Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Changing times

Answer Me 1997: Hey, look! it’s the good old days.

As of this month, I’ve been watching Korean drama for three years. I was among the first wave of Americans that Netflix streaming exposed to kdrama, and a few months later I was part of a group of English-language drama blogs that were all established at about the same time. Although it’s not that long in the grand scheme of things, it feels like the dramaweb has changed a lot since 2011.

When I first started watching, the go-to sites were Drama Crazy and My Soju, both of which have long since disappeared. They were never quite legal, but their offerings were incredibly encyclopedic—they made it easy to watch older, less popular shows that can be difficult to find today. Of course, you had to wade through never-ending pop-ups and watch slews of incredibly annoying commercials, but that always seemed like a small price to pay.

Legitimate sources of streaming drama have become increasingly available since 2011, although they often lead back to the same source: Dramafever, which struck up deals with both Hulu and Netflix to air programming it had subbed. Viki had been around for several years by the time I found it, but its limited availability in app format made it easier to overlook than the ever-present Dramafever. Another player in the streaming world was Crunchyroll, although it hadn’t updated its library of dramas for years. The fact that Crunchyroll is back today with a whole new service at Kdrama.com seems like proof that Korean drama is still a growth industry.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Navel gazing and sweeping generalizations: Watching drama as an American

Heirs: No hot guy has ever gazed adoringly at me from a convenience store’s eat-in counter,
because here convenience stores don’t have eat-in counters. (That’s why, right?) 

Someone I follow on Tumblr was recently asked an interesting question: “As a western person, how does it feel watching Kdramas? I’m Asian so I like them because they resemble my life more than western dramas.”

As a fairly average American, I can say the exact opposite is true. When I first started watching Korean dramas, it was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the world turns to technicolor. I’ve spent most of my life immersed in pop culture, but here was something totally new and different. As a form of entertainment, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or even imagined might exist. But what fascinated me most about it—and what eventually inspired me to start this blog—was how very different Kdrama life was from my own.

Of course, I know a country’s television shows aren’t necessarily representative of life within its borders. (My own lack of granite countertops, a vampire boyfriend, and a job in a glamour industry are exhibits A, B, and C.) But they do have something to say about how people in a particular place and time interact with the world around them, and how they expect that world to interact with them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What, no post?

For the first time in two and a half years, I wasn’t able to wrap up a post for this week. (Drat you, real life!) Outside Seoul will be back with a new post next Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My favorite OTP moments: a brief catalog

There are lots of things I love about Asian dramas. 

Key among them is a willingness to tell stories about love. The American television I grew up with doesn’t really do this—instead, it’s full of serialized stories that follow characters living through years of their lives. The extreme length of these shows prevents them from focusing on something as ephemeral as falling in love, and the fabled American “mainstream” doesn’t seem so interested in romance, anyway. To succeed here, a television series needs to please the whole family, a feat TV executives don’t seem to think is possible for an unvarnished love story.

Asian dramas, on the other hand, are just the right length for love: In 16 or 24 episodes, a world is created, a love story told, and a happy ending found. And it seems there’s less prejudice against the topic of love in Asia. So when I read an Entertainment Weekly article about the best American television scenes of the past year, I got to thinking about my own version of their list. It wouldn’t be about the best scenes in general. (Who has the memory for that?) Instead, it would tally my favorite couple moments in Asian dramas.

Which is exactly what follows the cut.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lazy: An autobiography by me

Motivation has been even harder than usual for me to come by lately. So instead of an actual Tuesday post, I give you a short review of Witch’s Romance (below), and a new blog thingy (“Favorite Posts,” above).

I’ve been getting frustrated with Blogger’s popular post widget (right), because it tends to rank reviews really high. This isn’t because my reviews are particularly good—it’s because people who love a show Google it and wind up here, often to discover that I’m lukewarm about said show (below).

So in response I put together a list of the Outside Seoul posts that I think are the most interesting. If you’re new to these parts, check it out—you might have missed something good.

Drama Review: Witch’s Romance (2014)

Grade: B-

Workplace noona romance

What it’s about
Years after being left at the alter by her globe-trotting photographer boyfriend, Ji Yeon is a hard-charging career woman and dedicated journalist. But it isn’t until she meets a much younger part-time worker that her heart begins to heal—which is exactly when her ex-fiance returns to Korea and decides he wants Ji Yeon back. (Surprise!)

First impression
I was a little reluctant to start this drama, having watched only the first episode of its Taiwanese predecessor before dropping it. But it was silly of me to worry. TVN’s crack team of creative professionals took an awkwardly staged, cartoony farce and turned it into a funny, sophisticated little gem. The acting has been toned down, the story significantly tightened to focus on the lead couple, and the production values astronomically increased. I was worried about how anything could follow in the footsteps of my beloved Secret Love Affair, but I’m starting to think that a change of pace with this spritely rom-com is just the thing I need.

Final verdict
Witch’s Romance was a fairly popular and well-liked show during its run, but it just didn’t work for me. Like so many of its TVN station-mates, it felt too bland and machine-extruded to really engage either my heart or mind. This show bears no relation to the gritty, flesh-bound world of old-school Korean dramas, where poverty existed and danger was believably real. Its characters and their plastic, new-car smelling world are one-dimensional and hollow, utterly divorced from anything approaching real, physical life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Opening numbers

My Lovely Sam Soon was the first Kdrama I ever watched, back before Korean dramas were easily accessible on legal streaming sites. Thanks to a borrowed set of DVDs, a friend and I were able to marathon all sixteen episodes over the course of a single summer weekend, breaking only for absolute necessities like trips to the fridge and an occasional nap.

Whenever I think back to that weekend, one thing always stands out in my memory: how incredibly bizarre it was to watch the show’s zippy opening sequence, which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. From the bubblegum pink color scheme to the chirpy techno theme song—complete with garbled English—those forty seconds seemed to perfectly embody My Lovely Sam Soon’s gonzo charm and exotic appeal.

