Period Romance or Historical Revisionism?
Episode 1 of Snowdrop opens in the spring of 1987 at Hosu Womans University. Dorm room 207 is home to the first years Eun Yeong-ro and Yoon Seol-hui, as well as senior students Ko Hye-ryeong and Yeo Jeong-min. The dorm’s phone desk is operated by Kye Bun-ok, who is around the same age as the senior students.
Elsewhere, members of Aemin Party, the ruling party, meet for Dongsim Society’s 30th anniversary. In attendance is the Secretary General, Nam Tae-il, who is ranked second among the party members. In a power struggle with him is Eun Chang-su, the Director of the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP), who is ranked third.
After the gathering, Tae-il and Chang-su meet separately with Aemin Party’s president about the progress of Operation Phoenix. Chang-su outlines a plan to abduct Professor Han I-seop, the brains behind the opposition party, and make it seem like the opposition party operates with the support of North Korea.
Cosmos Toys is a front for ANSP’s headquarters, where agent Jung Ha-na arrives to see the chief, Ahn Gyeong-hui. Also there is agent Lee Gang-mu, the legendary Black Tiger, who has returned from Germany in pursuit of a North Korean spy referred to as Taedong River 1.
Gang-mu is shaken by Ha-na’s presence, and she doesn’t appear happy to see him either. After shooting metaphorical daggers from her eyes and a literal bullet from her pistol, she forces her way onto Gang-mu’s team.
That night, a few graduate students, including Im Soo-ho and Oh Gwang-tae, have a rooftop barbeque. According to the girls observing, Soo-ho studies economics at Berlin University and has returned to Korea for his thesis paper.
With only 15 minutes left until roll call at the Hosu dorm, Yeong-ro runs back with a wave of equally frantic students. She comes across Hye-ryeong receiving a ring in a love confession from a soldier and urges her to join the throng.
On the hill leading to the dorms, Yeong-ro drops her tin of rice cakes. As it rolls away, Hye-ryeong tells her to leave it and keeps running. Yeong-ro doesn’t listen and the caretaker, Kim Man-dong, is forced to shut the dorm’s door and hand over the key to the matron before Yeong-ro makes it back.
Yeong-ro goes around the side of the building and climbs to the second story ledge below the bedroom windows. As she inches her way to 207’s window, Bun-ok helps to distract the matron from catching sight of her.
In 207, Jeong-min berates Hye-ryeong for abandoning Yeong-ro since she won’t be able to afford a room if she gets kicked out. According to Jeong-min, Yeong-ro’s family owns a humble rice cake shop and she relies on scholarships and assisting Bun-ok with the phones to stay at the dorm.
Seol-hui spots Yeong-ro at the window at the same time Bun-ok does. With the matron closing in, Bun-ok cries “rat!” sending the dorm residents into a frenzy. The 207 girls use the commotion to pull Yeong-ro in and throw a nightgown over her dirty clothes while wiping the grime from her visible skin.
Later, Yeong-ro realises she left her tin by the front door and goes to retrieve it from Man-dong. He asks her to make a delivery to Bun-ok while she’s there.
Bun-ok only pokes her head out when Yeong-ro comes knocking, suspiciously keeping her room concealed. In exchange for incurring the matron’s wrath, Bun-ok asks Yeong-ro to bring her an English edition of Romeo and Juliet.
Ha-na joins Gang-mu’s meeting the next day. He thinks that Professor Han is likely to have helped Taedong River 1 sneak into Seoul. Ha-na will use the rapport she has established with the opposition party while pretending to be a journalist fired for condemning the ruling party to keep an eye on the professor.
At the dorm, Yeong-ro vents about the lack of correspondence from her brother while helping Bun-ok with the phones. Yeong-ro picks up a call from Gwang-tae who introduces himself and arranges a group date with the girls of 207, though it’s mostly an excuse for him to meet Hye-ryeong.
Gwang-tae, being one boy short of the four needed to pair up with the four girls of 207, begs Soo-ho to join the date. Soo-ho only agrees when Gwang-tae threatens not to introduce him to Professor Han. Meanwhile, Yeong-ro laments that Jeong-min is unlikely to go and Bun-ok eagerly takes her place.
The day of the date comes around. When the girls from 207 arrive Gwang-tae jolts out of his seat to greet them, bumping the table and sending the matchstick tower Soo-ho was building crashing. Soo-ho and Yeong-ro both go to catch it and her hands cover his – it’s the beginning of a series of curious glances between the two.
Bun-ok joins the 207 girls and throws herself into the seat opposite Soo-ho before anyone else can, introducing herself as a Hosu student named Gye-seong. With two concert tickets, she’s eager to partner up and leave (preferably with Soo-ho).
The girls close their eyes while each of the boys place a token on the table. Hye-ryeong is the first to pick from the tokens and chooses an exam certificate, thinking it belongs to Soo-ho until Gwang-tae reveals that it’s his.
