Sweet 18

Reviewed by: Gunner

June 24, 2004

Rating: five

KBS Drama (2004) – 16 Episodes
Korean Title: Nang Rang 18 Seh
Official Homepage (Korean): http://www.kbs.co.kr/drama/rangrang/

Key Cast:
Yoon Jung Sook: Han Ji Hye (Summer Scent)
Kwon Hyuk Joon: Lee Dong Gun (Let’s go to School, Sang Do)

Other Characters:
Kwon Sun Ah (Hyuk Joon’s elder sister)
Jung Chan (Hyuk Joon’s colleague and best friend)
Moon Ga Young (Hyuk Joon’s ex-girlfriend)
Hyuk Joon’s grandfather
Jung Sook’s mother

This is my very first review done on spcnet.tv so I though I’d start with a drama I felt was really outstanding. The concept of a pre-arranged marriage between an older man and a very young girl is not a new one and has been explored before in the Hong Kong movie ‘My Wife is 18’ (Charlene Choi and Ekin Cheng). Incidentally, the release of this drama was quickly followed by that of the Korean movie ‘My Little Bride’ (Kim Rae Won and Moon Geun Young) again using the same theme. Shows exploring this theme are usually romantic comedies unabashedly filled with saccharine-sweet romantic plot-lines and backed up by wacky over-the-top humour and ‘Sweet 18’ makes no attempt to deviate from a proven formula. So what makes ‘Sweet 18’ stand out from its peers and from other dramas for that matter, especially for someone like myself, whom I consider a more ‘serious’ audience? For one, the plot is face-paced and smooth-flowing as well as being genuinely humorous. In addition to this, behind all the antics and romance, there are actually life lessons that can be appreciated from the drama.

Synopsis (contains spoilers!):
The drama begins with Hyuk Joon’s grandfather, the patriarch of the respectable and very traditional Kwon household, agreeing to a pre-arranged marriage between his at-the-time 10 year old grandson and the new-born granddaughter of his best friend, Jung Sook’s grandfather. However, the family of Jung Sook’s grandfather soon runs into debt and in the middle of the night, they quietly leave the Kwon household so as not to bring shame upon them.

Fast forward 17 years and Jung Sook is all grown up now and studying her final year in high school in preparation for her university-entrance exams. Her grandfather and father have by now passed on and she was brought up in a poor environment by her mum who owns a small laundry shop. However, Jung Sook is chirpy and strong-willed despite her background and definitely very cheeky. She unfortunately does not have much of an interest in her studies and often goes shopping and to discos with her ‘gang’ of four close friends, known in school collectively as the ‘five mirror princesses’.

It is during one of these disco outings that Jung Sook ends up meeting her future husband, Hyuk Joon, although it is not in the best of circumstances. Hyuk Joon, a prosecutor has led his team to the disco to arrest a targeted gang leader but failing to do so, end up arresting underage entrants to the disco instead. Jung Sook, not yet 18, is one of those arrested and the awkward circumstance of their meeting is used to generate a few laughs. At almost the same time, Hyuk Joon’s grandfather who has been looking for his long-lost friend over the years, finally locates Jung Sook’s family’s whereabouts and send Hyuk Joon’s uncle to formalise the details of the pre-arranged marriage with Jung Sook’s mum.

Upon learning of the marriage, Hyuk Joon and Jung Sook of course are very much opposed to it with Hyuk Joon thinking of Jung Sook as an immature brat while Jung Sook sees Hyuk Joon as an old boring nerd. However, the usual plot developments are thrown in to bring the two together like Jung Sook catching Hyuk Joon in the bath when going to his house to ask him something and more importantly, she learns that Hyuk Joon is her first love (the unknown guy in traditional Korean dress whom she bumped into on the street and fell in love with immediately). Thus Jung Sook begins to actively pursue the marriage to Hyuk Joon’s horror, even travelling from Seoul to Andong (a rural area where the Kwon household is located) to earn points with Hyuk Joon’s grandfather. Hyuk Joon’s grandfather takes an immediate liking to her despite her being from a poor background and not trained in the proper use of Korean traditional etiquette and household duties. Adamant that the marriage goes through, Hyuk Joon finally agrees to the marriage so as not to aggravate his grandfather’s ailing health and with the mutual agreement with Jung Sook that their marriage is only to be in name with each other not interfering in the other’s personal life.

All this takes place within the first few episodes and there is much more interesting twists and turns as Ga Young, Hyuk Joon’s aggressive university ex-girlfriend, is introduced and goes about trying to win back Hyuk Joon with the help of Sun Ah, Hyuk Joon’s sister who utterly dislikes Jung Sook and is against the marriage. Other obstacles like Hyuk Joon’s and Jung Sook’s constant bickering, the problems of living under one roof and the requirement of Jung Sook to meet the expectations of the Kwon family as the ‘wife of the heir’ also come into play to create some humorous moments and also further the plot. It would be too long to summarise the entire plot here but to put it briefly, in the end true love blossoms between Hyuk Joon and Jung Sook and their show marriage becomes a real one in all meanings of the word.

Plus points:
As mentioned before, what makes this drama such a pleasure to watch is how well the plot is paced. There are no boring moments and the interesting plot just keeps making you want to watch more. The humour is not overly wacky but funny enough to keep a smile on your face for most of the show. Feel good moments are also generously used and while some might consider that an exploitation of the viewer’s intellect, I personally watch a show for to enjoy it and a feel good plot does the same job for me as a more complex intellectual one. What is really refreshing about the drama though is that it does not fall into the melodramatic trappings that most other Korean dramas do. While there are definitely scenes that are meant to draw some tears, they are incorporated thoughtfully and not overdone. The minor characters are also used very effectively and are integral to plot development. You never get the feeling that they are just there to add some cheap laughs or as a distracting subplot to follow.

Furthermore, behind all the wackiness and romantic themes that the show has, there are actually some very meaningful and though-provoking themes incorporated into the story. For example, the theme of one’s responsibility to his family is touched upon throughout the show in Hyuk Joon’s obligations to fulfil his duties as heir to the Kwon household with the eventual fate of him having to give up his career to take over as the Kwon patriarch looming over him. There are also the themes of trust and compromise in marriage as seen though Jung Sook’s gradual maturation where she learns to trust Hyuk Joon’s love for her and where both parties are forced to sacrifice many aspects of their lives to be together like Hyuk Joon his selfishly-guarded privacy and Jung Sook her chance to further her education. However, the biggest underlying theme behind the story would be the definition of what is true love in a marriage as both parties struggle throughout the drama make their marriage work. At the end there is also a very beautiful portrayal of family love that I’ll leave potential viewers to find out.

The biggest plus point of the show would have to be the cast who fit their roles to perfection. Han Ji Hye is a new and very unique actress who seems to have this energy around her that makes her just right for Jung Sook’s role. Incidentally she is almost the same age as her character (she was 19 at the time of filming) and puts all her youthful characteristics to good use in her portrayal of Jung Sook who is naïve, bubbly, cute and yet stubborn at the same time. Lee Dong Gun on the other hand is the perfect foil playing Hyuk Joon who is essentially a serious and conservative man. Though only 24, he plays the 28 year old Hyuk Joon well, conveying across his seriousness without being too ‘stiff’. He also expresses his emotions well and you can see his character really starting to develop genuine feelings for Jung Sook. It helps that Han Ji Hye and Lee Dong Gun have a very good on-screen chemistry that allows them to successfully play their roles as a mismatched pair that eventually fall in love. Mention should also be given to the actress who plays Ga Young who really looks the part of a conniving and bitter ex-lover and the actor who plays Jung Chan who you can feel has this close ‘buddy’ friendship with Hyuk Joon.

I may be biased, but I really cannot think of any major drawbacks for this drama. At 16 episodes, it is not too short or too overly-draggy. I may not be an avid follower of dramas, but I’ve watched my fair share of J-dramas and K-dramas (though I have yet to watch any of the 4 season dramas) and would rate this up there among the best as a classic. The only drawback I can imagine is that the initial impression the show might give is that it is overly sweet and lacks a serious backdrop. However, if you can get over these initial apprehensions, you’ll find a drama that successfully takes a simple plot with very mundane but yet identifiable themes and makes a good story. The result is a very unique and refreshing piece of work that I believe most people will enjoy.

I gave this drama a rating of 5 basically because it is a show that simply leaves you with a sense of satisfaction after watching it. There are no head-scratching moments trying to fill in gaps in the plot and you won’t have to rack your brains wondering why he did this or she did that. ‘Sweet 18’ is a drama that potentially appeals to a wide audience and I believe a teen would find as much enjoyment watching it as an adult, though maybe in different ways. It also makes for good family viewing since there are no excessively violent or sexual themes. If you haven’t caught the show yet, I cannot recommend more for you to go and do so as soon as possible.

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