The one drama that has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue lately is Yong Pal. MC and comedian Yoo Jae-suk referred to it, and it has even claimed the highest ratings of a Korean drama since My Love From Another Star — high praise indeed. It’s also been challenged with accusations of plagiarism, specifically of copying a webtoon called City Conquest, but as you’ll see if you watch a few episodes, that’s nothing to worry about.
City Conquest, which attempted and failed to produce a drama version starring Kim Hyun-joong, centers around a poor young man who provides medical services for gangsters and a young woman, a chaebol heiress, who is in a coma. These were the connections that netizens made to Yong Pal as its ratings rose astronomically from Episode 1, and yet the similarities end there. To begin with, the characters in City Conquest are highly influenced by the fact that they have super powers, something that is missing entirely from Yong Pal. Funnily enough, this is just about the only thing missing, as Yong Pal screenwriter Jang Hyeok-rin has pulled out every single stop in this Drama (the capital D is entirely necessary).
In Episode 1, we are introduced to the main characters, and the show hits the ground running. The young chaebol heiress is Han Yeo-jin (Kim Tae-hee) who is traumatized from the violent car crash that killed her lover. The poor young doctor is Kim Tae-hyun (Joo Won) who sneaks around in the dead of night performing life-saving surgeries for gangsters – they call him Yong-pal (an abbreviation for a quack doctor). Tae-hyun is risking his legitimate medical license in exchange for the large sum of money gangsters pay because his younger sister’s health is failing, and he can’t otherwise afford her treatments. In fact, we learn he’s already deep in debt and willing to do anything he can to pay his impossible loans off.
Let’s pause and breathe a moment. This is already a great setup for a drama, and most people would be perfectly satisfied if it were well scripted and acted. Luckily, Jang’s writing and the actors all compliment each other very well, so the script and the acting are covered quite competently. But the plot doesn’t stop there either.
After introducing the extracurricular activities of our hero, the dynamic among the hospital staff where Tae-hyun officially works is soon revealed. While I suspected it when he was stitching up gangsters in a warehouse, now it’s completely clear that Tae-hyun is a genius who clashes with his superiors. Yet, he steps in and successfully completes an operation for the first surgeon when the latter is too overwhelmed. This relationship between Tae-hyun and Chief Lee (Jung Woong-in) will clearly be important later on, and it flares up again early on when the Chief rails Tae-hyun for accepting a tip from the patient’s family after the successful surgery. So we see Tae-hyun’s obsession with money in action.
Enter Han Do-joon (Jo Hyun-jae), Yeo-jin’s older brother, who is acting as chairman in her stead. Yet something’s not quite right with him. He encourages Chief Lee’s dissuading of other important people of visiting her, while acting disappointed in front of the other men. These other men with the Chairman, presumably other businessmen, seem concerned that they didn’t get to see Yeo-jin and confused that she would still agree to read over the legal paperwork they left for her, obviously the last thing a sick person would want to do. Then, we see Do-joon scoffing and laughing at his sister in her comatose state and, yes, it seems we have our villain. But do we really?
That night, Tae-hyun leaves the hospital and is dragged back to the same group of gangsters he helped out in the first scene. The boss has been shot and will die if not operated on immediately. But the cops, who seem to be hunting both the mob boss and Yong-pal, have found them, and, after the fastest life-saving surgery ever done, Tae-hyun and the gangsters make a run for it. They’re chased onto the roof and confronted by the lead detective with his gun out. Tae-hyun is commanded to flee with the boss, to take him to safety. Thus begins a massive car chase through Seoul that causes many additional car crashes and the destruction of personal property.
The chase ends with Tae-hyun blocked in on a railroad bridge over the Han river. With his only thought to survive to keep his sister alive, he pulls the mob boss onto the hood of his car and, while the cops attempt to negotiate, retrieves two epi-pens from his medical bag of tricks, stabs himself and the boss with them, and throws them both over the edge into the river. Cue credits.
This is the speed at which Yong Pal continues over the next few episodes, that is to say, break-neck. Some humor enters in the form of the recurring character of the mob boss (Song Kyung-cheol) that tracks Tae-hyun down to get continued treatment for his gunshot wound and also to give him some good-natured ribbing, and also the Head Nurse, played by veteran actress Kim Mi-kyung, who is entirely unflappable but looks fondly over the young kids working in her hospital. However, overall, it is one well-scripted reveal after another interspersed with dramatic, suspenseful moments of sheer drama.
For example, it is only in the second episode that Yong-pal’s identity is revealed. The detectives track down Tae-hyun’s hospital by following the trail of a single lost scalpel. They meet with Chief Lee to try to track down the owner, but he doesn’t give up the information, instead using his newfound knowledge of Tae-hyun’s misdemeanor to challenge him into submission. Of course, Tae-hyun, always one for self-preservation, immediately agrees to do whatever the chief wants, which happens to be moving up to the 12th floor, the VIP floor of the hospital where our chaebol heiress is asleep. It helps that the agreement comes with a pay raise and the promise of a future fellowship at the hospital; however, the dynamic between them has now changed. Chief Lee definitely has Tae-hyun under his heel now.
