I found episode 1 of the SBS drama The New Tales of Gisaeng quite a mix. The two leads Sa Ran and Da Mo are sullen and serious and have issues with their parents. Sa Ran’s spoilt friend Ra Ra looks like she is capable of creating lots of trouble along with her materialistic aunt. And there is the classic K-drama feature of identity issues and family secrets to be discovered. The episode jumps around filling in the story from three different families plus the gisaeng house. And there are some bizarre humour elements too.
Episode 1 has a quirky start. We see Dan Gong Joo, Sa Ran’s step sister, in pajamas and curlers dancing to funky music in her bedroom in the evening. She looks sullen and seems to be taking her dancing very seriously, twisting her hips and throwing her arms in the air. The scene goes on for quite a long time to the point where I’m wondering why it’s going on for so long! At this point I’m thinking she must be the lead. Then suddenly we see a thief on the roof outside her room with a stocking over his head and he’s staring in at her through the window. It’s dark outside and she’s oblivious to the fact that she’s being watched. Then the stockinged man (still on the roof) starts dancing too! Gong Joo’s friend Son Ja is walking outside and calls her mobile. When she stops dancing to answer the phone she glances out of the window and sees the thief dancing on the roof and their eyes meet. At the same time Son Ja looks up from the street and sees the thief too. The fast paced music stops and Son Ja shouts “thief” into the silence.
There’s a dramatic shift in mood and pace as the modern music changes to slower, sedate traditional Korean music. Now we are in a wealthy home where the dance student Sa Ran is dressed in elaborate hanbok doing a traditional dance in front of her teacher’s friend (Da Mo’s grandmother). Sa Ran performs slowly and gracefully and we can assume she has spent hours perfecting this at her dance school. Da Mo’s grandmother sits on the floor in her hanbok watching Sa Ran with an appreciative gaze.
I guess the contrast of the two young women dancing symbolizes the two different worlds that we will meet in the drama – modern and traditional. But why is there a thief dancing on the roof? It gives the drama a very quirky vibe that I didn’t feel so much during the rest of the episode! Is the thief’s presence meant to show us that Sa Ran’s family lives in a cheaper, unsafe part of town compared to the obviously wealthy area where Da Mo lives? It must be because later when Sa Ran’s parents arrive home they meet Son Ja hurrying out of their house saying that his grandmother’s house has been burgled so he must go home. He also says it’s dangerous around this area.
While Sa Ran is dancing in front of his grandmother, Da Mo arrives home. Although he obviously comes from a wealthy family, he doesn’t seem very happy at home. Andre, their small dog comes to greet him at the door, but Da Mo takes out his frustrations on the dog. He hears music coming from his grandmothers room and peeks through the door and sees Sa Ran dancing. As he watches her dance the scene goes into slow motion: he must be interested in her. He leaves and then Sa Ran has to stop dancing when Da Mo’s grandmother suddenly gets called away. As Sa Ran is leaving the house she bumps into Da Mo. In an offhand manner he offers to drive her home. She declines saying she is going out. But as she leaves, her hair clip falls from her hair (in slow motion again suggesting that this will be significant later). Da Mo picks up the clip and before handing it back to her he notices that it’s broken. Da Mo discovers that Sa Ran likes dogs so he offers to give Andre to her. He has an issue with the dog! But Sa Ran says she can’t look after a dog right now and leaves. He seems interested in her but she remains aloof. When Da Mo’s father comes home he lavishes attention on the dog while ignoring his son. Da Mo looks on jealously at the attention his father gives the dog.
Da Mo watches Sa Ran. Afterwards he introduces her to his dog.
Sa Ran meets her friends in a nice cafe. Her friends seem obsessed about looks and appearance and we learn that Ra Ra has just had her eyebrows done. The friends are all dance students but it seems like the others are all from wealthier families. Out of the four, only Sa Ran doesn’t seem bothered about how she looks. (I think the theme of beauty is going to run through this drama) As the friends chat, they notice an elegant adjumma watching Sa Ran with interest from another table.
Sa Ran (top left) with her friends Ra Ra (top right) Joo Ah (bottom left) and Ah Mi
Meanwhile at Ra Ra’s house her grandfather (wearing a hanbok) is home with his daughter-in-law. His other son and wife come to visit but the grandfather does not seem pleased to see them and sure enough, they have an agenda. They are after something, so his daughter-in-law has brought abalone from Jejudo obviously to soften him up. The grandfather pretends that he is not interested or impressed in their gift although the loud sound effect of him swallowing tells us otherwise. This daughter-in-law is pushy. She is forward and opinionated and tries to tell Ra Ra’s mum how to bring her up and that they shouldn’t let her stay out so late.
