Here’s the short version of the review, in case you don’t want to read it: This drama is a disappointment for its ambitious plot. To be more specific and fair, it was a disappointment to me. Hanbando had its ups and downs, with definitely more downs than ups. So why am I reviewing this? Because I actually stuck with this drama to the end, and I like to give homage to dramas that I watched, but didn’t enjoy. It’s only fair to try and figure out why I didn’t like it, and perhaps there are fans of this series who have their own reasons for loving it.
Since my initial review, I’ll summarize the rest of the series below. From where we left off, Jin Jae was trying to steal the information on the core technology for the methane-hydrate plant. The safe’s pass code ends up being that of her birthday. Talk about loooooove!
At the same time, a bomb goes off on the offshore base that throws everyone in chaos. The North Koreans had planted it as a form of diversion so that Jin Jae could safely get the technology. Unfortunately, Myung Joon’s best North Korean buddy Kwang Tae (the awesome Choi! Jae! Hwan!) dies when trying to save the base from collapsing because of the bomb. I think I checked out of this series after this moment because I was so depressed… Anyways – Jin Jae finds the engagement ring instead, which puts her loyalties to the test again. But under the careful watch of Dong Ki, she transfers the information of the core technology to the computers for the North Koreans.
The offshore base is taken over by the North Korean army, and they instigate an attack on the South’s navy. It leads to some casualties, but President Kang refuses to attack back. The North Koreans then steal the computers at the lab so that hopefully they could hack the information out of them. Supreme Leader Kim returns back to his country to figure out why the North Korean army attacked without his permission, only to be shot dead the moment he disembarked the plane. Lim Chul Woo is the only survivor, but he is immediately arrested.
Oh and President Kang ends up in a coma.
With both leaders incapacitated, Jo Gook Chul assumes control in North Korea while the Vice President takes control in the South. He has to deal with Jin Jae’s betrayal though, which is difficult because she’s the daughter of his trusty right hand soldier, Han Kyoung Ok. (And Lim Chul Woo is her husband.) Kyoung Ok manipulates it so that her husband is jailed indefinitely, and her daughter is sent off to Romania as a captive/envoy to help ease relations between Russia and North Korea. Since she is also the only one who may know how to hack into Myung Joon’s computers, she’s too valuable to kill off.
As for Myung Joon, he heroically helps save his colleagues from certain death by the North Koreans during the takeover. He uses media to his advantage (with Park Hye Jung’s help) and makes the North Koreans look so bad that they have to retreat. He returns to the South a hero, but he feels so guilty about not being able to bring his North Korean colleagues back to the South. He knows that once they return to North Korean soil, they’re all going to be jailed. (They do.)
So when he hears that Jin Jae is sent to Romania through his NIA buddy Dong Won, Myung Joon decides to go on a mission alone to save her. The NIA are also in Bucharest because they want to stop Jin Jae from possibly spreading the core technology information Russian envoys there. They don’t want Myung Joon involved, and he’s under careful watch by the government. With Hye Jung’s help in getting him a fake identity, Myung Joon manages to sneak in to Romania. When Dong Ki discovers his presence, he immediately has his men chase after him. Myung Joon makes a condom smoke bomb using condoms that Hye Jung’s carrying in her bag, and some every day liquids. Awesome.
(Side note: Why are the best action scenes always in Europe? Look at IRIS in Hungary and ATHENA in Italy.)
They get away, and even get some help from Dong Won. He reaches Jin Jae at the Academy and then they go on the run, escaping both the North Koreans and Dong Ki. Scientist: 2. Secret Agents/Soldiers: 0.
Myung Joon and Jin Jae go on the run, traveling quite a ways before they can safely get on a plane to go home. That leads to some romantic moments between the two and he promises to marry her. She also hands back the technology information in its hard drive, so that it never ends up in the hands of North Korea and Russia. A little flashback informs us that the two were in love, but because of circumstances years ago, they never got to run away and elope together.
