The K-drama world rolled into 2008 still riding the high that was 2007, a year in which a startling number of quality dramas were made, and enjoyed. Maybe it rolled in too fast. It ended up getting smothered by the waves of its previous success. In fact, you could say that it even got hit on the head by a stray surfboard, and sunk to the bottom of the ocean.
Depressing enough intro for ya?
But seriously, 2008 was a dark year for the K-entertainment industry, with not only dramas, but also movies suffering and generally showing poor quality. And not only that, but the economy went kablooie, and we suffered a sobering amount of tragic K-celebrity news.
Personally, this was a supremely frustrating year for a longtime and devoted K-drama fan like me. Before this year, I always gave dramas the benefit of the doubt, and would usually watch at least a certain number of episodes before I passed judgment on them, and decided to continue or discontinue watching. But this year, with every stomach-churning dud, I became more and more impatient, and started going through drama episodes like a vulture searching for roadkill. And boy, did I find a lot of roadkill.
I’m pretty sure 2008 was a record year for me in terms of abandoning dramas. And to think that I used to be the girl who would finish every drama she started, no matter how bad or how boring they were! But the older I get, the less patience I have, and the more critical I become. Besides, I’ve now realized just how precious my time really is. I don’t want to waste it on useless pap, thankyouverymuch.
Still, despite all that, there were a small handful of quality dramas this year. None of them quite matched the heights of some of the dramas of 2007, but still, any kind of quality was more than welcome in this gloomy year.
SONG OF THE DAY
La Dolce Vita – “사랑 꽃” (Love Flower) [ Download ]
THE ABANDONED ONES
In my view, there are two kinds of dramas that I abandon, or don’t bother to give my full attention to. The first are the kind that are so bad that you can tell from the first ten minutes that it’s going to be agonizingly, mind-numbingly awful. These are the dramas that give themselves away early, because they don’t have the subtlety in them to fool viewers (or, y’know, just me) into watching them for a little longer. Then there are the dramas that have sly flashes of hinted quality, that give you just enough hope to make you think, “I should be more generous. It might get better.” But 99% of the time, my hope winds up for naught. You’d think I’d have learned by now, but no. I must be an optimist after all.
I prefer the former kind of bad dramas. With good reason. Think about it this way. It’s like…The first kind of bad dramas are the guy you meet at a party, and at first you’re willing to give him a chance, even if he’s not your type. But then he pulls one of those pathetic pick-up lines out of his ass – something like “You must be a traffic ticket, because you’ve got ‘fine’ written all over you” – and you get yourself away from him so fast he might mistake you for the Road Runner. But the second kind of bad dramas? They’re like that guy you’re kinda acquainted with whom you just know you shouldn’t date, because you’re clearly going to regret it Big Time, but you can’t help feeling attracted to him, and you find yourself thinking, “Maybe I should just give him a chance.” But, inevitably, it all goes to hell anyway, and you wind up throwing your cell phone at a wall out of sheer rage. (This is all purely hypothetical, by the way.)
Thankfully, there weren’t too many of the latter this year for me. But there were plenty of the former. Take, say…
East of Eden. This made me laugh like a hyena over its ridiculously hysterical dramatics. I couldn’t bring myself to take it seriously. At all. Also, Song Seung Hun can’t act.
Tazza. So. Awkward. So awkward, in fact, it was painful. Listening to Han Ye Seul’s saturi was like listening to a cat trying to speak Portuguese.
General Hospital 2. Kim Jung Eun, I have nothing against you personally. You seem like a nice person. But must you act so OTT? Don’t you know that it is partly because of you that I never finished watching Lovers in Paris? I know you can be more subtle than that. So WHY DON’T YOU TRY? Also, Choi Wan Gyu needs to unstick his head from his anus.
Rivals. Lee Jong Hyuk’s hot. Unfortunately, everything else about this show leaves me cold – especially that stupider than dirt ending.
When Night Comes. Poor, poor Kim Sun Ah. Then again, she chose to be in this show, so I’m not sure how much sympathy she really deserves…
On Air. If you could stake a drama in the heart, I would do it for this one. Actually, it’s a lot like vampires, in a way – it sucks out your time and your brains, and leaves you pale and corpsely. Only it’s not a real threat – it doesn’t have the intelligence for that. It’s just a facade of a nightmare, and likes to sparkle needlessly every once in a while like the attention whore it is, much like the vampires in Twilight (god, I hate those books).
