Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Yet Another Relatively Mammoth List of Short Kdrama Lists

Reasons Korean dramas are better than American TV
1. Beginnings, middles, and ends.
2. Love stories get to be the true stars of the show.
3. Two words: flower boys.

King 2 Hearts gun
Is that a gun, or are you just happy to see me?

Toughest Kdrama female leads
1. Kim Hang Ah, King 2 Hearts. Need some bad-guy butt kicked? Your mother being held hostage by a psycho with a thing for the pointier kinds of dental equipment? Stuck in the middle of an international incident with a loaded gun pointed at your head? Kim Hang Ah is the one to call.

2. Hwang Jin Yi, Hwang Jin Yi. She lived her life for art in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, even going so far as to eschew true love in favor of dancing. No man ever got the better of her—although, interestingly, some women did.

3. Na Bo Ri, Hello, My Teacher. She may have been bumbling, but Bo Ri would do anything within her power (and a number of things that weren’t) to protect her students.

Shining Inheritance hand holding
Nothing to see here, folks.

Kdrama couples with no chemistry whatsoever
1. Eun Sung and Woo Han, Shining Inheritance. I would say these two seemed more like brother and sister than lovers, but I’ve never seen siblings so visibly uncomfortable around each other.

2. Young In and Seung Hyo, Who Are You? Your dad, that’s who, and it shows every time the viewer looks at him.

3. Jan Di and Joon Pyo, Boys before Flowers. It’s just as well that these two had no chemistry—this spectacularly cracktacular drama needed a flaw or two.

Coffee Prince kiss
Lo, it is the single most heavenly kiss in all of Korean drama.

Kdrama couples with Nobel-Prize-level chemistry
1. Eun Chan and Han Gyul, Coffee Prince. If life were ever-so-slightly more prone to magical realism, the heat between these two would actually cause televisions to melt.

2. Byung Hee and Chul Su, What’s Up, Fox. He always looks as if he’d like to eat her alive—in a good way.

3. Hee Jin and Boong Do, Queen In-Hyun’s Man. You know, maybe he really was a player all along: Kisses that hot take practice. And spawn real relationships, it seems.

Sungkyunkwan Scandal Yeo Rim and Gael Oh
Ah, young love in all its splendor.

Kdrama bromances that should have been consummated
1. Yeo-Rim and Gael-Oh, Sungkyunkwan Scandal. The show never dared to make the romance in this bromance happen, but I suspect the imaginations of many viewers did. Sweet, funny, and supportive of each other’s quirks, I would have liked them even better than this drama’s main couple if they’d gotten together. (Above image borrowed from A Bag’s Life.)

2. Dong Joo and Ma Roo, Can You Hear My Heart? Their relationship was far and away the best thing about this show, and they spent half of its running time rolling around in bed together anyway. If only a little kissing had been thrown into the bargain, my enjoyment of this drama would have skyrocketed.

3. Lee Gak and Tae Moo, Rooftop Prince. This edgy, love-hate relationship would have been even edgier and love-hatier if they’d just given in to (the audience’s) baser desires and made out instead of playing all that squash.

Queen In-hyun's Man kiss sunflower
Hmm...where have I seen a Kdrama kiss shot in front of a similar background?

More things I love about Kdrama romances
1. Hot kisses. Contrary to common wisdom, there are smoking hot Kdrama kisses out there—and in some ways they’re all the better because they’re so very rare.

2. Reincarnation talk. The deck might be stacked against the lovers in this lifetime, but it kills me when they’re already hopeful for the next.

3. The back hug. Most Kdrama front hugs feature stick-stiff girls looking like they’re mentally tallying an upcoming dry-cleaning bill. The back hug is a pure, nonsexual act of love and comfort in which the she gets to take control.

Que Sera Sera rain
Guess what? This in no way excuses the awful thing you just did.

Incredibly horrible things a Kdrama character has done to his or her lover (that the show expects you to forgive without batting an eyelash)
1. Attempted rape on a hotel room bed. She was visibly terrified by his use of brute force one minute and confessing her love for him the next? Ick.

2. With the help of the second male lead, she convinced her soulmate that she’d died—and let him believe it for years. That dreamy surprise meeting in the final scene should have involved a slap and some screaming, not loving, dewy-eyed glances.

3. Trying to strangle the female lead through the bars of his prison cell. Clearly this was traumatic for all involved, especially the actress: the scene must have taken several attempts to film, because from the very beginning you could already see the angry red marks on her neck.

