Thursday, November 29, 2012

Drama Review: I’m Sorry, I Love You (2004)

Grade: A-

Revenge melodrama

What it’s about
While seeking vengeance against the birth mother he believes abandoned him for frivolous reasons, a tortured young man falls in love with his half-brother’s best friend.

First impression
Part standard-issue Kdrama love triangle and part angsty makjang fest, this drama is a strange, miserable beast. Clearly influenced by the terrible-people-doing-terrible-things genre of shows like What Happened in Bali, by episode 2 I’m Sorry is already hinting about a tragic ending to come. Once a character is shown quoting from Romeo and Juliet’s death scene, all hope is pretty clearly lost.

Final verdict
Looking on the darker side of life seems to be the speciality of screenwriter Lee Kyung Hee. From gigolos to high school dropouts, from kids with AIDS to murderers and the people who take the blame for them, her dramas are the perfect antidote to the candy-coated unreality of most Korean television. If you can handle the tragedy of it all, you’re in good hands with her: every character is nuanced and sensitively drawn, and every awful turn is balanced with a moment of grace and beauty.

I’m Sorry, I Love You is an especially rare bird: It’s not every day you come across a Kdrama romantic lead best described as mean, rude, and dirty. But in spite of his awful behavior, this flawed, supremely damaged antihero still comes off a sympathetic figure. Twice abandoned as a child, once by his birth mother and once by his adoptive family in Australia, Cha Moo Hyuk views the world through a jaded, amoral mask. But beneath that mask, he’s a sad, lost little boy who loves fiercely and longs for fairness and a sense of belonging. And when Moo Hyuk’s life begins to intertwine with his birth family’s, all his worst intentions disappear one by one.

A bleak, viscerally gripping story of missed opportunities and seemingly impossible redemptions, the actual events that take place in I’m Sorry are largely beside the point. It’s the characters and their interactions that make it worth watching. A lesser show would have turned them into one-note, mustache-twirling villains, but instead, they’re almost all worthy of pity: the desperate mother who all but ruins her son with her love; the spoiled, self-obsessed boy who eventually stands up as a man; the girl who comes to realize the difference between a crush and real love, only to lose everything in the end.

If I could travel back in time and alter the course of this drama, I would have stepped in at about episode 10. That’s the point where it started to suffer from back-and-forth-itis, focusing on the will-they-or-won’t-they romance between the leads rather than confronting the big, awful secrets and lies inherent in its plot. By the self-consciously tragic finale, some of the most serious issues the show had to offer were utterly unexplored. (Another time-machine worthy change? Convincing the director that disguising oneself as a 1970s porn star is no way to win a woman’s heart.)

But in spite of its rough patches, I’m Sorry, I Love You (note the significant comma placement) is a moving character study about finding ways to see behind people’s masks, and learning to love what you find there.

Random thoughts
Episode 1. Gesh, buddy. Even I’d be a better assassin than you—at least I know when you’re trying to kill someone, you should should at them, not the nearby wine bottles. Get it together, would you?

Episode 2. Ye gods, is this show all about value. Halfway through episode 2 and we already have two cases of traumatic head injury resulting in brain damage? Even for Kdrama, that’s got to be some kind of a record. Lee Kyung Hee, its screenwriter, sure gets a lot of mileage out of that old saw.

Episode 4. You know, nothing ruins a nice homoerotic shower scene like probable brotherhood.

Episode 9. Nice Guy was an enjoyable watch, but never quite grabbed me emotionally. This show, on the other hand, has me pinned in a half-nelson of feels. I can’t believe how wrapped up I am in these (largely unlikable) characters, especially because I’ve been able to see the site of this particular train wreck for about six episodes now. No more melodrama for me for a while, or I'm going to need anti-depressants.

Episode 12. This episode gave me an idea for one of Donnapie’s Asian drama memes: That awkward Asian drama moment when a couple is so great together that you’re rooting for them to get married (or at least have lots of hot sex) . . . even though they're almost certainly brother and sister. That's awkward, all right. 

Watch it

You might also like
Screenwriter Lee Kyung Hee’s other dark melodramas, including Nice Guy, Will It Snow at Christmas?, and A Love to Kill

The excruciating tragedy of What Happened in Bali, which also happens to star I’m Sorry lead So Ji-sub (in a much less compelling role, though—he mostly walked around looking like he had an epic case of constipation).

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can You Hear I Miss You?

(Includes light spoilers)

Amnesia, antiheroes, voiceover bargains with god, and romantic leads staring at each other from opposite sides of busy roads.

Why is it that so many Korean dramas include the same elements and themes?

Having just finished watching two series written by Lee Kyung Hee—the wrenching, one-two punch of Nice Guy and I’m Sorry, I Love You—I’ve been thinking a lot about one answer to this question: authorial voice. Like most big, brand-name screenwriters, Lee’s work tends to include a number of  common threads, most notably everything mentioned in the first paragraph of this post.

The points of similarity in a writer’s work can be little, like the Hong sisters’ affinity for love talismans like You’re Beautiful’s Piggy Bunny and Greatest Love’s beleaguered potato seedling. They can also be big, like the two body swap comedies written by Choi Soon Sik: 2006’s Please Come Back, Soon-Ae and this year’s Oohlala Couple.

And then there’s Moon Hee Jung, who in the past two years has written both Can You Hear My Heart? and I Miss You. I disliked the former about as much as any Kdrama I’ve ever seen, largely because the heroine’s cutesy ways made me seethe with hatred every time she appeared on screen. On the other hand, I’m loving I Miss You (as of episode 6, anyway). The weird thing? The shows are chock full of similarities.

Both begin with a pair of children being taken from their homes by an older woman who eventually raises them as something close to siblings. In CYHMY young Ma Ru and Dong Joo are abducted by Dong Joo’s mother and whisked off to spend their growing up years in South America. In I Miss You, the pairing is Soo Yeon and Hyung Joon, who end up living with nurse Jang. We don’t have many details yet about what their life was like away from home, but I’m hopeful that this will be fleshed out as the series moves on. It’s nice that the nurse saved both the kids, but based on what we’ve seen of her she’s not exactly the mothering type.

In both shows, the young captives grow up as inseparable companions who love each other intensely. The bromance in Can You Hear My Heart? is as tender and visceral as any Kdrama romantic relationship, and the show is peppered with intimate scenes of the two boys—often in bed. (Platonically, I’m sorry to report.) I Miss You has switched things up a bit: as boy and girl, its birds-of-a-feather captives have a similarly touching relationship, but their sizzling chemistry might actually get consummated at some point. (Please, please, please.) They, too, hang out in bed together.

Both dramas also showcase a nuanced mother figure who somehow manages to be simultaneously pathetic, tragic, evil, and loving. In CYHMH, it’s the woman who raised Ma Ru and Dong Joo. She carefully manipulates the boys with her maternal charms, and her relationship with them is a key point in the drama. I Miss You may actually prove to have a pair of less-than-perfect but loving mothers—nurse Jang and Soo Yeon’s mom. Once ready to abandon her daughter or die with her, Soo Yeon’s mother has since proven to be an important guardian to both Jung Woo and detective Kim’s daughter.

Other character types are repeated in each of these dramas—the creepy dad, the beside-the-point friend, the joker of a male lead who manages to find a bright smile in the darkest of times. But if Can You Hear My Heart is a reliable predictor of I Miss You’s trajectory, the most interesting of them all will be a conflicted antihero who flirts with the dark side but eventually finds redemption. In CYHMY, this was Bong Ma Ru, who did a litany of selfish, unsavory things to build a better life for himself. As of episode six no character in I Miss You quite matches this description, but I suspect it’s what lies ahead for Hyung Joon, played by the simmering Yoo Seung Ho. Here’s his character introduction, as translated on

Expressionless. His gaze is cold, his mind is composed too.
However, only one girl is an exception. Only to that girl is he caring.
He doesn’t express it with words. Whatever the girl wants, he knows and will satisfy her.
Thus, the others regard him as cold, but she merely calls him indifferent.
There is no way for failure, everything is correct.
Therefore, all his big clients have absolute trust in him.
To the extent that all the large players in the stock market want him as a son.
However, he uses his most pained wound as a weapon, and is a man who lives while embracing scary cruelty.

I think it’s safe to say that our Hyung Joon is more than the show has let on at this point. Is this “scary cruelty” from his past? Or is he the one behind the mysterious attack in episode 6? Maybe he did it because he sees violence as the only way to protect Soo Yeon. All I know for sure is that I can barely wait for this week’s episodes to find out more.

While my reaction to I Miss You couldn’t be more different from my reaction to Can You Hear My Heart, the two shows share a common backbone. Even working with so many of the same raw materials, though, they present their stories in different ways: one is kindhearted and sweet (or so it wishes), and the other is gritty and naturalistic. 

It’s possible to look at the common themes, characters, and scenes running through most Korean dramas from a cynical perspective, seeing them as evidence that the writers are content to repeat past triumphs rather than innovating. But there’s another way to understand this repetition, especially when it’s the product of a single screenwriter like Can You Hear My Heart? and I Miss You: A full, faceted exploration of a single concept just takes more more time than one drama allows.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Three Notes

Note 1.  When I was bitten by the Kdrama bug, Soompi was one of the first websites I started visiting regularly. It’s huge and frequently updated, and the scope of its coverage is amazing: from dramas to Kpop to celebrity gossip, Soompi’s got it all. So I’m tickled pink to report that I’ve been invited to contribute commentary and reviews to the site—the first installment of which has already gone up, as shown in the fangirl screen grab above. I’ll be posting there once a week (although the material will probably all go here, too).

The thing I find most amazing about Soompi is how long its been around: It was founded in 1998 by an American fan of H.O.T. (How Answer Me 1997, eh?) Back then I had only the dimmest awareness of Korean entertainment, largely gleaned from a friend who was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Although she was always reporting things like “The Korean Britney Spears is in my composition class!,” the concept of Kpop was mostly a curiosity to us. We were too busy following our favorite American boy band around the country to really care, and I was in fact founding my own website devoted to them. That website—and the whole fandom, really—is long gone now, so I appreciate how special it is to create something lasting on the Internet. When its age is calibrated to Internet fandom, Soompi is probably the equivalent of a thousand years old. (For fun times, check out the old versions of the site archived on The Wayback Machine. Note, in particular, the first item in the list of updates on the left.)

As a newcomer to Kdramas, I’ve found Soompi’s amazingly active forums to be an endless source of fascination. They’re the place to go for behind-the-scenes photos and news updates for current shows, but even more interesting are the threads devoted to old shows. During the depths of my obsession, I swear I read every single post in the 650-page Coffee Prince thread, which made me feel as if I had traveled back in time to experience the show’s original fan reception. It’s bizarre yet wonderful to read post after post debating whether this mysterious Gong Yoo guy would be a good actor or not—looking back five years later, I think it’s safe to say he was a success in the show.

