Thursday, September 27, 2012

Drama Review: Answer Me 1997 (2012)




Grade: A+

Category
Coming-of-age comedy

What it’s about
A nostalgic, pop-culture-centric journey through the lives and loves of a group of friends from Busan, beginning with their senior year in high school in 1997 and carrying through today.

First impression
I laughed and cried my way through this drama’s first episode, sometimes simultaneously. Could this be South Korea’s My So-Called Life, with a side of nostalgia? I got goosebumps when I heard the modem in the opening credits, and started getting teary with happy memories by minute five. Answer Me 1997’s pop culture references mean nothing to me, but some things are universal—including passionate fandom. As I spent most of the late 90s following my then-favorite band around the country, this show might as well have been written about me as for me. (Tragically, though, my life story is lacking in handsome boys next door.)

Final verdict
As far as I’m concerned, Answer Me 1997 is the drama of the year, and quite possibly my second favorite Korean series of all time. It has everything you could ask for in a television show about growing up: it’s at once silly, funny, sweet, tender, and poignant. With its naturalistic vibe and impossibly endearing cast of characters, I knew from the beginning that I was destined to love AM 1997. But what I wasn’t counting on was its clever storytelling—each episode is a seamlessly interwoven narrative created from flashbacks and flashforwards. The backstories draw you into the characters’ lives and make you feel as if you’ve known them for years, while the action set in the present day forms a nifty series of mysteries about their adult lives.

Most impressive, though, is that the script and direction never get so bogged down in all this complicated plotting that they lose sight of the human emotion we’re actually watching for. Every relationship feels real, from the long-simmering love between feisty Shi Won and upstanding Yoon Jae, to the porn-hound bromance of the 1997four, to Shi Won’s turbulent relationship with her dad. And there’s one more kind of relationship that AM 1997 handles perfectly: fanhood. Shi Won’s passion for Kpop boy-band H.O.T. is just as moving as any of this show’s romantic or family moments.

My only gripes are minor. For one thing, the second half of AM 1997 didn’t quite realize the promise of the first. (Of course, the first half was so wonderful that I almost died of it, so maybe it’s a good thing the quality went down ever-so-slightly as the show progressed.) The fundamental problem was that as the story moved away from the growing-up years of its characters, the plot accelerated toward the territory of the standard Kdrama love-triangle. Throughout its final third I missed the everyday, universal insights of its first few episodes, as well as the thoughtful centerpoint provided by the early school and home settings. But my biggest sorrow is that we didn’t catch a glimpse of Shi Won’s reaction to the breakup of her favorite band, which should have been a huge moment for her character and by extension for the show. Instead, the script only acknowledged it in passing as part of a voice-over montage, wasting a priceless opportunity to explore the innerworkings of Shi Won’s soul. And Korean viewers may not have been ready to see who was driving that red sports car at the end of the finale, but I was. I hope it was the dreamy flower boy we all know the person in the passenger seat deserved.

But even at its least compelling, I can’t stress what a delight it was to watch Answer Me 1997. It’s a big-hearted drama that’s revolutionary in its tacit acceptance that love is where we find it. No other television show has ever made me laugh as often, or cry so much

Random thoughts
• Episode 2. As always seems to be the case in Asian dramas, this show’s characters act incredibly young for their age. My days of trading teen magazine centerfolds ended by the time I was thirteen, and by eighteen had been followed by fangirling just this side of Almost Famous. Answer Me 1997’s female lead and I could still have shared tips about how best to obsessively stalk beloved musicians, though—and I physically felt her pain upon discovering her friend’s secret poster collection.

—This is clearly one of those shows I’m going to have to read recaps to understand. I totally lost the plot at some point during this episode—all those complicated “4 hours earlier” narrative jumps threw me. (I did not, however, miss the scene at the sink. Hubba hubba!)

—WTF is up with these sheep noises?

—Why do I keep seeing a character wearing ear-buds? The rest of the technology seems time-appropriate (dig those cassette tapes!), but I swear white ear-buds weren’t available until after the introduction of the iPod in the early 2000s.

Episode 3. Five minutes into its third episode, I think it’s safe to say that this drama is going to be second only to Coffee Prince on my list of favorites. So sweet, so silly, so poignant and real. Once again tvN is to thank for a visionary show that’s about a thousand times better than it has any right to be.

Episode 5. I honestly have very little to say about this show beyond declaring my love for it. Every episode makes me laugh until I wheeze and cry at least once. It’s humane to all its characters and full of acute observations about adolescence, that utter horror show that somehow manages to be shot through with miracles. The flashback portions of the story would have been enough for great viewing, but factor in the modern day, Clue-style mystery about which two characters are about to get married in 2012, and this is perhaps the most transfixing kdrama I’ve ever seen.

Episode 6. I think I may have to drop Answer Me, 1997—not because I’m not enjoying it, but because it’s like Kdrama kryptonite. Every episode leaves me blubbering pathetically; I hardly ever cry when I’m watching dramas, but episode 6 required at least half a box of tissue. The romance stuff is cute, but Shi Won’s love/hate relationship with her blustery dad is breaking my heart into approximately a thousand pieces. Mom and Dad’s stormy marriage is also a killer—especially when Mom started calling that drama writer to beg for a reprieve, as if the writer were actually god. Like My So-Called Life, this is a show with room in its heart for all its characters, no matter their age group—even if they like Sechskies. (Of course, I have no idea who or what this “Sechskies” may be. Every time the name comes up I mentally fill in *Nsync.)

Episode 8. I’m afraid Answer Me 1997 has used up the universe’s allotment of awesome for the next decade or so—as if one Yoon Jae wasn’t enough, now there are two? You wound me with your wonderfulness, AM 1997. [Finale note: But whatever became of Yoon Jae II? He disappears after an episode or two—more’s the pity.]

Episode 9. “I’m buying them for my nephew,” eh? Thank God for iTunes—nowadays we can buy all the One Direction albums we want from the privacy of our couches. I have to say I’m a little squicked out by the turn the love story is taking. She’s too young for him, and his history with her family makes it even weirder.

Episode 10. This fan rumble between the H.O.T. girls and their Sechskies counterparts is so epic it’s like a lost scene from the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Battle of Kpops Deep. (With the female lead’s turncoat friend playing Wormtongue, of course.) I just hope everyone makes it out alive.

Episode 13. I’m a bit confused about the length of this drama’s episodes—back when they first started airing, Dramabeans said they were 30 minutes each, and two were airing back-to-back in Korea. But I just watched a 55 minute episode on Dramafever, which is immediately followed by a 30 minute episode. I think DF messed up the episode breaks, which is just what a multi-layered drama prone to time skips doesn’t need. I guess that explains why the opening montage often shows up 25 minutes into the show, eh?

Episode 16. This drama has uncovered something that could make me like Michelle Obama even more: If she’d spent the early 80s in the cutthroat world of fandom, trying to become president of Michael Jackson’s fan club. (It would have been good practice for being First Lady, right?)

More posts about Answer Me 1997
Favorites: Six Scenes from Answer Me 1997
The Time Traveler’s Drama: A Chronological Map of Answer Me 1997

Watch it

You might also like
Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, for its relatable coming of age story

The book Bye, Bye Baby: My Tragic Love Affair with the Bay City Rollers by Caroline Sullivan, for its spot-on depiction of obsessive fandom, American style


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

There and Back Again: Of Kdrama and The Vampire Diaries




There are boobs everywhere.