(Drama names for this section will be posted in the comments to avoid spoiling anyone.)

Lie to Me finale beach
::insert Jaws theme music here::

Kdrama places I want to visit
1. The place where Lie to Me’s finale was shot. Green waters, palm trees, volcanic rocks: even without a dreamy male lead, this is a place where I’d like to spend some time.

2. Heaven, Earth, and Man, the restaurant in Kimchi Family. On dumpling soup and scallion pancake day, please!

3. The giant Japanese bookstore in Someday. Bookstores make me happy on a visceral level, and although it might be suspiciously close to hell on earth to be in one this enormous and yet not be able to read a word, I’d be willing to give it a shot. I love how books look, and feel, and smell, whatever language they’re written in.

City Hunter Lee Min Ho washes hair
I would give him a huge tip, that’s for sure.

Things every drama writer thinks Korean women want
1. For Lee Min Ho to wash her hair (which happened in both Personal Preference and City Hunter)

2. To step between Park Shi Hoo and a deadly weapon (see both Family’s Honor and Princess’s Man)

3. To wear couple rings with Park Yoochun (as in both Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Rooftop Prince)

Princess's Man swing
It’s a miracle anyone survived the Joseon Dynasty, between all the royal
poisonings and dangerous playground equipment. From The Princess's Man.

Kdrama things that differ fundamentally from their western counterparts
1. Swinging standing up. Really? I spent my entire elementary school career being yelled at for doing this on the playground, and it’s actually the traditional Korean approach to swings?

2. Rubbing your palms together. When an American does this, it means we’re excited and looking forward to eating/seeing/doing something. When a Korean does it, it means they’re begging. I guess the common theme is that it’s expressing hope for something you want, but it’s bizarre that the same gesture means something totally different in these two cultures.

3. Opening envelopes along a short edge, not the long one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve accidentally ripped through the top fold of an envelope’s contents. Why don’t we Americans adopt this safer method for opening mail?

I want to go to there (on a number of levels).

Unspeakably wonderful things people overlook about Coffee Prince
1. Props and set direction. From Eun Chan’s grown-up version of a kid’s scheduling chart to Han Sung’s castle in the clouds, the things and places associated with this drama’s characters have just as much to say about who they are as the actors do.

2. Locations. Seoul has never looked more lush, green, and welcoming. From the Coffee Prince shop itself to the tree-lined hill leading from Han Sung’s house and the checkerboard-pavement of the playground Yoo Joo frequents, this show was a gift to Korea’s tourism board.

3. The clothes. In this case, the clothes really did make the man…and the woman. Without their amazing wardrobes, Coffee Prince’s actors couldn’t have been so successful in creating indelible characters. Han Gyul, the impeccably tailored ladies’ man; Eun Chan, the everyday girl who happened to prefer baggy jeans to short skirts; and Han Sung, the low-key, comfortable hipster. My favorite example of a wardrobe choice that goes above and beyond the call of duty? On her big night with Han Gyul, Eun Chan wore a boyish red polo shirt. When she returned from Italy a year later, a different girl but still the same person, she wore a girlier version of the very same red polo shirt.

My drama cave (note the Coffee Prince
box set next to the cable box).

Things all North American Kdrama fans should be lucky enough to have
1. Sony’s blu-ray player featuring Google TV. Most of the “Smart TVs” they’re selling these days aren’t that smart at all: they allow you to download apps, but rope off the rest of the Internet. Not so with this set-top Google TV device. Using it, I can visit any website on my television—and watch videos from Dramafever, Kimchidrama, Mysoju, and Dramacrazy. (Just not Viki, for some bizarre reason.)

2. Logitech’s Squeezebox radio. It uses wireless Internet to access radio stations anywhere in the world—including Seoul. (And Jeju, Teajeon, Ulsan, Cheonju, Gangneung, Kwangju, and Pusan...)

3. A Dramafever premium membership. Always reliable, always fast, and always decently subbed, Dramafever is worth every penny they charge. (And a many more, actually.) My membership predates the recent price hike, so a year of Kdrama is costing me about a third of one month’s cable bill. The only changes I could hope for would be a bit more coverage of new dramas (A Wife's Credentials, wherefore art thou?) and a stronger backlist of old shows.

The most popular Google searches that land people on this blog
1. Gong Yoo girlfriend. Yup. I definitely have the lowdown on that.... Or not, other than sometimes wishing it were me. (And then realizing I could probably only think of ways to keep him entertained for an hour or so before he would want to go do something athletic, and I would want to re-enact scenes from Coffee Prince. Which, it goes without saying, would be awkward.)

