The Year in Review, Part 3: Dahee Fanel’s drama round-up
[And now for Dahee Fanel‘s comprehensive take on the past year! –javabeans]
First of all, I’d like to bow my head in deep gratitude to Javabeans, the highly esteemed writer of this blog, for inviting me to post a few thoughts here. I hope she won’t regret her decision after reading what I have to say, hehe.
2007 was an interesting year, at least for me, particularly when it comes to Korean dramas. I’ve watched dramas on a regular basis since I was old enough to walk and talk (I am, after all, Korean), but I’ve never undergone such a transformation in terms of how I approach dramas as I have in the past couple of years…although I suppose you could argue that it’s turned me into nothing but a picky bitch. (But weren’t you always a picky bitch, Dahee?)
Still, despite my pickiness, I managed to watch quite a handful of dramas this year, although I certainly didn’t manage to finish them all (blame school and the crappy work that some PDs and writers dish out, putting off viewers like me). In fact, I watched so many, I can’t possibly talk about them all here. So I’ll just pick a few notables and dish out some kudos, as well as one or two boos. Because boos are just as fun as kudos, if not as well-received.
DAHEE’S SONG OF THE DAY
Jo Kwan Woo – “천년애” (chun nyun ae), from the soundtrack of the drama The King & I. [ zShare download ]
Sageuk (aka Historical Dramas)
My greatest transformation probably happened in this area. I have never been a sageuk fan. In fact, you could say that I’ve always avoided them like they were infested with the plague…or, at the very least, calculus, neither of which are particularly good for my health. My reasons for this? They were hard to understand, especially for someone like me, whose Korean is by no means perfect, and who struggles hard enough with daily Korean, never mind ancient speech from the Joseon period. Also, my image of them always consisted of watching old men with unfortunate facial hair kowtowing to the king and intoning “전하아아아/Jeon-haaaa” (sort of the equivalent of “Your Majesty”) with all the belly strength they could muster. So is it any surprise that a young girl like me would be uninterested in watching men congratulate each other while carefully maneuvering the twigs stuck up their behinds? I think not.
Still, I’ve managed to watch some over the years, here and there, although never in any proper kind of timeframe or even sequence (with one or two exceptions, of course). So I know all about the classics, like Sang Do and Hur Joon. I even managed to enjoy what I saw of them, even if they never interested me enough to have me plonk down in front of the TV set for god knows how many hours at a time. (Sorry, I never did like Jewel in the Palace, aka Dae Jang Geum. I am clearly in the minority when it comes to that, however.)
But this year was different, maybe because it was truly the year that sageuk got the chance to shine. The three top broadcasting stations, SBS, MBC and KBS, dished out the money like there was no tomorrow, and allowed shows like Legend, Yi San, Dae Jo Young, Yeon Gae So Mun, and The King and I, among many others, to come into being. And the viewers liked it, with many of the shows garnering, at the very least, decent ratings.
Out of these, I bothered to watch only Legend, Yi San, and The King and I. I was bored stiff with Legend (please don’t kill me), and annoyed with Yi San (sorry, Lee Seo Jin), but The King and I…Ah, now that’s a different story entirely.
Starring Oh Man Seok, Jeon Gwang Ryul, Goo Hye Sun, and Go Joo Won, just to name a few, this is easily my favourite sageuk of the year (or perhaps ever), and, in my humble opinion, one of the best dramas overall of 2007. It has an interesting premise, setting it during the events that lead up to King Yeon San (the crazy king in the 2006 film The King and the Clown) and his bloody rule, and deciding to pinpoint on the story of one particularly famous eunuch who served both Yeon San and his father, one who is often mentioned with the dubious title of Greatest Eunuch of the Joseon Period: Kim Cheo Seon. But don’t mistake it for another Dae Jang Geum or Sang Do. This is not a drama about a single man or woman, and how he/she rose to the prominence that history grants him/her. Cheo Seon’s story is merely the outline for the events that occur, a kind of human stepping stone. It takes a much broader scope than the concentration on one single character would allow. And more than anything, this is a show about various characters’ relationships, and how they interact with and react to that most domineering of figures, the king.
I think that one of the reasons I love The King and I so much is also one of the reasons it’s losing in its ratings battle with Yi San. The King and I takes things slowly, building up the climax to come with countless different events, making it inevitable for anything but what happens to happen. I’m sure many people get impatient with that, especially since it often takes the limelight away from the supposed main character, Cheo Seon, but I love it. I love that the writer isn’t afraid to take the time to really develop the characters and the story, and to ignore such trifles as ratings in order to create a very tight script. And the PD’s certainly helping things along, although in the beginning he kept making silly, slow-motion fight sequences that made me squirt milk from my nose, and generally some highly old-fashioned camerawork, like the super high-speed mega close-up on a character’s face. Still, as the episodes have passed, silly scenes like that have all but disappeared, and things are progressing in excellent fashion.
