“Cheese in the Trap” (치즈 인 더 트랩)

Cheese in the Trap

By Jae-Ha Kim
jaehakim.com
April 7, 2016

3.5 stars

Hong Seol (played by Kim Go Eun)
Yoo Jung (played by Park Hae Jin)
Baek In-Ho (played by Seo Kang-Joon)

I was going to go into an in-depth synopsis of “Cheese in the Trap” — about how it’s a love story disguised as a psychological drama. Or, vice versa. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that at the core of the story is a group of damaged people who are struggling to survive.

Jung is a handsome, rich college senior who has recently returned from serving his mandatory military service. Everyone is in awe of him and wants to be his friend. He seems to be the perfect son, but we will learn that his kind-looking, wealthy father was always worried that Jung would turn out like him — a little strange. (Unfortunately, mental illness still carries a stigma worldwide, but the disgrace is particularly strong in many Asian countries.)

Seol is a college junior. Smart and ambitious, she comes from a family that dotes on her younger brother, who is a good son but not academically gifted. All their money goes towards his expensive education in the U.S. Meanwhile, she works multiple jobs to pay for her tuition. When she can’t make ends meet, she takes time off from school until she earns enough to re-enroll.

Character map via Soompi:

Cheese in the Trap cast

Early on, Seol becomes suspicious of Jung. Though he has done nothing to her — that she can prove — Seol becomes so agitated at the sight of him that she temporarily drops out of school to avoid him.

It was at this point that I realized that there was something askew with her, too. She stopped going to school to avoid Jung. But, she stayed in school when she literally had an actual stalker harassing her on campus.

Seol thinks she has Jung figured out and that she can see what’s behind his pleasant facade. She comes to realize that he is a master manipulator, who quietly metes out revenge to right what he feels are wrongs. It scares her at first, but then she accepts it and doesn’t interfere, especially when the people who abused her are punished.

Needless to say, they fall in love. (WTF?)

Cheese in the Trap2

In-Ho and In-Ha are Jung’s childhood friends. Orphaned when they were young and left in the care of an abusive aunt, they were invited to live with the Yoos. Worried that Jung was living too solitary of a life, Mr. Yoo thought that having siblings would be beneficial for his child. He was even going to adopt them.

After a schoolyard brawl in high school left him beaten and with a crushed hand, In-Ho — who believed that Jung was responsible for orchestrating the fight — runs away. Though doctors said that he would recover and could resume playing the piano, he lost his will. He got involved with a bad crowd and, by the time he re-enters Jung’s life — owes thousands of dollars to the local mob.

Meanwhile, his older sister In-Ha relies on her looks to hook a succession of wealthy men, but none of them view her as marriage material. She’s fine with that, because she has always harbored dreams of marrying Jung. She reminds him often that only she knows his true self and isn’t scared by it. No one else will understand his peculiarities.

Lee Sung-Kyung is a beautiful and willowy actress, but she was directed to play In-Ha in a cartoonish manner. For most of the series, her over-the-top portrayal of In-Ha — complete with flailing arms and bug-eyed mannerisms — is such an anomaly compared to the other actors’ more nuanced performances. In-Ha is an incredibly unlikable character who is out of place in this drama. When you end up disliking her more than the neighborhood perv, you’ve got to wonder about the character development.

Though we’re meant to root for Seol to end up with Jung, the writers do a good job of making viewers wonder who she will end up with in the end. I thought she was better suited for In-Ha. I also thought that Jung and In-Ha would actually make a good match. For all her selfishness, In-Ha really does love Jung almost as much as she loves herself. The main reason Jung isn’t drawn to her, I believe, is because she dares to do and say all the things that he is too scared to. She doesn’t hold back, regardless of whether it is to her detriment.

Ever since I started watching K-dramas, I’ve been hesitant to watch them in real time. I prefer to binge watch late at night when the house is quiet and I have a couple hours to myself. That said, I didn’t think I would ever watch “Cheese in the Trap,” because the title (in both English and Korean) is just not appealing. I’m glad I took the plunge. While there were some flaws, I found the premise and the actors to be compelling.

I wanted to see what would happen next.

Airdates:

The 16 episodes aired from Jan. 4 to March 1, 2016 on tvN. The series is based on a webtoon of the same name.

The concept of jung/정:

I liked that the lead character’s name was Jung, because he was aching for 정 and thought he found it in Seol. In Korean, 정 has a meaning that’s difficult to verbalize. It encapsulates a feeling of love and loyalty that people have for one another. They will do things out of the kindness of their hearts, rather than as quid pro quo. I sometimes long for more 정 with the people I know, but I also know that some are incapable of it. That’s part of the issue that Jung struggled with.

Spoiler alert:

In Episode 12, we learn a lot of the backstory between Jung and the Baeks. When Mr. Yoo offered to adopt In-Ho and In-Ha, it was his way of ensuring companionship for his son, rather than because he loved the Baek siblings. He fed and cared for them, but it’s clear that he never loved them, as he had led them all to believe.

Jung tells Seol that he grew up always having to maintain appearances. His father always warned him not to appear greedy and to concede to others. He overheard his father telling a friend that Jung is strange and needs people around him to keep him more normal. He also heard In-Ho tell a school friend a similar thing — that Mr. Yoo had asked him and his sister to report back to them if Jung did anything strange in school.

Rightly so, Jung feels betrayed by people he thought were the closest to him.

At one point, he and In-Ho really were like brothers. When they were in high school, In-Ho mentioned that was disappointed to miss a concert by his favorite pianist. He had to perform in a recital that same evening. Without telling him, Jung attended the concert, went backstage and had the famous pianist sign a piano arrangement that In-Ho had written. But, after overhearing In-Ho disparage him, he never gave it to him. Instead, he made a big show of giving a signed CD to a fellow student. In-Ho sees this and seethes with hurt and jealousy.

That fellow student would ultimately betray In-Ho. He would smash In-Ho’s hand in the schoolyard brawl. But Jung wasn’t blameless. He orchestrated the events that led to this action by manipulating all those involved.

It’s not until the last episode that we find out that Jung had gotten two autographs. He tells In-Ho that he wishes he had given it to him all those years ago instead of withholding it from him out of spite. Hearing those words had a healing power of its own kind. Jung secretly pays off the mob boss so that In-Ho no longer was in his debt. With that burden lifted from his shoulders, In-Ho returns to school full-time and finds a part-time job playing piano at a restaurant.

There were so many misunderstandings that could’ve been resolved had they addressed them as they happened. If Jung had confronted them on what he overheard, he could’ve saved himself a lot of pain.

All that animosity over unspoken words … Ach! It was killing me…

In-Ha finds herself a nice boyfriend — one she had initially only been interested because she thought he was rich.

And as for Seol and Jung… they break up. He realized that he couldn’t be the person she needed.

Three years have now gone by since they broke up. Seol has graduated and has a stable job at a company she had wanted to work at. She checks her email everyday, only to find that Jung hasn’t responded to any of them.

As she heads to have dinner with her family, an email pops into her inbox. It’s from Jung, who simply writes, “Seol!”

Now, if that doesn’t scream, “Sequel!!” I don’t know what does.

@2016 Jae-Ha Kim | All Rights Reserved

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