Korean Movie Stories

Heirs: Episode 1

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EPISODE 1 RECAP

 

Southern California coastline. Our hero surfs the day away with his buddies, laughing it up and looking light-hearted. And then… a broody shower scene on the beach. HAHA. I dunno whatchoo got to be so angsty about, uber-rich teenager hero-manchild, but the music and mood tells us he is Very Serious On the Inside about something.

May as well introduce him off the bat: This is 18-year-old KIM TAN (pronounced tahn and not, say, like the English word tan. He’s played by Lee Min-ho, but you either knew that already or this is your first drama ever).

 

His narration tells us of the parting words with which his older brother sent him abroad to the States, so blunt and succinct: No need to get good grades, just have fun and live lightly. “People with money just eat and play—they don’t bother with dreams,” he’d said. “If possible, don’t even come back.”

And thus Tan realized that his study abroad was more like exile, and that his cold older brother was staking his claim on what he thought Tan might steal from him. Hyung’s name is KIM WON (Choi Jin-hyuk), and at 31 he’s the president of Jeguk (Empire) Group. Their father is the Jeguk chairman and Tan its future heir. But while there’s no literal throne at stake here, royalty seems an apt metaphor: There’s only one crown in this family, and Big Bro’s gonna wear it.

 

Tan sits at a cafe and is served by a waitress who speaks to him in Korean. (Why hello there, Yoon Jin-seo, what are you doing in Heirs?) Overacting American Friend asks how Tan feels about his family relationships, or rather his lack of them. Doesn’t it sting that nobody’s on his side? Tan just looks around idly and thinks, “I’m too lazy to hate anyone.”

Next we meet CHOI YOUNG-DO (Kim Woo-bin), hotel heir and Big Man on Campus back in Seoul. He bullies a hapless fellow student with a baseball while his lackeys snicker. Aw, why you gotta be an asshole, Woo-bin-ah? His good cheer makes his actions all the more chilling, because everything is laced with underlying menace.

 

But more than being hit by the ball or mocked, the sense of terror comes from Young-do’s icy reminder that no matter what the victim does, his fate is sealed: His life will continue to be this way forever, and one day these bullies will be his employers.

Young-do gives the guy props for standing up to him, then leaves with a pleasant “See ya after vacation.” Behind him, his sidekicks start the beating.

 

Young-do drops by a motorcycle shop, where our heroine drops in to deliver a food order. She’s CHA EUN-SANG (Park Shin-hye), a no-nonsense high school student who won’t take crap from anyone (yay for that), calling the cops right away when a couple of the shop ajusshis harass her for a date. The ajusshi hastily backs the hell off, and she marches out to make her next delivery. She catches Young-do’s eye, at least for a moment.

As though we weren’t sure she were a poor Candy girl, she’s got a whole string of part-time jobs. Her friend drops by the cafe where she works; he’s YOON CHAN-YOUNG (Kang Min-hyuk), a platonic childhood buddy who has a girlfriend and encourages Eun-sang to find herself a boyfriend. She scoffs that any time spent not earning money is a waste. Chan-young eyes her with pity, though I’d say Eun-sang has no use for his pity. I do like that about her.

 

Then, a shrill voice orders Chan-young to look elsewhere—ha, this is the girlfriend, and right away we can tell she’s the high-maintenance type. Her name’s LEE BO-NA (Krystal), she’s an heir (to Mega Entertainment), and she shoots Eun-sang a glare, ordering her to stop flirting with her boyfriend.

Eun-sang is used to Bo-na’s possessive nature and has perfected the way to disarm her fuse with wry nonpliments about how Bo-na’s plenty pretty and how Eun-sang is too busy for this. I get the sense that Bo-na knows she’s being mocked but isn’t quite smart enough to figure out how (it’s all in the tone). Haha. I’m liking Eun-sang more and more.

Bo-na drags Chan-young away, griping about how much she hates Eun-sang. He assures her that they’re buddies, and Bo-na snaps that guys and girls can’t be “just friends.”

