All told, a pretty fun year [Year in Review, Part 4]
After a pretty meh 2008, I was ready for the drama landscape to fire back up with 2009. And while there were a number of misses and disappointments — isn’t there always? — I was pretty satisfied with the dramas I watched in 2009. I still don’t think there were as many top offerings as, say, 2007, but I found a number of series to entertain me and satisfy my drama craving. There were a few selections early on that got me pumped for the year and things lagged during and after the summer months, but all told, I had an entertaining year.
(Okay, this is LONG. I tried to contain myself, really.)
SONG OF THE DAY
IRIS – “Empty” by Juni [ Download ]
In the order in which these dramas aired over the year…
BOYS BEFORE FLOWERS
The year kicked off with a bang when Boys Before Flowers came onto the scene and a wholly unknown new face took the nation by storm with his curly hair, haughty sneer, and surprisingly strong charisma for a rookie actor. The name Lee Min-ho shot to the top of internet searches overnight, he was flooded with CF offers within days of the drama’s premiere, and new fans quickly scoured the web for old info, which had the ancillary effect of reviving two of his old shows, both teen-centered, lower-budget affairs that he’d done soon after his official debut (Secret Campus and Mackerel Run were both re-aired on television).
And that was just one member of F4. Each of the other three — Kim Hyun-joong, Kim Bum, Kim Joon — also experienced instant rises in popularity and parlayed that into a rash of CF deals and tie-in promotions. The drama already had strong pre-show buzz due to the widespread popularity of its source material, Hana Yori Dango, and with the much-loved story and a hot young cast, it was poised to be a hit. And it was, but not for the reasons it should have been.
By all rights, Boys Before Flowers is not a good drama. It is at best mediocre, and at its worst moments nearly painful to watch. It suffers from absurd plot turns, characterizations that change wildly from one episode to the next, and often poor acting. There’s no logical reason for it to have been as much of a pop-culture phenomenon as it was, yet I have to question arguments that use terms like “fangirls” or “children” or “populist” as pejoratives. (Reason being: Whether you like it or not, Boys Before Flowers connected with a huge number of people. To dismiss them all as fangirls or as faceless masses lacking discernment is to willfully misunderstand the situation. Dramas aren’t made for a small elite carrying cards proving good taste; television is, almost inherent in the definition, for the populace.)
What Boys Before Flowers managed to do was, remarkably, succeed in spite of itself. It had neither great writing nor great directing nor great acting (on a consistent basis, at least), so where did it get lucky?
To allow it some credit, there are some shining actorly moments — Lee Min-ho’s invested portrayal of a misunderstood bully anchors the show, Lee Hye-young plays his gleefully vicious mother with aplomb (without overacting her as a cartoony bitch), Lee Shi-young takes a bit part and turns in a surprisingly layered humanization of a teenage villain, Kim So-eun shows more spunk as the sidekick than the lead character does — but for the most part, we are in mediocre to bad territory. Even some of the good performances are marred by wacky plot logic. Ironically, many of the guest actors — such as Jung Eui-chul as the broody model or Lee Min-jung as the bubbly fiancee — are stronger than the main cast. Kim Joon benefited the most because he shows off some charisma while not really being required to act, and to be honest I watched Kim Bum’s playboy portrayal with one eye closed — it was not convincing, which was a disappointment because he came off such a strong dramatic turn in East of Eden. Kim Hyun-joong has taken a battering for his wooden, lifeless portrayal of Jan-di’s white knight, and Gu Hye-sun‘s most-watched role of her career was, unfortunately, also her worst performance. (Watch her in Pure 19, King and I, heck, even Nonstop 5 and you’ll see a promising budding actress with solid dramatic chops, who disappears in the overacted and milquetoast Jan-di character.)
Somehow, Boys Before Flowers chanced upon just the right formula, combining the heart-fluttering romance of shojo manga and the speedy makjang plotting of Korean dramas to addict its following. We weren’t blind, we KNEW it was bad, but it was like MSG for the brain — we just kept shoveling it in and wanting more, and only after it was over did we feel slightly disgusted with ourselves.
I really believe that if one were to watch the drama now, in a vacuum separate from the pop-culture buzz surrounding the show, the reaction is likely to be more of puzzlement than excitement. And that’s one of the drama’s greatest failings — it doesn’t hold up on its own legs. Without the ties to Hana Yori Dango, or the fandom craze, or the hectic live-shoot scheduling madness, or the media hyping up the dreaded “Boys Before Flowers curse” (wherein each main cast member was involved in at least one, and sometimes two, car accidents) — well, it loses
some most of its insane, addictive, wacky, over-the-top, angsty, inexplicable magic.
But if you were part of the craze, well, for a short while there was magic.
