In an era that espouses meritocracy, our hero learns the hard truth that all the genius in the world amounts to nothing in the face of privilege. Thus, in an attempt to prove himself, he takes a step forward on the path of destruction and pays dearly for it. But he’s not the only one with scars or long-lasting pain, as he’ll soon come to learn.
CHAPTER 2: “End of adrenaline hypersecretion”
Dong-joo stands outside the hospital and calls Seo-jung, who doesn’t answer the phone. She’s currently asleep in a hospital bed, but stirs awake when someone enters her room. Teacher Kim tells her that she fractured her ankle, but the real concern is her wrist. Even with therapy, she might only regain seventy percent of her previous functions.
Though drowsy, Seo-jung asks about the angulation of her wrist, and Teacher Kim asks if she works in the medical field. After hearing that Seo-jung is a surgeon, he tells her bluntly that in the worst case scenario, her wrist’s functions won’t return.
Dong-joo arrives at a dumpling store that his mother owns. She hands him food, and expresses her disapproval of his career choice. She doesn’t understand why he became a doctor and works at the hospital his father died at. She wants him to live his own life, but Dong-joo remains mute, causing his mother to sigh.
We skip to October 2016, and Dong-joo is inaugurated into the surgery department. He’s introduced as the top scorer on the recent certification exam, but that all means nothing when the other new member is the son of the director, Dr. Do Yoon-wan (aka, Dong-joo’s archenemy).
Everyone flocks to the director’s son, and Dong-joo narrates that in this era of discrimination, connections and background are more important than skill, even in a hospital that deals with saving lives. He watches with a mixture of frustration and disappointment as Dr. Do parades his son through the lobby, introducing him to VIP patients.
A fellow surgeon laments Dong-joo’s predicament and suggests that there are only two options for Dong-joo: get reborn as the director’s son, or operate on a VIP. Dong-joo scoffs at his proposal since neither option seems plausible. He gets up to head to another surgery, but he’s suddenly called away to the director’s office.
Dong-joo is ordered to take a VIP case, but he flatly refuses. He understands that they would only give him a VIP case if it was too difficult to handle themselves, but before he leaves, Dr. Do calls out to him. He remembers Dong-joo from the past, and challenges him to operate on the VIP if he wants to fight properly against him.
Teacher Kim’s words to get revenge by being better than his enemies echo in Dong-joo’s head, and he reschedules a surgery in order to operate on the VIP. As he walks away from a worried guardian, all Dong-joo can think of is his chance to prove himself.
In the operating room, Dr. Do and and his son watch Dong-joo from above, and immediately, the surgery takes a turn for the worse. Blood spurts everywhere, and Dong-joo barks orders at everyone in an attempt to control the situation. However, he quickly understands that the true odds for success were only five percent, and though he tried his best, he still failed. In the end, the surgery ends with a table death.
The news broadcasts the VIP’s death, and Dong-joo is transferred to a branch hospital. His superior promises to bring him back in a couple of months, but his apathetic tone of voice signals otherwise. Quick on the uptake, Dong-joo assesses his current standing as “dog poop.”
Driving down to his new location, Dong-joo stops in front of his new post at a deserted-looking hospital, and the foggy background accompanied by bursts of lightning dismay him greatly. He quickly drives away, knocking over some things in the process, and from inside, a woman watches him leave. Another person enters the room, and though we only catch a glimpse of her eyes, it’s Seo-jung.
Dong-joo’s mother leaves a message for him, asking if he’s arrived and wondering if he’s eating all his meals. She’s worried about him—and for good reason, since Dong-joo drinks away his sorrows at a bar in a casino. Across the casino hall, another man scans the area and examines everyone’s behavior, including Dong-joo’s.
Drunk and depressed, Dong-joo takes out his transfer papers and begins to write his resignation letter on the back. He fails to notice the hefty man behind him frantically grabbing the air, and only turns around when he hears a loud thud.
