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.

Lee Mi Sook, actress
Love Rain (2012)
Can We Get Married? (2012)

I watched these dramas one after another, but I was still halfway through Can We Get Married by the time I realized that the same actress was in both shows. This is mostly because Lee Mi Sook was utterly forgettable as Love Rain’s damp-tissue damsel in distress. I guess that was the point—her character was meek and sad, destined from the very beginning to be the sort of one-dimensional, saintly martyr that once ruled Korean airwaves in the early oughts. You can blame most of her character’s limp spinelessness on the show’s writer, but Lee herself didn’t help matters: her only measurable contributions to the drama were lots of sighing and a pretty, thousand-yard gaze. She was even shown up by Yoona, the pop idol turned actress who brought an undeniable sparkle to her character’s younger self.

But add some extreme makeup and a well-written character, and it turns out that Lee Mi Sook is actually a capable actress who excels at both big, showy scenes and tiny moments of vulnerability. That’s the only conclusion I can draw after watching her in both Miss Korea and Can We Get Married. As MK’s President Ma, she’s wily, capable, and devoted to both her girls and Korea’s biggest beauty pageant. But it’s Can We Get Married that really lets Lee shine. In this multi-generational comedy about love’s disastrous effects on family harmony, she plays the ultimate drama mother-in-law. Shrill, abrasive, and manipulative, her character wears blue eye shadow like armor and relentlessly battles against the world to improve the lives of her two daughters. Every scene she’s in feels like an Olympic-level tennis match—there’s so much motion and sound and strength that I could barely keep track of the volleys. It was glorious to watch her spar with other actors, and she quickly became my favorite thing about the series. That’s really saying something—Lee took a character that could have been incredibly annoying and imbued her with such humanity that I didn’t even mind Can We Get Married’s lumpy, repetitive second half.


Noh Hee Kung, screenwriter
Padam Padam (2012)
That Winter the Wind Blows (2013)

As is often the case with dramas written by the same person, these two shows have a lot in common. They both use their antiheroes to tackle issues of morality and self-determination, and both explore the lasting effects of injustice and cruelty. Heck, they even share a second lead in boyishly handsome Kim Bum. But one of these shows did almost everything right, and the other did almost everything wrong.

Padam Padam is a gripping, gorgeous melodrama that tells the story of two prison inmates rejoining the world as free men. Its characters are layered and believably textured, and its plot is unafraid to show them at their best and worst—they’re alternately loyal and loving, brutal and vicious. This is a show built of all the great things that Korean dramas have to offer: it has an adorable bromance, an epic love story, and a web of inescapable family ties that cause both suffering and happiness. Plus, it’s flavored with magical realism and uses supernatural tropes in ways you’d never predict. One of its characters actually sprouts angel wings and flies. (Maybe?) In summary, perfect drama is perfect.

That Winter, the Wind Blows, on the other hand, is beautiful but empty. In it, a conman impersonates his dead friend in an attempt to sweet talk a fortune away from his blind sister. Clearly, this is a narrative that could have been every bit as juicy as the one in Padam Padam. But Noh Hee Kung didn’t go for the jugular in the same way—and I’m not sure if it’s because she wouldn’t or because she couldn’t. Giving up creative control might just be the price a writer pays for helming a drama that airs on a big network—That Winter was an SBS tentpole, while Padam Padam aired on the (wonderfully) boutique cable network jTBC.

Instead of facing the darkness of its characters, That Winter did everything possible (and more) to prevent them from taking responsibility for their actions. It made excuses for a woman who neglected a child with the intention of making her lose her sight, and found an improbably happy ending for a man who was willing to enter a loveless marriage for a promotion at work.

Noh’s multifaceted script made Padam Padam feel like a journey into the heart of darkness and back again; her refusal to fully engage with her story turned That Winter into a cross between a music video and an advertisement for feminine hygiene products. 

Ahn Pan Suk, director
A Wife’s Credentials (2012)
The End of the World (2013)

Sometimes failure has more to do with perception than with quality. Picture this: You’re live-watching an amazing drama about an insidious, incredibly contagious disease that’s about to destroy Korea. It’s tense and exciting and you can’t bring yourself to watch it after dark or when you’re alone in the house. And then—without warning—the show’s network announces that its episode count has been reduced by a third in response to low ratings. A story written to play out over 20 hours will now be condensed into 12 episodes. And episode 9 just aired.

