Review: Despite Great Premise and Charming Cast, KBS’ Big Falls Short

TYPE OF REVIEW : GOOD OL’ REVIEW
Huge spoilers, with advance warning.

I can group the Korean dramas I’ve watched into one of four categories: a) A well written series that has a great story. b) A series that features likeable leads and/or cast. c) A series with the magical combination of ‘a’ and ‘b’. Or d) A series with unfortunately none of the above.

With KBS’ Big/빅, I’d lean towards classifying it as option ‘b’. And thank goodness for Lee Min Jung and Gong Yoo, who are both likeable and charming leads that keep you coming back for more when the story or the execution of it falls short.

Option ‘c’ doesn’t happen often and when I can’t group a series into ‘a’ or ‘c’, I usually point to the immeasurable potential it might have had to make it that much better.

Big is one of those series as well, an interesting premise with the potential to produce some quirky, cute and fun scenes. And with the much vaunted Hong Sisters at the helm, there may have been some big expectations for it.

The Story
Big tells the story of Kang Gyung Joon (played, at first, by Shin Won Ho), an 18 year old high school student who returns to Korea after his mother is killed in the US. On the way to his new school, he is amused by young teacher-in-training Gil Da Ran on the bus who is listening to the radio and is giddy after just winning a contest based on the anonymous story of how she met her fiancé, Seo Yoon Jae (played, at first(!) by Gong Yoo).

Getting off the bus, the lovesick and still kiliged Da Ran grabs Gyung Joon’s umbrella by mistake and he chases after her to retrieve it. He gets a little flirty with her and she runs ahead into the school without an umbrella. Little does she know, he’s about to become one of her students. On a tour of the school, Gyung Joon witnesses exactly how in love Da Ran is with her fiancé. They run into each other out of school and while Gyung Joon seems to be developing a crush on her, Da Ran’s kind hearted nature and teacher instincts make her want to help him a little.

But one day, Gyung Joon overhears Da Ran crying after Yoon Jae has to cancel another date with her. He whisks her away on the back of his new motorcycle to a lake outside of Seoul. She teaches him about aegyo (“Buing buing!”) before getting another call from Yoon Jae. Wanting a definitive answer, she asks him if he actually loves her or not. He wants to tell her in person, so he tells her to wait where she is. Gyung Joon leaves her and heads back to Seoul just as Yoon Jae is on his way to the lake.

Ahead of both of them, two cars get into an accident, making them have to swerve out of the way, only they both swerve right over the cliff and into the water below. Gyung Joon is thrown off his motorcycle and sinks towards the bottom, while Yoon Jae struggles to get out of his car. He starts swimming to the top, but sees Gyung Joon and reaches out to save him.

Cut to the ER where both are attempting to be revived. But Da Ran arrives and is asked to identify Yoon Jae’s body. In the morgue, Yoon Jae lies on the cold slab… then suddenly sits up. Looks like he isn’t dead after all. He stands up and carefully looks at his naked body in the mirror. He drapes the sheet around his body and walks out of the morgue where Da Ran is crying on the floor, not ready to see Yoon Jae’s lifeless body.

So it’s a shock to her when she sees Yoon Jae walking towards her. But it isn’t Yoon Jae… it’s Gyung Joon… in Yoon Jae’s body, confirmed by a simple “buing buing.” Gyung Joon’s body, with Yoon Jae presumably inside it, now lays in a coma and Da Ran must help Gyung Joon live as Yoon Jae until they figure out a way to switch back.

But it doesn’t happen anytime soon and Gyung Joon’s little crush on “Gil Teacher” grows into something a lot more. Even as Da Ran’s doubts about Yoon Jae grow with convincing evidence, she laughs off Gyung Joon’s confession of love as just a schoolyard crush and is determined to wait for Yoon Jae.

And so begins the back and forth between Gyung Joon and Da Ran. Will they or won’t they? They eventually do when Da Ran gives in to her feelings that have now developed for Gyung Joon. The stops and starts continue, whether it’s because of misunderstandings, personal doubts, or external forces. But it quickly becomes clear, you’re supposed to be rooting for Da Ran and Gyung Joon (in whatever body he settles in) to end up together.

HUGE Spoilers ahead!
The Rollercoaster
Hmm… that all sounds a little more convoluted than it really is, though there were times when it did start becoming a little confusing to follow.

But the premise provides for a lot of possible threads. How will Gyung Joon deal with being in the body of a man at least 12 years older than him? Will Gyung Joon and Da Ran live happily ever after? Why and how did Gyung Joon and Yoon Jae switch bodies in the first place?

There’s a lot of material to be touched on there, but instead, after the initial episodes of set-up, Big focuses on the unnecessary prolonging of Da Ran and Gyung Joon’s fickle feelings. The back and forth can be cute for a few episodes, but 2/3 of the series was devoted to affirming, then crumbling, then reaffirming that yes, they like each other. Rinse and repeat.

