I am excited to recap another kdrama as I’ve discovered that I really enjoy spending time doing so. Are you watching Bubblegum? It’s about relationships, loneliness, the kdrama more-than-just-siblings trope, and extended families with blurred lines and complicated burdens of brick-like weight on one’s shoulders for a lifetime. Somehow, all that is a pleasure to watch. I think that’s because Bubblegum’s characters and their stories are relatable without being sappy; heartfelt without being pathetic. Plus, Lee Dong Wook and Jung Ryeo Won are proven actors whose dramas we look forward to, and now the wait is over! Not to mention Dong Wook and Bae Jong Ok reuniting after their run on Roommate. Hooray on so many counts for Bubblegum!
Bubblegum 풍선껌 Episode 1
Late night radio talk show, Black Radio, is on the air. DJ Oh Se Young reads an array of text messages sent in to the question she posed to the listeners a moment ago, “When do you feel most lonely?” Se Young says she can relate to many responses except for the one that reads, “I’m not lonely.” After all, could that be true if that person was listening to the show this late and sent in that response? Producer Kim Haeng Ah (Jung Ryeo Won) hands her a paper with something written on it. Se Young silently mouths, “Should I really read this?” To the listeners she suggests that when the next song plays, everyone hearing this should turn the lights on and off wherever they are to the beat of the music as a signal of love being sent to all the lonely hearts out there. The staff runs out to the balcony for the best vantage point to see the reaction. It’s a nice feeling, flickering lights here, there, everywhere.
There are glimpses of people pausing in their night’s routine to participate. A student rips up paper and sends it blowing away in the wind; a woman looks out her car window at the staccato lights; a man peers out at the city from the shadows; a baseball player hits it out of the park under a lit field; a family frivolously enjoys strung lights like kids at an amusement park. One by one, the characters in the drama are introduced as the lights of Seoul turn on and off.
It’s late and raining. A sopping wet Haeng Ah pushes a chair piled high with stuff down a dark street. When the security guard asks where her boyfriend is, she laughs it off and tells him it just worked out that way. It is the last trip from the apartment across the street that she shared with Kang Suk Joon (Lee Jong Hyuk) to her new, much more modest digs. She mists the plants one last time, says goodbye out loud, and with a final glance around, leaves.
A flashback of their last conversation goes like this: She tells Suk Joon that she won’t be coming here anymore, that he won’t find her stuff here when he comes home. He replies over his shoulder, “Let’s talk later.” She tells him she’ll take care of it all herself and not to worry, although it was him who broke things off. It seems as if she is talking to the wall.
How much time did Haeng-Ah spend in that apartment waiting for Suk Joon? There are flashback scenes of her alone at a table set for two, waiting by the phone, running to the door, always waiting. “I’ll call you” became a phrase with two meanings – to one, a promise of communication; to the other, a way to avoid communication. The reality was two different languages in the same space that ultimately caused them to break up. (Pause to reflect on the truth of that. There’s no way that doesn’t hurt.)
Sprawled out in her own small apartment, she asks herself if this is going to be her downfall. She listens to a melancholy radio sign-off about heavy clouds of rain, crying. The DJ reminds that the rain will bring a colder day tomorrow and to dress warm for work. Haeng-Ah rests her chin on the balcony rail.
Traditional medicine doctor Park Ri Hwan (Lee Dong Wook) pulls up to work listening to Kang Suk Joon’s morning Current Events 365 radio show. Co-worker Ji Hoon pops up from sleeping in the back seat. Ri Hwan’s first patient is a junior high school baseball player who refuses to play. His mother has brought him in for traditional herbal tonic remedies. Ri Hwan recognizes that her son isn’t sick – the CCTV caught him breaking the glass with his baseball after all – but has a difficult time getting any other information from him. Using an unorthodox method, Ri Hwan shatters a glass against the wall, shocking the son and causing Mother to barge in. Ri Hwan sends her out with the explanation that he broke the glass, not her son. Ri Hwan offers another glass and this time the son pitches it against the wall like a fast ball. It breaks the tension. Turns out the coach has asked for money; money he knows his family doesn’t have. Rather than embarrass and burden his family, he chooses to sacrifice his dream to play baseball to avoid the uncomfortable and impossible situation all around. How can he go to his mother with the truth when she is bandaging her weak wrists with homemade strips in order to keep working? Ri Hwan is surprisingly tactful and offers two solutions: endure things the way they are or hone his baseball skills to earn a chance to play. Furthermore, Ri Hwan offers to treat his mother’s wrist with the promise of a signed ball when he becomes famous. Making him write a contract sends an “I believe in you” message and a boost of confidence that no prescribed tonic could ever provide. When the kid says he’ll clean up the broken glass, Ri Hwan won’t let him. “Can’t let a pitcher hurt his hands.” Such a cool doctor, that Ri Hwan.
