[I’m delighted to present to you a guest review of Giant by its biggest fan, supah. Some of you may know her from the Dramabeans Open Threads. I’m sure you will enjoy reading supah’s loving tribute to this epic drama as much as I did! -thundie]
Sorry it had to be me, folks. I’m just as gutted that we couldn’t have Ockoala coming back after her amazing, amazing mid-point review. But since no one else was up for it, I was not going to let Giant go without a wrap-up review. Guess this is far from being an epic review but what I will do, in this review, is try and pay justice to what was an absolute epic, ha!
Giant is one example of how a show of colossal magnitude can remain firmly grounded. There was a glowing warmth and tastefully instilled wit in the midst of the devastating human tragedies that shaped this tale of rags to riches, revenge and one man’s rise to power.
The story of Giant spans forty years from 1970 to 2010, and in its backdrop, the development of Gang-nam. An affluent district of Seoul, lying south of the Han River, a terrain now boasting immense and lustrous skyscrapers, which only up until the early 80s had been a stretch of barren land. The 60 episode series is a collection of interweaving stories of the giants that were behind this thick, fast and utterly awe-inspiring growth of Gang-nam-gu: the tycoons, the politicians, the money lenders – and the gangsters and the secret agents.
Although Giant covered genuine historical events of its time, it still deviated from reality to an extent, whether or not it was done to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, I don’t know.
The end product struck a fine balance between make-believe entertainment with a certain vintage-gangster-motion-picture brand of campiness (the good camp!) and a sprinkling of gritty realism. There was an authenticity about the way it was brought to life that made it all so palpable and heartfelt, in a way that I could almost smell the soft coal briquettes which would line the pavements of a ‘70s Myeong-dong, and the scent of the shoe polish which Yeo Jin-gu’s Gang-mo would smear across his face during his days as a shoe-shiner.
– SPOILERS: this review will be rife with them, so please don’t read any further if you have any interest in watching this someday, lest I kill your lemmings.–
Business, construction and politics aside, at the heart of the show, we had the Lee family, or rather, the Lee siblings.
Like all projects with Yoo In-shik at the helm, Giant too, encompassed a solid and distinctive theme of familial warmth; a particular brand of familial warmth in which the love between family members is rarely seen but definitely felt.
Prior to the winter of 1970, the Lee family was a dirt-poor but relatively content family of five (plus a baby on the way) living in Busan. The family comprised of Lee Dae-su (Papa Lee), Mama Lee, two teenage sons, and an eight-year old daughter. But tragedy struck, Papa Lee was shot down while on duty as a delivery man after having been duped into a smuggling scheme, the eldest son having witnessed the murder managed to escape the scene alive. In the interim Mama Lee had given birth to a son, but even in her weak-from-childbirth state, she fled, along with her four children, leaving behind their home in Busan with a hope to reach Seoul where they had property. However, the cruel turn of fate was relentless, soon claiming the life of Mama Lee and separating each sibling from the other.
The thing about the Lees was that they were Average Joes. There were no majestic airs about them; there was honesty in their poverty: their vulnerability and lethargy was apparent and there was no concept of ‘woe is me’ – an unaffordable luxury when survival was key. And so, in their respective places, in spite of their heavy hearts, trepidation and their yearning to be with one another again, the children put on a courageous face and persevered.
They say blood is thicker than water and that couldn’t be a truer declaration when used to explain the strong ties between the Lee siblings. There was such a strong pull between the characters. So raw and natural was their relationship together, so earthy and unpretentious, between both the children and the adults they would become later.
An introduction to the characters
Lee Gang-mo (played by Lee Beom-soo and in childhood by Yeo Jin-gu)
‘’I am not a thief! …I am Lee Gang-mo. That’s the name my father gave me, Lee Gang-mo.’’
Lee Beom-soo is our Lil’ Tony, or at least that’s the vibes I’ve always got from him, and he truly lived up to all expectations I’d had of him in Giant with a performance that was as entertaining as it was commanding. I add my voice to those admirers who say he can light up the screen with his presence.
Gang-mo was the second eldest child in the Lee family. On the day his father had been killed and a mob had been mobilised to retrieve the rest of his family, he along with his mother and siblings had tried escaping to Seoul, but in the end not all family members made it to their destination. Eventually, he wound up alone.
But fate had more in-store for him once he got to Seoul; he met with two other children who in spite of the early-on scuffles grew to be lifelong companions, who would each give him reasons to continue. The first: a friend who would remain loyal to him throughout his life; the second: the love of his life.
From destitute orphan we followed his progression to shoe shiner to successful tycoon. He was a character I couldn’t lose emotional attachment with; his little triumphs were my own triumphs. How I rooted for him, and the huge, seemingly impossible dreams he would so determinedly chase, among those his dream to build the highest tower in Seoul.
Not only had Yeo Jin-gu done such a solid job as the adolescent version, Lee Beom-soo truly captured the spirit of Gang-mo, the honesty and integrity he had inherited from his father, his endearingly boyish immaturity, his naiveté, his fearlessness and — his explosive temper.
His explosive temper made for some of the most iconic dark humour-filled moments in Giant, where the other party would severely regret tipping Gang-mo over the edge. Whether it was the in-mate in prison asking him to come and shampoo his hair (HA!), or the shoe-shiner street brawls (see the poor kid above, rubbing his head? He got shoe-slapped – so funny). They each got served the Gang-mo way.
Because he didn’t lie on his back and take abuse from anyone, he kicked everyone’s ass! Literally, verbally, figuratively, just count all the ways. Reckless when he had nothing left to lose, ruthless when he had something worth fighting for. His payback was swift and on-the-spot, thus, he slept easily at night and very rarely held a grudge.
When fate reunited him with his siblings, he eventually learned of the history behind his father’s death and the two men who had been behind it. He like his older brother also went for revenge. But revenge sounds so simplistic a word. To Gang-mo ‘the best form of revenge, was to live well’. To taste success while having his adversaries taste crushing defeat, to step on them and rise so far above them. To live lavishly, basking in his wealth, with a little Schadenfreude and mastering the finesse of throwing (implicit) two-finger salutes in the enemy’s direction every so often.
