I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone I know and their mother is watching Yong-Pal. I’ve always been more of a thriller or sageuk drama fan, but every once in a while I venture to watch other genres. I guess Yong-Pal is one of those rare exceptions, because I finally caved and decided to see for myself what all the buzz was about.
The show opens with a couple driving along in their vehicle. They hold each other’s hands and smile, but they’re soon interrupted by a group of black cars. A male voice shouts “stop the car, it’s dangerous!” but the driver doesn’t listen. Instead, he winks at his lover and attempts to speedily escape them. Unfortunately, things get dangerous and another car is seen skidding right toward the couple before crashing into them and seriously injuring them in the process. A female’s voice is heard, stating “in order to escape this nightmare, you must wake up.” The couple are wheeled around the hospital in separate beds, both their bodies splattered in blood. However, we see that the accident proved fatal for the male, as a scene change depicts his funeral. The woman (Kim Tae Hee) enters the church during the funeral rites, which have a haunting aura about them. It’s open casket, and she’s devastated to look upon his lifeless body as she slowly and tearfully saunters down the aisle in disbelief.
We’re back in the hospital, but we’re still following a series of flashbacks. A vase containing flowers is smashed upon the floor, seemingly thrown by the woman in a fit of anger. An older man (assumingly the woman’s father) shoots her a somewhat surprised look before it fades into annoyance. She looks back at him with glossy eyes as he turns to leave, then suddenly smashes herself against the large, glass hospital window. It shatters, and her body begins to plummet (in slow motion) through the air from the high floor hospital room. The man screams out her name in horror “Yeo-Jin Ah!”
The scene shifts to the present, where the woman is lying in a (super high tech modern) hospital room. It appears she’s in a coma, which isn’t surprising since she hoisted herself out a high floor window. Her voice over continues, “Therefore, that nightmare becomes yet another reality, and that reality will never cease to end…until he calls my name.”
Flash forward and now we see our main man Kim Tae-hyun (Joo Won) and a mystery companion trekking through god knows what in order to fulfill some sort of sketchy medical job. His friend is the one who scored the opportunity, but Tae-hyun doesn’t seem all too thrilled about the seedy location and complains that accordingly, he should have jacked up the price.
A cluster of police are surrounding a large building. From the tone of their discussion, it must be involved with some illegal business. They comment that catching all the criminals inside is worth nothing if they can’t even catch the people in charge of it. As one of them walks around inside, we see blood splattered money pasted all over the floor. He envisions what took place, and images of people partying and gambling are shown. A supposed MC is shouting “The feel tonight is good, and it’s your chance to turn your life around!” People cheer in response and the atmosphere becomes wild as a round of betting commences. A bunch of men donning black helmets raid the betting parade and a large fight breaks out. Back in the present, the officer comments that they must have been seriously injured in such a fight. He asks his partner if he checked all of the hospitals within the area, but it seems they’ve sought care elsewhere. (I guess now we know how Tae-hyun’s going to make that $$$) The two officers take a moment to ponder how the criminals will be able to survive their injuries. In a matter of seconds they’re blurting out the same name. “Yong-pal?”
Right on cue we see Tae-hyun pop up like a gopher. Looks like he and his companion have finally made it to the super sketchy criminal warehouse and damn — it sure is full of moaning and groaning criminals. The determined young doctor gets to work, sweating over mending various different injuries. One man in particular catches his eye. At first glance, he appears to be fine, and is even able to voice his content. Tae-hyun’s knowledge comes to light in this scene, as he’s able to figure our rather quickly that he’s suffered a spleen rupture during the fight; a potentially lethal injury. Tae-hyun quickly gathers his necessary tools, and preps the man for immediate emergency operation.
Back at the police headquarters, our detectives are certain the missing criminals’ ability to flee without use of the hospital is Yong-Pal’s doing. Meanwhile, our doctor has seemingly finished his operation, and looks exhausted. (Can’t blame him) The so-called friend he’s been traveling with turns out to be a loan shark who he’s indebted to. Tae-hyun gets back to work in the now blood covered warehouse and unfortunately for his next patient, he’s run out of anesthesia (sucks to suck). They tell him he’ll just have to man up and he’s terrified. They have some fun mocking him before following through with stitching him up. (Ouch, that’s gotta hurt.)
The next day, Tae-hyun shows up late to Hanshin Medical center’s resident evaluation session. He’s rocking a pair of crocks and a disheveled uniform. He swigs down the rest of his water bottle before crushing it in his signature style. His colleague Park Tae-yong (Jo Bok-rae) tries to question his whereabouts, warning him that working outside the practice is illegal, but Tae-hyun plays it off cool. He starts the evaluation and ruthlessly pries into the personal connections of the students, but Tae-yong puts the event to a halt and explains that this is done annually to weed out potential corruption. Tae-hyun then cuts in, telling the residents not to worry, since this whole process is pointless. While looking provokingly at Tae-yong he mentions casually that the people with high up connections are always able to succeed in the areas of their liking, despite these efforts to combat such corruption.
