Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Drama Review: Queen In-hyun’s Man



Queen In-hyun’s Man: A-
So here’s a prime example why I think it’s risky to write about dramas that are currently airing: It’s not over until it’s over, and by the end of the show your feelings about it might have changed.

Usually this would be a change for the worse—Kdramas are notorious for dropping the ball toward the end, after all. But as far as I’m concerned the exact opposite is true of the giddy time-warp romance Queen In-hyun’s Man. Its last two episodes were such a vortex of utter awesomeness that they changed my opinion of the show almost completely. And this means that I can’t in good conscience post an unedited version of the middling review I wrote before seeing said episodes.

I still maintain that QIhM has its problems, but having watched all 16 installments I can now for the first time see both the forest and the trees. This is an epic, redeeming love story with a supernatural twist, beautifully plotted with unrelenting narrative tension and an unerring feel for the pleasures and terrors of star-crossed love.

Instead of a finale that’s essentially a drawn-out victory lap with no reason for existing beyond filling the show’s final hour, Queen In-hyun’s Man saved the best for last. Poignant, powerful, and deftly scripted, episode 16 pulled together all the show’s many tatty narrative threads and tied them into a big, gorgeous bow that won’t soon be forgotten. It gave me goosebumps so intense they actually hurt, and I’m pretty sure I need to rewatch the entire show now that I know we were in good hands all along.

I enjoyed the earlier episodes, but I wasn’t as taken with them as the rest of the blogosphere; like so many other Korean dramas, QIhM started off a bit broad and airheaded for my tastes. Yes, it was effervescent and charming and youthful and fun—a downright ice-cream sundae of a drama, all airy whipped cream and super-sweet hot fudge. But for most of the show I found myself wishing that they’d bothered to serve dinner first.

In truth, the recipe for my dream drama would involve something like 80 percent melodrama, 15 percent comedy, and 5 percent steamy make-out scenes. No matter how high its production values, QIhM started at a distinct disadvantage for me: its measurements are more like 40/40/20. But I always respected how effortlessly it managed to interweave three seemingly irreconcilable plots—a political thriller set during the seventeenth century, a dramaland rom-com in the modern world, and a mysterious time-travel fantasy.

Its expertly crafted plot isn’t the only marvel Queen In-hyun’s Man has to offer. It focuses on one of the sweetest OTPs of all time, complete with lots of fun banter and enough physical electricity to power South Korea for at least a decade. Kdrama kisses may be getting more and more believable these days, but QIhM tops them all by including some of the warmest, coziest hugs ever filmed. Unlike the awkward, dead-fish embraces we’re used to, Ji Hyun Woo (who was also wonderfully cuddly in My Sweet Seoul) tightly wraps himself around the female lead, as if he could not possibly be close enough to her. (It turns out there may be good reason for this: in a stunningly drama-friendly turn of events, he apparently confessed his love for her at a fan meeting for the show. Are you paying attention, Hong sisters? You could get a great script out of this.)

Queen In-hyun’s Man also uses its magical McGuffin often and well, making the time-traveling talisman a key factor in all three of the show’s contrasting plotlines. I’ve never seen another Kdrama that so comfortably walks the line between the natural and the supernatural—even Padam Padam, which I really loved, lost sight of its otherwordly influences for most of its middle episodes. On the other hand, Operation Proposal kept its supernatural aspects so front and center that they quickly got boring and laughably repetitive.

I didn’t fully surrender my heart to this show until the very last minute for a few reasons. In spite of lovely cinematography and a cast of likeable characters, much of QIhM’s plot zooms by at fast-forward pace, popping from past to present, from here-and-now to a dizzying series of flashbacks, flashfowards, and maybe even a few flashsideways. It felt like a vaguely overstuffed Cliffs Notes version of a really excellent original.

