Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Coffee Prince: One Scene Two Ways

Being a complete nerd, I’m acutely aware that any Kdrama I watch is a secondary source, not a primary one. A cadre of subbers will stand between me and the dialogue’s true meaning until I decide to learn Korean (which is unlikely, barring a massive, lightning-strike-induced increase in IQ).

In most cases, this distance from the original doesn’t prevent me from enjoying the drama: as long as the translation isn’t spectacularly botched, the subtitles and the actors working together get the point across. But obsessive viewing of Coffee Prince episodes from many different sources has opened my eyes to another issue: no matter how high-quality the subtitles may be, the subber’s work inevitably colors the meaning of the scene.

In my explorations, I’ve found three distinct sets of subtitles for Coffee Prince: The first is the official MBC version, which appears on the DVD box set and legit streaming sites such as Dramafever and Crunchyroll. The second set are the Viki fan subs, which are almost an exact match with the official version. And the last of the three was fan-subbed by WITH S2 and is available streaming on Kimchidramas and Dramacrazy.

While the differences between the official version and Viki’s subs are minor, Viki’s work is actually superior: it does a better job with English grammar, nailing issues of pluralization and verb tense that are cringe-inducingly wrong in MBC’s subs. But the best of all three sets of subtitles, I would argue, are the WITH S2 subs. They’re more fun, with sharper and wittier dialogue that brings to the forefront story currents only obliquely suggested in the other sets of subtitles.

My initial assumption was that the WITH S2 subs were also the least accurate of the three, because they’re so different from the other versions. But now I’m not so sure—both the official and Viki translations seem to have been cleaned up to make everyone speak in something close to complete sentences. On the other hand, the WITH S2 subs are full of fragments and exclamations that trail off into nothing, which makes them feel much more genuine and compelling. They also retain Korean relationship words like hyung, rather than translating them into their improbable English forms. (“Han Gyul wants Eun Chan to call him ‘bro’? What is this, an episode of In Living Color from 1992?”) Fidelity to the original helps WITH S2’s subbers to bring the drama to life, conveying both the genuine meaning of the words and the skill of their delivery.

Take, for example, the moment in episode 5 when Min Yeop discovers Eun Chan’s gender. It’s a perfect example of what I love about Coffee Prince—it effortlessly serves a number of storytelling functions, and is just plain fun to watch. A lazy writer and director could have produced a flat, textureless version of this scene that would have served the plot just fine. But from beginning to end, it’s clear that this drama is different: I get the feeling that the people who created it were just as much in love with it as I am, and lost no opportunity to turn it into something special. In this scene, multiple story threads and character motivations all interplay, furthering the overarching plot while adding dimension to the relationship of the show’s third leads. Add an everyday, real-world location and some gross-out humor, and you’ve got prime Coffee Prince wonderfulness.

This scene was what initially clued me in to just how varied subs can be—all because of some confusion between chicken and pig’s feet. (Based on the video, it’s clearly chicken feet. But two out of the three subs specify pig.) To make it easier to figure out the differences between them, I’ve transcribed the official subs and WITH S2’s version below the jump.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Drama Review: My Lovely Sam Soon, Now and Then

My Lovely Sam Soon: A

Boys over Flowers may be the source of my current Kdrama obsession, but it’s not the first Korean drama I watched. That title goes to 2005’s My Lovely Sam Soon, which found its way to a friend of mine on DVD. We plopped on my couch and devoured all 16 episodes over the course of a single weekend sometime in 2006.

Six years and twenty something dramas later, it’s actually hard to wrap my mind around just how exotic Sam Soon seemed on that first viewing. There was a chirpy Kpop theme song, for one, and characters who studiously removed their shoes every time they entered someone’s house. They ate crazy things like live octopus, dried their hair with fans, and drank coffee from paper cups about half the size of an American small. These are the things that stuck with me in the intervening years, not the show’s plot; I vaguely remembered that it had something to do with a restaurant and focused on a belligerent female lead, but it was the cultural backdrop that really stood out.

