K-drama review: Thirty-Nine on Netflix – Son Ye-jin in tale of love, death and friendship that drives to an emotional climax

(From left) Son Ye-jin, Jeon Mi-do and Kim Ji-hyun in a still from Thirty-Nine.
PHOTO: Netflix

This article contains spoilers.

3.5/5 stars

An end is often a new beginning and that certainly applies to the heartwarming Korean melodrama Thirty-Nine, which ended its 12-episode run with the expected death of a main character on March 31, the same day that series lead Son Ye-jin tied the knot with Hyun Bin off the screen.

While Son's new beginning is a very happy one, the one experienced by her character Cha Mi-jo is one that's forced on her against her wishes — a life without her best friend, Jeong Chan-young (Jeon Mi-do).

At first Thirty-Nine placed a lot of focus on the challenges of dating for working female professionals, but while Mi-jo, Chan-young and Jang Joo-hee (Kim Ji-hyun) all pair off with men pretty quickly, the importance of these relationships fades over time.

In the end, the show is about the friendship between these women, what it means to them in the moment, and how to keep on without it when it's cruelly snatched away.

Most of the show's dramatic weight is carried by Chan-young's pancreatic cancer diagnosis and the finite road it sends her on, but there were some other major moments in the show. The tensest of those arose from Chan-young's complicated romantic entanglement with Kim Jin-seok (Lee Mu-saeng), her lifelong love, who is married to Kang Sun-joo (Song Min-ji).

Jin-seok finally asks for a divorce to escape from his loveless marriage, but Sun-joo, acutely aware of the history between Chan-young and her husband, is in no mood to grant it.

Sun-joo kicks up a fuss time and again and on one particularly inopportune day, she knocks on Chan-young's door; the problem is, Chan-young's friends and parents are inside. Mi-jo whisks her away to the parking lot and drops to her knees, begging Sun-joo to walk away just this once. She does, but it's a temporary reprieve.

Yeon Woo-jin (left) and Son Ye-jin in a still from Thirty-Nine.
PHOTO: Netflix

Sun-joo's next move is to visit Chan-young's parents, where she spills the beans. Furious, Chan-young's parents call her and her friends down to reprimand them for this shameful carry-on, a moment foreshadowed at the beginning of the series when a jilted wife and her two friends mistakenly accused Mi-jo of adultery after barging into her clinic.

Rather than let her friends be berated by her mother, Chan-young chooses this moment to reveal to her parents that she is terminally ill. Suddenly, a bad day for them has gotten unimaginably worse.

Another big reveal concerns Mi-jo's biological mother, who is in jail for fraud. Mi-jo plucks up the courage to visit her, but it's not the reunion she might have hoped for, and before long, one of her mother's shady creditors darkens her clinic's doorsteps.

Mi-jo promptly cuts her biological mother out of her life, sparing herself any future trouble. While the danger evaporates a little too conveniently, the brief episode nonetheless brings an important point home for Mi-jo: her true parents are the people who have raised and cared for her all these years, genes be damned. Home, after all, is where the heart is.

Other dramatic counterpoints are less successful. Juxtaposed with Mi-jo's fortunate experience as an orphan who was embraced by her new family is the half-baked tale of Kim So-won (played by former Wonder Girls member Ahn So-hee). So-won is the adopted sister of Mi-jo's sweet new squeeze Seon-u (Yeon Woo-jin) and they both spent time at the same orphanage.

Jeon Mi-do in a still from Thirty-Nine.
PHOTO: Netflix

So-won's relationship with her adoptive father, who worries about his bloodline and inheritance and would rather disown her, has the makings of a phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes story. But her journey from a seedy karaoke bar back to her beloved piano stool is thinly sketched; as a result it lacks emotional resonance.

Joo-hee also gets a tough run during the series. She is very much the third wheel in the friendship and seems to have the most forlorn existence.

She lives with her mother, where she guzzles beer alone most evenings, and has been working for a decade as a cosmetic sales girl in a department store, a stark contrast with her friend's more impressive professions (though she does eventually quit and strike out on her own).

A still from Thirty-Nine.
PHOTO: Netflix

Her suitor, a younger restaurateur in the neighbourhood, is the least well defined of the romantic leads, and when all the men fade into the background as Chan-young's condition nears its crisis point, in many ways so does Joo-hee.

Even Chan-young doesn't seem too concerned about Joo-hee, as she worries more about how Mi-jo will react to her impending death.

Thirty-Nine winds to an emotional close, which is brought home by the emotional performances, particularly Son's, who vividly captures Mi-jo's fear and sorrow.

Yet the show's best moments were without a doubt those that captured the special friendship shared by these three women. They laughed and cried together but they also got up to wonderful mischief ahead of repeated trips to the police station. Bad girls often make for good TV.

(From left) Jeon Mi-do, Son Ye-jin and Kim Ji-hyun in a still from Thirty-Nine.
PHOTO: Netflix

Thirty-Nine is streaming on Netflix.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.