Yong Pal should have emerged as the year’s most exciting, rip-roaring ride and unabashedly entertaining show. Instead, clumsy plot manoeuvrings at the show’s final hours put a considerable damper at a crucial juncture and tanked it in a way that poor endings often do with dramas. Sad really, because it was a fatal blow to a show that had all the right ingredients but somehow added up to less than the sum of its parts.
It all started so well, too. Yong Pal burst out of the starting gate revving on all four cylinders with energy and style and a story that foregrounded intrigue and excitement. It felt like a go-big-or-go-home kind of show, its action and thrills and a flair for spectacle putting a fresh spin on the medical drama. It felt like a little bit of Healer spunk and a touch of God’s Gift unpredictability had infected the usually sedate hospital corridors of dramaland.
Most of all, it felt like a wealth of possibilities for where the narrative could go. Especially with a bedrock of genuinely engaging characters. The hero, a genius surgeon Kim Tae Hyun (Joo Won)–more at home Macgyver-ing medical attention as alter ego Yong Pal in seedy back alleys of Seoul than in the tony (and deadly) private hospital floor he works at–uses his charm and avaricious reputation to mask his guilt and a desperate chase for money to heal his ill sister. Orbiting him were a bevy of women of all shades and stripes–socialite, Lee Chae Young (Chae Jung Ahn), hospital administrator Cynthia (Stephanie Lee), doting head nurse (Kim Mi Kyung), and psychopathic caretaker Nurse Hwang (Bae Hye-Sun).
And of course, there was the fairest of them all, the heroine herself, Han Yeo Jin (Kim Tae Hee), a beautiful chaebol heir imprisoned in a waking coma by her brother Han Do Joon (Jo Hyun-Jae) in a bid to take over the family empire. The early genius of the show was to proffer up a pretty nifty set-up for a reluctant hero: free the princess from her prison in the hospital in exchange for the money to send his dying sister for treatment.
What ensued was a nail-biting and gripping escape sequence expertly built-up over the course of several episodes. Sadly however, it was never equalled as Yeo Jin’s post-coma vengeance took narrative centre stage over the second half of the drama. While I was always on board with the latter as I’m a little bloodthirsty myself and was itching to see how that would take shape (and lord knows Yeo Jin had a real good reason for it), it was as if the show expended all its energy into its prison escape and didn’t have enough left over to think through all the details a truly satisfying revenge plot would need.
In the climactic stakes, the show shot itself in the foot by front-loading all the action, a trait it seemed frustratingly inclined to repeat again and again. Witness the romance, which had all the makings of Epic Swoon, what with the eye-popping beauty, charisma and chemistry of Kim Tae Hee and Joo Won. Instead, the relationship was fast-tracked and the spark of their early banter evaporated into cloying cheese. (And this is coming from someone who generally adores cheese!)
As the romance developed it also grew further detached from reality, and while drama romances don’t need to mirror real life, they do need to be realistic emotionally, and Yong Pal fell short.
But back to the point about repeatedly shooting itself in the foot, the show also squandered its precious cache of diverse and fascinating characters by either killing them off (Nurse Hwang: why?!), neutering them (Jung Woong In’s dastardly Chief Surgeon Lee), underusing them or clean forgetting about them (if anyone knows what happened to Tae Hyun’s rival Park Tae Yong, please tell me), in an indication that the show bit off more than it could chew.
Or that it simply didn’t have the time to follow through, what with dramaland’s live-shoot system taking a toll on the production most visibly on Joo Won’s puffy red-eyes and its patchy, haphazard editing.
I remember reading that writer Jang Hyeok Rin primarily writes for film and had no other drama credits apart from OCN’s Reset. And it dawned on me that Yong Pal felt a lot like those glossy K-action films that are big on set-ups but weak on follow-through, and over-rely on forward momentum and star quality.
Still, I appreciate ambition, and I certainly appreciate that Yong Pal had a lot of novel ideas and tried new things. For one, it dared give us a blood-thirsty and cunning heroine around whom large swathes of the plot revolves, so much so that I wondered if the show would’ve been more appropriately called Young Ae instead of Yong Pal. That she remains firmly a love interest and yet, doesn’t really get redeemed at the end, well, that’s certainly unique.
Yong Pal is the year’s most highly-rated show that will probably go on to win numerous awards since the industry has a tendency to reward ratings-bonanzas. But it will be remembered for falling short of its early promise to combine high stakes action and glamorous romance, with even a little social commentary about the corrupt, soulless world of the wealthy elite and the clash between the powerful and the powerless. Instead, we ended up with the status quo.
Starring: Joo Won, Kim Tae Hee, Chae Jung Ahn, Kim Mi Kyung, Jung Woong In.
Overall rating: 2.75/5
Recommended: Only if you're a die-hard fan of Joo Won or Kim Tae Hee, or if you enjoy medical dramas with a hefty dose of revenge plotting. Episodes: 18
Director: Oh Jin Seok
Screenwriter: Jang Hyeok Rin