This article contains mild spoilers.
In an extremely competitive market brimming with compelling choices, it’s essential for Korean dramas to put their best foot forward. But a promising start engenders a thorny question — how good is the other foot?
Woori the Virgin, a glossy Korean remake of the US series Jane the Virgin, came out of the gate strong a few weeks ago with an opening brace of episodes that were breathless and extremely funny.
The show, which dovetails religious puritanism and transgressive themes, announced itself as a romantic comedy that gleefully cycles through heightened melodramatic tropes.
The titular character, played by Lim Soo-hyang, is an assistant writer on an excessively soapy TV show featuring a garish star who turns out to be Woori’s father.
This background and the central conceit, of a virgin who conceives a child when she is mistakenly artificially inseminated, are ripe for satire.
Yet while Woori the Virgin seemed to be good-naturedly ribbing Korean drama tropes early on, as the episodes have worn on the show has become indistinguishable from what it seemed to be lampooning at first.
The cheeky juxtapositions between themes of innocence and purity with risque ones such as sex and abortion have also abated. If anything, the show has proven to be more conservative than most.
Simply put, Woori the Virgin laid its cards on the table too soon.
Still, all hope is not lost provided we temper our expectations. The show continues to hit a sweet spot of melodramatic excess on occasion.
The themes are no longer as spicy, but the show brings up some meaningful issues. While Woori was still weighing whether to keep her child, she talked with her mother and grandmother about the societal problem of women being forced to give up their jobs after becoming pregnant.
They recall that there’s a book about it, referencing the landmark Korean novel Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, also adapted as a hit film in 2019.
The narrative drive of the series has slowed too. The story was laid out quickly in the early episodes, which featured huge turns and revelations, but all the pieces are now on the board and it has turned into a very long game of chess.
Among the more drawn-out elements is the failed marriage of dashing heir Raphael (Sung Hoon) and his gold-digger wife Lee Ma-ri (Hong Ji-yoon). He discovers she is carrying on an affair in the opening episode and immediately asks for a divorce.
She and her domineering mother keep finding new ways to thwart Raphael’s desire to separate, first through using the last reserves of his sperm bank to get Ma-ri pregnant. The ploy of course fails, setting up the show’s “immaculate conception” concept.
Yet even after Raphael discovers Ma-ri’s deception, she manages to finagle her way out of divorce proceedings, again and again. Rather than being imaginative, these ploys become increasingly illogical and repetitive.
Once Woori decides to carry her pregnancy to term, the rest of the story is given over to the gradual development of the relationships around her. She becomes torn between her faithful detective boyfriend, Lee Gang-jae (Shin Dong-wook), and her baby’s father, Raphael.
Gang-jae continues to be a supportive partner, but the unusual situation eventually provokes his jealousy.
Among several revelations in the deliciously madcap ending of episode four, Woori discovers that her father, rather than being dead, is in fact Choi Sung-il (Kim Su-ro), the star of the show she works on.
She, as well as her family, are reluctant to open up to him at first, but bit by bit, by force of his unrelenting cheeriness and good intentions, he steadily worms his way into their hearts.
The last and probably least effective part in the story is the investigation that sees the dogged Gang-jae look into suspicious activity at the Diamond Medical Foundation, which includes a death on the premises.
At certain points the show suddenly turns into a by-the-numbers procedural, and while the nitty-gritty of the case being looked into isn’t terribly clear, it’s easy to see that everything isn’t above board at the foundation, which is run by Raphael’s rapacious father, Kim Duk-bae (Joo Jin-mo).
However, the investigation has a clear function in the story that hasn’t been fully borne out yet. It has caused some friction between Woori and both of her suitors, but as the balance has shifted towards Raphael in recent episodes, Gang-jae is likely to be even more determined in his work.
Depending on what he finds, tensions in this melodramatic love triangle are likely to increase.
The social edge may be gone, but hopefully Woori the Virgin ‘s humour and warm heart will be enough to carry it over the finish line.
Woori the Virgin is streaming on Viu.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.