Knowing what I know now, I see that My Lovely Sam Soon is the perfect Kdrama gateway drug. It’s a window into another world for American viewers, but a world populated with people recognizable from everyday life. Its characters struggle with their careers and their relationships and their families just as we do—the biggest difference being that they happen to be doing it in Korean. The show doesnt dwell on the makjang elements in its plot or get bogged down in the ritualized quirks of the standard Kdrama love triangle. Instead, My Lovely Sam Soon turns a naturalistic, real-life vibe and nuanced characters into an addictive romantic comedy with universal appeal. Each perfectly paced hour offers a host of delights, and by the time we got to episode 16, I was sad to say goodbye to Sam Soon.

Back then, Kdrama wasn’t as easy to find and watch online as it is now, so I thought my lost weekend was the end of it. Thanks to the wonders of streaming video, though, Kdrama came back into my life with a vengeance about six months ago. And out of all the dramas I’ve watched since then, Sam Soon really is the one most perfectly tailored for beginning viewers. It even gives Westerners their own on-screen stand-in: American-born Henry, visiting his mother’s homeland for the first time as part of his quest to win the heart of Yoo Hee Jin, the second female lead. Through his eyes we experience the country first-hand: we gape at Seoul’s nighttime skyline, struggle to understand the language of the people around us, and try to figure out just what life on the other side of the world might be like. Henry even gives us the opportunity to watch whole Kdrama scenes conducted entirely in English, which both he and Yoo Hee Jin handle with the aplomb of native speakers. (Even if she clearly learned the language from an Australian.)

Which is not to say that some finer points aren’t lost on someone who hasn’t been steeping in Korean culture for a while. The big bed scene, for example, ends with both participants getting bloody noses. The first time I saw this I’m sure I had no idea what in God’s name it might mean, but on the second viewing it actually made me laugh out loud: I realized that the bloody noses meant the characters were exhausted from lots of hard, strenuous physical labor. (Wink, wink.) Throughout the show, I kept stumbling on moments like this—things that required knowledge to fully appreciate, but were pretty darn fun even if you didn’t really get what was going on. My Lovely Sam Soon works a bit like a Pixar movie; you can enjoy it no matter who you are, because it offers layers of complexity and different interpretations based on your level of knowledge.

My understanding of Sam Soon herself was something that changed almost completely between my two viewings of the show. I remember originally thinking that she was off-puttingly abrasive and aggressive, and wondering why a character like her had been chosen to anchor the drama. Now I see just how special Sam Soon really is, largely thanks to the very things that initially made me dislike her: She’s not the standard Korean-drama doormat, avoiding conflict and letting men order her around. The only person who really tells Sam Soon what to do is her mom—and even then, Sam Soon’s acquiescence is grudging at best. It’s true that the male lead postures just as much as any other and uses ickily sexist tactics to prevent Sam Soon from changing her name. But ultimately she’s the one who makes the final decision, just as she’s the one who’s really in control of their relationship.

The second time I watched My Lovely Sam Soon I also knew enough to appreciate its sensitive portrayal of weight issues. Although to an American Sam Soon looks thin-to-average, the script never lets us forget that she’s actually considered heavy in Korea. But unlike other dramas that touch on body image, My Lovely Sam Soon doesn’t take cheap shots at her because of her weight. (Unlike, say, Dream High and Kim Pil Sook, who is shown with a saucepan in her locker—because is it ever funny that fat people like food!) Instead, Sam Soon is treated as just another person wanting to be happy, in spite of the fact that she also wants to eat. And she even ends up with a toothsome chaebol in the end. 

All these years later, My Lovely Sam Soon doesn’t feel dated—the production values are good, the casting and acting are spot on, and the script is funny and insightful. I couldn’t have asked for a better show to lose my Kdrama virginity to in 2006, just as I couldn’t ask for a better Kdrama to watch in 2012.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Housekeeping Update/ WTF drama #1

I’m still waiting to run out of things to say on this blog, or maybe the motivation to say them. But that day isn’t here yet: years of laziness may have gotten me out of the habit, but come right down to it I really do enjoy writing and the satisfaction that comes from synthesizing random thoughts into something resembling a coherent post. 

On the housekeeping update front, I plan to continue publishing a new piece of content every Tuesday, but also to make super-short WTF drama posts as they occur to me during the week. (Putting them in the sidebar is kind of lame, because they’re so hard to read there.) 

