Tuesday, February 28, 2012

State of the Obsession Address (with Links!)

I’m prone to intemperate fits of obsession, so my reaction to Korean drama isn’t entirely without precedent. It’s the way I’m built: just as some people are good at sports or math or learning foreign languages, I’m good at loving random things far beyond sense or logic. This may seem like a bad thing, but I’ve actually come to pity the rest of the world, the middle-of-the-road-masses who don’t even know what it’s like to be utterly, irrationally swept up in something.

From bubblegum pop to food porn to the Harry Potter books to the movie Inception, I’ve spent the past decade enmeshed in one fleeting, geekish passion after another. For however brief a window, these things have shaped not only how I spent my free time, but also how I viewed the world. Kdrama is no exception: I’m in the process of reading the Insight Guide to South Korea from cover to cover. Every time I experience a negative emotion, I find myself doing the patented Kdrama sneer. No matter how bizarre a scenario may be, I can always come up with a drama-inspired platitude. (“You’re stressed about selling your house? Well, like Baek Seung Jo’s mom said in Playful Kiss, Every pot has a lid. You just need to find the right buyer.”) And whenever I go out with friends I agitate for a trip to the local Korean restaurant. (I’m a big fan of japchae, but dukboki is so spicy that one bite made me want to amputate my tongue.)

The most insane of my obsessions have always had an online component. I created my first webpage in 1997, and I’ve been involved with the Internet in one way or another ever since. First there was Hometown AOL, then my own fannish domain, then Livejournal, then fanfiction.net, and then a series of short-lived, not particularly interesting or successful blogs—like the one you’re reading right now.

Jumping into Kdrama fandom with both feet has been a pleasure; it’s a whole new world to discover, and I love reading people’s commentary about Korean drama just as much as I love watching the shows themselves. The weird thing, though, is how little commentary I’ve been able to find. The fandoms I’ve been involved with in the past have been incredibly active and thrived worldwide; any one of them has inspired much, much more commentary than you could possibly read in a lifetime, most of it in English. On the other hand, I usually devote one lunch hour a week to reading about Korean drama—and I often run out of new posts on my old standby sites long before that hour is up.

I think this is partially because I’ve missed the boat—the peak of Korean drama fanishness on the Internet seems to have lasted from about 2007 to 2009. The blogs and websites I’ve been able to dig up during the past few months have mostly been survivors from this time, and often on their last legs: they’re rarely updated and most of the new material they post feels more like habit than excitement. Sites like soompi and allkpop may be going strong, but they’re just too overwhelming for me, and their focus tends to be on kpop, not drama.

It could just be that I’m looking in all the wrong places. Back in the early days of Internet fandom no webpage was considered complete without an exhaustive list of links to other sites of interest. Today’s excellent search engines have made this less common, and most blogs I visit only link to a few other places. So could it be that Kdrama commentary Shangri-la exists out there, and I’m missing it by a Google search?

All this is not to say that I haven’t found any essential reading when it comes to Korean drama. Because I have—and here’s an alphabetical, annotated list.

(A few notes: I’ve only posted sites that update at least a few times a month. There are lots of dead blogs out there worth visiting for specific information or discussion of older shows, but I haven’t bothered with them here. Also, I’m not a great fan of straight-up show recaps, so no sites focused on them are included here.)

Couch Kimchi. Celebrity news; drama talk, pics, and videos; and helpful tips about resources for online drama watchers.

Dodo’s Bell Jar. News and commentary along with exploration of kdrama as a life changing event. (My favorite part.)

Dramabeans. The ne plus ultra of Korean drama on the web. Clearly, everyone even remotely interested in Kdrama has been here, and for good reason: it’s frequently updated with pertinent news, funny commentary, great recaps, and cultural insight. Its community of like-minded commenters gets the spotlight every Friday in a fun open thread that’s great for figuring out what other people are watching and why.

DramaTic. A graduate-level course on Kdrama production, history, and culture. Fascinating, even though the webmaster has very, very different taste in dramas than I do.

Electric Ground. A great resource for cultural information, although recent updates have been slow.

Idle Revelry. Smart and insightful analysis of characters, scenes, and dramas that will make you see even old favorites in a new light.

Kaede + Jun. A fun selection of news, drama reviews, and commentary. (The video of Park Shi Ho and kittens currently on the main page is not to be missed.)

Mad Dino Asylum. Lots of recaps, but I come here for the short, to-the-point drama reviews that include helpful lists of similar shows.

Silky Jade. Thoughtful, in-depth discussion and reviews of selected shows.
So thats what Ive found in the course of my Kdrama obsession. Any other sites or blogs I should be visiting?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

WTF, drama?