That was my first thought when I took a break from my year-long Kdrama marathon last week to watch the third season of the American show The Vampire Diaries.

Because I’m an all or nothing kind of girl, falling down the Korean drama rabbit hole prompted me to almost completely abandon American television. I can’t say that I miss it, and from what I can tell it’s still plagued with the problems that prompted me to move on: never-ending series with no satisfying, long-term narratives; a preference for male characters and male viewpoints; and premises that are so busy being inoffensive to every demographic in the country that they’re too bland to truly appeal to anyone.

I even went so far as to drop my cable service, and have since been surviving quite happily on a diet of Drama Fever. But when the third season of the zippy teen series The Vampire Diaries arrived on Netflix, I knew I had to give it a shot.

What I didn’t realize was how bizarre it would feel to actually watch an American program again. In a way, it was like coming home after a long absense: the characters spoke my language both literally and figuratively, spent their time in homes and towns that weren’t so different from my own, and interpreted the world around them from a vantage point a lot like mine. For a white-bread American like me, one of the greatest appeals of Kdrama is that it’s completely exotic, a window into another world. But that’s a two edged sword—it never lets me forget my outsider status. When I watch Korean shows, everything needs to be decoded and interpreted: there’s nothing I know or understand inherently, from the finer points of interpersonal relationships, to popular desserts, to the formulation of toothpaste.

However otherworldly The Vampire Diaries may be, the exact opposite is true. When someone made a reference to pop culture, I knew exactly what they meant. When the gym was being decorated for a school dance, I flashed back to doing the very same thing during my own high school years. And when a character became a vampire, I didn’t have to Google the word to see what it meant; I just knew, because vampires—unlike gumihos, for example—are mythical creatures that I’ve been familiar with for decades.

I knew I had learned a lot about Asia from my Kdrama daze, but I now see that I’ve also learned a lot about America. As a white, middle-class Northeasterner, I never suspected what it might be like not to be represented in the culture that surrounds me, or how amazing it could feel to suddenly see a version of myself on my television screen. (Well, myself if I were suddenly young, beautiful, and prone to drinking human blood. But you know what I mean.) With an entertainment industry so thoroughly dominated by one racial and ethnic group, I bet America is full of citizens are visitors to their own national culture just as I am a visitor to Korean culture.

Having gotten used to how things are done on Korean television, it was an interesting experience to spend some time with a show that was actually created with me in mind. Here are some specific contrasts I noticed.


The Kdrama crouch, as demonstrated by Eun Chan from Coffee Prince.

TV tropes. The Vampire Diaries featured a surprising number of Kdrama-friendly elements, including an epic love triangle and multiple scenes of loving ointment application. Mostly, though, it was standard American fare—which felt oddly alien to me after a year of Kdrama.

For one, there wasn’t a single piggyback scene, even though quite a few of TVD’s female characters were carried around by their male counterparts. (This was always done “bride style,” with the girl resting in the boy’s outstretched arms, one of his forearms under her knees and the other behind her back.) Piggybacks were always a shock when I first started watching Korean drama, but nowadays they don’t even make me blink an eye. It’s funny to consider, though, how ridiculous piggyback rides would seem on an American show: good luck not laughing as you try to imagine Stefan, TVD’s dreamy male lead, carrying his girlfriend around on his back. (Maybe this has a little something to do with the fact that he’s is a supernaturally strong vampire, but still.)

While I can’t say that I missed the piggyback rides all that much, there was one classic Kdrama move that I actually found myself wanting to see: the crouch, that quintessential gesture of self-comfort that involves a character stooping down and wrapping their arms around themselves. The American equivalent is probably covering your face with your hands, but that’s nowhere near enough dramatic for the most traumatic scenes TVD had to offer. Even though it’s something I’ve literally never seen a single American do on television or in real life, I found myself rooting for The Vampire Diaries’ heroine to do the crouch several times—as if it would make both her and me feel better.


How American heroes dress versus...
...Lee Min Ho as Korea’s most
fashion-forward action hero. Guess we know
smiling is out of the question, whatever the
continent.

TV Togs. To an American eye, Korean fashions for either gender are shockingly feminine. When I first started watching trendy Kdrama it was hard to get used to how the men dressed: It would be unthinkable for the male lead in an American action show to wear raspberry jeggings and transparent v-necks, but that’s exactly the kind of outfit Lee Min Ho’s character favored in City Hunter. Returning to U.S. television after a year away, I see that the opposite is true here: our go-to clothes have a masculine flair, no matter our gender. The girls in The Vampire Diaries tend to wear no-nonsense jeans with t-shirts and flats, and only accessorize with the simplest jewelry. If her pants had been a size larger and her hoodie zipped up another few inches, Elena, the show’s heroine, could have been wearing Eun Chan’s wardrobe from Coffee Prince.

Another big difference between clothes on American and Korean television is what’s seen as immodest: When TVD’s girls wore skirts, they were all mid-thigh or longer. On the other hand, “cleavage city” is probably the most accurate way describe their shirts—the show’s per-episode Wonderbra budget must be greater than the GDP for most small nations. In contrast, Kdrama skirts are little more than glorified belts, but its actresses hardly ever wear shirts that reveal much more than a sculpted clavicle. This brought to mind a funny quip I read about girls in Korea on ex-pat blog post: “[they] tend to dress like a pilgrim on top and a pole dancer on bottom.”

Cheesy product placement. Neither Korean nor American TV is immune to this (especially when it comes to cell phones, for some reason). The Vampire Diaries seemed less indulgent than most recent Kdrama, although toward the finale it did have some dialogue that amounted to little more than “Look at this amazing app!” I wonder, though, if Korea’s lack of commercial breaks actually strengthens the impulse to bury product placements in dramas. Big was a particularly tragic example—huge chunks of its script existed solely to name-drop the store the female lead shopped at or pitch the latest brand of camping equipment. In contract, when TVD airs on American TV every episode includes at least 15 minutes of commercial interruptions. This feels less like the show selling its soul for money than having a character shill the latest phone on screen. Commercial breaks, as annoying as they may be, allow for a clear line between content and commercial.

“Wait...I don’t remember him?” I watched the first two seasons of The Vampire Diaries last summer, which only made this season’s sprawling storyline all the more difficult to follow. This is a show chock full of countless characters and so many reversals of fortune that I could have used a scorecard to keep everyone’s motivations straight. And yet, the only CliffsNotes provided were 30-second “previously on” clips at the beginning of each episode. People may say that Kdramas are dumbed down by never-ending repetition of scenes in flashback form, but I sure could have used some of the same in TVD.


Snark. One of the things that drew me to Kdrama early on in my obsession was its complete lack of snark. Even the nastiest Korean characters tend to be genuine, earnest, and sincere compared to what we Americans expect, and all that good-naturedness was a refreshing change. But after a year of Kdrama, the opposite was true: the breezy insults of The Vampire Diaries’ second male lead were like a breath of fresh air. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a bitter sentiment well expressed, and this show has snark to spare.

