Thursday, October 31, 2013

Drama Review: Master’s Sun (2013)

Grade: A-

Supernatural rom-com

What it’s about
After she begins seeing ghosts, Tae Gong Shil’s promising future self-destructs. She can’t hold down a job, have regular friendships, or even get a good night’s sleep, because the ghosts find her wherever she goes. But then she meets Joo Joong Won, the flamboyant president of one of Seoul’s ritziest shopping malls, who can make her spectral companions disappear with a single touch. Stealing skinship at every opportunity, Tae Gong Shil starts to feel in control of her life for the first time since her inexplicable powers appeared. Desperate to stay by Joong Won’s side, she swears to solve a mystery that has haunted him for more than a decade.

First impression
In spite of my enormous backlog of half-watched dramas, I finally broke down and decided to start this currently airing show written by the Hong sisters. I’ve been holding off because it’s already being covered to death on the dramaweb, but I’m being tortured by fabulous Tumblr gif sets of its ghosts every time I visit my dashboard. Two of my greatest loves are horror movies and romantic comedies, so it seems that Master’s Sun and I were made for each other. But after last summer’s debacle with the Hong sisters’ drama Big, I’m a little wary of this show being another flameout. Master’s Sun is starting off as a fun Kdrama take on the American movie Ghost—but then again, Big started off as a fun take on the American movie Big. And look where that got us.

Final verdict
I am incredibly happy to report that Master’s Sun is no Big.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Casting Call: Kim Tan

Here’s my dirty confession of the week: I’m quite enjoying Heirs. Now that the drama has wrapped up its (literally as well as figuratively) rocky opening sequence in California and returned to Seoul, everything is starting to come together. With all its characters in one place, we’re finally able to enjoy the thermonuclear reaction of their worlds colliding—one full of luxury goods and bullying, the other full of hard work and being bullied. It’s a Boys over Flowers-style love story, if Boys over Flowers had been dropped on its head less often as a baby.

The past few episodes have even put to rest my biggest concern about watching another drama written by Kim Eun Sook, screenwriter of Secret Garden and A Gentleman’s Dignity. Those shows were ruined for me by their male leads, who were both physically aggressive and mean to the women they were supposed to be in love with. So of course I was apprehensive about watching Heirs. Would Kim Tan, its male lead, be prone to shaming his female lead for her subpar purses or using his superior strength to force her into skinship?

I’m happy to report that—so far, at least—Heirs is much better than I imagined. Kim Tan is a pretty nice guy. He’s been a little creepy and done some nonthreatening stalking of Eun Sang, his love interest, but he’s mostly on her side. He hasn’t called her stupid or made unwelcome sexual advances. He’s driven her places, fed her, and offered her guidance about how she can survive at their snooty high school. In response, Eun Sang isn’t scared of him in the way Kim Eun Sook’s other recent female leads have been scared of their male counterparts. She’s just frustrated and annoyed, and a tiny little bit intrigued.

But I still don’t like Kim Tan much. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Size matters

When I first discovered the existence of Korean dramas, the most surprising thing about them was probably their length. I had always assumed that there was only one way to make a TV show: build a premise for which you can create an infinite number of story lines, and then prepare to tell those stories in hundreds of episodes that will air over the course of years. This makes for lots of programs about doctors trying to cure an ailment of the week, lawyers bringing a never-ending stream of criminals to trial, and families with a plethora of miniature problems that can be solved in thirty minutes or less. Nobody grows or changes or learns, because the whole point is to preserve the central premise in amber, forever unchanged and incorruptible.

This is one of the reasons why Korea’s miniseries were such a revelation. In the space of sixteen episodes, they create worlds, establish characters and conflicts within those worlds, and then guide their stories to satisfying conclusions. That’s my kind of storytelling—novelistic and self-contained.

It took me a while to realize, though, that there’s more to scripted drama in Korea. The short miniseries I love (which themselves are creeping ever upward from the 16-episode standard of yore) are cousins to both the weekend home drama, typically running in the 50 episode range, and the weekend sageuk, sometimes lasting for more than a hundred episodes. And there are other shows that hit triple digits—both daily dramas and sitcoms sometimes run for more than 170 episodes, airing for around a half hour on every weekday.

The online Kdrama fandom tends to focus on miniseries, with the exception of the occasional youth-oriented sitcom like High Kick. Add this lack of coverage to the fact that many of the longer series aren’t available subbed in English, and it becomes easy to forget they even exist.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Guide for Kdrama Characters in America

Congratulations on your decision to visit the United States of America! Whether you’re here to work, attend school, or just loaf around while exiled from Korea, we think you’ll find our country to be full of interesting people and amazing experiences. But best of all, when you finally return home you will be forever seen as an exceptional individual, blessed with the sparkly glamor of having spent time in one of the world’s few remaining cultural, financial, and political superpowers.

America is a large country. Your homeland—inclusive of North Korea—is approximately as large as Minnesota, one of our mid-sized states. We’ve got 49 more just like it (plus assorted territories around the globe). As you can imagine, life and traditions in the different areas of this enormous country can be extremely varied. But in general, this list of helpful tips should guide you safely through your travels.

