Title(s): Sandglass, Hourglass
Starring: Choi Min-soo, Park Sang-won, and Go Hyun-jung
Original Air Dates: January 10, 1995 to February 16, 1995
Why It’s Worthy: Aside from being firmly rooted in its position as the third highest rated Korean drama of all time, Sandglass is also one of the most well regarded. According to the Chosun Ilbo, for example, drama insiders rated it as the best drama since 1980. [FN1] The drama adroitly deals with some heavy subject matter—South Korea’s emergence from Communistic and repressive military regimes into the democratic state it is today. It also addresses the political corruption that appears to have been rampant throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s and some of the tragic events the country collectively suffered during those times. It is one such depiction, the Kwangju Massacre, that actually reverberated beyond the small screen and led to a renewed national interest in establishing what really happened during that uprising. Sandglass seemingly gave the country the strength to openly converse about its past. It’s no surprise, then, that people went home early to ensure they didn’t miss this show and businesses began putting signs in their windows notifying passersby that they were screening Sandglass to combat the drop in sales they suffered whenever it went on air. (At least that’s what the lore surrounding this drama claims.)
EPISODE 1 RECAP
It’s nighttime. Unidentified men arrive at a police station. An officer unlocks a jail cell and tells the men inside to come out. Park Tae-soo (Choi Min-soo) is among the men who are released. They leave the station and walk toward the cars waiting outside. Their gang boss, Lee Sung-bom* (Lee Hee-do), stands in front of one of the cars. He has bailed the group out of jail.
The gang goes to a private room where a Congressman is waiting to meet them. They start introducing themselves one by one as they enter, but the Congressman interrupts them when he sees Tae-soo. He asks Tae-soo if they’ve met before and then turns to Sung-bom. He wants to know if Tae-soo will be coming with them. Sung-bom says he’ll leave that decision up to him.
In the next scene we learn the Congressman has hired Sung-bom’s gang to break up an opposition party political event. Tae-soo sits on a bus with the rest of the gang heading to the event while organizers at the location are busy setting up—completely unaware of what is about to happen. Tae-soo looks at a ring on his finger, then he takes if off and puts it in his pocket before they arrive. Once they get there, they begin their attack. We see a man sitting in a car outside watching the chaos unfold. As he drives away, we cut back to the hall where someone hits Tae-soo and knocks him down. Tae-soo catches up to the man who hit him and begins pummeling him in retaliation.
Afterwards, the gang recuperates and celebrates their success at a hotel. One of the party members thanks Sung-bom for their hard work. He says their hotel bill is covered and tells them to enjoy the rest of their stay in Seoul. One of the gang members comes in and tells Sung-bom that “a Mr. Chang” is asking to meet him. Sung-bom sends Tae-soo to speak with him. He doesn’t want his gang involved in whatever Chang may be proposing and throws the business card he received from him on the ground. Oh Jong-do (Jung Sung-mo) slyly picks the card up and pockets it when Sung-bom is not looking.
At the meeting, Tae-soo meets Chang To-shik. He wants Sung-bom’s gang to work for him. Chang is the man we saw watching from his car as the gang destroyed the opposition party’s event.
Tae-soo has heard Chang works for the government. Chang confirms this by saying his salary comes from the government. Tae-soo asks if the government is in the business of supporting thugs and Chang says he prefers to use different terminology. He notes that labeling someone a thug is a matter of perspective. The Japanese police called Korea’s independence fighters thugs during the colonial period so the difference between a thug and a patriot is a matter of for whom the “thug” works. Chang says as long as Tae-soo has fists, he may as well use them for his country. Tae-soo remarks that Sung-bom doesn’t believe thugs should get involved in politics because they’re only setting themselves up for execution. Chang laughs in response.
Later, Tae-soo goes to the gym for a work out. Jong-do is there and tries to convince him to accept Chang’s offer. Jong-do thinks he will regret it if he misses this opportunity. Tae-soo wants to consult Sung-bom, but Jong-do disagrees. Everyone listens to Tae-soo and Jong-do thinks it will cause Sung-bom unnecessary worry if he knows what they’re doing. Jong-do says Sung-bom is getting old so they should handle things among themselves and tell Sung Bom later. Tae-soo walks past Jong-do and says he’ll pretend they never had this conversation.
Tae-soo goes to a residential neighborhood and begins walking around as though he’s looking for something. As he’s walking up a hill, a taxi stops behind him. He turns around and sees Kang Woo-suk (Park Sang-won) getting out of the taxi. They spot each other and smile.
Flashback to 1973. At a high school in Kwangju province, a teacher introduces a new student to the class. It’s a teenaged Park Tae-soo (Kim Jung-hyun). The teacher assigns Tae-soo to a seat next to teenaged Kang Woo-suk (Hong Kyung-in). Then he calls the roll and we learn that Jong-do is a part of the class too.