Dear Kdrama Overlords,
Normally we get along just fine, you and me; you’re fun to be around and we have a good time together. What can I say? I like your style. But sometimes you really make me crazy with your fourth-dimensional tendencies and poor decision-making skills. Below are a few specific issues I’d like you to consider before our next meeting.

Autumn in My Heart
During the winter months I get at least two bloody noses a week, yet am neither overworked nor dying. Find a new plot device already!

Did your lead couple just have a cake-and-champagne celebration while sitting on the floor in a barn full of cows? Really? Have you ever seen a cow? Or, more importantly, smelled one? Unless Korean cows are traditionally diapered (and maybe even then), this scene was poorly conceived.

Autumn in My Heart: Love sans cows > Love with cows

Can You Hear My Heart?
Why did you hire Lee Hye Young, the single most beautiful ajumma in all of Korea, if you were just going to give her a tragic perm? She still looks like Grace Kelly’s Asian incarnation, no matter how you try to frump her up.

Coffee Prince
Can we please retire the phrase “charnel house,” at least in subs intended for an American audience? Outside of a certain class of horror movie, this is not a concept we Yankees are comfortable with.

Flower Boy Ramen Shop
Are people in Korea really smart enough to know off the top of their heads the cyclical years of the Chinese zodiac? I feel incredibly stupid, if so. I need a calculator to figure out how old I am these days.

Did that teacher just ask a student out to dinner? American teachers are discouraged from being alone with students, while Korean (drama) teachers are hitting on their students left and right. (See also the squeamish teacher/student relationship in Heartstrings.) Let’s try not to encourage icky abuses of power and influence, okay?

Is Korea really such a wild place that a gang war can happen in hospital’s lobby without anyone doing anything about it? Scary.

Also, Korean gangsters should really investigate the many and wondrous uses of guns. All this trying to stab people gets old.

Based on the vast majority of your dramas, a salmon has a better chance of survival after becoming a parent than the average Korean does. Do you not care that you’re probably driving an entire nation’s life insurance rates through the roof? Is it really all that difficult to write a character with living parents?

My Lovely Sam Soon
I guess this is my American prejudice showing through, but it seems to me that getting your bare feet all over your sheets is an excellent reason to wash them—not how you should wash them. And I'm convinced no American has hand washed jeans since the days of Billy the Kid. Are there no laundromats in Korea?

My Sweet Seoul
I've heard that people in Asian cultures are more into saving money than Westerners, but could it really be possible that two this shows single-girls-in-the-city are able to casually quit their jobs without batting an eyelash about how they'll pay the rent next month? Sad but true: I had to wait for my income tax return just to fit a used copy of Coffee Prince in the old budget.

Secret Garden
Kim Joo Won’s super-modern house has no paved driveway, which means he’s always driving and parking on green grass. Yet none of that grass ever seems to die. How? And more importantly—Why, if not specifically to annoy me? (Ultimately the mystery of the long-lived lawn is probably the most compelling thing about this show. So I guess it's a point in your column after all.)

No ruts in Secret Garden! (Other than the ones in the plot, anyway.)

Sungkyunkwan Scandal
Remind me again how Kim Yoon Hee handles visits from Aunt Flow while pretending to be a boy, sharing a room with two guys, and wearing a snow-white jumpsuit? I know this is a fusion sageuk and all, but at least show her furtively palming some Joseon-brand tampons.

No matter how clever you are, I know why you didn’t use the book’s original ending: If Yoon Hee was going to work in the King’s library as a man for the rest of her life, your drama couldn’t have a sexy ending. Getting knocked up would blow her cover pretty quickly. (I’ll forgive you this time, though, because I also approve of sexy endings.)


In light of these serious transgressions against good sense, I have this to say: Just because you’re practically perfect in every way is no excuse for slacking off. You’re Overlords, for the love of God—get your head in the game!


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Drama Review: The Fatally Flawed

Can You Hear My Heart?: D (if you watch everything) / B- (if you skip the country-mouse scenes)
Lovers: D
Me Too, Flower: C

I’ll put up with a lot when it comes to television shows. Give me compelling characters and actors and something resembling a coherent plot, and I’m happy. Take the universally reviled 2006 drama One Fine Day, for example. It was clearly created when someone dropped the scripts from about 50 previously-aired dramas into a blender and hit the "frappe" button. Yet I loved watching every cheesy, derivative moment and resolved that I would drop everything and marry Gong Yoo if the opportunity ever arose.

On the other hand, some dramas just don’t do it for me, however good everyone else may think they are. For every amazingly wonderful show I've seen during my 6-month Kdrama obsession, I've probably watched three so-so dramas—and one that was fatally flawed. The flaw isn’t always something big or important, but it inevitably makes it impossible for me to suspend disbelief long enough to get wrapped up in the story.

