The Year in Review, Part 1: The Best of 2007
A month ago, I asked y’all, How was 2007 for you? I was thinking of the year-end wrap-up I would be writing, and wanted to see how you thought the dramas were this past year. I’ll be rolling out my year-in-review posts over the next few days (because one post just isn’t enough!).
I also am THRILLED to be presenting a couple guest bloggers, Thunderbolt and Dahee Fanel, whom I’ve asked to join me in this 2007 retrospective. (I’ll be putting up their reviews in the following posts.) Not only are these ladies extremely well-versed in the art of Ye Olde K-Drama, they’re both also chock-full of witty, interesting, opinionated insights about ’em. We’re also not afraid to contradict each other and are perfectly fine with having dissonant opinions. I hope you’ll enjoy their thoughts as much as I do.
As an added plus, they’ve both seen a bunch of the dramas I missed, so we’ll be able to cover a wider breadth of material. As none of us could be accused of brevity, between the three of us, we’ve have got 2007 covered. Possibly a couple times over.
SONG OF THE DAY
Bubble Sisters – “사랑을 찾아서” (Looking for love) from the OST of Mixed-up Investigative Agency.
[ Download ]
Is the following a comprehensive list? By no means. Did I leave out dramas that, for some reason or another, many people may feel belong on the list? Oh, absolutely. But this isn’t my “objective, analytical, logical list of 2007’s best dramas.” It’s a jumbling of the ones I watched and enjoyed and were the top of MY list. I didn’t have anywhere near the necessary amount of time required to watch ALL the series that are widely regarded as the best of the year — but that’s what Thunderbolt and Dahee Fanel are for!
As I expected, the results of the poll in the above-linked post were overwhelmingly in Coffee Prince‘s favor. Considering the Coffee Prince mania this summer, that came as no surprise, and I don’t begrudge the series its widespread popularity. In its case, I think the hype was deserved, or at least completely understandable, and I’d venture to say the series has done the most for the trendy drama genre since Samsoon swept the nation in 2005.
But for today’s purposes, Coffee Prince will have to take its place in line, because my favorite romance of the year was the one from cute, lovable, funny, heart-warming DAL JA’S SPRING, starring Chae Rim and Lee Minki:
Lee Kyung Hwa – “기적 같은 사랑” (Miraculous love) from the OST.
[ Download ]
At first glance, Dal Ja’s Spring had the potential to veer into tired cliches and familiar plots. In the first episode, I thought with a groan that we were getting another My Name Is Kim Samsoon clone. A 30-something spinsterish type (Chae Rim‘s Dal Ja) who’s successful in her career but lousy in love hooks up in a “love contract” with a younger, cool, handsome, self-assured guy (Lee Minki‘s Tae Bong). Yes, the couple does fall in love, but the Samsoon similarities come to a swift conclusion one mere episode into the series — which sets the tone for how Dal Ja’s Spring takes lots of familiar romantic-comedy tropes, then spins them cleverly so that the familiar scenario you thought you were gonna get turns out to be something different altogether.
In my initial post on the series, which was one of the first entries on this blog, I compared both kdramas and their heroines (Samsoon and Dal Ja) to that quintessential 30-ish singleton, Bridget Jones — “but while Samsoon was more a literal adaptation of the character, my one-liner description for Dal Ja’s Spring is more Bridget Jones in an existential crisis.”
By “existential crisis,” I refer to the welcome tendency of the series to address aspects of Dal Ja’s life outside the romantic. The main romance naturally takes up a sizable part of the storyline, but the rest of the series explores Dal Ja’s career, her notions of friendship and family and personal fulfillment, and how romance fits into all that. The stories given to the supporting characters are nicely worked in, providing a touching look at the people inhabiting her world, teaching Dal Ja life lessons through their examples as well. Dal Ja deals with trying to find the right balance in her life — which is why the series is, at its core, all about her. I don’t think it’s a huge spoiler to say that although her romantic storyline reaches its culmination in the last episode, the series bids us adieu not from the couple’s perspective but ultimately Dal Ja’s alone.