And today’s WTF drama moment? How is it that the heroine of Summer Scent has had a heart transplant, yet loves to wear cute, low-cut shirts? I appreciate that the ailments in the Endless Love series are largely window dressing, but couldn’t someone at least pretend to care about the giant scar she should have?

(Which is not to say that I’m not enjoying the show—it’s an unbelievably, unapologetically sappy love story filled with fetishistic shots of beautiful summer scenery and beautiful actors. You can’t go wrong with that.)

Nice scar. Or not.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Not-so-short List of Short Kdrama Lists

Three ways Korea is like Vermont, my home state:
  1. Our cars have green license plates.
  2. Both are full of hills and mountains, most of them likewise green.
  3. Although some areas are heavily populated and cosmopolitan, as soon as you pass their boundaries you’re surrounded by farmland (and poverty of varying degrees of abjectness). 

Three ways Korea is unlike Vermont, my home state:
  1. In the US, state funding for television is practically non-existent. In Korea, the government owns entire TV stations. (As is so often the case, both extremes seem to suck.)
  2. Although it snows here just like it does in Kdramas, nobody ever thinks to use an umbrella during a snowstorm. We’re kind of stupid, it seems.
  3. To the best of my knowledge, no adult Vermonter has ever received a piggyback ride in the history of the world.

Three things I’d like to see in more Kdramas:
  1. Smart girls, who read books and make witty comments. See, for example, Rory Gilmore. (Or her friend Lane—who’s Korean, after all.)
  2. More girl-centered sageuks, fusion or not. Clearly Joseon women didn’t get a lot of excitement (Painter of the Wind implied they were only allowed out of their homes once a year), but Kdrama is no place for slavish devotion to historical accuracy, now is it? 
  3. A continuation of the trend toward men in shower and/or bath scenes. Not the most noble of desires, certainly, but hard to resist.

Three things I never want to see in another Kdrama:
  1. Blank-eyed caricatures of stupid girls, ala the dread Bong Uri of Can You Hear My Heart?
  2. Last-minute diagnoses of and/or deaths from cancer.
  3. Sports-themed plots. (Birdie Buddy? What’s next? Curling CutieDiving Darling?  Let’s just hope they stop before getting to the almost inevitable Snake-charming Slut.)

Three Korean actors I’d like to see more of:


    1. Im Ju Hwan from What’s Up. Tends to be slightly wise-ass, slightly puppyish, and totally handsome. (Currently doing his mandatory military service. Couldn’t he serve his country by acting in another sageuk, instead?)
    2. Bae Soo Bin from Shining Inheritance. Dreamy and sad-eyed; apparently massively prolific, but I’ve only seen him in a few shows to date.
    3. Hero Jaejoong from Protect the Boss. Brings the funny, brings the cute, brings me to whatever he’s in. Also, sings.

    Three great moments in every Kdrama relationship:

    1. The first longing glance.
    2. When he asks her never to smile/cry/laugh in front of another man, feminist principles be damned.
    3. The ritual eyelash touch.

    Three randomly sexual moments in Kdrama:

    1. Every time the female lead got on a horse in The Princess’s Man.
    2. Flower Boy Ramen Shop’s panting, sweaty volleyball daydreams.
    3. Jan-di’s “fireman” in Boys over Flowers. Those Koreans sure are an innocent lot if their minds don’t go immediately to the gutter at the thought of all the hoses involved in said profession.

    Three Kdrama jobs I want:
    1. Writer at a smutty men’s magazine (What’s Up, Fox?).
    2. Scuba-diving aquarium cleaner (One Fine Day).
    3. Manga author (Someday).

    Three Kdrama jobs I’d rather not have:
    1. Convenience store clerk (Who Are You?).
    2. Milk deliverer (Coffee Prince, Shining Inheritance, and all other Kdramas starring a plucky girl).
    3. Government party planner (Lie to Me).

    Three Kdramas I’ve loved enough to watch more than once:
    1. Coffee Prince (3 times). My obsession with this drama knows no bounds—as I’m sure you've noticed if you’ve spent more than 2 seconds on this blog.
    2. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2 times). Smart, sassy, and incredibly fun, this show has a heart of gold.
    3. Boys before Flowers (1.5 times). The television equivalent of tuna-noodle casserole. Homey, totally undemanding, and embarrassingly tasty.

