K-Drama Review: “Graceful Friends” Explores The Depth Of A Friendship Tested By Deceit And Betrayal
Graceful Friends celebrates an enduring friendship that fares well against the threat of deception and betrayal.
It’s been a while since Graceful Friends brought down its curtains. But because it gave us a ponderous take on the constraints faced by people whose bond with one another was forged by time and experience, its relevance is worth examining.
Title: Graceful Friends
Themes: Mystery | Crime
Length: 17 Episodes
Broadcast Date: July 10 – September 5, 2020
Lead Actors: Yoo Jun Sang, Song Yoon Ah, Bae Soo Bin, Han Eun Jung, Kim Sung Oh, Jeong Seok Yeong, Kim Won Hae
Highlights: Value Of Friendship & Family
The series follows the lives of five middle-aged men who have been friends since their college days. Caught off guard, their lives are entangled with a mysterious murder case.
Series Plot Recap
A mysterious murder incident opens the story. A man named Joo Kang San (Lee Tae Hwan) bathes in his own blood inside the shower room of his apartment. Goong Cheol (Yoo Jun Sang), who rushed to Kang San’s place, shockingly discovers the lifeless body. His three friends, Jae Hoon (Bae Soo Bin), Hyun Woo (Kim Sung Oh) and Chun Bok (Jeong Seok Yeong), arrive just few minutes later following the discovery of the corpse. These men are not, in any way, related to the victim.
As part of the legal procedures, all of them were interrogated, but Goong Cheol becomes the prime suspect. However, due to the lack of evidence to incriminate him, the police officers set him free.
Flashback to a year ago, Goong Cheol, Jae Hoon, Hyun Woo, Chun Bok and Man Sik (Kim Won Hae) are living their ordinary lives. Goong Cheol works as a general manager of huge food chain company. Jae Hoon is a top-notch doctor specializing in urology. Hyun Woo works as a director of adult films who struggles to get a big break. Chun Bok works as an insurance agent who tries to make both ends meet for his young family. Man Sik is an overworked but underpaid government officer whose duty is to collect taxes.
Each one is living the mundane life of a middle-aged man. To take a breather, the five of them gather once in a while to drink away all their woes and burdens.
To everyone’s shock, Man Sik suddenly died from heart attack.
The Lady From The Past
Someone they knew from the past comes unexpectedly at Man Sik’s funeral. Hae Sook (Han Eun Jung), whom they refer to as “everyone’s first love” because of her beauty and charisma, suddenly re-appears after decades of losing contact with. Her friendship with them started when they were in a drama club back in college.
However, her sudden presence threatens the peaceful marriage of Goong Cheol and Jung Hae (Song Yoon Ah).
A Plotted Scandal
Someone secretly takes photos of Goong Cheol and Hae Suk while they had a private but casual talk at Man Sik’s funeral. He anonymously sends the photos to Jung Hae with malicious intent. This makes Jung Hae suspicious of her husband.
Affected by the photos she received, she goes to drink at a bar alone. Coincidentally, Joo Kang San, the man whom she met at a golf training center, happens to be at there as well. Unbeknownst to her, he followed her all day long with a dark plan. Kang San secretly drugs her drink and takes her at his place.
She wakes up shocked to realize that she is lying naked on someone else’s bed. To make things worse, Kang San took photos of her while she was asleep which he will use to extort money from her.
Jung Hae keeps things to herself at first. However, Goong Cheol receives the scandalous photos from an unknown sender. Confronted by her husband, she is left with no choice but to confess everything to her. But she asks him to leave everything to her in resolving the issue.
Although he can’t contain his fury, Goong Cheol can’t seem to do anything about it as he promised Jung Hae that he will keep himself off the situation.
However, another message from Kang San made Goong Cheol loses his control. Fueled with rage, he storms into Kang San’s apartment. But he is flabbergasted to see Kang San lifeless in his bathroom.
An Untold Past
Jung Hae and Jae Hoon were in a romantic relationship back when they were studying abroad. But not a single soul was aware about their relationship. They went as far as being engaged, but Jung Hae suddenly called off the wedding just few days before event.