Hangang, you Beaute!
Gang-mo eventually lifted his company, Hangang, off the ground, crafting it into a successful conglomerate. Some say the boilers arc dragged in the interim, but I say he had to start somewhere. Not only was the conflict surrounding it well done, it also contained in it a deeper meaning, linking back to the fact his mother had died due to briquette gas poisoning at an inn en route to Seoul. He had met his objective, to eradicate the need for coal briquettes, by becoming the forerunner in the country’s boiler revolution. (Eat that, Manbo!)
Jo Pil-yeon (Jung Bo-seok)
“I’ve been wondering, how to thank a certain someone, for betraying my trust. Just hope I won’t need to pay you a visit soon… At the KCIA, it’s usually swords before words.’’
There were two protagonists in this show, those who laboriously beat their path to wealth and power; one was Gang-mo and the other, Jo Pil-yeon.
Jung Bo-seok’s tour de force performance was a huge contributing factor to the show’s success, where he played one of the most fascinating and iconic baddies ever played. A baddie who at the outset could be described as a charming, tactful man with a strong public image, who would appear composed, but (in the words of the PD) ‘was a little cracked beneath the surface’. Touché!
It’s quite simplistic describing Jo Pil-yeon as a villain, in a show where no-one was quite black and white. He was one corrupt power player among many corrupt power players, so what set him apart? Maybe it was raw determination, to do whatever it would take, including sacrificing every last shred of his humanity and in turn his sanity to meet his objective, which was to continue climbing the hierarchy of power, until he would become untouchable.
We were first introduced to him as an Army Chief of Security who had seized the opportunity to lay claim to bars of gold which Lee Dae-soo had unwittingly transported over on his delivery truck. He had killed the latter so he could use the wealth attained to forge connections with powerful figures in the central government. And so began his journey, Lee Dae-soo was not going to be his last ever victim.
The quote I used above was certainly not the best of them, he came out with an absolute plethora of gems – but that particular one was my favourite, it summed up his character so well. It’s a threat, a very obvious threat, but a kind threat. If you ever wanted to know what a ‘kind threat’ is, now you know. Another such example is after extensively torturing a reporter to disclose key information and getting satisfactory results he then dropped him off in his neighbourhood but not letting him go without affectionately straightening his collar and patting his cheek saying ‘’I’m glad my boys never messed with your face’’ before getting back in his car and being driven off as the reporter collapsed in the street, vomiting blood. Crazy, scary guy that Jo Pil-yeon was.
As he continued to grow in power, leaving the army for the KCIA, and then entering the political arena, the enemy-count was burgeoning, but he remained unfazed. There was no force that would stop him. At first I’d had the impression he was a villain with a set of principals and values, in spite of his bad character, to an extent it’s true, there were certain things he valued in himself and others, that was loyalty but eventually everything went to pot, as his fight for victory became more desperate, more frantic, more… unstructured.
Sure, he was evil, chilling, and he laughed like no sane man can, all those things, but there were also some surprisingly compassionate glimmers from him. There were also moments of vulnerability, because lest we forget, he was also human, and a father and a husband.
There’s also the saying; the higher you climb, the harder you fall.
Often flanked by his loyal lackey: Go Jae-chun (Yoon Yong-hyun) who lived to serve his master. He would carry out all errands asked of him, no matter how dirty, no matter how dangerous.
It was also comical how he would mimic Jo Pil-yeon’s facial expressions, and would laugh when he would laugh, grimace when he would grimace. Occasionally hen he was the bearer of bad news he would be at the receiving end of a thrashing, yet his loyalty and admiration remained unflinching through the years.
Hwang Jung-yeon (Park Jin-hee and Nam Ji-hyun)
Amidst a swarm of men there were also a few women, not a lot, but a few, about a handful of ‘em. Among that handful was our leading lady Hwang Jung-yeon, daughter of Hwang Tae-sub and Yoo Kyeong-ok.
When Nam Ji-hyun’s Jung-yeon first burst onto the scene at the end of the first episode I was already enamoured by her. In retrospect she’s the closest thing to Go Hyun-jung’s portrayal of Hye-rin since Sandglass itself, her character was often running away from home, too. Nam Ji-hyun so gamely played a version of Jung-yeon that was wonderfully spirited and feisty. What made her a truly unique character was that she was a little over-sensitive and that would lure out her catty, snarky side.
Now the adult Jung-yeon was another matter. I couldn’t help but feel something was amiss. You know what it was? A certain gravity, a certain screen presence. Park Jin-hee is not a bad actress, and she had all that it took to play the free-spirited, rebellious daughter of a construction company founder, even being able to impressively mimic Nam Ji-hyun’s clipped speech, that is everything but presence, and it drove me absolutely nuts, at the start, because it meant I couldn’t take her seriously at all and I really wanted to.
Still she very noticeably tried and sometime into the middle of the series she began to grow on me, and grow as an actress, filling the necessary requirements of her role as she went on, including a presence which grew in gradual layers. Jung-yeon also grew as a character, becoming much less awkward and bratty, wearing a lot less pastel pink, becoming a lot more mature and serene, but still amusingly catty when the occasion called for it. More importantly, her birth mother Kyeong-ok made her graft that much harder, making her progression into a whip-smart and hardened businesswoman that much more believable.
Jo Min-woo (Joo Sang-wook and No Young-hak)
PD Yoo In-shik commented in his recent interview that he had envisioned the ‘son of the devil’ to be chiselled, handsome and the kind of face you see in comic books and Joo Sang-wook pretty much fit the bill. Funny.
Funny, if you understand how many times the ‘handsome, chiselled’ Min-woo was punched silly by his arch-enemy-since-childhood Lee Gang-mo. (Chiselled, alright, wahahaha!)
I didn’t know what to expect from Joo Sang-wook, except I knew he’d nail the smirk that No Young-hak did so well before him. Heck, look at the way those lips curve, they are scary-same.
Joo Sang-wook went beyond any expectations I’d had, both as a love-to-hate villain, and his more humane moments which were quite touching. But where he truly shined was when under his smarmy asswipe Min-woo persona; he was delightfully schmuck.
