Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 2nd Annual Go Dok Mi Memorial Wish List

Dear Drama Overlords,

Another year has passed, and once again I spent an absurd amount of time watching and writing about your mighty works. In this light, I feel entitled to make a few small requests this holiday season. So here’s my 2014 wish list, which should be considered a supplement to the 2013 wish list you essentially ignored. (Although I suppose that it’s possible the character of Young Do was created specifically to punish me for requesting that the second lead get the girl for a change?)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing Day Marathon: White Christmas

Although most Korean dramas are bite-sized compared to American television shows, they still tend to be too long for a true marathon—at more than 16 episodes, it’s actually a punishing experience to watch one from beginning to end in a few days. (Not that I haven’t done it.)

But 2011’s White Christmas is a different story: as part of KBS’s series of drama shorts, it’s only eight hours long. This well-reviewed miniseries is an atmospheric thriller detailing the horrible events that happen when a group of students stay at their demanding boarding school over winter break. Nowadays, White Christmas is especially notable for its casting. Among other familiar faces, it includes early career appearances from both Kim Woo Bin (my beloved Choi Young Do from Heirs) and Sung Joon (star of Shut Up: Flower Boy Band and the upcoming I Need Romance 3.)

As today is the first day of my own winter break that I actually have to myself without family or work responsibilities, I thought I’d use it for a true marathon. I’ll post updates and thoughts here as I go.

Note that the discussion of episodes 1 and 2 are fairly spoiler free, but from here on out I’m going to chart my theories about what’s going on. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, tread carefully!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My (carbon copy) Love from Another Star

I sometimes think originality is overrated.

It’s a pretty standard assumption that the first is always the best, and that everything following afterward is a pale imitation. We think originators are motivated by the pure and noble spirit of creativity, while imitators are motivated by a failure of imagination or—even worse—money. As someone who has watched Jaws, Orca, and Piranha, I can say without reservation that this is sometimes true.

The more I watch Korean drama, though, the more I see an alternate interpretation: things can also start off as rough and unpolished, and repetition can be the thing that smoothes out the sharp edges and actually makes them good.

Take the recent spate of supernatural dramas. One of the leaders of the pack was 2012’s Operation Proposal, which was barely watchable. Its time travel device was ridiculous, its plot wafer thin, and its storyline frustratingly repetitive. Again and again, the main characters did the same stupid things and got the same stupid results. Since that show aired, many others have played with time, and each has had its own failures and successes. But it wasn’t until early 2013 that Kdrama finally created a truly great show on the theme of time travel—Nine. And Nine was so good not because it was some magical, pathbreaking innovation; it was so good because it learned the lessons of the shows that had failed before it. The mind-numbing back-and-forth of Operation Proposal was suddenly exciting in Nine. The underused murder mystery of Rooftop Prince became the star of the show.The bizarre baby-in-a-jar time travel device of Dr. Jin turned into suitably mystical (and portable) sticks of Tibetan incense. The impact-free relocation of Faith’s heroine became a dangerous game that changed both past and future. And the logic fail ending of Queen In Hyun’s Man became a set of internal rules for time travel that were almost flawlessly obeyed, guiding Nine’s story instead of falling victim to it.

And now there’s My Love from Another Star. (Or You Who Came from the Stars. Whatever you call it, I’m sure you agree its title is ridiculous.) Its central premise may not be as easily categorized as some Korean dramas, but it draws so heavily on other shows that its script almost qualifies as an act of remixing.

This might sound like less than a good thing. But Korean dramas are the magpies of the entertainment world—they borrow and reiterate and reconfigure and end up with something even better than their intact raw materials were. Scenes used again and again develop their own emotional resonance, building a giant, interlocking web of references that encompass a thousand dramas that came before them. From the fade-to-white death scene to the Dramatic U-Turn (tm), Korean dramas are full of what Tumblr user This Won’t Be Big on Dignity recently called “visual tropes and metaphors; universally understood coded content.” That code was developed over years of repetition, and it serves Kdrama—and us—well.

For the sake of appreciation, here are some of the borrowings I’ve noticed in My Love from Another Star.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Some Tiny Notes

Although I usually don’t post reviews on Tuesdays, the Heirs series review below is the best I can do this week. My blissfully long winter break starts Friday, though, so I’ll have lots of time for dramatic things soon.