 

Eun-sang launches into her own set of complaints about Bo-na on the phone, although her rant goes unheard by her unni. On the other end of the line, unni is having a fight with her boyfriend in English—ah, this is Yoon Jin-seo. Ignoring the terrrrible English (cringe cringe), unni calls the guy trash. The guy slaps her in the face and says, and I quote, “Bitch get out of my house.”

On her way home, Eun-sang gets caught in the rain and pauses under an awning, where the dreamcatchers in the storefront catch her eye and bring a smile to her face.

Chan-young is on good terms with his father, as we witness as they cook dinner together and chat about his upcoming plans to move to the States. Bo-na insists on following him there, but he hasn’t had a chance to tell Eun-sang yet, with her up to her neck in part-time jobs. As for Eun-sang’s mother, well, Dad refers to her as “the center of power for Jeguk Group”…

 

…in the sense that she is the Jeguk family housekeeper. She’s also mute, writing her responses on a notepad she carries with her. Mom is warned that the madam of the house is emotional tonight, given that her son (Tan) is ignoring her calls.

Madam Han is on rather rocky terms with stepson Won; when told he has arrived, she downs her wine before he can see her—for whatever reason, she’s not allowed to drink. Hm, so she’s the lady of the house but Won has power over her. That’s interesting, and rather sageuk-like.

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Mom scrambles to hide the wineglass for her employer when Won appears. He barely spares a glance for his stepmother as he coldly orders his room cleaned again. Madam Han orders a replacement wine bottle sent to her room, forgoing dinner: “If I were able to swallow any food after suffering this indignity, I’d be a concubine.” So perhaps the sageuk allusions are intentional, then.

Mom wraps up the mistress’s dinner to take home to Eun-sang, telling her that eating and surviving is the most important thing so she should just take it without complaints. Eun-sang says with a bite to her voice, “Is it myfault we live like this?” Is that resentment I hear?

Eun-sang stomps to her tiny room and tearfully blames her sister for leaving them to live in comfort on her own (she’s supposedly going to college in California, though I have my doubts). Then Mom gives her a bankbook to send a large chunk of funds to America—unni is getting married.

Eun-sang is awash in curiosity over her sister’s impending marriage, while Mom is content to stay out of it. She won’t go to the States for the wedding lest they dampen unni’s image, either. Eun-sang says defiantly that they’re not blots on unni’s character, and a slip of the tongue reveals that Eun-sang carries resentment for her sister running away from home. Ah, the subtext is that Eun-sang was left behind in poverty while unni skipped off into the sunset. So rather than wiring that money overseas, Eun-sang says she’ll deliver it in person.

 

Marriage is also the issue for another of our rich folks, YOO RACHEL (Kim Ji-won), heir to RS International, whose mother announces that she’ll be getting remarried. Rachel balks but Mom breezily tells her to prepare to meet her new daddy.

Rachel is dragged along to lunch, as is the son of her stepfather-to-be, whom we’ve already met as the bullying badass Young-do. Both teenagers sulk in silence while their parents chat pleasantly, occasionally letting out a scoff or sneer. And then Young-do brings the conversation to a screeching halt with the comment, “My sister is exactly my style.” Ha. Oh no you di’n’t.

 

Young-do’s rudeness earns him a slap to the face (now we see where he got his violent streak) and he leaves the room. Rachel follows him out, though it’s not out of any warm and fuzzy feelings, as she informs Young-do that she’s as opposed to their parents marrying as he is. However, she notes that he probably hates it more, since she is engaged to Kim Tan. And if both weddings happen as planned, then Tan becomes Young-do’s bro-in-law. Aw, is that too much ego for one family?

She think she’s got him all sized up, but Young-do surprises her: “I never said I hated this marriage.” He calls marriage in their class a business merger and points out that her mother holds a number of shares in Jeguk Group: “Who will end up with those?” His words cast a shadow over her face—does he have a point?