The low key shade fest gets interrupted when one of the residents gets a phone call. It’s for Tae-hyun, who’s called to step in on an emergency surgery. In the operating room things are looking messy, as the Chief (Jung Woong-in) struggles to keep the excessive bleeding under control. Tae-hyun arrives, and it doesn’t take long for him to notice that Chief Lee really screwed the pooch on this one. The Chief weasels his way out of the situation by claiming he has an important lunch meeting to attend, and leaves the patient’s life in the capable hands of Tae-hyun. We learn that lunch wasn’t really the issue here, as the Chief lingers by to anxiously witness the surgery from outside. His problem was cutting the blood vessel too short, and then making the mistake of switching from his dominant hand to his non dominant hand. Tae-hyun is able to figure all this out and turn the situation around, much to Chief Lee’s relief. In doing so, he earns the respect of his seniors and colleagues as well.
The hospital director roams the halls only to stumble upon a moping Chief Lee, who’s morale is obviously shot down from having to recruit the help of one of his students. Chief Lee angrily tries to cover up his deflated expression with the excuse of being tired, but the director already knows what’s up. He tells the chief not to be embarrassed, since every professor at the hospital has at some point, enlisted the help of Tae-hyun. Chief Lee is outraged, and snaps at the director with the declaration that needing a student’s help is downright disgraceful. But the director is quick to quiet him, claiming that it doesn’t matter in the end, since it’s the senior surgeons that get the accolades, rather then the students who pitch in.
Meanwhile, back in the now recovering patient’s room, Tae-hyung comments on how fortunate it was that he had no other surgeries scheduled. Otherwise the patient might not have made it. The family comments on his graciousness (pffft) and ask how they could pay him back. Under an incredibly fake façade of humility, he tells them to give thanks to the Lord at Church, and think of the good ‘ole surgeons who work hard to save lives. Then, he not so subtly hints at a “Thanksgiving offering” and next thing you know, he’s counting a stack of bills in the hallway. He doesn’t forget to take care of his right hand man, who is shrouded with guilt for participating in such a shameful scheme. The party’s over when Chief Lee shows up, and busts Tae-hyun red handed. He confronts Taehyun in his office, noting how he’s repeatedly guilted families into giving away their money. Tae-hyun argues that it isn’t wrong for him to receive money for his hard work, especially when someone like the Chief is going to make bank when the patient is discharged anyway. Visibly offended, the Chief is about to rip Tae-hyun a new one, but a phone call cuts their chat short. The Chief dismisses him for now, because he has business to take care of. That doesn’t stop Tae-hyun from shamelessly asking for the money. Surprisingly, Chief Lee gives it to him, but it’s not without a glare of contempt to go with it.
The Hanshin Group Chairman, Han Do-joon (Jo Hyun-jae), meets with Chief Lee in the hallway. He’s come to check on his sister, who reportedly won’t allow for any visitors. This upsets the stockholders he’s brought with him and they question how Chief Lee could deny visitation. The Chief stands firm that the patient has a right to refusal and that it’s hospital policy to do what’s best for the patient. He accepts some documents to give to the patient from Do-joon, who gives him a slight nod of encouragement. Do-joon enquires after his sister’s condition, asking if there’s been any more incidents of self-harm since his last visit. One of the doctors reports that, unfortunately, there has been another case of self-harm and he apologizes for letting it happen. In the elevator, the stockholders questions Do-joon’s sister’s ability to interpret documents when she won’t even allow for visitors. One of them suggests involving the court so they can acquire a court-ordered hospital visit, but the other two men shoot this idea down. None of this escapes Tae-hyun, who all the while has been watching this encounter.
Back in the VIP hospital ward, Chief Lee leads Do-joon through some extra tight security before they finally enter the room where his sister is held. He openly threatens the Chief, stating “You have to maintain her well. If anything goes wrong…you know, right?” Then he bends down and apologizes to her for not visiting often in the most insincere manner before having a good chuckle. Even Chief Lee doesn’t seem to miss this as he eyes Do-joon with a hint of disgust. Do-joon further comments on her ‘line of visitors’, continuing to laugh at her expense. “Devil.” she thinks to her self (and I’m sure we’re all having that very same thought.)
