I went into this drama with a lot of trepidation. I couldn't help feeling that the premise left me doubting that I would like it, since it made this drama sound so much like it was trying to set feminism back 100 years. I worried that Han Se Kyung would be the antithesis to independent women everywhere, and that this drama would mostly promote materialism, greed, and shallowness. I was never happier to be proven wrong.
One of the things this drama does so well is the attention to detail. From Seung Jo's adorable rabbit pocket paperclips, to the many references to Alice in Wonderland, to the miniature pocket watch and key on the diary. Plus, there are so many White Rabbit references scattered throughout the story, like the Mood Rabbits. It just makes everything a little more special.
Alice in Cheongdamdong is such an interesting drama. I mostly started it because of my faith in the acting abilities and role choices of Park Shi Hoo and Moon Geun Young (Mary Stayed out all Night notwithstanding), but episode 2 had me hooked enough to keep with it. I was so happy to see that Moon Geun Young's Candy-cum-Cinderella character actually had believable reasons for deciding to make such a drastic change in her world views and in her life goals and desires. And while I didn't agree with her decision, I at least understood where she was coming from and how she got to that point. And she always managed to feel like a strong and independent woman despite her Cinderella aspirations. That is a rare balance for an actor to find.
Another thing I love about this drama is the fact that Park Shi Hoo's character of Seung Jo is not the usual cold-hearted arrogant chaebol, but is a chaebol who has had to work for his position and is more-than-a-little deranged. His antics are hilarious, and I loved every minute of his craziness. There were the many imagined scenarios that were so over-the-top, especially the one when he pictured himself entering So In Chan's mother's funeral to the music of "Pomp and Circumstance" and all his lackeys marching ahead to announce his presence. Plus his imagined magnanimity in forgiving So In Chan, and the fantasy of Se Kyung fawning over him for it.
Then there was the time he conducted the music at home while cuddling one of his Mood Rabbits. And his insane way of running away when he saw Se Kyung at the Christmas party. And who ever thought that a man making out with a cue stick would be so adorably endearing? I sure didn't. But Park Shi Hoo proved that it could be done.
One of my favorite things about this show was its ability to surprise me, especially when it came to Se Kyung. Every time I thought she would do one thing, she headed off on a path that I didn't even know was there. I felt a lot like Seung Jo every time he anticipated one scenario and was shocked when Se Kyung did something completely different. It's pretty rare for a drama to surprise me, but it's exceptional that this drama managed to do it time and again. And each time it took such a turn, I was able to appreciate the new direction it was heading. It helped this drama maintain a feeling of freshness.
I also liked most of the secondary characters—at least those that were good people. Se Kyung's family was believable, even if her father was the only member of her family to be rounded out as a character. Ah Jung and Secretary Moon were so adorably dorky together, and so supportive of their friends. So was Heo Dong Wook, Seung Jo's therapist and best friend, who also exhibited some of the crazy. Chairman Cha is a great character as well, and I love how we get to see the development of his relationship with his estranged son.
I have to say, nobody makes smarmy seem so lovable as when Kim Ji Suk does it. (Remember his character Wang Son in Chuno?) I don't know how he manages it, but Tommy Hong was likable, even with all his toadyness. However, I do feel that his character was under-utilized in this drama. His character arc could have used a bit of fleshing out, but what we were given was too late in the game for it to really feel relevant, so I never really felt a connection with him.
Alice in Cheongdamdong wasn't perfect. The middle was especially draggy, and so many characters were never fleshed out. And one thing I thought was odd was the character description for Yoon Joo's brother, who was supposed to have a rekindling of his love for Se Kyung's sister. I have to approve the fact that the writers didn't pursue this story line, since they had some difficulty with what they gave us, but I find it strange for him to have such a developed character in theory, but not in practice. In this regard, even some of major players fell flat.
Case in point: Shin In Hwa. She became the main antagonist for Se Kyung and Seung Jo, but her development never really left me satisfied. I feel like the show demonstrates too little of her desire for an alliance with Seung Jo, so that when she starts manipulating people and seeking revenge, her motivations aren't very, um, motivating. Her jealousy and desire for vengeance were things we were told over and over again, but they were never developed in a way that made them convincing. I hated her, but it was mostly because there seemed to be no real reason behind her actions to make her story feel believable.
I think the biggest surprise in characters came in the form of Seo Yoon Joo. As the guide to Se Kyung's journey into Gold-diggerville, she should have been a typical manipulative, grasping shrew of a woman. But she wasn't. I thought that I would hate her, but I quickly came to appreciate her determination to make the best of her life, and I loved the strength of character she demonstrated early on.
