Yong Pal is the new show on the block that everyone’s talking about: with Joo Won and Kim Tae Hee headlining and its fair share of plot twists and turns keeping viewers at the edges of their seats, it’s definitely raking in the ratings. The most recent episode (Episode 6, which aired last Thursday) scored 20.4% nationwide according to AGB Nielsen, which is just crazy by recent standards. But does it truly deserve all the hype? (Note: Spoilers for Episodes 1-6 below.)
In my opinion… no.
Don’t get me wrong; Yong Pal is thoroughly entertaining in the way Hollywood action blockbusters are – fast-paced, with plenty of heart-stopping moments – and Joo Won’s acting (as well as the complexity of his character) is stellar. It’s not hard to see why it can keep the general audience tuning in with excitement every week. But neither is it the best thing since sliced bread – the writing inconsistencies are hard to ignore and the less said about the directing and editing, the better.
Let’s start with the good first: Joo Won! When the drama itself is named after the hero, you know its success will rest heavily on the shoulders of the lead actor. Good thing they tapped Joo Won as the eponymous Yong Pal (real name: Kim Tae Hyun), then. I’ll be honest – he’s the main reason I keep on coming back for more Yong Pal.
Joo Won plays Kim Tae Hyun with so much pathos; the cynical third-year resident whose single-minded interest in money at the apparent expense of a doctor’s ethics/morals only serve to mask his one motivation in life – to scrape together enough money so that his sick younger sister can get life-saving surgery. He’d do anything to get money, which is what drove him a step into the other side of the law (as Yong Pal, doctor to anyone who’ll pay enough, no questions asked) in the first place.
It’s a character that should have been harder to like, since Tae Hyun adopted his mask of materialistic indifference so well in the opening two episodes, but Joo Won is absurdly good at showing us glimpses through the cracks in his armour, to the fear and desperation lying beneath the jerk façade. The fact that he’s so painfully powerless makes him even more sympathetic a hero; you can’t help rooting for him to beat the odds as he’s tossed back and forth between powerful factions in the hospital and essentially blackmailed into joining the ranks of the corrupt.
The acting from some of the supporting cast is worth a mention as well – Jung Woong In as Chief Lee and Kim Mi Kyung as the head nurse is, as usual, reliably excellent. Chief Lee is a particularly interesting character; he seems to deplore his own association with Chairman Han and despise his inability to act differently even more than his own enemies. He’s a man who’s stuck in a cycle of committing crimes and unable to escape, as he’s hinted once to Tae Hyun, and that makes him far more interesting than the usual predictable medical drama set-up of casting him as the hero’s department chief arch-nemesis. Do I think he’s likely to develop some understanding with Tae Hyun, or even aid him? I’m not sure, but I certainly won’t complain if it happens.
If there’s one other thing I have to give credit to Yong Pal for, it’s that it’s fast-paced – relentlessly so. Every time you think Tae Hyun might have found his niche and settled down slightly, he’s caught up in another whirlwind fight to stay afloat and avoid becoming the latest casualty of the exceedingly corrupt top dogs at the hospital. The same applies to Han Yeo Jin, whose had at least one attempt on her life already; watching Tae Hyun and Yeo Jin establish a hesitant alliance and then dodge discovery from at least two dozen people is a guaranteed nail-biter.
It’s not just the characters’ continued good health that keeps audiences on their feet – the show hasn’t stuck to one genre, choosing instead to present a mix of medical drama, action thriller (see: all the Yong Pal scenes, gunfights in the hospital hallways…) and chaebol melodrama (everything Han Yeo Jin-related, though so far they’ve thankfully avoided the stereotypical and excruciatingly boring “board directors’ meeting” scenes). I admit I have doubts they can keep this up for 20-24 episodes, but for now, it’s mostly been an exciting ride.
DOWNSIDES, MULTIPLE DOWNSIDES
The problem is that fast-paced is great, but there’s a saying about having too much of a good thing – I draw the line when logical plot progression and character/relationship development are sacrificed for the sake of keeping the plot hurtling along at breakneck speed, and that’s Yong Pal‘s biggest crime for me.
Choppy Writing, Questionable Directing/Editing
I love mixed-genre dramas when they’re done well and different elements feel like intricately tied parts of a whole, but Yong Pal feels like three different concepts haphazardly stuck together with sticky tape. Two episodes of Healer-meets-Doctor Stranger (Tae Hyun by day, Yong Pal by night, with a spoonful of God-Hand Teru/Iryu thrown in for good measure), then BAM, rapid switch to a case-of-the-week medical drama stretch that only lasts long enough for a few unbelievable scenes to occur (e.g. Tae Hyun saving the entire hospital from a radiation leak) before the show jumps into chaebol melodrama mode. It’s enough to give you whiplash; whatever happened to subtle transitions and logical progression? I get the feeling that the writer/director is as confused as I am about what they want the drama to be and what the direction is.
Tonal unevenness is exacerbated by writing inconsistencies – we had a realistic depiction of muscle atrophy suffered by a long-term coma patient in Episodes 5-6, but said patient hopped off the bed and tried to commit suicide only a few episodes ago.
I could probably overlook these issues if the directing/editing didn’t shine a spotlight on these flaws and produce unintentional hilarity out of what should have been exciting scenes. Case in point: The massive fight scene in Episode 6 should have been a show-stopper, but I cracked up laughing instead – the overuse of slow-mo shots, cheesy posturing, badly choreographed fighting in a tight hallway so that half the bodyguards/gangsters had to line themselves along the walls to wait their turn while Tae Hyun and Cynthia just stood at the back, doing absolutely nothing. And the whole time, poor Yeo Jin was supposedly lying bleeding in the center of the action as the gangsters played tug-o-war over the trolley… Oh dear, it was hilarious.
And how about Nurse Hwang? What happened to the cliffhanger ending in Episode 4, where she’d stumbled upon Tae Hyun and Yeo Jin chatting? The next thing we see is Nurse Hwang installing hidden cameras to keep an eye on Yeo Jin – did she think she was going crazy and thought to confirm before reporting what she saw? It just feels like a cheap trick to hook viewers at the end of an episode and then not even produce the pay-off; instead, you’re told, “Oh, just fill in this massive blank on your own.” I’m not sure whether this is just hack editing or an attempt at being unpredictable backfiring on the writer.
Tae Hyun is an interesting and complex character and both his and Yeo Jin’s backgrounds, motivations and goals are well-established – I have no complaints on this front.
Their “friendship,” on the other hand, is quite another matter. The birth of the whole show’s most important alliance takes place in the space of one single episode. One! Viewers are somehow expected to believe that Tae Hyun and Yeo Jin can go from antagonism and cagey mistrust to an alliance formed on the basis of a business transaction and finally to an offer of friendship… in one episode. Considering the story revolves around this Tae Hyun-Yeo Jin connection, I wish the writer had spent time crafting its development rather than sending us from A-C and completely skipping B. There’s a limit to which I can suspend belief, and it’s a shame, because the actors have good chemistry and really sell this budding friendship (I’m just not convinced by the timeframe in-drama). The meeting between the princess with a spine of steel and the cynical doctor who’d do anything for money was actually what kickstarted the show for me after messy beginning.
Still, it’s only been six episodes and I felt that the show picked up quite a bit during Episodes 4-5, so there’s time for these problems to hopefully ease off. If nothing else, at least Yong Pal isn’t boring.