At 30 episodes, Can You Hear My Heart? is the longest drama I’ve seen. It’s also the first true family melodrama I’ve watched, and I suspect it will be one of the last. This is ultimately because I’m just not cut out for shows with grandma subplots, but in this case the drama’s length is also an issue: after a promising start with some cute child actors, the next 15 or so episodes did little to move the plot forward and were overstuffed with peripheral, largely pointless characters.

The drama itself is praiseworthy in a number of ways—its central plot is a compellingly soapy struggle for the future of a family company. It’s stuffed to the gills with swoony bromance. It allows not one but two disabled characters to be seen as more than just their disabilities. But one of its characters still falls victim to a great, unspoken disability in Korean dramas: the brainless female lead. I’m sure that the actress playing Bong Uri, said female lead, is supposed to come off as guileless and pure, but her big, blank stare and cartoony over-acting left me wondering just what the difference was between her character and the show’s developmentally disabled dad.

“I’m simple and stupid. I don’t understand complicated people like you,” Bong Uri says in episode 23. Clearly, the writers of Can You Hear My Heart? wanted this line to be her big emotional declaration of independence. With it, she’s accepting her adopted father’s “slowness” and rejecting her brother’s quest to discard the people who raised him. It served those purposes, all right, but it also summed up exactly what’s wrong with the character of Bong Uri: she’s a one-note, capering woman-child, just as her father is a one-note, capering man-child.

In the past few years any number of smart, capable female characters have been featured in Kdramas—pretty much every girl in Protect the Boss, The Princess’ Man, and Dream High is nuanced, perceptive, and has personal agency. On the other hand, Korean television has a long tradition of Bong Uris—dim-witted but cheerful girls who are limply swept along in other people’s stories instead of making stories of their own. They are fatal flaws, one and all. (I'm talking about you, Gil Ra Im from Secret Garden.)

Can You Hear My Heart? isn’t the first time a female lead has destroyed any enjoyment I might have had watching a show. The 2006 drama Lovers is known far and wide for the chemistry between its leads, but I was too busy wanting to slap some sense into the airheaded Yoon Mi Jo to appreciate it. Idiot point the first: She’s a doctor, but decides to specialize in plastic surgery because she doesn’t want to be involved in life or death cases. As Kanye West can tell you, just because you’re fixing someone’s boobs doesn’t mean they can’t die as a result of your actions. Idiot point the second: When you want to sell your father’s orphanage to open your own plastic surgery practice, you should spend a bit more time thinking about your priorities as a human being. Idiot point the third: When gangsters are fighting in a dark, secluded parking garage, you should probably make yourself scarce rather than lurking nearby to eavesdrop.

Appropriately enough, the actress who played Yoon Mi Jo suffered from another fatal Kdrama flaw: too much plastic surgery. Her crazy doe eyes are so clearly not of nature that I spent most of this series wondering why she’d do such a thing to herself, rather than watching her act. The entertainment industry may be full of people who have had work done, but some of them respect the fine line between a subtle touch up and turning yourself into a Pixar character. 

Me Too, Flower also featured a lead actor who’s had a few too many visits to the plastic surgeon. Phasers were clearly set to "bland" during Lee Ji Ahs operations—they polished away any hint of distinctiveness or personality her face may once have had. And as far as acting goes, she proves that it’s almost impossible to use manmade facial features to express natural emotion. 

I wanted to love this show from the writer of the fabulous My Lovely Sam Soon and Whats Up Fox, but between Cha Bong Sun’s animatronic good looks, a largely unlikeable cast of characters, and the drama’s listless, disjointed plot, it was hard to get involved. Me Too, Flower’s only saving graces are the character of Seo Jae Hee and the actor who plays him, Yoon Shi Yoon. Jae Hee has a makjang history littered with dead parents and a tragic accident, but Yoon Shi Yoon creates from this standard-issue backstory a character of touching emotional vulnerability and charm.

Weirdly, the male lead of Can You Hear My Heart? was originally scheduled to star in Me Too, Flower, but backed out after an injury. I’m glad he did, and not just because Yoon Shi Yoon did such a good job with the role. The other characters in Can You Hear My Heart? spent a lot of time marveling at Cha Dong Joo’s “milky” skin tone, but I think modern science may have had an uncomfortable hand here, too—the actor’s improbable whiteness is so extreme that he looks more like one of the ghoulish cave-dwellers from the British horror movie The Descent than a person. Put him together with the actress who played Me Too, Flower’s lead, and you might as well just animate the thing. Computer-generated characters are bound to look more lifelike than those two.

A lot can be overlooked for the sake of compelling, relatable characters and actors. But whatever their merits, these three dramas dropped the ball and never recovered from their fatal flaws.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Girlie Show?

Is Korean drama more girl-oriented than American television?