2. Family’s Honor review. I guess nobody else wrote much about this, so I’m toward the top of the search pile.

3. Painter of the Wind. Once again, hardly anyone is still writing about this show, but I can’t shut up about it. (And to the person who searched for “Painter of the Wind” “Incest”: They’re not related by blood, so it doesn’t count!) 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Little Thoughts on Big’s 5th and 6th Episodes

I’m still liking Big a lot, but (in spite of Gong Yoo’s outrageous toothsomeness) I’m a little less insanely in love with its most recent installments than I was with the first few. Read on for spoilery discussion about this week’s episodes.

P.S.: Now with newly corrected names that actually reflect the ones used in the show! ::facepalm::

Monday, June 18, 2012

Big Love: Episodes 1 through 4

These days, the word marathon is more closely related to sitting on the couch than running insane distances (or that city in Greece, even). For me, it usually means devoting a chunk of time to watching a single drama without interruption, as if it were an enormous movie made for viewing from beginning to end in one sitting.

Really, though, that’s not a marathon: it’s a sprint. Rather than being a drawn out over the course of weeks and weeks, your experience of the show is over in the blink of an eye. Knowing you can just hit the play button on the next episode whenever you want unavoidably changes your involvement with the plot and characters: you may be totally immersed in the show for a while, but having easy access to all the answers discourages deep thinking along the way.

I’ve always liked marathon-style viewing of television—waiting until a whole season is available and then devoting all my television time to that one show. But now that I’m watching episodes of Big as they air, I’ve realized I was missing something all this time: curiosity and conjecture and the prolonged tension of having no choice but to wait an entire week to see how things turns out. Big is the perfect show for this, too—it’s exposing its secrets ever so slowly, one tiny but significant revelation at a time. As of episode 4, the characters and overarching plot are still only beginning to come into focus, and each new installment begs to be pored over for hints about what it all might mean.

I’ve only seen a few dramas written by the Hong sisters, Big’s screenwriters, but this show seems pretty significantly different from their recent efforts. A weird fun fact: there’s a fundamental difference between the things described by the words labyrinth and maze. A labyrinth has only one possible path—if you start at the beginning, you will always end up at the end, having inevitably walked the very same way and taken the very same turns. A maze, on the other hand, is full of possible paths; some are dead ends, some are red herrings, and some will take you where you want to go. Greatest Love and My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, the Hong sisters’ last dramas, were labyrinths. From episode 1 you knew exactly where they were going and pretty much how they would get there. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but it is a track record that makes Big’s more open-ended plot feel all the more exciting and surprising. As of episode 4, Big is definitely a maze. Sure, it’s clear that love will be the eventual destination, but it’s not clear how the show will take us there—or who will even be involved. This Christopher-Nolan-lite storytelling, where each new revelation changes everything you thought you understood before, is working absurdly well for me.

Beyond the premise of a young man suddenly finding himself in an adult body, Big doesn’t have much in common with the 1980s movie of the same name. (I do seem to remember that the Tom Hanks version also included a race-car bed, though.) The weird parallel I see here is with The Host, a novel by Stephenie Meyer. It wasn’t much of a book, but The Host had a great marketing hook: “it’s the first love triangle involving two bodies.” In a lot of ways, that’s what Big is shaping up to be: while he’s in Seo Yoon Jae’s grown-up body, eighteen-year-old Kang Kyung Joon is falling in love with Yoon Jae’s fiancée. What this development means for everyone involved—and whether Yoon Jae himself will ever show up at the party—is a complete mystery at this point.

Yoon Jae is one of Big’s many marvels. He’s a huge, complicated jigsaw puzzle just waiting to be put together, but the show is giving him to us one piece at a time with only the vaguest hints about what the finished product might look like. We’ve seen him a number of times—mostly in scenes filtered through the perceptions of other characters—but have yet to develop a sense for who he truly is; all we know for sure about Yoon Jae is that he’s utterly inscrutable. Even during flashbacks to cute couple moments he shared with Da Ran, his expression is unreadable. He might be tentatively happy, he might feel trapped, or he might even be repulsed.

His role in the show’s plot is just as obscure: It’s obvious that Yoon Jae is uptight, emotionally distant, and prone to keeping secrets, but beyond that anything’s possible. Is he a creep who’s leading on one woman while he’s engaged to another? Is he in love with the female lead, but afraid to fully commit to her for some crazy Kdrama reason? Heck, maybe he’s actually the perfect man his fiancée believes him to be.

