Thursday, August 29, 2013

Drama Review: Can We Get Married (2012)

Grade: B+

Family drama

What it’s about
Can We Get Married explores the stormy romantic and family relationships of six women of different ages, including a brash middle-class widow and her two daughters. Its story charts their interconnected lives through breakups and reunions, weddings and divorces, late-arriving love and contented parenthood.

First impression
This stylish and cinematic opener suggests a more sophisticated take on life and loves than most rom-coms. (Now if only the characters would speak a little more slowly....) I’m still fairly apprehensive about this show, however. I’ve read wildly varied reviews about it, many of which weren’t positive. Other bloggers have reported hating all the characters and finding the plot draggy. But I’ve also heard that it’s realistic and more nuanced and well made than the typical Kdrama romance. All I know is that I better like it, because I’ve sworn to stop being so wishy-washy and giving up on dramas midway through their runs.

Final verdict
Can We Get Married is a realistic, quietly funny and subtly feminist take on modern love.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kdrama Makeovers: A Field Guide

Korean dramas hold sacred the magical powers of the makeover. In their world, fake eyelashes and a name-brand outfit are all it takes for an ugly duckling to be reborn as a swan. And these transformations are more than just skin deep—to Kdrama characters, they represent both new beginnings and opportunities to be seen in a different way by the world around them.

Here is a brief taxonomy of the principal makeover species that have been spotted in the Kdrama wild.

The Fairy Godfather
makeoverus oppaknowsbestus

As seen in: Personal Taste and Boys over Flowers

Natural habitat: Tony salons and upscale department stores

Distinguishing characteristics: Everyday guys who just happen to have a crack team of hairstylists, cosmetologists, and fashion consultants on staff; girls who mistakenly think there may be things in life that could be more important than looking good; Lee Min Ho

A single human body isn’t a canvas large enough to express the glorious and refined sense of style prized by Korea’s enormous population of flawlessly groomed flower boys. Having attained bodily perfection themselves, these extreme metrosexuals have been seen to develop symbiotic relationships with girls who have bad fashion sense. The flower boys step in and—with a cheery exclamation of “Project!”—remake their less chic companions into the ideal woman. (And then fall in love with them.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rec List: BFF Couples

Last week’s contrasting posts—one about the problem of consent in Asian dramas, the other about the coziest lead pairing of 2013 thus far—got me thinking about my favorite kind of Kdrama couple: the best friends.

Some dramas revolve around lovers who have exactly one thing in common: mutual attraction. Take Boys over Flowers. What do Jan Di and Jun Pyo talk about when they’re by themselves? Not much, beyond whatever obstacle is currently keeping them apart. Their union is based solely on a whim that’s heightened by the forbidden-fruit thrill of his mother’s objections to their relationship. The hardest work of their romance—building something lasting and real that can weather the difficulties of life—is still ahead of them.

But best friend couples, in life and in drama, already share a meaningful connection; they start out spending time together because they like and respect each other. When they fall in love, it’s with another human being, not just a fantasy of what someone would be like as a mate. And being best friends allows them to step outside the traditional roles that define the interactions between so many Kdrama lovers. BFF guys are hardly ever physically aggressive with BFF girls, and they don’t force kisses on them. In turn, BFF girls aren’t modest or retiring; they are simply themselves.

Here’s a brief catalog of the BFF couples I’ve enjoyed most.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Drama Review: I Hear Your Voice (2013)

Grade: A-

Courtroom romance

What it’s about
As a young boy, Park Soo Ha watches the murder of his father and is only saved from the same fate by Jang Hye Sung, a reluctant hero in the form of an uncertain teenaged girl. When she stands up for him in court against her better judgment, Soo Ha vows to spend the rest of his life protecting her. The two meet again ten years later, after she has become a public defender and he has started his senior year in high school. They work together to solve cases and bring his father’s killer to justice. (And did I mention Park Soo Ha can hear people’s thoughts?)

First impression
This breezy and bright drama finds a perfect middle ground between melodramatic romance and light comedy. Although not without failings, the first few episodes are enjoyable and set the stage for an epic lead couple (or OTP, in Internet parlance).

