(Viewed One Time)
The story line threads in Spring Waltz are numerous and sometimes complicated. There is the innocent love of a boy and a girl (Lee Soo-ho and Seo Eun-young), ages not specified but probably in the range of 10-11 years old. It is the story of their separation and the difficulty of their reunion 15 years later. Spring Waltz is also the story of two men whose bond of friendship is so strong, that not even their love of the same woman is enough to separate them. It is the story of two women and their love for the same man, both loves born, nurtured and lost in the bosom of idyllic youth. One stays true to the innocence of that love, not knowing that this man she now loves is her childhood sweetheart of 15 years earlier. The other takes a far different and much darker path when she learns that she has been deceived by manipulative adults into believing that this man is the same boy she loved in her youth. This is also the story of a father who continually lies and assures his son of his love, but then repeatedly abandons him in order to indulge in his perversion of life (drinking and gambling). He realizes far too late what he has done and redeems himself with the ultimate sacrifice of a public denial, so that his son will not have to live his life in shame as a result of his derelict father. It is the story of a husband and wife who have suffered a terrible loss with the death of their very talented young son (a gifted pianist), who make a deal with the devil, and with their wealth are able to regain their “son”, but in doing so almost lose their souls, and almost take their “son” with them.
Spring Waltz is all these things. But first and foremost it is a fairytale; and like most fairytales it pits the innocence of youth and love against the forces of adulthood and cynicism, also known as the real world. A bucolic island of lovely spring flowers and fields is the setting where two children meet for the first time through the chance acquaintance of their parents. Mother works full time to support her daughter (Seo Eun-young) and herself. Life is not easy for them, but they survive and their love is deep. The children’s meeting gradually grows into a friendship and eventually into a childhood love as they innocently frolic and play amongst the beautiful flowers and grasses of the island and along its beaches. They also make promises to each other that they will continue their joy into the years of adulthood.
But this is a story pitting good (mother, daughter, son, idyllic playground (the island)) against evil (father (drinking and gambling), the big city (Seoul)). This time, when the boy’s father abandons him as he has done repeatedly, there are far greater consequences than at any other time. On this occasion he has stolen money from the little girl’s mother that she had been scraping together for surgery on her daughter’s defective heart. Evil has invaded the world of innocence and stolen some of that innocence away.
Not knowing what else to do, mother leaves her bucolic setting and travels to the big city (Seoul) in an attempt to find the man who stole her money. In a very roundabout way, the children also manage to get to Seoul, but cannot find the girl’s mother or the boy’s father, and are forced to wander the streets. When the little girl collapses from the physical and emotional stress, the boy carries her piggyback to a hospital, and during her admittance, he learns the tragic fate her mother (hit by a car and killed). He also learns that his young love/friend will need surgery for her defective heart, but there is no possible way that the surgery can be paid for. While running from someone who could possibly expose his relationship to his thieving father, the boy escapes into a hospital room occupied by a woman who has attempted suicide due to the death of her son. She is startled to see what appears to her to be her dead son, and runs to embrace him, calling the young boy by a name he does not recognize. He manages to escape.
In an attempt to help fund his friend’s surgery, in a gesture that is both innocent and wrong, the boy attempts to steal a woman’s purse and is caught by the police. A stranger whom the boy has spoken to only once shows up at the police station and vouches for him. The boy is released into the man’s custody, and a deal is struck. The man will pay for the little girl’s surgery. In turn, the boy will go with the man and his wife (the woman who attempted suicide) and become their “son”, complete with a new name, new identity and a new country (Canada). Knowing that his beloved friend will most likely die without the surgery, he reluctantly goes. During the following winter he is told by his “parents” that his young love died during surgery. He is crushed.
Move forward 15 years. The little girl is not dead, but in fact has become a lovely woman. She is on a flight to Austria, having won a contest at home for her jewelry and craft creations. She is flying to see the Crystal Museum in Vienna to learn and grow creatively from the experience. Sitting next to her on the plane is another woman, also from Korea. She is flying to Austria to find a man that she knew when they were both very young (perhaps in the area of 9-10 years old). Both were very talented pianists, but her young pianistic friend (and the love of her life) disappeared, never to be heard from again. She is hoping that the man she is going to see is indeed her long lost love.
