Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Coming Soon: Late Summer 2012

In 10 Things I Hate About You, my favorite teen movie of all time, one character looks at another with a perplexed expression on her face and asks: “I know you can be overwhelmed and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever be just whelmed?”

After watching many of the 2012 Kdramas I was looking forward to, I can report that it is indeed possible to be whelmed. None of them have been nightmarishly bad, but they also haven’t been daydreamily good—mostly they’re just whelmingly meh. I’m hopeful that things will turn around as we gear up for the fall season, though, and am already looking forward to the new crop of shows due to start airing after the Olympics.

Without further ado, here are brief notes about four upcoming dramas that I’m eager to watch. (And mentions of two that I’m not really excited about, but may eventually get around to if the reports are good.)

Faith (24 episodes; begins airing 8/13). After reading Dramabeans’ deeply amusing recaps of this summer’s god-awful Timeslip Dr. Jin, I decided to scratch it off my list of things to watch altogether and instead pin my hopes on this similarly themed fusion sageuk starring the lovely Lee Min Ho. The recent rash of time-travel dramas have mostly focused on people moving forward in time from the Joseon era, but this one takes the opposite approach: a modern-day plastic surgeon is kidnapped by a warrior from the Goryeo Dynasty and brought back in time to save a injured princess. (Or so says DramaWiki).

This spring’s rom-com time-travel capers Rooftop Prince and Queen In-hyun’s Man were fun to watch, but I’m hoping that Faith’s take on the subject matter will be grittier and more concerned with the realities of adapting to life in the past. I want it to be from the Outlander school of warts-and-all, OMG-is-that-a-bedbug? time travel, not the we-wear-Nikes-in-the-Old-West of Back to the Future III. It’s probably too much to hope for social commentary—I imagine the full extent of the female lead’s adjustment to the past will be getting used to wearing flats—but inherent in the plot is the potential for fascinating discussion about how Korean society has changed in the modern world, especially because it’s an independent woman doing the time travel. Will she be expected to show deference to men in a way she wouldn’t today? Will her talents be ignored by everyone but her kidnapper, because she’s just a girl? Will she have to get used to being carried around in one of those claustrophobic little boxes sageuk women are always seen in?

I’ll also be interested to see what the script does with the dichotomy between its romantic leads—based on their early descriptions, he’s a laid-back warrior prone to taking naps while she’s a type-A overachiever who decided to specialize in plastic surgery after realizing the life-or-death stakes of being a doctor weren’t for her. (Where have I met that character before? Oh, right 2004’s dreadful Lovers.) It could be fun if the two just had contrasting outlooks on life, but I suspect that the show’s primary journey will be finding a way for them to live up to they potential they’ve been denying by overcoming their fears of failure.

For more, visit:

Watch it on:

Arang and the Magistrate (20 episodes, beings airing 8/15). Another fusion sageuk with supernatural elements, this drama tells the story of a ghost’s attempt to solve her own murder with the help of the handsome local magistrate. Naturally, forbidden love is the result (yay!), but depending on the show’s approach it’s hard to imagine a happy ending for a couple separated by death (boo!). The lead actors are about as charming as they come—Shin Min A from My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho and Time between Dog and Wolf’s Lee Joon Ki, fresh out of the army—and I look forward to seeing how Kdrama handles this ghostly plotline. In the West, ghosts are just as likely to be friendly as evil, but from what I’ve seen the Asian understanding of them leans more toward the terrifying. (Or maybe I’ve been watching too many Japanese horror movies?) I can’t imagine this show actually being scary, but the promotional materials do give it a Sixth Sense vibe, with the male lead having seen ghosts throughout his life. 

Judging by blogger buzz, Arang and the Magistrate is in a dead (ahem) heat with Faith for the title of drama of the season. As long as Dramafever cooperates, I’ve already decided to watch it as it airs, rather than waiting for the whole show to be subbed before starting it.

