Stairway to Heaven


Reviewed by: il_mare

June 29, 2004

Rating: four

Cheonkukui Gyedan a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven

SBS drama special (2003) - 20 episodes
For SBS homepage for this drama (in Korean), go to: tv.sbs.co.kr/paradise/
Aired in Korea: December 3, 2003 - February 5, 2004 on SBS Wednesday & Thursday nights at 9:55.

Cast:
Cha Song-ju: Kwon Sang Woo (Delicious Proposal/Into the Sun)
Han Jung-suh: Choi Ji Woo (Winter Ballad/Beautiful Days)
Han Tae-hwa: Shin Hyun Joon (Wedding Dress)
Han Yuri: Kim Tae Hee
Tae Mira (Tae-hwa & Yuri's mom, actress): Lee Hui Hyang (Beautiful Days/Secret)
Han Su-ha (Jung-suh's dad, architect): Ha Jae Young (Glass Slipper/Beautiful Days)
Min Suh-hyun (Song-ju's mom): Kim Ji Sook
Han Pil-su (Tae-hwa & Yuri's dad): Jung Han Yong
Cha Song-ju (as a child): Baek Sung Hyun (Sweet Bear/Damo)
Han Jung-suh (as a child): Park Sin Hye
Han Tae-hwa (as a child): Lee Wan (Snow White)
Han Yuri (as a child): Park Ji Mi (Kuk Hee/Cinderella)
For more information (in Korean) on the cast from SBS, go to: tv.sbs.co.kr/paradise/sub_14.html.

Staff:
Screenwriter: Park Hye Kyung
Producer: Lee Jang Soo (Beautiful Days/Shoot for the Stars)

Learn Korean:
cheonkuk (cheon-kuk) = heaven/paradise
ui = to/of/for
gyedan (gye-dan) = stairs/stairway/staircase

For SBS Photos from this drama, go to: tv.sbs.co.kr/paradise/photo/sub_0801.html.

Synopsis

Song-ju is the only son of a wealthy family. Jung-suh is Song-ju’s childhood friend, and they were there for each other when one of their respective parents passed away. They spent a lot time together, playing, and sharing their inner most thoughts. When Jung-suh’s father re-married Tae Mira, Mira brought her children Tae-haw and Yuri from her previous marriage. That marked the end of Jung-suh’s happy days. Yuri was jealous of the privileged life that Jung-suh led, and vowed to take everything away from Jung-suh, including Song-ju. When Song-ju left for his studies in the U.S., he gave Jung-suh a necklace as a gift of his love.

On Tae-hwa’s birthday, Jung-suh gave him a birthday present. Tae-hwa mistook Jung-suh’s kindness as love, and he fell head over heels in love with her. Jung-suh never accepted Tae-hwa as her heart is with Song-ju, but Tae-hwa became Jung-suh’s soulmate after Song-ju left as she weathers life under the tyranny of Mira and Yuri.

Song-ju returns 3 years later from his studies and calls Jung-suh to meet him. Yuri runs Jung-suh down with her car in a mad bid to stop Jung-suh from her rendezvous with Song-ju. In her state of panic, Yuri sends a bloodied Jung-suh to her own father’s place. Tae-hwa tracks Jung-suh down and takes care for her. Jung-suh survives the accident but forgets everything about the past. Tae-hwa decides to start life afresh with Jung-suh by giving her a new identity as Kim Ji-suh.

Song-ju thinks Jung-suh has died, and is heartbroken. He returns 5 years later with Yuri from the US. He can’t forget Jung-suh, but feels obligated to Yuri, who’s stayed with him for the past few years. He agrees to his mother's arrangement to marry Yuri.

On their engagement day, Song-ju sees Kim Ji-suh on the carousel and runs madly after her, only to realize that the person with the same face as Jung-suh has no memory or collection of her identity as Han Jung-suh, or of him Cha Song-ju. Kim Ji Suh is a fashion designer and is in a relationship with Tae-hwa.

Song-ju goes on a mission to prove that Kim Ji Suh is Han Jung-suh. Ji Suh is confused by Song-ju’s action, but she is also touched by his actions for Jung-suh.

Jung-suh finally remembers the past and is angry at Tae-hwa for what he did. But she is torn as she is still emotionally attached to Tae-hwa, and is touched by the care and love that he has showered her all that time when Song-ju was not there. Song-ju is also torn as he is to be engaged to Yuri, and his family’s reputation is at stake if he does not follow as planned.

Song-ju decides to give up his family business and goes against his mother’s wishes to be with Jung-suh. But Jung-suh knows that one of Song-ju’s aspirations is to expand and scale his family’s corporation to greater heights. She asks Song-ju to go back, and promises to wait for him.

Unfortunately, Jung-suh finds out that she has cancer of the eye. She decides to leave Song-ju, and she takes refuge with Tae-hwa. Song-ju is tipped off by Tae-hwa, and both men beg Jung-suh to seek treatment and fight to live despite the devastating odds. Jung-suh eventually agrees. She has a successful treatment but she continues to be in danger should the cancer cells move to another major organ.