    Three Kdramas I’ve hated enough to stop watching:
    1. Triple (episode 1). A grating female lead, Korean-style fat jokes, and a male lead who’s about 20 years too old? No thanks.
    2. Miss Ripley (episode 3)The idea of a hard-working Kdrama girl gone wrong is fun, but not my cup of tea.
    3. Queen Seon Duk (episode 1). This show might be awesome, but its 62-episode run is too daunting for me to even think about. 

    Three heart-wrenchingly wonderful Kdrama kisses:
    1. Sungkyunkwan Scandal, episode 17
    This slow, tender kiss goes all the way past sweet to reverent, but it’s the shot of their clasped hands at the end that puts it completely over the top. Sigh.


    2. Coffee Prince, episode 10

    The embodiment of love and trust. I don’t even need the subtitles for this scene—the dialogue, sadly enough, is etched on my heart, just like the rest of Coffee Prince’s script. 

    Watch Kiss - Coffee Prince in Music  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

    3. Padam Padam, episode 8 (skip to 6:30)
    Slow and sweet, just like the best kisses always are. Also a beautifully handled example of a standard Kdrama convention: a kiss isn’t a kiss until someone’s eyes are shown sliding slowly shut.

    Three frustratingly awful Kdrama kisses:
    1. Autumn in My Heart (skip to 3:05)
    Their families are against them, their friends are against them, fate is against them. Must her jacket’s collar also be against them? The only real kiss in this entire drama, and it’s very nearly foiled by outerwear.

    2. My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, episode 12
    Bloodless, bland, and boring, just like all Lee Seung Gi’s on-screen kisses.

    3. Personal Taste, episode 10
    A slobbery cross between CPR and Return of the Living Dead. A kiss from Lee Min Ho seems like a hard thing to mess up, but his dramas always seem to manage it. The infamous “game over” kiss is a total ambush, barely involving the female lead—he might as well be kissing a mannequin.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2012

    Drama Review: My Sweet Seoul / Padam Padam

    My Sweet Seoul: B-
    Padam Padam: A

    Writing a Korean drama must be a little like playing the board game Clue. You shuffle a few standard-issue cards and—Viola!—a whole new script is born. Instead of Suspects, Weapons, and Rooms, though, the groupings would be something like Characters, Conflict, and Result. You shuffle your cards and pick one from each category: Pseudo-siblings; Fall in love in spite of family objections; Death? You’ve got yourself Autumn in My Heart. Shuffle and pick again: Pseudo-siblings; Fall in love in spite of family objections; Love? That’s One Fine Day. Another shuffle and pick: Chaebol and poor girl; Fall in love in spite of family objections; Love? Two for one—you’ve got Boys over Flowers and Flower Boy Ramen Shop.

    Somehow, though, Korean dramas prove again and again that the total of a show is more than the sum of its plot and characters. No matter how many common elements they may share, most dramas manage to put their own stamp on the proceedings and create something that feels almost wholly unique. My Sweet Seoul and Padam Padam are perfect examples of this: although both clearly picked the same conflict card—Male lead is imprisoned after causing tragic death of young friend—it’s hard to imagine how two shows could be more different.

    My Sweet Seoul (2008) starts out as just another career-girls-in-the-city love story in the vein of The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry and I Need Romance. Like these later shows, Seoul revolves around the personal and professional lives of three thirty-something friends, but it’s less of a romantic comedy and more of a pleasantly low-key, naturalistic melodrama. One of the friends learns the hard way that marrying for something other than love is unlikely to lead to a happy ending, another quits her high-powered corporate job to audition for musicals, and the lead falls into a tumultuous physical relationship with a younger man.

    Oh Eun Soo, said female lead, impetuously sleeps with this younger man after meeting him at a bar, and spends the first half of the drama struggling with their relationship: Will his puppyish adoration ever really win her heart? Can she handle dating a student who’s drifting through life without a plan for the future? Their relationship is fun to watch; it’s cute and tender and driven by a powerful sense of chemistry between the two actors.

