Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Out of Sync

Lots of things affect how much I enjoy the dramas I watch. Some of them are objective, like the production values and the quality of the acting and the plot. My preferences are also colored by subjective things, including how much I like the actors and whether I find the drama’s topic interesting.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about something else that influences how much I like a show: how much other people like it. Now that I’m watching some dramas as they air, I spend the wait between episodes reading what bloggers have to say about what’s going on. Sometimes this extracurricular consideration has a positive influence, like when I was watching Flower Boy Next Door. The online discussion of every subtle detail and tiny shading of motivation encouraged me to slow down and really appreciate the show as a stand-alone work of art, not just another in the long string of Kdramas I’ve glutted on during the past year.

People on the Internet also really like Jang Ok Jung: Live in Love, the series I’m watching now. Everywhere I go, someone is squeeing about the chemistry between its leads, its beautiful scenery (inclusive of said leads), or its clever re-imagination of historical fact. Even the blogger at The Vault has some not-entirely-negative things to say about it, which is practically unheard of when it comes to fusion sageuks.

In spite of all the good buzz, most of this show has been at best okay for me. Nothing about it is terrible: the cast is doing fine work, the visuals are wonderful, and the story is moving forward at a decent clip. My gripes are more with the spirit of the thing than its execution.

Kdramas always start out extra punchy and high concept to grab viewers’ attention, so I didn’t worry when the first few episodes gave me whiplash by veering between dark melodrama and fluffy impossibilities. But after the hard work of making a strong impression was done, the show settled into standard-issue sageuk territory. It lost its distinctive voice to the same ten guys in fake beards who plot world domination in every sageuk. The people who made Jang Ok Jung decided to turn recorded history on its ear by recasting a traditional villain as their leading lady, so why didn’t they go all the way? As a counterfactual history of a maligned woman, the story seems awfully content to follow the standard, guy-centered sageuk tropes. Early on, at least Jang Ok Jung got to stretch beyond the boundaries of being someone’s woman: The show played with anachronism by allowing her to design the kind of Western-style summer dress you could buy at the mall today. But now she’s just stuck in the palace, walking through the same plot lines featured ten years ago in Jewel of the Palace. 

And the fast moving-plot comes with its own failings, too. Instead of using events to show us its character’s hearts, the script relies on easy exposition. Jang Ok Jung says she makes clothes to make men fall in love, but we see no evidence to this effect. She says that clothes are like armor when she speaks to the King, and then the drama wastes the perfect opportunity to show us this when she dresses like a boy in a subsequent episode. It never bothered to give the experience a soul, skipping over all the slow and boring parts like putting those clothes on and coming to realize just how much power they had over the person within them.

Last week’s episodes took a big step toward becoming what I hoped this drama would be all along—a powerful, doomed romance between a commoner and a king who feels the heavy weight of his crown. But having abandoned the playful essence that set it apart from every other drama on the subject, I worry that it’s all downhill from here.

Jang Ok Jung isn’t the first drama I’ve reacted to differently than most of the drama community, and I bet it won’t be the last. Here’s a rundown of a few other shows I missed the memo about.

One Fine Day
What they think: Derivative and dull.

What I think: Helmed by Gong Yoo in a rare anti-hero role, this 2006 melo is criminally underrated. The story couldn’t possibly be more packed with sordid family secrets, forbidden love, and tragic ailments, and its no-holds-barred approach to the tawdry nature of its storyline just made me happy. One Fine Day is also notable for its interesting backdrops—part is filmed in Australia, and many episodes take place in the neon-blue glow of the aquarium where the female lead gets a part-time job. My unreasonable love for this show probably stems from the fact that it was one of the first Kdramas I watched. (I sometimes think every drama grade I give should be seen in the context of the total number of dramas I’ve watched—a grade A, drama 10 is quite different from a grade A, drama 110.)

Spring Waltz
What they think: A bombastic and overblown soap opera riddled with cliché and bad acting.

What I think: This gloriously, riotously uncool Cinderella story pushed all of my buttons. There’s nothing I didn’t love about it, from its melodramatic-but-not-too-melodramatic script to its gorgeous leads to its swoony, earnest love triangle. Fairy-tale castles, Coldplay montages, and intense, shaggy-haired pianists are like catnip to me, and this drama gave me all of them.

Full House
What they think: A classic cohabitation comedy with lots of sweet moments and a cute, young Rain.

