My favorite drama at the moment is Assorted Gems (aka Jewel Bibimbap, 2009/10). I think about it constantly, replaying selected scenes (especially of the lead couple) whenever I have the opportunity. A few sighs and giggles later, all is well again in my kdrama world.
About a month ago, when I was mulling over my nominations for the 2009 Editors’ Picks at Dramabeans, I was torn between Gyeongsuk, Gyeongsuk’s Father and Assorted Gems for best ensemble. In the end I picked the former simply because I had watched all of it.
I’ve now caught up with the 38 episodes of Assorted Gems which have aired so far (16 remaining) and know without a doubt that it’s the best ensemble of the year for me. From the oldest characters to the youngest, I love them all. Allow me to introduce some of them to you.
(hugs to hjkomo for permission to use her wonderful screencaps)
THE GOONG CHILDREN
Go Na-eun as Goong Bi-chwi
Family, books, movies, travel, furry animals. These are the things that matter the most to 28-year-old Bi-chwi. The de facto head of her family, she is the one that her younger siblings turn to for advice and even pocket money. Strangers are drawn to her beauty, but the ones who live or work with her know that she is diligent and dependable, strong and sweet.
An aspiring drama writer, Bi-chwi may seem guarded and introspective, but she owns a fertile imagination and a wicked sense of humor, the latter evident in her writing. Choosing to live vicariously through the characters and stories that she creates, she does not plan to marry, but should a man want to woo her, he needs only to give her a Westie. That’s all it takes, she says.
For someone adamant on not falling in love, she does not push it away nor does she play coy when it finally happens. Offered a formal dating proposition, she answers calmly, “I’ll think about it,” but her heart sings within her because she knows that she has met the man with whom she can spend the rest of her life. Theirs is a relationship built on mutual admiration and trust, not on tumultuous feelings. Each is the other’s safe harbor.
Seo Yi-hyun as Goong Ryu-bi
A head-turner in every sense of the word, 26-year-old Ryu-bi wants to snare a doctor so that she can live comfortably the rest of her life. For that reason she has trained as a nurse, working cheerfully in a demanding environment where there’s no telling if a cranky patient will suddenly lunge at her hair.
Very few things ruffle Ryu-bi. If one dream gets smashed to smithereens, she simply picks herself up and moves on. Despite her stunning looks, she is practically a homebody and fiercely protective of her siblings. She and Bi-chwi are not simply sisters who sleep together on the floor of their living room, they are best friends sharing secrets in the darkness of that makeshift bedroom. As far as Ryu-bi is concerned, nothing but the best will do for this sister who is almost like a mother to her. No wonder she wails her head off when she thinks Bi-chwi has fallen in love with a man of little means.
Still, for someone who’s supposed to be astute and street-smart, Ryu-bi is clueless when it comes to her own feelings. Will it take a monk-in-training to open her eyes?
Lee Hyun-jin as Goong San-ho
Quiet and responsible like Bi-chwi, 25-year-old San-ho is the brainy would-be diplomat carrying the hopes of his entire family on his shoulders. But first he must pass this one examination that has driven countless others over the edge. Just study and don’t bother about anything else, his mother tells him. Dating is out of the question, of course.
But San-ho shocks everyone by becoming the first among his siblings to get married, months before the exam.
Will the marriage affect his studies? More importantly, will it make a man out of him? Not that San-ho is lacking in maturity or likability, but it is apparent that he has been sheltered, almost exceedingly, because of the looming make-or-break exam. Food is served to him, rooms rearranged for him. Nothing is allowed to disrupt his concentration. How easy for a lesser person to become self-centered and myopic when the world revolves around him! But San-ho has his head screwed on right (all of the siblings do) and does not take his family’s support for granted. He will work hard so that they can be proud of him. And he will be a better dad than his father, too.
Lee Il-min as Goong Ho-bak
The baby of the family for eighteen years, high-schooler Ho-bak not only looks like Ryu-bi, he shares his sister’s personality and ambitions. Just as effervescent as she is, he too dreams of a quick path out of poverty. How? By marrying into a wealthy family. In fact, so carefully has he mapped out his future he is sure he will tie the knot in two years!
Wise beyond his years (“an old soul,” as someone aptly puts it, even though this person hasn’t seen Ho-bak in the granny pants that he loves wearing at home), he is a star student and honest to a fault. Yet he isn’t above fighting with his competitor (a “she” and the one who threw the first punch, lest we think Ho-bak is a girl-beater) or stealing his sister’s kitten. Nor does it hurt his pride to accept gifts or horseriding lessons from his girlfriend. After all, she is far richer than him; he wouldn’t be pursuing her if she wasn’t.
Played effortlessly by first-timer Lee Il-min, Ho-bak is so charming a character (the guy is always smiling) it’s no surprise his girlfriend’s father has already stamped “RESERVED” on him.
Recipon William Leo as Goong Tae-ja
A surprise addition to the Goongs, Tae-ja should rightly be the cause of a tempest-sized storm in the family. Instead he becomes the littlest one that everyone dotes on.
