Many times, the year’s best drama series isn’t the most shocking, most controversial, most polarizing, most groundbreaking show to air. Daesang (Grand Prize) recipient and multi-awarded KBS drama When the Camellia Blooms (동백꽃 필 무렵) is proof that the best drama can be simply one where every single aspect comes together for one complete package that reaches and touches viewers hearts and minds.
When the Camellia Blooms is a genre-bending series that somehow successfully takes the typical Korean romcom, the always popular weekend family drama and the trendy mystery crime thriller and rolls it all into one.
This warm, cozy drama set in the fictional town of Ongsan centers on Dongbaek (Kong Hyo Jin), a single mother who runs bar-restaurant Camellia, just wanting to provide for her son Pil-gu (Kim Kang Hoon). Often the subject of judgmental gossip by her neighbors for years, Dongbaek meets local constable Hwang Yong-sik (Kang Ha Neul) who has just returned home after being stationed in Seoul and soon falls in love with her.
However it isn’t smooth sailing as the whispers of the town, the return of Dongbaek’s ex-boyfriend Jong Ryeol (Kim Ji Suk) and the reemergence of a serial killer from the past all throw the cozy provincial atmosphere off balance.
When the Camellia Blooms is at its heart, a realistic, down to earth and relatable slice of life story featuring an eclectic mix of characters. With Dongbaek, Yong-sik and Pil-gu in the forefront, the large supporting cast of characters all serve as pieces of the puzzle. They are able to maintain their own distinct personalities while contributing important details to the grand scheme of the series.
Every piece of the puzzle fits and comes together, affecting each other in surprising, but always believable ways.
Being a slice of life story, we initially join the lives of the people of this town in progress. But perhaps the most fascinating and engaging part of the story is seeing the layers slowly being peeled as we get a fuller and more complete picture of these characters.
The series sees these characters growing and learning about life and love. And in turn, maybe teaching and reminding the audience a little bit as well.
A central theme of the series is also the relationships between parents and children, particularly mothers and children. The difficult sacrifices both parents and children make for each other and for themselves are unfortunately very real. But the series presents these situations with care and in a delicate, but thoughtful way.
And to fully bring this all to life, When the Camellia Blooms is powered by a stellar, excellent cast that may be unrivaled for a long time.
Gong Hyo Jin already has success and experience coming into this series. And her strength and versatility as an actor shines through as Dongbaek. As genre-bending as the series can be, Gong Hyo Jin is required to portray a myriad number of emotions with Dongbaek facing many critical junctures from all directions.
With Dongbaek being a single mother and the negative perceptions unfortunately present in society, Gong Hyo Jin was able to carry Dongbaek as a strong woman with bravery and dignity. Though words and actions often provoke emotions to reach a boiling point, Dongbaek’s journey in the series was grounded in Gong Hyo Jin’s emotional and affecting performance.
The rest of the supporting cast is filled with experienced vets doing what they do best.
Lee Jung Eun is excellent as Dongbaek’s mother. The roller coaster of emotions she must go through during the series is a tall order. But Lee Jung Eun’s quiet and reserved approach to the character results in some of the biggest emotional climaxes of the series.
Ko Du Shim as Yong-sik’s mother Deok-sun gives the series its wise mother figure who has her own shortcomings as well. And she is able to learn and grow too. Also tasked with many different emotions, it is simply a treat watching her and Kang Ha Neul as mother and son or as BFFs with Gong Hyo Jin’s Dongbaek. But some of the highlights of the series are her scenes with Kim Kang Hoon’s Pil-gu.
Son Dam Bi too faces and passes a difficult task as Hyang-mi. Her ability to twist the character so effectively (in the best way possible) is a certified highlight of the series.
Yum Hye Ran and scene-stealer Oh Jung Se as dysfunctional couple Ja-young and Gyu-tae are a fascinating pair to watch over the course of the series. Yum Hye Ran is perfect as the fearless, yet vulnerable divorce attorney. She’s taking names, but that doesn’t mean she’s without struggles. And Yum Hye Ran’s ability to project such a nuanced portrayal is excellent.
Oh Sung Jae is a scene-stealer as bumbling cad Gyu-tae. Despite his character’s sometimes slimy behavior, he endeared himself to a number of the audience by somehow still making him seem relatable.
Kim Ji Suk is no stranger to characters like Jong-ryeol. And anyone who is familiar with his many roles over the years would be able to see how he is able to use his natural charm and charisma to similarly help redeem Jong-ryeol of his shortcomings.
But the two standouts of the series have to be Kang Ha Neul and Kim Kang Hoon.
At just ten years old at the time of filming, Kim Kang Hoon as Pil-gu is the heart and soul of the series. At times, Pil-gu is the most mature and wise of anyone in Ongsan. Strong and brave in order to protect his mother. Other times, Pil-gu is unable to hold back the emotions and fears that any young boy would have. And regularly throughout the series, Kim Kang Hoon was as effortless as someone who’s been doing this for decades.
An early scene from the series was only just a taste of things to come from him:
I'm only on Episode 4 of When the Camellia Blooms and I'm already bawling. #MaGMCM indeed. This was such an amazing scene. If these first few eps are any indication of how the rest of the series is gonna be… oh boy, I definitely have to prepare myself! pic.twitter.com/PoZM1bPtOO
— DryedMangoez (@dryedmangoez) June 12, 2020
This is absolutely one of my favorite scenes from the entire series. And it perfectly shows the heavy emotions that would appear regularly throughout the series and the ability of the actors, especially Kim Kang Hoon and Gong Hyo Jin (as seen here) to effectively bring the story to life.
Kim Kang Hoon undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him.
And Kang Ha Neul in what is a career and now award-winning performance. His naturally bright personality shines through while still able to project a serious, strong leading man quality when necessary. The versatility that he has shown in various supporting roles over the years has culminated in this his first lead role. And it was a resounding success.
Yong-sik is a positive go-getter. Heroic and noble even before he was encouraged to become a police officer. While never dreaming for more than a simple, happy life, he nonetheless did what he could for his mother and later for Dongbaek and Pil-gu. And as the good ol’ town constable, Yong-sik is able to get the job done contrary to people’s initial perceptions of him.
Able to convey the right emotions for the scene with even just his facial expressions, it’s easy to see how Kang Ha Neul’s Best Actor win at the Baeksang Arts Awards was well-deserved. With this role, he proved without question his talent and ability to lead a series of his own. And no question, this won’t be the last.
Like the title says, the series chronicles the life of Dongbaek (Korean for “camellia”) as she blossoms and grows from the pain and insecurities of her past. But the same can be said for most of the characters as well. A truly great series can be both character-driven and plot-driven.
When you can have truly great characters along with a truly great plot, that’s a magical combination that doesn’t happen often. That both the characters and the overall plot can work in concert with each other is already a major accomplishment for any series.
But this series was much more. The first few episodes may require some investment on the viewer’s part. But that investment quickly pays off, many times over. And by the final episodes, the emotional gut punches are many and often.
The series’ warmth and wisdom offers the complete package for viewers.
Well-developed characters, an intricate, well-executed plot, beautiful direction and a stunning cast. It is not hard to see why When the Camellia Blooms deserves to be hailed as the best of 2019.