And the acting? The acting just gets better and better. I must admit that when I first saw the cast, I was worried. I mean, the veteran actors who signed on to this project are all amazing, with folks like Jeon Gwang Ryul in the mix, and a great choice for leading actor in Oh Man Seok, who’s done sageuk plenty of times before, but…There were also people like Goo Hye Sun, Go Joo Won, Lee Jin and Jeon Hye Bin. They’re all relative newbies, and sageuk is a daunting task for even the most skilled of veterans. And it’s true that in the beginning, their acting was a bit of a problem. But as the episodes went by, they improved more and more, and currently, at over thirty episodes, Go Joo Won and Goo Hye Sun are showing acting that can honestly be called “good”, and even people like Jeon Hye Bin have startled me with their improvement. Not every drama can make newbies realize the fundamentals of acting so quickly. It’s one of those telltale signs of a good drama – or a great one. I have high hopes for this show, and I’ll definitely be along for the ride as it continues on to its final episode.
The King and I wasn’t the only drama I loved this year – there were also a couple of others that are definitely worthy of being mentioned in this post. One of them which I absolutely must mention, since I consider it to be the best drama of the year, is White Tower.
Starring Kim Myung Min and Lee Seon Kyun (whom a few pals of mine and I – are you reading this, unni? – have fondly called The Voice ever since the oh-so-lovely gem Taereung National Village), this is not the kind of drama that those who typically enjoy lighter fare would go for. It’s dark, it’s heavy, it’s psychologically complex, and even heartbreaking. Oh, and by the way? There’s almost nil romance, so for those who like to see the main leads prove the true essence of lurrrrve by sacrificing sleep and tear ducts, I suggest you look elsewhere. But for everyone else…Oh mama. This is one hell of a good drama. Especially for people like me, who tend to get more annoyed by all the lovey-dovey shenanigans than anything else.
Kim Myung Min plays Jang Joon Hyuk, a brilliant surgeon with overwhelming ambitions. Because of those ambitions, he does some pretty nasty things, and ultimately, his actions catch up with him. This is no nice, I’m-a-perfect-prince-charming-with-perfect-hair protagonist. He’s pretty despicable at times, yet there is also evidence of real human emotion and vulnerabilities in him, which Kim Myung Min portrays marvelously in one of the best performances of the year, allowing the viewer to sympathize with him despite his many moral failings. This drama is politically charged, smart, and, well, mind-boggling. You have to actually think as you watch – the writer and PD never assume that the viewer is stupid, which is a blessing, considering how many other shows seem to make this assumption. Think Korean dramas are all romantic fluff and oceans of tears? One peep at this, and you’ll definitely change your mind…although, admittedly, this show is based on a Japanese novel by Toyoko Yamazaki.
And White Tower wasn’t the only smart, dark, psychologically intense drama this year. There were also the shows The Devil and Time of Dog and Wolf, which, although on a lesser scale than White Tower, were definitely very good.
The Devil was created by the same writer-PD duo who brought us the 2005 masterpiece that is Rebirth, which starred Uhm Tae Woong, Go Joo Won, and Han Ji Min. The Devil also stars Uhm Tae Woong, but with Joo Ji Hoon and Shin Min Ah instead. It’s another revenge drama, a la Rebirth, but this one delves into darker crimes, with a bit more shades of gray in terms of “evil” and “good”. There’s a devil inside every one of us, but the difference is the levels of control that we maintain over that devil. The main characters of The Devil are tormented by their demons, and together they play a dangerous cat and mouse game, one in which many lives are at stake, and just might eventually bring down judgment upon the sinners.
I personally don’t think that The Devil is quite the masterpiece that Rebirth was, if only because it felt a little more preachy, and the characters weren’t as fleshed out as they were in the latter. Still, this is definitely one of the top dramas of the year, with incredible writing from the ever-reliable Kim Ji Woo, and very good work from PD Park Chan Hong. Also, the acting? Great acting – although, again, not as good on a wider scale as it was in Rebirth. Uhm Tae Woong was as amazing as always, but Joo Ji Hoon? I admit I was worried when he first joined the cast, since he was such a newbie, and I admit I was not very impressed with his (wooden) turn as Prince Shin in Goong. But is life ever full of surprises, or what? Through this drama, he’s definitely shown that he has lots of talent, and a huge potential to get better and better. Watching him in that final scene in episode twenty, I could hardly believe that this was the same actor I’d rolled my eyes over in Goong. It just goes to prove that, with lots of hard work and dedication, even bad actors can become good. I seriously want to walk up to this guy and shake his hand in congratulations.
