K-dramas like to be over-the-top. These shows are about how life feels, not how life actually is. So when the ex-girlfriends show up in new tvN drama Ex-Girlfriend Club, they’re outrageous. As corporate diva Jang Hwa-Young, actress Lee Yoon-Ji looks like she may actually start breathing fire out of her nostrils like Smaug the dragon.
But with the low-key, befuddled Myeong-Soo (Byun Yo-Han) as their straight man—and Song Ji-Hyo playing the movie producer caught in the middle—this circus may offer some real entertainment.
Heroine Kim Soo-Jin (Song Ji-Hyo) is a successful PD (producer-director), but her tiny production company is having a cash flow crisis. As in so many dramas, the first two episodes shows her situation going from bad to worse. Soo-Jin maintains her competence, though. She once won a human rights award for a documentary about World War II “comfort women,” after all. She’s no pushover.
PD Soo-Jin and webtoon writer Myeong-Soo were good friends in college, though they’ve lost touch. In episode one they meet again because Soo-Jin might make a movie of his web comic, a semi-autobiographical account of his dating life. His three ex-girlfriends are understandably enraged. Especially since Myeong-Soo draws his characters as people with cute animal heads. When the exes first appear, Soo-Jin’s business partner introduces them as “the cat, the fox and the lion.”
Hilariously, everyone keeps referring to Myeong-Soo’s own character as “the dog.”
“It’s not a dog, it’s a cheetah,” he insists. Similarly, he and Soo-Jin have very different ways of interpreting their past together.
The relatively simple premise is that Soo-Jin was once in love with Myeong-Soo and still has feelings for him. But in order to save her production company, she needs this movie to succeed—which means she has to work with him and find a way to placate all three exes (below). The exes—a wealthy divorcee, a young actress and an investment firm executive—have strong personalities and aren’t afraid to use them.
Byun Yo-Han (Misaeng) is hard to figure out as writer Bang Myeong-Soo. The writer is superficially charming, but we’re only seeing his surface. What’s underneath? Is he as unfeeling as he appears when he tells Soo-Jin it’s a miracle if a man is dating her? As sensitive as he appears when he’s embarrassed to mention her financial problems? I get the impression that the actor knows the answers to these questions and if we keep watching we’ll learn more.
Soo-Jin’s memories suggest she and Myeong-Soo were perfect for each other. But when they meet in the present day, they don’t look perfect at all. Myeong-Soo sounds genuine when he says he misses those days with her. He also sounds genuine when he says he’ll give her a call. But then it turns out he has three women named Soo-Jin in his phone—and none of them are Kim Soo-Jin. Busy social life.
But even though Myeong-Soo is self-absorbed, he does have good memories of their college hijinks (below). His decision to go with Soo-Jin’s production company for his movie can only be explained by friendship, because it’s not a good business decision.
When his ex-girlfriends appear on the scene, they are so different from each other that it makes him more of a mystery. Perhaps the only thing they all have in common is money—the one thing he and Soo-Jin never had enough of in college.
What works well here is that the characters often talk past each other without realizing it. The two leads in particular, but we also see it in secondary characters such as Choi Ji-Hoon, Soo-Jin’s brother-in-law and former classmate (played with a weirdly backwards charm by Cho Jung-Chi, he’s like what Choi Woo-Sik’s Hogu might be like in a few years when the kids are in elementary school).
The writer and director bring out the ways that people are caught up in their own thoughts, not really listening. One great scene shows Soo-Jin and Myeong-Soo drinking soju (below). As they talk incoherently, Soo-Jin’s interior thoughts overlap with what she’s saying out loud. But it’s hard to follow what’s in her head and what’s spoken. The dialogue is jumbled up together like the memories of a drunk. She’s having two conversations at once—one real, one imaginary, both important to the plot.
The smart script also offers well-rounded characters. In the second episode, we learn that each ex-girlfriend has a different, complicated reaction to the ideas of a movie. Are they flattered? Threatened? These women are funny, exaggerated characters, but they aren’t total caricatures. They’re 80 percent crazy and 20 percent “oh, I know someone just like her.”
Soo-Jin and Myeong-Soo also have that touch of the real human as well. Even though Myeong-Soo is hard to figure out as a character, he immediately reminds me of people I’ve known.
It’s not a huge shock to learn at the end of episode two that Myeong-Soo has never thought of Soo-Jin as romance material. But it’s a cool narrative trick to hold off till then, because I had to rethink what we’d seen of their relationship in the first two episodes.
Soo-Jin and Myeong-Soo would agree about one thing: they spent a lot of time together in college.
But he says they were just friends (above). Whereas Soo-Jin believes spending so much time together means they were going out. It doesn’t entirely make sense even from a very conservative point of view. Even a couple who aren’t having sex usually acknowledge or formalize a relationship somehow. But there’s a lot of wiggle room in that “somehow.” I wonder what else Myeong-Soo did to inadvertently raise Soo-Jin’s hopes.
His casual behavior around her in these opening episodes makes more sense if he never thought of her as more than a friend. But her pain on seeing him again also makes sense. She feels like she gave him part of her life and he didn’t appreciate it.
And if he only saw her as a friend, why was he spending so much time with her? You tease, Myeong-Soo! It’s obvious to us that she liked him. It’s amazing, though plausible, that it wasn’t obvious to him. And he’s still oblivious.
Song Ji-Hyo has a talent for getting me to sympathize with her characters, even when I don’t like them—like her heroine in last year’s Emergency Couple. But here she plays a character I like already.
When we first meet her she’s doing a bit part in a costume drama so she can talk privately with the lead actress and get her for her next film (above). While she and the actress hide under a table from attacking ninjas, they whisper about the casting of the upcoming movie. The actress agrees to work with Soo-Jin and the ninja scene also gets made. Soo-Jin’s got skills. When she feels pathetic after a few setbacks later in the episode, we know she’ll get through this.
Director Kwon Seok-Jang also has a great track record that includes Pasta and Miss Korea. And his resume is a who’s-who of memorable K-drama leading actresses. His last five projects have starred Park Shin-Hye (Pinocchio, Heirs), Kim Tae-Hee (IRIS), Gong Hyo-Jin (It’s Okay, That’s Love, Producers), Hwang Jung-Eum (Kill Me, Heal Me) and Lee Yeon-Hee (Hwajung). This suggests he’s good at working with actresses, which will be important if all three exes are important characters along with Soo-Jin.
Ex-Girlfriend Club has gone under the radar till now, thanks to the Hong sisters new drama starting this week (Warm and Cozy) as well as the new drama starring Gong Hyo-Jin and Kim Soo-Hyun.
But these opening episodes hit just the right notes. There was humor—some of it over-the-top, some understated—good characters, including likable secondary characters, and just enough pathos to create real tension. If Warm and Cozy is so warm and cozy that it risks lulling us to sleep, Ex-Girlfriend Club might be a good antidote. ♥
Anyone else watching this one?
Subtitled versions: I’m watching in the US, where Viki has an exclusive license for this one. That means really long subtitles that sometimes go by too quickly. This is a dialogue-heavy show and Viki’s style is to include every word. But they also include occasional notes on Korean culture, which are useful.