For more, visit:

Watch it on:

To the Beautiful You (16 episodes, beings airing 8/15). Based on the Japanese maga/drama Hana Kimi, this might just be the perfect show for me: A girl pretends to be a boy to attend her hero’s school, all in hopes of getting close to him. Unfortunately, though, the plot is rife with things that might make me loathe it: By all accounts, it’s more of a comedy than a drama, and I love angst more than yucks when it comes to Korean television. And then there’s the sports angle—the male lead is a track and field athlete who specializes in the high jump; the story apparently revolves around an injury that prevents him from participating. It should go without saying that I have yet to see a sports drama that didn’t make me want to scratch my own eyes out with a golf tee rather than watching past episode 2. Another red flag? The Wikipedia entry about Hana Kimi calls the female lead a “ditz.” This sounds like cross-dressing in the style of You’re Beautiful’s idiot Go Mi Nyeo, rather than the smart, capable girls in Coffee Prince and Sungkyunkwan Scandal. Why is it, then, that I can still barely wait to watch this show? Must be the cute dog that keeps popping up in early stills. (Right? Because it would be wrong of me to perv over boys who are half my age.)

For more, visit:

Watch it on:

Answer Me, 1997 (16 half-hour episodes, airing now). Although I was in college in 1997, I’m not entirely sure I could have found South Korea on a map. But even if the pop-culture nostalgia of this sitcom set in 1997 will be lost on me, coming-of-age school shows are pretty much my catnip. Tragically, I don’t know that anyone is subbing this in English, let alone posting it steaming, so it’s shaping up to be another Wife’s Credentials—a Kdrama Holy Grail universally acknowledged as good, but inaccessible to suckers like me who don’t speak Korean. Dramabeans is recapping, though, so here’s hoping that will inspire someone to translate it.

For more, visit:

Watch it on:
Nowhere. (Sigh.)

[Update: Answer Me, 1997 has been added to Dramafever's coming-soon list, which is about a mile long and full of awesomeness. Hooray!]

In spite of a name that sounds like a sexual position highlighted in last month’s Cosmo, Panda and the Hedgehog is a romantic comedy that seems to be a younger version of Pasta. Not a bad thing, but I’m not holding my breath. Begins airing August 18.

Haeundae Lovers deals with a prosecutor who loses his memory and ends up working with the gangsters he’s been trying to convict. Inevitably, he falls in love with the head gangster’s daughter. This plot was great—when it was used in 2007’s Time between Dog and Wolf. I guess this romance-centric version of the story might be interesting. Maybe? Begins airing August 13. (Side note: For an amusing take on the inevitability of some traditional plotlines, I highly recommend Mercedes Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms books.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Drama Short: Big (2012) Review

Average Grade: D
Episodes 1–6: A
Episodes 7–16: F

Supernatural romantic comedy

What it’s about
After a car accident, a student finds himself trapped in the body of his teacher’s fiancé.

First impression
For once, my feelings about a drama are completely uncomplicated: I love, love, love, love Big. It makes me happy from the ends of my hair to the tips of my toes. It’s light and funny but not without emotional heft (something the past few Hong sisters projects have been missing, frankly). Gong Yoo is a slouchy, scowly vision as a high school boy with a bad attitude and a heart of gold. I can’t wait to see how the plot develops. 

Final verdict
Gong Yoo is great in it, at least. Decently executed but with an unforgivably awful, unfocussed script: Once it became clear that the writers had no idea where they were going with the show’s central body-swap mystery, I all but lost the will to watch. Someone with more motivation than me should write a fan fiction version of the final 8 episodes to right the many, many wrongs. 

My in-depth coverage

Random thoughts
• If hospitals in Korea were really so cavalier about blood being all over the place, the nation’s entire populace would have AIDS. Do they only use plastic gloves for handling spicy foods in Asia?

Episode 1. In America, we usually remove our frozen pizza from the plastic wrapper before cooking it. Not so in Korea, per episode 1.

