K-drama review: Ms Panda and Mr Hedgehog

I deliberately picked another TV show that looked light and fluffy – I mean, it’s called Ms Panda and Mr Hedgehog (2012 Channel A). This romantic drama about patissiers certainly delivered on the fluffy front, but also managed to surprise me in a few areas (while being both lame and predictable in others).

Go Seung-ji (Lee Dong-hae AKA singer-songwriter Donghae) is a skilled 26-year-old patissier working in a small neighbourhood bakery run by the sweet, elderly Park Byung-moo (Park Geun-hyung). He’s also a little rough and wild, making money on the side as a loan shark. His nickname is Dochi (“Koseumdochi” is hedgehog in Korean) because he is prickly on the outside…

Pan Da-yang (Yoon Seung-ah) is a 28-year-old former journalist desperately trying to keep the family business Cafe Panda afloat following her parents’ death. Her younger sister Da-na and her aunt Mi-ra help out, but they are all reliant on hired baker Gil Dong-goo who is terrible at his job. On the verge of having to sell her home to pay her debts, she serves Dong-goo notice and advertises for a new baker – one willing to work solely for room and board for the first few months,

It’s a tall order, but handily Dochi has just learned that he is being paid more than the old man can afford, so he fakes a desire to strike out on his own and takes the job at Cafe Panda. Sparks immediately fly between him and Da-yang, but he doesn’t like to get close to anyone.

The budding romance can’t happen quite that smoothly of course. Enter Choi Won-il (Choi Jin-hyuk, who I’ve come across in Pasta and Heirs, neither of which I rate highly), heir to another, much grander, family business, Saint Honore – a successful chain of patisseries run by his mother and his stepfather, the unpleasant Choi Jae-gyum. Won-il has just returned from over a decade of living in the US determined to do two things: take over Saint Honore and marry his childhood sweetheart Pan Da-yang (with whom he has had zero contact since they were children). The only thing holding him back from openly fighting with his stepfather is his love for his half-sister Won-yi (Song In-hwa AKA Oh Yi-na).

Eun-bi, Dochi, Da-yang and Won-il.

Both Da-yang and Won-il are irritating and childish, considering their age and life situation. They also have zero chemistry, so it’s a relief that the love triangle is a very minor plot device in this series. I also have very little interest in stories about families fighting over inherited wealth.

Thankfully, Dochi’s character (and Donghae’s acting) more than held my interest. Dochi has served time in prison, as have most of his friends. They seem rough and raucous at first but prove themselves good and loyal. I really liked the drama’s attitude to the rehabilitation of ex-cons, showing up how most people’s prejudices are groundless. It doesn’t hurt that Donghae is very good looking and has an adorable smile, so that when Dochi makes all the classic mistakes of a young man in his first serious relationship it’s cute rather than frustrating.

I also like that there are at least some women in positions of power. Da-yang’s best friend Kang Eun-bi (Yoo So-young) is a senior manager at Saint Honore, as is Park Ha-na – both of whom start out as comedic but later prove extremely capable at their jobs and central to the drama.

That said, this is still not a great drama. There is a lot of nonsense about missing people, mysterious parentage and true identity, not all of which made sense. And what starts out with some beautiful messages about not needing to be related by blood to the people you consider to be family gets spoiled by some very unlikely coincidences. The acting is generally over the top, which is fine during comedy moments but makes serious scenes a harder sell.

But once again, my main problem is that Da-Yang is so submissive, especially in the latter half of the series. She’s an orphan running a business and fending off debt collectors – she should be badass, not meekly giggling over pretty cakes and getting shocked by the idea of someone having a tattoo. I clearly need to dig out that recommendation list of K-dramas with strong female leads, I am sure they’re out there.

The cakes look delicious, though. And Yoo So-young is adorable.