 

Eun-sang works yet another job scrubbing dishes, a Sisyphean task that comes close to cracking her composure today. When her boss asks about her school vacation plans, she answers frankly that she’s going to the States and doesn’t plan to return: “Unni getting married means she doesn’t intend to return to Korea, and that means I’m stuck forever washing dishes and living with my mother.” Leaving is an escape plan she’s been dreaming of for the past ten years.

She packs her things, putting away some blank notebooks for Mom’s use. Eun-sang flips through one of the used ones on the shelf, and the messages weigh down her heart—it’s all stuff like “I’m sorry madam” and “Please don’t be angry, madam.” She cries silently while flipping through the pages, and writes a message in a fresh book: “I’m sorry, Mom. I’ll make something of myself and send for you. Wait just a little.”

Rachel plans a trip to California to see Tan, and while packing she and her mother bicker back and forth some more about Mom’s marriage. Basically her mother offers to cut her free (read: cut her off from her inheritance), and that gets Rachel to back down from her teenage rebelliousness.

Back in his beachfront estate, Tan ignores his calls from Rachel while narrating to us that at first, he’d thought of using his exile to rebel against his brother. But ultimately he ended up taking his advice and living easily, not thinking about too much.

 

Tan tells Overacting Surfer Bro-Dude that it’s his engagement anniversary, and the exceedingly uncomfortable English conversation at least provides us with one winner. Friend: “You look like none of that is a good thing.” Tan: “No, I always look this good.” (God, these California scenes make me cringe down to my soul. I’ll be so glad when they go back to Seoul.)

Eun-sang lands at LAX with a bit of wide-eyed little-girl-in-the-big-city nervousness. She clutches a page of carefully written notes as she makes her way outside, where she spots Rachel curbside answering a call in Korean. Rachel’s obviously lying (about Tan coming to pick her up and complimenting her about getting prettier), and Eun-sang smiles a bit to herself.

Rachel gets offended and calls her out on it, and after a failed attempted to pretend to be Japanese, Eun-sang apologizes. It wasn’t a mocking smile, though, she assures her—rather, she felt a sense of solidarity for not being the only one to land without a welcoming presence. That just rubs it in more for Rachel, whose mood darkens further.

More surfing. Eun-sang arrives on the pier and notices Tan briefly before continuing on her way. But when she arrives at the address, she’s puzzled at the rundown house and sketchy neighborhood. A sleazy duo answer the door, and Eun-sang fumbles for her English phrasebook. The guy hazards a guess and says her name—must’ve heard it from her sister at some point.

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Eun-sang is let in and looks aghast at the frankly disgusting house. The floozy stomps out in a huff and Eun-sang asks the guy about her sister Stella. He laughs at the idea of them getting married and says unni doesn’t go to school, and Eun-sang demands to know where she is.

Tan turns down his friends’ invitation to party hardy, choosing instead to get introspective over his journal at his usual cafe. (“It’s when I’m writing that I think about the fact that I am thinking.”) It’s where Stella unni works, and she chats briefly with him before leaving him to write about how writing makes him think the thoughts that his brother told him not to think. Yeah, it’s all a bit meta, but everybody needs their phase of angsty adolescent journaling, right?

Back at Jeguk Group, Won heads a board meeting where he receives bad news about lower than expected sales for their premium shopping malls. In a nutshell, this scene tells us: (1) President Hyung is a hardass, (2) President Hyung has a tense relationship with Chairman Dad, who technically runs the company though he doesn’t come to work on a daily basis. Not that he needs to—he has eyes and ears in the company reporting to him, behind Won’s back. Hence the tension. Oh, and (3) Chan-young’s friendly dad is one of the board members and looks to be aligned with Chairman Kim, rather than Won.

Back on the beach, Tan looks up and notices Eun-sang on the boardwalk with her suitcase, looking out of place. She spots her sister inside the cafe as unni manages customer leers and accepts their tips. Gahhhh, this ain’t no strip club people. I know this is a Korean drama and not an American one, but aughhhh.