Unfortunately, they are torn apart by Dong Ki, who slowly eliminates all of their allies and friends in Romania. Jin Jae is forced to go back to North Korea, where she’s imprisoned as a political prisoner with her father.
Meanwhile, Secretary Park Do Myung has no faith in the Vice President, and knows that Senator Oh Chang Il will most likely become the next president during elections. Oh Chang Il is also quite the conservative, and won’t advocate for reunification with the North. Therefore Do Myung quits the Blue House and offers his services to Myung Joon. He believes Myung Joon can be the next president of Korea.
After much thought and doubt, Myung Joon finally agrees to do it. He has a dream of reunification, and most importantly, he wants his girl back. Commence Peace Campaign! Myung Joon is completely inexperienced though, and doesn’t really know how to win the media’s (and South Korea’s) hearts. When he’s asked by a reporter who favors Oh Chang Il what he thinks about the North for having killed so many South Korean soldiers, Myung Joon says he does not view the North as enemies. That incites a lot of furor among the South Koreans, and the families of the fallen soldiers.
As for Jin Jae, she ends up in prison and is repeatedly tortured. The Party wants her to “atone for her sins” and denounce her father publicly for his treasonous acts. Jin Jae still refuses to denounce her father, and so he ends up being executed by the army. Dong Ki is the one who calls the shots on this one (I mean, literally, he says “Fire!” at all the soldiers who have their rifles aimed at Lim Chul Woo), and it’s to prove his unswerving loyalty to the party. Jin Jae withdraws even further within herself, reciting the periodic table as a way of dealing with the emotional stress.
It’s particularly hard on the fractured family, and on Dong Ki. Jin Jae is his first and only love, and he hates watching her suffer so much. He’s also Jo Gook Chul’s protegee, so he’s given a little leeway in how to “resolve” the Jin Jae-problem. For one, Dong Ki even has Jin Jae become his wife so that she can escape further scrutiny and torture from the Party. However, she chooses to jump to her death from the balcony of his mansion.
Yeap – but no worries! She survives – her neck barely missing the stairs, which could have led to a broken neck or a cracked skull at the very least.
Pushed to the limit, Dong Ki secretly enters the South searching for Myung Joon. He finds that Myung Joon is now a presidential candidate, trying to make amends with the soldiers’ families by doing acts of charity for them. But Myung Joon understands his role as a presidential candidate, and how he can make more impactful changes for the long term. He refuses to go to North Korea to save Jin Jae, as painful as the decision may be.
Myung Joon goes on his “Highway Journey,” a peace rally on bikes where he goes from the southernmost part of Korea to the northernmost part, rallying people to follow his path towards peace and reunification. He even manages to get his former colleagues from the base to join him on this rally. Myung Joon’s popularity rises, and Oh Chang Il grows increasingly worried that he might actually lose this election. He meets with Dong Won’s superior, who actually knows about Myung Joon’s romance with Jin Jae, and is willing to help sabotage Myung Joon’s bid for presidency.
As for Jin Jae, she gets pushed to such limits that she finally tells Dong Ki that she’s ready to denounce her father publicly. Standing before the assembly, she apologizes for her sins… of being such a privileged daughter of the Party and not equally sharing her wealth. Um… that’s not exactly what the Party had in mind for her public apology; they were expecting “Oh I was not loyal and didn’t give up the core technology information, and was totally siding with the South’s politics, yada yada yada…”
The party members call for Jin Jae’s execution, and suddenly Dong Ki jumps in and fires three shots into her. He then whisks her away before she can bloody the floor any further.
Turns out this is all a hoax! Jin Jae and Dong Ki had planned beforehand exactly what she was going to say, and how he was going to shoot her. He purposely shot her in the arm and in the torso where she wouldn’t bleed too much, and then took her away as if she were dead. He then snuck her across the river and then told her to escape – cross the river and enter South Korea.
