Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Cultural Exchange, Kdrama Style

Put down that silverware, Eun Kyul!
(And stop laughing at my lousy screen capture, while you’re at it.
It’s hard to take them, you know.)

I’ve spent essentially my entire life in the northeastern United States, and if someone were to sequence my DNA I’m sure they’d find it was made up of maple syrup, snowflakes cut from paper, and tiny little holstein figurines. (What, you expected something boring and scientific, like base pairs? As if.) But where I live is just an unavoidable fact of life; it’s not something I’ve really spent a lot of time thinking about. So it surprised me how shocked I was to see the kids from To the Beautiful You casually eating hamburgers with forks and knives early on in their show’s run. It felt fundamentally blasphemous and wrong, deep down in my bones, to see someone approach my national dish in such a foreign way.

Since then, I’ve realized that there’s yet another unexpected side effect of my obsession with Korean drama: Seeing my own culture in a new light. Kdrama offers a glimpse into life on the other side of the world, but through the comparison I’m also coming to learn more about life here.

As is probably true of most people in my country, the biggest reminder that I’m an American rolls around once every four years: the presidential election. Democratic elections are actually something that Korea and America have in common—while we Americans are voting for a president this November, the Korean campaign season will be winding to a close in anticipation of their December election.

In honor of what our countries do differently and the things they share, I thought I’d post two short lists today: one of American rituals and customs worth exporting to Korea, and one of Korean rituals and customs that we Americans should try out.

America to Korea
Trick-or-treating. Halloween may have roots in religion, but these days it’s almost totally secular. As a kid, there is literally no experience more wonderful than donning a costume to become someone else for an evening, and then going door-to-door demanding candy. It’s not unusual to spend months planning what to wear and strategizing the best neighborhoods to visit. Where to go is a balancing act: you want high property values, because that’s usually an indication of good candy. But you also want closely packed houses to minimize the time spent getting from one place to the next, which means a bigger haul in the end. Starting around five on Halloween night the streets are thick with families and kids all dressed up and carrying plastic jack-o-lanterns for booty storage. As the night progresses, the kids get older, the costumes get gorier, and the parents start to disappear. The “trick” part of trick-or-treating rarely happens, but when it does it generally involves high school kids misbehaving. In suburban America, if you don’t have your porch light on kids know that you’re not participating and just pass you by, rather than taking any sort of revenge.

As seen in: E.T.

Summer break. As a grown up, it can be hard to remember what summer break felt like: these days, two weeks off from work is an impossible dream. But kids attending American schools have more than two months off every summer to do whatever they want. Once upon a time, this vacation was intended to allow kids to help out on their family farms, but in the modern world it mostly involves video games, sleep-away-camp, and marathon-level slacking off. South Korean schools have breaks between semesters, too, but nothing so mammoth as the mid-June to early September vacation that’s traditional in America. Also of note is the fact that until this year, South Korean kids went to school on Saturdays, for a total of six days a week. Economic miracles take hard work and all, but this is clearly a country in need of a nice, long vacation. (A random side note: some of the “goose families” that are occasionally referred to in Kdramas actually send their kids to America specifically because the academics are so much more relaxed here.)

As seen in: Dazed and Confused

Prom. Out of all the youth-oriented Kdramas I’ve watched, only Boys over Flowers has included anything like a school dance. On the other hand, practically every American coming-of-age story uses the prom as a big finale—from Twilight to 10 Things I Hate About You to Pretty in Pink. (And let’s not forget Carrie, either.) The prom is essentially a teenage version of Halloween: you get dressed up as something you’re not for a few hours and do something you wouldn’t normally do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I never did attend a prom. I can’t say that this is surprising—I’m not great fan of dresses or high heels or dancing, all key elements in the traditional prom experience. But when it comes right down to it, hating on the institution of prom is just as much a cultural touchstone in America as attending the event. Whether you went or you didn’t, whether you spent the whole time crying in the bathroom or ended up as prom queen, the grande dame of formal dances really is a key character-building experience that’s worth sharing.

As seen in: Footloose

Even without Jun Pyo in attendance, I’m sure this would be a good time.

Korea to America
Making kimjang. Practically every time someone is shown eating in Korean dramas—breakfast, lunch, dinner, or instant ramen consumed while standing in a convenience store—kimchi is involved. At least some of that kimchi was probably prepared during a fall gathering devoted to making enough kimchi to last through the winter. Extended families get together and, over the course of several days, work produce enough kimchi to go around. I’m no great cook, but there’s something deeply appealing about this communal event. See posts on Electric Ground and Life in Korea for more.

As seen in: Boys over Flowers

Hanbok. There’s really no such thing as “American” traditional dress. As a nation of travelers, our backgrounds are too diverse for such a thing to ever have taken hold—with the possible exception of Civil War getups for the reenactment set and fat Elvis jumpsuits for the fat Elvis set. I suspect it’s a dying tradition, but I love seeing that one woman at any Kdrama formal event who’s all decked out in this traditional outfit. The hanboks themselves are beautiful, and a distinctly Korean tradition like this strikes me as something too precious to lose to globalization. I would love to know more about what it actually feels like to wear a hanbok, but unfortunately the Internet is pretty much mum on this point. There are a few sources of information, though: how to put on a hanbok at Youtube; a visit to the hanbok store at Korea.net; and the hanbok photobooth at Estherxie.com. (If the owner of the last blog had watched as much Korean drama as I have, she would immediately realize the painting she’s sitting in front of was done by Shin Yoon Bok, one of the artists Painter of the Wind was inspired by.)