Episode 5. I don't know if I love you or hate you, episode 5, but you sure had style. It’s like the reset button was pressed, and now we have to start all over. I just hope the show doesn’t morph into the typical love triangle now that the characters are on more equal footing.

—Did I mention that I love dramas that reward close attention? Episode 5 shows a flashback to Da Ran stapling their photo on Yoon Jae’s bulletin board, clearly using the same stapler Yoon Jae used to hem her skirt in the previous episode.

—Gong Yoo, would you mind laying off all the heavy breathing? It’s making me entertain inappropriate thoughts about you (again).

Episode 6. Um. Did I just hear “Call Me, Maybe”? Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s a fun bubblegum delight just right for Big’s lighter moments. I just hadn’t realized that the song's quest for worldwide domination had been quite so successful.

Episode 7.  After all the nice things I said about you, how could you be so cruel, Dramafever? Your subs for Big episode 7 are incredibly bad and downright misleading: When Ma Ri goes to the shaman, your translation says she needs the “seed” of a young boy, while the Dramabeans recap says that a young boy needs to receive the body-swapping spell’s negative energy. As the Hong sisters don’t strike me as the types to make semen jokes, I suspect Dramabeans is the trustworthy source.

—Let’s all just pretend that 8.4 seconds of “Mmmbop” didn’t just turn me into a quivering mass of teen-aged girl, okay? The instant I realized what was playing, the room felt flooded with sunlight, even though it was pitch black outside. No matter how far we may grow apart, I'll always love you, Hanson.

Episode 8.  You almost lost me with this week’s episodes, which were a little average-kdrama-y for my taste. I still love the characters and think the plot has loads of potential, though. Here’s hoping that the next 8 episodes live up to this episode’s thrilling finale.

—I call red herring on the wedding—if it really happened without some twisty plot element, would they really not show a single minute of it!?!? [Ed note: Clearly, this is an example of me giving the writers too much credit. Sigh.]

Episode 9.  Sorry Dramafever, I can’t bear waiting for you to post episode 10 tonight. I'm jumping ship to KimchiDrama, where the subs may be subpar, but sure are fast.

—What’s up with Kdramas having soundtracks consisting of only 3 or 4 songs? This show isn’t as bad as Boys over Flowers, but that “Hey you” song is headed toward “Almost Paradise” level over-exposure.

Episode 10.  Ah, the inevitable Hong sisters crafting moment. Love the pandas, love the panda panties, love that Da Ran and Kyung Joon have begun inexplicably dressing alike, a true indicator of Kdrama love.

 • Episode 11. Where is it written that all new Kdrama brides must redo their marital bedrooms in the image of their vaginas? I haven’t seen so much pink since How It’s Made went to the Pepto-Bismol factory.

—Ask and ye shall receive! This weekend I posted a demand that all future Kdramas feature sageuk scenes, and what appears in Monday’s episode of Big? Not one but two Joseon interludes. Do they know how diabolical it was not to give us a peek at Gong Yoo in a hanbok, though?

Episode 14. I’m sad to report that this show has pretty much lost me—even Gong Yoo can’t make up for all the opportunities for greatness missed while this drama is uselessly spinning its wheels. Are we really left with yet another “Who is it, really?” finale? I’m disappointed that you don’t have more to offer, Hong Sisters.

—Interesting that your unpublished book has a bar code and ISBN on the back cover. (And by interesting I mean impossible.)

Watch it at

You might also like

Friday, July 27, 2012

Big Post-mortem

I wish I’d averted my eyes, too, Kyung Joon.

So I finally got around to watching episodes 15 and 16 of Big. (And yes, it was just as much of a chore as that sentence makes it sound.) On a WTF scale of 1 to 10, this drama’s ending easily rates a 32.