Beethoven Virus. Sigh. I was so looking forward to this one. The combination of Kim Myung Min + the Hong Sisters (NOT the ones who wrote Hong Gil Dong) + PD Lee Jae Kyu looked like it could lead to nothing but a recipe for heaven. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a recipe for disaster instead. One of the problems with many of the dramas this year was that they lacked in subtlety, and Beethoven Virus was a prime example of that. It displayed a penchant for over-dramatics and sheer stupidity to sickening amounts. Was that script really penned by the ones behind the brilliant 2005 gem Taereung National Village? Was this really directed by the PD behind the beautiful 2003 mania drama Damo? And was that really what they did to Kim Myung Min’s eyebrows? Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Three Dads, One Mom. Dear KBS, if I go bald because of the hair-pulling torture I suffered while watching the supremely artificial first episode of this show, I will sue you.
A Star’s Lover. There’s a reason why I hate Oh Su Yeon’s writing, and she showed, once again, that she’s pretty much learned nothing since penning the blight on humanity that was Winter Sonata. Don’t get me wrong – this show is not Winter Sonata. Instead, it is written in a similar vein, with carefully altered details to try to appeal to an audience that will (mostly) no longer tolerate overused plot tropes like cancer and killer trucks. Some people might like the fairy tale elements of a show like this, but I don’t count myself among them. There’s no life in it. Also, Choi Ji Woo seriously gets on my nerves. Stop acting so cutesy, dammit!
Love and Marriage. I was kinda looking forward to this because of Kim Min Hee, but watching the first episode, I actually found myself feeling really, really…bored. I know, I know, it’s supposed to be cute and light and fluffy, but I felt no substance beneath the fluffiness at all, and thus was yawning throughout the entire first episode. Let’s just say I’m not a big fan of candy.
Golden Age Of My Life. Meh. Great cast overall (I mean, Moon Sori in a family drama? My god!), but it was supremely average and unexciting. There was nothing creative or endearing about it at all. And I don’t have time to waste on something that doesn’t excite me.
As for the ones that I abandoned after several episodes, there were a good handful of those, as well. Many of them I abandoned because I no longer had the time or the patience, and many of them I abandoned because I simply didn’t care anymore.
Take Happiness. I saw over twenty episodes of that show before I finally threw up my hands and cried, “I have better things to do with my time!”. It wasn’t a bad show, really, and it was entertaining in its own way. But it just sort of…plodded along, with no real moments of quality or creativity. It was just…there. Kim Jung Soo has definitely penned better scripts.
Or Mom’s Dead Upset. I know everyone in Korea worships the ground Kim Soo Hyun walks on, but…meh. This, too, failed to excite me. Good acting from some of the cast, and it looked like it had its moments, but overall, I saw nothing to keep me committed.
Who Are You? I saw an episode, and fully planned on continuing to watch, especially since so many people seemed to rave about it, but…it just plain slipped my mind. Maybe I’ll continue watching it someday, but considering how annoyed I was by Go Ara and Yoon Kye Sang’s acting in the first episode, I kind of doubt it.
Gourmet. I saw the entirety of the first episode, and bits and pieces of other episodes, and really, this too looked like nothing worth wasting my energy on. It seemed like the kind of drama that never really dips into the “Awful” category, but never rises into the “Wonderful” category, either. It’s just sort of…there. And why should I spend my time on something like that?
The Strongest Chil Woo. I think I saw about three episodes, and then got distracted by other things. It was actually kinda entertaining in its own insane way, and I enjoyed the serious tone of episode three far more than I did the uneven wackiness of the previous two episodes. And really, I may continue watching in future, just to catch a glimpse of the lovely and talented Kim Byul. But honestly, this is no quality drama. And Eric’s acting was simply embarrassing to watch.
Kingdom of the Winds. Again, I saw a few episodes, and forgot about it. Jung Jin Young is absolutely wonderful (not to mention sexy), I Love Kim Myung Soo, and Song Il Gook is his usual solid self, but…really. If I can’t remember what happened in the last episode I saw, isn’t that a sign that I just don’t care?
