Somewhere Over the K-Drama Rainbow [Year in Review, Part 3]
The other day, I sat down and thought long and hard about all of the various dramas that I’ve seen over the course of my life. I remembered secretly turning on the T.V. as a small child and pressing my nose against the glass, fascinated with the powerful, forbidden emotions at play somewhere inside that magical box (forbidden because my mother had deemed that I was too young to watch a story about cheating husbands and raging women). I remembered how, as a preteen, I would rent boxfuls of dramas at a time, taking out one video tape as soon as it was done and putting in the next, the addiction overpowering silly needs like food or drink.
And I looked at how I’m approaching dramas today. How the initial addiction has worn away, and how that magic sheen that had coated my eyes is long gone. I am no longer capable of returning to those golden days when I watched everything and anything without judgment, and always with a sense of pleasure. It’s a frame of mind that is lost to me. This sense of having slipped into a different viewpoint when approaching dramas has never been as strong as it was this year.
Because you know what? I took a look at the list of dramas that have aired this year. I remembered every twinge of disappointment, every flicker of anger. And I thought, “It’s no friggin’ wonder I’ve become so grumpy. 2011 SUCKED FLAMING CHICKEN BALLS.”
But for the sake of space and time, I will not mention the dozens of dramas that I tried to watch (and love), and ultimately ended up abandoning out of sheer disgust. I will not mention Shitty Hunter, Can You Hear My Bowel Movement, Smile Diarrhea, Best Lard, or Lie To My Bladder. Instead, I will stick to the dramas I stuck to (although that will require mention of a few duds), and try to shed light on some shows that I feel were tragically ignored this year. Because despite this being one of the worst years for K-dramas in recent memory, there were still a few gems that appeared out of the blue, and helped me to endure what has been the most tiring and frustrating year for me as a K-drama fan since the terrible year that was 2008. Maybe this means that we’re due for another good year? While the current crop of dramas airing right now don’t exactly support that view, there’s always hope…
The following are arranged in alphabetical order, and are divided between long dramas and short dramas.
SONG OF THE DAY
Park Wan-kyu – “하루애” (A Day of Love) from The Princess’ Man OST. [ Download ]
The main thing I took away from this show is: “Man, this is weird.”
The thing is, before it aired, I expected it to be absolutely insufferable, and to be full of all the kinds of things I hate about Hallyu and idol casting. Yet it turned out to be harmless fluff at best. It did have its insulting moments, but never to the extent that I initially expected. Sure, Bae Yong Joon still gives me the heebie jeebies, and someone should really tell JYP that he should just squash his dreams of being a Big Time Actor right here and now. And yes, the acting was atrocious all around, with even Eom Ki Joon phoning in his performance, and normally sweet and underrated actresses like Lee Yoon Ji being dreadfully misused. The only real highlight, acting-wise, was Kim Soo Hyun. I wouldn’t say he was amazing or anything, but when you’re surrounded by people who can’t even crack a smile without making it look like an exercise in painful constipation, and when you’re the only person who has a clue when it comes to acting, you look that much better for it. Plus, he’s adorable.
Let’s face it: The writing was flimsy and shallow at best, and there were some horribly cheesy moments that made me gag more than a little. (I do not understand what was so great about that scene where they all sing SNSD’s “Genie.” I mean, it was SO UNBEARABLY CHEESY. I could’ve been okay with just the dancing, but that guy crying while watching it…? Give me a break. Someone please explain its charm to me.) The music was bad, and the vocal talents of much of its cast more than a little questionable. And I was SO BORED so much of the time. BUT. The directing was actually, well, kinda good. And because it was good, it saved this show from utter failure. The atmosphere that it managed to create, one of warmth and good cheer, kind of saved what would otherwise have been completely unbearable crap. It makes me wonder what this PD has in store for the future (y’know, besides Dream High 2). Keep in mind that I added that “kind of” – I’m still not a fan of this show, and I certainly wouldn’t consider it to be “good.” It’s very forgettable. But it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be, and in a year when even dramas that I was anticipating turned out to be unbearable, I guess that’s saying something.
Flames of Ambition
Yes, I realize that I talked about this show in my 2010 review, too. But a sizable chunk of it aired in 2011 as well, and I am not one to pass up the chance to gush over this wonderful drama that warmed my black, black heart.
