Heady with a chance of ho hum [Year in Review, Part 3]
This has been an exceptional year for kdramas. Just ask Kim Gab-soo, if you can catch him in an idle moment, that is. The man appeared in ten dramas this year, a number that is mind-boggling in itself and one which is bound to make Bae Yong-joon’s fans wail.
But it isn’t just the sheer volume of Kim Gab-soo awesomeness that we could feast on that makes 2010 a heady year. No, for me it was how many dramas were jostling for first place that makes this year especially exhilarating. Not since 2007 have I seen such quality or liked so many dramas in a span of just twelve months. Altogether I watched more than twenty but will exclude from this year-end review the ones that I dropped or put on hold after 1-3 episodes. That leaves me with fifteen dramas, arranged from least-liked to the one that owns my heart this year.
15. Mary Stayed Out All Night
First, a caveat. MSOAN isn’t my most disliked drama this year. If it were, I would have ditched it long ago. That infamy belongs to a drama that chills me to the bone just at the mere thought of it; I would rather put up with a clowder of caterwauling cats than watch one more episode of Road No. 1. MSOAN, on the other hand, I plan to watch to the bitter end. When it’s all over (next week), I will throw my hands into the air and yell, “At last!”
(I’m plodding on mainly for you, Kim Jae-wook, even though you walk funny in the drama and your head bobs like some springs have come undone in your neck. Because your Jung-in is the only character I care about, that’s why. And because any guy who gifts his girl with a library is just tops in my books.)
I can’t wait for the drama to be done because this is hands down the most boring thing I’ve watched all year. With the exception of Episode 1, which was cute, and Episodes 11-13, which were crazy (and I’ll explain why shortly), I’ve watched MSOAN with my head constantly hitting the desk. If you have insomnia, look no further than Episodes 2-10 for an instant cure. Like the day Mu-gyul and Mary (Moon Geun-young) decide to take his rickety van to the beach, driving for miles and getting lost, so the drama chugs along with no clear sense of direction and purpose, recycling plotlines and clichés with audacious predictability. I had to laugh when they finally arrive at a forest instead of the beach and Mu-gyul says, “This place is full of dead wood.” That’s exactly what you are, Show! Tellingly, it is Mu-gyul who lures Mary out for that all-night escapade despite knowing her father’s fierce objections. Because, you see, in Mu-gyul’s world it’s all about Mu-gyul. The guy is so self-absorbed it’s nigh impossible for me to get behind our OTP (one true pairing).
To think I watched this in the first place because I adored Jang Geun-seok in last year’s crack drama, You Are Beautiful. But whereas his Hwang Tae-kyung in YAB made me giggle, his Mu-gyul in MSOAN just makes me want to hit someone, with a bat. First of all, I can’t stand how petty he is over this and that or how peevish he gets when things don’t go his way. Compared to stoic and long-suffering Jung-in, Mu-gyul just keeps acting all precious, egged on no doubt by Mary’s tremulous Mugyul-ahhhs and mothering. Second, it’s the sloppy characterization giving rise to his contradictory behavior and mood shifts. Supposedly, if the first few episodes are to be believed, he is rather well-known in the music industry. But then he plays on street corners like some hobo and has trouble paying rent. His mom is reprehensible in her utter lack of maternal responsibility, but he lights up like a Christmas tree as soon as he hears or sees her.
The drama tries to be quaint and quirky, perhaps to set itself apart from the usual fare. Yet it relies on rehashed tropes and stereotypes to convey its story. Mu-gyul is a rocker and don’t you forget it, hence his garb and the ubiquitous graffiti. Meddlesome parents? Check. Clingy ex-loves? Check. A writer who bails mid-show after realizing (or being made to realize) that her writing sucks? Check. New writer comes on board from Episode 11 and suddenly my forehead is no longer bruised from the stupor-induced headdesking. Instead my jaw is on the floor because the drama has decided to go all absurd and zany on us. Now things are moving! Now everyone is staying together! (And my mind whirls from trying to compute the consequences of Mu-gyul’s mom moving in with Mary’s dad. Does that spell doom for the OTP and hope for my Jung-in?)
MSOAN limped along for ten episodes and is now lurching wildly toward a finish line that I can’t imagine. Seriously, I have no idea how the drama is going to end. But a couple of things are certain: My Precious will be played at least ten times in the finale and Mu-gyul is going to sign off with Mary Christmas. Jung-in will stay out all night, socks against cheek, and contemplate his next drama: Not Such a Wonderful Day After All.
14. Coffee House
Another caveat. I’ve watched only five episodes of Coffee House but would like to review it anyway because I think five’s a fair enough number to judge a drama’s worth and include it in this ranking of sorts. One of my friends gives a drama 20 minutes before deciding whether or not to drop it, another gives it two episodes. However varied our reserves of patience, we three agree that you do not need to watch a drama to the end to rate it. Life’s too short for bad dramas.
I thought the opening episode zippy and hilarious and really liked Kang Ji-hwan’s chemistry with his two female leads, Park Shi-yeon and Ham Eun-jung. KJH playing a writer immediately won him some brownie points; PSY I have liked since La Dolce Vita and Story of a Man. HEJ, in my first look at her, struck all the right chords with her earnest albeit klutzy turn as Kang Seung-yeon. Her family members were all win as well especially with Ahn Gil-kang playing her well-meaning but rather dense father. I loved how fun-loving and close-knit her family was; their interactions were adorable and a big reason why I enjoyed the episode so much.
But after that delightful opener, the drama quickly lost its gleam and by Episode 5 I was close to calling it quits. If I tell you that I have but one beef with the drama but am thinking of dropping it nonetheless, you might think I’m small-minded and nitpicky. But the thing is, this gripe is so insidious it has pretty much overshadowed my positive feelings about Coffee House.
I hate the Lee Jin-soo character. There, I’ve said it.
