“GRACEFUL FAMILY” DESERVES MORE PRAISE
Han Je-gook is a fantastic villain.
A good villain is hard to find. We love to hate on actors long after their work in a project but many are unable to create a profound mark worthy of that hate. Think of some of the recent villains that have garnered attention, think of Joaquin Phoenix as Joker or Adam Driver playing Kylo Ren, they are both great actors in other roles, but they don’t quite fit as villains. Bae Jong-ok on the other hand is a fantastically believable villain in her role as Han Je-gook in the Korean drama “Graceful Family”. Han’s moral decay has a stench so disturbing, that she lingers in memory long after committing an unconscionable act.
“Graceful Family” is about her and a wealthy family in Seoul, South Korea and how they try to retain power and control over a business empire called MC group once an unwanted successor returns to takeover. Mo Seok-hee (Im Soo-hyang), instigates disorder and reveals the guttural corruption and deceit that makes up the identity of her greedy family with her homecoming after years of abandonment in the U.S. Her mother An Jae-Rim (Park Hye-Na), was brutally murdered when she was 12 years old so her father and CEO, Mo Cheol-Hee (Jung Won-Joong), sent her away to protect the image of the family business. But with her return, her mission was to hold the murderer accountable and to fulfill the wishes of her grandfather and founder Mo Wang-Pyo (Jeon Kuk-Hwan).
Mo Wang-Pyo, actually created the problem in the series. Long ago, to scale his business, he recruited the help of Han, a defunct judge, to be the leader for his security and image management team. Although he planned to eventually arrange the transfer of the CEO title to Seok-hee, Han betrayed his wishes and changed the fate of the company.
She was power hungry and callous. She became rotten after learning that it wasn’t worth it to be honest and fair after she was repeatedly offended by her superiors so, when Wang-Pyo approached her with an offer to oversee the success of his company, it gave her the opportunity to attain the power and status she coveted. She became Machiavellian, a marionette obsessed with triumphing over her opposition and making the company great. She was naturally myopic and ruthless but to ensure a victory in every case, she recruited aids which she dubbed, the ‘TOP’ team consisting of the best lawyers who were also studied as the best strategists, PR agents and hackers, each adapt in areas that were helpful in achieving Han’s nefarious goals.
Doesn’t she sound threatening? Rightfully, the entire family was aware and uncomfortable with her power because she could literally make them get away with murder or ruin their lives if she wanted. For this she gained notoriety among the media and top companies in Seoul but as seen in history, when a powerful person goes unchecked, they become a tyrant. In the end, Han ceded to Mo Seok-hee but only because she wanted to.
“Graceful Family” tells the story of how Mo Seok-hee and Han Je-gook oppose each other to attain control of the MC group shares and essentially the power, resources, and the family that came with it. The story is a thrilling and tense one. The show is punched with a lot of suspenseful and clever writing to immerse viewers into the story. The most enjoyable part of the series is how unpredictable and smart it is, especially the ending.
Every character is introduced with a purpose and with a clue to the mystery of the murderer but the real anchor and the most daunting actor has to be Bae. As I was watching I was upset at how horrifying she was in her inflexible ideations. You either go with her plan or you suffer, there’s no negotiating with Han. Bae’s perfect portrayal of Han was nuanced and enchanting. She inspired a mix of feelings; anger (at her character’s apathetic attitude), frustration, and then, wonder. It made you think, what is the real Bae like? I couldn’t imagine Bae as anything else except for this stone-faced, cold entity who demanded order and power at the expense of anyone and everyone in her path. It’s a mark of the brilliance in Bae’s acting, Lee Jang-Woo’s writing, and the instrumental direction of Lee Jang-Woo.
It’s fair to say that the other actors in the show are also dazzling in their respective roles. Lim Soo-Hyang’s sincerity was shaky to start but as the show progressed, her stoic expressions began to make sense. However, whatever Lim lacked in her ability to express emotions through facial expressions, was balanced by the skills of supporting actors like Lee Jang-Woo, Kim Jin-Woo, and Lee Gyu-Han. They were able to convey feelings of pain, frustration and even despair without ever saying lines, which is very hard to do.
At heart though, Bae stole the show. Her ability to enliven the role of Han really highlighted the qualities needed to sincerely portray a villain. All the good writing in the world can’t make a viewer reflect in the vision an actor is trying to create unless they are ingenious in shedding their real identity for the one they will adopt. When watching Phoenix and Driver, it was easy to imagine what their real temperaments were, how they likely might have behaved, or even moved in real life; it was like watching someone put on a mask and being able to see the edges of where the mask ends and where the real person began. Bae though, was lost in her role. I could only see Han. All her movements, even slight tilts of her head, frowns and temperament was true to her character.
Performers like that, the ones who are able to really cast off their identity for a role, ones like Meryl Streep, Choi Tae-Joon, Heath Ledger (the best actor to ever play joker), or Javier Bardem are enterprising in understanding their characters and attentive to details. As a result, they seem authentic. It’s a talent you’ll find in many Korean dramas.
If you watch a lot of Asian drama, you’ll know that there are far too many actors whose artistry are acknowledged in the Asian community, but often slighted internationally. They may never break the barriers of racism to become the international stars they should be because some people in the west don’t want to read subtitles. Even when discussing the historical feats made by the creators of “Parasite” at the Oscars, we have to recognize that the gatekeepers in the academy, those who decide on the winners are still largely older white men in their 60s who primarily support white art.
This disparity permeates far to many international TV shows. It means that amazing international actors will continue to be overlooked. It means that some people may never hear about Bae or even about “Graceful Family” so they may remain a hidden gem known only to Korean drama fans simply because some critics refuse to acknowledge the people in front of a camera if they aren’t white.