Objects in mirror are closer than they appear [Year in Review, Part 4]
I have to say, 2010 was a downright awesome year. It was the year of bromance, the year that Santa came in August, the year when guys had perms and noonas ruled, the year of the sparkly tracksuit and hoi-hoi, the year that makgulli made a comeback. But most importantly for me, it was the year I joined Dramabeans and got to know all of you. So thanks, for all the encouragement, the thoughtful commentary, the dissenting voices, the snark, and of course…the fangirling. It’s been a helluva year for this recapper, and I for one couldn’t ask for anything better for Christmas than one giant, crazy, Dramabeans family.
Kim Gun Mo – “울어버려” (Go Ahead and Cry) – Queen of Reversals OST Download
Here’s everything I watched in its entirety (unless otherwise stated) in 2010, in order of airdate:
The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry
Revisiting this series actually made me nostalgic. Why does January feel like a million years ago? The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry was all the right things for me, at just the right time. It had a great sense of humor that felt grounded in reality, because even if the situations seemed crazy (and boy, were they), they were based in characters that felt real.
At the heart of the drama was the trio of ladies: Shin-young, Da-jung, and Bu-ki were all such colorful and vivacious women, and watching them tread the murky waters of dating and working in their thirties just hit that sweet spot of funny, real, and poignant. Eom Ji-won in particular stole my heart as the flighty, marriage-obsessed Da-jung, who wore designer duds to seek out gurus and shamans to find her mate. She made me alternately sigh, laugh out loud, shake my head, and want to hug her.
But what drove the series was the quintessential noona-killer romance between 24-year old Min-jae (Kim Bum) and 34-year old Shin-young (Park Jin-hee), which just rocked my socks off. These two played such a natural progression of their chemistry and their eventual love that I was completely enamored with this couple and their every flirty exchange.
What’s great is that with a couple like this, the basic premise of their age gap means that conflict is inherent in their relationship, and the drama doesn’t shy away from what Shin-young faces when she chooses to give in to her heart. It’s an organic conflict that comes from the characters just living according to their respective ages, so it doesn’t have to rely on crazy twists of fate to drum up drama.
Despite the fact that Min-jae’s mom and Shin-young’s ex have their own loveline which is way too coincidental, the setup of the 44-34-24 ages and the turning points that each character faces is such a nicely woven world, where love, work, age, and dreams collide.
What I loved more than anything was that Shin-young was a character with whom I could identify, and root for with no reservation. She had real fears and limitations and struggled to get what she had in life, and didn’t repress her own desires like a sappy Cinderella. This is definitely going to end up a rainy day drama for me, because it made me thankful for my friends, hopeful for my future, and wishing for that same kind of unconventional love.
Pasta had one thing going for it, in my book: my endless love for Lee Seon-kyun and Gong Hyo-jin. If they had cast anyone I loved any less, I would’ve checked out of this miles before it ended. They sure were cute, the bickering, yelling, pasta-making duo. But oy with the story that goes nowhere.
This drama had a lot of great elements that I took to right away. For one, it’s set in a restaurant, which I love by default. It’s also got some great food porn that made me super hungry and even attempt cooking (horror!) when watching the show. Let’s just say it didn’t end well for a certain frying pan. But in its attempt to dramatize the inner workings of the kitchen and the artistry of cooking, it sort of went too far…so much so that by the end of the drama, I was throwing my hands in the air going, “How HARD could it POSSIBLY be to make Linguine with Clams?? Is it the goddamn Mona Lisa of pastas?”
They wanted to make the world of cooking seem dramatic, but ended up trivializing it because I can only be made to care about Linguine with Clams for so long. Really. It’s Linguine. With Clams. I’m gonna need a little more conflict that means something to those of us whose cooking vocabulary consists of: reheat, toast, and call for delivery. How about actually utilizing your second leads or giving the couple a conflict that doesn’t involve yelling over pasta?
What amazes me is that nothing ever happens to the main characters, despite lots of scurrying about. It’s like watching a chef do lots of cool tricks with your food as he cooks it right in front of you, and then when you look down at your plate, it’s just fried rice. All flash, no bang.
It’s actually so uneventful that the drama doesn’t so much end, as it just…stops. He doesn’t let her go to Italy to better herself as a chef for admittedly selfish reasons, and then they just go about being in the same kitchen, with the same dynamic that they always had. So, then…why exactly did I have to wait twenty episodes for that? What changed for them? What did he give up to be with her? What’s that? Nothing? Oh, nothing. Well, I’m certainly glad I learned that lesson.
What this drama had in spades was the undeniably easy, breezy chemistry between the leads. Too bad it was undercooked and over-sauced.
God of Study
God of Study kept me watching for one reason: the fresh-faced cast of kids who were all endearing, engaging, and good. Their individual stories with their families, and the realistic dilemmas they faced as kids in high school—feeling lost, adrift, having a crush on that guy who has a crush on someone else—these were the things that kept the drama afloat.
