Finding the gems among the stones [Year in Review, Part 2]
What a fascinating roller coaster of a ride this year has been. There were many disappointments (most of which I stopped watching halfway, because Life Is Too Short For Bad Dramas (copyright Gangsta Kitteh and hjkomo)), but also so many unexpected gems that shone with a light that proved impossible to stifle. Maybe it’s just the swan song before an untimely death, but in 2010 at least, K-dramas had their moment of rebellion and glory. And I. Am. Ecstatic.
The following are divided between long dramas and short dramas, and are in alphabetical order.
SONG OF THE DAY
Comrades OST – “친구여” [ Download ]
I so looked forward to this drama, too.
I mean, really. This should not have been as bad as it turned out to be. With two skilled directors who’d already proven their talents through the short drama format, and a pretty amazing cast with the likes of Moon Geun Young, Chun Jung Myung, Seo Woo, Lee Mi Sook and Kim Gab Soo, this should have been GOOD, dammit. And yet it wasn’t. Most of this I blame on the writer, Kim Kyu Wan, and the rest I blame on behind the scenes politics that allegedly caused sudden script changes and shoved Kim Young Jo out of the main director’s chair. (It’s telling that after this Kim Young Jo became a supporting PD on King Geunchogo, while Kim Won Seok got to headline his own drama, Sungkyunkwan Scandal.)
Still. Still. Nothing excuses the steep nosedive this drama took, falling more and more with each succeeding episode. It was never all that great to begin with, but it became rather unbearable by the end, with so much pointless angst that it drove me nuts. I remember persevering to the end merely out of morbid curiosity on whether or not Chun Jung Myung and Moon Geun Young would ever end up actually touching each other. (That…sounds pervy. OH HOW I WISH IT WAS.) And poor Chun Jung Myung, being given this kind of terribly written character for his comeback after army service. What a waste of so much potential, so much talent. I can’t forgive you, Kim Kyu Wan!
Anyway. I’m tired of ranting about this drama, which I’ve done enough of to publish a book on it, so I won’t waste any more time on it. Maybe I was just so angry about how it turned out because I expected so much, because I was so excited about it before it aired. Which was silly of me. The higher you climb, the harder the fall…
Oh, what glorious moments you gave me.
This was the first drama of 2010 that I became thoroughly addicted to, waiting on the edge of my seat for each new episode, and becoming thoroughly emotional with each new development in the story. I remember agonizing every time I had to wait a few more hours before I saw the next episode due to some pesky real-life interference. This drama had hooked me but good, and I was willing to forgive it anything. Well, almost.
But let’s look at the overall picture first. Kwak Jung Hwan’s directing was a sheer tour de force of technical mastery and visual brilliance, elevating the rather confused script (despite its amazingly creative dialogue) and giving the drama a focus, at least until the last few episodes. And Jang Hyuk. Oh, Jang Hyuk. Never did I imagine that you were capable of giving such a brilliant performance. It was like watching a ticking bomb with him. It took him a few episodes to explode, but boy did he ever. He was the heart and soul of Chuno, making Dae-gil an unforgettable character with so many flaws you could fill a book with them, and yet strangely sympathetic at the same time. It was for him my heart ached, for him I cried. And it is his moments I remember most, especially that greatest-of-all-eating-while-crying scenes. (Seriously, I sobbed like a baby while watching it.)
Chuno received as much hate as it did love, and thus I feel protective of it. People seemed relentlessly intent on nitpicking it to death, focusing too much on unimportant details (seriously, what was with all the Un-nyun hate? Who the fuck cares if she’s clean or not?) and often losing sight of the bigger picture. Okay, I have to say it: People, this show isn’t supposed to be realistic. I.e. if Un-nyun’s clean, there’s a thematic reason for it. Getting into debates on how much makeup Lee Da Hae is or is not wearing seems to me rather like a waste of time – time that could be spent debating actually interesting things about the drama. Just sayin’.
Chuno is a show that powered ahead on sheer power and emotional resonance, relying on the good acting, the chemistry between actors (Han Jung Soo, Kim Ji Seok and Kim Ha Eun will always be some of my favourite drama sidekicks), the amazing soundtrack, and the visual brilliance to make up for its defects. All in all, it was one thrill of a ride. So for that, despite all of its flaws, despite it being in retrospect a kind of swan song for its PD and writer, and despite it not fulfilling all of the promises it made in its first few episodes, I will always have a soft spot for Chuno.
