Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Sandglass is more than just great historical drama; itís one of the crowning achievements of Korean television.
Without a doubt, Sandglass is one of the most significant dramas ever to come out of Korea. It is still one of the top rated dramas ever shown on Korean television, and at its peak, pulled in over half the viewing audience. It was such a phenomenon that popular legend has it you could actually see the streets empty and traffic disappear when it was on. The impact that this groundbreaking drama had was immense, and with its North American release, new viewers will finally be able to appreciate this masterful work now available as an eight disc set of 24 episodes.
Originally airing in 1995, Sandglass follows two childhood friends through the turbulent 1970s and 80s as the political climate in Korea was coming to a rapid boil. Tae-soo and Woo-shik both come from impoverished backgrounds, but Tae-soo labors under the additional stigma of being the son of a communist partisan. After a brief flirtation with the straight-and-narrow, he realizes that all normal avenues of advancement are closed and he becomes a gangster. Meanwhile Woo-shik studies away, hoping to please his farming family by becoming a city lawyer. After leaving their hometown for Seoul, both men form emotional ties to Hye-ran, a passionate student activist dedicated to the nascent democracy movement. Their lives take drastic turns when in their own separate ways all three become involved in the Kwangju uprising: Tae-soo becomes an innocent bystander and witness to the atrocities, while Woo-shik serves as a soldier ordered to fire on civilians. Meanwhile, the government arrests and tortures Hye-ran, who is revealed as the daughter of a leading gangster. All three have been trying to escape their fates, but the political turmoil sends them hurling along their destined paths. Tae-soo, still strangely loyal and moral, sinks deeper and deeper into a life of crime; Woo-shik finds his rise as a public prosecutor complicated by his own strict moral code; and Hye-ran learns both ruthlessness and compassion as she takes over her fatherís business. The three are surrounded by a fascinating and diverse cast of politicians, protesters, lawyers, housewives, journalists, farmers, and criminals.
However, Sandglass does something more than just drop its characters in the middle of historical events and use the context as a fancy backdrop for the usual love triangle. Instead, it uses the characters to explore the impact that the events which swept the nation had on the lives of individuals. Perhaps no other drama has ever represented the intertwining of the personal, political, and social so clearly and movingly. Using the stories of Tae-soo, Woo-shik, and Hye-ran to illustrate the intertwining of business, politics, and crime, Sandglass examines Korean society as a place beset with corruption and oppression, and really gives voice to a society crying out for justice. Its effectiveness for reminding Koreans of their recent history has even been credited in part for helping lead to the arrest of the former dictator Jeon Do-hwan.
Korean Wave fans who have been weaned on lighter comedic dramas like Princess Hours or the three-hanky weepies in the vein of Stairway to Heaven may have a hard time adjusting to the bleaker and more restrained atmosphere that pervades Sandglass. It shares an aesthetic with others in the historical genre, and works hard to recreate the periods it portrays. However, it incorporates historical TV footage, including news coverage and video of the Kwangju riots and various speeches by the real political leaders of the time. Although they donít blend perfectly with the style of filming, they give an added level of detail and place, and ground the charactersí stories even more firmly in social and historical reality.
The level of acting is consistently excellent, with a large cast of some of the best veteran actors backing up the then-newcomers in the lead roles. Go Hyeon-jang hits just the right notes as Hye-ran progresses from an idealistic and rebellious girl to becoming a woman stumbling towards her own moral center, while Park Sang-wonís Woo-shik walks the delicate line between his doubts and his abilities. Especially worthy is Choi Min-suís nuanced and vivid portrayal of Tae-soo, where a lesser actor might have come across as a one-note thug.
Finally, the writing in Sandglass is consistently excellent. The personal lives of all the characters are developed slowly, but carefully and realistically. While some of the conventions most drama viewers will be familiar with appear, and strategic coincidences abound, it doesnít require the same suspension of belief that most dramas demand. Other conventions are stretched and changed. Lovers are separated by gaps of class and social rank, but instead of using that merely as a plot device to extend the series, Sandglass uses it as a way to comment on society. It doesnít recycle endlessly the same two people coming together and being ripped apart. The rivals for each characterís love never degenerate into stereotypes, and the charactersí romantic decisions never cease to surprise. The stakes are higher, the characters deeper, and the whole series has a patina of realism that lifts this miles above the average drama.
There are a few flaws with the series: it looses steam during the second half, when Byzantine political machinations take up a lot of the drama. Anyone not fascinated by shady businessmen plotting land reclamation schemes with corrupt mid-level politicians will be strongly tempted to fast forward. Still, without doubt this is one of the strongest, most engaging, and most moving series ever to come out of Korea.
YA Entertainment site: http://www.yaentertainment.com
Date Posted: 10/28/2006