KBS’s new youth drama Page Turner turned out to be a pleasant surprise—I went into it ready for full-on teen angst, and got a clever twist instead. There’s angst to be sure, but there’s also a cutting sense of humor in the tone that cracks me up and makes the drama far more interesting than it seems on the page.
If you’re anything like me, you were planning to check out the first episode anyway because the drama comes from a team of writers that includes I Hear Your Voice’s Park Hye-ryun, and stars Kim So-hyun and Ji-soo. Not that that guarantees a single thing in dramaland. But I liked it right away and laughed out loud multiple times during the first episode, so I’m definitely here to stay.
Sadly, the mini-drama is only 3 episodes; it’ll air on Saturday nights for two more weeks.
SONG OF THE DAY
Rachmaninoff – Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23, No. 5 [Download]
EPISODE 1: “Those who have been gifted by great heaven”
As an intro montage flashes by with three different students, the captions tell us that this is the story of three warm youths, who like page turners, assist in a performance as the person standing closest, always letting the star shine more than themselves. A page turner, we’re told, is “the perfect partner.”
The tone is ironic, since the images we get are the very opposite of that description: youths in angsty moments of turmoil, and page turners looking like they’d rather eat their own hands than help someone else be the star.
We get a parade of angry outbursts, and the captions insist repeatedly that this is a heartwarming story of three youths. You can practically hear the writer shouting, It is goddamn heartwarming, I swear!
The episode opens on our heroine, YOON YOO-SEUL (Kim So-hyun), a high school student who listens to dance music and puts on makeup… that is, until her mother comes out to the car. She switches right away to the classical music station and swears she was practicing for her test.
A group of boys ride by on bicycles led by their leader, jokey jock JUNG CHA-SHIK (Ji-soo). He doesn’t seem like the brightest bulb—he stops at an upright piano that’s been set up in a tunnel and calls it a keyboard because it doesn’t have its top open—but his friends aren’t any better since they take his word as fact.
Yoo-seul’s mom is a piano teacher, which explains her car covered in advertisements for the business. One of the stickers says, “National treasure pianist on board.” Oy, Mooooom. She’s super militant about Yoo-seul’s piano-playing too, while Yoo-seul looks bored and apathetic.
Mom wants her to win first place in the test because she was amazing, not just happen to win first place without trying like she did the last time, and brings up a classmate of hers, SEO JIN-MOK (Shin Jae-ha). Yoo-seul: “That psychopath?”
The test begins, and when it’s Jin-mok’s turn, Yoo-seul raises her hand and volunteers to be his page turner. The other students gasp and wonder what’s gotten into her, since Yoo-seul and Jin-mok are famously bitter rivals.
In flashback, Mom orders Yoo-seul to be his page turner for the test, because she could sabotage his performance by being slightly off in timing. Yoo-seul balks and wonders why she can’t just beat him by playing better (Yes, Mom, why can’t she do that?), but Mom insists that if she doesn’t get caught, this is part of the skill of winning. Great life lesson.
Jin-mok picks from one of the sealed envelopes for his blind test, and chooses Chopin’s Waltz in E minor, which makes Yoo-seul smirk. He plays it well, and everyone waits with bated breath for the moment when Yoo-seul has to turn his first page…
She stands up and flips the page right on cue, much to everyone’s surprise, and Mom actually exclaims her frustration from the audience.
A flashback shows us that Mom was Jin-mok’s piano teacher when he was young, and she tried to teach him to play less robotically with more feeling. He didn’t understand the difference, and Mom blurted that he was a psychopath. Little Jin-mok simply told his father that he wasn’t at the level to be taught by some lowly neighborhood piano teacher who brings her daughter to lessons, and demanded she be fired.
In the present, Jin-mok finishes the piece perfectly and is satisfied, though other students in the audience comment that it’s too perfect, like a computer played it. As Jin-mok stands up to bow, he murmurs to Yoo-seul that he expected her to try and trip him up. She says she was thinking about it, but realized as soon as he started playing that she didn’t need to. Ouch.
In case we couldn’t tell, we’re introduced to Yoo-seul as Hanjoo Arts High School’s first-place piano student. When it’s Yoo-seul’s turn for the test, Jin-mok raises his hand to be her page turner. Yoo-seul doesn’t look pleased about that, or the piece she has to play: Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in G Minor, Op. 23 No. 5 (posted above).
