While this post is not a Penthouse vs. SKY Castle discussion, a short address of the topic seems inevitable. (Check out my most recent post where I compare the two dramas right here!) So, I’ll do my best to be concise and we can get on with the review. Yes, the two dramas share quite a number of similarities and the vibes are certainly comparable, but they are two different dramas. I advise viewers to give Penthouse: War In Life the space it deserves to make its own impression. I guarantee you’ll find it stands just fine on its own.
Enough said. I am 100% hopelessly hooked on Penthouse and can’t wait any longer to talk about it. So let’s dive right in with my thoughts and observations on its premiere episodes.
Warning: spoilers for episodes 1 and 2 of Penthouse lay ahead.
These two are back together and I’m so here for it.
One of my favorite things already is that Yoon Jong Hoon and Bong Tae Gyu reunite in this drama — once again playing filthy rich men, á la Return (though these characters are different…fans of Return should definitely watch them in this as well). Their chemistry is ever brilliant — and though I wouldn’t call them the comedy relief (both characters are downright unsettling…as is basically everyone in this drama), I find myself chuckling at their interactions with each other. In retrospect, I’m realizing how telling it is of the drama’s dark nature when the only semblance of comic relief revolves around two creeps who aren’t even comedic characters… .
The twins are the most intriguing characters so far.
And that’s saying a lot because this cast is full of interesting characters. However, twin siblings Joo Seok Hoon (Kim Young Dae) and Joo Seok Kyung (Han Ji Hyun) are the most fascinating to watch unravel. They’re nasty, conniving, and most will probably find them incredibly unlikable. But these two are utterly, utterly wretched and pitiful. It would be easy to feel sorry for them if they weren’t such punks (which is not to say that I don’t feel sorry for them — I do). But that’s part of the fascination: the complexity of these roles. I don’t know how things will end up for our twins, but so far their choices are proving they have a long way to go towards redemption…if they’ll get any at all.
Seok Kyung is outspoken and cruel. Her twin brother Seok Hoon is quieter than she — and I was actually expecting him to be an ally to our main teenage protagonist. After all, he isn’t outright verbally abusive to her like his sister is. However, we see at the end of episode 2 that Seok Hoon has the same mean streak Seok Kyung does. The only thing more unsettling than her penchant for cruelty is his ability to hide his own.
Now for the million-dollar question: can we fully blame them? Everyone has the power to choose how they act, sure. But the line between Nurture and Nature is not always crystal clear. Sometimes people are more a product of their environment than we initially realize — especially if all seems well on the outside. Cushy and rich don’t necessarily equal happy and functional, though. In a particularly weighty scene, we find out that their dad physically abuses them. (He even has a secret room in his study where he beats them. It’s horrifying.) Oh, and Stepmom (who is one of the only good characters so far) has no idea.
Despite their terrible behavior to everyone else, I find the brother-sister relationship between these two touching. Although Seok Kyung was the one who got in trouble in the abovementioned scene, Seok Hoon takes the beating for his sister so that she doesn’t get hurt. Later, when she’s dressing his wounds, he tells her that he’ll always protect her while she tearfully clings to him and says she’s sorry.
As in all instances where there is a villain in a drama, the handling of that villain’s backstory speaks volumes as to the drama’s quality. Thus, it is to its credit that Penthouse doesn’t use these brutally sober scenes to shove desired emotions down viewers’ throats. Instead, the scenes are tactfully allowed to play out how they might in real life: as a viewer, it does not feel like a show put on for my viewing experience, but rather as though I’m intruding on painful moments in these kids’ lives. The scenes are not emotional beacons, but tools that further tell the twins’ story — and that of Penthouse.
The protagonists are underwhelming at this point…except one.
This might be because I usually like watching antagonistic characters better anyways, but so far I’m not super invested in the main protagonists, with one exception.