The episodes that aired in 2011 (the show ended in March) were ones that centered around things like the reunion of a birth mother with the daughter she “abandoned,” the choice between power or love, and a look into heroine Yoon Na-young’s hidden motivations. Her fears and weaknesses were laid bare, and it became all too apparent that she wasn’t the evil mastermind that she perhaps strove to be. She was just a woman carrying the scars of her childhood, tormented by the mistakes of her parents and the burdens of society, and driven to desperation out of her own dark desires and ambitions. In the end, Flames of Ambition was not makjang. It was a character study of Yoon Na-young, in all her glorious complexity, and her fierce struggle for survival.
This is something I notice with every Jung Ha Yeon drama I watch, but his shows overflow with a belief in the strength and power of women, and are a call to try to be understanding of every kind of person. In his dramas, every single character is a human being, and no matter what awful things they do, there are always understandable reasons for their actions. You might not agree with them, but you can’t help but understand them. They are not monsters or caricatures. They’re just people. And it is that sensibility that emanates from every second of Flames of Ambition, overriding the ho-hum directing and the iffy acting of a few members of the cast. It roars out from the exquisitely expressive face of Shin Eun Kyung, in the greatest performance of her career. It swallows you up. All you can do is surrender to it.
The problem, then, lies in the aftermath. This drama made me reconsider the ways I interact with people, and my approach to everyday things. Javabeans and Girlfriday talked in one of their podcasts about “drama stickiness.” Well, if any drama is sticky, it’s this one. It lingers to the point of exhaustion. Thus, this is not a drama for everyone. It is not an easy watch. But those who do fall under its spell will never really break away. What more from a show can you ask for than that?
Just Like Today
Oh, Kim Gab Soo. The things I do for you. The pain I have suffered.
After the torture that was Everybody Cha Cha Cha, which I sat through all because of my love for Oh Man Seok, I swore that I would never again watch a daily drama of my own volition (because, of course, sometimes I watch dailies with my grandmother, because I just can’t say no to that woman, dammit). And then I heard that Kim Gab Soo had been cast in this as the lead. And I groaned with despair, because if there is any actor that I have a weakness for, it is Kim Gab Soo.
Actually, the first episode wasn’t so bad. It took things slow, focusing on introducing its characters without much fanfare or silliness, just showing us a family and how it worked. Alas, the end of the episode featured that dreaded daily drama cliche: FAUXCEST. Or, in this case, REAL incest, because they’re cousins but they don’t know that they’re cousins because Kim Gab Soo isn’t really his father, and AAAARRRGGGHHH. If only it weren’t for this incest plot, this drama would be actually kind of palatable. It does help a little that secrets aren’t really kept all that long (only about two or three weeks…which is a very short period of time for a daily drama), and that the core of this drama lies in Kim Gab Soo’s character’s deep love for his son. It’s kind of nice to see a show where the parents are the leads, rather than the youngsters (it is so sad to watch Han Groo, who was so badass in Girl K, act out such an annoying little goody two shoes here, making me want to strangle her half the time). Still. Still. That makjang plot element is just unforgivable.
This show is hundreds of episodes long, and the idea of watching it for months and months kind of makes me want to spork myself in the eye. But I will (probably) do it. Because I am a fangirl. And when you’re a fangirl, you must make sacrifices. Really, really big sacrifices.
President is not a perfect drama. But it’s a FUN one. Oh god, is it ever fun.
Reading the synopsis, you would not think that it is. What, a political drama about a man who’s campaigning to be the president of Korea? SNORE. However, as usual, looks can be deceiving. The drama approaches its subject matter in an exciting, easily accessible way, with a lead who certainly seems like a good man, but has moments when he is so manipulative and sly that you end up wondering whether your assessment of him is wrong – just like Jay Kim’s character does. Oh, there are plenty of implausible moments, and a few sappy ones, and the romance is forgettable at best. But it makes up for all of that with its speedy and smart twists and turns, and in the awesome chemistry between Choi Soo Jong and Ha Hee Ra, who are married both in real life and in the drama. Choi manages to escape a little from his usual Morally Steadfast Hero stereotype, while Ha is riveting as a woman who is willing to stoop to any lows in order to help her husband fulfill his dream of the presidency. I must admit I developed a bit of a crush watching her here (why do I always fall for the unscrupulous characters?).
President is an example of a political drama that refuses to become stuffy or dull, and really shows the entertaining side of politics – in fact, it’s often a pretty comedic show. I feel like a lot of viewers steered away from this because of its subject matter, and thus missed out on something that is actually a very easy watch. Because even the politics are rooted in the impact on the family, the relationship between husband and wife, and on father and son. It takes what could possibly be an impersonal topic and makes it very personal. All you have to do is sit down and watch it to feel the impact of this choice.
Scent of a Woman
*rolls up sleeves*
My god, do I ever have a bone to pick with this drama.