Maybe it was because I missed visual cues while focusing on the subtitles, but I kept getting lost in the timeline. (Were they torturing him then? Or now? Or then, then? Did they really just jump forward one month and then back one month in the space of 25 seconds?) What it boils down to, I think, is a story full of great ideas that can’t be fully developed in the allotted time. Sure, QIhM is zippy fun, but all those boring, unsexy scenes it left on the cutting room floor (or the screenwriter’s harddrive) could have played an essential role: they might have provided the connective tissue necessary to seamlessly hold together what wound up feeling like a fairly choppy drama.

I was also a bit suspicious of the script’s treatment of its male lead, Kim Boong Do. Clearly, this is a drama hero I was born to adore: he’s a brainy scholar who excels with both the pen and the sword. He loves learning and books. He has a calm, gentle charisma and a deep kindness that’s impossible to overlook. Nonetheless, he’s a figure half-sketched: The script made it clear that he was a widower in his timeline, but never once touched on what that might mean to him as he entered into a romantic relationship in the modern world. Did he love his wife? Did he miss her? Was he afraid to fall in love knowing firsthand that you can’t always protect the people you care about? QIhM lacked the maturity to address any of these questions. It would have been vastly better to eliminate that plot point altogether and make it instead the servant of his murdered sister who gave him the talisman. How can anyone hope to build a character on a field of sand like this, ignoring the foundation that should underpin the entire structure?

And then, of course, there’s the issue of the female lead. Choi Hee Jin isn’t someone who’s spent a lot of time being responsible for herself. In her professional life she’s an infantilized celebrity who shows up (on time or not), puts on a pretty costume, and recites some lines. In her personal life, she lives with her manager, a best friend, boss, and parent all rolled into one. She also spends a lot of time apologizing for how stupid she is, and as the show progresses it becomes clear that this is actually a get-out-jail-free card for her: “I’m stupid, so of course I can’t [fill in the blank].” 

It’s not until Boong Do shows arrives, fresh from the 1690s, that Hee Jin steps forward as someone who has the ability to understand the world around her and be an active participant in it. Boong Do doesn’t know how to open a car door or use an elevator or board an airplane, so as their relationship blossoms it’s her turn to do the thinking. In episode 3, he even lays the situation out for her: “I’m no different than an idiot. Treat me as an idiot by nature and just take care of me.” If my love for this drama was charted in graph form, that would have be the high point. I saw ahead of us a clear path for Hee Jin: She would slowly come to realize that she wasn’t so dumb after all, and thanks to her dreamy Joseon boyfriend, claim her personal agency as a modern woman.

And yes, this is where the show ultimately goes. But right up until the very end her character’s growth from a ditzy bubblehead was built on the most tenuous of ground. At one point in episode 11, Hee Jin borrows Boong Do’s words to say that she’ll take responsibility for him. That, I thought, was the gender-bendy, politically correct moment when I could finally give my heart fully to this OTP. But then Boong Do spoke up, and implied that she was nothing more than a girl who couldn’t understand men and therefore needed him to save her. How could she ever take responsibility?

This was said in a joking way, but there are some places you just don’t go. It seems the writers realized this, too: in the next episode they addressed the problem by making Boong Do tell Hee Jin flat out that she wasn’t stupid. But for this show to be at all satisfying for me, Hee Jin needed to accept this fact for herself and Boong Do needed to support her in it—not cut her down in the name of bickering humor. 

And then episode 16 happened, and gave me almost everything I wanted for these two characters. In the end, Hee Jin’s smarts and faith in herself saved the day in the most moving, breathless way I could possibly ask for.

I must admit, though, that in their headlong rush to get where they were going, the writers of Queen In-hyun’s Man often blinked at pesky little things like the rules of time travel they themselves established. Boong Do needed to have his life threatened to jump forward in time. But at the end of one of the Joseon episodes, he wandered off by himself, and the next time we saw him was in the future. How did that work, exactly? He had already stuck his sword in the ground, so that tool was out of play. Did he hold his breath until he turned blue? And how about the time jump from the bathroom of Hee Jin’s hospital room on the 13th floor? In several scenes we saw evidence that his physical coordinates stayed the same in each time. Are we to believe that he used the magical parachute issued to all Confucian scholars to survive a fall through a hundred feet of open air? Whoever was in charge of continuance should also have spent a bit more time considering the status of Boong Do’s top knot—it came and went rather more than it should have in the last few episodes.