What are we supposed to make of this guy who tortures his secretary with demands that get increasingly outrageous? Is he merely eccentric or downright depraved? The last straw was when he forced Seung-yeon into the luggage with scant regard for her well-being. Since when did human experimentation become part of the writing process for a novelist? Are we supposed to watch his cruel antics and guffaw because “chill, babe, it’s only a drama”?
But I couldn’t help laughing when, for a change, Jin-soo gave Seung-yeon a reprieve and tortured Ji-won (Jung Woong-in) instead, all in the name of helping Eun-young get rid of her pesky ex-fiance. The pranks were so funny I had to give our writers (the one writing the drama, and the one inside the drama) props for cleverness and creativity.
So yes, I’m still in two minds about Coffee House. On one hand there’s an easy and comfy vibe about the drama thanks to some awesome chemistry and silly milk-the-laughs setups. On the other hand I get hives watching writer/psycho (can’t decide which yet) Jin-soo and his so-sharp-they-can-maim pencils at work. The latter is more compelling at the moment because apparently repulsion lingers longer than amusement. Freak me out and you are toast.
13. Dr. Champ
Kim Yeon-woo (Kim So-yeon) is a medical resident with a bright future who suddenly finds said future dim and uncertain because she refuses to doctor a report that would exonerate her chief (played with slimy aplomb by Jo Min-ki) from malpractice. Blacklisted by every hospital in the nation, coupled with two belated discoveries (her boyfriend is cheating on her; her mother is using her to pay off her loafer of a son’s debts), it’s no surprise that Yeon-woo wears a scowl like a second skin. If you need your heroine to be chirpy, go watch something else because Yeon-woo’s sullen expression will stay with her for fourteen out of sixteen episodes, no less.
Through a chance encounter (and there are plenty in this show), Yeon-woo makes an impression on Dr. Woodpecker Lee Dong-wook (Uhm Tae-woong) and the two become medical director and sidekick, respectively, at Taereung National Village. Why Dr. Lee hires Yeon-woo is a puzzle (she has no interest in sports and no training in sports medicine), but then again you can’t blame the guy for not keeping a straight head because his mind is occupied with more pressing concerns. Such as revenge, for example.
This is an odd drama because with a title like Dr. Champ, and with its setting the country’s training village for all Olympic medal hopes, you expect a certain vibrancy. You expect charismatic coaches and tip-top facilities. Physical and mental health being so crucial to an athlete, you expect a fully equipped medical center with a competent team of physicians, physiotherapists and psychiatrists. But the Taereung in the drama has none of these.
What the show spends a lot of time doing is focus on Yeon-woo’s ineptness, her one-sided crush on Dr. Lee, his melancholy because of old (emotional) wounds that refuse to heal, the woman responsible for his misery who is herself a walking picture of woe, and Ji-heon’s (Jung Kyeo-woon) dogged efforts to woo an unwooable Yeon-woo. What the show needs to spend MORE time doing is focus on the bromance, dammit!
The best scenes in Dr. Champ are Ji-heon and Sang-bong (Jung Seok-won) together, and I’m not saying that just because we get loads of UNgratuitous scenes of the two guys half-naked. Their bond is deep and moving. Their rivalry is awesome to watch… until the drama decides to dial up the stupid and turn Sang-bong into Dramatic Plot Device to Effect Ji-heon’s Growth. Of all the characters to get shunted, it has to be Sang-bong? He with the deep sexy voice and a body to die for? Are you out of your mind, Show?
But nothing beats the stupid as much as this one: Denying viewers their right to watch a competition to its end, whether that end be glorious, bloody or whatever. All that nail-biting and pent-up emotions (from qualifiers, semi-finals, etc.) rocketing toward a finale that you then black out? Oh, of course, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters to a top athlete. Who cares whether you win in the end or lose? Finals are so overrated. And don’t hold your breath waiting for a flashback of that hard-fought final because we ain’t gonna give it to you, bwahaha!
Seriously, Show, I hate you for that. And for zilch chemistry between our lovable Ji-heon and Cold Fish Yeon-woo. Of course she eventually thaws but not before giving us Lackluster Performance and Deadest Kiss of the Year. In a telling remark, Ji-heon holds Yeon-woo and says, “I’m full of energy now; I’m giving part of my energy to you.” Too bad he couldn’t imbue the show with his verve. Or do anything about Uhm Tae-woong’s unflattering bird-like hairstyle.
12. Flames of Ambition
Does that image above unnerve you? The two women aren’t siblings, best friends or lovers. One gave the other a reason to go on living, the other reciprocated by trying to kill her (and thinking she succeeded), and together they are mothers to the most gorgeous thing to stride onto a kdrama stage this year. That he is 24-year-old Kim Min-jae played by 17-year-old Yoo Seung-ho is inconsequential; YSH’s fans paw at their screens whenever there’s a close-up of him and then go to confessional afterwards.
I confess: I wanted to give up the drama after Episode 5 but YSH appeared in Episode 6 and gave new meaning to “all is forgiven.” For YSH’s sake I would forget everything that I had disliked about the drama up to that point.
But how do you forget five episodes of the shrillest histrionics and most makjang of makjang plot elements? (A JoongAng Daily article defines “makjang” as literally “blind-end”; that is, story lines that careen toward the extreme and are “provocative, exaggerated and unbelievable.”)
Betrayal, rape, birth secrets, murder, blackmail, rape. (Yes, more than one rape because one isn’t revulsive enough. And yes, it’s still rape even if the guy who violated you is someone you like.) Childhood scenes that make your hair stand because chunks of raw meat still oozing blood are tanked with gusto and a child displays such bullying fearlessness you are pretty sure she’s either growing up to be a thug leader or a chaebol wife biding her time before she lines everyone up for target practice with real bullets. Screams to wake the dead. Tears upon tears. Back-stabbings and conniveries. Characters that never age, looking exactly as they did twenty-four years ago. (48-year-old Jo Min-ki playing a 24-year-old college student is just hysterical.) Characters writ larger than life.
