Kimchi Family is My Korean Drama of the Year

From funny moments and squabbles to romantic intensity to tragedy to complex family drama, Kimchi family drama has something for every fan, including a killer cast featuring Song Il Guk and Park Jin Hee.

Balhyo Kajok, known to western fans as Kimchi Family (or even Fermentation Family) has my vote for best drama of the year. The combination of complex story, genuinely lyrical writing, superb acting by all players, and an emotional depth rarely taken on in dramas, makes this the best drama of the year, at least so far. Take your choice, 2011 or 2012, since it began airing in 2011 and finished in 2012.

By Josephine Nolan
Note: This is my vote, not the opinion of Films&Books

Perfect 5 rating

Korean Drama Balhyo Kajok (Kimchi Family appeals to everyone at all levels. If you enjoy family drama, you’ll never find a more complicated or fulfilling plot line in any drama on any continent. For those who prefer action, Song Il Gook in classic form, swings into martial arts action. I’m a mystery and cop drama nut, and Kimchi Family, despite the name, weaves in a very deep crime drama and mystery, not solved until the very end. Looking for uplifting? There is no more philosophical or subtle drama I can think of—full of very poignant vignettes, meaningful lives and philosophical questions such as the meaning of life and death, why do bad things happen to good people, and other very Zen topics.

Kimchi Family brings on plenty of romance, from sizzling scens featuring Song Il Guk and Park Jin He—always G rated but sexy none-the-less,

If you’re looking for romance, you’ll have plenty to digest, from our main two characters touching love, to tragic love stories with secondary characters (who still enjoy deep plot arcs of their own). Just love sexy actors? Well, you’ve got A-Lister Song Il Gook, who’s aged well through his career and still one of the sexiest screen idols on my list.

The Cast Truly are Stars

This ensemble could probably make a bad story watchable, and it features some of my all time favorites, with Song Il Gook (as Ki Ho Tae), Park Jin Hee (as Lee Kang San). I really liked the character role of Choi Jae Sung as Chef Kang Do Shik and a superb performance from Kang Shin Il.

Song Il Guk is simmering and sexy in his portrayal of an ex-gangster turned romantic lead chef. He sports a scruffy look, sheepdog hair and never-shaved beard that seems endearing rather than tough. In the past, he’s proven his acting chops as action prince (Jumong), Batman-like hero (A Man Called God), and bad-ass cop (Detectives in Trouble.)

Song Il Gook Sexy and Vulnerable
My number one guy in Korean Drama—for me anyway—is Song Il Gook(Song Il Guk or Song Il Kuk), and here he’s in prime form at about 43 years of age (but not looking like it!). He is a real character actor, equally at home as a prince (The Kingdom of the Winds), hero (Jumong), cop (Crime Squad), vengeful secret agent (A Man Called God). Here, in Balhyo Kajok, he perfectly plays an ex-gangster orphan who seeks meaning in life through the unraveling of his own tragic past. He’s thoughtful, intense, sexy, romantic, intelligent and vulnerable all at once, and it’s a treat whenever the camera makes love to his face. Although he plays a thug, once we get to know him, half the time you just want to hug him and have a good cry.

Below: Romance a-plenty in Kimchi Family, and great kiss scenes (with superb cinematic composition, by the way):

I enjoyed Park Jin Hee also, as his lead romantic interest. Not all Korean Dramas have strong female leads (notable exceptions Dae Jang Guem, etc.) Too often, the male dominates, without a strong enough opposite to make it credible. Here Park Jin Hee plays a never-say-die, eternally optimistic yet earthy character who shoulders her own pain—career struggles, a dependent sister and a father with Alzheimer’s—yet manages to be just charming throughout. Herein, might lie my single criticism. The writers laid on a little too much sugar on her role. Is she sometimes a little too sweet, no matter how dire the situation. No, not really, but she can preach up a storm, zen style.