Success! Jin Jae finally makes it to South Korea, and is taken in by the NIA. Dong Ki gets arrested and goes into the political prisoners’ camp, along with some of the former workers at the offshore base. Jin Jae refuses to cooperate with the NIA though, because they’re treating her rudely like another prisoner. She also gets painted in a negative light when she tells the media that she doesn’t think badly of North Korea. (She and Myung Joon are so alike – their stance in being neutral about the countries makes them very good targets by the media.)
So the whole country hates her, and Myung Joon is ordered to stay away from her because she will totally ruin his campaign. Then news leaks out that the two of them were engaged, and that totally drags Myung Joon’s name in the mud. Oh Chang Il is super gleeful that he’s in the lead again as the top presidential candidate. Do Myung then receives intel that Oh Chang Il is actually having an affair on the side, so he offers it to Myung Joon. The photos of the affair could be a powerful torpedo that will sink Oh Chang Il’s campaign. Righteous man he is, Myung Joon refuses to sink that low.
Jin Jae realizes that she could ruin Myung Joon’s future, so she schedules for a press conference that could affect his campaign. If she admits to being in love with Myung Joon (which is the truth), he will never be president. If she lies that they were never involved, then Oh Chang Il will be painted as a liar, and it could ruin his campaign. Before she can get too far in the press conference though, Myung Joon interrupts, and he admits to all the world that he’s in love with Jin Jae. After all, isn’t this the point of reunification? Where one does not discriminate between North and South, but merely sees another as a person? He loves Jin Jae; it just so happened that she was North Korean.
Fast forward a year later, and suddenly he’s the president of Korea, and she the First Lady. (I’m so pissed about this time jump.) He’s actively working towards peace, while Jin Jae is now the chief of a research center looking for new sources of energy. Hye Jung is still a reporter, and she sneaks to the border of Russia and North Korea, hoping to get a story from some escapee there. She gets caught by Dong Ki and is led to a small ragtag group of escaped prisoners. They’re the new Democratic North, trying to find a way to overthrow the new dictatorship for a true democracy in the north. Dong Ki has Hye Jung act as messenger to Myung Joon, hoping to get the South Korean government’s support.
Myung Joon agrees to meet Dong Ki in Russia. So while he and Jin Jae go on a cruise towards Vladivostok, Russia for political purposes, Hye Jung helps Dong Ki get on the same cruise and arrange a secret meeting. Dong Ki and Jin Jae don’t get to interact, but a warm smile to each other shows that they still deeply care for each other, and are happy to see the other alive and well. Myung Joon greets Dong Ki as a friend, rather than an enemy, and he swears to do all he can to help Dong Ki’s cause.
And with that, we leave our new president musing about the future where Korea can become one.
I’m going to admit straight off that this drama ended up not being what I thought it was, which can explain my disappointment in this drama. I thought it was going to be about the struggles of Myung Joon and Jin Jae reuniting North and South Korea in a futuristic sort of way. I was not expecting the whole drama to show his struggle during his presidential campaign, and him trying to reach his true love. However, I cannot judge the drama for what it is not, since that is unfair. It is what it is, so from this point on, I will talk about why I thought this drama was a disappointing journey.
This series was mostly about a man’s journey to become the president of Korea and achieve his dream of reunification. (His dream does not become reality by the end of the series by the way, but he does achieve “reunification” in the smallest of sense by marrying a North Korean.) The problem is, I don’t really care about his journey. His campaigns revolve around him trying to win over the people with his neutral, pacifist stance, but you know he’s going to win the election no matter what. The risks never seem to be high enough; Oh, so he is not a viable candidate? Then back to the research lab for you, where you still make tons of money and can do something good for the country! He gets supporters after just one moving speech, and he spends a lot of time moping about his poor Jin Jae.
What’s worse is, it skips the election part completely, and goes straight to one year later during his inauguration. I can see that the series cut was having its effect on the writing, because suddenly a lot of things had to happen in less episodes. However, if the story was planned out better from the beginning, and better paced, we wouldn’t have had so much of a problem.
