Remakes of popular Asian dramas by different countries are fairly common in this business. Taiwan’s Meteor Garden (2001), Japan’s Hana Yori Dango (2005), and South Korea’s Boys Before Flowers (2009) all tell the same story with the same characters, and all three were blockbuster hits.
He Who Can’t Marry (2009) is South Korea’s remake of Japan’s Kekkon Dekinai Otoko (2006), one of my favorite dramas of all time. In brief, the plot is about a neurotic architect who infuriates people around him because he is self-absorbed and freely speaks his mind without concern for others. Nevertheless, he is very successful because of his excellent building designs and quest for perfection. Through some chance encounters, his neighbor and a doctor at the local hospital become involved in his life. Although they are frequently annoyed by his behavior, they inexplicably feel an attachment to him.
My review of the Japanese version talks a bit more about the plot. It’s a realistic drama with ubiquitous but subtle humor. When it comes to remakes, comparing different versions is inevitable, so my review of He Who Can’t Marry will examine the differences between the two.
What did I like so much about Kekkon Dekinai Otoko (KDO) that makes it #2 on my Asian drama rankings? It’s a combination of the witty writing, the humor in the story, and the immense acting talent of Abe Hiroshi. Those will be the main points for comparison.
My immediate impression when beginning He Who Can’t Marry (HWCM) was that this was a rather cheap copy. The first twenty minutes were virtually a shot-for-shot clone with identical camera angles and the same dialogue. Luckily, although all the scenarios and plot points in KDO are intact in HWCM, the Korean series doesn’t approach all of them in the same way and remixes them a bit.
Since HWCM is substantially longer (16 episodes at an hour long each) compared to KDO (12 episodes at ~45 minutes), HWCM has the time to explore a little more background and add additional elements beyond the original story. HWCM also has a more complete and satisfying ending, but more on that later.
It’s rather strange that despite copying some of the best lines and retorts from KDO, HWCM doesn’t seem nearly as clever or witty. That’s likely due to editing and directing. A couple years have passed since I watched KDO, but I still remember how tightly the conversations were edited to create a brisk flow in the dialogue. This is crucial because some of the funniest moments in the drama occur during heated arguments between the architect and other characters.
Those moments are present in HWCM but sometimes miss that spark. The comic timing is off at times, whether it’s lingering a second too long on one person before cutting to somebody else or spacing out the conversation awkwardly. Sounds like such minor details, but understand that I hold KDO in very high regard and these tiny changes were blinding.
With almost every character, the Korean actors and actresses are more physically attractive than the Japanese counterparts. The Korean doctor (played by Uhm Jung Hwa) in particular is quite striking and a definite hottie. However, she seems stiff in front of the camera, especially in the beginning episodes (dramas are typically filmed episode by episode). She gets appropriately angry and upset when she has to be but doesn’t capture quite the same exasperation with the architect like Natsukawa Yui does in KDO.
Ji Jin Hee plays the architect Cho Jae Hee in a daunting interpretation of Abe Hiroshi’s character in KDO. Ji Jin Hee must have studied Abe’s performance because while watching HWCM, I couldn’t help feeling he was mimicking Abe by adopting the same mannerisms and quirks. Like Uhm Hung Hwa, he seems to settle more into the role with advancing episodes and becomes more comfortable being the architect character. He doesn’t quite redefine the role and at times still seems like a caricature, but he does a fantastic acting job. He would make Abe Hiroshi proud.
Kim So Eun plays the cute neighbor who reluctantly helps out the architect in many ways. Just like Kuninaka Ryoko in KDO, she’s perky and adorable but with a Korean attitude, frequently clicking her tongue and making faux pissed-off faces like Korean girls do.
I have a feeling some elements of the drama were copied without complete understanding of their purpose or what made them funny in the first place. The biggest example of this is the architect’s rival. In KDO, the architect would have a drink at his regular bar every episode and see a new girl with his rival every time. The rival had no idea the guy at the bar was an architect and a business competitor, but they would have a brief chat that was somehow tied into the theme of the episode. Also in every episode, the architect would check his rival’s blog and make fun of what had been posted. This established routine set up a great payoff later in the show when the rival realized who the guy at the bar really was.
This did not happen in HWCM quite the same way. Sure, the rival is written into the story and there’s a couple scenes with his blog and the bar, but there was no established routine and the moment of discovery was completely botched in the Korean version. I literally groaned out loud when Ji Jin Hee STILL said Abe Hiroshi’s classic line even though the set-up was completely wrong.
The same can be said for the scenes with the convenience store and video rental store that the architect shops at. Those visits in every episode of KDO served to reflect changes in the architect as the series progressed in addition to furthering the theme of each episode. The store scenes are randomly tossed into HWCM without any purpose or over-arching meaning. The “25” joke is back though, as well as a new Lost joke with “Last”!
From reading all this, you might think that I’m quite down on HWCM, but that’s actually not the case. While viewers of KDO will naturally want to do comparisons, HWCM is a very capable drama that can proudly stand on its own two feet. The humor is intact, the plot is straightforward but classic, and the directors have added small Korean touches here and there. Additionally, it addresses the biggest shortcoming in KDO: the rushed, unsatisfying and open-ended finish.
With the extra airtime luxury thanks to 4 additional episodes, HWCM was able to properly close out the series and give fans the closure that we all wanted. That is why I’m concluding that HWCM is a must-watch for even the most diehard of KDO supporters. If you have the time, I still recommend watching HWCM from episode 1 for continuity purposes and to see some of the extra stuff that’s been added into the Korean series. But my ultimate watching plan would be to watch episodes 1-12 of KDO, then finish off with episodes 13-16 of HWCM. You should have no difficulty picking up the action and this way can get the best of both worlds!
Aired Summer 2009
Genre: Comedy, romance