Song-ju invites all to his wedding, without announcing who the bride will be. Tae-hwa brings a blind Jung-suh to the wedding, much to the surprise of Mira and Yuri. At the same occasion, Tae-hwa breaks the news to all about the accident and both Yuri and Mira are taken away. Jung-suh changes her mind, and says “Yes” at the altar.

Tae-hwa sees Jung-suh happily married, but is sad that she is not able to see the world anymore. He decides to donate his cornea to her but the doctors refuse to perform the operation and tell him that they don’t remove corneas for implants from a living person. Tae-hwa commits suicide in a car accident to leave his cornea for Jung-suh. Jung-suh regains her eye sight and tells Song-ju her desire to live.

Unfortunately Jung-suh’s cancer cells have moved to her brain and she is dying…..

Review:

I really resisted this serial. First, I can’t stand the idea of going through another sappy Choi Ji Woo serial; secondly the plot is the cliché of all Korean drama clichés, and lastly this drama had a terribly sad ending. But I was curious about all this Kwong Sang Woo rave, and I finally persuaded myself to spare 20 hours of my time to go through this.

Predictably, STH is a mish-mash of the standard Korean drama recipe, you name it (you can call it Choi Ji Woo re-runs, think of a cross between Winter Love Song and Beautiful Days), this drama’s got it: evil stepmother, evil stepsister, stupid dumb father, perfect rich handsome male lead, quietly suffering female lead, love triangle, car accidents, amnesia, terminal disease, death and of course, tears, more tears, lots of tears. If this had been my first Korean drama, I would foresee the need to see an eye doctor from all that crying. Thank goodness I was saved from all those heartaches. After having caught Winter Love Song and Beautiful Days, Choi Ji Woo’s crying does not affect me anymore.

Now I know why the KSW fever is blazing through everyone who's seen this series, and I understand why every girl is crazy about him. Who wouldn’t?! Cha Song-ju is such a prince charming, the ideal flawless lover. He is smart, strong, charming, loyal, steadfast in his love for Jung-suh, and to top it off, he is handsome, has a great body (my vote for the Korean actor with the best bod, did you see those abs!!!!) and is extremely rich and eligible! Perhaps he is heaped and blessed with so much in life that he has to live it out without his one true love.

His relationship with Jung-suh is so intimate, so playful and lovable. They are truly soulmates. And how can your heart not go out to him, losing Jung-suh not once but twice, once to amnesia, and then to cancer. Their relationship is so emotionally close yet so physically far apart, just like the mobile conversations they have with each other at the police station after Song-ju's engagement to Yuri, at the cafe after Jung-suh finds out that she's got cancer, and at the hospital when Song-ju finds out Jung-suh is dying.

Kwong Sang Woo's healthy celebrity image is reinforced in this serial. He was totally adorable, wickedly charming and surprisingly he had a lot of chemistry with CJW (I initially felt that the pairing was inapproprite as CJW looked older than KSW, but I was SO WRONG!).

My favourite scenes were all the times they fooled around (you can really feel that they were having fun, and it was refreshing to hear CJW laugh so much), and all their kissing scenes. Well done! Again, I am glad he didn’t do much bawling (but I have to say that his breakdown outside the café after meeting a blind Jung-suh was the one of the few well-justified ones that I’ve seen), and gave enough tears at the right moment. I wonder whether KSW got a good workout from all that running and piggybacking from this serial? And did his driving improve considerably with so much driving to the beach, and driving next to buses and trains to chase Jung-suh?

CJW reprised her role of the perfect, kind, self-suffering heroine in this drama. There were no surprises in her performance, and she has once again found another winner with KSW as her leading man.

Han Jung-suh is lucky to have the unconditional love of not 1, but 2 men in her life. Her life may have been short, but she managed to complete all that she wanted to, and perhaps more. The good thing about Jung-suh (vs CJW's previous roles in BD and WLS) is that she was not afraid to display her disgust and stood up to her step mother and step sister. She was also outspoken and forthcoming in her love for Song-ju. I would consider Jung-suh to be the least restrained amongst CJW's previous roles. But I really hated the screaming and bawling at Tae-hwa when she regained her memory, at Yuri when she realised what Yuri had done, at Song-ju when she lost her eyesight, etc etc. (Yawn! Yawn!) Can I see something new from CJW?

STH is a sappy love story through and through with no sub-plot for the other characters in the series. The writers dedicated almost all the air time to develop the love story of the characters and did not inject any effort to build the characters and profiles of the different roles they have created in the series. The roles were quite one-dimensional and unbalanced. There were perfect lovers, perfect villians, and perfect dumbos.

Yet with such a flat and one-dimensional storyline, I still don’t understand what the underlying theme of this story is. Is it that true love will always come back, like a boomerang? Or that you will meet your love in this life or in heaven? Or that love does not mean you need to stay together? I resent it when the writers give unrealistic/over-idealistic portrayals of love. Especially the character of Han Tae-hwa. Is it realistic to find a lover like Tae-hwa? Someone who is willing to kill himself for Jung-suh? I think the writers have taken the topic of sacrificing for love to an unbelievable level.