It only recently occurred to me, though, that most streaming sites now dispense with these opening sequences altogether. I can see why they do it—if you were watching a bunch of episodes in a row, the exuberant intros would probably get old pretty quickly. Also, I’m semi-convinced that streaming sites are designed on the same principles as Vegas casinos: they’re set up to lure you in and keep you there as long as possible. When one episode wraps up, they briskly whisk you away to another, making it easy to overlook just how much time has passed. A long opening sequence at the beginning of each episode would rat them out, making it impossible to ignore the fact that you’ve just committed to another hour watching.

I made this realization while watching Boys over Flowers with the same friend who first introduced me to My Lovely Sam Soon all those years ago. BoF is another drama with an incredibly great opening sequence, but my friend didn’t get to see it until she watched episode 5 on Dramafever at my house. “What’s this?” she gasped when confronted with the opening’s eight-bit glory, all computer-generated firework flowers and floating diamonds decorated with the heads of cast members.The Netflix episodes she’d watched to that point hadn’t included this segment, so it was like some fabulous archeological discovery in the valley of the drama kings.

If you don’t immediately fall in love with the cheesy excess of the Boys over Flowers title sequence, you should just stop watching—you’ll definitely hate the show. Questionable fashion sense, bellows of “Alllmooossst Paradise,” and hokey “rich stuff” abound. But to the right viewer (i.e., me), this segment, like the drama itself, is nothing short of a masterpiece of tacky delights.

It actually makes me a little sad that it’s so easy for viewers to miss Kdrama intros. They’re great calling cards for the shows they represent, and any completist deserves to know they exist. This is why I thought I’d dig up some possibly lost opening sequences to share here. (“Possibly lost” in this case meaning easily available on YouTube or Vimeo, if only you know to look for them.)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

My two favorite things: books and dramas

Books and reading don’t come up all that often in Western entertainment.

I did some Googling on this topic, and even listing ten on-screen readers required one website to go all the way back to the 1994–2004 run of the sitcom Friends. There are some exceptions, often in the form of a girl who’s never far from her latest book, including Rory from Gilmore Girls, Suzy from Moonlight Kingdom, and the prisoners of Orange Is the New Black. But if you were a space alien watching American media, you’d probably come to the conclusion that nobody in the country ever touches a book.

In Korean dramas, things are different. Lie to Me’s heroine read in her spare time. Nine Ends, Two Outs revolved around an aspiring novelist. The glorious wall of books in Joo Won’s ultra-modern house in Secret Garden wasn’t just there for show—it housed the copy of Alice in Wonderland that became a key part of his romance with Ra Im. And the last three shows I’ve live-watched have all used books as central plot points.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Things I wish existed: Fangirl tours

Have you always wanted to visit Korea? To order an overpriced Americano at Coffee Prince, troll for handsome chaebol sons in Cheongdamdong, or pretend to be a cross-dressing Joseon scholar on the campus of Sungkyunkwan University?

Well, Fangirl Tours is here for you. Established in 2014 by a sad American who feared she would never again leave her homeland, it takes the stress out of international travel for the timid television-lover, ensuring your visit to Korea will be unforgettable. See all the important drama sites, from Sam Soon’s kissing steps to the exact cable car where Jan Di and Joon Pyo spent their first night together.

Every tour group is led by a pair of Korean nationals who receive executive-level pay not to laugh at you when you attempt to do things like speak a language other than your own, count Korean money, or eat spicy foods. Your companions will be carefully screened to encourage maximum fangirling: before signing up for a Fangirl Tour of Seoul, every participant must pass a spectacularly difficult drama quiz.

Enjoy the sounds, sites, and tastes of one of Asia’s most bustling cities alongside like-minded drama fans—and rest assured that our company’s first priority is having you back at your hotel in plenty of time to live-watch whatever show you’re currently obsessed with. Best of all, every fangirl tour includes at least one drama set visit, giving you a chance to watch Korea’s hottest actors and actresses at work.

Other highlights of our standard 10-day tour include:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Drama Review: Secret Love Affair (2014)

Grade: A++

Romantic melodrama

What it’s about
On the surface, Oh Hye Won is an elegant professional who works at a ritzy arts organization, living a life filled with luxuries that anyone would envy. But in truth, she has more dark secrets than she knows what to do with: She has sacrificed her soul to a loveless marriage and a morally bankrupt workplace, giving up on her true love—music. When she meets Lee Sun Jae, a handsome young piano genius, his dazzling talent, idealism, and adoration of Hye Won leave her reeling. Will Hye Won sacrifice everything to have him, or will she keep fighting for status and success, even at the expense of his love?

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Goodbye, my Love

Do you think they were trying to tell us something with this shot? Like maybe the ending?

For the past two months, I’ve lived in the world of Secret Love Affair. Now that I’m reawakening to real life, I feel a little woozy and hungover.

Part of my insane fixation on this show probably arises from how I watched it: devouring episodes as they aired in Korea, then suffering through a never-ending week for the next installments. There’s no doubt that I would have liked this series even if I marathoned it in one big gulp, but I definitely wouldn’t have taken the time to savor it in the same way. And this is a show that deserves—nay, requires—savoring. If you go into it thinking it’s just another zany Korean drama that will be a shallow diversion, you’ll be disappointed. It’s probably possible to watch SLA casually, but any viewer who is less than fully engaged will miss the best things it has to offer. From sly narrative foreshadowings and clever thematic connections to deliciously oblique dialogue, Secret Love Affair isn’t predigested for our enjoyment. Instead, it’s carefully crafted to stimulate our minds.

