The Year in Review, Part 4: The Rest of 2007
Yes, my last post was “The Best of 2007,” but rather than put up a Worst list, I’m lumping them all together with The Rest. Not all the dramas I’m mentioning here are bad; they’re just dramas I watched that didn’t belong in the Best list.
SONG OF THE DAY
War of Money OST – “알 수 없는 일” (unknowable thing) by Sweet Sorrow [ Download ]
I could go into a whole deep analysis of what went wrong with Bad Couple, and I’ll try to explain in more detail in just a moment, but honestly? I think I can sum it up with very few words:
Bad Couple went from THIS:
I started watching Bad Couple on a whim, not really knowing what it was about, and quickly found myself enjoying the silly, outrageous antics of Shin Eun Kyung‘s Dang Ja character as she paraded around trying to seduce the indifferent Gi Chan, played by Ryu Su Young. Now in her thirties and biological clock ticking, she wants to be a cool single mom because childhood scars prevent her from believing marriage is a sustainable institution; so, she plans to get knocked up by a prime DNA candidate, then never deal with him again. Of course, the tables quickly turn and her plan backfires when Mr. Perfect DNA — with a much more sheltered and conservative outlook than her worldly one — falls for her, and determines to win her over.
Cute, right? Bad Couple is laugh-out-loud funny, sweet, and outrageous for its first six episodes. Ryu Su Young is adorably smitten, and the relationship between a cavalier, independent female versus an old-fashioned, socially conservative male (she’s had a truckload of exes; he’s a virgin) is different from the kdrama norm.
But episode 7 marked a drastic shift, and all of a sudden we were in a different drama. The two lead actors do their valiant best to continue on — they’re skilled veterans for a reason — even though the story suddenly jumps ship. What had been so light-hearted and fizzy is all of a sudden mired in doom and gloom and cancer. It’s so depressing and tragic. I felt totally suckered — complete bait and switch! Still, I was curious to see how the Happy Ever After would come about, and stuck around. Unfortunately, I think the writers didn’t — by episode 12 or 13, the story was limping along as though everyone involved had thrown in the towel and were too disheartened to continue. The ending fizzled and all the lovable pep and vitality of the early episodes had long been siphoned away.
If you’re a lover of trendy romantic comedies who doesn’t care about finishing a series, I’d actually suggest watching the first six episodes — they’re pretty amusing and very watchable. After that, feel free to abandon ship.
Witch Amusement OST – “If” by Jeon Hye Bin [ Download ]
Witch Amusement taught me to be wary of anticipating a series purely from its scant pre-release information. I was so sure this series was going to be a fun, rollicking good romp. Perhaps I was too enamored of Jae Hee, He of the Many Hilarious Facial Expressions. Perhaps I had too much faith in the director Jeon Ki Sang after loving his prior two series, Delightful Girl Chun Hyang and My Girl. Perhaps I didn’t realize how much a good director can be hampered by bad writers. The series looks great — colorful, bright, glossy — and the PD makes full use of visual gimmicks to their full comic effect. Such as:
But the writing! The writer(s) had five good episodes in them (I really thought I was gonna like the series through episode 5), and frittered the eleven remaining ones away in absurd contrivances and just plain wackiness. All this was not helped by the fact that the cast, while very pretty to look at, ranges from mildly wooden to downright incompetent. And Han Ga In isn’t even the worst of them — she’s not the best actress in the biz, but she’s extremely pretty and her character’s not that challenging, so I had faith she could scrape by. The others, though… shudder. Jae Hee is the only truly decent actor in the main cast (the actor playing his father in a minor supporting role is perhaps the only other talented actor in the entire drama). Were producers hoping good looks would carry the series more than strong acting? Someone should tell the PD to think with his head and not his… other head.
And yet, for all of Witch Amusement‘s flaws — there are so many — I can’t hate it. Because oddly enough, no matter how aggressively stupid the story got, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I rolled my eyes at the ridiculous antics, but they were good-natured eye-rolls (as opposed to the aggravated variety provoked by series like Air City, which made my eyeballs physically hurt inside my head from the force of the upward movements). Plus, while some dramas are bad in that they are annoying or obnoxious, and may make you want to stick forks in eyes or hands or other body parts (theirs, not your own, of course), Witch Amusement is merely bad in that it’s stupid. You can hate someone for being offensive or obnoxious, but you can’t really resent someone for stupid.