The other day, while preparing to send JB my choice for Song of the Day, I listened again to the song I had chosen. And as I listened my heart suddenly constricted, and memories of the drama whose OST it was a part of came flooding back. Sergeant Park, picking up Beom-woo in the snow. Sergeant Lee, standing on the beach. Soo-kyeong, staring at her hands. Each little moment, so tiny in the greater scheme of things, still managed to sneak up and choke me with their strength.
I wonder how many dramas possess that kind of power? I wonder how many I’ll remember twenty years from now? Will they lose their magic with the passage of time? Or will I always carry them with me, somewhere in a neglected corner of my heart?
For me, the Korean War has always been a hazy historical event that I could learn about in a detached manner at school, but never something I could attach to in a truly personal way. There was always a veil between it and my life, a darkness cast on the effects it had on my family. I could never see beyond a certain point. I felt like I wasn’t allowed to.
That’s what’s so great about Comrades. Rather than focusing on the historical facts or some kind of bleeding heart patriotism, it pours all of itself into the emotional impact of war, and the fierce bonds between the soldiers, the brothers in arms. And by doing that, it demands that you go along for the ride, and feel and experience every little event with its characters. It makes you fall in love with these human beings, with all of their flaws and quirks, and become invested in their fates. Your heart becomes vulnerable and raw…and eventually broken. And yet there is also a glow of happiness emanating from the bruise. Happiness that a drama like this managed to air at a time when K-dramas are increasingly choosing the easy way out, down the road to fame and riches. Happiness that I managed to meet these characters, and their stories. Happiness that, even though they shot the latter half of the series on the fly, and the show didn’t manage to break into the 20’s in ratings, it managed to hold on to its commitments and its goals until the very end. Happiness that it brought the Korean War so much closer to home, made it so much more personal.
None of this would have been possible without the controlled directing and writing, or the amazing cast that is surely the best ensemble of the year. One could fill a list of the best actor awards with just this cast alone, with stand-outs like Kim Myung Soo, Jung Tae Woo, Lee Tae Ran and Kim Roi Ha. But really, it seems pointless to pinpoint just a few, because Comrades is all about the group dynamic. It’s about the absolutely amazing chemistry between the cast, the rhythm and care they exchange. These are professionals getting the absolute best out of each other.
War dramas have a certain reputation. They bring up images of men in trenches, dirt, blood and horror. There’s a sense of women being left out, of puffed-up patriotism and “the enemy is eeeeevil” simplicity. If you’re uninterested in that kind of thing, it’s hard to break your preconceptions and get yourself to watch this show. Believe me, I’ve been there. But try and do it anyway. Let go of all expectations, because they will be meaningless here. Comrades refuses to be categorized and safely stowed away. It must be watched to be understood.
There were many great dramas this year. Each of them were special in their own way. But in terms of emotional power, Comrades outshines them all. Long after my mind has forgotten, I sense that my heart will remember this drama. Masterpieces always stay with you that way, quiet and eternal.
Oh, Kim Jung Soo. What has happened to you?
Dandelion Family was quite the painful watch. I was watching the downfall of one of the greatest family drama writers in Korea, so naturally it was difficult.
It started off okay. I was in the mood for a heartwarming family drama anyway, so Dandelion Family came along at a convenient time. And I liked that it concentrated on three sisters, and that each represented a certain group of women. The drama tries with some success to portray the societal issues of gender inequality in the workforce and spousal abuse, arguing for the independence of women and portraying all of the things that make it so hard for a woman in Korea to get a divorce and be granted equal treatment in such legal affairs. I loved Lee Yoon Ji’s character, the driven yet cheerful career woman who is vocal against all of the barriers she encounters at work, and is so uninterested in marriage. And I loved that her love interest was a man who believed in sharing the housework, supported her in her career, and had no moments of pigheaded sexist thinking whatsoever (so rare in Korean dramas!). Lee and Kim Dong Wook had wonderful chemistry that kept me waiting for their scenes to appear.