Jo Min-woo was quite a complex character though, if you take in the fact he was the long-tormented son of Jo Pil-yeon. He wasn’t necessarily evil on his own accord, he would go in whichever direction his father would steer him, understandably, he feared his father. In fact, when his tyrant father would wipe the floor with him on occasion, events would take on a pretty tragic tone. I would feel twisted for secretly relishing in such scenes (like the super slappage of episode 12), but only until he would bounce back to his usual smarmy self again, which wasn’t too long after. There were not a lot of common traits between him and his father – but those he did share were his obsessive compulsory disorder – which was following things through meticulously and not stopping until he had his answer, and the identical delusions of grandeur, of course.
Min-woo and Manbo Construction
He had been working as a director of Manbo Construction under the founder Hwang Tae-sub, but in 1981, under his father’s instruction, took over the company in an underhanded move, subsequently ousting Manbo’s rightful heir Hwang Jung-yeon from her position. He took the company to higher heights proving stiff competition with Lee Gang-mo’s enterprise Hangang. He went on to build the deluxe multi-storey Manbo Plaza, in 1992. However, the plaza collapsed soon after its grand opening. And with it came the collapse of Min-woo’s empire and his father’s. You know that thing they say about not building on solid foundations, right? The CGI was pretty cool though.
Lee Mi-joo (Hwang Jeong-eum and Park Ha-young)
In Giant, everyone was a jerk, everyone but Mi-joo. The younger sister to the two Lee brothers.
I adored little Mi-joo, her perpetual chirpiness, the mood-lifting, jazzy trot songs that she would belt out with much gusto, no matter what tragedies befell her. And such tragedies, too. She was too young to have learned of her father’s cold-blooded murder, too young to have witnessed her mother’s lifeless form being carried out of the old inn on a stretcher and too young to have been separated from her brother Gang-mo as she had mistakenly climbed aboard the wrong bus. Eventually, she ended up at an orphanage for several years before she escaped and left for Seoul with a hope to reunite with her brothers. She kept her spirits high; eschewing harbouring any bitterness about her past, no matter how much her past wounded her.
I felt Hwang Jeong-eum was practically incandescent in her role as the grown-up Mi-joo and sustained the character’s lovable optimism – sure, her acting requires just a wee bit of sprucing up here and there. But still I adored her. She’s the girl who would wait for her brothers on the steps of the Sam-il building singing Silk Shoes as she would smile and admire the shoes that no longer fit her that Gang-mo had once so considerately brought her. She was equally as dear as the housemaid at the Hong household, and as the bus attendant who would dream of one day becoming a renowned singer.
By the mid-80s she had become a countrywide sensation, under the stage name Cha Soo-jeong. Her popularity, in typical thrifty Mi-joo-fashion, had come about after aggressively promoting her cassettes, by means of live singing and dancing on a crowded street.
Hwang Tae-sub (Lee Deok-hwa)
Jung-yeon’s father Hwang Tae-sub, the founder of Manbo Construction. He was yet another ambitious man. Like many other men, he too fought tooth and nail to attain wealth and for a standing in the money-driven society around him.
He had been Lee Dae-soo’s chingu, and was equally devastated by his death at the hands of Jo Pil-yeon on that fateful day. Then to have his own life spared he had no other choice but to play accomplice, before eventually breaking free, though the struggle to break free from Jo Pil-yeon almost cost him his life.
Hwang Tae-sub was the only ladies man in Giant, caught between two women. One of those women being Jung-yeon’s mother Yoo Kyeong-ok, though their relationship remained platonic and professional, he and Kyeong-ok went back a long way, they had been very much in love with one another in their youth. And the second, his unhappy wife Oh Nam-sook; Jeong-shik’s mother. Thankfully makjang tropes were kept to a minimum where the three were concerned. Though I wouldn’t have minded more hair-pulling fights between them. Moar!
He became a member of congress in the 90s and went on to beat up ANSP Chief Oh in the National Assembly, which was hysterical. Chief Oh so deserved it.
Yoo Kyeong-ok (Kim Seo-hyeong)
In Giant real men, were real men, and women were also real women who were very effeminate, who would dress and act like women and wear bold makeup – they did not need to emulate men to appear strong and capable of pulling their weight. Neither did they need to dress like women of negotiable virtue. Yoo Kyeong-ok is the strongest example of that. She who held clout and the purse strings of many a man as a private investor.
Kyeong-ok had quite an interesting history. From a gisaeng to scrounger (remember her? ‘fro and neon green eyeshadow?) to owner of the Royal Club, where she would often partake in a little lounge singing, and she was truly enchanting. Even more so when she would be crooning the classics, like Bae In-sook’s ‘Like everybody does’. More than anything she gave me Joo Hyun-mi vibes, all she needed was the bolder 80s eye-makeup, otherwise, she had the hair, clothes and the aura down pat (though I obviously wouldn’t know anything about 80s trot singers, honestly).
But really, I was mystified as to what had contributed to such a major change in the scrounger woman we had last seen in episode 2, something which would explain why she had so easily forgiven Hwang Tae-sub, in spite of their past dilemmas. The answer to this riddle was one particular life-altering encounter with the character Baek Pa.
Hwang Jeong-shik (Kim Jeong-hyun)
Hwang Tae-sub’s prodigal son. Not sure of the name of the kid who played his teenage version, but that Jeong-shik was honestly vile, he would make me shudder. But I sympathised with the adult Jeong-shik, I really did. Though he was still a wily fox the majority of the time and it was fun seeing him get thrown out of clubs while he would cry out ‘’but don’t you know who I am? I’m the heir of Manbo Construction!?’’
Then there was, the Fashion: the sky blue ruffled boas, the fluorescents, the bow-ties, the sequins, the sparkly ruby-red house-slippers and the animal print (sexy zebra print being my personal fave on him – what?).
But it was painful seeing how he would scramble around, finding ways in which to win his father’s approval, and was usually met with either a condescending gaze or complete disregard. Though he got away with murder (literally) and was a loser who had gambled away whatever fortune he had left. He still managed to make me cry just as much as he made me laugh.
