Utterly Bizarre But Stylistically Mesmerizing
When The Camellia Blooms is utterly bizarre yet mesmerizing and difficult to take your eyes off. With a quick-pace littered with stylistic ticks, episode 1 skips through its various characters at breakneck speed, with a lot of backstory and exposition crammed into this first hour. For the most part it does work quite well although at times the editing is a little confusing as we jump through timelines and characters with reckless abandon.
We begin with a policeman arriving at the scene of a crime as the people whisper about an event occurring again. As they take the body away, the scene fades in and out of various pictures until we’re introduced to our main character, Dongbaek; a woman so beautiful she causes people to fall off their bikes and stand in awe. It’s a hilariously juxtaposed scene too, especially given we’ve just seen someone die but does well to set up the quirky, comedic tone clinging to large stretches of this Korean drama.
With a young child in tow, Dongbaek is told the terms of her tenancy as she prepares the building to open for business. Meanwhile, neighbours Park and Kim reminisce about the past, and in particular the misadventures of a man named Yong-Sik. After seeing some of his past, the conversation turns to his future and it’s here Dongbaek arrives, offering the ladies some rice cakes. It turns out she has plans to open a bar called Camellia and excitedly talks to them about juggling this responsibility with raising a child.
Disapproving of her plan given she’s a single Mum, the women grumble about her lack of experience as we cut to the evening, seeing our single Mum chopping cabbage before suddenly jumping forward 6 years and seeing the bar doing well and surviving. While the bar downstairs is lively and full of drunk punters, upstairs Dongbaek and her son discuss English names before she’s called downstairs. At the same time, we catch up with Yong-Sik who has no regrets over his demotion and instead spends his time dreaming about finding Mrs. right.
Meanwhile Jessica and Ji-Seun live a star-studded life and with that, comes the usual celebrity woes you’d expect. Between Jessica refusing to eat cake but pretending she has for her Instagram followers, to Ji-Seun forced to look after their child alone, their relationship is toxic and fractured. I’m sure we’ll see more of them in the episodes to come but for now it’s a sneak peek at a star-studded life that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In the midst of investigating the case, Yonk-Sik happens to see Dongbaek at the bookstore and immediately finds himself smitten as he watches her reads Harry Potter. However, she notices his goofy grin and mutters that he’s a pervert. Walking past him, he says sorry in English before narration fills us in on the awkwardness of their conversation, as he fumbles his words and forces her to make a hasty retreat.
Following from afar, he watches as she heads to the law office before we cut to her inside and struggling to form complete sentences. Here, she receives the cold shoulder and as she soon learns, a lot of the women in the area feel the same way about her, especially given the predominant gender of her clientele at the bar are male. They, of course, assume that the bar is only busy because of her looks.
As Yong-Sik is taken to the bar for drinks, he’s shown the ropes on how to survive there before spying Dongbaek returning to the bar again, prompting the familiar music from the bookstore to cut in again as he stares at the “Diana of Ongsam” in awe. Ignoring him, she instead takes Hyang-Mi, the kleptomaniac waitress, aside and tells her not to sit with the customers.
As they head back out to the main bar area, the others get blind drunk and refuse to pay for peanuts, prompting Yong-Sik to ask No Kyu-Ta for the 8000 won. As he grabs his arm and twists it, he happens to take the Governor’s wallet instead and hurries back over to Dongbaek, giving her the money he owes from the wallet.
Here Yong-Sik officially introduces himself to her and tells her she’s really pretty and really cool. He continues to fumble his way through the conversation, shooting a goofy, smitten smile her way before we cut back to the same scene at the beginning of the episode. Yong-Sik is the policeman at the crime scene and as he pulls back the white cover on the body, he struggles to hold back tears. Despite a recognisable bracelet, who this is remains to be seen as we leave the episode on an agonizing cliffhanger.
When The Camellia Blooms is a show that could go one of two ways. I didn’t love the premiere of the show but I also didn’t hate it either. It’s one of those dramas that feels like it needs a few episodes to really settle into its groove and there’s some utterly bonkers choices here on a stylistic front that’ll make or break the show for you. The editing is relentless as well and at times the scenes cut back in time with little warning over what’s happening. That’s before even mentioning the six year time jump midway through the episode that leaves many questions unanswered around quite what happened during these six years.
Some of the swearing is filtered out with a strange sound effect and a flower blocking the mouth too while the tone of the piece feels at odds during the beginning and end of this drama as we see the sombre, serious crime scene compared to the comedic, lighthearted romance the rest of the time. Still, this happens to play into the unpredictability factor that makes Camellia such an interesting and different show but quite whether it can stand out next to other Korean dramas and deliver a memorable, believable story by the end remains to be seen.