the new korean drama on netflix, “thirty-nine”, got my attention mainly because of son ye-jin. when i started watching kdrama in the middle of the pandemic and the lockdown, i began of course with “crashlanding on you”. it was the netflix show that brought korean drama to the attention of fairly unlikely audiences all over the world, including me.
before the great covid age, the only serial i’d watched seriously, confessing i was addicted to it, was the fabulous hindi television serial “iss pyaar ko kya naam doon?” and then after a gap of eight years, along came “crashlanding”. truth is, i wasn’t too keen on even watching anything korean, since i don’t have any knowledge of the language or the country and the people. yet, from the very first scene almost, i found myself engaged and quite rapt.
the reason was, or were, the lead actors. hyun bin and son ye-jin just got me, whether i understood their words or not. they were extremely talented, and also wonderful to look at. of course, there was that thing that makes some shows greater than the some of their parts. chemistry.
so i became a fan of “crashlanding”, going back again and again to see episodes, scenes, moments. i tried to understand the words, sing the beautiful “here i am again” by baek erin, say “ri jeong-hyeok shi” like yoon se-ri…
hyun bin was devastating and son ye-jin was brilliant. i use excessive epithets, i sound gushy, but the impact of both these actors on me was great and needs acknowledgement. it was they who turned me into a regular (some might say, obsessive) viewer of kdrama, i who was a regular viewer of nothing.
to come back to son ye-jin. she was lovely as the older woman in love with a much younger man in “something in the rain” and impressive in “the negotiation” as the negotiator. i was willing to see a show if she was in the cast. i waited for something new from her, hyun bin, and an actor i found later, ji chang wook. the wait has been long. covid has slowed down all productions. it’s only this month that i see netflix is releasing practically one new show a day.
since “law school”, which was released sometime last year, i’ve found nothing that has really made a mark, though in the past year i have seen an embarrassingly large number of korean shows. some good, some bad, some utterly forgettable. i noticed the new shows coming in, tried a couple, nothing clicked.
the main story
then day before yesterday, thirty-nine’s banner came up as i opened netflix. there was a familiar face. yes, it was her, son ye-jin. she and hyun bin have fallen in love and become engaged since i saw them first in 2020. was she doing this one with him, i wondered. no, hyun bin was not in the cast, instead many unfamiliar names. i thought i’d give it a try anyway.
i haven’t regretted the decision two episodes later.
“thirty-nine” is the story of three women about to turn forty and that often-noted stage in life. forty fills some with dread, some with excitement, it is usually a landmark year, and has been so even while our definition of young and old have seen great change in the last few decades. cha mi-jo (son ye-jin), jeong chan-young (jeon mi-do), and jang joo-hee (kim ji-hyun) met when their were eighteen, all in high school, and became best friends. they’ve been inseparable for over twenty years, and now they are at the threshold of forty. where will it lead them?
cha mi-jo is adopted, belongs to a wealthy family, and is a dermatologist. she and her sister cha mi-hyun (kang mal-geum) run a dermatology clinic. jeong chan-young is an acting teacher, she seems to be from an upper middle class background. jang joo-hee is a cosmetics manager at a department store, she is a small eatery owner’s daughter. none of the girls are married, though jeong chan-young has a relationship with kim jin-seok (lee moo-saeng), and it’s a bit tricky. no spoilers here.
the show opens on a scene of the girls getting a massage at a parlour, there’s a note of ease in the chatter and banter among them. you’ll know they are good friends even with your eyes closed. but worth keeping them open because the story takes you to unexpected places and turns… some you’ll identify with if you live in a city, have worked, and/or have great friends. others are poignant, stirring, hard hitting or really funny.
the jtbc drama is directed by kim sang-ho and written by yoo yoong-ah. i usually don’t go looking for the director or writer, but something about “thirty-nine” felt different enough for me to do just that. the look and feel are urbane, quite sophisticated i’d say, the camera enjoys what it’s seeing, is in no hurry, and goes close and holds in a way that’s almost introspective. draws you in.
the writing is candid but not aggressive or unsubtle, yoo yoong-ah seems to wants to stay as close to the realities of three nearly forty year olds without slipping into soap sweetness and fantasy. and yet, this is a soap, so she makes allowances, but without losing her story. i realised i’ve seen two of yoo yoong-ah works before: the movie, “on your wedding day”, and the show, “encounter”. they were both not run of the mill tales. especially, “on your wedding day”. there’s a cool levelling with the world as it is, life the way it happens, in her writing. she works dimension into her characters. she definitely has a way with thoughts, words, and situations. for instance, the first meeting between cha mi-jo and kim seon-woo (yeon woo-jin) – a likeable, pleasant, and thoughtful man who will most probably be romantically linked with her – and what that meeting leads to. i wonder whose idea it was. but whoever might have thought of the denouement, the writing was tender and funny and lovely, and both actors took it to just where it needed to be.
perhaps a trifle predictably, the three ladies will each have a good looking man in her life. the structure of tv soaps makes some things non-negotiable, ratings are all-important, viewers want romance, that too of a certain kind. in “thirty-nine” though, there’s evidence of pushing against the boundaries of expectation right from the beginning. and the two episodes released till now have not veered from that.
the story moves between different time periods. we’re either at the present moment, or in the near past, sometimes in the distant past. the structure is clean and unfussy. the acting is consistently good, i find myself liking kang mal-geum’s cha mi-hyun, the nosy, bossy, loving, funny older sister, more and more. the music and background score remind me of a well made film, quiet and subtle. what i really enjoyed was the smoothness of story telling.
a dramatic revelation has taken place. a new character has sauntered in with a big story in her. son ye-jin is staring at gorgeous pink peonies… i am absolutely waiting for mid-week and the next two episodes.
if you haven’t given “thirty-nine” a try, you might want to.
i hear my mind mutter
who’d have thought a tv channel would buy a story about women close to forty. i like. slowly but surely something is evolving in our world. you don’t have to be twenty something, max in your early thirties, to be noticed, to be interesting, to have a story someone will want to hear.
featured visual courtesy uploader