Sex as a recreational activity. I had forgotten how much American television differs from Korean drama on this front: Even in high school series like The Vampire Diaries, sex is something that’s expected in pretty much every romantic relationship. In Kdramas, it’s marriage that’s expected—if characters ever get around to actually having sex, it’s almost always after they’ve agreed to tie the knot. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with either approach, but it was a culture shock to see how lightly physical intimacy was treated by TVD’s characters. (I guess as werewolves and vampires they don’t have mundane concerns about unplanned pregnancies and STDs the way humans do, but this divorce between sex and marriage has occurred in almost all American entertainment, as embodied by The Vampire Diaries’ contemporaries over at Gossip Girl.)

Brain cell use. There’s an oft-quoted statistic about watching television involving less brain activity than sleeping. Maybe that’s true when you’re watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, but whoever originally said it should scan the brain of an English speaker trying to read the speedy subtitles and follow the manic camera work of a show like Queen In-hyun’s Man; I think it’s safe to say they’d be lighting up like a game board on the Price Is Right.

Not having to focus on reading subtitles did allow me to appreciate The Vampire Diaries’ finer details, like the subtle reactions on characters’ faces. And I caught up on some light reading, too—following the action required so little attention that I knocked off several weeks’ worth of my Entertainment Weekly backlog while watching. But television that I didn’t have to read was also kind of boring; when I watch Kdrama, it’s like the video and script are pieces from two separate puzzles that I’ve gotten the knack for putting together on the fly.

***

Ultimately, the thing I missed most in my foray back onto U.S. soil was the everyday slant of Korean storytelling. There was nothing homey or real-life about the Vampire Diaries; it completely ignored the necessities of day-to-day life. We never saw a character eat a full meal, or do laundry, or pay a bill. The show’s fantastical subject matter has a lot to do with this, but the same is true of almost all American television, which takes place in a magical land that exists outside of the earthy, mundane demands of the real world.

As crazy as it sounds, by the time episode 22 of TVD rolled around I missed the down-to-earth feel of Korean dramas. Sure, their plots tend to be built from one insane improbability after another—chaebol/poor woman romances, girls pretending to be boys, birth secrets, fits of contagious amnesia—but their feet are still on the ground.


(P.S.: Look who’s back online! In particular, make sure you check out the K-drama Hub section of the page, which includes interesting overviews and updates about a lot of currently airing and upcoming shows.)

(P. P.S.: I’m still regularly updating the list of Kdrama links I posted a while ago, if you’re looking for things to read.)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Drama Review: 9 End 2 Outs (2007)



Grade: B-

Category
Light romantic melodrama

What it’s about
This drama’s marketing would have you believe that it’s a romantic comedy about best friends falling in love while sharing an apartment, but in truth 9 End 2 Outs is a light melodrama revolving around five longtime friends looking for professional and romantic success while coming to terms with their hard-earned adulthood.

First impression
Reasons why I expect to like this show: (1) It aired in 2007, the year of perfect dramas, (2) Its female lead is a wannabe writer who works at a publishing house, (3) It features a noona romance, (4) There will eventually be cohabitation, and (5) Second lead Lee Tae Sung is a dreamy cream-puff of a boy. Reasons why I expect to dislike this show: (1) It’s a sports drama, and I hate sports dramas (and sports).

Final verdict
Although it’s a fine, low-key show, 9 End 2 Outs left me largely unengaged. It does have a lot going for it, though, including a large cast of compelling characters played by a group of likable actors. Best of all, it wisely does more with its running time than dwell on histrionic fighting and never-ending moves from the shared living space. In contrast with the narrow focus of most cohabitation dramas, 9 End 2 Outs fleshes out its central plot with workplace storylines and multiple romances for each of its leads, and also makes good use of their close circle of high-school friends.

On the down side, the thoughtful female lead suffers from the curse of all wannabe writers: her self-obsessed navel-gazing makes her obnoxious. Add to this a male lead who’s a sensitive playboy but never really achieves any emotional depth, and you’ve got a recipe for a mediocre romance. Plus, their screen time comes at the expense of the show’s most relatable characters, all of whom are relegated to economically sketched supporting roles. If they’d been given more time, 9 End 2 Outs would have been enriched by the starry-eyed fangirl love of the female lead’s arch-rival, the growing pains of her married friends, and the charming almost-romance shared by her hardworking single-girl friend and her chubby office manager.

At its heart, 9 End 2 Outs (whatever the hell that may mean) is a show about becoming an adult that happens to include a number reasonably well-executed romantic subplots. It has an appealingly mellow, realistic vibe and some real insights into the difficulties of sharing a living space and allowing friendship to become something more, but never quite manages to become essential viewing.

(P.S.: Beyond a few belabored baseball metaphors and one character’s dream of playing pro ball, this is not a sports drama. Hooray!)

Random thoughts
•  I’m gratified to see that the median age for pathetic Kdrama spinsters has risen a bit since this 2007 drama. Its heroine is just turning 30, while in most of today’s dramas the age of the afflicted is closer to 35.

Episode 7. For me, the female lead can really make or break a rom-com. If I find her unlikable or annoying, I’m bound to pick at the rest of the show until I dislike it, too. This drama’s heroine is in danger of bringing on just that response: no matter how much people around her are suffering, all she wants to do is bemoan her horrible lot in life—even if said horrible lot involves being well-fed and well-clothed, having a decent job, and being loved by her family and friends. It’s always a pity party of one with her; in spite of being 30, completely immature. That’s one thing Dal Ja’s Spring did well: its female lead acknowledged that she’d learned a lot as an adult and had grown into a capable manager of her own life. Nan Hee, on the other hand, is completely incapable of dealing with even the slightest bump in the road. She’s cowering in terror at the thought of a high schooler snatching away her young boyfriend, when as an adult woman she should be more than up to the task of keeping him. And should she keep him? I would argue no—throughout the show, everyone is always talking about whether he’ll continue to be faithful as she ages. Well how about whether she’ll want to be faithful after those chocolate abs disintegrate into middle age spread and all that’s left is someone she has nothing in common with? She’s too smart to be happy with a husband who’s barely capable of abstract thought and has a fourth-grade reading level. [Finale update: I’m happy to report that as the show continues, Nan Hee mostly gets her act together.]

Episode 14. I know as much about baseball as my cat knows about long division, but I’m pretty sure that 16-inning games are very, very rare. Or maybe even impossible.

Watch it
Drama Fever
Good Drama

You might also like
I Need Romance 2012, for its depiction of best friends falling in love while living together

My Sweet Seoul, for its slice-of-life noona romance

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Coffee Prince, Episode 1: A Fangirl Recap

Like most Kdrama obsessees, I turn to recaps for a number of reasons. I’m out of my element in dramaland, so they can be invaluable when it comes to interpreting what’s on my television screen. Recaps are also a great way to appreciate little details and subtleties I may have missed in beloved shows. And when I’m not sure if I want to watch something, I often browse comment sections to see if the drama is really worth my time.

As such, I’ve always been both grateful for and intrigued by people who write recaps. It’s clearly a long, incredibly involved process, from watching the show to writing the summary to getting the images to preparing personal commentary about the episode. On top of the time commitment involved, relevancy demands the recaps get posted quickly—and appear twice a week. That’s genuinely insane.

And yet, the Kdrama community is full of amazingly dedicated recappers, both those posting on big collaborative sites like Drama Beans and personal blogs like Mad Dino’s Asylum and Adverse Effects.

