The premiere of the newest soul-swapping drama from SBS, 49 Days, has come and gone. Despite a slow ratings start (8.1% for the first episode and 8.0% for the second), the Korean audience responded positively to the fast pace and the creative premise of the show. In contrast, the international online community had a more mixed reaction. And my verdict? With much caution still, lest I jinx myself, I foresee that 49 Days might just turn out to be my newest drama crack in the making.
I confess that coming in, I had strong doubt about the fantasy element of the drama. Quite simply, it’s normally not my cup of tea. Here, however, that exact fantasy element presents such a fascinating plot setup and room for genuine future conflicts, that I’m sold. Unlike the recent stream of romance dramas that relied solely on the chemistry between the main couples, 49 Days seems to actually have something that they’ve been lacking – a plot. (oh! snap!)
At first glance and as far as she’s concerned, Shin Ji Hyun (Nam Gyu Ri) has everything going for her. Loving (and rich) parents who adore her; competent fiancé, Kang Min Ho (Bae Soo Bin); and two best girlfriends, Shin In Jung (Seo Ji Hye) and Park Seo Woo (Bae Geu Rin), who she trusts would give the coat off their own back if she ever needed it. Sure, Han Kang (Jo Hyun Jae), the talented architect and restauranteur who was her high school classmate and is her fiancé’s best buddy, always seems to give her the cold shoulder. But happy and carefree by nature (almost to the point of being called simple-minded), Ji Hyun doesn’t seem to take it to heart.
When Ji Hyun’s dad suddenly asks that she and Min Ho move up their wedding date, they’re taken aback but they follow along. After all, her husband-to-be is her knight in shining armor who had rescued her on their first meeting, when she was lost by herself during a hiking trip with In Jung.
And at the other side of town lives Song Yi Kyung (Lee Yo Won), a woman who has once received a degree in hotel management and tourism, but who is now a walking dead working at a neighborhood convenience store. Unkempt and expressionless, she merely goes through the act of living, but clearly she wants to stop that as well.
On the 5th anniversary of a day marked on her calendar, Yi Kyung takes the bus to a location of a past deadly car accident (A motorcycle, perhaps? Just saying!) and throws herself onto an oncoming truck. Though rescued just in the nick of time by a man who is a regular customer at the convenience store she works at (and who also happens to have followed her here), the damage is done and a multi-car pileup ensues.
Ji Hyun is also driving along that highway, and when a motorcyclist in front of her skids and falls, she swerves to avoid the motorcyclist and instead ends up hitting the truck from the earlier pileup. The impact throws her soul out of her body (literally), and Ji Hyun’s soul is forced to see the horror of her own comatose body be transported to the hospital.
What follows is an encounter with a perm-haired, motorcycle-riding, club-going, smartphone-using, modern-day Grim Reaper (and no, that’s a “Scheduler” for you, thankyouverymuch) (played by Jung Il Woo). The Scheduler informs her that since it wasn’t her time yet but her life’s been cheated away by someone else’s action, this is one of the rare instances (the third in his 5 years as a Scheduler) where she will be given the option to come back alive if she can find three non-family members to cry “pure” tears of love for her within the next 49 days. She chooses this option, believing that she has this in the bag. After all, counting Min Ho and her two friends, she easily has three right there.
The Scheduler further explains that Ji Hyun can borrow Yi Kyung’s body during those 49 days, with the caveat that (1) she can’t tell anyone of her true identity, (2) she can only use Yi Kyung’s body while the host is asleep and thus she must return home by midnight every night (ahh, I’m expecting at least one Cinderella moment in the future), and (3) she has to earn whatever money she needs herself.
And so starts Ji Hyun’s life as Yi Kyung as she follows the people from her original life as they grieve over her. To her surprise, she finds that people are much better at holding their tears in and they don’t cry as easily as she thought they would. Meanwhile, hungry and without money for food and basic necessities, Ji Hyun ends up at Kang’s restaurant. She ends up asking him for a job at his restaurant, and much to her surprise, gets it.
Everything is smooth sailing (albeit going slower than she originally anticipated), when she accidentally comes across Min Ho going into a hotel room. And much to her dismay, she sees In Jung following him right after. This triggers her memory of the day of her accident, as she remembers that she saw those two together on that day as well…
Let’s get the bad out of the way, shall we? Besides his past experiences as an assistant director, 49 Days is director Jo Young Gwang’s directorial debut. And well, it shows. The scenes have pretty choppy transitions, and although it didn’t bother me in the first two episodes, I wonder how that may affect the quality and even the storytelling as we get further into the drama. A possible concern for the future, but I remain optimistic. I’ve seen plenty of well-directed dramas get ruined by a poor script, but rarely have I seen a well-written script get ruined by poor directing (and not that I’m calling 49 Days poorly directed either). It may lower the overall quality of the drama, but this is where drama cracks come along.
Second, the soundtrack released so far seems rather forgettable. But luckily, the songs are not the annoyingly addictive kinds and rather inoffensive, and I can see them either growing on you as the drama progresses or just easily dismissed.
And now to the fun part. I love the way writer So Hyun Kyung had set up the relationship between the main six characters to be much more than meets the eye. All the characters in Ji Hyun’s life had been wearing a mask, and we only come to discover their true selves under the mask as Ji Hyun starts living as Yi Kyung. I don’t think the revelation that Min Ho and In Jung are in fact not as “good” as they appear to be would have surprised that many viewers. The other alternative would be that Ji Hyun develops feelings for another man and cheats on her grieving fiancé while she herself is in a comatose state, and you know, that’s just cruel.
What I did not foresee is the possibility (if what the clues indicate are true) of the Scheduler being Yi Kyung’s former lover, and the significance of what this would mean to him and the two women “in his life” once they realize their connection. Further, with the various potential couplings, there’s also the issue of whether we, or any of the characters themselves, will truly understand who they’re falling for. Interestingly, this is true even if the characters discover about the soul swap, as there will always be the question of whether they’re in love with the person or the soul inside that person. But really, even without the soul swap to complicate the matter, isn’t this the age-old question of what is love? The possibilities are endless, and the final outcome remains highly unpredictable… just the way I like it!
Lee Yo Won is a much better actress when playing a brighter character, and as expected, the transition as she took on Ji Hyun’s role was smooth. It still remains to be seen the chemistry she develops with her male co-stars, and how that carries on during the intervals when Nam Gyu Ri takes over.
I find Jo Hyun Jae to be the younger, less experienced version of Park Yong Woo (isn’t the resemblance uncanny?). And I’m liking the depth in his eyes that Jo Hyun Jae is developing, following in the footsteps of his look-a-like senior colleague.
Oh, and Jung Il Woo as the Scheduler is a complete hoot. I can only guess that he’s having a blast playing his new role.