Odd business partner Ji Hoon sings a request to Ri Hwan for lunch together. Ri Hwan informs him that he is off to see Aunt Princess because she hurt her wrist. On his way he checks with the apartment security guard to see if Haeng Ah has picked up the kimchi he left for her. The guard says no one is answering the door. Ri Hwan calls Haeng Ah with a barrage of questions, “You’re sick? Something is going on?” She replies, “Wrong, wrong, wrong.” When he asks where she is she lies that she is home. When he asks if she’s eaten she says of course. When he mentions the kimchi he left with the security guard, again she lies that she ate it. She laughs it all off and Ri Hwan lets it go. These two, are they friends? Lovers? Siblings?
The family restaurant wall is crowded with family pictures. Ri Hwan enters and is warmly greeted by younger cousin, Aunt, and Uncle. When he tells Aunt to rest her wrist, she doesn’t want him to fuss over her. Who should walk up to the restaurant as Ri Hwan is leaving but Haeng Ah. She’s been caught in her lies. They bicker like siblings – he the protective big brother and she the clumsy little sister. She dodges his inquiries once again as he heads off to an appointment. She enters the restaurant, calls out to Aunt, and greets her dad’s picture. As she sits down at a table, cousin, Aunt, and Uncle immediately crowd around and bombard her with questions and unsolicited advice. Work days, sleep nights, you’re surrounded with weird people at work, you’ve aged, who’s the guy bothering you, is it true…. As Uncle takes over her father’s role of approving who she dates, Haeng Ah becomes the little girl in front of them as she answers the best she can, knowing it all sounds inadequate.
A phone call from Tae Hee at the radio station breaks the conversation. Apparently, Oh Se Young is a prima donna DJ who is more demanding than she deserves, but gets the attention she wants in order to keep the night show running smoothly. In what appears to be an all-too-common occurrence, Tae Hee and Haeng Ah go to Se Young’s apartment and coddle her and her dog, Cat, to get her to her shift on time. First, they chauffeur her to a dentist appointment. Haeng Ah is told very clearly by the serious and rather plain dentist that she will have to dog-sit outside. It’s all in a day’s work.
There is an awkward meeting between a fashionable mother and her dentist daughter, Hong Yi Seul (Park Hee Von). Her mother is disapproving in every way and has come to inform her unenthusiastic daughter that another dreaded blind date has been set up. She slaps Ri Hwan’s picture on the table and proceeds to tell her daughter his eligible credentials (in her eyes, anyway): he is the grandson of Sehan Hospital and a doctor of Eastern medicine, his mother is a doctor at the hospital, his father passed away before he was born, and he is well off enough that he won’t be after their family’s money. Bottom line: he will be more than suitable at the altar. The daughter excuses herself and escapes to an empty room.
Ri Hwan takes a selca of himself in front of an oversized picture of top radio man, Kang Suk Joon, at the broadcast station. He has come to meet up with Haeng Ah at her workplace. When she walks up, he immediately feeds her a tonic and asks twenty questions about her health. As they tussle like siblings, the elevator door opens. It is Ri Hwan’s mother, Park Sun Young (Bae Jong Ok). Upon seeing her, Haeng Ah has a flashback to the day when the duties for her care as a young girl are split between Uncle, who will feed her, and Aunt, who will house her. Immediately, Haeng Ah greets her. “Aunt.” The atmosphere is cool. When Ri Hwan heads to the restroom, Aunt loses no time in telling Haeng Ah that she must stop her casual and comfortable tomboy-ish sister-like behavior with her son. After all, Ri Hwan is meeting a woman he will likely marry. This woman is sensitive and may misinterpret Haeng Ah’s behavior around Ri Hwan. She asks her directly to stay away. Haeng Ah sheepishly agrees, wagging her head like a puppy that, yes, she totally understands. In another flashback, teenage Haeng Ah overhears Aunt’s conversation that she will send her away if “that ever happened between them,” a response to something the person on the other end of the phone has relayed to her. Haeng Ah’s relationship with Aunt is clearly tentative.
