“My Lovely Sam Soon” is classic K-drama comedy and a trip back to 2005, for good and for bad.
“My Lovely Sam Soon” (aka “My Name is Kim Sam Soon“) is humorous and doesn’t waste much time on filler. Sam-Soon is an awesome heroine, an ambitious pastry chef played by the lively, likable Kim Sun Ah. The sense of humor reminds me of “Bridget Jones’ Diary” (both the novel and the movie). When a silly, awkward fist-fight breaks out between the hero and Sam-Soon’s ex, I totally expected someone to yell, “It’s a fight! It’s a real fight!”
“My Lovely Sam Soon” is also consistently funny. I laughed at the “test” that Sam-soon’s mother puts her daughters’ suitors through—it involves karaoke—and the way the ugly stuffed animal that Sam-soon wins at an arcade keeps haunting the characters later. Smaller characters are entertaining, too, like the stone-faced Secretary Yoon.
Because “My Lovely Sam Soon” was a big hit in 2005, watching it feels like seeing the ur-romantic comedy, the origin story of K-rom-com, the cells from which many subsequent K-dramas have been cloned. Sam Soon is a talented professional who makes bad decisions in love. When she meets quintessential arrogant chaebol heir Hyun Jin-Hyon, she dislikes him and embarrasses herself to boot.
The road to romance involves a number of elements that will strike you as familiar if you’ve watched Korean shows, or just plain weird if you haven’t: piggyback rides, wrist drags, contract dating, a hero with a dark secret, a risk that Sam Soon’s family may lose their house for a debt that wasn’t their fault, an utterly shiftless and indecisive ex-boyfriend, and a heroine who gets sloshed and throws up on the hero.
When it aired in 2005, “My Lovely Sam Soon” earned outstanding ratings, averaging 39.6% in Seoul. More than half the population of South Korea watched the final episode. Viewers and critics praised the show for presenting a heroine who went against K-drama stereotypes by being a 29-year old professional, as well as being slightly less underweight than many heroines. If “My Lovely Sam Soon” feels unoriginal now, it’s partly because it had so much influence on subsequent female characters.
“My Lovely Sam Soon” does feature two of the most annoying plot devices ever to appear in K-dramas. The reappearing ex-girlfriend that propels much of the story’s conflict is hard to deal with. Her reasons for disappearing and breaking the hero’s heart are ridiculous even by Korean TV standards. And then there is the final episode, which starts with communication problems that are implausible no matter how hard we try to think otherwise.
But viewers of romantic comedy know the effort of suspending disbelief is worth it if the romance is sweet. A drawback in “My Lovely Sam Soon” is that leading man Hyun Bin is so convincing at making Jin-Hyon a cold jerk in the beginning that it’s hard to believe him later when he warms up. Conflict is to be expected in these love-hate rom-com tales. But Jin-Hyon takes such a long time (by today’s standards) to start appreciating Samsoon that viewers may lose patience. When the second lead, adorable Henry Kim, asks Jin-Hyon, “What’s up with you?” some viewers might be nodding along.
K-drama heroes walk a fine line between so-arrogant-they-need-to-be-dumped-immediately and so-arrogant-it’s-cute. Making the rich, entitled mean guy look cute is tough. Admittedly, before “My Lovely Samsoon” most dramas simply focused on the fact that the hero was rich. He can be mean if he’s rich, right? The writers of “My Lovely Sam Soon” do give us a handsome hero with some depth and a tragedy in his past. But by today’s Korean drama standards, they don’t give us enough of lovable weaknesses or quirks.
By comparison, a more recent K-drama mean guy is Gu Jun-Pyo of “Boys over Flowers.” In an early episode, Jun-Pyo’s hilarious panic at the sight of an insect gives the first hint he might not be so bad. Lee Min-Ho turns Jun-Pyo into a comic character and thus opens up the possibility that the sadistic aristocrat is actually a human being. For a writer there’s a lesson here: it takes more than a dark secret to make the hero appear vulnerable.
The decade since “My Lovely Sam Soon” has brought a number of great Korean television heroines and heroes. Korean shows have produced a few leading men who can render the Mr. Darcy characters as likable as they are arrogant, among them Gong Yoo playing Choi Han-Kyul and occasionally even Lee Min-Ho playing Gu Jun-Pyo. Jin-Hyon in “Samsoon” was an important step in the right direction.
I don’t want to rate Samsoon, because this show has been so influential since 2005 and means so much to many people. The gutsy, professional heroine is now a common type in K-dramas since Samsoon, so if you watch it for the first time in 2014, it doesn’t seem ground-breaking.
Why You Might Want To Watch:
- It’s a bona fide classic
- Sam-Soon is a likable heroine (usually) and Hyun Bin is easy on the eye
- The story delivers quintessential Korean romantic comedy elements (like contract dating)
- Korean-American actor Daniel Henney plays second male lead Henry Kim, who still may be the best American character I’ve seen in a Korean drama. No weird stereotyping. The actor didn’t know any Korean when he made this series, and he makes an endearing fish out of water.
Why You Might Want to Skip:
- Doesn’t seem as original now as it did a decade ago.
- Infuriating ex-girlfriend of Jin-Hyon and her infuriating issues. Just tell him, already!
To understand why “My Lovely Sam Soon” was a break-through in 2005, I recommend this review from November that year. No spoilers, just a smart discussion of the series and how it compared to the romantic comedies before it.
Titles: 내 이름은 김삼순, Nae ireumeun Kim Sam-soon, “My Lovely Samsoon,” “My Name is Kim Samsoon”
2006 Baeksang Arts Awards: Daesang (Grand Prize), Best Screenplay Award (Kim Do Woo), Popularity Award (Hyun Bin), Best Couple Award (Hyun Bin and Kim Sun Ah), Best Cast Award