A lot of Kdramas remind of this weird little segment of book publishing in America. It’s called “high interest,” and it focuses on titles meant to motivate kids who are reluctant readers. These books are about exciting topics, and their language is intentionally simple and straightforward so shaky readers won’t feel challenged. The point is to draw readers in and make them realize that books are incredible, not to force them to fumble through big words and difficult grammar that they don’t understand. The drama equivalent of these books are shows that rely more on spectacle than insight. The Moon that Embraces the Sun is a prime exampleit broadcast every motivation in voiceover lest anyone lose the plot thread or actually be required to think. I’d also put family dramas and shows like I Need Romance 3 in this category, as they’re designed for easy, non-demanding titillation, not thoughtful viewing.

But there are also plenty of Korean dramas that aren’t afraid to be intricate and complex, or to ask that we invest something into understanding them. They can be difficult and literary, and they don’t dumb-down their stories for superficial viewers. Shows like Nine, The End of the World, and even the rom-com Queen In-hyun’s Man fit this bill. And Secret Love Affair just might be their queen. It takes incredibly traditional Kdrama tropes—a noona romance, shocking traffic accidents, back hugs, and corporate intrigue—and grafts them into the world of a moody, thoughtful indie movie. Like most Korean dramas, its primary goal is eliciting emotion in its viewers. But instead of being driven by events, its plot is driven by its characters and the way they grow and change as they come together.

Refreshingly sophisticated and mature, Secret Love Affair isn’t for everyone. But then again, how could it be, when it was so clearly created just for me? Indulge me for one final post devoted to the things I loved about SLA, hopefully to be followed by a more balanced review on Thursday.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Drama Review: Majo no Jouken (1999)

Grade: A-

Japanese melodrama

What it’s about
At twenty-six, Hirose Michi’s life seems perfect. She teaches high school math and has responsibility for her own homeroom class, and her longtime boyfriend has just proposed to her. But in truth, Michi feels trapped. She’s overwhelmed by her job and isn’t in love with her boyfriend. It isn’t until she forms an unexpected bond with a troubled student that Michi realizes that happiness is a possibility in her life. In spite of his bad behavior and even worse reputation, Kurosawa Hikaru is actually a sweet boy who’s eager to see what’s special in the world around him. The love that grows between Michi and Hikaru will destroy their lives—and save them.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What Now?

Will Secret Love Affair’s finale live up to Tokyo Tower’s fantastic Parisian hug?

When this post goes live, I will be watching the final episode of Secret Love Affair. (Yes, I’m so obsessed that I’m taking vacation time to watch the last two episodes when they air in Korea, which is 8:50 am my time.)

We drama fans often talk about the sorrow that comes with the finale of a show we really loved. The finite nature of Asian dramas can be a double-edged sword on this front—they almost never outstay their welcome and are able to tell a single, central story without dragging it out indefinitely. But when they’re done, they’re done forever. There’s no new season, no continuation on Netflix, no second generation or The New Class to look forward to. This can feel like a real blow when you’ve ushered a group of characters into your heart and spent months contemplating the state of their souls.

What’s worse is that Secret Love Affair is a drama that engaged me emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. (Hye Won would say that I’m being excessive, but this statement is nothing more or less than the truth.) And now that it’s ending, I’m at an utter loss—What do I do with all the energy I’ve been devoting to this series? Here’s a short list of things I’ve been considering:
Taking piano lessons
Laundering money
Reading Secret Love Affair’s favorite books, Aimez-vous Brahms? and Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations
Hooking up with a man (boy?) who’s young enough to be my son
Breaking beer bottles in threatening ways
Getting a massage
While each option has its own pros and cons, I think we all know what I’m really going to do next. And that’s watch another drama.

There are lots of newish series out there, but I don’t find any of them incredibly appealing. For one thing, they’re all really boy-centered, which is not my thing when it comes to television. I watch Kdrama for the great female characters, and I hate when they’re shunted to the side so the male lead can be the show’s star. Then there’s the subject matter. I guess the proliferation of cops and doctors in this drama cycle is better than the herd of shoe designers that were foisted on us a few seasons ago, but not by much.

I’m definitely going to watch something new, but I could use some help deciding what. Here are the shows now in the running.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Secret Love Affair: Winding to a close

“All good things must come to an end” is one of the cruelest—and most accurate—expressions in the English language.

Unfortunately, it definitely applies to Secret Love Affair. The ending is creeping ever closer, although there is some controversy about just when it might happen. Most English-language database sites say SLA will be twenty episodes long. But then again, they also say that the series Yoo Na’s Street will start airing in its place on Monday, May 19. That would mean a total of sixteen SLA episodes, which feels pretty likely. That’s the traditional (if increasingly uncommon) length for Kdrama miniseries, and it matches the running time of A Wife’s Credentials, this production team’s previous show.

With the home stretch in sight, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to happen in SLA’s remaining episodes. I trust the creative team to stick the landing on this one, but here are some thoughts about how they could do it.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Substantial: Subbers on Secret Love Affair and the craft of subbing

Subtitles are the key that allows international viewers entry into the world of Korean drama.

I didn’t fully understand this until my first rewatch of Coffee Prince. Before that, I blindly followed along with the words flashing across my screen without really critically evaluating them. Han Gyul and Eun Chan were fighting. What more did I need to know beyond that? 

But stumbling across fan-created subtitles for my favorite drama changed everything: The dialogue was constructed differently than it was in the official subs, and the word choices varied hugely. Even things that seemed simple had multiple layers—were the subtitles mostly complete sentences? Or were they full of stops and starts, like the way people actually talk? Were the characters eating ddukbokki or rice cakes? Was he hyung or Choi Han Gyul? Somebody made all those decisions, and each one had an incredible impact on my experience of the drama. 

Now I see that the labor of creating subtitles is nothing less than casting a magic spell. Language is more than just words; it’s an entire worldview that shapes how we see everything around us. And translating Korean into English is more than simply recording the things people say—it’s understanding the character’s essential meaning and capturing that meaning in words that weren’t necessarily created to express it.