RETURN OF ILJIMAE
Return of Iljimae premiered two weeks after Boys Before Flowers, and a starker contrast could hardly be struck. I’ll contradict myself a little here, because while I vigorously defended the popular type of drama above, watching a beautiful show like Return of Iljimae makes me wish that dramas that truly merit superlatives would get more popular recognition. My two sides are always in conflict — I enjoy the entertaining, popular hit but often form attachments to underappreciated mania selections.
SBS had already aired its version of the comic-book hero in 2008’s popular Lee Junki vehicle — a show that had a strong youth following but which I did not enjoy. It was therefore with some hesitation that I took on MBC’s version, curious to see how a different director and cast would fare with the same subject material. And oh boy, what a difference. I wouldn’t even think to compare the two Iljimaes to each other, so disparate are they in plot, theme, tone, scope, everything. (If we must compare, I’d put Lee Junki’s Iljimae closer to Hong Gil Dong, while Return of Iljimae gets categorized alongside Painter of the Wind.)
Return of Iljimae is, at base, a story of growth. Our hero is born into abject circumstances — a product of rape, he is taken from his mother and abandoned like Moses in the reeds — but gradually transforms into a hero. What this drama captures so beautifully is the evolution of Iljimae from a sheltered, quiet adolescent to a rebellious youth to a man spurred by righteous anger. One of my favorite aspects about the Iljimae character is that he doesn’t want to be a hero — he would prefer to live a normal life, but he is a hero because he cannot stand by and see the world suffer when he, with his particular gifts, can help.
The acting is particularly strong with Jung Hye-young as Iljimae’s mother, who plays her with delicate sensitivity, and Kim Min-jong as the man who speaks little but feels much. Both have lovely, expressive eyes. Jung Il-woo is not really a naturally gifted actor, but his efforts shine through and he is very good, achingly vulnerable — watching him as Iljimae is like watching a newborn foal opening its eyes for the first time. Often covered up with Iljimae’s black mask, Jung is forced to act solely with his eyes, and the result is fantastic. He doesn’t mug for the camera, but plays Iljimae with quiet dignity.
The drama is sumptuously shot by director Hwang In-roi, who is immensely talented at capturing breathtaking vistas and enhancing that visual appeal with the most gorgeous drama score I have heard in a long time. Rather than enhancing with CG or using fancy action tricks, the production climbed deep into the mountains to capture its natural wildness. Fight scenes are stripped and raw, but still exciting despite a lack of cunning editing or camera techniques.
Return of Iljimae‘s tone is not one you’ll often find in dramas. For example, my very favorite scene of the series is a death scene — but not because it’s tragic, or tearjerking, or indulgent. It’s beautiful and still, and the moment allows you to see the wonder of the life being cut short rather than glorifying the tragedy.
Above all, the writing is assured. Somewhere in the middle (in the mid-teens, episode-wise) it felt a little slower, but this drama wasn’t as bad as in most cases of mid-drama slowdown. The writing never fumbles or feels uncertain. It’s unfortunate that the first episode is, in my opinion, the weakest, perhaps deterring people from continuing. (The episode incorporates a modern-day segment whose purpose I understand but which I feel detracts from the wonder of the rest of the series.)
Some dramas you watch and promptly forget once they’re over. Return of Iljimae will remain impressed in my mind for a long while.
KYUNG-SOOK, KYUNG-SOOK’S FATHER
I wasn’t going to write about this drama, but I sort of feel the need to offer up an alternate opinion, since this will be a selection much featured in the last review post. I had heard about this little drama earlier in the year, but wasn’t intrigued. However, in the course of putting together these year-end reviews, all four of my fellow reviewers not only rated Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father very highly, they positively raved about it as the best-written, best-directed, best-scored, most comedic, and best overall drama of the year. Naturally, I had to give it a try after such unanimous praise.
Only… well… I don’t see it.
What Kyung-sook does is take a comical spin on what would otherwise be a miserable circumstance for a family during the Korean War, creating what I am told is a darkly humorous tone that I, personally, don’t see. I love black comedies and irreverent humor, and I don’t usually find myself chafing at this kind of treatment of a serious subject. But curiously enough, despite really wanting to join the club on this one, I just couldn’t understand where the superlatives were coming from. It’s not a bad drama. It’s well-acted, and Shim Eun-kyung once again puts in an impressive performance. The directing is perfunctory and the music doesn’t really leave an impression. There are moments of wit.
But is it funny? Well, no. I suppose I don’t find it amusing when people starving in wartime desperate to locate their next source of food accidentally get high on medicine and lick their chops, imagining food dancing before their eyes. I don’t find it witty or subversive when the snotty village rich boy taunts other poor kids with food, knowing they’re hungry, just because he’s lonely and bored.