Joining his siblings when he’s not yet a year old, you would think he has always lived with them. If he’s not asleep, he’s in the room crawling (and later, toddling) around or playing by himself as the adults banter or hold yet another family conference. Very rarely does he cry. He reaches out to be carried, he smiles, he spills water, he shares his snack, he even answers occasionally when spoken to.
So laidback for his age your jaw will drop, and mingling so naturally with the family you would think he has seen them since birth, he is simply the most adorable baby in a kdrama ever.
THE SIGNIFICANT OTHERS
Lee Tae-gon as Seo Young-guk
Born into a family of immense wealth, 30-year-old Young-guk has recently returned from studies abroad. But before he can settle into life as his father’s successor, he is asked to go away again, for a year this time, and with just enough money for daily expenses. The reason? Because his father believes that it is through hardship that a person learns to treasure what he has.
And so Young-guk sets out, for a journey into the unknown. He will become a tenant in the Goong house, he will fall in love with the eldest of the Goong children, he will experience the happiest and most wretched of days.
Taciturn unless he’s with people that he knows well, Young-guk and Bi-chwi are perfectly matched. With her he is gentle and attentive, instinctively reading her mind even when nothing is said. He tells her stories that make her laugh, he rushes to her side when she is hurt or afraid, he envelops her in an embrace so warm and protective she has to close her eyes, like one in a dream.
He has two names in the drama: Young-guk and Jae-duk (the latter his alias while staying with the Goongs). But I prefer to call him TLC: Thundie’s Latest Crush. Or Dreamboat, because that is what he is.
Michael Blunck as Kyle Huntington
Looking at Kyle, you would never have guessed that his father owns a large hotel in Las Vegas.
The guy, 32 years old, dresses like a monk. And, like Young-guk, he has just one small bag of clothes when he shows up at the Goong house. But whereas the first person that Young-guk sees at the house is an ajumma, Kyle sees a tall and beautiful girl dancing away, her wavy locks cascading down her back. Most men (single or otherwise) would be smitten by the sight of a gyrating Ryu-bi, but not this American guy.
Leaving his dad and Korean stepmom without a word, Kyle has come to Korea a second time, determined to pursue monasticism. He speaks Korean fluently, prefers Korean food, and even nags like a Korean ajumma. Before long, he and Ryu-bi are as thick as kids who grew up sharing snot and spankings. She calls him “Oppa,” he calls her “Dongsaeng,” and together they are like two sisters.
How long can their relationship stay platonic? How long can Kyle ignore his parents’ pleas for him to come home? Most importantly (for him, at least), will he ever become a monk?
Jung Yumi as Lee Kang-ji
The daughter of professors, 23-year-old Kang-ji is in love with San-ho, a former schoolmate. She knows he’s practically in self-imposed isolation because of an upcoming civil service examination, but that does not stop her from visiting him. I won’t be a hindrance to you, she tells him.
Kang-ji is soon a regular visitor to the Goong home, helping to cook for San-ho and taking care of Tae-ja when the family is busy. Her parents, who are advanced in years (they had Kang-ji late in their marriage), urge her and San-ho to marry. The two agree, she because she loves him, and he because he learns that her father has cancer and just a year left to live.
And so the Goong household expands yet again. Sweet and demure Kang-ji is a natural fit, the two newly-weds hardly ever fighting except during their brief honeymoon. She’s a drama addict and he learns, the hard way, that he must accommodate her interests. As the adage goes, the couple that watches kdramas together will live happily ever after!
Choi Ah-jin as Seo Kkeut-soon
The spoiled younger sister of Young-guk (the siblings are like night and day, personality-wise), 18-year-old Kkeut-soon hates her name. Why can’t she be called something prettier, like Na-hee? And why can’t her father color his hair so that her friends will stop thinking he is her granddad?
But even though she drives her parents crazy with her wayward behavior (drinking, smoking, fighting, and skipping classes), Kkeut-soon isn’t willful. When her father explains, tearfully, the reason for her name, she readily accepts his explanation and stops fussing. When Ho-bak (at that time practically a stranger still) proclaims his intention to marry her, she snorts but is soon won over by his confidence and his genuine affection for her. Under his tutelage, her grades improve and she stops doing the things that give her parents grief.
The two youngsters plan to marry. AS.SOON.AS.POSSIBLE. Ho-bak, even though poor, is such a good catch because not only is he smart, he is good-looking and well-mannered. He even has her father under his spell. If she didn’t claim him quickly, some girl might come along and snatch him away!
Han Jin-hee as Goong Sang-shik
A hotel doorman his entire working life, 55-year-old Sang-shik has one beautiful wife and four lovely children. But even with a perfect family a man can stray for all sorts of reasons; Sang-shik’s is so flimsy he can’t even tell you exactly why he’s had his share of flings. Suffice to say his wife isn’t exactly happy with him. His children, too, are tired of his various indiscretions.
But nothing prepares the family for the bombshell that their dad carries home with him one day. A baby. His baby. Their half-brother.
There’s no fury like the fury of a woman suddenly told to pass off her husband’s baby with another woman as her own. Nor the fury of four older children who must grin and pretend they are delighted to have a brother young enough to be their own offspring. But somehow the storm dies swiftly, the warring parents bury their hatchets, and little Tae-ja becomes everyone’s darling.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Sang-shik is forgiven. He will soon be thrown out, literally.