Thanks to my current mania for Secret Love Affair, my appreciation for subtitles has become even more intense. I’ve been watching each episode on multiple streaming sites and comparing the translations. They often agree, but what’s really fascinating is where they deviate, and how easily those deviations can change the fundamental meaning of a scene. SLA is a great show for watching like this; it sometimes feels more like literature than a drama. The dialogue is meaningful, and always carefully constructed to allow multiple, ever-changing interpretations. 

Over the past ten episodes, I’ve come to trust the Viki subtitles for this show above all others. They get the basics right, but more importantly they really grasp the essence of each scene. I can’t judge their fidelity to Korean, but I can judge their fidelity to storytelling—and it’s amazing. (Don’t even get me started on the fact that Viki subbers are civilians like you and me, people who give of their time and knowledge for the love of dramas, not because it’s their job.)

In light of my recent fangirling over their work, I contacted a few members of Viki’s Secret Love Affair subbing team and asked if they’d answer a few of my burning questions about their experience of subbing in general, and SLA in particular.

Below the cut are interviews with two of these subbers—one who requested anonymity, and another who goes by the name anaisanais.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

House of horrors, Kdrama style

“What do you mean, Yoon Si Yoon is going to cut off all his hair and disappear from public view for two years?”

If I had a dollar for every time someone called me “Debbie Downer” or a variant thereof, I wouldn’t be writing this post right now. I’d be booking a private plane to Seoul, because I’d be the richest woman in the Western hemisphere.

As human beings go, I’m a pretty bizarre combination: I’m completely laid-back and easy going, but I’m also an intense, desperate worrier. I worry about absurd things—What would I do in the event of a zombie outbreak? The unchecked spread of ebola? An alien invasion? I’m the girl who always knows where the emergency exit is. And if that private plane to Seoul made an unscheduled landing, I would know just how to use its evacuation slide. (What’s the point of YouTube if not disaster preparedness, right?)

Of course, dramas are also a source of worries. Here’s a brief list to keep you up at night.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Drama Review: Miss Korea (2013)

Grade: B+

Light melodrama

What it’s about
Ji Young was always the prettiest girl around, but it turns out that adult life doesn’t live up to her high school expectations: She’s single and lives at home, the only girl in a working-class family of misfit men. At work she’s an elevator girl, valued for her good looks and pretty smile but constantly demeaned by her creepy boss. But with the inspiration of an old boyfriend and President Ma, the director of Seoul’s greatest beauty salon, Ji Young decides to change her life—and save a cosmetics company—by becoming Miss Korea, 1997.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Heroine addict

Sometimes I think 90 percent of Korean dramas are about the same girl. (See above.)

You know her: always hardworking and self-sacrificing, wide-eyed and innocent. Sure, the details are different. She makes a mean omurice, or she likes watching horror movies. Maybe she’s a little snarky, maybe not; that’s where her individuality ends. And while she may be the star of the show, she never really grows or changes. Things happen to her, not in her. It’s her love interest that becomes a new person, usually thanks to her positive influence.

Other kinds of girls—the ones who are troubled, conflicted, and unsure—tend to be the “bad guy” second lead who may or may not find redemption by the end of the show. They’re Rachel from Heirs, pushing meek little Eun Sang’s suitcase down the stairs. They’re Yoon He Ra in Playful Kiss, doing everything in her power to make the female lead look stupid. They’re Oh Se Young in I Need Romance 3, sleeping with the lead’s boyfriend because...well...why not?

It’s a rare, special Kdrama that allows malcontents like to take the lead, and then dares to allow her to evolve rather than punishing her. 

Here are some dramas to watch if you’re looking for a girl who has a mind and a journey of her own.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My love affair with Love Affair

Last December, I posted a wish list of things I wanted for the coming year in dramaland.

The first of those wishes seemed the most unlikely to come true: I asked for a new show that I would love as much as Coffee Prince. In my three years of drama watching, no other series has gripped my heartstrings or my head quite so hard. I’ve rewatched it an insane number of times (six? seven?) and written tens of thousands of words about it, ranging from appreciative fangirling to fan fiction.

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think Secret Love Affair might just be my wish come true. It’s not much like Coffee Prince—one is a dark, indie thriller of compromised morals and bad behavior, and the other is sunshine on a stick—but both shows feel compellingly real and nuanced. And like Coffee Prince before it, I’m so wrapped up in SLA that I can barely function. 

Here are some of the Secret Love Affair points I’m pondering these days.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

From zero to hero (and back again)

Secret Love Affair is a perfect storm of awesomeness.

The script is so low-key and wonderful that I want to watch episodes again and again to mine for details that I missed, while the director’s creative vision of a dim, obstacle-filled world is giving the story an intense, atmospheric resonance. Leading this parade of excellence are the show’s actors. Only four episodes in, they absolutely own their roles: Kim Hee Ae is perfect as crisply efficient, chilly Hye Won; man-boy Yoo Ah In has captured Sun Jae’s growth from puppyish innocent to troubled adult; and Park Hyuk Kwon is so petulant and unlikable that I want to throw things whenever he appears on screen.

The people involved in this show are all at the top of their game. But being an eternal pessimist, the sheer fabulosity of Secret Love Affair makes me think about how unpredictable quality is in the world of Korean drama. Maybe it’s the frantic pace of production or the struggle between creative and commercial motivations, but it seems as if nobody is immune to epic fails. No matter how good an actor may have been in one project, no matter how incredible a director’s work was on their last job, it’s almost impossible to predict how their current show will turn out.

