After weeks of misguided comedy, meandering plot lines, and a misplaced prioritising of tone over characterisation, its finally a wrap for Strong Woman Do Bong-soon. This last quarter, especially the final episode, rights a few of its many wrongs. Perhaps its better late than never, but at the same time, its a sad reminder of how great the drama could have been if only it had remembered to focus on its heroine, her growth, and her relationships with the people around her.
This review contains spoilers for Episodes 13-16.
Looking at the drama as a whole, the premise is simple: a petite girl born with superhuman strength learns to stop hiding her powers and starts using them to help others. In other words, it is a coming-of-age tale of sorts, portraying Bong-soons growth with the aid of the people who love and care for her. Mainly, it is Min-hyuk who draws her out of her shell, but eventually, she is the one who presses on to confront the serial kidnapper, Kim Jang-hyun (Jang Mi-kwan).
It was great that by the end of the drama, Bong-soon took ownership of her special powers and discovered her calling in her own terms, instead of relying completely on Min-hyuks encouragement and actions—a direction that the first half of the show seemed to be taking, and one that I was glad didnt continue, as it would have undermined her growth. But her growth trajectory barely existed, and what little there was kept getting buried under the multiple, often irrelevant plot lines. The viewers are privy to the starting and ending points of Bong-soons growth, but the process through which she arrived at the ending point was often unclear.
The setup itself was already on shaky footing: we learn that Bong-soon hides her powers for practical purposes, in order not to make trouble, but also because of her struggle with her identity. This was, unfortunately, heavily premised on her crush on Guk-doo and her knowledge of the type of girls he likes. It was actually a struggle much larger than just trying to fit into Guk-doos ideal type; it was influenced by her mothers ill treatment of her, being at a loss about her place in life (have average grades and being unemployed), and her fear of being seen as a monster. But her insecurities came across in little flickers—a drunken fit at the club, an outburst at her mother—and instead of having them consistently surface through her words and actions, accompanied by how she overcomes them, these insecurities are shelved as abruptly as how they emerge.
Bong-soons emergence as a heroine is also fraught with problems. For most of the drama, the show promoted Bong-soons use of violence as a kind of heroism, an issue that I covered in my review of Episodes 5-8. This final quarter confuses impulsiveness with courage in how it has Bong-soon charge into the car junkyard without a plan or backup, discovering the entrance to the kidnappers lair simply by chance. The sequence never revealed how Bong-soon managed to bring the victims to safety after being trapped by a fire which caused the basements ceiling cave in, blocking the main stairway. Again, there is an element of luck in how there was more than one exit and how the fallen beams didnt block all of them, which is how I assume they escaped.
The main plot has been spinning its wheels for a while to lead up to Bong-soons final showdown with Kim Jang-hyun, and all the action comes suddenly in a rush, developing over a mere 25 minutes in Episode 15. This showdown brings together diverse characters, from Guk-doo and Min-hyuk to the Baek Tak party and the high school gangsters, suggesting how the drama kept many of these characters around to force the portrayal of Bong-soon as character who is able to unite people from different walks of life. Aside from this awkward cobbling together of plot lines after keeping them apart for most of the show, there is a massive hole in the plan of using Bong-soon as bait: Kim Jang-hyun wanted her dead, and they knew he bought a sniper which would reduce the margin of error; he could very well have chosen to shoot her head instead of her torso.
More crucially, though, is how the drama never set up the rules of Bong-soons powers properly. It only established that this power is matrilineal, and using it for morally wrong purposes would result in it being taken away. The drama deliberately withholds further details in order to make it easier to manipulate how Bong-soon loses and regains her powers. Before the viewers see the deeper effects that this loss has on Bong-soon, she regains her strength arbitrarily through scream-crying and begging to be able to save Min-hyuk. The acting in this scene was brilliant, but the setup made it difficult to connect with on a deeper level.
This would have been a more plausible resolution if the show had developed the sheer power of human will and desperation as a theme, the way Goblin did. Further, it seems illogical that Bong-soon should have lost her powers while trying to save her friend from a construction hoist about to crush her, accidentally harming an innocent man she did not even know was on the hoist, and yet regain her powers by the same token—wanting to save someone precious to her. Her eventual victory over Kim Jang-hyun was enabled not by her efforts, but by a combination of the dramas murky rules and deus ex machina; if she hadnt somehow regained her powers, the plan wouldnt have worked.
Looking past Bong-soon as a heroine to Bong-soon simply as a character, the show never deepened her characterisation outside of highlighting how she is easily annoyed, not very smart, and how she has a sense of justice (albeit a rudimentary one). Only in Episode 14 do we learn, via a conversation between her father and Bong-gi, that despite being strong on the outside, Bong-soon is emotionally weak and in need of support. But this is a classic problem of telling instead of showing—we are told by other characters what Bong-soon is like, but this is not shown through scenes spread out throughout the show. The scene, although movingly delivered, felt like a very late attempt to remedy the inadequate characterisation of Bong-soon.
Another instance of this is in Episode 16, when Guk-doo symbolically hands Bong-soon over to Min-hyuk. He shares some of the things he came to learn about her through their years of friendship—that she likes spicy food and baseball, is allergic to peaches, prefers mountains to oceans, and if she isnt able to sleep, having her read a book works every time. These are the idiosyncrasies that make Bong-soon Bong-soon, but we are only getting them in a sudden rush within the last few episodes.