Kim Jeong-hyun is a talented actor with a great deal of range who proved yet another asset to the cast of Giant, I’ll hand him that. The two other projects I’ve seen him are both from the 90s; as the young Tae-soo in The Sandglass and the second role was in one of Song Ji-nah’s short dramas; La Vie En Rose, where he played a fresh-faced rookie cop. But his Jeong-shik is admittedly the most interesting of the lot.
His mother, Oh Nam-sook (Moon Hee-kyeong)
Hwang Tae-sub’s neglected wife. I adored Nam-sook, I really did. Sure she was a little irritating at first while we were not familiar with her character and deduced she would be the run-of-the-mill evil stepmother to Jung-yeon. The more well-acquainted I became with her character, the more I could empathise. Jung-yeon was no meek little pushover either, she had shaped up her own relationship with her stepmother by being downright rude and stubborn and never really accepting her as a mother – it’s a two way street, yo. But the bottom line is, a mother who will put her child before her husband wins me over every damn time, especially when he’s a complete flimsy excuse for a husband. ‘s all about the priorities. It was also a welcoming contrast to Min-woo’s mother who was a straight up Jo Pil-yeon enabler, who would have her son live in misery to keep her husband happy.
Cha Bo-cheol/Han Soo-jin (Kim Seong-oh)
Kim Seong-oh is a marvellous actor, yet still an unknown, which is dire for someone who’s been in the business for over 20 years. Or at least I’m 99% certain he’s the snappy little kid who was in The General’s Son, who endeared himself to Park Sang-min’s Kim Doo-han in a hyung-dongsaeng kind of way. There’s just no denying those ‘crazy eyes’ and well everything else, it all fits if it is him. Even his chemistry with Park Sang-min’s Seong-mo in those very brief scenes gave me goose-bumps. There was also a Doo-han-style street fight sequence in the 41st episode, of which two of the four participants were him and Seong-mo. But fanservicing aside; more importantly, the crazy part: I honestly thought he was Lee Jun-mo… was I alone in this?
There were some clues scattered around, but then Episode 44 had a scene in it which was a direct repeat of a scene from episode 14, which was when Seong-mo had shot Gang-mo in the back (not knowing he was his brother) as he tried running away holding the account book. In episode 44, he had shot Cha Bo-cheol in exactly the same way. Though technically if he had been he would have only been 16 (17 in Korean age). Maybe I’m crazy to have thought it would be him, simply because of the destructive gangster lifestyle he led, and it’s a little outrageous to be implying that 16/17 year olds can be like that – but hey, if that was outrageous then outrageous is awesome! Not to mention, him being deliciously evil, almost like a second helping of Jo Pil-yeon (with emphasis on ‘almost’).
I suppose the final scene wouldn’t have had the same tone if it had been him, can you imagine Jung-yeon’s phone conversation? ‘’Honey, guess who’s back…?’’ Alas! Surprisingly enough, I don’t mind the way it ended, too. It fit the story so well.
Other characters and cameos worth mentioning:
Daeryuk Construction President – Hong Gi-pyo (Son Byeong-ho)
Min-hong-ki’s key financer and an adversary to Hwang Tae-sub. An often devious man when it came down to business, and he wasn’t above offering open-handed bribes, in fact it seems he was the one who started the trend of filling his associates’ car boots with wads of cash in fancy booze boxes, which he would refer to as, if I’m not wrong; some name of some Japanese brand of liquor.
When it came to his personal life however, he had a heart of gold, and a fatherly warmth towards a 17-year old Mi-joo who he had been hired as housemaid who would tend to the crabby (but lovable) Mrs Hong.
Thanks to his close ties with Min Hong-ki and his creating difficulties for Hwang Tae-sub, he found himself right under the radar of then KCIA Chief Jo Pil-yeon and that’s where the real storm began brewing, the very storm that ultimately brought our three Lee siblings back together.
Congressman Oh Byeong-tak (Kim Hak-cheol)
The resident big man around, having progressed from the central government’s Chief of Finance to Congressman, who everyone would look to consult before embarking on just about any new venture, and a key contact for Jo Pil-yeon. He was the latter’s door to the Blue House. Gruff, temperamental but reliable.
I always enjoy Kim Hak-cheol in comedy, but he was remarkable here, in his weightier role as Congressman Oh.
Journalist Yoon (Im Jong-yoon)
Always an advocate for human rights and standing up against the oppressors. He started out as Gang-mo’s schoolteacher who would stand up for him but got fired as a result. Later he became a journalist who became embroiled in a case involving Hong Gi-pyo and Jo Pil-yeon and faced the consequences; eventually he too ended up at Sancheong prisoner camp with Gang-mo. Later to become the journalist who helped instigate the media campaign against Jo Pil-yeon at a time when the latter was coveting the prime ministerial seat and needed to be in the media’s good graces. (Zzing!)
Jailhouse Gangster (Lee Han-wie)
His cameo appearance in episode 17 involved an iconic scene in which Gang-mo pulled his beard hair and then blew the fluff back in his face. It didn’t stop there; he came back for his ‘stache, too.
Side note: this scene was also recently parodied by Kim Hak-cheol (Giant’s Oh Byeong-tak above) in the cable comedy series Once upon a time in Saengchori – sofa king hilarious. (Now that’s how you parody Giant, Hong Sisters, take note.)
Gangster (Seo Beom-shik)
Oh, Seo Beom-shik, must you make a lifelong career out of the same dimwit gangster role? Isn’t repetition tiresome? Can’t say I didn’t enjoy his cameo anyway, since he set himself up for some epic-scale ass-kicking from Gang-mo, down in some wasteland.
I have seen this veteran actress before, including one short drama where she played Jung Ae-ri’s mother.
In Giant, she would be carrying with her a basket filled with glutinous ricecakes, setting up shop on the steps at the entrance of the Sam-il building. Where she would often meet Mi-joo, who would make it there without fail; on the last day of every month, waiting for her brothers, in case they would show up.
Ricecake lady: are you waiting here for your boyfriend?
Mi-joo: (in between mouthfuls of ricecake) yeah, boyfriends!