As Yoo-seul begins to play, we return to the flashback where Little Jin-mok wanted Yoo-seul’s mom fired. Mom pleaded on her knees to keep her job, obviously dependent on the income, but Jin-mok’s father had fired her anyway, and Little Jin-mok was pleased since she was the only teacher who didn’t think he was a genius.
Mom had swallowed her pride and said she was wrong, when suddenly Yoo-seul began to play the waltz perfectly, despite never having been taught a day in her life. Mom gasped and discovered that her child was the genius, which made Little Jin-mok ragey. He slammed the piano cover down on Yoo-seul’s hands, and Mom reached in to save them just in time, while injuring her own. Geez, maybe he is a psychopath.
We return to Yoo-seul’s test, and everyone is anxious as Jin-mok stands up to turn her page. He flips it in time… but yanks so hard that the whole booklet falls to the ground, and everything comes to a screeching halt.
Jin-mok apologizes and says he must’ve been nervous, and reaches down to pick up the sheet music, but Yoo-seul knocks his hand away, making the whole auditorium tense up. She says she must be nervous too, and the other students wonder if they’ll come to blows.
But Yoo-seul closes her eyes and takes a deep breath, and then resumes the piece without sheet music. (Isn’t that… kind of normal at her level?) The other students are amazed and the teachers are impressed, and in any case, Jin-mok ends up inadvertently making her look even better.
Jin-mok mutters, “Dammit,” under his breath as he stalks offstage, and we’re introduced to him as the second-place student in the piano department.
It’s a whole other world at the athletes’ high school, where our jokester jock Cha-shik is being given a pep talk before his pole vault meet. Cha-shik is a loud, surly hothead, and one thing’s for sure—he loves his mommy. He catches sight of another ajumma knocking into his mother in the bleachers, and he gets all fumey about it, wanting an apology from the other ajumma’s kid.
Coach has to reel him in and point out that the other kid is a national athlete who jumps 17cm higher than him, and Cha-shik asks if that’s why he’s looking down on his mother. Coach decides to roll with that (because Cha-shik isn’t so bright, teehee), and uses his anger to motivate him.
Of course Cha-shik goes overboard, raising the bar (literally, the bar he has to jump over) by 40cm, until Coach has to bargain with him to do just enough to beat the other guy. Up in the bleachers, Mom asks the national athlete’s parents if they want to make a bet with her over whether her son will clear the jump, and says that if she loses they can have her laptop, and if she wins they have to take her business card.
Cha-shik becomes very quiet and focused for those few seconds before his jump, which must be the only time his mouth isn’t running off. He chalks up his hands, steadies his pole, and takes off in a full sprint, flying into the air and clearing the bar with ease.
He lands with a thud on the mat and doesn’t even register what happened until he looks up and sees that the bar is still there, and then breaks out in the biggest wide-eyed walloping cheer. He’s introduced to us as Woojung Athletics High School’s pole-vaulter and now, a “national athlete.” Woohoo!
Cha-shik is super hammy about the win, flexing his muscles in celebration like a big cheeseball. It’s very embarrassing and very cute. Mom happily hands out her card to the other kid’s parents, and says she’s a freelance writer available for anything from biographies to apology letters. Cha-shik, meanwhile, is so amped up from his jump that he wants to break the national record next.
Yoo-seul comes out from her test and finds Mom waiting for her. Mom is angry about Yoo-seul defying her instructions when Jin-mok quite obviously sabotaged her performance, though she’s sugary sweet to Jin-mok’s face and asks if he needs a ride and how his parents are doing.
Jin-mok is as condescending to Mom as ever, and that irks Yoo-seul enough for her to walk up and challenge him right there: “You dropped it on purpose, didn’t you?” She says with a smirk that it didn’t matter since she’d memorized the piece, and Jin-mok asks if she’s showing off that she’s a genius.
Yoo-seul steps right up to his face and says, “How many times do I have to say it? I’m not a genius. You’re just not much of anything.” That leaves Jin-mok shaking in rage, and when Yoo-seul asks Mom if that was enough to squash him, Mom says it’s not even close. Yikes.
Jin-mok channels his rage by marching into a church and praying for God to smite his enemy, lol.
