serving in the military), When The Camellia Blooms has small-town humor and camaraderie, giddy romance, heartwarming moments, and a very real sense of danger—making it the perfect watch for this season.
Despite the sunny teasers, the show’s opening scene is so dismal that I was thrown off for a bit—a policeman watches a dead body being lifted from the water, and on the victim’s wrist is a germanium bracelet. Soon, we are led to believe that she could be Dong-baek (played by Gong Hyo-jin), a soft-spoken single mother named who moves to the beach town of Ongsan, with its narrow alleys and tight-knit community. So tight, in fact, that it harks back to Reply 1988, a resemblance that only increases when Park Chan-sook (Kim Sun-young) appears. She teams up with a bunch of neighborhood ahjummas to harass the pretty Dong-baek for opening a bar where all their husbands go to have fun. The constant bullying honestly gets difficult to watch at times, because it’s rooted in misogyny towards single women.
Dong-baek’s only friend in Ongsan is Ms. Kwak (Go Du-shim), who owns the crab restaurant in town and is herself a single mom who raised three kids by running a restaurant. I love the friendship between these two women despite their age difference. However, things get complicated when Ms. Kwak’s son, Hwang Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul) returns to Ongsan and falls for Dong-baek. He’s a policeman with an itch to catch all criminals, big or small, and describes himself as “not the type to think before acting,” which pretty much sums up how he goes about courting Dong-baek. In true country bumpkin style, he’s so smitten with her that he just showers her with love and compliments, almost overwhelming her. But what I love about Yong-sik is that despite being so straightforward, he’s very respectful of Dong-baek’s circumstances and her boundaries, and never once oversteps them.
It is obvious that things aren’t going to be easy for Yong-sik and Dong-baek. In the first couple of episodes, Dong-baek is utterly disinterested in this weird man who has turned up out of nowhere and begun looking out for her. When she finally opens up to him, there’s her friendship with Ms. Kwak, who, despite all her support of Dong-baek, is against her son dating a single mom. Dong-baek’s son, Pil-gu (Kim Kang-hoon) isn’t entirely happy with the prospect either. If I had to choose a favorite character in this show, I would say it’s Pil-gu. This little firebrand packs so much punch despite his small size. I was worried that the show would not give Dong-baek’s child much personality. I couldn’t be more wrong.
Not only is Pil-gu the most hard-working little fella, but he’s also observant and considerate of the many injustices his mom faces every day—from the lecherous men at her bar who disrespects her to the neighborhood ahjummas who bully her. At just eight years of age, Pil-gu takes on all of them for the sake of his mom. It’s incredibly sad to see him deal with so much at such a young age, which is why when he initially becomes friends with Yong-sik, I was almost relieved. Because Ms. Kwak used to be in Dong-baek’s position, Yong-sik understands what Pil-gu is going through and is able to offer him support like no one else. This friendship comes to a pause when Pil-gu disapproves of Yong-sik dating his mom, but I can’t wait for him to soften.
I love the parallels between Yong-sik and Pil-gu, as well as Ms. Kwak and Dong-baek. They would make a gorgeous family. But before they can get there, there are several hurdles to overcome. One of them is Kang Jong-ryeol (Kim Ji-suk), a famous baseball player and Pil-gu’s real dad, who re-enters Dong-baek and Pil-gu’s life. Now, not only does Yong-sik need to win over his lady love and her son, but he also has to make space for Jong-ryeol. The show makes it pretty clear that Dong-baek isn’t into Jong-ryeol any more, but there are several factors that work to his advantage—he holds the key to saving Pil-gu from being subject to jokes about having no dad, he’s rich, and he has the media’s attention on him, which has the potential to mess with Pil-gu’s quiet life in Ongsan. Most of all, it’s the fact that he’s still in love with Dong-baek.
Like with any story set in a small town, a quirky mix of side-characters populate this show—from Hyang-mi (Son Dam-bi), who works part-time at the bar but seems to be on the run from someone and wants to escape to Copenhagen. For this purpose, she blackmails No Gyu-tae (Oh Jung-se), Dong-baek’s insufferable landlord who harasses Dong-baek. I don’t even feel sorry for this guy because he absolutely deserves what the hard time Hyang-mi is giving him, despite me not being completely sure where Hyang-mi’s loyalties lie either. Hong Ja-young (Yum Hye-ran), Gyu-tae’s lawyer wife, injects some much-needed doses of badassery and comedy to the plot. And finally, there’s Dong-baek’s mom (Lee Jung-eun), who suffers from dementia and makes an abrupt return to her daughter’s life. She looks harmless but seems too sharp for someone with dementia and keeps randomly disappearing, which is just making sure she’s hiding something.
As much as this show is a love story, I like how it also dedicates a significant portion of the plot to Dong-baek coming out of her shell and taking control of her life. After being abandoned as a child, she lived her life being looked down on as an orphan. When she finds love with Jong-ryeol, his mother rejects her and he never stands up for her. As a single mom and business owner, she’s targeted by both the men and women around her. Anyone would be low on self-esteem after going through so much. This is why Yong-sik is so good for her—he celebrates and hypes her up for simply being who she is. And fortunately, Dong-baek is starting to see it herself, which she shows by pressing charges against No Gyu-tae for harassment. My only gripe is that I’d like her to see her worth not only when Yong-sik tells her, but on her own as well. It’s a journey she should make on her own.
Throughout this sweet love story and the stories of Ongsan’s townsfolk, there is a constant undercurrent of danger that peppers the narrative and keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats. It is revealed that Dong-baek is directly related to the serial killer named ‘Joker’ because she narrowly escaped him several years ago, and has since lived in fear. Post Yong-sik’s return, the killer actively threatens Dong-baek again first by breaking into her bar and then by leaving a threatening message on her wall. It’s enough to make anyone leave town, but buoyed by Yong-sik’s support, Dong-baek tries to brave the threat, while Yong-sik works overtime to catch the killer. I trust Yong-sik to do his job well, but I can’t say I’m not anxious, especially since the early episodes begin and end with flash-forwards of a devastated Yong-sik discovering a dead body with Dong-baek’s bracelet.
While I find Dong-baek and Yong-sik’s relationship heart-stoppingly adorable, my wish from the next couple of episodes is for them to stop tiptoeing around each other. I’d like them to get together for real and for Yong-sik to experience the challenges of adjusting with Dong-baek and Pil-gu’s little family. Despite how smitten they are with each other, our leads will only discover the depth of their emotions when some real challenges are thrown their way. That, however, would require that the Kang Jong-ryeol chapter be wrapped up soon, which is not likely, in light of Hyang-mi blackmailing him and his wife, Jessica (Ji Yi-soo), getting wind of the truth.
As far as the mystery of ‘Joker’ goes, the series is trying to confuse us by having everyone from Dong-baek’s mom to Jong-ryeol appear to be the suspect. While I’m not buying that these people have anything to do with the murders (yet), they definitely appear shady. Especially Dong-baek’s mom, who suddenly reappeared in her daughter’s life after years, and Hyang-mi, who seems to be hiding a sinister secret and looks like she’s very tempted to betray Dong-baek. Personally, I feel like we’ve circled around these secrets long enough and am looking forward to a big reveal in the next few episodes. Yong-sik too, I feel, needs a breakthrough in his investigation of ‘Joker’ for this particular arc to continue being interesting.
At the heart of When The Camellia Blooms, however, lies the story of our mother-son duo, and Yong-sik, who is hopelessly smitten with both. These three have well and truly captured my heart, so whatever happens with the second half of the show, I’ll be tuning in to see how their story continues.
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