I find it amusing that episode 4 featured a guest appearance by the work of a Russian writer—Turgenev’s First Love, per the Dramabeans recap. If only the Hong sisters had been thinking about Chekov instead, we might all have been spared a significant amount of frustration and annoyance. But I guess they missed the Literature 101 class when Chekov’s greatest gift to beginning writers was discussed: “If in act one you have a pistol hanging on the wall,” he advised a friend, “then it must fire in the last act.”

This is a helpful reminder to avoid pointless excess, to “make every character sing for its supper,” as one of my own writing teachers put it. If someone had piped up with this tip while the Hongs were drafting Big, I suspect I’d be writing a swooning, sloppy-with-love review of the show instead of shrugging it off as an embarrassing waste of time. Because, after 15 episodes snoozing in Kyung Joon's body, the unused pistol’s name is Yoon Jae.

Whether it’s because low ratings forced a mid-shooting change of strategy or because the Hong sisters need to lay off the crack cocaine, the first half of this drama set up a scenario that the second half had almost nothing to do with. The nifty mystery of Yoon Jae’s true feelings for Da Ran? Unaddressed. Why Yoon Jae was going to LA? Unaddressed. The reversal of the body swap? Unaddressed. Were memories lost and then regained, as posited in the last few episodes? Unaddressed. The giant, glowing, neon pistol that was the centerpiece of the early episodes was not only unfired by the time this drama’s finale rolled around, it was thrown out on the trash heap with yesterday’s dumplings.

I cannot even believe what I just saw: Did the character of Yoon Jae truly never make an appearance in this show’s entire timeline? Did Da Ran never have to face up to the fact that she cheated on her fiancé when he was in a coma? Did Yoon Jae’s family never become a real family? Did Kyung Joon never accept the familial love he longed for? Did Kyung Joon and Da Ran never have to convince her parents they were in love? His parents? Did Yoon Jae never have to let her go?

Sure, the last few episodes were deeply terrible, but I’d checked out a long time before. Big’s trajectory had clearly been out of control for a while (if not since the very beginning), so it’s no surprise that the end result was a catastrophic crash.

As far as I’m concerned, Big’s slow-motion failure began with the time jump at the end of episode 5. Up until that point, the show’s focus was on its compelling cast of characters and the complex web of relationships between them. The body swap was a device that allowed the writers to twist that web of relationships to the breaking point, giving us an opportunity to see what happened to the characters when their every point of connection was suddenly and fundamentally changed.

When the time jump happened, it was as if someone hit the Reset button. While some shows have benefited from this sort of narrative compartmentalization (Will It Snow at Christmas? comes to mind), Big just lost its way. Instead of developing the themes and characters it had created, it turned into a one-trick pony—a saccharine love story stripped of anything like nuance, spirit, or momentum. 

Episodes 15 and 16 felt as if the writers were throwing in any old scenes to fill time, intentionally staying away from the heart of things. Did they decide that the boy playing Kyung Joon looked too young to actually hook him up with Da Ran in the end? Did the allure of Gong Yoo prevent them from telling the story they needed to tell? Heck, did he have screen-time stipulations in his contract that made undoing the body swap impossible? The shift away from the show’s original premise might have been one thing if the romance was so epic it couldn’t be denied, but the scenes focusing on Kyung Joon’s relationship with Da Ran were cute at best, and dragged-out product placements at worst.

The Hong sisters may not be Shakespeare, but before thus show I actually trusted them to tell a decent story. How they went so tin-eared this time around I can’t even begin to imagine. I’m not ready to write them off forever, but I’ll be watching any future dramas they pen with a parachute on, ready for a dramatic escape at the first sign of things going downhill, ala Big.

P.S.: How about we erase our memories and pretend that the YouTube video below posted by psychobrit2008 is how the drama actually ended? I would have been able to forgive an awful lot if the last  scene had been even remotely satisfying...

