Surgeon Bong Dal Hee (2007) Korean Drama Review ~Revisiting the Classics: The pioneer of Medical dramas

Hello. This is a Korean in America. On my wondering through Korean dramas from the past decade, I got back to one of the earliest modern Korean medical dramas, Surgeon Bong Dal Hee (2007).

Revisiting the Classics

Surgeon Bong Dal Hee (2007) #Kdrama Review ~ The pioneer of Medical dramas

The Korean drama “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” aired in 2007 staring “Lee Yo-Won” in the mist of the prime of her young career and “Lee Beom-Soo” at the really beginning of his TV career since he was more of a movie actor before. After “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee”, he goes on to star in a series of successful Korean dramas including “On Air “(2008) and “Giant” (2010). However, “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” is not just a successful Korean drama with ended up launching a few actors’ careers.  It is the starting point of what we would now call the modern medical Korean drama sub-genre.

The beginnings of medical drama in Korea
The medical subgenre has grown rapidly over the past 5 or 6 years or so in the Korean drama medium. Before then, the concept of a medical show did not have much presence in Korea. Yes, there were shows with a medical doctor as a character before.

This is Korea we are talking about.
They still love anything with a doctorate over there.

However, unlike the modern medical dramas, the hospitals were never the focus of the shows. In a manner, the space where people lived or died were still seen as being somewhat sacred and also actually having a set with many moving parts was too expensive for the Korean drama budgets at the time.

The earliest attempt to make a Korean drama that resembles a modern medical drama show was “General Hospital” (1994) staring a then young actress “Shin Eun-Kyung”.  I actually remember that show was a huge experiment for the Korean drama industry at the time. While it was a moderate success, there was no serious follow up attempt to repeat it. The demand at the time was stronger for family dramas. This was even before the real rise of the “Trendy” Korean dramas. The audience was simply not that interested in the lives of professionals at work.

The Medical drama renaissance in America
Unlike Korea, the U.S. has a long history making medical dramas. Even before the turn of the century, there were plenty of shows solely set around the lives of the medical professions. Famous examples are  “M*A*S*H” (1972–1983), “China Beach” (1988–1991), “Chicago Hope” (1994–2000). Even shows like the ever popular “Doogie Howser, M.D.” (1989–1993) loosely falls into this category. On the other hand, shows like “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” (1993–1998) do not as they are have a doctor as a lead character but it is not really about the medical profession.

In regard to the modern medical dramas, there are 3 shows that are really influential today. The first is “ER” (1994–2009). This show put the camera solely on the hospital and the care giving profession. Before, the focus of the shows tended to spill over the walls of the hospitals. It is also the show that showed that the audience could handle all the medical “technobabble”.  The second show is “Grey's Anatomy” (2005–present) which introduced a more character focus story telling approach within the boundaries set by “ER”. It also did not hurt that it brought the “spice” and sex appeal in to what could be a rather cold and claustrophobic atmosphere.

The last show is “House, M.D.” (2004–2012) which merged the medical genre with the procedural detective genre. It also popularized the rouge doctor archetype within the medical genre. Before, the medical genre was more about struggling with responsibility and ethics reflecting the times they were made.  One thing these shows have in common is that they all aired in Korea via cable channels and had dedicated fan bases albeit niche ones. The audience in Korea and the creators were very influenced by these shows.

So, it is not a coincidence that “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” aired in 2007 and it was basically based on the “Grey's Anatomy” model. In regard to Korean dramas, “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” was the pioneer of modern medical dramas.

Welcome to a Korean version of Grey's Anatomy
Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” starts with a young female doctor beginning a new job at a large hospital. This character is the name sake of the show “Bong Dal Hee”. She is a young energetic but naïve and immature doctor who tends to create more trouble than if she had less energy. She also brings with her the “Grey's Anatomy” style voiceovers from time to time although this is used sparingly compared to “Grey's Anatomy” which was rather notorious for it. When I think about it, the voice over technique was not much a thing in Korean dramas before this show. In any case, from the basic premise alone, you see a lot of the “Grey's Anatomy” influences.