Flames of Desire is the kind of drama that I normally refuse to touch, even with a ten-foot pole. But it is written by Jung Ha-yeon, a writer whose Shin Don, Count of Myeongdong and La Dolce Vita I adored, and whose characters I loved because they were real and human. I want badly to like Flames, too, but am finding it an uphill task because I can’t feel a thing for the characters. Shin Eun-kyung is burning up the screen as psychopathic Yoon Na-young and has no equal this year in the best actress category. But Na-young is so unreal. Watching her is like watching a volcano slowly erupt. The sight is surreal and fascinating to behold, from a very safe distance. Baek In-gi (Seo Woo) I can’t stand at all; her character is pretentious and grating. Her past, between the time she went missing and the present, is emerging in dribs and drabs and is supposedly dark and tragic. But she is so self-absorbed in her vendetta against the world it’s just hard to sympathize with her.
I have only watched eleven episodes (about one-fifth of the drama) and suppose the story will only get more complex and tangled, a prospect I’m not relishing. Still, this is a Jung Ha-yeon drama (even if I’m not a fan of the writing here yet) and music and cinematography are just gorgeous. Finally, after dissing Queen Seondeok in my review last year, I have Yoo Seung-ho penance to pay and might as well do it in a drama that has our lad maturing like fine wine. Cheers!
Sigh. Another drama in the Disappointing category. That should teach me not to expect a writer or director to always be churning out works of similar quality. Just because Kwak Jung-hwan’s Conspiracy in the Court was the most perfect drama to grace our screens in the three years preceding 2010, should we expect him to direct Chuno toward that same standard of perfection? Surely that would pose too heavy and unfair a burden on the man. Yet I did exactly that, stupidly.
It’s hard to explain what went wrong. The drama was sumptuous in presentation, with deft camerawork evident in every frame. Be it a close-up or panoramic shot, the details were exquisite (although some details, such as those concerning Lee Da-hae, were deemed too exquisite for consumption and had to be viewed through a lens most blurry). The cast more than delivered, with Jang Hyuk gifting us with his best acting ever in his 14-year career. So powerful was his performance, you might get an earful (and some nasty stares thrown in for good measure) if you dare suggest that another actor performed better this year. This isn’t Lee Jong-hyuk’s most memorable role as villain (Green Rose takes that honor), but you can’t deny that he was all kinds of hot in Chuno. The he’s-melting-me-into-a-puddle-of-drool kind of hot. Supporting cast members were mostly wonderful as well, although obviously no one at the TV station heard my whining about Kim Gab-soo’s measly screen time. I know the drama’s about slave hunters, but give the king more respect, will ya?
But despite scoring on all those counts, the drama fell flat somehow. It felt hollow, like chiffon cake. Mere weeks after watching the drama, I couldn’t place events and characters. Even now I would come across cast names for a drama and see that so-and-so acted in Chuno earlier this year. No recollection of said name or face at all. Ditto for the drama’s OST, not a single track. I’ve even forgotten how the drama ended! (For shame, thundie. Parked your brain in some distant garage while working on the fansubs, did you?)
I think Chuno suffers from two main problems. First, it’s overly in love with itself. It’s stylish, exceedingly so, but style without substance isn’t going to make a drama memorable in the long run and for the right reasons, such as claiming a spot in one’s heart. The same stylistic devices are rolled out every episode, like the slow-motion scenes and the too-long lingering over beautiful vistas. Setting taking precedence over story and form over function. It doesn’t make sense for Jang Hyuk’s Dae-gil to ride a horse with one arm bent in that awkward manner, but it sure makes for an arresting sight. Second, the writing is indecisive and oftentimes illogical. Not much slave hunting takes place after the first few episodes; it’s really Un-nyun hunting, isn’t it? The side plot about the slave revolt has no connection whatsoever with the main story and ne’er did the twain meet, or did they? (Can’t remember.) Entire scenes feel gratuitous, although I’ll gladly accept the comical ones with their ribald jokes, gracias.
In the end, the best thing about Chuno was one man’s stupendous acting. Just hone in on that and forget everything else.
10. Wish Upon a Star
A drama whose opening episode I could barely stand lands up in my Top 10. That, my friends, is one of the defining moments in this heady year of surprises. Happened more than once, too.
Thirty minutes into Episode 1 (and my second attempt at finishing this episode), I had the first paragraph of a recap planned. It would be snarky with many digs at Choi Jung-won’s overacting and the overall silliness of the story. Then I watched the second half and it was like running headlong into a tree that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Tone and atmosphere had shifted completely, turning somber and heartrending even. The world had fallen apart for CJW’s Pal-gang (and her five siblings) and the meanest thing I could do was serve up a recap that poked fun at her. I tossed recap and snark out the window and settled in for the long haul. A cute baby and a hot lead (Kim Ji-hoon) awaited so what was there to lose? I could always fast-forward CJW’s scenes if she persisted with acting like she was on crack.
Funnily, it wasn’t CJW’s scenes that I ended up fast-forwarding but Joon-ha’s (Shin Dong-wook) and Jae-young’s (Chae Young-in). Both had skulls as thick as bricks and didn’t understand the meaning of “buzz off.”
Joon-ha could have endeared himself to me if he ran many miles on a treadmill like a certain lawyer was wont to do, perspiration glistening on said lawyer’s high forehead (which got higher as the drama progressed). Alas, he lost goodwill because of his ajusshi hairdo and because his brother was crotchety and hence more attractive. (Incidentally, the latter didn’t apply in Dr. Champ; I’ll take a sunny Ji-heon over crankypants Dr. Lee any day.) In one fell swoop Jae-young redefined “desperado” and made every clingy second lead in a kdrama look insipid. She also registered the fastest character turnaround in kdrama history, but that one came too late in the game for us to dislike her less than we already did. Coming late in the game were also various plot turns that made me go “Whoa, Show, what the hell is going on?” but thankfully said shenanigans were swiftly resolved and the show returned to the happy and the warm.