As seen in: Sweet Eighteen

Go-stop. I’ve probably seen seventy hands of go-stop played in various Kdramas, but I have yet to grasp a single rule. It looks terrifyingly complex, but based on this guide for beginners it might not be so bad. (The full rules of gameplay are a bit more off-putting, to put it mildly.) Trying to learn this game is probably folly for someone with my limited brain capacity, but those Korean drama characters really seem to enjoy it. (I especially love the sharp snap they use to discard cards.)

As seen in: Coffee Prince

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Drama Review: Soulmate (2006)

Grade: B+

Urban romantic comedy

What it’s about
A group of thirty-something friends discuss their love lives over street food and gym machines.

First impression
A grown-up (and occasionally naughty) take on how relationships and our expectations of them often differ. I can’t quite figure out why this is listed as a sitcom on Drama Fever, though. Like Answer Me 1997, most everything about it feels like a standard Korean drama of its era.

Final verdict
Soulmate is an odd, interesting little show. It’s not my favorite series ever, but I can see why it’s often considered to be a classic, must-watch drama on a par with something like Dal Ja’s Spring.

Most Korean dramas are at their best and most interesting early in their run, but Soulmate was exactly the opposite. Its first half felt like a so-so appetizer you were eating mostly because you wanted to get to the main course. And what a main course it was: A charming, sparkly foray into magical realism, the late-arriving soulmate plotline was by far my favorite part of this drama. It playfully addressed the issue of destiny versus decision and then delivered Soulmate’s most powerful emotional wallop.

In spite of its classification, this show is not what I would expect from a(n American) sitcom: it doesn’t include jokey punchlines or a laugh track, and its filming isn’t confined to a single set. And yet its half-hour running time, indie vibe, and lightweight storytelling make it feel distinctly different from traditional Kdramas. For one thing, most other shows draw fuller pictures of their inhabitants. This drama is peopled with quirky characters who seemingly come from nowhere—it’s hard to believe, but no career or living situation is ever established for a number of its key players. Family is almost never discussed, and there’s no real development of anyone’s past. All this adds up to a fun, airy comedy that feels weirdly unmoored when compared to most other Korean dramas.

In some ways, Soulmate is like the drama overlords taking revenge on me for bellyaching that Rich Man, Poor Woman didn’t dedicate enough time to its romance plotline. This drama is nothing but romance; its characters spend its entire run coupling and uncoupling (or talking about doing so) with no other concern. Built as it is around three character configurations—a love square and two separate love triangles, one that’s played out in the first half of the series and one that picks up where it left off—the plot never gets bogged down on the will-they-or-won’t-they merry-go-round. People get together, people break up, and the story goes on. In spite of this constant forward momentum, Soulmate doesn’t lack emotional depth; especially once you get past the gross-out comedy of its first ten episodes, the relationships it portrays are powerful and poignant. When somebody’s heart breaks, you feel it.

Also wonderful is this show’s group of female leads. Unlike the empty-headed drama bots so common these days, the women of Soulmate are unfailingly independent and capable, and thanks to a sympathetic script and capable actresses, they’re also presented as full, nuanced characters with flaws and doubts and fears. They all chart their own courses in life—a fact I appreciate so much it almost allows me to overlook a finale that leaves one plot thread frustratingly unresolved. One more scene (or shot, even) is all it would have taken to for this show to exit with sighs instead of groans.

Random thoughts
Episode 2. Soulmate has already included an unprecedented amount of barfing. I would have joined in during this episode’s revolving door scene: the actors clearly spent a lot of time walking around in circles while it was shot from many, many angles.

Episode 2. This is a show that’s much more concerned with its characters’ public faces than their inner beings. At this point, it’s mostly made up of scenes showing people discussing their love lives with very little action or forward momentum. Could this shallow start be the source of the trendy genre’s bad reputation?

Episode 9. This is a gross-out romantic comedy feels shockingly modern and mature even compared with dramas airing today, including the I Need Romance series. When it first aired in 2006, it must have been a shock—Soulmates features everything from sex talk to independent single girls to boys coming thisclose to kissing. All that, and nary a true grown up in sight.

Episode 12. Holy moly! Somebody just used a phone booth for its intended purpose, not as a spot to talk about time travel or a quiet place for a cell phone conversation. That’s even more dated these days than this drama’s wardrobe. (Although Ryeohi’s fashion choices aren’t really from a specific era. They’re more from a specific planet...that’s not Earth.)

Episode 12. I officially take back all the nasty thoughts I had about the just-barely-missed connections between this show’s eventual lead couple. It’s actually sort of Dickensian and charming how these characters pop unwittingly in and out of each other’s lives.

Episode 13. I often wish there was Kdrama equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, where I could look up the first instance of each standard Kdrama trope. I suspect this episode might represent the first example of a guy silently inserting an earbud for a girl so they can share music.

Episode 13. Well, that was an unexpected use of footage from Hedwig and the Angy Inch. I guess those Koreans really do like their gender swap dramas, angry inches or not.

