My pick for Drama of the Year: City Hall.
I’ll start of with an admission. When javabeans asked me to give my thoughts on 2009, I was pretty excited, and agreed without much thought. After all, 2009 was the best year of k-drama watching I’ve ever had. But then it hit me: 2009 was also the only year of k-drama watching I’ve ever had. lol. And so, even given the number of dramas as I have seen this year (probably topping 50) I feel a bit out of my league. How can I be critique-ing with any legitimacy?
Nevertheless, I do think a newbie’s perspective on dramas is not necessarily a bad thing – since everything is new to me, it is tougher for me to be jaded. Like when I saw Save The Last Dance For Me (my third k-drama ever!), I spent days afterwords thinking about what it would be like to have amnesia and then a second round of amnesia where I would forget what I had promised to remember while being forgetful the first time time around…
So while I can’t do an expert review, since I’m not an expert, I can give a newbie opinion on what worked for me, and what didn’t. First though, a little background on me so that you know where I am coming from. Sample of pre-2009 dramas that I liked: My Love Patzzi, Who Are You, Full House, Save The Last Dance For Me, Two Outs In The Bottom of the Ninth, and Super Rookie. These dramas tend to mix cuteness and heart together in a way that Western television shows still haven’t figured out how to do consistently. I think it has something to do with the soundtrack songs that act as demi leit motifs and burrow the sentiment of the drama into your heart and mind. I mean would Full House have been as good, without “I Think I” by Byul? Or how good would Save The Last Dance For Me have been, without Edward Chun’s breath-y lyrics?
And taking it up a notch, here is a sample of pre-2009 dramas I loved: Goong, Coffee Prince, Bad Family, Dal Ja’s Spring, Hong Gil Dong and My Girl. Even more than the first group, these latter dramas did more than just create a nice balance of cuteness and heart; these dramas created a love story so palpable and real that, if you wanted to, you would need both hands to reach out and hold onto one. And lastly, my first and still favorite drama of all is My Name is Kim Sam Soon, which combined everything – the cuteness, heart, love story, wonderful acting and a kickass OST.
Enough with the old, however. In no particular order, here are my thoughts on 2009 (oh, btw, hit “play” for the mp3 so you get the full technicolor and sound effects of this review. if the song ends, and you’re not done reading, then just scroll back up and hit play again. hehehe!):
SONG OF THE DAY
City Hall OST – “웃어봐” (Laugh) by Chae Dong-ha [ Download ]
What worked for me in 2009
Tamra the Island.
Cute and fun, this drama reminds me of what happens when you go on an island cruise vacation, going to visit places you’ve never been before. And that first night, rather than just staying in your room, you get up the courage to just start exploring a new world. You may not like it that much at first because it’s not quite what you expect, and you may not “get it” on the first go around, but by the time your time on vacation is at and end, you might wish you just had a few more days to spend. An extended stay on Tamra the Island pretty much ensures a return visit. Seo Woo is a standout here, although she might have whimpered “Willlliaaaaam…” maybe once too many times for my taste.
Dramabeans readers being an odd bunch, having created not one but two fan groups to support this drama: Team Park Kyu and the Tamra Islanders. While I am not a card-carrying member of either group, I do think this is worth watching in its entirety, and not just the condensed version. Having seen Im Joo Hwan in a few of his previous roles (Snow Queen, Millionaire’s First Love), seeing him in an entirely different persona of Park Kyu was quite neat.
Yes, the acting was not uniform. And yes, I agree, the editing and writing were a bit choppy at times. And for sure, the drama had trouble establishing an even balance between and among comedic, dramatic and romantic elements. But make no mistake, City Hall is not a comedy and it isn’t a political drama. It is a love story about a woman who went from being nothing to becoming Wonder Woman, to protect her people. It’s a love story about a man who had to choose between his love and his ambition, and ends up gaining both by growing to meet the challenge. By the end of the drama, if you’ve not alternated between cheering and tearing up, and then cheering again, then, well, there is no then. You will be moved.
Now, I don’t judge dramas on whether the director did this or whether the cinematographer did that; I judge dramas on whether I was moved. And more than any other 2009 drama, City Hall moved me. From tears to cheers, from face flushing fist-pumps to surreptitiously wiping my eyes with my sleeve as I stretch, this drama moved me. And that’s why this drama holds my vote for Drama of the Year.