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Drama Review: Spring Waltz (2006)

Grade: A+

As the Korean entertainment press is always eager to mention, people tend to have their own ideal type when it comes to prospective romantic partners. For me, this ideal tends to involve dreamy, shaggy-haired boys glistening with exertion behind a piano. It’s fitting, then, that my ideal Endless Love drama focuses on a tragic pianist who as a young boy gives up his whole identity to save the girl he loves.

Now that I’ve watched all four the dramas in this series—Autumn in My Heart (2000), Winter Sonata (2002), Summer Scent (2003), and Spring Waltz (2006)—I have a whole new appreciation for how Goldilocks must have felt in the traditional story. I may have tried them all, but until Spring Waltz none of them was quite right. Autumn in My Heart started off well, but veered into tragedy porn with a self-consciously miserable ending. Winter Sonata was a lot of fun, but was ultimately overstuffed makjang. (Just how many car accidents resulting in amnesia can any one drama hope to get away with?) And Summer Scent, no doubt attempting to follow the slow rhythms of summertime, was only slightly less boring than watching grass grow. (In fact, a huge portion of its running time was devoted to this very activity.)

Spring Waltz, on the other hand, is a sublime and swoony fairytale. It’s cotton-candy luscious and lovely and earnest, but also has just the right amount of gritty edge to keep it from being like drowning in an ocean of treacle. It encapsulates almost everything I love about Korean drama: it’s unapologetically sentimental, intensely romantic, and full of fated love. This kind of starry-eyed storytelling has all but vanished in the West, but I’m utterly susceptible to its charms, however uncool they may be.

If I were to use Dramabeans’ elegant two-part rating system, Spring Waltz’s score would look pretty wacky: objectively, I’ve got to admit that its quality is about 4 out of 10. But on my own personal scale of crack viewing, it comes in at an easy 11 out of 10. As far as I’m concerned, this show is what the Endless Love dramas could have been all along, if not for the soap opera–style melodrama that bogged down the former installments. The youngest, freshest, and liveliest of the series, Spring Waltz is a gorgeous, gleaming daydream of a drama.

In every way, Spring Waltz is better than what came before it, more steady and heartfelt and finely crafted. At last, the sets are beautiful enough to match the scenery; at last, the characters react in relatively sensible ways to the makjang world they find themselves in; and at last the ending won’t make you want to die, whether from disappointment or rage. (Amazingly, Spring Waltz even includes some kissing best described as hungry, an adjective I never thought would apply to anything in this well-mannered series.)

And while Spring Waltz’s pacing may be slow compared to today’s dramas, it’s not painfully so—as was the case with so many earlier Endless Love installments. Instead, it is set at the speed of real life, with just the right mixture of contemplative, silent scenes and narrative movement. The story feels measured and carefully rationed to fill the time available; it’s twenty episodes worth of plot fit into twenty episodes of drama. (This is in marked contrast with Summer Scent, which felt like three episodes of plot fluffed out to fill twenty episodes of drama. When watching it, I actually skipped from episode 7 to episode 20—and I’m pretty sure I missed nothing but pointless back and forth.)

I can see why Spring Waltz wouldn’t work for everyone, especially because its final five episodes fall victim to the awfulness characteristic of the Endless Love dramas—frustrating miscommunication, idiotic levels of secret keeping, and stupid decisions made for unbelievable reasons. But for me this show is about as close to perfect as possible: I always lean toward melodramas that make the mundane seem magical, and that’s just what Spring Waltz does. Its open-hearted tale of love and redemption takes place in a charmingly askew world filled with storybook castles and fields of sunshine-yellow flowers, peopled by gentlemen who gracefully accept second place and only slightly evil witches who eventually come around to the good side.

