Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A Fairly Short List of Fairly Short Kdrama Lists

Three Kdrama men with great husband potential

1. Choi Han Gyul, Coffee Prince. Even if he wasn’t smoking hot and filthy rich, Han Gyul would still be a keeper. Funny, sweet, and supportive of his girlfriend’s independence? Sign me up.

2. Lee Sun Joon, Sungkyunkwan Scandal. He’s smart, earnest, and fiercely principled, and even as a man of the Joseon Dynasty is willing to share the household duties with his wife. (I’m lousy at dusting, too, Sun Joon!)

3. Yoon Ji Hoo, Boys Over Flowers. Because I, too, believe a perfect date involves reading together and then napping in a sunny place.

Three Kdrama men who don’t deserve their women 

1. Kim Seung Yoo, Princess’ Man. He started a shallow playboy, turned into a psycho hell-bent on revenge, and ended up abandoning his nation for his personal safety. And she took an arrow for this?

2. Baek Seung Jo, Playful Kiss. It was fun to see a Kdrama girl pursuing her man, when it’s so often the other way around. But Oh Ha Ni? You could do so much better than this distant, hypercritical bag of neuroses. I hoped you would break his heart in the end, I really did.

3. Lee Kung Min, Attic Cat. A giant (admittedly handsome) man child who expects women to take care of him. The show's ending hinted that he might have reformed, but I didn't buy it.

Three not-so-great moments in Kdrama relationships
1. The vicious, this-is-secretly-for-your-own-good breakup. Couldn’t these characters just be up-front about why they think it’s necessary to break up, and trust that their significant other will listen? See, for example, the cockamamie final two episodes of Heartstrings.

2. The wrist grab. The difference between a wrist grab and a hand-hold is more profound than four or five inches: It’s the difference between treating someone like a thing and treating them like a person; between forcefully taking control and working together; between acting like someone’s parent and being their lover.

3. The brush pass, that not-quite-meeting most dramas throw in before their romantic leads are introduced to each other. I suppose it’s meant to show that they’re destined to be together, but mostly it just conveys that people who live in the same city are bound to cross paths at some point. (Note, however, that this can be well done—several Coffee Prince scenes involve brush passes, but they’re so naturally worked into the story that they’re more of a transition between characters than some Deeply Magical Moment of Destiny.)

Three Kdrama villains who deserved worse than they got
1. Prince Suyan, Princess’ Man. Good thing everyone fought so hard and sacrificed so much to keep him from the throne. (That’s all I can say without spoiling the ending, so you may need to trust me on this front.)

2. Oh Yoon Joo, My Princes. She’s cruel, manipulative, and a downright evil bitch, yet her just rewards involve ending up with the handsome and kind second male lead. Just one more reason to dislike this middling show.

3.  Eun Chae Young, What’s Up. Based on the edited-down version of the drama that aired, her character had no closure whatsoever.  She deserved so much more—and so much worse.

Three words and/or phrases describing how much I’m enjoying Family’s Honor
1. Very much
2. Enormously
3. To a ridiculous extent

Three dramas I can’t wait to watch

1. Big. Scheduled to air this summer. If this show isn’t completely awesome, I’m going to need antidepressants. The first reason to be excited is that it’s written by the Hong sisters, capable screenwriters of such gems as My Girlfriend is a Gumiho and Greatest Love. Their work isn’t always perfect—they tend to be better at little details than constructing an overarching plot, for example—but it’s always charming, riddled with amusing pop culture references, and full of likeable characters. The cast is the second reason to be excited: Gong Yoo, of my fevered Coffee Prince dreams; Lee Min-jung, the one Jun Pyo should have ended up with in Boys over Flowers; and Suzy, whose limited acting abilities made her all the more amusing in Dream High. Oh. And it may or may not be based on Tom Hanks’s outlandishly wonderful 80s movie Big. (P.S. to the Hong sisters: if you’re going to continue pillaging movies beloved during my American childhood, may I suggest a Korean spin on Labyrinth?)

2. King 2 Hearts. Currently airing. My drama watching policy is not to start anything that isn’t completely subbed and available for streaming, so it’s going to be a while before I see this one. Based on everything I’ve read, though, it’s totally wonderful—and I’ll know if it manages to keep being totally wonderful right up to the end before I even see episode 1, which is somehow comforting.

3. Twelve Men in a Year. Finished airing in Korea as of April 5. A romantic comedy revolving around a magazine writer who decides to date one man from each of the Chinese zodiac signs? Yes please. Cable shows like this one are generally overlooked on English-language Kdrama news sources, so Twelve Men has been flying a bit under the radar. I haven’t even been able to find a listing for it on Drama Fever, but plan to hunt it out somewhere.