And one of those things will definitely be watching the new drama you’ve chosen for me: You Who Came from the Stars. I’m excited enough about it to be scoping out the earlier work of Gianna Jun, its female lead. In an industry where everyone tries so hard to look the same, I love that she’s kept the dainty little birthmark on her nose. It gives her a lot of much personality; I really hope it isn’t hidden with make-up in the drama, as it is in the image above. So far, I’ve seen her in both The Thieves and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both movies were good, and had one unexpected thing in common: they included a good deal of English dialogue, which she was great at.

From its light, capery beginning and huge cast, I expected The Thieves to be a Korean version of Ocean’s 11. This was true in some ways, but it was surprisingly heavy on the stakes and full of real violence. It was also grittier and much less light-hearted than the Ocean's franchise, spending a lot of time dealing with background relationships rather than just focusing on giddy, clockwork-perfect breaking and entering. An added bonus is that The Thieves gives a sneak preview of Jun’s chemistry with her love interest in You Who Came from the Stars—Kim Soo Hyun appears as a younger criminal with an incredibly cute crush on his noona.

I wasn’t as crazy about Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It was gorgeously produced and told an interesting story, but I hate that it deviated so wildly from its source material, Lisa See’s novel of the same name. The book focuses on a pair of nineteenth-century Chinese girls and their powerful friendship, painting an immediate and haunting picture of the way women lived in that era. They spent their lives unwanted guests—at home, they were just another mouth to feed until they married out for their family’s benefit. And when they did marry and move into their husband’s homes, they weren’t even considered part of the family until they’d borne a son. The movie hits most of the emotional high points of the book, but they’re treated more like a music video than a cohesive narrative. This is mostly because the filmmakers—for some inexplicable reason—decided to shoehorn a modern twist on the same story into the movie’s running time, meaning they didn’t have time to really develop either story. The acting was good, though, and it was fun to see the clothes and settings described in the book.

Other big drama plans for my break include finally getting around to the 2011 short White Christmas, and yet another Coffee Prince rewatch. (Auto-correct keeps changing that to “rematch,” which might also be appropriate.) (Why is it that I’m more excited about these plans than the ones that involve other people?)

I also finally decided to abandon Blogger’s list widget for the random thoughts I post while watching dramas. This widget was never well-suited for the purpose (or any other, as far as I can tell). It only allows you to see a few words at a time, so I was always having to scroll back and forth to proofread. I’ve relocated these snarky tidbits to Tumblr. I find that I post a lot more often at this new home because it’s so much easier to use. Hopefully these latter-day random thoughts are still fun to read. Maybe someday I’ll even start adding screen caps so you can see what I’m talking about, but they’re a real hassle to create when I normally watch dramas on a television, not a computer. (Unfortunately, there’s no useful Tumblr widget, so I can’t include those posts on this page. The best I could do would be an RSS feed that would show only the titles. And what’s the point of that?)

Drama Review: Heirs (2013)

Grade: B-

Light melodrama of the high school persuasion

What it’s about
Thanks to her mother’s position as a live-in maid, hardworking Cha Eun Sang is exposed to a world of privilege she never imaged. But when her mom’s employer gets her a spot at a posh high school intended for Korea’s one percent, Eun Sang quickly comes to realize that life with money isn’t always perfect. At Empire High, you’re either bullied or a bully. And when two of the most dangerous boys at school show an interest in Eun Sang, things really spiral out of control.

First impression
This underwhelming, overstuffed pilot episode is not without promise. It’s shaping up to be a twist on the Boys over Flowers–school of mean-boy storytelling, complete with a healthy dose of corporate intrigue and lots of forbidden young love—the rich boy and poor girl, the almost step-siblings, the celebrity offspring and the regular guy. As expected, Park Shin Hye is immediately compelling as the sad, old-before-her time Cha Eun Sung. Lee Min Ho is okay as the laid-back Kim Tan, but I’m not quite sold on him in the role yet. (Also, as predicted, he looks way too old to be in high school.) What I am sold on is that, in spite of his aloofness, he’s thoughtful and introspective and might just have Prince Charming tendencies.