Back in the cafe the adjumma is still staring over at Sa Ran and her friends. The girls, except Sa Ran, are still talking about their looks – one friend complains that her head is so much bigger than Sa Ran’s head! A waiter tells the friends that the lady on the other table wants to talk to Sa Ran. Ra Ra looks disappointed as she obviously expected the lady to want to speak to her. Sa Ran refuses to go over as she doesn’t know the lady, so the lady comes and sits with them instead. She gives Sa Ran her business card saying she works for a gisaeng house called Buyonggak. (The Lotus Tower). She says she wants Sa Ran to teach the girls at the gisaeng house to dance but they can talk about details later. The friends discover this is the last of the real traditional gisaeng houses in Korea and that the girls working there have to be pretty and talented. Ra Ra is envious that Sa Ran got noticed so she makes her pay for their drinks – even though she knows Sa Ran doesn’t have much money.
At her house, Ra Ra’s grandfather is in a predicament because on the one hand he really wants to eat the tasty looking abalone that his daughter-in-law brought him, but on the other hand he knows that it comes with a price. Sure enough his daughter-in-law has come to ask him for money to buy property. It seems that Grandfather has given them money before but there is no limit to her greed. He gets angry and storms into his room. Meanwhile Ra Ra is on her way home still upset that Sa Ran was approached by the lady and not Ra Ra herself. She asks her friend if Sa Ran really is pretty because she doesn’t really think so. (Great friend!) When she gets home and goes into her nice big room with a walk-in wardrobe she notices that someone has been in her room. She realizes that her aunt has been snooping around her things again and she throws a tantrum. She storms into her mother’s room and demands to know why her aunt is so interested in her. I guess at this point we should be asking ourselves is her aunt just nosy or is there more to it than that?
The lady from the cafe, Ms. Lee, arrives home at the gisaeng house. Inside, the mother of Ms. Oh, the chief gisaeng, is sitting in her room smoking. It’s unusual to see women smoking but I suppose this is to show that she has been involved in the entertainment business where alcohol and cigarettes are part of the lifestyle. She seems concerned about something and she calls for Ma Dang Se (meaning servant) one of the male workers, to her room. He looks serious and wears his hair in a kind of topknot in a nod to the Joseon period. She tells him to keep the gisaeng orabi (meaning playboy) ) away from Ms. Oh. Ma Dang Se realizes that she is talking about Mr. Seo one of the other workers living at the house. She says she doesn’t trust him and always relies on her instincts. Ma Dang Se returns to his room which he shares with Mr. Seo and another young worker Mr. Oh. Mr. Seo is there lifting weights and Ma Dang Se looks at him suspiciously and asks him why he is doing that. Mr. Seo says it’s to make himself look good (for the ladies?)
We now get a glimpse of the different families we’ve been introduced to so far. Ra Ra is in the bathroom getting ready for bed still fretting over whether Sa Ran is prettier than her or not. Da Mo goes to bed and gets a flashback of Sa Ran dancing. And at the gisaeng house it’s starting to snow and Ms. Lee takes a peek at the young gisaengs all lying in a row on the floor asleep. Then we go to Ra Ra’s aunt’s house where she is in her home gym. She has not given up on getting the money from her father-in-law. But she is worried that he will leave all his money to his other son and family.
The following Sunday, Han Soon Duk, the head chef leaves the gisaeng house for her usual Sunday trip. She has a limp. Ms. Oh, who is in charge of the gisaeng house, talks with her mother and Ms. Lee about where Ms. Han goes every week. She has told them that she goes to the temple and they wonder why. Ms. Lee also mentions Sa Ran. They say if she comes to see them it will be because of fate.
Ms. Han goes to the station at the same time that Sa Ran arrives at the same station but on the opposite platform. Now we have music and slow motion and the camera moving back and forth showing different angles of Sa Ran and Ms. Han as they wait for their trains. Clear K-drama message: there is a connection between these two ladies. And yes there is an age difference, so could one lady be the other one’s mother? The signs tell us so. Of course the ladies don’t know each other yet and as a train comes in to separate them, only we are privy to this moment of fate.