While “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” was the closest to the “Grey's Anatomy” mold Korea dramas ever got, it could be said to be quite Korean also. The show introduced the Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” character dynamics so influential in Korean dramas. You have the aloof and rigid “Mr. Darcy” archetype played by the always wonderful “Lee Beom-Soo”. I actually think I heard a few lines of dialogue that are paraphrasing of ones from the novel. There is a “Mr. Wickham” archetype who is superficially charming and rather seems more flexible than “Mr. Darcy”. This is played by “Kim Min-Jun”. The “Elizabeth Bennet” archetype stuck between the two guys is played by  “Lee Yo-Won”.

At the same time, “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” does something interesting with this basic dynamic. The shows go for a “male two-top” format with a focus on the conflict between two male characters with huge egos and different personalities and philosophies. In a way, it could be said that core of the plot is driven by this “mano en mano” dual with the female lead operating on the periphery. This is odd since the so called “lead” of the show is the female lead “Bong Dal Hee” which can be seen from the title. However, it is difficult to say she is necessarily marginalized since she has her own story arcs separated from the “mano en mano” dual although sometimes they feel like subplots. Still she is the emotional heart of the show.

This character dynamic is rather unique. In Korean dramas, especially the more recent ones, the focus of the shows is on the two male and female leads. Even though the norm now is the “love rectangle”, the 3rd wheel male and female seem to be no more than plot devices. With “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee”, you have something different with the 3rd wheel male character actually having almost equal story weight as the so called “lead” male character.  In addition, the 3rd wheel male character is not treated as “cut out” villain. 

With “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” establishing these character dynamics, the follow up Korean medical dramas are basically repeating it to varying degrees of success. Examples would be “New Heart” (2007-2008) , “Cain and Abel” (2009), “Brain” (2011), and “The 3rd Hospital” (2012).  It has actually become a basic formula for Korean medical dramas now.

Another thing that “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” does is setting up the rivalries between hospital departments as the key motivational factor of the show.  In the show, there is strong rift between the “cancer treatment” ward and the “thoracic and cardiovascular surgery” ward. In “The 3rd Hospital”, the rift was between western and eastern medicine divisions within the neurosurgery department. At its core, it is the same setup. There are plenty of similar examples. This is rather interesting since this conflict is less of a focus in Japanese dramas which have done more medical dramas over the years.

Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” also as the honor of sneaking in the concept of what we would call the “Professor and young girl graduate student” love dynamic that has gaining steam more in recent Korean dramas. In this show, the age difference between the leads is 10 years in real life and something similar in the show. While an age gap of 5 years between couples have not been uncommon in Korean dramas and the society itself, a gap of more than a decade as not been seen much in Korean drama as they were not sure how to deal with the discomfort. However with “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” as a start, this love dynamic has become a corner stone of the medical sub-genre in Korean dramas afterwards. Recently, this dynamic has also been spreading over to non-medical shows. Oddly enough, it was in “Prime minister and I” (2014) also starting “Lee Beom-Soo”.

What is with Lee Beom-Soo?
He has been cast in several shows with a female lead a decade or more younger than him!

How does medical drama genre work with Korean dramas?
Since “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” is the first significant attempt to do a medical drama in Korea since the 20th century, we need to ask if the attempt worked. Looking at the present, you know it worked but we do have to ask the question since the reasoning is interesting.

It did work!!

Many Korea dramas suffer from the nature of the medium itself. This includes the fact that there is barely any structure within the writing and the core plot cannot support the whole show. This is actually solved by adopting the American “Grey's Anatomy” model.

At its core, “Grey's Anatomy” is still an episodic show with various medical cases popping up each episode. At the same time, it has enough flexibility that a serialized story arc can be laid out over multiple episodes mainly through the characters. When added to Korean dramas, the episodic nature forces structure on to the writing of the episodes while still maintaining the mostly serialized nature of Korean drama story telling. Thus, the writing is better across the board.

