When I first came across this series on Hulu I was like whaatt?? It looked utterly goofy and crazy. But after the first episode I fell in love with it.
Our heroine, Jang Beo-jin (Seo Woo) is the daughter of Jeju Island’s head abalone diver.
Unfortunately, she has no talent for diving and is a disappointment to her mother no matter how hard she tries. Before watching Tamra Island, I had never known that Jeju had a history of women divers (haenyo) who provided for their families. As a result, Tamra is one of the places in the world where a matriarchal society existed. I love how strong and domineering Beojin’s mother is. Her dad’s all right, but he clearly exists on the periphery and the women are running this island. Love it.
One day, Beojin rescues a man from drowning after he’s been shipwrecked.
Most kdramas rarely show the lead in revealing clothing so I was surprised at how much you could see when Beojin goes diving. Of course, the actress Seo Woo is no stranger to cutie glamour. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, more power to you!
Angle one of our love triangle is William J. Spencer (Pierre Deporte). He’s supposed to be a British aristocrat, but he’s played by a French actor with a very thick French accent. Um, okay.
William has a talent for languages and quickly learns to speak Korean faster than I ever could. He’s pretty much fluent by the last few episodes, thus making communication much easier for everyone. When we first meet William, his crazy mother is about to force him into a marriage with an ill-mannered, gluttonous English lady. Yeah, the way Westerners are portrayed in this series is definitely over-the-top, but hilarious if you understand that a good part of Tamra Island is about making evident the detrimental results of European attempts to colonize the Far East. I definitely appreciated watching history come alive in this series.
Angle two of our love triangle is Park Gyu (Im Ju Hwan), a high official who has been sent by the Joseon king on a secret mission to uncover corruption on the island.
As part of his cover, he’s been banished to Tamra under the guise of an official who has been convicted of sexual harassment. Of course, he ends up under house arrest in Beojin’s home since her mom is a leader in their community. Uh yeah, it’s totally not weird to keep a sexual predator prisoner in your home. This of course leads to many interesting situations once our two competitors realize they’re on the same island.
Eventually, the three of them head o Hanyang (Seoul). They all have their own reasons, but the main goal is to stop profit-hungry merchants from taking over Tamra.
Beojin finds herself living in Park Gyu’s family home. His mother mistakenly believes that her son has impregnated her and must now take her in as a concubine.
Beojin is not impressed with high society and leaves to find fulfilling work. Because heck, how could anyone used to living in a matriarchal society be content sitting at home serving tea? She becomes a bookkeeper of sorts for the evil pro-colonial merchant, Seo Rin (Lee Seung Min).
Meanwhile, poor William has been taken prisoner by the king. Luckily, he’s not the first white man to land in Korea. That medal goes to Park Yeon (Robert Harley) a Dutchman who was stranded on the island several years earlier. Due to his ability to speak both Dutch and his acquisition of the Korean language, the King has kept him prisoner in the court so that he can serve as an interpreter whenever European merchants visit Joseon. Interestingly, this character is based on the real life adventures of Hendrick Hamel.
Park Yeon takes him under his wing and attempts to school him on the methods of staying alive as a white man in a yellow man’s world. William’s Japanese friend, Yan, also tries to help him survive and escape back to England. Of course, Yan is a mercenary with ties to Seo Rin, but ultimately his friendship and hidden Korean ancestry (of course) becomes more important to him than money.
The themes of xenophobia, international trade, and social disparity were definitely intellectually stimulating. Not that the romantic plot needed any bolstering, but I especially enjoyed the added layer of complexity.
In a lot of Western historical dramas, we see how white people treat people of color horribly. In Tamra, we view the reverse. To the Koreans, William is a ghost, a strange apparition to be feared and jeered, and he is regarded no better than a stray dog, even beaten and left for dead. To stay alive, he does his best to assimilate and dyes his hair black.
Beojin is one of the few people who readily accepts William. The chemistry between these two is adorable. There’s a hint of yellow fever, the last time we see William at the end of the series he is trying to shake off the aggressive advances of another brutish English lady. He seems to prefer more docile, virginal girls. Of course, living on a matriarchal island, gender roles are slightly reversed. Beojin may not be a star diver, but she is self sufficient and spunky. She literally feeds, clothes, and provides shelter for William. The two are kindred souls. They both come from societies where they don’t feel like they belong and are searching for a place that they do. Of course, as we’ve learned from most kdramas, a pot needs a lid … not another pot.
Beojin and Park Gyu have a contemptuous relationship at first. She thinks he’s stuck up and incapable of doing anything without the help of servants. He views her as an annoying thorn at his side, an ignorant villager that lives on a backward island. Beojin’s younger sister, a precocious wisdom-spouting kid, helps him realize that the locals aren’t as primitive as they seem. Eventually he gains respect for their fighting spirit and commits himself to saving Tamra from colonization.
It takes awhile for Park Gyu to realize that he’s fallen for the beautiful flower who’s blossomed at his side.
They have several awkward, but tender scenes that are borderline steamy.
Seo Woo is one lucky girl.
Tamra Island, Grade: A-
Pros: Lovely shots of Jeju, strong women, strong female relationships – especially between Beojin and her mother, thought-provoking themes on colonization from the Korean perspective, and an intriguing love triangle with two worthy competitors. There were also many fun moments of hilarity, for example William mispronouncing Park Gyu’s name as “Fuck You.”
I was very impressed by the acting. Due to his restrictive Joseon period clothing, Im Ju Hwan has to rely on his eyes to convey most of his emotions, and he succeeds tenfold. Seo Woo didn’t know how to swim before taking on this role, but you’d never guess that when you watch her gracefully dive into the water. A lesser actress could’ve made Beo-jin into a silly caricature (like Jan Di in BoF) but Seo Woo adopts an earnest impression and a childish cadence to convey a genuine sense of wonderment.
Cons: The evil character, Seo Rin, gets to stay alive. I guess she’s supposed to symbolize the continual rise of international trade that Joseon must eventually partake in, but still – she is one demonic lady.