The reason for their breakup was not disclosed. But Jung Hae’s decision to marry Goong Cheol left Jae Hoon devastated. This made him become secretly vengeful of his friend’s seemingly perfect married life.
Still tormented by his heartbreak, Jae Hoon secretly plans to ruin Jung Hae’s and Goong Cheol’s marriage. It turns out that he was the mind behind Kang San’s unjust vexing of Jung Hae. He was also the one who prodded Hae Sook to re-appear and tempt Goong Cheol to engage with her in an extra-marital affair.
Things start to fall apart between the married couple. But it couldn’t get worse when their only son, Yu Bin, gets into a hit-and-run accident.
Luckily, Jae Hoon is within the area to perform a first-aid treatment. His timeliness saves Yu Bin’s life.
Jae Hoon, after feeling remorseful, turns himself in and admits to have committed the crime. But his confession needs to have solid proof. He tells the police where he kept the pieces of evidence he used to kill Kang San. Unfortunately, the evidences are missing upon searching his house. It was later revealed that Goong Cheol took the evidences to destroy them.
The police authorities, therefore, fail to prosecute the real culprit due to lack of evidence.
Last Men Standing
Jumping forward in time, the damaged relationship between Goong Cheol and Jae Hoon has been repaired. After Jae Hoon saved Goong Cheol’s son, the latter returned the favor by donating his blood to Jae Hoon when he was fatally stabbed by Kang San’s friend to avenge his death.
Standing by a lakeside, Goong Cheol throws into the water all the pieces of evidence related to Kang San’s murder case. Together with Jae Hoon, Chun Bok and Hyun Woo, the four men walk as cheerful as ever as they put their troubled past to rest.
Character Sketch & Review
Ahn Goong Cheol (Yoo Jun Sang)
A principled and upright man, Goong Cheol deserves the success he has in every aspect of his life. He is so patient and understanding that he does not get into any kind of conflict with anyone. But his protective nature means he is ready to jump out of his comfort zone to face head on anyone who will lay hands over his loved ones, even if it means getting himself into trouble.
Unaware of his wife’s and Jae Hoon’s past, he never thought that he would be the subject of a vicious scheme of his friend. Such revenge cost him his job and family. He was laid off his work, almost got divorced and had his only son involved in a fatal car accident.
Goong Cheol is a victim of circumstances and to see him transform into a man filled with grudge is understandable. His fall was someone else’s victory which, unfortunately, was beyond his control.
In the end, he was able to forgive and reconcile with Jae Hoon after the latter saved his son’s life.
Jung Jae Hoon (Bae Soo Bin)
At the peak of his career as one of the best urologist in town, Jae Hoon is assumed to be satisfied with his successful career. Everyone looked up to him with respect and admiration. He appears to be always cool and level-headed.
But his real character is a product of emotionally-damaging childhood and a failed relationship with his first love. His psychologically abusive father and arrogant brother always looked down on him. His mother, the only person who understood him, died unexpectedly. Jung Hae left him to marry his bestfriend, Goong Cheol.
Jae Hoon silently lived a life in despair through the years. While he seemed to be the usual calm and collected person when he is with his friends, he is secretly devoured by his cunning desire to avenge his plight. But too bad that his grudge has consumed him to the point of self-destruction.
He was able to redeem his life back in the last two episodes after he came to rescue Goong Cheol’s son from accident.
Nam Jung Hae (Song Yoon Ah)
Jung Hae has always lived her life building defenses for her inner self. She can be characterized as a character of ironies. She works as one of the best psychiatrists in a first class hospital. However, she too needs help as her life is laden with heavy emotional baggage which, at first, she failed to acknowledge.
Just like Jae Hoon, her family background is painted as extremely flawed with an unresolved issues with her father and a mother who committed suicide. That kind of family backdrop molded her into someone who extremely guards her emotions.