Another thing that probably was a big pitfall for this series was the number of characters it had. I felt that this drama was trying to juggle too many balls in the air. We had Myung Joon and his advisors, Jin Jae, Dong Ki, the Communist Party and their own internal tiffs, Dong Won and his tiff with his superior at NIA, his superior then selling information to Oh Chang Il, and Park Hye Jung’s story. So many stories at once, and too little time to tell it. Each of these characters had great potential because they were solid characters, but not all were given enough time for development.
Each character also had a repetitive storyline as well. Jin Jae was almost always being tortured or suffering in some way. Dong Ki was always moping after her and trying to save her in some way (but failing miserably because she doesn’t want his help). Hye Jung was always going for “that story” with Myung Joon, and it was clear she had the hots for him even though that aspect wasn’t fully developed. (I think she interacted more with, and had better chemistry with, Dong Won.) Myung Joon and Do Myung would always disagree about what a presidential candidate had to do or represent. Dong Won would always be arguing against his superior, and be tracking Myung Joon constantly in case the scientist decided to do something crazy. And Chang Il was usually sitting and plotting, manipulating the media to his own advantage.
It’s the same storyline for every character for 10 episodes straight. You can see how I would get sick of it, can’t you? It didn’t help that no character changed by the end of it – they all managed to be exactly who they were before, but with better titles.
I wanted to skip all of those stories. I wanted this series to have a strong message, to be a little fantastical and a little futuristic; since it’s on a cable channel I was hoping it would take a few more liberties in its content. I wanted to see what the writers would envision for a unified Korea, but instead they made broad, general strokes that wouldn’t offend anyone. The storyline was simply, “We are all the same people, and so we shouldn’t discriminate anyone for it.” It’s a lofty message, politically correct, and very true. However, don’t you think it’s more interesting to watch North Korean advisors trying to overcome their differences with South Korean advisors, with Myung Joon mediating between them? Meanwhile they would all have to defuse tensions between the rest of the population before the people start fighting amongst themselves? Wouldn’t that be a little more exciting than just watching a scientist preach “North Koreans are not our enemies; they’re our brothers and sisters”?
It does paint North Korea in a slightly negative light with all the torture scenes and the cold-hearted arrests and killings that they do. However, the focus is on the redeemable characters in North Korea (such as Dong Ki and Jin Jae), and you know that despite each North Korean character’s tough outer shell, they’re still conflicted characters who are struggling to stay alive and in power.
In regards to the acting…
Hwang Jung Min is a great actor – but he doesn’t have a very meaty storyline. His struggles look easier to overcome than that of Dong Ki (Kwak Hee Sung), who’s constantly trying to find ways to save Jin Jae from certain death without getting killed himself. It’s sad when a second male lead has a more interesting storyline than the main male lead. As for Kim Jung Eun, this was not her shining moment as an actress. However, I thought her best moment was when she screamed in pain at the sound of her father being executed. The rest of the time, she looked like she was smiling awkwardly/grimacing when showing off her suffering.
Jo Yi Jin was an interesting choice – I’ve never seen her in anything else before, but she certainly has the spunk and embodies her character Hye Jung very well. She doesn’t seem to have acted in much dramas, but I do hope to see more of her. The rest of the supporting cast was strong – but again, I do feel that we don’t spend enough time with them to enjoy their characters. Jo Sung Ha was his usual, stoic best, and I truly enjoyed Choi Il Hwa as the Naval Commander-turned-Vice Presidential candidate. For the first time in a while (since Coffee Prince) he played a good, sympathetic character. He embodied the heart of a commander who was wronged by North Korea but had massive presence and grace to restrain from vilifying anyone through the media.
For a drama with a big budget, I expected a spy drama with killer action scenes. It ended up being a quiet, political drama that probably didn’t need all that money. However! The shots are BEAUTIFUL – talk about HD quality and cinematography! There is one other shining gem in this series: Myung Joon’s little girl is freaking adorable, and I love how she – in all her 6-year-old self – scolds her father for doing dangerous things.
Verdict: 5/10 – a freaking shame I didn’t enjoy this one. I’m starting to appreciate IRIS and ATHENA more…