It is Tae Hee who calls Haeng Ah into the studio, although it is a lie to get her away from Ri Hwan’s mother. Tae Hee doesn’t like that woman who belittles Haeng Ah, but Haeng Ah defends Aunt saying that she only wants the best for her son who she raised alone.
Black Radio night talk show is about to air. Se Young complains that the script is boring. Haeng Ah reviews the rules with her: no mentioning of brands, no curse words. None. As the show begins, Ri Hwan nonchalantly listens through earphones as he grocery shops. Se Young reads some letters that have been sent in. One in particular is titled, “You probably won’t read this anyway.” Se Young expresses her curiosity, and reads the letter on the air. It is soon very clear that this may be a suicide note from a young woman named Lee Ji Na who writes that she can’t live with the disappointment she has caused her mother with failed grades and so, “I plan on dying today.” At those words, Se Young stops short. The alarmed staff jump into action to contact Ji Na if she is listening, get her address, find out where she is, try to get help to her before something drastic happens. It is a panic; the listeners, too, are alarmed. Ri Hwan also listens carefully as everything unfolds. They get Ji Na on the line – she says she is on the roof. Se Young appeals to her with stories about her life’s disappointments, a nickname “Always Last” for her grades, a mother who also never approved. But, she tells Ji Na, things worked out. And they will for her, too.
Se Young and PD Haeng Ah create a dialog back and forth to keep Ji Na on the line and help her work through the difficult place she is in. In doing so, Haeng Ah reveals things about herself: her parents are both dead, she broke up with her boyfriend yesterday and is alone. On her birthday this year she bought her own cake and ate it all. She doesn’t have a manager and has to buy her own clothes for work. What is meant as a list of things to keep Ji Na listening and on the line becomes a fountain of truths about her life that Ri Hwan hears for the first time through the earphones at the grocery store. Haeng Ah is hurting badly and she didn’t tell him. He didn’t know. He runs out of the store to find her.
Meanwhile, at the station, Se Young continues to reveal a litany of incidents in her life where she didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. In the end, Se Young talks to Ji Na who is on the roof. With prompts from Haeng Ah, Se Young thanks Ji Na for giving them the chance to help her and talking her down. When the line goes quiet they fear the worst. But then the monitor shows a message that the emergency crew has arrived in time. This live air unexpected situation leaves everyone shaken. They wrap up with music. It’s been a rough night.
When Haeng Ah arrives home, Ri Hwan dashes up and startles her. “You said nothing is going on. Why are you lying to me?” He heard everything on the air. He asks why she told him she had plans for her birthday. Why did she buy her own cake? Why does she say she is okay when she’s not? Haeng Ah asks to get a word in edgewise but he tells her no, she’ll just lie again. What bothers him most is she pretended to be okay. It made him look stupid. The security guard recognizes her and asks who this man is. They simultaneously answer the opposite, “My little brother.” “Her older brother.” On top of everything else Ri Hwan finds out that she’s moved every last thing alone. He can’t understand why she doesn’t let him help. She accuses him of being notoriously overbearing to the point of repelling people.
They go inside her new apartment. Her phone rings. It’s Kang Suk Joon. She doesn’t answer. When Ri Hwan grabs it, she jumps on his back to reach her phone. A voice asks, “Where are you?” Ri Hwan recognizes the voice as Kang Suk Joon. He listens to his radio show every morning on his way to work, he tells Haeng Ah. Now he knows it was him that left her alone on her birthday. But Haeng Ah only defends him; he was too busy, she was the demanding one, she put unrealistic expectations on him, he didn’t do anything wrong. “If he didn’t do anything wrong, then why did you guys break up?” Ri Hwan demands. He asks if the rumor is true that he hit her. She jumps up and tells him to stay out of it. She was just lonely, that’s all. He glares at her. Does that make sense? She tells him that waiting for her turn, she just got sick of it and ended it. The harsh truth of being alone in a relationship is hard to speak about. In the end, she tells Ri Hwan everything and asks if he’s satisfied now. Ri Hwan is quiet for a change. He has heard things that are hard to hear and he can’t do anything about them. Haeng Ah ends their talk with, “We dated and we broke up. That’s all. Like other people.”
