The Greatest Love, also known as Best Love
Starring Cha Seung-won, Gong Hyo-jin, Yoon Kye-sang and Yoo In-na
Short version: This is a romantic comedy set in the world of the entertainment industry. I’m starting to lose track of how many shows would be in my top ten, but this is definitely one of them. If I review that list and find I’ve got more than ten, it won’t be this one that gets booted. It’s got a nice blend of zany hilarity, pathos, tension, and heart thumping, pit-a-patting, happy sigh romance. It does merit a wee bit more previewing than other K-Dramas I’ve reviewed, but I think it’s worth it.
Cha Seung-Won’s character, Dokko Jin, is one of Korea’s top stars. He’s known as Gentleman Dokko because of his charming ways with his fans. He’s also privately arrogant, childish, and immature. In his own special way, he is a very lovable character not the least because he is protective of those he cares about and even sometimes of those he doesn’t. He is quite astute when it comes to human nature and his industry. His childhood was severely constricted by a long term life-threatening illness, and his years of top stardom have made him vain, accustomed to adulation, childish at times, and if they didn’t cause his hot temper, all that fan-worship sure didn’t cure that temper, either. In spite of the man-child in him, he didn’t get to be top in his field and stay that way without also being quite good at understanding the ups and downs of the world of star actors and their fans and having a keen grasp of what is necessary to please the fans in order to remain where he is. Though publicly he always behaves well, privately, when his pride is hurt he responds harshly first and then regrets it later, but he’s not very good at apologizing. This prompts his love interest, the actress Gong Hyo-jin as Gu Ae-jung, to accuse him more than once of being like a starfish in that he uses the same mouth he eats and speaks with for eliminating waste, only she doesn’t use the starfish analogy and doesn’t put it nearly that elegantly, if you get my drift. She’s quite straightforward in her meaning. She’s not swearing, but she’s not indulging in euphemisms, either.
Gong Hyo-jin’s character, Gu Ae-jung, was once the nationally beloved leader of a mega-popular girl band. But the band broke up, the public blamed her, and a series of bad publicity events have had her in the entertainment world doghouse for the past ten years. She has been embroiled in a series of scandals based largely on rumour, exaggerations, and misunderstandings. She’s still a celebrity of sorts because she’s working in the business since that’s the field she knows, and she has to support her neer-do-well father and brother as well as her nephew. She does the variety show circuit, putting up with humiliation, mockery, and often demeaning parts in order to bring home the bacon, always hoping she can move up just a little in the celebrity world. She is loyal to a fault, and also has a quick temper, both of which have contributed to the public’s misunderstandings of her character. She’s probably the most disliked woman in show biz. The first few times she and Dokko Jin meet, of course, they dislike each other.
Gradually, and completely against his will and his better judgment, Dokko Jin falls in love with Ae-Jung, and issues a Mr. Darcy like confession which is received just about as well as Darcy’s first confession was received. Obviously, he will work to overcome her bad impression of him.
Of course, in order to have a successful rom-com, we need some more conflict besides the characters of our main love interests. One source of conflict is a series of misunderstandings. Some of these not only sting Dokko Jin’s pride, but also cause him to believe his sincerely proffered heart has just been mocked, denigrated, and taken advantage of. For a number of perfectly understandable but utterly wrong-headed reasons, he assumes his love interest is dishonestly and a little crassly using his love and the romantic interest of another man as stepping stones to recover her career. This wounds him deeply, and he lashes out with a degrading demand that she sleep with him if she wants his help. He does apologize later for being too harsh, even though he still thinks his assumptions about her are true.
There’s another source of conflict as well, more organic and natural to the story and I really loved how it played out here, but I don’t want to say more than that or it would be a spoiler.
Competition is also a key ingredient in a rom-com, and here we have it mainly through the character of Yoon Pil-joo (Yoon Kye-sang), the perfect man (except for the woman who would be the mother-in-law of any woman who married him), sweet, kind, smart, a doctor of oriental medicine, and completely in love with Au Jong, but not very happy with show biz:
“You live in a world I don’t understand,” he says, “where the front and the back don’t match.”
He wants to take her away from all that.
Yoon Kye-Sang was also in the third season of High Kick and My Sister-in-Law is Nineteen. I haven’t seen him in H.K, but I loved him a lot in My Sister-In-Law is Nineteen, and he’s fantastic here as well. He made his character a fully fleshed, interesting and believable wonder-boy just by smiling onscreen. Other actors who get the part of the perfect second lead typical to a Hong sisters drama (they are writers who always deliver good laughs in their rom-coms) end up almost being annoying because they are so perfect. Yoon Kye-Sang manages to be endearing rather than annoying.
On the girls’ side of the playground, we have the spoiled, selfish, gossippy Se Ri, who used to be in the Treasure Girls with AuJong, and Pil-joo’s mother, both of whom do what they can to mess things up for Au-jong.
Another villain is the Treasure Girls’ former manager who is just peeved that his gravy train broke up. He blames Au-Jong, and he’s a nasty bully on top of that.
I guess yet another villain would be the collective world of reporters, netizens, anti-fans, and over zealous fans- a nation of mothers-in-law, as Au-jong puts it. This show was quite an indictment of all the indiscretions of those groups.
Side characters include Au-Jong’s friend Jenny who was also in the Treasure Girls, Dokko Jin’s manager (I loved him) and his director (a wonderful character who loves her clients, but doesn’t hold back when it comes to doing her job right), Au-Jong’s bumbling manager brother, and Ding-Dong, her adorable young nephew whose relationship with Dokko Jin is just utterly cute. It’s obvious that Cha Seung-Won is a dad who has interacted with his kids (he has two).