It started out well enough. The first episode actually reminded me of a kind of indie film aesthetic, at least in its visuals. It even had a light Japanese touch in its handling of weird situations and quirky characters. I thought it was promising. Even my sister, who watches maybe one drama every two or three years, sat down to watch it with me (although her crush on Kim Sun Ah may have played a large role in that decision). Every week we zipped easily through the episodes, often with a glass (or five…) of wine in hand and lightly poking fun at the silly moments and cliches that cropped up from time to time. We could endure those missteps because we felt that it was sticking to its overall theme, and that the emotional factor made up for it all.
How very wrong we turned out to be.
I can’t remember what episode it was. I think it was around the halfway point. At any rate, quite suddenly, one particular episode sent everything spiralling down to hell. The cliches came fast and furious, the noble idiocy started, and the repetitions came with mind-numbing frequency (you could make a drinking game out of how many times Lee Dong Wook started heading somewhere (usually towards Yeon-jae) and then changed his mind at the very last second). You want improbable coincidences? You got it. You want those coincidences to lead to people overhearing Important Conversations? You got it. You want tiresome repetitions of sexually suggestive tango dances that did nothing but make my sister and I howl with derisive laughter? You got it.
All of this just proves that writer Noh Ji Seol didn’t really know what to do with this show once it entered its mid-way point – she simply ran out of ideas, and fell back on lazy stereotypes in order to hand the scripts in on time for the shoots. Or maybe she’s just a lazy writer in general. It’s a shame, because visually it’s a pretty show – Park Hyung Ki certainly did a good job of capturing the sights of Okinawa, fulfilling the necessary product placement quota for the early episodes. And Eom Ki Joon, my love, was adorable and managed to get as much out of his potentially stereotypical character as possible, giving him layers and depth and charisma. I suffered some serious Second Lead Syndrome because of him (and also because Lee Dong Wook’s character was so useless so much of the time). Someone get him cast as the lead in a good drama, already.
If last year my biggest disappointment was Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which I felt careened off into mediocrity in its second half, then my biggest disappointment this year is Scent of a Woman. This is all because I felt that it did have potential, that it could have been a moving story about a woman’s wake-up call and her determination to live the rest of her life with no regrets. It wouldn’t have insulted me half as much if it had been bad from the very beginning. As it is, it simply made me angry, and curse the time I wasted on it. Oh well. I guess it was a good learning experience…
There are dramas that are like a shot of hard alcohol, that burn on the way down and make you dizzy from the effects. There are dramas that are like a nice glass of wine, meant to be sipped slowly and with relish. And then there are dramas like The Duo, which was more like makgeolli – familiar, homey, and taking its time in showing its effects.
There is nothing hurried or overly dramatic about The Duo. Which might come as a surprise to some, who read its plot synopsis of two boys who are switched at birth, one growing up a beggar, and the other as the only son of a noble household, and thought it was more of a cliche-ridden makjang fest in sageuk clothes. This preconception could not be farther from the truth. The birth secrets are revealed fairly early on, and are discovered easily by characters who prove that they are not stupid, and need just a hint to realize what is going on. There is no huge drama there. Rather, The Duo chooses to focus on more important things.
The heart of this show lies in its complex study of everyday relations between the various classes, from the beggars on the streets to the yangban who pass them by without a second glance. It digs into several characters from different classes, but most of all it portrays the lowest classes with sympathy and understanding, showing their loves, their hopes, and their ideas. It shows us the effects of the differences between the classes, and how that motivates the various characters. For example, Mak-soon, our “villain” of the piece, played by a wonderful Yoon Yoo Seon, does some truly despicable things. And yet you can understand her choices, and why she is so selfish. How else would anyone in her situation have reacted to the horrific things that had happened to her, really? She acts out of love and self-preservation, and for that, I couldn’t judge her.
There is probably no other drama writer in Korea who could portray all of this so effortlessly and with so much heart and earthiness than Kim Woon Kyung. He takes his time with the plot, taking things slow, peeling back the layers of every single character, so that everyone becomes a friend, someone with whom you feel comfortable, someone you hope desperately will become happy. And beneath it all you can sense the bubbling of the rebel Robin Hood-like plot, and when it finally rises to the surface and really starts to affect our main characters, it fills you with excitement and a desperate worry for how it will affect certain relationships – especially what is pretty much THE bromance of the year.
I would not say The Duo is an addictive, or even particularly exciting, drama. Each episode ends on a cliffhanger, yes, but I never really felt a hurry to watch the next episode. Instead, I felt content to watch it in small doses, thinking with each episode: “This drama is like coming home.” That warmth, that certainty that it would never betray me, that feeling of refreshment and joy…I thank this drama for giving me all of that. I will love it forever.