I’ve been mulling over this question for a while. Initially, it seemed clear to me that Kdrama really does appeal to female viewers in a way American TV never would, but then I had a realization: I’m a newbie who almost exclusively seeks out dramas intended for female audiences. This makes me the television-watching equivalent of those blind men in the elephant story—I only understand what’s directly in front of me because the whole of the beast is just too unfathomable.

Having said that, there is a way for me to answer this question even with my limited knowledge and understanding: Korean drama is capable of being more girl-oriented than American television, and in the pink-wallpapered ghetto in which I prefer to dwell, it actually is.

The funnest piece of evidence I have to support this argument? That would be the F4 effect. Although American television demands that its women fit society’s ideal—they’re almost all pretty, thin, and well-dressed—it completely lets men off the hook. For every devastatingly beautiful woman on TV, you’ll find a chunky, sloppy, not-particularly-hot man. But in Korea? Conspicuously attractive men are all the rage, with their faces more beautiful than flowers and their wardrobes more amazing than a September issue of Vogue. Heck, there’s even an entire series of dramas built around the premise that women like to see good-looking men: the Oh! Boy shows, including Flower Boy Ramen Shop and Shut Up: Flower Boy Band. (You had me at flower, quite frankly.) 

There are also weightier, more fundamental reasons why Korean drama is uniquely equipped to appeal to women. I don’t really buy that we all like the same things because of our biology, but it seems to me that as girls we do tend to gravitate toward particular interests. And relationships are one of these interests, whether they’re romantic or not. We like to see people relate to others, to understand their emotions, and to chart their connections over time. This, as it turns out, is just what Korean drama excels at.

To me, anyway, the structure of the 16-episode Korean weekday drama is perfect for bringing relationships to the center stage. It’s a finite window allowing for a definitive beginning, middle, and end. It’s long enough for depth and nuance, but it’s not so long to require excessive amounts of filler or treading water. Characters and their relationships begin in episode one, and then proceed to grow and change for fifteen more episodes.

American television shows, on the other hand, are engineered to last all but forever, for hundreds of episodes over multiple programming seasons and calendar years. Take The Simpsons: This animated show about a working class, middle-American family started airing in 1989, when I was in sixth grade. Fast-forward 23 seasons and nearly 500 episodes, and you’ll find that in that time I’ve grown into middle-aged, mid-career professional. But Bart Simpson is still in fourth grade, just as he was in the show’s first episode. A stunning number of wacky things have happened to Bart and his family in the meanwhile but as characters they—and their relationships—have remained in absolute stasis.

A few rare shows have managed to thrive in spite of the longterm, amorphous commitment of American television production, including the perennially wonderful Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy survived by developing two narrative arcs—one revolving around season-long “Big Bad” characters that gave immediate payoff and moved the plot forward, and another focusing on the show’s overall mythology and the continued development of its characters.

In response to the never-ending runs of its shows, American television has also evolved Law-and-Order-ism, another big killer of focused relationship development and growth. At any given moment over the past decade, most of our scripted offerings have been procedurals—shows that have a central core of characters that interact with an ever-changing cadre of weekly plotlines and characters. These shows don’t focus on the relationships or activities of their central characters, and inevitably these characters are about as one-dimensional as the animated Bart Simpson. Instead of driving the action with their own plotlines, the core cast links freestanding episodes under the show’s “brand.” Korean television has flirted with this narrative structure—as in the much-lauded-but-underwhelming Hello, My Teacher, which used the lens of a teacher to focus on the episode-long struggles of her students—but its lasting impact seems minimal.

While we Americans have been suffering through the scourge of uncertain, open-ended television shows that far outlast their usefulness, Seoul has been pumping out bite-sized delights that, in spite of their shortcomings, function as complete, stand-alone television “novels,” each full of characters that grow and change and overarching plotlines that resolve.

Beyond a tightened focus that allows for more meaningful character development, it’s also true that shorter-run Korean television shows can glory in a small detail that American monoliths can’t—romance. I hesitate to link being a girl with a disproportionate interest in love, but as a television watcher there's no hiding that love is just what I want to see. Every season love story after love story airs on Korean TV networks, while even American cable channels specifically devoted to women can’t manage to air a single series that focuses on love over being a policewoman or a lawyer or a vampire groupie.

I still haven’t reached a conclusion about whether Kdrama is inherently more girl-friendly than American TV. But in my mind, all signs point to Yes: Women are regularly lead characters in the most mainstream of dramas. Relationships, not gimmicks, are at the heart of their plots. And are those Korean actors ever handsome.

What it all boils down to is that Korean television, consciously or subconsciously, is built around and for women. The bulk of American television, on the other hand, sees female viewers as a niche audience not to be offended—but not necessarily to be served. 

We may hold the purse strings but Jack Bauer holds the remote.