Also, unlike “Doogie Howser, M.D.” (1989–1993), “Grey's Anatomy” is basically an ensemble show even though there is a title character.  This means that the ranges of stories that the show can tell increases drastically compared to when there is only the lead couple to base the stoies upon. The result is that “Surgeon Bong Dal Hee” is one of the best paced Korean drama shows I have seen ever. Every side character and each patient gets their own concise story arcs while not over staying their welcome. In other words, there are not many of those fillers you see in other Korean dramas that are not interesting and last way too long.

It also helps breaking up the monotony of Korean drama that you have guest stars coming in and out of the show as patients and family members of the patients. This is not seen much in other Korean drama sub-genres which tend to operate like a theatre company with “a cast of a few”.

The character “Bong Dal Hee
I think that the namesake character, “Bong Dal Hee is the main hurdle for getting into the show. She is a rather an acquired taste. She is too energetic to be that naïve. Also she is too average as a doctor to be that energetic.

The other characters in the show, in other words her colleges, describe her as 오지랍이 넓다. Loosely translated, it is that she likes to stick her nose into other people’s stuff but always make a mess of things. I would call her a “torturer” in Korean but not because she is directly the one doing the torture. It is just that you would always get into trouble just because of an association with her.

Korea is loves collective punishment!

In civilian life, those types of people would get ostracized. In the military, they would get a beating while they were sleeping.

If she showed a high degree of competence, it would be easier to like the character. There is something like a cult of competence when it comes to rather unpleasant and roguish characters.

“House, M.D.” (2004–2012) proved that!

However, she does never go beyond decent. In this way, I equate her to “Harry Potter”. Without plot armor, both characters would never have survived their stories. They depend whole on the surrounding characters to get through the mess they had actually created. With Bong Dal Hee”, from the early on, she is constantly apologizing for the mess she created and asking for help from those who actually know what to do and then keeps repeating similar behavior. At her core, it is that she thinks she is valid in her actions and that she is righteous.   

If you think about it, Surgeon Bong Dal Hee has its own “Hermione” and “Ron” among Bong Dal Hee’s” colleges.

She could get on one’s nerve seeing her fumble around.

However, she does learn and grow over the show which is nice to see as this is not actually common in Korean dramas.

Weird isn’t it.
Someone actually starts at one place in her life and ends up in a different place.

So, Bong Dal Hee” does end up growing on you as a character as she does ultimately try with passion.

The Korean drama clichés
As a Korean dramas,  Surgeon Bong Dal Hee cannot avoid the typical Korean drama clichés. There is a love rectangle. There is the mysterious past. However, none of them are laid on thick as shown on recent shows. They are just there in the background providing motivations but not really coming out until the tail end of the show. And, even then, the show really tries to prevent them from dominating the show. I think it was somewhat successful at it. At least it does not make the last few of its 18 episodes unwatchable.

Also none of the characters act in a certain way just for the sake of the plot. There are motivations and reasons for characters acting in a certain manner even if you do not quite like them.

I am looking at you, Bong Dal Hee!

In general, this brings in a sense of realism even more than the “technobabble” and fancy looking medical props on the show. The characters are real characters and not just cardboard cut outs.

At the end
Surgeon Bong Dal Hee (2007) is a show that laid the foundation for the modern medical Korean drama sub-genre. If you have watched the more recent show, this will be obvious. However, the show is not just a classic because of its place in Korean drama history.

The show is one of the best paced Korean dramas I’ve seen ever. The majority of the supporting characters is well developed in their own manner and gets their own story arcs. The actors who play these roles are pretty decent too. The most notable of the supporting cast is “Choi Yeo-Jin”who you may have notice in the original “I Need Romance” show. Since being cast in Surgeon Bong Dal Hee, she has never broken out of the supporting cast role. However, I do feel that she has a specific kind of charm.

I just love the fact that her character’s nick name is “Olive Oyl” from the famous old comic strip, “Popeye”. With her small and round face and abnormally long neck, she does resemble that character. Overall, it is a shame that her career never really took off although it is understandable as she does not exactly fit into the typical Korean drama leading lady mold.

