Time to review another Korean show. This review is of a makjang drama called Penthouse: War in Life (you may have to look around a bit to find it, I watched it on Rakuten Viki). It ran for 3 seasons. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but some will creep into this review.
A makjang is a show where the plot and situations are deliberately excessive. A makjang will feature crazy plot twists, birth secrets out the wazoo, revenge plots, adultery, scheming, fighting, murder and more. Penthouse delivers all of that in spades. It has great cinematography, a booming orchestral soundtrack, and lavish sets with over-the-top acting to match its ridiculous and overblown plot. This all combines together to make a wonderfully entertaining show.
The above video is the very first scene in it. The elegant woman in the elevator, the party with people dressed like members of Louey XIV's court waltzing around and the girl who gets tossed off the 47th floor balcony are all mysteries to set the hook. We then move back two months to find out what this is all about.
The building they're in is called Hera Palace. It is the choicest piece of real estate in Seoul. The richest of the rich live there and they all jostle for social status. Our characters are the very upper crust of the place. We discover that they are all very competitive, enormously greedy, suffer from an advanced stage of moral turpitude and are willing to walk all over each other to get to the very top of the pecking order -- the penthouse.
|Our opera students engage in one of their frequent brawls|
The mystery over who the girl was that got chucked off the balcony, and why she was murdered, is covered in the first several episodes. It turns out that the daughters of the rich folks are all opera students at an elite high school. Yes, you read that right -- opera students. Along with the amusement factor of watching tiny Korean ingenues belting out arias, we are given our first hint that logic and reality are not to be expected in this show.
The murdered girl is Min Seol Ah. She is an orphan girl who lives in Jewelry Village. When she first appears, she is a voice tutor for the rich opera students. However, when the school year starts, she turns out to be enrolled in their high school. Since she is poor all of the other students are aghast to have her as classmate. Throughout the show almost all of the rich people treat any poor person as subhuman scum that is barely tolerated.
So, all of the kids hate and bully her. The parents also despise her as well, thinking that her mere presence besmirches the honor of their school. This is made worse when Min Seol Ah bests their darling daughters and wins an important singing competition. In addition, she finds out that two of their parents are having an affair and holds that over their heads.
The end result is that she ends up tied up in an equipment room and virtually all of the characters wander in from time to time to slap her around. They all have the motive, and sketchy enough morals, to be the one who pushed Min Seol Ah off the balcony.
In one of their many marital spats
Dan Tae tries to strangle Soo Ryan
It gets more complicated. Shim Soo Ryun, the elegant woman we saw on the elevator, is married to Joo Dan Tae. She's the stepmother to his twins, while her own child has been in the hospital for 16 years in a coma. However, all is not as it seems. Dan Tae, who is a cheerfully Eeeevil fellow and the story's main villain, had for some unfathomable reason switched Soo Ryun's daughter at birth with another kid who he then drugged for 16 years to keep it in a coma. Well, aside from not making any sense (why not just drug her real kid?), that's not very nice.
Anyway, Dan Tae's minion was supposed to toss Soo Ryun's baby into a lake. However, being greedy like everybody else in this show, instead the minion sold the baby to an orphanage. The orphanage head, being greedy as well, eventually sold the orphan to a rich American family who needed a bone marrow donor for their sick son. Once the marrow was donated, the adoptive parents then framed the orphan for theft which got her unadopted, arrested and deported back to Korea.
Of course, Min Seol Ah was that baby and Soo Ryun eventually figures this all out. Needless to say, when she discovers that Min Seol Ah was her birth daughter, she gets monumentally pissed off and swears to find the murderer and get revenge on everyone involved.
In this case, everyone involved is pretty much the entire rest of the cast. Aside from the 'tied up in an equipment room' business, the Hera Palace people had been planning a fancy party when Min Seol Ah had the audacity to ruin their plans by flopping into the arms of their beloved statue and splattering the place with blood. Not wanting the party to be ruined, they clean up the mess and move Min Seol Ah's body to her dingy apartment in Jewelry Village and make it look like a suicide. They are all implicated in the crime.
Seo Jin, aka The Mother of the Year, counsels her daughter Eun Byul
to lie through her teeth until the day that she dies
Meanwhile, in another plot thread Cheon Seo Jin, a famous opera singer, wife of Dr. Ha Yoon Chul and head mistress of the elite opera teaching high school, gets annoyed by a pecan pie (don't ask) so she throws herself at Soo Ryun's husband Dan Tae and starts an affair with him.
Seo Jin is also the mother of Ha Eun Byul, another aspiring student opera singer. Under Seo Jin's expert mothering, Eun Byul gets nuttier and nuttier as the show goes on until Seo Jin has to feed her an experimental amnesia drug so Eun Byol can forget about bonking another student over the head, and apparently killing her, with a trophy they were competing over.
Seo Jin starts as a haughty, arrogant and corrupt woman who gets increasingly demented as the show proceeds. It can be argued that by the end of the show she even surpasses Dan Tae as the main villain. Considering what a psychopath Dan Tae is, that's no easy feat. With her endless scheming and multiple murders, she's a hurricane of chaos that sweeps through the story.
