Saturday, December 31, 2011

Drama Throwdown: Boys before Flowers vs. Flower Boy Ramen Shop

Most Korean dramas seem to be made Frankenstein-style: they’re patched together from bits and pieces of other shows, recycling character traits, plot twists, and central conflicts with wild abandon. And although this magpie approach to drama creation can get old, it also has a lot to offer—after all, there’s nothing cozier than putting on your favorite sweater, however ratty and ancient it may be. 

Sometimes, though, all the borrowing can get a bit egregious—which brings me to the topic at hand: Boys before Flowers versus Flower Boy Ramen Shop. These two shows were both drawn from the Cinderella-meets-chaebol filing cabinet at Drama Overlord Central, but their similarities don’t end there.

Boys before Flowers (2007) is a coming-of-age love story saddled with mediocre production, writing, and acting. And yet, its pleasures are undeniable and the show is widely believed to be more addictive than any other substance known to man.

Flower Boy Ramen Shop (2011) is a bighearted comedy it’s hard not to love, but it’s also a drama composed almost entirely of pieces of other shows—it’s part Hello, My Teacher and part Boys before Flowers, with a healthy dose of food-porny shows like Coffee Prince thrown in for good measure.

The Throwdown
The common raw materials used to build Boys before Flowers and Flower Boy Ramen Shop are especially evident, even if the resulting shows are not created equal.

1. Female lead
—an athlete (BbF = swimmer/FBRS = volleyball player)
—the new girl at school, struggling to fit in (student/student teacher)
—a little ashamed of her blue-collar, working-class dad (dad is a dry cleaner/dad owns a run-down snack bar)

Winner: Flower Boy Ramen Shop by a mile. You know there’s trouble when a drama’s female lead aspires to the Olympics, yet nearly drowns every time a body of water larger than a teaspoon appears on screen. Jan Di has her finer points, but the wish fulfillment factor of continually being rescued by dreamy, filthy rich babes can only carry a show so far. This is why Eun Bi—gangster that she may be—is such a breath of fresh air. She doesn’t let anyone push her around and, plunger in hand, saves the day not only for herself but also for her boyfriend.

2. Male lead
* a chaebol (grandson of Shin Hwa/son of Cha Sung)
* bratty (demands shoe-licking/tricks a woman into taking him home and sheltering him)

Winner: Boys before Flowers. Jun Pyo may start off as a mean, bullying butthead, but he ends up a responsible, loving, and supportive captain of industry. Chi Soo is handsome and all, but it’s unclear what he has to offer the female lead, or how his character has improved throughout the course of the show—even in the military he’s still dodging hard work and haircuts, so what was the point of the past 16 episodes?


3. Second male lead
* falls asleep in random places (outdoor staircase/everywhere)

Winner: Tie. Either would have been a better choice than the male lead—each loves the female lead like I love cake, and would have been an excellent life partner for her, to boot.

4. Supporting cast
* Three flowery boys (Ji Hoo, Yi Jung, Woo Bin/Kang Hyuk, Hyun Woo, Ba Wool)
* A female best friend (Ga Eul/Dong Joo)

Winner: Boys before Flowers (even in spite of the magnificent "Crazy Chicken")BbF’s length allowed everyone involved a lot more screen time, but the show also gets bonus points for tidiness by developing a secondary romance between the female lead’s best friend and a member of the F4. RBFS doesn’t bother, instead creating a separate, entirely sidelined romance for the best friend that feels both unresolved and unrelated to the show’s main narrative.

5. Plot
* boy woos unwilling girl using his family's power and money (laser leg hair removal [!!!]/unwelcome grief money)
* an uncanny but suspect prediction (“She’ll give you a family”/you’ll hear bells ringing when you kiss the one you’re meant to be with)
* a parent tries to break up the main couple with a bribe; when that fails, he/she renovates real estate (Madam Kang/President Cha)

Winner: Boys before Flowers. This truly epic love story trumps FBRS's cute romance in every way.

A fire-alarm-enabled shopping spree and an all-expenses-paid trip to New Caledonia (wherever the heck that is)? Does it get better than that? Certainly not in Flower Boy Ramen Shop, where a fancy restaurant is the best a girl can hope for, no matter how rich her boyfriend may be.

Plus I literally got goose bumps when the monk made his prediction to Ji Hoo, and the show should get extra points for its clever(ish) twisting of the ambiguous prophecy. Jan Di gave him a family, all right, it was just of the grandfather variety rather than the pitter-patter-of-little-feet variety.

And then there’s Madam Kang—one of the greatest characters I've met in Kdrama. She’s a disinterested tiger mom who ultimately wants what she thinks is best for her son, but goes about getting it in exactly the wrong way. (I was disappointed in her finale, though. It’s as if the writers felt it was necessary to punish her for being a strong, independent woman so they saddled her with an invalid husband to put her in her place—the kitchen, not the boardroom.) President Cha’s hot tub and manboob combination was certainly one for the ages, but never carried the same weight as the ever-looming villainy of Madam Kang.

6. Resolution
*female lead studies (to be a doctor/to be a teacher)

Winner: Boys before Flowers. Both shows feature open-ended resolutions, perhaps intended to lay the ground for a second season. This category would have been a tie, if not for Kang Hyuk’s complete non-ending: He disappears to become an itinerant ramen chef? Really? Boys before Flowers may have dropped a lot of balls toward the end of its run, but at least it provided some degree of closure for its main characters. 

The Victor
To paraphrase another Korean drama, if I had met you first, Flower Boy Ramen Shop, I might have loved you. If for no reason other than showcasing a heroine capable of rescuing herself (and her man!), you are a worthy and valuable addition to the world. On the other hand, your Cliffs Notes-style, good-bits-only plotting downplays depth, texture, and character development (i.e., all the best bits of Kdrama, as far as I’m concerned).

And Boys over Flowers? You will always be my cracktastic love (of dubious objective quality). Nobody does delicious, over-the-top, smile-until-it-hurts like you do.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Writer's Worksheet, Kdrama Rom-Com Edition

Dear Writer,

Welcome to the wonderful world of scripting Korean drama! The following checklist will guide you through the creation of our show. (Please note that any deviation from these pre-approved scenarios will result in monetary fine, physical retribution, and/or your dismissal. For more information, refer to your contract, section 4,513, paragraph QQ.)

1. Female lead, primary characteristic of (check one):
__ spunky
__ spoiled

2. Male lead, primary characteristic of (check one):
__ spunky
__ spoiled

3. Second male lead, primary characteristics of (check four):
__ handsome
__ understanding
__ mature
__ infinitely more compatible with female lead than male lead

4. Roles for idol casting consideration (check one):
__ all

5. Main couple first meet (check no more than two):
__ cute
__ angry
__ unknowingly
__ as children

6. Constant contact between Main Couple assured by (check at least one; see your contract for multiple item bonus):
__ shared workplace
__ shared classroom
__ shared home
__ shared hangout spot

7. Primary obstacle (check one or more):
__ family disapproval
__ suspected sibling relationship
__ manipulation of evil character(s)
__ professional concerns
__ disparity in socio-economic background
__ age difference
__ bad haircut and/or insufficient grooming
__ gender
__ cancer or other serious ailment (see exhibit 15 for required fatality rates)

8. Secondary obstacle (check one):
__ studying abroad
__ mandatory military service
__ family obligation

9. Skinship level (check one):
__ wristholding
__ handholding
__ kissing (on forehead)
__ kissing (non-forehead; closed-mouth)
__ kissing (non-forehead; open-mouth)
__ full sex (see fine schedule, exhibit 250)

10. Final episode time jump (check one):
__ 6 months
__ 1 year
__ 2 years
__ 4 years

11. Resolution (check at least two):
__ death of one or more lead
__ marriage of Main Couple
__ happiness of Main Couple (see fine schedule, exhibit 250)

Thank you for your thoughtful work! Assuming ratings over 30 percent, you should hear from us soon.