Then there was Time of Dog and Wolf. I admit I’m a big Lee Jun Ki fan, so of course I was looking forward to this, especially since I also have a soft spot for Jung Kyung Ho and Nam Sang Mi. It turned out to not be as high-quality as either The Devil or White Tower, but it was still one of the most addictive dramas of the year, with some highly commendable acting from the three leads, as well as the great supporting cast. The writing bothered me at times, by delving into the occasional cliche and easy choice, but it was definitely better than, say, the writing in last year’s
horror daily drama, Dear Heaven, so all is forgiven. I loved the play of evil and good in some characters, and how things were never easy or one-dimensional. I loved the scale of human emotion, and that overall film noir quality it had. And the production values were amazing. Awesome use of mise en scene. I was really blown away by PD Kim Jin Min’s work.
Then there were the trendy dramas. Probably the most famous of them this year was Coffee Prince, starring Yoon Eun Hye, Gong Yoo, Lee Seon Kyun, and Chae Jung Ahn. I started watching this because I adored PD Lee Yoon Jung’s work in Taereung National Village, and just the fact that she was teaming up again with Lee Seon Kyun was enough to set me drooling. And, as expected, Coffee Prince had some very capable directing, even if it had a few problems in terms of pacing here and there. The writing was okay, too, with a few highlights sprinkled in, and the acting was pretty good overall – nobody stank to the point of infesting the entire drama, anyway, which is always something to be grateful for. I didn’t adore this drama like a lot of people did, but it was fun, it had some touching moments and a beautiful atmosphere, and I liked that they were willing to tackle the subject of homosexuality, albeit in a pretty safe and standard way (I’m saying this from the viewpoint of someone who’s seen the 2006 cable drama Hyena). Yoon Eun Hye still isn’t a brilliant actress, but there’s always hope. And the character of Eun Chan suited her to a T, which definitely helped.
Another one worth mentioning is Thank You. This was writer Lee Kyung Hee’s comeback drama after the absolute mess and incredible disappointment that was A Love To Kill, and it was a very good comeback indeed. It looked like she’d completely thrown off the writer’s block that obviously hampered her in A Love To Kill, and managed to produce a heartwarming script that could turn on the waterworks, no problem. In fact, I cried watching the first episode alone, which is slightly embarrassing, but true. And okay, so the quality tended to go down as the episodes wore on, and I ended up feeling rather frustrated over the handling of certain things, especially in the script, but this is still one of those dramas that’ll leave you with a smile on your face.
And Shin Goo? Yeah, Shin Goo’s amazing. Well, duh he is, he’s one of the top veteran actors in Korea, but this year, he really showed his acting chops, by playing not only the pure-hearted grandpa with a fetish for chocopies in Thank You, but also the selfish, ambitious eunuch in The King and I. Now that’s range. And this has been a great year for Gong Hyo Jin too, what with starring in M, directed by the oh-so-great Lee Myung Se, the Heo Jin Ho film Happiness, and this little drama. That’s quite the impressive credits she’s amassed in one year. And, of course, little Seo Shin Ae is a darling, and a great little actress to boot, and Shin Sung Rok moved a little closer to TV stardom through his fascinating character. And because I know the ladies are waiting for it, Jang Hyuk does very well for himself for his first drama out of the military, even if he isn’t awe-inspiring or anything. (I’m sorry, but his pecs do nothing for me. I must be a little rattled in the head, I know.)
As for the currently airing drama Insoon Is Pretty…Of course I haven’t finished watching this yet, but this, too, is a disappointment in many ways. The first episode was absolutely lovely, a beautiful love letter to all those folks with low self-esteem out there, and smacked of a very indie-ish, female-centered feel. But things went a little awry as the episodes wore on, and there’s no longer that “tug” that a drama has to have in order to completely engross its viewers. Sure, there are still some redeeming qualities – Kim Hyun Joo is as gorgeous as ever, and her acting has gained a certain depth during that two year break of hers. Kim Min Joon still can’t act, but he’s very digestible here, and his character can be rather cute. In fact, pretty much all the characters are cute at one point or another – like Thank You, this drama seems to take the stance that everyone has a good side to them, even if they sometimes act otherwise. The celebrity storyline is very blah, and I wish the writer wouldn’t take such a standard approach to everything. Still, it has some really touching moments, and I fully intend on watching it to the very end…which is more than I can say for certain dramas that shall go unnamed.