Episode 18. I heartily approve of the soulmate mind reading shenanigans, but what about all those times when you wouldn’t want anyone else to know what you’re thinking? Say, for example, “I don’t care if he’s dating my friend. I want to shag him rotten”?

Episode 19. Soulmate has its ups and downs, but this episode was perfect and wonderful from beginning to end.

Episode 20. I just downloaded the Soulmate soundtrack, which is full of thoughtful, introspective songs. Especially wonderful is the dreamy theme song (which, go figure, is sung by the guy who did the dreamy theme song for I Need Romance 2012).

Watch it

You might also like
The I Need Romance series, for its contemporary and frank discussion of all things love
Dal Ja’s Spring, for its lighthearted humor

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Beyond Good and Evil: Kdrama, Blogging, and Purpose

Fanfic got Shi Won into college, after all...

I recently finished reading the book Everything Bad Is Good for You by Stephen Johnson. In it, Johnson argues that our engagement with modern pop culture actually makes us smarter, more alert, and more capable when it comes to problem solving—all of which sounds like a lot of wishful thinking, but still holds some merit as far as I’m concerned. For proof, look no further than my obsession with Kdrama. Hour by hour, episode by episode, I’m leaning the Korean language practically by osmosis. I’m discovering a culture I never once thought about before, and I’m coming to understand more of the limitless ways that life can be lived on planet earth.

These are some pretty impressive developments, especially considering that television soap operas are their catalyst. I also have Kdrama to thank for one more thing: I haven’t written this much or this regularly for years. And when I did write, my words were in service of an employer rather than myself. The daily grind of being a grown-up made me forget about the English degree I earned once upon a time, and that I used to dream about writing books when I was a kid. I’d even lost sight of what a thrill it can be to have something to write and know I can write it well. This is an experience I suspect many civilians live their entire lives without having; there are only a few people who actually make their living writing, after all, and people who aren’t obsessed with the Internet don’t have much call for lengthy critical analyses of their favorite show or think-pieces about gender-bending in Asian dramas. (Poor things.)

(Of course, there is a flip side to that thrill: the times when writing a paragraph seems more difficult than building a space ship from items in my kitchen’s junk drawer and using it to travel to Mars. On those days I can write and erase a single sentence twenty or thirty times, with my mood becoming less and less pleasant every time I hit the delete key. But writing fails are the price all of us pay for writing successes. Without the first, the second couldn’t exist.)

Clearly, I’m not the only one who’s having my horizons broadened by Korean dramas. As I surf around in search of new sites to include on my list of Kdrama links, I’m always impressed by the variety and quality of writing there is out there. From the short to the long, from the funny to the serious, blog posts are as unique as fingerprints and just as varied. I’ve come across two discussions that touch on this lately: The first was an article on My Drama List that poked gentle fun at a number of different review styles, and the second was a longer piece offering blogging advice at Thundie’s Prattle.

It actually took months of blogging to settle on a review format that worked for me, and hopefully works for the people who read this site. My raw materials were my own preferences: When I read a review I don’t want to be told every little thing. A quick introduction to the facts is helpful, but there’s no need for a full cast list or an exhaustive outline of every single plot detail. (That’s what dramawikis and streaming sites are for.) What I’m really looking for is the writer’s own opinion of the show, and whatever new perspectives he or she has to offer about it. I don’t even mind writers who include spoilers: I almost never read a blog post about or review of a show I haven’t already seen. I usually decide what to watch based on the general ratings and comments at Dramafever or Dramacrazy, but anything more in-depth than that waits until I’m caught up with watching. This might make me weird, but I read reviews to enrich my understanding of the show, not as a preview of what I’ll see if I decide to watch it.

The review format I eventually settled on is a bit of a cheat. I repeat specific categories so I don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time I sit down to write, and also to sidestep actually crafting a single cohesive discussion of the show. Building bridges to get from one point to another is my least favorite part of writing, and thanks to my headings I never really have to do it. That work gets saved for the few shows I really love (or, theoretically, the few shows I really hate).

Because I’m a Hermione-style geek who feels the need to research everything ever, I also did a lot of reading of other people’s reviews when I was trying to formulate my own style. This was an opportunity to borrow what I liked and also helped me see what other people might find useful. (In retrospect, I hope my borrowing can be counted as taking inspiration and not plagiarizing.)

In my searching, I came across a few key types of blog posts that I really, really love reading.

The syllabus. When I was first exploring Kdrama, my ultimate source of guidance was the Dramabeans rating page. The show descriptions here are so short and to the point that you might actually think they’re easy to write—but I bet you’d be wrong. As millions of Twitter users know all to well, brevity is hard. But as Shakespeare knew first, it’s also the soul of wit. Take Javabeans’ rating of the 2007 drama Air City: “Hot boys. Cold plot.” That kind of dispassionate restraint is hard, but these four words tell us all we need to know about the show. Whether they’re accurate, I couldn’t actually say: I took them to heart and skipped that drama altogether.

The lab report. Some bloggers have literally turned reviewing into a science. Their reviews are full of graphs and complicated rating systems based on mathematical formulas that would make my old algebra teacher swoon with delight. Built around empirical backbones, these posts are straightforward and easy to navigate, and allow both writer and reader to focus on their particular points of interest. They also invite readers to compare dramas category by category and provide a standard format that can be expected from each new review. For particularly deft examples of this species, see any of the reviews at Daily KTJ Drama and Kdrama Guk (which seems to be inactive these days, sadly).