My colleagues have said that the beauty of the characterizations in this drama is that these people do some awful things — like the father who runs off when war breaks out and leaves his family to fend for themselves — but that they can’t hate them. But I do hate them. I grew up on Korean War stories — my parents and grandparents lived through some desperate times, and Kyung-sook, to me, doesn’t feel particularly special. It feels like reality told through a goofy lens, and for some reason I can’t credit the drama for amazing writing or directing merely because it tries to make war funny. Life Is Beautiful is an example of a movie that did accomplish that feat — finding humor in the Holocaust — but it had a delightful spirit that I don’t find here. It, unlike this, reveled in the beauty of life from amidst the horrors man inflicts upon his fellow man.
Samsooki has said that Kyung-sook isn’t for everyone and I agree completely. I don’t mean to discount my fellow reviewers’ positive comments — only to say that my experience is wholly different. Usually if I don’t respond to a drama, I shrug and move on — but Kyung-sook is unusual in that it rubs me the wrong way. I was heartily dismayed to be overruled in the upcoming Editors’ Picks — not because my favorites lost in the majority vote, but that they had to lose to Kyung-sook, which I find, at best, a decently told four-hour story.
I’m sorry, but in the interest of proffering a dissenting view, there’s my honest opinion.
THE SONS OF SOL PHARMACY
Sons of Sol Pharmacy is a drama that made me feel at home, that made me think amusingly of my own sprawling, sometimes brash, often nosy extended Korean family. But one scarcely needs to have a family like the Songs in order to enjoy the good-natured stories told through them.
Compared to conventional miniseries, family dramas generally have larger casts and smaller stories, which usually means that their appeal rests not in the specific stories but the relationships. None of the stories is particularly inventive, since they are all variations on familiar themes: a mother dislikes her son’s choice of girlfriend, two guys develop feelings for the same girl, a man pines for his first love, a bickering couple end up adorably married. However, Sol Pharmacy plays out these scenes with a lighthearted sense of humor built upon a foundation of genuine familial love.
What I particularly appreciate about this drama is the way that these friends and neighbors come together to find connections with people to whom they are not related; it highlights the importance of family but doesn’t restrict that to blood relations. Bok-shil is drawn to the Songs because her life lacks familial warmth, and therefore when she leaves them her absence is felt not only by the love interest but the entire household. Korean-American Bruce had an abusive, alcoholic father but forms a relationship with Grandpa Song, who teaches him to write hangul and supplies him with, however belatedly, a positive older male influence. Grandpa even draws Bruce’s son into the writing lessons, showing Bruce indirectly how to perpetuate a positive fatherly model. The wayward teen mother Su-hee comes to the family as an irresponsible high school dropout, but learns that when people expect more of her, she has it within her to rise to the occasion. She cleans up, not because she’s told to, but because she starts to see that she can build a better life for herself and her baby.
Not to say that the Song family is perfect, nor is it some kind of panacea for emotional pain. They’re loud and dysfunctional and have their share of issues. But this drama shows that family can frustrate you and aggravate you, but ultimately supports you.
STORY OF A MAN (THE SLINGSHOT)
Story of a Man OST – “세상을 너에게” (Give the world to you). This song still gets me wound up in anticipation. [ Download ]
Hands down, Story of a Man was the best- and tightest-written drama of the year; this is one battle I’m prepared to duke out. My declaration has nothing to do with writer Song Ji-nah‘s track record, although it doesn’t hurt that she wrote seminal kdramas Eyes of Dawn and The Sandglass, as well as the more recent fantasy hit Legend. I was torn between naming this or Return of Iljimae as my top two picks of the year; thankfully, this is my blog and I don’t have to choose!
Though billed as a revenge drama, Story of a Man differs from other revenge pieces (Angel’s Temptation, East of Eden) in that it is far from melodramatic or angst-ridden. It’s intricately plotted and cleverly constructed to unfold its story continually — the story is always evolving as Park Yong-ha adapts his strategies in accordance with the movements of his slippery enemy, the fabulous Kim Kang-woo.
The series is directed with a stylish flair, and the strength of this drama’s direction is that it’s not just about scenes looking cool. Often the composition of shots is layered with wit. Sure, a drama can be shot in a basic way without any symbolism built in — but when it does convey additional meaning, it adds to the overall viewing experience. Story of a Man doesn’t talk down to its audience; it’s smart and sexy — and it’s also a heck of a lot of fun. Team camaraderie, capers and heists, bromance — it’s all there, livening up littler beats that fall betwixt the darker ones.