This drama has heart, plenty of it. Take the scene of Pal-gang trudging in the snow with her youngest sibling strapped to her chest. I thought at first that a Nami-like teddy bear would be used because surely no PD would take a baby and put him through that punishing scene with the snow falling so heavily. But no, it is little Nami, his face peering out from underneath the hood. Seeing him, my eyes instantly teared.
There were many more occasions that made me tearful and also many that made me laugh. Humor is employed lightly, especially after CJW dials back her over-the-top acting, and is mainly used to advance the plot rather than for its own sake. For example, I adore Kang-ha and Pa-rang’s scenes together because they are just so cute. Best man-to-man talk of the year! But giggles aside, we see how Pa-rang is changing Kang-ha and breaking down the walls that the latter has erected around himself. More than the romance, it is Kang-ha’s slow but steady change from cold and unfeeling lawyer to family man that makes this drama a win for me. (I wish, though, that he didn’t get slapped so much. Each slap got the zits on his zit-prone left side of his face to flare up. Not a pretty sight.)
Wish Upon a Star would have ranked higher if its focus was primarily on the Jin and Won families. But because it threw into the stew the crazy (not funny-crazy but twisted-crazy) antics of Jae-young and her parents, its axis swung wildly from sweet to sinister and back again. It got draggy and repetitive in places, too, but most of that was Jae-young’s doing. In the end, the quibbles didn’t matter. Even now, weeks after I finished the show, I still miss the kids. It took days before I could get Pa-rang’s jingle about a 2,000-year-old goblin (and his unwashed undies) out of my head.
9. Oh! My Lady
Oh! My Lady OST – Choi Siwon – “못났죠” (I’m dumb) [ Download ]
I mulled a long time over whether to rank Wish Upon a Star higher or Oh! My Lady. WUAS’s plot is certainly more involved. On the other hand, I really disliked some of the characterization (Joon-ha, Jae-young, her parents) as well as the heavy-handed use of despised plot devices (last-minute kidnapping and dreaded disease, for instance). In the end, because it had far fewer “yuck” factors, I decided I liked Oh! My Lady slightly more.
This was hands down the easiest and most painless thing to watch all year, akin to cruising down a quiet highway without a care in the world. The ride was so breezy, sixteen hours felt like six. When it was over, I declared myself satisfied and promptly went on YouTube to find me some Choi Si-won clips.
It was fourteen episodes into the drama that I learned that our male lead was a member of the boy band Super Junior. That knowledge didn’t alter how I felt about his acting (more on that shortly), but it certainly made me sit up and take notice of his singing and of the song that his character Min-woo was practicing for the musical. When said musical was eventually unfurled in the last episode, I had to laugh because after all the media attention and commotion about funds and investors and fears that the musical would remain just a pipe dream, the event itself felt so much like a high school play! The stage was bare-bones and the theater just your average smallish cinema.
But that’s exactly the drama’s charm, that its setup is so simple. A woman in her mid-thirties (Chae Rim) becomes reluctant stay-in housekeeper to a star in his late-twenties who can’t act to save his life, she because she needs him to save her day-time job, and he because he discovers he’s father to a little girl that he didn’t know existed. Much of the drama’s tension comes from the two housemates trying to hide little Ye-eun from the world so that Min-woo can preserve his “hot and available” superstar status.
Choi Si-won is perfectly cast as Min-woo, an actor with killer looks and smile but not much smarts. (Think male version of a bimbo.) It’s hysterical how full of himself he is (where his fame is concerned) and yet also how self-aware he is of his limitations (he knows he’s a lousy actor). Min-woo’s growth—from star to actor, one with real acting chops and not just a pretty face, and from disinterested father to one who puts his little girl first—is what drives the drama and makes it so compelling to watch. The romance itself is fairly muted and doesn’t kick in until late in the game. I like that, actually; Min-woo and Gae-hwa are friends long before they become lovers.
Chae-rim is her usual reliable self, slipping into her role with ease. Her character and appearance remain constant throughout, even after she gets outed as Min-woo’s girlfriend. Gae-hwa’s non-growth may not go down well with some viewers, but I love that she’s the center of calm in Min-woo’s crumbling world. I wouldn’t call their chemistry sizzling but the two are cute together (he being considerably higher on the cute pole). Choi Si-won is a revelation and pretty much carries the drama; Oh! My Lady would be rather dull without him, to be honest. As for the rest of the main roles, Moon Jung-hee is mesmerizing when she dances, Lee Hyun-woo finally shows some fire in his acting, and Park Han-byul is nowhere near as annoying or clingy as she was in Fantasy Couple. Except for one nosy reporter and one manager with goldfish lips, there is no one you want to throttle. Oh wait, I forgot Gae-hwa’s ex-husband.
If you’ve had enough of makjang dramas and want something that won’t tax your brain or hurt your tummy, check out Oh! My Lady. You might even find yourself wishing it was several episodes longer, just so you could get more of Choi Si-won playing daddy. Oh, whom am I kidding? Just more of Choi Si-won, period!
8. My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
Of all the dramas that I watched this year, this is the one that I feel most sheepish about. I griped to friends about how the first episode bored me to tears and how I didn’t laugh, not even once. Like the good pals they were, they responded: “It doesn’t get any better!” Just the encouragement I needed, thank you. But since I like Shin Mina and Lee Seung-gi, and to prove I wasn’t one to follow the crowd, I tried Episode 2. Fell asleep midway, alas.
That was months ago. Recently, as we were discussing our nominations for the upcoming Editors’ Picks post, I sensed javabeans and girlfriday’s love for MGIAG and that got me thinking that I should give the drama another go. That it was just sixteen episodes made it a no-brainer decision for this procrastinator who had finished just five dramas in the first ten months of the year. Based on my hazy memories of the first ninety minutes, this should be as light a watch as Oh! My Lady.