I’ve always wanted to give recapping a try myself, but know that I don’t have the gumption to do it regularly. So I thought I’d come at it from another direction: during my recent re-watching of Coffee Prince, I set out writing a recap of the first episode. As expected, it took hours and was actually a lot of fun.

But five thousand words and a mere twenty minutes of running time later, I gave up: It was just too much work. On the one hand, recapping forced me to see the show with fresh eyes, and really unpack all its many pleasures. On the other hand, it pulled me out of the story and prevented me from enjoying the narrative flow. I also suspect that recapping a show you’ve practically memorized from beginning to end is a really different experience than recapping something that’s currently airing—I knew exactly where all the puzzle pieces fit, and could evaluate them in context of the entire series.

Admittedly, what I ended up with was closer to a swooning analysis than a true recap. But if writing it has taught me anything, it’s that the lazy and long-winded should never, ever try to recap.

Here are the results of my first (and probably only) attempt at it.


Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Post That Is Not Really a Post

I’ve gotten in the habit of posting every Tuesday and Thursday, but for some reason my drama-watching cycle is a bit off this week. This means I haven’t finished the show I would normally post a review for today, so out of guilt I instead give you an extremely short list of thoughts to ponder.

• I’m a huge lover of the music site 8tracks. And guess what came up this afternoon while I was innocently listening to a playlist tagged study? That would be the song “Crystal Flower” from the Goong soundtrack, buried among a huge clutch of sweeping instrumental soundtracks from random Western movies.

• Here are images outlining why I both love and hate Drama Fever.

Love: It’s sassy and sometimes snarky, as when its employees savaged Big during a recent blog podcast. See also:


Hate: Couldn’t they have waited for the body to be cold before they started running this advertisement on Google AdWords?

• Today is To the Beautiful You day. And there was much rejoicing!

• Also exciting? The premiere of Nice Guy sounds as if it was actually pretty good.

• Would the song titles on the Coffee Prince OST show up correctly on my car’s radio display if I had bought a Hyundai instead of a Honda?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Copyright and Other Dilemmas


Image from Donnapie @ Tumblr

When I graduated from college ten years ago with a degree in English, I only knew one thing: I wanted to spend the rest of my life working with books. So far, I’ve managed to do it—but with each passing day, it becomes less and less clear whether my industry will still exist by the time I’m ready to retire. And two reasons why book publishing is on such shaky ground are the erosion of copyright enabled by the digital revolution, and the lack of respect it breeds for the services my employer and I provide.

So it’s perhaps unsurprising that I’m torn when it comes to fansubs. On the one hand, I love them—they’re for the people and by the people, and often far, far superior to the official subtitles. (See, for example, my fawning discussion of the differences between the subtitles on Coffee Prince’s DVD and the ones created by WITH S2.) On the other hand, I see why the networks and their sanctioned international outlets don’t appreciate fansubs. They’re companies just like the one I work at, and they need to make money to survive. When fansubs are easily available, the dramas’ makers lose control of the product they’ve invested in and are less able to recoup the money they’ve spent.

And when that happens, everybody loses: When you can’t find a decent book to read in ten years because everyone’s self-publishing unedited crap on Amazon, don’t come crying to me. I’m going to be too busy working swing shifts at McDonald’s and falling out of America’s ever-dwindling middle class.

But my sympathy for the makers of Kdramas doesn’t mean that I wasn’t horrified to realize that two of my favorite Kdrama sites disappeared earlier this week: MySoju and DramaTic (z”l). There’s some interesting discussion of what happened on last Friday’s Dramabeans open thread (see the posts starting at 35). Presumably, both sites fell victim to complaints about the legality of their subtitles. (Here’s a site that confirms that Drama Fever filed a cease and desist suit against Google, probably as owner of YouTube.)

I’m as guilty of watching illegally streamed video as the next person, but I only do it when I want to watch something that’s not available from a legitimate source. I happily pay my Drama Fever annual fee (a bargain at twice the price) and am also about to pony up so I can use Hulu Plus on my Roku.

Because I’m a mental midget when it comes to techy things like getting subs and video from different sources and making them work together, watching downloaded dramas isn’t the slightest bit of a temptation for me. This means my relationship with DramaTic has largely been as a reader of commentary—he kept me real. It’s easy to get lost in fangirlish OTP obsessiveness and lose light of things like a show’s objective quality and actual, qualitative merit. DramaTic never did that, and although our opinions differ on a lot of fronts (e.g, I ♥ trendies), the context and sense of history provided by that site have made me an infinitely better, more informed viewer of Korean drama.

I can see filing copyright complaints against My Soju: it is to Kdrama what crack dens are to the real world. But DramaTic? Its owner was only posting translated text files, not video. The ugly truth, though, is that both the words and images that make up our dramas belong to their copyright holders, and they can file suit about abuses against either.

The question is, Why should they? A rising tide lifts all boats. Thanks to fansubs, these dramas reach passionate international viewers the television networks themselves aren’t prepared to exploit—and those international viewers do things like buy DVDs, soundtracks, and ridiculous tchotchkes. (You certainly would not find a replica of the necklace Jun Pyo made for Jan Di in my jewelry box. No, you certainly would not.) When someone fansubs a show, it’s a giant advertisement for not just sixteen (or twenty or a hundred) hours of television—it’s an advertisement for an entire genre. Maybe even an entire nation.

This crackdown on grass-roots support for their product is even worse in light of its fundamental hypocrisy: Guess who subbed the show I’m watching on Drama Fever right now? That’s right…WITH S2. That fansub site is credited at the beginning of each and every episode of 9 Ends 2 Outs—and a lot of other shows that Drama Fever continues to stream. They’re benefiting every day from the efforts of some fansubers, yet they turn around and file copyright claims against others. On what planet does that make sense?

In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the state of American popular music in the early 2000s. As that point, it seemed likely that peer-to-peer file trading would wipe out traditional record labels, and maybe even the music industry itself. But after a lot of regrettable fighting against the people they should have been courting—music lovers around the world—the music industry was saved by one thing: the convenience and accessibility of iTunes. Back in the day, I used Napster and Limewire and Pirate Bay just like every other college kid. But now that it’s so incredibly easy and affordable to buy from legitimate sources, why would I bother to download things illegally? 

With the help of its sales network, the music industry made itself indispensable not by crushing the people who loved their product, but by finding a way to work with them. That’s what Drama Fever should be doing right now: providing a service so good, universally accessible, and complete that fansubs wouldn’t be necessary.

As an English-speaking North American viewer, I know I’m incredibly lucky: Korean networks will do practically anything to get their dramas into my hands and on my TV. The potential market here is huge, and just like the purveyors of Kpop, they want a piece of that pie. But for that to happen, they need to realize that biting the hand that feeds them isn’t going to help.

Imagine how much time someone like DramaTic’s webmaster invested in the many, many hours worth of subs he made available at his site. Instead of having websites like his removed from the Internet, the Kdrama Overlords should thank whatever God they pray to every day for their dedicated fans. 

I honestly believe there’s a way for everyone to win here—why not find it?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Review: 12 Men in a Year (2012)



Grade: C+

Category: Urban rom-com

What it’s about
After breaking up with her longterm boyfriend, Na Mi Ru—a reporter at a women’s magazine—finds herself forced to write a column about dating men of each Western astrological sign. The extensive, “hands-on” research required could ruin her reputation and leave her single forever—or introduce her to her true soulmate.