Acting-wise, this drama is strong all around. In the supporting cast, Han Yeo-woon shines as the kindhearted sister who is at first the cruel villain’s tenuous last link to morality, and then his foil. Park Ki-woong goes completely counter to his light, goofy image by investing himself into the autistic financial genius character. Even though Park Yong-ha does a solid job as the lead, his biggest accomplishment isn’t in standing out but in putting up a formidable obstacle for his enemy. Without one, the other wouldn’t have the reason, or opportunity, to up his game; their constant oneupmanship spurs each other on to be faster and cleverer than the other. Kim Kang-woo creates a chilling psychopath not through big, crazy antics but in quiet moments, with precise movements and restrained acting. Furthermore, inasmuch as he is compelling as the quiet psycho, he is that much more exciting when he starts unraveling at the seams, slowly and with growing intensity.
Korean television series are pretty much works in progress, and the live-shoot system frequently results in a narrative shakiness that makes you uneasy for how a series might continue. However, Story of a Man is the rare show that didn’t make me uneasy or worry for its future. This drama has a confidence about it that makes it pretty sexy, and instead of being concerned over whether it could continue holding up its own high standard, I found myself wondering how each new episode would impress me. And it almost always did.
Reading through my review last year, it struck me that for me, Queen Seon-deok is like this year’s Beethoven Virus. Both are dramas that were extremely popular, led by a deliciously badly-behaved main character, which I caught in spurts rather than following closely as is my usual habit. And as a result of that casual viewing, I enjoyed both.
I’ll qualify my remarks by saying that I didn’t watch every episode, and because I never made it a great commitment to follow this drama, I felt free to fast-forward upon occasion. So I didn’t suffer through the drawn-out political intrigue and instead zipped from highlight to highlight. I’ll leave the close analysis to viewers who watched carefully and stuck with it week to week; all I can say is that I get the hype. I wasn’t part of it, but I get it.
My first impression of the show was, “Wow.” The scenery is beautiful, likewise the music and costuming. The cast is packed with strong names and topped off with some great child actors introducing us to the main characters. And, of course, there is Go Hyun-jung in her first villainous role, enjoying the hell out of playing this over-the-top, ambitious character with a performance that is exceedingly affected — but also terribly fun to watch. Later on, Kim Nam-gil steals scenes and adds a fresh jolt of energy.
Queen Seon-deok‘s weakness, however, was in being too eager to cater to viewer response, in chase of that elusive 50% ratings threshold, which it never reached. (If it had been satisfied with the already staggering mid-30% to 40% numbers it was receiving, it would have been a better drama. Instead, its greed got the better of it.) As a result, the producers decided to put a greater premium on romantic angst and developments that weren’t organic to its original intention than on a fully logical plot.
To say that Queen Seon-deok takes liberties with historical record is an understatement. Even without being an expert on the history involved, I can see the logic holes, so I can only imagine how a true history purist might react. It seems like the conventional sageuk is on its way out and the new historical shows are just as prone to viewership demands, makjang story elements, and fusion tricks (to sex up the show) as their contemporary counterparts are. We could lament the death of an older format, but for me, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing. Maybe this shows my lack of taste, but I wasn’t interested in sageuks until the fusion trend came into vogue, and without those gateway shows allowing me entree to the genre, I wouldn’t have ever touched a long-running sageuk in the first place.
I wrapped up recaps for this drama only a few days ago, so I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.
I was really looking forward to Triple, which had so many things going for it. I don’t usually pin hopes for a drama’s success on its cast, because great actors can often appear in bad projects, but this ensemble seemed so winning — Lee Jung-jae, Yoon Kye-sang, AND Lee Seon-kyun? Not to mention the team who wrote and directed 2007’s Coffee Prince, with Tearliner serving as music director to serve us up another round of delightful indie pop.
I was charmed by Triple‘s summery, breezy air and the camaraderie of its characters at first. It brought a smile to my face to watch longtime friends joking around and teasing each other, and Min Hyo-rin was unexpectedly winning as the aspiring figure skater. An incredibly thin side character was brought to life based on the sheer pull of Song Joong-ki‘s personal charm. There was a refreshing quality to having events unfold without a lot of trauma, which poised the drama to explore its conflicts with a naturalistic, matter-of-fact touch.
But then, things just stopped progressing. Stuff happened, but nothing really happened. The same problems repeated, like the characters were running in place without a goal in sight. What started out pleasantly carefree became meandering and tiresome. Characters acted in puzzling ways that didn’t feel real, and people grew emotions seemingly out of nowhere.
The drama’s shining center was the relationship between ex-step-siblings Min Hyo-rin and Lee Jung-jae, but I couldn’t help wishing for a more concrete handling of the development. Instead, they waffled back and forth, what-if-ing themselves into exhaustion. It’s something we might see in real life, but for a drama to address a central conflict with such ambiguity feels like a betrayal of our time and interest. If they wanted to go there, they should have just gone there. If not, they should have not. (Heck, even if that ambiguity was their intention, nobody benefits when the ending is so puzzlingly vague that many people wonder what it’s even saying.) In the end, Triple‘s lack of decisiveness killed its momentum and therefore makes this a huge disappointment in my book.
