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Series / Sandglass

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Sandglass is a Korean Series that ran for 24 episodes on SBS in January and February of 1995.

The series follows three friends from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, a particularly tumultuous era that featured an increasingly authoritarian central government, a growing protest movement, a presidential assassination, a coup, martial law, and violent government crackdowns.

The three friends are Park Tae-soo, Kang Woo-suk, and Yoon Hye-rin. Tae-soo was a tough kid who was prone to getting into fights. His mother wanted Tae-soo to focus on his studies but blamed herself, as she supported the two of them by running a sleazy bar frequented by hookers. Tae-soo tries to go straight in school, and rather than join gangs buddies up with Woo-suk, a serious, scholarly young man and the son of a farmer. However, Tae-soo is unpleasantly surprised to find out that his Disappeared Dad, dead nearly 20 years when the story begins, was a Communist guerilla during and after the Korean War. Blacklisted from university, Tae-soo gives up and becomes a gangster, but not before giving his best friend Woo-suk the money to pursue his own education.

Woo-suk does in fact go to university where he meets Hye-rin, a feisty young woman who is the daughter of a rich, corrupt casino boss. Hye-rin has left her father's ill-gotten millions behind and instead has joined a left-wing radical student group. Woo-suk starts to develop feelings for Hye-rin, so naturally it's bad boy Tae-soo that she falls in love with.

This series was a monster hit in South Korea that by the time it finished was pulling over 60% of the nightly television audience. It is famous for its depiction of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which hundreds of protesting students were killed in a bloody government crackdown. Lee Jung-jae, who became world-famous 26 years later with Squid Game, had one of his first big parts in this series as Hye-rin's bodyguard, Baek Jae-hee.