The doctoral dissertation. Lengthy, insightful, and prone to referencing Foucault, reviews falling into this category are rare for good reason: they take forever to write and conceive. They plumb every smile and plot twist for meaning and significance, and can open your eyes to unimagined nuances in the simplest of scenes. As far as I'm concerned, there’s no pleasure like reading a downright scholarly discussion of a great show, like the ones found on Idle Revelry, The Vault, Mihansa, and High Yellow.

Like everything else in life, being obsessed with Korean drama is a mixed bag. I would get more exercise if I’d never discovered Drama Fever, but I probably wouldn’t be doing as much writing. While this blogging business doesn’t use my quads, it does give the critical thought center of my brain quite the workout—which is what I value more, anyway. Ultimately, blogging is hard work. It requires thought and effort and time, but its rewards can be pretty amazing: There’s the pleasure of being another voice in the communal discussion of something you love, and the ability to meet likeminded people from around the world. 

And who knows? Maybe it also refines our thinking and makes us smarter, just as Everything Bad Is Good for You would have us believe.

*** *** ***

When I first started reading Kdrama blogs, it amazed me that so many people had so many different things to say about the very same episodes. To appreciate the variety (and as an excuse to think more about my favorite show of all time), I went through the sites included on my list of Kdrama links and searched for posts devoted to Coffee Prince

Here’s what I found.

• Crazy for Kdrama: Coffee Prince Review
• Dahee’s Plastic Castle: 호점 Review
• Dangermousie: Coffee Prince Ramblings
• Ginkgohill: Coffee Prince Review
• Korean Drama Ratings: Coffee Prince
• K-What?: Coffee Prince
• Oishiithoughts: Coffee Prince Review
• Outside Seoul: Drama Review: Coffee Prince

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Drama Review: Rich Man, Poor Woman (2012)

Grade: B-

Urban Japanese workplace drama

What it’s about
A Steve Jobs–style tech billionaire has his world turned upside down by two people—his longtime business partner and his company’s hardworking new intern.

First impression
This brisk, breezy romance is just what I’ve come to expect from Japanese dramas: it’s got quirky characters to spare, and thanks to its fast-paced plot and streamlined storytelling, it makes most Kdramas feel painfully clunky and self-indulgent in comparison. So far, though, Rich Man, Poor Woman is lacking the emotional depth of Nobuta wo Produce, my favorite Jdrama to date. We’ll see how things go—this is the first Japanese love story I’ve watched, so maybe it will just take a while to get going.

Final verdict
It turns out that what actually took a while was my realization that Rich Man, Poor Woman was not what I wanted it to be: a swoony Kdrama romance. In spite of its cheesy title, this is actually a workplace drama about the value of connection and appreciating the people around us. And while there was a romance between its two leads, their love story felt peripheral—instead, the show’s most compelling relationship was the conflicted bromance between prickly genius Hyuga Toru and his right-hand man, Asahina Kosuke. Rich Man, Poor Woman’s plot revolves largely around the corporate intrigue created when envy finally gets the better of Asahina, who spent most of his long history with Hyuga trapped in the other man’s boy-wonder shadow. Their brotherly love is this show’s true heart, and it was agonizing to watch their friendship waver.

And speaking of agonizing, it’s been a while since I last wanted to leap through the television screen to throttle someone as much as I did during this show’s speedy 11-episode run. Again and again, the leads refused to communicate and instead did idiot things that prevented them from being together. As far as I’m concerned, spineless characters who never try to get what they want are more tiresome and frustrating than fun.

Rich Man, Poor Woman was an easy, amusing watch, but it lacked the homefront-minded charm and obsession with love that keeps me coming back to Korean drama.

Random thoughts
Episode 1.

Dear Japan:

Would you please stop making it so frigging hard for international viewers watch your dramas? I would literally pay you for easy access to this show—I spent 45 minutes trying to watch part 1 of the first episode last night. All the streaming sites kept freezing or throwing me out. It got old very, very quickly.

Your frustrated friend,

Episode 1. Ye Gods...as if job interviews aren’t terrible enough to begin with, I can’t imagine having to be one of twenty interviewees. I’ve been interviewed by multiple people at once, but never had the competition sitting right next to me, looking cuter and more competent. (And it’s a good thing, or I’d be chronically unemployed.)

Episode 3. How interesting to see a chaebol type who actually works. Most Kdramas with similar plots star princelings with no mission in life beyond being nasty to commoners. Not that this show’s male lead isn’t plenty nasty—but at least he has some sort of personal merit. Or so we’re told.

Episode 6. I’m glad this show’s female lead is brainy, but couldn’t they have made her smart in a less stupid way? She can memorize incredible amounts of information in no time, but she’s still more starry-eyed and naive than any human being over the age of 5 should be.

Episode 6. This is definitely more information than you need to know, but while watching this episode I got a huge nosebleed. This clearly means one of three things: (1) I am dying of cancer; (2) I just watched 2 episodes in a row of Boys over Flowers, and my brain, liquefied by their stupidity, is leaking out; or (3) it’s allergy season. Hmmm...I wonder which it could be?

