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Hospital Ship: Episodes 1-2

MBC’s new medical drama Hospital Ship starts off well with compelling characters, a novel premise, and more pretty faces and gorgeous cinematography than you can shake a stethoscope at. We get a solid introduction to the doctors and their personal challenges in this episode, which manages to be funny, heart-pounding, and heart-warming all at the same time. I’m not normally one for medical dramas, but if the show continues on like it began, I think we’re in for quite a wonderful journey as we watch these doctors learn from their patients how to not only be doctors, but caring human beings.

Note: This is just a first episode recap.


A small ship tosses dangerously in a storm, as its crew frantically ties the cargo down in preparation for a rough night. Two sailors lift a hatch to the cargo hold, and one climbs inside while the other begins to hand down boxes.

A wave crashes over the ship, slamming the open hatch closed. The sailor’s arm is caught and his bones are crushed as the hatch locks down on his arm, and he wails in agony.

Up in the cockpit, CAPTAIN BANG decides that they have to turn back. One of his men tries to force him to continue on their current course, but his first mate yanks him back and yells that if they keep going, the ship will capsize.

The sailor screams that they can’t leave their fellow sailor with a mangled arm, but the first mate declares forcefully that that won’t happen. He says that they can take him to the hospital ship, and we see a woman in scrubs running belowdecks and into a bright light.

We open on that same woman as she jogs through a forest, eventually coming out of the trees and to an urban intersection. In the quiet morning, a sports car zooms up the road and clips a parked car, flipping several times before coming to a stop.

The woman startles for a moment, then runs over to check on the driver. The next thing we know, she’s atop the driver’s unconscious body on a gurney, performing chest compressions and barking orders to the medical personnel rushing him into the ER.

An intern arrives with a massive syringe, but when he hesitates, the woman grabs the syringe and plunges the needle into the patient’s heart. The patient is rushed to the operating room as the woman, Dr. SONG EUN-JAE (Ha Ji-won), showers and scrubs in for surgery.

In an auditorium, medically trained soldiers prepare to receive their assignments. They’re informed that they will draw a card from a box which will determine the order in which they can choose their assignment—with the exception of the hospital ship posting, which has its own card and cannot be turned down.

Two soldiers, KIM JAE-GUL (Lee Seo-won) and his buddy CHA JOON-YOUNG (Kim In-shik), twitch nervously that they’ll take anything but the hospital ship (Joon-young even slaps a talisman to his forehead to ward off the dreaded posting), but of course, they both draw the offending card.

They trail behind Captain Bang and his first mate with long faces, as the captain cheerfully reassures them that it’s not like the hospital ship is haunted. Cut to: the hospital ship floating on a dark foggy ocean, looking haunted as hell, as the nurses discuss the fact that it’s considered the worst posting because the doctors have to live on the ship.

A man drives his car into a parking garage and sighs in annoyance when a woman clips his fender with her vehicle. He gets out to confront the other driver, who informs him snappishly that she won’t apologize since she hit him on purpose.

This is KWAK HYUN (Kang Min-hyuk), and the other driver is his mother. She adds that she won’t apologize for being with “him” when Hyun saw them, either, and says defensively that the reason she’s like this isn’t her fault but his father’s.

He calmly offers to call a driver for his mother, studiously ignoring his mother’s exclamations for him to go back to Seoul immediately. She insists that he can find a good position as a doctor there, afraid that he’s endangered his career by leaving abruptly. But Hyun refuses to discuss any of this with her and tells her to go home.

Hyun finds the hospital ship at the docks and introduces himself to the nurses standing on the deck. They gape when he informs them that he wasn’t assigned to work here—he volunteered, which is almost unheard of.

One of the nurses, Nurse Pyo, explains how things operate as she gives Hyun a tour of the ship. She tells him that there are two teams—ship operations and the medical team. Hyun seems very comfortable on the ship, nimbly climbing the rigging and smiling a mile wide as he’s introduced to everyone.

Belowdecks, Nurse Pyo shows Hyun where the doctors see patients for internal medicine, dentistry, and Oriental medicine. There’s even a small pharmacy and an X-ray room, and Hyun seems to like the small cabin which will double as his office and exam room.

Back in Seoul, our competent surgeon, Eun-jae, operates on the car accident victim, and she chides an intern when he gets emotional over the patient dropping blood pressure. She continues operating dispassionately as the patient’s vitals crash, instructing intern Jae-hwan that if he lets himself feel fear then his hands will shake, and he could very well cause a death.