Seo Jin was my favorite character on the show. She tried to put up a facade of indifferent elegance like Soo Ryun naturally possessed, but underneath it Seo Jin was a seething cauldron of ambition and anger. Her frequent outbursts and tantrums were hugely entertaining.
Kim So-yeon, the actress who played Seo Jin did a fantastic job with the role. Her over-the-top acting, which suited this drama well, approached the edge but was always under control. She created a memorable character in the scheming, power hungry and wicked Seo Jin.
Yoon Hee defends her daughter Ro Na who has once again
been framed for a nefarious deed by her classmatess
The third female lead is Oh Yoon Hee. When we meet her, she is an ex-opera singer/real estate agent who is struggling to make ends meet. She has a daughter, Bae Ro Na, who -- no surprise here -- wants to be an opera singer.
We soon learn that Yoon Hee and Seo Jin have a history and they hate each other with a passion. They had been opera singing students in the same high school back in the day. Seo Jin, using the father's influence, had cheated Yoon Hee out of the top prize in a competition. They got in a fight in the dressing room and after battering each other with pillows and smashing much furniture Seo Jin ended it by clobbering Yoon Hee with the trophy. This damaged her vocal cords and ended her hopes of a career in opera.
Yoon Hee doesn't want Ro Na to pursue a singing career, but Ro Na is persistent and eventually she gets accepted to the opera singer high school. This brings Yoon Hee and Seo Jin into direct contact with each other, with both vowing to destroy the life of the other. Also, since Ro Na is poor, naturally all the other students hate and bully her and even Seo Jin isn't above messing with her.
The two women's conflict starts out with verbal sparring and quickly moves into screaming and regular hair pulling fights. As the show goes on their schemes against each other get ever more deadly and convoluted, with both swearing to kill the other.
|Dan Tae getting ready to murder somebody|
The show's main villain, at least until Seo Jin goes completely off the rails at the end, is Dan Tae. He's a rich businessman and the owner of the penthouse. Seemingly cool-headed, he is in fact a psychopath. So he could marry her for her money he killed Soo Ryun's first husband (and keeps the fellow's chopped off finger with the wedding ring still on it in a drawer in his office), he beats his kids, abuses his staff and most of all endlessly plots to swindle or kill those around him.
And he does all that with a smile. Altogether, he is an extremely cheerful villain. Nothing seems to lift his spirits quite as much as coming up with a ridiculously elaborate plan to ruin, cheat or kill somebody.
Of course, his ludicrous schemes never exactly work, but he does leave a trail of mayhem and bodies in his wake, and aside from frequently beating his faithful but inept minion to a bloody pulp because he botched things, he never gets too frustrated by their failure.
|(L-R) Go Sang Ah, Lee Gyu Jin, Ha Yoon Chul, Kang Ma Ri|
There are a number of supporting characters that get a lot of screen time. Among them are Sang Ah, the bubble-headed former TV presenter who is the wife of Gyu Jin, a money-grubbing, mamma's-boy lawyer that delights in the misfortunes of others. The hapless Dr. Yoon Chul is Seo Jin's cuckolded husband. Ma Ri claims her husband is in Dubai, but he's actually in prison taking the fall for one of Dan Tae's earlier murders. She puts on airs of being wealthy but is actually a masseuse at a spa.
In addition, and not pictured, is the mysterious Logan Lee who shows up halfway through the first season and has an important role in all this foolishness. There are also a number of teachers, students, minions, staff, family members and others who act as foils, companions and accomplices to our main characters.
|Even as a high school student Seo Jin was an insufferable snob|
Most of the above is only from the first few episodes. Penthouse hits the ground running and never eases up, with virtually no filler or down spots. It has at least one, and generally more, plot twists per episode so one is never sure where it is going next.
A makjang is deliberately over-the-top. With its ludicrous situations and characters all it is aiming for is entertainment. Penthouse succeeds in delivering that entertainment. There is also a lot of humor sprinkled in and many memorable characters: our vengeance-minded heroine Soo Ryun, the Eeeevil Dan Tae, Seo Jin and her nutty daughter Eun Byul. The supporting characters are all fleshed out and interesting as well.
The production values are top-notch. The directing is crisp, and the cinematography and sets are gorgeous. Much of the dialog crackles, and the orchestral soundtrack is outstanding. As absurd as much of its plot is, it is really a well written, produced and acted show. Two thumbs up from me.
Finally, after the jump I've included a few more clips from the show (be sure to turn the captions on). They are spoilerish, but don't really give away much.
Below Dan Tae and Seo Jin bicker as they are being hauled off to jail (that happens to them more than once). Dan Tae's twins, who are not shedding any tears over the pair getting incarcerated, rub some salt into the wounds.
Dan Tae and Seo Jin have both gotten divorces and are now engaged to each other. At their Engagement party their two ex-spouses, who are now married to each other, crash the party. Much drama ensues.
We'll end with nearly four minutes of Seo Jin throwing tantrums.