The bigger they are, the louder the criticism. That’s why I’d take the following with a teeny grain of salt, although it cannot be denied that KBS’s blockbuster hit drama Chuno is garnering a lot of criticism, much of it directed toward its lead star Lee Da-hae.
When the drama first aired, there was a little talk of Lee Da-hae looking “too pretty” — note that she plays a slave, and then a runaway, all while maintaining a pristine appearance even when the men around her are shown in their grimy, masculine glory. But that first wave of commentary faded after a few days, even if most fans seemed to feel she ought to have looked a little dirtier.
Then came the much-maligned cleavage shots when her character was attacked and her outer top removed, showing off her bustline. Some viewers thought it was gratuitous, but again, those comments mostly trailed off after a few more days. The controversy probably would have died down if the drama didn’t follow with more scenes of that ilk, and now it’s like every other article about Chuno is one pointing out the growing criticism.
The producers probably overreacted by trying to pre-empt complaints; anticipating the public’s reaction, they blurred out Lee’s bustline for a following broadcast. (In that episode, Oh Ji-ho’s character treats Lee’s character for an injury and removes her top.) Of course, this was even worse because viewers complained that the effect was unnecessary, and the obvious blurring actually made the scene seem more suggestive that it would have been.
After that wave of criticism, producers announced that they would not blur out any more scenes. They defended their use thus far, saying, “This isn’t a movie but a public television network, so the blurring was unavoidable. We wanted to preserve the quality of the drama, but we had to make this choice. Please be understanding.” They added, “In order to preserve the drama’s level of quality, we will not use the blurring anymore. We will be mindful of the public broadcast guidelines, and not do anything to impede the visual quality.” As a prime-time broadcast series, Chuno bears a 15-and-up age label, meaning that there’s some latitude for mature content, but there’s still an expectation that producers will curb excessive violence, language, or sexual suggestiveness.
And yet, that’s not the end of things. Lee Da-hae’s face makeup is another source of dissatisfaction; fans complain that it takes away from the believability of the storyline to have her perfectly made up. And then, there’s her manicure — surely out of place in Joseon Korea — which the actress defended as a necessity to keep her nails from weakening. Lee expressed her frustration at the comments on the January 30 episode of Entertainment Weekly, where she said that an actress’s life is a difficult one.
One article points out, “Of course, criticism is another expression of interest. However, why is Chuno singled out for such constant criticism?”
For one, viewers tend to have certain expectations when dealing with historical pieces, and this isn’t the first time this issue has been raised; actresses have in the past been accused of putting vanity before accuracy. This reminds me of Gu Hye-sun being singled out while shooting King and I for wearing circle lenses (cosmetic contact lenses designed to make the iris look larger, giving them an anime-like quality).
In the drama’s defense, it’s not a conventional sageuk but more of a fusion piece that takes liberties with reality. The drama places more of a premium on visual flair and filming style than it does on sticking with historical convention.
I agree with aspects on both sides of the argument, because the biggest reason for all this attention may just be because of Chuno‘s popularity, and popular targets always attract heated responses. On the other hand, Chuno has stirred a lot more criticism than similarly big dramas like Seon-deok or IRIS. And although these issues didn’t bother me too much while watching the drama, I did think, “Gee, Lee Da-hae looks really pretty, but her cleanliness takes me out of the drama.”
As for the matter of the cleavage shots, the first time I heard about it, I laughed because it seemed like such a petty complaint. I think the producers would have been better off not bothering to blur out the subsequent scenes, because that called attention to it and made it look a lot worse. One article points out the inconsistency of the public’s response, because after an episode aired with blurring, there were complaints. The next day, the episode contained unblurred scenes, and yet viewers complained more.
However, I’ll argue that it may not be that viewers are just being inconsistent; they’re just tired of seeing the same shot over and over. Lee has by now been seen baring her cleavage on numerous occasions — near-rape, injury, undressing — which has viewers weary of the excess. (For instance, I joke that the male shower scene is fanservice I can live with and not annoyingly gratuitous, but if you gave me a shower scene in every episode, you bet I’d find it pointless.) As a result, some viewers have called Lee’s character weak and inactive, and “only good for baring skin.”
On the whole, these seem like minor quibbles, but perhaps they’re indicative of more than just a matter of makeup or prettiness. I don’t see why they couldn’t dirty Lee up a little; the dirt certainly doesn’t make her male co-stars look any less attractive (and in fact may add to their appeal). I can understand viewers who are dissatisfied to see her looking pristine, wearing lipgloss and modern makeup, and showing off a modern manicure; it has nothing to do with disliking Lee herself, and is more about the drama putting vanity ahead of credibility. It feels a little self-indulgent.
But it’s not stopping viewers from watching, either. Chuno continues with ratings in the low- to mid-30% range.