Episode 7. This show is well done, but I could use a little more bedroom and a lot less board room. Has Korean drama ruined me for shows that exist for reasons other than fan service in the form of broody shower scenes and over-the-top confessions of love?

Episode 9. Although Asian dramas are renowned in the West for their serious communication problems, it’s been a while since I’ve seen something as frustrating as this episode. Just explain yourself, you stupid drama bot. Human beings aren’t psychic—if you let him draw his own conclusions instead of telling the truth, it’s your own fault if he misinterprets what is a fundamentally innocent event. Speak, damnit!

Watch it

You might also be interested in
Pasta, for its similarly workplace-centric plot (added bonus: its lead couple are way more interesting and have exponentially better chemistry) 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Midterm Exam: Nice Guy, Episodes 1–10

I’ve realized lately that my preconceived notions about what a drama is (or should be) can make it a lot more difficult for me to enjoy the show for what it actually is. Nice Guy is a prime example. Based on its promotional materials, I was bound to love it: Melodrama and murder mysteries, seduction and revenge? Sign me up! But while its first eight hours were enjoyable enough, Nice Guy didn’t quite click with me until this week’s twisted, over-the-top makjang-fest.

This was partially caused by Nice Guy’s lead-in: before starting it, I had just finished watching the similarly themed Sang Doo, Let’s Go to SchoolAs stunned as I am to be typing these words, that 2003 Rain vehicle is an emotionally truthful exploration of the gigolo lifestyle, and it left me ready to see a revenge and redemption drama focusing on Ma Ru’s time as a ladykiller for hire.

And maybe revenge and redemption will eventually be Nice Guy’s the central themes, but its first half is about something fundamentally different: love. Only not the cute, fluffy-bunny love we find in most Kdramas. In Nice Guy, love is an obsessive, destructive addiction. It’s love grown fangs, love gone radioactive.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Drama Review: To the Beautiful You (2012)

Grade: B-

Cross-dressing romantic comedy

What it’s about
The fourth Asian drama to be based on Japan’s Hana Kimi manga series, To the Beautiful You is the story of an American girl who moves to her Korean homeland in hopes of inspiring her favorite angst-ridden athlete to return to competition. The catch? Her big plan to spend time with him involves pretending to be a boy and attending his boys-only boarding school.

Initial impression
I hate to admit it, but 15 more episodes of this and I will be a happy girl. It’s the perfect, breezy mixture of zingy chemistry, teen melodrama, and goofy comedy. (Okay. I could have done without the banana peel bit. Has anyone outside of Looney Tunes ever actually stepped on one and slid like that?) But then again, I’m always a sucker for high school shows, even if I’m officially old enough to be skeeved out by the shirtless infants prowling around the locker room. Try again after the puberty fairy visits, boys.

Final verdict
If you’re looking for a youthful drama that’s cute, cuddly, and cotton-candy delicious, To the Beautiful You is just the ticket. If you’re in the mood for something that accurately represents any aspect of life on planet Earth or includes things like logic or nuanced characterization, you should keep on going. 

There’s nothing particularly good about this show, but thanks to its likeable characters and sweet OTP shenanigans, it managed to be a fun diversion with just enough narrative momentum to keep me coming back week after week.

I’m also happy to report that To the Beautiful You actually has some emotional weight and tackles some of the thornier concerns gender-bending dramas so often ignore (memorably including “where should I hide my tampons while living in all-boys dormitory?”). Its idol leads do a reasonable job of carrying the show, but TTBY’s real heart and soul is its second male lead, Cha Eun Gyul. Played by an professoinal actor with a slew of credits to his name (how novel!), Eun Gyul often seems to have parachuted in from some other, better drama. The rest of the characters are thinly drawn at best, with seemingly no lives or motivations beyond the claustrophobic world of Genie High.

Flawed as it may be, this empty-calorie treat is light, bright, and full of sly references to the cross-dressing Kdramas that came before it. Watching it may barely require consciousness, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time if you—like me—are happy to overlook some serious missed opportunities in favor of goofy fun.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. I tried not to watch this show, but it turns out that I’m even more defenseless in the face of gender-bending dramas than I originally thought. Also, was that just a patented Go Eun Chan bang-blow? I saw what you did there, Show, and I liked it.

Episode 1. Stop the presses! Did they just acknowledge the existence of menstruation with a shot of the female lead hiding boxes of pads in her dresser? There may not be much originality in this drama, but maybe they’ll finally explain how a girl in disguise is able to share a room and bathroom with a boy for an entire school year without getting tripped up by bodily functions. I sure hope she invested in boy’s underwear, at least, or laundry day is going to be pretty awkward.

Episode 1. Sangchu, will you be my pillow? You look like you’d be soft and cozy, a welcome change from the vicious wolverine that passes for a cat in my household.

Episode 2. So where does your average all-boys school come by female cheerleaders? Are they gisaengs? Is there a girl’s school across the lake? Also, I keep cracking up every time someone tries to make the high-jump seem epically important, and/or trips the female lead. You’re a puppyish laugh-riot, Show.

Episode 3. Excuse me, but are you eating a hamburger with a fork and knife? You may pass as a boy, but nobody would ever believe you’d spent any time in America.