I’ve never found a drama so bad that I enjoyed so much. Honestly, the Witch Amusement recaps were among the most fun I’ve written, and if I could decide to watch the series again based on what I know now, I’d still watch it. Maybe it’s that the series grew so unhinged and insane that it crashed into campy territory — only it didn’t know it. And who can hate camp? After all, it gave us THIS:
Hello Miss OST – “Round ‘n Around” [ Download ]
Lee Da Hae, what were you thinking? Actually, to be fair, lots of people in this drama were too good for its silliness. I’m not sure whom to blame for Hello Miss‘s descent into near-self-parody. The director, for having a loose rein on the goofiness? The original novel upon which the series is based? The scriptwriters for adapting poorly? The actors? The series substituted plot contrivances for drama, sudden character transformations for development, and daffiness for humor.
Well, one thing you CAN call Hello Miss is good-natured. It didn’t mean to be bad. But a frustrating thing is that it doesn’t seem to have tried very hard to be good, either. (Obviously I’m projecting onto the series; who’s to say they didn’t try hard? I just mean they didn’t try hard enough.) A lot of times you can almost see a drama straining to be good, to be better than itself, kind of like Kim Tae Hee goggling her eyes furiously in a misguided attempt to go for “fierce” or “intense.” And in those cases, you say, “It didn’t make it, but at least they tried.” Like with Bad Love, which is pretty awful — but you can see how they’re GOING for it, trying to be intense and sexy and aggressive. Hello Miss? Not so much. It’s like all they ever wanted to be was mediocre. (And they didn’t really even make it that far.)
As with Witch Amusement, it feels rather mean-spirited to slag on a drama that’s so benign, so haplessly bland, that the worst you can say is, “Ah, well. They’ll do better next time.” I hope that’s true.
Air City OST – “Preguntas” by Kang Ta. I’m fairly certain that this song is supposed to be in Spanish, just as I’m fairly sure that he’s mangling the language shamefully. But his voice does have a nice mellow flow to it. [ Download ]
Aie, Air City. Readers of my Air City recaps may already be cringing in anticipation. Well, I’ll try to be nice.
When I watched Air City, I was wrapping up a string of disappointing dramas watched almost back-to-back — Witch Amusement, Hello Miss, Bad Couple — which may have contributed to the reason I’m so wary of committing to a potential stinker these days. A drama can start off with a bang, then drop in quality so precipitously that you might find yourself reluctantly stuck watching a rapidly sinking series, futilely hoping it’ll improve. With so many GOOD dramas around these days, it just seems silly to stick with a hopeless case when you could be enjoying yourself with something else, right? And yet, there’s always the niggling thought, But what if it gets better? I’ve already spent hours invested in this. I might as well just finish it off… I believe I used this analogy previously in regards to Air City, but it’s like finishing off a huge plate of food after you’re already full, just because you paid for it, never mind the fact that you don’t even enjoy the eating anymore.
I never thought Air City would be a fantastic drama, but its first four episodes delivered what they promised — action, a little bit of intrigue, a hint of romance, and mindless fun. And then that fell apart and stuff just became ridiculous. The pacing was all over the place, going from super-action-packed fight scenes rife with guns and gangs, then seaside frolicking, then smugglers, then BIRDS. All interspersed with random interludes in the airport and a romance that went nowhere. Actually, the entire love triangle went nowhere, so technically that’s two potential dead-end romances. (Or three, if we’re playing that game.) Oh, plus there’s a cancer-stricken woe-is-me female who’s too virtuous to disclose her illness to her ex-lover because she wants him to be happy with his new lady-love. Blech. Not even my long-abiding love for Lee Jung Jae, whose intense, charismatic acting held up the series at its low points, could make me like this series. I’ve never had great admiration for Choi Ji Woo‘s acting, although she IS beautiful and elegant — but those qualities are nowhere near enough to buoy Air City‘s muddled plotlines.
