Korean drama fans are used to a steady diet of long, continuous story arcs with each episode in a series more or less dependent upon what came before it. It’s what gives so many titles in the genre a sweeping, cinematic feel that draws the audience into both the setting and the story. If you’re a purist who needs that kind of cohesiveness, SBS’ 2015 drama ‘Midnight Diner’ is not for you. For the rest of us, this vignette-driven series is filled with the warmth and comfort of shared meals and shared struggles.
A remake of the Japanese ‘Shinya Shokudo’ (TBS 2009-2011), the main setting is a tiny little restaurant tucked away in a walking alley, manned by a lone chef known only as Master. This name is no doubt a running pun, since the Korean pronunciation of “master” is remarkably similar to “mashta,” the informal Korean word for “tasty/delicious.” The restaurant is only open from 12:00 AM to 7:00 AM, has only one item on the menu, but Master cooks anything his patrons ask, so long as he has the ingredients on hand. The seating in the restaurant is limited to roughly a dozen seats at a horseshoe-shaped bar, allowing everybody to face each other, giving all meals the feeling of dining with a secondary ad hoc family.
All of the stories are about how life goes on despite its troubles, and how those troubles can be faced. Whether it’s the orphan teenager who’s nearly killing himself with unskilled work to earn a living, the bar hostess who has to deal with drunks and lechers on the job, or the mobster who can’t enjoy a meal in peace anywhere because of his reputation, it’s clear that Master isn’t just serving them food, he’s serving them solace and respite from life’s storms.
Kim Seung Woo starred as the mysterious chef, Master, a man who can cook nearly anything, but is also always looking to learn new flavors from his customers. While his role has the fewest lines of any regular cast member, he remains a central figure throughout the series, strong and taciturn, with a pirate-like slash scar above and below his left eye. His basso profundo narration fills in for large gaps of time between when he sees certain customers, and while he clearly empathizes with his clientele, he remains calm and controlled amidst it all, the proverbial eye of the hurricane.
In many ways, Midnight Diner is reminiscent of a more refined, slice-of-life version of ‘Cheers’, where everybody knows each other, everybody’s there to enjoy a break from their busy lives, but nobody’s the butt of anybody else’s jokes. If anything, Midnight Diner takes subtle joy in exploring its characters, celebrating them one by one, before letting them walk off into the sunrise. It’s one drama that leaves an especially large impression, delivered in tasteful 30-minute servings.
Watch it now:
Viki (not yet licensed for U.S. viewing)