    While focusing on this noona love story, the show keeps its biggest attraction (for me anyway) on the back burner: Coffee Prince’s delicious Lee Sun Gyun, who plays a client Eun Soo works closely with. And this is where the old Clue card comes into play: even as Lee’s Kim Young Soo comes to care about Eun Soo, his tragic backstory prevents him from fully sharing himself with her. And the tragic backstory? Two-thirds of the way through this amiable, slice-of-life drama, we realize that Young Soo was responsible for the accidental death of his childhood friend and spent his twenties in prison for it.

    The drama might have survived this major tone shift to hardcore melo, if only Eun Soo and Young Soo had ever managed to feel like they really belonged together. The script wants their slow, measured courtship to be a mindful, spiritual counterpoint to the spontaneous, headlong rush of Eun Soo’s relationship with her younger man. But ultimately Eun Soo seems to lose her backbone whenever Young Soo appears, turning tongue-tied and passive. All in all, the late-arriving shocker of Young Soo’s background is not a Clue card well-played, and the drama suffers for it.

    While My Sweet Seoul uses its Conflict card as a last-minute twist, Padam Padam’s plot hinges entirely on its male lead’s imprisonment and the mystery surrounding his friend’s death. Far and away my favorite drama of recent memory, it’s a grown-up, absorbing story full of passion, intrigue, and cute animals. (No joke.)

    With a big, complicated plot and cast of (practically) thousands, Padam Padam might have been confusing in lesser hands. But its creators use these raw materials to tell a powerful story of everyday miracles, deftly interweaving satisfying storylines for each of the show’s main characters. Unlike many dramas, it also finds a way to seamlessly incorporate action and supernatural elements into its realistic, gritty universe. And even more impressively, these elements actually contribute to the story’s emotional heft rather than distracting from it. If Padam Padam had been made for American television it would almost certainly have gotten bogged down with big-budget car chases and angel special effects, but in true Korean drama fashion, this show never loses sight of its primary goal as a television program: to tell a meaningful, memorable story.

    What makes this story so great isn’t simply its compelling plot—also key is the drama’s nuanced cast of characters, all of whom grow and change throughout the show’s twenty episodes. Jung Woo Sung is disarmingly boyish, reckless, and vulnerable as he enters the world as an adult for the first time. Kim Bum is all sunshine and charming smiles, always optimistic and hopeful in spite of the ever-darkening world around him. And then there’s Jang Hang Sun as the female lead’s abusive, violent father. Instead of coming off as a one-note villain, his character is a deeply flawed man who’s also deeply blessed—his love for his family and quest for the truth ultimately save the day.

    Padam Padam isn’t just substance, either—it’s also full of some of the most amazing locations and camera work I’ve seen in any Kdrama. Most Korean shows get by with workmanlike cinematography, using the same old shots, the same old angles, and the same old settings. But this drama never misses an opportunity to do something special, from its impressionistic sunsets over the ocean and dark nights exploding with fireworks, to the visceral, stomach-turning swirl of an in-progress car accident.

    It goes without saying that a strong plot and amazing acting are two of the most important building blocks of a good drama—and Padam Padam has them both. But its craftsmanship really shows in all the little details: Resident angel (or not) Kim Bum wears a never-ending collection of Batman and Superman t-shirts, betraying his self-identification as a flying superhero. An ever-changing wall of graffiti regularly features a  graphic, brush-stroke angel that none of the characters seem to notice. And even the bridges built by the lead in an attempt to impress the woman he’s wooing are more than they seem: They span a manmade streambed that is notorious for injuring the local wildlife, but instead of being simple, straight stretches above the water, each bridge takes a meandering, multi-angle path. Even as you watch the first rabbit tentatively hop its way across, you’re left wondering why a professional carpenter would build something so irregular and awkward. But then, many episodes later, it becomes clear: when the lead couple finally admit they belong together, they’re standing on a staggered walkway that echoes the shape of these animal bridges, a reminder of their history together and a physical embodiment of protection and love.

    From its basis in a standard Kdrama Conflict card shared by who knows how many other shows, Padam Padam grows into a romance, mystery, family drama, and tale of both the natural and the supernatural. And television doesn’t get much better than that.