The rest? Could have gone down a toilet and it would have made the drama shorter, speedier, and a whole lot better. For one, there’s only so much test prep that can be made dramatically interesting. After a certain point, we get it. No, really. We geddit. I remember being in high school and studying my ass off to get into a good school. I appreciate the message, but I don’t actually think anyone watched this drama and learned revolutionary studying techniques.
Also, the adult cast was either wasted (as is the case with Bae Doona) or totally miscast (sorry, Kim Suro, but no one’s buying it). I don’t see why you’d cast a comedian and then make him supremely unfunny and devoid of personality as a character. It confused me.
Yoo Seung-ho carried the show as the bad-boy-turned-good, and now I’m a fan. Although not enough to follow him to makjang-land. I’ll just wait till he headlines something where people smile.
Cinderella’s Sister is an interesting case, really, because I utterly LOVED the drama in the first four episodes, set in the past, or the early years when we meet Eun-jo and Hyo-sun as teenagers. Had the drama stayed in that era, with no time leaps and no chances for people to run off to the “army” and go get lobotomies instead, then I might have continued to love this drama till the end.
As it stands, though, the show did jump forward, and it failed me—which I haven’t yet forgiven it for, because frankly, I’m still upset about it. Why did you have to go and ruin a good thing? Why did you have to lop off Eun-jo’s glorious mane and make her heart locked up so deep that Ocean’s Eleven couldn’t crack that safe? What kills me most about this show is that it went beyond just having the potential to be awesome—it WAS awesome, and then…not so much.
Despite the downward spiral of Show and my sanity, I absolutely fell in love with Moon Geun-young‘s amazing range as an actress. I felt every bit of pain and anguish trapped in her soul, and her heartrending love-hate relationship with her mother (played to utter perfection by Lee Mi-sook) pretty much killed me. She made me love Eun-jo, despite her iciness and her constant impression of a wounded porcupine. I wanted her to grow, to open up, to get past her pain.
One thing I liked about her journey was the central conflict of her inability to lay down roots—the idea of home, family, and the things that most people take for granted were so fundamentally foreign to Eun-jo, which made for such a fascinating character whose wounds were so deep that she lashed out at everyone. The problem is, of course, that while the early episodes managed to balance this with some levity in her adorable relationship with Ki-hoon (Chun Jung-myung) or stepfather Dae-sung (Kim Gab-soo), when both characters leave her, she becomes insufferably dark, with nothing to buoy the tone of the drama. We end up in a spin cycle of bleakness that leads to gnashing of teeth.
I think my feelings for this drama can hardly be summarized, because I have such an inexplicable love/hate relationship with it. Perhaps I’m stuck in what it was, or what it could have been, or maybe I just love the cast too much to not stay angry about how all the characters ended up sucked dry and left as shells of their former selves. Their happy endings hardly even register with me because it’s hard for me to believe that they’re not all dead inside after what the drama put them through. That’s not to say I don’t also love it either, because this drama hits me in that sweet spot tonally, and there’s something so hauntingly beautiful about its imagery. So…yeah. I love it…and I hate it with the fire of a thousand suns. Whadduya gonna do?
Personal Taste was as cute as it was infuriating. It’s actually quite equal in those respects, because on one end of the spectrum, you have uneven directing and really screwy writing; but then on the other end, you have Lee Min-ho and Sohn Ye-jin. And Lee Min-ho. Did I mention Lee Min-ho?
I’m shallow. So sue me. But beyond the pretty, they really were delightful when they got to play off of each other. In particular, all their physical comedy—Kae-in hanging off of Jin-ho like a monkey in a tree—showed stellar chemistry and nice comedic chops from both of them. Whenever they were onscreen together, I was always engaged and invested.
But come on, this drama had as many lies as a makjang. Seriously, it was a crazy house of cards all built upon the notion of the Super Special Secret of Sang-go-jae. While that idea intrigued me initially, I immediately grew tired of it once I realized that it was merely an excuse for the hero to spin his massive web of lies.
And oh, what lies they were. Initially, the Big Gay Misunderstanding was actually set up perfectly. A series of incidents makes Kae-in believe that Jin-ho is gay. Nicely done. Then he doesn’t disabuse her of that, so he can move into the house. Okay, not a shining moment, but fine. Understandable. But when the lie gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger…Jin-ho becomes the guy who turns Kae-in into the very thing he tried to make her STOP being: a doormat. And I just cannot suffer a doormat for a heroine. I can’t. It drives me bonkers.
In the end I actually did enjoy this drama, even if it did drive me batty. I took to Jin-ho and Kae-in’s flawed but sparkling chemistry. What I liked about this drama was all the peripheral stuff: the hilarious cast of side characters, or the moments of physical comedy like late-night run-ins with the chainsaw. But all of the important stuff: the main storyline, the whittling down of motivation for the main couple to be together…teetered on the brink for most of the drama…and then when it crashed in angstville…well you know what they say about Humpty Dumpty.