Like the other Endless Love dramas, Spring Waltz is breathtakingly well-shot and uses nature as a counterpoint to its actors and the manmade world around them: it’s a travelogue of beautiful places and lovely things (however narratively inert they may be). But unlike Summer Scent’s never-ending close-ups of flowers, Spring Waltz uses its stunning backdrops to enhance the action. Even better, someone finally realized that people are fair game: this show isn’t afraid to turn its gaze to its male leads. Their bodies are treated as natural marvels, just like the rainbows and sunsets that set Spring Waltz’s signature look. From muscular shoulders to miraculous cheekbones and sculpted hands, both Jae Ha and Philip are celebrated as objects of desire.

And speaking of objects of desire, I find it kind of funny that Daniel Henney was hired as Spring Waltz’s second lead. The rest of the actors are fine, but Henney really is the human embodiment of all the successes and failures of the Endless Love series. He’s beautiful and well-meaning and so likeable I’d give him a kidney if he asked for one, but his acting is on par with performances I’ve seen on middle school stages. (In fact, it might actually be worse.) Usually I’m immune to bad acting in Kdramas—I can’t understand the language, after all, and the performances are often intentionally stylized compared with what I’m used to seeing on American television. But when Daniel Henney is on screen, in all his drop-dead-gorgeousness, I actually do have the knowledge necessary to access his skills. And they make me cringe, unfortunately. He tries so very hard and I love him so very much, but hasn’t he earned enough as a model to pay for acting classes yet? (It must be said, though, that when it comes to his performance in Spring Waltz, part of the problem must be with its director and scipt. Henney wasn’t this bad in My Lovely Sam Soon: he may be called upon to do more heavy lifting here, but his performance is even more awkwardly lightweight than it was then.)

Seo Do Young as Jae Ha. Yowza.

Daniel Henney as Philip. Double yowza.

Of course, no discussion of the Endless Love dramas—Spring Waltz included—is complete without acknowledging the elephant in the room. However appealing it may be, this series is clumsily amateur in its production. The editing is occasionally bizarre, the costumes and sets are often off-the-rack and cold, and each and every one of its installments allows hanging microphones to intrude into a number of scenes. And let’s not forget that the scripts are full of holes and demand more suspension of disbelief than twenty Hollywood superhero movies.

But even if the Endless Love series doesn’t compare all that well to today’s more polished and professional dramas, it’s still a landmark in the history of Korean television. It was groundbreaking in its international appeal, and even now is seen as one of the foundations of Korea’s reputation as an entertainment powerhouse. (This, I suspect, is why the Endless Love shows are the only older dramas always available streaming on Netflix.) The series also has its own idiosyncratic pleasures: you can rely on these dramas to treat their characters as multi-faceted human beings, not cardboard cut-out plot robots. They all star women who are competent and talented, if prone to making foolish decisions for their men. And each spotlights a tender, bittersweet love story capable of leaving viewers teary-eyed and aching, even all these years after they originally aired.

Flaws and all, I found Spring Waltz to be a disarming delight that was far greater than the sum of its parts.

As a resident of northern New England, the weather in my state is often described as ten months of winter and two months of bad sledding. So I know what spring really is—a reward for having survived the times of seemingly endless darkness. And that’s exactly what Spring Waltz feels like, from its storybook beginning to its deliriously happy ending.

Read the brief review here.

Watch it on DramaFever.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drama Short: Spring Waltz (2006) Review

Grade: A+


What it’s about
Tweens fall in love, are tragically separated, and rediscover each other as adults.

First impression
Luscious and lovely, yet virtually indistinguishable from all the other Endless Love dramas—lousy acting and sloppy editing are punctuated by moments of intense, heartrending beauty. As always, I cannot tear my eyes away. Will the installment be satisfying (ala Winter Sonata) or stultifying (ala Summer Scent)?

Final verdict
To quote this drama’s omnipresent theme song: Love, real love. Read my full review here.

Random thoughts
• Proof that I’ve really and truly drank the Kool-aid this time around? I’m downloading this drama’s soundtrack—“My Darling Clementine” sample and all—as I type.