That young boy, now a man, is an up and coming Korean born classical pianist who is living in Austria after being raised in Canada. His manager has become his closest friend and confidant. The pianist goes by the same name as the woman’s childhood pianist friend, but he is clearly uncomfortable in her presence, at times showing total ignorance of the things they supposedly did together as children in Korea. We of course know who he really is. A couple of chance meetings with the pianist’s real childhood sweetheart (our lovely heroine) do not go well, which is just fine with the man’s manager, a dashingly handsome stud of a man if there ever was one. He is quite taken with her and finds himself falling in love. Our love quartet has now been formed. 1) A pianist who hides his secret past and does not at first recognize the great love from his childhood because he has been told she is dead. 2) The pianist’s manager and best friend, who falls in love with that same woman, completely unaware that she was his best friend’s childhood sweetheart. 3) Our child heroine who has grown to be a lovely woman and is being actively courted by the handsome manager, not knowing that the manager's boss and best friend is also her long lost childhood sweetheart. 4) A woman who has come to Austria to find the lost love of her youth, and thinks she has found him, not knowing his secret past and who he really is. Who wins? Who loses? What’s the course their story will take? It is a long and complicated story that gradually unfolds to its fairytale ending.
Spring Waltz was the fourth and final installment in the “seasons” set of K-dramas that came to be known as Endless Love. All four were directed by the same man, Yoon Seok-ho. The first installment in the tetralogy was Autumn in My Heart (2000), which was wildly successful in Korea with an average viewing audience of 38.6% and a peak of 46.1%, amazing numbers by any stretch of the imagination, especially considering the relentless and tragic downward spiral of its story arc and the deaths of both principal lovers at the end. The second installment, Winter Sonata (2002) did not capture the audience ratings of its predecessor with an average viewing audience of 23.1% and a peak of 28.8% for episode 14. However, the true story behind Winter Sonata was not its rating success in Korea, but rather its astounding success throughout the rest of Asia and Southeast Asia, and even the rest of the world. When the hallyu (Korean wave) of pop culture swept over the far east, Winter Sonata was the most frequently mentioned name in K-dramas contributing to that success. It was followed in 2003 by the weakest link in the four dramas, Summer Scent. Numbers are not always an indicator of quality, but in this case they were. Summer Scent captured the lowest average ratings of all four dramas at 10.7% and a peak of 11.6%, numbers that were indicative of a story whose premise was flimsy and didn’t really have the legs to last 20 episodes. The radiant performance of its female protagonist was one of its few bright spots. The final installment, Spring Waltz, made its appearance in 2006. While its ratings started weakly at only 10.9%, it gradually gathered steam, and the final seven episodes all had ratings better than the much coveted 20% mark. Its peak viewership was 25.8% for the final episode. Its average for the entire run was 17.8%.
All four dramas to varying degrees are fairytales of the kind that have become exceedingly popular in Korean television culture. The tetralogy contains many of the standard elements of melodrama which we have come to expect in K-dramas: Birth secrets, purity of first (young) love, coincidences that would make even Charles Dickens blush, socioeconomic differences between lovers, meddling parents, meddling third person in a love triangle, falsely reported death, amnesia, faux incest, serious illness (in some cases, terminal), pedestrians hit by cars (sometimes triggering amnesia, sometimes solving amnesia, sometimes deadly), etc., etc., etc. But for the true romantic, most of the time, despite the fact these machinations strain credibility, they are forgiven for the sake of a fairytale love story.
Spring Waltz is perhaps the most fairytale-like of the four. Many of the Korean scenes are shot in Seoul, however much of the story takes place on an island, Cheongsando, where its stunning spring colors of yellow and pink and green help to convey the youth (springtime) and innocence of its two principal characters. In fact, the island itself with its gorgeous scenery and verdant, long grasses comes to stand as a symbol of innocence and youth. At the end, the two principals return to the island to live out their fairytale existence in a home that can only be described as an illustration taken straight from a fairytale book.
Spring Waltz was the only one of the four dramas to have portions of it filmed outside of Korea. The groundwork for the story (the first meetings of the four principals) is set forth in Austria in the first episode. Outdoor winter scenes in Vienna are appropriately gray and drab. Indoor scenes, however, are sparking and alive, as one would expect in the land of The Waltz King, Johann Strauss. But it is in Salzburg and then at Lake Hallstatt where the scenery is taken straight from fairytale land; beautiful, cloud shrouded mountains, a mist covered lake at their bases replete with swans, with picturesque homes almost sitting in the water. The camera work here is simply stunning.
So just how well does the writing for this story hold up. Actually pretty well. Child actors Eun Won-jae and Han So-hee as the young Lee Soo-ho and Seo Eun-young are really quite amazing, bringing credibility to their lovely innocence and also to their pain when the real world of adults intrudes and forces both of them to grow up far faster than any child should have to.
Of the four adult principals, Han Hyo-joo as Seo Eun-young (Park Eun-young after her adoption by her aunt) provides a beautiful and touching performance as the Oliver Twist-like character who maintains her sense of joy and purity, even amongst the moral morass of those around her who would quite willingly attempt to take that away from her. Her character never loses her moral compass. The only weakness is in the writing of her character. Yes, it’s been 15 years. But other people realize who Jae-ha is long before she does, and she had arguably the closest relationship with him of anyone. Is she really that blind?