But as more and more episodes passed, it became increasingly evident that it was going down the makjang route. The evil rich husband became crazier and crazier, and was only saved from being a complete cardboard cutout by Jung Chan’s sympathetic performance. The divorce plot went on FOREVER, and far too much time was spent on it. And plot points began getting recycled, and yet another cliched, overly dramatic plot line came up that made me stop watching the drama for something like five months, with only a few episodes left until the end. When I finally came back to it and finished it, I didn’t really know why I had bothered.
Dandelion Family was listless, harmless, half-assed makjang by the end, with good intentions and kind of interesting messages, and some heartwarming moments…But ultimately, deeply forgettable. Kim Jung Soo is capable of so much more, but she simply didn’t deliver here. It’s a crying shame.
Flames of Ambition
I worship at the altar of Jung Ha Yeon. Let’s just get that out into the open, first and foremost. I trust him more than any other Korean drama writer. I always believe that he will not let me down. He is simply too talented and too dedicated to writing good dramas for that to happen. And he did not let me down. I know many people write off Flames of Ambition as trashy makjang, because that’s how it was advertised. But dudes, it’s written by JUNG HA YEON. He who detests brainless makjang. Flames of Ambition is his response to that icky trend, and a shining example of makjang that’s actually, well, smart. And classy. And so dark and unflinching that it makes your mind reel.
Despite all of its crazy plot lines with secrets of birth and fauxcest and murder, Flames of Ambition is deeply rooted in reality. I am blown away, over and over again, by the realistic portrayal of the chaebol family, which is free of clichés – the grandpa at the head of the family has had several children from numerous affairs, but he and his wife still get along and have a playful relationship; when all the extended family gets together, the kids are obviously bored and uncomfortable, while the adults slyly snipe at each other with a mix of real tension and familiar affection. And best of all, Na-young’s fierce insistence on gaining more riches and more power flows all the way from her impoverished roots, which is itself clearly tied to the particular moment in Korean history when she was growing up. This drama really understands the psychology of every single character, and gets that no one is separate from the times, and portrays their reactions accordingly. No one is a cliché or a convenient cardboard cutout. And all of them are honest mixes of dark and light, good and bad.
No discussion of Flames of Ambition would be complete without mentioning Shin Eun Kyung’s explosive portrayal of the difficult, ambitious, and wounded Na-young. This is easily the best performance of the year from a female lead. She is given an endless depth of complexity in her character, and she holds nothing back as she portrays Na-young’s hopes, her darkness, her despairs and her passions. Don’t expect to be given a single moment to breathe easily and become comfortable, because Flames refuses you any of that. This is, for me, one of the most addictive dramas of the year, and certainly one of the most intense.
This is such a strange drama. I’ve seen thirty-something episodes now, and I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I like it or not. I mean, objectively speaking, it’s not good. It’s very, very conventional, often cheesy and old-fashioned, and most of the actors are just cruising along. And yet there are unexpected moments of charm. In the early episodes there were moments of quiet despair and hopelessness that oddly drew me in. (Or maybe that’s not so odd, considering it’s me.) And Lee Chun Hee proves once again just how talented he is (this guy needs to be given a meaty role again, stat!), making his third-rate ex-gangster character lovable, sympathetic, and even hot. As for Bae Doo Na, naturally she’s good, portraying all of the feistiness and fragile emotions of Jin-jin effortlessly.
So Yi Hyun and Seo Ji Seok are less effective, and it takes a long time for their characters to become even likeable. But they do, Seo’s more than So’s, which surprised me, since I think Seo is the weaker actor. But his character’s romance with Jin-jin, while slow to develop, was a real delight to watch. Here was an example of a couple with tangible chemistry, who grew with each other and were incredibly honest about their feelings, growing together without any pretenses.
But best of all, for me at least, are the moments of chemistry and camaraderie between the four leads. They do and say nothing new, but their warmth in scenes together reminded me of the wonderful chemistry between the cast in Hwang Jung Min’s The Accidental Couple. I only wish there were more scenes like this, and more between Lee Chun Hee and Seo Ji Seok, who are starting to hint at having quite the adorable bromance of their own.