Instinct kicks in, and Dong-joo immediately tends to the unconscious man, ordering a nearby staff member to bring a defibrillator while he begins chest compressions. When the staff member returns, Dong-joo instructs him to continue compressions, but before he can grab the defibrillator, someone kicks it away.
The interloper happens to be Teacher Kim, and he asks Dong-joo if he’s trying to kill the unconscious man. Furious, Dong-joo whips out his hospital identification badge, but Teacher Kim snatches it and throws it back at him.
He states that Dong-joo shouldn’t drink if he wants to be a doctor, and then mutters that this is why he was transferred to the countryside. Drunk and prideful, Dong-joo bets his neck that Teacher Kim can’t save the patient, and Teacher Kim accepts the challenge.
Before attending to the unconscious man, Teacher Kim deftly twirls and knocks Dong-joo aside, and then lifts the man off the floor. He performs the Heimlich maneuver, and a large pickle shoots out of the man’s mouth. Dong-joo stares in disbelief, and with a mocking grin, Teacher Kim declares, “Oops, he’s alive.”
Teacher Kim drags Dong-joo to the kitchen and draws a line around his wrist. With the help of the kitchen staff, Teacher Kim has Dong-joo pinned down to the countertop, and coolly mentions that his wrist is a “neck,” too (neck is mok and wrist is sonmok in Korean).
Growing nervous, Dong-joo thinks the joke has gone too far, but Teacher Kim calmly tells him that this is no joke. In full panic mode, Dong-joo asks if Teacher Kim is a gangster. With a chuckle, Teacher Kim calls himself a “knife wielder.”
Screaming, Dong-joo wrestles himself free and charges out of the kitchen. A couple of the kitchen thugs chase after him on Teacher Kim’s orders, and Dong-joo races to his car (aren’t you drunk?). Luckily, he fumbles with his keys, and quickly hops into a taxi instead.
Having successfully escaped, Dong-joo sighs in relief. But when the taxi driver asks him about his destination, Dong-joo finds himself in another predicament. Thus, he ends up back at the deserted hospital, and has no other choice but to trudge inside.
A man sits at the information desk, and we’ll come to know him as JANG KI-TAE (Im Won-hee). Dong-joo walks up to him, but Ki-tae immediately informs him that they’re closed. Dong-joo explains that he isn’t here to check-in, and Ki-tae excitedly asks if he’s processing a discharge. He tells Dong-joo to go to the second window if so, and then scoots down one chair. Ha.
Dong-joo questions the situation for a second, but plays along with the seemingly crazy man. He introduces himself as the recently transferred doctor, but Ki-tae won’t believe him without the proper paperwork or confirmation.
With nowhere else to go, Dong-joo asks if he could sleep at the hospital, but Ki-tae appears to be inflexible when it comes to rules as he sharply informs Dong-joo that hospital benefits are for employees only. Hence, Dong-joo resigns himself to the bench for the night.
During the night, a shadowy figure walks into the hospital and stops for a moment in front of the sleeping Dong-joo. Taking out a phone, the mysterious person snaps a photo before Dong-joo opens his eyes.
He finds himself topless and strapped down to a table. Ki-tae looms above him, soon joined by a maniacal-looking Teacher Kim. They tell him that the surgery went well, and Teacher Kim holds up Dong-joo’s severed hand in a plastic baggie. They laugh, and Dong-joo screams at the sight of his bloody stump.
With a crash, Dong-joo wakes up and finds himself sprawled on the floor, right hand still attached. Ki-tae then pops up from behind, scaring Dong-joo. Unlike last night, Ki-tae greets him warmly, since he just confirmed Dong-joo’s identity with the main hospital.
Ki-tae introduces Dong-joo to the head director, who smiles before noting that an internal medicine doctor would have been better than another general surgeon. Ki-tae brags about their hospital, stating that they have everything the big hospitals do, including an abundance of patients. However, a quick scan of the hospital reveals empty beds and bored employees.