TAMRA THE ISLAND
Tamra the Island OST – “Tamra, the Island” [ Download ]
I’ll preface by saying that I can’t speak with authority on Tamra the Island because I had made the decision when the drama was cut down that I would continue after its full, unbowdlerized version came out. However, till that point this show proved to be a pleasant surprise; it hadn’t even been on my radar until about a week prior to its premiere, but it was a welcome departure from the norm.
What it has going for it — once you ignore the awful first episode — is a wonderful refreshing quality. Aesthetically, it’s a breath of fresh air; the manhwa origins combine with the gorgeous seaside backdrop and period setting (1600s Jeju Island) to give this an upbeat burst of energy. (Most sageuks take place on the Korean peninsula, largely in the capital or its environs, so even the location of Tamra, the old name for Jeju, is a novelty. In addition, despite its modern status as a resort destination, Jeju was once considered a remote backwater where people were sometimes exiled, and is therefore not a common setting in dramas, particularly historical ones.)
Tamra diehards will know this better than I, but one key attraction of this show is the chemistry of its two leads (Seo Woo and Im Joo-hwan), with particular emphasis on Im. His haughty aristocrat character plays upon a familiar archetype, and the pairing with a clumsy, bubbly girl is something we’ve seen a lot before. (One prime example: this year’s Boys Before Flowers.) Thus it’s Im’s ability to simultaneously convey the character’s strength and vulnerability that makes his portrayal noteworthy. Hwang Chan-bin‘s William is a bit dim, but in such a benign way that it’s difficult to hate him. And Seo Woo succeeds in making her scatterbrained character lovable when she could easily be annoying.
When the full DVD becomes available, I’ll be watching.
MY FAIR LADY
As one of the most popular actresses of her generation, Yoon Eun-hye came into the year with a reputation for solid projects and a lot of fan anticipation for her upcoming drama. She hadn’t been seen since 2007’s Coffee Prince, which was a drama that went a long way in showing her growth as an actor and winning over critics who’d previously panned her for her acting.
The first sign of trouble was when the drama changed writers, switched up its character descriptions, and unveiled a new name. Yoon, who had signed on based on the initial premise, stuck with the changes and interest remained high. One of the year’s breakout actors — scene-stealing Yoon Sang-hyun from Queen of Housewives — was brought onboard, and the drama finally launched.
I had been won over with her Coffee Prince portrayal, so I was dismayed to see Yoon Eun-hye’s acting so stilted, her dialogue delivery so artificial. Yoon Sang-hyun was more natural but tended to exaggerate, and the pairing felt off-kilter somehow. It wasn’t until midway through that they started to click better, and the two shared some nice emotional moments as their angst heated up.
The flipside to that was that the drama lost its sense of humor and went full-on for the romantic turmoil, so although the acting improved, the story did not. Without its comic tone to buoy the narrative — Yoon Eun-hye desperately stuffing Yoon Sang-hyun into an armoire is one of my favorite laugh-out-loud bits — the plot holes became glaring. The live-shoot syndrome was in full effect, and as producers tweaked this and that to respond to viewer complaints, any adherence to story logic flew out the window. Jung Il-woo (who was so confused with his character) alternately clung, then got angry, then clung again. The couple was forced apart with reasoning that never quite made sense, no matter how hard the actors tried to sell it. (And they did try really hard.) As a result, the resolution and reunion was just as illogical.
It’s amazing that the drama maintained mid- to high-teen ratings throughout, and that’s a testament to Yoon Eun-hye’s draw as a leading lady. My Fair Lady was a total mess, but because of Yoon it was saved (at least ratings-wise) from being a total failure. Storywise, however, it had no such luck — it’s a pretty big wreck. Better luck next time.
HEADING TO THE GROUND
And to think, this drama was initially cast with Kim Rae-won. I wonder if that would have steered this in an entirely different direction, or if the shoddy writing would have trapped him as badly as it did these actors, namely Go Ara, Lee Yoon-ji, and first-time actor Jung Yun-ho, aka DBSK’s leader U-Know Yunho.
For a drama about soccer, there was a lot of plot meandering that had nothing to do with soccer. I would almost vote this the worst drama of the year, but I hesitate because that rather feels like kicking someone when they’re down. It was badly written, but not offensively written (unlike some others, such as the makjang monster Temptation of Wife). Yun-ho’s acting, for instance, was not good, but you could see that he was earnestly doing the best he could. It did improve toward the end, but at the end of the day he is an actor who was given a plum job because of his idol status, so I can’t let him off the hook with a mere, “He tried and he’s a really nice guy.” I believe both of those are true, but I also believe that he did this drama no favors.