Yet, he still needs Tae-hyun’s special skills, especially useful when a Hallyu star gets himself besieged in a hotel where his girlfriend has been injured. As the hospital director says later, “We have a new service to offer! House calls!” Tae-hyun is rushed to the hotel by the 12th floor’s Manager of Customer Satisfaction, Cynthia Park (played by the striking and awesome Stephanie Lee). But that’s not enough: Tae-hyun has to learn that his new patients, ‘clients’ as they are called in the VIP world, are the 0.1% of Korea and therefore are exempt from many of the rules and morals he holds dear. He may be willing to do anything for money, but he balks when he realizes that the aforementioned Hallyu star sexually assaulted and attacked his girlfriend and got away with it.
I hope that the humanity of Tae-hyun’s character will hold strong, that even as he becomes more and more involved in the world of the 0.1%, he doesn’t begin to pander to them but instead holds onto his morals. He is already showing his cynicism regarding his VIP clients. Most likely, that will be the biggest obstacle to his continued fight to pay off his outrageous loans and save his sister. Of course, I won’t be surprised if that fight becomes more and more difficult. They’ve already used almost every drama plot twist in the book: Big makeover? Check. Violent alcoholic father? Check. Motherless children? Check. Dying sibling? Check. Traumatic car crash? Coma patient? Medical drama? Gangsters and a blackmail situation? Evil chairman and the chairman’s wife who acts air-headed yet is plotting to thwart his evil plans? Check, check, check and check, and I can still go on.
It’s only through the spectacular work of the scriptwriter, director, camera people, editors and, of course, the acting that the drama of Yong Pal doesn’t become too much. When Tae-hyun learns Yeo-jin’s backstory, of her lover and the car crash that killed him, Cynthia describes it as a romantic Romeo and Juliet story, ending, “The Prince of Daejung Group died that way. And only the Princess of Hanshin Group survived.”
“So the kids of the wealthy fell in love and got into an accident,” Tae-hyun succinctly summarizes, his cynicism clearly showing.
Joo Won’s acting as Tae-hyun has an extra large range of emotions, each perfectly timed to what a regular, confused person would feel when stuck in such a complex, emotionally conflicting situation. He’s cool when he needs his head in the hospital, plays nice and outgoing when meeting VIP clients, and angry yet determined when dealing with the mob boss and his never shrinking debt — his wonderful acting skills, and those of his co-actors, also bolster the script so that even scenes with nothing but speaking lines are suspenseful and fascinating.
A perfect moment of this is when we meet Nurse Hwang (played by musical actress Bae Hye-sun in her drama debut). She single-handedly cares for Yeo-jin and we see her entertaining herself by literally dolling up the sleeping woman with makeup and eating her large steak lunch right in front of Yeo-jin’s comatose body. During her lunch scene the camera switches back and forth between Nurse Hwang’s raw steak and Yeo-jin trapped in the glass room of her mind, and as she relates her 1,165 days of being locked in her mind we realize that she has been fully conscious the entire time, and when she challenges, “If I can wake up… I have decided to kill everyone who locked me in here and everyone who is on their side,” the camera cuts back to a smug looking Nurse Hwang wiping her lips.
This sort of juxtaposition builds up the suspense even while the actors are simply speaking lines, and when the action does ramp up, we’re given an almost perfect balance between physical acting, emotional acting, and script-reading, which combine with the actual scenarios being played out to create the best storytelling since My Love From Another Star.
This all helps to prove that we should trust the producers when they deny that there is any plagiarism in the making of Yong Pal. There’s so much else going on besides the basic medical-doctor-gone-rogue and chaebol-heiress-in-a-coma premise that is similar to City Conquest. Many commenters have reasoned that the accusations arose because Yong Pal is so incredibly popular, especially when compared with the failure of a drama version of City Conquest. Yet, there’s truly nothing to worry about in thinking that Yong Pal might actually have drawn from the comic’s plot. Our set-up is complete by the end of episode 4, and it is vastly different from any descriptions I’ve read of City Conquest’s plot.
We’ve seen where Tae-hyun’s morals lean and that he will do anything to keep his ailing sister (played by Park Hye-soo) alive. We know that Yeo-jin’s coma is medically induced by her scheming older step-brother, and she is kept under control by the creepy Nurse Hwang. Chief Lee is much less villainous than he originally seemed, and there’s room for complexity in his power relationship over Tae-hyun.
Cynthia has few morals, except to always keep the 0.1% happy since she knows which side her bread is buttered on, yet she is basically a good person at heart. Chae-young (Chae Jung-an), the chairman’s wife, is prepared to betray her husband and will hopefully end up being on Yeo-jin’s side.
And Episode 4 ends with the cliffhanger of all cliffhangers, which will definitely bring me back for more. The details in the directing and cinematography bring an extra level of interest to the drama devices employed, and the acting holds everything else up on a very strong foundation. Only because of such a foundation is it possible for the script to shine so well and the Drama to not overwhelm, and as long as these things continue to hold strong, they should be able to throw anything at us without it falling flat. I, for one, am quite excited.