Haha, thundie. You and your deluded expectations.
I don’t know if it’s because someone cast a spell on me, but this time around I couldn’t peel my eyes off the screen. To think I was going to ditch this or diss it by placing it at the bottom of my list! Instead it kept creeping up as I watched one episode after another, from 15th spot to 13th, and then 10th, and finally 8th.
This is a drama that truly grows on you, if you give it time. I started off really hating Lee Seung-gi’s overacting (and hair) in Episode 1; by the end of Episode 16 my heart was about to burst for him. (Love him more here than in Brilliant Legacy.) No, wait. It was ready to burst much earlier although I can’t pinpoint exactly when my dislike changed to mild affection and then grew into a fierce and protective love. Perhaps the process mirrors Woong’s own change of heart toward Mi-ho. He kept running away from her at first but in the end he couldn’t stay away.
Woong and Mi-ho’s relationship is one of the sweetest and most moving this year, and I’m ready to fight my friends in order to assert that claim. I’m also parking them in my best couple of the year spot (which they will share with two other couples). There’s a purity about their love that makes you press both palms to your chest and go “awww” repeatedly, provided you can see through your tears. I bawled like a baby. I floated out of my skin. I chewed my nails to the bone worrying whether Mi-ho would get enough (meat) to eat and whether gumiho hunter Dong-joo (No Min-woo) would do us all a favor and turn actress wannabe Hae-in (Park Soo-jin) into a one-winged rabid bat.
Ah, I kid. Dong-joo’s powers are all fake and he can’t turn anyone into anything even if his life depended on it. If anything, the guy’s a shoo-in for most misleading first impression of the year. Instead of making our hearts pound with fear at what he might to do to thwart our couple’s happiness, he became the threat that fizzled into (wooden) nothingness. Can’t blame the guy for being so dull when he spends nearly all his time staring at an hourglass! (And at a mirror. The guy’s too distractingly pretty.)
In the end, MGIAG was my surprise drama of the year, the one that made me eat humble pie. It made me giddily happy, and also deeply sad, in a way that shocked me because I never expected to cry so much. Its love story is fantastical, born of a folklore, but at its core there’s nothing mythical about it; it is just love, pure and simple. The drama made me think about life and death, and about how I ought to live should my days (or more important than that, my beloved’s days) be numbered.
(As a parting aside, the scene that cracked me up the most was the Giant parody, the one of the three siblings. Hilarious!)
7. Secret Garden
I have two crack dramas this year and Secret Garden is the second. By crack drama, I mean one that literally makes me light-headed from too much giggling and swooning. I think about it, I want to read about it, I abandon my “no spoilers please” convictions with no sense of shame. In the end I will probably get slightly (or majorly) sick of it because of over-exposure, but in the meantime I’m just lapping it all up like a bona fide addict. Oh, one more thing about crack dramas. They should be watched live, or as soon as possible. In that last regard I’m an abject failure because I ran out of time and watched just nine episodes of SG. (Guess what I will be watching first when this year-end review is done?)
This drama makes me laugh so hard. The lines are priceless and the dramatic setups perfectly staged. Seeing Joo-won (Hyun Bin) and Ra-im (Ha Ji-won) go at each other, trading barb for barb, is like spending a day with a favorite book, its razor-sharp wit tickling my funny bone. Just heavenly. Better yet, the sparkling exchanges aren’t limited to the two but apportioned generously among the other characters, such as Oska (Yoon Sang-hyun) and Joo-won’s mom, thus ensuring that there’s rarely a dull moment in the drama. The laughs increased markedly after the body swap, but those were mostly due to situational humor as our two lead characters struggled to make sense of the new weird. I was happy, though, when they switched back because I very much prefer the hilarity of their repartees.
Joo-won is my favorite character by far. Because Hyun Bin is so awesome in this role (the best I’ve seen of him yet, although I might change my mind after watching Friend, Our Legend), I’m cutting his Joo-won a lot of slack instead of cussing him for being a classic MCP (male chauvinistic pig) and motormouth. He’s just so deliciously layered and contrarian a character. Pompous and also petty, reactive but also ruminative, he’s simply a treat to watch.
Ha Ji-won, too, is a joy, although her Damo role will always be the bar that her other characters will strain toward but never quite reach. Her opening stuntwoman scene in SG took my breath away and must have caused many male viewers to go weak in the knees. (C’mon, X and Michael, ‘fess up.) Regardless of whether words are actually exchanged or not, our two leads have the best chemistry of the year, thus ensuring them a place on the best couple pedestal. Two people cannot be more different and yet belong more together.
One thing is tempering my enthusiasm, however. I’m not a fan of the SG writer, having been scarred (for life) by a couple of her dramas (yes, Lovers in Paris, I’m talking about you). For example, I enjoyed City Hall for the most part (lead chemistry there was amazing) but really disliked the last few episodes for taking too many liberties with logic and an audience’s goodwill. In the case of SG, there’s an ominous air surrounding the body swap (even if the results were pure comedy). I had chills just watching the scene in the mysterious garden where Ra-im’s dad (in a woman’s disguise) alluded to her ill health. If the drama decides to pull a WUAS on us and starts dialing up the twisted-crazy and the melodramatic theatrics, I swear I’m not watching any of Kim Eun-sook’s dramas again.
Wait… I think I swore the same thing after finishing LIP. Oops.
6. Sungkyunkwan Scandal
Ah, Show, how do I love thee? Let me list just three of the ways.