I really, really like this K-drama, not least because Cha Seung-Won and Gong Hyo-jin ( also the leading lady in Pasta) are both more mature than our usual K-drama rom-com characters, Cha Seung-Won’s image is not the more androgynous or barely pubescent boy, depending on your point of view, flowerboy image. The romance is more mature, too- not in an icky way, but in the sense that both these characters are fully adult, essentially the heads of their households (she lives with her dad and big brother, but she is the bread-winner; he lives alone). They have real things to protect- her family and friends, his career. They know the risks, and they aren’t merely twitter-pated.
As I said, this rom-com needs more previewing than most of the ones I recommend to make sure it suits your viewing standards. I say that not because it’s so bad, but because I know that we have very conservative movie watchers among our viewers. If your kids are too young, you will have some awkward questions to answer (Why does that man tell the little boy he has to come along on his date with the little boy’s auntie because they need a fire extinguisher?), but I wouldn’t mind watching it on a date-night (or rather a series of date-nights) with my husband. In addition to those little things I’ve already mentioned, there’s a brief scene where one character is shopping for a gift for a date that will reflect the way he’d like to spend time together. He accidentally (!) finds himself pondering a bright red, er, female support garment in a shop window before he catches himself, gives himself a shake and goes on to buy a camera (that was a commercial endorsement spot). In the last or second to last episode there’s a scene where Au-Jong and her best friend Jenny are picturing some of the netizen’s worst accusations about how she’s ensnared Dokko Jin, and it involves some bondage issues. This scene is played entirely for parody and laughs, not titillation. I could watch it with my spouse or married kids, but I wouldn’t want to explain it to anybody young enough to ask questions about it, and I’d not want it feeding my son’s imagination, as silly as it is. There’s also a scene where Dokko Jin’s manager gets very drunk and emotional over some bad news that only he and Dokko Jin know about. He comes to Dokko Jin’s house to cry over this terrible news, but he’s so drunk and so clingy over it that he looks like he’s pawing Dokko Jin shamelessly and Au-jung thinks she’s witnessing a love confession. It’s a pretty awkward scene all around.
I enjoyed the self deprecatory sense of humour, the gentle mockery. For instance, regarding Dokko Jin’s inflated ego, he’s talking to himself in the car as he’s driving, comparing himself to other great actors- one of whom is Cha Seung-Won himself (the most distinguished actor? Nope, that would be Dokko Jin!).
There are quite a few cameo appearances of actors and singers playing themselves- my favorite is Lee Seung-Gi in episode 9 (he’s the King in King 2 Hearts, and he’s a mega star, if you are new to K-drama land), where he really hams it up as the spoiled diva star who smiles and smiles at his fans, while giving his staff a hard time behind the scenes. The argument between him and Dokko Jin is worth watching for itself. Dokko Jin wants him to give Au-Jong a spot on his talk show, Steel Hearts. At the time, Lee Seung-Gi was an MC for a talk show called Strong Hearts. Seung Gi is hesitant, but carefully humble, since Dokko Jin is his senior, both in years and in time in the industry. Then Dokko Jin suggests that if Seung Gi doesn’t do as he asked, he will make sure he gets the refrigerator ads that SG wants, and Seung Gi’s humility evaporates and he stiffens and says in steely tones:
“I am Lee Seung-Gi,” he huffs, “Sunbae or not, no one messes with my CFs (product endorsement deals).”
In the midst of this heated argument, reporters and fans show up, and mid-glare, Dokko Jin mutters “One, two, three,” and in unison they turn to the crowd, celebrity smiles in place, hugging each other like long lost brothers.
But just talking about the scene does not do it justice. These two actors are so excellent, so charismatic, they just generate a field of energy, a tractor beam that draws attention, and to have them both in the same scene together! Words fail….
I liked the ‘meta’ stuff- this is a K-drama loaded with celebrity actors and it’s set in the K-drama, celebrity world. According to Wikipedia:
Though the drama draws from gossip people hear about celebrities, Cha Seung-won said during the drama’s press conference that he also wanted to show a bright, healthy side of the entertainment scene in Korea. He admitted that entertainers do hide behind their image due to their job. “However, this drama will show they are just genuine people off-camera,” Cha said. Yoon Kye-sang added that, “The script is very realistic, giving a fun sneak peek into what is going on behind the scenes.
It doesn’t hurt the show at all that the incredibly charismatic lead actor, Cha Seung-Won is himself a strong person who has been in the business since he was a youngster- for over 20 years. Unusual in Korean culture, he married and became a father at a very young age, and he dropped out of school to support his family as a model. He was quite successful at it. I think the depth of his life experience and time in the industry as a married man allowed him to bring something to this role that maybe other actors couldn’t. Consider this statement from an interview just after this drama was aired:
Dokgo Jin did everything he could to protect Goo Ae-jung when he himself was on the verge of life and death. What is one that you, as Cha Seung-won, want to protect till the very end?
Cha: What I want to protect till the very end is my family. But not just my family but my family including myself. Because to protect them, I have to be there for them. I want to protect my family and be their fence. Being in entertainment, there are many elements that try to step into the boundaries of our lives. So I need to protect them from those. I`ve said this before but I`m a very aggressive person. And I will stay this way. I don`t care if that doesn`t make me a nice guy when I need to make a decision to protect my family. (laugh)
For added interest, I understand he and his family are Catholics and have a very firm religious center. The family centered attitude shines through in the final scene of the show as well, which is just delightful. Incidentally, if you notice and are curious about the tattoo on his arm, that’s his daughter’s baptismal name.
I’ve used the word charismatic a lot in this review, but there’s a really good reason for that, or several of them,which you’ll notice if you watch this show.
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A few of my favorite K-Dramas (family friendly a priority)