Exploring Korean Drama: When It’s At Night

when it's at night poster 2

When It’s At Night is Kim Sun Ah’s drama follow-up to her star-making role in My Lovely Sam Soon.  The story sounds like it’s some kind of racy romance, but really it’s a crime-heist-romance amalgam that defies precise genre.  For some reason it’s not that popular, but it’s one of my favorite little-known kdramas.

Kim Sun Ah stars as Heo Cho Hee, the daughter of a famous art thief.  She’s using the skills he taught her — and that she also learned in studying his life after his disappearance — to work for the government in the Cultural Theft Division.  She breaks into art museums to expose their security flaws, but she spends most of her time tracking down art thieves and returning stolen pieces to the country.

Because Choo Hee is awesome like that.

Because Cho Hee is awesome like that.

The Cultural Theft Division focuses most of its efforts on works of art classified as cultural treasures, which are not allowed to leave the country.  They still manage to end up in the homes of wealthy businessmen both at home and abroad.  When the show opens, Cho Hee’s team is working on a big case that might involve a powerful executive, so they bring in help.

The help comes in the form of Kim Bum Sang, a university art professor.  He specializes in restoration and in distinguishing fake pieces from real ones.  He’s employed as a consultant on multiple cases, and so begins his predictable, but still so cute, tension-bicker relationship with Cho Hee.

When It’s At Night was the first kdrama I saw that didn’t derive its primary conflict from the romantic relationship.  Its villains are not terrible mothers or ex-girlfriends, they’re greedy conglomerate executives.  Since then I’ve seen many kdramas that are also considered workplace dramas — where, despite the romance, the central conflict derives from issues within the female lead’s workplace.

When It’s At Night would technically slot into that category, but it still stands out.  Many workplace kdramas find everyone dumping on the female lead; it might not be her romantic interest’s family for once, but in the end we’re still getting a meek heroine taking mountains of crap from a bunch of bitter people from no real reason.  She’s often on the brink of getting fired, and has to participate in a series of ridiculous “contests” in order to keep her job.

That’s not the case at all with When It’s At Night.  Cho Hee is a respected member of her team, and the conflict comes from trying to track down stolen artwork and the people responsible for its disappearance.  The Cultural Theft Division goes up against everyone from petty thugs, to art thieves, to the men pulling the strings behind the scenes: the owners of giant businesses who wield significant economic and political power.

when it's at night poster 3Cho Hee and her team, for all that the art division seems like it covers quiet, boring crime, often have to act as cops: hiding in vans on stakeouts, chasing criminals through the streets, traveling undercover abroad to track down stolen pieces, even sometimes getting into real life-or-death situations.  I had no problems getting into the central conflict of the show, because it was something easier for me to relate to or understand than the family or ridiculous workplace tension that often fuels kdramas.

Cho Hee’s family even manages to be a big part of the show.  The specter of her father hangs over her life: he disappeared seven years ago, and she’s desperate to find him.  She might have to arrest him if she did, but she just wants to know if he’s alive.  Not only for her own sake, but for that of her younger brother, with whom she lives.  He’s a smart young kid primed to go to college, but he’s just as eager to learn more about and find his father as she is.  Cho Hee wants to keep him out of that world, but at the same time, she understands how he’s scraping at the few connections with their father that might still exist.

Then someone begins stealing artwork using the same methods as Cho Hee’s father.  Does that mean he’s reemerged?  Or does it cast suspicion on Cho Hee?  After all, she’s proven she has the same skills, from her security training museum break-ins.  If it is Cho Hee’s father, would she have to arrest him?  Many of the pieces he’s stealing were themselves illegally kept by private collectors, but theft is still theft.

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