As Eun-jae and Jae-hwan continue operating, another doctor frantically informs the chief of surgery that Eun-jae’s patient is Jang Sung-ho, the heir to a vast business conglomerate (cameo by Jo Hyun-jae). Chief Kim is confident in Eun-jae’s abilities, but the mention of the patient’s connections has him worried.

Things are growing critical in the operating room, but Eun-jae keeps her cool until the surgery is over and the patient is closed up. Chief Kim visits the operating room as the surgery is concluding and asks Eun-jae to come speak with him.

Eun-jae briefs Chief Kim on the accident and resulting surgery, so when they’re suddenly confronted with a crowd of reporters, he’s able to rattle off the details as if he were there himself. Eun-jae sidles away, unnoticed, with a tiny smirk on her face.

She makes her way to the break room, where intern Jae-hwan joins her and asks if she’s bothered that she did all the work and Chief Kim is getting all the attention. She doesn’t seem to care, more bothered by the fact that Jae-hwan took so long finishing up the surgery.

She leaves, and another doctor tells Jae-hwan that Eun-jae actually orchestrated that whole situation with the reporters. He says that it’s her dream to be the youngest female chief of surgery, so she’s kissing up to Chief Kim in the hopes of being named his successor.

In the morning at a seaside boardinghouse, Hyun meets Jae-gul and Joon-young, who introduce themselves as a doctor of Korean medicine and a dentist, respectively. Jae-gul has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about Hyun’s father, a famous doctor who travels around the world with Doctors Without Borders.

Interestingly, Hyun tenses up at the mention of his famous dad. But when Jae-gul sneers that his father probably sent him to the hospital ship with orders not to embarrass him, Hyun smirks and says that in fact, it was his idea to come here and change up his thinking.

To prove his point, Hyun takes the guys to the deck where they lounge comfortably and he tells them, “If you can’t avoid it, enjoy it. Let’s think of the hospital ship like a tourist ferry.”

The nurses huff in indignation, though Nurse Pyo notes that the view is nice, hee. NURSE YOO (Mina) goes to give the doctors a piece of her mind, but Hyun informs her that they aren’t doctors until their shifts start in another half-hour. From the upper deck, Captain Bang grumbles to the first mate that he’d like to shove all three of them into the ocean.

Back at the hospital, Eun-jae is embarrassed when an elderly patient mentions that he knows her mother. She calls her mother, who lives on one of the islands off the coast, and her mom hilariously throws the phone like it might bite her when she sees Eun-jae’s name on the screen.

Mom’s sister (Kim Sun-young) calls Eun-jae the Grim Reaper and makes Mom answer. Eun-jae gives Mom an earful for sending her friends to her hospital again and snaps that this is the last time, or her mother will never see her again. Her mom asks how she’s eating and sleeping, but Eun-jae already hung up on her.

Eun-jae’s aunt fusses at Mom for talking up her daughter to the neighbors when she knows Eun-jae is busy. Mom admits that she does it because she’s lonely. Awww. She says that for the past six years, since her husband disappeared after committing bank fraud and she almost ended up on the streets, she’s had to count on Eun-jae to pay for all of her expenses.

She admits that she’s embarrassed to be living with her sister with no way to earn money, so even though she knows it bothers Eun-jae, she can’t help wanting to brag about Eun-jae and send patients to her. She confesses that when island folk come back from Seoul, they’re full of praise for having a daughter like Eun-jae, and it makes her feel like her life hasn’t been a waste. That is so sweet and sad.

When Eun-jae’s rich patient, Jang Sung-ho, wakes from surgery, Eun-jae is called to his room to meet his father. Chairman Jang is grateful to Eun-jae for saving his son’s life, but she gives all the credit to Chief Kim for being a great teacher. Chairman Jang says that he likes humble people, and from his bed, Sung-ho quips that he likes pretty people like Eun-jae even more.

As Chief Kim and Eun-jae leave the room, Chief Kim compliments Eun-jae on her ability to read people. Since Chairman Jang has promised to double his company’s donations to the hospital, Chief Kim asks if Eun-jae wants anything. She mentions a patient from her hometown, telling Chief Kim that he has liver cancer.

Chief Kim makes a call to have the man moved to a private room and his surgery scheduled as soon as possible. He even offers to take her other patients so she can perform the procedure herself. But he does make a pointed comment that although Eun-jae’s mother seems a selfless person, it would probably be best if she stopped sending patients, because Eun-jae has her position to consider. Ouch.


That evening, Eun-jae’s mother complains to her sister of an upset stomach. But the island they live on doesn’t even have a pharmacy, much less a doctor. Aunt says that the hospital ship will be there tomorrow, and since it’s free, Mom decides to get checked out.

