The five stages of grief [Year in Review, Part 4]
I’m pretty sure I went through all five stages of grief when faced with the incredibly daunting task of summing up the year in just five dramas, because that seemed like way too much responsibility to take on. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have been so frightening when I’d made top five lists in past reviews, but the idea of getting only five was enough to bring on a cascade of warring, terrifying emotions.
First came the more or less innocuous denial phase of, “This’ll actually be easier! What were we thinking, doing twenty a year before?” Then came anger, “You know who else liked the number five? Hitler.*” Which blossomed into bargaining, “Can I do five, and then another ten?” Catapulting me into the soul-sucking depression of, “My choices will inevitably be terrible, and life has no meaning.”
But then came the warm glow of acceptance that more or less took the form of, “Well, rules are rules.” Limits can be freeing! Once I embraced the fact that I could just cherry pick five dramas that made me feel something one way or the other, everything else fell into place. Except for the actual writing, anyway. Cue another trip through all five stages of drama grief, aaaand, go!
(*This statement based on truthiness, not actual fact.)
SONG OF THE DAY
Last OST – Din Din and TransFixion – “Do It” [ Download ]
Last was a tour de force of excellence in all categories, with a uniquely engaging story, a stellar ensemble cast that included the best of the veteran actor pool, a rockin’ soundtrack, and some of the best direction this side of the equator. It was sleek, it was stylish, but most of all, it was assured from the acting down to the pacing, which never lingered anywhere for too long.
Centering around a man who finds himself living amongst Seoul’s underground homeless population after losing everything through a failed investment scheme, Last showcased an innately human story within a hyperrealistic world that was, at times, reminiscent of the larger than life aspects of a comic book. (Which makes sense, when the drama itself was adapted from a popular web toon of the same name.) Yoon Kye-sang, who’s made a career out of playing tough but downtrodden characters lately, put in an arresting performance as a man suddenly thrust into a world governed by a strict hierarchy of the seven best fighters the city’s crime world had to offer.
The rules dictated that the select few could only stay so if they remained unchallenged, which gave our hero reason to use his ambition to conquer the difficulty ladder leading up to the strongest of them all, a villain(?) expertly played by Lee Beom-soo. Thankfully, this role couldn’t have come soon enough for one of Korea’s most versatile actors, who started on a downward trend in drama choices that began with Dr. Jin, moved onto IRIS 2, then slithered to a stop at Triangle, where his underutilization was practically criminal.
But his talents were on full display here, and while his actions may have been considered evil, such a simple moniker couldn’t be applied to such a complex character. The relationships he shared with others were so twisted, so infinitely layered and oddly real, that we could believe him when he cried over the deaths he caused. Because deep down, we could believe that he once was good, and that no matter the atrocities he’d committed, he could still feel guilt over his wrongdoings. So often villains end up one-dimensional, but Lee Beom-soo defied dimensions and flew in the face of the very idea that this world is populated by heroes and villains. He was simply human—a flawed, broken byproduct of a system he couldn’t escape.
I frequently found myself in awe of the fight scenes, which managed to merge beauty and brutality in the most visually arresting way possible. Nothing about them was polished or sanitized, despite the probably insane levels of choreography that had to go into making each fistfight and showdown that much more epic than the last. Even the last Matrix movie couldn’t stage a final battle worthy of all the hype leading up to it, yet that epic finale fight between Jang Tae-ho and Kwak Heung-sam was everything it promised to be and so much more, and firmly cemented Last as an epic drama for the ages.
Stage One, Denial: It’s not over as long as I keep replaying it.
Oh, Yong-pal. I wish I knew what you were supposed to be. I felt so drained by the time the finale rolled around, which was probably due in part to being pulled in a hundred different directions by episodes that preceded it—okay, maybe not that many, but by the time we made it to the end I didn’t know what I was looking for or what I was hoping to get out of the experience. Which was such a far cry from how the show began that even now I’m having a hard time looking back and figuring out where the shift occurred.
Somewhere along the way things got twisted, characters lost focus, and Yong-pal seemed unsure of itself. Did it want to be a medical drama or a chaebol business drama? Was it Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast? And why, if you named your show after the alter-ego the hero would use when making house calls to gang members, would you make a show that wasn’t about that at all? It’s such an intriguing premise in theory, though I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at this point when promos mislead us. If you thought you were in for a show where Joo Won did parkour like Healer while being an actual healer, you probably came out disappointed.
Then again, this was a pretty good instance of high dollar casting earning high dollar ratings, with the show pulling in the kinds of numbers we thought were gone from dramaland for good. In a day and age where a show is lucky to break into the low teens, Yong-pal broke records by peaking well into the twenties, which is nothing to sniff at. If you are itching to sniff at something though, sniff at all the squandered potential. There was certainly no lack of that or harebrained schemes lying about.