Final verdict
If you’re willing to spend twenty hours with a show that never really develops a central plot or finds satisfying resolutions for most of its characters, you could do worse than Heirs. It’s an easy watch that’s filled with cute moments and the kind of snarky one liners that rarely make appearances in Korean dramas.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What next?

I’m a big fan of order and routine. I sometimes think this is why I like Korean drama so much—once you master the key elements, everything about them is as straightforward as the basic geometry proofs I learned in high school. From their inevitable plot twists to the hierarchical social order tying their characters together, Kdramas give me just the right mix of predictability and imagination.

My love of consistency definitely impacts how I watch dramas. During the first year of my obsession, I patiently waited for shows to finish airing before I started them. This allowed for marathoning at my own pace, and meant I never once suffered through a cliffhanger; the resolution was only as far away as the “Play” button. The next year of my obsession, I started watching one currently airing drama at a time. Much to my surprise, keeping up with a new series was a totally totally different viewing experience. I came to the show without baggage, forming my own opinions as the story revealed itself. This usually isn’t the case when I watch an older show. Even though I try to avoid spoilers, I’m still an avid reader of the dramaweb. This means I’m always aware of other people’s opinions: Koala hated most of Mi Rae’s Choice, and practically everyone I follow on tumblr is in love with Answer Me, 1994. I haven’t seen a minute of either of these shows, but I’ll never be able to escape this knowledge—when I finally start watching them, I’ll be prejudiced against one and in favor of the other.

Keeping up with a new show from episode one, you come to understand it on your own terms. The existence of an unwritten future can make even a mediocre drama feel immediate and compelling. You’re not a passive watcher checking off episode after episode on your Mydramalist profile; you’re an active participant who’s invited to devote brain cells to conjecture and theorizing. And best of all is live-watching a show that has been adopted as a Tumblr favorite—everywhere you look are short, pithy commentaries and glorious gifsets of all your favorite moments.

So far I’ve live-watched seven dramas: Big, To the Beautiful You, Nice Guy, I Miss You, Flower Boy Next Door, Master’s Sun, and Heirs. They’ve been a pretty mixed bag—some were great, some were good, and some were downright bad. (I’m looking at you, Big.) But they all benefitted from a kind of engagement it’s hard to experience with an older drama.

For year three of my obsession with Korean drama, I’m thinking of being a crazy rebel and watching two currently airing dramas. I’m not sure how this will change my experience of the shows—will it mean that I like them both more? Or will watching two ongoing dramas divide my limited time and attention, making it impossible to appreciate each one as much as it deserves?

And here’s another question: Which two dramas should I watch?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drama Review: Bridal Mask (2012)

Grade: B-

Action-flavored fusion sageuk

What it’s about
The struggles and triumphs of a masked vigilante who stands up for the Korean people during Japan’s occupation of Korea in early twentieth century.

First impression
As voted by readers of my blog, I’m giving another shot to this 2012 drama about a masked freedom fighter during Japan’s occupation of Korea. The first time I started watching it, I sat through all of ten minutes before moving on. I made a snap judgement back then: Between a cartoonily impossible opening sequence and the impromptu dance party that followed it, I was sure Gaksital wasn’t for me. But this time I’m going to stick with it. I’m in the mood for a show that has more on its mind than goofy comedy and the same old love triangle angst. Will Bridal Mask give me what I want? Only time will tell.

Final verdict
Unpopular opinion alert: I thought this much-loved drama was middling at best. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Showtime: Korean movies

In spite of my obsession with Kdrama, I’ve never been very interested in Korean movies. For me, the most satisfying storytelling is done on a grand scale. I’d rather read a fat novel than a collection of short stories, and I’d rather watch a series than a movie.

The sixteen-episode running-time of most older Korean shows is perfect for my taste: there’s plenty of room for character development and expansive plotting, but the limited screen time still allows for the possibility of a satisfying, novelistic ending. But these short and sweet dramas are becoming increasingly rare as trends turn toward series that last for twenty episodes and beyond. To me, most of these super-sized shows just feel too long—they’re War and Peace when I want Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. No matter how good the show is, watching anything that lasts more than about twenty episodes starts to feel more like a pain than a pleasure.

This inspired me to give Korean movies a try. It’s a refreshing change to watch something I can finish in one sitting, to experience the beginning, middle, and end of a single overarching narrative in not much more time than it takes to watch a single episode of a drama.