Here we are! The last of the year-end review series.
This post is something new, but I thought it would be an interesting experiment. Although each of us reviewers has our personal favorites, which we outlined in our personal reviews, it’s a different thing to move past preference and try to be objective in a sort of Dramabeans Awards — hence, these Editors’ Picks.
We voted in rounds, first nominating all potential candidates, then narrowing them down to a small pool of finalists, then culling that to one or two picks. As a result, not all of us got picks that we may have personally felt were most fitting, but we all respected the process and the opinions that led us to these selections.
SONG OF THE DAY
Queen Seon-deok OST – “아라로” (Araro) by I.U. [ Download ]
I want to again give my thanks to the guest bloggers — Dahee Fanel, thunderbolt, Samsooki, and hjkomo — for making this year’s review series particularly rich and enjoyable. When I asked them to participate, I felt that they were knowledgeable enough to have written entertaining, informative posts right on the spot — but no, they wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than comprehensive preparation. I know that they all spent a tremendous part of the past month and a half diving back into the dramas they missed over the year in order to gain as wide a breadth of knowledge as they could. Not for entertainment, but to make sure their evaluations were as honest as they could be. When one person would rave about a particular drama or performance, often another reviewer would take the extra time to go back and revisit it to give it another chance, or to ensure it got as fair an appraisal as possible.
This was not an easy, or quick job — hours of watching, analyzing, and thinking may go into crafting a mere paragraph-long assessment. This review series took incredible effort on everyone’s part. I’m talking many dozens of hours, perhaps more than a hundred, and for very little material return. Could we all have done it quickly and easily? Absolutely. But each reviewer had a strong sense of integrity that required that kind of immersion.
That’s dedication that goes FAR above and beyond the call of duty — not that it’s duty, but rather the call of a favor. Your efforts are not lost on me, so I thank you guys. I also found our back-and-forth discussions eye-opening and exhilarating. I often learn a lot more from dissent than from unanimous opinions, which is why I find these reviews so enlightening.
On to the Editors’ Picks!
2009 Dramabeans Editors’ Picks
BEST DRAMA SERIES
Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father
Samsooki: I feel like this drama is too important to ignore, too secret to share, too painful to watch and too funny to look away. Did I like it? No, not at all. It made me very uncomfortable and self-conscious. Unlike some descriptions, this drama isn’t so much of a black comedy as it is an indictment on the limited vision of 1950s Korea. It is an indictment on war, specifically on the darkness created by war that made it impossible to look beyond where the next stolen chicken meal would come from. That this drama makes us laugh isn’t because of the comedic aspects per se, so much as it is us laughing at tragedy. Still, the writing is what makes this so good, that and the superlative acting all around — Shim Eun Kyung is polished perfect and the rest of the cast are seasoned professionals. A worthy recommendation for those with the right perspective to watch and learn, or, watch and remember.
Other finalists: City Hall, Story of a Man
Hwang Jung-min, Accidental Couple aka That Fool
Dahee Fanel: Hwang Jung Min is one of those rare actors who are so good they can elevate the very productions they are a part of. It was evident that Hwang Jung Min’s joie de vivre infected everyone involved on the set of The Accidental Couple, and turned to (a semblance of) gold what should have been a terrible, terrible drama. The greatness of Hwang Jung Min’s performance lies in not some explosion of power and drama, but in the quiet moments that most people overlook, the subtle changes of expression, the incredible sincerity and heart that permeated every little movement. Everything he did in this drama was REAL. He’s a genius of sincerity.
Other finalists: Kim Kang-woo (Story of a Man), Lee Byung-heon (IRIS)
Go Hyun-jung, Queen Seon-deok
thunderbolt: One word to sum up Go Hyun-jung’s performance in Queen Seondeok? Jaw-dropping. At turns seductive and scary, she just eats up the screen, so commanding is her presence. If her Mishil is in a scene, you see only her and no one else, because her gaze alone can cast a spell on you. When she’s not in a scene, you immediately miss her because everything feels duller somehow. Playing her most demanding role yet, Go Hyun-jung’s acting is so exquisite she makes you root for her, despite yourself. Evil has never been so bewitching.