But currently the drama seems to have lost its sparks of charm, and is spending far too much time with the ridiculous murder plot and the stereotypically evil half-brother. Makjang plot machinations ahoy! Really, the script deserves to be burned.
Still, I think I’ll continue watching out of hope that things will improve. Because there’s always that slim chance, right? (Why do I get the feeling I’m going to regret this decision?)
This is easily my pick for best comedy of the year, even if its latter half isn’t so comedic. Harvest Villa is dark but funny, and often caught me off-guard with its sly, quirky humour. I laughed my ass off at more scenes than I can count, and the one with the saturi-spouting Japanese sageuk warrior had me in stitches (funniest scene of the year! Or maybe I just think that because I myself speak saturi). This was a story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances (the search for hidden gold), and the drama makes full use of each mundane but quirky and entertaining character. Naturally it brings up comparisons to 2007’s glorious little drama Mixed-Up Investigative Agency, with their similar treasure hunting stories and bumbling leads, but they’re actually quite different dramas. Harvest Villa is far darker and sadder than MIA ever was, although it is also less realistic and affecting. It’s like MIA’s dark, twisted little cousin.
It stumbles a little in its latter episodes, with some implausible changes in a certain character and a little too much simplicity in its villains. But it remains solid until the end, with wonderful directing and good acting (Shin Ha Kyun has gained a new fan in me. And Baek Yoon Shik is marvelous). The script, too, is overall surprisingly consistent and thoughtful (I say surprising because this is the same writer who brought us the hell on earth that was Winter Sonata). And its ending hit just the right note of bittersweetness and hope. All in all, it’s a lovely little watch. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a testament to the power of (some) dramas produced 100% before broadcast, and is an entertaining, moving, and often morally ambiguous treat. Why can’t all cable dramas be this good?
What a crazy little mindfuck of a show. I echo what I just wrote above about Harvest Villa: Why can’t all cable dramas, and indeed all dramas, be this good?
Joseon X-Files is amazingly creative, mind-bogglingly intelligent, and even emotionally resonant. Each second must be watched with your full attention, because if you blink at the wrong moment, it’s entirely possible that you’ll miss a crucial detail. I found myself rewatching episodes over and over, especially after I had finished the drama, looking for those puzzle pieces that are part of a greater whole. It really does all fit together seamlessly, even if not everything is explained or comprehensible. It made me think, not only while I was watching it, but long after as well – I spent days after watching the ending writing notes to get my thoughts in order, rewatching pivotal scenes, and going through theory after theory to finally settle on one. And then I immediately had it shot down as I discussed it with others who had seen it.
But you know what? I’m perfectly fine with that. In fact I love it. I love that the same scene can offer so many different interpretations and reactions. I love that Joseon X-Files doesn’t insult your intelligence for a single second, and indeed assumes that you’re smart and more than capable of catching all of its sneaky little clues. And I love that I fell in love with its characters, that I cared about them and the cases they went through. I even fell in love with Kim Ji Hoon’s battered gat, for Pete’s sake. (Best acting by an inanimate object? Hell yeah.)
This drama proved that Kim Heung Dong is a major, major directing talent, and it’s a shame that his work is being shuffled off on cable where few people will see it. He makes Joseon X-Files an amazing visual treat, with fascinating camerawork, lighting, and editing choices. He makes the already airtight script seem even better, and he captures the very best of the actors involved. (This drama has solid performances, but they’re not the main focus, not by a long shot.) I can’t wait to see what else he will come up with in future. As for right now, all I can do is thank him and all the cast and crew of Joseon X-Files for delivering something that changes the cards of the sageuk genre, and for offering the most creative and intellectually stimulating drama I have ever seen. If I could kiss their feet, I would.
This is a long sageuk (fifty episodes, I think?), and it hasn’t aired too many of them yet. But dare I say it? The episodes it has revealed so far are some of the best hours of the 2010 K-drama landscape, and certainly of the sageuk that have aired this year.
I have been craving a good old-fashioned sageuk for a while now, so this came not a moment too soon. It has everything – a daring and fiercely intelligent script that reinterprets history in a meaningful way, directing that works to emphasize the brilliance of said script, and some of the best acting of the year (Choi Myung Gil, I bow down before you). Not to mention all of the sexy, sexy men, who not only often walk around in vests that hint at their finely muscled physiques, but also deliver good performances and smoldering angst. What more does a girl need, really?