Final verdict
Despite being about two episodes too long and a little shaky in the logic department, I Can Hear Your Voice is a charming distraction with a cast of likeable characters and an impossibly compelling central romance. It gives viewers a mouthwatering taste of many of Kdrama’s biggest tropes—noona romance, cohabitation farce, revenge quest, supernatural drama, and birth secret mystery.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hands Off: Consent and the Asian Drama Male

When I first started watching Korean drama, I spent a lot of time being preoccupied by things I don’t even notice nowadays. I would zone out for entire scenes because I was so transfixed by someone’s expert use of chopsticks, or so stunned by just how much makeup the male lead was wearing. But after two years of being the world’s most obsessed fan of Kdrama, this sort of stuff is second nature to me.

A comment on my recent review of Queen of Reversals made me realize that I’ve also become blind to something else: sexual violence. The commenter, Vivi, asked about the first kiss shared by that show’s leads. “That moment was really problematic for me,” she said. And I didn’t even remember what she was talking about, because you can only see something like this so many times before developing defense mechanisms to tune it out.

The kiss in question occurred at the very end of episode 20, with its aftermath playing out at the beginning of episode 21. In this scene, the male lead is shown as sad, upset, and a little desperate. He has just met his birth mother for the first time and discovered that she had borne and raised other children after abandoning him. It’s a snowy midwinter night and he sits on a bench surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. It’s the kind of sublimely romantic setting Kdramas are so fond of—colored lights sparkle, a scattering of snowflakes falls, and a moody rendition of “The First Noel” plays in the background.

(Spoilers and triggers ahead.)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who stopped by for the chat! It was fun to “meet” you and for once talk about Kdramas without being the most knowledgable person in the conversation. I will definitely try to organize another one in the future, perhaps for a live watch. 

You are cordially invited to a Kdrama chat!

Where: Amanda’s place

When: 2 pm EST on Saturday, August 10

Attire: Casual (This is a text-only chat)

Why: Because we just don’t think about Korean drama enough

Drama review: Meteor Garden (2001)

Grade: B+

Category: Youthful love story/Taiwanese

What it’s about
If you’re visiting this website, you almost certainly know already. Along with its international cousins Boys over Flowers and Hana Yori Dango, Meteor Garden is the most essential of drama romances. The first of four live-action series to be based on an original Japanese manga, Meteor Garden tells the story of an everyday college girl who catches the eye of her richest, meanest classmate. When she stands up to him, he decides to bully her out of school, only to fall madly (and rather inexplicably) in love with her unrelenting stubbornness and brave personality. They overcome countless obstacles on their quest to be together, including a number of other love interests and his nasty, controlling mother.

First impression
Oh, how I love you in all your guises, Hana Yori Dango. You are the queen of Cinderella stories and the ultimate comfort-food viewing. Your Japanese and Korean incarnations introduced me to new cultures—they were the first dramas I watched from each of their respective nations. This makes it strange to come to Meteor Garden with some knowledge of Taiwanese television—I’ve already seen all three of the leads in other shows, and have a good idea what to expect from both this drama’s story and its execution. Tdramas always seem to be more romantic than Jdramas and sexier than Kdramas, so I’m pretty certain that love is in the cards for the two of us.

Final verdict
Meteor Garden has all the shortcomings you’d expect from a drama of this vintage—it looks, feels, and sounds dated and its production values are bargain basement. But I’m still a sucker for its swoony, starry-eyed love story, and this might just be my favorite of its incarnations.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Furrowed Brow


A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog ran a short piece about Chinese viewers of Korean dramas. It caused something of a furor on the dramaweb, and no wonder. Even from the headline, you knew trouble was ahead: “South Korean Soap Operas: Just Lowbrow Fun?”

When someone is talking about scripted Asian television, they generally use one of two names: drama or soap opera. To speakers of American English, drama is a neutral word that describes a show’s format without judging its content. Soap opera, in contrast, is a loaded term. It tells you not only that the program is a scripted series, but also that it focuses on the domestic realm and is characterized by sensational storytelling. The phrase arises from the early days of the radio, when companies—often manufacturers of soap—funded programming geared toward housewives who would be listening on weekday afternoons. In America, soap opera is still shorthand for a dying breed of schlocky daytime series (although it occasionally pops up in reference to “prime-time soaps” like Dallas and The OC).

The real distinction between these two names is their assumed audience: Anyone can watch a drama. But it’s women who watch soap operas. Their scripts focus on things that are automatically gendered female: relationships and family and home life. They don’t necessary have complicated, self-consciously clever plots or deal with lots of thrilling action. Instead, emotions and the doings of the human heart are their canvas. And that’s exactly what’s undervalued by the sort of people who scoff at Korean television as being simplistic.