Ricecake lady: aigoo… that many?
Saving my favourite for last (I am so obvious):
Lee Seong-mo (Park Sang-min and Kim Soo-hyun)
‘’My heart burned and my blood ran dry, I lived in misery. But now… I’ve found you again, Gang-mo.’’
If Jo Pil-yeon and Lee Gang-mo were the pulsating heart of Giant, Lee Seong-mo was its very soul, its essence, bringing both depth and dimension.
Writing about Seong-mo was one the hardest things I’ve had to do. I’m still so affected by the character. He, Seong-mo pierced my black heart and I won’t be the same ever again.
I needed (Dutch) courage to write this part of the review, I’m not lying. Courage (hic).
Seong-mo was the eldest of the Lee family siblings who had witnessed his father’s death at the hands of Jo Pil-yeon, and having seen Hwang Tae-sub on the scene, he too was deemed a party to the crime. He escaped unseen but vowed revenge against both of them. Alas, revenge is not so simple as to be able to end it all in one swift shot.
‘’The darkest place is right beneath the candlestick.’’ — The Seong-mo Story
After luring the smugglers ring away from his family, giving them a chance to escape the train carriage which had been taking him and his family from Busan to Seoul, he had had been left with no choice but to plunge from the speeding train to escape them. He was discovered by American army personnel by the railroad tracks, unconscious and barely breathing, and taken to Sancheong military base where he was given medical treatment. It was there where he came face to face with his father’s killer. When the end of the month came, he left for Seoul, hopeful to reunite with his family at the entrance of the Sam-il building as he had promised, but arriving a little too late, there was no sign of them.
And so, he returned to the military base, this time he came for Jo Pil-yeon. Except he feared that man, and his whole being would quake in his presence. He had tried to creep up on him with a pen-knife, but there was no sense in that method, not when it would incriminate the real victim. And so he seized the opportunity to spy on Jo Pil-yeon for the US officials, seeing how the tension was mounting between the two parties.
The Americans had something Jo Pil-yeon wanted: the Vietnam document. In a surprising twist Seong-mo endangered his life to steal the document from where the Americans had hidden it and presented it to Jo Pil-yeon. There was a bigger incentive to join the latter. For bringing the document, he would gain favour from the Korean government, and would be accepted into the KCIA — in spite of his young age, where he would work under Jo Pil-yeon’s command. At the KCIA he could grow to become a man of power and authority. Jo Pil-yeon was smarter than that, he was not going to accept him so easily, he put him through trials to test his honesty, loyalty and there was a time he almost blew Seong-mo’s fingers off when he sensed he may have been spying on him for the Americans.
Once his suspicions had been cleared, he came to dote on Seong-mo and took him under his wings as a son, having him come and live with him in his family home since Seong-mo had no family of his own. Who knew Jo Pil-yeon could harbour such fatherly warmth? An affection and kindness not even his own son Min-woo had seen.
Once a US official in Sancheong, on the subject of where they had hidden the document, had quoted a Korean proverb; ‘’the darkest place is right beneath the candlestick’’, And the darkest place is where Seong-mo would remain hidden for many years, both silent and patient, never losing sight of his target but trying not to arouse suspicion from the man he feared so much, the man who could read people like an open book; because he needed to survive at all costs. To survive until the day he would have both of them pay for what they did to his family.
That has got to be among the greatest and unprecedented stories ever told in kdrama, a story which redefines the revenge genre. I can’t think of any that are parallel to it. Solidly written from start to finish, solidly scripted (especially the unforgettable lie detector scene – which was nothing short of poetic), solidly executed and the acting from all three involved – stupendous! From Kim Soo-hyun who set the ball in motion, to Park Sang-min who took over from episode 9 and continued to raise the character to higher heights while his acting remained understated yet grew more powerful, to Jung Bo-seok’s truly fascinating and unpredictable Jo Pil-yeon.
How the chemistry would crackle between this pretend father and son duo. The father whose plans he would continue to disrupt, all the while being in cahoots with his enemies. When their relationship was first formed, I had found euphoric bliss. I had found the greatest pairing in kdrama history, Seong-mo and Jo Pil-yeon were simply meant to be paired together. So wrong yet so right.
Yet Seong-mo never forgave and never forgot. He played his charade well, but in his sad eyes you could see the sheer gravity of what he’d lost, sometimes it was so clear that the word ‘’abheoji’’ was still resonating deep within his heart, he had been a filial son, a boy devoted to his father, and he would never forget what had happened to his real father.
When he did reunite with his siblings, it became more and more apparent that Seong-mo had become locked in a time frame in which to him, his siblings were still young and vulnerable and in need of his protection, that and being weighed down by the guilt that he hadn’t found them earlier. Yet both Gang-mo and Mi-joo had managed well enough, growing up headstrong and chasing their dreams, no matter how great the adversity and they continued to evolve with the times. Unlike himself, he was relatively dated, making him a kind of butt of jokes with his siblings. — Which was actually part of the charm of how Park Sang-min had played Seong-mo, so endearingly retro, so 1950s.
On a separate note, the gun in his character sketch above never appeared, but I adore the symbolisms in these illustrations; that particular kind of gun is usually used to bring down someone who’s important and very high up.
Gibang Tea Parties & Rumbles in the Royal Club
One of the most fun and exciting elements of Giant was two of its rivalries, which involved a lot of punch ups, clashing egos and male testosterone. These skirmishes usually occurred in the Royal Club and the local Gibang.
(I miss these places.)
Min Hong-gi (Lee Ki-young) v Jo Pil-yeon:
Their conflict supposedly dates back to their army days together, Min had apparently betrayed the trust of Jo. (Oh no!) Later Jo Pil-yeon followed wherever Min Hong-gi was to go and would compete with him, each step of the way. Be it the army, KCIA, becoming members of congress and even the presidential race. The scene at the Royal Club where the two of them were pointing guns at each others temples — the scene itself and sequence in the run up to it was truly spectacular. It nevertheless involved a little string-pulling from Lee Seong-mo.