There is an art and a science to creating culinary creations that are true delights on every level. The science / analytics to culinary creation is quite real, as you have to know what works and what doesn’t work. In addition, to create something that goes beyond the standard cook-book fare, you have to add in your artistic measure. And so, when a creation comes along that hits all the right spots, analytically and artistically, then you know you have a hit dish. That’s basically You’re Beautiful, a trendy and youthful mixture of good writing, good acting and good marketing. Funny, clever, with good writing and just the right amount of cute and beautiful, heart and soul, You’re Beautiful did not disappoint. And the OST is the same way – produced to please, it is pleasing to the ear.
More than any other trendy drama this year, You’re Beautiful delivered on expectations and provided a moving story. I believe that it should be on everyone’s watch list, because young or old, male or female, You’re Beautiful has something to offer that is fun, interesting and with enough heart that makes you want to just go ahead and watch that next episode. What is interesting to note is that initially, I was not going to watch this because I thought it was going to be boring. But because I was volunteering to spot-translate the initial episodes for WITHS2, I grudgingly watched Episode 1…and within 15 minutes, I absolutely knew this was going to work and I knew I was going to love it. It is that good.
Story of a Man, aka The Slingshot.
Technically, this might be the best k-drama of 2009. The writing, the layers of plot, the consistency / uniformity of the acting excellence – it is all there. If you have a chance, watch and re-watch Story of a Man (SOAM) to see how the story was put together, to see how plot-points were constructed across episodes, across characters.
And yet, despite all the accolades I can give it, SOAM falls short of a full-weight recommendation. Why? Because there was never a point where I lived and died with any of the characters. Still, I can appreciate technically well-done dramas without crushing on them, and this is one I can appreciate on multiple levels. Kim Kang Woo as incredibly scary Chae Do Woo is a revelation. Of all the 2009 k-drama sociopaths, I think Chae Do Woo is the one I would least want to have as a roommate. I think I could handle Lady Mishil – I can outsmart her by flattering her to death. But Chae Do Woo, you just never know, and that’s truly creepy.
Queen Seon Deok. With that segueway, I guess it’s time to talk about QSD. Despite its monster ratings, Queen Seon Deok has been panned by far better and more experienced k-drama watchers than I. So it is hard to voice a differing opinion here, not the least because what I know of QSD largely comes from them, since as WITHS2 subbers, they are responsible for me understanding what was happening in the first place. But while QSD may be known as “Queen Snore Deok” among those in the know, I remain blissfully unaware of its short-comings and just think of this drama as fun and interesting.
And yet, even those who pan this drama will acknowledge the superlative acting of Go Hyun-Jung, who played the part of Lady Mishil. Who’s Lady Mishil? Well, she’s just the biggest bad-ass in the nation known as Shilla, during the Three Kingdoms Period of Korean history. What is interesting, though, is that GHJ’s performance is not at all why I liked this drama. For me, it was Lee Yo-Won, who played Princess Deok-Man, who made me tune in twice a week. Everyone talks about GHJ, but wouldn’t QSD have been a failure, if Lee Yo-Won’s character wasn’t at least as strong as Go Hyun-Jung’s?
Friend, Our Legend.
Part history lesson for the uninitiated in the turbulent times pre-postmodern Korea, and part epic tragedy, Friend Our Legend really had something I’ve not seen before in k- drama. I’ve seen it in movies, especially in HK films, but not in k-drama. The operative word for this drama is pathos. Pathos is Greek for “suffering” and it also can mean “to feel” or “feeling.” And pathos is pretty much what happens to Hyun Bin, who devolves into a sociopath over the course of the story arc. And pathos is what happens to the viewer. Episode 19 of this drama is worth seeing by itself, even if you don’t watch the whole drama.
Friend, Our Legend is a remake of a movie by the same name, and there was a lot of speculation as to whether Hyun Bin could pull off the titular role. Let me say this about Binnie’s performance. Whatever you think you know about Hyun Bin, based on Snow Queen and My Name Is Kim Samsoon, whatever you saw in his acting from Worlds Within or Ireland, his performance in this drama is different. It’s like he tapped into a dark side to him that he’s never had to touch before. One of the best acting performances of the year, if not the best.
But Hyun Bin isn’t the only gem. Kim Min Joon is solid in his role opposite of Binnie, and Jung Yoo Mi (playing the role of Eunji) was my pick for best supporting actress of this year.
Sons of Sol Pharmacy.
What is this drama about? It’s about the stages of life, and how love and sadness can hit you at any stage. It’s about a family of men who take their time in becoming adults, even as they pass from age to age. And in the end, this wonderful drama is about the little stories. You care enough about the family to watch these stories get concluded, and in the meantime you get rewarded every now and then with songs and heart-filled events that satisfy your craving for k-drama. Isn’t that really what k-drama watching is all about? Caring about the people whose lives you follow, until the very end?
The one criticism, if you can call it that, is that this drama is long. 54 episodes. But before that gets you down, trust me – there is a good reason why it won the ratings battle for the last half of the series, and almost half (49%) of Korea’s television audience tuned in to the very last episode.
Kyung Sook, Kyung Sook’s Father.
You’ve probably never heard of this drama, at least not until the End of the Year reviews. At least, I didn’t. But rave reviews by some very intelligent and knowledgeable people made me take a look. This is a 4 episode “mini” drama about a daughter and a father during the Korean war (1950 – 1953).
But right off the top, I have to say that Kyung Sook, Kyung Sook’s Father isn’t for everybody. If you don’t have at least some background in Korean, you might not “get” a lot of what makes this drama endearing. For me, watching this drama made me feel really uncomfortable for a while. It’s like having a crazy drunk for an uncle, whom nobody really talks about but during the holidays when there is even money he will get wasted and embarrass everyone. This drama is a story that Korean people of my parents’ generation will see as part of their past – they will see the drama and think, “Was I really like that? Were things really that bad?” It will cause them to dig up memories more than 50 years buried, and they will remember how things were really, really different 50 years ago.
While I didn’t like this drama because it made me very uncomfortable, it still is a wonderful drama – one of the best of 2009, and one thing is for sure – Shim Eun Kyung, the lead actress in this drama, is phenomenal. She was my pick for Best Actress of the Year.
This drama, with Hwang Jung Min and Kim Ah Joong, takes a hackneyed plot – the fake relationship plot, and makes it work beautifully, at least for a dozen episodes or so. If you’ve watched k-dramas, you know the fake relationship plot. You’ve breathed it, and you’ve dreamed it. You’ve watched Full House, and you wonder when Rain (or SHG for the guys) will ask you to be in a fake relationship with him/her. Why can’t such a thing happen to me? And now, in this cute drama, That Fool, an honest, rather idealistic postal employee / everyman ahjussi lives that very dream. Is it predictable? Oh, absolutely. Is it believable? No, not really… but do we really want to talk about how realistic Full House was?
In the end, this drama works because Kim Ah Joong is simply stunning, because Hwang Jung Min is heart-warming, and because That Fool basically takes the movie Notting Hill and turns it into a 16 episode series with a Full House kind of twist. At first I was not convinced because I started this drama about halfway in, but I restarted this series from the beginning, and boy did I fall for it the second time around. Lee Chung Ah as Dong Baek’s younger sister is a gem throughout this series.
Expectations were extremely high for this action drama, and it delivered – mostly. Lee Byung Hoon alone makes this drama worth watching. But while it was fun and interesting to watch, and while the production values were through the roof, I felt like I was watching something other than a k-drama. And I mean this as a detraction. If I wanted to watch Bourne Identity, I can watch that – Matt Damon does it better in my opinion and my English is better than my Korean. So while I do appreciate IRIS quite a bit, I can’t say that I liked it a whole lot, because I never got invested in any of the characters.
Still, I feel like IRIS is an evolutionary step for k-dramas, and a lot of the techniques used in the filming (e.g., the jerky documentary style camera motion ala the Fox action series “24” or the upgraded production values for sound effects and music (not OST)) should be a great boost to future action drama projects.
Temptation of Wife.