It’s a shame that this is doing rather poorly on the ratings front, but it’s not surprising. Viewers seem to be getting more and more indifferent towards sageuk, or any drama really, that demands too much from their brains. It saddens me, but I’m also happy that this show got made at all. Now if it just continues along this path until the very end, I swear I won’t ask for anything else. I won’t even ask for a nekkid Han Jung Soo in my Christmas stocking next year. (That’s someone else’s gift anyway. You know who you are.)
My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho
I have to ask myself this first of all: Why do I watch the Hong Sisters’ dramas? Why have I slogged through and actually finished so many of them? What is it that makes me continue watching them, even though they are clearly not my cup of tea? Seriously, why do I even bother?
I guess the answer is that the ones I’ve watched all came at the right times. Whether it was because a cousin forced me to marathon it with him, or because so many of my friends had enjoyed it, my viewing of these dramas have never really had much to do with the dramas themselves. This time was no different.
My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho came at a time when I really needed to watch something light and comedic. I was itching for a romcom, but there weren’t any options that truly appealed to me. So I just watched them anyway, whether I liked them or not.
MGIAG was a weird watch for me. I don’t really hate it, per se. But I don’t love it, either. I am, in truth, quite indifferent towards it. I watched the episodes with a straight face, laughing only once that I can remember, and forgetting each episode as soon as it ended. I was relieved that the mood wasn’t as hyper and that the moments of slapstick came less frequently than in their other dramas, but I also sensed a strange lack of passion or energy in the proceedings. There was some potential for quasi-feminist themes (although Mi-ho grew progressively tamer and less interesting as the episodes wore on), some clever ideas and gags, and a lot of dimples. But there were also a ton of cliches, the usual Hong Sisters’ angst, and too much simplicity to the plot and characters overall. The second half was kind of difficult to bear, with the usual Noble Idiot flag being bandied around like a beacon. And the acting overall was pretty mediocre, with the few veterans being wasted and even Shin Mina, the lone actor with lots of experience of the main young cast, giving a decidedly phoned-in performance. She’s always good at giving off that slightly mysterious, sexy yet innocent vibe, but as the episodes wore on she just seemed tired and didn’t really seem to be giving it her all anymore. (Not that the material she was given really helped any.) It was disheartening to watch.
In the end, what I really wonder is how this drama would have turned out if it had been 100% produced before broadcast. I wonder if the writing would have changed any if the Hong Sisters weren’t writing against the clock and had more time to flesh out their ideas. I wonder if it would stop them from resorting to cliches and incomprehensible angst in the second half.
Then again, maybe I’m just wasting my time thinking about all this. What’s done is done, and MGIAG turned out to be just another listless offering in a year that teemed with listless offerings, at least in the first half. Better luck next time, maybe.
After the credits finished rolling on the final episode of this drama, I remember thinking: Why did I even bother?
This was such a pointless, meandering show with no plot to speak of. The writer clearly had no real clue as to what she was doing, choosing to stick to lazy episodic plots revolving around the restaurant, and not bothering to flesh out characters periphery to the leading couple. Some of them fared better than others thanks to superior acting, but most were useless and with no personalities of their own, placed strategically in order to impede the two leads and serve as pesky annoyances to make the scenery a little more interesting. Much like flies.
Then again, maybe the point was that there was no point, and that we weren’t supposed to notice anything other than the leading couple, who had super chemistry and were adorable and realistic, with their petty fights, their honesty, their camaraderie, and their mature giddiness (if such a thing exists). I do admit to being a little uncomfortable with the boss/employer, teacher/student aspect of their relationship, and with Chep’s blatant (fake) misogyny. And I was annoyed with how the romance was resolved in the end. Still. Still. Gong Hyo Jin and Lee Seon Kyun just killed it (Gong more than Lee), and their scenes together were absolutely alive with chemistry and a certain elusive mood of sweetness that somehow never ended up being saccharine. They didn’t do anything earth-shattering or overly dramatic for each other, but they didn’t need to. Theirs was a love that was so ordinary, but all the better for that ordinariness. It was for them that I watched this show until the very end, and for them that I will remember this drama without too much bitterness.