As Jin-mok prays, Cha-shik readies for his second jump. He runs and leaps over the bar, but on his way down he lands nuts-first right into his pole. Owwwwwwwwwww. Oh, of all the injuries! Is it wrong that I’m dying of laughter?
At the same time, Yoo-seul and Mom are driving down the street, and Yoo-seul turns and sees it first in slow motion: a truck headed straight for them. The screen goes white as they collide, and as Jin-mok ends his prayer in church. A second later, he gets the call that Yoo-seul was just in a car accident, and he looks up at the altar in shock. He thinks he caused it? Okay, that’s funny.
Mom is unscathed, but Yoo-seul is near blind from the accident. She can tell when light is being flashed in her eyes but can’t see anything beyond that, and Mom freaks out when the doctor says it’s inoperable, asking how she’ll play piano then.
Both Yoo-seul and the doctor are a little appalled, and the doc says that her daughter’s health is more important, but Mom screams, “Piano is my daughter, and my daughter is piano! Piano is everything to her!” Agh, seriously?
Mom drags her out of there and says they’re checking out to go find a better doctor and that they’ll catch up on all the piano practice they missed while in the hospital, entirely missing the detached look on Yoo-seul’s face.
Mom waits till she’s in the bathroom down the hall to break down in wailing sobs, though she pretends like nothing happened when she comes back out.
Down the hall, Cha-shik is consulting with his doctor, who gives his family jewels a clean bill of health and says there won’t be any problem with Cha-shik getting married or having kids. Well that’s a relief. The doc discovered a problem elsewhere though—it’s his spine, and he’ll need surgery to realign his vertebrae.
Cha-shik asks what that means for him as an athlete, and swears that he’s totally capable of putting all his effort into rehabilitation training. But the doctor says he’ll have to give up on being an athlete, and recommends surgery right away.
Cha-shik is stricken, but he puts on a smile for Mom and says the news would’ve been way worse in the reverse, if his back had been fine and his nuts broken. Pfft. You gotta love the kid for staying positive. Mom can tell he’s just smiling for her benefit though.
Jin-mok, meanwhile, has become so riddled with guilt that every religious symbol in his room turns into an oppressive reminder of his horrible prayer that came true. He plays the piano like he’s going to break it, and then finally decides to face his fear.
He walks into a flower shop and asks for the florist to just pick whatever flowers and wrap them carelessly, swearing that they’re for his enemy. He stops her when she says the flowers he picked mean “forever love,” and asks if she doesn’t have anything that means “forgive me.” Aw.
At the hospital, Yoo-seul walks into Cha-shik on the stairwell when she pokes him by accident with her walking stick. She asks if this is the stairwell that leads to the roof, and Cha-shik says it’s the other set of stairs, offering to lead her there. Ack, don’t help her get up there! She refuses to let him hold her hand, so he tells her to hold his arm then.
Jin-mok arrives with a flower bouquet just as Yoo-seul and Cha-shik pass by in the lobby, and he gasps to see that she’s really gone blind. Cha-shik leads Yoo-seul all the way up to the roof, where she asks if anyone else is around and thanks him.
She waits till he leaves and then reaches out to the railing, and then with trembling hands, she starts to climb over the top. She’s hanging precariously over the edge when Jin-mok arrives and calls out her name, asking what she’s about to do.
Yoo-seul tells him not to come any closer, and at that, Cha-shik turns back to look at her. Jin-mok asks if she really can’t see him, and she confirms it, guessing that it makes him happy. He says he was worried about her, but she asks why he’d be worried for her sake. She says bitterly that she’s happy her eyes turned out this way: “Now I don’t have to see your face that makes me want to vomit, or sheet music that looks like cockroaches have been spilled onto it. It feels great!”
She says she was actually happy to go blind, but then she starts to cry as she says, “But she said to play. My mom said to play anyway. Even though my eyes are like this, she told me to play piano, twice, three times as hard! What kind of mother does that? What kind of mother does that?!”
Yoo-seul screams that this is all Jin-mok’s fault—that her mother changed that day ten years ago when he belittled her and squashed her pride. She throws down the little finger exerciser her mother always makes her use, and says, “I’m tired of it all now—pretending to like piano, hating you. You hate a world with me in it, don’t you? I do too. So I’m going to stop now.”