Someday I’m bound to run out of things to say about Kdrama, but that day has yet to come. So in the meanwhile... Onwards!

Note 2. The next time I say something like ”Oh, Korea’s not that different from America,” I would like someone to remind me of the below photo. It’s from a prayer ceremony held earlier this month for the upcoming drama Alice in Cheongdam-dong. Most notable in the image? The head of a decapitated pig, all blue-tinged and...decapitated. Also, the fact that it appears have something into its mouth. What is this, the silence of the hams?

Note 3. There’s a fox in my neighborhood, and I can see why the real animals may have inspired the gumiho myth. I kept being woken up in the middle of the night by an unholy wailing that sounds thisclose to human. I’m not sure who’s more freaked out—me or my cat.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Drama Review: Nice Guy (2012)

Grade: A-

Revenge melodrama

What it’s about
A young man out for revenge falls in love with the stepdaughter of his first love, a woman who betrayed him after he gave up everything in his life to protect her. Makjang and madness ensue.

First impression
From its very first scenes, this drama is a high-octane thrill ride that promises a wealth of soap-opera-style pleasures. Murder! Intrigue! Evil stepmothers, shrewish young women and manipulative young heroes-disguised-as-villains! Seriously...what’s not to like?

Midterm exam

Final verdict
No matter how much I love Korean drama, it’s a rare thing to come across a show that I would feel safe recommending to anyone, no matter what their personal interests. Nice Guy is one of the few shows that fit this bill—it does most everything right, and the things it does wrong are easy to overlook. It’s a near-perfect mix of the things Kdramas do so incredibly well: romance, intrigue, and melodrama. And unlike most television shows (whatever their continent of origin), it even rewards thoughtful viewing and deep consideration.

With its carefully structured plot full of subtle reveals, exciting reversals, and ambiguous, nuanced antiheroes, Nice Guy’s script takes what might have been a vehicle for soap-opera makjang and gives it real emotional heft. On the surface, its story contains the same old hoary elements that come up in all melodramas: miserable childhoods, tragic illnesses, and chaebol power struggles. (Amnesia, every drama writer’s magic-bullet plot device, makes a few fortuitous appearances, too.) But these things are just window dressing: this show’s true soul is found in its characters and their journeys. On the voyage from degradation and desperation to strength and wisdom, they clash again and again, nearly destroying themselves and each other.

It’s the viewers’ good luck that this deeply flawed group of characters is brought to life by a stellar cast that delivers almost universally spectacular performances. From Song Joong Ki’s steely-eyed “nice guy” to Moon Chae Won’s fiery heiress and Park Si Yeon’s beautifully damaged, ruthless social climber, its actors regularly say more with a single look than could be contained in a thousand pages of dialogue.

Nonetheless, Nice Guy is not perfect. Its first half was dragged down by dissonant, cartoony elements in the Choco/Jae Gil storyline. And by the last stretch of episodes, the complicated plot started to feel more like an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. The finale also left a little something to be desired, as far as I’m concerned. It didn’t really resolve the workplace storyline (I guess the winner was the person driving the nicest car in the coda?), and for a show that’s all about the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions, the male lead got off the hook awfully easily. (For more involved, spoilery discussion of the coda, scroll down to the cut line at the bottom of this post.)

While it might not be my favorite show ever, Nice Guy is still one of the finest examples of its species: dark and drawn to the things that break us, it explores the horrible things people will do to save themselves, and the precarious ways they can earn redemption for them.

Random Thoughts
Episode 3. Kudos to this show’s makeup department for using Ma Ru’s wounds as an excuse to lovingly highlight Song Joong Ki’s delicate, finely wrought features. That’s the kind of craftsmanship I can get behind.

Episode 8. So they made a huge deal about her leaving with nothing in the previous episode—and now she has a car all of a sudden? What? It was even specifically mentioned that she left her car keys behind at home...did she carjack some poor ajumma?

Episode 12. The harmonica. LOL. The harmonica...did Ma Ru pick up some mad mouth harp skills in the pokey, or what?

Episode 14. I appreciate that narrative demands that the good guys don’t win until the last minute, but must they always be such idiots along the way? How could Ma Ru not be smart enough to have someone physically verify the person they were meeting? This bumbling might turn me team Jae Hee after all.

Episode 14. I’m in mourning for poor Eun Gi, who started out a spitfire and has since lost every iota of personal agency. On the bright side, at least she’s still allowed to speak, which is sort of more than you can say for the heroine of Will It Snow at Christmas, an earlier drama written by Nice Guy’s screenwriter.

Episode 15. Only in Kdrama fandom would knowing that someone opened their eyes during a kiss be a spoiler of a Dumbledore-dies level of awfulness. And yet, they included this very moment in the next episode’s preview.

Episode 16. In life and in television I’m all for people getting what they want most, but I can’t even consider the possibility of Choco and Jae Gil ending up together. They have cute, sibling-style chemistry, but he seems way too old for her and they’re a terrible physical fit. The thought of them really kissing makes my skin crawl a little...but I still suspect the show might be headed that way.

Episode 16. The only other show I’ve seen by this screenwriter is Will It Snow at Christmas, which I also really liked. It’s interesting that the two dramas have similar plot structures—each has three separate, nearly self-contained story arcs, as if someone hit the reset button mid-drama. This show’s beginning was all about Ma Ru’s obsessive love for Jae Hee, its middle was about Eun Gi’s struggle with amnesia...and now we have to wonder what the final four episodes will hold. Lots of twisty-turny betrayals and a happy ending, I hope.