Three things I’m totally desensitized to in Korean Dramas
1. Drunkenness. American movies and TV shows may show drinking, but their characters only get drunk when the plot is about frat boys or didactic struggles with alcoholism. Nowadays, even a grandmother staggering drunken down the street wouldn’t cause me to bat an eyelash.

2. Men in pink. Western men often have masculinity issues when it comes to wearing the color pink. They do it sometimes, especially fashion forward or preppy types, but it’s hard to imagine Christian Bale being dressed in pink oxfords throughout the new Batman movie. On the other hand, raspberry jeggings were pretty much formal wear for Lee Min Ho in City Hunter (by contrast, he wore stretch pants in a stylish zebra print when kicking back at home, if I recall correctly.)

3. Multigenerational households. Moving out of the family home is item number one on the post-graduation to-do list of most Americans. Sometimes financial or practical concerns drive us back, but it’s pretty much wired into our hardware that making a home for ourselves is a key sign of adulthood and success. Based on dramaland, however, traditional Korean values lean in the other direction—it’s accepted for girls to stay at home until they’re married, and for boys to stay at home even after that. (I had to pick my jaw up off the floor when the leads in Playful Kiss came back to his parents’ house after their honeymoon, moved her things across the hall to his bedroom, and called it a done deal.)

Three things I’ll never be desensitized to, no matter how much Kdrama I watch
1. Closed-mouth, passionless kisses. Up until the past year or two, these seemed to be the most anyone could ever expect from Korean television. This is all well and good—Korean culture just isn’t as interested in physical displays of affection as Western culture is. But from American perspective, the big culmination of a powerfully epic 16-episode love story deserves some tongue, at least. It feels false and cold when the best kiss the grown-up leads can work up to is reminiscent of ones stolen before we hit puberty. Thanks to today’s youth-oriented cable shows like Flower Boy Ramen Shop and I Need Romance, though, more realistic physical relationships seem to be on the upswing.

2. Sleeping on the floor. I try not to be one of those “My country, right or wrong” types, but I can tell you one thing America has all over Korea: huge, pillow-topped mattresses on nice high bed frames. I’m sure that people prefer whatever they’re used to, but it’s hard to imagine that sleeping on what boils down to a padded comforter is as comfortable as sleeping on my plush, cozy queen mattress. (I do envy, though, how easy moving must be without all the bulky furniture.)

3. Lack of commercial breaks. For someone who has spent the last few years watching American TV on DVD, it’s weird that there are no placeholder cuts intended for commercial placement in Korean dramas. But there’s a good reason for this: Korean law doesn’t allow commercials to interrupt broadcast television; instead they run before or after the show on air. (This doesn’t apply to cable networks, which explains the painfully obvious editing jumps for commercial breaks in dramas like the What’s Up.) Just like in America, though, everyone gets around this by implanting ads right into the script of the show—“Smart phones aren’t hard to use after all!” “Look at how my amazing car does the parallel parking for me!” “This iPad app allows me to play the gayageum without lugging that heavy old instrument around all the time!”

Three things I thought I’d always dislike about Korean drama, but have grown to love
1. Relationship terms. At first, all this oppa-ing seemed designed to keep people in their place—a constant reminder of the totem pole of social worth and the inequalities in their relationships. I can now see the flip side of this coin, though: relationship terms can be a celebration of the ties between people and all the many viewpoints they have to share, whether they’re hubaes or seonbaes, dongsaengs or hyungs.

2. Melodramatic chipmunk-esque camera work (see video, below). Painfully old-fashioned and deserving of an eye-roll as it is, there’s something to be said about the visceral power of a quick zoom in dramatic scene: it punctuates whatever crazy thing has just happened and pulls you directly into the action. I was stunned the first time this technique popped up in my drama watching, but now it inevitably leaves me hungry for more.

3. Sageuk garb. Before I even saw my first show set during the Joseon Dynasty, I watched Sweet 18. This 2004 drama featured an everyday girl marrying the first son of a main family, which is harder than it might sound: it involves running a big traditional household and acting as clan matriarch. And the thing that initially sold the (not-too-bright) female lead on her fiance was seeing him all decked out in traditional clothes. I couldn’t quite wrap my mind around this. What was so great about a man carrying a paper fan and wearing dusty-rose pajamas and a weird hat?  Having seen a few historical dramas since then, I get it now: the look is dashing and flamboyant and smacks of deliciously over-the-top sageuk romance. I would probably stop traffic to gaze adoringly at a handsome man in a hanbok, too, and I haven’t even had a lifetime of cultural conditioning to find the look appealing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Sageuks: Ratings and Spoiler-free Capsule Reviews

I’ve been meaning to get around to posting some brief, spoiler-free drama ratings for a while now, and today seems to be the day. This week was slow on the drama watching front—the Hunger Games movie wasn’t as amazing as it might have been, but it was good enough to inspire me to re-read the series, which has been taking up most of my free time lately.