On the other hand, there’s Go Ara — she is admittedly gorgeous to look at, but has now acted in multiple dramas and seems to be making no improvement whatsoever. I accepted her in Who Are You because Yoon Kye-sang was in love with her, but here she had little chemistry with Yun-ho. Were they paired with stronger actors, Ara and Yun-ho may have been elevated by association, but together they fell flat. Lee Yoon-ji is a talented actress, but I actually felt that her acting was just as jarring as the bad acting. For instance, in an emotionally charged scene that has her telling Go Ara off angrily, it feels like she’s emoting at a wall, or a cardboard cut-out. When you put them together, it’s so clear that they’re on different planes that it takes the viewer out of the drama.
Perhaps Heading to the Ground doesn’t deserve to be labeled worst anything and is better off forgotten.
You’re Beautiful wasn’t the biggest hit of the year, but you wouldn’t know it from its fanbase. Something about this show struck a chord with viewers, and not just young ones.
There are a lot of ways you can describe this show — idol drama, youth romance, Jang Geun-seok vehicle — but the most apt descriptor, perhaps, is quintessential Hong Sisters drama. With five hit rom-coms in five years, these two screenwriting sisters have established a brand, and You’re Beautiful displays their trademarks in abundance: gentle mocking of standard romance cliches, a love of pop-culture parodies, inordinate attachment to symbolic trinkets, and an infectious humor that is always there to undercut a moment that might be getting too earnest.
It’s not so much the plot itself that is fresh — HOW many cross-dressing girls have we seen in recent years? — but the way they execute it. For example, it’s a standard expectation that a cross-dressing plot must place our disguised heroine in uncomfortable circumstances amidst men who think she’s a man. But who other than the Hong Sisters would give us Mother Superior emerging from a gym locker into a room full of naked idol stars to advise our heroine how best to deal with her embarrassment? The “oops I fell and landed on your lips” ploy is an absurd bit that always makes me roll my eyes — but then the Hong Sisters pervert that faux-kiss with vomit. A rom-com must lead our two characters to embrace before they’re ready to admit their attraction — but who else would get us there with the aid of a taser?
Despite the laugh-out-loud zaniness, You’re Beautiful has its share of flaws. Unfortunately, another Hong Sisters trademark is that the comedy-to-angst ratio typically flips in later episodes, slowing the wild ride we fell in love with in the first half. Subtlety seems not to be a particular goal of their writing, and in fact they overdo the Big Symbolic Speeches. (We get it, stars are special! Night is dark!) Park Shin-hye‘s Mi-nam was sweet and cute, but lord was she dim. If she weren’t a nun (novice), you’d have thought she was stupid. I actually think that the Hong Sisters took a step backward in this drama, in terms of narrative development. Fantasy Couple was skimpier on the character work (except for Han Ye-seul, who was great) but I welcomed their departure from angst. And Hong Gil Dong took them on more mature plot paths, and was their most ambitious project. You’re Beautiful, on the other hand, seems to have returned them to where they were post-My Girl. I absolutely enjoyed the drama, but I don’t think they stretched themselves that much here. In their defense, their forte has always been in humor, and they provided so much hilarious comedy that they deserve due props for always managing to stay a step ahead of the curve and making the audience laugh.
You’re Beautiful‘s appeal is that it is so heartwarmingly upbeat and lovable that I had no problem letting those wrinkles go. The drama gave me an overwhelming number of side-splitting, wacky fun moments that it built up a surplus of goodwill.
A review of this series must include Jang Geun-seok, who played the abrasive idol star character with a gusto I haven’t seen from him before. (This was the first drama where I really felt for him and responded to his character.) Yes, his lip-curl was overdone and he wore some questionable fashions, but how could you not love his delightful sneer, or the little-boy charm he let occasionally show out from under the gruff facade? (The fellow idols were enjoyable as well, with Lee Hong-ki‘s quirky playfulness and Jung Yong-hwa‘s gentle calm rounding out the ensemble, with the former outperforming the latter. But really, this drama owes a big debt of gratitude to Jang Geun-seok.)
Romantic comedies are one genre where the ending is a foregone conclusion — we know that the couple gets together. What I want is to root for the couple and be entertained along the way, and in that this drama was a success. You’re Beautiful gets my nod for giddiest, funniest, laughingest fan frenzy of the year.
Dramas like You’re Beautiful and Boys Before Flowers are the kind that often introduce people to kdramas — and if the newly initiated go on to watch a City Hall or a Story of a Man because their interest was piqued by something popular… well, that’s no loss.