 

Tan clocks Eun-sang’s upset reaction as Stella flirts with another customer (who asks her to “work for me tonight, you know, work”). He stares at her intently, so intently that it’s actually rather moving, and that’s how Stella finally notices her sister standing there.

The sisters face off on the boardwalk and Eun-sang confronts unni with all the made-up stories of a good school and wonderful fiancé. Unni looks abashed to be caught in her lies, but that doesn’t stop her from opening up her sister’s suitcase right then and there to look for the money.

Eun-sang bursts out that unni was her last hope in this goddamned miserable world, and that she was just hanging in there with mom waiting for her to come back. Unni says sorry, but asks for a pass this time and goes rummaging for that cash.

 

Eun-sang warns her sister not to dare touch that cash, the money Mom worked so hard to collect, but unni wrests it away and tells her to hurry home. Eun-sang cries after her not to leave, but unni grabs the money and dashes. So Eun-sang is left sobbing over her suitcase crying for her sister to wait for her, and Tan watches sympathetically.

Cringeworthy Surfer Friend pops by to lure Tan away to a party (please make him stop talking, won’t somebody make him stop?). This is when I mute my screen and read the Korean subtitles, because goddamn is this bad. Surfer Brah sees Eun-sang crying and jumps to play wingman, helping her with her things. He calls her a fallen angel and fawns over her, then grabs one of her plastic bags from the suitcase and starts running. Wait, does he think those are drugs? Ha, I do enjoy Eun-sang’s reaction: “On top of everything else, am I being robbed?!”

 

She chases him onto the beach while he giggles and runs around like a little fiendish Rumplestiltskin, until he runs face-first into a volleyball net and goes down. You twat. Eun-sang tries to grab the plastic bag out of his hands, because it’s a grain powder her mother made for her sister, and the powder goes flying everywhere. And up Surfer Dude’s nose, from the looks of it, as he begins to gag and gurgle.

Tan rushes to his side and recognizes that his buddy’s in trouble. A trip to the emergency room assures them that he’ll be fine, despite his allergic reaction to the beans in the powder. Annoyed, Tan asks what the heck she was doing carrying around that powder, and Eun-sang gets indignant—she was the one robbed.

He stalks off in annoyance, leaving Eun-sang to confront a disapproving-looking cop on her own. In her broken English she tries to explain what her grain powder is, but the cop gives her the hardline—where does she live, are they drugs, is she underage, is she illegal? Ah, so many hot-button American political issues, boiled down into an embarrassing cliche soup of a character.

 

Then Tan comes strolling up and slings an arm around her shoulder, telling the cop she’s cool, she’s just his girlfriend. And of course Tan is on a first-name basis with the officer, who knows enough of Tan’s checkered history to say that they’ll definitely have to look into it with Tan involved. He confiscates Eun-sang’s passport to hold until they’ve investigated.

Of course Eun-sang doesn’t have a place to stay and no cell phone, though she considers calling her sister. Tan points out that it’s not likely that’ll happen given their huge blowup, and she asks for a ride and his phone, offering to pay for every imposition. He points out her money fixation: “Are you rich?” She mumbles, “It’s because I’m afraid you’ll leave.” Aw, that’s not the answer he was expecting, from his expression.

 

He drives her to unni’s ramshackle house and waits while she knocks on the door. No answer. She supposes she can wait here till unni shows, and he points out exasperatedly how very naive that is. Fine, do as she wants, he says, and drives off.

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Eun-sang huddles on the stoop as a group of rowdy guys spot her and make a few catcalls before thankfully moving on. She decides she can’t stay here and starts to walk off nervously… and Tan’s car comes screeching back. YOU BIG SOFTIE.

“Want to go to my house?” he asks.

 

COMMENTS

There are a lot of characters to get through, and we’ve only gotten through maybe half the main cast. So this first episode presents a lot of setup, and there are a lot of names and relationships to get straight. I do think Heirsdoes a pretty good job with the introductions, in that I wasn’t frantically flipping through character charts and writing notes to myself to keep everyone straight. (That could be helped by the fact that the setup is, despite all the frills, a very basic one.)