Ki-tae formally introduces himself as the head administrator, but Dong-joo ignores him. He informs the head director that he’s only planning to stay a month or two before returning to Seoul, and the head director accepts the news amicably.
Unfortunately, Ki-tae is less gracious, and complains about Dong-joo to nurse OH MYUNG-SHIM (Jin Kyung). She’s disappointed that Dong-joo isn’t sticking around since she liked his appearance, and another doctor greets them as she walks past. Nurse Oh wonders where Dong-joo is, and Ki-tae tells her that he’s changing. The situation finally dawns on them, and they both look down the hall where the other doctor just went.
Dong-joo turns around as he hears the door open, and for the first time, we clearly see Seo-jung’s face. As if in slow motion, her mouth opens in shock, and Dong-joo breaks the silence by calling out, “Sunbae.”
She asks him why he’s here, but he wants to ask her that same question. She refuses to answer since she asked first, and Dong-joo explains that he was transferred. Seo-jung wants to know for how long, but now it’s Dong-joo’s turn to hear some answers.
He wonders if she’s been here the entire five years, and asks if she even read or listened to his messages. Turning her back to him, she flatly says no, but outside the room, Seo-jung leans against the door in an attempt to compose herself.
On the streets, a demolished car swerves between lanes as the driver holds his abdomen, bleeding from numerous injuries. He makes it into the hospital parking lot, but loses consciousness and smashes into a parked car.
The sound of the crash and ensuing honk grabs everyone’s attention, and the staff members rush outside. With the help of Nurse Oh, Seo-jung secures the patient’s neck, and they wheel him inside. Before following after them, Dong-joo can’t help but notice his poor car.
As Seo-jung examines the patient, Dong-joo interrupts to mention that the patient is likely hemorrhaging, though he can’t make a clear diagnosis without proper equipment. Just then, Nurse Oh appears with an ancient ultrasound machine, and Dong-joo feebly squints at the dull screen. Hilariously, Nurse Oh and Seo-jung can read it perfectly, and Dong-joo looks at them in shock.
After hearing their assessment, Dong-joo suggests moving the patient to a larger hospital, but Nurse Oh surmises that the patient will die on the way. However, Dong-joo refuses to operate under these circumstances because he considers it no different than murder.
Seo-jung challenges his statement as she accuses him of giving up, and as their voices grow louder, Teacher Kim yells at them from the hospital bed he’d been napping on. Patting down his hair, Teacher Kim takes charge of the situation, and Dong-joo hastily hides his hand.
In a matter of minutes, Teacher Kim pacifies the atmosphere as everyone works like a well-oiled machine. Dong-joo stares in awe at his quickness, and can’t believe the hospital even has a trocar (a surgical instrument used to remove excess fluid from the body). As Teacher Kim gets ready for emergency surgery, he orders the male Nurse Park to clear Dong-joo away.
Disturbed by their unethical practices, Dong-joo yells at them, but his cries fall on deaf ears. Teacher Kim makes the incision, and with breathtaking speed, he finds the cut and stops the bleeding. He orders Seo-jung to prepare the suture, but Nurse Oh has to take over when Seo-jung’s hand starts to shake.
Dong-joo watches, mesmerized by Teacher Kim’s skills, and can’t believe his eyes. Now that the emergency has been handled, Teacher Kim orders them to prepare the surgery room. Despite being impressed by Teacher Kim, Dong-joo stops him from leaving and berates his reckless actions. Unperturbed, Teacher Kim states that there’s only one command in this area: Save the patient, screw everything else.
Dong-joo then confronts Seo-jung about their dangerous practices, but she throws the accusation back at him. She heard about his incident with the VIP from Ki-tae, and Dong-joo argues that it was his only opportunity to prove his worth since he has no connections.
Appalled, Seo-jung wonders what happened to him in these five years for him to have grown so scared and pathetic. With a hint of spite, Seo-jung asks if living was that hard for him, and doesn’t think Dong-joo will even last a month here.