The flashback to the wedding scene in episode 3 is the biggest argument for Yoon Jae actually liking Gil Da Ran—but even that can’t be entirely trusted. It’s hearsay, after all, told by Yoon Jae’s coworker who witnessed only two of the events included in the flashback. I’ve since rewatched episode 1 and can report that one point of Yoon Jae’s story doesn’t check out: He wasn’t actually in the elevator with Da Ran when she was delivering the flowers. Whether this is an oversight or something meaningful, I can’t say. The other flashback scenes were shot carefully enough so that Yoon Jae really could have been just out of frame, but there’s no hiding big Gong Yoo and his checked jacket in that little elevator.

Where’s Yoon Jae?
 (episode 3) 
Not here...
(episode 1)

With Kyung Joon, on the other hand, what you see is what you get. He’s a cocky, scowling teenage boy who’s never afraid to say what he really thinks. He and Da Ran have an easy, bickering chemistry from the very first time they meet, and I can barely wait to see their mutual attraction evolve into full-blown love. Yoon Jae may be a dreamy unicorn of a man, but it’s impossible to imagine him ever really belonging to anyone but himself. In contrast, belonging to someone is the one thing Kyung Joon hungers for most. One of the most poignant moments in Big’s first episode showed him enviously watching Da Ran and her brother, loving siblings with a close relationship.

When Kyung Joon lost his mother, he lost his strongest tie with someone outside himself. Suddenly relocated to Korea, he’s not making great inroads at rejoining the human race: At his new school, he immediately gets into a fight with his classmates, the people who should be his friends. His aunt and uncle are in Korea, but they don’t live with him or even care about his welfare--his aunt was the one loading frozen pizzas in his freezer in episode 1. She’s not going to be a mother figure for him.

This lack of connection is something Kyung Joon and Yoon Jae share. Both live alone and are isolated from their families in a culture that values shared multi-generational households. And although each is the object of a female character’s passionate love, neither returns that love. (It’s open for discussion in Yoon Jae’s case whether this female character is his colleague, or Da Ran herself.)

Big’s central plot device is another example of their anchorlessness. What greater disconnect can there be than not recognizing the face looking back at you in the mirror? Usually it’s Yoon Jae we see reaching out to someone but failing to actually touch them, first to Da Ran as she’s about to fall down the stairs at the wedding, then to Kyung Joon during the car accident when their bodies are switched. But when he wakes up in the morgue, Kyung Joon also reaches out without making a real connection: only this time, he’s reaching out to his own reflection.

I think it will eventually come out that Yoon Jae and Kyung Joon have one more thing in common: their dad. There have been hints that Kyung Joon’s dad is still alive and somewhere nearby, but Kyung Joon doesn’t seem to know about it. And it may take a child of divorce to notice this sort of thing, but I think it’s safe to say that Yoon Jae’s parents are separated. They’re always discussed individually (per Da Ran, “both his parents live overseas,” not “his parents live overseas”), and while Yoon Jae has pictures of himself with his mom and his dad, he doesn’t have any with his mom and dad. I’m hoping the Miracle picture book will fit into this storyline somehow, maybe having been written by their dad.

The female lead, as is often the way with dramas by the Hong sisters, barely merits discussion. Da Ran is cute and naive and needy and displays only occasional flashes of backbone. It’s easy to see what draws Kyung Joon to her, though. She’s effortlessly nurturing, stepping in almost against her own will to comfort and care for him. From absently handing Kyung Joon his silverware to getting him a school uniform to nursing him when he’s sick, Da Ran has taken on his lost mother’s role. She’s the only person in the world who understands him fully, and it’s increasingly clear that he feels safer in her presence than almost anywhere else. Kyung Joon may not have acknowledged his feelings for Da Ran yet, but he’s stepping in again and again to protect her. Seeing her hurt or taken advantage of upsets him, whether it’s at the hands of the students in her class or her fiancée. And as for Da Ran, she was immediately at ease around Kyung Joon. It’s hard to imagine that this bossy, physically aggressive woman is the same clingy little girl Yoon Jae knows.