And then, of course, there’s the show’s greatest failure: that spiffy, attention-getting opening scene? Well, it doesn’t match up with the drama’s closing scene…or any scene at all, as far as I can remember. But you know what? Even if the chef changed the recipe partway through, that doesn’t mean Queen In-hyun’s Man is any less of a tasty treat.


(P.S.: Want to travel back in time and read the similar-but-snarkier incarnation of this review written before I watched the last two episodes?)




Queen In-hyn's Man: B

I enjoyed watching Queen In-hyun’s Man, but it wasn’t the vortex of utter awesomeness I expected based on the world’s rave reviews. Yes, it’s all the things you’ve heard about it: effervescent and charming and youthful and fun. It even manages to deftly interweave three seemingly irreconcilable plots—a political thriller set during the seventeenth century, a dramaland rom-com in the modern world, and a mysterious time-travel fantasy. It’s beautifully and imaginatively shot, and populated with likeable characters.

The person who acquires scripted programming for TvN really deserves a raise. Some of the international Kdrama community’s buzziest shows of recent memory have aired on that upstart cable channel, and (in our circles anyway) it’s building a reputation for thoughtful, well-executed dramas that are both crowd pleasing and boundary pushing. I wish that they hadn’t scored rights to Queen In-hyun’s Man, though. As a cable show, each of its 16 episodes are at least 15 minutes shorter than episodes filmed for a mainstream network. Over the course of the drama, that’s almost 250 lost minutes, the equivalent of 4 whole episodes. (The cable networks are allowed to run commercials during their broadcast, so their shows are shorter to accommodate them. Most of the streaming versions of Queen In-hyun’s Man actually included these commercials, which, being a geek, I enjoyed watching almost as much as I enjoyed the show itself.)

For some dramas, a shorter running time would be a blessing. In this case, though, it ensured a vaguely overstuffed final product that feels like the Cliffs Notes version of a really excellent original. The plot zooms by at fast-forward pace, popping from past to present, from here-and-now to a dizzying series of flashbacks, flashfowards, and maybe even a few flashsideways. It could be because I missed visual cues while focusing on the subtitles, but I kept getting lost in the timeline. (Were they torturing him then? Or now? Or then, then? Did they really just jump forward one month and then back one month in the space of 25 seconds?) What it boils down to, I think, is story full of great ideas that’s allowed too little time to fully develop them. Sure, QIhM is zippy fun, but all those boring, unsexy scenes it left on the cutting room floor would have served a purpose: they would have been connective tissue to hold the drama together.  

Having said that, this is a show with a lot of good things to offer. It focuses on one of the sweetest OTPs of all time, complete with lots of fun banter and enough physical electricity to power South Korea for at least a decade. Kdrama kisses may be getting more and more believable these days, but QIhM tops them all by including some of the warmest, coziest hugs ever filmed. Unlike the awkward, dead-fish embraces we’re used to, Ji Hyun Woo (who was also wonderfully cuddly in My Sweet Seoul) tightly wraps himself around the female lead, as if he could not possibly be close enough to her. (It turns out there may be good reason for this: in a stunningly drama-friendly turn of events, he apparently confessed his love for her at a fan meeting for the show. Are you paying attention, Hong sisters? You could get a great script out of this.)

Queen In-hyun’s Man also uses its magical McGuffin often and well, making the time-traveling talisman a key factor in all three of the show’s contrasting plotlines. I’ve never seen another Kdrama that so effortlessly walks the line between the natural and the supernatural—even Padam Padam, which I really loved, lost sight of its otherwordly influences for most of its middle episodes. (I would argue, though, that what Padam Padam highlighted was more important—its characters and their story arcs.) On the other hand, Operation Proposal kept its supernatural aspects so front and center that they quickly got boring and laughably repetitive.