Tae-hyun visits his sister, who we find out is currently going through kidney dialysis treatment for her illness. He reminisces their younger years, where they bickered and laughed together. He had just become an intern, and he promises his sister that he’ll pay for her to get better. They share a meal together with their mother, who he promises later that night will soon be relieved of her hardship. In an emotional moment, he says that he’ll give her a life of luxury and become a good doctor to cure his sister. In this moment, the flashback ends and his sister awakens, looking incredibly gaunt and discolored. Despite her situation, she’s awfully cheery, and the two share a few laughs together before he tells her not to worry about the finances.
Back in the world of Yong-pal, our hero gets a call from loanshark Man-shik. He’s brought to a room where the gangsters’ boss is suffering severe hemorrhaging from a police gunshot wound. Things are looking grim, so Yong-pal offers them a choice: go to the hospital to ensure the safety of their boss or stay here and let him die. Unfortunately, they reverse the offer, telling Yong-pal that he can either save the boss’ life, or die from failing to do so. He’s heard enough, and quickly gets to work. He demands that they round up all the gangsters with blood type A. When he’s questioned about how he knows such a thing, he reveals that he had marked each gangster’s blood type on their neck when he treated them in the past. (That’s some damn good wit)
Yong-pal manages to successfully remove the bullet, but before he can finish patching things up, the police begin storming the gangsters’ hideout. He immediately puts a temporary cover over the wound, and asserts that escaping with the boss is top priority right now. Thing’s get chaotic as they struggle to escort the boss through a jam packed club. Just as they seek refuge on the roof, they’re met with Detective Lee. Unfortunately, he’s out numbered, and taking advantage of this, the head lackey instructs Yong-pal to hurry up and escape with the boss. Lee is set on capturing Yong-pal, and is tempted to shoot, but his partner quickly stops him, knowing that it’s too risky to attempt shooting, especially right in front of a camera.
Yong-pal loads the mob boss into a vehicle and prepares to take off. Man-shik is too anxious to take part in the action, so our hero decides to take the wheel himself. Meanwhile more gangsters show up, much to Detective Lee’s dismay, but his partner is waiting in a van with watchful eyes on Yong-pal. Detective Lee soon joins him, and they speed after Yong-pal, commencing a dangerous chase. The detectives have some serious surveillance on Yong-pal’s vehicle which gives them the upper hand in the pursuit. However, he isn’t going to give up so easily, and risks several crashes in order to lose them. Unfortunately, he’s eventually trapped and even the mobster tells him it’s time to cease resistance. Yong-pal negates this, saying “I won’t. Or else my sister will die.”
The officers seem to think they have everything wrapped up in a tidy bow now as they take their time walking over to the battered car. It was a dumb move on their part, since Yong-pal has already begun carrying out an alternative solution. He climbs a bridge wall (?) and prepares to jump. The boss is horrified, knowing that they’ll never make it out alive. Yong-pal explains that if they take a shot of epinephrine their chances of survival are 50-50. Either way, he leads on that he intends to jump with or without the boss. The mobster makes a last minute decision to man up, and Yong-pal immediately jabs the both of them with the epinephrine. The drug takes immediate effect, and Yong-pal promptly leaps into the water together with the boss.
Quite frankly this first episode went beyond my expectations. I’m an extremely tough critic, especially when it comes to medical dramas. I also usually find difficulty staying interested in ‘first episodes’ of most dramas, no matter the genre. Usually, they have unnecessary scenes and I find myself struggling to pummel through them. Yong-pal was able to avoid this, much to my surprise. It was constantly engaging and had just the right amount of suspense mixed in. There are a few recycled themes; the most obvious being the “I’m poor and need to pay off the medical bills of my sickly sibling.” I’ve seen this plot time and time again in dramas like The Innocent Man, Sunkyungkwan Scandal, and even Scholar Who Walks the Night to name a few. Of course, this is a trademark of kdramas. It’s actually more surprising when we stumble upon an idea that hasn’t been used yet to be perfectly honest. Either way, this small blunder wasn’t enough to deter my interest from Yong-Pal. The only other critique I have is with the CG department. I really could do without those campy “x-ray vision” effects. I don’t need an animated visual of the bullet trapped inside the mob boss’ body. The effect honestly takes away from the realism of the drama and catapults it into the realm of tackiness. Same thing with the epinephrine. I don’t want to watch an animation of the effects, I want to watch the cast act it out. That’s just my two cents, but like I said: I’m picky. It’s only a small flaw that I’m more that willing to overlook if this drama keeps accelerating in the direction that it has started off with. On a positive note, I love the two contrasting brother-sister relationships we’re getting here. The affection that Yong-pal has for his ill sister differs entirely from the dark reality of Yeo-jin and her twisted step-brother Do-joon.