Okay, so I didn’t initially watch this drama, because it didn’t capture me right away and I was totally up to my ears in the Personal-Taste-Cinderella-Unni spiral of doom. But then all year long, people kept raving about how good it was, and they just would not shut up about it. So I finally hunkered down and marathoned this sucker, just so I could include it in my year-ender. This particular review is dedicated to kaedejun. You owe me a drink.
Hot damn, Park Shi-hoo. You are one sexy tortured man. I don’t know if it’s because I saw this drama last in 2010, the year full of man-boys, but it was so refreshing to watch a drama where the men were grown-ups. Even Park Shi-hoo’s later drama, Queen of Reversals (which I saw first), is one where he’s a man-child along with Jung Jun-ho. So this was an utter surprise. Merry Christmas to me!
What initially kept me away doesn’t get any better: the blaring soundtrack that annoys the crap out of me, or Ma Hye-ri’s egregious sense of style, complete with the most unflattering haircut of 2010. But I found that all of that was just window dressing. What I came to love were the characters. Kim So-yeon‘s Ma Hye-ri may seem frivolous at the outset, but is warm, trusting, and the eternal optimist. Park Shi-hoo’s Seo In-woo begins the drama as an arrogant mastermind, but slowly unravels as his heart begins to thaw…for the one girl he can’t fall for.
And that, in a nutshell, is why this drama is good. Because the core relationship is set up as a Love That Cannot Be. And you know that just means our hearts will bleed for the hero who knows this, and falls in love with her anyway. That? Is drama gold, and it kills me, every time.
Obviously, I cared less about the law cases that weave in and out of each episode, but I found that most of them were actually pretty engaging. They were at least interesting and varied cases, and Kim So-yeon never phones in her performances, no matter how small the scene. I did wish overall that they were shorter, and I cared even less about the other lawyers in her office by the time they stopped torturing her. When they weren’t the mean kids anymore, they lost me.
One of my favorite things throughout the series is the gradual progression of In-woo’s inability to separate his master plan (get close to Hye-ri to bring his mother’s killer to justice) from his growing attraction to her. One of my favorite scenes wasn’t even one of the kisses (although I will concede: I get it now, y’all. I get it.) but the moment when Hye-ri’s mom first comes upon In-woo. Her mom asks her what she likes about him, and she rattles off sincerely nice things about him, ending with the clincher: that he’s a good person. The look on his face, knowing that he’s not a good person for betraying her without her even knowing…it’s a great dilemma for a character to have, because his intentions are noble, his methods are not, and his heart is complicating matters on top of it all.
I know I was late to the party, but I’m here now, with bells on.
At first Coffee House was a little too zany for me. It also began with a focus on Seung-yeon (Ham Eun-jung), who I just never liked as a character, so it was hard for me to find a hook. Jin-soo (Kang Ji-hwan) was charming but cold, and Seung-yeon was bumblingly obtuse. The drama began with their relationship in the forefront, so I nearly dropped it because no matter how funny it was to watch someone get stuffed into a suitcase for nothing other than sheer morbid curiosity, there was no emotional center that grounded me in the hijinks.
Thankfully, I stuck around, because when the drama shifted gears and put Jin-soo’s relationship with Eun-young (Park Shi-yeon) in the foreground, I discovered a magnetic couple. The great thing about Eun-young is that she makes every nutty thing about Jin-soo tethered to reality, because they have a history, and she has two feet firmly planted on the ground. So when he does something outrageous, when she rolls her eyes and laughs, or cries in frustration, we have a compass. A compass of sanity, as it were.
Coffee House actually got better as it went along, which if you think about it, is pretty damn rare in the k-drama landscape. Most dramas in the live-shoot system blow all their awesome on the first set of episodes, and continue a downward spiral ending in either lunacy or mediocrity; it’s the rare drama that ends better than it began. But Coffee House really hit its stride later on, when Jin-soo’s feelings for Eun-young began to put a real dent in his armor.
Jin-soo was a character that I enjoyed immensely because he was SO whacked out, but that also kept me from ever being fully with him. I saw that he had his own internal logic; it just didn’t resemble Earth logic, so while he always surprised me and made me laugh, he also frustrated me when he purposely shoved people out of his life, or shut down when faced with any sort of conflict.
I know this drama had one of the great ‘shipping wars of the year, but for me the two-heroine dynamic mostly took away from what it could have been, if Eun-young had been the central focus of the show.
The tone of the show often gave me whiplash, but when they went dark, or moody, or angsty, it was breathtakingly raw and intense, due to the stellar acting from Park Shi-yeon and Kang Ji-hwan. Their longing for each other, their inability to get past years of barriers, was gripping. What this relationship was doing in the same drama as the wacky zany secretary shenanigans is beyond me, but I’m glad I endured the one for the other.
Bad Guy actually had a lot of things going for it. It had perhaps the best cinematography of the year (although it might get trumped by the likes of Athena and has runners-up in Dr. Champ and Sungkyunkwan), an amazing soundtrack that I still listen to, and a moodiness in its tone that made everything textured and palpable. The darkness, the tension, and the complexity of the visuals were a cut above.
