Nice. So nice. I’m genuinely thrilled to find a K-drama I like so I can be back live recapping. If episode 1 of Heartstrings disappointed me with it’s roughshod execution and a slightly uneven script, then episode 1 of Spy Myung Wol elicited the exact opposite reaction from me. This drama is da bomb, yo. The entire premise is not taken seriously by the drama or the actors itself, so the action moves at a brisk pace and the story is allowed to just shuffle along without trying too hard to be something meaningful or important. If anything else, this drama is just fun to watch, which is not always easy to accomplish.
It was such a pleasure watching episode 1, when normally most first episodes (even of dramas I love) tend to require patience to wait for it all to gell and the payoff to arrive a few episodes later. Not so here, where the characters, the situations, and the interactions are immediately and efficiently presented. Not a wasted moment or frame. I’m thrilled to finally find a Summer K-drama that I love to follow. Chingus, we’ve got a winner and imma recapping this baby! Buckle up your seatbelts, it looks to be a fun and potentially bumpy ride.
Episode 1 recap:
The camera pans down to a confrontation happening on the rooftop of a high rise, with Kang Woo and another man (played by the recently ubiquitous Kim Sung Oh) pointing their guns at each other. The scene practically drips with an Infernal Affairs homage. Whatever the manly angst brought about this moment, it ends with Kang Woo putting a bullet in his own brain after saying “thank you”, presumably because he just put himself out of his own misery.
The scene freezes and the camera pulls back to show us that what we just saw was a movie starring Kang Woo, said movie currently being watched by an unknown high level North Korean. The person watching says to another officer hovering behind him: “why do we not have an actor like him?”
The drama introduces us to Hallyu superstar Kang Woo (played by Eric Moon) and North Korean agent Han Myung Wol (played by Han Ye Seul) in simultaneous cross-cuts of both of them in action, though it’s ironic the vast disparity of the action which drives their existence. Kang Woo drives his car and speeds to an engagement. Myung Wol races down a corridor and is chased by men in a tank vehicle.
Kang Woo arrives at a stadium where he changes into a baseball uniform and goes out on the field to throw a ceremonial first pitch. Myung Wol successfully repels her attackers and finds her target – she needs to disarm a ticking bomb. Kang Woo throws the pitch to the adulation and screams of his fans. Myung Wol tries desperately to disarm the bomb before the time ticks down to zero, but she fails.
The bomb does not go off, since this is just a drill. Myung Wol anxiously gets up and goes to greet her attending officer, Choi Ryu (Lee Jin Wook). He address her as low-ranking officer of the Hallyu Control Division, Han Myung Wol, and informs her that she failed her final test in the exam to become a special ops agent. She has been eliminated because in the last three seconds of her test, she failed to save the lives of five hundred thousand people.
Myung Wol and Choi Ryu pass each other in an office corridor and salute each other. Myung Wol turns around and informs Ryul that she will see him again in three months, when she will reapply to join the Special Ops Unit. Ryu heard that she’s doing well in the Hallyu Control Division so she should just do her best at her current assignment. Myung Wol repeats again that she will see him in three months.
Myung Wol walks down the streets of Pyeongyang (which resembles an idyllic setting littered with billboards touting North Korea, a giant statue of what is likely one of the two Kim presidents, and blaring nationalistic music on the streets). She passes another man and they exchange items – he hands her a book which contains US $100, and she hands him an USB drive.
We see a group of folks sequestered in a fancy club private room and watching a K-drama starring Kang Woo. The ladies gush over him, and even the guys note that he’s attractive even from their male perspective. They tease each other about watching so many dramas they can recite the dialogue. Suddenly Myung Wol arrives with her agents to bust this illicit video-viewing party.
The guy, whose father out to be an officer in the North Korean government, tries to warn Myung Wol not to mess with him. Myung Wol informs him that he’s destroyed his father’s life by what he’s doing.