First impression
A light and airy take on contemporary urban life, this show splits the difference between the zaniness of Queen In-Hyun’s Man and the candid naturalism of the original I Need Romance. I could do with a less love-obsessed heroine, but props to tvN for staying away from the safe, comfortable dramaland of the big networks and keeping it real(ish).

Final verdict
Overall a fun, involving watch, this show is at its best when it’s following Mi Ru on her quest to meet and date men from each of the twelve astrological signs. It creates a slew of amusing characters, breezes into their lives for an episode or two, and them leaves them behind. Unfortunately, though, 12 Men in a Year has a lot in common with its female lead: it sucks when it comes to building a lasting relationship. All too often the show’s boundary-breaking central plot and great supporting cast (especially Tanya, the quirky best friend), are downplayed in favor of the abrasive, unlikable female lead and her cold-as-ice relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Unlike so many Kdramas, though, 12 Men in a Year keeps you guessing until the very end about where Mi Ru’s heart truly lies. (And as an added bonus, it’s a smorgasbord of toothsome male actors.) The finale was almost what I needed to overlook 12 Men’s  sins, but it didn’t quite hit the necessary notes: I wanted more passion for the written word and a stronger sense that the women involved had triumphantly shrugged off the shackles of the status quo. Instead, the closing felt a little half-hearted and route.

Random thoughts
Episode 2. Now that was a good reason to wail “otokae” and dance impotently around. This show is a funny, youthful-but-mature change of pace. How did it fail to get noticed when it was originally airing?

—Newsflash, sweetie: You’re an alcoholic, and you deserve to be fired.

Episode 5. So the column the female lead is writing seems to be a two-page spread consisting of 150 words’ worth of easy platitudes and trite clich├ęs. I can see why the reading public is eating it up...or maybe not.

Episode 6. Pinch me—I think I’m dreaming. Either that, or I just watched an episode of a Korean drama about (1) a woman’s right to enjoy physical intimacy and (2) a woman’s right to say no to said intimacy if she so chooses. I guess another possible interpretation is that the finale is the show’s way of reminding us what happens when girls step out of line and misbehave...but we’ll just pretend the last ten minutes didn’t happen, shall we?

Episode 8. As far as I can see, this show only has two weaknesses. Unfortunately, they’re big ones: Neither lead has any charm, grace, or depth, and when you put them together, they’re like a black hole where chemistry goes to die. On the bright side, the supporting cast is wonderful—especially the female lead’s no-nonsense best friend and police-officer mom. Plus, the plot is diverting fun: when it’s focusing on Sophia’s column, it’s zippy and entertaining. If only the lead actors and characters had been worthy, 12 Men in a Year could have been a truly great drama.

Episode 15. Wait. So Tanya actually owns some sort of home tattooing device? That’s not a great way to spread hepatitis or anything.

Watch it

You might also like
Both I Need Romance and I Need Romance 2012, for their candid, believable take on modern love

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Oh Boy: Gender-swap Dramas and Gender


 

I’m a total junkie when it comes to gender-bending Kdramas, so I was shocked at how negative my initial reaction was to the new drama short Ma Boy, in which a boy pretends to be a girl. 

I haven’t gotten around to watching the show yet, but something about the promotional materials really squicks me out. Is it because the male lead looks so masculine, in spite of his flowing locks and flirty schoolgirl uniform? Is it because he doesn’t look masculine enough, and instead falls into the uncanny valley between genders? Or is it just because boys pretending to be girls on screen tend to do so in the name of comedy, while girls pretending to be boys generally explore issues of identity and liberation from the established social order? It’s the difference between Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire and Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry: one is amusing, madcap slapstick, and the other is a wrenching portrait of the little boxes people are trapped in by the expectations of others.

I think this distinction is rooted in the ugliest aspect of our understanding of traditional gender roles: Men are defined by self-determination, power, and control, while women are defined by how they look and the quality of their relationships with men. When a girl pretends to be a boy, she inherits all the rights and privileges inherent to that gender, which makes great fodder for storytelling. On the other hand, when a boy pretends to be a girl, he’s taking a step down the ladder of social hierarchy, and his sphere of influence shrinks from the whole of human endeavor to the constricting circle home and hearth. The tone of gender-swapping dramas is set by the things their characters stand to gain through their deceptions: Girls pretending to be boys attain freedom, while boys pretending to be girls are gifted with mascara and impractical footwear.

And speaking of impractical footwear: femininity in Korean drama is almost always a carefully studied performance, not a physical state of being. It requires both specific props (like lipstick, designer purses, and indecently short skirts) and specific dialogue (including whimpers of “Ottokae” and “Oppa”). When a woman pretends to be man, these things are stripped away—the hair, the make-up, the frilly dresses. In its very nature, pretending to be a boy is an act of exposure, of nakedness against the world, which is why it so often leads to thoughtful, introspective dramas. But playing a girl (whatever your gender) requires the drag-queen-ish addition of female-specific items and rituals, leading to lots of jokes about underwear and the horrors of high heels.

Take the heroine of Coffee Prince, my favorite of the gender-swap Kdramas. Although Eun Chan never sets out to live as a boy, at their first meeting the show’s male lead assumes that she must be a guy. She doesn’t “perform” femininity like the other women he knows: she has a low-maintenance haircut and wears clothes designed to be practical, not girlie. From Han Gyul’s perspective, how could Eun Chan be a girl, when she isn’t defined by her chic wardrobe and willingness to bat her eyelashes to ensnare a man? As their relationship grows, skin-deep markers of womanhood aren’t what he comes to appreciate about Eun Chan. Instead he sees her as an equal, an ally, and finds in her in her all the noble traits traditionally associated with masculinity: she’s strong and capable and brave. Throughout Coffee Prince, Eun Chan is too busy being herself to be a Kdrama drag queen—which is exactly why Han Gyul and I love her so much.

It’s true that not all girls pretending to be boys are the focus of thoughtful dramas that explore the meaning of gender and identity in the modern world. The Beautifuls come to mind here, in particular—as fun as they are, the female leads of You’re Beautiful and To the Beautiful You gain very little from their gender-bending. Sure, they get behind-the-velvet rope admission into the clubby world of men, but what do they do with it? Jae Hee, To the Beautiful You’s female lead, seems to spend most of her time doing laundry, making snacks, and standing behind her man—she’s acting more like a mom than a boy. Still, their shows don’t exist solely to mock them. The same can’t be said for most men pretending to be women.

I Do, I Do: “But I see real girls doing this all the time!”

Two of this year’s urban rom-coms included unexpected moments of male cross-dressing, both inspired very specifically by the male characters’ need to create products for women. I Do, I Do’s apprentice shoe-designer thinks his skills will be improved by knowing what it’s like to wear high heels; 12 Men in a Year’s famous novelist wants to gain insight into his female characters. Although both characters are well-meaning, their distaff experiments are played for laughs, and their costumes—big, cartoony women’s clothing and Ringling-Brothers-ready makeup jobs—fool no one.

That men would pretend to be women is a logical extension of the Kdrama tradition of gender-bending. As far as entertainment value goes, I’m not crazy about this fad, but just the fact that it exists indicates that people are really thinking about what gender means in our lives and our world. And that’s a good thing.


