‘Our Blues’ review: people can be unhappy in the happiest of places

With a star-studded cast and evocative stories, ‘Our Blues’ is poised to be an understated winner

South Korea’s Jeju Island is one of the country’s most famous vacation spots. Something about the sprawling sea and sunny weather almost guarantees a happy disposition. Yet, as Our Blues shows us, people can be unhappy in the happiest of places.

The problem with anthologies like Our Blues is that they often overshoot. In their ambition to tell multiple stories, they never really give just one time to breath and stretch its wings. Often, these different stories merge to spark an epiphany, but even those are often flimsy and superficial.

Fortunately, you won’t find that on this omnibus of romances – at four episodes in, one cannot help but appreciate its visual novel-style format. We might have been introduced to most of the characters and their pains, but Our Blues respects its characters and their multifarious stories by neatly dividing them into chapters, each taking its time to dive into and unfurl their life, motivations, memories and heartbreaks.

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Lee Byung-hun in Our Blues. Credit: Netflix / tvN

There’s gregarious, charming fish-store owner Jeong Eun-hui (Lee Jung-eun), who runs into her first love and friend of 20 years, Choi Han-soo (Cha Seung-won), when he moves back to Jeju under strenuous circumstances. Faced with a love that she still treasures in her heart, Eun-hui is swept up in the possibility of rekindling her school romance, until she realizes that Han-soo might only be indulging her because he needs financial help.

Elsewhere in Jeju, we have the reticent captain Park Jeong-jun (Kim Woo-bin, in his long-awaited return to the entertainment indusry after recovering from cancer), who’s smitten with Lee Yeong-ok (Han Ji-min), a mysterious haenyeo (female diver) who gets disparaged for her supposed promiscuous nature.

On the other end are Lee Dong-seok (Lee Byung-hun) – a merchant who makes a living selling odd and ends out of his rundown truck – and Min Seon-ah (Shin Min-a) the woman he’s been pining over for seven years. It seems Dong-seok never really recovered from Seon-ah’s rejection, while her depression is drowning not just her, but also her toddler son and irate husband.

Completing this complicated loop are high school students Jung Hyun (Bae Hyun-sung) and Bang Young-joo (Roh Yoon-seo), whose love is tainted by the animosity between their fathers and their limited means. Things are on the cusp of change, however, and not for the better – Young-joo might be pregnant, and now the two have to reckon with the fallout.

The sunny Jeju on Our Blues is thus riddled with numerous counteractive emotions – sadness, lethargy, apathy, longing, resignation, desperation – all existing and working in tandem to bring a melting pot of truly engrossing human stories. Yet, at no point does the show seem irreverent or crowded.

In their writing and visual language, writer Noh Hee-kyung and director Kim Kyu-tae create an expansive space for these characters to simply exist and take in the world at their own pace. What this creates is a symphony of layered, multi-dimensional relationships, with no two characters sharing the same dynamic. At the beating heart of this, of course, is a larger sense of community and companionship, stemming from the decades these people have spent creating a home in Seogwipo, Jeju.

Of course, none of this could have come to life as brilliantly as it did without the show’s star-studded cast, with each generation serving a clear larger purpose. Lee Jung-eun and Cha Seung-woo (the only ones we have seen in extended action so far) prove their mettle as the bubbly, charming Eun-hui and downtrodden Han-soo. To Eun-hui, Lee brings an infectious energy that escapes through a rambunctious tone and noticeable physical ticks, such as when she filets a fish like her life depends on it, or parts the local market crowd simply with her words. Cha’s Han-soo, on the other hand, is the picture of pity and misery, augmented by his dull work suits and restrained manners, as if he’s caving in on himself.

With Dong-seok, Lee Byung-hun inspires a mix of curiosity and indifference – he’s the man you wouldn’t turn around and look at twice, but he’s just pathetic enough to make you wonder what went wrong. Kim Woo-bin’s Jeong-jun and Han Ji-min’s Yeong-ok bring a youthful freshness with their push-and-pull dynamic, although Yeong-ok’s past poses a brilliant potential for heartbreak and emotional development for both.

When compared to its contemporary peers – the Reply series for its familial comfort, or shows like My Mister and Thirty-Nine for the riveting stories, or even Hospital Playlist for the slice-of-life format – Our Blues looks poised to emerge as an understated, silent winner. Really, the only ostentatious characters here are the brilliant seas of Jeju Island, which stay cyclical even as life becomes tumultuous for our characters. What remains to be seen is whether the blues of Jeju can chase away the blues inside our hearts.

‘Our Blues’ is available to stream on Netflix.

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