Romantic comedy with a side of light cultural commentary
What it’s about
After a life of unthinkable privation (oh, no! She can’t afford a Birkin bag?!?), a hardworking Kdrama girl vows to do whatever it takes to marry into Seoul’s posh Cheongdamdong neighborhood. Various degrees of soul selling ensue.
Ah, the perils of really loving a currently airing show: all I want to do is watch the next episode of Flower Boy Next Door, but I have to wait an entire week for it to air. In the meanwhile, shows that might seem perfectly acceptable under other circumstances just won’t do it for me. Take Cheongdamdong Alice: it feels slick and spendy, but ultimately hollow when compared to lived-in, contemplative nature of FBND. Park Shi Hoo is cute and Moon Geun Young is as darling as ever, but the design-wannabe storyline is starting to feel awfully threadbare. Barring an injection of depth and humanity in the near future, Cheongdamdong Alice isn’t looking like a winner for me.
The best thing I can say about this drama is that I didn’t dislike it enough to stop watching. It’s a show that has some interesting things to say about our status-mad world, but they’re lost in the shuffle of ritualized Kdrama busyness.
Cheongdamdong Alice’s central premise had a lot of promise: What happens when a standard-issue Kdrama heroine decides that she’s wasting her time by working hard at mundane drudgery and sets her sights on marrying a man with money? Instead of all those early morning milk deliveries, she devotes herself to finding an Alice in Wonderland-inspired white rabbit to introduce her to life on the other side of the tracks. Naturally, the lines between predator and prey are blurred when Se Kyeung, the female lead, finds herself falling in love with the secretary she plans to use for his connections with his über-rich boss. And as this is a Korean drama, said secretary turns out to be said boss, masquerading as a working stiff for some reason or another.
And so we come to the fundamental problem with this show: it doesn’t use its toys very well. None of the characters feel organic or fully formed, and so their actions are almost always inexplicable. Their behavior is designed to move the plot from one hair-raising close-call to another, not to tell a story about recognizable human beings with real motivations who are looking for better lives, no matter the cost. There were just enough good things about the show to keep me interested, but the plot eventually became so baroque that I completely checked out and gave up trying to figure out what was going on.
Park Shi Hoo’s Jean Thierry Cha/Secretary Kim/Cha Seung Jo suffers particularly from the script’s inconsistent, opportunistic characterization: In one scene he’s broken, in the next he’s bonkers, and then in the one after that he’s a gleeful sprite. There’s no point of connection between any of these moods—Park Shi Hoo is a good looking guy, but his acting abilities just aren’t up to making this sloppy mess work. It’s not even that the drama couldn’t handle the multiple disguises he uses during its run; the real issue is that it never gave him a character to play in the first place. He’s just an untethered collection of actions and over-the-top gesticulations.
Se Kyeung had moments of steely greatness, but suffered from a similar lack of solid characterization. Her dream of becoming a fashion designer is used as plot fodder in the first few episodes, and then totally abandoned—she gives up utterly after meeting a single roadblock in her chosen profession. Her desire to be a designer is just a chance for the show to indulge in a lot of product placement, not part of her character’s DNA.
In truth, Cheongdamdong Alice’s most compelling character isn’t one of the leads: it’s Yoon Jo, Se Kyeung’s mean-girl high school classmate and eventual advisor in her quest to become a trophy wife. A more interesting, brutal version of this story would have been told from her perspective: married to a man she doesn’t really love, she’s treated like a servant his by his frigid family. She puts up with it all, though, so she can have the latest designer bags and lord her new-found wealth over the little people in her life. It’s her journey that’s most interesting—how lonely must her world have been, living with people who didn’t care about her? (Or each other, even.) And just what did her decision at the end of the show cost her own family?
Cheongdamdong Alice wasted its strong cast and interesting premise, becoming just another a slick-but-soulless network distraction that you’ll forget one second after you watch its final episode. Too bad, because it could have been so much more.
• Episode 2. It sure is weird to see the ex-girlfriend from Whatchya Wearing fully clothed. She hasn't made much of an impression so far in this show—I actually suspect that it will be all downhill from Answer Me, 1997 for her.
• Episode 2. Honey, I’m not sure you get how this whole blackmail thing is supposed to work. You have something she wants, right? So you get to ask her for something you want. Like pots of money, maybe. If you’re going to sell your soul, why do it the hard way?
• Episode 3. I’m all for this flower boy craze, but I could do without lip color on guys. When this episode was being shot, Park Shi Hoo must have either spent all his time eating grape popsicles or touching up his Maybelline Everlasting Wine #05 lipstick.
• Episode 3. Between this show and Flower Boy Next Door, it seems we have two new drama trends brewing this year: high school mean girls who continue to torment their victims into adulthood, and men with foreign names that aren’t common in English-speaking countries. Enrique, meet Jean Thierry.
• Episode 3. Those pants! That angle! I think I just saw little Shi Hoo...
• Episode 5. Here’s another scene repeat—both Arang and the Magistrate and this show feature characters who get all hot and bothered while someone’s being measured for clothes. Things would have really have gotten out of hand if she’d tried to measure his inseam...
• Episode 6. It seems that the slightly mean male lead of the past few years (think Joon Pyo from Boys Over Flowers) has been replaced with a new archetype: the goofball. First we had Gong Yoo in Big, followed by the male leads in this show and I Miss You. And let’s not forget the biggest spazz of them all: Flower Boy Next Door’s Enrique.
• Episode 7. Spin the bottle exists in both America and Asia, yet has a totally different meaning on each continent. Here, the person who spins the bottle has to kiss the person it ends up pointing at, usually for a predetermined length of time. There, spin the bottle seems to be a variant of truth or dare. (I guess that explains why there was so little kissing in the BoF spin the bottle scene, to my massive disappointment.)
• Episode 10. Kdramas love a deep, dark secret. This drama may have finally hit the bottom of that particular barrel, though: Its male lead just confessed that he has a long, sordid history as an internet troll. What a silly little bunny.
• Episode 10. What’s going on with your jacket in this scene, Park Shi Hoo? Did you kill and skin a muppet on your way to the shoot?
• Episode 15. Those mood bunnies sure are weird. Hardly any of them are actually evocative of the emotion they’re supposed to convey—is this because stuffed toys can only be so expressive? Or is it because reading facial expressions across cultures is harder than we think? All I know for sure is that in English “charisma” isn’t something that comes and goes based on what you’re wearing, as the bunnies suggest. It’s an inherent, permanent trait, like being tall.
• Episode 16. There’s a lot of English-language writing in this drama. Of course, it all has a uniquely Korean spin, like the ever-present “VVIP.” In America, we have no need for the extra V—being very important is good enough for us.
• Episode 16. That kiss really brought new meaning to the phrase “suck face.” (Mostly because Park Shi Hoo appeared to actually be sucking on her face.)
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