Spotlight. I saw one episode, and was deeply, supremely disappointed. I mean, good cast, great writer…and awful PD. That is not a good mix. The first episode was so uneven, it actually hurt. Still…I’ve heard that it gets better, at least up until the sudden switch in writers, and I plan on finishing this…someday. For Lee Ki Won and Son Ye Jin’s sakes, if no one else’s.
And then there’s a bad drama that I watched in its entirety. I’ve already talked about it extensively on this site, so I’ll keep it short. Besides, I don’t want to think about it too much.
Iljimae. Oh, Iljimae. You have left a dirty stain on my soul that will be hard to wash out. Maybe I should just bleach it. Maybe I should cut that part of my soul out, and feed it to the neighbour’s cat. It might be a painful process. But it’s sure to be less painful than having to remember you.
THE ONES THAT STAYED
There were precious few of these this year, so the ones that stuck around were even more special by contrast. Sure, there was a show like The King and I, which started airing in 2007 but ended in 2008, and it still managed to hold my interest, despite some problems it ran into script-wise and SBS-wise (damn SBS, ruining its own shows). Those problems stopped it from becoming a classic, but it was still quality stuff, especially compared to many of the other dramas being offered at the time, and it had some supremely powerful and heartbreaking moments. I had to be bedridden for about a week after watching episode 51, and I still feel sad whenever I think about the ending.
Of the ones that began and ended in 2008…
I Love You
Starring Ahn Jae Wook and Seo Ji Hye, this was a breath of fresh air in a very drab year, and certainly one of the surprises of 2008. Okay, so it wasn’t a masterpiece, not by a long shot, and it had a disappointingly blah ending. But it was funny, touching, warm-hearted, and absolutely adorable. It was one of those dramas filled to the brim with atmosphere and charm, the kind that puts a smile on your face and improves your mood after a gloomy day. And there was a wonderful attention to detail and quality that no doubt came along thanks largely to the fact that it was produced entirely before airing.
Seo Ji Hye is full of talent from the top of her pretty head down to the tips of her adorable toes, and Ahn Jae Wook is his usual charming self here, with good acting walking hand in hand with the cuteness. Gong Hyung Jin is as much of an ad-lib genius as ever, and Jo Mi Ryeong was perfectly tough and frazzled. Even Hwanhee of the R&B duo Fly to the Sky proved that he’s not just another mediocre singer-turned-actor trying to gain another paycheck to fame, but instead, seems to be taking this whole acting business a lot more seriously and with a lot more passion than a lot of singers – or even actors – out there. And Park Hye Young was cute yet spunky at the same time, and was able to touch on certain emotional chords that certainly rang with this viewer.
Sure, this show isn’t for everyone, and I’m sure many found it to be boring or lacking in excitement. But it was good in a quiet, low-key sort of way, and was certainly one of the most underrated dramas of the year. It is also proof that, although it might not work for everyone (not everyone has the talent to pull off quality, after all), finishing filming entirely before broadcast might just be a very good idea. That way, there are no rushed scripts with half-baked plotlines, no last-minute editing, and there is time for the actors to get fully invested in their characters. You did good, SBS.
My Sweet Seoul
I’m pretty sure I’ve already talked enough about this drama in various places on the internetz to fill a book, but…This is easily one of the best dramas of 2008, and was a very sweet treat after months of disappointment in K-drama Land.
This show was great from the very beginning, filled to the brim with a charming sweetness that certainly swept this girl off her feet. By the time the first episode was over, I was already in love, and eager to see more. That’s more than can be said for 99% of the dramas that aired this year.
Even before it aired, I was confident in the cast’s ability to deliver, and they certainly didn’t disappoint – miraculously, there was no bad egg to be seen anywhere, although Jin Jae Young might arguably be called the weakest link. But even then it wasn’t enough to hurt the drama in any way, and the only reason her acting could be called into question at all is because she was working with so many talented people, and thus had a lot to live up to. Lee Seon Gyun pulled out all his charms and portrayed his character in very endearingly subtle and quiet ways, while Ji Hyun Woo showed just how talented he is, and how good an actor he may become. As for Choi Kang Hee, I know there were some who disliked her performance here (:P), but for me, she was absolutely excellent, and was the perfect choice to portray Eun-soo’s many quirks and charms and flaws. I can’t imagine any other actress suiting the character so well, or having such an intimate understanding of Eun-soo’s psyche.
Yet this was another show that had a somewhat meh ending, and that didn’t quite maintain the brisk momentum it carried in the earlier episodes. Still, it was well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, and was certainly one of the highlights of 2008.
I confess I’m very behind with this show, and that the beginning episodes showed a level of unevenness, especially in the directing (someone ought to have fired the music director), that was very distressing to see. Also, Song Hye Kyo simply lacks that zing needed to enliven her character and make her live, and that is also very frustrating. Still, I have complete and utter faith in writer Noh Hee Kyung, and some of the supporting cast, particularly people like Uhm Ki Joon and Na Moon Hee, are simply a delight to watch. This is definitely not a mainstream drama, even if it’s certainly more “mainstream” than anything Noh Hee Kyung‘s ever written, but I like non-mainstream. It tends to suit my tastes better. So I’ll probably be sticking this one out to the end, come what may.
Another drama I’m very behind on. A short tvN “real action” drama starring Yoo Gun, this is definitely one of the biggest surprises of 2008, and certainly one of its most underrated dramas. Yes, the storyline is a little too predictable, and watching Lee Young Jin “act” is like watching a wet rag struggling to emote. But this show pulses with the intensity of the human spirit, and those fight scenes? Simply breathtaking to watch. Now that’s what I call action. Also, Uhm Tae Woong and Baek Do Bin are very hot – and talented, to boot!
Painter of the Wind
Oh, Painter. How I’ve neglected you. (For those waiting for recaps, I promise that they’re coming. They’re just taking a while, due to life kicking me in the arse.)
I’m actually a couple of episodes behind on this show (so no, I haven’t seen the ending yet – life kicking me in the arse and all that). But this is yet more proof that SBS has been starting to step up, quality-wise, in the past couple of years. Painter was simply a gorgeous show, in both visuals and subtle emotional power. I loved the way it approached those tender, subtle moments, and the feelings of artistic inspiration. I also very much appreciated the way it wasn’t simply a love story, but delved more into plots of intrigue and mystery. And any hints of homosexuality, big or small, is always a good thing.
Also, Moon Geun Young? She is the love of my life. The LOVE of my LIFE. She was always a delight to watch in this, always. She was always in character, always relateable. I knew she was talented, and I knew she was adorable, but I didn’t know quite how talented and adorable she was until I saw this show. She deserves to be one of the biggest stars in Korea, seriously. (And I wouldn’t mind getting some of that sweet Bae Soo Bin goodness, either.)
All that being said, I’ve lost quite a bit of interest in this show, watching the later episodes, and I feel frustrated by how little Park Shin Yang‘s acting has drawn me into his character, and I feel disappointed by the way certain events have unfolded. But I’ll get into more of those details in my recaps later on.
Like many of the other dramas this year, this one had definitely had some flaws. But it still showed some badly-needed quality, even if it ended up not completely lasting until the very end, and for that, I salute it.
La Dolce Vita
Ahhh. And here we are at last, at what I consider to be the very best drama of 2008. A drama penned by the great drama-writing master, Jung Ha Yeon, and produced by that most talented of PDs, Kim Jin Min. A drama starring some great veterans like Jung Bo Seok, Oh Yeon Soo, Jang Young Nam and Baek Il Seob, and two younger stars whose talent exploded through working on this show: Lee Dong Wook and Park Shi Yeon. A drama that had so many dark twists and turns that it left me breathless. A drama whose tragic finale left me a sobbing wreck, and yet managed to leave me with a warm sense of hope. A complex, intimate drama that poses countless questions, and gives you only hints at the answers, forcing you to think and reflect and – gasp! – actually use your brain. A drama with so much raw emotive power that it left every other drama this year in its dust.
Ah, yes. I love La Dolce Vita, and I love it for a countless number of reasons, all of which I can’t possibly touch on here. But let’s try to break them down into more manageable parts.