By contrast, Lee So-yeon as Song Yi-na, presents a character of fierce intensity. Hiding behind rather geek-like glasses, her search for her long lost love turns to rage and ugly manipulation as she feels that she is the woman scorned who is losing her chance for love to the purity of Park Eun-young. In fact, her character is so over the top that her redemption in the final minutes of the show is one of the few spots that strains credibility.
Seo Do-young as Lee Soo–ho (who becomes Yoon Jae-ha after his identity change) is rather wooden as the tortured and brooding artiste who creates fiery and at the same time beautiful and sensitive music, but whose inner soul is barren. With the seeming loss of his childhood love, he has cut himself off from the rest of the world and exists solely to re-create great music on the keyboard and to compose his own. As is typical in K-dramas, his character is most definitely a Mr. Darcy type during his first adult meetings with Eun-young, but as is also typical in K-dramas, he finds himself warming to her even though he’s not really sure why. His performance is a little bit better than what you would expect for a model in his first acting role.
That gorgeous stud of a man, Daniel Henney, plays Phillip, Jae-ha’s manager, only friend and close confidant. Mr. Henney is also a model turned actor. I did not find him to be very impressive in his first role as the doctor who is also the unrequited lover in My Lovely Kim Sam Soon. Not so here. He is charming as he attempts to make himself understood in English and some broken Korean to the lovely Park-Eun-young. His character is supposed to be a player, but here his socks are charmed off by this delightful Korean girl. From her side though, he is just a friend, and in fact, it becomes clear that she and Jae-ha are gradually falling for each other. Some of the best moments in the show occur as he tries to balance his feelings to his best male friend and his love for this new woman, wanting so desperately to tell her how much he loves her, and yet wanting to remain loyal to his best bud. He is the prototypical “good guy”, or as some would derisively call him the “noble idiot”, who never gets the girl but always remains loyal to his buddy. He is arguably the most sympathetic character in the whole show. This role is the best thing I have seen him do. And for God’s sake, the man is gorgeous. Can we finally get him in a role where he actually gets the woman and doesn’t lose her.
The star of this show by a wide margin is the cinematography. As in Winter Sonata, the coldest season is captured in beautiful and breathtaking imagery, this time in Austria. The spring and summer scenes on the island of Cheongsando are a cascade of beautiful yellows, pinks, greens and God knows what else, and are absolutely gorgeous.
In direct contrast are the deficiencies in costuming. The costumes of Ms. Han almost appear to be a modern take-off on actress Diane Keaton in Annie Hall. Layers and layers of skirts and blouses and whatever, most frequently in greens and yellows. While she is not “glam”, Ms. Han is an attractive woman, but much of the time the colors of her clothes more closely resemble a canary than anything else. And the clothes on Mr. Henney, Good Lord Almighty. I have never seen so many clashing colors and patterns in one place. He is so good looking that he manages to overcome it, but, I mean really. What was the purpose?
The soundtrack for Spring Waltz is actually very nice, and although there are no truly standout classic songs as was the case with Winter Sonata, the overall quality of the music compares very favorably to that show, and in fact, many times sound almost derivative of the style of Winter Sonata (that’s a good thing).
A quibble. In the opening episode Jae-ha is giving a recital/concert in Austria. He opens with one of the flashy scherzos of Frederic Chopin, an excellent first choice for a concert. Much of the piece is cut, which is not a problem as we are actually supposed to be following a story, not listening to the music. However, he finishes the piece to thunderous applause, and then announces an encore, which he then plays. A one piece concert? I have never in my life seen a one piece concert that consisted of a piece as short as this Chopin scherzo. Would people really pay to go to a concert that had one, only minutes long selection on it.
A final word regarding the ending. I never realized before just how unfulfilling the end of Winter Sonata is. We have gone through more than 20 hours with the lovers in both shows, and yet at the end of Winter Sonata, after the lovers have finally been reunited, we get to see the shadow figures of them embracing for about 30 seconds, and the show is over. We invested over 20 hours of emotions in that show and we deserved more than that. On the other hand, Spring Waltz gives us what we want; in fact, maybe a little too much, but at least we get to take part in a sense of finality concerning the lovers. Our investment of emotions for more than 20 hours is rewarded. How much nicer would Winter Sonata have been with such a conclusion.
In summary, Spring Waltz is the most fairytale-like of the four dramas of the Endless Love tetralogy. The story occasionally drags, but its ending is appropriately pretty and happily ever after, which helps to make up for some of the slowness of the 20 single hour episodes. Performances never make us cringe. Credibility is only mildly strained. Springtime colors are vibrant and brilliant. Wintertime scenes are captured in absolutely beautiful cinematography. The good guys win in the end, and really, what more can we ask for in a fairytale. Recommended.