When the Camellia Blooms

When the Camellia Blooms

Just the right amount of everything.

The cast of When the Camellia Blooms. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

A K-drama fanatic usually has a lot of shows dumped in their to-watch list. For me, my list is “anything goes”. I can have a show on my mind but decide to watch another one last minute. This was the case for When the Camellia Blooms. It was not something that popped up on my mind every now and then to remind myself but after Kang Ha Neul won the Best Actor award at the 56th Baeksang Awards, I was intrigued. After all, he beat Hyun Bin (Crash Landing On You), Park Seo Joon (Itaewon Class), Ju Ji Hoon (Hyena), and Nam Goong Min (Hot Stove League). I knew Kang Ha Neul is a great actor since I watched him in the fan favorite Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo. As for Gong Hyo Jin, it was my first time to watch her but after researching, she is one of the critically acclaimed South Korean actresses today.

When the Camellia Blooms tells the story of Dong Baek (Gong Hyo Jin), a single mother to Pil Gu (Kim Kang Hoon) who moves to the coastal town of Ongsan. Ongsan, as beautiful and picturesque it may seem, is not what it’s turned up to be. It’s a town that consists of close-knit residents who have known each other for generations and are all up on each other’s grills. Dong Baek’s relocation shakes the neighborhood for being an unwed single mother and opening a bar in the corner is frowned upon.

Gong Hyo Jin as Dong Baek. Photo from Netflix. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.
Gong Hyo Jin as Dong Baek. Photo from Kpopmap. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

Dong Baek is the unlikeliest leading lady I have watched so far: she doesn’t have a proper social life because her neighbors constantly ostracize her, she has so much baggage and hurt from her past, and most of all, she doesn’t enjoy life. She sees Pil Gu as her only motivation to live. In the first few episodes, you can see her lack of confidence and self-esteem. She can’t meet people in the eye and if I’m not mistaken, up until at least episode 4, she repeats the “I’m just trying to make a living” line when others won’t give her some slack. Her reputation gets worse when she is targeted by Joker, a mystery killer who has terrorized the entire town and is back again.

Much of the story comes from Dong Baek’s past and carries it everywhere she goes. She becomes the town pushover and this affects Pil Gu, her eight year old son. Pil Gu is already aware of what the town thinks of his mom and took on the role of protecting her, pressuring himself and losing innocence. Dong Baek’s only friend is Ms. Kwak, the fierce ahjumma who owns a crab restaurant.

Ms. Kwak turns out to be the mom of Kang Ha Neul’s Hwang Yong Sik, a cop who comes back to town after working in Seoul. Despite Yong Sik being a bachelor and has lived in the city, he is still a country bumpkin. Yong Sik is the youngest of three sons, and Ms. Kwak is protective of Yong Sik since his dad died even before he was born.

Kang Ha Neul as Hwang Yong Sik. Photo from hancinema.net. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

Yong Sik fell in love with Dong Baek at first sight and after understanding how Dong Baek is treated, he vows to protect and take care of her. Sometimes it’s so cheesy when we dream for a man that’s close to a K-drama character, but his character feels real in how he is with Dong Baek. He’s not perfect but he tries in his own best way. Most of the time he does not know what to say at first when he listens to Dong Baek’s worries, but he seems to always find the right words to say at the right time. An episode to watch out for is episode 3, when Dong Baek tells him to stop making her actually feel things again. The way he cries, staring at Dong Baek while she opens up to someone after a very long time. He does everything for him and Dong Baek to be together but he does it in the most natural way. He gives her space when she needs it, assures her that life will be better to her, and gives his all. The way he’s in it a hundred percent but is still charming, I think in real life we’d by annoyed by then, hahaha. When Dong Baek was being harassed by Joker, Yong Sik went through hell just to find out his identity and catch him once and for all. I think this is the only negatively light thing I’d say about the show; if there was a killer on the loose for the past years and no progress is made, it’d be scary to stay there longer.

Kang Ha Neul as Hwang Yong Sik. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

Now I know why Kang Ha Neul beat other ace actors. I have watched Hyun Bin on Crash Landing On You, but Ha Neul personalized Yong Sik. That accent, the mannerisms of a guy who grew up on a countryside, the innocent-like lover but at the same time fiercely heroic protector for Dong Baek and Pil Gu. I also love how he did not force things for Pil Gu but waited for him to come around. I giggle every time Yong Sik does that guttural sound with his throat. Ha Neul deserves a separate award for his strong throat, hahaha!

I also find it hard to describe Gong Hyo Jin. She was so marvelous as Dong Baek. How she expressed pain without insane. You felt it in how she lowers her voice because she is not used to being honestly open and how loose yet empty she sounds when she talks to her mom, who hurt her before. There were times I was provoked by Dong Baek because of how she pulls and push on her actions but this is all part of her development to finally enjoy life. In real life no one makes a straight progress anyway, so this makes her empathetic too.

The chemistry between Yong Sik and Dong Baek was also hard to compare to other shows. It does not have the common sweet scenes that make us kick the bed but instead, it shows the way a mature love differs. They are past the age wherein they have to impress each other and just let each other know what they can give. The relationship was built slowly, like seeing a house breaking ground then finally becoming a warm home for them to live in.

Dong Baek and Yong Sik. Photo from hancinema.net. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

Going back to Pil Gu, I have never felt so much for a child character in a K-drama. Dong Baek’s hurt has passed on to him too and ends up developing resentment. He acts all brave and strong when it comes to defending his mom, but becomes like her in front of strangers. Timid, shy, and lost. Thankfully, he outgrows all these when Dong Baek also realizes her worth and becomes a better mom for Pil Gu. Kim Kang Hoon is definitely a star to watch out for for the next generation of K-dramas. I now grasped the emotions of children who see parents internally struggle and how it crushes them, all thanks to his heart wrenching acting.

Kim Kang Hoon as Kang Pil Gu. Photo from hancinema.net. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

As you noticed, there are so much notable characters in the show but I just feel I had to write about Hyang Mi, played by singer-actress Son Dam Bi. Hyang Mi is a part-timer server at Dong Baek’s bar. At first she was annoying for me because she doesn’t respect boundaries with other people, but as her story unfolds, her character was just as important. In a town that insists to be perfect, she’s a mirror for everyone to reflect on their own shortcomings. The way her story unfolded added essence to the show. Her friendship and newfound family with Dong Baek reminds us of the friendships we have for life.

Son Dam Bi as Choi Hyang Mi. Photo from soompi.com. Photo by KBS2 and Pan Entertainment.

When the Camellia Blooms was worth the longer, usual 16-episode K-dramas. The way it tackles so many issues in a simple and humble story. I admit, the “a killer is on the loose” problem can be corny sometimes but that was not the only central conflict. It dealt with so much, from old beliefs to daily disagreements with others and within our selves. Pressure from parents and older generations, forgiveness, development, family, friendship, honesty, trust, self-identity, sexual harassment, and so much more. A really big kudos to everyone who conceptualized this show. The awards speak for itself. This is one of the few shows that pack a punch boxed in a neat, heartwarming package.

Have you watched When the Camellia Blooms already or not yet? Which was or were your favorite scene/s? Did you have a favorite character, like I did with Hyang Mi?

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