If you’re familiar at all with the Kdramas Stairway to Heaven and Autumn in My Heart, there’s no need for you to spend time watching Tree of Heaven. So much of the drama is copied from those two shows, I can’t imagine anyone sticking with it while it was airing in 2006. I only kept watching because…
1. I haven’t written about a not-so-great drama in awhile.
2. I was curious as to just exactly how much of the show had been taken from the ideas of other dramas.
3. I wondered how well Park Shin-Hye could act in a staring role when she was 16 years old, and
4. It had just enough originality to make me curious about the ending (which turned out to not be original).
In a small town in Japan, Hana lived with her parents who owned and ran a hot springs inn. When she was just eight years old her father died so she was raised by her mother and her father’s sister. Ten years later her mother remarries a Korean man and Hana immediately gains an older brother, and that’s where the drama begins. Although Yoon-Seo, her step-brother, is 20 years old and has already graduated from high school in Korea, he goes to school with Hana so he can learn Japanese. Yoon-Seo is very aloof, partly because he is in a new situation and partly because he is still in pain over the death of his mother when he was younger. He refuses to speak at all and often walks in the snow with bare feet. Hana starts learning Korean so she can communicate with him and gradually begins to break down his emotional barriers through patience and love. Ultimately, he speaks to her and she learns the reason he goes out in the snow without socks and shoes – “if my feet are cold my heart will be warm.” Hana and Yoon-Seo’s parents go on a business trip (they die in a car crash and the aunt never tells Hana and Yoon-Seo about it), leaving the hot springs and kids in the care of Hana’s wicked aunt. While they are gone, the aunt and Hanna’s selfish cousin, Maya, physically and emotionally abuse Yoon-Seo and Hanna which, because they re going through a difficult trial together, only helps to solidify their relationship which quickly evolves into love. Yoon-Seo tells Hana he loves her and she admits she feels the same way about him but, because he’s her step-brother, she rejects his confession and pushes him away. And away is exactly where he goes – leaving Hana all alone. Her aunt secretly sells the hot springs and leaves in the middle of the night with Maya. Cut to two years later… Hana is a housemaid at a hotel in Tokyo. The man whose family owns the place, Ryu, has been in love with Hana since high school and wants to marry her but she can’t forget Yoon-Seo. Where is he? Will she ever see him again?
Hana is a sweet girl who is left without a parent to protect her and falls into the hands of an evil relative who becomes her guardian, physically abusing her and forcing her to do all the work while favoring her own selfish daughter. (Sound familiar? Doesn’t Disney call that plot Cinderella?) Hana goes against what her heart wants because she thinks propriety is better served than her own desires. However, she comes to regret her decision to reject the love of the man she wants, which ends up making everyone around her suffer as well.
Yoon-Seo has retreated into an emotional cave to save himself the chance of ever again having to say goodbye to someone he loves. When he finally decides to take a chance on love and act on his feelings for Hana, whom he thinks loves him, he is struck down pretty hard by her choice to turn her back on her heart, and him. It’s understandable he would want to flee the pain he’s feeling. Because of Hana’s rejection, Yoon-Seo sets out on his own. He gets mixed up with some shady characters and ends up a big-wig in the Yakuza crime organization.
Ryu has everything going for him – his parents are wealthy, he is a martial arts champion, very handsome, kind, intelligent, and adored by his peers. He’s been in love with Hana for awhile but waited to officially act on his feelings until she graduated from high school.
Maya is Hana’s selfish cousin who has a huge sense of entitlement. She wants the-best-of-the-best of everything but gets by with the basics of life due to the fact that her mother is a single woman who relies on the kindness of Hana’s mother to survive. Maya works hard to get into a good university but gives all that up to make easy money as a mob boss’ mistress.