The next day, Mom ends up in Hyun’s exam room. Elsewhere on the ship, the first mate sighs wistfully over a magazine article profiling Eun-jae and her miraculous hands. Nurse Pyo asks if he wants to try hiring her, but he knows that a famous hotshot doctor like her would never work for them.

Hyun diagnoses Mom with indigestion and acid reflux. He mentions that her EKG was inconclusive and advises her to get her heart checked out, since heart attack symptoms in women can often present like indigestion.

Impressed by the handsome young doctor with the gentle bedside manner, Mom shows Hyun a picture of her daughter and mentions that she’s smart and single. Only half-joking (and probably used to this happening a lot), Hyun grins and asks her to set them up, then pretends to be scared when Mom warns that Eun-jae is fussy and that she snores.

He quips that he’ll overcome his fears in the name of love, ha. Hyun thinks they’re kidding around, but Mom grows emotional and says that love should be like that. She offers to think about setting them up for real before she leaves. Hyun realizes that she left the picture of Eun-jae behind, but by the time he gets to the deck, she’s already left.

Back home, Aunt thinks that Mom should go see Eun-jae and get a full checkup, and take the chance to visit with her daughter.

The next morning, Eun-jae is at the end of a seventeen-hour shift, worn out from having been called in the middle of the night to cover for Chief Kim. A code blue is called in chaebol Sung-ho’s room, but when she runs in, she finds him awake and perfectly fine.

Eun-jae isn’t impressed or amused as Sung-ho grins at her and says that he just wanted to see her and that he’s been calling the whole hospital looking for her. He tucks an envelope into her pocket, monetary thanks from his father for saving his life, but Eun-jae tersely hands it back. Sung-ho threatens to call another code if she leaves, but she just makes a call to have him transferred to the psych ward as she walks out, ha.

So she’s exhausted and in a terrible mood when her mother calls to say that she’s in Seoul. Mom’s in the hospital lobby, in fact, and tries to tell Eun-jae that she’s the patient this time. She follows her daughter through the halls, always just a step behind and unable to catch up. Eun-jae snaps at her mother to take whatever patient she brought right back home, wailing that she’s having a terrible day and just trying to survive before hanging up.

Feeling bad about intruding, Mom watches from a distance as Eun-jae slumps into a chair and eats some packaged bread that’s been squashed in her pocket. Eun-jae chokes on the dry bread and pounds her chest, and Mom sighs to see her daughter struggling.

Mom leaves the hospital and heads home, stopping to look back at the building. She smiles a bit, proud of her daughter, then turns to go.

At the end of the day, Eun-jae gets a call from her aunt, who’s screaming incoherently as she hovers over Mom’s unconscious form. Eun-jae issues orders to call the coast guard and gives instructions on how to start chest compressions, which her aunt does in between begging her sister to wake up.

Meanwhile, Eun-jae runs back to Sung-ho’s room and demands repayment for saving his life. But she doesn’t want money—instead she screams at him to call her a helicopter to take her to her mother. He’s bewildered at the request but complies, and she spends the flight alternately praying and staring out the window, willing the helicopter to fly faster.

Mom is rushed to the nearest hospital, but as hard as the doctors work to revive her, it’s too late. Just as the attending doctor is about to call time of death, Eun-jae arrives and begins chest compressions again, yelling at them to prepare more equipment. They try to stop her at first, but after hearing that the patient is her mother, the attending doctor nods to his team to let her try.

But Mom continues to flatline, even after several shocks with the defibrillation paddles. As Eun-jae labors over her mother’s unresponsive body, she says in voice-over, “I’d done this so many times, it came to me more naturally than breathing. That’s why, for a short while, I forgot that I was treating my own mother. I’d forgotten.”

Eventually the reality of the situation hits Eun-jae and she drops the paddles. She robotically calls the time of death, but the attending doctor gently steps in and says that she doesn’t have to do that.

Eun-jae’s mind flashes back to the phone call earlier, and she realizes that the last time she spoke to her mother, the patient who needed her help had been Mom.

She stumbles out of the hospital in a daze, thinking, “If I’d listened to what she had to say, then maybe I could have done more for her. But all I did for her as a doctor was to pronounce her dead.” She sinks to her knees on the pavement, devastated but feeling as though she has no right to cry.

On the hospital ship, Joon-young suffers from terrible motion sickness as Hyun and Jae-gul laugh at his distress. They get to work, and get their first taste of working with these island patients. Jae-gul performs acupuncture on a grandmother who yelps at every needle prick, and Nurse Pyo advises him to warn his patients before sticking them. (“Does saying that make it hurt less?” he wonders.)