The problem, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, is in the writing. If looking at the show on a microscopic level, the writing doesn’t seem that bad at all—the individual moments, the interaction between characters are all nuanced, filled with dramatic tension, and propel the story forward. But once you back up to look at the world, everything starts to buckle under the weight of one major flaw: this drama did not know what it wanted to say.
That doesn’t mean every drama has to say something, like a take-away message from the Wheel of Morality. But on a fundamental level a drama needs to: a) pick a road and b) go somewhere. Was it about two men who lived each other’s lives? Well, for a while it was, and then it wasn’t. Hm, well then was it an indictment of the rich? It kinda was…but then they triumphed in the end. Oh, then was it about The Man triumphing over one man? No, because it’s not so much an institution as it is one family. Oh, then it’s about family! Well, it’s really more about revenge because…see where I’m going with this?
It began with mystery and the sense that we were going to be taken somewhere dark, twisty, and pointed. I got taken all right. Someplace bleak, twisted, and pointless.
The thing is, I liked the characters enough to want narrative closure for all of them. I wasn’t expecting happy endings or tearful reunions, but I was invested enough to wish for Gun-wook (Kim Nam-gil) to see a light at the end of the tunnel, and gain some sort of personal peace, even if not with his biological family. Even if his final fate had narrative purpose, or meaning, or even had an effect on those around him, I would’ve been satisfied. Alas, that is not where this drama went. Instead it went to the loony bin, and there I went with it.
Baker King Kim Tak-gu
I watched this show only casually, because I never intended on watching it, but for a spell, every time I went to my mom’s house, it was on. So I sort of watched it by default, and sporadically. The funny thing is, I’ve gotten dramas down to such a science that I’d go over and guess what had happened in the intervening episodes, and I was always right. Not because I’m some genius (although my family did think it was a neat party trick), but because although makjang pretends to be really shocking, it’s actually the most predictable of drama types.
The thing I pretty much couldn’t get past wasn’t the birth secrets and tragic twists of fate, because that’s this genre’s bread and butter; it was the way the dialogue was written. Characters spoke almost exclusively in declarative sentences, as if expositing to the audience directly. Everything was explained, clarified, and reinforced, ad nauseum. I didn’t get why, as nothing in the drama needed that much explanation. Bad guys, bad. Good guys, good. Bread makes people happy. Nom, nom, nom…bread.
What did impress me, though, was Yoon Shi-yoon. He was the find of the year (to be later eclipsed by everyone’s favorite horsey Yoo Ah-in), and deservedly shot to stardom with his turn as the wounded, tough, but optimistic Tak-gu. He played everything convincingly, which is no small feat in a drama where he alternately cried, fought, smiled and baked in the course of an hour.
I totally get why this drama was the ratings king this year. It had a clear setup, hinged every character’s fate on a crucial secret, and then totally teased the audience with the possibility of a secret-revealing collision at every turn. That’s a well-crafted addictive ride. But what it was missing for me was the element of surprise, because I can tell you, in thirty episodes, nothing happened that I didn’t see coming a mile away.
I Am Legend
I Am Legend had such a great premise, that I thought for sure it’d be a feel-good drama, even if it wasn’t a hit. I was anticipating the tale of the ajumma-band-that-could, a triumphant underdog story laced with comeback-centric tunes.
The drama delivered about a fifth of the awesome that I wanted. Granted, that fifth was indeed awesome, especially the live-performance stages and in particular the one in the rain, or the moment when they first arrive to play at the open market and weather the humiliation of starting so low. But in the end, I feel lied to. This drama was supposed to be about how music and a group of friends help one woman turn her life around from repressed socialite to rock goddess. At least that’s what I wanted it to be.
I’m not alone, right? That’s not something I made up in my head, and wished for out of thin air. That’s where I was told we were going, by the first few episodes. Even the prolonged divorce case was understandable, as it was the turning point for our heroine and the catalyst for her to really stick it to her hot but assy husband.
But then, I thought for sure the band’s story would really take off and reward those of us who were waiting patiently for Seol-hee’s real story to begin, post-divorce. Instead we were high-jacked. We came for rock. We got served instead.
Kim Jung-eun was so endearing as Seol-hee that I hung on, because she made me care. I loved her sass as the high school jjang reborn, and I wanted her to conquer the world. As it stands I would’ve been happy if she had had a love affair with one of the men in her life. But what I REALLY wanted to see was her love affair with rock. We got glimpses, but not a whole drama’s worth, and certainly not to my satisfaction. Guess it takes more to be a legend than a clever name.
My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho OST – “여우비” [ Download ]
My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho
I know 2010 was the Year of the Tiger, but for me, it was the Year of the Gumiho.
Hands down my favorite drama of the year, because well—you know me and my obsessions—it was the best written, which is king. I’m partial to mythology-laden narratives because they raise the stakes within the heightened world, making characters face basic questions of mortality and what it means to love with life-or-death action rather than words. If cosmic forces oppose your union, it’s a lot more compelling than if your parents lock you up for marrying beneath you. (See: Mary Stayed Out All Night)
What this story about a gumiho and her Woong-ah manages to do is exactly what I wanted and more: it reinvented the gumiho myth. It put the girl on top (quite literally, as you can see) and let her own her sexuality, and her otherness. It reclaimed the myth of the gumiho as a patriarchal metaphor for the dangers of female sexuality, and rewrote her as an empowered, good soul who loved and was loved equally.