That’s exactly what viewers of The End of the World experienced in 2012. Was this drama unpopular because it lacked a handsome male lead? Because its characters were older than 30? Because it asked a lot of viewers accustomed to poop jokes and explanatory flashbacks? Or maybe people were scared off by its lack of romantic plotlines?

Whatever caused it, failures don’t get much more tragic than this one. Although it’s still worth watching, the episode reduction broke The End of the World’s narrative spine. It started off sophisticated and unpredictable, feeling like a Korean cousin to such thrillers as The Walking Dead and the French show Les revenants. It ended up rushed, with whole meaty plotlines left unexplored.

But just a year earlier, Ahn Pan Suk was directing A Wife’s Credentials, a critically acclaimed series that would go on to garner some of the highest ratings of any cable program to date. This drama’s quality was definitely on a par with The End of the World, but it was different—it dealt with the hypocrisies and hardships suffered by an unhappily married housewife in an upscale Seoul neighborhood. With its gritty, indie-movie sensibility and streak of black humor, it dared to put real life on screen in a way few Korean shows have done before or since. It included a strong central romance, though, and its good-looking cast was full of polished, well-groomed actors.

Anyone who’s been following this blog knows exactly what Ahn is up to these days: he’s directing jTBC’s hit Secret Love Affair. And I suspect he understands just how his female lead feels: She’s serving so many masters in her job that she’s practically a double agent. Ahn is the same—he’s balancing the need for scandalous plot twists to draw viewers with the opportunity to tell a powerful, genuine story that commands rather than coddles.


  1. Maybe I am biased, as a life-long writer, but I feel that of all the make-or-break elements, the writer bears the most responsibility. If the writer doesn't produce something that capture's people's attention, that feels real and immediate and believable and interesting, all of the fine directing and acting cannot make up for it. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, as they say, and the best eyebrows in the business could not save Heirs.

    1. I see your point, and I agree with it. Still, I do admire those actors and actresses who manage to make their characters more than what they were on the page.
      I also find it sad when a big chunk of the viewing audience tends to want or fall for what seems like Kdrama cliches.

      I really liked what Amanda said here, "Was this drama unpopular because it lacked a handsome male lead? Because its characters were older than 30? Because it asked a lot of viewers accustomed to poop jokes and explanatory flashbacks? Or maybe people were scared off by its lack of romantic plotlines?" when talking about why The End of the World was not a commercial success, and experienced a big reduction in the number of its episodes.
      It makes it hard for the few interested in a good story, good acting, good directing, good OST, good lighting, etc... to have the drama they were hoping to have to the very end. And it makes me sad that the few of us, who do not mind not having a gorgeous male lead (who is older than 30), a lack of poop jokes and a lack of romantic plotlines, at times to not get to enjoy a well written and well made drama till the end because of some unfortunate decisions that are made by the powers that be. I understand that dramas need sponsors and other things to be made, it takes a lot to make a drama. I just wish that a drama being commercially successful, wasn't as often the factor determining how good a drama actually was (and there are quite a few in that category). I wish more of the viewing audience appreciated non conventional dramas, as well as being challenged by what they watch.

    2. I always feel sorry for the writers who might have had a perfectly good script or plot idea but were forced to change it by the studios or producers or whoever. Like when they change things based on audience reactions. That's never a good way to go about things, but Korean dramas keep doing it anyway. The poor writers just have to do what their told, instead of having the freedom to write what they originally imagined.

  2. Lee Mi Sook, I knew what she is capable of because of Cinderella's sister.

    I only watched that drama because of Moon Geun Young and Lee Mi Sook playing daughter and Mother, both rocking their roles and I couldn't stay away. People dropped, said it was slow, but LMS and MYG didn't let me drop this drama - I watched until the end and don't regret at all.

  3. I know it's off topic but can I just say: Greetings from Seoul

  4. Awesome post. And it's true. The entertainment industry, especially Korea's, is very fickle. You have to have all the planets and stars line up to create a truly wonderful masterpiece, and lord knows how often that happens. Also, sucks that great actors fall just because of sucky production. Glad that actors like Lee Mi-sook and Yoo Ah-in gets their redemption project.

    I wonder though, are there any drama series in Korea that have achieved cult status? Like how some American shows that didn't garner the crowds their first time around would later became more popular through word of mouth, like Freaks and Geeks or Firefly. Or is it truly a one time offer in Korea?

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