Which is a shame, because in the beginning, Yong-pal promised so much it seemed fully capable of delivering, what with its haunting visuals, sleek production design, and a damsel in distress who turned out to be hiding a very sharp set of teeth. It even featured a fun twist on the traditional gender dynamics we’ve come to know when chaebols are involved, making the hero the poor boy and the heroine the rich girl. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to know what to do with itself after that, with Yong-pal ending up as a trophy husband with little else to do but react to the bizarre goings-on in his wife’s legitimately certifiable family.
All in all though, I guess you could say Yong-pal had a little something for everyone, even for the revenge aficionados among us. Who can forget the time Chae-young took her revenge by inducing cancer in the heroine? Or the fact that it actually worked? Man, I forgot how terrible that plot thread was. Who comes up with this stuff anyway? (Writer Jang Hyuk-rin would later go on to win an award for best screenplay.)
Stage Two, Anger: So help me, this is the last time I trust a medical-action-romance-business-revenge-chaebol drama with a slightly disinterested koala for a hero. The last time!
Six Flying Dragons
Despite my wariness weighing in on a drama that’s still airing and one that will be just shy of reaching its halfway mark by this review’s publication, twenty hours should be enough of an indicator as to how a show is doing. In this case, just one episode was enough to tell us the kind of show we were in for—but since the universal law of dramas is that a good start never guarantees a good finish, we can only appreciate what we have now and hope against hope that whatever show we’ve invested countless hours of our time in won’t turn out to disappoint us.
And that time investment is nothing to scoff at either, especially when it comes to fifty-episode epics like Six Flying Dragons, whose job it is to not only engage our attention from the beginning but to hold it as well. Where Empress Ki might’ve had an easier time of that last year by being a crowd-pleaser less concerned with historical accuracy than it was with its formidable and star-studded love triangle, Dragons seems determined to one-up itself with every single episode by not only meeting, but exceeding all expectations set for it.
Over the years, dramaland has taught me a cruel lesson when it comes to putting too much stock into any one writer or director, since all too often celebrated reunions or lauded comebacks turn out to be less than stellar. So when I heard that the screenwriter from Tree With Deep Roots—a show I loved so much I found a job just to write about it—was returning to pen another sageuk/unofficial prequel to that very same masterpiece, I ignored everything past reunion-centric disappointments have taught me by getting really, really, unreasonably excited about it.
Perhaps unwisely, I also declared my intention to recap all fifty episodes months before the cast was even nailed down, and then proceeded to get so intimidated by the size of the project that javabeans graciously wrote the first post in order to help pave the way. I still don’t know what I would have done if it turned out to be a ginormous stinking mess/six months of Basketball, since there’s always a risk going into a show already holding the high bar the team has set for itself in the past. But Dragons jumped that bar like a gazelle on steroids and keeps on jumping even higher ones still, so much so that the only reason one would be cautious about the ending is because there’s just no way it can keep building momentum at its current rate.
But with every episode one-upping the last, it’s become more and more difficult to expect anything less from a show that’s taken it upon itself to tackle one of the most tumultuous periods in history with the fall of Goryeo and the rise of Joseon. Depicting such well-known historical figures like Jung Do-jeon and Lee Bang-won (later King Taejong) is no small task, but with such a talented cast and writer behind the helm, plus a good bit of fictional mystery and nail-biting intrigue, what could possibly go wrong?
Stage Three, Bargaining: Are you there, God? It’s me, Heads. I know, it’s about a drama again. I know, there are much bigger problems in the world. But if you could come through on just this one…
One brilliant drama might be considered a fluke, two a very lucky coincidence, but three in a row? That qualifies as a winning streak, which is exactly what writer Park Kyung-soo has given viewers with The Chaser, Empire of Gold, and now Punch, which rightly dominated in the ratings despite having conceivably none of the usual requirements for mass appeal.
Usually ratings are mentioned in reviews like these either ironically or quizzically, since more often than not, the numbers we see don’t correspond with the way we feel. And while it’s true that ratings aren’t a barometer for quality, watching them rise in Punch’s case was an oddly gratifying experience, not only because the show was so well crafted that it deserved every bit of recognition and critical acclaim thrown its way, but because it earned its audience by staying true to the story it wanted to tell. In the changing landscape that is television these days, and coming from one of the Big 3 networks even, that’s no small accomplishment.
In what’s become a hallmark of this writer’s work, actors are chosen not based on their popularity but on their suitability for the role, the importance of which can’t be overstated when dealing with such complex and morally ambiguous characters. Part of its appeal lied in the expert portrayal of its central anti-hero by Kim Rae-won, a once-dedicated husband and prosecutor who finds out that he has six months left to live due to an inoperable brain tumor.