I have mixed thoughts on IRIS, but ultimately the bottom line is that I was entertained.
Lee Byung-heon is by far the biggest asset to this drama (and my pick for best actor of the year), with Kim So-yeon and Kim Seung-woo close behind. Although they’re casting the sequel without Lee, this first season is as much about him as the Bourne movies are about Matt Damon. It could work with someone else, but he set the bar pretty damn high. The drama definitely threw in lots of fanservicey bits (shirtless Lee Byung-heon, glistening with dirt and sweat and writhing in chains!), but he had ample opportunity to do some strong dramatic work, burning with energy and intensity. As for the others… I normally enjoy Jung Jun-ho, but had some hiccups with his character (more below). I laughed whenever TOP opened his mouth (with his muddled gangsta drawl), but at least he provided an element of unintentional amusement.
The romance was a detriment in that it was the most conventional aspect of the drama and wasn’t particularly convincing. I say this without casting aspersions on Kim Tae-hee‘s acting — she wasn’t terrible, and I liked how her character was assertive — but I didn’t feel the chemistry between her and Lee Byung-heon. As a result, the love story took up an inordinate amount of real estate and slowed things down whenever it came to the fore.
Perhaps more so than any other drama on this page (or this year), I think IRIS is one where you can see a difference of reaction from within Korea and from the international community. I suspect that what the Korean television audience saw as a plus wasn’t necessarily the same for those of us elsewhere — namely, IRIS‘s Western feel. I mentioned it in my initial IRIS recap, that I found it well-produced and slick, but also pretty familiar. Whereas, Korean media reviews seem based on an element of cultural pride, praising IRIS for doing a good job creating a Korean version of those Western spy hits like 24, Alias, and Bourne Identity. Sort of like patting oneself on the back and saying, “Anything you can do, I can do… just as well!” Whereas, I was hoping that they’d up the ante and make something better — something that had the fun excitement of a spy show that still felt like a kdrama.
But that, I recognize, is my own hope and I don’t hold it against the drama. What I DO hold against IRIS is where the plot starts getting murky. IRIS is to me what I suspect Queen Seon-deok is to others: When I watch without stopping to question, it’s easy to watch. When I take a closer look at the logic, oy, I start to get a headache. You can definitely tell that certain bits were included because they look cool, not because they make sense. (For instance, using gobs of C4 to bust open a padlock. Or a scene that I’d completely forgotten but found scrawled in my notes as “death by maraschino cherry.”) The drama threw in a lot of spy-show buzzwords and cliches without necessarily making sure they grew out of the plot.
IRIS seemed like it had a lot to prove, and the producers appear happy with the result. I can’t call this a great drama and I feel very little emotional connection to it, but it was an entertaining ride.
WILL IT SNOW FOR CHRISTMAS?
This drama is only half over, but I think leaving it off till 2010 might result in it being forgotten in the shuffle, so I’m commenting here.
I was swept along by Will It Snow For Christmas‘s strong beginning and its nostalgic feel, which recalls the days of the classic melodrama, like Winter Sonata or Autumn Love Story. There’s almost something anachronistic-feeling about it; the childhood portions begin in 1996 but it feels like it actually belongs in the ’70s, back in a simpler time with its sepia tones. Even though it comes described as straight melodrama, there’s a humor and heart to it that drew me in despite my leeriness for melodramas, which is almost always synonymous with the term “tearjerker.”
Once it moves into the adult years, the story becomes more subdued, while generally maintaining that delicate sensibility that drew me to it initially. There’s no doubt that Go Soo elevates this with his expressive eyes that are at once intense and sensitive. His character is an interesting amalgam of several kdrama hero tropes: in youth he is poor, fatherless, and ashamed of his family; as an adult he is polished, well-off, and successful. It feels like the writer wanted to have her cake and eat it too, and I think if not for Go Soo’s heartfelt performance, this would probably bother me.
The co-stars are good, too, if one can separate their performances from their characters — I’m not sure what the future will bring, but the writing seems to be flirting with bringing them into areas I may find problematic. But I’m pleased with Sunwoo Sun‘s portrayal of her volatile, selfish character and Song Jong-ho‘s strong-but-cowardly dichotomy, and he speaks volumes in his looks. Han Ye-seul… she’s adequate. I accept her as the object of Go Soo’s affection, and for that she has done her job.
Followers of this drama are starting to feel uneasy about the direction its plot is taking, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Will It Snow For Christmas, and Go Soo will keep me tuning in to the end. Please don’t make me eat my words.
Again, in order of airdate:
Watch the first two episodes, and you’d think Cinderella Man was a silly, slapstick romantic comedy. Watch the last two episodes, and you’d think it was an overwrought melodrama. I give Kwon Sang-woo credit for taking on a “shabby” role (as in, one that had him dressing down and taking on an unpolished character), but this drama didn’t do anything for his career, and his colleagues are starting to leave him behind as they move on to more ambitious, challenging projects.
