Before one gets to Snowdrop, one has to cross the shadow it casts, something the show can never seem to escape. Since its inception, Snowdrop has been mired by controversy – the drama was accused of taking a revisionist stance towards South Korea’s struggle for democracy, a movement that claimed numerous lives, from students (who are central to this particular story) to innocents who were framed for being spies by the National Security Agency (NSA) and faced torture at the hands of authorities.
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In March 2021, a petition to halt production on the show gathered more than 226,000 signatures. Shortly after the first episode aired, another petition to stop airing the drama gathered over 300,000 signatures. As legacies go, this one is irrevocably entrenched in contention – at least in its home country of South Korea. International streaming numbers spelled a different picture, possibly one that did not have the context of a painful national history.
Unfortunately, despite the streaming figures and South Korean broadcaster JTBC’s own attempts to revise the drama, Snowdrop caves in and collapses in on itself. While there are certain aspects that echo director Jo Hyun-tak and writer Yoo Hyun-mi’s last endeavor – the brilliant, imaginative, engrossing Sky Castle – they seem more like watered-down facsimiles than a genuine attempt to navigate a complex structure of hierarchies and relationships.
The story goes so: in 1987 – a pivotal year in the South Korean struggle for democracy, which led to the end of a dictatorship – a starry-eyed Eun Yeong-ro (BLACKPINK’s Jisoo in her first-ever leading role) falls for the soft-spoken, enigmatic graduate student Lim Soo-ho (Jung Hae-in). Unbeknownst to her, Lim Soo-ho is a North Korean spy, infiltrating South Korea for a mission. Pursuing him are ANSP agents Jang Han-na (Jung Yoo-jin) and Lee Kang-moo (Jang Seung-jo), who will go to any lengths to capture him. Their lives intersect when Soo-ho’s mission goes awry and leads to a hostage situation in Yeong-ro’s dorm, where a doomed love story begins and belief systems are razed.
The weakest link in this cast is Jung Hae-in, who surprisingly has raked in acclaim for another military-adjacent role in D.P. where he plays a South Korean officer catching deserters in the military. Despite his veteran actor status, Jung’s Soo-ho fails to bring to life the supposed inner turmoil of a soldier torn between being loyal to his country and choosing his own happiness. Really, all he does is brood and stare into space.
Considering this is her acting debut in a leading role, BLACKPINK’s Jisoo certainly proves her mettle. From being a lovestruck college freshman to a young woman devastated and scared at being betrayed and held hostage by the man she loves, Jisoo’s range here is commendable. If only she’d received more to work with because, despite her acting chops, it’s hard to salvage the train wreck of a character that Yeong-ro is. The inconsistency between loving and hating Soo-ho is made worse by the victim complex around her – even when she makes things worse, it’s never her fault.
Another character who suffers from this is Jung Yoo-jin’s Jang Han-na, whose loyalty and love for Lee Kang-moo makes us wonder whether the writers have ever heard of the Bechdel test. Despite being an exceptionally capable agent, Han-na exists for Kang-moo and Kang-moo only. In some scenes, it’s almost as if she’s Kim Kardashian crying over her lost earring and you’re Kourtney, telling her: “Han-na, there’s people that are dying.” Her love is a plot device meant to make Kang-moo look respectable. Newsflash: it doesn’t.
Begrudgingly, though, it’s Jang Seung-jo’s Kang-moo who emerges as the most nuanced character of the series. Kang-moo goes from a man blinded by his loyalty to ANSP and his ideals to having life turn on its head when he comes face to face with the cruel reality of what the ANSP does to innocent people. Contrary to the indecision of numerous other characters, it’s easy for him to abandon old schools of thought and dedicate his life to saving the innocent hostages. His nobility, however, does not absolve him of his past: he still was an ANSP agent.
Also deserving a special mention for her role as the conniving, greedy Gye Boon-ok is Kim Hye-yoon (from Extraordinary You and Sky Castle’). Boon-ok, by any means, is not a good person. In fact, every time she appears on screen, she fills us with irrational rage – but that’s exactly how you know that Kim played her perfectly.
Irrational, perhaps, is also the right word to describe the plot which, even without the historical context, fizzles out and gets lost in the maelstrom of drawn-out confrontations, needless sub-plots and an extremely banal version of Real Housewives Of South Korea, where three women clamor to make their husbands the frontrunner in the next election.
As the hostage situation draws out, at some point, the twists, turns and plans lose the shock value, and look like plot devices to continue a story that had run its course. Over a stretch of two episodes, for example, Kang-moo tries and fails to escape multiple times – logistical discussions aside, isn’t he supposed to be an agent? Or how, towards the end of the show, almost every side character turns out to be a North Korean spy, a lazy way to explain the incompetence of the main characters.
What was already a shaky story becomes shallower due to sub-plots that ate into it without any satisfying conclusion. The unrequited love that Kang Chung-ya (Yoo In-na) held for Soo-ho, the secret of the dorm mother Ms Pi Seung-hee (while promising, it could have been six episodes shorter), Man-dong’s (Kim Jong-soo) son with a gambling addiction, to name a few. By the time we get to the twists that really matter, we’re just tired.
Even the focal point of this modern-day Romeo And Juliet – the doomed love between Yeong-ro and Soo-ho – seems unrealistic and inconsistent. What starts off as a hurriedly executed relationship – a couple of dates and a few hidden trysts in an attic – becomes messier during the hostage situation, primarily because of an unhealthy dynamic that not only often resembles Stockholm Syndrome but also visibly endangers other characters in the story.
That’s not to say that Snowdrop doesn’t have its moments. Towards the end, for instance, a desperate Kang-moo begs the ANSP to let the hostages walk free, even showing a willingness to sign false confessions. In another heartwarming scene, the hostages entertain themselves by singing and dancing in the dorm, even taking requests from the spies. Also memorable is the bone-chilling viciousness of Heo Joon-ho’s Eun Chang-soo, who justifies taking innocent lives as a necessary evil to climb the political ladder. These moments, however, are few and far in between and by no means salvage the inconsistent story.
Even without the historical subtext, Snowdrop falters and fumbles, seeming more like a clay figurine slapped together haphazardly than a piece carved out with meticulous care. Perhaps this is what makes everything worse – it seems a bastardisation of the struggle of a nation. It’s choppy at best and forgettable at worst.
‘Snowdrop’ is available to watch now on Disney+