Having said that, I was most touched by Han Tae-hwa. The sheer sadness of his unrequited love hurts much more than anything else in this story. He may have been selfish initially hiding Jung-suh from her family and Song-ju, but in the end he was willing to give up everything, even his life to atone for what he did in exchange for Sung-ju’s happiness. He watched Jung-suh closely like her guardian angel. Although he must be dying inside seeing Jung-suh marry Song-ju, he helped paved the way for their eventual union. He lived his life for Jung-suh, and ended it for her as well. Can it get any sadder than that? I didn’t like Shin Hyun Joon initially as I thought he was not good-looking enough. But toward the end, my heart was going out to him all the way. So I guess in that way, SHJ captured my heart with his performance.

I felt the role of Tae-hwa was a little inconsistent. The adolescent Tae-hwa was brash, reckless and rash. The adult version seemed more watered down and less bashful (perhaps almost wimpish). If the writers had carried on the bad boy role of Tae-hwa, and had someone like perhaps KMJ (of Damo and Into the Storm) to play Tae-hwa, I think the story will be much more interesting.

Tidbits : Lee Wan who played the younger Tae-hwa is apparently the younger sibling of Kim Tae-hee, the older Yuri.

Lee Hui Hyang and Kim Tae Hee were the perfect partners in crime as the evil stepmother and stepsister in this serial. I find Kim Tae Hee to be extremely beautiful, and yet she was able to conceal that beauty and brought out only the ugliness of her role. The jealousy and hatred were vividly conveyed in her eyes every time she saw Jung-suh. But I felt the writers overdid the bad part of Yuri and underplayed her love for Song-ju. She is made out to be hated by the audience, with no sympathy at all for what she did. I wished the role could be more balanced.

My Favourites
=============

1) All scenes of Song-ju and Jung-suh fooling around and man-handling each other
2) All kissing scenes of Song-ju and Jung-suh
3) Song-ju walking around the mall and playground with his formation of "henchmen" walking behind him - such a stud
4) Song-ju chasing after Ji-Suh on his engagement day
5) Everything Song-ju did to try to get Ji-Suh to remember her old self
6) The 3 gifts Song-ju gave Jung-suh – trust, hope and love
7) Song-ju losing his temper over the mobile when Jung-suh did not show up at the café
8) Song-ju and Tae-hwa cooking for Jung-suh in the house on the beach when she was blind
9) The wedding – extremely touching how Song-ju finally got his mother’s blessings
10) The first and only dinner that Jung-suh made for Song-ju
11) The OST - especially Ave Maria. Can you hear my heart beat with the drums every time Song-ju chased Jung-suh...
12) Yuri's long earrings

I hated
=======

1) Song-ju walking around the mall and playground with his formation of "henchmen" walking behind him - so overdone!
2) The sitting in the carriage dressed in hideous frills and gowns
3) The wedding – I think the outfits the groom and bride wore looked terrible
4) The wedding night – either you take your clothes off, or your don’t
5) CJW’s wailing – and she did a lot of it in STH. I feel there must be a different way to display despair, anger and hysteria. Why must she be wailing all the time?
6) Jung-suh dying at the beach - all that heavy breathing, and poor dialogue, and oh yes who can forget about the microphone being captured in the scene, which incidentally it happened more than once in this series, I spotted it 3 times! Unforgivable.
7) The ending - so Tae Hwa wasted his life for nothing....
8) The ending - so you expect a stud like Song-ju to live it out all alone till he meets Jung-suh in heaven? In the mean time, can I give him my number...

What I can't comprehend
=======================

After trying so hard to regain Jung-suh's memory, why didn't Song-ju tell her he loved her the moment she remembered her identity? What else was there to stop him, after regretting all his life for not doing enough for Jung-suh? Why didn't he break off the engagement immediately? Why? Why? Why?

For first-timers to Korean drama, be prepared to be sucked into the sappiness of STH, and I pray you come out ok after watching this as it will grip you, tear you apart and leave you completely heartbroken.

For veterans, if you want a story to get lost in (or drown in tears), this is one you should pick. Unfortunately, I watched it with well-guarded tear ducts, and as such, I was not sucked into the story as much as the fans were, but I can understand why this is a hit.

STH deserves only 4 stars although the story was well structured (but one-dimensional), had with a pair of captivating leads and flawless execution by the cast, because I think the love depicted here was really too far-fetched and over-idealised.

I can't help but wonder what the writers would do if they were to have a sequel for the lonely Song-ju? Wouldn't it be interesting? Having stuffed all the winning ingredients for a successful love story in STH, SBS writers, wouldn't it be challenging to see how you can out-do this with a sequel?

P.S. Do K-drama screenwriters have a thing for men who plays the piano? Remember BYJ in Winter Love Song, RSW in Beautiful Days, and now KSW in STH.

P.P.S. I'd better watch some happy serial soon. After 3 depressing ones (Damo, The Bali Story and STH) consecutively, I am immune to the tragedies of K-drama!


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