What does Lee Min-Ho, Lee Jong-Suk, Jang Geun-Suk, Jung Yong-Hwa, Yoon Shi-Yoon, and Kim Rae-Won all have in common? If you said they’re all gorgeous guys who have played the love interest roles of Park Shin-Hye’s (Hana) characters in several entertaining dramas, you are correct. Lucky girl. She began her acting career at the age of thirteen and can sing and dance, as well. Shin-Hye is a very kindhearted woman, helping with all kinds of different charities from protecting Chinese abandoned animals, to the Sewol ferry relief efforts, to the Children’s Leukemia Foundation and many, many other wonderful causes.
Kim Hyung-Soo, better known as Lee Wan, (Yoon-Seo) began his entertainment career right along side his beautiful and talented big sister, Kim Tae-Hee, in a music video. From there he went on to acting. But he hasn’t limited himself to South Korea. He branched out and has been in one Japanese film and one Japanese television drama. Lee Wan studied Physical Education at Kookmin University and went on to graduate school there, majoring in Sports Management. That’s an interesting graduate study choice for an actor.
Since this drama was filmed in Japan, a few Japanese actors and actresses were cast in supporting roles – Asahi Uchida who plays Ryu (the decent guy who likes Hana), Reina Asami whose character is Maya (Hana’s selfish cousin), Sonim who is Mika (Hana’s best friend), and Toh Takasugi who plays the part of Iwa (Yoon-Seo’s right hand man).
Tree of Heaven is full of sorrow, tears, and screaming out pleas, with all of the main characters drowning in regret throughout the entire show. The sadness and emotional heaviness that engulfs the plot reminded me of Autumn in My Heart. If you like tragic love stories, and have not already seen Stairway to Heaven, you’ll probably enjoy this mournful Kdrama.
It kind of makes sense Tree of Heaven and Stairway to Heaven would have some similarities since they are both part of Director Lee Jang-Soo’s Heaven trilogy – Beautiful Days in 2001, Stairway to Heaven in 2003, and Tree of Heaven in 2006. The problem is those last two dramas are way too much alike. (I haven’t seen Beautiful Days yet, so I left it out of the comparison.) I would even say the endings, which are always an important part of every storyline, are about 80% the same. Also, both shows cast Park Shin-Hye and Lee Wan as the lead actors (they played the lead characters in their adolescent years in Stairway to Heaven).
If you’ve been teaching yourself Korean by watching Kdramas, this show will throw you a curve because lots of Japanese is spoken as well as Korean. I was surprised at how well Park Shin-Hye spoke her Japanese lines. I don’t know a thing about the Japanese language but I did notice there wasn’t any hesitating when Shin-Hye spoke her Japanese lines. I was very impressed.
The soundtrack… oh, the soundtrack! I really, really disliked most of the music in this drama. There is one song, Suh Shin, that played all the time and became more and more irritating every time I heard it. It’s even whistled, as if overplaying the one that is sung isn’t bad enough! I don’t know what the Korean words are but the tune is the old American song My Grandfather’s Clock, written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work. Anytime, Anywhere is one of those melodramatic kind of songs that is played during all the intense moments. I disliked that one, too. Also, Tree of Heaven‘s music sounds too much like the songs from its sister drama, Stairway to Heaven. One song I did like is called Dan Nyum. It begins with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and incorporates a different melody with words into that iconic piece. That one is classy. Snow in Japan is a quaint, instrumental song that starts out with faint chimes/bells and quickly goes into an ancient, traditional Japanese sound. I think that one is impressive.
A lot of this drama’s scenery reminded me of the backgrounds in Winter Sonata – lots of snow. It’s pretty but can be a bit monotonous after a while. The show was filmed in Japan so the scenery is a bit different from the regular South Korean stuff we’re used to. I loved the shots of Tokyo Tower all lit up at night and the hot springs inn is a unique background for the first several episodes.
So, now that I’ve said so many negative things about Tree of Heaven I need to admit – if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had already seen Stairway to Heaven there might have been a good chance I would have shed a tear or two at the end of the show, so it wasn’t a complete waste of ten hours. As always, it’s your call, but I don’t think it’s a necessary watch, even if you’re a Kdrama addict.
Too much like Stairway to Heaven
Overly dramatic acting
Lots of crying
*All the Japanese that is spoken may frustrate folks who depend on Kdramas to teach them Korean