First, you are the crack to beat all crack dramas, at least for me. I spent more time on you than I did for other dramas this year (excluding the ones I worked on as a fansubs editor). Second, you introduced me to the world of boy bands and my life has never been the same again. I can now walk into a CD store and actually identify a Korean boy band by name, yahoo! How momentous, right? (And also how sneaky of you, Show. You’re a sageuk so the last thing you ought to do is lure me into the world of k-pop.) Third, you’ve forever altered the way I understand “moony” and “horsey”; I can’t utter those words now without looking around me in trepidation because apparently catfights and screams of “Mine!” will ensue. (Just ask javabeans, girlfriday and Dahee.)
I love sageuk and I loved Yoo Ah-in the first time I watched him in craptastic (awesome crap) Strongest Chil-woo. Those two reasons kindled a mild interest in Sungkyunkwan Scandal. But surprisingly (or maybe not since YAI didn’t make an appearance until toward the end), the actor who made the deepest impression on me the first episode was Micky Yoochun, a face I had never seen before. (Hello, there was no TV or PC in my cave!) You can say it was love at first sight for his Lee Sun-joon character. That scholarly air he exuded. That quiet superiority that was somehow attractive and not condescending. A gentleness. A strength. Those eyelashes.
Just like that, and with no warning (from 800,000 Cassies) whatsoever, I was a partial goner. And then, because this drama is merciless, YAI appeared.
Five sacks of smelling salts later, I pronounced the drama cracktastic and staggered into the arms of other similarly giddy fans. We linked arms and sang Chajatta, practiced Song Joong-ki winks, and secretly lamented that we weren’t Park Min-young. Some girls are just too lucky for words.
It’s been about two months since the drama ended and I’m in a much calmer place now. If you ask me what’s the big deal about Sungkyunkwan Scandal, I can tell you that it’s because the drama was so much fun and so very, very addictive. To watch, to recap, to squeal over with many other people. It had a wonderful ensemble of actors (young and old, newly minted and veteran) and an engaging plot helmed by liberal doses of humor, romance, bromance, intrigue and pathos. It was a coming-of-age story for not just one or two characters but four, and all were utterly winsome to boot. It had Kim Gab-soo.
I loved the drama ardently for the first eighteen episodes, downplaying its little imperfections (editing bloopers such as a sudden eclipse that plunged day into night) and Yoochun’s occasional acting lapses (for a newbie in his first lead role, he really was pretty good, all things considered). But the last two episodes took some of the wind out of my sails, wrapping things up rather illogically and haphazardly. I didn’t mind how the Geumdeungjisa plotline was resolved (I had expected all along that it wouldn’t be satisfactory), but other things niggled, like not giving us a final glimpse of YAI as uber-hot Wild Horse with his mane of the year. (Incidentally, did Lee Min-ho’s mane win last year?) By then I was also experiencing drama fatigue, a first for me. I guess it’s possible to be too immersed in a drama, to the point that you feel you can’t breathe.
SKKS was such a heady experience I don’t begrudge every second that I spent on it. I’ll do it all over again, in a heartbeat.
5. The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry
A kdrama is like a blind date. You don’t know how the day (or night) will pan out until you’ve experienced it. Just cross your fingers and offer up many prayers (or bribes). A first episode may suck. Middle episodes may drag. A finale may unleash a torrent of expletives from you who can’t write ‘asshole’ without replacing ‘s’ with an asterisk. In any year, try finding a handful of dramas that don’t trip up at some point. In other words, a practically perfect drama.
The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry was such a drama for me. That it’s not ranked higher is simply because I didn’t cry as much watching it (crybabies use different criteria for judging a drama, so there), and because Kim Bum got bummed off the list of desirables by one Yoo Seung-ho. Apparently there’s an unwritten rule in the (powerful) kdrama community that you can only lust after one hot young actor at one time. Defy said rule and you get packed off to a dungeon where you have to watch the ending of Lovers in Paris on repeat.
This was the drama that hit closest to home for me, that got me thinking about my past and my present. I loved it from start to end, laughed and cried with the characters, and felt so blissful that I could experience something so wonderful, with nary a wart. Situations felt real, whatever angst there was didn’t get wrung to death, and the friendship that the three women shared was presented to us with a breadth and depth that was rare and refreshing in a kdrama. They didn’t always agree, but they were always there for each other. They shared more scenes together than one would expect in a drama that’s supposed to be about finding love and marriage. My most enduring images aren’t of the three with their respective boyfriends (former or current) but of them shoulder to shoulder, whether on a madcap exorcism adventure or digging into a cake in search of a ring from a supposed suitor. “When the rain falls, look for your friends… because you are never alone.”
Friendship. Contentment. Acceptance. Laughter. Finding happiness in the present and within yourself, rather than in an uncertain future and in a man who may or may not be the right one for you. Pursuing your dreams, no matter what others say. Realizing that you are stronger than you think.
Its themes resonated with me. Its humor was so infectious strangers thought I was loony because I was smiling to myself as I walked past them. Its characters were so lovable they burrowed into my heart and did not leave. I even stopped hating on asshole Sang-woo (Lee Pil-mo) after a while, because I was too busy making goo-goo eyes at one practically perfect Kim Bum playing a practically perfect Min-jae. Before Shin Eun-kyung set my screen on fire, Park Jin-hee was my best actress of the year. She was just so amazing with her impeccable comic timing and emotional range. And then there was Eom Ji-won, so different here from Magic, and so dear. How I adored her! Funniest actress of the year and definitely best supporting. Rounding up this fabulous ensemble were level-headed Best Friend Forever Wang Bit-na, “Holy cow, she’s your mom, Min-jae? You lucky bastard!” Park Ji-young, and zaniest suitor of the year Choi Chul-ho.
A final pat on the back? Best rom-com of the year, Show.
Since we’ve entered my Top 5 and are rolling out the accolades, here’s a drama that’s going to pick up a string of them. How about best script, for starters?
To think I found the first few episodes overwrought and makjangish. A family cruelly ripped apart by greed, murder, shitty weather and a few hot buns. Four children suddenly orphaned and separated. American soldiers with brains the size of ants. Shooting and killing. The manifold tragedies felt manipulative, like someone was choking me and screaming, “Cry, you stony-hearted one, cry!”