It’s always the dramas that let me down that leave behind the worst aftertaste. Unfortunately for me, the drama that did this for me this year was also the one that was the most popular. The roar of excitement over it online was everywhere I turned (go to read the news? Sungkyunkwan Scandal is there. Go to see the latest So Ji Sub pictures? Sungkyunkwan Scandal is there), and when one isn’t as obsessed or in love with a drama as the rest of the world apparently is, this can become rather aggravating. It didn’t help that the roar became loudest just as I was starting to lose my affection for this show.
I can’t say that I was ever addicted to or in love with Sungkyunkwan. But I did like it, and was charmed by its cuteness for about the first half of the series or so. It wasn’t brilliant, but it was solid, and was buoyed along by sheer giddiness. I loved the bromance between Yong-ha and Jae-shin, I loved the fights over sleeping spots in the bedroom, I loved Jae-shin’s hiccups, I loved that Yoon-hee was a bookworm and a scholar, and I loved the wonderful chemistry between the four leads. If the drama had continued along that vein for its entire run, focusing more on that oh-so-rare genuine connection between its leads and its strange charm, I might have ended up loving it. But alas, it did not. And I quickly became disillusioned.
I first became annoyed with the overwhelming concentration on the romance between Sun-joon and Yoon-hee, which I could never fully get behind on an emotional level, even if I understood it intellectually (I guess it doesn’t help that I found both characters boring and even annoying at times, especially Sun-joon). And then I was annoyed with the ever increasing leaps in logic and the growing evidence that this was a drama that was starting to concern itself with fanservice first and foremost, to the detriment of its story and its themes. The ending infuriated me so much that I immediately deleted all of the episodes out of my harddrive. Not only was that sorry excuse for a denouement a spit in the face of history and King Jeongjo’s legacy, it was also disrespectful of the very ideas it had set up for itself in earlier episodes. I had expected a cute, harmless ride, and got dangerously ignorant, idiotic Disney pap.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal betrayed me. It fooled me into thinking it might turn out well. And really, what worse sin can a drama commit than that?
No discussion of 2010 would be complete without mentioning the return of the short drama format (read: KBS’s Drama Special), and the many hits (as well as misses) they offered. So let’s take a look.
Housewife Kim Kwang Ja’s Third Activities
This was the return of Kim Yoon Chul to directing three years after his last drama, Que Sera Sera. It also featured a strong main veteran cast, with Yang Mi Kyung and Kim Gab Soo. So I was kind of looking forward to it before it aired. Alas, it never really fulfilled those expectations, ending up being a very ordinary, if somewhat cute, drama that is a little too idealized and cheerful for its own good. It’s a shame, since I was completely open to the idea of focusing on a housewife who becomes obsessed with an idol, and recharging her dull existence. So many of us who love K-dramas experience becoming somewhat obsessed with a Korean star, after all, and I know several people in real life who’ve experienced this as well. But instead of dealing with this subject in any kind of intelligent or interesting or realistic way, this drama was content to simply go with the flow, not really trying to be anything more than average. It’s a shame, since Yang Mi Kyung could have so killed it with better material. Ah, well. If for nothing else, this drama is worth watching for Kim Gab Soo’s adorable little dance at the end. The fangirl side of me was content with that, so it’s not a complete loss.
My Sister’s March
There were a few dramas this year made to commemorate anniversaries of important Korean historical events, but My Sister’s March, which portrayed the Masan protests of 1960, was probably the most thought-provoking and courageous one of them all.
It’s only an hour and a half long, a TV movie, really. But in that short space of time it managed to portray a young woman’s growing political awareness and her devastating personal losses. Her move from a person who purposely blinds herself to the actions of the corrupt government to a brave protester fighting for freedom is respectfully and emotionally portrayed. All of this is of course wonderfully pulled off by a kickass cast and capable directing, but it’s really the script that shines here. Kim Woon Kyung’s writing is smart, sympathetic, and demands that the viewer use his/her brain while watching. That’s no small feat. And for that, as well as its incredibly topical themes (I wish every single person living in Korea would watch this and reflect on the current state of politics over there), this is my choice for best short drama of the year.