During lunch, a classmate takes Tae-soo’s egg out of his lunch tin without asking first. Then he makes matters worse by challenging Tae-soo to a fight. Unfortunately for him, Tae-soo is a good fighter. He easily beats the opponent elected to take him on first. When the best fighter is knocked out cold, Tae-soo takes a moment to scan the crowd, then he points to Jong-do as the next person he’ll challenge. Jong-do slowly approaches him, but instead of fighting, Jong-do sticks out his hand, introduces himself and welcomes Tae-soo to town.
Tae-soo takes Jong-do and a few other classmates home with him after school, including the student he beat up. He lives at a gisaeng house and the boys are shyly thrilled to see so many women up close. Tae-soo’s mother runs the gisaeng house. Some of the women bring the boys food, and she shoos them away when she comes to greet his friends. She offers them beer to go with their meal and they dig into the food with gusto as soon as she leaves the room.
That night, as Tae-soo studies, his mother lies on a pallet beside him watching him. She tells him to stop and sit with her for a moment. They have a drink and when she offers to refill his glass, he tells her he has a test the next day. She tells him how much he looks like his father and caresses his face. He looks at her lovingly and when she falls asleep he covers her with a blanket.
Apparently, word has quickly spread that there’s a new jjang in town. On a bus, a group of boys from another school start a fight with the boys from Tae-soo’s school. When Tae-soo shows up, they all stop fighting to watch him approach. He walks up to the leader of their group, punches him, and they all start to fight again. The group goes back to their boss and reports that the “same guy” beat them again.
Unfortunately, the fight gets Tae-soo suspended from school. His mother meets with the principal and argues that there should be a thorough investigation before they suspend him, especially considering she heard the students from the other school started the fight.
On their way home, she stops and sits down by a river. She’s in a philosophical mood. She knows it must be hard for him to study when he has to come home to giggling women, a drunk mother, and noisy customers. She apologizes and says she should quit being an entertainer, but she doesn’t want to go back to being a vendor selling things at the market. He lets her vent and, when they start back home, he tells her to get on his back and carries her home.
After this conversation with his mother, Tae-soo decides to do well in school and approaches Woo-suk, the top student, to tutor him. As payment, Tae-soo says he’ll protect Woo-suk from anyone who tries to bother him. Woo-suk turns him down though. He tells Tae-soo he’ll have to fight or study, but he can’t do both.
Tae-soo chooses to study and Woo-suk begins tutoring him. One afternoon, they’re walking together when a group of thugs confront Tae-soo and say their “hyung” (in this context, their leader) wants to meet him. Woo-suk yells that Tae-soo promised not to fight anymore as the thugs lead Tae-soo away.
At the gang headquarters, one of the thugs tells Tae-soo not to worry. They just want to see how good he is and, if he’s good, they want him to join them. Tae-soo initially begins to defend himself when they attack, but he spies Woo-suk watching from outside. Woo-suk followed him in spite of Tae-soo telling him to go home. Tae-soo sees how disappointed Woo-suk is that he’s fighting again and refuses to fight back. The thugs beat him pretty badly. He can barely stand when Woo-suk walks into the headquarters to get him. When he sees Woo-suk leaning over him, he tells him he kept his promise (not to fight) and then passes out. Woo-suk picks him up and starts to help him away. The thugs block their path, but the boss (it’s Lee Sung-bom) tells them to let him go. He says Tae-soo will be back.
After that day, Tae-soo and Woo-suk become inseparable.
April 8, 1975
Tae-soo’s mom calls him into one of the entertainment rooms and introduces him to Congressman Park (the Congressman who recognized Tae-soo earlier in the episode). Congressman Park tells Tae-soo he asked his mother to introduce them because he heard about Tae-soo from others. The word around town is that Tae-soo can get the young people to do anything he says. The Congressman thinks it will be beneficial to meet Tae-soo while Tae-soo is still young. He recommends Tae-soo looking for bigger fish to fry instead of staying in their small town and asks Tae-soo if he’s interested in “playing under a swindler.”
We don’t hear Tae-soo’s answer. He goes back to his room where Woo-suk is waiting to get back to studying. Tae-soo asks Woo-suk where President Park Chung-hee graduated from college. Woo-suk tells him it was the Military Academy. Tae-soo says he wants to go to the Military Academy so he can become president and get rid of all the dead weight lying around.
He’s in for a shock though. At the Military Academy entrance interview, as soon as he introduces himself, the men on the selection panel look at their paperwork and start whispering among themselves. One of them asks if his father’s name is Park In-sul and whether he died in 1957. Tae-soo says yes.
That yes seals his fate. He won’t be going to the Military Academy or any college for that matter. He’s been rejected because his father was a Communist guerrilla. His mom explains that his father was a bank clerk who became a resistance fighter. He fought on Mt. Chili and stayed after the war, which made him a “Red,” i.e. a Communist, she says. She shows Tae-soo the ring his father gave her and tells him his father was eventually captured. The government released him a year after his capture, but they came back for him when she was pregnant with Tae-soo. The family buried him in a valley on Mt. Chili without a grave marker because they were too afraid to put one up. She couldn’t find the grave after that because all the valleys looked the same to her.