But then something happened, and she became Weepy McWeeperson from Sobbington. And I really started to hate her. Suddenly, this strong woman was reduced to a bundle of sobbing nerves, afraid of her own shadow, and So Yi Hyun's acting made me simultaneously cringe and giggle with the ridiculousness of it. She was so good at making me like her character at first, but she does not do a good terrified crybaby.
Luckily, by the end of the drama, her moxie and verve came out again. I had always been bothered by the fact that her husband seemed so oblivious to the possibility that she had married him for his money, yet he addressed that point and said that he had always wondered about it. This made me happy. What didn't make me happy was his statement that he would divorce her despite the fact that 2 scenes before he had been telling her how much he loved her, without even asking for any type of explanation. And the part that infuriated me was when he told her that she could stop their divorce (although she couldn't hope to regain his trust or affection) by making sure the deal with Royal Group went through. Even though she wasn't worth the billions of dollars that contract could secure.
So I was overjoyed to see her stand up for herself and tell him that she had no interest in his offer. He wasn't worth billions of dollars either, even to a woman so consumed with the guaranteed comfort he could provide. And then she divorced him, leaving everything behind and rejoining the working class to find her new path in life. In the end, I liked Yoon Joo and her growth, even though I could barely stomach any scene with her during the middle of the series.
Something else that I liked about this series was its ability to (mostly) plausibly address all the niggling problems I had with various points. Seung Jo's brand of crazy seemed strange to me from the beginning. Although I enjoyed watching it, it never synched for me that he could be so crazy and incapable of coping with any sort of problem in his life, yet so competent in his profession. He obviously managed to handle work problems without becoming catatonic, but anything in his personal life sent him first class to Crazytown. Whut?!? But Se Kyung's accusation that he was faking his symptoms made so much sense. Too bad his Psychologist friend couldn't spot the charade.
Another thing that always annoyed me was the list Se Kyung made after she found out that Seung Jo was the president of Artemis. The whole "Seung Jo thinks I'm a Candy, but I'm not, so I have to pretend I'm a Candy" was weird. I was never convinced that Se Kyung had truly become a gold-digger. Sure, she was angry and bitter towards the world and fate, but her goodness and diligence were never really suppressed.
But then Seung Jo tells her that he couldn't tell the difference between Candy Se Kyung and Gold-digger Se Kyung. Could she? Since I couldn't either, I could appreciate that he was able to love her, despite her attempts to be something she wasn't. Because she was never successful at changing who she really was. This was an issue that bothered me for so much of the show, and it had such a throw-away resolution. But at least it did have a resolution.
And this is something that I appreciate about Alice in Cheongdamdong. So many dramas leave me feeling as though there are so many loose ends. Or they try to tie everything up in a nice little bow, but the knots are all messy and inconsistent. However, Alice in Cheongdamdong managed to tie up all the loose ends in a way that felt more natural, yet complete. Seung Jo didn't just magically overcome his issues—he still has them, although he's learning to deal with them in healthier ways thanks to Se Kyung. Se Kyung is still trying to make it in the fashion industry and openly admits to using Seung Jo's name to get ahead. But she doesn't do it maliciously. And she's working hard to be the best she can be, even if she's still jaded and angry at the world.
Seung Jo's dad and Se Kyung's dad still disagree, even though they've learned to get along and appreciate one another. Ah Jung and Secretary Moon date secretly, confirming the compatibility that was so evident in all their interactions. And, my favorite resolution was that of Yoon Joo. She has made peace with Seung Jo, and has started her own life, no longer dependent on anyone else to provide for her. She's finally learning to use her other abilities to make something of herself.
And then she meets with Tommy Hong again, and there's an unmistakable spark of mutual appreciation. But it's left open-ended. We're left to imagine their future, and I like to imagine that they eventually date. Even though they don't believe in happy endings, I feel that they have a future of facing whatever life throws at them. Together.
In the end, I feel that this drama shows a maturity towards love that is so often lacking in dramaland. The real moral of the story is that truly loving someone is loving who they really are, instead of the fantasy person that we have created of them. Seung Jo says that love is staying with someone even after we find out the worst parts of them. If, as Yoon Joo says, "The opposite of love. . . is saying that you no longer have anything to do for [or give to] that person," then love is wanting to give whatever you can for the other person's happiness. And most of all, when you love someone, you are able to see the proof of their love in all the little things they do. Grand gestures and declarations are nice, but love is built up and proved in the day-to-day things, in the sacrifices great and small, in the moments of supporting one another through hard times, and in mutual trust and understanding. That is a love worth having.