Lastly, Dal Ja’s Spring was Chae Rim’s comeback drama, and Lee Min Ki’s first role as a heart-stopping, gangly Prince Charming. I really enjoyed this one, thanks largely, I think, to Lee Min Ki’s quirky charms and the witty writing. Plus, it was really cute. And okay, it devolved into some cliches in the end, but this drama still made me laugh like a loony, and had some really endearing characters. And I liked the episodic feel to it. It kept things interesting and fresh. Also, have I mentioned that it stars Lee Min Ki? It is not possible for me to have enough love for this man. So adorable.
I didn’t actually watch a lot of these kinds of dramas this year, which is something of a blessing, considering how mediocre and unimaginative they usually are. But I did manage to see some of Winter Bird, Ah Hyeon Dong Madam, and My Man’s Woman (I’ve lumped this one in with the rest, due to the theme of extramarital affairs that is so damn popular amongst Friday dramas…not that My Man’s Woman was a Friday drama).
And…well…My Man’s Woman was okay, with some great actors in the mix, like Bae Jong Ok and Kim Hee Ae, but…I dunno, it was just another Kim Soo Hyun drama. She’s called the greatest writer in Korea for a reason, I suppose, but it had all the same tropes and even the same kind of ending that she always writes. And I’m sick of all those dramas about husbands cheating on their wives. And I felt that Kim Hee Ae’s character was handled in an overly femme fatale kind of way. I guess I’m just not into this genre?
As for Winter Bird…Man, I wish Park Sun Young would stop starring in family dramas, and go for some meatier roles. She has the talent; why not use it? I adored her in Oh! Pil Seung, Bong Soon Young, but haven’t seen her act a truly notable character since. And I’m sorry, but I rolled my eyes a lot at all the melodramatic, overdone shenanigans (“I’m married! But I love him! But he’s my adoptive brother!”). And Yoon Sang Hyun really, really grates on my nerves.
Ah Hyeon Dong Madam…Well, it seems to be pretty light-hearted so far, and at least it doesn’t seem to have descended to the hysterics of Dear Heaven yet, but it’s only a matter of time. This is, after all, Im Seong Han that we’re talking about. Her dramas always start off okay, and then inevitably descend into terrifying levels of hell, populated by parental disapproval and lots and lots of cancer.
Best comedy of the year? Hands down, Mixed-Up Investigative Agency, aka Evasive Inquiry Agency. Forget sitcoms like The Unstoppable High Kick, which tended to go up and down in terms of quality. MIA stars Lee Min Ki, which of course makes my heart drip into all kinds of butter, along with Ye Ji Won, Ryu Seung Soo and Lee Eun Sung. Is that not a great cast? And it’s written by Park Yeon Seon, the wonderful writer behind such gems like Alone in Love, and the hit film My Tutor Friend. And the really refreshing thing about this drama? Not only is it belly-achingly hilarious, but it doesn’t make the romance the central aspect of the show, which, like with White Tower, is nothing but all kinds of awesome. (Not that I hate romance or anything, despite what it may seem by reading everything I’ve written so far. It’s just that I hate romance just for romance’s sake…If it doesn’t do anything for your show, DON’T PUT IT IN! Who cares about ratings, anyway? Just try to write a high quality drama, and people, no matter how few, will appreciate it. Viewers know crap when they see it…it’s just that they tend to ignore that fact a lot of the time.) Thank you, Park Yeon Seon, for penning a drama that is a true comedy.
Of course I left out a lot of different dramas that I also saw from this write-up, but that’s mostly because I don’t care to write about stuff I either didn’t really care about or nearly threw up watching, and also because this is way too long already. (Is anyone even still reading this?)
Like I said before, 2007 was an interesting year. It had a pretty wide variety of different dramas, with the immense popularity of the sageuk, the full-force return of the medical drama (Lee Beom Soo was hot in Surgeon Bong Dal-hee), and some really good, gritty dramatic dramas (I dare you to say that ten times fast). So there was lots of hope for the K-drama world, but there was also some pretty embarrassing crap which do not bear mentioning.
*cough*Hello! Miss! Witch Amusement!*cough* Here’s to crossing our fingers for an even better K-drama run in 2008. I think that’s something we can all agree on.
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, Coffee Prince, Dae Jang Geum, Dal Ja's Spring, Devil, Insoon Is Pretty, King and I, Legend, Madam Ah Hyun Dong, Mixed-up Investigative Agency, My Man's Woman, Surgeon Bong Dal Hee, Taereung National Village, Thank You, Time of Dog and Wolf, White Tower, year in review, year in review 2007, Yi San