Review – When the Camellia Blooms

When the Camellia Blooms stars perennial favorite Kong Hyo-Jin as a single mom struggling to make ends meet by opening a bar in a small fishing town. As the majority of the women in the town are small business owners, the men flock to the new bar as the one place where they can get drunk without worrying about the prying eyes of their wives and relatives. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help our mom’s popularity amongst the community, who are suspicious of a young single woman anyways.

This is one of those shows were the main antagonist is other people’s prejudices (I mean, sure there’s a serial killer but I’ll talk about that mess in the spoilers section). It’s a very blunt exploration into the prejudices, contradictions, and difficult natures of human beings. It wasn’t a melodramatic exploration of human connections, like Angel Eyes or Will it Snow for Christmas or Just Between Lovers. It wasn’t as cute and playful in its depiction of adults struggling to find love and fit in, like Dear Fair Lady Kong Shim/Beautiful Gong Shim, Flower I Am!, or Heart to Heart. It was just kinda… good. Without being great. It wasn’t anything new, and yet it was enjoyable. You’re not gonna stay up all night to finish this one, but you’ll probably stick around until the end. This show will cause you to hate people. And conversely, to love them a little too. 

This screenplay won Best Screenplay at both the KBS Awards (2019) and the Baeksang Awards (2020), so I had high expectations of a well-crafted drama full of memorable characters and a tightly laced plot. I dunno… I guess it was a weak year, cause if this is the best they’ve got, that’s not saying much.

This is not to say there weren’t moments of sparkling dialogue – cause there were a few: 

We also got this perfect line of dialogue:

Writer Im Sang-Choon also wrote Fight My Way, which I thought was better. Also not perfect, but definitely more enjoyable over-all. 

More often than not, When the Camellia Blooms felt like a drama that was supposed to be set in the 80s. Before cell-phones. Before late-stage capitalism took over the country. Before the internet. The behavior of everyone reeks of the old-fashioned stigmas of the 20th Century – the stigma of unmarried mothers, the ability to “disappear” in a small country, the weird detail that none of the women ever stepped foot in the bar they were so all so suspicious of to check on their husbands (as if ladies going into a bar was too scandalous to consider!), and the fact everyone commonly associated bar owners with prostitutes. How ostracized orphans were (by adults, too, and openly!). How the police work to solve crimes was also incredibly old fashioned and low-tech. How no one ever checked the internet or their phones for immediate information, entertainment, and social connections. I mean… video arcades were still a thing in this drama… yet at some point, a kid has a gameboy… I dunno, it was all over the board. So I assumed, for a while, it was set in the past… but then they ruined it with occasional references to Instagram and cell phones. So  either it was just a mess to begin with or the producers changed the setting at the last minute to accommodate more advertisers. I suspect it was the latter.

So… 

Overall Rating – 7.5/10. Cranky Locals Learn to Love the Town Outcast.

SPOILERS & MORE RAMBLINGS ON CHARACTERS FOLLOW

… oh, Camellia… where to start?

Let’s start with the dumb serial killer plotline.

In the first episode we are introduced to a murder scene, which should be exciting… but immediately you, as a viewer, are calmly assured that the characters you love will all be safe and not to worry. The context clues are shoved in your face. The demure bloodless way in which the dead body is displayed, the tone of the show, the goofy smiling face of our male lead, the lack of real fear in anyone… trust me, no one watching this show worried about the serial killer as a real threat (unless this is their first K-Drama or something). Our murderer is just a casual plot device who will be used to throw our single mom and the happy-go-lucky cop together and that’s fine. It’s a romance show. We don’t need it to cause us to chew our nails off with apprehension.

But even so… geesh. It was heavy handed in its assurance “everything will be fine!” Only showing the bracelet on the dead body’s wrist and almost immediately cutting to a scene in which we learn another character constantly steals people’s possessions… gee… I wonder whose body that is? I was annoyed by how sloppily this was done and in my opinion, it was not a great way to open the show.

This is one of those shows that’s gonna slap you across the face a few times, causing  instinctive knee jerk reactions before you realize that’s the point. Or at least… I think that’s the point. 