Episode 3.
Dear Kdrama Overlords:

If you ever need English-language proofreading, I’m just an e-mail away. I’d be delighted to help clarify, for example, the not-insignificant difference between the words “lunch” and “launch.”


Episode 4. So I like a melodramatic rescue just as much as the next girl, but there are some problems with the follow-through this time. That creepy boy is edging from serial rapist territory to serial killer territory, yet you don’t report his actions to the police? Or get PTSD? Really?

Episode 5. Show, I love you so much that I’m totally going to overlook the fact that you just left a kitten in a building slated for demolition the next day. And also that said building was still packed with furnishings—wouldn’t somebody have bothered to move them out before D-day?

Is it my imagination, or is the character of Cha Eun Gyul essentially one big Coffee Prince joke? There’s his name, for one thing, and in episode 3 he said “let’s take this as far as it can go” while heading off to confront the female lead. How Choi Han Gyul-esque!

Episode 8. I think this show sets some sort of record for slightly closeted gays in Korean entertainment. Not only is there lip-gloss boy and his intense man-crush on Cha Eun Gyul, there’s also the doctor, who had just as much trouble tearing his eyes away from Jae Hee’s smoking hot brother as I did.

— It gives me warm, fuzzy feelings that Jae Hee and her stepbrother are so loving. On the other hand, I’m a little concerned that he’s the first love who taught her to make s’mores. (Poorly, might I add: the whole point is to get the marshmallow charred and hot enough to melt the chocolate.)

—Dear Kdrama Overlords:

I know this show is based on existing source material, but I really think you should consider letting Cha Eun Gyul get the girl in the end. Both leads are cute, but he and Jae Hee clearly belong together.


Episode 9. Listen carefully, Show, because I’m only going to say this once. I like you. No . . . I love you!

—Did I mention that I love the cheesy little “woosh!” sound the shooting stars make? Like so many things about this show, it’s so lame it’s actually awesome.

Episode 10. Only in Korea could writers use tampons and porn stashes as props to enable chivalry. Why finding a pile of girlie magazines didn’t encourage the teachers to search the room more thoroughly is beyond me, but I guess it has something to do with the principal’s urgent desire to examine the contraband in more detail.

Episode 11. Cha Eun Gyul! You are the second bravest, most wonderful character in all of Korean drama. I can’t believe what you did just did, and it kills me that I know how it’s going to turn out.

— Does not compute: Tae Joon can leave campus to buy digestives, but Jae Hee can’t leave to buy tampons. Or is Shangchu actually some sort of Tampax-sniffing guard dog trained to protect the boys from PMS?

—Okay, Tae Joon. The jig is up—stop torturing poor Jae Hee and tell her that you know she’s a girl. Whatever your motivation may be for keeping silent this long, watching her suffer like this is cruel.

Episode 13. I’ve got the first order of business for South Korea’s new president to consider: making it illegal to store flowerpots anywhere above the ground floor. It would be a lifesaving piece of legislation, clearly.

— The kid who plays Tae Joon is a fine actor, until he reaches beyond his abilities and tries to do something crazy—like express emotion. Then he starts to seem like an extra from the movie The Polar Express, a film notoriously panned for the mechanical nature of its animated characters.

Episode 14. Way to jump to conclusions Eun Gyul. If I saw someone all wrapped up like that, my first thought would not be “Holy crap—are you a girl?’ It would be “Holy crap, did you break a rib or something?”

Watch it
Drama Fever

You might also like
The holy quartet of gender-bending Kdramas:  Coffee PrinceSungkyunkwan Scandal, Painter of the Wind, and You’re Beautiful

Heartstrings, for its youthful and fun summery vibe

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Favorites: Six Scenes from Answer Me 1997

As always, stolen from the wonderful Drama Queen Tumblr

Although it’s possible to watch and enjoy Answer Me 1997 without a lick of knowledge about Korea in the 90s, this is one of those shows that recaps make a thousand times better: it’s so full of insider details that most Americans are unequipped to fully appreciate it on our own. (That Hak Chan was actually played by a former Sechseis member was a mind-blowing revelation, let me tell you.)

As is so often the case, both Dramabeans and The Vault are great sources of information and discussion about the show. I was especially struck by a comment the Dramabeans recapper made, calling one scene her “favorite thing in a show of favorite things.”  Especially during AM 1997’s first eight episodes, that’s exactly how I felt. It seemed that every scene burrowed its way into my brain as my favorite drama moment ever—only to be immediately supplanted by the one that came next.

So in light of my ongoing obsession, I thought I’d wring one more post out of this show. Thusly, I give you a spoilerific discussion of my six favorite scenes in Answer Me 1997

(P.S.—Spoilers ahoy!)

(P.P.S.—I swear this is my last post about Answer Me 1997 . . . for a while, anyway.)

Three Random Notes

Random note the first. There were lots of new updates on my list of Kdrama links this week.

Random note the second. I just won two free months of Drama Fever, thanks to a drama review contest they sponsored for bloggers. (Presented without comment: my Spring Waltz review came in fourth out of five winners. Right behind a glowing review of Gentleman’s Dignity.) Drama Fever often awards premium membership time to contest winners; check out their blog if you’re interested in entering.