A girl sits in her room and strokes a picture of Kang Woo. Her father tries to convince her to eat first. She refuses, asking if he’ll let her go, otherwise she’ll die. Her dad tells her that before she dies, he’ll croak first. Daddy raises his hand to strike his princess but hasn’t the heart to bring it down on his willful child.
Daddy turns out to be yet another high ranking North Korean officer Kim Young Tak. He meets with Choi Ryu and asks if the right candidate has been selected. He’s told Han Myung Wol is the perfect candidate for this mission – no family, good at keeping secrets. Choi Ryu thinks she’s a good fit, except she has one fatal weakness. She acts before thinking.
A plane takes off from Pyeongyang and heads to Korea. Choi Ryu and Myung Wol are in a car driving down the streets of Singapore, with the officer’s daughter Kim Eun Joo in the backseat. They pass by a billboard announcing Kang Woo’s Showcase in Singapore.
Chairmoon Joo walks through a hotel with his minions and granddaughter Joo In Ah (Jang Hee Jin) in tow. He describes this building being converted into a casino in the near fture. In Ah just checks her cellphone and is not interested in learning about what her grandfather does.
Kang Woo’s Showcase is about to start. Myung Wol and Ryu arrive at the venue with an excited Eun Joo in tow. The kid takes off to watch the concert despite Myung Wol’s request that they stay together. Myung Wol asks why Ryu brought the crazy Eun Joo here, and he tells her not to ask questions, just perform her assignment.
Kang Woo starts his performance (eeeeee, Eric rapping, it’s been too long guy, missed seeing him onstage). Myung Wol watches and appears rather absorbed by this performance. After the performance, Kang Woo is escorted backstage.
He sits down in his dressing room, surrounded by his staff. He takes them to task for mistakes in lighting and sound during his performance. We know Kang Woo is very exacting by this exchange. His agent promises this won’t happen again, telling him to just enjoy himself today. He says he lost any desire to have fun tonight.
Myung Wol watches a news report about Kang Woo returning to his hotel after the performance. She’s staying at the same hotel and walks to the window, looking down to see the same crowd on TV is just below her, welcoming Kang Woo back to the hotel. Eun Joo wants to go out to get an autograph. Myung Wol won’t let her, since her orders are not to let Eun Joo be exposed.
Eun Joo says if she can’t be exposed, then Myung Wol needs to go get the autograph for her. Eun Joo goads Myung Wol, asking if an officer like her can’t get something as simple as an autograph. We see Kang Woo dive into the pool for a night swim. Myunl Wol finds him swimming and tries to barge into the pool area by pretending she’s a reporter here to get an interview. She’s repeatedly restrained by the hotel security.
The next day, Myung Wol dons an ugly mushroom wig and stalks Kang Woo as he heads out of the hotel alone. We see Kang Woo take the stairs, and Myung Wol hilariously hitches a rope to the banister and rappels down to catch up to him. Nice to see her use her spy skills to get an autograph. She catches up to Kang Woo outside the hotel.
She asks him to sign, and he repeatedly declines, saying he doesn’t give out autographs on the street. He moves to leave but Myung Wol grabs his arm and refuses to budge. Finally he takes the pad and writes something and hands it back to her. She says thank you and turns to walk away. She flips open the pad to see that he drew a mocking face instead of signing his name. Ahahahaha.
Myung Wol chases after him only to see Kang Woo get in the taxi, but not before he makes the same sticking his tongue out face at her as the taxi pulls away. Myung Wol calls him an arrogant jerk and decides to extend her mission 30 more minutes to get that damn autograph. In Ah gets a call that Kang Woo has taken off.
Kang Woo goes shopping and Myung Wol continues to stalk him. Choi Ryu is doing his own spy meeting to discuss their mission, which involves an event where everyone is wearing a mask. Ryu looks up to see Myung Wol running past him. Ryu moves to follow Myung Wol, where instead he witnesses In Ah getting her purse snatched.