That sounds like it’d be quite the noble setup in giving the hero a chance to realize the error of his ways when faced with his own mortality, enough for him to use the remainder of his time to help right the wrongs he helped to propagate, right? Maybe in a sugar-coated version of reality, but not in the eerily resonant world Punch crafted, where law and order served more as loose guidelines than the standard we should all aspire to.
By exploring themes of mortality and causality through an uncompromising lens, Punch put us face to face with our universal desire for relevance and permanence even as it showcased one of the most infinitely complex adversarial relationships to grace our screens in recent years. Jo Jae-hyun may have been the anti-villain to Kim Rae-won’s anti-hero, but there’s one thing none of these characters will ever be, and that’s forgettable. Long live the true king of dramas.
Stage Four, Depression: It’s over and it’s never coming back. My soul, like a drama landscape without Punch, is a barren wasteland of death and despair.
Shine or Go Crazy
There would’ve been a joke to be made if Shine or Go Crazy had actually gone crazy, but as it stands, it’s just one of those weird titles that tries hard to mean something about astrology/fate/star-crossed lovers, but ends up just being a loose coalition of words. Based off a novel of the same name, it was apparently intended to refer to the hero’s risk of losing his mind without his heroine/star, though I’d venture a guess that something was lost in translation from page to screen when it came to that allusion. Zany it may have been, but crazy? Nah.
I have to give dramas like Shine credit for being no more and no less than simplistic, fun, and thoroughly escapist entertainment. It’s comfort food in a hanbok (try not to think about that too long), with enough fantastical elements to make its very tangential basis in real history practically moot—it had about as much to do with the fourth king of Goryeo than the real fourth king of Goryeo had to do with a crossdressing-induced gay crisis. And lest you think they plucked an unremarkable and forgettable king out for precisely that reason, think again. Or don’t, because I’m not sure they did either.
Megastar and sageuk hitmaker Jang Hyuk, undoubtedly being the drama’s biggest draw, gave us a manic but good-hearted prince who could have easily been Lee Gun’s ancestor from Fated To Love You. Wang So could probably best be described as a hot mess, but the good kind of hot mess, the kind that can be a blundering idiot in one scene only to be a sword-wielding badass the next. The kind that has a crazy laugh and two wive—… well, no one’s perfect.
At first, the plot of a prince and princess getting married for just one night seems like it’d be pretty cut and dry, and in many respects it was. All told, it was a simple boy-loves-girl, boy’s-brother-also-loves-girl, boy-and-girl-are-married, boy-marries-other-girl, girl-cross-dresses-to-be-near-boy story. You know the one. Surprisingly enough, the pair at the center of it all was always a treat to watch even when they were apart, which was a more frequent occurrence than them being in the same frame. But hey, if it helped us to treasure their time together more, that must’ve been what the twenty-four episode count was for, right?
The rich cinematography was probably more than a story like this called for, but was by no means unwelcome when it made for such a luscious color palette. Another standout was the wig quality, which I know is probably the weirdest thing in the world to notice. In my admittedly weak defense, drama weaves are usually either just terrible or tolerable, with the only exceptions being those actors who grow their own mane of glory. Yet there I was, transfixed by the miles of pretty locks on display, and even more so by the way Jang Hyuk’s ‘do both accentuated his manliness and dampened it just enough for him to look downright androgynous sometimes. So beautiful. So bizarre. So bizarrely beautiful.
But Heads, you might say, surely you had deeper, more scholarly observations that aren’t solely based on the looks of an actor you’ve loved for years. Surely you didn’t just watch a drama for the pretty, you might add. Totally valid points, I would reply, even though that’s exactly what I did. Let the first viewer who hasn’t watched a drama for completely superficial reasons cast the first stone.
Stage Five, Acceptance: That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
RELATIVELY SPEAKING, 2015 WAS A PRETTY GOOD YEAR
As always, thank you to javabeans and girlfriday for being fearless leaders. And to gummimochi, whose well of patience never seems to run dry. Thank you for indulging my rants and my borderline unhealthy obsession with grilled meats like the friendship champion you are.
Of course, none of this would be here without you fine people to read it, so thank you for another fun year of hearty discussions and mutual squeeing, and the occasional pity party whenever I pick a bad show. Here’s to you.
- 2015 Year in Review, Part 3: Five by five in 2015 (girlfriday’s review)
- 2015 Year in Review, Part 2: Giving 2015 a hand (javabeans’ review)
- 2015 Year in Review, Part 1: The Bean Count
- 2015 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 6: Editors’ Picks
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 5: Santa turns over a new leaf
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 4: And the award goes to… (girlfriday’s review)
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 3: The art of lie detection (HeadsNo2’s review)
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 2: Stocking stuffers for the drama addict (gummimochi’s review)
- 2014 Year in Review, Part 1: Omg is it that time of year already? (javabeans’ review)
- 2014 Beanie Awards: Vote for your favorite dramas of the year