With so much plot to spare, QIhM also never falls into the mid-drama doldrums that plague so many other shows. Whether it’s the lead-in to a commercial break or the end of an episode, there’s always a compelling cliffhanger. Episode 16 hasn’t been subbed as of this writing, but I suspect it will continue the show’s tradition of strong narrative tension rather than succumbing to the kind of self-congratulatory, happy-ending episode so many other shows wrap up with.

But all this time devoted to the plot comes at the expense of narrative elements I sometimes value even more—say, for example, complex characterizations. Consider the show’s male lead, Kim Boong Do. The script made it clear that he was a widower in his timeline, but never once touched on what that might mean to him as he entered into a romantic relationship in the modern world. Did he love his wife? Does he miss her? Is he afraid to fall in love again knowing firsthand that you can’t always protect the people you care about? Unfortunately that’s not the kind of thinking this show does, and so its characters have very little depth beyond their surface traits. Boong Do is a butt-kicking scholar who is infallibly smart, capable, and tender. He's also willing to risk his life for what he believes in. That’s pretty darn awesome, but how great would he have been if his personality had incorporated some texture and darker shades, too?

And then, of course, there’s the issue of the female lead. Choi Hee Jin isn’t someone who’s spent a lot of time being responsible for herself. In her professional life she’s an infantilized celebrity who shows up (on time or not), puts on a pretty costume, and recites some lines. In her personal life, she lives with her manager, a best friend, boss, and parent all rolled into one. She also spends a lot of time apologizing for how stupid she is, and as the show progresses it becomes clear that this is actually a get-out-jail-free card for her: “I’m stupid, so of course I can’t [fill in the blank].” 

It’s not until Boong Do shows arrives, fresh from the 1690s, that Hee Jin steps forward as someone who has the ability to understand the world around her and be an active participant in it. Boong Do doesn’t know how to open a car door or use an elevator or board an airplane, so as their relationship blossoms it’s her turn to do the thinking. In episode 3, he even lays the situation out for her: “I’m no different than an idiot. Treat me as an idiot by nature and just take care of me.” If my love for this drama was charted in graph form, that would have be the high point. I saw ahead of us a clear path for Hee Jin: She would slowly come to realize that she wasn’t so dumb after all, and thanks to her dreamy Joseon boyfriend, claim her personal agency as a modern woman.

I suspect that this is ultimately where the show is going, but from my perspective it’s happening in such a quiet, self-effacing way that’s almost worse than it never happening at all. At one point toward the end of the drama, Hee Jin borrows Boong Do’s words to say that she’ll take responsibility for him. That, I thought, was the gender-bendy, politically correct moment when I could finally give my heart fully to this OTP. But then Boong Do opened his mouth to remind her that she’s just a girl who doesn’t understand men and therefore needs him to save her. How could she ever take responsibility?

Sure, this was said in a joking way, but there are some places you just don’t go. It seems the writers realized this, too: in the next episode they addressed the problem by making Boong Do tell Hee Jin flat out that she's not stupid. But for this show to be at all satisfying for me, she’s got to come to accept that fact herself and he’s got to support her in it—not cut her down. Nothing would delight me more than this happening in episode 16, which in my fevered dreams would involve Hee Jin figuring out a way she can save the day herself.

(And on top of it all, I’m pretty sure an honest tallying of who saved whom during the show would come up pretty close to even—if not in Hee Jin’s favor.)

In their headlong rush to get where they’re going, the writers of Queen In-hyun’s Man often blink at pesky little things like the rules of time travel they themselves established. In spite of needing to have his life threatened to jump forward in time, Boong Do wanders off by himself at the end of a Joseon episode, and the next time we see him is in the future. How did that work, exactly? We eventually see that he was able to menace himself with his sword until he jumped forward, but that time he’d stuck his sword in the ground before jumping, thereby taking it out of play. Did he hold his breath until he turned blue? And how about the time jump from the bathroom of Hee Jin’s hospital room on the 13th floor? In a later episode Boong Do is shown falling to the ground after jumping while sitting on a park bench, so we know his physical coordinates stay the same in each time. Which logically means he survived a fall from 13 stories, right?