• There’s a character on the show 30 Rock who’s so handsome he doesn’t know how to do a single thing for himself—people have been lining up to take care of him for his whole life, thanks to his good looks. I imagine that Daniel Henney, this show’s second lead, really is that guy. He’s been a complete failure as an actor in everything I’ve seen him in, yet one smile from him is all it takes to make me so woozy and overheated I barely notice his flaws. He clearly can’t act his way out of a paper bag, but he’s so dazzlingly beautiful that his dramas should come with protective eye gear, like those boxes people make to watch eclipses. If you looked directly at him too long, I swear you’d be blinded.

• This final installment in the Endless Love series includes at least two welcome innovations: male leads who are every bit as breathtaking as the scenery, and the music of Coldplay. Talk about made for each other…

• I know any number of people who are always prepared for any possible need—they carry pens and swiss army knives and measuring tape wherever they go. I think Philip tops them all, though: next to the spare tire in the back of his SUV, he seems to carry an emergency fairy princess gown. Because I guess if you look like that you never know when you might be called upon to prepare a Cinderella for a ball?

• The clothes in this drama started off bright and pretty, but ended up refugee-from-Oz insane. I understand that Daniel Henney has Irish blood, but must you really dress him as a leprechaun ?

Episode 2. Every drama that has a swan wrangler on the payroll, as this one clearly did, should receive an automatic A. Throw in a few fairy tale castles, and that's an automatic A+.

Episode 18. Female lead: “Watching Philip exercise can also relieve my stress.” Amanda, fanning self: “And you’ll almost certainly need a cold shower afterward, too.”

You might also like:
The other Endless Love dramas 

Watch it streaming at:

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You might be unhealthily obsessed with Korean drama if...

In this screencap from Big, the role of Amanda is played by Suzy.
The role of Korean drama is played by Gong Yoo.

It’s physically impossible for you to be within seventy feet of a computer without checking Dramabeans and Couch Kimchi for updates.

You’ve watched more than 5 drama episodes in a row…after midnight.

At any given moment, you know how much a plane ticket to Seoul would cost. (A ten-day birthday trip in October? Roundtrip Boston to Incheon, $1,235.50.)

You’ve ever canvassed the local Asian markets in search of a bottle of soju…or six.

You can’t see a Mini Cooper without checking the driver’s seat for Choi Han Gyul.
You’ve caused yourself actual physical pain by doing the finger-flick against your own forehead, just because you wanted to know what the leads in your drama were going through.

You think your bedroom décor would be massively improved with the addition of Piggy Bunny.

You religiously read DramaTic, and plan to consider it a significant personal milestone when you’re finally able to recognize at least half of the dramas mentioned by name in any given post.

You’ve said the word aigoo aloud in a totally unironic manner.

You live in fear of Internet data caps.

You’ve watched a raw drama episode before it was subbed. You had no idea what the hell was going on, but at least the wait was over.

Your neighbors have ever asked why you were bellowing, “For the love of God, look both ways before you cross the road!” while alone in your apartment.

You can’t read a single song title on your iPod’s top 25 list. (But they’re all categorized as “Kdrama OST.”)

You can sing along with each of said top 25 songs—phonetically.

You've turned your family and friends into a crack team of spies North Korea would envy. Every time they come across something related to South Korea, however tangentially, they drop everything to let you know. ("Guess where my new underwear were made!")

A disproportionate number of the bookmarks in your Web browser have the word Korea in them.

You’ve re-watched your favorite Korean drama from beginning to end in 48 hours or less for the express purpose of improving your mood after a terrible week.

Your consumption of rice, ramen, and green onions has recently skyrocketed.

Learning Korean has moved from item 8.751 x 10800 to number 10 on your list of things to do before you die. (And it’s only slightly more likely to happen than item 11: Make out with Gong Yoo.)

You think the hanbok is a good, universally flattering look that should be revived in the modern world. And your closet.

You have your own Kdrama blog. (Bonus points if counting your own visits would probably quintuple the number of hits it has received.)

