Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Drama Review: Kimchi Family and Time between Dog and Wolf

Kimchi Family: C+
Time between Dog and Wolf: A+

The funny thing about me and  “quality" is that I don’t always like it. 

The world is positively chock full of undeniably high-quality things that I could happily live without: the works of Ernest Hemingway, the movie Wings of Desire, the vegetable cauliflower. You’re welcome to them…I’ll just be over here reading Twilight while I watch America’s Next Top Model and eat a heaping bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Sure, there’s a time and a place for works of art, but I can be made just as happy by consumable crap with no qualitative merit.

This is why I often take the recommendations of serious critics with a grain of salt. And when it comes to the world of online Kdrama, it’s pretty clear that the webmaster at DramaTic is about as serious and critical as they come—which means I approached the list of best dramas on that site with no slight trepidation. Would a lover of trendy dramas and romantic comedies really enjoy something truly, objectively good? It turns out that the answer is yes, if that thing is number 56 on the list of DramaTic’s best shows of all time: the thrilling, beautifully constructed 2007 drama Time between Dog and Wolf.

I was ready for a change after finishing this year’s saccharine Kimchi Family, and it seemed likely that an action drama beloved by the males of the species would be just the palate cleanser I needed. It turned out that this was true, but not quite in the way I expected: Deep down, under all that fur and fermented shrimp paste, these two shows weren’t so different after all. At heart they’re both about identity and family, and how the two are always inextricably tangled together. (Laughably awful mustaches are also a common theme, regrettably.) With this common DNA, it’s only natural that the dramas faced many of the same decisions—what’s amazing is how different their choices were.

I can see how someone might really like Kimchi Family—at its best, it’s a beautifully produced, big-hearted drama about the power of family and food. I was sold for the first few episodes myself. But what began as a story of foodie magical realism told through the lens of a traditional Korean restaurant and the people who frequent it  quickly descended into a series of makjang plot twists taken right out of the Big Book of Kdrama Clichés. Birth secrets? Chaebols in disguise? Gangsters with hearts of gold? Fatal and/or debilitating diseases? Kimchi Family has them all in spades. (In fact, there are at least two separate incidents of each one of these plotlines—and sometimes more.) What it doesn’t have, however, is any true depth, darkness, or hint of friction between its lead characters. Instead of exploring their interactions and motivations, this is a drama that lines up lots of obstacles and stands back—as long as you keep your characters tolerably busy, its writers seem to have decided, nobody will notice that they exist only in one dimension.

As far as I’m concerned, Kimchi Family’s best episodes were the ones that focused on its core group of characters: the Lee sisters and their uncle Kang Do Shik, as well as the two men who became live-in staff members at Heaven, Earth, and Man, their family’s restaurant. The food is beyond toothsome and charmingly presented as the most important part of the Lee family heritage. The girls’ happiest childhood memories involve learning to make kimchi from their mom, and no wonder—she imbues the process with a palpable sense of enchantment, spinning kid-friendly stories about the ingredients of each recipe. When the narrative begins to widen and explore Kimchi Family’s supporting cast, though, the drama loses its focus on creating indelible characters on a meaningful journey, and instead dwells on over-the-top plot developments and overwrought reaction shots.

Kimchi Family is a fine drama for what it is; my problem is that I wanted it to be something more. Its greatest disappointment is a failure to take advantage of its setup. It began with just the right blend of sweet and tart, after all—during the first few episodes, the younger Lee sister is living in the city and working at a fancy French restaurant, having vowed never to return home to be part of the simple, traditional life of Heaven, Earth, and Man. She’s an exasperated perfectionist who wants to succeed in the modern world, and it seems clear that the writers initially planned for her unwilling homecoming to be a fish-out-of-water story. Somewhere around episode 5, however, any development of her character comes to a screeching halt, to be replaced by a series of meaningful smiles over a vat of kimchi ingredients that she shares with her beautiful, childlike sister.

From that point on, the show gives up any hint of being a sophisticated character study in favor of treacly, makjang busyness: A nice-guy gangster searches for his birth father; an orphan avenges himself on those who have wronged him; a man comes to terms with the child he thought he’d lost forever; and a family grapples with the loss of a loved one, all in the space of 24 scenery-chewing episodes.

To its credit, Kimchi Family never fully plunges into cartoon-land, unlike many other making spectacles before it. Its characters resist outright “bad-guy-ness,” and by the final episode most everyone is believably redeemed. In the end, though, Heaven, Earth, and Man has little more to offer than flavorless kimchi primarily composed of clichés.

