‘Curtain Call’ review: a compelling pauper-turned-prince tale

'Curtain Call'

All the world’s a stage, and all of us are merely players – though we may not always play one role forever, as new K-drama Curtain Call tells us. Our primary player is Ja Geum-soon (Go Doo-shim), who’s alone and destitute in South Korea, separated from her husband and infant son while escaping the North during the Korean War. Decades later, another war is brewing in 92-year-old Ja’s life: one for the future of her hotel empire.

As her entrepreneurial legacy hangs in the balance, Ja – who only has three months to live – only wants to see her grandson Ri Moon-seung (born of the son she left in North Korea) again. Desperate for a peaceful send-off for Ja, her trusted advisor Jeong Sang-cheol (Sung Dong-il) tracks down said grandson (Noh Sang-hyun), only to find that he’s turned into a smuggler and drug kingpin.

So, Sang-cheol takes a risky gamble, hiring Yoo Jae-heon (Kang Ha-neul), a passionate but unlucky theatre actor and part-time delivery boy who happens to be the spitting image of Geum-soon’s late North Korean husband. The deal is simple: for the remainder of Geum-soon’s life, Jae-heon will masquerade as her grandson in exchange for 300million won. But how will Jae-heon manage his newfound, conniving “cousins” or his attachment to his false life?

Those familiar with director Yoon Sang-ho’s work – most recently the brilliant River Where The Moon Rises – will be accustomed to his signature style – one characterised by patience and languid pacing. His narratives and drawn-out conversations are punctuated with pivotal, gut-wrenching moments, his characters first seeming and acting like monoliths before a captivating humanity shines through.

At times, this extended focus on world- and character-building might feel slow to some – we don’t get to see Jae-heon play the dutiful grandson until the third episode – but this theatricality works in favour of Curtain Call, not least because of the premise of the pauper-turned-prince who may have bitten off more than he could chew.

Kang Ha-neul, though, never lets a demanding role get the best of him. He’s built his credibility on the backs of grounded, homely characters that surprise with layers of complexity as the endearing veneer is slowly stripped away. The chameleonic Kang especially excels at roles where the one-dimensional niceties are a facade, like the amnesiac Jin-seok in Forgotten, who spends the entire movie piecing together his dark past, or the eighth prince Wang Wook in Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, who gives in to greed and materialism as soon as the throne comes into view. Much like his character in Curtain Call, Kang has unwittingly been preparing to play Jae-heon for years. He switches between his two personalities with ease, all the while capturing the awkwardness of playing someone leagues above his social stature.

The antithesis to Kang’s bumbling, naive Jae-heon is Park Se-yeon (Ha Ji-won), Geum-soon’s only granddaughter who is devoted to fighting for her legacy – even if she has to manipulate her newfound “cousin” for it. In her most famous roles, Ha has embodied the determined woman hardened by necessity, but in Se-yeon – her first small-screen role in three years – she finds space to experiment with an endearing innocence. She’s grounded, ambitious, and fiercely protective of her grandmother, all of which feeds into the motivations for her actions, however questionable they may be. If there is anyone threatening Jae-heon’s perfect lie, it’s Se-yeon’s keen eyes and impressive observational skills.

The supporting star cast, too, is excellent. Sung Dong-il slips easily into a morally gray mould and Noh Sang-hyun raises eyebrows as the ruthless and money-hungry smuggler after his stellar performance in Pachinko. But the drama so far could still have benefited from a tighter progression. While Yoon’s immersive world-building has doubtless introduced intriguing loose ends, it also eats into time that could’ve gone into developments such as Jae-heon’s process of preparing for his role or his dynamic with Sang-cheol. Still, we’re only in the very first act of this compelling tale, and we’re willing to wait for the final ‘curtain call’.

Curtain Call airs on KBS2 every Monday and Tuesday at 9:50PM KST and on Amazon Prime Video in some regions.

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