REPORT CARD: 
Cross-dressing Kdrama Girls




Painter of the Wind, Moon Geun Young as Shin Yoon Bok
There were times in the course of this show when I forgot its main character was a girl. This is at least partially because it was the first drama I’d seen Moon Geun Young in, but beyond my lack of familiarity with the actress her overall demeanor and utter lack of girlie embellishment totally worked as a boy. And while she’s a compelling screen presence and has an interesting look, Moon Geun Young isn’t really a beauty—which actually comes in handy when you’re playing a girl pretending to be a boy while wearing unforgiving sageuk headgear. Grade A




Coffee Prince, Yoon Eun Hye as Go Eun Chan
Having starred as an ultra-feminine princess in the drama Goong the year before Coffee Prince aired, Eun Yoon Hye had some serious challenges to overcome with her portrayal of Go Eun Chan. And overcome them she did, turning in a charmingly loose-limbed, open-hearted performance utterly devoid of any form of vanity. Her physical presence as Go Eun Chan was a revelation—gangly and slouching, she really seemed to be a different person, who might actually pass as a boy. Grade A



To the Beautiful You, Choi Seol Ri as Goo Jae Hee
This show’s greatest gift to lead actress Choi Seol Ri is that it’s set in high school—a time before testosterone really kicks in and when a lot of actual boys look pretty girlish. With an appropriately masculine (but still cute) haircut and wardrobe, her baby-faced prettiness is not so far beyond the realm of possibility for a 15-year-old boy. As an added bonus, the script gamely hands her specific opportunities to convey boyishness, most notably when she dressed as a girl in episode 4 and nearly flashed half of Seoul before she remembered that skirts require their wearers to sit with their legs closed. The jury is still out on this one, but let’s give it an optimistic Grade C+




Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Park Min Young as Kim Yoon Hee
When most of the male characters in your drama wear what amount to flowing, hot-pink dresses, masculinity can be safely judged on a sliding scale. Park Min Young lowered her voice a pitch or two and brought to the role of Kim Yoon Hee a prickly energy and puffed-out chest. But while her cute-as-a-button face is the stuff of Pixar’s wet dreams, it ensures that she’ll never play a believable boy. (All that lip gloss didn’t help, either.) Grade C




You’re Beautiful: Park Shin Hye as Go Mi Nam
How do you know Park Shin Hye’s character is only pretending to be a boy in this show? She uses slightly less hair gel and wears slightly less make-up than her male counterparts. When you’re a post-Bowie rock star, gender-bending tendencies almost go without saying. But with a ladylike wardrobe and script that offered nothing more than vapid airheadedness (no matter what gender she was playing), Park Shin Hye was out of luck. Grade D

Monday, September 3, 2012

Marathon Chatter: Coffee Prince





After watching Boys over Flowers, my first Korean drama, it became clear to me that Kdrama and I were fated to be together. But I wasn’t sure where to go from there—the Internet was exploding with tens of thousands of hours of these series, and I had no idea how to figure out what was worth watching and what wasn’t. So I decided to make my way through Drama Crazy’s list of most popular shows.

Everything on the list seemed intriguing, but I rolled my eyes at the description of one show: “The life of Go Eun Chan (Yoon Eun Hye) is not easy; she works many jobs to pay off debts and even gave up her feminine image. Choi Han Kyul (Gong Yoo) is the heir of a big food company, but his grandmother wants him to settle down, so she arranged many dates for him.”

I initially imagined Coffee Prince to be set on a coffee plantation, and full of lots of heavy-handed judgment against a female lead who dared to do the unthinkable: giving up “her feminine image.” Heavens to Betsy, how could she do such a horrid thing?!? I clutched my imaginary pearls in response and moved on to the next drama. Unsurprisingly, I put off watching Coffee Prince until after I’d seen everything else on the list.

And then, I fell in complete and utter love. The show was the perfect mix of nuanced characterization, staggering chemistry, and thoughtful plotting. It was funny, sweet, and tender. Its wonderful script was beautifully realized in every way—great acting, great design and set direction, great locations, great music. Every little thing about the story served to increase its emotional heft, and the show’s naturalistic vibe was utterly charming. I loved Coffee prince  so much that I couldn’t stop talking about it for months. In the year since, I’ve watched it four more times, liking it better with each passing minute. The more I learned about Korea drama from other shows, the more obvious it became that Coffee Prince  was (tragically) one of a kind: the ultimate Korean romantic comedy that also happened to be an insightful critique of the institution of Kdrama rom-coms.

In fact, the main reason I started this blog in the first place was because I was so obsessed with Coffee Prince.  It was the first drama I reviewed here, and it’s been like a ghost hovering behind everything I’ve written since. It’s what I compare other dramas to, and my craziness for Coffee Prince is so intense that it inspired me to buy the show on DVD—a Kdrama first (and last, it would seem).

In honor of my obsessive love for Coffee Prince, I decided to watch it one more time, taking notes about its awesomeness as I went. So herein are my bite-sized thoughts on the 17 hours of my all-time favorite Kdrama.

Episode 1.

Dear Coffee Prince:

Will you marry me?

Love,
Amanda

• You know what the only problem is with the site My Drama List? That they don’t have a section for how many times you’ve watched a particular show. My Coffee Prince count is deeply embarrassing at this point—and after receiving news of something I screwed up at work, I’ve decided to call off my afternoon plans and add one more to the tally. I think I’m at five.

• You just unclogged a toilet, Eun Chan. For the love of God, wash your hands before you accept a popsicle as payment!

• If only Coffee Prince weren’t so wonderful, every other Korean drama ever made would feel like less of a let down. In addition to being objectively wonderful, there’s just something about it that makes me smile uncontrollably.

• Man, those are come cute PJs on the attempted rapist. One question: where’d she get them?

• Near-rape is an alarmingly common occurrence in Kdramas. But as it’s Coffee Prince’s mission to subvert all Kdrama tropes, in this episode it’s the male lead who’s almost taken advantage of. The show doesn’t judge, but come right down to it, the girl got him drunk, took him to a hotel room, and tried to undress him. That’s deeply uncool, however much you candy coat it for your cute romantic comedy.

• FYI, Blind Date number 2, I’m pretty sure MIT doesn’t have a major in Korean history.


• Everything about this drama is better than essentially everything else ever made. (Not to get bogged down in hyperbole or anything.) It even seems to have been shot using different film, making every scene super crisp and hyper-realistic. In a lot of ways, it feels more like a movie than even today’s super-slick dramas. Each scene is edited together from shots taken from many different angles. I counted four in just a few seconds of Eun Chan on her bike—there’s a side view, a front view, a three-quarters view, and a view from behind the protective glass of her helmet. You don’t see that kind of attention to detail these days, when most dramas use a single wide shot and a few close-ups for each scene.

• I have no ear for languages whatsoever, but one of the things I’ve noticed in my 8 trillion hours of drama watching is that Eun Chan’s name seems to be a play on the Korean for “I’m okay.“

• I could seriously watch this show on an infinite loop for the rest of my life. Longer, maybe.

• I wish Han Gyul’s mom was my mom. (Don’t tell my mom!)

• Dude. I bought the boxed set on DVD—you don’t need to translate “Oppa” into “boy” for me. On the other hand, the noodle eating contest in this episode is all the more horrifying in high definition.