This is my pick for Worst Drama of the Year. It is so stupid and so lacking in any virtue, that it probably damages your brain if you watch all 129 episodes. Seriously, this drama has no redeeming social value. It is pure mindless entertainment that actually degrades your mind and ethical principals as you watch. So why does it reside in the “What Worked” section? Because it WAS addictive. Because the episode breaks were all habit-forming. This drama is known as a “mak-jang” or a dead-end drama, but really, I call it a “crack-jang” because that’s really closer to the truth.
Temptation of Wife made me stay up at night, for weeks, shielding the TV light with a pillowcase to avoid waking the wife. It worked because by the halfway point, I cared a whole lot whether the heroine would get her revenge. It worked because even though I knew I was getting dumber while watching it, literally, getting dumber by the episode, I still watched. And even though the ending was complete BS, and even though I was totally unsatisfied, I don’t regret finishing. I regret starting and getting addicted, but once you start, you might not be able to stop.
What didn’t work for me
Cinderella Man. From the outset, as I was early yet into my newbie ways, I was excited by the prospect of a genuine KSW make-em-cry-but-have-happy-ending drama. I honestly couldn’t see how this could fail. It has all the hall marks of an epic.
It has long lost twins creating a switcheroo in the fashion industry. The latest Girls Generation ‘it’ girl (Yoona) as the love interest. A chae-bol corporate proxy fight. Grandma in a coma with two humidifiers by her bedside, giving you an idea of how serious of a coma this really is. Multiple scenes in street soju bars. Rooftop apartments with that square table to sit upon, stare at the sky and reflect. Characters leaving to study abroad and return. Want more k-drama cliches? It has not one but TWO love triangles, with the odd person out being the crazy-I-Will-Never-Let-You-Go lunatic. We have a hero who grows up in an orphanage. Yeah, but does it have terminal illness that affects a main character? Oh, you betcha. How about a fireman’s carry for a passed out girl? Check! What about Ahn Seok Hwan? Gotta have Ahn Seok Hwan…. Oh, you better believe he’s in there!
But at the end of the day, surprisingly for me, it just didn’t work. I never got into the story enough to root for anyone in this drama. What a waste of a two-humidifier coma chae-bol CEO grandma.
Good Job, Good Job.
Cutest girls ever?
Where Chae Rim goes, I tend to follow. But Chae Rim didn’t go anywhere in this really long drama (40 episodes) about a single mom who is pursued by two men: The Wrong Guy / Jerk who happens to be the unknowing father of her child (the über cute Joon Min Seo, who plays Chae Rim’s daughter, Byul), and The Right Guy / cute and nice guy. The Wrong Guy pretty much stalks, pesters, annoys, threatens and otherwise makes Chae Rim’s life miserable for dozens of episodes. The Right Guy also pursues Chae Rim, the latter of whom vacillates between giving up on having a love life altogether and being with The Right Guy. Every episode of Good Job, Good Job was pretty much the same, as if the production was trying to live up to the repetitiveness of the title. If it wasn’t for Joon Min Seo and Chae Rim, two of the cutest people on the planet, I probably wouldn’t have watched all 40 episodes.
Assorted Gems / Jewel Bibimbap.
Another super long drama (50 episodes). I can’t say for sure that it didn’t work, because I only saw about a fifteen episodes sporadically and randomly spaced out on MBC America (cable television), but the episodes I did see were uninteresting. I never got the motivation to see back to back episodes. Others will tell you of Jewel Bibimbap’s virtues, but here’s what I saw: various people engaging in various relationship-type issues. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the show from what I saw. That’s… life?
Michael Blunck (you can probably pick him out in the above picture – he is the… bald guy) was notable to me, but not really for his acting, which I found to be…. average. (For those who want to parse – when I say “average,” I mean “not bad, not great” relative to other k-drama actors) What was notable about Michael Blunck was that although his Korean speaking skills are way better than mine, and probably better now than I will ever be, his pronunciation and his awkwardness in using Korean with slow-to-react facial expressions (as if he had to remember which facial expressions went with which Korean phrases) pretty much killed his character for me. You know how, if you say, “OMG, no way…” you have a certain facial expression? Now, in Korean, that’s “Jung-mal? Seol mah…” If you see MB saying this phrase, which he does, his mouth moves first, then his face follows. Which says to me that he is speaking first, acting second. It’s not a deal-breaker (the deal-breaker is the ennui that follows an episode), but it is interesting.