Random note the third: This week’s New Yorker includes an interesting article on the business of Kpop that also touches on Korean drama. Naturally, there’s also an article about about the omnipresent “Gangnam Style.” (Was some sort of law passed requiring that it appear in every currently airing drama?) My musical tastes run toward Mumford & Sons and Imagine Dragons, so I’m more of an interested observer than an actual listener when it comes to mainstream Kpop. But I have to say that all this coverage of “Gangnam Style” actually sort of bums me out—the furor reminds me of when William Hung became a temporary household name after butchering Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” on American Idol. As we all know, finding your fifteen minutes of fame in America isn’t such a challenge—like the Kardashians, like the Jersey Shore cast, Hung was both a laughable curiosity and a walking stereotype. Musically and creatively Psy clearly has a lot to offer the world, but I’m not convinced America knows how to accept his gifts. The average Kpop song is every bit as polished and compelling as the most popular of American music, but this is a big, insular country full of people who see themselves as alone in the world. Getting us to wake up to the fact that we’re part of a global culture—and not its arbiters—is going to take more than some horsy dancing.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Drama Review: Sang Doo, Let’s Go to School (2003)

Grade (general): D

Grade (if weighted for the indefinable quality sometimes called “heart”): C+

Light melodrama

What it’s about
Clearly influenced by Winter Sonata and its ilk, this melodramatic comedy revolves around tragically separated childhood lovers. Their paths inevitably cross as adults, but a chasm of life experiences still keeps them apart: the girl (winningly played by the always charming Gong Hyo Jin) has grown up to be an upstanding schoolteacher with a doctor boyfriend, while the boy (played by the smoking hot Rain) has become a semi-moral single father-cum-gigolo who romances married women and takes their money to care for his ailing daughter. Having dropped out of high school after they lost touch, Rain’s character eventually becomes a student in the class taught by his first love.

First impression
Nowadays, the production values for the typical Kdrama are on a par with television anywhere else in the world. Back in 2003 when Sang Doo aired, that wasn’t really the case—it’s stunning how amateur everything about this drama seems, from the acting to the direction to the script. And yet...I still totally enjoyed the first episode, which was goofy, improbable fun. What’s wrong with me?

Final verdict
It seems mean-spirited to judge yesteryear’s dramas by today’s standards. But that doesn’t step Sang Doo from feeling like fifth-grade gym class compared to today’s Olympic-caliber Kdramas. The acting (particularly on the part of the supporting cast) is atrocious. On the bright side, the production values are  slightly improved over what we saw in 2001’s Winter Sonata. For example, microphones dangle into the frame only every few episodes, rather than in nearly every scene, and you hardly ever catch random members of the production team crouching behind furniture during interior shots. Then there’s the plot, a hodge-podge of drama clichés that includes everything from (multiple) birth secrets to cancer to families struggling in the grip financial tragedy. Throw in a standard-issue love triangle and a side of law breaking, and you’ve got the same old template a hundred other dramas have been built on, before and since.

And yet, there’s something so likeable about this drama that it’s hard to complain too much. The single-father plotline is sweet, and acts as the impetus for Rain’s best work in the show—he and the actress playing his daughter have cute chemistry, and some of their scenes together are genuinely moving. (Her illness, however, is totally nonsensical in the way of Kdramas. She’s stuck in the hospital for the show’s entire running time without actually being sick, as if the writers were worried that caring for her would get in the way of the male lead’s shenanigans.) The actors playing the leads both do decent work, and their love story actually has some real-life weight to it. And rather than relying on irredeemable bad guys to propel its plot, Sang Doo actually highlights the evolution of its secondary characters into actual human beings and offers up a nice little bromance, years before the term would even be coined.

Do I suggest that you drop what you’re doing and immediately watch Sang Doo, Let’s Go to School? No, I do not. Do I suggest that you give it a shot if you’re ever wondering what comfort-food inanity to watch as you recover from the flu or some minor surgery? I think maybe I do.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. I love that Drama Fever’s new video player allows you to change the subtitle format. The next innovation they need to introduce is some sort of pick-your-hero’s-hairstyle feature that would automatically cover over the once trendy, now tragic haircuts that make old shows so hard to watch without collapsing into fits of giggles. Just what is Rain wearing on his head throughout this episode? It’s hard to believe that it might actually be hair, and that someone might actually have caused it to look like that on purpose.

Episode 3. So it seems that Korean love hotels sometimes feature sex-specific furniture, which look like an X-rated version of the chrome-y, safety-handled Nautilus weight-training machines at the gym. Frankly, there is not enough bleach in the world for me to feel okay about the existence of the “sex chair.” (Or its handy laminated instruction manual.)

Episode 5. Does this doctor ever actually doctor? Or does he just hang out with preschoolers and teach them snide songs calculated to insult their parents? He’s winner of the award for worst Kdrama doctor of all time, methinks.

Episode 6. Wait. The father of your child has never seen you naked? That must have been. . . awkward. I suspect the sex chair was not involved. [Finale note: OH! I get it.]

Episode 6. Another Kdrama girl said she’d “take responsibility”! That makes three, out of all the hundreds of hours of Korean television I’ve watched.

Episode 9. I’m happy to report that even at my darkest moments, I have never once considered using a Kate Hudson movie as inspiration for my life plans. Unlike this drama’s heroine—poor thing.