Episode 2

• Would you believe that I’ve watched this show five times now, but never noticed the animosity between Han Gyul and Han Sung in the early episodes? I know Han Gyul is jealous about Yoo Joo, but I can’t even remember how they make up.


• My fancy touch-screen cell phone died two months before I could get a free replacement by renewing my service contract, so I ordered the cheapest used phone off Amazon to tide me over. Guess what? It’s exactly Eun Chan’s phone. (And I love it so much I might even keep it instead of upgrading. It feels like a real phone, not a flimsy piece of metal, and flip phones are actually way better for talking into, IMHO.

• Han Gyul’s such a fashion maven. Instead of just picking clothes that look good, he starts by carefully inspecting their quality. He really cares about the stitching, the fabric, the buttons on the cuffs.

• I love what the male leads’ houses have to say about them: Han Gyul’s swinging bachelor pad in the city versus Han Sung’s family-ready house in the suburbs. One is living like Peter Pan, and the other is a responsible grown-up with a manicured backyard (and dog) to die for.

• This is the perfect drama for after a big snow storm—it’s so lush and green you can’t help feeling warm when you watch it.

• I’m so glad they cut Han Gyul’s hair after a few episodes. This shellacked shag doesn’t do him justice.

Episode 3 

• Out of the art by Yoo Joo shown in CP, I like her mural of mutant sea creature sunflowers the least. Bummer.


• In addition to amazing sets, the props on this show are perfect. Even the tiny details are just right, like the mismatched weights Eun Chan just started lifting. It would have been so easy to just buy a matched pair at some store somewhere, but instead they went with battered, used-looking weights in totally different styles.

• Well, I guess Choi Han Gyul isn’t the perfect man after all. He just left the toilet seat up!

• The first time I watched this drama, I was totally thrown by Eun Chan’s flashback being set in Han Gyul’s apartment. Did her family live there when she was young? Now that I’ve watched the whole drama a few more times, I understand that the location isn’t meant to be taken literally. Eun Chan carries her memories of her dad with her, so wherever she goes, she finds him there.

Episode 4

• Weird that flashing is such a thing in Asian dramas, and weirder that it tends to be shrugged off as no big deal. In America, you sometimes hear about people streaking, which involves running through a crowded public place naked. That seems less like the act of a creepy sexual predator, though.

• Han Sung to Eun Chan: “I envy you. No matter what you’re going through, you still manage to look up at the stars and appreciate them like a little kid.” Amanda to Coffee Prince: ::dreamy sigh::

Episode 5

• If a mad scientist kidnapped me and spent a decade doing invasive psychological profiling to be used in creating a drama tailored just for me, Coffee Prince would so be the result. This time around, I’m watching with an eye toward Han Sung and Yoo Joo. They’re not as cute as Eun Chan and Han Gyul, but their relationship is far and away the most believable thing in this drama.

• Note to self: don’t buy fruit at Coffee Prince. I swear apples bruise and begin to rot if you even look at them the wrong way, and here these knuckleheads are tossing them around like softballs.

• Yet another twisted trope: Kdrama people are always seeking company because they’re too afraid to use outhouses by themselves. (Think Dream High.) Coffee Prince does this, too, but in this case it’s the male lead who’s chicken. And because I’m watching this on super-crisp DVD for the first time, I’m noticing all sorts of things I’ve missed in the past... Including the fact that this bathroom doesn’t have a Western toilet—you can tell from the way Han Gyul is standing. Eeek.

• The official subs don’t really explain what Eun Chan is writing in the outhouse scene. Of course, the wonderful WITH S2 translation does: “One woman, nine years, habit.”

Episode 6

• I think it’s interesting that Eun Chan is dressed up as girlie-girl by Han Sung, and then immediately heads off to Han Gyul’s house, where she pigs out and uses her freakish nose to identify coffee beans. No matter how great he is, the fact that Han Sung sees Eun Chan as a girl actually gets in the way of him appreciating her for who she is. On the other hand, Han Gyul may believe she’s a boy, but he really, truly understands her as a person.

 I’ve noticed that whenever a guy is anticipating having sex in a Kdrama, he’s shown stretching his lower back, presumably in preparation for physical activity. And it looks like Han Sung might be using that stone lion to do the very thing. He couldn’t have thought Eun Chan was going to put out, could he?

 The final hug scene in this episode gets me every time, but it does have one flaw: Yoon Eun Hye is so poorly lit in it that she looks like a Halloween ghoul.

• I’d go to Borders to buy books with you whenever you wanted, Han Gyul. Oh, wait... Han Gyul is fictional, and Borders is history. Why are the things I love so tantalizingly unattainable?

Episode 7 

• As an American, it strikes me as incredibly bizarre that Asian cultures don’t have breakfast-specific foods. Here, breakfast is the exclusive province of things like hot or cold cereal, bagels, and toast and eggs. (When someone eats one of those things later in the day, there’s even a specific name for it: Breakfast for dinner.) On Korean dramas, breakfast usually looks just like any other meal of the day: rice, soup, and side-dishes.

• Twisted trope: When Eun Chan quits her job after fighting with Han Gyul, he’s the one who stress eats, not her.

Episode 8 

• Eun Chan gives Grandma a glass bottle and tells her to drink something hot before she eats her shaved ice. I don’t get it—hot, as in warm? Or hot, as in spicy? Why would anyone put a warm drink in a glass bottle, which would be (1) too hot to carry and (2) unlikely to hold heat for very long? Asia, why must you torment me so?!?!

• Guess what, Eun Chan? All of this “You’re so awesome, you’re like Santa!” talk could be construed as leading on Han Sung. It’s no wonder he tried to kiss you, even though it’s regrettable from both of your perspectives. (I never realized what music was playing in the background during the kiss, but it’s the song Han Sung sang for Yoo Joo a few episodes ago. That’s just wrong.)

• Yet another twisted trope: For the second time in the course of this drama, Eun Chan piggybacks Han Gyul when he’s drunk. People always point out that this reversal only lasts until Eun Chan’s gender is revealed, but the piggybacks in the later episodes are fundamentally different: Eun Chan piggybacks Han Gyul because he needs to be carried, while Han Gyul piggybacks Eun Chan because he wants to be close to her.

• It’s a pity that they don’t show the actual ear-piercing in this scene episode. Call me a masochist, but I suspect it would have been weirdly sexual (and totally hot).

Episode 9

• I’ve probably watched five hundred hours of Korean drama at this point, but not one moment in all of them even begins to compare to the power of this beach scene: The sad game of “Bothers can do this” one-upsmanship, the way Han Gyul laces his fingers together with Eun Chan’s, the look of mournful longing on his face as he stretches out next to her on the sand. It’s a perfectly executed scene, from the music to the editing to the acting, but an even better indicator of its effectiveness is that it makes me cry every single time I see it.

 As far as I’m concerned, Coffee Prince is not a drama about homosexuality. It uses the topic of gayness in the same way Romeo and Juliet used a family feud: as a seemingly insurmountable barrier between people in love. I would have loved this show just as much if Eun Chan really had been a man, though.

Episode 10 

• Ah, the concert—this drama’s one sour note. My bitter, black little heart finds it neither amusing nor interesting. (Although Han Gyul’s fit of jealousy and Eun Chan’s breakdown afterward are more than worth the price of admission. Her sadness is painful to watch, and her tears are probably the most genuine Kdrama crying I’ve ever seen.)

