Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Checking in

Possible reasons why I don’t have a real post this week:

1. Korean law enforcement raided my home after realizing that I’ve made snide comments about assorted Korean actors and also used questionable methods to acquire subtitled dramas for viewing. I am now awaiting trial in a Seoul-area detention facility. Prison kimchi is surprisingly tasty, but internet access is hard to come by.

2. A bevy of attempts at recording an audio post on my iPad proved fruitless. In more than twenty tries, I never once made it past the one-minute mark without saying something so incredibly stupid that I was compelled to start over from scratch. Javabeans and Girl Friday may make it sound easy to talk about Kdrama, but I can assure you it’s not.

3. The fifteen-minute memory upgrade the computer shop promised me has taken six days and counting, leaving me without easy access to a computer.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the above scenarios are true.

Next week I swear I’ll be back on a regular posting schedule, but for now here are a few things I’ve been thinking about lately.

Monstar. I’m still enjoying this drama a lot, but it’s rather less wonderful than I once hoped it would be. The characters and music are great. I love the fantasy sequences. (Last week’s personal troubadours were particularly amusing.) What I don’t like is the listless plotting—the cast has spent the past few episodes pinballing around each other with little real connection or forward momentum. All the fantastic toys in the world are useless if you don’t know what to do with them. Monstar could have used more one-off music challenges, like Dream High, and less makjangy, multi-generational love triangle action.

American Horror Story. I just finished watching season 2 of this FX series. Its violent, sex-crazed subject matter couldn’t be more different from your typical Korean drama, but the show itself actually uses a surprising number of Kdrama tricks: There are nose bleeds of doom, flashbacks to scenes that took place all of two minutes ago, and limitless reappropriation of long-standing clichés. Its short, stand-alone seasons are also reminiscent of Asian dramas—each tells a story that is completed in a twelve- or thirteen-episode running time. If only more US television was like this, maybe I wouldn't have defected to Korea. (More Evan Peters cosplaying broken, beautiful Kurt Cobain wouldn't hurt, either.)

Meteor Garden. As expected, watching the Taiwanese version of Hana Yori Dango/Boys over Flowers is a real treat. It’s goofy and over the top and full of good-looking boys, some of whom even appear to be hot kissers. Its narrative trajectory is almost exactly the same as Korea’s Boys over Flowers, although there are some interesting differences. BoF did away with the female lead’s guy friend in favor of fleshing out her work buddy, which seems like a good decision to me. It may be different from the source material, but I like the tidier Korean take on things (and the swoony romance it developed into). I also miss the brother that both HYD and BoF gave the female lead. It made for some sweet, humanizing scenes showing the male lead getting to try out normal family life. The other members of F4 and the friendship they share isn’t as developed in MG as the other adaptations, which is a pity. But for the first time I can say that I ship the lead couple—Ji Hoo and Rui were just too tempting in the other versions, and the other male leads didn’t capture the petulant little-boy charm of Dao Ming Si. Now if only he wasn’t such a jerk to Shan Cai, I could really be into this pairing.

Welcome to drama city, population 1.  I’ve been having trouble finishing shows lately, which means the Random Thoughts sidebar is getting out of control. I watched the first few episodes of Dating Acency: Cyrano when they first aired, but was seduced away by all the good buzz Monstar was getting. Then came Alone in Love, which is well made but has some lead-likability problems for me. The siren call of Meteor Garden lured me away from that one, and I’m about ready to explode with desire for I Can Hear Your Voice, which is definitely next on my list.  Why are you full of such wonders, Kdrama? I just want to quit life and watch you forever.

Next week, things will be back to normal around here. (Really.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Return of Playing Favorites

It’s hard for me to believe, but as of August my obsession with Korean drama will be two years old. I went looking for something to watch during the summer dead zone between American television seasons, but I came away with a whole new continent worth of dramas, culture, and history. That’s pretty impressive considering that my gateway drug was Boys over Flowers, a show so ridiculous that my attempts to recapture the magic of first love by rewatching it always fail about halfway through the first episode.

Since the fateful day we first met, I’ve watched an insane number of Asian dramas—short and long, new and old, funny and serious. Many of them have been mediocre and some have been outright bad, but I’ve also found shows that were so wonderful they were actually painful to watch.

As my list of favorite dramas was posted last July, it seems time for an update. Here are the shows I’ve loved watching most this year.