But that’s not to say the romance isn’t a huge factor. Dal Ja’s Spring owes its winningness in huge part to Lee Minki’s dashing turn as Kang Tae Bong. Okay, okay, I concede that for the first half of the series (perhaps more), Tae Bong is rather too perfect. He’s a lovely combination of all the stuff of women’s fantasies — he’s strong and assured, but he knows how to listen, and yields when necessary. He leads and guides Dal Ja into paths of self-actualization, but he’s not afraid of appearing unmasculine by allowing Dal Ja her lead as well. He’s charming, but he can be honest and give Dal Ja the cold truth when the situation calls for it. Yes, he’s nearly perfect. But thankfully, the series DOES take time to delve into Tae Bong’s own issues, which allows for some personal growth on his end as well.
All in all, Dal Ja’s Spring may not be a series that breaks new ground, but for what it is — an engaging, consistently appealing and well-paced romantic comedy — it’s a winner.
FLOWERS FOR MY LIFE
Flowers for My Life (aka I Came In Search of Flowers) is as close to being a perfect drama as I could expect. Normally, when you look at a drama described as “moving,” “poignant,” “heart-felt,” “engaging,” “meaningful,” and “beautiful,” you run the risk of invoking that other dreaded descriptor — boring. I confess I don’t have a lot of patience for boring (which explains why I tried watching many dramas this year, and dropped a bunch of them after a few episodes. The exceptions — the ones I stuck with despite knowing deep down they probably wouldn’t improve — pained me). And if you have this impression of Flowers, I don’t know how to convince you otherwise (I probably can’t), but let me try: IT’S NOT BORING. Flowers is witty, subversively funny, sarcastic, morbidly hilarious, and subtle.
Right off the bat, the series shows its eccentric sense of humor. Main character Hana is a stoic Wednesday Addams type, unafraid of anything, unmoved by anything, unattached to anything — except money. As the daughter of a mortician, she’s grown up fully acquainted with death, playing with dead people instead of dolls (“What’s the difference? Dead people and dolls are the same in that they both don’t talk”). She comes up with the idea to woo a rich dying man, with no qualms over her actions — hey, if she makes the guy so happy before he dies that he wants to leave her his wealth, isn’t that a win-win?
Because of the story’s setting in a funeral home and its focus on death, the most obvious comparison is the HBO series Six Feet Under. I suppose when you’re dealing with an inherently dark topic, the way to make it interesting is to see the funny in it. And Flowers embraces its death motif, not with wariness or anxiety, but with matter-of-fact understanding that death is a part of life.
It’s like Hana’s funeral-director father says to Cha Tae Hyun‘s hapless, bumbling, good-natured Ho-sang, explaining that the word for “living” came from the term used to light a fire:
“We light the candle we were given by fate, day by day. But that wick differs for each person. Somebody’s wick burns out soon, and another’s goes on much longer. Only heaven knows if our fire burns out today, or tomorrow. It seems unbelievable to lose [a minor character] this way, but she must have left because she’d burned up the fate heaven had given her.”
The series is quirky and offbeat, much like its main character, wonderfully played by veteran film actress Kang Hye Jung. In fact, the acting is top-notch at all levels, from Cha Tae Hyun’s upbeat (and laughably cowardly) Ho-sang to the fully supportive and non-manipulative, non-evil second leads Kim Ji Hoon and Gong Hyun Joo, and supporting cast. Life lessons are learned, many times via death (there’s a funeral in nearly every episode), but sometimes merely by the two main characters stumbling along.
The series is also stunningly shot in the scenic Chun Cheon area, with interesting shots that add complexity to moments and scenes without being obtrusive. The director has a terrific artistic sense, managing to find really clever, smart ways to shoot even the simplest of scenes. Hands down best directing — the only other series that might rival it this year is Devil. (Legend was action-packed, large-scale, and used fancy effects, but it wasn’t nearly as thoughtful with its shots.)