Ryu trips up the thief and returns the bag to In Ah. She asks if he’s Korean, and thanks him. She takes off her sunglasses and asks if he doesn’t recognize her. He says no. She thinks he’s must have lived abroad for too long. Ryu walks away and In Ah stops herself from chasing after him.
Kang Woo knows Myung Wol is on his tail and continues to expertly evade her. Is he a Hallyu star or a spy himself? Finally Myung Wol catches up to Kang Woo in an alley, or more like he lets her catch him. Again, she’s totally failing Spy 101. He tells her that he hates being stalked. He knows that she’s a fan, but if she doesn’t stop now, he’ll ban her from all future concerts.
Myung Wol switches to Korean and stops Kang Woo from walking away, telling him that she wants his autograph and she has no desire to attend his concerts. She warns him to sign within 5 second or else she’ll get violent on him. He asks why she’s behaving like this, and she responds that she’s his avid fan just like he said. But then she switches to banmal with him and warns him to sign or else risk losing use of his precious right hand.
Kang Woo looks down and notices her shoelaces are untied. He tells her to stop counting and hand him a pen. He bends down to tie her shoelaces, asking why she likes him. His looks, voice, talent? She must like it all. Kang Woo ties her laces together in a dead knot. When Myung Wol leans down, Kang Woo plants a cheek kiss on her. He says this is a better present than an autograph. He warns her not to follow him anymore since he’s busy elsewhere.
Choi Ryu is covertly following Chairman Joo to an antique store. He speaks up to tell the Chairman that the item he is viewing is a fake, despite the owner’s attempt to get the Chairman to buy it right then and there.
Kang Woo, wearing a tux, gets into a taxi. Myung Wol sees him leave and follows him. She finds a poor hapless lady about to attend the event and she swipes her dress and domino (face mask). Myung Wol arrives at the gala where everyone has their face covered. Some guy pulls Myung Wol into a dance, which allows her to look around until she spots Kang Woo.
Everyone is called into an auction of high end antiques. Myung Wol watches Kang Woo and In Ah, when suddenly an antique scroll is brought out for auction. It’s a piece that originated from either China, Korea, or Russia, and three of the original four manuscripts are now lost, with this one the only remaining item.
We see Choi Ryu is monitoring this very auction. Suddenly Myung Wol stands up because she hears an order from the radio piece in her ear. She accidentally bids $1.8 million for it, but is outbid by Kang Woo, who bids $2 million for it. Myung Wol hurries to find Kang Woo afterwards, but sees the woman whose clothes she stole has found security and is looking for her.
Myung Wol finds Kang Woo and In Ah out in the balcony. She takes out a pen and is about to approach him and get his signature. She sees him sign on the payment for the auction and wonders why it’s so easy for him to sign. Suddenly North Korean agents descend and try to attack Kang Woo. Myung Wol stops them.
Suddenly Choi Ryu appears and subdues Myung Wol. He’s rushing to get the manuscript when Myung Wol throws her pen at him and injures his hand. Both of them make a run for it since the authorities have arrived.
Back in North Korea, Myung Wol is blamed for the failure of this mission. She’s called before Choi Ryu, who asks whether she disregarded a direct order from her superior because she was courageous or plain idiotic? Until further notice, she’s suspended from all further duties. She asks that she be punished rather than indefinitely suspended. Ryu concedes that since their Singapore mission was an unofficial covert operation, she can’t even be officially punished for her transgression during the operation.
However, Ryu informs Myung Wol that as long as he runs the special ops unit, he will forever eliminate her application for admission. Myung Wol flashes back to her childhood with her special ops daddy, and her vow to join the same unit as him. She tells Choi Ryu that she can’t just give up on her dream to join the special ops unit. He reminds her that the unit is one which does not allow even a single mistake, and she’s already made one before she even joined.
Choi Ryu walks out and Myung Wol notices his injured hand, courtesy of her pen. She flashes back to when she injured Ryu with the pen, and realizes that Ryu was attempting to steal the manuscript from Kang Woo. She makes a vow that she will rectify the mistake she caused by herself. We see Myung Wol taking a boat to South Korea.