Even with the plot twists, like the revelation of Gyung Joon’s real parents and the reason he exists in the first place, and the little subplots of unrequited love amongst the various supporting characters, Da Ran and Gyung Joon running in circles was always front and center.

Much of the final episode was more of the same, the series just spinning its wheels, giving the impression that they couldn’t come up with enough material to fill 16 episodes.

But even then, you still grew invested in Gyung Joon and Da Ran’s relationship and Gong Yoo and Lee Min Jung played a huge part in that. Which is even more reason why you can’t help but feel cheated by the ending.

So it is revealed that Gyung Joon was born merely to be a donor for a sick Yoon Jae when he was 12 years old. They’re brothers. Now Yoon Jae has relapsed (this is a romantic comedy right?) and needs another transplant/blood transfusion/treatment. Gyung Joon somehow figures out that the treatment will eventually switch them back. They come up with the conceit that the treatment will happen in Switzerland. It gives us the scene of Gyung Joon and Da Ran promising never to forget each other and to always find a way back to each other, no matter what happens, especially after the switch.

Insert an unnecessary one year time jump and Da Ran is reunited with Gyung Joon who is supposed to be back in his own body. But we never see his face as they have their reunion, even though we know it’s Gong Yoo standing in front of her hiding behind an umbrella.

What a copout not having Lee Min Jung and Shin Won Ho as Gyung Joon in his real body. The big payoff is actually seeing Da Ran with Gyung Joon in his real, Shin Won Ho body, even if it as Lee Min Jung and Gong Yoo we’ve grown to fall in love with and root for. The expectation of that fun, novel scene of Lee Min Jung and Shin Won Ho should’ve capped off what would’ve been an overall fun, cute series. But it ended up being a total copout and a rehash of countless other Korean drama endings.

A Lot of Material
The audience was also cheated out of a lot of other things too. While we can believe Gyung Joon and Da Ran live happily ever after, how about all the other questions the series raised but ended up never answering? What was Yoon Jae’s reaction when he woke up, presumably in his own body. Was he aware of what was going on? (We had the scene of Gyung Joon and Yoon Jae meeting “underwater” in Gyung Joon’s mind.) What were his true feelings for Da Ran? What were his true feelings about Gyung Joon?

How did they end up switching back? What happened? How did Gong Jyun get his memory back? Or did he even lose it in the first place after they switched back?

The only well written character was Gong Jyun (and rightfully so, considering). The writing and Gong Yoo’s performance may have been the main reason to watch, if not for the chemistry between him and Lee Min Jung.

Eighteen year old Gong Jyun did a lot of growing up while stuck in Yoon Jae’s body and many times was even more mature than the “Gil Teacher” he was crushin’ on. But with only one well developed character and a very plot driven story, we get the What?, but never the How? or Why?

Any Korean drama fan would come to expect more from the vaunted Hong Sisters who have written some great, enjoyable series in the past. But even with a solid premise, they seemed to run out of things to do here.
END Spoilers!

The Cast
Big‘s cast helped ease that sometimes lazy writing. Like I’ve said, Gong Yoo was excellent as Gyung Joon (and Yoon Jae in a few flashback scenes) and was the heart of the show. He was able to go from childlike to responsible adult at the drop of a hat and was the most relatable character.

He and Lee Min Jung shared great chemistry. But while Lee Min Jung has proven to be a talented and charming actress through other projects, she was a little wasted here. She is a much better actress than the material called for and that’s a shame. The character of Da Ran was too weak and wishy washy, a criticism Gong Jyun also had. She never really grew or developed during the series.

Suzy as Gyung Joon’s clingy admirer from the States (and almost stepsister) Mary/Jang Ma Ri played the usual “other woman”/third wheel troublemaker. It was a typical role, but Suzy did alright with it. It was a lighter character than her debut role in Dream High, which may show she’s better off doing lighter material than heavy drama.

And Shin Won Ho as Gyung Joon (when he wasn’t played by Gong Yoo). Definitely a different situation for him. He made a good first impression in the first episode, but since then, all he was given to do was to lay in a hospital bed. The story and show might have had an opportunity to feel less like it was going in circles if they used him more, maybe in more pre-switch flashbacks or in more of the daydreams they did have, but used Gong Yoo instead.

But Why Do I Still Like It?
Despite limiting material, Lee Min Jung’s charm and likeability overcame the poorly written Da Ran. Gong Yoo excellently portrayed the emotional center and heart of the story. And together, both provided enough cute, romantic, kilig moments to at least want to root for Da Ran and Gyung Joon to end up together.

Ultimately, the Hong Sisters failed to produce enough worthy material for 16 episodes, despite a great premise. Even with all the wasted potential, unanswered questions, and broken records, thanks to its two leads Big had enough charm, cuteness, and heart to not be a total wash.

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