The Princess’ Man
Ahhhh. It felt so good to feel addicted to a drama again. It felt good to feel the urge to marathon episodes until I developed dark circles the size of Antarctica. It felt good to feel feverish with love, to have my every waking thought devoted to the characters and themes.
I’ve written so much about The Princess’ Man that it’s a wonder my fingers haven’t fallen off, so for this I’ll just stick to the basics.
It makes me glow with happiness to know that such a gem of a drama was not ignored, and that it gained a fierce and loyal following. It’s not often that this happens for the dramas that I love, so it was a welcome change. The Princess’ Man is not only addictive and engaging, it’s also smart, actually knows its history (and then chooses to change it up for thematic purposes, but I’m fine with that, since I think it had good reasons for it), and has some wonderful thematic elements to which it remains loyal until the very last frame. It even manages to make its romance believable, which does not happen often for someone like me, who is often bored with romance in dramas. Sure, there were a few cast members that I felt were a little iffy (Park Shi Hoo, although he certainly improved here, will, I fear, never become a really amazing actor…and I’m not just saying that because his Batman voice grated so much on my nerves). But most of them brought it, with even people like Hong Soo Hyun transforming themselves into beacons of fire and passion. But really, the person I want to heap the most praise on is Kim Young Chul, who played the dangerously intelligent and not-quite-evil Prince Suyang with such skill and emotion that he left virtually everyone else this year in his dust. If he asked me to kiss his toes, I would.
The Princess’ Man was not without its occasional implausible plot points or convenient coincidences. But it elevated itself above all of that through sheer intelligence and power, something that forgettable shows like Scent of a Woman could never dream of doing. It proved that, even through the turmoil of a live shoot, it is possible for a show to maintain its integrity and quality, as long as there’s talent and passion involved. And it helped to reignite my hope for Korean dramas, for which I am personally most grateful. Onward ho, I say!
In a word: BADASS.
I grew up watching a lot of action flicks, so when I find something that does action well, I tend to fall head over heels in love. Girl K isn’t particularly original, has a flimsy story at best, and most of its actors are just cruising along. What makes it work, though, is the good directing and action sequences. You just wait on the edge of your seat for that next action scene that will make your heart leap into your throat. And y’know, I just loved the idea of its heroine, a teenaged girl with all of the usual problems, who just happens to have an evil father and these unbelievable martial arts skills. I rooted for her, and I certainly rooted for her protective ahjusshi, Kim Jung Tae, in his sexiest role yet. (Oh god, why do I have such a weakness for the ahjusshi of the world?)
Girl K proves that you don’t need complicated plotlines in order to be successful. You just have to stick to what you know you’re good at, and not stray from your original themes and intentions. Girl K manages to tap into that reserve of pure emotion and adrenaline that overcomes most of its flaws, and makes it one hell of an enjoyable ride.
At once a detective story and a cautionary tale on judging books by their covers, Identical Criminals is sleek and well-directed, with some impressive action sequences (especially considering the budget) and an engaging plot. But more than anything, it’s a story about a young up and coming detective who’s grown a little too big for his britches, and the fallen older detective who is scorned wherever he goes. It keeps this theme firmly in mind throughout its entire 60 or so minutes, even through its exciting plot twists and creepy murder sequences. And for once, I did not find Lee Ji Hoon annoying. Can he just stick to detective roles from now on, please?
Ji-hoon, Born in ’82
Ji-hoon is 30 years old. He is an office worker who doesn’t know when he might get fired, has a whiny girlfriend who is always threatening to leave him, and a father with whom he is always fighting. Over the course of the hour, we watch as one thing after another goes wrong, and the stress builds up until he explodes with the pressure of it all…and then, at last, learns what is really important in life, and how to deal with all of the daily problems that bombard him.
This drama paints this picture with such simplicity and steadiness of purpose that it might be easy to dismiss it in its early moments, especially with its physical humour that nonetheless later takes on a distinctive black comedy edge. But you realize by the end of the hour that the steady build-up leads to a truly stirring finale, one that calls upon the empathy of everyone who is struggling with the daily trials of life, and those periods of growth that everyone must face up to. This is also one case of a show where being able to understand the lyrics of the songs that play in the background helps add a deeper dimension to the proceedings (and really, any drama that uses a Kim Gwang Seok song automatically gets an extra point from me).
