Thursday, June 27, 2013

Drama Review: Capital Scandal (2007)

Grade: B

Action romance

What it’s about
During Japan’s occupation of Korea, a naïve, uncompromisingly idealistic bookseller joins the underground resistance movement. She befriends a colorful cast of characters there, including a tough gisaeng and a ladies’ man who bets his friends he can turn her into a modern woman—in spite of her conservative values and the traditional hanbok she always wears.

First impression
I can’t say that I love this show’s opening. The action is cartoony and the costumes look like they belong on stage at my local high school’s talent night. I’m optimistic that it will get better as it goes along, though—I’m a big fan of its playboy-redeemed-by-the-love-of-an-upright-girl theme. And how can you go wrong with something that’s based on a novel by the author of Coffee Prince’s source material?

Final verdict
Capital Scandal is neither polished nor perfect, but there’s a lot to like about it. What starts off as a madcap story of unlikely love blooming against a period backdrop evolves into a unexpectedly powerful exploration of duty and sacrifice.

At its best, this show is reminiscent of my beloved Coffee Prince (which, of course, actually hit the airwaves a month after Capital Scandal did). It takes its time to build compelling, nuanced characters that exist even outside of their romantic relationships. And although it has moments of slapstick and melodrama, it also features scenes that feel recognizably real. Its characters play soccer with neighborhood kids, eat dinner with mom, and forge believable friendships as they go about the low-key business of everyday life.

Its two female leads even echo Eun Chan and Yoo Joo: Young and innocent Yeo Kyeong refuses to wear girlie Western dresses, instead favoring dowdy versions of Korea’s traditional outfit. Song Joo is older and more sophisticated. She’s a worldly gisaeng who dresses like Marilyn Monroe but gives her heart only to her work as a freedom fighter, not to the men in her life. Both women are smart and capable and idealistic, and I came away from the drama loving them just as much as I love Coffee Prince’s girls. (It’s unfortunate that one spent so much of her time needing to be saved from the bad guys, but the other one more than made up for it with her flawless aim and amazing bravery.)

Of course, each girl has her own romantic subplot. One features a quippy chaebol son with unexpected depths (Han Gyul, is that you?), and the other revolves around a complicated history shared with an old flame (Han Sung?!?). The couples are cute, and you’ll certainly root for both of them.

Unfortunately, Capital Scandal’s other major plot point has some problems. It’s great that there’s more meat to this story than just love, but the goofy spyjinks of the first few episodes are awkwardly juxtaposed with the show’s brutal, bloody denouement. On the one hand, the direction takes a fairly lighthearted, romantic-comedy approach to its characters’ relationships. On the other hand, these same characters are actually assassins who regularly dispatch faceless supporters of Japan’s colonization of Korea. Their victims aren’t treated like human beings (or even "villains")—they’re just video-game-style obstacles to be overcome on the road to the big-bad.

This blasé stance on the taking of human life reduced my enjoyment of the show a lot. Is this because I’m American and don’t have the same associations with Japan’s occupation of Korea as the drama’s target audience? I was delighted to watch a bunch of Nazis burned to ashes at the end of Inglourious Basterds—why shouldn’t Koreans rejoice in the killing of their oppressors?

Ultimately, though, the script left too many moral grey area unaddressed. It sanitized horrible acts of violence to keep the show from turning into a Quentin Tarantino movie, but did so at the expense of a final product that felt truthful and mature. Not acknowledging what they’ve done doesn’t change the fact that your heroes and heroines are actually mass murderers.

Capital Scandal is worth watching, but be forewarned: it’s not the uncomplicated romantic comedy most sites bill it as. 

Random thoughts
Episode 1. This show wouldn’t look half as chintzy if the sets were less brightly lit. I haven’t seen lighting this unflattering since the last time I was in the dressing room at Walmart.

Episode 1. I see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer effect in action here: women who age in the entertainment industry look increasingly underfed with each passing year, while the guys get plump. (Yes, Han Ji Min and Kang Ji Hwan, I’m talking about you.)

Episode 4. Oh, show. Do I love you in spite of your flaws, or because of them? Every single exterior scene is literally packed with extras milling around in period-esque costumes. Day or night, no matter where the leads are or what they’re doing, there’s always a constant stream of pedestrians in the background behind them. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be funny, but it is.

Episode 4. In spite of all those ever-roving citizens, nobody ever makes time to buy a book. How does this store say open? Is it a front for the yakuza or something?

Episode 6. There isn’t a drag queen on the planet who wouldn’t swoon at the wig wardrobe on this show. I swear the second female lead goes through two an episode. Unfortunately, though, they seem to be made from dryer lint or some other substance that bears little resemblance to human hair.

Episode 6. Did you know that the blood in Psycho’s shower scene was actually chocolate syrup? This episode is a perfect example why: fake blood looks fake. (Not that chocolate sauce would have worked here, what with this drama being in color. But ketchup wasn’t the right answer either.)

Episode 7. Yeo Kyeong is a great character: half earnest do-gooder, half sassy independent woman. But every single episode is turning into an exercise in her chickification, with the last five minutes requiring one of the male leads to rescue her from deadly peril.

Episode 9. It’s fun to watch the women in this show switch back and forth between Western clothes and hanboks. The head gisaeng seems to hang out at home in traditional clothes but wear Western dresses when she’s entertaining men. (There are also a lot of kimono in the background, as seems appropriate for a show about the Japan’s occupation of Korea.) This is such an interesting period history—for good or for bad, it’s Korea’s birth into the modern, Westernized world.

Episode 9. I’m pretty sure it’s bad form to put a blood-splattered blade into its scabbard. Just FYI.

Epsiode 13. No nookie until national independence? I hope my guess at this show’s time period is off, or someone’s likely to go to her gave a virgin. On the other hand, what a great way to motivate your reluctant boyfriend to be active in the struggle against Japan.

Episode 14. He was putting himself in serious danger to rush to your rescue (again), but you couldn’t even say “Behind you”? How to not be an insurgent, lesson 1.

Episode 15. That was the single most powerful standoff this side of City Hunter. And the results. The results!!!! ::insert hysterical gif here::

You might also like
Coffee Prince (duh), for its strong women

City Hunter, for its painfully conflicted love-hate relationship


  1. Ahh I didn't realized it had a connection to Coffee Prince. I was already thinking of watching this next week perhaps... guess I'll keep it on my itinerary. Hehe

    1. It's worth a watch, especially if you keep Coffee Prince in mind. They share more than similar characters--a few scenes are practically transplanted, too. I don't think the shows shared any thing other than their sources. The PD and production staff were different, yet they approached things in the same way.

  2. I saw the first two eps of this a long time ago and never got around to finishing it. Part of the reason was probably because Gaksital/Bridal Mask was airing at the time, and new shiny > old shiny.

    I find it interesting that from what you wrote, Capital Scandal and Bridal Mask both chose to go with a more-or-less straight up black-and-white Japanese-or-Korean palette of morality. I'm not surprised considering their history (I have Chinese relatives who despise Japan for what they did to Nanking, and Korea has had it even worse), but I remember being disappointed when Bridal Mask chose to go down the Japanese=evil Korean=good route instead of the more complex morality in the first few episodes. The "rather blase stance on the taking of human life" also turned up a lot in Bridal Mask, but it didn't bug me all that much because it was a dark and violent period of history. One side's freedom fighters is the other side's terrorists, after all.

    It seems like Capital Scandal did a much better job with its female characters though. God, Bridal Mask had one of the worst cases of chickification I've ever seen in a drama.

    1. I could probably have forgiven Capital Scandal for killing off so many people if only the show had bothered to give them some sort of motivation. Make the Japanese cackling baby murderers, and then do what you want with them. But it pretty much depicted the Japanese presence as an inconvenience, and only gave us four real Japanese characters--one who was sympathetic, one who was a jerk, and the other two acted as buffoons played for laughs. The show didn't take the violence of its characters seriously enough to even address the morality of what they were doing. It's one thing to kill people who are harming you, but it's another to kill utterly faceless guys in Japanese uniforms because of what they're wearing.

      At least Inglorius Basterds gave us reasons to hate its particular Nazis. Capital Scandal assumed we'd be on board for slaughter without development.

  3. All I can remember from watching this drama was Cha Song Joo (aka the most awesome female badass I've seen in a drama to date, woho!). Sadly I wasn't much of a fan of the other three, which yeah, it puts a bummer on the enjoyment if you only like 1/4 of the main characters. Albeit very much.

    Also, while watching I kept comparing it to Gaksital and eh, say what you want about that drama, the japanese characters still felt more three dimensional than the cardboard cutouts we got from Capital Scandal. Are you planing to watch Gaksital btw? It would be very interesting to compare the two, dontcha think? :)

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