My Hometown Cha Cha Cha Thesis Part I

The Korean drama Hometown Cha Cha Cha (갯마을 차차차, HTCCC) has certainly swept the audiences, both local and international, off of their feet, and for good reasons. It starred Kim Seonho (KSH), who I first encountered in the KBS variety show 2 Days 1 Night, and Shin Min Ah (SMA), who I first encountered in My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, a Korean drama I intermittently watched over a decade ago. While I have become KSH’s fan because of his often goofy and naïve personality in 2 Days 1 Night, I really wasn’t too keen on watching it Hometown Cha Cha Cha. I am not a series type of person but because of my friends’ persistent insistence, I eventually relented.

The drama commenced with a drone view of a coastal village and on the background played what is now a familiar song: La La La La La, Romantic Sunday. We first meet Dr. Yoon Hyejin, played by SMA, traveling to a far-flung village on Korea’s eastern coast to seek comfort in the warm memories of her last moments with her mother. It was on the beach, on that fateful day, that she crossed paths with Hong Dusik, who we would later on learn was warmly referred to by his village mates as Hong Banjang (Chief Hong). The quintessence of a jack-of-all-trades, he has earned licenses across a vast field of professions which make him handy to every. But, in the meantime, I will not be elucidating on this as it will form part of the succeeding parts of my HTCCC Thesis.

At the onset, one of the drama’s facets that stood out for me was Gongjin, the village the drama was set in, the coastal village in the drama’s opening sequence. The quaint village was detached from the superficialities and stresses of urban living. It was idyllic and, with its laidback atmosphere, it was a pleasant portrait. Ironically, it has everything that I disliked in small-town living – the gossips, the constant clashes between traditions and modern living, everyone who makes your business their own business, chief among them. Yes, they make small town living colorful, if not memorable, but they can also be literal pains in the ass, as Hyejin would soon realize herself.

As the story moved forward, I found myself invested in the story of the people who made up the community. In a brilliant stroke of characterization, PD Shin Haeun gave each member of the eclectic and diverse mix of characters compelling and interesting backstories. Behind the veneer of the welcoming smile, each character painted on his or her face was a heartbreaking story. It became increasingly palpable that the lightheartedness the romantic comedy-drama initially projected itself belied the heartbreaks and the plights that the members of the community are experiencing or have experienced. In finely textured layers, the story unveils the concerns and the heartaches of the denizens of Gongjin.

One of the seminal characters in the story is Kim Gamri. Pushing into her eighties and living alone, she was once a haenyo (research on it 😉 ). She was also the leader of the halmeonis of Gongjin and is figured large in the life of Hong Banjang (details to be provided in later parts). She was one of the pillars of the community whose words of wisdom everyone respects and observes. However, when the eyes of the community were not focused on her, we see the sad image of a mother, a grandmother who constantly yearned for her son, who lived in Seoul, and her granddaughter. The telephone call she made to her granddaughter who was studying in Harvard was heartbreaking. It reminded me of my own grandmother, and for that matter, my parents.

Oh Cheon-jae was a singer who carried the stage name Oh Yoon. He released a song in the 1990s but soon disappeared after it did well in music charts. In the contemporary, he owns Gongjin’s live café and pub but serves an awful coffee, as Hyejin would fall victim to. Hong Banjang, who had a certificate as a barista, does a part-time job at the café. Despite his present circumstances, he still holds on to the unrealistic dream of achieving the same level of success he once had. He kept building pipe dreams he never acted on. Hyejin’s blunt remarks were a slap on his face, a badly needed reality check. On the other hand, we see a doting father who cares deeply for his daughter.

Yeo Hwa-jung was once married to Jang Young-guk. They have a son, Jang Yi-jun. Hwa-jung was also a successful landlady who owns the building where Hyejin’s clinic is situated and the house she is living in. Apart from her son, she was preoccupied with her fish restaurant and her duties as village chief. Underneath that steely and candid veneer is a vulnerable woman whose desire was to be loved and wanted for who she is. In the same manner, Cho-hee, an elementary school who was once the flame of Young-guk, wants to be accepted for who and what she is. In Hwa-jung, she found that comfort and acceptance. However, she was still weighed down by the unfavorable views of society. Clue: she can get herself incarcerated in an asylum!