Goong S OST – “구름같은 세상” (Cloud-like world) by Second Moon
[ Download ]
Thinking about it now, Goong S is an even bigger travesty than I first judged it. Had I not been determined to stick with the series because I was working on the subs, I would have dropped it early on. The series picked up in its last quarter, but oh man, those middle episodes were painfully boring.
But the thing is, Goong S should have been so much better. I was never a great fanatic over the original Goong, but I did enjoy most of it until the last stretch of episodes, and by that point I had enough lingering interest to wade through the ending. Goong S (spinoff, not sequel) was produced by the same people, with the same attention devoted to costuming and set design, and a soundtrack that was a pleasing mix of classical-style “royal” sounds and the modern. I wasn’t a Se7en fan (or Choi Dong Wook per his acting alias, although he may not be doing any more acting after this) — but the guy’s a big star, and his fans were expected to flock to the series in droves.
What gets my goat about Goong S is that it had all the makings of being a success — not just in terms of popular appeal but in its storytelling and production. There was so much potential here, it’s sickening to see it not only wasted, but ground into the dirt and stomped on by the very ones charged with preserving it. People like kdramas for lots of different reasons, but for me, story is king. And you know what? Goong S has all the makings of a GREAT trendy drama story. I like Goong S‘s story and premise so much better than the original Goong, which was riddled with plot holes a mile wide but was sustained on the charm of its cast and the novelty of the setup: a young couple’s arranged marriage set within the backdrop of a modern-day monarchy.
Goong S isn’t an original story — reverse Cinderella — but I remember being excited about all the wondrous, complex dynamics that could be woven with its premise. First of all, Se7en’s Prince Hoo is completely not hero material when we first meet him as a commoner. (He’s rowdy, enthusiastic, coarse, totally vain in a harmless way.) His rival for the throne and for the girl is much more the typically romantic-hero character. While we’ve seen the poor-girl’s rags-to-riches story depicted tons of times before, it’s much rarer to explore the male version. You may notice many times in kdramas that although females can grow and develop and learn, the only changing a male lead usually undergoes is restricted to the fiesty heroine warming his cold, cold heart. He doesn’t actually get a chance to develop as a character. But Prince Hoo would.
It’s not just the gender reversal that fascinated me — it’s how that reversal works with the romantic pairing(s). Poor girl and rich guy, we know how that ends. Poor guy and rich girl, that’s a little less common but it’s not something totally out of the ordinary. But in Goong S, we start with two people on the same level — Hoo first falls for a commoner, Soon-yi. He’s actually known her since they were children, and they were each other’s childhood crushes. Thus they find comfort with each other as both are brought to palace life (he as a newly discovered royal, she as a servant) where both feel like outsiders. They’re cut from the same cloth. Then, Prince Hoo grows into his own and cultivates his inner gentility, developing from an impetuous adolescent into a thoughtful young man — and his romance is tested as he rises in outward status and she does not. But despite the growing chasm between their social ranks, she’s still the one who knows him best — and considering how important Hoo’s mother is to him, and the story, it’s significant that she’s the only person who knew Hoo’s mother as he did (the rest of the world knows the version of her that was slandered in the press).
Speaking of which, the political intrigues also worked better for me in Goong S than the original Goong. The evil masterminds in both series aspire to hijacking the throne, but in Goong S, it’s more understandable as the rival Prince’s father is fighting to reclaim his son’s line in the succession, which was secure until just recently. The politics are blurrier — should the throne go to the one with the closest blood tie and the birthright, despite the fact that the person is ill-equipped and unfamiliar with the duties of the position? Or should it go to the person who’s been groomed his entire life to take the position, one who’s demonstrated many times over that he’s capable and competent, but who’s discovered to be just one step further away in the bloodline? This dynamic was touched upon between Princes Shin and Yul in Goong, but barely. Here, the two princes are painted in much more disparate terms.
So why didn’t it work?