Ri Hwan prepares to leave, but asks if it isn’t hard to live across the street from the one she just broke up with. Well, she won’t run into him since she already got her stuff out. With that statement she realizes she left mom’s bracelet at his house and is terribly upset. Ri Hwan scolds her again for being so scatterbrained, but knowing how valuable that bracelet is to her, plans to get it himself and asks for the unit number. Never mind, she tells him. As Ri Hwan leaves, he happens to see Suk Joon drive up. In a rash moment, he decides to follow him up the elevator to his apartment. He slips in before the apartment door closes. Who are you?” a shocked Suk Joon asks. “I’m here to get the bracelet.” Before he can stop himself, Ri Hwan asks what in the world Suk Joon was doing when Haeng Ah was moving all by herself? Suk Joon is stunned. It’s a face off.
Ri Hwan’s flashback: Grade school Ri Hwan opens the door to his house and sits down next to young Haeng Ah at the table. They are friends who have promised to tell each other everything. But that day, Ri Hwan doesn’t want to admit to a possessive Haeng Ah he was playing on the trampoline with Sol Mi. Haeng Ah won’t let it go. He can’t defend himself to her satisfaction and she orders him to leave, even though it is his house. A sullen Ri Hwan sits outside on the curb. Haeng Ah’s father comforts him. He asks Ri Hwan if the bracelet he holds is for Sol Mi, but Ri Hwan said that he actually brought it for Haeng Ah. That night, Haeng Ah’s father tucks her in and gives her the bracelet that Ri Hwan brought her. When she’s older, the bracelet, her father tells her, will remind her of her mother who also wore a bracelet. “Mom’s bracelet,” says Haeng Ah.
- This is it! I love the depth of the story, we have already been introduced to a number of characters, and I want to know more about every single one of them. Nothing in this episode is fluff. Haeng Ah’s way of disregarding her own feelings, her own worth, is hard to watch. Ri Hwan has some insight into it, but it turns out he has missed the big things in her life. How close are they really, he must wonder. Maybe what we’re seeing is that a sibling-like relationship is hard to change from what it is as kids to what is changes to as adults. She keeps so much from everyone, that the only way those around her know about her is by happenstance when she blurts out personal details over the air to someone else that is hurting even more than she is.
- Lee Jong Hyuk is a favorite of mine, and his portrayal of Kang Suk Joon is perfect. It almost feels like it might be his real personality to say little to avoid saying much. We don’t know much about him, he doesn’t seem exactly trustworthy, but something about him attracted Haeng Ah in the first place even though it turned out he didn’t give her anything to hold on to.
- Mother/Aunt Park Sun Young is going to be a force to reckon with. I can feel her strength as a doctor and as a mother who has raised her son well and plans on seeing to it that his future is a good one with a proper partner. I am very curious about Dr. Hong Yi Seul, who was recently dumped and is feeling and looking glum, and Dr. Park Ri Hwan as a possible match for marriage. Hmmm.
- This is another relationshipwreck kdrama, with the complicated non-blood siblings who are more attracted to each other than that kind of relationship allows. The lines become blurred, and sibling tussles begin to look more like flirting. Mother/Aunt sees this and plans to put a stop to it. Her naive son (who plays that better than Dong Wook) isn’t going to like Mother dearest’s interference, although he doesn’t realize yet that’s what she is doing. Haeng Ah is too cooperative in setting herself aside, thinking that she doesn’t deserve more than her extended family gives her, since she is a burden. Ack! That kdrama word, burden; it builds walls and causes distance just to avoid the appearance of being too present in others’ lives. No wonder there were so many listening to the radio out there, ready to flicker the lights of loneliness on a dark night in Seoul, reaching out and over the wall of burden that has cut them off. Even if it is self-imposed, loneliness is a harsh sentence. This kdrama addresses that aspect very well.
- Dong Wook is looking mighty fine! He is so natural in this role as a traditional Eastern medicine doctor.
- How about you, are you ready to jump on board after one well-delivered episode? Leave a reply below and start a discussion about Bubblegum!