The keystone moment of the drama when they meet each other halfway, halving the fox bead and their ki, was the high point of the narrative, not only because of the kiss (swoon) but because it symbolically set them as equals. They made the one confession that you almost never hear in a k-drama: I love you so much, I’m not going to die for you; don’t you do it either. They put their fate in each other’s hands and loved with no reservations, which just blew me away.
Of course that doesn’t mean the drama didn’t have its share of pitfalls. There was a heady angst-filled round of Noble Idiocy, with a side of second-lead meddling, finished with a deus ex machina in the form of the Samshin Grandmother and a solar eclipse. But I would’ve sold my own grandmother for a happy ending, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds: a chance for them to say their goodbyes in the face of death, (Sucker for good melodrama. Hello, k-drama nut.) and a happy reunion to keep me from swearing off k-dramas forever.
But the heart of this drama was Shin Mina and Lee Seung-gi‘s unparalleled cuteness as a couple. They managed to take the most basic interactions and imbue them with this otherworldly cuteness that I didn’t even know existed. Shin Mina was the standout in this drama, for her turn as the gumiho who wanted to be human, but ended up having more humanity than anyone else.
I don’t unequivocally love all Hong Sisters dramas, (nor have I seen them all, unlike someone I know) but they’ve really been hitting their stride in the last two years. That, or I’m just falling into a groove where their sense of humor hits me the right way. Either way, Gumiho owns me, heart and soul.
Playful Kiss was like a highlight reel. Every episode was like one long trailer, for some other full episode that existed elsewhere in the universe. I imagine that the bizzaro-world episodes had a narrative arc, a dramatic throughline, and some engaging conflicts. Because that’s what drama episodes are supposed to have. Why we only got the trailers is beyond me.
When this show was at its best, it was endearingly, almost embarrassingly frank about a young girl’s first crush. Ha-ni (played with natural charm and charisma by Jung So-min) made all of us reminisce fondly about our first butterflies and crushing rejections, as we watched her tackle her budding attraction to the Boy Who Felt No Feelings.
But as the series went on, I grew very tired of the exact same dynamic…for almost the entire run. I felt as jerked around as Ha-ni, because as soon as Seung-jo (Kim Hyun-joong) showed the tiniest sign of affection, he’d punk out and then counter it with something mean, just to keep her at arm’s length. And then on top of it, Ha-ni began to plan her entire life around Seung-jo, which was cute in high school, but totally dysfunctional in adulthood.
I actually liked the low-key slice-of-life feel to the drama, but that doesn’t mean that I’m okay with nothing ever changing in the world of the characters. I don’t mind stories that are small, about one study date or one love letter, because what’s important are the character moments that come out of that. But the execution of the small moments is where the drama lost me, because you have to make me feel that this beat, no matter how seemingly insignificant and small, will change how these characters interact tomorrow. I began with hope that this would be the case, but found that I’d returned to square one, every time.
This show was exactly as Ha-ni described herself in the drama: Noah’s little snail. Cute, but entirely too slow for my taste.
It can’t be denied: Sungkyunkwan wins for most deflating ending ever. But that aside, it was quite the electric ride. What Sungkyunkwan had was that intangible, ungettable get: lightning in a bottle that ignited a passion for all things Joseon Crack.
It was unusual to have a fusion sageuk as a trendy drama, but that’s perhaps what made this drama stand out at a time when the airwaves were flooded with trendies. It seamlessly blended old-world settings with new-world ideas, which is really the heart of why I loved it. It’s also the biggest way in which this drama failed me, in refusing to answer the very dilemma it had created for itself: what is a smart, educated woman to do in world built for the advancement of men?
In setting up that question, the drama did an amazing job. Yoon-hee (Park Min-young) was quick-witted, well-read, and gifted with the power of words. She came from noble but poor beginnings and found that providing for her family was easier done dressed as a man. I mean, you had me at hello.
To spend all those episodes so firmly with her on her journey, only to be told that there IS no answer? That what she ought to do is hide her identity forever? That hurts. It cuts me deep. What I wanted was not historical accuracy. You’re a trendy drama about cross-dressing, for god’s sake. What I wanted was for the heroine to stand tall, as a scholar, as HERSELF.
What this drama did do well was the friendship between the foursome, which crossed social, economic, political, and gender lines. They had off-the-charts chemistry as a group of friends, often times more at odds with each other than in sync, but always shooting sparks. The bromance between Yong-ha (Song Joong-ki) and Jae-shin (Yoo Ah-in) will no doubt go down in k-drama history as one of the great loves of all time.
What Sungkyunkwan made me remember is how much I love stories set in youth. It’s normally such a huge subset of my favorite-show repertoire, but I had forgotten in the year I had spent watching so many twenty-something shows, or bad attempts at stories set in youth. When it was at its height, this drama was exactly what I wanted—youthful, exuberant, and idealistic—and I plan to remember it that way.