1. Answer Me 1997 (2012)
After you’ve watched a few (dozen) Korean romantic comedies, they can start to feel repetitive: they all star the same characters in the same relationships reenacting the same Drama Overlord-approved clichés—a piggyback ride by episode 4, a chaste, closed-mouth kiss by episode 14. But Answer Me 1997 is something altogether different, and never feels canned or recycled. It weaves together genuine and refreshingly original stories about friendship, family, love, celebrity, and growing up, all tinged with a rosy nostalgic glow. Based on its premise, you’d probably never guess how special this drama really is: Starting in the titular year, it traces the friendships and romances of a group of high schoolers from Busan as they grow into adulthood. But Answer Me 1997’s greatest charm is its execution. It’s cleverly written, emphatically directed, and beautifully acted. Even its voice is fresh and compelling, thanks to the dual timelines it explores. Part of each episode is a sly mystery that takes place as its characters attend their high school reunion in 2012, and the rest is dedicated to their school years in the 1990s. We’re blessed with the opportunity to join in on the time they spend following Korean boybands, fighting with their parents, crushing on people they probably shouldn’t have been crushing on, and being best friends. Each of its characters is distinct and utterly individual: from plucky, pushy fangirl Shi Won to Joon Hee with his secret love, you won’t soon forget any of them.

More about Answer Me 1997

Schedule update

After more than a year of updating twice a week, I’ve decided to cut back and post on Tuesdays only. (But I will continue to add Random Thoughts whenever something strikes me. Shutting up isn’t my specialty, after all.)

There are lots of really wonderful bloggers who manage to make thoughtful, well-written posts every day, but I don’t know how they do it—between watching dramas and writing about them, I barely have time for personal hygiene. My obsession with Kdrama is by no means flagging, and I can’t imagine giving up this blog anytime soon. I just need a break.

When I started blogging here I never imagined that anyone would actually visit. But you do, which makes maintaining Outside Seoul incredibly rewarding. So thanks for sharing your time (and obsession) with me!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Drama Review: Queen of Reversals (2010)

Grade: A-

Workplace rom-com

What it’s about
Hwang Tae Hee—a successful, take-no-prisoners businesswoman—ignores her mentor’s advice and gets married. But when that mentor turns against Tae Hee and decides to ruin her life, her hard-won happy ending disappears. With her job and marriage crumbling around her, Tae Hee meets an anchorless chaebol son who might feel even more lost and alone than she does.

First impression
I wan’t sure what to watch next, but I’m glad I picked this refreshing, breezy show. It has been a long time since I’ve watched a light romance with a strong workplace storyline, and this one is known for making Kdrama history: It presents a rare example of a second male lead who actually gets the girl in the end. I can already see why—the original lead seems smarmy and money-grubbing, not worthy of the fabulously capable, can-do Hwang Tae Hee.

Final verdict
Queen of Reversals feels completely different from the more recent Kdramas I’ve been watching lately, even though it’s only three years old. It’s blissfully traditional, with no time travel, no body swaps, and no heavy melodrama. It instead finds the perfect balance between compelling workplace challenges and romantic sparring. It’s also funny, with lots of character-based humor and delightfully absurd (but utterly plausible) slice-of-life moments.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Rose by the Same Name

One of the things I learned early on in my obsession with Korean drama is that I can’t take anything for granted. Everything about the shows I watch—from their language to their characters to the pop-cultural seas that spawned them—is almost totally different from what I’m used.

Take The Secret Garden. I watched this 2011 Korean drama early on in my relationship with Kdrama, assuming it was related to the beloved children’s book written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This belief was one of the reasons I hated the series—the book The Secret Garden was my constant childhood companion, and I’ve probably seen its lovely 1993 movie adaptation at least a hundred times. (Watching it is like taking a long, leisurely vacation without having to leave the couch.)

But the only thing the Korean series and its Western counterparts share is the occasional appearance of a plant or two. Maybe the book’s title was something the drama’s writers were aware of, but maybe not. There’s also a Korean precedent for the name: a garden in Changdeok Palace has been called Biwon—generally translated as Secret Garden—since the late nineteenth century. My Secret Garden actually came later: it wasn’t even published until 1911. So if I automatically believe that the drama took its name from the book, should I also believe that the book took its name from the Korean place?

There’s also the issue of translating titles, which is a notoriously difficult task and more of an art than a science. Words and ideas don’t always have exact correspondences from language to language, so there will always be a degree of interpretation involved in any translation. (This is why there are so many fabulous internet lists of word English is sadly lacking. Here’s one from the magazine Mental Floss.) As I know fewer Korean words than some elephants, I’m in no position to assess the true meaning of a drama’s title.

On the other hand, it can be pretty obvious that some Korean shows really do take their names from Western predecessors. Last summer’s boy/man body-swap drama Big is a perfect example: it borrowed the title and general theme of a 1988 Tom Hanks movie. (In contrast, titles rarely travel from Korea to the West. The only one I can think of is the Attack the Block, a movie released in the UK in 2011 that’s purportedly a homage to Korea’s 1999 Attack the Gas Station. I haven’t seen the later, but the former is a wonderful blend of black comedy, horror, and social commentary.)