But what was even better was their intense little tea drinking sessions. Like in one scene where Min Hong-gi barged right into Jo Pil-yeon’s office, at a time when tensions were particularly high, but silently sat down to accept some special tea which had been flown over from Mount Jiri; and in Min Hong-gi’s words: ‘’aah, such wonderful aroma, such delicate flavour. too.’’ He then stood up to leave with some parting words about how arrogant the other was. Comical, but the undercurrents in that scene were enough to give me nosebleed.
Another amusing scene was during a special meeting headed by Min Hong-gi where they had been discussing Jo Pil-yeon, and speaking of the devil; he waltzed right in and brazenly sat himself down amongst them.
Gang-mo v Min-woo:
Here were two people who clashed in all ways possible, even if they were by chance, to ever be on the same side, they would disagree to agree. They were never meant to get along, simple as that.
Just when Gang-mo’s life was looking up and he had his first day of school ahead of him, he’d been boarding the school bus with Jung-yeon and that’s where he’d had his first encounter with Min-woo. Min-woo had been taunting Jung-yeon and Gang-mo not having any of it, stepped forward. Gauntlet accepted. And so began their lifelong rivalry.
They fought over absolutely everything. It began with Jung-yeon, then it was over who would become top of the school (as in highest achievers) and who in turn would be on toilet cleaning duty (rules Min-woo had in place to exert his superiority over other children – you know whose son he is), then after becoming adults they were at odds over Jung-yeon again, then over happenings at Manbo Construction, then their own respective businesses – then Gang-mo’s sister Mi-joo and it so forth it spiralled. Among the lowest points they reached was Min-woo ordering Gang-mo’s death.
The Lee-Jo-Hwang triangle — of Love
So Seong-mo, the eldest had ties with the Jo family, Gang-mo with the Hwangs, the Jos with the Hwangs… The fates of the three families were intertwined in so intricate a way, that it’s quite perplexing. However they were not bound simply by bad blood and enmities, love also blossomed between them.
Jung-yeon and Gang-mo:
These two star-crossed lovers met in the very first episode and although they had been written to be a little mature for their ages, they were undeniably cute together. Jung-yeon made a compatible companion to the young Gang-mo; they had many similar qualities between them, especially the pride, oh heck, their pride – which made for some wonderful banter. And like Gang-mo she was also easily offended, and would unleash her fiery temper. I like how they were two similar-minded people, and they grew wiser together, learning to control their temper and channel it differently.
This relationship is the one that evolved the most since it began, but their companionship remained the same through the end. There was the initial snark, then friendship and companionship, as a result, she stopped running away from home when her father brought Gang-mo home to stay with her family, in a classic Wuthering Heights twist. Gang-mo, although he was still very young, had fallen for her. The scene above when he saw little Jung-yeon and little smarmy asswipe Min-woo stood outside the theatre – it was truly heartbreaking seeing the tears filling his eyes.
During the earlier adult years when he was bodyguard to Jung-yeon and general dogsbody at the Hwang household, knowing Jung-yeon was above his league, he would often shoot lovelorn looks in her direction, to the sound of Kim Bum-soo’s ‘Loving You’’. (Or in Engrish: ‘’Robing Yooooou’’.) Alas! There were tiers to the comedy in Giant, and the same goes for our leading man. There was the deliciously dark humour but also some downright cheesy times.
Jung-yeon only realised her love for him well into her adult years, the first time he had separated from her after many years, when he had been forced to go on the run, that she realised how badly his absence was felt. Jung-yeon being Jung-yeon, ran away from home to find Gang-mo and confess her undying love for him. All this while she was engaged to marry Min-woo. Min-woo! Son of Jo Pil-yeon. The ‘’I will destroy everything in my path’’ Min-woo. Aah, young love!
He learned from Seong-mo, who he’d been newly reunited with about Hwang Tae-sub’s complicity in their father’s murder. Gang-mo was caught by the authrorities soon after and was incarcerated in prison. It was heartbreaking to think after his spell in prison and Sancheong he’d wanted so badly to be at loggerheads with Hwang Tae-sub. Only when the ripe opportunity presented itself, Hwang Tae-sub was incapacitated and Gang-mo was made to face Jung-yeon in his place, a Jung-yeon still so deeply in love with Gang-mo, not aware of how much he’d changed. Twice the heartache for Gang-mo. Plus, he was right, she wasn’t strong enough then, she was still too naïve and had a lot she had yet to learn about the cut-throat world of business. But that truth brought on the return of a vindictive, catty Jung-yeon.
He levelled the playing field by bringing her father back up to health but soon enough he was ready to reconcile. The ordeal made them both mature considerably, eventually they came back together, but as friends, as companions. Still in love, but discreetly so.
I know the flip pad was emphasised as the main ‘couple gift’, but what about this textbook? What happened to this book? It’s the sweetest and most meaningful gift I can ever think of in TV and drama, ever! But then his gift to Jung-yeon was quite awesome too, her dream house, complete with a piano room. (‘’loving yooooou…’’)
Mi-joo and Min-woo:
I had no idea what the dynamics of this couple were going to be. Only that it was going to be bad. I still remember seeing the illustration of this couple in those haunting opening credits for Giant where Mi-joo was literally lying barefoot at Min-woo’s feet, as he was sat upright in a chair. I shuddered back then, hoping it wouldn’t be representative of the run of their relationship.
And then the characters met and continued to pass each other as strangers, Min-woo was ever the pompous Min-woo, Mi-joo was ever the vivacious Mi-joo, the two couldn’t be any more different. There were some minor clashes between them but then they would forget each other’s faces and life would go on as usual.
Until the day she sat with depressed-looking Min-woo by the river bank and tried to cheer him up. Gripping his hand in both her hands, saying if she holds his hand for half a minute she can guarantee he’ll laugh. And Min-woo laughed, just a wee little laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. Until he quickly shook his hands free saying he can’t believe he’d just touched her dirty hands. (Hah! Oh well, baby steps, Mi-joo.) But that there was a nice and revealing little moment, I for one, prior to that point, had forgotten he’s also human. But how charming and natural that little moment was, and how amazing their chemistry was. Inevitably, in an opposites attract twist, they fell in love, in spite of the difference in their social standings. And he would kiss the very hands he had once called dirty.