What I think: Not much, because I never even made it through the first episode. The problem here may be that I arrived at this particular party too late—when the show was new, it was probably refreshing and funny. Nine years later, it’s a hodgepodge of regrettable fashion choices, bad acting, and boring clichés. Full House might have been the originator of those clichés, but that doesn’t mean I can unwatch all the subsequent shows that did the same things much, much better.

Secret Garden 
Gentleman’s Dignity
What they think: Great, comedic romances with steamy chemistry.

What I think: The common theme these dramas share: jerky protagonists who torture their women instead of woo them. One of them is distinguished by some poorly integrated supernatural mumbo-jumbo in the form of body swapping; the other has a gaggle of immature forty year olds. As far as I’m concerned, neither is funny, sexy, or worth watching. (A note: I’m well aware that I’m the only person on the planet who feels this way.)

The Moon That Embraces the Sun
What they think: Voted the best drama of 2012 by users of Dramafever, this fusion sageuk weaves romance and supernatural elements into a story of court intrigue.

What I think: Shallow and immature, thanks to clumsy storytelling and remedial directing. The acting was nothing to brag about, either—even my beloved Kim Soo Hyun couldn’t the day. The only body part he used to convey emotion during the course of this overlong drama was his neck; it was always clenched and roped with sinew, not unlike the star of that childbirth documentary they made us watch in sex ed class.


  1. Wow, tell us what you really think of Kim Soo Hyun in TMTETS ;)

    Jang Ok Jung is definitely headed down the path of many a sageuk, however I'm still actually enjoying it. I gave up Gu Family Book (really Amanda.. don't even bother with that one) so right now JOK is the best Kdrama for me at the moment. It may be a tad bit shallow but it's still entertaining and shows more depth than most fusion sageuks I've seen. Also, I kind of like the Jewel in the Palace feels. Almost makes me want to go and rewatch it.

    I'm still sad you don't like Secret Garden, lol - but I'm totally with you on Spring Waltz. Man it was gorgeous! So cheesy, but somehow it was terribly special. :) Oh, and Full House... blegh.

    1. I was clearly feeling more bitter and vicious than usual when I wrote this =X

      Kim Soo Hyun in TMTETS killed me—I was expecting so much because I loved him in Dream High.

      I haven't seen the new Jang Ok Jung episodes yet, and I actually really liked episodes 7 and 8. I've got my fingers crossed that the awesomeness will only increase. (Yoo Ah In is fabulous, no? I keep trying to call him Yoo In Ah, though.)

  2. I can't contribute much to the discussion for this, as I've only seen one drama you listed. The Moon & Sun drama. And I disagree with you wholeheartedly on that one. I think it was carried out pretty well, though I wasn't super into the female leads... (particularly Han Ga-In who played the Wol)

    Secret Garden though, I saw the previews and have seen so many cuts of it on Running Man, that I don't really think I need to watch it to dislike it. It just rubs me the wrong way.

    I like hearing different opinions on shows, though. I can decide from which side I'm likely to fall, just by reading other people's opinions (though I can't truly know how I'll feel about a drama until I watch it)

    1. I like reading other opinions about dramas, too. (It's especially great when both Dramabeans and Koala's Playground cover the same show—their opinions are never the same, so it's interesting to see the contrast.) The only thing I can't take is negative commentary about Coffee Prince. It makes me too sad =X

  3. I am currently watching Jang Ok Jung, Gu Family Book, You're the best Lee Soon Shin and When a Man Loves. Each has it's pros and cons. I have seen One Fine Day, Gentlemen's Dignity, The Moon Embraces the Sun and, of course, Secret Garden (sorry Amanda, it's Hyun Bin!). I haven't seen Full House or Spring Waltz, yet anyway. I've come to the realization that I can't analyze dramas too much. I just sit back and enjoy them.....or not......

    I really appreciate all of Amanda's reviews and the comments from my fellow drama addicts. I really enjoy being able to talk about this to people who understand and appreciate these interests.

    1. The second When a Man Loves finishes airing, I'm all over that.

      Sometimes I think I need to take a break from blogging so I can just enjoy dramas again, too. It's different when you want to figure out why you react a certain way to a show :b

  4. I haven't seen most of the dramas you're referring to but I totally disagree with you on Full House and Gentlemen's Dignity! Now I will say that Full House was the 2nd drama I watched after becoming a Kdrama addict, so I might have felt the same way if I had watched others like My Lovely Sam Soon, City Hunter, Soulmate first, so I can understand where you're coming from and I'm totally biased because I'm a huge Rain fan:)

    As for Gentlemen's Dignity, it was great to see friendship among men. They had been through thick and thin with each other for 20 plus years, able to call each other on their crap, celebrate the good and bad times, and pointedly made time for each other. Did you watch the whole series or a couple of episodes?

