Review | Netflix K-drama review: Our Blues – Lee Byung-hun and Kim Hye-ja provide heart-rending ending for ensemble drama
- Reminiscent of Love Actually, Our Blues, set on South Korea’s Jeju Island, weaves a rich tapestry that draws disparate characters together to form a community
- Various relationships feature in its 20 episodes, but the one that touches us most is that between terminally ill Kang Ok-dong and her gruff son Lee Dong-seok
This article contains major spoilers.
Each hour-long episode of No Hee-kyung’s star-studded ensemble drama bears a title pointing out which relationship would be its main focus. One character might be the subject of a romance in an early episode, fall back into the ensemble for weeks, then return in another heart-rending story involving a different character.
The hit show is set on Jeju, South Korea’s largest island, with its idyllic but often tempestuous climes, and the location adds an element of fantasy to its earthy and relatable narratives, affording the show’s writers a degree of creative licence.
The characters enjoy a busy but colourful life on the volcanic island; they also harbour emotional scars, many of which they picked up on the mainland.
Elderly merchant Hyeon Chun-hee (Go Doo-shim) is plunged into despair when her son falls into a coma in hospital. Her daughter-in-law, who needs to stay by her husband’s bedside, drops off her granddaughter, who keeps talking about how people turn into stars after they die and about a place her father had told her about with a hundred moons that could grant you a hundred wishes.
In one of the show’s most treacly moments, the community gathers to convince dozens of ship captains to bring this fantasy to life for the young girl. Soon after this, her father experiences a miraculous recovery.
One of the most secretive characters on the show is Lee Yeong-ok (Han Ji-min), a young diver with a chip on her shoulder and a whole lot of baggage left behind on the mainland. Her story comes to light when her twin sister, Yeong-hee (Jung Eun-hye), who has Down’s syndrome, arrives on Jeju to visit her.
Yeong-ok has suffered from social stigma all her life because of Yeong-hee, so much so that she has sought out faraway places like Jeju to escape her. Yet aside from the baffled expression of Yeong-ok’s beau, Park Jeong-jun (Kim Woo-bin), when he first meets her (to be fair, he hadn’t known she existed), Yeong-hee is embraced and loved by all on the island.
Yeong-hee’s brief stay gives the show some of its most cathartic moments, but while its positive social message was embraced by viewers it is another example of fantasy, given how widespread social prejudice remains in South Korea where, years after being proposed, anti-discrimination legislation has still not been passed.
Speaking of squeezing an extra tear out here and there, the show saves the best for last with the emotional mending of the relationship between Lee Dong-seok (Lee Byung-hun) and Kang Ok-dong (Kim Hye-ja). All season we see the gruff merchant Dong-seok ignore his mother and be short with her anytime their paths cross, which is often in the market where they both work.
Early in the show, we discover that Ok-dong has a terminal illness, a fact she keeps from most people around her. When Dong-seok is finally informed, rather than turn a new leaf, he doesn’t care and still refuses to speak to her. The anger runs deep, and we finally discover where it came from.
Ok-dong wants Dong-seok to join her for the ancestral rites of her deceased second husband. Dong-seok is eventually convinced and the pair embark on an intense journey to the port city of Mokpo, which involves ferry rides, an extremely volatile family reunion, two instances of mountain climbing and a hospital visit.
Quite a trip for a terminally ill patient reaching the end of her journey, particularly since the hospital visit takes place in between the mountain treks. The doctors are adamant that she should be admitted to hospital, but Dong-seok brings her back to Jeju and they start walking up Hallasan, Korea’s highest mountain, in the middle of winter.
Questionable ethics aside, this is the cue for the show’s emotional peak, when Dong-seok films a video higher up the mountain for Ok-dong when she can’t make it all the way.
The next morning, Ok-dong dies after making breakfast for her son for the first time in decades. It’s a beautiful and heart-rending moment that can be read in two ways. A mother dying in peace after mending her relationship with her son, or a premature demise owing to her and her son’s stubborn refusal to listen to reason.
That aside, it was a suitably emotional dramatic endpoint for the series, and rightfully gave two of the show’s best cast members their moment to shine.
Given the sprawling nature of Our Blues there were bound to be some weaker stories, like that of Yeong-ok and Jeong-jun before Yeong-hee arrives, but writer Noh has crafted something very special with a story that has touched millions of people and is likely to be fondly remembered for years to come.
Our Blues is streaming on Netflix.