Time between Dog and Wolf, on the other hand, manages to be the best of both worlds: It marries whizbang car chases, hot boys, and gangster intrigue with genuine, keenly felt character insights and a moving story of love and revenge. It’s a delicious fermentation of Alias, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and the few redeemable aspects of Lee Min Ho’s deeply mediocre City Hunter. Ultimately, this is a show about the push-and-pull that exists between fathers and sons on the road to manhood. It’s about the choice between defining oneself and being defined by another. It’s about doing right when it’s so easy and tempting to do wrong.

Where Kimchi Family succumbed to plot for the sake of plot, the twisty, adrenaline-filled storyline of Time between Dog and Wolf exists not to fill time, but to put the show’s characters through their paces. It twists and turns them, looking at them from every angle imaginable before finally melding them into complete, multi-dimensional wholes.

This drama is peopled not by “good guys” and “bad guys,” but by nuanced, fully drawn characters that sometimes happen to be more good than bad, and other times more bad than good. The ultimate example is Mao Liwarat, the show’s lead gangster and one of its two most powerful father figures. He’s a cold-blooded killer who loves his daughter and carefully mentors his followers, treating them with respect and effortlessly fostering their loyalty. He’s a bad guy, all right, but thanks in part to the measured, weighty performance of Choi Jae Sung, one I wanted redeemed, not dead. (Weirdly, Choi was also in Kimchi Family: he played a distant but cuddly uncle who…wait for it…just happened to be a retired gangster known for his brutality. Did his role in that show predispose me to like him in TbDW? Maybe.)

Although Time Between Dog and Wolf is largely a boy’s club, it also features women—smart women who stand on their own two feet, whether they work at a Korean intelligence agency or quietly wear the pants in a household funded by their gangster husband. Just like their male counterparts, they’re more than I usually dare hope for from a Korean drama.

I can’t say the same for Kimchi Family, even though it seems to be a show geared toward women. Its girls all fulfill traditional roles: they’re teachers and mothers and suppliers of comfort. God help them if they have plans in life beyond docile housewifery, because Kimchi Family certainly won’t—it will instead paint them as cold, cruel abandoners of children who are worthy of forgiveness and nothing more. Also, note that chef in particular is one of the things Kimchi Family don’t allow its women to be. Professional chefs, after all, are men; a woman at the stove is nothing more than a mother. Although Heaven, Earth, and Man is owned by the Lee family, neither daughter has been groomed to take the helm after their father. By the end of TbDW, in contrast, it’s a principled, savvy woman who’s leading the entire intelligence agency.

Time between Dog and Wolf is the exact opposite of Kimchi Family on another front, too. TbDW is beautifully but economically done, with few examples of the hammy overacting (Song Il Gook, I’m talking about you) and baroque direction that characterize pretty much everything about Kimchi Family. In that show, one 10-second reaction shot is never enough: instead, it has to drag out for forty or fifty seconds, giving the actor plenty of time to cycle between four or five different expressions. Its every scene is full of bizarre, unnecessary camera angles: all the zooming and cutting to point-of-view shots from behind random scenery gets distracting after a while. There are even instances when the two halves of a split-screen phone conversation each suffer from multiple, separate cuts and angle changes. (This actually reminded me of a moment in one of the Naked Gun movies when a camera zooms in on an actor, then zooms in some more, and finally zooms in to the point of smacking him in the face. It’s a miracle the cast of Kimchi Family survived, really.)

Instead of feeling self-indulgent and pointless like much of Kimchi Family’s camera work, Time between Dog and Wolf’s direction is calculated to bring the viewer into its characters’ minds: After sustaining a head injury the male lead loses his memory. In the moment he realizes he’s a stranger to himself, there’s a point-of-view shot of the actor looking into a mirrored sun-catcher, which blurs and distorts and replicates his face to the point of unrecognizability, to both him and us. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to meaningful filming techniques—it’s clear that somebody really thought about this show, and worked to film it in the most compelling, appropriate ways.

Then, of course, there’s TbDW’s big finale. It’s one thing to cry at the end of a drama, but it’s another to get goosebumps. An epic shootout staged in a house of mirrors, it’s the show’s final, greatest comment about personal identity and the power of fatherhood.

That, my friends, is some tasty kimchi. If number 56 on the DramaTic list of best dramas is this good, the mind boggles at how fabulous number 1 must be.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

State of the Obsession Address: May 2012

Always a sucker for a useless routine, I’ve naturally developed a strategy for watching Korean dramas: I only watch things that have finished airing in Korea and are fully subbed; I complete one drama before starting on another; and I stagger eras—for every recent drama, I watch one that aired before 2009.

It’s unclear to even me if it’s possible for a human to be more geeky than that, but what’s a girl to do? Kdrama is more than just an insanely entertaining watch—it‘s something I want to learn about and really understand. And to me this random routine feels like a logical stepping stone toward this end—it allows me to fully digest a show at my own pace and not get confused by watching a bunch of other dramas at the same time, and also forces me to see not just where Korean drama is now, but where it came from.

After a nearly a year of obsessive viewing, I’m starting to get a feel for the cycle of Kdrama. Right now, for example, the late spring batch of shows is about to wrap up airing and be replaced by the early summer group. (Whether Korea has anything like American television seasons I have yet to figure out—it seems that new shows are always airing, no matter what time of year it is.) Thanks to my Dustin-Hoffman-in-Rainman level OCD, I have yet to start watching the currently airing shows, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have my eye on them.

Here’s a brief accounting of the ones I’m most excited for:


Queen In-Hyun’s Man. This time travel romance features a Joseon-era man and a modern woman. It’s driving online reviewers absolutely gaga with adoration, which is almost always a good sign. I loved the male lead in his My Sweet City role, and am looking forward to more of his gangly, easygoing charm. (Episodes 11 and 12 out of 16 will air this week.)

Equator Man. Improbably, reading about this show is making me long for the old days of Korean drama, before everything had to be high-concept and big budget. By all accounts, it includes no body swapping, vampires, or time travel, and instead focuses on classic, character-driven revenge melodrama. Sign me up! (Episodes 19 and 20 out of 20 will air this week.)

King 2 Hearts. I want to love this show, I really do. Koreans, like Americans, seem intrigued by the concept of monarchy—probably because our countries have been without kings for generations. The plot sounds fairly standard: a spoiled chaebol/king meets and falls in love with a hardworking, underprivileged girl, who just happens to have been trained to kill him. I worry, though, that viewers are falling into distinct camps: people who loved 2011’s Secret Garden love this show, and people who hated Secret Garden hate King 2 Hearts. I fall squarely into the second category, so things aren’t looking good. (Episodes 19 and 20 out of 20 will air this week.)

Rooftop Prince. Bummer for the Joseon era—all its upstanding young scholar types have been time traveling to the modern world lately. Not that I’m complaining—the fish-out-of-water trope is almost always good fun. Here’s hoping Park Yoochun manages to be half as cute in this show as he was in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, one of my all-time favorites. He wasn't in the lame-tastic Miss Ripley, so the jury is definitely out on this drama, too. (Episodes 19 and 20 out of 20 will air this week.)

And then, of course, there’s the next batch of shows to look forward to:

Big. My expectations for this drama are too high, I think—I’m going to end up feeling totally let down if it’s something other than the funniest, sweetest Kdrama I’ve ever seen. It has a lot going for it: its writers are known for amusing characters and funny moments, and I couldn’t find its cast more appealing if I’d picked them myself. On the other hand, its writers are also known for less-than-spectacular follow-through and shaky plotting. Plus, this will be the first post-Coffee Prince project I’ve seen Gong Yoo in—I worry my soulmate Choi Han Gyul will be retroactively sullied by a subpar performance/drama. As of 5/22, Couch Kimchi has posted a boatload of teasers and previews for this show—the more I see, the more I like. (P.S. Does the above poster stolen from mysoju.com position the drama’s title right over...well...you know? Will this poor actor ever escape jokes about...cigar size?) (Currently included in Dramafever’s list of dramas coming soon; whether it will be simulcast is still unclear. Begins airing June 4.)

I Do, I Do. Korea’s answer to Knocked Up should be tons of fun—how can you go wrong with My Lovely Sam Soon’s Kim Sun Ah in a steamy noona romance? She has a way of playing characters who are better than the typical ditzy female leads, whether that’s because of good script choices or her own sheer awesomeness. (Begins airing May 30.) 

Bridal Mask. Most recent sageuks are set in the distant past, but this drama takes place during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the early twentieth century. It sounds like a period version of City Hunter, complete with a masked avenger bent on revenge for wrongs against his family. I’m hoping Bridal Mask will be less air-headed than its obvious predecessor. After all, the lead must have some depth and a social conscience—dude is an independence fighter who regularly traffics with spies. My fingers are crossed for a gritty, real-world vibe, rather than the shellacked gloss of that other show. (Currently included in Dramafever’s list of dramas coming soon; whether it will be simulcast is still unclear. Begins airing May 30.)

Timeslip Dr. Jin. To be frank, I haven’t loved a medical drama since the early days of ER. With the addition of time travel and the lovely Kim Jaejong, though, this might just be worth watching. (Begins airing May 26.)

(Thanks to the ever-wonderful [and better-informed than me] Dramabeans and DramaTic for almost all this information.)

In the meanwhile, what shall we do while waiting for these new dramas? Here are some suggestions.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Fic: The Transcendent Happiness of Choi Han Gyul

An abiding love for fan fiction is pretty much my darkest secret. (Which is saying something, coming from someone with her own blog about Korean drama.)

The more mainstream fan fiction gets, the more embarrassed I become about the whole thing. Back when I was regularly involved with it, the only people who understood what the word fanfic meant were the ones reading and writing alongside me. Nowadays, though, every soccer mom on my block is reading smutty, thinly veiled Twilight fanfic and the author of The Very Secret Diaries has appeared on the New York Times bestseller list.

I may have gone largely revisionist about it in recent years, but fan fiction’s siren call has always been too loud for me to ignore. I’ve given up on it probably a dozen times, but it’s never quite given up on me. Which explains today’s post.

Weirdly, one of the things that drew me to Korean drama was that it felt a bit like fan fiction: The whole genre is full of uncomplicated, unrestrained pleasures that are refreshingly unconcerned with reality and plausibility. The things you most want from Korean dramas almost inevitably happen, making them feel predictable in the coziest, homiest way possible, just like fan fic. And like fan fiction, I often find myself relating to dramas on a level beyond objective quality: it’s their emotion that really draws me in—their sincerity, to borrow a uniquely Kdrama word.

There doesn’t seem to be much English-language fan fiction out there about Korean dramas, much to my sorrow. I can see why this is the case: Kdramas have very limited shelf lives, so it’s hard to build too much of a fandom around a single series. It also takes a lot of guts (stupidity?) to write about a culture you barely understand. 

But there are some shows that I just can’t quite put out of my mind. Of course my beloved Coffee Prince is the prime example: when I finished watching that drama’s final episode, it felt like losing a friend. Ever since, I’ve found myself randomly wondering what might have become of its characters. To indulge that curiosity, I finally decided to give Coffee Prince fic a shot--even if I’m about five years too late for anyone to care. 

Note that the story certainly won’t stand up to any K-picking (if there is such a parallel to the Brit-picking of Harry Potter fan authors), but I hope it’s at least in keeping with Coffee Prince’s sweet vibe.

The Transcendent Happiness of Choi Han Gyul
Fandom: Coffee Prince
Rating: PG-13
Word count: 2,800-ish
Contents: Pure cotton-candy fluff

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Disease-of-the-week Dramas: Ratings and Spoiler-free Capsule Reivews

With their finite running times, Korean dramas are able to explore topics that are essentially impossible for American television—including debilitating diseases and terminal illness. You can’t very well build a show around a character that might not survive the first season when your ultimate goal is making it to the TV version of the afterlife: syndication, a lucrative state of being that’s generally only possible after 100 episodes of a show have aired. When a central character dies on American TV, you can bet it’s a form of punishment for a misbehaving actor or because someone’s contract was too expensive to renew.

This doesn’t mean that Americans are immune to sentimental storytelling about illness or physical disability. This kind of plot may be less in vogue today, but we did more than our fair share of grappling with obscure cancers and other tragic physical ailments during the weekly TV-movie fad of the 1970s. In fact, this kind of death-and-dismemberment porn was so popular that a new term was coined for the genre: Disease-of-the-week. With the demise of short-form TV on these shores, though, so too came the near-complete extinction of this kind of programming. In the past twenty years, I can only think of main characters in three American series that dealt with anything of the kind: Life Goes On, a 90s-era family show that featured a character with Down Syndrome; The Big C, a currently airing Showtime series about cancer; and Glee, whose giant, diverse cast includes a nonspecifically wheelchair-bound character.

In Korea, on the other hand, the disease-of-the-week genre is alive and well (if you’ll pardon the perhaps inappropriate cliche). This week’s batch of spoiler-free reviews is devoted to shows focusing on a central character’s illness or disability.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Drama Review: Family's Honor

Family’s Honor: A-
54 episodes. On American television, that’s two-and-half seasons worth of shows. On British television, it’s more like five seasons. On Korean TV? That’s the standard length for a Saturday/Sunday family show.

I was skeptical that I’d ever make it through a Kdrama anywhere near that long. How could a single show find enough plot to keep anyone coming back for that many episodes, especially with no seasonal cycles of introduction/development/payoff? Well, after three weeks of compulsive viewing of Family’s Honor, a 2008 Saturday/Sunday drama, I’m rounding the homestretch at episode 50, and it’s now clear that I should have trusted in the benevolent overlords of Korean drama from the beginning.

Family’s Honor is nothing less than the television equivalent of a good book, a stack of down comforters, and a steaming mug of hot chocolate (with marshmallows) on a freezing January morning—it’s cozy and comfortable and happy-making to the extreme. Although not high art and certainly not without its flaws, it’s exactly the slow-simmering, everyday, breakfast-to-bed kind of story that Korean drama is uniquely equipped to tell.

Arriving fresh from the repetitive, dull, and frustrating Operation Proposal, I was bound to either love or hate this show. And love it I do: With its homey sphere, spritely pacing, and sprawling storylines, the mammoth 54-hour running time of Family’s Honor feels significantly shorter than Operation Proposal’s piddling 16 episodes. Instead of a never-ending treadmill of navel gazing, things actually happen. Instead of capricious and illogical plotting, the script evolves naturally from what’s gone before, making even the most makjang of turns feel organic. Instead of spineless simps who spend decades waffling about whether to confess that they like someone, this drama’s characters are motivated and smart, working toward their goals at a feverish pace.

Family’s Honor is a leisurely trip through the lives and loves of two Korean families: the staid, traditional Has and the brash, new-money Lees. Naturally the two meet in a shower of sparks in both the boardroom and (eventually) the bedroom, giving the show its central narrative and acting as the branching-off point for subplots involving a constellation of secondary characters. From first wives to firstborns, from housekeeping ajummas to presidents of the board, Family’s Honor graces all of its characters with compelling stories, developing them in small, soap-opera-style chunks throughout the show’s run. (Added bonus: if you dislike someone or their plot, you’re not stuck spending too much time with them.)

One of my favorite parts of the show is the conflict between the two families’ lifestyles—to the Ha family, tradition and decorum are everything. They’re willfully old-fashioned and live modestly and largely outside of the modern world, making their home in a traditional Korean house and respecting ancient customs in everything they do. The Lees are social climbers and cold, savvy businesspeople less than one generation away from poverty. They’re prone to all manner of excess—from obsession with television dramas and lengthy go-stop marathons to ostentatious spending on flashy brand-name goods and frantic jockeying for social position.

To the Lees, the Ha family and their customs are just as mysterious as they are to me. This allows the Lees to stand-in for the viewer, asking the “but why?” questions we so desperately want answered. (For example, I’ve probably seen ten traditional wedding ceremonies on various dramas, but this is the first time anyone bothered to explain why ducks are involved. In the other shows, they’re just been part of the backdrop, not part of the story.)

Also wonderful are the various romantic relationships. During the course of the show, no fewer than six couples get together. Whether they’re meant to provide comedic interludes or ramp up the melodramatic hand-wringing, it’s a breath of fresh air that each relationship moves forward rather than hanging in stasis for an interminable number of episodes, ala many of the 16-hour dramas I’ve watched in the past.

The lead couple is no exception: The Romeo-and-Juliet-style love shared by Gang-suk, the Lee family’s only son, and Dan-Na, the Ha family’s only daughter, begins as quippy hatred, moves to toleration, and finally blooms into no-holds-barred Kdrama pursuit and consummation. I will admit that I wanted a little more for them—early on, their explosive skirmishes are downright hot. For a while there I thought this relationship would be built from different stuff, not the standard piggybacks and “don’t cry in front of anyone but me” discussions that make up the accepted canon of Kdrama love scenes. But even when domestication eventually sets in and turns their love ordinary, it’s still one of my favorites—there’s nice chemistry between the actors and I very much appreciated the show’s willingness to follow them step-by-step through the practicalities of love. Like my beloved Coffee Prince, Family’s Honor doesn’t just get its couples together and leave them there. Instead, a good quarter of its episodes explore the territory beyond Happily Ever After and what it means to live there.

Of course, Family's Honor isn’t perfect. Some story lines are dragged out, some acting is subpar, and the final four episodes are shaping up to be a maelstrom of makjang. For my money its slower-paced first half is much stronger than the second, which succumbs to some Kdrama tropes I could have lived without.

Ultimately, though, this show’s strengths are more than enough to overcome its shortcomings. In the universe of Family’s Honor, there are no true “bad guys,” no irredeemable enemies. Instead, this drama builds a world of flawed but loving characters, exploring in an honest way the ties that bind them to the families they were born into and the families they made for themselves.  

(P.S.: In the interest of full disclosure, Park Shin Hoo and his beautiful smile may have inflated this show’s grade. I’ve happily waded through a lot of crap for that crooked, cocky grin. Brief explanatory pic-spam under the cut.)