The writing. Jung Ha Yeon is definitely one of the biggest writing talents in Korea, and has had a very long, very prolific career. And yet he’s also rather underrated in the mainstream, mostly because his dramas don’t tend to appeal to the mass public. He has an intense eye for detail, an amazing understanding of the human psyche, and plots that aren’t always easy to unravel. This may help to explain why La Dolce Vita wasn’t exactly a stellar success, ratings-wise. You need to really spend a lot of time on this drama, and carefully watch every single second of every episode, and I guess not everyone was willing to do that. But I remember listening to the characters utter certain lines that felt and sounded like poetry, or speaking like they were on a stage, reciting the lines of a fine play, and thinking, “You can’t get this kind of quality writing everyday.”
And then there’s the work of PD Kim Jin Min. The stellar visuals (especially in the scenes in Hokkaido), the carefully thought out editing, the breathtaking music from the ever-reliable music director Hwang Sang Joon (who also worked on the music for 2007’s Time Between Dog and Wolf and 2005’s sageuk masterpiece Shin Don)…It was all pretty much pitch-perfect, and reminded me once again of how important it is for a PD to complement and bring out the strengths of a production. So many of the dramas this year were ruined due to faulty partnerships, between good PDs and bad writers, or good writers and bad PDs, or simply writers and PDs whose styles clashed with one another’s. Jung Ha Yeon and Kim Jin Min, however, showed what can happen with a great partnership and a good understanding of one another’s styles and tastes.
Now how about the acting? Jung Bo Seok was his reliably magnificent self, and the ever-lovely Oh Yeon Soo pulled out one of the most subtle and best performances of her career. But before this drama started, I was very worried about both Lee Dong Wook and Park Shi Yeon. Because let’s face it, they hadn’t exactly proven themselves to be the world’s best actors just yet – especially Park Shi Yeon. And when I saw the first episode, there was just enough awkwardness from both of them to set me ill at ease. But as the drama progressed, and as they both fell deeper and deeper into their respective characters, they transformed into powerful, capable actors in front of my very eyes. It was absolutely wonderful to see, and it was yet more proof that, if an actor works on a great drama, with characters that matter to them, and with a strong determination to try harder to improve than they ever had before, then no matter how bad they were before it began, they can always improve. Just look at Kim Min Hee in Goodbye Solo, or most of the younger cast in The King and I. I never thought the day would come when watching Park Shi Yeon cry could move me to tears too, or when Lee Dong Wook could flash a soft, sad smile that would break my heart into a million pieces. But it happened, and I’m eternally grateful for having had the pleasure of witnessing the change. Now let’s just hope they both choose only good projects from now on!
Y’know, people like to call La Dolce Vita a “dark drama”. And there were certainly some darker, noir-like elements in the show. Human desires can get very dark, after all, and Jung Ha Yeon clearly felt no scruples about revealing the very depths of that darkness. But at the end of the day, I didn’t walk away from this show feeling depressed or dirty. It didn’t make me think the worst of the world, or despair over the actions of humankind. Instead, it always brought me up to a high – on a critical level, it made me feel hope for the K-drama industry, and rejoice over the fact that one drama this year, at least, was consistently excellent. But it brought me up on a purely emotional level too, with its belief in the lasting, eternal power of love, its lessons on judgment and understanding, its advocacy of hope and freedom, its powerful wisdom, and its belief that both life and death are indeed “sweet”.
Uh, yeah. Did I mention that I love this drama?
2008 brought out the ultimate grump in me, and made me watch in despair as the K-entertainment world slowly spiralled farther and farther down its black hole of a recession. But never fear, all those who despaired along with me! I have a solution for you, a cure for these dark, depressing days.
You can…watch older dramas from pre-2008. The good ones, too, and not Hallyu crap like Stairway to Hell – er, I mean Heaven. I recently rewatched Taereung National Village, which reminded me that the Hong Sisters do, in fact, have talent. And I am planning on continuing my watch of Shin Don very soon – which, incidentally, was written by Jung Ha Yeon and directed by Kim Jin Min – and also 2007’s Conspiracy in the Court. I am pretty sure that they will help dispel much of my grumpiness. (Or maybe it’ll just make me more critical of dramas in general, and thus grumpier…? Whatever, these dramas are simply too good to pass up. I’ll take my chances!)
But if you aren’t up for watching older dramas, then I guess you’ll just have to cross your fingers and hope that 2009 will bring about a renaissance of quality, and save us all. I’m not feeling very optimistic, however. But maybe I just need to be hit over the head with a big ol’ bag of optimism.
Please don’t disappoint us, 2009. Pretty please?