Ms. Han goes to Ra Ra’s house. We don’t know why. Inside the house Ra Ra tells her grandfather a joke about old age that he doesn’t find funny and her mum wonders why she is so thoughtless. Ra Ra’s grandfather gets dressed in a suit for a change as he is going out. Ra Ra takes him in the car and Ms. Han watches with tears in her eyes as they drive off. Then she stares longingly as Ra Ra’s father arrives home. We can see that his wife seems keen to greet him but he is not warm towards her. On the way back from the dry cleaners the housekeeper sees Ms. Han hanging around outside. She tells Ra Ra’s mum about this but she doesn’t think anything of it. In the car Ra Ra asks her grandfather to give her a new car for a graduation present. He thinks the car she already has is good enough but she wants something better. She is spoilt. And he is not impressed.
Da Mo’s father is on the way to the hospital looking worried. His wife calls him to see where he is and he says he probably has cancer so she needs to prepare herself for the worst. His wife is very upset and collapses. Da Mo’s father arrives at Dr Geum’s (Ra Ra’s father’s) clinic. He thinks he has tongue cancer because his tongue was bleeding a bit but Doctor Geum tells him that it is not cancer and that he probably just cut his tongue while he was eating. Da Mo’s friend is also a doctor at Doctor Geum’s clinic and he tells Dr Geum that Mr. Ah’s son’s name is Da Mo. So his full name is Ah Da Mo. They both laugh. (I’m not sure why?) Mr. Ah feels relieved that he is fine but meanwhile his wife is in hospital still shocked at the news. Da Mo arrives and calls his father only to find out that he is fine after all. Da Mo is annoyed that his father is so thoughtless and selfish not bothering to let his wife know how he is and worrying her sick even before he has been to the doctor’s. (yes I agree this is bad) Da Mo shouts at his dad for the way he behaved. His dad sees nothing wrong and his mum just laughs it off.
At the gisaeng house the staff is getting ready for some VIP guests. Ms. Oh comes to check on the food to make sure it will be to their taste. She always knows the names of their guests and what dishes they prefer. Head chef Ms. Han says she knows who the guests are and what they like. The waiter comes in and complains that the customers are eating all the food so quickly and he has to keep replenishing the dishes. Ms. Oh tells him off for talking about the guests in a disrespectful manner even though they can’t hear him.
At Da Mo’s house his father is criticizing his wife for not deboning the fish properly and says that’s why he cut his tongue. Da Mo is annoyed with his attitude. Da Mo is going to a ski resort with his friends to meet some girls. His father tells him to take the dog to the ski resort too because Andre likes snow. Da Mo doesn’t want to take the dog and he goes to his room. His mum comes in to try to talk to him but he complains about the dog. BTW it looks like there’s a photo of Da Mo or someone that looks like him on the wall with his shirt undone exposing his six pack! Why would he have a poster like this on his bedroom wall?
Sa Ran and her friend are shopping for things to take to the ski resort too. This is a coincidence, isn’t it? So Sa Ran will meet Da Mo again at the resort. Must be fate. We see Sa Ran and her parents together for the first time. Sa Ran is embarrassed that they call each other Charles and Diana and asks her dad to stop. But he won’t. Sa Ran is very reserved and she speaks very politely to her step mum. The girls get ready to drive to the ski resort. The others are surprised at how little Sa Ran is taking with her. She says it’s not as though she is planning to get married or anything. Da Mo is given the dog to take and he seems annoyed. (The dog story line is being stressed too much. Is something going to happen to the dog later? Is that why there is so much fuss made about him now? Because surely the point has already been made more than clear that the dog is there to demonstrate the bad relationship between father and son. We don’t need it to be emphasized any more!) Sa Ran’s step mum goes for an interview as a kitchen assistant at the gisaeng house.
The episode ends by going back to the beginning of the episode with the thief. Gong Joo in curlers and her friend Son Ja chase the thief all over the place. She storms ahead while Son Ja bumps into things and falls over being left behind. Gong Joo even chases the thief through the ten pins in a bowling alley biting his arm to stop him running. She also jumps into the swimming pool fully clothed after him. I’m a bit confused by the opening and close of this episode. We haven’t really met Sa Ran’s step sister Gong Joo yet but from these scenes we can see that she is tough. We can also see that her friend Son Ja is very gentle as it’s Gong Joo who powers ahead and catches the thief. I don’t know what all this means but it is very bizarre compared to the rest of the episode.