Joon-young prepares to extract a tooth on another patient, but Nurse Pyo stops him before he can, noting that his patient is on blood thinners. She reminds him to check the patient’s chart thoroughly before he hurts someone.

A man runs up to the hospital ship with his crying grandson in his arms, bellowing for a doctor. He tells Hyun that his grandson has been having terrible belly pain since yesterday, and Hyun’s exam indicates that the little boy has appendicitis. The first mate tries to call for transport to a hospital, but the strong wind prevents the call from going through.

Hyun says that the boy needs immediate surgery and that they can’t afford to wait. The grandfather begins to panic that his grandson will die and begs Hyun to do the surgery now, but there isn’t a surgeon on the ship. The grandfather wails that with so many doctors around, not one can help his grandson, just as a voice rings out: “Yes, the operation is possible.”

The crowd parts to reveal Eun-jae standing in the doorway. She approaches the patient, but Hyun grabs her arm before she touches the boy and demands to know who she is. Eun-jae looks him in the eye and says calmly, “I was assigned to this post. I’ll be working here from now on. I’m surgeon Song Eun-jae.”


Oh, I like it, I like it very much. Even though our two leads didn’t meet until the last few seconds of the episode, I thought the chemistry between them in that eye-to-eye challenge was crackling, and I can’t wait to see them butt heads over their wildly differing medical philosophies. I was a bit worried about the difference in age between the two actors (thirteen years exactly, they even share the same birthday!), but visually they look great together. Ha Ji-won never ages, I swear, and Kang Min-hyuk has grown up a lot, and I didn’t feel the age difference at all once I got to know the characters.

Yes, Hyun seems a bit immature for his age as he rebels against his father’s long shadow, and Eun-jae falls too far in the other direction with her blindness to anything but her career. But I didn’t feel as though they were too far apart that a little temperance for them both couldn’t bring them together to a level playing field, both professionally and romantically (if the show goes there). I like the potential clash of personalities like Hyun and Eun-jae’s, and I can’t wait to see them learn how to be better doctors from each other. Eun-jae could stand to loosen up and enjoy life a bit, and Hyun needs to learn that regardless of how he got there, he is a doctor, and he has a responsibility to his patients to do his very best for them.

I was under the impression from the promo releases that Eun-jae was banished to the hospital ship as a punishment for some sort of professional calamity. But if she’s gone there as penance, to make up for the devastating personal loss of her mother, I like that setup much better. I find Eun-jae an interestingly complex character, extremely driven in her career to the point that she’s cut herself off from her emotions and the people who love her. I almost don’t blame her for the callous way she reacted to her mother sending patients to her unannounced, knowing how cutthroat hospital hierarchies can be and how having country bumpkins showing up several times a month could affect Eun-jae’s career. But I do think she was unnecessarily harsh with her mother, who seemed a sweet, if naive, soul, and I think that Eun-jae knows it too.

Hyun also appears to be running from something, but his situation seems to be the complete opposite of Eun-jae’s. He’s obviously grown up under the shadow of a near-legendary father, was possibly even pushed unwilling into medicine, and he’s taking advantage of this job position to get away from the expectations of greatness that come part and parcel with his privilege. No doubt he sees the hospital ship as a vacation from crushing responsibility and expectations. He appears to be a caring and conscientious doctor, but I’m sure he thinks that serving on the hospital ship will be more like a cruise than work. I think he’s going to get a very rude awakening.

This first episode gave us a really nice introduction to the world of Hospital Ship, and its quirky characters with their interesting backgrounds and differing reasons for being there. At the beginning, there was a bit of tonal discord between the humorous moments, particularly involving the ship’s captain and first mate, and the later gravitas of Eun-jae’s loss, but it felt like the episode had balanced itself out well by the end. I find the characters interesting and amusing, and the concept of a ship that travels around offering medical care to island inhabitants novel and intriguing. But I was mostly impressed with the gorgeous cinematography (I love how the Seoul hospital scenes are almost in greyscale, with dark, depressing lighting, while the ship/island scenes explode with light and color), and the musical score that gives the whole thing a solid emotional base without being distracting.

I love a good strong beginning like this, because it gives me hope that the drama will continue to offer a quality experience, both visually and story-wise. With such a strong cast, a fresh and interesting twist on the standard medical drama, and beautiful camera work, I’m confident that Hospital Ship will have a lot to offer in terms of meaningful character development, not to mention no few tears and touching stories as our fledgling doctors learn that their patients are not just cases, but real people.


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