Welcome to Samdal-ri (2023-24) First Impressions: Episodes 1-5
Ji Chang-wook and Shin Hye-sun are co-leads in a seachange story about a celebrity photographer (Shin Hye-sun) who leaves Jeju Island nearly two decades earlier for the dazzling lights of Seoul with her own eagle brothers. She reaches the heights of her profession only to find herself embroiled in a scandal that sees her scampering back home with her sisters in tow, utterly humiliated. Once upon a time her childhood friend and first love Cho Yong-pil (Ji Chang-wook) along with two other friends, Gyeong-tae (Lee Jae-won) and Cha Eun-woo (Bae Myung-jin) tag along to gain success in the Big Smoke but all three guys return unceremoniously leaving only Sam-dal to make her mark on her own.
The first thing that whacks one between the eyes is how much of a K drama trope picnic this drama is. It is chock full of all the usual suspects although amnesia is nowhere in sight. So far. The set-up is unequivocal: It’s a matter of “how many tropes are there… let us check them off…” Furthermore the story is single-minded (and shameless) about playing up the fated love premise most of all. Sam-dal aka Eun-hye and Yong-pil touted as soulmates at birth, delivered on the same day to two haenyo divers are joined at the hip. Everywhere she goes, he’s goes and vice versa until their nasty break up. From friendship love blossoms and soon they start dating. Will the tropes — hurled fast and furiously at the audience — never end?
On paper and given my track record with shows like Hometown Cha Cha Cha and A Business Proposal, my interest in this show should be close to zero. But Ji Chang-wook plays the male lead and I find myself incomprehensibly sucked into the vortex of trope inferno simultaneously disdainful of and yet intrigued by the caricatures and stereotypes that pepper this small town comedy. It’s so obviously not a great show and I feel that I’ve been shoved into a DeLorean and whisked back to the 2010s (or before) but there’s a quirky charm that pervades these relationships that has me coming back for just that little bit more.
Rather than finding herself, it’s clear that Welcome to Samdal-ri is about Sam-dal finding community. Or rediscovering community. It’s textbook Seachange 101. Of course shows like Racket Boys and When the Camellia Blooms achieved all that with greater freshness (and deftness) but there’s no hiding the intent here. For a while I wondered why Sam-dal was so hapless in handling those false accusations. It’s not as if success came easily to her and she had everything handed to her on a silver platter. Indeed the show reiterates the fact that she succeeded where no one else in their village did through sheer determination. So why did she fall apart relatively easily while at the height of her career? A script contrivance? Maybe. Maybe not.
Sam-dal points to pride and embarrassment as rationale for her capitulation to the social media sewer. Her latest boyfriend cheats on her with her erstwhile assistant and to add insult to injury said assistant continues with more backstabbing by accusing her of workplace abuse. Suddenly, the world turns against her except for a couple of assistants. She’s too proud to tell her side of the story because it means admitting to the fact that she failed in not just one crucial aspect of her life but two. It would also mean she put her trust in two people that really didn’t deserve it.
It seems as if she goes home to hide from the tabloids and paparazzi but in actual fact she goes home in search of community — a safe place far from the madding crowd and away from the witch hunt — a place where people know her as Cho Sam-dal and not Cho Eun-hye. Her successful career has come at a cost — she doesn’t have reliable people in her life. Her sponsors, clients are quick to turn against her overnight on the word of a disgruntled employee. In a real enough way, the constructed life as a top tier photographer in great demand is built on sinking sand. People are eager to cut her down or cut her loose at the first opportunity whether because of envy or expediency. In the big city she is surrounded by sycophants and opportunists but no salt-of-the-earth friends. Even her own sisters who share a place with her in Seoul, are not much help. They tag along with their own metaphorical baggage which puts their suspicious mother on the warpath.
Her need for genuine community becomes muddled together with an unresolved romance and a potential love triangle within her old friendship group. Her break up with Yong-pil 8 years earlier is still gossip fodder for the neighbourhood so it’s one reason she’s diffident around him and prefers not to run into him. The other is the embarrassment of not being able to move on with her head held up high and thumb her nose at him. He dumped her or so she thinks and the best kind of revenge would have been to find someone, show him up as a loser. The cheating boyfriend however is a spanner in the works. Still it’s clear that she’s not over Yong-pil after all this time evidenced by the fact that she’s not all that heartbroken about the cheating boyfriend. Plus there’s been three other boyfriends that didn’t go the distance. She gives that as evidence of moving on but… no… no it looks more like a case of cover-up.
It is generally believed that Yong-pil’s lack of interest in being promoted to Seoul weather HQ has to do with his fear of running into Sam-dal. I doubt very much that is the case as he makes no attempt to avoid her once she’s back in town. There are two instances of him in the first five episodes looking at photographs in exhibitions. One is of him staring at a photo of his mother and Sam-dal’s mother in their haenyeo outfits for the nth time. The other sees him sneaking off to Seoul as the only visitor to the gallery meant to hold Sam-dal’s latest exhibition featuring photographic portraits of showbiz personalities. The contrast can’t be more stark.
It’s becomes increasingly clear that Yong-pil is someone who cares deeply about community. He is fiercely protective of accurate weather reporting from/about Jeju to the chagrin of his immediate supervisor and the big wigs on the mainland. Jeju is his home — the place of the familiar and it is also the place where his mother died, leaving his father widowered and his adoption of Sam-dal’s mother as his own.
Episode 5 hammers home this thesis pretty hard. A rather despicable creature comes to the island to cover the story of the theme park that’s going to be built on the other side. This muck merchant chances upon some gossip that Cho Eun-hye is back home and laying low. He makes his way there and starts snapping photos of the family home and the woman herself. Enter Yong-pil and Sang-do who manage to kick up enough of fuss to discourage the interloper who promptly bumps into Gyeong-tae and Eun-woo elsewhere. They soon find out what the man with the hefty camera is really in their neighbourhood for. An altercation ensues which sees them all at the local police station arguing their case. For the first time since her “scandal”, Eun-hye aka Sam-dal experiences some degree of “community” from her old childhood friends despite her own misgivings about unburdening to other people about her personal issues.
It’s true that the show relies heavily on coincidences. (What K rom com doesn’t come to think of it.) But in this case it’s a small neighbourhood and Jeju’s a popular tourist destination so the unlikely becomes plausible. Her oldest sister, the flight attendant is sent to help direct traffic on the other side where she and her chaebol ex-husband have a brief encounter. It’s clear that one can run but not hide from the past. Unresolved issues — at least in K dramas — have a way of coming back to sink their teeth in someone’s rear end. So far I’m unimpressed with the sisters — not just because they have been navel gazing with the help of large quantities of alcohol but they seem oddly indifferent in general about family matters.
What I do like is the push and pull weirdly enough. Two people who have unresolved feelings for each other are bound to be awkward interacting. He’s eager to reconnect but she’s embarrassed to be back with her tail between her legs. It’s strange though that both are uncertain about who broke up with whom but maybe it’s because neither really wanted to break up with the other. Yong-pil’s dad, last seen as the Master Sergeant in Sweet Home S2, is oddly antagonistic toward Sam-dal’s parents. Weren’t the two wives of both families the best of friends?
Even a show like this needs a mystery apparently although in all likelihood, it’s really not much of one.