Rather than the same-old alphabetical list everybody else posts, I’m going to group my ratings into genre categories. And in honor of just wrapping up the goofy-but-fun Tamra, the Island, here’s sageuk.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Korean Creep

There’s a trope in American entertainment that involves a caveman/alien/other foreigner sitting down to watch a couple of episodes of Sesame Street and ending up as a speaker of polished, perfect English. This might be possible if said caveman/alien/other foreigner is a lot smarter than me, but even with more than 30 dramas under my belt, I still have a Korean vocabulary of about five words. On the other hand, I keep finding that weird little Koreanisms are involuntarily bleeding into my real life.

The first red flag was what’s now called “Korean drama face” around my office. Before last summer, I never would have guessed that facial expressions were culturally specific. But watching a block of four or five recent Kdramas proved otherwise: the side-eyed lip-curl of disgust is a thing of beauty that Americans sadly lack. On the other hand, this may not be true for long, as the expression has proven to be highly contagious. It may have felt bizarre the first time I tried it out—as if I’d discovered a whole passel of muscles I’d never used before—but now I can’t seem to stop doing it, no matter how slight the prompting annoyance. I didn’t realize the full extent of my problem, though, until I noticed that the expression was starting to rub off on the people around me. When I saw my boss do it in the middle of a meeting the other day, I found myself suspecting that there might be trouble ahead.

The “Korean drama face” in its natural habitat

I’m also helpless in the face of the close wave. In the West, waves are generally reserved for long-distance situations, e.g., the queen riding by in a parade. When people do wave in everyday life, it tends to be a casual, low-key gesture to acknowledge someone’s presence when they’re too far away to speak to. The Korean drama wave, on the other hand, is energetic and enthusiastic enough to cause wrist sprain, and often done by two people in such close proximity that their waving hands practically bump. I’m now doing the close wave all the time—when I run into somebody I know at the supermarket, when I’m entering a room full of talking people, when I need to get a salesclerk’s attention at a store.

But the ultimate example of Korean drama’s siren song happened last Friday. I’ve been putting off getting a haircut for ages, both because I’m lazy and because the salon I normally go to was pretty much wiped off the planet during tropical storm Irene last summer. But I finally got tired of hair that was either wet all day if I tried to air-dry it, or puffed up into a giant halo of frizz if I approached it with a blow dryer. So off I went. And can you guess whose picture I took with me as a guide? Why yes, that would be Park Shin Hye, with her modern bob from Heartstrings. Although the stylist didn’t bat an eyelash, it’s hard to imagine that this wasn’t the first time a thirty-something white woman came into her rural salon asking to be made into a teeny-bop actress from Korea. (Alas, while it is possible for me to have Park Shin Hye’s haircut, it is not possible for me to have Park Shin Hye’s hair. Instead of falling in cooperative, glossy waves, my hair has decided to emulate Little Orphan Annie’s rats’ nest of sloppy curls.)

I wanted to look like this...
...but ended up looking more like this.

As if to add insult to injury, I stopped by the bank after my haircut to drop off a sheaf of papers about refinancing my mortgage. It didn’t even occur to me until I was walking out the door that I had presented to papers to the teller using both hands, with what could only be considered a small bow.

Clearly, I need to find a new obsession before I turn into a complete foreigner in my own country.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Drama Review: What's Up and Shut Up! Flower Boy Band

(Warning: Light spoilers for recent shows ahoy!)

What’s Up: B-

Shut Up! Flower Boy Band: A

As a sucker for coming-of-age dramas, musicians, and (especially) cute boys, it was almost inevitable that I would like both What’s Up and Shut Up! Flower Boy Band. Lame (and oddly similar) titles aside, both take a grittier-than-average approach and focus on a stable of youthful characters hoping for success in the Korean entertainment industry.

Of the two, What’s Up is more traditional in tone and plot, complete with an ending ripped right out of the Big Book of Korean Drama Clich├ęs. It manages to feel different, though, at least partially because it’s set at a residential college: Instead of coming home to mom every night, the What’s Up kids are learning to be independent and make their own way in the world. The true focal point of the show is their education, both as students in the musical theater department and as human beings. They ask the questions everyone asks at that age—Who am I? What will I be?—and answer them in a variety of ways, some noble, some foolish, but all genuine.