For having a cast I liked — Lee Dong-wook, Kim Hyun-joo, Choi Chul-ho, Kim Dong-wook — and a cute chemistry between the leads, I found Partner surprisingly boring. The legal cases weren’t terribly interesting, and one thing Korea still struggles with is in creating engaging procedural shows — those that rely on cases (whether it be medical, legal, or criminal). The strength of kdramas lies largely with its character developments, so when it sacrifices those for cases that end up being nothing special, we’ve got a lackluster procedural with lackluster character relationships. It’s too bad that Lee Dong-wook’s last pre-army project weren’t stronger.
SWALLOW THE SUN
This drama sorta feels like it’s trying to be several things at once, but it does accomplish it with a stylish flair. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, although I did frequently feel that the music, rather than the scenes, manipulated the emotions. This is another revenge series that uses familiar drama conventions — gangsters, birth secrets, “good son” versus “bad son” dichotomy, power plays and secret plots — but handles them well. The acting is solid, although as with many of these kinds of large-scale dramas, the veteran actors outshine the pretty faces in front. Sung Yuri takes another step toward improving public opinion about her acting; and while Lee Wan is passable in his first villain-ish role, he doesn’t take full charge of the situation to really make a strong impression (a la Seon-deok‘s Bi-dam or Mama Kang in Boys Before Flowers). But while I could see where this drama’s strengths lie, ultimately it didn’t speak to me.
Kim Bum gave an interview saying that he gets excited about characters and jumps into roles quickly; I can see how that happened with Dream. I’m a fan of the boy and I think he has acting skill, but if he doesn’t come up with a great role soon, he’ll have to be relegated to the ranks of those with unfulfilled talent. Dream had some odd casting (Sohn Dam-bi wasn’t terrible in her acting debut, but she was hardly strong, either) and the tone felt scattered. It was part sports drama, part revenge piece, part bromance, part underdog story; I wish they had stuck with one strong concept rather than spreading themselves around. Korean dramas have yet to come up with a sports-themed success (not since 1994, at least), and part of that failure has to be that the so-called sports dramas aren’t actually about sports. (See also: Triple, Heading to the Ground.) They’ve mostly been excuses to set the same old story in a new background, and haven’t found ways to incorporate the sport in a meaningful way.
Style fared pretty well in the ratings, but I found it annoying and confusing. Lee Jia was shrill and over the top, so although she was ostensibly the protagonist, it was hard to root for her. Kim Hye-soo as the capable fashion editor was supposedly this drama’s version of Meryl Streep’s editor in The Devil Wears Prada, but she was so much more competent than the assistant that she ended up a lot more relatable. Ryu Shi-won‘s character was the most puzzling of all — what does a macrobiotic chef care about fashion or editing?
When I think of Hon in the daylight hours, I think, “Oh, I should really get on that.” And then night rolls around and I shudder, “Maybe tomorrow.” Hon has a fantastic eerie ambiance that isn’t always outright scary, but is always unsettling. Its beautiful aesthetic and high quality made this a surprise summer hit, while catapulting rookie actress Im Joo-eun to the spotlight. I am normally a terrible scaredy-cat when it comes to horror, but I found myself so impressed with early episodes that I am determined to one day grit my teeth, prepare for some blood ‘n violence — and a great villain’s performance by Kim Gab-soo — and finish this drama.
I was more inclined to catch up with Smile before a 16-episode extension drew its length out from 30 to 46 episodes. Although Sons of Sol Pharmacy showed me that longer family shows don’t have to feel burdensome and long, I’m not sure I’m up for another one yet. On the other hand, Lee Min-jung and Jung Kyung-ho have a winning rapport with each other, and their budding romance is a lot of fun to watch unfold. The parents’ generation is less captivating, and I find the experience enhanced by use of the fast-forward button. (So it’s with great thanks that I leave this drama’s recapping to more capable hands!)
And with that, another year’s review is done! One more guest review to go, and then our collective Editors’ Picks will wrap up the series. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this collection of reviews, and that you agree that the beauty of such a series is the diversity of opinions that emerge.
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 3: A Newbie Reviews 2009
- 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
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, Boys Before Flowers, Cinderella Man, Dream, Heading to the Ground, Hero, Hon, IRIS, Kyung Sook Kyung Sook's Father, My Fair Lady, Partner, Queen Seon-deok, Return of Iljimae, Smile, Sons of Sol Pharmacy House, Story of a Man, Style, Swallow the Sun, Tamra the Island, Triple, Will It Snow For Christmas, year in review, year in review 2009, You're Beautiful