  • Age Cut: In episode 3 a morose teenaged Hye-rin sits on a swing in her father's hard. The camera spins around and behind the tree trunk, and when the camera catches Hye-rin again it's the adult Hye-rin played by Go Hyun-jung.
  • Anachronic Order: The heavy use of flashbacks in the early episodes contributes to this. Hye-rin is briefly introduced as Woo-suk's neighbor in episode 1. Episode 2 goes back to show their Meet Cute, when she is show to be one of the left-wing student radicals. Then episode 3 goes even further back than that, showing her family history and how she became a radical to begin with (basically to rebel against her father). Once all the flashbacks are done the series settles down to straight chronological order.
  • Bookcase Passage: In episode 6 Hye-rin is running from cops and dives into a bookstore. The bookseller, who apparently knows her and is sympathetic, swings open a bookcase to reveal a hidden passage behind. Hye-rin ducks in, comes out the back, and thus avoids arrest.
  • Can't Stop The Signal: In the last episode, Woo-sun is arrested in order to stop him from pursuing his corruption investigation. Reporter Shin writes an expose, but the same corrupt government officials who had Woo-suk arrested lean on her editors to kill the story. So, with help from Hye-rin, Shin goes to an independent printer and has her story printed as a broadside. Woo-suk is freed.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Hye-rin in episode 9, while in the custody of the Korean secret police, is beaten until she can't stand. This succeeds in getting her to reveal the names of the people in her left-wing student group.
  • Comforting Comforter: Tae-soo tucks his mom in after a long day in episode 1.
  • Corrupt Politician: Congressman Park, who even calls himself a "con man" and who recruits Tae-joo as an enforcer.
  • Crusading Lawyer: Woo-suk, apparently the only honest prosecutor in South Korea. He dedicates himself to rooting out the endemic corruption in the construction industry, headed by crooks like Jong-do, even though Woo-suk's ow bosses are usually in bed with the bad guys and try to stop him.
  • Day Hurts Dark-Adjusted Eyes: Episode 9. Hye-rin, who has severe PTSD after being freed from a government torture chamber, huddles in her darkened room in the mansion for days. She winces when Jae-hee, determined to force her to rejoin the land of the living, flings open the heavy curtains to let light in the room.
  • Disturbed Doves: A flock of pigeons dramatically flies off the prison roof at the end of the last episode, as Tae-soo is marched across the courtyard to his execution.
  • Dramatic Drop: Hye-rin drops her glass of wine in episode 15, when she meets Tae-Soo again, three years after he went to prison and after he has since become a powerful gangster.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: In episode 10, Hye-rin goes back to her student group after enduring Cold-Blooded Torture at the hands of the South Korean secret police. They shun her, because they blame her for giving up the name of Un-gyong, who has been sentenced to life. She proceeds to get rip-roaring drunk...which turns into a bonding moment for her and Tae-Soo, because the casino she's getting drunk in is one that he manages.
  • Enemy Eats Your Lunch: On Tae-soo's first day in his new high school, a bully takes the egg right off of Tae-joo's lunch tin and eats it. It doesn't work well for the bully, who gets a beatdown from Tae-joo in the schoolyard afterwards.
  • Flames of Love: With Tae-soo a wanted fugitive and both of them knowing that it's now or never, he and Hye-rin make love in front of a roaring fireplace in episode 23. (Since this show is PG rated like almost every Korean Drama, there's a Sexy Discretion Shot.)
  • Flashback: Flashbacks tell the back stories of all the protagonists. In episode 2 we learn that corrupt cops framed Woo-suk's father for theft, in order to force him to sell his land to developers.
  • Hellhole Prison: The prison Tae-Soo spends Episode 11 and 12 in, a military-style boot camp that combines all the unpleasantness of a Boot Camp Episode with brutal, savage beatings. He goes through tremendous suffering before finally being released in episode 13.
  • Hospital Gurney Scene: In episode 5 Jin-soo, stabbed in the neck and bleeding heavily, says "I did well, right?" to Tae-soo as the gurney whisks him into the ER. He lives.
  • How We Got Here: After episode 1 starts by showing Tae-soo's life as a gangster, it skips backwards three years to find him as a high school student, and shows how he and Woo-suk became friends.
  • Intrepid Reporter: Shin Young-jin, who is introduced in episode 15 when she makes the acquaintance of Woo-suk. She's on the organized crime beat and she has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the gangsters and hoodlums orbiting around President Yoon and Tae-soo.
  • I Want My Mommy!: The Played for Drama variant, as Private Kang, who gets shot in the firefight between soldiers and civilians in episode 8, calls for his mother as he dies.
  • Love Triangle:
    • For a while between Hye-rin, Tae-soo, and Woo-suk, except that Woo-suk obviously has no shot because All Girls Want Bad Boys.
    • Another subplot later in the series has a triangle between Woo-suk, Young-jin the Intrepid Reporter, and Sun-young, Woo-suk's demure landlady who obviously adores him. Young-jin is assertive enough to actually ask Woo-suk to marry her, but instead he picks the more traditionally feminine Sun-young.
  • Lady Drunk: Tae-soo's mom, who blames her own partying and excessive drinking in the bar for her son being unable to concentrate on his studies, and who is bitter about being a widow running said bar. She dies in the first episode when she stumbles drunk onto some train tracks after an errant scarf, although she seems to let the train hit her after she sees it.
  • MacGuffin: President Yoon's secret account book, in which he kept a record of all his bribes and corrupt deals. Much of the drama in the back half of the series revolves around people trying to obtain the account book. Eventually Hye-rin gives it to Woo-sun who uses it to put Kang the corrupt bureaucrat in jail.
  • Meet Cute: Woo-suk and Hye-rin meet in episode 2 when a drunk in the student cafe slaps Hye-rin's friend, only for her to hit him and knock him to the ground, as Woo-suk watches in astonishment. Their second meeting soon after comes when she is running through deserted streets in panic, as two men follow her, and she is saved by Woo-suk taking her through a side way.