I really like Shim Su Ryeon (Lee Ji Ah), the stepmother of our above-mentioned twins. How she ended up with their sadistic father, I have no clue. (And she doesn’t even know the half of it.) Maybe we’ll find out how the two came together later on, but so far we’ve seen that he’s able to mask his true nature when he wants to…the key phrase here being “when he wants to.” (By the way, Uhm Ki Joon is tackling this difficult role — of father and husband Joo Dan Tae — with incredible dexterity and I’m so impressed with his acting ability. How he can look so tame and kind and yet be such a believably violent creep is absolutely terrifying.) Contrary to her husband, however, Su Ryeon is kind and caring. She also has a biological daughter in the mix who seemingly has been a vegetable in the hospital for 16 years. Su Ryeon is so far the only good one in all of our penthouse residents. It’s nice to know we have someone we can trust on the inside.
Now, to the protagonists I’m not necessarily loving at the moment (but I don’t flat-out dislike either):
Min Seol A (Jo Soo Min) is a poor highschool girl who charaded as a college student so that she could get paid to tutor the teens of the penthouse. She’s found out, however, and obviously loses her position. But she stays in the game when we find out that she won first place in the classical singing audition for this prestigious arts school all the kids are trying to get into. Which of course only makes them hate her more than they already do.
I can’t put my finger on why, but I don’t really like this character much so far. She seems extremely mousy and submissive at all the wrong times. At first I thought she’d be the type to stand up for herself, especially when she jousts verbally with the intimidating and quick-witted Seok Kyung. But Seol A’s really letting these nasty people walk all over her right now and I wish she wouldn’t. Of course, it could be that she’s biding her time until she reveals the hidden ace she has — the incriminating video she took of two married (to other people) members of the penthouse kissing passionately.
I’d say mom and daughter team Oh Yoon Hee (Eugene) and Bae Ro Na (Kim Hyun Soo) wrap up our protagonists. The major reason I’m not too fond of them is because so far their roles revolve completely around the classical singing aspect; I’ll get into that more in a second, but let’s just say it isn’t my favorite element of the drama.
We know Yoon Hee has a bad history with a particular member of the penthouse, esteemed vocal coach Cheon Seo Jin, played by Kim So Yeon. Yoon Hee’s daughter, Ro Na, auditions for the prestigious arts school I was talking about and guess who one of the judges is? Seo Jin — who of course makes sure Ro Na doesn’t get in. Somehow, I doubt Yoon Hee is going to let that slide.
The lip-syncing is — well, it’s a thing.
A rather large plotpoint is that several of these kids are training to be classical singers, and the lip-syncing is…okay. It’s not so awful that I can’t watch. But it’s not fully believable either. So far I think young acting veteran Kim Hyun Soo is doing the best with it. At least it looks like she’s really singing, even if the voice that’s supposedly coming out of her doesn’t necessarily sound like her own. Squinting kinda helps. But the slight cringe is still there.
I’m not trying to bash anyone involved in the making of this drama. I can’t imagine how much work goes into syncing voices with mouth movements, not to mention making it look like you’re actually singing an incredibly difficult aria when you’re not.
The story’s build-up is intense & I’m loving the thrill.
The very beginning of the drama kicks off with an extremely unexpected death. This poignant sequence sets the tone of the entire drama right off the bat: it’s a world full of ritz and glamor on the surface, but penetrated with extreme darkness. The drama then goes back a couple months to begin its story. And thus far, no one has died — but I feel as though that won’t be the case for much longer. There’s way too much going on and there are way too many evil characters.
It’s time to wrap this up, so I’ll end by saying that despite some of the things I’m not terribly fond of (i.e. the whole lip-syncing thing and a couple of the protagonists), I’m completely invested in this drama. It is overwhelmingly more of a positive viewing experience for me. The acting is phenomenal, the story is well-written and unpredictable, and the characters are captivating. We’re also given hints here and there that there are a lot of secrets to come to light, which I can’t wait for.
I love Penthouse: War In Life and can’t wait to see where it’s going. And I definitely recommend giving it a watch.
Until next time, dear readers!
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