Episode 16. So I just realized what the combination of Song Joon Ki’s little, girlie face and his rough man hands reminds me of. The cover of Tiny Fey’s Bossypants

Episode 17. The icing on the Nice Guy cake? Seo Eun Gi having a nervous breakdown as she wanders around in her wedding dress, like Miss Havisham’s long lost Korean granddaughter. Well played, show.

• Episode 19. All the acting in this show is good, but the bench scene in this episode is actually stunning. For that one moment, we see the true Ma Ru, with all his flaws and graces etched right into Song Joon Ki’s suddenly not-so-handsome face.

Episode 20. The cherry on the icing on the Nice Guy cake? The fact that the finale’s opening credits have a different ending than the ones for the rest of the episodes. It’s like every single thing about the drama has evolved during its run.

Episode 20. I think the coda is filmed in one of the (gorgeous) spots prominently featured Padam Padam—the bakery and vet’s office are in the very same building, even.

Watch it

You might also like
Screenwriter Lee Kyung Hee’s other dark melodramas, including Will It Snow at Christmas?; I’m Sorry, I Love You; and A Love to Kill

The sexily twisted psychological drama of Que Sera Sera 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Dictionary of Kdrama Words to “Borrow”

While watching Korean dramas, I often come across words American speakers of the English language are tragically lacking. Sure, we have bon mots like kerfuffle, mooncalf, and onomatopoeia. But what about selca, CF, and skinship?

It’s clear that Korean has borrowed many words from the English language; as far as I’m concerned, it’s high time the English language returned the favor. Here’s a list of Kdrama terms and concepts essential to life in the modern world, wherever you are.

Gong Yoo unveils his chocolate, Big
Chocolate abs
Meaning: Chiseled abdominal muscles that stand out like the segmented pieces on a chocolate bar

As seen in: Big, and every single drama that includes a gratuitous shower scene (Thank you, Korea!)

American parallel: Six-pack abs

While America does have an exact equivalent for this term, it’s not nearly as wonderful. Sure, abs can look like a six-pack of beer as seen from above, but why associate something so marvelous with cold, hard, metal? The Korean conception of chocolate abs is much more appealing. Who can say no to a nibble, after all?

Yoon Eun Hye and Lee Seung Gi sure make a cute couple. 
You should get on that, Drama Overlords.

Meaning: Commercial film

As seen in: Greatest Love

American parallel: Commercial

Like so many entries on this list, CF is actually a short version of an English phrase that doesn’t even exist in English-speaking countries. Why CF evolved in Korea and not on American shores isn’t clear, but I suspect it has something to do with the frequency of celebrity appearances in ads: it seems as if every big Korean star shills for a list of products approximately as large as my town’s phone book.

This abbreviation allows the arty word film to be appended to something we Americans see as slightly crass—celebrity endorsements. Somehow, this tiny addition manages to class up the concept to the point of making it sound like an art form. It’s all about positioning: a commercial is something you fast-forward through; a commercial film is a work of art that just happens to be shilling a kimchi refrigerator or foundation for men.

Maybe someday we Americans will start talking about CFs, too. After all, “serious” actors like Brad Pitt are now appearing in television ads, which seems to indicate that a change is brewing. (Who can blame him for that bizarre Chanel ad, anyway? He’s got a lot of kids to put through college.)

If Jan Di had spent more time fighting in Boys over Flowers and less time
 saying Fighting! it would have been a much better drama
Meaning: An expression of encouragement

As seen in: Boys over Flowers, and every other modern Kdrama romantic comedy

American parallel: You can do it!

Along with its distinctive arm gesture, Fighting! started off as a cheer used during Korea’s 2002 World Cup matches. If the (many, many, many) Kdramas I’ve watched are any indication, it caught on big time and is now an indispensable part of communication in Korea.

It’s no great surprise that Fighting doesn’t really have a direct equivalent in America. If Fighting is Korea’s cultural keyword, America’s is Cool; we rarely offer expressions of encouragement and support. (The horrible, dated expression “You go girl!” might once have worked, but nowadays it’s exclusively used for the purposes of mockery.)

Ironically, this word that the English language is sorely lacking is actually an English word in the first place. If we adopted it in its new, Korean form, it might just make us better people. All I know for sure is that I’m always encountering situations tailor-made for Fighting!, but its effectiveness is diminished by the need to explain what it means before I can say it.

I’m sorry, but I can’t write a caption for this picture. I’m too busy
 restraining myself from making naughty jokes about eating ramyun.
Suffice it to say, these are the boys from Flower Boy Ramyun Shop

Flower boy
Meaning: Pretty, pretty boys who aren’t afraid to put some effort into how they look. (Did I mention that they’re pretty?)

As seen in: Practically every Kdrama made since the 2009 airing of Boys over Flowers

American parallel: Metrosexual

Like many Western fans of Kdrama, Boys over Flowers was my first exposure to Korean television. But when I started watching it on Netflix streaming, I had literally no idea what the title meant. Boys? Flowers? In America, those two concepts rarely go together.

In Korea, though, flower boys are all the rage. Heck, there’s even a series of television shows created specifically to take advantage of their appeal: tvN’s “Oh Boy” dramas, which includes Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, and the eagerly anticipated Flower Boy Next Door.

Key traits of flower boyhood are a slender body, a delicately lovely face, and fastidious personal grooming habits, sometimes even to the point of wearing makeup. Being a pretty boy is something Korean men actively aspire to, which is why in 2011 they were responsible for a quarter of worldwide sales of cosmetics made specifically for men.