Han Hye-sook as Pi Hye-ja
Her marriage isn’t really unhappy. She and her husband fight like two puppies, but they also sleep together and tease each other frequently. Still, 55-year-old Hye-ja is insecure because didn’t Sang-shik have a few affairs previously? To stop his roving eyes, if they were still roving, she could try… enlarging her breasts!
And so the drama opens with Hye-ja wheeled into hospital because of a botched breast enhancement procedure. An illegal one, too. But that isn’t all. How about renting two rooms in the house to Kyle and Young-guk, when Bi-chwi had explicitly given instructions to her mother: NO MALE TENANTS? Or getting conned by a woman shaman? For each shenanigan that Hye-ja gets into, her children have to cough up money to bail her out.
Oh, why can’t their mother be like any other mother, taking care of the house and making sure everyone is clothed, fed, and jolly? What’s with her madcap behavior? The constant squabbling with their dad, he just as incorrigible? Enough is enough.
And so the parents come home one day, after a trip to Japan, to find… a mutiny has taken place.
Park Geun-hyung as Seo Ro-ma
President of one of the country’s largest ceramics companies, 62-year-old Seo Ro-ma has a wife whom he adores, and two children whose ages are twelve years apart. For months now his daughter has nagged at him to color his hair so that he will look more youthful, but Ro-ma absolutely will not budge. An elderly person looks silly with black hair, he tells her.
Because he came from a humble background, Ro-ma wants his son to experience what it means to be needy. So he sends him away with firm instructions not to contact the family. For one whole year the son must live on his own without help from anyone; he must earn his own living.
Although strict with his children, Ro-ma will do anything to indulge his wife; her well-being comes before anything else. Married for more than thirty years, the two are as loving as newly-minted sweethearts and it is in that sort of secure environment that Young-guk and Kkeut-soon have been raised. With life so blessed and blissful, the future has never looked brighter. Can anything possibly go wrong?
Hong Yoo-jin as Lee Tae-ri
At 55 years of age, mild-mannered Tae-ri has everything going for her. A loving husband, a filial (and extremely tall and dashing!) son just home from the States, a pretty daughter who is admittedly a handful, a mansion with a garden so large it can host dinner parties for hundreds of guests, and servants to wait on her.
With the days passing so swimmingly, trust her husband to shatter her tranquility by forcing their beloved son out of the house for ONE WHOLE YEAR! No matter how much she begs him to change his mind, he is adamant that the “exile” will be excellent character training. But there are bad people out there, she wails.
Alas, the father and son seem to be in cahoots because Young-guk raises no objections whatsoever. So calm is he one would think he was leaving for a vacation. Why, he even asks the dad for his castaway clothes! What is a mother to do?
Something will crop up, however, that will soon make Tae-ri forget her son’s absence…
Kim Young-ok as Kyul Myung-ja
A mouth like a sailor’s. A body that must be fed at exactly the same time every day. A palm that you want to steer clear of (just ask Sang-shik).
Myung-ja is 74 years old but looks 80. Her 18-year-old grandson comes by ever so often to beg for one of her floral trousers, which she happily gives to him. Trust Ho-bak to appreciate comfortable clothes. If she had any inheritance she would bequeath it to him, her kindred soul. But alas, all she has is this tiny one-room apartment… which her son is now trying to gate-crash!
Okay, so he and his wife got kicked out of their house. But can anyone blame the children for sending their parents packing? Their mom blew a pile of won getting bigger breasts which don’t look any bigger. Tae-ja is cute as a button, but he’s still the result of an illicit affair.
Why must this be her lot in life? To have a philandering husband (may his soul NOT rest in peace) and now a philandering son? Why can’t she, Kyul Myung-ja, spend the rest of her days tending to her soy sauce jars and making the best kimchi in all of Seoul? Why must she contend with a son with smelly feet sleeping in her living room? If she could relive her life, she would have married someone more worthy. Someone like a certain noraebang owner, perhaps?
Jung Hye-sun as Baek-jo
What is life if you can’t enjoy it to the fullest? Who says a 74-year-old woman must look 74? Why can’t she look like she’s her daughter’s older sister? Yes, why not?
Baek-jo still looks smashing in a swimming costume. At least that’s what she thinks the mirror tells her. Her apartment is the same size as Kyul Myung-ja’s but feels decidedly smaller. Is it because there are boxes everywhere, filled with things bought on a whim?
Whenever Myung-ja comes to visit, she claims the apartment is filthy. But that’s only because that woman is a cleanliness freak. Why should she, Baek-jo, waste her time tidying up when she has jars of cream to apply on her flawless skin? A woman, regardless of age, needs to look beautiful ALL THE TIME. God forbid that she would one day look like that wrinkled and frumpy Myung-ja.
What cruel fate made her and Myung-ja in-laws, anyway? They couldn’t be more different! And now, what? The children (that Sang-shik and Hye-ja!) want her and Myung-ja to move in together so that the 50-somethings can cozy up without an old mother tripping over them in the darkness? Ha, think again!