Freedom Fighter Lee Hoe Young
It would have been so easy for this show to become cheesy anti-Japanese propaganda. But thankfully, it is always too intelligent and too genuine to stoop to such lows, elevating itself to become one of the very best dramas of 2010.
The very premise of this five-episode long gem is of a Japanese reporter, Kimura Junpei, coming into contact with the legendary independence fighter Lee Hoe Young, and his struggle between the quest for truth and his loyalty to his father. Little by little, right alongside with Kimura, the viewer is offered glimpses of insight into Lee, all the while posing the question of what true freedom is, and how one can go about in attaining it.
This drama is fucking cool, with breathtaking moments of visual kickassery, thanks to the deft directing. But it is also incredibly heartfelt, choosing to concentrate on these characters as people first and foremost, with flaws and strengths and passions. It also never loses sight of the history it borrows from, and ends each episode with a few moments of a documentary, informing the viewer of the facts and the mysteries of Lee Hoe Young’s extraordinary life. By the time the screen faded on the final episode, I felt overwhelmed by the amazing sacrifices he had made for the sake of freedom, and was awed by the drama’s very topical message. Because history isn’t confined to musty textbooks, something that is easily ignored. It is constantly flowing, affecting us every minute of each day, and being created with each breath we take. We must never forget that.
It’s written by Noh Hee Kyung, so how could it possibly not be good? This was the first one-episode drama that Drama Special aired, and thus the series got off to an amazing start. If you really think about it, it’s quite an ordinary story. But Noh Hee Kyung elevates it with her incredible understanding of human hearts and her refusal to judge anyone’s actions. Her dialogue is thoughtful and intelligent, giving the actors plenty to work with. And the ending is as affecting and emotional as they get. It’s rare to have the kind of talent that can fully flesh out characters and make the viewer care about them, as well as affect them even to tears, not with some forced melodramatic outcome, but with the understanding of the tragedy of the failings of human nature. May she write on for many years to come, gracing us with the beauty of her pen.
The Scary One, The Ghost and I
When was the last time I saw an example of a writer and PD who were so suited to each other’s styles? Park Yeon Seon and Kim Yong Soo were clearly born to work with each other, and this beautiful sense of harmony brings about one of my favourite Park Yeon Seon works. The Scary One, The Ghost and I has her characteristic touch of humour and quirkiness, with ordinary characters who are somehow not so ordinary after all, at least in their portrayals. It’s black comedy at its finest, dealing with themes of death in a moving way, but also knowing when to laugh. It helps that Lee Won Jong’s performance is so wonderful. Plus, kittens! Who can resist kittens? Especially when they’re in a Park Yeon Seon drama?
In a word: Meh. Ordinary writing, ordinary directing, ordinary story, ordinary acting. This was really just one big old bag of ordinary. It tries half-heartedly to be a heartwarming tale of a misunderstood single mother and her budding romance with an old classmate, but it never has enough emotion or passion to pull that off. It’s like being given a cup of stale coffee. And who on earth wants that? (Unless, of course, you’ve been coffee-deprived for days, and are desperately in need of an emergency fix. Then it’s acceptable, but only then.)
Our Slightly Risque Relationship
My main impression from this drama is that I wish it had been more than what it ended up being. I wish it was more risque, more emotional, more comedic, more thoughtful. I kept feeling like it was promising so much, especially with its solid leading pair, but it never delivered on those promises. In the end it wound up being just another love story, leaving me feeling oddly frustrated. Why do I keep getting the sense that I’ve been cockblocked?
What a mystery of a drama. Its script is rather ordinary and cliched, and its acting is nothing to write home about. The directing is solid at best. And yet there’s a strange charm about it, a pull that kept my eyes fixated on the screen for every second of its hour. Maybe it was the moody atmosphere, or the vaguely indie vibes. Maybe it was the subject matter, dealing with homosexuality and inappropriate teacher-student relations. Or maybe it just found that elusive well of K-drama charm and rode with it. Whatever it is, it’s an intriguing little show, and one that is worth a watch, if only to puzzle over its success.
