For the past two weeks, ancient Korean hero Iljimae of MBC`s "Moon River" has been winning the Wednesday and Thursday night miniseries ratings race. Now, the competition is heating up with a new series joining tonight`s line-up.
Titled "Again My Love," KBS` latest installment takes Korean dramas back to their roots, with a twist. Instead of the usual tortured love triangle, "Again My Love" centers on an unconventional quintet of stars.
Rising celebrities Park Ye-jin and Jung Gyu-woon and veterans Choi Myung-gil, Park Sang-won and Jun In-hwa weave a web of deceit, betrayal, and yes, adultery in the 24-episode series.
"I have done a lot of conventional family melodramas," said director Kim Jong-chang of the hit series "My Rosy Life" (2005) at a press conference Thursday.
Having mastered the art of the tear-jerker - remember the late Choi Jin-sil`s heartrending portrayal of a wife struggling through the last stages of cancer? - director Kim promised to "expand the stage a little."
"I feel that (dramas) have undergone a drastic transformation," said actress Choi Myung-gil, 46. "In the past, if I played a mother, I would have probably added a little white to my hair. But now, we do not have to."
Choi - a pro when it comes to historical romances - stepped out of her comfort zone to tackle the role of Han Myung-in, the formidable CEO of a large corporation.
Scarred by the death of her first love, Han realizes she is pregnant with his child. Determined to turn their son into a successful business executive, she enters into an arranged marriage with Lee Jeong-hoon, played by Park Sang-won of the hit series "Hourglass" (1995).
Twenty years later, Han realizes she has grown to love her husband, only to discover that he has been cheating on her.
With a trio of thespians whose ages range from 43 to 49 heading the cast, "Again My Love" may alienate younger audiences. On the flipside, the drama market and viewers benefit from the risk. The combination of 20-something co-stars Park Ye-jin and Jung Gyu-woon with their 40-something counterparts caters to those who want to explore the complexities of both married life and budding love.
Though "Again My Love" promises to attract a broad audience, rising above rival MBC drama "Moon River" will prove to be a challenge. Touting a strong cast and director, the hit MBC action romance successfully combines the humorous nature of the comic book original with high flying stunts.
"Iljimae is a very sad character," said director Hwang In-roe at the "Moonriver" press conference. "But Ko Woo-young did not make (his original work) sad. It is even a little bit upbeat."
The first drama to be based on artist Ko Woo-young`s 1970s comic series - SBS aired a different take on the hero last year - "Moonriver" layers anime-style elements over cinematography reminiscent of Oriental ink paintings.
The lead, Jung Il-woo, bears an uncanny resemblance to the comic book version, a lean and melancholy Korean Hamlet with martial arts moves and a beautiful face.
Actor Jung, who wooed female fans as a bad boy in "Unstoppable High Kick" (2006), struggled to do Ko`s Iljimae justice.
"I was playing Jung Il-woo`s Iljimae," he explained. "The director wanted the original Iljimae. But my personality kept emerging. The director said, `Don`t laugh. Jung Il-woo cannot be present. Don`t laugh.`"
A pensive and serious Iljimae graces the screen; the fruit of one laugh-free take after another. And Park Chul-min of the hit series "Beethoven Virus" serves as the yang to Jung`s yin. With a Chinese straw hat, a curlicue mustache and an incredibly strange walk - the result of extensive consultation with a ballet company friend says the actor - Park`s villainous Wang Hyeong-bo is cute but dangerous. Clearly, he is the comic relief.
The combination is hard to beat. Yet the melodrama is making a comeback; SBS` highly popular "Temptation of Wife" serves as a case in point.
Both the comic book adaptation and the melodrama are beloved genres, adding an element of unpredictability to this particular ratings race.
Tune into "Moon River" on MBC on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 9:55 p.m.
"Again My Love" starts tonight on KBS 2 TV at 10 p.m.
By Jean Oh