Mainstream American culture would probably consider most flower boys too feminine to be attractive, but we in the know realize that life without flower boys is barely worth living.

Kim Ji Won, you were so cute in What’s Up that I completely
forgive you for To the Beautiful You.

Fourth dimensional/4D
Meaning: Someone odd or spacey

As seen in: Endearingly goofy Park Tae Hee from What’s Up and dreamy Yoon Ji Hoo in Boys over Flowers

American parallel: Space cadet; weirdo

Regular human beings live life in three dimensions. But some people seem to exist on a different plane, never quite thinking or acting like anyone else. They’re easily distracted, whether by pretty things or big ideas, and prone to misunderstanding what seems obvious to those around them.

I suspect that people in my life would be especially grateful if this phrase entered the English language: they’ve probably spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to describe me, after all.

You know it’s true love when a flower boy dyes his hair gray for you, as Kim Bum’s
character has done in this scene from The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry

Noona Romance
Meaning: A story focusing on an woman’s relationship with a younger man

As seen in: The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry and I Do, I Do, among many others

American parallel: Anything involving the icky, condescending word Cougar

When I first started watching Korean dramas, words like noona and oppa were stunningly exotic; as a speaker of English, I’ve spent most of my life calling everyone I know by their first name. Koreans, on the other hand, have at their disposal a complicated network of words indicating almost every kind of relationship, from your father’s older brother (keun aboji) to the youngest person in your group of friends (maknae). There’s a case to be made for either of these approaches: the American way of doing things emphasizes equality, while the Korean way emphasizes interconnection.

But lacking a similar classification system, we Americans don’t have have an easy way to describe a romantic relationship between a woman and a younger man. (Not that we have much call to do so, anyway: As long as an age difference isn’t enormous, it probably wouldn’t be mentioned at all. And if it is enormous, in the post-Demi-and-Ashton world it’s almost certainly a relationship between a older man and and a younger woman.)

On other hand, Korean dramas glory in older women dating younger men. There are a number of sensible reasons for this: It’s a good source of narrative friction in a society that values age-based hierarchy. Plus, mandatory military service in Korea means that it’s harder to pair actresses with their peers—until they’re safely in their thirties, a chunk of the male population is otherwise occupied at any given time.

As genres go, the noona romance is probably my favorite. So what happens when similar plotlines appear in Western entertainment, like the upcoming Hello, I Must Be Going? I spend a lot of time explaining to my friends that “noona” doesn’t indicate a matinee showtime, that’s what.

Lee Hyun Woo, you were so darling in To the Beautiful You that no forgiveness is necessary.
Meaning: A photo you’ve taken of yourself

As seen in: Cha Eun Kyul’s selca diaries in To the Beautiful You

American parallel: To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t one

Fifty percent of the profile pictures on the Internet are probably selcas, yet we Americans have yet to realize that it would be handy to have a word to describe them. When we finally do catch on, the Korean version will fit right into our language: it’s a mashup of the English words self and camera, after all.

I don’t think they waited for marriage in Can We Get Married, btw.

Meaning: Affectionate touching, often involved with romantic relationships

As seen in: Most cable dramas, including the currently airing Can We Get Married? 

American parallel: Long strings of words like “physical displays of affection,” but nothing as short and catchy

There’s an urban legend that the Eskimo language doesn’t include a word for snow. Instead, the legend states, there are words for “heavy, wet snow,” “snow that’s falling slowly,” and “hard, crusty snow.” The theory is that in a world where it’s almost always winter, specific, descriptive terms for snow are more useful than the general word.

And that, my friends, is why there’s no American version of the word skinship. Physical intimacy here isn’t a big deal; we’re prone to casually touching those around us and displays of affection happen all the time. For example, consider my favorite recess game during elementary school: Kiss Tag. This is exactly what it sounds like—the person who was “it” had to kiss whomever they could catch, at which point the kissee became the new “it” and repeated the process. By the end of the first game, I had the kissing experience of the average thirty-year-old Kdrama heroine. (I was a slow runner, by fate or design. I’ll never tell which.)

Even in America, it’s hard to imagine the word Skinship not coming in handy: It’s shorter and more concise than most of our descriptions of physical intimacy, so why not use it?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Next, Please: Flower Boy Next Door

(The only thing cuter than this... this)

Flower Boy Next Door
Romantic comedy
16 episodes
January 7, tvN

Have you been hearing a mysterious, high-pitched “EEE!!!” sound for the past week or so? Well, I must apologize: that’s the noise I’ve been making ever since I first heard about this new entry in the Oh Boy series of dramas, following after Flower Boy Ramyun Shop and my beloved Shut Up: Flower Boy Band. 

Based on a webtoon about a girl loner who spends all of her time scoping out her dreamy next door neighbor, FBND is bound to be a high-energy, youthful delight. But the real kicker is the genius casting of its leads: Yoon Si Yoon (Me Too, Flower) and Park Shin Hye (Heartstrings). They’ve each been the best thing about every drama they’ve ever been in, and their doe-eyed cuteness seems utterly compatible. (Almost too much so, in fact. They could be siblings. Uh-oh...) 

Although it’s pretty much standard procedure to shoot Kdramas live, allowing for on-the-fly course correction based on public opinion, the grapevine says FBND will begin filming soon. I find this heartening: scripting and filming a watchable show on a week-by-week basis seems spectacularly difficult. (Just ask the production team behind Faith.)