As I can’t get enough of writing about things I don’t understand, here’s a quick rundown of some Korean shows that share similar titles with a Western doppelgänger.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Drama Drop: Summer’s Desire (2010)

I called this show quits after episode 8 (but then skipped forward to watch the finale while writing this. I think I made the right decision—unlike the heroine).

Taiwanese romance

What it’s about
An obsessive love triangle starring three orphans who meet as children and all grow up to be what the show calls “celebrities.” (As far as I can tell, all this requires is occasionally making time in their busy love-triangle schedule for dance practice.)

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Thanks, but no thanks

(Note that handsome chaebol heirs, like this one from Protect the Boss, will always be a “yes, please.”)

Last week I wrote about how much we Americans have to learn from the world around us, if only we pay attention to it. I’ve also been thinking about the flip side—that some beliefs and ideals are so specific to a time or place that they just don’t relate to the experience of living elsewhere.

Here are some drama standbys that don’t exist in the West, possibly for good reason.

Curing indigestion with a needle. Whenever someone in dramaland has an upset stomach, they ask a friend to prick their thumb with a needle. Maybe it really works—there’s always the placebo effect, or maybe an open wound on your thumb would distract you from the pain in your stomach. Heck, maybe the invisible energy of chi is somehow involved. I have no idea, but I do know that Alka Seltzer works like a charm and has been sufficient for Americans for quite some time now.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

A short public service announcement

As has been widely noted, Drama Crazy is no more. In honor of this tragic occasion, I’ve updated the section of streaming sites in my list of drama-related links.

It’s also worth mentioning that this shutdown doesn’t seem to be the result of legal problems, unlike the shuttering of other streaming sites. (I’ve posted about several of these here: Copyright and Other Dilemmas and When Drama Fever Strikes. Also worth reading is Beavergate, Mr. X’s insightful article on the topic.) Based on their goodbye message, it seems that the folks at Drama Crazy just got sick of running the site. It must have been a huge job, and updates there had been becoming increasingly rare over the past few months.

Thank you for all the good times, Drama Crazy. You’ll be missed.

Drama Review: Nine (2013)

Grade: A

Mind-bending time travel

What it’s about
After the death of his troubled brother, Sun Woo decides to make the person who destroyed his family pay. But his quest for vengeance is complicated by the nine magical incense sticks his brother died trying to find—each one offers a chance to travel twenty years back in time. Sun Woo eventually gives in to the temptation to use them in an attempt to avert his family’s tragedy in the first place. As anyone who’s ever seen a drama or movie about time traveling can predict, all hell immediately breaks loose.

First impression
I can just hear the pitch for this show now: the nostalgic charm of Answer Me, 1997 meets the mind-bending time travel of...well...every other show on Korean television in 2012. Nine has excellent an pedigree, at least—it was made by the creative team behind last year’s wonderful Queen In-hyun’s Man. Like QIHM, Nine’s first few episodes suffer from overwrought editing that feels desperate to make an impression. But as of episode 2, the series has evolved into an intriguing, fast-paced mystery.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The world out there

“You didn’t sort your trash, you slattern!”

One of the weird side effects of my obsession with Korean drama is that I know a lot more about the world than I used to. This gives me a different perspective from a lot of Americans—I realize that our way of doing things isn’t the only possible way.

Take the big news from New York City: America’s most densely populated urban area is now encouraging the composting of food waste. This will save the city money in the short term by reducing the amount of trash that goes into landfills, and in the long term will create environmentally friendly fertilizer that might even be a source of income someday. Predictably, people aren’t crazy about the idea: compost is stinky, New York is already teeming with rats, and recycling actually requires some small degree of effort.

But if you’ve seen the 2004 drama Sweet Eighteen, you know that New York City isn’t the first place to recycle metropolitan food waste. Korea has been experimenting with it since the early 1990s, and Sweet Eighteen gives a funny glimpse into a reality of everyday life in cities around the world—the great rubbish battle. The drama’s flighty young heroine spends a lot of time avoiding her apartment block’s ajumma trash police, who constantly try to make her follow food disposal rules. Failing at that, they end up re-sorting her garbage themselves—the only alternative to paying government fines for improperly prepared trash.

In Korea, food waste becomes fertilizer, biogas, or even pig feed. People buy special trash bags and sort their waste themselves, or suffer any number of unpleasant consequences. (The thought of the neighborhood gossips going through my trash would be more than enough motivation to get me to recycle food waste, that’s for sure.)  

In press coverage of New York’s new program, other American cities that already recycle food waste are mentioned. But nobody ever notes what we drama watchers realize: it’s a worldwide phenomenon with a long history.

And this isn’t the only instance of Kdramas exposing me to ways of thinking and living that are unfamiliar to most Americans. Here a few things that are just different in Korea.