Later, Tae-soo’s mom stands on a peak on Mt. Chili and stares at the view. When she comes down from the mountain, she’s visibly drunk. She stumbles a bit as she walks on the platform of a train station. Her scarf blows away and lands on the train track. She walks onto the track to pick it up and looks nervously at a train that is approaching the station. She stands up and seems to stare at the train as it continues to approach. Suddenly the scarf is blowing away and Tae-soo is in mourning attire as Woo-suk and his other friends restrain him. He’s violently crying as he watches his mother’s coffin go into the fire for cremation. Afterwards, Tae-soo spreads his mother’s ashes on the same mountain peak she visited before she died as Woo-suk stands silently behind him.
With his mother’s funeral behind him, Tae-soo sits in the courtyard at home looking down at his mother’s ring. He and Woo-suk go to a photography studio. Woo-suk asks why Tae-soo wants to take pictures all of a sudden, but Tae-soo doesn’t answer. Instead, he hands Woo-suk an envelope of money and says it’s for Woo-suk’s college tuition. Tae-soo has decided not to go to college, but he still wants Woo-suk to follow his dream and go to law school. Tae-soo says he has his own place to go. The scene ends when the photographer snaps the pairs’ picture.
Tae-soo and Woo-suk are in Woo-suk’s room in Seoul. Tae-soo stares at the picture they took together back in high school, and then he looks around at all the books in the room. He remarks that Woo-suk is still the same. Woo-suk looks at the scars on Tae-soo’s hand and remarks that he’s still the same too.
They’re having a drink when Yoon Hye-rin (Go Hyun-jung) peeks inside. She shrinks back when she notices he’s not alone. She’s there to borrow money. Woo-suk tells Tae-soo she’s his neighbor and they attend the same college, then he goes out to lend her the money. While he talks to her outside, Tae-soo secretly watches them with a smile on his face, and the episode ends.
For five plus years now, I’ve heard about Sandglass and read all the hype surrounding this classic K-drama. One of the things I’ve heard over and over is that the actors involved gave some amazing performances. Less than halfway through this first episode, I could already see why the performances were so praised. In this episode, I found Kim Yeong-ae’s (Tae-soo’s mother) performance the most riveting. I particularly enjoyed the scene where she sat in Tae-soo’s room watching him as he studied. Physically, she didn’t do much. She just lay on a pallet and talked to him, but her gaze and body language spoke volumes. There was sadness, remorse, love, longing, apathy, and self-pity, in the way she moved, the way she looked at him and the way she drank—capped off by the way she caressed his face at the end of the scene.
The actor playing the young Tae-soo was great as well though. Although in that particular scene, he too didn’t have to do much except sit, I thought he was very expressive anyway. The way he looked at his mom and the things he didn’t say said a whole lot. It was obvious he frequently indulged his mom’s whims and his patience with her reflected the love and respect he maintained for her in spite of her flaws. The viewer could understand, even before his mother said as much, that perhaps she was the very reason he had learned how to fight so well and didn’t make such good grades.
The way the director handled the death of Tae-soo’s mother was exceptional too. Although I didn’t convey this in the recap, there was no dialogue for a good stretch of the episode after Tae-soo’s mother told him about his father. Instead, the Sandglass theme played. So as a viewer, we got to watch (and feel) what happened instead of being told. It was actually an effective way to handle her death. And in the end I found I couldn’t think of a better way to shoot that scene because any other way would have muted its impact.
I like that this drama is not necessarily spelling things out for the viewers. Although at the same time, it requires a lot of reading between the lines and it makes recapping a bit challenging. As a newbie recapper and someone who can’t speak the language, I can see myself misinterpreting and misunderstanding some things along the way.
*One issue I’ve already encountered is with the characters’ names. The subtitling was clearly done by different individuals and no one bothered to ensure that the names were consistent throughout. For example, the characters I’ve identified as Baek Min-jae and Hong Jin-soo are incorrectly referred to as Mi-jung and Ji-soo in the subtitles. It was relatively easy to pick up on these mistakes, but the name of Tae-soo’s gang leader is a whole other issue. It appears the producers themselves didn’t bother to remember his name. In this episode (and throughout most of the drama), I clearly hear him referred to as Lee Sung-bom. However, toward the end of the show he suddenly becomes Park Sung-bom. Without a definitive character list from the producers of the show (which I have been unable to find online) it is impossible for me to know which name is the correct one. Either way, I will stick with Lee Sung-bom throughout these recaps.
[FN1: Author unknown (Feb. 11, 2009). ‘The Sandglass’ Voted Best Korean Soap Since 1980. The Chosun Ilbo. Retrieved from http://www.english.chosun.com (last accessed Jan. 5, 2015).]
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