I’m hoping this show will find a middle ground between the lightweight FBRS and gritty SUFBB, but wherever it lands I’m almost certain to be a happy, happy girl.

I hate to wish away months and months of my life (especially when they contain long vacations), but will you just get here already, January?

Read more

Friday, November 16, 2012

Next, Please: School 2012

(The biggest cast this side of the movie 300)

School 2013
Family drama
? episodes
December 3, KBS2

I’m a sucker for coming of age stories set during high school, so this new drama is at the top of my must-watch list. Also intriguing is the potential for Degrassi-esque brand continuation: at least nominally, it’s a remake of a series that ran for four seasons beginning in 1999. 

Based on its huge cast of young actors, I imagine its storytelling will be episodic, with each hour focusing on a different group of characters with problems centered around their classroom. I wasn’t crazy about this approach when it was used in Hello My Teacher, but that’s probably due to that drama’s tragic underuse of Korea’s greatest natural resource, Gong Yoo (an alum of the original School, might I add). 

School’s adult cast of teachers includes an interesting pair: Jang Na Ra and Daniel Choi, aka the lead couple from 2011’s Baby-Faced Beauty. (Random fact: According to his Drama Wiki page, Daniel Choi has been in the advertising campaign for McDonald’s “triangular pie.” Yum. Triangular pie, just like Mom used to make.)

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Drama Review: Faith (2012)

Grade: B-

Romance, dressed up as fusion sageuk

What it’s about
After being kidnapped and brought back in time by a noble Goryeo warrior bent on saving his Queen, a modern plastic surgeon finds herself at the center of political turmoil and mysterious legends about a heavenly doctor from a thousand years earlier.

First impression
Is it possible that the team behind Arang and the Magistrate created this show on the sly with the intent of making Arang look even better than it actually was? Because that’s all I’m getting from the first episode, which looks and feels chintzy and makes some risible narrative decisions right off the bat. Smart writers don’t go from the tensest, most exciting moment in an entire product right to boring, character-establishing flashbacks. Right?

Final verdict
Here’s what you should watch Faith for: Its compelling pair of love stories and the humane, multi-faceted treatment of its four leads. (Also, there’s the matter of Lee Min Ho’s luscious, kissable mouth. Just saying.)

Here’s what you shouldn’t watch Faith for: Logic, narrative flow, or a satisfying overarching storyline.

It’s possible to enjoy this show for its swoony, slow-boil romance, but the second you give your brain cells free reign everything falls to pieces.

Time travel is a notoriously difficult narrative element that requires careful thought and advance planning, and I suspect that the makers of Faith were in short supply of both. As soon as you start dabbling in Möbius-strip storylines where the present depends on the future and the past, you’d better tread carefully. Faith is a textbook example of what happens when you don’t: it vaporized any hint of narrative tension by revealing too much of the big picture.

Thanks to the interplay of Faith’s three time periods, it was always clear that nothing was really at stake. As someone from the future, the female lead knew from the beginning how the story would end for all the major players in the past; she’d memorized their fates for a school exam, for the love of God. This spring’s similarly themed Queen In-hyun’s Man managed to neutralize the same problem by making it clear that the time traveler’s actions in the past could impact the future. But Faith never figured out how to do this, leaving it with three main characters who were never in jeopardy, and whose ultimate paths were always predetermined.

The show then had one possible source of tension: the question of whether Eun Soo, its female lead, would decide to leave the past. But it blew even that.

It’s true that Faith’s animated opening sequence was fun and eye-catching, and even reminiscent of some scenes from 2010’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But it was also the root of this show’s undoing. In order for it to happen, the female lead’s trip to the Goryeo era could only end one way. It strapped the plot into a straight jacket, and these writers were no Harry Houdinis. When your entire story hinges on constantly rescuing a character from mortal peril, it’s unwise to rule out the possibility of that character’s death with your opening sequence. This also applies to big decisions: if a character is going to spend multiple episodes deliberating over something, the thoughtful writer makes sure it’s not an utterly moot point. 

Faith’s cast of thousands and poorly incorporated magical elements brought even more pointless wheel-spinning to the table. When one good guy can fearlessly take on twenty or thirty bad guys and emerge without a scratch, what’s the point? It’s all just meaningless, cartoony violence. (Which, might I add, looks particularly clumsy and poorly choreographed when seen in such close proximity to the dazzling acrobatics of Arang and the Magistrate.) The defanged main antagonists were also no help. I’m sure the writers wanted them to come off as nuanced and flawed, but all the back and forth just made it hard to take them seriously.

You can tell that Faith wanted to be more than just a distraction—it wanted to be good. It gave us lovely little character moments, like when the male lead watched his opponents remove their dead from a battlefield. Many of its actors did fine work with well-drawn characters. Ultimately, though, its many macro failings overcame its few micro successes.

Random thoughts
Episode 4. Lee Min Ho’s on-screen fighting skills have certainly improved since Boys over Flowers—not that that’s saying very much. Even in this drama, though, most of his action scenes involve more showy wire work than impressive choreography.

Episode 5. Faith continues to be cheesy and lower-rent than Arang, yet I continue to watch it. It’s easier for a comedy to deal with this kind of high-concept storytelling: as soon as the impossible situation starts to be taken too seriously, the show feels ridiculous. Goryeo X-Men? Time-traveling plastic surgeons? Killer flutes and great white whales . . . erm . . . wigs? At its heart, though, Faith is reasonably compelling and has a good deal of forward momentum. But as is always the case with sageuks, I could live with more epic love story and fewer political machinations.