Alone in the office, Seo-jung thinks back to the past, remembering Dong-joo’s confession, kiss, and then Dr. Moon’s death. Visibly shaken, she rushes to her desk and pulls out a bottle of pills.
Suddenly, Dr. Moon appears behind her, but disappears just as quickly. However, his voice lingers in her head as he accuses her of having her heart thump at the sight of Dong-joo. Seo-jung desperately takes more pills, and covers her ears while repeating to herself that it’s all a hallucination.
Dong-joo waits for Teacher Kim after his surgery and follows him to his office. He notices a large scar on Teacher Kim’s back, but thinks no more of it. He still wants to discuss the issue of patient rights and ethics, but Teacher Kim tells him to come back after he’s killed ten more people as a doctor. When that time comes, then he’ll listen to Dong-joo.
Teacher Kim tells Dong-joo to take care of his hand since he’ll be collecting it in the future, but Dong-joo says that he’ll leave before then. Laughing, Teacher Kim wonders where he’ll go, and Dong-joo yells in frustration that he only got transferred to this crappy hospital because of bad luck. Teacher Kim tells him to get to the point, and Dong-joo states that he’ll return to Seoul.
As Dong-joo stomps across the hallway, Ki-tae stops him with a phone call from his mother. Right then, Dong-joo gets a call from his hospital colleague from before, and decides to answer that instead. His surgeon buddy informs him that the head director is close friends with Dr. Do, and advises him to earn some points if he doesn’t want to rot in the countryside.
Though Dong-joo whines at first, he ends up at the head director’s office, holding a potted plant his buddy told him the director liked behind his back. He apologizes for his earlier behavior, but the head director simply smiles and says there’s nothing to apologize for. He then brings up Teacher Kim, and Dong-joo catches himself mid-scoff, plastering on a fake smile of enthusiasm.
During Dong-joo’s third attempt to present his plant to the head director, Ki-tae barges into the office and announces that Seo-jung is having another episode. Surprised, Dong-joo quickly follows them to find out what’s going on.
In the office, Nurse Oh calmly reasons with Seo-jung, who’s holding a scalpel to her wrist. Her face is streaked with tears, her look desperate. The head director stops Dong-joo from interfering, but when he hears Seo-jung’s trembling voice calling out for help, he can’t help but take a step forward.
Nervously, he approaches Seo-jung, but the sight of his face and the sound of his voice only worsen her condition. She flashes back to old memories, and we get a glimpse of a young high school girl coming home to see a woman lying on the ground with blood pooling around her wrist.
As Dong-joo extends his hand, Seo-jung lifts the scalpel and slashes her wrist. As she slowly crumples to the floor, Teacher Kim slides under her and catches her as she falls. Nurse Oh quickly brings the emergency box, and after wrapping up her wrist, Teacher Kim carries her out of the office. All the while, Dong-joo stands dazed as he watches everyone leave the room.
Nurse Oh tells Teacher Kim that Seo-jung took too many sedatives and probably touched an artery. He orders them to prepare the surgery room, and looks at the unconscious Seo-jung with concern.
Still stunned, Dong-joo sits at the bottom of a staircase and notices the broken vase he dropped earlier. His reflection is distorted in a shattered mirror, and Dong-joo laughs at his pitiful state. He then cries to himself, but a new determination quickly consumes him.
As Teacher Kim prepares for surgery, Dong-joo walks in and suits up. Teacher Kim explains the procedure, and Dong-joo admits that he’s only seen it done on videos. Before they start, Teacher Kim gives him a final warning: If Dong-joo makes one mistake, he’ll cut off his hand and give it to Seo-jung.
With that, they begin.
