You could be forgiven for thinking that award-winning Korean drama When the Camellia Blooms is another off-the-shelf Kdrama about a man who falls for the struggling single mother in town and rescues her from her difficulties. But Dong Baek is no withering violet, nor a helpless female in dire need of rescuing. She is a strong, resilient and determined woman that is raising her son in a small town where everyone is unhappy with their lot in life but are happy to criticise and ostracise anyone who is marginally different.
Nor is it a stranger-blows-into-town-and-disrupts-the-equilibrium drama either, because at the heart of this acclaimed drama is an unsolved murder case too, involving a serial killer known as The Joker from his trademark note left at the scene.
The drama opens with the discovery of a body in the lake, providing just the right amount of foreshadowing as we witness the arm of the victim dropping down from the gurney bearing a unique bracelet.
With our curiosity piqued, we are then transported back in time to the beginning of the story, and our first introduction to Dong Baek.
New in town, she is a single mother that opens a bar called Camellia. She is labelled as a “hostess”, with men frequenting her bar as she has no connection to anyone in the town and they can move about freely, but she is maligned due to this fact by most of the women in the town. The popularity of the bar, they often sneer, is not due to the fact that she provides a welcome refuge but rather other unspoken things. And instead of applauding her for her determination, she faces a barrage of criticism – so much of it unnecessary and downright nasty. Full credit to her though, she never loses the plot and remains calm for the best part.
The real ace in the pack here is Gong Hyo-jin. She is absolutely perfect. She moves through the drama with steadfast determination and with the odds stacked against her, she prevails. Never one to stray away from roles that address discrimination, challenging stereotypes and social stigma (It’s Okay, that’s Love, Thank You, Boomerang Family) she proves to be the perfect Dong Baek.
As the drama slowly builds in its intensity through the depiction of its flawed and all-to-human characters, penned beautifully by Lim Sang-choon, as a follow-up from the successful Fight My Way, another drama that brought the struggles of ordinary folk to life, we bear witness to her growing resolve.
At her side is the lumbering, “Kind Hulk” police officer Hwang Yong-sik, played by Kang Ha-neul in his first drama since his military enlistment, and recently awarded Best Actor at the 56th Baeksang Arts Awards for this role. Always wearing his heart on his sleeve, Yong-sik falls in love with Dong Baek at first sight and slowly wins her over with through a mixture of determination and exuberance. But he is soon to find that his enthusiasm is no match for his mother, the feisty, Deok Soon (Go Doo-shim), who ironically raised three boys as a single mother but cannot stomach his blossoming relationship with Dong Baek.
On the other side is the father of her son, successful baseball player Kang Jong-ryul (Kim Ji-seok) who becomes aware of this fact, albeit a bit belatedly, and tries to make amends but soon finds that the ship has well and truly sailed.
But casting the developing romance and the serial killer aside for a moment, at the heart of When The Camellia Blooms is the depiction of a solid female cast – all really strong characters in their own right with a determination that is really second to none and is very refreshing to see on full display.
The expert direction provided by Cha Yeong-hoon who brought the full spectrum of the human condition to the fore in the immensely popular yet tragic Korean drama Uncontrollably Fond has delivered yet again, providing a drama that is heart-warming and gut-wrenching at the same time, proving to be worthy of all its recent accolades – the 56th Baeksang Arts Awards Grand Prize (Daesang) and Best Actor (Kang Ha-neul).