Episode 5. I sure hope the female lead has some hair dye and tampons in that huge purse of hers. Otherwise, her year in the past is going to be awkward at best. And I have to say that bathroom humor isn’t really my favorite trend in Korean dramas, but is this ever a missed opportunity to have some discussion of old-school toilet habits. What would an outhouse be like that served all the people in the palace? Ick.

Episode 6. This is the first sageuk I’ve seen that’s set in an era other than the Joseon period. The Goryeo getups aren’t quite as appealing as the Joseon hanboks—the actors all look like extras from a Star Trek episode.

Episode 7. Daylight savings time, you rock! I thought it was 4:40, but it's actually 3:40. I have a whole extra hour to watch dramas before bed! ::does pathetic dance of victory::

Episode 14. The female lead should have just erected a billboard reading “You’re totally going to die in childbirth. But on the bright side, your husband will be really torn up about it.” It would have been more subtle.

Episode 17. I’ll say one thing for this show: its female lead isn’t an idiot, and is refreshingly free from the cutesy, ineffetual mannerisms of so many Kdrama girls.

Episode 21. Thank heavens you traveled back in time, Eun Soo. The thought of all these tragic Goryeo women being cursed to live their entire lives without professionally formulated makeup and skin care products is too horrifying to consider. You are truly God’s doctor.

Episode 21. This show needs more metaphorical swordplay and less actual swordplay, if you get my drift.

Watch it

You might also like 
Queen In-hyun’s Man, a time-travel drama that was better than Faith in essentially every way 

Arang and the Magistrate, a fusion sageuk that was better than Faith in essentially every way 

Next, Please: Alice in Cheongdam-dong Preview

(I guess this show will be filmed in 12 Grimmauld Place?)

Alice in Cheongdam-dong
Romantic comedy
16 episodes
December 1, SBS

I’m willing to bet that by the time this drama makes it to mainstream English-language sources like Netflix, its title will have changed: Alice in Gangnam has a different sort of ring to it these days, doesn’t it? Cheongdam-dong is indeed part of that famous neighborhood, where it’s renowned as an upscale shopping hub that provides the real housewives of Gangnam with their luxury goods.

Purportedly, Alice in Cheongdam-dong is based on a novel. According to the show’s Soompi forum, its source material is part brand forgery shenanigans (ala I Do, I Do) and part hardworking girl struggling to support her family (like Coffee Prince, one can only hope). In a shocking twist, there also seems to be a little bit of Indecent Proposal thrown in for good measure. (Seriously. Read the article.)

I’m getting mixed signals on this one: it’s a fish-out-of-water romantic comedy (good), focusing on the relationship between an “endlessly positive girl” (well, duh) and the president of a luxury brand (excellent, especially as Park Shi Hoo of Family’s Honor is playing this role, hopefully at his most sarcastic and bitchy). On the other hand, said hardworking girl wants to be a clothing designer (again?), or failing that, the wife of rich man (sigh). And while I like this show’s lead actors, I’m finding it difficult to imagine Park Shi Hoo and Moon Geun Young in a romance. On top of being awkwardly pocket sized in comparison to him, she’s almost ten years younger.

Korean television has always loved exploring how the richer one percent live, but in the wake of Psy’s omnipresent novelty hit “Gangnam Style,” pop culture seems especially primed for a new drama trend: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. I’m hoping there will be some genuine exploration of what wealth and privilege really mean in modern Korean society. But in the meanwhile, I can certainly make do with the kind of sparkly, whimsical rom-com promised by Alice in Cheongdam-dong’s new teaser trailer. (If its creators were going for a mad hatter vibe with Park Shi Hoo, I have some bad news: between the Colonel Sanders neckwear and the prominent ears and teeth, all I see is the white rabbit.)

(A weird footnote: Although most bloggers covering this drama say it really is based on the novel Cheongdam-dong Audrey, the book’s publisher apparently sued SBS this summer, at which point the station was claiming the show and book were unrelated.)

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Next, Please: I Miss You Preview

I Miss You
20 episodes
Currently airing Wednesdays and Thursdays, MBC

(This poster is just like I like my melos: DRIPPING! WITH! MISERY!)

This drama shows all signs of being a classic K-melo: it’s built around a tragically separated pair of young lovers who are reunited as adults, only to be kept apart by an angsty love triangle.

I Mis You is like a vortex of hope and fear for me. I’ve adored Yoon Eun Hye since hitting “play” on Coffee Prince’s opening episode, and ever since I’ve longed to see her in something more meaty and serious than the light-as-air rom-coms she seems to gravitate toward. Yoon Eun Hye may not be the most skilled actress or pick the best projects, but her utterly likeable persona and charming awkwardness always shine through. I’m also a huge fan of melodramas; the more insanely over-the-top and full of misfortune they are, the more I tend to like them.

But that’s where the fear comes in: I Miss You was written by the same screenwriter as Can You Hear My Heart, one of my least favorite shows of all time. I’m hoping that my violent reaction to CYHMH can be attributed to its overly cutesy acting and lousy direction, but I’m not so sure. Beyond that, I Miss You’s tumultuous, wank-filled backstory is every bit as melodramatic as its plot (read more about the hot mess at Drama Beans and The Vault). And then there’s the fact that this drama’s cast was only finalized a week before it began airing, which means most of its filming will be alarmingly close to live.

I want to love this drama (and probably will, in spite of myself), but it’s hard to imagine anyone on this makjang merry-go-round finding time to focus on creating a decent show.