The drama was initially reported to be pre-produced, something I mentioned in passing at the start of my second review. Filming began last October, and judging from the characters clothing, the presence of fall foliage and the absence of snow in scenes, and the fact that the actors breath doesnt form mist in the air throughout the show, almost everything seems to have been filmed last fall or early winter at the latest. It seems, however, that the production team either decided to extend the filming or re-shoot scenes in the final episode according to viewer responses, as it was recently reported that the final filming took place on 11 April.
This could explain the sudden presence of patches in the final episode for some of the dramas prevalent problems. The most obvious instance is when Jin-yis friends talk to her about how she hit her husband, and she explains that she hasnt beat up a man since she was 19, and Bong-soons dad got the bruise because she shoved him and he fell and hit a sewing machine. This was clearly the producers attempt to play off their earlier use of husband-beating for comic purposes. It barely works—it doesnt explain why her husbands hair looked as though it were yanked in a physical tussle, and the fact that he shrinks away whenever she raises her arm suggests that its no empty threat—but at least it shows some acknowledgement that the portrayal was problematic.
I mentioned in my very first review that it was strange, given how long Bong-soon and Guk-doo have been friends, that their friendship should be depicted in such shallow terms. The conversation between them in the final episode finally gave a little glimpse of a deeper bond which was never fleshed out earlier in the show. It was a lovely and moving scene, but it had me mourning for what more we could have seen from Ji-soo but were deprived of due to the poor characterisation of Guk-doo.
Earlier in the show, the scenes at Ainsoft suggested very strongly that because Min-hyuk liked Bong-soon, she was able to both get away with not doing work properly and also advance to the status of intern without meeting the proper requirements, or at least trying to work on necessary skills. The final episode, however, has Min-hyuk emphasising that he cant help her field questions during her presentation, nor can he influence the panelists decision; we were finally able to see Bong-soon working through her own merit. Even the unbearable Oh Dol-byeong was given some redeeming qualities in his fair assessment of Bong-soons performance.
Yet this patch-up attempt was undercut by the way Bong-soon quickly tossed her original dream, being on the Strategy Team, out the window in favour of using her strength to help people. This transition could have been handled with more grace to show Bong-soon moving towards her true calling, but it was given so little time to develop that it made Bong-soons dream and later, her effort, seem unimportant. It sharply contradicts what the show had been trying to convince the viewers of, through showing how upset she was every time Min-hyuk denied her request to be transferred.
Given how well-received the main couple is, it came as no surprise that the show would choose to wrap up the main conflict in Episode 15 and fill Episode 16 with fanservice moments. It wasnt until this last stretch that I realised the quirks that made Min-hyuk and his interactions with Bong-soon so adorable went missing for several episodes: the way he sings Do Intern opera-style, his cheesy double-pointing at Bong-soon complete with a wink, and the way he beams, giggles, and covers his face when she does something he finds cute.
Min-hyuk is an unusual chaebol character, from being self-made and clean in his business practices, to his tendency to show concern for Bong-soon through small, ordinary actions like changing his eating habits to fit hers and helping her to juice an apple when she loses her strength rather than grand, showy gestures. The more expensive gifts he does get—a bag, a necklace and Royce chocolates—are motivated less by his character and more by awkward product placement. This is why the finale was perfect in its choice to keep his proposal to Bong-soon simple but heartfelt and romantic: just the two of them strolling, chatting, and laughing under cherry blossom trees in full bloom. Its completely like Min-hyuk to remember and cite dorky facts like how cherry blossom petals fall five centimetres per second (from Makoto Shinkais animated film, 5 Centimeters Per Second).
Its no coincidence that up till this point, Ive only been discussing Min-hyuks gestures of love towards Bong-soon. He took most of the main steps in their relationship: his curiosity motivated him to hire her, he pursued his feelings for her, and nudged her towards accepting him when he perceived her liking him back but was hesitant to make her move. Bong-soon supposedly drew him out of his loneliness, but just like with her growth as a heroine, we see the beginning and the outcome, but not much of the process comprises proactive effort on her part. The incidents in which she saves Min-hyuk were driven very much by circumstance rather than character motivation.
There is a similar gap in their relationship: they move from their initial bickering stage to full-blown noble idiocy mode, without sufficient setup in between. Instead of having the couple work through conflicts arising from their insecurities—Min-hyuks abandonment issues and consequent clinginess clashing with Bong-soons desire to harness her powers, which puts her in danger—the show chucks in a plot-driven breakup and moments of jealousy that are quickly resolved by aegyo. The resulting lack of proper relationship development undercut the potential of the characters to be more complex, and for their eventual happily-ever-after to be more hard-earned and satisfying.
Despite the many patches the final quarter offered, they couldnt mend the wasted potential that the dramas wonderful, wacky characters had to be more complex and human. Aside from the main characters, side characters like Bong-soons lovely dad and sweet brother were criminally underused; none of the characters were treated in a way that made me feel they could easily walk off the screen and into real life. The drama even had the perfect framework—a coming-of-age tale—to make use of this perfectly-cast ensemble for a story with a lot of heart, but chose to stretch it thin over a single crime plot and otherwise focus on forcing comic effects and literal poop jokes. It wasnt missing any basic elements; it just never made good use of what it had. It is with this regret that I send the drama off and hope that I have better luck with my next pick.
(Images via JTBC. Naver Entertainment, SpoTV News)
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