Jin-mok asks, “Stop what?” but doesn’t realize what she’s about to do before it’s too late. Yoo-seul shuts her eyes and lets go, falling back in slow motion…
Jin-mok screams her name and runs to the railing… where she drops about five feet right into Cha-shik’s arms below. Hahahahahaha. That is priceless.
Yoo-seul flails and screams and then realizes she didn’t die, and Cha-shik puts her down and says this is the parking lot, not the roof. He took one look at her and knew she’d try something stupid, so he brought her here. Lol.
Yoo-seul gets mad at him for tricking her, but Cha-shik points out that she tricked her mom by acting nice and pretending to like piano: “Don’t blame your mom. And don’t blame that guy either.” He sighs and apologizes for interfering with her suicide, deciding that maybe she should go through with it after all.
Jin-mok yells at him for that remark, asking if he can’t read the situation properly, and Cha-shik scoffs that Jin-mok must have a good handle on it if he brought a blind girl flowers. Ha. Jin-mok deflates as he looks down at his bouquet.
Cha-shik picks up the finger exerciser that Yoo-seul threw away before walking off, and then on the way home, he tells his mom all about his eventful day. Mom says he saved that girl’s life, and he says he doesn’t really get why someone who’s got it all would want to kill herself.
Mom asks what he was doing on the roof to begin with, and Cha-shik gets curiously evasive as he blurts that he just wanted some fresh air. Mom looks worried and doesn’t really believe his lame answer, but he gets past the moment by insisting that he didn’t go up there to smoke, if that’s what she’s thinking. I don’t think that’s what she’s worried about, buddy. But I think you know that.
It’s raining when they come up out of the subway so Mom takes out an umbrella, which is busted and shoots out like a rocket instead of opening. Cha-shik busts out laughing, but it’s not a genuine laugh—it’s an overcompensating, awkward laugh, and he starts laughing so hard he starts to cry.
Mom sees right through it and tells him it’s going to be okay, and Cha-shik starts to cry for real, though he still forces a jokey tone: “I am, it’s okay! It’s just funny is why. Because that umbrella is just like me. It’s just so funny!”
His words are light but he can’t hide his tears, and it’s only when Mom hugs him that he finally lets go of the façade and asks what he’s supposed to do now, when he’s got nothing left without sports. He shouts into the universe, “I have that one thing, and you take it away?!” Mom echoes his complaint, and he sobs into her shoulder.
The ensuing days are rough on Cha-shik. He drops out of school and falls into depression, never once leaving his room or doing anything. Mom worries, remembering what he said that night when he cried: “Give me a reason, Mom. Without sports, what am I supposed to live for?” Mom takes a photo out from an album and wonders now if this could become a reason.
Yoo-seul has adjusted somewhat to her new life, and has begun to learn braille. Her mother has found a piano teacher who works with blind students, and Yoo-seul looks dejected as she agrees to lessons.
As Mom chatters on, Yoo-seul thinks back to all the times she’d tried to pursue other interests or defied Mom’s orders, and how she’d always just caved in the end and told Mom what she wanted to hear. She remembers Cha-shik pointing out that she’s the one who tricked her mom into believing she loved piano, and she finally gathers the courage to speak up. She tells Mom that she has something to say…
Cha-shik’s mom tries to coax him out to eat dinner, and it’s not until she mentions his father that he perks up and comes out of his room. This is apparently the first time that Mom is telling him about Dad, who is a world-famous pianist. Cha-shik doesn’t believe it at first, until Mom points out his long delicate fingers, and the fact that “Für Elise” is his ringtone, heh.
Cha-shik gets all excited like that’s proof of something, remembering how he cried for no reason while watching that Park Shin-yang drama where he played piano, and decides: “I must’ve cried because the music moved me!” Okay, I love this character.
Mom’s whole point is that he can’t go around calling himself trash anymore, which totally works on him. Cha-shik asks if Dad knows about him, and Mom admits no, they had already broken up when she found out she was pregnant, and she was too ashamed of where she was at that point in her life to go back to him.
Cha-shik guesses that now, she’s too ashamed of her son to show him to his father, chastising himself for hiding in his room. Mom just lifts his chin with her finger and declares that he’s better looking than Dad. She says he just doesn’t know himself very well yet, but she knows how great he is because he takes after his father.