Of all the short dramas I saw this year, this one probably touched me the most. Although maybe it’s just because I’ve been really stressed out lately…
Our Happy Days of Youth
May 1980. A pair of young men dreaming of becoming comedians travel to Gwangju in order to try out for the KBN comedian auditions. There, one of them meets, and falls in love, with a Gwangju woman who dreams of becoming an announcer. They end up staying at her home during their stay in Gwangju, thanks to the generosity of her grandmother. And soon, it becomes all too clear that they’ve come to Gwangju at a time when one of its greatest tragedies is about to strike.
This is a fascinating little show. It starts out by establishing its characters as being uninterested in politics, and even buying into the propaganda of the ruling dictatorship, with them being far too concerned with things like romance to care much about the historical things going on around them. Even the tone of much of the hour is light and jokey, in keeping with the characters’ psyches. But all too soon, they are dragged into the current of the times, and come to realize how blind they have been, and how important it is to resist when a ruling power tries to take away the things that are most important to you. It’s a sly, intelligent stab at the current political landscape in Korea, and manages to slip in a few digs at the various media sources that support the propaganda of the government, as well as the tendencies of division between the various provinces (especially between Kyungsangdo and Jeollado). It’s a terribly important message hidden in a light and carefree package. And it shows more than ever the dangers of not knowing your history. Because allowing history to repeat itself is more dangerous than any of us can imagine.
That Man Is There
What is a dream, and what is reality? This stylish, atmospheric, and altogether creepy short examines that question but doesn’t provide any answers. Instead it sinks itself deeper and deeper into ambiguity, touching upon the tragedy of a mentally ill photographer who is silently suffering under the abuse of her tyrannical husband. In order to escape from her hellish reality, she runs away into her imagination, until the viewer her/himself can no longer tell what to trust. Into this it weaves the mystery of a murder, making the proceedings even more complicated and desperate. Yet it also manages to have an emotional impact, avoiding the possible pitfall of cold intellectuality.
Altogether, this is one of the most interesting and creative dramas of the year, and certainly one that deserves more attention.
The Man Is Crying
It’s a simple premise. A gangster finds out that he has cancer, and decides that before he dies, he must confess his sin of murdering a beloved friend to said friend’s fiancee. It’s a story we’ve seen hundreds of times before. And yet it feels realistic, with its tragic little details, never shying away from the terrible realities of poverty. It helps that the acting is so good – Son Hyun Joo proves once again what a talent he is, and how wonderful he is at touching upon the emotional cores of the characters he portrays. It’s a warm, heartbreaking little show that strives to cling to hope despite the odds, and to argue for the good in life, hidden behind the shadows.
Young-deok Women’s Wrestling Team
Sometimes a show comes along that isn’t particularly inventive and, when you look at all its separate parts, doesn’t seem so special. Yet when you look at the whole, for some reason it works. It just feels right.
Young-deok Women’s Wrestling Team does not do anything new. It has the typical cliches of the high school girl whose father has abandoned her and her mentally disabled sister, and her slow realization that life ain’t so bad after all, thanks to the intervention of a kind (if flawed and rather selfish) teacher. Some of its characters feel a bit like caricatures, and the progress of the story is pretty predictable. Yet its big heart, and its lack of any overwrought drama, helps to make it a fun ride. Besides, I love watching Lee Jong Hyuk as a fallen model who is a bit of a loser. How is it possible for a man to be so sexy even while playing such an embarrassing character?
If there’s anything I’ve learned in my years as a K-drama fan, it’s that patience is key. 2011 was not a good year, not by a long shot. But I try to remember that 2010 was wonderful, and that there were other wonderful years before that, and that dramas are always surprising me. Even when I’m feeling enormously frustrated, I cling to hope. Because it does exist. No matter how bleak things may seem. With every valley comes a hill. It’s the reason that I will be a K-drama fan for life. Because when they are at their best, nothing else comes even close. You just have to keep looking for that rainbow. Somewhere out there. Maybe behind the next cloud.
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 2: The Good, The Bad, and The Hmmm… of 2011 (kaedejun’s review)
- 2011 Year In Review, Part 1: Measuring 2011 on the Sticky Scale (javabeans’ review)
- 2011 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the past year
- 2010 Year in Review, Part 5: Editors’ Picks
- 2010 Year in Review, Part 4: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear (girlfriday’s review)
- 2010 Year In Review, Part 3: Heady with a chance of ho hum (thunderbolt’s review)
- 2010 Year In Review, Part 2: Finding the gems among the stones (Dahee Fanel’s review)
- 2010 Year In Review, Part 1: A year of surprises and disappointments (javabeans’ review)
- 2010 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year