    1. I dropped Gentlemen's Dignity after episode 7, and then picked it up for some of the finale. As Shut Up: Flower Boy Band made abundantly clear, it's possible to make a show about male friendships without torturing women. I think the writer of GD and SG and I will just never see eye to eye—our views on romance don't match up, and I'm not going to forgive a character who prefers physically intimidating someone he "likes" over treating her like a human being capable of making her own decisions. Which makes me really torn about the upcoming drama Heirs—I love the cast, but if it's going to involve a shirtless Lee Min Ho pinning Park Shin Hye to a bathroom door against her will for five uncomfortable minutes, I'm not going near it.

      Boys over Flowers is my version of your Full House. I *loved* it when I watched it, but in retrospect I think that might have had something to do with it being my second Kdrama ever.

  5. I feel the same way about One Fine Day, There was GREAT chemistry between the leads. Alos, the second male lead was more interesting than the usual pretty and hopeful guy. I liked that he got cranky and fed up with his unwilling heroine sometimes - and yes, he was pretty. And funny, too. It had me undecied repeatedly. I liked the story about Her adopted family - the "adopted" brother thing was scary and made me go "Agh!" several times. The heroine's friend was great comic relief. I loved watching Sung Yu-ri suffer through her tears (not for a dude/romance exactly) to keep the last bit of family she had which was her "real" brother. (not the scary one)... See??? This story was complex! Oh, and the beautiful angst of the male lead over his true love. Sigh, when Gong Yoo looks longingly after a woman and gets misty-eyed and does that tiny lip tremble thing as he tries speak without crying... Give me a minute. Well, those of you who know, know. :) And as you mentioned, Amanda, all the pretty they packed into this one drama with the Australian beaches, the Gong Yoo, the gorgeous aquarium scenes, the Gong Yoo, the over the top decorated engagement and birthday party scenes, the Gong Yoo. Well, all you have to do is get through the first one or two scenes where G.Y.'s character is pretending to be in love with some pushy chick while speaking horribly cheesy romantic dribble in funky english. It really turned me off at first and I gave up the show for several months before getting the nerve to try it again just for the sake of SYR and GY.

  6. The thing with jang ok jung is its beautiful to look at but when i try to analyze the drama it just comes up a few hairs short of being good.. its an okay drama for me too. Dressing is a big part of being who you are even today, dressing in certain dresses boosts up your confidence. Everybody does make a big deal out of dressing even me, i still think i look aweful in navy blue even though everybody says it looks good on me, the thing is maybe it looks good but if i do have to wear that color i keep checking myself in the mirror and fidgeting all around.
    so when this drama decided to show us the importance of dressing in joseon i was like good but why do they have to make a historical villan do that because thats bound to get it bad reviews in korea and i was pitch perfect on my guess.But problem with the drama is its half cooked on the whole plot or concept, if a drama has to do this concept right for me it just has to deliver one message: getting the right clothes is must but feeling your self worth and gaining your confidence on the way is more important....

    About Gu Family book hehe its my guilty pleasure i know how many places the drama went wrong first and foremost the special effects dude you need better imagination and animation to make a fantasy, that green eyes which just makes me think of grapes is absurd, those blue little lights are definitely romantic but it just cuts down the badass factor, and i just think that the gumiho concept could have been so much better just with a little refined fantacy animations. The second where they went wrong was the epi 5 to epi 8 those four episodes were pure tribulation with melodrama fodder for a whole run of a makjang, i get it the to give our hero a direction a revenge plot was needed but really people dying left and right and the villan being so strong that he cooked a traitor plot for the most respected guy in the region without any evidence and nobody said anything or even questioned it, that guys whole family become slaves and the girl is sold off to gisaeng house so that our villan can defile her but dude he is her grandpas age at least that part just creeps the hell out of me, and when she is sold off i'm like isn't this what happened to our hero's mother too i know history repeats itself but in the same drama i didn't know that... the epi 5 to 8 had the biggest problem with writing i think because there no explanations no proper just the writer launghing on our face and saying "i did it because i just can" its one of those on writers whim that i hate. but the best part of the show is its leads and that funny bodyguard i can just leave the whole park family drama behind, both the lead characters are so well written its beautiful when the girl saves the guy in their first meeting i'm going starry eyed saying not a damsel in distress wow just wow... and on tops of that its in a saeguk, and suzy has improved a lot from her debut of course her acting still leaves a lot to be desired but still i am okay with her, the role of kang chi is so beautifully written with complex and layers that i just can't help but love him, and lee seung gi is doing a great job, and i'm not biased or anything i loved him in king 2 hearts hated him in shining inheritance thought nothing at all about my girlfriend is a gumiho beacuse shin min ah took my whole attention there, but i think the PD could have done better and of course the writer too....

    1. i think the PD was great in secret garden even though i thoroughly hate that drama it was the nonsensical writing that didn't make sense but the PD did great with drawing out the whimsy, and of course joo won character was just plain annoying on paper but hyun bin was a runaway success in that role he did such good acting but i have a whole problem with gil ra im man she is a stunt actress who is not badass in real life when she was introduced first i was like i like her being so cool and everything but later she just turned out to be a doormat for every single person from joo won to evil mother to even oska who apparently won HER in a bet that's just plain "i don't have any words for it" any normal sane girl would have had a fit but not her... and the whole thing about a secret lover who admires you and you are so clueless that you don't see it, its just unbeleivable because no matter how dumb a girl is she can always understand who has a crush on her.... the whole plot of body swap was just what the hell its purpose was daddy dearest just doesn't even gives a proper reason for swaping them in the first place.. about the chemistry i have to agree they had lots but just having chemistry doesn't makes a drama good.. i just totally skipped gentleman's dignity so can't say anything at least in secret garden something was happening in this drama nothing ever happened except for adults behaving like children and i'm 18 and i can vouch for us teens that even we don't act so juvenile
      you didn't watch full house wow i stopped at epi 13 because i just couldn't take anymore shrilly, i like banter i love it when its done right but straight out fighting with those shrill voices tend to get on my nerves... the story itself did not make sense how can my friend sell my house in the first place and second i can't sue him for it... its just plain mad, if anybody wants to watch this drama don't try to reason or use any logic just turn that brain off...
      about sun moon plot hodgepodge that embraces the epic first love concept.... this one did not makes sense you fall in love that person dies at least to your knowledge but you don't move on thats just a big peice of BS even i moved on from my first love and its just been 2 years and i was so so so heartbroken at that time man i feel like i was in a hell hole or something...... the whole story of they find each other even through forgotten memories is just so laughable and immature that i just cannot digest it even my kim soo hyun and jung il woo love couldn't salvage it... in short the drama was grown up people still hell bent on having their first loves and a lot of forced down imageries and metaphors about sun and moon which we got in the first time and you didn't have to shove it down our throat at every turn.....
      the rest of the dramas i didn't watch so can't say

      haha one post was not sufficient for my rants

  7. Hi, long time lurker, first time commenter. :)

    Great post! Totally agree with you about Secret Garden and AGD. Couldn't make it past ep 2 of Secret Garden for the same reasons as you and stayed far, far away from AGD. I'm trying so hard to not be too excited about the upcoming Heirs. Why Lee Min Ho, why?

    As for drama impressions, it's rather complicated for me. When I watched my first four dramas (You're Beautiful, Hana Yori Dango season 1, City Hunter, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho) I kept criticising the plot, characters, production values, cheesiness etc. Yet, judging by how I kept reaching for the next episode I did enjoy them a lot. Now, as I watch each new drama, I find myself appreciating my early dramas a lot more. I can name several better dramas in terms of quality but these four feel like home to me. The ones I can return to any time when I need comfort food, when I want warmth and familiarity.

    So, I might not have a high opinion of a drama while watching it for the first time but often I come to appreciate its qualities in hindsight. One of my benchmarks for rating a drama is observing whether the story and characters have stayed with me over time, if I think about them even after weeks have passed, if accidentally hearing the soundtrack brings back good memories or leaves a sour taste, and most importantly, whether the thought of watching the drama again excites me.

    1. Thanks for the comment :)

      I know exactly how you feel about appreciating a drama more in hindsight. Princess' Man was my first real sageuk, and while I watched it I wasn't all that impressed. But since then I've found myself comparing every historical drama to it—and none of the new ones are as well-made or compelling. I keep meaning to watch it again now that I'm more familiar with the genre, but there are so many dramas and so little time!

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