This drama surprised me. I had no idea that I’d end up watching it, because I was thoroughly uninterested in the initial premise of doctors at an Olympic training facility. But it had what ended up being one of my favorite characters of the year: judo athlete and supreme man-child Ji-heon, played by the heretofore un-noteworthy Jung Kyeo-woon.
His turn as the affable, slightly dim, boyish athlete was so understated and charming, and his dogged pursuit of Kim So-yeon‘s Yeon-woo made me smile from episode to episode. Their courtship was equally understated and realistic, as he won her over inch by inch.
That’s perhaps this drama’s overall strength—its ability to let the world breathe and fill the gaps with character beats. It doesn’t spend too much time on any one focus—the medicine, the athletes, or the romance—but instead captures the lives of these people who happen to intersect. It’s both a strength and a weakness, because while I enjoyed its slice-of-life narrative, it did lack a dramatic pull that no doubt kept a lot of viewers at bay.
And while I loved all of Ji-heon’s relationships, like his adorable bromance with rival and friend Sang-bong (Jung Seok-won), or his petty rivalry with Uhm Tae-woong‘s Do-wook, I didn’t really like any other character besides Ji-heon. Almost everyone else was insanely self-absorbed, to the point where I didn’t understand what he saw in Yeon-woo. Our heroine.
I ended up liking this sports-medicine mashup more than I anticipated, but what I really fell in love with was that camera. This drama went all-digital, shooting with a DSLR camera that made every image stunningly crisp and vivid. And it wasn’t just the camera either, although I know I’ve sung its praises to a ridiculous degree. It’s the director’s cinematic eye—every shot is carefully framed and artfully composed, even if it’s just two characters having a conversation. The colors are carefully chosen to pop, the lighting is moody and the atmosphere is always right on the money. If this director and this camera ever team up again, I’m there.
Runaway Plan B
Interestingly, what Runaway lacked in the beginning is what ended up salvaging it in the end: heart. It began as an all-flash, no-substance adrenaline ride, which was entertaining, but hardly memorable. But once we got past the initial globe-trotting setup and all the players settled into the story, the relationships really took off and I found myself invested.
The middle stretch of episodes was really the highlight, right around Episode 8, until about Episode 16. That was when Ji-woo (Rain) and Jin-yi (Lee Na-young) were really on the run, backed into a corner, and the show was firing on all cylinders. Their relationship actually grew on me, as it began to be played for an actual connection, and not just the hammy flirting that characterized it in the beginning. I loved that the two people who lived their entire lives not trusting anyone began to rely on each other.
The problem is, despite my coming to like all the characters, the overall plot ended up being entirely too simplistic for my taste. In the latter half I kept hope alive that more would be revealed, that there would be something, anything, to complicate matters and surprise me. Alas, the same plot of revealing the gold, when all the baddies had already been rendered ineffectual, was just not enough to drive this train home.
Back when Chairman Yang was beating heads bloody and killing people to make his threats, everything was high stakes and nail-bitingly tense. But by the time his son comes around in the end to be the ultimate bad guy with some henchmen and the power of public opinion, it’s like watching a toothless kitty mess with a mouse for old times’ sake. They needed more story, more stakes, more running…all the way to the end. I can’t understand why you’d take a villain like Melgidec that you’ve set up to be the ultimate mastermind bad guy, and then de-fang him with such little satisfaction for our main characters. Where’s the fun in that?
My favorite part of this drama, and what it really should have set as its core relationship, was the Ji-woo-Do-soo bromance, complete with handcuffs and fisticuffs galore. Both Rain and Lee Jung-jin played the hell out of these characters, who were both tough, funny, endearing, and smart. I found myself always wanting more interaction between them, which is I think where the drama wasted a huge opportunity in the latter half. If you had the genius idea to handcuff them together, why would you ever set them free? If Do-soo wasn’t going to chase him anymore, then couldn’t they have worked together, in the same room, exchanging barbs and getting on each other’s nerves? That would have been So. Cute.
As it stands I liked this drama but never loved it. I was entertained throughout its run, and I liked the balance of comedy-action-drama. I just wish it hadn’t blown its wad too early, and saved some of the high-octane drama for the end.
Queen of Reversals
At the time of this review Queen of Reversals is still airing, due to the twelve-episode extension. So I don’t know how things’ll shake out, although I have a pretty good guess that it’s not going to go my way. This show wins hands down for the worst case of Second Lead Syndrome I’ve had all year. It’s crazy how much I want Park Shi-hoo‘s Gu Yong-shik to get the girl. He even beats out other second leads like Moon Jae-shin (Sungkyunkwan) and Hong Tae-sung (Bad Guy) because those guys had competition in heroes who equally loved and deserved the girl or better suited her (as is the case with Yoon-hee and Sun-joon).
