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.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Drama Trends of 2013

In 2012, I somehow managed to watch every Korean series that I was remotely interested in, and then write this gigantic year-end post about their many similarities. This year it’s a different story: Thanks to a more demanding job and my discovery of Tumblr, I saw far fewer dramas.

I still couldn’t help noticing some common themes, though. So here’s a doubtlessly incomplete list of things that made the pop-culture rounds in Korea this year.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Drama Review: White Christmas (2011)

Grade: A

High school thriller

What it’s about
Prompted by a mysterious letter, seven students spend winter break at their posh boarding school instead of returning home. As a huge snowstorm cuts the school off from the rest of the world, they attempt to decode the letter and uncover its sender. But a series of terrifying events makes them afraid they may not live long enough to do either.

First impression
Creepy and compelling.

Final verdict
This is a tricky drama to write about without totally spoiling your reader. In the course of its eight-episode running time, it morphs from a story about a schoolyard secret to an adult mystery, and then to a fight for the survival of body and soul. So here’s the key piece of information you need to know: You should watch it.

Most everything about White Christmas is beautifully, thoughtfully done. From its twisty, turny script and gorgeous cinematography to its surprisingly capable acting, this show is a striking break from the workaday norm. It uses its tiny cast and remote setting to grapple with serious issues we all confront every day, touching on isolation versus community, fear versus trust, nature versus nurture, and crime versus punishment.

The Breakfast Club with bullets, White Christmas takes as its starting point the typical high school stereotypes: there’s the brain, the freak, the bully, and the rebel. But instead of stopping with these skin-deep categories, it turns its characters into flesh and blood beings with their own idiosyncrasies and motivations. (Standouts include the drug-addled “Angel,” the dispassionate genius, and the rule-breaking bad boy.) The show then proceeds to push each of its creations to their spectacular breaking points, using their terrible circumstances to both draw them together and tear them apart.

White Christmas is not without some logic fails and loose ends, but most of them are fairly easily overlooked. As far as I’m concerned, it does have an Achilles’ heel: Its stakes. All these strapping young men would have been a real force to reckon with if they ever got their act together and used physical aggression against someone other than themselves. But that never happened, a fact that was made extra frustrating by the show’s relatively toothless big bad. This character felt sanitized for television, and he never seemed to deserve the panicked reactions he received. In spite of what happened off screen, he didn’t presented the visceral, mortal peril that would have ratcheted his scenes from unsettling to terrifying. This quibble receded as the show progressed, though, and it became clear that the big bad was just the beginning of the evils White Christmas had set out to explore.

By its shocking finale, some of the show’s questions may be answered, but you’ll still be thinking about them for a long time to come.

A note on sources
Although I swear it would be a boon to Korea as a nation for this show to be available on every streaming site out there, it’s actually incredibly hard to find. The illegal sites carry it, but you will loose out enormously if you watch it at anything less than HD quality. It’s theoretically carried by the pay website Mvibo, which has a ten-day free preview option. (Good luck with it, though—on the rare occasion I can get their website to work, I find their service lacking in pretty much every way.) The only other (scarily illegal) option for watching is downloading a torrent, either from d-addicts.com or Asia Torrents.

Random thoughts
Because this was a nontraditional watch, none. Check out my detailed thoughts on the first four episodes here and one tiny Tumblr post about the rest of the show.
You might also like
Cruel City, for its gritty, shadowed take on gangster life