Quite clearly, acting was the main problem. It’s kind of shameful to think that the acting was SO poor that so many other positive attributes couldn’t make up for it. I don’t believe the fault lies entirely with Se7en (he did improve the most, while the other leads seemed to steadily worsen), but as the most high-profile cast member, it was his burden to bear. And while he was cute with Heo Yi Jae as Soon-yi, good LORD if the girl couldn’t get out a single sentence without gasping. I thought she was bound to swallow her tonsils by accident, the way she hyperventilated her way through the show. Kang Doo as gentle Prince Joon was horribly miscast, and that’s not even accounting for that fact that he looked a decade older than everyone else. Park Shin Hye came into the series with a positive reputation but seemed completely out of place; she was like a little girl in mommy’s makeup and heels, trying to be older, manipulative, sexy. I cringed whenever she tried to seem “mature” and came off silly instead. Myung Se Bin was one of the only decent actors as the reigning monarch, but the series couldn’t even let THAT alone and had to pair her opposite the charisma-killer, Professor Alex van der whatsher Esterhoosy or whatever. The man could not ACT, nor could he speak English. You wanted to stop him in the middle of “acting” and tell him, “Come on, this is embarrassing for us both.”
The sheer amount of wasted potential with Goong S is just… sad. Deservedly so, it performed dismally in the ratings, ending somewhere in the 4% vicinity. For a (quality) mania drama like Mixed-up Investigative Agency, you could brush aside poor numbers and say the drama was underappreciated; for a star vehicle and high-budget, highly anticipated trendy drama like Goong S, it was disaster.
And yet, perversely enough, despite really only enjoying the last four episodes, I have an inexplicable soft spot for Goong S. Maybe it’s all those dreams of what could have — SHOULD HAVE — been.
IN A NUTSHELL… (Yes, my nutshells are fairly big)
Capital Scandal: I keep meaning to continue watching this series, but haven’t yet gotten around to a marathon. Kang Ji Hwan is one actor I’ve kept my eye on, although I won’t necessarily follow something just because he’s in it (for instance, nothing will induce me to watch 90 Days’ Time to Love even though from what I’ve seen — a few scattered episodes — he’s very good in it). Capital Scandal is penned by Coffee Prince novelist and scriptwriter Lee Seon Mi, which is another plus in its favor. And the chemistry between Kang Ji Hwan and Han Ji Min‘s characters is purported to be cute and enjoyable. But the thing holding me back from jumping into the series whole-heartedly is that from the first couple of eps, it feels so slapstick. I prefer my humor sly and subversive, not so overtly jokey. The comparison that always springs to mind when considering the combination of Capital Scandal‘s period setting and its brassy humor is Dick Tracy. Still, I will probably get around to it one of these days.
Bottom of the 9th with 2 Outs: I admit I wrote off this series based on the first episode, which wasn’t bad but felt overwhelmingly ordinary. But judging from the cries of protest at having left the series off as a selection for “best series” in my informal poll a month ago, I figured I’d go back and give it a shot. I did take someone’s suggestion and skipped a bunch of episodes, after [SPOILER] Nan Hee breaks up with her younger boyfriend and things develop in earnest with her long-time best friend, played by Lee Jung Jin. I didn’t care about the younger kid, and it seems the friend-to-lover arc was where the series gets most interesting, anyway. [END SPOILER] The initial relationship setup of Su Ae‘s 30-year-old “old maid” Nan Hee and her younger, puppyish boyfriend felt like a retread of territory mined in far better dramas, so I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. The baseball analogy, however, while clever on one level, was so heavy-handed. It’s like they were afraid you wouldn’t get it despite pounding the metaphor in from all sides, and just Kept. Hammering. It. In. Dude, we get it. I wish the production team had a little more faith in its audience to pick up on themes and nuances for ourselves. The series, which I haven’t finished yet, is better than I first supposed, although I’m not really hooked. I think the drama is hampered by ordinariness in all aspects of its execution — directing, music (standard blah stuff), the atmosphere of the series — which is one strike against it (ha, pun), but those should be tolerable if the story rises above those pedestrian elements.