But in this drama, Yong-shik is better. He’s just better. There’s pretty much no way in which he doesn’t win, objectively speaking. Hence, the crazy Second Lead Syndrome, and my dire wish that Hwang Tae-hee just wake the fuck up and see how much he loves her. It kills me, in that totally crack-addled way that keeps me tuning in to find out if she will.
The problem is, this show took WAY too long to get to this addictive and awesome plotline, and I nearly dropped it a bunch of times because I don’t care at all about the work subplots or the minor characters who aren’t in the main love square or an extension of Yong-shik, like his hilarious assistant or the employee who takes up residence in his house. But once this end of the love triangle got going in earnest, all of a sudden I was up till 6am to watch what happened next.
It’s a case of getting to the good stuff too late, which only rewards viewers who hung in there for whatever other reason. Mine was Kim Nam-joo, who plays Hwang Tae-hee as full of contradictions—warm but cold, fearless yet cowardly, arrogant but self-deprecating. It sounds bipolar, but she makes her believable, humorous, and empathetic too.
The main conflict in the story—marriage and divorce—is actually handled in an interestingly realistic way. The whirlwind courtship and marriage leads to conflict after the fact, and the couple who wed so easily get divorced just as handily…except that the consequences come after, just as they did with the marriage. I like the mirroring of that, and the things that Tae-hee has to face about herself through all of it.
So far the extra episodes have done exactly what they should: amp up the romantic triangle, giving Yong-shik a fighting chance to ignite their chemistry. This drama is doing that perfectly awesome and infuriating thing of giving him thismuch chance of winning her, which is just all we need to make us crazy. I’ll watch until my heart can’t take it anymore, and then opt for the spinoff: The Adventures of Gu Yong-shik and His Sassy Secretary.
Mary Stayed Out All Night
Oh, Mary. Mary, Mary, Mary. What am I going to do with you? When I think about what you could have been, I feel a little like Joo-won’s mother in Secret Garden: I put in all the right ingredients, so why did you not come out Perfect Drama Cake?
If I hadn’t watched any of these dramas, and you had me guess based on the cast and premise which one would end up being the most cracktastic trendy hit of the year? This one would win, hands down. Because how can Jang Geun-seok + Moon Geun-young + Kim Jae-wook x double contract marriage NOT equal awesome?
Sure, it sounds crazy to have two contract marriages. But if the Hong Sisters had written it, it would have been crazy good. It’s not like nun-in-training-cross-dressing-as-idol-star is any less crazy, if you think about it.
What this show had was an identity crisis of the highest order. It wanted to be about the indie music world of Hongdae, but set itself in the drama production world, and then had the strangest soundtrack on top of it, as if trying to undermine its own credibility. It wanted to be about being young and free, but had each main character tied to a parent straight out of a makjang. It wanted to be clever and subvert the traditional drama clichés, but ended up recycling them all with no twist, no wink, no zing.
It’s got two episodes left to go, but there’s nothing two episodes can do to turn this bus around. That’s not to say I hated the drama, because I’m not invested enough to hate. It’s just…meh. I couldn’t really take any of the characters seriously, because they kept doing the silliest possible nonsensical thing, solely in service of the plot. The held-together-by-shoestring-and-bubblegum plot. If you think too long and hard about why anyone’s doing the things they’re doing…you’ll quite literally strain yourself.
But The Cute. The Cute makes up for a lot in this part of town, and this couple was Ri.dic.u.lous. They’re almost SO cute that it infantilizes them in my mind, so much so that I forget that they’re not teenagers. I think perhaps this drama would have worked better had it taken that approach, something more like Playful Kiss, but on speed. Because let’s face it—this drama was on some kind of crack…just not the kind I’m buying.
As an exercise in casting for chemistry, Secret Garden should be hailed as the bible. Though I’ve loved Hyun Bin for many years, I had no idea he had the power to stare a girl’s clothes right off. And Ha Ji-won is no second fiddle, as she actually makes it believable that despite yelling hateful vitriol at Joo-won’s unparalleled asshattery, she’s always an inch away from jumping his bones. They’ve taken angry-hot to new heights.
Not that it’s not totally dysfunctional, mind you. But damn if it isn’t great drama fodder.
It’s nice to have a drama that’s almost entirely about the mating ritual. It’s actually a rather realistic portrayal of dating that’s complicated by issues of class that are played for real conflict rather than the ubiquitous Cinderella-fying plot device.
I like that Joo-won isn’t a neat little Perfect Drama Hero package: he’s neurotic and arrogant, and almost always says the wrong thing, but I like that he’s unpredictable and uncontrollable, much like real men, natch. This couple’s situations are out there, but their basic problems—communicating their actual thoughts, trying to reason against feelings—are all universal to the ever-delicate mating dance, and quite a nice conflict to have at the center of a drama.
Now, the soul-swapping bit is a whole other can of worms, because I don’t think it was anything other than a gimmick, so far. That is to say, the drama hasn’t made use of it properly and pretty much wasted an opportunity for some dramatic consequences. Also it wasn’t well-conceived on a mythological scale, but all of this remains to be fleshed out, given the chance to re-swap or face consequences down the road. And I don’t deny the epic win that was Binnie in a Bra.