Other finalists: Shim Eun-kyung (Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Baek Yoon-shik, Hero
javabeans: He plays a character with a shady past, but who at first glance looks like a calm old man who’s laughably behind the times. His ex-gangster character is an amusing fish out of water, but he doesn’t realize he’s funny, which is why he’s so funny. Yet Baek Yoon-shik the Actor IS fully aware of how funny the character is, and understands that he must not betray that he knows this secret and thus break the comedic spell. And that’s only half the story — he is also a man of deep pathos, whose movements carry weight even when he’s seemingly doing very little at all. He is an actor who creates truth in little details.
hjkomo: For instance, take a scene where his group has been beaten up and harassed. He dons a leather outfit with gloves, and the implication is that he’s off to go crack some heads, which he’s fully capable of doing… but he merely talks to the man. As the man’s former boss, he is intimidating, but he also has a calmness about him — and that’s even more intimidating. Watching him onscreen is just mesmerizing.
Other finalists: Choi Il-hwa (City Hall), Bae Soo-bin (Brilliant Legacy), Kim Seung-woo (IRIS)
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jung Yumi, Friend, Our Legend
Dahee Fanel: It’s funny how, with her rather small screen time in Friend, Our Legend, Jung Yumi nevertheless managed to shine in every scene she was given, bringing her fascinating character, Eun-ji, layers upon layers of complexity. From the boy-crazy little princess to the wounded, courageous young lady in love to the jaded, sharp and incredibly strong woman standing on her own two feet, she essayed each transformation with verve and charisma. Keep an eye out for her in future — she’s bound to go places.
Kim Young-ok, Assorted Gems
thunderbolt: Assorted Gems boasts one of the best-looking ensembles of the year, but it is one cantankerous granny wearing frumpy clothes and no make-up who steals the show. Not only is Kim Young-ok’s tongue sharp, the wheels in her head never stop turning. It’s as if her brain is a storehouse of barbs which she tosses out with the speed of a machine gun. Her words and body language will crack you up repeatedly, and you will find yourself rewinding scenes just to watch her again. So effortless is her acting and so perfect her comic timing she really deserves more than a supporting role.
Other finalists: Kim So-yeon (IRIS)
BEST ENSEMBLE CAST
Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father
thunderbolt: Ensemble acting is like an orchestra. The best ones sell out their performances every time, the music transporting us to a magical world. All the players play their hearts out and every section in the orchestra shines. Such is the casting in Kyung Sook. From Jung Bo-seok to Shim Eun-kyung, from Jo Hee-bong to Park Gun-tae, whether lead or supporting, young or old, every actor feels exactly right for the role and no one sticks out or fades away for the wrong reasons. The acting is always assured and heartfelt; there is no discordant note or misstep. Is there any doubt then that we get a collective performance that’s unforgettable?
Other finalists: You’re Beautiful
Return of Iljimae, director Hwang In-roi
javabeans: Directing can be a difficult quality to pinpoint — acting and writing are noticeable traits that elicit immediate praise when done well, or criticism when done poorly. Directing is more elusive, because so much of what makes a drama work isn’t in one specific part but in the way the disparate elements are woven together (hopefully) seamlessly to create ambiance, feeling, emotion. Just as a puppetmaster is most effective when the strings aren’t seen, a drama’s director wants to draw the viewer into this world without betraying the construction of that world. Bad directing can muck up a great script, but great directing can elevate it to sublime proportions. In Return of Iljimae, the beauty of its visuals is nothing compared to the beauty of the emotion it stirs with its assured pacing and poignant storytelling. All this is the work of a director who orchestrates everything with technical mastery but whose true brilliance is in making everything feel so natural.
Other finalists: Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father; Friend Our Legend
Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father, scriptwriter Kim Hye-jung
Dahee Fanel: Brutally honest and naked in its depiction of the horrors of war, yet also looking at it all through a critical, razor-sharp lens of black humour, the script of Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father was always deeply riveting. There have been scores of depictions in film and television about the Korean War, but I wonder how many of them handled it with so much intelligence, as well as such a good understanding of family and human nature?
