I came to this South Korean TV series by way of NetFlix’s suggestion system. I assume they thought I’d like it, as I had ordered more than my fair share of foreign and food-related films. Put them together, and My Lovely Sam-Soon* would appear to be the perfect amalgamation.
But appearances can be deceiving, as this fruitcake of a TV series is anything but perfect. And yet, despite its flaws I found myself wanting more, and before I knew it, I had watched all sixteen episodes.
It is, at its core, less about food and more about romance: a ‘rom/com-dramady’ that veers widely from the usual boy-meets-girl, boy-looses-girl, boy-gets-girl formula.
For starters, the lead characters (whose surnames appear first, followed by their given name) are seriously flawed, doing and saying things that are, at times, so infantile and thoughtless, you wonder why anyone would put up with either of them.
On paper, Hyun Jin-Heon (Hyun Bin) appears to be quite a catch. He is young, good looking, single, and at twenty-seven, the owner of Bon Appetite, one of the city’s trendiest French restaurants. He is also heir-apparent to his family’s upscale hotel chain.
But he is far from the likeable-but-slightly neurotic male lead one would expect to see in such a series. As noted earlier, he is self-absorbed, often rude, seriously immature, hurtful and evasive, a fellow who is adept at juggling the hearts and lives of past and present lovers, with little conscience or remorse. Add to that the fact that he has some serious mother issues.
But then again, so does Kim Sam-soon (Kim Sun-ah), the other half of this quasi-romantic duo. An unemployed but talented pastry chef, she is both loud and stubborn, with a fiery temper. Everything is a big deal to Sam- soon, including the fact that she is, at nearly thirty, still single.
Put these two discordant souls together, and you don’t exactly come up with a Korean version of When Harry Met Sally. And yet I found myself rooting for them almost from the first: hoping that by series’ end they would have worked their way through the muck, and become better people and partners in the process.
The series begins on Christmas Eve, in the second floor hallway of one of Seoul’s grandest hotels. A nervous Sam-soon knocks on the door of room 221. Her worst fears are realized when Min Hyun Woo―her boyfriend of some three years― opens the door, confirming her suspicions that he has been enjoying some holiday cheer with someone else.
Distressed and humiliated, Sam-soon rushes down the hallway, only to trip, fall, and flatten herself on the carpet. Wanting to avoid a confrontation with the other woman, Hyun Woo suggests that they move the conversation to the hotel lobby, where they can sit down at a table and talk things over quietly.
Any hope of reconciliation is quickly dashed when Sam-soon is unceremoniously dumped in front of a lobby-full of guests. Seriously distraught, she flees to what she believes to be the Ladies room.
Among the on-lookers, Hyun Jin-heon and his date view the dumping from different perspectives. While she feels sorry for the girl, he appears to find her plight—and flight rather amusing. But he is anything but amused at his date’s reaction to his reaction, when she tosses her drink in his face, and leaves.
Fast-forward to the Men’s room, where Jin-heon and Sam-soon meet for the first time: he to clean up after his soaking, she, to privately cry her heart out in one of the stalls.
A day so later, Jin-huen is surprised to find Sam-soon applying for a job as Bon Appetit’s pâtissier. The timing is right (of course it is), and after sampling a few of her pastries, he hires her― on one condition: that she pretend to be his fiancé for a year.
The condition is, by any standards, more than a bit far-fetched, seeing as this good looking, rich and single young man is not without romantic options. At the very least there is a whole flock of pretty things tripping over themselves to get his attention at the restaurant. But Jin-heon isn’t interested in forming a real relationship, having been burned some seven years prior.
It seems that shortly after a car crash that spared him but killed his brother and left Jin-heon’s then-fiancé (Yoo Hee-jin) seriously injured, she had moved to the United States without notice or explanation. He had not seen or heard from her since.
Which brings us back to those mother issues I mentioned earlier. For while Jin-heon’s mom had been fond of Hee-jin, her patience at her son’s resistance to getting seriously involved again, is wearing thin.
With more than a gentle push, she engages a matchmaker to speed things up, but judging by his Christmas Eve dousing, the only sparks flying from such match-ups have been dangerous when wet.
Determined to get his mother off his back, Jin-heon sees the new-hire as a way to put her off. Learning that Sam-soon’s family home is facing foreclosure, he makes her ‘an offer she can’t refuse.
A deal is struck, whereby she will pretend to be his fiancé for a year, and in return, he will pay off the formidable mortgage. Their contract also stipulates that the agreement will be deemed null and void if either of them attempts to blur the line between fact and fiction.
And it’s off to the races, or in this case, the restaurant, where the new patissier’s arrival and status as the boss’s girl, don’t sit well with some of the other female staffers.
The plot thickens when the gone-but-not-forgotten ex-fiancé returns from ‘the States’, along with a new friend: Dr. Henry Kim (Daniel Henney), a handsome Korean/American doctor friend with more than a passing interest in her welfare.
Determined to pick up where she and Jin-heon left off, Hee-jin arrives unannounced at the restaurant, only to be greeted by Jin-heon’s newly installed faux fiancé.
So many cards on the table, hearts to be won and broken, and questions to be asked and answered. And they will be, all in good time.
And it is time that differentiates this series from most sit-coms, with the writers taking their time to unfold the plot and develop the characters and their relationship with each other, family members, friends, ex-lovers, co-workers, pets and strangers. They, like most of us, are multi-dimensional by nature, sometimes sad― sometimes silly, sweet with one, salty with another, at times confident, at times insecure, and capable of being both manipulative and manipulated.
Like its characters, the tone of the series is a mixture of styles and tempos, understated one minute, over the top, the next, and not always with great success. But if you go with the flow, and give yourself a few episodes to get into it, I believe you’ll be rewarded for your efforts, enjoying a generous slice of Korean customs and life in the process.
A Final Note:When watching My Lovely Sam-Soon, you―like me, may wonder why Sam-soon, her family and those around her found her to be―fat. While no skinny Minnie, she was, at least in my eyes, far from it. I gained some insight into this observation when I happened upon an article in the New York Times that spoke to the country’s interest in what they referred to as "body reconstruction".
The piece noted that according to a recent study by the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, South Korea has the highest rate of cosmetic surgery per capita of any country in the world. As such, it is considered by many to be the place to go for a change of face, bra size or tummy tuck, with medical tourism reaching at an all-time high. I can just see the travel brochure tag lines now: “Air fare, hotel accommodations and liposuction included.”
Understanding the country’s obsession with body image, one can see how Sam-soon’s unaltered appearance might be an issue, and why actress Kim Sun-ah felt the need to gain fifteen pounds for the role.
*My Lovely Sam-Soon was originally released as My Name Is Kim Sam-Soon. They are one and the same.