For a long time, I was in denial that Kyung Joon and Da Ran would be this show’s OTP. The spark between them is intense (in either body), but for me there’s a slight problem: Kyung Joon in his real body looks like a boy, while Da Ran looks like a woman. Most noona romances involve older characters, so the age difference is a less glaring. The difference between a 25 year old and a 30 year old is mostly their lifestyles, but an 18-year-old highschooler and his teacher-cum-mother? That’s a big theoretical ick, although not necessarily a deal-breaker. The show itself seems to be saying that we can’t discount this relationship—it hasn’t come up in the script yet, but the character charts indicate that there’s also a huge age difference between Da Ran’s parents, who met under similar circumstances. (Without the body swap, I presume.)

And it’s not too late for Yoon Jae to come back and sweep Da Ran off her feet, either. He hasn’t had a chance to speak for himself yet—who knows what he’ll say when he does? I’m betting that he really does love Da Ran, and I can think of a few ways to forgive that packed bag and ticket to LA. Maybe Yoon Jae’s mom lives there, and he intended to visit in hopes of convincing her to accept Da Ran as his wife. (His mom saying they’ll talk about the wedding when they meet in person sounded pretty foreboding.) Maybe Yoon Jae realized he had a half-brother in LA and wanted to meet him. There’s nothing to put the fear of commitment in you like your parents’ foibles and failed relationships, so that could be why he’s so aloof around Da Ran. My money is on the second half of the drama revolving around Yoon Jae waking up in Kyung Joon’s body and realizing he needs to fight for Da Ran. (And, with the way things are going, my eventual death from sheer delight.)

In the early episodes of the show, we’re shown reflections again and again: during the accident, at the morgue, in the bus stop billboard. In my dream world this would be setting the stage for Da Ran’s realization that the Yoon Jae she loves is one dimensional—she’s in love with the idea of Yoon Jae and what he is, not who he is. The body swapping would be her wake-up call, a reminder that what’s on the surface isn’t always what’s true.

So far, I couldn’t love Big more. Its quality may have suffered a bit since its beautifully composed first episode,  but this is a surprisingly touching, funny, and romantic drama that’s just right for compulsive theorizing. I’m already insanely invested in Big’s plot and characters. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but I can’t wait to find out.

(P.S.: Another difference between watching a show as it airs and waiting for it to be completed? Everyone who has a kdrama blog is writing about the very same things at the very same time, and I’m squirmy-uncomfortable about being part of the crowd on this one. My experience of fannish writing is mostly limited to pop music, which was different: even if forty people wrote about the same concert, they were really writing about forty totally different experiences. With television, we’re given a prepackaged experience that can only be milked for so much insight. I’m avoiding other people’s commentary about Big, but what’s the point? I’m sure untold numbers have already written about the very same things I just wrote about. ::sigh::)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The End: My Take on the Last Scene of Queen In-hyun's Man

Okay. So it turns out that a lot of people aren’t that happy with the deus ex machina used in the Queen In-hyun’s Man finale. After the jump, I dwell briefly on why I couldn’t love it more. Spoilers ahoy!

(Note: This is a rare two-post week; do scroll down if you’d rather read a general review of Queen In-hyun’s Man.)

Drama Review: Queen In-hyun’s Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Food Stuff

After a year of glutting on Korean dramas, one of the things I’ve gotten used to is how differently food is perceived there. My country is full of food-porny entertainments: there are multiple 24-hour TV channels devoted to food, and every bookstore is full to the rafters with glossy, gorgeously photographed cookbooks and culinary magazines. But when it comes to storytelling, food is largely on the back burner here. It’s literally possible to watch entire seasons of a American television shows without ever seeing a character eat a full meal.

In Korea, it’s a different story. Sure, foodie-specific shows like Kimchi Family dwell on eating. But good luck finding a single episode of any show—from family melodramas to action adventures to trendy romantic comedies—that doesn’t feature at least one dinner-table conversation.

The whole attitude toward food in Korea dramas is completely different from what I see everyday at home—here, eating is a complicated love-hate experience for most people, a reductive game of “I can’t eat that because it has nitrates” or “I only eat locally sourced, fair-trade organic ketchup.” Instead of loving food, we live in a culture that has taught us to fear it, and maybe even turned it into Frankenfoods that we really should fear.

On the other hand, in a Korean dramas, “eating well” is a compliment. People say things like “eat lots!” (and seem to genuinely mean it). Food is praised for its health benefits, and a sign of true love is harping the object of your affection about the evils of skipping meals. At the end of the day, when an American television show might feature a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, good little Korean daughters-in-law cut up platters of fruit to be shared by the whole family.