He somewhat remained the smarmy asswipe Min-woo to everyone else, but to Mi-joo, he was kind, loving and affectionate, in a way that we would never have imagined. Not even a trace of the wife-beater vibes he would give off when he was engaged to Jung-yeon. Although he’d been obsessed with Jung-yeon, he’d gotten over her fairly quickly. Mi-joo’s brothers and his parents eventually learned of their courtship and put an end to it. Mi-joo eventually discovering the truth about Min-woo’s father, ran away leaving behind both Min-woo and her brothers.
Min-woo being as obsessive and meticulous as he was still wouldn’t give up on her, no matter how lengthy and arduous his struggle, and he eventually found her once her singing career got going in earnest, but she continued to turn him away. Soon enough he learned from his sources that she had been hiding a son. Who bore a striking resemblance to him.
Also: one time just before their courtship, when he’d joined her on the bus where she was working as the bus attendant, I loveloveloved the smack-gum-really-loudly-on-the-bus suggestion she made to Min-woo, which was a nice little call-back aboard her first journey into Seoul with Gang-mo (and Jun-mo), where she had been pushed up next to the portly bus attendant who was smacking gum really loudly on the crammed bus.
The Park So-tae (Lee Moon-shik) and Gang-mo Bromance
Bromance is a word quite often bandied around these days, but this here is what bromance means among two real men. Real men, ya heard.
Real men come close to breaking each others bones with big wooden sticks, real men pummel each other with pool balls, real men are hired to kill each other, real men forgive one another, real men embrace like brothers, real men hold hands, one real man will help bathe the other real man when his body is covered with grotesque looking warts, real men once shined shoes together, one real man once offered chocolate to the other even when they were dirt-poor and chocolate was an extremely rare luxury, real men are willing to remain loyal to each other, no matter what it took.
One of my favourite moments above is where a young shoe shiner Park So-tae (Seo Ji-won) offers a half-eaten bar of chocolate to Gang-mo to cheer him up. That was so touching.
I actually blamed Gang-mo for creating animosity between the two when he had left to hang with the rich kids and had not given So-tae, his shoe-shiner brother, a backward glance. Was it because Gang-mo never looked back? As adults, they were hired to fight each other with their gangs, representing their organisations; Manbo and Daeryuk, and they would fight very brutally. There wasn’t even a speck of their old brotherhood left by the time So-tae had been hired to kill Gang-mo.
Until their spell at Sancheong prison camp taught them a few valuable things, and they consolidated their brotherhood. In the scene below, they were holding hands. (Finally, you two.)
‘ERSHE’ — the chocolate bar of doom
Since we’re on the subject of chocolate I thought I’d do an honourable mention of the bar of chocolate that started it all, for both brothers.
When Gang-mo had been raiding his dad’s truck for chocolate and overheard the smuggler ring. Off-setting a long chain of events which would destroy his family. And when the young Seong-mo had been en route to meeting his siblings at Seoul’s Sam-il building as promised but ran into Go Jae-chun on his way out, dropping the chocolate bars he’d been saving for them, Jae-chun had then trodden over the chocolate and rushed off, an enraged Seong-mo followed, becoming embroiled in something which would delay returning to find his siblings, bringing him closer to Jo Pil-yeon.
Moral of the story: it’s true kids, chocolate is bad for you.
Sandglass and Giant comparisons
I am so thankful that Giant gave me the incentive to finally watch and complete one of the greatest epics ever created; Sandglass. I remember staying up over the summer until dawn some nights and could hear the birds chirping, yet I was completely engrossed in its splendour, with clammy palms, a palpitating heart and the gently evocative sound of ‘Cranes’. I had heard Giant was a little reminiscent of it and I really didn’t want Giant to have been a rip-off of a classic. And it wasn’t. Giant learned to respect its predecessor and nod in its direction every so often in only the best ways possible, here’s how it was done.
Baek Pa (Im Hyuk):
He was a character lifted straight out of Sandglass. The private investor and devout Buddhist with incredibly old-fashioned values and a matching old-world wisdom then there were all the finer details, the modus operandi, the house, the hanbok, right down to the ink stones. Both were equally as firm and made others wary of them. But there was a key difference in their attitudes.
To the Baek Pa of Sandglass, women were a bad omen, a curse to the world of business. The Baek Pa of Giant made Yoo Kyeong-ok the overseer of his private investor firm; this also benefited her equally smart daughter Jung-yeon. Thus Baek-pa’s legacy gave rise to capable women stepping forward in a male dominated arena.
Sandglass — Choi Min-soo’s gangster character Tae-soo did time at Sancheong Camp after Hye-rin’s (Go Hyun-jung) fearsome father (played by Park Geun-hyung) had him sent there to keep him and his daughter apart. I can still remember Tae-soo risking his life escaping the brutal conditions of the camp, and then running through a village to avoid being recaptured by the pitiless prison staff.
Giant — Gang-mo was hard done by, completely innocent but sent to Sancheong by Jo Pil-yeon and his son Jo Min-woo, for a multitude of reasons which had stacked up against him. He was joined there by Park So-tae, while both were still fatal enemies.
Sancheong was brutal and inhumane and everything you can associate with a prisoner camp. It was a place where you only looked out for yourself to survive the day, dog-eat-dog. Along came prisoner no, 1-524 (cameo appearance by Park No-shik) who in his tragically short time at the camp taught the rest of his inmates a valuable lesson in humanity, managing to move their stone-cold hearts.
Notes on the director and writers
I worried about Giant, I did. I worried not that it would become draggy, or veer into makjang territory but that it would turn into a crowd-pleaser to garner the ratings and start to lose some of its essence, the essence that the childhood portion had been so rich in, but I need not have fretted.
I am a fan of Yoo In-shik. ‘Nuff said. Well, not exactly ‘nuff said, he’s a man after my own simple heart. It’s just he seems so grounded, if not modest. Which comes across in all of his work and I’ve seen all of his work, even where he’s worked as a producer. There is a set of values he adheres to and where he promises to deliver, he does. He also has an eye for his leading (and supporting) men, from Son Chang-min to Kim Myung-min to the sublime and awe-inspiring Park Sang-min. The latter is quite elusive, who knows when we’ll see him again, and playing a role as intense as Seong-mo? Are we to wait two decades again?
I digress, with this director’s vision and vigour; I’m hoping to see him continue to grow as a director and can’t wait for his forthcoming projects. Mad love for you, bro!
Apparently, he has more plans in the oven with the two Giant writers Jang Yeong-cheol and Jeong Kyeong-soon, their next project will likely be sageuk. Now if THEY were to do sageuk, I’ll definitely be onboard, in fact my heart is racing at the mere thought of it.
Sure his directing and the couple’s writing were peppered with flaws here and there, but overall where it truly, truly mattered: the drama was stellar. So for that, all those (teeny-tiny) flaws can either be overlooked as though they never happened, or embraced as part of what gave Giant character, such robust character. And let’s face it, perfection is boring anyways.
Let’s look at its strengths, where do I even begin; the story, the script (oh so quote-worthy, and unforgettable), the directing, the atmosphere, recreating a lot of Seoul’s historical buildings with both accuracy and authenticity, the well-done humor, the choice of songs sung by Mi-joo and Kyeong-ok and the momentum which remained strong over the course of the 60 episodes and a strong cast.
Giant’s ensemble cast was simply magnificent! It’s what you get when you carefully handpick amongst the finest of actors to do the y’know, ‘’acting’’ part. There were three layers to this cast; the veterans, the younger adults and the child actors, all of whom were outstanding overall and then there were the brilliant cameos, of which I only listed a few above, there were more yet.
Oh, and there were idol stars too, they came, they sang, they danced, they were handed their paychecks and shown the door. Best and most effective use of idol stars, right thurr.
Using kdrama shorthand
There was a lot going on, on surface level and under the surface. You needed to watch with a keener eye to spot all the fine details; Giant also had a tendency to use quite a bit of kdrama shorthand, which added a nice quirky feel.
Here’s just a few that I spotted, maybe many of you can spot more?
– There’s the old adage ‘don’t buy shoes for a loved one, or she/he will leave’ and so if anytime either of the brothers, or Min-woo brought Mi-joo a pair of shoes, very soon after, fate would have her leave them.
– Hairstyles: often changed to pinpoint the character’s current frame of mind. One example is Jung-yeon; her longer hair meant a flighty, free-spirited girl rebelling against her father’s wishes to one day pit her amongst the big players in the business realm. Shorter, bobbed hair and she meant serious business. This is a theme which played out once in her teen years and repeated itself into her adult years.
– Making deals by the Han River. Ever heard what they say about dealings by the Han River (or any other body of water) – something about them never ending well? In the case of Giant, it would ultimately result in at least one man’s death. Oh, certifiable, only question was ‘who’s next?’
– Leading ladies and lipstick; they would focus on the lipstick tube too, but I’m sure it was symbolism for war paint. As the ladies would mask their inner distress, compose themselves and head out into battle.
– Doors closing; symbolising the last time you would be seeing that character again. (Must. Not. Cry.)
Coming full circle
The advantage of this being such a long show (the extension benefited it a lot more than you think, honestly!) was that it got to come full circle after covering all four seasons. The night the younger siblings reached Seoul and waited for the eldest brother Seong-mo on the steps of the Sam-il building, as the snow fell. The spring blossoms under which a teen Gang-mo and Jung-yeon would study together. The sweltering summer heat at Sancheong camp where Gang-mo eventually reconciled with So-tae. The autumn woodland where Seong-mo and Jo Pil-yeon held their last ever amicable conversation, just before all hell broke loose. And they came back into the grips of a harsh winter again, as the show rolled to a close.
But the seasons were not the only ones to come full circle, the characters also went through a similar process. Though done with subtlety therefore not always noticeable, their hairstyles, their attire, their frame of mind, or their situation were all part of a cycle, all echoes of their past. But it was all with the exception of Gang-mo who only ever looked ahead.
The last man standing isn’t necessarily the victor
Giant’s end was victorious for some, and bittersweet for some, if not tragic.
The Hwang family may seem a happy picture but not while Hwang Tae-sub’s only son Jung-shik remains a loose cannon who’s still adamant about tearing their family up, who had been behind the destruction of his mother. Good.
Seong-mo lived up to every single one of his promises. Once he had promised Gang-mo ‘’even if my body was to become broken, I’ll protect my family.’’ I had so hoped for that moment not to come, alas, it did.
The man responsible for the death of Lee Dae-soo and many others, was consigned to a fate worse than death, where he would be made an example of for generations. That’s after he tumbled from the highest of heights, the position he had taken a lifetime to reach, all at the hands of someone so unexpected. The irony of which drives him further down the recesses of his insanity, as the media circus closes in around him.
In the present day: our lead protagonist, now married to the woman he had always loved, sits alone in his office atop the highest tower in Gang-nam, Seoul, pondering. Over how he won the battle against his lifelong rival, as the latter’s empire collapsed around him literally, but lost his sister, who left the country, abandoning her acting career, to spend the rest of her life with the very same rival who had fathered her child. He won the battle against the man who had killed his father and split up his family, but that same battle had claimed the life of the brother who had meant the world to him.
And Lee Gang-mo once again was the lost little boy, surrounded by the bright and glittering lights of a strange new city, his heavy heart calling out for the ones he had lost along the way, since the very day he had embarked on the voyage into a new city and a new era.
Oh, how far you have wandered from home.
This is a classic, poignant drama and which will resonate with many among its audience for a good, long while.
Giant gets my vote for Best Drama of 2010. Granted that it’s all subjective and we measure quality in different ways, but what works for me is how well a drama affects me, and this… it hit me, right there. This is a drama that captivated me, took my breath away, made me weep rivers and at times had me laughing like a lunatic.
Surely all of us have family we care about, and many of us hold on to a bygone era, willing someone we loved to come back, or even for our favourite places to return to how they once were. But as the years roll by and the world around us develops and transforms, there is no turning back.