And then suddenly it all started making sense. Every tragic thing that happened needed to happen, as the base for this gigantic pile of steel to rise. The children became adults, two men began plotting revenge for sins of yesteryears, a woman dreamed of finding her brothers, a villain grew more villainy, Gangnam began to rise from the plains, and three families found themselves intertwined by a strange commingling of love and hatred (mostly hatred). In the background and encroaching ever closer were political and business intrigues and upheavals. This was your Seoul of the 1980s.
The plot is the most complex I’ve seen all year and can’t be explained in just a few paragraphs. This is a story spanning many years and it needs to be watched faithfully, without skipping episodes, in order for every piece of the puzzle to fit correctly. A ten-episode extension (turning this from 50 episodes to 60) caused the plot to drag somewhat (what’s with the never-ending boiler woes?), but the lag didn’t last long and soon the drama was hopping again.
Some of the most memorable and heartrending scenes this year have come from Giant. I dare you to stay dry-eyed when the siblings find each other again (shoot, now I’m crying), or when one of them is forced to arrest his brother. Or how about the Samcheong Camp scenes, so horrifying and yet also terribly moving? Of course some of the scenes were comical, unintentionally so. Like Gang-mo (Lee Bum-soo) riding triumphantly atop an earthmover. Show, you’re so obvious but I still love you anyway.
The drama began by whacking me over the head with the tragic, and it ended with me crying like a baby. But what an ending! Glorious doesn’t even cut it. It was like everyone of the cast came together and agreed, “This is the last one, mates. Let’s act like our lives depend on it.” The ones I expected to deliver did, like Jung Bo-seok in what is possibly his most chilling role yet. Just listen to his cackles and see if your skin does not crawl. Our best villain of the year. Lee Bum-soo grew on me as the drama progressed, thanks in part to a dramatic reduction in the amount of (overly light) foundation that was getting slapped on his face. (Guy looked like an apparition at first.) Awesome though his Gang-mo character was, it paled in comparison with Park Sang-min’s Seong-mo. Superb, superb acting and my automatic choice for best supporting male lead of the year. Then there’s Joo Sang-wook, an actor I didn’t expect to deliver who did, and in a most powerful way, too. He’s one of this year’s delightful surprises.
As a period drama, Giant is riveting stuff and so far superior to 2008’s East of Eden that any attempts to mention them in the same breath (as though they are two peas in a pod) should be greeted with a snort of disgust. Don’t let the (flimsy) semblances mislead you. Whoever coined the title Giant knew this drama would tower over most of the offerings this year. Watch it to see if you agree. And get the tissues ready. You’ll need plenty.
Don’t ask me how it happened, but one moment I was humming away to Chajatta and the next moment I was jumping two feet into the air.
Golly, who put the Comrades theme song into my Sungkyunkwan Scandal album in my iPod? (You did, dolt. By accident.) It had taken weeks before I could get the song out of my head and stop the tears as I remembered our soldiers in the 1st Squad and what had happened to them… Oh, oh, oh. And now that I had finally managed to excise the memories, some idiot revived them without permission? I’m on a cracktastic high because of SKKS, don’t make me sad again because of some tragic war drama! You have no idea how hard it was to get said drama out of my system and into a place where I could function without breaking into tears and “Chingu-yah, chingu-yah” every ten minutes!
In an unusual year where six dramas fought tooth and nail to be THE drama of the year (my top 6 were all my No. 1, at some point), I feel most guilty about relegating Comrades to third spot. There isn’t a single misstep in this masterpiece that commemorates the beginning of the Korean War; everything about it is just top-notch. Cinematography is so breathtaking you forget momentarily the deaths that took place just minutes ago. Writing is water-tight, although I would have loved for the body count to be lower, very much lower. This isn’t that hot mess of a drama, Road No. 1. There’s no romance here, not overtly, yet there’s so much love it rips your heart out. A squad leader’s love for his men, so deep he will lay down his life for them (and they for him). A mother’s love for her child, he too young to be donning a soldier’s uniform and going forth to a war that he can’t understand and which will likely send him back in a casket. A son’s love for his mother, so fierce he will desert his squad and risk death. A couple’s love for each other, even though they aren’t a couple anymore but enemies.
The relationships. The brotherhood. The men of Squad One.
In a drama that did not whitewash the horrors of war, not even a teeny bit (hunger is such an overarching force), what I will remember the most is not the relentless mental and physical pummeling. No, what I will never forget are the men of Squad One, every single one of them. Their characters writ so close it’s as if each is a blood kin, I feared for them, I mourned their deaths with a sorrow that surprised even this crybaby. (Understand now why I had to get the drama quickly out of my system?)
Because the acting was so real, you see. If you ask me to pick a best actor from among them, I can’t, unless you allow me to pick an entire squad. I’m sure that’s how Sergeant Lee Hyun-joong (Choi Su-jong) would have wanted it, too, he who always put his men’s interest before his own. Besides Squad One, there’s my favorite Kim Myung-soo playing a gruff but gentle North Korean soldier who accepts South Korean deserter Sung-il (Jung Tae-woo in an astounding performance) as one of his men and grows to care for him with an affection that will make you weep. I also want to mention Lee Tae-ran. Such quiet but powerful acting from our female lead in this male-dominated drama.
Comrades is about a most monumental event that began sixty years ago. But rather than focusing on the ideologies or politics that led to the outbreak of the Korean War, or on the mechanics of the war itself, it has chosen to focus on the human cost of the war. More than a war drama, it is a love story (or multiple love stories) so searing you will not emerge unscathed. It is above all a tribute to the tenacity of the human spirit in the most hellish of times.
My most emotionally affecting drama this year. And my favorite ensemble, too.