Jung Hae has issues opening herself up even to her husband. Hence, so much of her life was a secret. But Goong Cheol respects her private space that he does not prod her to open up about things she wishes to keep to herself. And even her past relationship with Jae Hoon was supposed to be kept in secret if not because of the latter’s obsession towards her.
Always absorbed by doubts and insecurities, Jung Hae sometimes loses grasp of the important things that must be valued such as her family. When her marriage was on the brink of collapsing, instead of being remorseful for her shortcomings as a wife, she rather offered divorce as a solution. Her son’s accident was her wakeup call to pull herself together especially in the most trying situations.
Baek Hae Sook (Han Eun Jung)
For Hae Sook, life is too short to live in hate and loneliness. Only, she realized this quite late. Her glory days was during her college days. Hae Sook was a popular student especially among the boys. She was pretty, talented and always good at almost anything. She was best friends with Jung Hae, but the latter felt secretly envious of her.
Hae Sook got involved in a scandal when her secret job as a lady escort to some senior men, including one of their professors, got exposed. The professor was accidentally killed by Man Sik, who was secretly in love with her.
The scandal Hae Sook got involved with has thrown her life into ruins. She stopped going to school. She was almost prosecuted for the professor’s murder. But her mother’s suicide was the worst thing that happened to her.
Aware that it was her best friend Jung Hae who anonymously revealed the scandal, Hae Sook reappeared after two decades ready for retribution. Just like Jae Hoon, she is ready to ruin Jung Hae’s relationship with her husband.
It was later revealed that Hae Sook was terminally ill. She finally realized that getting revenge would not bring her peace and healing. Her last few days were spent making amends with people she had conflict with, especially Jung Hae.
Jo Hyun Woo (Kim Sung Oh)
Struggling to make it big in the mainstream film industry, Hyun Woo is still stuck in making cheap adult films. Most of the time, he acts childishly with his endless complaints about his life. But he is a man who firmly sticks to his decisions.
Despite his mother’s disapproval, he married an older woman who formerly worked as a porn actress and has a son. He firmly cut his ties with his mother and chose to be with Gyeon Ja (Kim Hye Eun) and took her child as his own. Although he can’t seem to properly express his feelings, he always has high regard for his wife.
Together with Chun Bok, they create a comical pair within their group of friends.
He too was a victim of Kang San after the latter extorted him using his photos sleeping with another woman. But he too was just drugged during a drinking spree which was the same scheme that was done with Jung Hae.
Park Chun Bok (Jeong Seok Yeong)
Cheerful and positive, Chun Bok does not let his financial struggles get in the way to live happily. His physical appearance suggests that he is older than his age. In most cases, he is mistaken as his wife’s father and her young daughter’s grandfather.
Trying to make both ends meet, Chun Bok juggles his time between two jobs- as an insurance marketer and vehicle agent.
Unfortunately, his body deteriorates faster compared to other people his age. He is in an early stage of dementia which made him fearful about the future. At times, he was losing his spirit to go on with his life. But his supportive wife made everything bearable for him.
Cheon Man Sik (Kim Won Hae)
Man Sik was quiet and kind-hearted man who kept an unspeakable truth. He lived his life trying to atone his unforgiveable sin of killing their professor in college. It was unintentional, but it cost the life of someone nevertheless. The crime turned into a cold case as the police officers failed to identify and prosecute the culprit.
Man Sik led a quiet life with his family. He worked as a civil servant who took all the pressure from his superior without any complaint. He suddenly died of heart attack leaving his family and friends devastated.
Joo Kang San (Lee Tae Hwan)
Life means survival of the fittest for Kang San. He grew up an orphan and made a living by conning people. He first crossed paths with Hyun Woo. Then he attempted to victimize Hyun Woo’s son who is a famous golfer by luring him to sleep with a porn actress. But he failed on that scheme. Lastly, with Jae Hoon’s order, he preyed on Jung Hae. He extorted money from her using her scandalous photos.
Kang San was killed by an unknown intruder at his apartment. The culprit, however, was never apprehended.