  • Never Learned to Read: Woo-suk's father admits to this in a flashback to 1968, citing this as a reason why he can't fight the crooks who just forced him off his land. He tells his son to focus on his education and become a judge.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Jae-hee the loyal bodyguard is beaten to death by Jong-do's goons at the end of episode 22, with Jong-do himself delivering the death blow, while Hye-rin is Forced to Watch.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Latin singing is heard more than once in Episode 7, during the Gwangju Massacre, as South Korean soldiers rampage through the streets shooting and killing.
  • Orbital Shot: A rather odd use of this trope in episode 2 for a scene in the cafeteria where Hye-rin asks if she can eat some of Woo-suk's noodles, then, as she does, says that she's broke and asks if he knows of any jobs. The camera glides in a circle around the two of them throughout this fairly ordinary conversation.
  • The Plot Reaper: An entire sequence at the end of episode 12 has Tae-soo and two of his old gangster buddies together attempting to escape from the Hellhole Prison. His two buddies are killed but Tae-soo gets away...only to be arrested the very next day. And in episode 13 he's again at liberty, having apparently been legally released. The whole prison break plot has no effect on the plot...except that the death of Tae-soo's boss leaves Tae-soo free to take control of what's left of the gang.
  • The Quiet One: Jae-hee, Hye-rin's ever-vigilant bodyguard, who hardly ever talks. In episode 14 he gets some rare dialogue when talking with Hye-rin, and she lampshades this, observing that with all those thoughts bottled up inside he'll explode one day.
  • Rich Kid Turned Social Activist: Hye-rin. She's a student radical in her youth, going to protests and such. She even gets arrested and tortured by the secret police, once. But it's all really a rebellion against her controlling father. Eventually, after she joins her father's business, she cast her left-wing past behind without a second thought.
  • Rooftop Confrontation: Tae-soo and his gang chase Jong-do to the roof of his hotel in episode 16. Tae-soo's lieutenant In-young is all for throwing Jong-do off the roof but Tae-soo settles for warning him to never come near Hye-rin again.
  • Scooby Stack: A live-action instance of this in the first episode, as the students at Tae-joon's mom's sleazy bar peek through a door at the bar girls, who are probably prostitutes, doing their laundry.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: Woo-suk does this with Hye-rin at the end of episode 2, because the State Sec goons have just barged into the auditorium and he needs her to stop yelling at him. She slaps him afterwards, but he grins and she looks embarrassed.
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: Tae-Soo spends most of the first thirteen episodes dressed rather scruffily, in denim jackets (when he's not a student or in prison, anyway), with scruffy hair, all befitting a low-level gangster. However, when he gets out of prison he's bent on revenge. He takes over his old gang, and after that starts dressing for power with natty three-piece suits and slicked-back hair.
  • Sleep Cute: Woo-suk is pretty pleased when Hye-rin falls asleep with her head on his shoulder as they take the bus home in episode 2.
  • Spinning Paper: A series of newspaper headlines recounts the unrest of October 1979 that culminated in the assassination of President Park Chung-hee, before the series skips forward to May 1980 and the Gwangju massacre.
  • The Starscream: Oh Jong-do, who wants to replace gang leader Sung-bom, and unsuccessfully tries to recruit Tae-soo.
  • Stock Footage: The Gwangju massacre sequences in episodes 7 and 8 continually intercut scenes shot from the movie with stock footage of the actual event.
  • Succession Crisis: The last third of the series focuses around Hye-rin, Tae-soo, and Jong-do all battling for control of her father's casino empire after President Yoon dies.
  • Swiss Bank Account: It turns out that Mr. Yoon was salting away the kickbacks for the government in Swiss bank accounts...but he changed the numbers. In episode 20 Hye-rin offers to give Mr. Kang the passwords if Kang lifts the ban on her casinos, but Kang angrily refuses.
  • Table Space: In episode 13, while being superficially polite, Jong-do lets Tae-soo know that no help will be offered, when he puts them on opposite sides of a long table.
  • This Is What the Building Will Look Like: In episode 14 President Yoon leads his daughter Hye-rin into a room, and shows her his model: not just a model of the enormous casino he plans to build, but also a model of the rolling hills behind the casino where he says he'll build a family resort. This same scene ends with Yoon being told that his enemy President Park (backed by Tae-soo) has taken a casino from him. In the scene after that Park tells Yoon that he'll never get the government permit to build the full-scale version of that model casino.
  • Traintop Battle: Tae-soo and Jong-do have their final, fatal fistfight on top of a moving cargo truck on the docks at Pusan, in episode 23.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Just to make the Hellhole Prison in episode 11 that much more horrible and dehumanizing, Tae-Soo and his fellow newbie prisoners get all their hair shaved off, outdoors in the courtyard, while they're on their knees.
  • Video Credits: Episodes start out with video excerpts of all the main cast members as their names pop up on-screen.
  • Visual Title Drop: Episode 5 reveals that Mr. Yoon has an hourglass (a "sandglass") on his desk. He has a habit of flipping it over when giving orders. The hourglass is referenced again in episode 16 when Mr. Yoon, whose empire is collapsing around him, picks it up and tells Hye-rin that it was a gift that her mother gave him on their first trip abroad. Then there's a Call-Back in the series finale where Hye-rin is fiddling with the hourglass right before Tae-soo's trial.
  • Would Hit a Girl: In episode 6 Tae-soo's goon squad violently breaks up a protest of striking young female textile workers. He doesn't feel good about it, and he feels worse when he sees Hye-rin in the crowd.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Tae-soo's gang breaks up a political rally of an opposition party. Tae-soo asks Chang To-shik, the government minion who hired the gang, why the government pays "thugs". Chang laughs and says that whether one is a "thug" or a "patriot" depends up on who one works for.