I do have reservations about this writer, but I don’t doubt her ability to create witty dialogue and compelling character relationships, and Heirs has that touch. It also has a nice stylistic moodiness woven in and out of scenes, which I like; we’re given glimpses into characters’ inner lives that belie their outer circumstances, and I like that. A lot. Like how Tan is on the surface a troublemaking rich kid who does nothing but party, but that there’s an internal pull to resist that shell that’s expected of him. More on that in a second.

One of my reservations about the writer is that while she is very good at making hit dramas that start with sparkling romantic banter and are later sprinkled in melo angst (or drowned, in some cases), sometimes I feel like her writing is of a different era. As in, an older, less narratively sophisticated one. Her dramas are all modern gloss, but the themes and conflicts sometimes feel like they belong a couple generations back. It’s actually for this reason that I hoped Heirs might offer something fresh, because by making her characters younger, it actually works with those limitations. In a drama about independent thirtysomething careerwomen, you wonder why they can’t just get over the angst and either make up or break up. But youthful passion mixed with the idea that you don’t quite know yourself yet, that you’re still struggling to make it in the Real World? I think it works.

Heirs actually works on a secondary level for me, and that’s in its invocation of the whole royalty theme. They could have played it as a one-off metaphor and left it there, but as the episode unfolded I felt like I was watching a modernized sageuk drama, and I really liked that.

Consider the family at the center: You have the older chairman on his way out, still in charge but leaving the day-to-day business dealings to his ambitious and competent older son. The drama proper hasn’t outlined the exact family relationships yet but the character descriptions tell us that older brother Won is the son of the first wife, who died when he was young. There was a second wife who has since divorced Dad, and now Madam Han is the young new mistress of the house. The concubine, if you will, who has the safety of a son-heir (Tan), but not eternal security for as long as Tan is not registered under her name in the official family registry. That keeps her as an outsider, and she’s putting all her hopes in Tan to grow up, take over the corporation, and change that registry. Taken on its own I might consider the conflict a bit simplistic (archaic even), but seen as a reimagined Joseon-esque power struggle, I actually dig it.

It also explains the brotherly strife, in having the elder son protecting his interests by keeping his younger brother out of the picture. Tan currently has little power, but he could choose to be a rival should he exert himself… so hyung makes sure to keep him far away and occupied with frivolous pursuits. Sound like a few sageuks you’ve seen? Quite a compelling setup.

As for our hero: Who else is glad he’s not the raving asshole (however entertaining) that this writer loves to make popular? I found the heroes of Secret Garden and A Gentleman’s Dignity lots of fun, but when I heard we were getting more chaebols I feared we’d be getting more of the same, and I’m tired of that. Granted, there’s plenty of room for Tan to show some snobbery, but I like that already he’s got some depths—which is particularly interesting because he’s been encouraged not to have them.

I like that his proclivity is to actually be studious and serious, and that the playboy persona seems put-upon, like it’s the only thing he can do with his life. It reminds me a bit of Hong Gil Dong or other stories of disenfranchised heroes who find their preferred paths barred to them by society… although I do suppose it’s a bit perverse in this scenario to have a man of such overwhelming privilege feeling shackled by it. Cry me a freakin’ river, right? Still, it’s a twist on the expected, and so I welcome it.

I am NOT a fan of making Eun-sang such a typical Candy character, because haven’t we hit the ceiling on what you can do with that same ole character? Please prove me wrong on this, but I don’t expect the show to do anything exceptional with her storyline. On the other hand, at least if it had to be done, you got an actress like Park Shin-hye who could make you care about her, who injects some sass into the role anyway.

Most of all, I’m excited about the romance, because there was something about the way Tan looks at Eun-sang that hooked me good. It got me invested right away, and while Lee Min-ho has had his ups and downs as an actor and romantic lead, I am SO READY to fall in love with him… and moreover, to fall in love with him falling in love. C’mon Heirs, be good. You can dooooo eeeeeet!


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