I don’t suppose it’s a major spoiler to reveal (as we find out in episode 1) that Cha Tae Hyun’s character is diagnosed with terminal cancer. But this is no Autumn in My Heart! It’s much more a light-hearted comedy of errors than it is a tearjerker melodrama — although I admit I shed plenty of tears. But they weren’t sad tears in depressing moments — they were brought on by how exceptionally well this series deals with human relationships of all varieties: parent-child, lover-to-lover, friend-to-friend, enemy-who-becomes-an-ally… There’s no self-pity or wallowing; Cha Tae Hyun accepts news of his illness with pluck and thoughtfulness:
“That day, I realized that people who do their best to be loved leave behind love even after they’re gone. People who do their best to be happy leave happiness behind when they’re gone. What will I leave behind?”
Because death is such a frequent occurrence in the series (although it’s usually the death of a stranger, whose funerals our characters prepare), when it does come, it’s not with a spirit of dramatic, earth-rending tragedy. Instead, death highlights just how beautiful it is to live and, once a loved one leaves, to keep their memories in our hearts with fondness.
Hana: “I want to remember every single moment, but I’m afraid I’ll forget even one.”
Nam Kyung: “You won’t forget. Although we can forget things in our heads, I’ve found we don’t forget things kept in our hearts.”
QUE SERA SERA
Que Sera Sera is not your average kdrama. I said early on, and I still believe, that Que Sera Sera may not be for everyone. Although it’s got plenty of understated humor, it’s also mature, intense, hard, with a streak of cynicism a mile wide. And yet it’s not a depressing drama. It’s not even pessimistic at the core. It’s just… different. It treats its characters with a liberal dose of realism, instead of glossing over their personalities to conform them to traditional ideals of what a romantic hero or heroine should be. Are they appealing characters? I think so (some more than others — Jung Yumi‘s Eun Soo is, in my own words (is it pretentious to quote myself?), “delightfully weird,” and Jung herself is amazingly good). Are they flawed characters? Oh, hell to the Y-E-A-H.
I don’t think it’s a show that’s meant to be a popular, widespread hit — but it’s one that inspires fierce loyalty in its fandom. Some of the fondest memories I have of Que Sera Sera are the numerous thoughtful, heated, intelligent discussions and analyses it spurred, here and at soompi. I also got numerous hits and links from Korean fans (more than Coffee Prince, I believe), which is testament to its status as a drama that evoked hardcore fans.
What’s so good about Que Sera Sera? First off, the writing. It’s quite dialogue-heavy, which I noticed right away given how much longer it took me to do QSS summaries (they routinely took me three times as long as Witch Amusement, which was a series I was recapping at the same time). The dialogue is strong and eloquent and witty. The look of the drama isn’t exactly pretty, but its grittiness gives it a raw quality that works very well with the tone of the show. A glossy, richly saturated color palette would’ve felt all wrong.
Horan – “눈부신 날들” (Brilliant days) from the OST. [ Download ]
Second, the music. Most series have serviceable soundtracks that fit the mood of the drama and are cute and fun. Only a few, like Soulmate and Coffee Prince, are standouts on their own, too. The musicians featured include both Alex and Horan of Clazziquai, Yi Sung Yol, W, My Aunt Mary.
Third, the all-around strong acting. As I mentioned, Jung Yumi is excellent. She’s one of those rare breeds, the kind of person who must’ve been meant to be an actor, who does it for love of the craft and to whom fame and celebrity are afterthoughts. She just seems so natural. Whether it’s her acting or the way her character was written, she quickly stands out as the breakout talent. Personally, I think the story of QSS is Tae Joo’s story (some people may disagree), but her Eun Soo is a complete breath of fresh air. Second leads Lee Kyu Han and Yoon Ji Hye are similarly solid, portraying similarly intense characters. No matter how you may feel about the characters, nobody was a weakling. (I liked them all, even Yoon Ji Hye’s Hye-rin — whom I gather many did not like — because she was a strong female who knew what she wanted, even if she was misguided.) More than manipulative or evil characters, I hate the weaklings.