Peace & Forgiveness
The drama depicted the kind of friendship that is indestructible even when hammered with adversities caused by wrong choices. Graceful Friends presented us a story of friendship corrupted by deceptions, betrayals and revenge. Some issues have clear backdrops, while some have vague roots. These conflicts, to some extent, resulted to unforgiveable acts.
This is especially true with Jae Hoon’s attempts to ruin Goong Cheol and Jung Hae. What makes his acts even more absurd is the fact that he did these hideous things while under the guise of being a ‘brother’ to Goong Cheol.
With a surprise twist in the story, their friendship was restored. Yu Bin’s accident may have been the game-changer in the course of the events.
Same goes with Jung Hae’s and Hae Sook’s restored friendship. They were able to forgive each other’s hurtful choices in the past.
Family’s Role In Character-Building Of A Person
Another salient point in the drama is the significant role played by the family in molding the character of a person. It showed us how a dysfunctional family damages one’s self-esteem which leads to indifference towards others. And it starts the chain of negative reactions in making choices in life.
Jae Hoon’s experiences of mental abuse from his father and brother turned him into an apathetic person. The only feeling that stimulated him is envy from the people who appear to have an elusively perfect life.
As for Jung Hae, her father was the cause why she became distrustful of people. Although the series did not dwell on the reason behind their irreconcilable relationship, it was clear that her childhood experiences were very traumatic that she developed insecurities along the way.
In such sense, Jung Hae would rather not let history repeat itself. After realizing the traumatic effect of a dysfunctional family to the child, she was willing to fix her marriage.
Challenging Societal Prejudice
One of the sub-narratives in the story shows the relationship between Hyung Woo and his wife Gyeon Ja, who was a former porn actress. Growing up as an orphan and working in a seemingly indecent industry, Gyeon Ja has endured harsh judgment based on her background and work.
Hyun Woo went on to challenge the prejudice by marrying her devoid of any hesitations. Gyeon Ja turned out be a dignified woman who have a beautiful heart.
Graceful Friends brought forth a narrative about building and rebuilding relationship among people who have grown acclimated with one another. It started strong during the first half of the series. The rare combination of thrill and dark comedy worked well giving us a Sky Castle-like vibe that stimulated the curiosity of the viewers. The basic elements of a mystery series were present – an unsolved murder case, suspicious characters, deception and betrayal among people within the same circle. I loved almost everything about it at the beginning.
The series became too overwhelming on its second half. Too many conflicts, although interrelated, have sprung which sidelined the first central question, “Who perpetrated the murder?” In the grander scheme, I realized that the story did not dwell much about identifying the culprit and giving justice to the dead person. Its main arc rather focused on why the murder happened in the first place.
It highlights Jae Hoon’s ill motives as the story’s main conflict. Unfortunately, the drama did not disclose the reason Jung Hae called off their engagement. As a viewer, I can sympathize with him in that aspect. I believe that a proper closure is due for things that must end so that one can properly move on with life. And it is a manifestation of respect.
However, avenging his past is never to be condoned. It’s as if Jae Hoon drank his own poison and utterly destroyed himself.
Other sub-conflicts such as the rift between Jung Hae and Hae Sook, Hae Sook’s attempt to take Gong Cheol from his wife, Man Sik’s kept secret that tormented him all his life, among others, were almost as intense as the primary conflict.
I find the ending quite sloppy though with so many loose ends. The mystery behind the murder case was not solved even though it suggests that it was Goong Cheol who killed Kang San. In some sense, the drama presented a misguided concept about loyalty to friendship. Of course, the goal is to depict the characters who would do anything to protect the ones dear to them. But to condone their questionable motives and behavior is quite disturbing.
But setting aside the finale part, Graceful Friends is still an engrossing satirical mystery series to watch. The plot may have been lacking in logic in the end, but characters’ enigmatic yet disturbing vibe has drawn viewers to stick to the drama. Save for Goong Cheol, other main characters are not victims of circumstances who are trying to redeem themselves. They were instead caught in a vicious cycle caused by their own past choices.
For people who are into mystery dramas with a touch of dark comedy, Graceful Friends is a good watch.