• First and most important, don’t panic. However scary America may seem as a nation of gun-toting drug fiends who wear shoes inside, it is quite common for tourists to survive their visits here. As someone smart enough to consult this list, the odds are likely in your favor.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Drama Review: Love Rain (2012)

Grade: B

Romantic melodramas

What it’s about
In the 1970s, a young couple is torn apart by fate. Forty years later, their children meet and fall in love, only to find their relationship complicated by their parents’ shared history. (Not to mention a scheming model, a nasty mother in law, and a ridiculous amount of miscommunication and laughably misguided self-sacrifice.)

First impression
I’ve saved this drama for a rainy day (har har), and in the wake of Cruel City I’m in the mood for a melodramatic romance that’s dripping cheese. Love Rain is sure to deliver on this front: it reunites the creative team behind the Endless Love series of dramas, which includes the hugely successful Winter Sonata, Autumn in My Heart, Summer Scent, and my beloved Spring Waltz. Love Rain’s pedigree is obvious from the very first scene—it’s slow and gentle and full of gorgeous scenery. I don’t find either of the leads very appealing, though, and I have a love-hate relationship with the works of the show’s creators: they can be swoonily romantic and frustratingly stupid, often at the very same time. Looks like I’m in for more of the same here.

Final verdict
Usually I like reviewing dramas right after I finish watching them, when things are fresh in my mind. In this case, though, I’m not so sure that’s the right approach—it’s hard to remember how much I enjoyed the early episodes when the show’s last quarter was such a mess. A solid, well-thought out finale that brought together the drama’s many characters and narrative threads would have left me in the mood to talk about the lead couple’s great chemistry, the cast of compelling supporting players, and the charm of this drama’s multigenerational love story. But now all I can think about is how all those good things were wasted by a rushed, unsatisfactory finale.

(Spoilers ahoy!)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nonessential words Korean drama has taught me

If life were more like television, I would speak perfect Korean by now. Characters are always coming to Earth and/or America and picking up English from a couple of episodes of Wheel of Fortune or reruns of The Cosby Show. (But then again, if life and television were more similar I would also be embroiled in a love triangle with a supportive nice guy and a jerk chaebol who might be my brother. Alas, that’s not the case, either.)

According to my Drama Fever profile, I’ve watched 1,654 hours of Kdrama over the past three years. (Whatever you do, don’t do the math—it’s scary.) And yet, the level of my Korean vocabulary is still hovering between what you would expect from an elephant and golden retriever.

It’s just as well that I’ll probably never actually go to Korea. While I have learned some Korean words that would be helpful from a tourist’s perspective—eotteoke and choogoolae come to mind—most of my vocabulary is probably not that valuable. Here’s a brief catalog of the most random Korean words I know.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Drama Review: Cruel City (2013)

Grade: A

Crime thriller

What it’s about
Fate forces a young woman into undercover police work, leading her to spy on Seoul’s up-and-coming drug kingpin—a suit-wearing uber-gangster known only as the Doctor’s Son. She discovers a dark, dangerous world where nothing is what it seems.

First impression
After a long string of romantic comedies, I decided I was in the mood for something with teeth. I think I’ve chosen wisely—Cruel City is crisp, cinematic, and brutally effective as its follows cops and gangsters on their bloody travels through Seoul. Like many shows on Korea’s cable channels, it pushes far, far beyond what would be acceptable on a mainstream network: it’s graphic and unvarnished in its depiction of violence, and also in its exploration of moral ambiguity. Its characters aren’t necessarily nice—or even on the right side of the law. I do think, however, that jTBC might have been influenced too heavily by this spring’s (revolutionary) flop The End of the World. Cruel City is completely different from other Kdramas, it’s also a little bit the same—there are diarrhea jokes and plucky young women and hammy drug lords in showy outfits.

Final verdict
Stylish, thrilling, and filled with a cast of indelible characters, Cruel City is the most compulsively watchable drama I’ve come across in a long time. It may not be my usual kind of show, but whenever I sat down to watch a few minutes of it, I would stand up dazed and sweaty-palmed two hours later, trying to figure out how to shirk my real-world responsibilities in favor of another episode.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Self-help, Kdrama style

If watching Korean drama has taught me anything, it’s that originality is overrated. Last year’s gaggle of time travel dramas are evidence of one of life’s great hidden truths: What really counts isn’t how novel an idea is—it’s how well it’s executed.

Which is why this week’s post is about Kdrama life lessons. Yes, the topic is cheesy and trite. And yes, I’m not the first (or the hundredth) person to blog about it. But the combination of shows I’ve been watching lately keep bringing me back to the same point: Asian dramas have some good advice about how to live.

Cruel City—The world is a mirror; it will treat you as you treat it. All the characters in this show have ample reason to be pissed off at life. They’ve been abused and abandoned, and nothing has ever been easy or safe for them. The Doctor’s Son is the most wronged of them all: even when he tries to do the right thing, the people he trusts most let him down. But he still tries to protect the people he loves by reminding them of this old truism, which we’ve been telling each other in one form or another for thousands of years. The world gives us what we give it. If we’re nasty and vicious, people will be nasty and vicious to us. But if we’re kind, they’ll probably be kind back.