Get Karl Oh Soo Jung: Waste of an interesting setup. A good-natured loser (Oh Ji Ho) is dumped by his pretty, materialistic fiancee (Uhm Jung Hwa); years later, he returns as a sought-after, rich hottie, while his still-single ex is wearing out her shelf life, no longer the hot young thang she used to be. There’s an inherent sense of schadenfreude, a gleeful joy we experience at seeing our formerly lofty foes brought down to our level (or below), so that was an interesting dynamic to explore. Or it should have been. I blame Karl‘s blahness on its director, who managed to make potentially funny scenes draggy and ruined the sense of pacing in what should’ve been a lively, sparkling screwball comedy. It was touted as the male version of 200 Pound Beauty, and whatever you may think of the film, it was hugely popular, so had the setup for this series been handled well, there was an open market available right at its feet. I don’t know anyone who finished Karl so there was nobody to urge me to continue, and perhaps that’s no big loss.
War of Money: This drama was one of the biggest ratings hits this year, leaping into the 30% range early in its run and staying there throughout. I, on the other hand, not only disliked the first two episodes but was so thoroughly annoyed and aggravated that I made an active decision NOT to follow this drama to preserve my blood pressure. I’m perfectly willing to allow that War of Money might be a good drama, but I have no interest in watching it. Part of why I think it was so successful is because the topic is of universal concern, and the issue of loan sharks and unscrupulous private lenders is a very serious problem for many Koreans these days. (Another reason: ajummas love Park Shin Yang.) It hit a nerve with audiences and they followed in droves. However, the ending was a little iffy — so much so that the producers whipped up a four-episode “Bonus Round” to appease potentially irate viewers. (My suggestion: How about you maybe not piss them off intentionally in the first place, and forget the half-baked bonus-round alternate ending altogether?) [SPOILERY] I understand the reasoning behind the dramatic ending — killing off the main character on his wedding day — because apparently the writers wanted to highlight that the “war” of money is truly a war. Harsh, cold, unforgiving. Theoretically, the idea has merit. Realistically speaking, it pissed off fans, and the weird Bonus Round — which features the same main character but a different, unrelated storyline — just confused them further.[END]
Auction House: Valiant effort to try something new, but hasn’t quite mastered the form it’s attempting. Auction House was an effort to model Korean dramas after American series that follow the episodic template — shows like CSI and House that feature one “case” per episode and are able to stand on their own, and are self-contained enough that they can be watched out of order. A second season is already being planned, centering around plastic surgeons — in which case it’s not really a second season so much as it’s a second attempt at the same concept by the same production team. In any case, I didn’t dislike Auction House, and I never made a conscious decision to stop watching it. I just forgot to keep watching. It seems the stories are mostly taken from true cases, and when the series actually gets into the details of the artwork itself or art history, it’s pretty interesting. Jung Chan impressed me with his self-assured, strong acting in Lovers last year, and he’s the best part of the cast here; too bad I could never feel anything for the main lead, Yoon Soyi. If you’re watching this, is it worth finishing?
Legend: For a brief time a couple months ago after Coffee Prince ended, I had nothing to watch, nothing to recap, and my real-life workload was light. So I picked up Legend and gave it a shot. I wasn’t blown away, but it was sufficiently different from my preconceived notions of what sageuks (historical dramas) were like. Like Dahee mentioned in her write-up, I grew up with sageuk dramas always playing in the background at home, with badly costumed actors affecting their most severe facial expressions and intoning “Ma-maaaaa” and “Jeon-haaaa” in grave, humorless ancient Korean syntax. Bo-ring. But the sageuk has evolved, and while it’s always been known as the turf for serious, quality acting, they started to become — gasp! — entertaining as well. Allegedly. And I could see why Legend caught people’s attentions. It was flashy, it was showy — and it was so damn proud of itself for its grandiose scale and expense! When life got busy again, Legend dropped off my radar, and reading about its finale gives me no desire to revisit. From what I’ve seen, it’s got its strengths, but they’re not consistent; it’s rather uneven given the high level of talent both behind and in front of its cameras.
And there you have it. The past year in dramas.
(I know! She’s finally shutting up!)
Many, many thanks to my guest bloggers Thunderbolt and Dahee Fanel for participating in this wrap-up! May 2008 be filled with lots and lots of kdrama entertainment.