K-drama review: Snowdrop – starring Blackpink's Jisoo, Disney+'s disastrous historical romance awkwardly mixes Shakespeare and politics

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Joseon Exorcist early last year, The World of the Married, glossy makjang dramas, the superlative military-themed drama D.P., Escape from Mogadishu

This article contains mild spoilers.

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1/5 stars

Embraced by an adoring and continually expanding global audience, the horizons for K-dramas are bright. However, despite the industry’s generally sunny prospects there exists a significant obstacle on the home front, where sensitive viewer opinions can ground a show before it has had a chance to spread its wings.

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Much as with Joseon Exorcist early last year, the debut of the historical romantic drama Snowdrop was met with a flurry of controversy. Viewers felt that the show distorted events surrounding sensitive political protests in 1987, a pivotal year in South Korea’s modern history, and insulted the memory of those involved in the struggles at that time.

Calls for the show’s cancellation came swiftly but in the end, it made it to the finish line. But to get there, JTBC, the cable channel behind the series, saw fit to rush it to its conclusion, releasing three episodes on consecutive days in its second week (as opposed to the usual pair) and then airing its final trio of very long episodes (five hours of content) last weekend.

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The reaction in South Korea to Snowdrop was poisonous and its ratings never overcame the controversy, but there was still an audience for the show, especially overseas. International K-drama viewers and particularly the fans of Blackpink singer Jisoo – who boasts 56 million followers on Instagram – have been less bothered by the show’s alleged cultural faux pas. They were watching an epic period romance fuelled by political intrigue.

Yet even if we watch it on its own terms, the result is incontestable – Snowdrop is a very bad show. The proof is in the pudding, but perhaps we should have seen this coming.

Four years ago, director Jo Hyun-tak and writer Yoo Hyun-mi collaborated for the first time on the sensationally popular drama SKY Castle. This story of high-society mothers fighting to get their children ahead became the most successful cable series of all time (a title since supplanted by The World of the Married) and popularised the presence of glossy makjang dramas (Korean soap operas) on prime time schedules.

For their second collaboration, Jo and Yoo employ many of the tawdry melodramatic tropes that cleverly turned SKY Castle into a deliciously entertaining guilty pleasure. But in this new environment of political subterfuge, even if we ignore historical inaccuracies, the buffoonish figures of authority and their loud wardrobes undercut all the show’s attempts to wring drama and tension out of a misbegotten premise.

Joseon Exorcist early last year, The World of the Married, glossy makjang dramas, the superlative military-themed drama D.P., Escape from Mogadishu

Jung Hae-in (left) and Jisoo in a still from Snowdrop.

Even less convincing is the show’s perceived raison d’être, the unlikely romance between South Korean student Eun Young-ro (Jisoo) and North Korean spy Lim Soo-ho (Jung Hae-in).

It is revealed throughout the story that Young-ro is no ordinary girl; she is the daughter of Eun Chang-su (Heo Joon-ho), the politician who controls the notorious Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP), an agency notorious for torturing student activists in the name of anti-communism.

Soo-ho is also no ordinary spy, as the adopted son of a high-ranking North Korean official.

Joseon Exorcist early last year, The World of the Married, glossy makjang dramas, the superlative military-themed drama D.P., Escape from Mogadishu

Yoon Se-ah (left) and Jisoo in a still from Snowdrop.

If we consider these rival governments to be stand-ins for the Montagues and Capulets, that would make Soo-ho and Young-ro Romeo & Juliet. Given that their tragic path is set in motion when Soo-ho appears below Young-ro’s dorm window at the outset of the series, they seem to fit the bill. Young-ro even owns a copy of Shakespeare’s celebrated play.

Yet any pretence of Shakespearean drama is forestalled by the show’s batty scripting and its weak lead performances. Following the superlative military-themed drama D.P., Jung struggles to bring Soo-ho to life, and in her first leading role, Jisoo is eager but unconvincing.

Though the stars should shoulder some of the blame, they weren’t given much to work with, as Soo-ho and Young-ro are inconsistently written characters. Their burgeoning romance is just one of the many confounding elements to be found within the muddled morass of the show’s plotting. The actors are handicapped by weak characterisations, stodgy dialogue and incomprehensible motivations.

Joseon Exorcist early last year, The World of the Married, glossy makjang dramas, the superlative military-themed drama D.P., Escape from Mogadishu

Jung Hae-in (left) and Yoo In-na in a scene from Snowdrop.

Even esteemed acting veterans like Heo Joon-ho, coming off his award-winning turn as a conflicted North Korean ambassador in Ryoo Seung-wan’s Escape from Mogadishu, are helpless to overcome the show’s abstruse and borderline incoherent narrative swings.

After a few episodes to set it up, Snowdrop turned into a college-dorm-set hostage drama, and it has stayed that way ever since. Forces attempting to get the students out or conspiring to keep them in have changed repeatedly throughout the story and many of the characters within the school’s walls have turned out to be fostering secret identities.

By the end of the series about half a dozen spies, working for different sides, are revealed. Why they should find themselves within the dormitory of a women’s university in such great numbers is a mystery that the writers themselves are unlikely to be able to shed light on.

Snowdrop strives towards a grand and tragic finish, but even if you make it that far without succumbing to the show’s somnolent attributes, you’ll find yourself torn between stifling a laugh or a yawn.

Joseon Exorcist early last year, The World of the Married, glossy makjang dramas, the superlative military-themed drama D.P., Escape from Mogadishu

Jisoo (left) and Jung Hae-in in a still from Snowdrop.

Snowdrop is streaming on Disney+.

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