And while I wouldn’t go so far as to call Eric a revelation, I will say he was ballsy and fearless. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been privy to so many actors’ tantrums and antics and self-conscious neuroses (oh, actors, how they bring the crazy), but in any case, one of the things that most impresses me is when one sheds his vanity and gives it all up for the sake of the role. Eric took on the challenge of portraying a cold, arrogant asshole, at times pushing Tae Joo to the boundaries of irredeemable. Some may have found his actions too much to forgive; as for me, I think he does a remarkable job of bringing the humanity to such a flawed man. Tae Joo’s in-your-face braggadocio translates to the series as a whole — and you know how people say that confidence is sexy? Well, Que Sera Sera is damn sexy. It struts, and swaggers, and challenges you.
What can I say about Coffee Prince that hasn’t already been said? As one of the biggest drama sensations of the year — it wasn’t the highest-rated, but it was one of the most talked-about — it seems everyone’s already got an opinion.
I feel like the backlash has hit — just as it was cool to love it during its initial broadcast, it’s now cool to say, “Psh, Coffee Prince isn’t THAT great.” That’s too bad. I really, really liked Coffee Prince — without irony, without qualification. It is a great trendy drama. It’s one of the best in recent years. It plays with cliches but doesn’t get mired in them. It takes a fantastic twist on a familiar storyline, and above all, trusts its story to carry the series — story, not star vanity, not melodramatic plot twists, not even sensationalism given what could have been a salacious topic (gay relationships).
Speaking of which, Coffee Prince‘s treatment of homosexuality was both refreshingly modern and sensitive. No room for pearl-clutching here. It doesn’t necessarily push an agenda; rather, it’s open-minded and unjudgmental and lets the story unravel without moral interludes or Evil Masterminds jerking the plot around. For the most part, the writers explore the characters’ relationships and problems naturally without resorting to shenanigans.
The acting: Obviously, the success of the drama owes tremendous debt to its two leads, Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun Hye, but the series was smart about all its casting, not just its leads, down to the most marginal characters, who are all given more story time than they would in a more traditional series. I’ve never thought Yoon Eun Hye was a standout acting talent — she has star quality in spades, but I was hesitant on the acting front — and I wouldn’t say she’s reached the heights of her potential just yet. But she does put herself completely into her character, and her take on Eun Chan earned her well-deserved attention. As I mentioned above, I dig when an actor puts the project above their personal vanity, and I respect that she gave up all pretense early on of trying to maintain a “pretty” image while acting as a boy. That kind of vanity would’ve made for a laughably half-assed Eun Chan, and it’s to her credit that she went for it, all the way. But it was Gong Yoo who impressed me most in the way he portrayed Han Gyul’s confusion, self-loathing, and acceptance of his feelings for Eun Chan. His emotions came through so raw and pained that it was almost unsettling to watch him for his intensity.
Now that the initial luster has worn off, I can say that Coffee Prince isn’t perhaps a perfect 10 — many, many people have pointed out the obvious tapering of dramatic tension after episode 12, which is not coincidentally also around the time that its talented director Lee Yoon Jung was strong-armed into extending the series. The extension was only by one episode, but when a series has enjoyed overwhelming success that is in part due to its carefully calibrated, gradual rise in intensity, you don’t mess with that carelessly in the home stretch. As I consider the last episode perhaps the weakest of the entire series, I wonder what the series would’ve been like if the writer and director had had their way and confined the story to the original sixteen episodes. But episodes 6 through 12 were just wonderful, all wrought with nerves and anticipation and hope and anxiety, showing us just how good this oft-maligned trendy-drama genre can be.
MIXED-UP INVESTIGATIVE AGENCY
(Why hello again, Mr. Lee Minki.)
As for the funny? Mixed-up Investigative Agency not only stirs up the rather stale kdrama comedy template with its unconventional, refreshing, witty sense of humor, it also features a surprisingly intricately plotted mystery. Now as you know (from the numerous times I repeat myself, natch), I loves me my romances. Mixed-up Investigative Agency is not only light on the romance, it quite actively makes it a point NOT to center around romance. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to this — but my worries were premature, because Mixed-up is a GREAT comedy.