However, the main attraction of the show is the mano en manoconfrontation between the two male leads who, at the same time, remain professional. You can respect that. It is not common for there to be a Korean drama character one can respect. This show has more than 2 in its roster. And, at the end, I also did end up warming to the “Bong Dal Hee character.

Surgeon Bong Dal Hee is a classic Korean drama that pioneered the modern medical sub-genre.

Score: A+  or 10/10

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The Virtual Bride / The Eccentric Daughter-in-Law (2015) First Impressions

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  1. Good review! I'm not a fan of the medical genre, not even American shows, but I managed to watch The 3rd Hospital (Love Oh Ji Ho!) and Good Doctor (That Joo Won is a cutie!). I really liked both dramas. Maybe one day I will give this a try since Lee Beom Soo is such a terrific actor. Perhaps they like pairing him with plucky, young female leads because he plays the prickly 'Old' man so well, and we all know those starchy 'old' codgers need their hearts melted by these sweet young things. (eye roll) I enjoyed The Prime Minister and I, because Yoona walked a fine line between mature and goofy/naive. I thought she did a really good job.

    They are doing the same with Kim Myung Min right now in 'A new leaf' but I find that female lead pretty inept even though she can recite law textbooks verbatim. Maybe I'm just not a fan of Park Min Young, but I've been reading the same complaints about her character all over.

  2. A Korean in AmericaMay 16, 2014 at 1:56 AM

    Thanks! It is the best compliment when someone reads about a subject and enjoys the articles just because you wrote it. Park Min Young is problemetic here. I think one of her better shows was Glory Jane (AKA Man of Honor)

  3. Can I just say first I'm glad I found your blog by accident...I can't even remember how. But I enjoy reading your post and find you very insightful even managing to back it up with actual knowledge instead of 'feelings' and confirmation bias or purely based on bias.

    I remember watching this show way back in 2008 and liking it but never really thought it as a pioneer of its genre. I think White Castle came about at the same time, also using the mano e mano concept.

    Bong Dal Hee was an acquired taste, can't agree more with this. I like the actress Lee Yo Won from Take Care of My Cat but she was really pushing it as such and imbecilic doctor. I cannot understand why anyone would allow her to practice when she obviously doesn't know what she's doing. But by the end I was won over by her, simply because it was so hard for her to get there that I wanted her efforts would bare fruit.

    The pacing and characters where great, even how they solved the triangle was great. I don't think I've ever seen such an amicable break up is recent drama's.

    Also noted the fact that the show had allow both guys to have their own strength and weaknesses instead of being to favorable in one direction. Something also lacking in today's dramas.

    Reading your classics review makes me want to go back to the good old times.

    I was introduced to Korean drama's through All About Eve 2000/Winter Sonata (can't remember which one I watched first) then became addicted from Damo 2003.

  4. I am off the belief it is Park Min Young's take on the character. Too much wide eye innocence too little actual law student.

  5. It's frustrating when the characters are imbeciles in a career field where there's no room for such mistakes. It's life and death at most times. I like the 'classic' K-dramas from time to time. I adored all about Eve. It was a breath of fresh air when I saw it a few months ago. It was going back to a time when the cliches were all new and not over used.

  6. Thanks for the link. I've had this one in my queue for a long time but it wasn't a 'must see.' And I enjoy your posts, even if I'm not a big fan of the subject matter. That's how I learn about new dramas and see things from a different perspective. And it's cool to see a Korean perspective on Korean dramas. Who would know better? :)

  7. A Korean in AmericaMay 17, 2014 at 1:20 AM

    White Tower
    it was in the same period but as an adaptation of a Japanese novel, it felt more Japanese compared to this show. This show is more a fusion between many Korean tropes and medical genre

  8. I agree. Why make the lead a 'professional' if they can't even excel in their own profession.

    I think one of the worst thing is the so called prodigy's. Like Big, an 18 year old with 1 year of book study decides he could be a doctor and can treat children because he can stand blood in small dosage. I dropped this show the moment it was OK for him to be a doctor.

  9. Oh no wonder I thought the storyline sounded familiar. Thanks for the clarification.