Spy Trader Kim Chul Soo’s Current Condition
Man, what a friggin’ intelligent drama. What interesting and deft directing. What awesome acting. And what an interesting story, dealing with a straitlaced North Korean spy who deals with stocks, who slowly comes unraveled as his world falls apart around him. The highlight of this drama, though, at least for me, was Oh Man Seok’s amazing portrayal of Kim Chul Soo, with all of his quirks, his insecurities, and his confusion. Plus, there’s an eating-while-crying scene, and a rather brilliant one at that. This only serves to further secure Oh as one of the top talents of his generation. I can’t wait to see him in the next four episodes of Drama Special, this time in a comedy. (Yes, I am a fangirl. Whatchoo gonna do about it?)
Aridong Last Cowboy
Oh man, this was FUN. An old man who spends way too much time alone watching Westerns gets caught up in a series of murders that occur in his apartment building. He befriends a retired cop who’s been chasing the murderer for years, and the two of them investigate together. This drama is crazy and creative, with an ambiguous sense of anxiety running underneath. It gets the mood down just right, with plenty of references to the Hollywood Westerns of old, and is alternatively funny and even a little scary. It’s no wonder it’s so good, what with people like Kim Yong Soo (yes, the one who also directed The Scary One, The Ghost and I) and Park Jin Woo (yes, the writer of Conspiracy in the Court) working behind the scenes. Why isn’t anyone giving these two a full-length drama to work on?
Brilliant. It takes a very simple premise, of a cowardly family man and teacher who is faced with a moral dilemma, and uses it to inject every single frame with its central theme: The power that a single stone can have in changing a person’s life forever. It’s such an obvious idea, but it works so well. Politics, if present at all, is very subtle here, but it manages to somehow convey with as much conviction the ideas that other short dramas like My Sister’s March and Freedom Fighter Lee Hoe Young state so loudly. Even the most timid of men, when faced with oppression and the option of choosing the easy but immoral way out, can do the tiniest of deeds for the best of reasons, and that makes all the difference. It might not solve all your problems, and life will continue to be hard, but one small act of courage is all one needs to live a life with conviction. What an ordinary and yet amazing lesson. And what a quiet yet masterful drama.
Rock Rock Rock
It is such a treat when something sneaks up on you by surprise and ends up being so much better than you’d expected. I did not expect to be so moved by Rock Rock Rock, or to enjoy it as much as I did. And I certainly did not expect to become so emotional while watching the final episode, or to spend hours watching clips of Boohwal’s performances on YouTube, or to spend every waking minute listening to certain songs. But that’s the power of Rock Rock Rock – that pure emotional pull.
It’s really quite an ordinary drama in terms of structure. It’s a typical biopic, depicting the life of an obsessed, tortured, drug-addled musician. It has bad acting (although Noh Min Woo is certainly far more palatable here than he was in My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho), is full of cliches, and is even kind of cheesy at parts. And yet it works. Why? Because it’s earnest, sincere, full of heart. Because you can tell that everyone involved poured all of their devotion into every frame. Because the incredible soundtrack makes you float along on a sea of audial bliss, elevating each tiny moment. Because it plays with non-linear storytelling and never disrespects the intelligence or emotional capacity of its viewers.
Rock Rock Rock embodies what I felt was so lacking in the K-drama landscapes of 2008 and 2009: Passion, a respect and deep love for one’s craft. And hope, because as long as shows like this exist, Korean dramas can cling to that magic that make them so special to so many people.
I’m closing off this year with something I haven’t felt in two very long years: a flicker of hope for the K-drama landscape. 2010 was a great year, full of disappointments, yes, but also some variety and plenty of proof that even in the darkest of times, talent will always be around to help light the way for the future. Looking at the list of dramas that are to come in early 2011, I can’t help but feel disheartened and uneasy. But at least I had my little oasis of contentment, a moment of rest in the middle of the desert. I can’t stay here forever, but maybe a temporary sense of peace was all I needed to recharge and forge ahead. And I say: Bring. It. On.
- 2010 Year In Review: A year of surprises and disappointments (javabeans’ review)
- 2010 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
- 2009 Year in Review, Part 6: Editors’ Picks
- 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?
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, Chuno, Cinderella's Sister, Comrades, Drama Special, featured, Gloria, Joseon X-Files, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, Pasta, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, year in review, year in review 2010