Sometimes, you run across a film or a television show that completely takes your breath away. Whether due to uprooted expectations, the quality of the storytelling, or what have you, there is something incredibly special in that moment when you’re met with something truly thoughtful yet heartbreaking, brutal yet hopeful, and then some. This is what the latest Netflix Kdrama, Castaway Diva, delivers and, dear reader, I’ve still yet to fully recover.
Starring Park Eun-bin, Chae Jong-hyeop, and Kim Hyo-jin, Castaway Diva is a story of hope and perseverance against all odds. The story follows Seo Mok-ha (Park Eun-bin), a starry-eyed singer who ends up stranded on a deserted Korean island for fifteen years. The only thing that manages to get her through the day is her love for pop singer Yoon Ran-joo (Kim Hyo-jin), her desire to reunite with her childhood savior, Jeong Ki-ho (Moon Woo-jin), and her survival instincts, unintentionally honed by the inhospitable environment she lived in with her abusive father.
One day, she is discovered by Kang Bo-geol (Chae Jong-hyeop), his brother, Kang Woo-hak (Cha Hak-yeon), and Bo-geol’s team of volunteers when they go to clean the deserted island. Forced to hit the ground running to assimilate back into a much-updated Korean society, Mok-ha is determined to pursue her dream of singing. She learns more about herself in the process, but her reappearance isn’t entirely a ray of sunshine. After seeing her on the news, a predator who has been hunting down Bo-geol and his family for years resurfaces and forces Mok-ha, Bo-geol, and his family to confront the memories of the past.
While the lure of Castaway Diva is the premise surrounding a woman deserted on an island becoming a pop singer, it is so much more than that. Over the course of twelve episodes, writers Park Hye-ryun and Eun Yeol carefully craft a tale that shines a spotlight on the insidious nature of abuse and how society oftentimes fails domestic abuse victims. With the primary abuser of the series, Jeong Bong-wan (Lee Seung-joon), being a former police officer, there’s an additional layer woven of how the law can be exploited. Throw in the added complication of filial piety, as exhibited by the strained relationship between Bong-wan and Bo-geol/Ki-ho, and the audience can see how Bo-geol and his family got into the state they’re in.
The series also makes sure not to paint everyone as wholly innocent either. There’s no binary here. Hye-ryun and Yeol illustrate this through the various shades of grey in the situation. But they also rightfully point out the conundrum surrounding the legal system. If the only way to ensure survival is to break the law, then what does that say about the legal system in place? Two wrongs don’t make a right, but as violence continues to escalate, what options are realistically available that don’t lead to death? In displaying the various nuances and predicaments that often fall on domestic abuse victims, a much-needed discussion is started. That is one of the ways Castaway Diva shines.
Another is in the message of hope. This is applied through Mok-ha’s and Ran-joo’s experiences in the pop music industry as well as Bo-geol’s family situation. No matter the disappointment or the obstacles thrown at the characters, even when they’ve hit their lowest lows, something reminds them to keep going. Whether it’s Ran-joo’s mother, Mok-ha’s sage wisdom, or the strong friendships formed during Castaway Diva, a tiny granule of hope is sometimes all we need to pick ourselves up off the ground and carry forward.
Castaway Diva achieves a tonal balance between hope and reality that doesn’t feel cliche. That is a rarity, particularly in Kdrama, where tonal swings are more common than not. Part of this can be attributed to the writing, but also to the direction and acting performances,
As the show’s lead, Park Eun-bin’s Seo Mok-ha is earnest, blunt, and determined. Sometimes, her approach to Mok-ha reads similarly to her performance in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, which is highlighted in how Eun-bin carries her body, the cut-off bluntness of her speech, and her avoidance of eye contact. While the character of Mok-ha is not autistic like the character Eun-bin portrays in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, these behavioral similarities can be attributed to the social isolation Mok-ha experiences for fifteen years. Across the span of Castaway Diva, though, Mok-ha’s behavior shifts the more she adjusts to modern Korean society. With more confidence, she settles into her skin and becomes less awkward around others in the process.
Actors Kim Hyo-jin and Chae Jong-hyeop easily hold their own as scene partners opposite Park Eun-bin. As Yoon Ran-joo, Kim Hyo-jin carries the pop singer through various stages of her career with ease. The emotional complexities of being an aged pop star and watching as she’s slowly pushed out are no easy feat, yet Hyo-jin handles them well in her partnered scenes. We can gauge her emotional state based on how she interacts with others. Her body language is closed off with the people at RJ Entertainment, and she often retreats. With Mok-ha, she’s more carefree, like a child, and her body language is more open. As Mok-ha’s love interest, Chae Jong-hyeop shoulders the challenge of presenting the turbulent inner world of Kang Bo-geol. Bo-geol is caring to a fault and sometimes teeters on the verge of snapping, yet becomes a complicated hero that you can’t help but cheer for.
The real standout in Castaway Diva is Lee Seung-joon, who arguably portrays the darkest role I’ve seen him in a while. Typically, Seung-joon takes on lighter characters that lean more into comedy. As Jeong Bong-wan, he’s terrifying. Cold, determined, and calculated, this is a man you quickly learn to fear whenever he’s onscreen. Bong-wan is an example of what happens when you let envy and rage escalate to the point of absolute misery. Overall, Seung-joon makes Bong-wan entirely his and leaves no crumbs.
If there’s any show you should add to your list from 2023, Castaway Diva is easily one of the best. With a tight, carefully thought-out story that carries an emotional impact that leaves you breathless, this Kdrama stands high above the clouds. Featuring impeccable performances across the board, strong vocals to carry over the musical elements, and a resounding message of hope and perseverance, Castaway Diva casts away any doubt viewers might have jumping into the series.
Castaway Diva Episodes 1-12 are now playing on Netflix.
If there’s any show you should add to your list from 2023, Castaway Diva is easily one of the best.