- If one had to write keywords to give a rundown of When the Camellia Blooms, it would go something like this ? Single mothers. Society. Family. Marriage. Love. Children. Money. Murders. Serial killer. Why, you ask? Because When the Camellia Blooms doesn?t follow one definitive storyline that could translate into a concise synopsis of the plot. The drama is more of an assemblage of happenings in the (fictional) coastal town of Ongsan, which doubles up as a social commentary about the varying definitions of family and marriage within the established yet rigid societal rules. With a solid cast of (both) lead and supporting actors, When the Camellia Blooms depicts love in all it?s forms, from the giddy rush of your first love to rekindling the romance lost in a marriage of many years, to friendships shared between suffering souls, to admiring and acknowledging one?s own efforts; most of which involve our leading lady Dongbaek (a phenomenal Gong Hyo Jin) and help her to come out of her shell and bloom.
- Dongebaek is a single mother ? single in the realest of terms, as she is neither a divorcee, nor a widow ? and when she moves to Ongsan, her new ajhumma neighbours (a boisterous bunch, spearheaded by the talented Kim Sun Young), initially aren?t able to digest this fact, but Dongbaek in a cool, matter of fact tone states that it is possible to have a kid without getting married. For Dongbaek, her unsettled (at least, in the eyes of others) status of a young, beautiful woman with an eight-year-old kid is never a fact to hide nor a burden to carry. In fact, she is thankful for having Pil Gu, (a superb Kim Kang Hoon, who seems to be on every drama nowadays), who becomes her sole companion, strength, and family. As an orphan herself, she has always dreamed of having a family and even when her relationship with Pil Gu?s father ends on a sour note, she is grateful that at least she got him from this union. Gong Hyo Jin plays Dongbaek with a quiet sense of strength through which she stays firm in her decisions, like running a bar and remaining unfazed towards all the gossip around her. Through all this, we are never once allowed to pity her, but encouraged to empathize with her, whether it be the hardships of running a business or raising a child single-handedly, or falling in love, we watch her navigate all these situations head-on.
- As any rom-com would have it, there are two suitors, but here, one of them, Kang Jong Ryeol (played by Kim Ji Suk) a famous baseball player, has already been in a relationship with Dongbaek, is Pil Gu?s father, but is now married to a social media influencer (Ji E Suu). Under usual circumstances, it would be this rich guy who would swoop in to save our poor leading lady, but in When the Camellia Blooms, that part is played by Hwang Yong Sik, an animated, simple-minded cop (Kang Ha Neul infuses life into this show with an outstanding performance), who in another show with his dialect and exaggerated mannerisms would have become a comic relief, but here, becomes the star of the show.Yong Sik is the complete antithesis of what we have been subjugated to accept from K-drama male leads. Without any filter on his mouth, Yong Sik is no way near the super cool, genius, rich men we encounter so often. He becomes a cop only because his inherent sense of justice doesn?t let any crime or criminal escape, leading him to indirectly help the police apprehend multiple criminals. He isn?t smart with respect to knowing numbers and facts, but perceptive enough to understand Dongbaek and her feelings even when she doesn?t speak them out loud. He proclaims his love for Dongbaek quite early on, after which it only increases exponentially, even after he discovers that she is a single mother and runs a bar. Except for one event, involving lots of flowers and candles, there are no grand gestures of love. Instead, Yong Sik never misses an opportunity to say ?I love you? to Dongbaek and never leaves her side, realizing that she is a woman who needs no saving, but who does need a friend.
- The writer Im Sang Choon, cleverly uses the two male leads to show the difference in their outlook towards Dongbaek and her living situation. Kang Jong Ryeol fails to see beyond Dongbaek?s modest living. He only notices the things she doesn’t own, like a car, or a large house or the fact that she doesn?t earn enough to send Pil Gu for a school trip. He doesn?t note her achievements, that of running a successful business for the past six years and single-handedly providing for her son, without ever asking for his or anyone?s help. Even when Jong Ryeol confronts Dongbaek on hiding the fact that he has a son, he only talks about him feeling betrayed, him being left out of his son?s life. He calls Dongbaek selfish for breaking up with him, but he never once considers her fear of bringing a child into this world all alone. He even asks her to let Pil Gu move in with him, without any consideration of separating a mother from her child. Yong Sik, on the other hand, is appreciative of all of Dongbaek?s achievements and whenever he talks about the future, he always makes sure to include Dongbaek and Pil Gu in it.
- One particular aspect that I loved about this show was how everyone immediately talks out their problems with each other, without any misunderstanding leading to an unnecessary subplot. When Yong Sik?s mother (Ko Du Shim), whom Dongbaek is best friends with, finds out that Yong Sik is in love with her, Dongbaek immediately meets up with her to explain the whole scenario, so as to avoid any bitter feelings arising between them. Yong Sik?s mother also calmly listens to her side of the story and advises her to be careful in choosing her life partner but also informs her that she can?t ever allow Yong Sik to marry her, as she wouldn?t want her son to take care of someone else?s child. ?Think about it, if it Pil Gu was in a similar situation, wouldn?t you do the same?, she says. Another such conversation is one between Jong Ryeol and Dongbaek when she lets her guard down and admits to missing him after their break up, but ?what can one do?, she says ?but to dwell on that feeling for a few moments and then move on?. Many more conversations like these are shot without any dramatization, which lends an authentic feel to the plight of these characters. They are all in the end, victims of their circumstances.
- The balance maintained between reality and heightened reality is not restricted to the situations but extends to the characters as well. With a good twenty episodes (forty, if you consider each half-hour to be one episode), we spend a lot of time with a lot of characters, and no single character is boxed into one specific trait or function. Take Hyang Mi (a wonderful Son Dam Bi) for example ? when we meet her, she is a good friend to Dongbaek, albeit not a good employee, but they both share a special bond, as they both have no one else in the world. Then, we watch her use No Gyu Tae (a fantastic Oh Jung Se) to exhort money to fund her trip to Cophenhagen, to possibly meet a lover. When the whole reason does come to light, you can?t help be shocked at yourself for judging Hyang Mi based on her reputation in town. This holds true for many other characters as well, be it Dongbaek?s mother, Jessica, and even the not-so-mysterious serial killer. Even in a place where everyone knows everyone, they might not know everything about everybody.
- The most prominent flaw would undoubtedly be the whole murder/serial killer mystery subplot, that stuck out like a sore thumb. Though to give credit where it?s due, the two polarising genres are better infused that other predecessor shows with a similar template, but with a poor payoff, you can?t help but lament the time spent on developing that storyline.