Director: Ahn Pan-Seok (안판석)
Cast: Kim Myeong-Min (김명민), Lee Jeong-Gil (이정길), Lee Seon-Gyoon (이선균), Byeon Hee-Bong (변희봉), Song Seon-Mi (송선미), Kim Bo-Kyeong (김보경)
Adapted from the novel Shiroi Kyoto by Yamazaki Toyoko, Korea’s adaptation of the twice-produced Japanese drama is an excellently conceived and gripping saga of power and corruption at Myongin University Hospital. Now, if you just went by the previous sentence in combination with the picture at left, you would be forgiven for thinking this is just a medical drama. Happily, it is much, much more than that. Equal parts ER and Law & Order, White Tower is a rather complex character study of Dr. Jang Joon-Hyuk (Kim Myeong-Min), an ambitious surgeon who has his sights set on the position of Chief of Surgery at the hospital and is willing to do almost anything to succeed. Spread over 20 episodes, his do-or-die methods win him a bevy of loyal supporters, but also detractors who fear that his actions will have severe repercussions not only on the reputation of the hospital and those around Dr. Jang, but also on his own future. Again, as with previous drama reviews, I will refrain from giving away major plot points. Suffice to say that White Tower eschews romantic dilemmas for more occupational sorts of complications.
The story begins with Dr. Lee (Lee Jeong-Gil), current Chief of Surgery, whose impending retirement has led to speculation about his replacement. The safe bet is Dr. Jang, a young, handsome, and exceptionally talented surgeon. Talented in that not only is he able to save patients on which other doctors would give up, but also that his renowned skills are a boon for the hospital as a business. In spite of all that he has achieved professionally, however, his personality leaves something to be desired. In short, he’s got a bit of an ego problem, and his relationship with Dr. Lee and other hospital staff quickly sours as a result. On the other side is Dr. Choi Do-Yeong (Lee Seon-Gyoon), a respected young doctor in the internal medicine wing. In contrast to Jang’s occasionally destructive brand of self-confidence, Choi is uber cautious, preferring to run multiple tests on patients to be absolutely positive as to their ailment. For him, medicine is not a path toward a higher social status, but a serious profession that saves lives. Naive? Maybe a little, but he has his own internal conflicts that flesh him out as a character.
A myriad of other characters abound throughout the 20 episodes, including Jang’s crooked father-in-law, devoted wife, trusting mistress and confidant (Kim Bo-Kyeong), and loyal underlings, Dr. Lee’s social activist daughter (Song Seon-Mi), the influential chief of Internal Medicine (Byeon Hee-Bong), a competitor for the position of Chief of Surgery, and countless more. But in the end, the relationship between Jang and Choi and the binarism that they create is at the heart of the drama, and the personality types that the two characters represent and the decisions they make have real consequences for their livelihoods and the livelihood of their families.
From a critical perspective, White Tower elucidates many of the problems that affect bureaucratic institutions, both in Korea and internationally, making it a very timely series. Those who want more power willingly bribe others, and those in positions of power willingly accept. Backroom deals are made for the benefit of individuals, as opposed to society’s interests, with promises of future favors in return. As such, White Tower emphasizes the politics behind the hospital and its effects on character relationships as opposed to the actual medical procedures. Oh sure, operation scenes are present, but never outside of the larger political context. It therefore differentiates itself from its Western counterparts by avoiding the trappings of “who’s going to end up with who?” and “what medical emergency will this episode be about?” Nevertheless, the operation scenes that are present are very gripping. Take a look at a scene from the first episode:
This short video captures the inherent drama not just in the operating room, but in the series’ multiple locations and scenarios across a variety of characters. Once the position of Chief of Surgery is decided, the drama is not even half over and the story is just getting started. Performances are generally excellent throughout, save for a horribly miscast American actor (you’ll know as soon as he opens his mouth) and the generic mother of a young female patient. Kim Myeong-Min shines as Jang Joon-Hyuk (if he was anything less than stellar, White Tower would have been a failure). As I progressed through the drama, I went through a gamut of emotions toward his character. I admired his confidence and conviction, I questioned his morality, I hated him for his selfishness, and finally I saw his humanity. It’s a fantastic performance, and it anchors this excellent drama. I’m all for sappy, soft-hearted romantic dramas, but White Tower, with its focus on humanity amidst corruption, is a nice change of pace.