Other finalists: Story of a Man
javabeans: Good comedy makes you laugh. Great comedy takes a fresh approach to a familiar situation and surprises the laugh out of you. Even when the Hong Sisters writing duo employ some hackneyed situations, they have a gift for finding unexpected ways out of them, making them not-quite-so-familiar after all. Characters are quirky but react in ways that are true to themselves, adding a dash of heart to the copious jokes, gags, parodies and satires. But not TOO much heart, lest we linger too long in those “dak-sal” moments — i.e., those saccharine, lovey-dovey beats that make you cringe. The drama knows when not to take itself too seriously — which is almost always — and just wants to whisk you away for a blissful, escapist ride. You’re Beautiful is situational comedy at its bright, zesty best.
thunderbolt: Whether it is the two grandmas competing to see who can impress a new tenant more, each disparaging the other’s homemade kimchi, or one of the grandmas wondering why her daughter-in-law had breast enhancement surgery when “it costs money, is painful and can kill,” this drama will make you laugh till your sides hurt. The humor isn’t laid on thick, one slapstick scene after another. Rather it is the repartees, the thinly-veiled sarcasm, what-if imaginary situations, and the little funny moments that make this one of the best comedies of the year.
Other finalists: Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father
BEST ACTION OR THRILLER DRAMA
Story of a Man, aka The Slingshot
Samsooki: All great dramas revolve around the idea of conflict, and more specifically, the concept that something (or someone) extraordinary happens upon a person, and now that person has to deal with that. Story of a Man fits this concept, as we have an extraordinary person (the evil incarnate Chae Do Woo) happening to an ordinary person (Shin). And Chae Do Woo might have messed with the wrong person when he ran over Shin… Even as much as the story is gripping, what makes this drama the most technically proficient k-drama I’ve ever seen is that the way the story is told, layer by layer. Characters are added at the right time, developed with great pacing and deliberateness. Revelations are not dropped randomly, but in a way that makes sense if you step back to see the big picture.
Not only does this take skill in writing and directing, but it requires skill in watching too! How many k-dramas require skill in watching? To sum up — story is gripping, the acting is brilliant. The writing and directing are superlative. And, the more you pay attention, the more you will get out of the drama. But don’t watch too close, Chae Do Woo might notice and come after you…
BEST HISTORICAL SERIES
Return of Iljimae
javabeans: This was a fairly slim category, but don’t let that tidbit detract from the quality of this pick. Return of Iljimae is really a fusion historical series, and unlike most other (conventional) sageuks, it doesn’t center around the life of a great leader. It does weave in true historical context, although with its origins in a manhwa, Return of Iljimae isn’t about recreating real historical events so much as it uses them as touchstones around which the story is built. This is a drama that never faltered, that knew what it was the whole way through, and never betrayed itself (or us).
Other finalists: Queen Seon-deok
BEST ROMANCE DRAMA
Samsooki: Romance is a story about falling in love. And the best stories of love are ones that you can feel. City Hall‘s romance is about two adults sacrificing as much as they can, to be together, but running into the limitations of their own principles. Shin Mi Rae will not stop protecting the people she swore an oath to defend, even if it means destroying her one shot at love, and Jo Gook must do the impossible and find a way to save both Shin Mi Rae and her principles, even if it means tearing Shin Mi Rae’s heart to shreds. What makes this drama so special, even above what was just written, is that neither Jo Gook nor Shin Mi Rae could have survived the ordeal at the beginning of the drama. It is through their growth through the series that they grow strong enough to overcome the biggest odds. And guess what? You grow along with them.
Will It Snow for Christmas?
javabeans: This is old-fashioned romance played to the melodramatic hilt. A great romance not only makes you root for the couple to get together, it makes you feel the ups and downs with them as the characters fumble through their mating dance. To make the conflict credible but not tiresome, it’s got to make us desperately want the two to find happiness, but also understand the obstacles that lie in their way. Will It Snow For Christmas isn’t the most original drama ever, but as a romance it makes the longing palpable between Kang-jin and Ji-wan — aided in no small part by the smoldering Go Soo. In also building up a complicated obstacle fraught with emotions, our hearts tug along with them. (Caveat: This assessment only stands if the ending does not betray us fans!)
Other finalists: You’re Beautiful
BEST FAMILY DRAMA
The Sons of Sol Pharmacy
Samsooki: By definition, a family drama is something that you want to watch with your family. And generally speaking, your family will include people older and younger than you. That’s how wisdom is passed — from generation to generation, person to person. And that’s how family bonds are created. Coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, that’s what Sons of Sol Pharmacy is — a set of stories about family bonds being created by wisdom being passed from family member to family member. Whether it is a happy event or a sad one, every moment of this drama is an opportunity for you to learn, or for you to teach. There is no greater praise for a family drama, and no greater family drama in 2009 than this one.
thunderbolt: At the end of the day, family is what matters. Not friends or neighbors or colleagues or even pets, although all are important. The families in Assorted Gems may not always behave like your average family (one sends its son away with a “You’re on your own for a year; don’t contact us” and the other tosses the parents out, luggage and all), but you know that when push comes to shove, each member is there for the rest. Watching the Gung children banter or the grandmas bicker, you feel like the two tenants in the drama. They arrived as strangers but are now part of the family, trading jokes and sharing stories, fighting over toilets and chasing after food burglars. There is so much warmth it fairly envelops you.
hjkomo: A family drama should be exactly about that — family relationships. And this one has the tremendous good fortune to be well-written and well-acted. Writer, Im Sung Han, surprises us with her avoidance of makjang histrionics and formulaic clichés. The characters and relationships are real, and the talented ensemble cast of both veterans and younger actors alike deliver heart-warming performances. Assorted Gems is truly the family gem of 2009.
Return of Iljimae
javabeans: The seasoned kdrama viewer by now is aware that a soundtrack, no matter how catchy in Episode 1, often wears on the nerves (and the ears!) by the time the drama is midway through. It’s no fault of the music, but inappropriate usage can be as grating as if the music were truly bad. Not only is Return of Iljimae‘s background score gorgeous, it is judiciously applied — the drama is lilting when it needs to be lilting, angry when it needs to be angry, and quiet when it needs to be quiet. The instrumental tracks are as lush and sweeping as the drama’s landscapes, and fit with the narrative’s emotional ups and downs perfectly.
Other finalists: You’re Beautiful
Go Hyun-jung, Queen Seon-deok
Samsooki: I think the best villains are the ones that you are able to grasp; they aren’t all-powerful and they aren’t totally inscrutable. A villain is someone against whom you have a real chance, a real hope of beating. Go Hyun-jung is the best villain of 2009 because she is closest person to the perfect villain as I have ever seen — strong, dignified, amoral, intelligent, and deliciously and even justifiably evil, while all the while, a flawed and beatable target. Go Hyun Jung was the person you want to be your arch-enemy, because while you know she will get her victories against you, ultimately, you have a shot at beating her if you are clever and strong enough. I know that many would say that Chae Do Woo is the perfect villain of 2009, but honestly, I’m not sure Chae Do Woo is beatable. And an unbeatable enemy isn’t a villain at all but a force of nature.
Kim Gab-soo, Partner and Hon
hjkomo: Kim Gab Soo is one of the rare few actors who can make you want hide under the nearest blanket – with his smile. Whether he’s creepily slurping up mangoes, channeling the devil incarnate while a live snake slithers around his neck, or fulfilling the adage – “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely” – Kim Gab Soo instills spine-chilling fear in all who are misfortunate enough to cross his path.
Other finalists: Kim Kang-woo (Story of a Man), Kim Mi-sook (Brilliant Legacy)
Lee Min-jung, Smile You
Dahee Fanel: She’s been on the outskirts of stardom for a while now, quietly handing in strong performances, waiting for her moment to shine. And this year, it’s finally happened, with her star-making performance in the cultural phenomenon that was Boys Before Flowers, and now her first leading role in the popular weekend drama Smile, You. Lee Min-jung is one of those rarest of actresses, someone with all the makings of a star: A beautiful face, truckloads of talent, and bubbly screen presence. Most actresses have just one or the other of those things, but she has them all. This is one lady who deserves all of her success.
