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: