Here's my dirty confession of the week: I'm quite enjoying Heirs. Now that the drama has wrapped up its (literally as well as figuratively) rocky opening sequence in California and returned to Seoul, everything is starting to come together. With all its characters in one place, we're finally able to enjoy the thermonuclear reaction of their worlds colliding--one full of luxury goods and bullying, the other full of hard work and being bullied. It's a Boys over Flowers-style love story, if Boys over Flowers had been dropped on its head less often as a baby.
The past few episodes have even put to rest my biggest concern about watching another drama written by Kim Eun Sook, screenwriter of Secret Garden and A Gentleman's Dignity. Those shows were ruined for me by their male leads, who were both physically aggressive and mean to the women they were supposed to be in love with. So of course I was apprehensive about watching Heirs. Would Kim Tan, its male lead, be prone to shaming his female lead for her subpar purses or using his superior strength to force her into skinship?
I'm happy to report that--so far, at least--Heirs is much better than I imagined. Kim Tan is a pretty nice guy. He's been a little creepy and done some nonthreatening stalking of Eun Sang, his love interest, but he's mostly on her side. He hasn't called her stupid or made unwelcome sexual advances. He's driven her places, fed her, and offered her guidance about how she can survive at their snooty high school. In response, Eun Sang isn't scared of him in the way Kim Eun Sook's other recent female leads have been scared of their male counterparts. She's just frustrated and annoyed, and a tiny little bit intrigued.
But I still don't like Kim Tan much.
This is partly because of Lee Min Ho. As far as I'm concerned, he's too solid and grown-up looking to easily regress to high school on screen. (When I first heard about Heirs, I was sure he would be one of the teachers, not a student.) Lee Min Ho played an adult in his last three dramas. It's too much to ask for me to forget all that and accept him as a teenager.
And then there's the issue of acting ability. As Kim Tan, Lee Min Ho wanders through the world with a slack-lipped stare that's probably meant to evoke James Dean or My So-Called Life's taciturn Jordan Catalano, but in actuality comes off as something closer to Harry from Dumb and Dumber. There's no spark of life in his performance, no sense of connection between character, actor, and audience. I've never been a Lee Min Ho fangirl, but I appreciated his performances in both Boys over Flowers and Personal Taste. When he's got a big, broad role to play, he does fine with it. But Kim Tan, with his inward-looking personality, seems to be beyond Lee Min Ho's limited reach. He doesn't seem to have the skill to say something with silence.
The rest of the blame for my lukewarm feelings about this character lies with the script. Characterization in Kdramas is often built from little details. Take what we know about Eun Sang: She's hardworking, loves American horror movies, and is a little ashamed of her mom's muteness (not to mention very ashamed of her job). Here's what we know about Kim Tan: he surfs, and he has a history of hanging out with a tough crowd. Six episodes into the show, we haven't seen him actively engaged in anything except avoidance. We don't know what he loves about surfing or how he met his dreadful American friends, or even the contents of his journal (beyond some butthurt ramblings, anyway).
The show's writing is exacerbating Lee Min Ho's vacantness by making Kim Tan listless and limp. He drifts from scene to scene, following other characters with no compass or quest of his own. He has no identity, no personality, no spirit.
I get that this is intentional. While the trajectory followed by the male leads in most Korean romances begins at "spoiled jerk" and ends at "attentive boyfriend/husband," Kim Tan's path is clearly different. He's starting out as someone who is utterly disengaged from his own life. He's lazy and unfocused and doesn't care much about his own future (or anyone else's). His mean half-brother is taking over the family business? Whatever. Dad let him get shipped off to America without a peep? Fine. Thugs are chasing him because he has yet again hooked up with the wrong girl? Not worth worrying about. And now that he he's in Korea, Tan is being forced to confront Young Do, a monster we're told Tan himself created. His immediate response, unsurprisingly, is avoidance. Unlike all those other male leads who are tamed by the women they love in the course of their dramas, Kim Tan's happy ending will require learning how to take an active role in his own life. I predict that he'll first stand up for the bullied kids at school, and then realize that he's a bullied kid at home and find a way to become a real member of his family.
This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think neither Lee Min Ho nor Heirs has given us a character worth caring about.
This might have something to do with why I spend every episode of the show waiting for an appearance by Kim Woo Bin's Choi Young Do. I've read lots of comparisons between Heirs and Gossip Girl, most of which claim that Kim Tan is the Serena and Young Do is the Blair. I guess this is true on some level, but to me Young Do feels more like the Chuck Bass. He's a violent bully who crackles with hatred for everything he sees, but he's also unavoidably charismatic. Thanks to an economically but intensely drawn character that has been matched with the right actor for the job, it's almost impossible to take your eyes off of him whenever he's on screen.
And that got me to thinking about other actors who might have done Kim Tan justice.
YOON SI YOON
If I had my way, Yoon Si Yoon would star in every Korean drama. Although he's actually a few months older than Lee Min Ho, he has a youthful energy and puppyish charm that could have done Kim Tan some good. As an added bonus, this spring's Flower Boy Next Door proved that he and Park Shin Hye have great chemistry. If you're going to cast someone who's too old for a role, it might as well be somebody who can live up to the demands of the character.
LEE JONG SUK
Willowy and beautiful, Lee Jong Suk is definitely boyish enough to pass for a high schooler. Heck, he practically played Kim Tan in School 2013--His Go Nam Soon was a reformed bad boy who had decided to drift through life, always choosing the path of least resistance. If Lee Jong Suk had been cast in Heirs, this dramawould have been the second installment in the epic, fiery bromance he shared with Kim Woo Bin in School 2013. Their interactions as different characters would have been every bit as compelling as a double-dip love interest, like Park Shin Hye and Jung Yong Hwa in You're Beautiful and Heartstrings.
LEE HYUN WOO
At all of twenty years old, Lee Hyun Woo might have been the most age-appropraite Kim Tan. Although I still maintain that it's hard (or maybe impossible) to judge a performance in a language you don't understand, Lee Hyun Woo actually has some acting chops: His performance as the young Uhm Tae Woong in Equator Man was nothing short of gripping. He was also the lone bright like in the ludicrous(ly enjoyable) To the Beautiful You. I'm convinced that Lee Hyun Woo could have made Tan's interior life feel more immediate and real.
YOO SEUNG HO
Okay. So I know the army might have had a thing or two to say about this casting decision, but let's pretend that Yoo Seung Ho hadn't enlisted after his drama I Miss You wrapped last spring. He's another handsome young pro who might actually have had the skill to make Kim Tan feel like a fully fleshed character, even in spite of the script's limp writing. He's especially good at Tan's primary activity: looking at his female lead with enough passion to make the audience woozy (see above).
YEO JIN GOO
Just on the brink of manhood at 16, Yeo Jin Goo could have brought more believability to Kim Tan's high school angst. I'm not sure he could have held his own against Park Shin Hye and Kim Woo Bin, but I sure would have enjoyed seeing him try.
(Note: After seeing some from this week's episodes, I think my guarded optimism about Kim Tan not being a sexual predator is pretty much at an end. In a moment the show seems quite proud of, he's kissing Eun Sang. Which sounds great, except she's obviously struggling against him and he has her pressed against a wall, with both of her arms pinned--one at an awkward angle above her head, and the other at her side. That's unacceptable, Kim Eun Sook.)