• Will anyone who sees this drama ever forget Han Gyul’s declaration of love? The problem is that we English speakers don’t even know what he really said. Here are two translations:
Dramacrazy and official subs: “I’m just going to say this once, so listen carefully. I like you. I don’t care if you’re a man or an alien anymore. It’s too hard to get over you, so let’s just go through with this. Let’s go through with this.” 

With S2 subs: “Just once. I’ll say this just once, so listen up. I like you. Whether you’re a man or an alien. I don’t care anymore. I tried getting rid of my feelings, but couldn’t. So let’s go as far as we can go. Let’s give it a try.”
Both of them are actually pretty great, but as always I prefer the With S2 version.

  • Speaking of genuine, the entire kiss scene is utterly perfect. Honestly, there’s nothing to be said about it—it’s proof positive that a romantic moment on screen doesn’t require showy camera work or 462 jump cuts. This first real kiss shared by Eun Chan and Han Gyul is nothing less than intimate and tender, and so powerful even the viewer can practically feel it.

 Having just checked a streaming version of the kiss scene after watching the DVD version, I have this to say: Good gravy! The DVD’s colors are a thousand times more crisp and clear, and it’s so high definition it actually took some getting used to for someone who’s accustomed to the grainy Dramafever version. Worth every penny I spent, boys and girls.

Episode 11

• I love that there are so many English-language slogans on t-shirts in this drama. The best? The t-shirt Han Gyul wears in a few episodes that says “Golden boy.” (Appropriate, yes?) The worst is definitely the one he’s wearing toward the end of this episode, which seems to have a pill on it reading “Get laid.” I’m too scared to think about the deeper meaning there, if there is such a thing.

• The official subtitles also have a less-than-shining moment in this episode, when Han Gyul “kisses” Eun Chan after they fight. In the DVD version, he says “I liked you better when you were a boy.” In the With S2 version, he says “The kiss was better when you were a boy.” The words are pretty similar, but I think is a lot more fitting—and cutting.

Episode 12

• Han Yoo Joo isn’t my favorite character, but in some ways she’s a feminist-minded trope reversal just like Eun Chan. Rather than looking like a stereotypical man, she acts like one: she’s a cold, calculating, workaholic who has difficulty with monogamy. (Erm...monoandry?)

• It’s a whole different experience to watch this show after committing its soundtrack and score to memory. Some of the best songs are only used for a few seconds as ring tones, which sure isn’t how things work in dramas today: now, two or three songs are played until you want to vomit every time you hear them. That’s kind of bizarre...the Coffee Prince soundtrack(s!) must have been a success on CD. Why wouldn’t every record label in Korea be lining up for their songs to be used on TV in any capacity?

• As I mentioned earlier in this post, I don’t think it’s such a big deal that Eun Chan is suddenly recipient, rather than giver, of piggyback rides after her gender is revealed. She does, however, fall victim to some stereotypically female behavior: now she’s the one stress eating, not Han Gyul.

• Coffee Prince, could you please lay off the awesomeness? It’s cruel how you’re putting every other drama to shame with your relentless sweetness. The writers could have gotten Eun Chan and Han Gyul back together any old way, but instead they arranged a second-round meet-cute that’s cuter than most shows can manage for round one.

• Sad but true: Han Gyul’s “I love you more” worked so well for me, I even wrote fan fiction revolving around it. (Which has been recently edited, by the by. I decided the beginning was too dense.)

• Twisted trope: The male lead rests his head on the female lead’s shoulder, instead of the other way around. Bonus points for it being incredibly funny to see great big Gong Yoo with his head on Yoon Eun Hye’s delicate little shoulder.

Episode 13

• My absolute favorite display of of physical affection in this drama full of displays of physical affection? The moment in this episode when Ha Rim scratches under Eun Chan’s chin as if she’s a beloved pet. Most shows lavish that kind of detail only on their primary relationships, but Coffee Prince has enough heart to go around. (And around. [And around some more.])

Episode 14

• I’m not so well versed on the finer points of Korean home pregnancy tests, but I’m pretty sure Han Yoo Joo just put something she peed on under a pile of clean hand towels in her bathroom. Ick.

• So now that I’ve watched this show almost five times, I’ve finally seen what everyone else saw the first time around: The narrative tension is completely destroyed once Han Gyul accepts Eun Chan as a girl. The first time I watched Coffee Prince, I was delighted that we got to tag along with its leads through the early days of their courtship. Because my love for the OTP is so absurdly strong, I still don’t mind. But I definitely see the storyline flagging, nonetheless.

Episode 15

• It’s a not-so-little-known fact that New York is actually closer to Italy than Seoul is—everybody would have won if Han Gyul had gone to New York while Eun Chan was in Italy.

 This episode is an emotional roller-coaster for me. First I have to pick myself up after fainting dead away when Han Gyul says “Will you be my wife?,” and then I have to quake in terror at the swarm of giant bugs that flit around them through the rest of the scene. Clearly, Seoul and I would not get along.

 The actress who plays Han Yoo Joo is insanely beautiful and has a perfect figure, so naturally they put her in the ugliest wedding dress ever devised. I’m sure it’s supposed to look fashionable and elegant, but please—a giant black bandeau over a classy dress is not a good look for anybody. (On the other hand, I love the fairytale princess dress Han Gyul dreams up for Eun Chan.)

Episode 16

 “I realized I can’t take care of you. But at least I can by by your side. Although we’re apart right now, later...when you make your first kimchi, when you hold your first child, when you become a student’s parent, when you marry off your kids.... Wow. Proposing is so embarrassing.” Best proposal ever, Han Gyul. ::Amanda sighs dramatically and melts into a puddle of delight::


Episode 17

• The scene—you know the one. This is all I have to say: Yowza. (Well, that and: I hope the wheels on Han Gyul’s bed have some sort of locking mechanism, because otherwise they’re both going to be seasick before the night is over.)

• Twisted trope: When it comes to new levels of physical intimacy, Eun Chan is almost always the instigator. Good girl!

• So Han Gyul gives Eun Chan shoes, even knowing that it’s in violation of a Korean proverb to do so. The proverb says the person to whom you give shoes will use them to walk away from you—just what he doesn’t want. But by writing his name in the shoes, it’s as if Han Gyul has symbolically given Eun Chan both her freedom and the strong foundation of his love.

• Another problem with the official Coffee Prince subtitles is the lack of subbing during the scene where Ha Rim catches Han Gyul and Eun Chan together in the bathroom. If you’re like me, you imagined the worst (best?): that they couldn’t keep their hands off each other and were hooking up during work hours. The WITH S2 subs tell a slightly different story. In an annoyed voice, Eun Chan is saying: “Why are you like that? You work, work.” When Ha Rim opens the door, she’s holding a paper towel and messing with Han Gyul’s shirt. My theory is that he got coffee on himself and she’s chastising him for not treating the stain right away.

• I’m always a little sad when Eun Chan comes home from Italy looking so different—as if she’s any average girl. On the bright side, though, one wardrobe choice hints that she’s still the same person we know and love: her shirt is essentially a girlier version of the red polo she wore on her first night with Han Gyul. Like they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

• Good luck not crying at the final goodbye and the “Coffee Prince is closed” sign at the end. You’re a better woman than I am if you can do it.