The tvN drama Encounter (남자친구/Boyfriend) begins with what looks to be the start of an epic love story. Yet it somehow loses its magical luster about halfway through. Thankfully, we have Park Bo Gum and Song Hye Kyo getting us to fall in love with them enough to stick with it.
This series is definitely carried by its two magnetic leads. Song Hye Kyo is her timeless self as Cha Soo Hyun, a divorcee and a politician’s daughter who is CEO of a hotel she acquires from her divorce settlement.
She travels to Cuba to seal the deal on a Havana outpost for her hotel group. And there she meets the handsome, young Kim Jin Hyuk played the handsome, young Park Bo Gum. Backpacking through Cuba before he hopes to score a job at a big company, he comes to the aid of Soo Hyun and so begins their romance.
The mystique of Havana is used to full effect in the first episode. The frozen in time nature of Cuba offers that extra bit of fairy tale whimsy to Soo Hyun and Jin Hyuk’s eventful and romantic evening together. Even though they’ve just met. It’s all cordial and flirtatious. And they eventually part ways before their paths cross back in Seoul as Jin Hyuk is hired at the very hotel Soo Hyun is CEO of.
For the first couple of episodes, the pace is brisk. The innocent flirtations continue until they come clean to each other about their real feelings. They are sincerely friends before they come anywhere close to becoming lovers. The dangers of their relationship are also presented early on and understood. The tension within their workplace, families and the usual chaebol/politics machinations are laid out clearly and effectively.
But that brisk turn for about the first half or 2/3 of the series leads to a slower last section. The series feels like it used up all its cards too early and ended up on cruise control, just going through the motions to fill the 16-episode order.
What had earlier been legitimate hurdles in their relationship paved the way for sadly contrived obstacles that certainly weren’t new and sometimes far too cliché for a series that seemed to know better.
Still, we get to a satisfying conclusion because Park Bo Gum and Song Hye Kyo are just that good.
Song Hye Kyo is no stranger to romantic stories. She’s done everything from cute and bubbly romcoms to the heaviest of makjangs. By now, most people know how good she is as an actress and how beautiful and charming she can truly be. That’s no different here. Does she offer anything new as Soo Hyun? Maybe not. But she doesn’t need to.
She does what she does best and that is engage you as a viewer, regardless of whatever emotion she may be expressing on-screen. She does it and does it well. You cry with her, you fall in love with her, you feel the pain and struggle with her and you feel the happiness and joy.
What is new is her pairing with Park Bo Gum. It’s hard not to fall for Jin Hyuk right from the very first time you see him and his long, poofy and wavy hair. (Which sadly disappears once he returns to Korea.) A positive, happy, diligent young man. A guy that is living life and knows his priorities. The proverbial boy next door.
Park Bo Gum certainly fits the bill as the romantic leading man. And he brings an interesting mix of youth and maturity to the role. He isn’t some naïve kid. Nor is he some jaded salaryman. His positivity and hope are key to how he takes care of his relationship with Soo Hyun and eventually saves their relationship when things go predictably crazy in the final episodes.
And yes, I did tweet this when I first started watching the series:
I don't think I've ever watched a Park Bo Gum series before. Except Music Bank (lol). But damn, seeing him in #Encounter, I think I have a huge man crush on him now.
That hair tho! I wish I could pull it off as well as him too.😊 pic.twitter.com/LCnZtULPTU
— DryedMangoez (@dryedmangoez) April 29, 2020
It is worth giving a special mention to Jang Seung Jo who is sadly wasted as ex-husband Jung Woo Seok. He isn’t the antagonist in the series, which is particularly refreshing for what is an otherwise stock chaebol heir character. Woo Seok is actually quite sympathetic throughout the series. But part of that is the lack of character development he gets. He’s never someone you despise since they don’t necessarily show him to be anything other than in love with Soo Hyun. One could argue that he wants what he can’t have, but his overall demeanor and his actions toward his controlling mother say otherwise. On the flipside, he’s never presented as a viable candidate for Soo Hyun’s affections. He merely shows up when necessary to further the plot or to provide a minor annoyance to the blossoming romance.
And perhaps that’s where Encounter ultimately falls short from being a truly epic story. Its Cuba opening set the bar very high for the rest of the series, both narratively and visually. It’s actually a little bit of a disappointment that the series only returned to Cuba once over the next 15 episodes. Obviously in scenes filmed the same time as the first episode.
But its storybook opening episode and brisk pace at the start really set the standard high. And they weren’t able to maintain it throughout. The latter episodes really almost felt like a chore to get through when the first couple of episodes were dynamic and breezy. Characters became stagnant. The story felt like it was going in circles.
The endless number of subplots and side characters also felt tacked-on at times when there were definitely opportunities to better integrate them to the overall flow of the series. But again, they often felt like ways to fill the time instead of truly giving them the effort necessary to be equally engaging parts of the story.
Still, Song Hye Ko and Park Bo Gum’s chemistry is undeniable. Their own individual charisma and charm coming together in one magical package. And ultimately, we end up staying to the end because of them.
Though it had the makings of a truly epic love story, Encounter falls just short of that. But thanks to Song Hye Kyo and Park Bo Gum, this is still one encounter well-worth having.