Take Yoo Ah In, for example. I think we can all agree that his magnetic, expressive turn as Sun Jae is one of the best things about this series. But two years ago at this time, he was starring in Fashion King, possibly the most reviled Korean drama in recent memory. (If you’re ever bored and looking for a laugh, I highly recommend Googling reviews about it. I’ve never seen the word “sucks” used so often, or with such fervor.) I never did watch Fashion King, but it seems to have been the exact opposite of Secret Love Affair. Instead of riding a wave of individual successes that added up to a great show, it was dragged down by a series of personal failures that just compounded as time passed.

The awfulness of Fashion King wasn’t Yoo Ah In’s fault—or anybody else’s, really. It takes a village to make a good drama: Without the writing, the actors have nothing to do. Without the actors, the characters will never come to life. Without the directing, the other pieces of the puzzle won’t come together in a way that makes sense. And the reverse is also true. Even people who are good at their jobs can produce something that isn’t worthy of them when the big picture isn’t auspicious.

So in honor of smashing successes and crashing failures, I give you these curious highlights and lowlights of a few drama careers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Still more swooning for Secret Love Affair

You know that feeling when something you’re looking forward to doesn’t live up to your expectations? Well, the first two episodes of Secret Love Affair made me feel the exact opposite.

I watched and admired both A Wife’s Credentials and End of the World, the other recent dramas made by the writer and director behind Secret Love Affair. But this new show is the first time I feel as if they’ve set out to do what I really want: Tell a love story. Those other series were great, but they were primarily about bigger things, which meant that their romantic plotlines had only secondary importance. This time around, the relationship between female lead Hye Won and young pianist Sun Jae feels as if it will be the driving factor behind most everything that happens in the show.

In some ways, this is a case of the right drama at the right time: I’ve watched a lot of fluffy romantic comedies lately, and they’ve left me hungering for something darker. SLA is exactly that, both literally and figuratively. It takes place in a drab world of blacks and grays that are only sparingly punctuated with warm, buttery yellows. Its every scene feels like an epic battle between how things look and how they really are.

All the details in this drama feel lovingly constructed and intelligently conceived—from the camera angles to the amazing lighting to the telling set direction and wardrobe. Its storytelling is sophisticated and reserved, but even two episodes in it’s easy to see that the groundwork has been laid for a narrative roller coaster ride full of great, surprising things. Like A Wife’s Credentials, this is a show that will play with our expectations of Korean drama, taking the kind of insane, over-the-top plotting we’d expect and wrestling it down to earth through a deeply felt script and naturalistic performances.

And oh, the performances. The people behind Secret Love Affair have a repertory theater thing going on—they’ve already worked with many of this show’s actors. The actresses behind female lead Hye Won and her assistant played sisters in A Wife’s Credentials. Park Hyuk Kwon, here playing Hye Won’s bratty husband, has actually been in both of their other dramas—in A Wife’s Credentials he played a philandering jerk, and in The End of the World he teamed up as an evil bureaucrat with the man playing Secret Love Affair’s chancellor (i.e., Coffee Prince’s Mr. Hong). Thanks to their obvious comfort working together and the capable direction of Ahn Pan Sook, the actors are doing the kind of nuanced, unaffected work you hardly ever see in Korean dramas.

While the younger actors are newbies to the team, they will more than do their characters justice if Yoo Ah In is any indication. His hotness is certainly one reason why I can’t tear my eyes away whenever he’s on screen, but another reason is that he’s giving this unassuming, boyishly naive character enough gravitational pull for a planet. It’s no wonder Hye Won will fall in love with him—what woman could be unmoved by his stirrings of puppyish devotion?

It’s a bit early to know for sure what this drama’s end game will be, but for now Secret Love Affair is a riveting exploration of passion, connection, and the perils of living something other than a genuine life.

I was disappointed to realize that Dramabeans isn’t recapping this show. I could really use their help understanding a drama this subtle, and I always love having their general impressions of each new episode before I can watch it. Alas, it is not to be, and I certainly can’t recap it myself. I just don’t have the time or the skills (I’d write a thousand words about somebody’s hair and then miss key plot points). But out of respect for this show’s layered storytelling, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite scenes from the premiere episode and tried to pull apart their many levels of meaning.

(Spoilers to episode 2.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Drama Review: I Need Romance 3 (2014)

Grade: C+

Workplace romance

What it’s about
This light melodrama revolves around a chilly, no-nonsense career woman who experiences an emotional awakening thanks to a younger man from her past. Sharing the spotlight are her two coworkers—one the office newbie, a wide-eyed innocent who’s uncertain about her romantic and professional future; the other a man-eating career woman who ends up with an unexpected personal life when a no-strings-attached relationship results in pregnancy.

First impression
Our relationships with dramas really are like romances. You can spend forever with someone but never feel anything for them, while other times just a glimpse of a stranger can make you swoon with the force of your attraction. These polar opposites pretty much sum up my response to The Prime Minster and this third installment in tvN’s I Need Romance series. The Prime Minister just isn’t my type—it’s a typical Kdrama with a painfully obvious plot and not even the vaguest correlation to any person, place, thing, or emotion in the real world. On the other hand, just two minutes of I Need Romance leave me giddy with love for its strong voice and naturalistic environs. (Also, its leads have totally amazing chemistry even before he has graduated from diapers.) I’ve always been a fan of the frank, realistic INR dramas, and I’m pretty sure this one will be no different. So you’re on hold for now, Prime Minister. See you in 8 weeks when my new boyfriend leaves town.

Final verdict
Downplaying the strong female friendships that anchored the first two installments in the I Need Romance series, this show turned out to be a slightly sexier version of the standard-issue Kdrama love triangle. There are some interesting things here, including an oblique challenge to prejudice against single mothers and an insanely cute male lead with all the emotional intelligence of a second lead. But beyond that, INR3 was a whole lot of meh.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An open letter to the creators of Secret Love Affair

Dear creators of Secret Love Affair:

How dare you?

As of this writing on Saturday morning, your show is more than 48 hours from premiering in Korea, and subtitles probably won't be available for more like 72 hours. And yet, you’ve already driven me to the brink of obsession.

