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.


  1. Goodness. Was the female lead in Can You Hear My Heart really that bad? (I haven't watched it, but a lot of ppl seem to like it and this is the first time I've heard this.) If it's true I'll probably drop it from my (ever-expanding) to-watch list--I couldn't finish You're Beautiful mainly because of Mi Nam's dimness.

    Yeah, that was one of the reasons I liked Dream High--I loved Hyemi and Pilsook and even Baek-hee, at the end, and I loved how they each had their own independent dreams and ambitions. It's funny how these three teenagers are alot more mature and intelligent than many other adult female characters in other dramas.

    Speaking of intelligent teenage characters...have you watched White Christmas? If you haven't, I *strongly* recommend it if you enjoy psychological thrillers that make you think.

    1. Everyone else really does love CYHMY, so Bong Uri might just have rubbed me the wrong way. Her grating cheerfulness really killed the drama for me, even more than her character being about as deep as a mud puddle.

      The series does get much better as it goes on and Bong Uri eventually shows at least a hint of brains—albeit in the cartooniest ways possible. So you might not want to totally scratch this one off your to-watch list. (Although I do have to say that Ni Nam didn't even strike me as dim in You're Beautiful, so that could be a bad sign for your potential reaction to Bong Uri.)

      I haven't seen White Christmas, and love drama recs. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention; I'll add it to my queue!

    2. And I am the opposite, I loved CYHMY and was not crazy about Dream High. I think what drew me into liking the drama was the child actors. Episodes 4 and 5 are enough to make you watch it.But yes, Bong Uri with her innocence does drive you crazy!

    3. Hmmm, I don't mind cheerfulness/innocence, as long as they have a functioning brain. There's a difference between innocence and stupidity. Pilsook from Dream High and Eun Soo from Story of A Man are innocent, Mi Nam is stupid (how on earth can a girl be frightened of a *bidet* and manage to taser herself?!)

      I don't think White Christmas is for everybody--there's almost no romance, all the characters are flawed, and it made me feel pretty uncomfortable at times. But the writing is fantastic, the cinematography is stunning (seriously, stream or dl this in HD or you're missing out), and the cast is full of male eye candy. And it's only 8 eps long!

  2. I really liked the kid actors in CYHMH, too...The grown ups were a letdown in comparison. (Although I totally love Ma-Ru, even if I kept hoping for my favorite Japanese cat to appear whenever he was mentioned. The show would have been saved for me if only the *real* Maru had made an appearance.)

  3. I haven't seen any of these dramas, and I don't intend to. What I'm finding is that there are too many dramas for too few hours, so I am not as "completeist" as I when I first started watching Asian dramas.

    Here's a few unsolicited drama recs (from a hopeless romantic). I consider Alone in Love as my favorite drama (I have a soft spot for old lovers finding their way back to each other, and Son Ye Jin is beautiful). If you have chance, check out Someday (Bae Doo Na and Lee Jin Wook). It doesn't get widespread love, but it's somewhat atypical: I'm not sure how it would fit in your Kdrama rom-com writer's worksheet. Well, I guess you couln't count them as comedies. They're straight up romance with a bit of melo.

    1. I've only been on the Kdrama wagon for about 6 months, but am already less of a completist than I was in the early days of my obsession. As much as I'd like to live forever so I'd have time to watch every single Kdrama ever, it seems unlikely that I'll manage to pull it off. (So Peninsula and Ripley, consider yourselves off the list.)

      As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as an unsolicited drama rec, especially if the show can be described as "straight up romance with a bit of melo." That's my dream combination. Thanks for the tips—I'll definitely add these two to list. (Sigh. Which means the total is back where it was before I started typing this reply!)

    2. Amanda, I feel bad for recommending those 2 shows to you. I went back to check dramafever, and those are not on the site. I saw them before dramafever existed. I hope they go on DF soon.

    3. Don't feel bad, Gail ;) I'm always on the lookout for recs, and can occasionally even manage to watch something not on Dramafever. (I watch with a Google TV, which doesn't play well with Flash sites like viki.) Dramafever is always adding new shows, so when dramas they don't have yet are recommended I click the "remind me when available" button and keep my fingers crossed.

      I really want to see Someday—I've seen a lot of people compare it favorably to Coffee Prince, which is hard to imagine.

    4. I am not familiar with Google TV, so I'm not sure if this one would work for you. Hancinema has videos from crunchyroll, this one for Someday: http://www.hancinema.net/watch-stream-korean-drama-Someday-full-episode-1-english-subtitled.html

    5. Awesome, Gail! I'm just looking for a new drama to start watching, and have actually had good luck with crunchyroll videos in the past. Someday it is.

  4. It's the hair. Bong Uri's hair was horrible and enough to make me want to contact the director of the drama and tell him to re shoot all her scenes with a better hairstyle.

    I seriously wanted to punch her in every scene she came out on.
    I even covered her face with my hand lol

    The child actors were adorable and acted far better than any actors I've seen in the Kdramas I've watched.

    They should've just stuck with them seriously.

    1. I could not agree more, on all fronts. Toward the end Bong Uri's hair got a little better, but it never improved beyond the hairstyle I had in second grade. I've seen pictures of that actress in other dramas...with the exact same haircut.

      And the younger actors were way cuter and more interesting than their grownup counterparts.