The characters (and actors) have wonderful rapport with one another, the bantering is smart and clever, and the plot — a mystery mixed into an action-adventure treasure hunt — is airtight. The screenwriter — writer of the much-lauded Alone In Love — reportedly spent years working on this script, and her success from Alone in Love gained her the industry recognition to enable this to be produced, despite all expectations that it would not be a smash ratings hit. And it was not — but as a “mania drama” (a cult hit), the drama earned its share of rabid, appreciative fans.
For being so funny, Mixed-up is actually also a great drama. As a series that’s so goofy and quirky and aggressively off-kilter, it’s remarkably moving as well. It sneaks in moments of true pathos just when you’re not expecting it, like a frazzled mom might hide chopped-up bits of broccoli under the more-tasty meat dishes in hopes that the kid won’t notice the nutrition being sneaked into his body. Well, I did notice, but it’s okay, I don’t mind. It’s good for me. Thanks Mom.
As long as I’m giving away hypothetical acting awards (Kang Hye Jung for Flowers, Jung Yumi for Que Sera Sera), let me hand one over to Ms. Ye Jiwon, who is fantastic as the fortune-teller of questionable talents, Hee-kyung. She’s fiesty and playful and intense and emotional, all rolled into one teeny package. Ryu Seung Soo as Yong-su starts out in what seems to be a simple, easy character, but he surprises you with hidden depths and manages to wring your heart well into the series. And Lee Minki dives into his role as the hot-headed Mu-yeol with gusto. I wouldn’t have expected this kind of role from him after he met with such success as the handsome, confident Tae Bong in Dal Ja’s Spring, but he practically throws himself into Mu-yeol’s weird, awkward quirks. Like I said, extra points for disregarding vanity.
A lot of dramas tend to start strong and weaken, even the good ones (see Coffee Prince), but Mixed-up Investigative Agency is so well-planned and -paced that the series ramps up consistently to its climactic last episode. It takes a lot of guts (and courage? stubbornness? chutzpah?) to hold back when you’re a struggling drama with super-low ratings, but Mixed-up doggedly maintains its faith in the story and the writing, and delivers an entirely satisfying ending.
Honorable mention: HYANG DAN JEON
Hyang Dan Jeon (The Story of Hyang Dan) perhaps doesn’t exactly belong in the “best of the year” list, but I thought it deserved a little bit of recognition after flying so low under the radar. As a two-episode miniseries, it’s short and sweet and delivers a quick punch of rollicking romantic comedy.
I’ll also say that despite my general dislike of all things Super Junior, after watching Hyang Dan, I totally get the Choi Siwon love. The boy has charisma oozing out his pores. Ew. That wasn’t meant to sound so gross and vaguely unhygienic.
In any case, part of the reason Hyang Dan works for me is because it knows just how seriously to take itself (or NOT take itself). It’s a total goof and it knows it. The drama takes a famous story from historical lore and gives it a twist (akin to, say, making a story in which Prince Charming marries Cinderella’s stepsister instead, or Juliet falls for Mercutio) — and then takes it a step further by adding cheeky modernizations. It’s as much a true “historical drama” as Shrek is a real fairy tale.
I.S. – “Juliet.” Speaking of modernized twists on the traditional… [ Download ]
Sometimes a drama has all the makings of greatness, but falls far flat of its expectations and/or potential. (Legend, you coulda been great.) Then on the other hand, sometimes a drama seems like it’ll be a throwaway, but somehow it becomes much more than the sum of its parts. It’s like the parts meet together in a spark of chemistry and elevate it with its energy and sheer charm. Hyang Dan is one of those.
Obviously, there are glaring omissions from my list. Although I watched at least an episode or two of most of the big dramas, I didn’t watch enough to draw fully informed conclusions for many of them — i.e., Thank You, Devil, Time of Dog and Wolf, Conspiracy in the Court, White Tower, Surgeon Bong Dal Hee… But thankfully, Thunderbolt and Dahee Fanel are around to weigh in on some/most of those. Their posts coming up next! And then, since I’ve covered my Best of 2007, I’ll wrap up with The Rest.