At the time of this review, we’re a little past halfway (having completed Episode 12), so I reserve the right to hate this drama if it ends up grinding up my love and spitting it back out at me (see: Cinderella’s Sister). That doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll automatically hate it if it goes the way of the Big C, because though Cancer (or insert-terminal-disease-here) is an overused plot device, it’s all about the execution.
If the show manages to make me believe that it’s happening for a reason, and that for instance something that life-or-death is the only thing that would make Joo-won dig his head out of his ass, then I don’t care about the plot device itself (aka Slow and Painful Death) if what comes out of it is still in keeping with the tone of the drama. Now, having said all that, if the drama makes a quick left turn and we end up in sappyville or broodytown, imma make a quick left hook…right in Show’s face.
Rock Rock Rock
This four-episode drama special about Boohwal‘s lead guitarist and songwriter Kim Tae-won actually surprised me, for a couple of reasons. I only watched because I was curious about Kim Tae-won’s backstory, and figured that Noh Min-woo would just be more of the same that I saw in My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho: that is, one-note and serviceable, nothing more, nothing less.
As it turns out, I was happy to be wrong. Noh Min-woo not only acted his heart out, but he made me feel genuine empathy and triumph as Tae-won went through the peaks and valleys of his very dramatic road-to-being-a-rock-star life.
The coming-of-age first episode was probably the best of the four, as we see young Tae-won pick up a guitar for the first time and teach himself how to play Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” It’s as great an origin story as any superhero’s: from humble beginnings and strife comes the birth of a legend.
From then on, Noh Min-woo portrays Kim Tae-won from high school to the present, from heady first love and guitar battles to drug addiction, emotional darkness, and the travails of taking Boohwal from nothing to the height of its success. It’s an amazing life, which makes for a great story, and rather than going for flash, the drama sticks to the emotional center, which is engaging, and realistically dark.
One of my favorite parts of the series is the famous clashing professional relationship between Kim Tae-won and Boohwal’s most famous vocalist, Lee Seung-chul. It’s a brotherhood complicated by fame, success, failure, and competition, and is one of the highlights, and what this drama does so well. It uses what we know about Boohwal to heighten the dramatic tension and place weight on the events that are unfolding.
That’s perhaps one of the reasons why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this drama to someone who knows or cares nothing about Boohwal. It’s not like you wouldn’t get the very basic human life story, but you’d miss the references and the interjecting real-life footage of the actual band. I’d say if rock is your thing, that’s another story—you’ll be invested in the story behind the music, which is compelling in and of itself.
One delightful feature throughout the series is the endless array of eighties rock hair that Noh Min-woo sports. It’s everything from mullets to Kim Tae-won’s signature long, flowing locks, played not for comedy, but authenticity. Except, of course, everything about eighties hair is inherently funny. Rock on.
Athena: Goddess of War
And to go out, something to usher in 2011. Granted, only four episodes have aired so who knows where this’ll go, but so far I’m totally digging this drama. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is a badass. And it’s awesome. The show is slick and assured, but also a little bit raw in its energy: it’s dressed like Bond, but fights like Bourne.
The direction, the cinematography—it’s all first-rate, and that’s not even counting the beauty of the purty, purty cast. I already like it better than IRIS for its cast AND its cast of characters. Both are an upgrade, because for one, I never bought Kim Tae-hee as a badass, ever, and Jung Jun-ho‘s friend-betrayal storyline got old really fast.
But Athena is already more complex, and better produced, and isn’t afraid to play with the audience. The fantasy sequence for the Italian job was so awesomely hilarious. To blow so much flash on a character beat is just full of so much whimsy. Love it.
I don’t even know which I love more: the buddy-cop duo played by Jung Woo-sung and Kim Min-jong, or the baddies played by Su Ae and Cha Seung-won. I love them equally, and even more when they’re pitted against each other for maximum tension.
What’s great is that I already feel like I’m in good hands as far as the narrative is concerned. I’m such a fan of assured writing that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to go high stakes right away. I certainly hope that they can keep this up, to ring in the new year right.
Thanks to dahee and thundie for participating in the year-end reviews (and the Editors’ Picks, still to come), and thanks to all the guest recappers throughout the year, for sharing your dedication and love of k-dramas. We probably don’t say it enough, but y’all are awesome. You know who you are. And most of all, thanks to javabeans, for the laughs, the tears, and all the drinks in between. You make me feel like less of a nut. And that’s saying a LOT.
Stay tuned for Part 5, where dahee, thundie, jb and I fight tooth and nail over who gets the glory and who eats dirt.
- 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
- 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, Athena: Goddess of War, Bad Guy, Baker King Kim Tak-gu, Cinderella's Sister, Coffee House, Dr. Champ, Drama Special, featured, God of Study, I Am Legend, Mary Stayed Out All Night, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, Pasta, Personal Taste, Playful Kiss, Prosecutor Princess, Queen of Reversals, Runaway Plan B, Secret Garden, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, year in review, year in review 2010