First there were the posters, which were burnished and glorious. Then there was the 30-second teaser, which was dramatic and sexy. And then you killed me dead with the 22-minute preview. At first I swore I wouldn’t watch it, not wanting to spoil the Christmas-morning experience of seeing the drama’s first episode. But of course I gave in, and of course now I can’t keep myself from hitting play again and again. 

The preview is intense and sexy, piano porn complete with a healthy dose of human erotica. Everything about it is perfect—from Yoo In Ah’s awkwardness to the way the leads’ faces reflect in the piano’s polished surface to the intimate, bedside glow of the lighting.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Musical Interlude

Thanks to an epic plumbing fail in my condo’s only bathroom, I’ve spent the past week with relatives who have spotty Internet access. This means no drama, no Tumblr, and no blog. My withdrawal symptoms, as you can imagine, have been nightmarish.

To tide us over until I can make a real post again, I thought I’d share some of the Korean music that I’ve been listening to lately. I’m no fan of the slick, rap-influenced K-pop mainstream, but K-indie is a good fit with the indie-folk and chill music I usually prefer. (Although if you asked me to define either K-pop or K-indie, I would literally have no idea how to go about it. Maybe K-pop = song with choreographed dance; K-indie = danceless song?)

My primary source for Korean music is the website 8tracks, a free streaming service full of user-created and curated playlists. It’s much more international than competing sites like Pandora, and it has a bigger, more varied library of songs.

Here are a few of the playlists I’ve loved lately.

My cafe in Seoul
Mellow and jazzy. An ideal soundtrack for reading on a rainy afternoon.

40 k-indie songs
There’s a lot of variety here, but it tends toward the up-tempo. Excellent background music for writing.

A collection of mostly gentle, low-key tracks from the band 10cm.

Intro to k-indie
Just what I always needed! This mix includes lots of lovely songs from the go-to artists in the genre, including Standing Egg, J Rabbit, and Urban Zakapa.

Mellow korean indie
Warm, cozy songs that are mostly acoustic. (Good luck deciphering their titles and artist information, though—most of them are actually in Korean.)

Sweet time
Delicate, gorgeous, and just a little sleepy.

Just a little bit
A playlist devoted to the band Urban Zakapa, a group I love for their fabulous, Backstreet Boys-esque harmonies and smooth production.

This prominent contributor to the Spring Waltz soundtrack is perfect for all your cheesy instrumental needs.

Check out the complete list of my liked mixes here.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Drama Review: My Love from Another Star (2013)

Grade: B

Supernatural romantic comedy

What it’s about
Chun Song Yi seems to have everything: In spite of her reputation as an airhead, she’s a top actress. She’s got an angelic best friend, a closet full of designer clothes, and a kind, well-mannered chaebol heir who desperately wants to marry her. But everything begins to fall apart when she’s implicated in a suspicious death, reminding Song Yi that her life wasn’t so perfect in the first place. When sparks fly with her mysterious, dreamy next door neighbor—a younger man who happens to be from another planet and have unusual set of skills that include teleportation and freezing time—Song Yi finally finds true connection. Which is when her troubles really begin.

First impression
Just five minutes in, I can already tell I’m going to love this drama. From its cinematic opening to its mournful piano score to the chilly nonchalance of its male lead, My Love from Another Star is just what I’ve been yearning for.

Final verdict
While moving this post’s Random Thoughts from their original home on my Tumblr account, I was surprised by how much I started out liking My Love from Another Star. I watched this show as it aired, which means that almost three months passed between seeing the premiere and the finale. During that time, I became increasingly jaded about its trajectory. It started out with a bang—its big-budget presentation was tempered with thoughtful characterizations and an intriguing central concept. But by the time episode 21 rolled around, I felt the same way I always do when I watch a Kdrama romance with a supernatural aspect: Why’d they bother?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Coffee Prince: The End

I think we can all agree that I’ve watched Coffee Prince an insane number of times. After my maiden voyage, though, I always marathoned the entire series over a long weekend. This is a extremely different experience from watching the show slowly. I was always exhausted by the time I got to the finale, which means that I couldn’t fully appreciate the explosion of happiness that is the last episode of Coffee Prince.

This time around, I took my time. Over two weeks, I watched the show from beginning to end. This post is the result: an opportunity to have some fun with the finale, an hour of television that I’ve always rushed through in the past. In a perfect world, Viki would allow user-specific timed comments so we could essentially watch the episode together. But in this world, I give you lots of screen caps and short discussions of the things depicted in them.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Up Next: Secret Love Affair

I hate to say it, but I’m ready for this cycle’s dramas to end.

My first experiment in watching two currently airing shows has been something of a failure: there’s always something new to distract my attention, so I don’t really think about the dramas as much as I do when I have to wait a full week for episodes. The shows I’m watching are also part of the problem: They’re fine, but neither has really run away with my heart and soul. I Need Romance 3 is turning out to be just another cookie-cutter love triangle drama with little of the quirky charm of earlier installments in the series. And while My Love from Another Star is glossy, fluffy fun, it’s a little too slick for my taste.

Next time around, I’m only going to watch one new show—jTBC’s romantic melo Secret Love Affair, the story of a worldly, married woman who’s embroiled in a steamy romance with a much younger man.

I’m a lover of Kdrama’s patented noona romances, which means this show pretty much had me at hello. The finest examples of this species—as embodied by What’s Up, Fox and I Do, I Do—twist the power dynamics between their leads. In the patriarchal world of Korean dramas, women are often at a disadvantage in their relationships. They’re the followers, not the leaders. But add into this equation an age difference, and things change—thanks to the traditional hierarchy of Korean society, the female lead is suddenly the one with the power, both in her romance and her already established, grown-up life. Instead of being a wide-eyed innocent who’s easily manipulated, a noona in love can be a person of power.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Amanda's Choice

Mi Rae’s choice is child’s play compared to yours

Dear Amanda in 2011,

In a few months, you will face a great temptation. I’m sending you this letter from the future to encourage you to give in.