Below: Early trailer for Kimchi Family:

Cinematography the Real Star
Normally I review story first, then character, finally cinematography and direction. I think I’ve made it clear that I believe story and character are perfect in this drama. Am I leading up to criticizing the crew and visuals? The opposite, in fact. The cinematography is worthy of a big budget film, despite a modest number of locations. The scenery is stunning to begin with, views we see in all four seasons in this drama. I wanted to highlight the camera crews and director for some of the most breathtaking framing I’ve seen in a long time. I review hundreds of dramas and films every year, and this certainly stands out as an eye treat.

Kimchi Family, though not a genre drama, features plenty of suspense and action. Here star Song Il Guk fights with over a dozen thugs armed with clubs in his quest to shed light on his hidden past.

Every frame is immaculate. You could frame grab any scene in this drama and hang it on your wall as art. It’s that good. Am I over gushing? Maybe the one area where the crew lets us down is in the car scenes, with the artificially lit car interiors and autos that move at a snails pace down the highway. Many Korean Dramas are guilty of this, and it’s the one weak point in the shooting.

The seasons arc beautifully with the story, making the visuals an integral part of the plot arc. The story takes us from birth through death through rebirth and all the agonizing and wonderful steps in between—reflected in gorgeous seasonal scenery. Winter, in this show, means something. Spring, even more so.

Complex and Riveting Story
I know it’s a good story when I am disappointed at the ending of an episode, and simply can’t get it out of my mind as I wait for the next. Kimchi Family is like this. You feel like part of the family, emotionally involved, and can’t wait to get back to their lives.

Multiple complex stories weave through the series, ultimately threading together like an integral whole. Here, I can’t reveal any of these intricacies, for fear of plot spoilers, but the disparate themes and threads all arc together until, by the end, with laser precision, they meld into one, unexpected aha moment.

Laugh Out Loud Funny and Cry Out Loud Touching
Typical of the best of Korean drama, Kimchi Family wrings tears out of audiences, while simultaneously giving us laugh attacks. There’s suspense, humour, romance, tragedy—what more could a drama do? Oh, and great sound track, too?

Below, one of the hits from Kimchi Family, Afraid of Love:

From reformed gangster turns kitchen help—stated another way, thug turns to romantic lead—to zen-master father’s journey into a hazy Alzheimer’s world, to sharp and hateful businesswoman transformed into tragic mother, to… trust me, the wonderful moments here are simply that—wonderful. Balhyo Kajok (Kimchi Family) is the don’t miss K-Drama of the year—and my vote for 2012’s best so far.

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Comments

  1. Why did it take us so long to find this splendid review? Thank you for loving Kimchi Family as much as many of us do. I’m so proud of our idol Song Il-Kook.

    • Thank you for your comment. Kimchi Family deserves every bit of praise and I think it was the most underrated drama (it had many fans, but it’s not on most people’s “top of mind” lists). But you really cherish the time you spend watching it. It’s not a fluffy waste-of-time drama, but a rich tapestry of scenery, great writing, and food! I’m a fan of Son Il-Kook too.

  2. It’s a delight to read your review. I know i’m bias when it comes to Song Il-Kook, my favorite Korean actor at all time. This drama makes you feel warm all over. I love how they develop the characters. I feel that everything has it’s place and the plot is not rushed at all. What more can I ask: great scenery, wonderful recipes, intrigue and secrecy. Wish I could find a restaurant like this. They make the food so mouthwatering! Lastly, it’s a original masterpiece that we rarely find in KDramas.

    • Couldn’t agree more, the perfect mix of scenery, talent (actors) and sumptuous food. The traditional flavors of the restaurant were very vivid, from the cold breath on the air (the old restaurant not heated) to the brilliant array of kimchi. My favorite part of it was the very Zen flavor of the whole series, lots of glimpses of Zen philosophy.

  3. The author writes a good story. I can learn a lot in this drama, especially humanity. Now a day, people lose their character. Hope them can watch it one day.

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