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Watch it

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Next, Please: Can We Get Married? Preview

(If you two were any more adorable, my brain would explode.)

Ah, it’s that time of the drama cycle again—new and upcoming shows are getting a lot of press, and I’m doing a lot of drooling over them. Rather than posting one big list today, I thought I’d post about one new drama every day this week. So stay tuned!

Without further ado, here’s one currently airing show that I’m planning to begin marathoning about two seconds after its finale is subbed.

Can We Get Married?
16 episodes
Currently airing Monday and Tuesdays, jTBC

Dramas that don’t get a lot of coverage by the big news sites have a way of slipping under the radar, but this romantic comedy with family leanings sounds too good to miss. Revolving around a mother’s search for the perfect men to marry her two daughters, the story uses four couples to explore love from a variety of perspectives—from new romance to impending marriage to divorce.

Based on early reviews, Can We Get Married? is polished and sophisticated, and seems unlikely to get lost in the land of fairy-tale cliché that so many Kdramas never emerge from. As an added bonus, it airs on a cable channel, not a major network, which almost guarantees a candid approach to the physical aspects of its characters’ relationships. (Which is a long and fancy way to say: Hot kissing, ahoy!)

Also of note are its youthful stars: The every-guy lead is played by painfully handsome Sung Joon, known around these parts as the still-waters-run-deep bandleader of Shut Up!: Flower Boy Band. And if female lead Jung So Min can make being a doormat seem likeable in Playful Kiss, who knows how amazing she’ll be when playing an actual human being?

Read more
Soompi forums

Watch it

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Drama Review: Vineyard Man (2006)

Grade: B-

Rural (!) Romantic comedy

What it’s about
A city girl who’s strapped for cash moves to her great-uncle’s vineyard in hopes of inheriting the land. Unprepared for the rustic conditions and hard work, she struggles to fit in and come to terms with her growing attraction to the vineyard’s hardworking caretaker.

First impression
As of episode one, this is a fairly standard mid-oughts romantic comedy, vastly improved by its likeable cast. I’m hoping once they head out to the countryside the manic zaniness will be toned down. (And maybe by then I’ll be able to stop wondering why my Chan is wearing so much eye makeup and trying to design clothes.) 

Final verdict
Vineyard Man is one of those shows I liked more than it really deserved. Its direction, acting, and plotting were all clumsy at best, but the strong cast and refreshing story largely saved the day for me.

Unlike so many trendy romantic comedies, Vineyard Man has more to offer than just a cutesy love story and slapstick humor: it’s a show about how a spoiled, selfish girl becomes a woman and learns that the material things she’s always treasured might not be so important after all. Revolving around life on a rural farm, Vineyard Man’s finest moments showcase the relationships its characters have with their beloved vineyard. It also tackles what I suspect is one of South Korea’s greatest dilemmas today—the uncomfortable balance between the traditional ways of doing things and the country’s sudden, citified modernization. (All this, and the screenwriters still managed to make time for an entire episode about constipation. This is a Korean drama, after all.)

I also liked that this show actually allowed its lead couple time to become friends before it forced them into standard love-triangle shenanigans. In contrast, most Kdramas focus on keeping their leads apart rather than building a compelling case for why they should be together. Take, for example, Princess’s Man: the establishment of that drama’s love story happened in the space of two or three episodes—its leads met in a classroom, rode on a horse, went for a walk through town, and then were hardly shown together for the next eighteen episodes. The small scale of Vineyard Man’s story ensures that its characters spend most of their time together and forge a believably human bond.

This drama is an enjoyable, transporting watch, but through no real fault of its own it will always be a cautionary tale about how much impact good directing and writing has on all the things that happen on screen, including the acting. After all, a year after filming wrapped on Vineyard Man, its female lead would star in the endlessly wonderful Coffee Prince—a production that knew how to take an unpolished actress and truly make her shine.

Random thoughts
Episode 2. As I hoped, now that they’re off at the vineyard this show is much more fun. When you’re in a fish-out-of-water scenario, you’re allowed to make the kind of goofy mistakes Kdramas thrive on. I think that’s one of my problems with shows like A Gentleman’s Dignity—its female lead was in her mid-thirties, yet had absolutely no idea how to function in the world. That’s not amusing; it’s just sad.

Episode 2. Surprise! This show’s female lead has the same backup career plan as all the other rom-com girls in recent memory: Matrimony. ::eyeroll::

Episode 2. Way to frame a discussion about love with a pair of women enthusiastically devouring giant, phallic popsicles. I think this moment was even intended to be funny, unlike the Kimchi Family scene that cut from a hot kiss directly to a Naked-Gun-worthy billowing smokestack. (Sometimes you Korean directors are too innocent for your own good.)

Episode 8. This is either the exact right show for me to be watching right now or the exact wrong one. As they’re dealing with bugs at the vineyard, I’m battling a major camel cricket infestation in my house. Everywhere I go, there they are, huge and terrifyingly hoppy. Oh Man Seok, how about you come take care of the problem before I go totally bonkers?

Episode 16. This is the first Yoon Eun Hye kiss I’ve seen that hasn’t been a ten on the richter scale. It was fine, but pretty standard as Kdramas kissing goes—the female lead stood there with her mouth resolutely shut while the male lead seemingly tried to lick maple syrup off her chin. Oh well. I guess they can’t all be winners.

Watch it

You might also like
The Australian series McLeod’s Daughters, for its story about a city girl who learns about life after she joins her half-sister on their family’s ranch