White Tower (2007) is a drama that deserves a thoughtful and thorough review, preferably after multiple viewings.
But as I explained here, time is not on my side for now. Thus, rather than let many months slip by – the prospect of a review growing ever dimmer – I thought I should post the White Tower scribbles I wrote four years ago. Hopefully that will rekindle memories of the drama for those of us who have watched it, or jolt into “I’m going to watch it now!” action the people who have been sitting forever on it. More importantly (ha!), it will give us an opportunity to talk about Kim Myung-min. I don’t know about you, but I do miss him so.
I will divide this post into two parts: a spoiler-free overview of the drama and a spoilery discussion of Kim Myung-min’s character, Dr. Jang Joon-hyeok.
Let’s start with the overview.
I watched White Tower after Surgeon Bong Dal-hee and it was quickly obvious, from the opening scenes, that scalpel for scalpel White Tower is the more superior medical drama. The operating theater looks more impressive and the pre-surgery preps more meticulous.
To take the comparison further, the early episodes of Surgeon Bong Dal-hee focus a lot on Dal-hee’s growth from blundering doctor to a more confident and competent surgeon. Tone-wise it is also fairly light and romantic, even if it does go overboard with the gory surgery scenes.
In contrast, White Tower takes us right away into the complex, fascinating, and even sinister world of hospital politics. Romance is a non-existent premise, this being as far removed from a rom-com as we can imagine. We also deal with fewer medical cases here; there is thus less blood swishing around and making our stomachs churn. Finally, Surgeon Bong Dal-hee made me appreciate the dedication and hard work of hospital workers whereas White Tower made me shudder at the corruption that I never knew existed in that rarefied setting.
Because I did not watch the original Japanese Great White Tower, I did not have any “baggage” or expectations going into the Korean remake. I just knew I wanted to watch this for Kim Myung-min, having become a fan of his acting after the lovely and heartwarming More Beautiful than a Flower (2004).
Like many other fans will attest, White Tower made me love Kim Myung-min more, and in a much deeper way. I was surprised by the glow I felt the moment he appeared in Episode 1; he looked so yummy! Every second that he was on screen was a treat, even the many close-up shots where I could see the tiredness in his eyes. I read from an interview article (which also gave away a big fat spoiler about the ending when I had just started on the drama, grrr!) that Kim Myung-min became a smoker (he didn’t used to smoke before) on the White Tower set because of the stress he felt filming the drama. He gave the 20-episode series his all and it rightly won him Best Actor at the year-end acting awards.
My fangirly love notwithstanding, I could see from Kim Myung-min’s more-than-convincing acting in the first two episodes alone that his was going to be a villain-like character. I could see, too, that in his quest to be the top guy in the hospital, he would have a hell of a fight because the other doctors – the ones more senior than him – were not pushovers.
I mean, just look at the cast. It’s like a roll call of heavyweights in the industry, especially if we look at the veteran actors. Byun Hee-bong, Kim Chang-wan, Lee Jung-gil, to name just a few. Also Cha In-pyo, in my first look at him. Not a positive impression, alas; I was surprised by his rather wooden and uninspiring acting. But the other veterans were gold.
And then there’s The Voice! Lee Seon-gyun whom I adored in Taereung National Village and Coffee Prince. Imagine The Voice and Kim Myung-min together in one drama! Playing best friends, too, before circumstances conspired to pull them apart.
I must confess, however, that as the drama progressed, I was rooting fiercely for Dr. Jang Joon-hyeok and thus didn’t really care for The Voice’s Dr. Choi Do-young. In terms of character development and complexity, his was rather flat and one-dimensional. I found Choi Do-young too idealistic and oft-times too good to be true. There were even moments in the drama when I disliked him because he wasn’t the friend that I hoped he would be for Jang Joon-hyeok.
See, that’s what happens when you watch Kim Myung-min in White Tower. You become so mesmerized by his brilliant acting that you simply dislike anyone who is opposed to Dr. Jang!
After so many kdramas, we know this for a fact: Sometimes a character is defined by his or her acting in one particular scene that knocks our jaw to the floor. Like So Ji-sub’s Cha Moo-hyuk (I’m Sorry I Love You) in the noodle-eating scene in his mom’s house. Or Lee Jun-ki’s Kay (Time Between Dog and Wolf) after he regains his memory.
But in White Tower everything about Kim Myung-min’s acting blew me away.