2. Joseon X-Files
I don’t really know how to review this drama because the truth is that I don’t understand it very well, sci-fi not being my strong suit. I feel like a treasure hunter who has stumbled upon a treasure buried deep beneath the ground. He knows it’s there, his trusty detector or sixth sense or whatever confirms it, but he isn’t sure what the treasure comprises. More importantly, he has no idea how to get it out!
In a nutshell, Joseon X-Files makes me feel rather dim.
I don’t know how you watch dramas, but I tend to watch mine pretty late in the night. By that time my brain is half-fried and I’m not terribly alert. Also, if it happens to be a drama where I’m editing the subs, I watch in a rather clinical way. My attention is mostly on the lines (and timing and spelling and a bunch of other editing concerns) rather than on what is unfolding on screen. For a drama like JXF, such dispersed attention just will not do. To fully appreciate and comprehend JXF, each of its 45-minute episode needs to be watched several times. In an episode itself, certain scenes need to be rewound. After finishing the drama, you need to go back to the beginning and start over.
That sort of dedicated scrutiny takes time and time simply wasn’t on my side. I watched each episode only once. I didn’t understand many things. I certainly did not understand the ending.
Even so, I knew I was in the presence of greatness. The directing was so masterful it was by far the best of the year. Episodes 7 & 8 (or was it 8 & 9?), if they were repackaged as standalone episodes or short films, could compete at any international film festival and actually win, they were that magnificent. The writing was brilliant and of course immensely complex, with every episode linked in some way even though each dealt with a different story (most of the time).
I’m sure my fellow reviewers, who are much more perspicacious than me, will review JXF in a manner that will do it justice. On my part, instead of giving you a half-baked review (oops, I already did!), I will simply tell you what I love most about the drama.
First of all, the cast. I liked Kim Ji-hoon so much here, I immediately picked up Wish Upon a Star after JXF ended. WUAS was a drama I wasn’t planning to touch at all at first (because of how much I disliked Choi Jung-won’s wooden acting in Kingdom of the Wind), so for KJH to change my mind he must have really left a positive impression. But funnily, my favorite actor in JXF wasn’t KJH and neither was it Kim Gab-soo (even though I loved them both), it was Jo Hee-bong. I think the camera must really love JHB here because I’ve never seen him look so good! He had lots of close-up shots and I found his many expressions just so fascinating and funny. Of all the characters his was the one that felt most real. In contrast, Im Jung-eun’s felt the most distant; I could never quite fathom her motives and was constantly wondering if she was friend or foe.
Second, the bits of history. Like Banchon, the despised place where the lowliest dwelt. Or the secret investigation records. I’m always happy when I uncover something new as I’m watching a sageuk, like how certain groups of people lived, or what beliefs they subscribed to.
I know I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer and JXF made me feel even more doltish. It befuddled me, but it also bedazzled me. I must rewatch it, and soon.
To organize my year-end review in this manner, with No. 15 going first and my No. 1 last, I knew I was taking a big risk and also being utterly stupid. If I piss everyone off with my first few reviews (since these are the dramas I like the least), who’s going to remain behind to find out which one I love the most? Moreover, since I can only write in the order that the paragraphs will appear (because that’s how my idiotic brain functions, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, no new line appearing until the old one has been edited to death), it’s highly likely that I will be so exhausted by the time I come to my drama of the year I can’t write one more word.
But yes I can. And yes I will. Because I love you so much, Jejoongwon.
You are not simply the best drama this year, you trump the ones made in 2008 and 2009 as well. You taught me so much. I dug into your background and was amazed at how closely you adhered to history. There was indeed such a hospital as Jejoongwon. There was indeed such a man as Hwang Jung.
The story of Hwang Jung will stay with me forever, because bringing him to life was Park Yong-woo in the most gripping male lead performance of the year. *ducks poisonous arrows from Jang Hyuk’s fans*
You can’t watch Hwang Jung and not feel your heart break into many pieces. You see how he suffers, and how he fights back, not with ferocity but with fortitude, overcoming each obstacle with stubborn doggedness and childlike hopefulness. And when he doesn’t fight back but slump in despair because circumstances are just too overwhelming, or when he’s done all he can but others have done more, to impede his every step, you feel your heart tighten for him and you weep for this foolish man who’s clinging onto an impossible dream.
A butcher becoming a doctor? Are you kidding me? This is Joseon! Yet it is true. A butcher from the lowest of Joseon castes did indeed claw his way out of a wretched centuries-old fate to become one of Korea’s first surgeons.
Written by Lee Ki-won, who also wrote 2007’s brilliant White Tower, and directed by Hong Chang-wook, who also directed Scale of Providence, Jejoongwon is not merely a careful and credible reenactment of events leading to the establishment of Jejoongwon, Korea’s first western-style hospital. It also shows us a Joseon on the wane. It shows a country on the cusp of a new history, one fraught with anxiety and also much excitement, as foreigners arrived in droves and made their mark.
I loved watching Jejoongwon’s history unfold on screen (and reading as much about it as I could when I wasn’t watching). But more than the historical events surrounding the hospital’s establishment, it was the personal journey of Hwang Jung, his rivalry with the enigmatic Baek Do-yang (Yeon Jung-hoon in a memorable performance), his bond with the men who loved and protected him, and his love for Han Hye-jin’s Yoo Seok-ran (and hers for him; they are my original best couple of the year) that made this such an unforgettable watch.
The cast is unforgettable as well, with everywhere-this-year Kim Gab-soo playing the coolest Joseon dad ever. Such a treat to listen to him spout English! Son Hyun-joo’s cameo was the best this year, too. Such a brief scene but so powerful.
To end, I would like to show you a glimpse of why this drama owns my heart.
- 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
- 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, Coffee House, Comrades, Dr. Champ, featured, Giant, Jejoongwon, Joseon X-Files, Mary Stayed Out All Night, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, Oh My Lady, Secret Garden, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, Wish Upon a Star, year in review, year in review 2010