Personally, one of the most heartbreaking backstories for me was that of Jo Nam-sook. She was the president of Prosperous Gongjin Department Store and the owner of a Chinese restaurant. She was also one of my most detested characters. At the start. She was the head gossip (Marites if you may). I was seized by a sudden sadness when I heard her story, related by Hwa-jung to Hyejin. From apathy, I started to sympathize with her. No parent wants to lose their child. The rambunctious woman hides her own pain very well.

The other characters have their own concerns as well. Ham Yun-kyung, Bora’s mother, was getting frustrated with the insensitivity of her childish husband, Choi Geum-chul. They had one of the quickest resolutions. Pyo Mi-seon, Hyejin’s friend, has a terrible history with men but she finally found a decent man in Geum-chul’s younger brother, Eun-chul. He was a policeman who was diligent in his duties. In a way, he was dense, believing in taking things slow, a stark contrast to Miseon’s swift brand of romance.

What has truly captured me was the story of Jang Yi-jun. For the most part, he was stoic and composed, a contrast – yes, there are a lot of contrasts in the characters and in the story – to his friend Bora’s bubbly personality. Yi-jun studies hard and was strict in his observation of traditions; again, a contrast, now between modern and traditional. In a way, I see vestiges of both Hong Banjang and his ability to hold his emotions; and Hyejin and her forced maturity at a young age. The toxic environment created by his divorced parents made him mature quicker than most. A belated redemption arc saw waterworks flowing freely. It was painful watching him cry and confess how much he wanted to have a family, to live under the same roof. For the first time, we were given glimpses of him being his age (his drama age was nine) and not the adult-kid he was forced to be. It was was one of the most powerful, and also one of the most satisfying scenes, in the entire drama.

Dr. Yoon Hyejin and Hong Banjang have their own concerns that were addressed as the story progressed. Theirs were the facets that kept the entire story together. Hyejin’s was complex but was less complicated than Hong Banjang’s mysterious five-year disappearance. Their story was complemented by the stories of the people around them. However, I will dig deeper into their stories in my full review of the drama.

See, Gongjin is a far cry from the images of perfection that we spectators were initially provided with. What unspooled was an ecosystem of heartaches, and of heartbroken and flawed misfits. But still, it worked seamlessly because what made them imperfect, their flaws, made them relatable. Their rawness rendered the drama an air of authenticity and sincerity. In their loneliness and imperfections, we see a community come together. It resulted in an immersive and powerful experience as their stories slowly converge with our own. In them, we see traces of ourselves, our heartaches but we also see individuals who are resilient and who find the strength in each other. That is what a community means.

There was certainly a pearl of wisdom behind Hwa-Jung’s words to Hyejin:
On Dusik: be his rock.
On Nam-sook: we would rather have her like this than see her state of devastation.

In Gongjin, we see a collection of rejects, misfits, flawed characters who came together and be each other’s rock. For what they lack, they complimented each other and made each one his or her own strength. They filled in what was missing in each other’s life. It was raw. It was authentic. It was heartwarming. It was beautiful to witness. It sure does live up to what it set out to achieve from the onset: be a healing drama.

One prominent structure in Gongjin is the lighthouse. At several moments in the drama, one can see it featured on the backdrop. It can be viewed from any part of Gonjin. Gongjin, then, becomes a metaphor, a lighthouse that beacons for those who are stuck in the darkness. It is a safe haven one can dock in times of storms. It is a place where one can find healing. It is a place one can return to despite years of absence because one knows that it will warmly welcome him or her. It certainly did for Hong Banjang, especially after his personal tragedy in Seoul. It also turned into Hyejin’s after her own little incidents in Seoul. Gongjin was there for both of them. However, Gongjin is not necessarily a physical place. It can also be a person, or even a memory, a picture that we can find comfort during the most challenging times. And for everyone who is struggling right now, I hope you find your own Gongjin.