Lee Min-ho, Boys Before Flowers
javabeans: Lee Min-ho practically defines the term “breakout” — he appeared out of nowhere, turned in a splendid performance, and not only proved himself as a rising talent but damn near carried the show. His was a difficult character — moody, bullying, and at times violent — but on top of that, he already had a lot to live up to, with the previous performances of Jerry Yan and Matsumoto Jun still leaving their imprint upon fans’ minds and hearts. That he would be scrutinized and compared was a given; one false step and this could have spelled disaster. Instead of caving under the pressure, he dove into the role and made it his own. Lee Min-ho fever swept the whole nation and his newly acquired fans are eager to see if he can follow it up with another winner.
Smile, You (Jung Kyung-ho & Lee Min-jung)
thunderbolt: Both have been newly disappointed in love, but you can’t tell unless you watched this from the start. Seeing them now, it’s as if they have always been together. The way she gazes at him, you have no doubt she loves him completely. As for him, he has unfinished business that he must tend to, but from now on she will always come first. Theirs is the sweet flush of first love, looking and smiling shyly at each other as they walk hand-in-hand. Yet it also feels like an old couple’s relationship, where trust is unwavering, and where there’s comfort in just being under the same roof without having to talk or do the same things. When you see Jung Kyung-ho and Lee Min-jung together, you feel an unmistakable sense of joy and hopefulness.
Other finalists: City Hall (Cha Seung-won & Kim Sun-ah), You’re Beautiful (Jang Geun-seok & Park Shin-hye), Family Honor (Park Shi-hoo & Yoon Jung-hee)
BEST ODD COUPLE
Assorted Gems (Kim Young-ok, Jung Hye-sung)
hjkomo: First, there was Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. Then came John Gustafson and Max Goldman. Now, here comes the Korean halmoni version in Gyul Myung Ja and Baek Jo. The fabulous duo, Kim Young Ok (Gyul Myung Ja) and Jung Hye Sun (Baek Jo), are in-laws, neighbors, nemeses, and even best friends. They trade barbs as sharp-wittedly as their talented predecessors, engage in hilarious physical brawls, dress-up in clothes befitting Cinderella’s step-sisters, and shake their booties to Brown Eyed Girls’ Abracadabra. Every scene they’re in is pure comedy at its side-splitting finest.
Other finalists: Accidental Couple (Hwang Jung-min & Baek Sung-hyun)
MOST OVER-THE-TOP ACTING
Kim Ji-seok, 2009 Hometown of Legends
thunderbolt: A vampire who’s a one-man freak show. A vampire who bares his fangs and flashes his speckled talons, whether a scene warrants that display or not. This vampire hisses like a snake, roars like a lion, and prances about like a drunk chimpanzee. Hear how Kim Ji-seok moans and you would think he’s having sex instead of enjoying yet another bloody meal. A teardrop is studied with such intensity his eyes are about to exit their sockets. His hunters pursue him, not because he’s a vampire, but because he’s an annoying show-off. Hands down the most hysterical acting of the year.
Other finalists: Gu Hye-sun (Boys Before Flowers)
MOST UNDERUTILIZED / BIGGEST WASTE OF TALENT
Oh Man-seok, Everybody Cha Cha Cha
Dahee Fanel: Oh Man Seok is easily one of the most talented young actors in Korea, which he’s proven again and again through roles like the gentle monk who slowly goes berserk in Shin Don, to the prickly farmer in Vineyard Man, to the ever-suffering and deeply loyal eunuch in The King and I. He deserves some of the best and meatiest roles, and yet instead, he’s getting roles like…this. I don’t think anyone who watches or has seen Everybody Cha Cha Cha thinks that it is even close to being a good drama, and nor do they expect it to be, what with its daily drama trappings. But it’s supremely frustrating to see Oh Man Seok’s talent be wasted in uttering the same lines and recycling the same scenes over and over. He does the best he can with the extremely little he’s given, but anyone who is a fan will feel that he’s been cheated. Let’s hope he snags a meatier role next time.