The Kdrama Overlords

Thursday, December 29, 2011

In the Beginning, there was Netflix streaming. And it was good.

Barring a move to the international space station, I could not possibly live further from Korea than I do. (It’s so far, in fact, that to the best of my knowledge I’ve never once met someone who’s actually set foot in the country.) And unlike many established bloggers, my family heritage is as un-Asian as it gets: I’m a third-generation American descended from French-speaking Canadians. If my grandmother had ever seen kimchi, she would probably have wrinkled her nose and thrown it out, sure it was leftover boiled dinner forgotten in the refrigerator for far, far too long. I don’t speak Korean or have any profound insight into Korean culture beyond what I gleaned from reading a few books on Asian business etiquette for a previous job.

Yet here I am, presuming to post on the Internet about a topic I barely understand. (Of course, one might make the argument that this describes everything on the Internet, but still.) That topic? Korean drama, a diversion that has essentially eaten my life for the past six months.

My first exposure to Kdrama was like falling down the rabbit hole, or swallowing the red pill; it opened my eyes to an entire world I had long overlooked, one that was completely foreign and yet familiar in a lot of fundamental ways. I hold Netflix responsible: If they hadn’t offered Boys over Flowers on their streaming service, I might have lived my entire life without staying up all night to see whether Jan Di would chose Ji Hoo or Jun Pyo, without scouring the internet for information about mandatory military service in Korea, without yearning to call someone “oppa.”

What sold me at first was the realization that, unlike American TV shows, Kdramas have beginnings, middles, and ends. They are not specifically created to draw storylines out over multiple seasons and hundreds of episodes: some degree of satisfying closure is essentially guaranteed for every single drama. True, the shows are sometimes extended or shortened by a few episodes in the middle of their runs, but that’s nothing compared to coming to love a television show only to have it forever yanked off the air after two underperforming episodes. (I’m talking about you, Wonderfalls.)

These finite runs allow for the other thing that initially drove my obsession with Korean drama: love stories. When you need to plan ahead for season 7 from day one of your show’s run, as in America, it’s just not possible to focus on two lovers the way you can in a 16-episode Kdrama. Other than repugnant, Katherine Heigl-starring chick flicks, American culture isn’t something that gets a lot of mileage out of love. Romance is ghettoized onto channels providing “television for women” or serves as a temporary plot point on sitcoms—it’s not something our entertainment is built around the way Korean dramas are. Kdramas are stuffed to the gills with the things we Miss-Independent-style American girls dream of in our secret heart of hearts: big, unredeemably cheesy romantic moments, professions of undying love, and the kind of true gentleman who will piggyback a drunk girl for miles, no questions asked.

As far as I can tell from dramas, Korean culture is different from American culture in a lot other key ways. For one, it values cheerful, smart, hardworking types in a way that’s antithetical to modern America, where “smart” means “geeky” (see Big Bang Theory) and “hardworking” means “too dumb to know better” (see Office Space). In America, we hunger for coolness and independence and freedom, all of which can be great things—but not when they come at the expense of genuineness, and appreciating joy and beauty wherever they appear—all common themes in Korean drama.

Add these things to the sheer number of Korean dramas available for viewing online (7,000 hours worth on Drama Fever alone), and you have the perfect storm for an OCD-level completeist like myself. My motto has become a simple one: I want to watch Korean dramas now, and I want to watch them all—the old, the new, the classic, the trash.

I also don’t want to shut up about them and their cracktacular fabulousness, which is one of the reasons why I’m here, littering the Internet with still more nothing-special ramblings about something pretty special. Another reason? Much to my dismay, there just don't seem to be that many English-language blogs about Korean drama. The few I've found are fabulous beyond measure, but it feels like there's room for one more.