There weren’t just a few scenes; I was awed by him in every scene. Whether he was performing a surgery (and it really was a performance, a tour de force, as if he was conducting an orchestra before a spellbound audience) or kneeling on the ground in an embarrassing display of servitude and desperation, he was amazing. He didn’t have to cry in a heartrending manner. He just had to sit in his car and talk quietly to his mom. Or sit in court and glare disbelievingly as one accusation after another was thrown in his face.
About midway through the second episode, Mr. T (aka He Who Watches Kdramas With Thundie) turned to me and said, “This drama is good for you. You’re too gullible so all the politicking in the drama will teach you about the real world.”
Well, well. To think I had picked up White Tower just so I could drool over droolsome Kim Myung-min. Shame on me.
But I did learn a few things from White Tower. Like how it’s ill-advised to owe favors because sooner or later one will have to pay. It was disconcerting to see brilliant Dr. Jang being treated like a puppet in the hands of people more powerful than him. At those private drinking sessions, he would wait outside while the older men discussed his fate and their strategies. Then, at an opportune time, he would come in, bow deeply to everyone, and generally behave like, well, a puppet. It was all very surreal because he was himself a puppeteer – he had people at his beck and call.
So the constantly shifting power play – who’s king and who’s subject – was both fascinating and disturbing to watch. On hindsight White Tower does feel like a period drama, like watching a king and his ministers discuss political moves against an enemy.
To end this overview, White Tower is filled with excitement and suspense, rather like Resurrection (2005) and Time Between Dog and Wolf (2007). Yet it isn’t action-driven but dialogue-centered. Much time is spent talking and plotting so it is really important to watch this with excellent subtitles in order to understand everything that is going on.
One thing to note, though. The complete lack of romance may turn some people off. How is it possible for a kdrama to omit a romantic story arc? But White Tower is really about one man and his rise and fall. I don’t even care that there’s no romance; that genre is a dime a dozen. On the contrary I love that White Tower is so focused on the character of Dr. Jang Joon-hyeok. Its singular vision makes this such an incredibly well-written and well-acted drama! Until I watched Conspiracy in the Court some months later, White Tower was a shoo-in for best drama of 2007.
Okay, time to talk a little more about the main character. The next part will be spoilery, although not explicitly so. Still, tread carefully.
Although I was rooting for Jang Joon-hyeok, deep down I could not condone what he did. And that was my dilemma throughout White Tower, that I was in essence supporting the bad guy.
He did things that were very wrong, and he seemed so utterly self-centered and ruthless. He was obsessed with reaching the top and willing to stoop really low to attain his goals. Yet he was also charismatic and likable and his subordinates seemed to genuinely care for and respect him. In their shoes what would I do? With a boss who is at turns evil and benevolent, should I flee for my life or vow unwavering allegiance?
Although Jang Joon-hyeok was obviously manipulated by all the people who had vested interests in him and who were using him to achieve their own goals, his downfall was also of his own doing. If he had been more attentive to that particular patient and less obsessed with rushing to Jeju Island to perform the groundbreaking surgery, he could have avoided all the ensuing trouble. But he was just too confident and too reckless.
I was astonished by his recklessness, actually. He didn’t seem to have any qualms about having an affair behind his wife’s back, about using bribery and lying, and about destroying incriminating evidence. He just didn’t seem to have… a conscience.
But even more astonishing was that despite all his failings, he made us (at least he made me) care so deeply for him.
Beneath his brilliance and confidence lurked a man who just wanted to overcome his early setbacks in life (poverty, etc.) so that he could prove himself to the world. He wanted to be somebody, to be the best. Yet by striving so hard, he ended up exposing his neediness. It’s like people who appear all superior actually have an inferiority complex. They need to prove something simply because they don’t have everything. It’s all very sad. I felt so, so sorry for him. And so heartbroken.
I’ve said this previously (although I forgot the title of the post), that the dramas I love the most are the ones that hurt and heal me. The ones that break my heart. In that regard White Tower was truly heartbreaking, even though I was mentally prepared because of that stupid spoiler in the article. Knowing thus what the “destination” was going to be, I settled for the “journey” and just savored the ride, the privilege of watching Kim Myung-min at his very best.
And indeed, after so many dramas and so many movies, I am still waiting for an actor to come along and topple Kim Myung-min from this pedestal: Best Acting Ever.