Yeong-ro is next. She’s drawn to a paper plane – Soo-ho’s actual token – and he obviously wants her to pick it, clearing his throat once her hand hovers over it. Bun-ok, who overheard Soo-ho and Gwang-tae discussing their tokens earlier, swipes the plane before Yeong-ro has a chance to pick it up.
After the date, Yeong-ro listens to a record at a store and unconsciously sings along. Mortified, she tries to make a quick getaway and bumps into Soo-ho as he peruses the shelves, having cut his time with Bun-ok short.
Yeong-ro, still humiliated, tries to quickly purchase a cassette tape and leave but finds her wallet empty. She rushes out but doesn’t get far before Soo-ho catches up to her, cassette tape in hand.
Feeling guilty about accepting the sudden gift, she runs after Soo-ho as he walks away. Both are unaware of someone watching them from a parked car. Soo-ho sees a group of officers searching for wanted men and turns into a laneway. It’s a dead end.
Yeong-ro follows him in, dropping the tape into his pocket. Noticing the officers now crowded around the entrance, she pretends like they’re a couple in the midst of a lover’s spat. Soo-ho pulls her into a hug. As she trembles, he pats her back reassuringly. It’s enough to convince the officers and they move on.
Soo-ho comments on Yeong-ro’s convincing acting. She says her brother was once arrested during a protest by way of explanation and walks away. Soo-ho follows, starting to ask her out to dinner when he notices the person watching from the car. He stops, giving her the tape and his thanks instead.
Yeong-ro is the one to stop him from walking away this time. She says she doesn’t like being indebted and asks him to meet her for coffee the next day to return the favour. He never shows…
Skipping forward six months to November, secret South–North talks are held in Beijing. Tae-il and Chang-su meet with two North Korean officials: Im Ji-rok, head of the United Front Department, and Choi Soo-ryeon, the Deputy Director of the Ministry of State Security (MSS). They sign a contract outlining a large sum of money to be wired to the North within 24 hours.
Gang-mu gathers his team and explains that Soo-ho, who has been hanging around Professor Han, is the suspect most likely to be Taedong River 1. Ha-na has also found no student records for Soo-ho at Berlin University.
That night, Soo-ho sits in a car with two other men watching Professor Han enter the Hanguk University parking lot. Professor Han’s tire is flat, and Soo-ho offers him a ride.
Ha-na, who has been watching covertly, signals the ANSP agents in place. At the next intersection, another car rams into Soo-ho’s ride. His driver and the professor are left unresponsive. He instructs the man in the passenger seat, Comrade Joo, to run as Gang-mu pulls up.
Soo-ho flees in a different direction, pursed by Gang-mu, Ha-na, and the other agents. He passes through a crowd of student protestors, including Jeong-min, calling for fair elections. Riot police begin firing tear gas at the students and closing in on them, forcing them to scatter.
Gang-mu tracks Soo-ho to the Hosu dorm. Soo-ho scales the building much like Yeong-ro did, climbing into room 207 before collapsing.
Yeong-ro gets back to 207 as the ANSP agents burst into the dorm. The matron refuses to cooperate with their search without first seeing a warrant.
Jeong-min uses the commotion to sneak back into the dorm and head to 207. Hye-ryeong notices and follows. Gang-mu spots them both and does the same.
In 207, Yeong-ro realises that the unconscious person bleeding out on the floor is Soo-ho.
A bonus clip takes us back to the rooftop barbeque. Soo-ho strums a guitar and sings a tune for his friends as Comrade Joo, disguised as an electrician, fiddles with a nearby utility pole.
The Episode Review
Snowdrop shines where it concerns itself with university dorm life. The girls of 207 share an obvious bond but this doesn’t preclude them from stepping on each other’s toes, and their dynamic is all the more enjoyable for it. From their cafeteria bickering to the roll call almost-disaster, the girls of 207 are full of charm and levity.
The drama is also hitting the right notes stylistically, with gorgeously detailed set designs, warm filtered lighting, and nicely executed framing. The effect is to anchor us in the past while filling it with new life.
International viewers going into Snowdrop through Disney+ with no context of South Korea’s socio-political climate in 1987 would have an easy enough time dropping 4 or more stars on Episode 1. Amusing university mischief and an intriguing, if slightly confusing, political plot-line. Sign us up, right?
But this is where it gets sticky for viewers who do know the context, especially domestic viewers. Going in blind, you might come out finding it hard to believe that Gang-mu and Ha-na – portrayed so far as characters to root for – are part of an intelligence agency whose real-life counterpart tortured and killed pro-democracy student-activists under Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship.
It would be similarly problematic if it proves true that Soo-ho is a North Korean spy posing as a university student – this was a common excuse used to detain and silence the actual student-activists that took part in South Korea’s June Democratic Struggle.
With all this in mind, there’s still the possibility that Snowdrop has included these overtones of revisionist discourse to subvert them. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.
|Expect A Full Season Write-Up When This Season Concludes!|