Commonly known as K-dramas, South Korean dramas have been wildly popular worldwide for years outside of the United States. Most Americans only got a taste of K-dramas’ global appeal recently with the survival drama “Squid Game” on Netflix.
The mega-success of “Squid Game” (the most-watched show in Netflix’s history) has given Netflix a dose of confidence to introduce more K-dramas to the American audience. If you are interested in exploring more, but something less bloody and intense than “Squid Game,” I highly recommend season one of “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha,” a romantic comedy. “Hometown” has 16 episodes, and the show has earned 100 percent audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes, a testament to the show’s global appeal.
Yoon Hye-jin (played by Shin Min-a) is a young dentist who is ambitious and a bit self-centered. She likes to plan everything down to minuscule details and doesn’t want others to cross the lines she’s drawn out of self-preservation in a highly competitive society.
She is financially successful and loves to buy expensive shoes and clothes. However, Hye-jin’s seemingly perfect life ends abruptly after a work-related dispute with her boss. She moves to Gongjin, a fictional picturesque seaside village, and opens a dental clinic. Hye-jin plans to stay only long enough to make some money before moving back to Seoul. But fate has a different plan for her.
Gongjin is a close-knit community where residents enjoy gossiping, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Moving from the big city, where everyone minds her own business, Hye-jin is annoyed by the residents’ gossiping. She also misses all the modern comforts and convenience that a big city offers.
Local residents are wary of Hye-jin too. Business owners resent that Hye-jin looks down on their stores and won’t shop there. Older residents think it scandalous that Hye-jin jogs in her leggings in public because they regard leggings as no different than underwear.
Since the Covid-19 lockdowns, many Americans have ditched big cities and moved to suburbs or even the countryside. Some probably find the conflicting culture and attitude between city-dwellers and small-town residents depicted in the show relatable to their own experiences.
Helping Each Other Become Better People
Fortunately for Hye-jin, she meets the dashing handyman Hong Du-sik (played by Kim Seon-ho), known among residents as Chief Hong. Chief Hong is the opposite of Hye-jin. He doesn’t plan his day or life. Instead, he goes with the flow and lives in the moment.
Rather than taking a full-time job, Chief Hong makes a living by being a jack-of-all-trades. From plumbing to food delivery to serving as a coffee shop barista, he does various part-time jobs and has the talent to do all of them exceptionally well.
Chief Hong is also a caring person. He helps everyone in the village, anticipates others’ needs, and regularly checks on the village elders to make sure they are well cared for. In return, all the residents look after Chief Hong, an orphan, and become his extended family.
Besides providing Hye-jin various valuable services, Chief Hong helps smooth Hye-jin’s relationship with other residents. He encourages Hye-jin to overcome her self-imposed isolation and become part of the community. He also persuades other residents to embrace Hye-jin with an open mind and support her dental business.
When Hye-jin finds she is attracted to Chief Hong, she initially tries to suppress her feelings because she and Chief Hong come from two very different social classes. But she soon learns that Chief Hong is well-educated (he graduated from the nation’s top university), well-read, and more worldly than she in many ways.
Chief Hong simply lives by a different philosophy than she does. He doesn’t define life’s success by money and fame. He enjoys making a living by his hands and through physical labor. He is adamant about setting time aside to enjoy life, such as surfing the ocean or reading a good book.
Chief Hong does carry some baggage from his mysterious past. Needless to say, opposites attract, and Hye-jin and Chief Hong eventually fall in love. Through the ups and downs of their relationship, they help each other become better people.
“Hometown” gets the romance right, and the two lead actors have fantastic chemistry on screen. One of the best scenes is when Chief Hong and Hye-jin help granny Kim do laundry the old-fashioned way. I had no idea that doing laundry could be such a sexy couple’s activity.
Strengths of the Show
But the real strength of the show is that it offers more than romance. It doesn’t shy from exploring many other universal topics such as the relationships between fathers and daughters, the struggle of being a single parent, the bitterness of divorce and its adverse effect on young children, the loneliness of elders left behind by their adult children, the painful loss of loved ones, and the seemingly unshakeable guilt from past mistakes. Through solid performances from both the leading actors and the supporting cast, the show presents these universal topics well, with plenty of tears and humor.
Another strength of the show is that it delivers much positivity without being cringe-worthy. Through Chief Hong and several supporting characters, the show emphasizes the value of a good work ethic and the honor of manual labor. It reminds us that there are more important things in life than fortune and fame, such as love, family, and community.
Viewers are also reminded to never take anyone for granted. A good relationship takes hard work from both sides, and although the efforts might seem demanding initially, they are well worth it in the end. The show teaches us that forgiveness plays a vital role in healing and relationship building. It is important to forgive others as well as forgive oneself.
In addition, the show offers lessons on overcoming divisions among people by looking beyond their external attributes and finding their humanity. For example, Hye-jin initially found Jo Nam-sook, the owner of a Chinese-Korean restaurant and the queen of gossip, most annoying. However, after hearing Nam-sook’s backstory from another resident, Hye-jin learns not to be overly judgmental and to treat Nam-sook with kindness.
The show’s global appeal also comes from its masterful weaving of modernity with traditional Korean culture. From the 8-year-old Bora to 80-year-old Mrs. Kim, none of the female characters are the submissive type. All of them are independent and not shy to express their thoughts and feelings.
At the same time, the show spends a good deal of time presenting traditional Korean culture. I’m especially touched by how Koreans, even the younger generation, follow the tradition of paying proper respect to their deceased loved ones on their anniversaries. This traditional ritual connects people from the past, to the present, and to the future. The cultural elements in the show do not feel forced. Instead, they help enhance the show’s characters’ humanity and its overall emphasis on family and community.
Although the show’s characters all speak Korean, non-Korean speakers can follow conversations and plots easily through subtitles. Of course, like a typical K-drama, the show comes with charming K-Pop music, visually pleasing shots of the town’s natural beauty, and images of mouth-watering Korean food. After enduring almost two years of isolation, fear, and uncertainty due to pandemic fears, “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha” is precisely the kind of heartwarming show that we all need to feel good, relaxed, and entertained.