Lee Jung-jae, Triple
javabeans: As a result of cultivating a career mostly in movies (such as An Affair, Il Mare, Oh Brothers, Typhoon), Lee Jung-jae possesses a charisma and gravitas that many television actors lack. Blessed with a talent for infusing his characters with sincerity, this is a man who knows the power of restraint — his characters simmer with intensity below the surface, but don’t feel the need to act OUT to get their point across. Granted, everyone in Triple was underutilized — a hazard of its scattered plot — but the worst travesty was seeing Lee Jung-jae relegated to the side and not given a chance to do… much at all. But whenever he found an opening, he grabbed it and made the most of the brief moment, bringing an emotional groundedness to his Hwal character.
Other finalists: Uhm Ki-joon (Job Well Done)
Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father
Dahee Fanel: Every year some dramas will quietly broadcast and then quietly fade away, never having really succeeded at gaining public recognition. Some of these dramas are fiercely loved and respected by a core group of loyal followers, making their existence not quite so futile as it may at first seem. Yet it is undoubtedly true that, for many of these fans, there is regret that they did not gain as much popularity and notice as they may perhaps deserve. Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father was one of the biggest examples of this sense of underrecognition this year, but I’m glad that, here at least, it gets its little moment to shine. For some, this is a drama that never even existed. But for me, it will remain in my memory for years to come, shining like a beacon of hope.
Other finalists: Assorted Gems, Return of Iljimae, Story of a Man, Tamra the Island
Boys Before Flowers
javabeans: Never have I enjoyed a show that needed so many qualifiers when explaining to others. It’s fun — but doesn’t make sense. It’s well-acted — except for half the cast. It’s good-hearted — except when people enjoy random acts of cruelty. It’s super-fun and fast to watch — until it screeches to an angsty halt in the middle. It has a catchy soundtrack — but omygod is that Almost Paradiiiiiiiise for the thousandth time? This is a schizoid show of contradictions, and no doubt it has an infectious draw… but it was so riddled with problems that it feels like it didn’t deserve, or at least earn, its immense success. It’s lucky for Boys Before Flowers that fans were generous with its many flaws. I don’t mean that this drama has no appeal, rather that the strength of the viewers’ response far outweighs its quality, and that extreme unbalance makes this my pick for most overrated.
Other finalists: Queen Seon-deok, IRIS
WORST DRAMA OF 2009
Samsooki: “Worst” can mean many things. In the drama-context, it can mean simply, the least interesting or the most boring. Or it can mean the least watchable. For me, “worst” means the most likely to be to your detriment to watch. Wife’s Temptation might be addictive for those who are caught up in the revenge game, but it will not add a single useful thing to your life. You will not learn anything, you will not gain wisdom. All that will happen is that you will have overstimulated the revenge seeking part of your brain for an extended period of time. Still, if you have no use for your brain or for improving yourself, then Wife’s Temptation isn’t a bad way to kill a few weeks of your life. Perhaps the best analogy is that watching this drama is like going on an extended alcoholic bender where the only end result is that your brain and liver are damaged. In a nation known for its high per capita consumption of scotch, it is small wonder that Wife’s Temptation was a juggernaught ratings monster.
Other finalists: Again My Love, Heading to the Ground, My Fair Lady
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 5: Finding Hidden Gems and Lumps of Coal in 2009 (hjkomo’s review)
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 4: All Told, A Pretty Fun Year (javabeans’ review)
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 3: A Newbie Reviews 2009 (Samsooki’s review)
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, The Middling (thunderbolt’s review)
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 1: Duds and Delights of 2009 (Dahee Fanel’s review)
- How was 2009 for you?
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 4: Finding merit in the mediocre (javabeans’ review)
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 3: Dahee Fanel’s 2008 Review
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 2: A Grump Reviews 2008 (thunderbolt’s review)
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 1: Witterings on 2008 Dramas (Sevenses’ review)