Episode 9. Note to self: the next time you feel tempted to become obsessed with a foreign country’s television, please make sure they don’t eat dog meat before doing so. You’ll be happier in the end.

Watch it

You might also like
Hello, My Teacher, for its schoolyard high jinks (not to mention stars Gong Hyo Jin and my boyfriend Gong Yoo) 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Time Traveler’s Drama: A Chronological Map of Answer Me 1997

The best time slip drama of 2012 wasn’t about Joseon scholars traveling to the modern world, or doctors going back in time to Korea’s Goryeo period. Instead, it focused on a single decade in the lives of six young people from Busan.

Answer Me 1997 is one of those shows that has it all: lovable characters, a compelling storyline, and perfect direction. But what makes it truly stand out from the competition is its innovative puzzle-box narrative. Rather than following the traditional structure of a beginning, middle, and end that all occur in one unbroken chronological sequence, its plot is built like human memory, constructed of countless fragments of life strung together thematically at the whim of the person at their center. Like AM 1997’s script, our perception of the world doesn’t always obey the sequential logic of storytelling: Although effect often follows cause, in our minds the two sometimes occur the other way around. In the world of Answer Me 1997, we the viewers are time travelers, slowly uncovering big-picture reality as we journey from one strange, unimagined era to another—from family dinners during high school and teenage nights on the doorstep of a pop star, to ten-year reunions and the moment when a woman becomes a mother.

This looping storyline might have existed as a cold narrative experiment, but Answer Me 1997 uses the ability to time-skip as a way to fully explore the depths of its characters. By the end of the show, we know them just as they know themselves: frontwards and backwards and side to side, from childhood to adulthood, from beginning to ending and through all the points in between. This is why Answer Me 1997 feels like such a revelation: It weaves its characters from a never-ending supply of life experiences, just as we weave our personal narratives through the curation of our own memories.

Answer Me 1997’s first few episodes are true marvels, deftly carrying the viewer along as they bounce from time period to time period. But as the show continued, the storytelling edged toward the traditional—making the later episodes feel merely above average rather than extraordinary.

and now.
Partly because I’m so reluctant to give up this show, and partly as an excuse to pull apart its house-of-cards construction, I rewatched the first two episodes and created a chronological map—a boiled down recap that focuses on only the sequence of the most important events. Looking at the map, it’s easy to appreciate this drama’s densely woven structure. Just like in life, the present day is made up of thousands of past days, all vying for our attention as we go about the business of living.

Thanks to all this dizzy time slipping, Answer Me 1997 is a one-of-a-kind unicorn of a drama: it’s a supremely relatable show about how then becomes now, and how now—with the help of our memories and old friends—can become then.

Throughout the map, flashbacks have been marked with dashes—what’s usually seen as the show’s “present day” is flush left, with every subsequent level of flashback marked by a single dash. (In fact, if I were to do this for the whole show, the dash structure would be even more involved—by episode 16 we realize that the true present day is actually February 2013. And then there are the flashbacks to the parents’ teen years in the 1960s . . . !)

Character List
Shi Won = SW
Yoon Yoon Jae = YYJ
Tae Wong = TW
Yoo Jung = YYJ

Episode 1—[Untitled?]
2012/July: Character introductions at the reunion; “Today, at this table, one couple will announce that they’re getting married.”
—1997/April: Character introductions
—1997/April 29: YYJ’s 18th birthday
— —1994/April 29: YYJ’s 15th birthday
— —1995/April 29: YYJ’s 16th birthday
— —1996/April 29: YYJ’s 17th birthday
—1997/April 29: SW gives YYJ coupons for this 18th birthday
— —1990: The funeral of YYJ’s parents
— —1995: YYJ and SW’s middle school graduations
—1997/April 29: TW punishes YYJ at school; SW travels to Daegu to see H.O.T.; the tape and t-shirt fiascos

Episode 2—Things Are Beginning to Change
(Note: * indicates a hypothetical time or date that’s been inserted to make following the sequence easier)

2012/July: The reunion, more hints about the soon-to-be-wed couple and talk about YJ’s impending boob job
— —1997/February: YYJ’s circumcision
—1997/April, 8 pm*: The card game; SW has run away from home
— —1997/April, 6 pm*: SW’s report card arrived; fight with dad (2 hours earlier)
—1997/April, 8 pm*: Back at the card game
— — 1997/April, 11 am*: At school, YYJ makes a bet (9 hours earlier)
—1997/May: YYJ loses the bet
— —1997/April, 11 am*: SW blames YYJ for taking her biology book; YYJ denies it (9 hours earlier)
— —1997/April, 1 pm*: SW and YYJ fight at lunch (7 hours earlier)
— —1997/April, 4 pm*: SW torments YYJ with the frog (4 hours earlier)
—1997/April, 8 pm*: Card game; SW discovers YJ’s poster collection
—Spring of 1997: The kiss
— —Childhood: Flashback montage
—Spring of 1997: The kiss; SW punches YYJ
2012/July: The reunion still more hints about the couple, and discussion of SW and YJ’s friendship

(P.S.: Due to a temporary brain malfunction, some readers got a glimpse of an unedited version of next week’s post this morning. [So embarrassing!] If you’re wondering where that other post went, come back next Tuesday.)