I’m clearly less taken with Queen In-hyun’s Man than the rest of the blogosphere. Maybe this represents the end of my Kdrama honeymoon phase, that era when anything is good enough to thrill just because it’s so exotic (e.g., Boys over Flowers).  Or maybe my own personal baggage as a lifelong fan of both girl power and fantasy fiction is getting in the way. Maybe it's even because watching Kdrama in the wild is such a hassle after the manicured garden of Dramafever. 

Whatever the reason, QIhM is an ice-cream sundae of a show, all airy whipped cream and super-sweet hot fudge. I just wish it had taken time to serve dinner, too.

10 comments:

  1. I actually loved how fast paced QIHM was. Most kdrama feel a little too slow for my taste pacing-wise, and I've always felt most shows would be tauter if they cut down on the flashback-of-the-scene-that-just-happened-10-seconds-ago-for-viewers-with-goldfish-memories and the slow-music-video-as-the-main-leads-angst scenes. QIHM was beautifully shot, but I never felt that the director ignored the story to show off a pretty camera angle (*coughEquatorMancough*). Have you seen the cable drama Vampire Prosecutor (lame title, pretty good show)? It's by the same director, who also did amazing work there.

    As for the ending, I'm one of those who were satisfied by not enamoured. The rest of the show was able to touch me even with it's flaws in logic, but the ending just felt slightly off for some reason. *shrugs* And yeah, I was totally bummed to realize the amazing opening scene didn't fit in anywhere.

    I am glad that the ending gave Hee Jin agency though. I don't think she's stupid--in ep 6 (?) she came up with a plan to circumvent airport security all by herself, but I wished that the show acknowledged it more.

    Even so, QIHM is one of the very few romance-centric kdramas that I loved and which held my attention from beginning to end (the only other one I loved as much is Soulmate). That alone makes it one of my favorites.

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    Replies
    1. I definitely agree about the abuse of flashbacks—it's fine if a romantic comedy wants to do a finale flashback of all the great couple moments, but some shows feel as if they spend more time on flashbacks per episode than they do on new material :b

      And it seems fate has decided to step in in response to my complaints about QIhM being too fast. The drama I'm watching now is so glacially, ploddingly slow it makes me wish Dramafever had better fast-forwarding capabilities. First there's a scene where characters talk about going somewhere, then there's a separate scene of them getting on their horses, then there's a third scene of them riding their horses, and then they arrive in a fourth scene. Oy! Get the point, already.

      I love that there's so much to discuss about the QIhM ending—it's a sign of a well-written drama that people can make so many legitimate arguments about what the heck actually happened. I'm already looking forward to watching it again someday.

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  2. I love this series. Very romantic and cute. The characters are great!

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  3. I guess the chemistry between the lead actor and actress was so good cause they fell in love in real life and started dating from the set of the show. I really enjoyed it. It is one of my best K-dramas.

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  4. Do you happen to know of a good boxed set (with good english subs) of QIHM to buy that will play in the US? Now that YA Entertainment has gone out of buisness I'm not sure which boxed sets to trust. I saw that PMP Entertainment is selling QIHM in all region, and their subs are usually pretty good (not as good as YA Entertainment though), but it drives me crazy that they always put their subs down on the black bars instead of above them on the picture so I can't play them on full widescreen on my tv.

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    Replies
    1. Sorry, but I have no idea. I've only bought one drama on DVD: an ancient copy of Coffee Prince that I got used from Amazon. (Lucky me, it turned out to be awesome.)

      Good luck!

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    2. What did you think about the fast paced way QIHM was filmed, with all the camera angle switching? That is the one thing I didn't love about this drama. The first time I watched it I actually didn't notice it much, but now that I am re-watching it I'm finding it more than a bit dizzying and distracting. Very often the camera switches up to four times during one sentence! And I think they overused the split screen thing a bit too, but that isn't as bad as the constant angle switching.

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  5. sorry but i didnt like this drama, for me the lead actress cant really act, too bad for the actor as he is really good.

    switching and splitting the video also too much, i tried to like it but i give up after i watch the whole first episode. NOPE for me.

    ReplyDelete
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