On a small-scale level, this show is full of idiosyncratic pleasures—fun musical numbers, interesting characters brought to compelling life by a cast of likeable actors, and a random ghost for good measure (and occasional purposes of exposition). It’s on the large-scale that things go horribly wrong: after carefully setting up a number of conflicts during the first 18 or so episodes, almost all of them are abandoned in favor of a cheesy (and largely unearned) Dead-Poet’s-Society-meets-Autumn-in-My-Heart finale that’s so totally unsatisfying I wish I’d stopped watching at episode 19. It’s possible that a second season was originally intended to address the many, many strings left hanging, but we won’t be seeing that now: What’s Up sat on a shelf for more than a year between the completion of its filming and its eventual air date. The cast is off to bigger and better—or, in the case of my charming Im Joo Hwan, two years of mandatory military service.

For me anyway, What’s Up’s ending-fail retroactively ruined what had been a fun show to watch. Shut Up, in contrast, suffered from a shaky start but grew into an irresistible delight. Its first two episodes may have seemed fragmentary—a bunch of fights and concerts strung together with no true center—but by the beginning of episode 3, it was clear that the writers had very good reason for allowing this: They were expertly setting viewers up for a major emotional wallop and what ultimately amounted to a shift in male leads.

I started watching SUFBB with low expectations. As the second drama in tvN’s Oh! Boy series, it seemed likely to follow in the shallow, soulless footsteps of its predecessor, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop. A straight-up comedy, FBRS featured limp storytelling and good-looking, one-dimensional characters; nothing about it rang emotionally true. But it turns out that Shut Up could not possibly be more different. Devoid of the glittery trappings of a fairytale chaebol love story, it features believable, working-class characters that clearly inhabit planet Earth, not planet Drama.

SUFBB transcends its gimmicky premise (pretty boys! In a band!) to become a genuinely affecting, well-made drama about the power of friendship and the pain of growing up. Although lacking the nihilist bite of true “punk rock,” it has an indie, alternative feel, complete with a harsh-light-of-day color palate and grainy, documentary-style filming techniques. But beneath this gratifyingly edgy exterior is a pleasantly soft and cuddly show about a group of underdogs from the wrong side of the tracks and the unbreakable ties that bind them together.

Although made from the same building blocks as most Korean shows, Shut Up turns everything on its ear with one subtle premise shift: It isn’t a love story between a man and a woman. It’s a love story between the members of a band. Sure, the show includes well-executed romance subplots, but they’re secondary to the story’s real center of gravity. The six boys in Eye Candy are more than friends; they’re family. Largely failed by the adults in their lives, they’re the most important people in each others’ worlds, and together they struggle and suffer and slack off and work hard, all in hopes of becoming a successful rock band. 

The death of Eye Candy’s charismatic front man, Byung Hee, is a good example of how Shut Up differs from FBRS. Someone died in FBRS, too, but the death of the female lead’s dad was nothing more than a throw-away plot trick. It maneuvered characters to where they needed to be for the rest of the story, but had no lasting emotional repercussions. Byung Hee, on the other hand, continues to be one of the most important characters in Shut Up long after he’s dead. He’s in every scene, really: in Ji Hyuk’s heartbroken loneliness, in Hyun Soo’s hatred of the classmates involved in his death, in the way the boys idealized the female lead. Byung Hee’s relationship with the other band members—part worshiped hero, part beloved brother—and the dreams of music superstardom he inspired in them inform every moment of the show’s sixteen episodes. 

By the end of episode two, Byung Hee has delivered a strange piece of wisdom that shapes the second half of the drama. While sharing a daydream about playing for a screaming crowd of adoring fans at UK’s Glastonbury Festival, he wraps up by saying, matter-of-factly, “that day we’ll die.” In response to Ji Hyuk’s question about this strange ending for a good dream, he explains: “I want to die at my happiest moment.” The thing about happiest moments, Byung Hee seems to realize, is that they’re momentary. And following in their wake are always a slew of other moments that aren’t so happy, as Eye Candy will learn the hard way once they’ve finally been signed to a talent agency. Later in the show, archrival Seung Hoon will echo this sentiment: “You’re still unhappy, even though you got everything you wanted.”

And that’s Shut Up’s true message: What we think we want and what we truly need to be happy are sometimes two very different things. An essential part of growing up is growing apart, stepping away from the family that has always sheltered you to be your own person, however hard and scary and painful it may be. It’s Ji Hyuk, having taken over as leader of Eye Candy, who comes to realize this first. And his realization leads to one of the most bittersweet but genuinely truthful drama finales I’ve ever seen. The boys realize they will always be a family, but as they become their adult selves that family won’t be the centerpiece of their lives the way it was when they were young.

Shut Up is never in stasis. It doesn’t hinge around one lead couple finally getting together—it’s made of characters who will instantly take up residence in your heart, and structured as one high-tension set piece after another, with the show growing and changing just as its characters do. 

From the halls of high school to the halls of a talent agency dorm, Shut Up somehow manages to travel a lot of miles in not a lot of time. And I’m so glad I got to go along for the ride.