Mom says he can go back to his normal braggy self now, and assures Cha-shik that pole-vaulting was just one of a gazillion talents that his father passed on to him. Cha-shik asks eagerly if he picks a different path and becomes someone great, is it okay if he finds Dad? Mom says of course, and Cha-shik beams.
Meanwhile, Yoo-seul finally speaks up for herself and declares that she’ll go to school by herself and doesn’t need Mom’s help. Mom argues, but Yoo-seul says she can’t have Mom living her entire life for her just because she can’t see. She says she’s voicing what she wants for the first time in her life, and asks Mom to respect her wishes.
Yoo-seul declares that she’ll go to school and study and get good grades and graduate… but she’s going to quit piano. Mom flips out, but Yoo-seul says she can’t go as far as Mom wants with her eyes like this, and that Mom knows it too. She says she doesn’t want to start a fight that she knows she’ll lose.
Cha-shik runs through the streets, over the moon about his new purpose in life, and runs all the way to a concert hall where there are posters of his famous pianist father. Cha-shik compares their hands and decides that they are alike, and tells his father to wait just a little while and he’ll come to see him. He places his hands over his father’s in the poster and greets the piano excitedly.
At the same time, Yoo-seul firmly declares to her mother: “I’m going to quit piano.” Just as Cha-shik says, “Your son Jung Cha-shik is going to start piano!”
I did not expect to laugh as much as I did in a drama about such serious, earnest themes. But the drama has a playful tone to it, where characters in the world are very serious, but we’re able to see the irony and the humor in the moments, and what could be over-the-top melodrama is undercut with wit. I just about died laughing when Yoo-seul jumped off the roof and landed five feet below, after her whole dramatic speech. It doesn’t negate what’s sincere about her problems, but I love that it takes the steam out of her pity party, and I especially love that Cha-shik gets her to stop blaming others and consider that she’s part of the problem by doing whatever Mom wants of her.
I like that they took a risk with Yoo-seul by making her unlikable at the start, though I wouldn’t say she’s entirely unlikable; she’s sympathetic, but by and large she’s prickly and mean and not at all modest about being a geeeenius. (Though really, how glad am I that the girl gets to be the genius this time!) Kim So-hyun just makes me root for her anyway though, because she’s just damn good like that. She makes me believe that Yoo-seul’s talent feels like an oppressive curse to her right now, and that she’s more than just bratty and acting out—she’s deeply unhappy. I’m sure that Cha-shik will be a good influence on her and rub some of his sunniness onto her, which is going to be a very entertaining process to watch.
Man, Cha-shik is such a great character. I mean, they’re all good characters with lots of potential, but Cha-shik is so lovable right away. He’s delightfully dim, but I like that it doesn’t necessarily preclude depth in his character. He just keeps that stuff under the surface, and I really liked how his reaction to losing his dream was delayed so that we could watch his denial break down. That was a great moment, and I loved the reversal, how Yoo-seul’s moment of angst was undercut with surprising humor, while his laughter turned into an emotional breakdown. Even narratively they’re opposites in every way. I kind of like the randomness of a surly jock becoming a classical pianist, but I worry about him putting too much stock in the Dad story—it could be true, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Mom invented the whole thing just to get him out of his funk. Maybe the point is that he just needed a purpose in life regardless of the motivation, and I won’t argue, especially because I’m pretty sure he went up to that roof with thoughts of suicide, but it smells of heartbreak, I tell ya.
I was most surprised to like Jin-mok, because I thought he’d just be the classic Salieri archetype of these kinds of dramas, the jealous second-best student who tries twice as hard and can never beat the naturally gifted heroine. He may very well remain an antagonist for Yoo-seul, but he showed a softer, sincere side that promises something even better. I know that right now it’s motivated by guilt, however misplaced (and hilariously at that, since he actually believes God struck down his enemy because he asked), but there are signs of adorable haplessness in there, and genuine regret, and I believe he meant it when he said he was worried about Yoo-seul. He might even like her like the florist teased, which will only make Cha-shik’s arrival at school more exciting since it’ll propel more change in Jin-mok. In any case, I’m looking forward to the rest of the short series. If I laughed this much in the episode with all the heartbreaking setup, it bodes well for the rest to come.