I’m blown away. What a fun episode with a wonderfully crafted story. While I did cringe at some of the scenes, I’m completely ignorant of real medical practices, so I can let some things slide. I absolutely love the lighting of the show, and enjoy the way the director uses angles and depth to convey a message through his scenes. Some metaphors were more obvious, like how the broken vase and reflection were symbols of Dong-joo’s current state. In his quest for revenge, he lost the true essence of his righteous fury by becoming no different from his foes. I also liked how the director shot the scene of the hefty man choking and desperately trying to grab Dong-joo’s attention. It revealed more of Dong-joo, and how he’s become so self-obsessed that he can’t even notice the frantic cries for help from others that are so obvious to the audience. As he tries to climb the social ladder, Dong-joo has forgotten, in part, the very reason he first became a doctor, unable to realize the needs of the people below and behind him. I also loved the shot of Dong-joo standing outside the hospital with nowhere else to turn to, as well as the shot of the surgery scene where Dong-joo stared up at Dr. Do, symbolizing his loss in addition to the large gap that still remains between them.
As well as the director, Han Seok-kyu is amazing. As usual, he empowers every scene he’s in and commands attention. There’s a certain charm to the crazy doctor, and it’s the credit of Han’s gravitas and charisma that sells the mysterious air of the character. Like Dong-joo, some may be appalled by his seeming lack of ethics and order, but his confidence and undeniable skill naturally demand respect and a sense of trust. Before you know it, you find yourself, like the main protagonist, watching slack-jawed at this wild man who moves with such ease and nimbleness. Granted, this is a drama, so the show makes no qualms about making Teacher Kim into this superhero figure with godlike skills. Even with his almost unbelievable talent, I can’t help but want to believe in this character and know more about him. There’s a story underneath the prickly exterior, and despite his flippant word choices that seem purposely chosen to stir trouble, there’s a reason and anecdote behind his irrational hospital rule.
Besides the great Han Seok-kyu, the other standout performance this episode was by Seo Hyun-jin, who was absolutely brilliant. Of course the scene I want to talk about is the one where she loses herself and attempts suicide—I felt an eerily alluring charm from her madness that was almost frightening. This crazy woman with her tear-streaked face and frazzled hair was so vulnerable and weak, but in that vulnerability, Seo Hyun-jin portrayed such a deep rawness that I found strangely beautiful. It’s a harrowing scene depicting a hurt woman clearly suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt, and it was in that raw display of human fragility that I was simply awed by her performance. Regardless of anything that may happen, that scene alone confirmed to me that the show is in very good hands in terms of acting.
One thing that pains me about Dong-joo is his inability to realize he’s losing what’s truly precious to him. It was telling how Dong-joo remembered Teacher Kim’s words about getting revenge by being better, but he seemed to interpret it as being better in terms of skill rather than character. He initially became a doctor because he was infuriated by the classist system that favored VIPs over other patients. However, in his attempt to prove himself and seek revenge, he became the very doctor that he initially despised. But the truly heartbreaking part was that Dong-joo didn’t seem to catch the hypocrisy of his actions in the beginning. Likewise, Dong-joo lost his father, but his mother is still alive and clearly cares for him. (Bless her soul.) Yet, he fails to contact her and be a good son who expresses his love. Blinded by what he lost, the real cost of Dong-joo’s fall from grace was not losing his position at a large hospital in Seoul, but the loss of the things he should really care for: his patients and his only living parent. Hopefully, he’s learning from his mistake and will amend his ways before he does something he’ll regret for the rest of his life.
Though I’ve become weary of medical dramas as the years go on, Romantic Doctor Teacher Kim may rekindle some of my love. It seems to hinge on the theme of flawed and scarred characters, and there’s something poetic about the ones who heal while needing healing themselves. Though “romantic” is in the title, the show is a far cry from romantic dramas, both comedic and melodramatic. There’s a very character-driven element to it, and that’s something I always appreciate and enjoy. Though many dramas have aired interesting first episodes and derailed from there, there are also many dramas that fail to spark interest from the beginning. So as for now, I will eagerly await the next episode.