Kang Woo is practicing with his backup dancers. He goes home with his assistant and gives him the night off. His assistant flops on the sofa and calls Kang Woo a dancing beast, clearly not human with his practice stamina. We get our first shower scene, yay! Myung Wol has her little note pad where she’s making notes on Kang Woo’s schedule.
The media and fans are gathered for the press conference for the upcoming Kang Woo-Joo In Ah drama Assassin. A bunch of school girls are wondering where one of their friends went, and next we see Myung Wol putting on a school girl uniform in the bathroom. Bwahaha, poor Kang Woo fangirl. Next we see the trailer for the drama, where Kang Woo plays an assassin and Joo In Ah the woman the assassin group.
Myung Wol walks up and watches the press conference. The media and fans are invited to the open set to watch Kang Woo and In Ah film a scene where they are running through a burning warehouse. Kang Woo asks the PD why the they need to be holding hands as they run for their lives. The PD is annoyed and asks why he’s got so many questions. Even Kang Woo’s agent steps forward and asks him why he’s making a fuss in front of the media.
If it wasn’t for Kang Woo dragging his feet before signing onto this project, they wouldn’t be edging so close to the premiere date. Kang Woo suggests they stop filming for today then. The filming resumes but the media and fans are asked not to take any pictures anymore. During the next take, In Ah is the one who asks for a break.
Kang Woo sits down in the corner of the set and his assistant asks the fangirls to disperse and give Kang Woo some peace and quiet for 10 minutes. Everyone walks away except for Myung Wol, who sneaks behind the scenes and approaches Kang Woo.
Suddenly she notices that the gas line is turned on and realizes that it might explode. Sure enough, a fallen props sends an ember into the gas line. Myung Wol runs towards Kang Woo and shields him from the blast, the two of them tumbling onto the ground.
Myung Wol gets up and runs away, but not before Kang Woo gets a good look at her face. The crew arrive and asks him if he’s okay. Agent Kyung asks him if he wants to go to the hospital, but he asks if the kid has been located. Just as the van is pulling away, the driver sees a person on the ground.
The news reports on Kang Woo’s on set accident, and the high school girl who saved him but then ran away. We see two guys sitting in a room, the older is Han Hee Bok, and the younger is Lee Dae Kang. Dae Kang wonders why a girl saving the life of Hallyu superstar Kang Woo would run away instead of staying for a reward. Hee Bok thinks it’s all for publicity and not anything they need to investigate or worry about.
Myung Wol is taken to the hospital and Agent Kyung waits outside during the surgery. During her call with Kang Woo, he overhears the medical staff discuss how the patient has burst a major artery and is in critical condition. We see Myung Wol getting repeated shocked back to life in the middle of her surgery as she flashed back to her memory with her father.
Dae Kang still can’t get over the mystery of the girl who saved Kang Woo and then left. Hee Bok asks Dae Kang to turn on his radio, which broadcasts a program every night at midnight. The North Korean military staff is having a meeting to discuss Myung Wol, who they have realized is the girl in the picture seen saving Kang Woo’s life on the set. Turns out Myung Wol lost both parents young and grew up in an orphanage.
Hee Bok listens to the radio and realizes he’s intercepting a coded message from the North Koreans. Hee Bok takes out his code cracker book and mutters about why the sudden activity since it’s been quiet ever since the ’88 Olympics. Hee Bok cracks the code and realizes that the message reads “Han Myung Wol.”
Kang Woo is in Myung Wol’s hospital room, where she looks to be waking up. But she falls back asleep, so Kang Woo tries to leave. Except the media has descended and Kang Woo runs back inside to call his assistant and Agent Kyung. The media rushes into the room only to find it empty but for Myung Wol sleeping on the bed.