For example… our lead character often comes across as pitiful. She’s soft spoken, head bowed, and even when she stands up for herself you feel sorry for her. But then you start to figure out her story – how the smallest things have had the largest impact on her life. Someone once complimented her cooking sincerely and it shaped her life goals. As a young woman raised as an outsider, lacking the foundation of familial love and support, she seems to always be standing on shaky ground because, really, she is. Her story shows us how you can’t take other people’s life experiences for granted – how our casual words and actions can impact someone much more than we’d ever consider. It’s frustrating because we want her to be “like us” – to toughen up or react in ways that we imagine we would – but she isn’t like us. And that’s the point. Get it?

Example number 2… our leading male who openly, and without hesitation, falls instantly in love with the female lead because she’s pretty. That’s it. That was all it took. He makes a few incorrect assumptions about her based on context clues – she’s in a bookstore, picking up foreign language books – so he assumes she’s a reader (this will be the first and last time we ever see her pick up a book) and educated enough to know a second language (she’s working on it). In a way, I liked this about him. He was very honest with himself in at least recognizing his own emotions and how shallow they were. And he was dogged in his pursuit of her – which again works best in a drama set in the 80s because it comes across a bit overbearing and stalker-ish to our modern sensibilities. Especially following a few feet behind her whenever she walks around town. Does she not own a cell phone? Mace? I guess not because this show doesn’t know what decade it belongs to. 

Side Note – I love this actor. His physical performance was what saved this show from being unwatchable. He was so energetic and entertaining on screen – all his expressions and gestures and rapid mood shifts – I can’t wait to watch more dramas with him.

Plus he’s just a cutie.

The kids endearing protective instincts towards his mother – being aware of her insecurities and wanting to spare her feelings at all times. He was her white knight, but he was also still a child. And like a child, he was selfishly controlling of his mother, too. 

And of course, the cop’s mom… who ended up being the biggest antagonist of our main couple – even though originally she was their fan. This was the most difficult aspect to swallow of this show and the thing I hated most. I understood she might be upset at first – as the show points out, mom’s tend to be unrealistic in their expectations of daughter-in-laws. But also… at some point… geesh. She has two other sons – both married off happily with kids. It’s not like this is her only kid. 

What I did like about her extended feud with the couple over their relationship was that through this lens, the other locals were able to see what jerks they were. The gossiping ladies were suddenly sympathetic to our bar owner, finally able to acknowledge that maybe they were being a tad too judgmental and cruel to the single mom. I also liked that although the cop’s mom was able to openly spew her hate onto the single mom, she was unable to say it directly to the little boy. In fact, it was talking bad behind his back that finally forced her to see how cruel and unreasonable she was being. But honestly… it felt so prolonged and overdramatic. If the show was going to be that melodramatic, I would have preferred more extremes and nonsense. If you’re gonna dip you toes into the melodrama, you might as well submerge us. 

Despite it’s problems – there were several outstanding moments in the show. The GRAND GESTURE trope (which has always been one of my favorites) in which our leading male does something extreme to win the affection of our leading lady.

I mean… wow.

I assume our cop still lives at home, otherwise he’d never be able to afford such a lavish floral display. 

I thought about deep diving into the issues surrounding the kid’s actual father in this review – the baseball player – and that whole garbage plotline but honestly I hated it (I loved the casting though – Kim Ji-Suk was perfect in the role).The show treated it as if the single mom had every right to deny the father all contact or involvement with his own son… which… uhm… that’s really quite horrible, and again seemed like the sensibilities of another era.  Sure, he was kind of a jerk and undoubtedly she made the right decision when she left him – but she also purposely deceived him and hid his child away from him. I dunno… I felt a lot of ways about the whole thing and none of them were good.

I also thought I’d talk more about the side characters and couples, but it’s been a few days now and I already don’t care about them enough to bring it up. Except for this lady, played by Kim Sun-Young: 

That’s basically this entire show. Good stuff mixed in with meh stuff, but overall digestible.  It was charming, it was sweet. It was well-paced and heavily populated with a wide variety of characters and personality types – and all their shades of grey. If you’ve got the time and you’ve seen all the other 5 Star Dramas, might as well sit down and enjoy this 4 Star Drama. 

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