Dream / Partner / Style / Triple.
Like most dramas that fail to get my interest, these dramas failed because I never really cared that much who won, who lost, who got whom, in the end. I watched them all, sometimes due to subbing responsibilities.
The reason for my lack of care for each drama, however, was different across each. For example, in Triple, I liked the main character a lot, but nothing that happened in her life was beyond the norm. Everyone has struggles, and everyone has decisions and issues that they have to face. And in Style, my reason for not caring was that I seriously did not like any of the characters – my feeling was that whoever was going to win, whoever was going to lose, just please win or lose already so I can watch something else. And with Partner and Dream, I just didn’t like the stories that much. There wasn’t enough there to hold my interest.
My Fair Lady.
Even given the less than stellar dramas above, I would say that by far the biggest Disappointment Of The Year came with the drama, My Fair Lady. After Goong and Coffee Prince, I am, without reservation, immediately on board with whatever YEH puts out. But what was put out in this drama was just not very interesting. I watched the first few episodes, and then to be fair, I just fast-forwarded through the rest of the series, hoping that at some point I could hit play against rather than FF >> or FF >>>. The fatal flaw, shared by all the dramas that did not work for me in 2009, was that I never got to the point where I cared about the main characters. And when that happens, you can shut off the drama and just move on with your life. I am certain that YEH will bounce back, and I look forward to the next project she has with the same eagerness that I had for My Fair Lady.
Parting Thoughts -
This year has been one of many milestones for me, both personally and in k-drama land. And looking back on this year, I note with some surprise how much I’ve expanded my own horizons and learned much more about life and people than I have ever had before. And quite a lot of it is due to how wonderful a place that dramabeans.com is, with its denizens reflecting the spirit and character of the site’s host. As I look back at this fantastic year of 50+ dramas, including about a dozen or more epic dramas, and how cool it was that I found (errrr, rather, that my wife found) dramabeans.com, I am grateful to javabeans for her gift of KJH to me, and I am grateful and to everyone who spends the time to deposit little bits of knowledge, humor, sadness, their personal lives and their hopes and dreams onto dramabeans. I grew here, and I hope that everyone else grew as well, in 2009.
Whatever your viewpoint, whatever your tastes and background, let’s remember that this is all for our enjoyment of our mutual interest and a warm exchange of ideas and knowledge. Be civil and open-minded as you read the reviews of others; a different opinion does not diminish your own. We might disagree or have strong feelings about things, but in the end, we are just talking about our own thoughts – and we should take care to respect what others think.
Finally, not everyone who began 2009 with the same hopes and dreams as everyone else, will be leaving 2009 intact and whole, and I hope that we won’t ever forget those who will not see 2010, who are lost to us for reasons that could have been prevented if only people treated one other with the respect and dignity that each of us deserve. This is a lesson that I hope has been learned, that we ought to take care of each other, we ought to take responsibility for each other, to support one another. What I wish, for 2010, is that we won’t have the senseless tragedies that littered the landscape of 2009.
I am reminded of a quote from Hwang Jung Min’s character, Goo Dong Baek, in That Fool. Goo Dong Baek was talking to one of the principal antagonists, the father of the Kim Ah Joong’s initial love interest. The father was doing everything in his considerable power to protect his son’s bright political and career future, to the detriment of Kim Ah Joong’s character, Han Ji Soo, who was getting her heart torn to shreds by the father’s machinations.
Goo Dong Baek: You must love your son very much, like any parent would love his child. But that person [Han Ji Soo], she is also someone’s child too.
And so, with that, my parting shot is this. What I urge for all of you for 2010 – be better to others than you were in 2009. Happy Drama Viewing everyone! CitC, Chuno and Damo in 2010! *wave*
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, The Middling
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 1: Duds and Delights of 2009
- How was 2009 for you?
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 4: Finding merit in the mediocre
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 3: Dahee Fanel’s 2008 Review
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 2: A Grump Reviews 2008
- 2008 Year in Review, Part 1: Witterings on 2008 Dramas