[2018 Year in Review] What tickles the funny bone
Watching Korean dramas is like having a personal portal to a magical fictional world. I can tap three bricks with my mouse; then step into a new world of my choosing. However, I think many would agree that dramas are more than just a means of escaping the real world. I’ve gotten some life lessons and am better able to deal with my day-to-day life because of what I gained through dramas. An anti-hero, for example, can lead me to confront the darker aspects of my own self. A family drama can give me renewed appreciation for my loved ones.
This past year in 2018, I mostly wanted to unwind and de-stress through laughter, which led to some changes in my viewing habits. I used to only follow maybe 1 or 2 variety shows in the past, but this year I watched too many to count. Secondly, I became fickle and impatient. I developed a bad habit of taste testing the first few episodes of a drama, skipping the main course, and then watching the last episode just to see what happens. It wasn’t the drama’s fault, many were really good shows. The problem was that I was losing patience with the journey part of whatever genre I was watching — even though the journey is supposed to be the best part. As such, I only watched 4 or 5 dramas in its entirety this year but I had a few favorites. Here are my shows of 2018.
Hwayugi had a lot of things that worked. The set-up of the fantasy world was pretty well done, which owed a lot to the richness of the existing source material. It was brought to life beautifully and vividly through the cinematography as well – even considering the few instances of unfortunate CGI.
The only problem, for me, was that second lead Lee Se-young pretty much stole the show and the actual female lead was so very uninteresting. Oh Yeon-seo was fine in the role, it’s just that she didn’t have much to work with, other than being sad and downtrodden for most of the drama. As a result, I wasn’t very invested in the main relationship and rooted for all the secondary relationships instead. This, ironically, also meant that I wasn’t too bothered by the open-ended finale since it didn’t matter to my enjoyment if the two leads didn’t have a neat happy ending.
The group dynamics were great as well and it helped that all the side characters were so colorful and fun. For example, CEO Sa and his love for cleaning, or the brother-sister body-sharing ice cream vendor and bar owner. I also really liked the side story conundrum of an octopus in love with a pig, who’s in love with a zombie, who’s in love with a monkey. Lee Hong-ki was adorable and I was pleasantly surprised by Bora as well.
The main draw, and OTP for me, was the love-hate relationship of Sohn Oh-gong and Mawang. The casting was spot on with Lee Seung-gi in his first post-army project as Sohn Oh-gong, and there really couldn’t be another Mawang other than Cha Seung-won. I loved their bromance in You’re All Surrounded as well. However, the rivalry in Hwayugi produced the most hilarious scenes and these are the parts I remember best from this show.
Laughter Scale: In stitches
I started this show because of Park Seo-joon. Both he and Park Min-young were cute together, and I did want the two to end up together. Overall, I felt kind of meh about them. There were no real conflicts keeping them apart, and there were no real threats or villains either. Park Seo-joon’s brother initially appeared to be the foil to the main couple, but the conflict around him sort of disappeared magically and resolved itself tidily. On the other hand, it was refreshing to see his parents actually like Park Min-young, and not have the stereotypical (and tired) trope of rich parents opposing the poor girl.
Similar to Hwayugi, though, it was the side characters that pulled me back to watch each week. Kang Ki-young was a perpetual scene-stealer. He is definitely one actor who should never stop doing comedies. The same can be said for Hwang Bora who really killed it with her range of facial expressions and all manners of physical comedy. However, my personal MVP for this show would be Kang Hong-seok who played Park Seo-joon’s chauffeur. Even though his scenes were few, his romancing of Hwang Bora’s character, the gestures, and epic hero music in the background – it made the whole show worth it.
Laughter Scale: Some good chuckles
This was the first and only drama this year in which the main couple really got me. I’m not an EXO fan and I had some exposure to D.O. (a.k.a. Do Kyung-soo) in It’s Okay, It’s Love, but I get it now. He’s got a great voice and the way he would gaze lovingly at Nam Ji-hyun‘s character was just so lovely. She’s becoming a bit of an expert in playing this type of no-nonsense super competent characters, but I’m not complaining. I loved her character and thought she was awesome.
The fish out of water hi-jinks were a lot of fun to watch, especially when it involved the whole village. I liked how they all became like a little family unit and watched out for one another. It was really sweet as well seeing the crown prince grow as a person through all these experiences, and how much he learned in showing compassion and consideration for others.
The story did have its flaws though. The character relationships for one, were a little too tangled with each other, and the ending felt a bit like sweeping everything under the rug. The king and queen’s reconciliation was sweet, but it didn’t quite fit in with the trajectory of the characters or the story. It also wasn’t necessary for the story to drag out Nam Ji-hyun’s forgiveness of the crown prince because he himself didn’t really do anything wrong. I wanted to see her entering the palace with the prince, maybe some scenes of a royal wedding, and becoming a kick-ass princess in her own right.
Fortunately, the cuteness made up for a lot.
Laughter Scale: Sqquuueeeeeeee
This was actually a variety show (with a total of 10 episodes) but, if I had to pick, this would be my all-time favorite show this year. I’m not sure if the idea came from the movie, Little Forest (starring Kim Tae-ri), which I also recommend if you like slice-of-life style stories, but it had a similar premise.
The variety show was also slice-of-life, but set-up like a casual social experiment – with two cast members called Test Subject A (Park Shin-hye) and Test Subject B (So Ji-sub). The purpose of the experiment was to find happiness in a simpler lifestyle and appreciate life’s small moments. Thus, the subjects were taken away from the hectic and crowded city to spend quality time alone in the countryside.
For a few days at a time, each lived in their own little one-room cabin furnished with just the necessities. Lights were powered by solar panels; there was no running water, no showers, and an outhouse. The subjects had to bring their own food and supplies, cook, clean, and take care of chores such as chopping wood. In addition, the production team communicated with the cast via chat messaging on a provided laptop and tasked them with simple daily missions. Missions included recording the sound of water rushing through a river or turning off your cell phone for a set amount of time.
I was lured into watching this show because it was helmed by Na PD, and I’m a long-time fan of So Ji-sub (and he’s never on variety). Some might find this show boring as there are no games or chatter like other shows. However, I was riveted. It was similar to watching ASMR videos, which is a central aspect of this show as well. The audio is heightened on everything the cast does, whether they’re walking, making something, cooking, or eating. Where the show differs from ASMR videos, however, is that instead of getting sleepy, I couldn’t stop watching.
It was fascinating to see the differences in the two actors’ personalities, and how they approached or carried out each task differently. Park Shin-hye’s parts were amusing as she was comfortable talking to herself and kept herself busy or entertained with different crafts and hobbies. There was always something happening in her segments, and she often did multiple things at once. Still, So Ji-sub’s parts were my favorite. He didn’t talk much as he’s more of an introvert, but there was something very calming and soothing about him whenever he came on the screen. There seemed to be a lot of thought and intention behind each of his movements and I could almost feel the focus he put into each of his tasks.
It’s a quiet and understated show, which is reflected in the camera work as well. Except for when the actors are filming themselves, most of the shots are static and there’s little movement aside from the subjects going about their day. It’s simple, yet really beautiful and captivating. In fact, I think it’s high time I re-watched this one again.
Laughter Scale: Contented bliss
Honorable Mention: Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food
I didn’t end up finishing this drama as I dropped it after the first eight episodes or so. However, those beginning episodes were really strong. I loved the build up of Sohn Ye-jin and Jung Hae-in’s relationship and how it developed so organically. Their bond as friends first felt natural and real, having known each other for a long time. And it didn’t feel forced as they grew closer, and transitioned into dating territory. Each little moment, slight changes in face expression and body movements were captured so well – the trepidation, hesitation, excitement, and joy. It was all beautifully done and a delight to watch.
I came into the drama late, but I could instantly see why there was so much buzz about Jung Hae-in. He was pretty fantastic in the role. Sohn Ye-jin was equally incredible, but that wasn’t much of a surprise.
I could have easily watched eight more episodes, but the drama lost me once Sohn Ye-jin’s family found out about the relationship. The mother had already been baffling in the earlier episodes and I didn’t fancy sitting through the impending doom and turmoil. I was hoping to finish the show after the last episode aired in order to binge the remaining episodes in one go and spare myself some of the time spent on angst. However, I was spoiled on what would happened and decided that it may be best to just leave my memory of the show in the happy place where I left it.
I’m looking forward to 2019 with hope. There are quite a few potentially great dramas set to air in the new year. I’m excited that this could be my chance to set my fickle self behind on December 31st and start anew in January! Here’s to a New Year! Cheers!
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