You might think that I would suggest otherwise—that if only you applied yourself in work and life you could become a real-world success. But who wants that, when instead you could spend years on a couch potato bender? So when Boys over Flowers starts insistently appearing on Netflix’s list of recommendations, just hit play. You can thank me later.

As someone older and wiser, I would like to make a few suggestions for the journey ahead.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Drama Review: Return of Iljimae (2009)

Grade: B+

Action/adventure fusion sageuk

What it’s about
The epic (but occasionally tongue-in-cheek) journey a hero and his desperate efforts to protect Korea and her people.

What it’s not about
Although it was released after the similarly themed Iljimae, the two dramas are totally unrelated. I suggest staying away from the original Iljimae, which blew its wad on lots of pretty actors but forgot that it needed a script, too. Return of Iljimae’s title makes it sound like the lesser of the two, but it’s actually based on an original comic while Iljimae is based on...Lee Jun Ki’s cheekbones?

First impression
In spite of our uncertain beginning, I’m really starting like this show. It’s trying to be a Korean version of The Princess Bride, which is a very noble calling indeed. The modern narrator is acting like the grandfather in that movie, guiding us through a series of stories about Iljimae’s youth. The Joseon setting has all the storybook charm of Florin, and its inhabitants—including a baby-eating giant and a flamboyant Chinese spy who only walks sideways—have the quirky, one-dimensional glow of fairytale characters. Korean dramas may love over-the-top people, places, and ideas, but they rarely venture into the realm magical realism. I’m hoping this mythical hero’s quest could change that.

Final verdict
Return of Iljimae really hit the sageuk sweet spot for me: It’s sweeping and glorious and tragic, stuffed full of genuine emotion and powerful friendships. But best of all, it managed to sidestep all the things that usually annoy me about this kind of drama.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Let’s talk about sex

As a fandom that exhaustively catalogs, critiques, and names kisses, we sure don’t talk about sex much.

For some English-speaking fans, there’s a good reason for this: to them, Kdrama is a bastion of safety in an oversexualized world. The relationships it depicts almost always revolve around the soul, not the body, and the rare act of physical intimacy is treated with an almost sacred mindfulness.

I’m glad that Kdrama exists for people like that, but I can’t say that I’m one of them. I don’t mind a tasteful, consensual sex scene, and have actually been frustrated by the lack of naughty bits in Kdramas. To someone with a Western mindset, a romance that’s as bloodless as the one in Autumn in My Heart doesn’t feel like a romance at all. But even for me, the courtly, spiritual love at the core of so many Korean dramas is part of their appeal. When they’re done right, these shows are fairy tales separate from the world of the flesh, always pure and perfect and good. And because of this, a single Kdrama kiss has more emotional weight than all six seasons of Sex in the City combined.

When it comes to Korean television, there’s not much sex to talk about, anyway. Drama kisses are precious and rare, but drama sex is harder to find than Bigfoot riding the Loch Ness monster with a unicorn in a party hat looking on from the shore. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The indexes

I have watched a shitload of Korean television.

You’ll have to excuse my language, but sometimes strong words are called for. Say, when you discover that you’ve watched 109 Korean dramas in the space of three years. According to Mydramalist, that’s 89 total days, or almost a full month out of each of those years that I spent watching Kdramas instead of doing useful, real-life things like sleeping, doing laundry, or working toward world domination.

My suspicion is that in 2013 I saw far fewer dramas than I did in the past. (I can’t be sure this is the case, though, because I didn’t keep track of what I watched through most of 2012.) My viewing habits definitely changed this year, and not because I did something crazy like get a social life. No, it was because I signed up for Tumblr, the world’s best distraction. (Candy Crush might be partly to blame as well.) Nonetheless, I still made it through a whopping 33 dramas in 2013.

Rather than writing a true post this week, I made two indexes for this blog: one that contains an excerpt from every single review I’ve posted at Outside Seoul, and another that arranges dramas in a few favorite categories. These are my versions of Dramabeans’ ratings page, which I think is one the Internet’s most valuable resources if you’re looking for an older show to watch. (But unlike Dramabeans, my reviews are fully biased: if a show works for me, it works. I’m unconcerned with little, unimportant details like actual quality.)

Compiling this index was a pretty instructional experience. One thing I realized was just how skewed my grading system is: I’ve given 35 dramas an A grade, 26 a B grade, 14 a C grade, and 6 a D grade. This is pretty laughably far from an expected bell curve, in which most shows would earn a C and a few outliers would end up in the realm of A or F. And yet, it kind of makes sense: I’m watching a genre a love, and I pick only the shows that interest me from the beginning. So of course I end up liking a lot of them.

I also noticed that I’ve never written proper reviews of the classics I watched during my first year of drama madness, many of which are on my first list of favorites. Naturally, this made me decide that I should rewatch them. I guess we all know how I’ll be spending my spring.

In the meanwhile, here are the indexes:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Amanda’s Dream Drama: Sounds like Home


The following was inspired by posts from two of my favorite bloggers—Ladida at Idle Revelry and Kfangurl at The Fangirl Verdict. Feel free to hold it against them.

It’s the Kdrama I would write, if I could write a Kdrama. It would be a light melo and run for 16 episodes on jTBC. I would, of course, insist on the production team behind A Wife’s Credentials. Throughout the post, I’ve cast actors for key roles. (If you’re dreaming, you might as well dream big, right?)

What I’ve written is essentially a short story that traces the trajectories of the lead characters in the drama. The real thing would be much meatier—one paragraph of this post might constitute two or three episodes worth of air time.