Maybe it’s because food insecurity is a more endemic and recent (or current) concern in much of Asia. Maybe it’s because the earthly, identifiable ingredients used in traditional Asian medicine predispose Asian cultures to see food for its curative properties. For whatever reason, it’s clear that Korea is in the throes of a serious love affair with food—long may it last, in spite of the terrors of Western eating habits, globalization, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dunkin’ Donuts, and TGI Friday’s.

As someone who once had to call her mother for advice about how to make the kind of crescent rolls sold in tubes at the grocery store, I don’t have a lot to offer as a blogger on this front. I don’t cook much that requires more than three or four ingredients, and the full gamut of my experience with Korean food involves about ten trips to the local Korean restaurant. (All very yummy, might I add.) What I do have, however, are mad Google skills and a desire to understand just those Kdrama folks are eating. So I give you a brief collection of foodie links, all inspired by memorable dishes I’ve seen in Korean dramas.

Black Bean Noodles (jjajangmyun)
As seen Coffee Prince (and every other drama ever)

In spite of looking outrageously gross, this is probably the Kdrama staple I’d most like to try. I’m told that it’s gooey, salty, noodley goodness, which sounds like my dream dish.

Read more at:

Live octopus (Sannakji)
As seen in My Lovely Sam Soon

Go figure, but this dish hasn’t come up much in my drama watching. But even six years after the first time I watched My Lovely Sam Soon, I couldn’t quite forget it. The octopus isn’t actually alive—just wiggly thanks to a nervous system on the fritz. (The first link below includes a related video that made me want to die, quite frankly.)  And lest any Westerner get too grossed out by this, may I remind you that we traditionally eat something that really is alive? Raw oysters are actually considered inedible if they’re dead. (As a good New Englander, I personally prefer my oysters in chowder...or maybe as crackers.)

Read more at:

Shaved Ice (Patbingsu)
As seen in Coffee Prince

This reminds me of the Snoopy snow cone doghouse of my childhood, only on crack. It’s full of random ingredients ranging from condensed milk to fruit cocktail to beans.  I’m not a big fan of sweets, but I’d go there.

Read more at:

Seaweed Rice Rolls (kimbap)
As seen in City Hunter (and every drama ever)

Greatest Love was one of the first Korean dramas I watched, and my mind was slightly blown by the scene in which the heroine sat on her living room floor, casually making the kimbap she’d bring to work for lunch the next day. My instant, I’m-so-stupid-it-hurts response: “She’s making that like it’s no big deal, like it’s a peanut butter sandwich or something.” Which, of course, it is—to her. I once went to a sushi making party with some American friends, and it involved a lot of torn seaweed and the eventual eating of rice out of bowls (with spoons). But to someone from Korea, making this standard lunch item probably really is like me making peanut butter and jelly: so familiar it involves more muscle memory than actual thought.

Read more at:

As seen in…every drama ever. Literally.

Clearly, kimchi is the equivalent of the male lead in Korea’s love affair with food. A traditional dish eaten three meals a day, it still seems to be primarily made at home. (If dramas are anything to judge by, anyway—I can only think of one instance when a sad little drama character said his mom had the audacity to buy kimchi instead of make it herself.)

I’m a wuss when it comes to spicy food, so I’ve only had kimchi once or twice. Dramas like Kimchi Family have made me want to change that, though.

Read more at:

Spicy rice cakes (dukbokie)
As seen in Baby-Face Beauty (and every other drama ever)

This was one of the first kdrama dishes that I really took notice of—at least partially because I couldn’t figure out what the heck it was. In America, rice cakes are utterly flavorless dried pucks of puffed rice people eat when they’re dieting, and look absolutely nothing like dukbokie. At first I thought something was mistranslated and the characters were actually eating squid, which is something of a dead wringer for the cylindrical rods of jiggly rice cake usually shown in this dish.

When I finally tried dukbokie myself I liked the chewy rice cakes a lot, but the sauce was so spicy it made smoke come out of my ears, cartoon-style. The world is apparently full of people who like this sensation, but I’m not one of them.

Read more at:

Spicy Chicken Feet (dalk bal)
As seen in Coffee Prince (and every other drama ever)

Call me faint of heart, but I know where those feet have been. Why would I ever want to put them in my mouth? And did I mention that they’re so hot people usually wear plastic gloves before even touching them?

Yet…why did some Westerner decide a thousand years ago that we don’t eat chicken feet? Or fish with heads still attached? Or larvae? (Okay. Whoever decided that last one is cool with me.)

Read more at: