Despite the winningness of Coffee Prince, I’m starting to veer from cheery immersion into overload territory, and before that flares into full-on burnout, I thought I’d turn my attentions elsewhere to balance things out a bit. I’ve started watching some other series, dabbling in a sea of first episodes, trying to see which ones are worth sticking with.
The first to stand out as noteworthy is the short Best Theater miniseries Taereung National Village (태릉선수촌), which is a series of which I’ve heard many good things (this one’s for you, thundie!) and had been meaning to try even before realizing that its director is the same Lee Yoon Jung who is currently at the helm of Coffee Prince.
SONG OF THE DAY
Fortune Cookie – “일요일 아침” (Sunday morning) [ zShare download ]
MBC’s Best Theater programming is a sort of long-running anthology series where each episode (or, as in the case of Taereung National Village, a short series of episodes) is self-contained and produced by a different set of people. For this reason, it’s a great way for lesser-known or -experienced PDs and writers to get a handle on production before being given an entire drama series to manage. You’ll notice almost every current working PD and many writers have some sort of Best Theater or Drama City (KBS’s equivalent anthology series) credit to their names.
I’ve never really followed Best Theater or Drama City, partly because despite being an interesting concept, I figure the format lends itself to wildly erratic levels of quality, and I don’t have time enough to wade through it all. Except, of course, when it comes as highly recommended as Taereung National Village.
Director Lee Yoon Jung 이윤정 :: 커피프린스 1호점 (Coffee Prince Store #1), 매직 파워 알콜 (Magic Power Alcohol)
Scriptwriters Hong Jin Ah 홍진아 and Hong Ja Ram 홍자람 (another pair of drama-writing Hong sisters) :: Over the Rainbow
Original broadcast start date: October 29, 2005, MBC’s “Best Theater” series
Lee Min Ki 이민기 stars as Hong Min Ki, judo
Choi Jung Yoon 최정윤 as Bang Su Ah, archer
Lee Seon Kyun 이선균 as Lee Dong Kyung , swimmer
Kim Byul 김별 as Jung Maru, gymnast
I’ve only seen the first hour (there are eight half-hour “episodes,” but were aired in four hourlong segments), so for the moment all I can give are preliminary impressions — but already the director’s imprint is clear and distinctive in the care put into this series.
I can also merely speculate as to the direction the series will take (i.e., how much the balance will tilt between sports and romance), but I responded to two things in the first two episodes: (1) the distinctive, strongly characterized and layered personalities of the principal cast, and (2) the depiction of sports psychology.
I’m not at all (AT ALL) a fan of sports, but getting a peek inside an athlete’s psyche — the neurosis, the mentality, the pride, the self-doubt, the ego — is a refreshing change from typical television, Korean or otherwise. I’ve always felt sports movies have struggled with treating the complex mental dance of sports psychology with due justice. Many have mangled it to a point where even a sports-averse person like me feels indignant at the poor handling.
The athletes living and training at Taereung National Village, a sort of Olympics training ground for talented hopefuls, all excel in their fields of choice, but the emphasis is placed more on the fact that they’re young people growing up in a slightly unusual setting. What Taereung National Village promises, then, is a slice-of-life look at the lives of exceptional people trying to live up to their promise and struggling with the sometimes-overwhelming fear that they’re not as talented as people believe — that they’re shams, about to be exposed to the world at the first sign of weakness.
EPISODES 1 & 2 (First hour of programming)
The series is narrated by its main character, Lee Min Ki, whose character goes by the name Hong Min Ki. (Korean series sometimes use the actor’s name as his/her character name, most often in sitcoms; I don’t really know why, but just that it happens fairly frequently.) I find Min Ki fascinating in his layers — he’s willfully immature, but capable of insight. He’s a troublemaker with mild bullying tendencies, but can recognize when sympathy is in order. He’s proud but shameless. He could be annoying, with his somewhat nasal way of speech (an affectation I find particularly useful because, as I’ve seen from his role in Dal Ja’s Spring, Lee Min Ki is just as capable of being composed and cool as he is of being a whining brat here) — but he’s more like a lovable scamp.
He’s a classic case of arrested development — and yet, had he been unleashed upon the real world, with no genuine home to speak of, and no sport disciplining his unruly character, one gets the sense Min Ki would have been doomed to a much less savory existence.
Bang Su Ah is pretty much Min Ki’s opposite — upbeat and optimistic, she was designated something of an archery prodigy and has already won the gold medal. She’s a bit older (not clear how much) and one of Taereung’s more well-known, experienced athletes, and yet her personality is childlike in its innocence and cheer.
It’s her gold medal that brings the two together, when Min Ki finds it on the ground and takes it for himself. Su Ah hears that he took it, and goes to reclaim it. Naturally, Min Ki disavows all knowledge (despite the fact that Su Ah cites an eyewitness who saw him).
Extra points for the usage of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” (best use ever: Shaun of the Dead!) as Su Ah chases Min Ki all through Taereung for the medal.
Min Ki insists that he wasn’t going to steal the medal; he just wanted to borrow it, because he’s cursed with horrible luck, and thought some of hers might help him out. In fact, his luck is so awful that it just might cut short his career before it begins — before every important match, he’s been afflicted with severe illnesses (so severe that he can’t be accused of faking them, or imagining them), or getting into an accident, etc.
Taking pity, Su Ah lends him her medal for luck in his next match. This one is truly important, because his coaches are getting tired of his constant last-minute withdrawals from competitions — he’s been training for three years, and they recognize his skills, but that means squat if he can’t actully compete.
And of course, this time, he again falls ill. But he’s determined to compete, and to win — he promises his coach, who’s on the verge of kicking him out of Taereung, that he will not fall sick. He will fight. And win. And make it to the Olympic team.
Radiohead – “The National Anthem” ::
What follows is a look into the chaos running through an athlete’s mind as he winds up for battle. It’s not an original concept, for sure, but the execution is quite nicely done, as we feel Min Ki’s panic, nerves, and fear as he steps inside the ring, feeling sick both in mind and body.
He takes an early beating, but about halfway through his match, he recalls Su Ah’s cheerful answer to his question of how she can concentrate when it’s game time. Essentially, she says when it’s time to go, you go. That’s what competition is about. Min Ki gathers his senses and rallies back to nearly win. But just barely doesn’t.
Prepared to leave Taereung, Min Ki is astonished, but grateful, when his coach tells him to stay. As far as he’s concerned, he’s proven himself. After that, Min Ki’s next match goes off without a hitch, and he says:
“That day, I didn’t feel sick at all, and my condition was good. Who knows, maybe I’d brought that bad luck on myself before, too. But that luck doesn’t just disappear. It may have left me, only to travel elsewhere.”
At the same time, that “elsewhere” is with Su Ah, the day she competes to make it to the trials. She has one of those days all athletes fear — the kind where little things go wrong and unnerve you. Back at Taereung, when Min Ki bounds over excitedly to tell her he’s made the national team, she tells him with a sad smile that she got cut.
Min Ki feels horrible, but Su Ah leaves Taereung with an admirably positive attitude. And to be sure, she’s not left out in the cold too long, because one of the team members gets into an accident and she’s called back.
Su Ah’s boyfriend, a swimmer played by Lee Seon Kyun aka Mr. Voice, tells her the good news. And Min Ki, ever the immature scamp, welcomes her back to Taereung by returning her medal atop a tower of snack foods. They’ve reached a level of familiarity with each other, although it’s tinged with childish curiosity more than romantic interest.
Sensing Min Ki’s interest in Su Ah almost immediately is Min Ki’s girlfriend, the cocky gymnast Maru (played by Kim Byul of Dasepo Naughty Girls and Clazziquai’s adorably cute “Sweety” music video — also starring Lee Junki). Maru’s a real character — she believes with matter-of-fact certainty that she’s a gymnastics prodigy. But she is, so it’s not too conceited.
Although she seems a bit territorial over Min Ki, she’s not jealous in an insecure way — she’s way too talented for insecurity. But to keep tabs on Su Ah, she maneuvers her way into being her roommate, even if Su Ah’s nearly ten years her senior. But, Su Ah’s no pushover either, and Maru’s little attempts to unsettle her don’t even make a dent.
At least, not outwardly. Inside, she’s feeling insecure, and Min Ki tells her how Edison had said genius is 99% hard work and 1% inspiration. Su Ah replies that Edison only said that because he was a true genius and wanted to offer the non-geniuses out there some comfort. But, she goes on good-naturedly, what else can she do but to keep doing it? She’s got to keep going anyway.
One day, an archer far junior to Su Ah steals the spotlight by outshining her, and grabs everyone’s attention. When asked by a reporter how she feels, Su Ah just says she’s proud of her junior and only says glowing things.
Min Ki calls bullshit on Su Ah’s façade of generosity, and insists that she express how she really feels. Being overshadowed by your junior has got to sting; how can she just smile and say canned answers about how great it is? He tells her she has to let out her tension and anger somehow, and tries to take her out to drink. She resists, but Min Ki pokes and prods at Su Ah, telling her to cry if she feels like it:
“If you fall, fall all the way and hit the ground, so you can decide whether to get back up or not.”
Finally, she breaks down. But he gets a little more than he was counting on when she sobs out her fears — and we can be fairly certain she’s never been able to say these words aloud before.
Beth Orton – “Feel to Believe” ::
“If I try and still can’t make it, what am I supposed to do?! Ah, that jerk! What the hell is that 99 percent?… I’m going to keep falling. Eight points, seven points, six points… In the end, I’ll be down to just one!”
Min Ki tries to tell her she’s going overboard but Su Ah keeps sobbing: “I’m going to be kicked out of here.” Everyone will look at her and think, “That sucks to be her. She’s done. She’s over!”
Su Ah turns to Min Ki and asks, plaintively:
“Is this really the end of me? What do I do?”
Min Ki, at a loss for words, borrows Su Ah’s from before:
“You just… have to keep doing it. You keep going.”
The next day, Su Ah goes out to practice. Min Ki’s voiceover tells us:
“With her eyes swollen from crying, she shot her arrows. Because she had to keep going. Because that road was the only one.”
Min Ki finds Su Ah later that evening and grabs her attention in true little-boy Min Ki style — by throwing chocolates at her. (Hey, if he’s going to do something sweet, he might as well mix in a little annoyance there too.)
Morcheeba – “Fear and Love” ::
Su Ah: “Why are you so nice to me? With the chocolates, and when I was crying. Why are you treating me so well?”
Min Ki: “Just ’cause.”
Su Ah: “‘Cause why?”
Min Ki: “Because… it felt weird.”
Su Ah: “What did?”
Min Ki’s voiceover: “I wanted to know that myself. But looking at her eyes, I knew. It’s the reason I didn’t give her medal back, why I picked a fight with her, and why I made her cry. Because I like her.”