I wish I was one of those people who had a song for everything and could give you a soundtrack for reading, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. So pick your favorite moody, coming-of-age track and hit play.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Part Deux: Kdrama Franchises

Two worlds collide in Answer Me 1994

One of the things I love most about Korean television is the finite nature of its dramas. They’re each novelistic in their completeness—free-standing, independent stories with a beginning, middle, and end.

These days, though, the trend is toward something a bit different: The drama franchise. From the Answer Me shows to the Flower Boy series, more and more dramas seem to be part of an ongoing brand. And while these individual shows may share a common name, they’re almost always distinct stories built around a unique set of characters, rather than what we Westerners would consider a subsequent season or a true sequel.

It’s easy to see why the Drama Overlords would like franchise series. You don’t have to start from scratch when you’re promoting I Need Romance 3—there’s instant name recognition, and potential viewers know exactly what to expect from your show. People who are familiar with the product are likely to tune in out of habit, unlike shows that are presented as fully separate entities. It also ties old dramas (what people in book publishing would call “the backlist”) to currently airing series, giving them new life by encouraging viewers to catch up with reruns and DVD box sets. I bet it’s also easier to sell a known quantity like a franchise drama abroad, and international markets sure are like catnip to the folks behind Korean television.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Drama Review: December Fever (2004)

Grade: B

Romantic comedy that morphs into straight-up melodrama

What it’s about
Ten years after her shotgun wedding to a powerful doctor, Young Shim still doesn’t fit into his home. She works like a slave on behalf of his family and always keeps a smile on her face, but her husband’s mother and sister never let her forget her roots as a poor country girl. The more she tries to earn their respect, the more insults and cruelties they lob her way. When Young Shim finally decides to venture into the wider world on her own, she meets a handsome younger man who leaves her longing for human connection. But their blooming relationship is not without complications—he’s the ex-boyfriend of her new sister-in-law, and might just be using Young Shim to exact revenge for being dumped. When a terminal cancer diagnosis is given, Young Shim is forced to choose: does she stay in an unhappy marriage, or does she strike out on her own?

First impression
To offset all the recent dramas I’ve been watching lately, I wanted to try something retro. That’s exactly what this 2004 series is: from the clunky cell phones to the tragic finale lurking at the end of its 17 episode running time, it’s a perfect exemplar of the early oughts on Korean television. These older shows might not be as slick as what’s on the air today, but they do have lots of charm and somehow feel more emotionally genuine than even the best modern shows. Bring on the ill-fated, old-school noona romance. I dare you to make me cry, drama. I dare you!

Final verdict
When I started watching December Fever, I expected it to be just another treacly love story with a self-consciously tragic ending, probably intended for fans of 2002’s massively successful Winter Sonata. But in truth, this drama springs from the same gritty, downtrodden family tree as What Happened in Bali and I’m Sorry, I Love You, both of which were also released in 2004.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blogging bloopers

It’s pretty absurd that I blog about Kdrama.

Before I started Outside Seoul, my exposure to things Korean was limited at best: A friend and I had once stood in front of the local Korean restaurant for about 15 seconds before turning around and leaving. (“Too authentic,” we whispered on the way to the car, dazed by a menu full of words we’d never seen before.) Also, I had read a book about Korean culture. (For a job I hated and left shortly thereafter.)

But knowing about Korea isn’t a requirement for loving Korean dramas. Their concerns are universal—love and family and a hunger for connection aren’t things that exist in only one language or one culture. Things might be a little confusing in the beginning (“Oppa? What’s an Oppa?”), but the more you watch, the more you understand. Which is pretty darn awesome—while we Western viewers are  swooning over Song Yi and Min Joon, we’re also learning about another culture’s values, traditions, and way of life. 

By 2012, I’d been obsessively watching Korean dramas for more than two years. I had probably seen more than a hundred of them: I knew the actors, I knew the tropes, I knew the trends. I thought I had everything figured out, and was sure I’d never again be mystified by what I saw on screen. But then I watched Queen In Hyun’s Man, and I realized I was a fool. When a character appeared with a yellow piece of paper with red writing on it, I had no idea what it meant. It wasn’t until I read the Dramabeans recap of the episode that I realized it was a magical talisman. It struck me then that even with my insanely prolific viewing of Kdrama, I had barely scratched the surface when it came to Korean television and culture. 

As a blogger, this means I’m always writing about things I don’t fully understand. I don’t think this is any reason for me to stop, though. There’s value in seeing things with new eyes; like the subtitle says, this is Korean drama from the outside in. I’m learning more every day, and the dramaweb and well-informed people who comment here is one of the big reasons why.

But over the years, I’ve posted some pretty silly things on this blog. In honor of the recently passed Festivus season, I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight a few of them.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Drama Review: Answer Me 1994 (2013)

Grade: A-

Romantic comedy

What it’s about
A group of college students from the countryside move to Seoul, where they live in a homestay and share friendships, romances, and the pains and pleasures of growing up.

First impression
I’m a little torn going into this series. I loved its predecessor—the similar but largely unrelated drama Answer Me 1997—so much that I had to take a week off in the middle of watching it, and not just because sad things were happening on screen. I identified so completely with obsessed fangirl Shi Won that it was actually hard to watch. The scene at Tony oppa’s house nearly killed me because it so closely matched my own 1997-era fandom, which was probably the last thing I expected from a show about Kpop, a musical genre I wouldn’t know existed for more than a decade. But Kdrama sequels have a terrible reputation and I’ve heard lots of unhappy commentary about this show’s resolution. Plus, I hate all organized sports with a fiery passion. Can I possibly love a drama about a basketball fan, even if it’s the follow-up to one my favorite shows of all time?

Final verdict
This sweet, funny drama is full of nostalgic charm. Just don’t watch it expecting another Answer Me 1997—in spite of their many similarities, the two shows are fundamentally different in a lot of ways.