Agent Kyung herds the media out, who ask about the identity of the patient. Agent Kyung says the patient is just an intern who fainted from exhaustion. Myung Wol slowly wakes up and realizes something isn’t right. Her heart rate monitor is increasing rapidly. She lifts up the blanket covering her to find Kang Woo hiding under the blanket right next to her.
Kang Woo clasps his hand over her mouth and shakes his head, telling Myung Wol not to make any noise. Myung Wol’s eyes widen as her heart rate spirals into warning territory.
Thoughts of Mine:
This might seriously be one of the most entertaining first episodes of a K-drama I’ve seen in god knows how long. Not a dull moment to be found, with tons of exposition and action efficiently balanced and well-integrated. I love PD Hwang In Hyuk, who directed one of my favorite dramas of all-time Goodbye Solo, and also directed one of the prettiest dramas of 2010 Sungkyungkwan Scandal. What’s awesome about PD Hwang is how diverse his directing credits are, with GS being a Noh Hee Kyung introspective mood piece, SS being a trendy fusion sageuk, and now SMW is an action-heavy rom-com caper. Yet he always understands his story and how best to capture each scene.
Another reason why episode 1 of SMW worked was thanks to the cast, who immediately gelled with each other and sent sparks flying already. Do we have a well-cast four leads or what? Not a single thespian in the mix, yet none of them are trying to win any awards or convince me they are serious auteurs. They are having fun, giving it their all, and doing a commendable job at that.
To be honest, second leads Lee Jin Wook and Jang Hee Jin are very weak actors, and I’ve watched plenty of their other performances to confirm they haven’t magically improved here. If I smushed the two of them together I probably still won’t get one good performance, but I’m fine with them here because they are serviceable and don’t annoy me. Neither is over-acting and their lack of nuance and emotive abilities rather suit their characters.
But luckily the leads are doing great, and frankly this is going to be the Myung Wol-Kang Woo show with everyone else just along for the ride. The chemistry between Han Ye Seul and Eric is currently rocketing towards off-the-charts, so I’m not sure if by episode 8 their clothes may simply incinerate when they are in close proximity to each other due to the heat they give off. This is chemistry of the fun, sexy, and goofy variety, and oh so much fun to watch.
I like how the drama pokes fun at North Korea in a semi-serious way, but also showing its denizens to be just people who grew up in a world without choice or freedom. I know some folks may already second lead ship Choi Ryu because he’s such a stoic lovelorn type, but I’m actually keen on both North Koreans getting together with the two Hallyu stars, respectively. Though I’m not sure how the story is going to pull off emotional angst and political maneuverings, I’m hopeful that the story can maintain its brisk pace without toppling into weepy plot insanity in the second half.
Han Ye Seul is very well-cast as Han Myung Wol – with the physical prowess and steely demeanor necessary to convince that she’s a North Korean military-trained agent. Her tendency to go wide-eyed to express emotions is still there, but she doesn’t rely on it too much and I think her great chemistry with Eric will help her performance smooth out in the long run.
It’s unbelievable to have Eric back on the screen. He looks spectacular and his acting is currently very solid. I like how his character is not Dokko Jin-lite in terms of being a top star, but rather more understated and boyish. The first meeting between Kang Woo and Myung Wol was brilliantly conceptualized, with the “sign please” leading to a chase through Singapore and finally a confrontation in the alley that is probably pretty unforgettable for both of them.
I like how this drama is focused on the forward momentum of the plot (which is quite interesting) and doesn’t dwell on the character introspection to tell us how everyone behaves or thinks. As the viewer we glean all of this just by processing what happens and then drawing a bigger picture. The screenwriters are relatively unexperienced, as Kim Eun Young doesn’t have any dramas under her resume, and Kim Jung Ah wrote the Gong Yoo–Gong Hyo Jin vehicle Biscuit Teacher and Star Candy. I hope they can keep up the good work because they are lucky to have a cast with a ten-ton truck worth of chemistry and a very capable PD delivering the goods. For now, I’m completely loving this drama.