You know the full names of every character in Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but suspect you can accurately pronounce none of them. (Or, indeed, the show’s title.)

You’ve watched a single drama more than three times…in one month.

Your primary reason for wanting a boyfriend/husband/older brother is to have an opportunity to call someone “oppa.” If you have a boyfriend/husband/older brother, you have—much to his surprise and confusion—called him “oppa.”
You’ve worried about the military enlistment of a man you’ve never met, in a country you’ve never been to. (Will the other soldiers pick on him because he distracted their girlfriends by being so cute in his dramas?!?!)

...Any others?

Drama Short: Hwang Jin Yi (2006) Review

Grade: B-

What it’s about
A historical drama inspired by the life and loves of a real-life Joseon-era courtesan. No matter how many men want her, Hwang Jin Yi’s only true love is her art: A musician, dancer, and poet, she willingly gives up everything to cultivate her skills. 

First impression 
Queen In-hyun’s Man left me hungry for a traditional sageuk, so I decided to give this a shot. It’s a much more down-and-dirty take on the role of the gisaeng than I’ve seen elsewhere, which makes it super interesting. And even if I could live without Ha Ji Won as an actress, Jang Geun Suk has never been cuter than he is playing her conflicted and slightly spineless lover.

Random thought
• You would think that music would be music everywhere, but it’s clear that there’s little or no overlapping in the DNA of traditional Korean music and any form of Western music. It’s amazing not only how different these two genres are, but also how completely the latter has taken over in Korea: Even historical dramas are set to easy-listening soundtracks that wouldn’t feel out of place on my small-town American radio station. And while there are some good things about globalization, it’s sad that it seems to inevitably amount to homogenization.

Final verdict

Fine, but not especially engaging. (Will I ever love a Ha Ji Won drama? Your guess is as good as mine.) Nonetheless, this show does have all the sageuk trappings you’re looking for: gorgeous scenery, beautiful costumes, and strong characters. Throw in several tragic romances and an uncompromising female lead, and Hwang Jin Yi drama turns into an easy, interesting watch. Not as compelling as the similarly themed Painter of the Wind, but worth your time if you’re into historical dramas.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Drama Short: Pasta (2010) Review

Grade: A

What it’s about
The politics and personalities in the kitchen of an upscale Italian restaurant in Seoul, with special emphasis on the forbidden love between the hardworking kitchen assistant and her prickly new chef.

First impression
Light and breezy. Dare I say...love at first bite? More please!

Final verdict
If you’ll pardon the doubtlessly overused metaphor, this well-executed dish definitely deserves a passing grade—it’s made with a near-perfect recipe and uses only the finest of ingredients. 

More of a lighthearted workplace drama than a traditional romantic comedy, Pasta may not have much of a central plot, but its underdog-makes-good storyline and episodic structure manage to stay fresh and interesting to the very end. (The middle does get a bit doldrumy, especially when the narrative starts to focus on the devious machinations of the show’s least likable character.) With its grown-up vibe and well-considered characterizations, Pasta is a laid-back, feel-good delight to watch. Its greatest charm, though, is the sweetly goofy relationship between its romantic leads: Coffee Prince’s sex-voiced Lee Sun Gyun and Greatest Love’s Gong Hyo Jin, she of the world’s most earnestly beleaguered expression.

Pasta also accomplished a rare feat: When I finish watching a Kdrama, I’m generally ready to move on to the next one, but this show’s final episode actually made me sad to say goodbye. 

Stray thoughts
Pasta’s female lead is like the anti-Ha Ji Won: always engaging, always charming, and always someone I’d like to see more of.

• There may not be a lot of heat in this OTP, but boy are they ever cute together. They even seem like they’re having fun, a shockingly rare commodity in Kdrama romances, where love tends to be a supremely serious matter. 

• For such a food-porny show, most of the dishes served at La Sfera are a bit nouvelle cuisine for my tastes. (On the other hand, I would have gladly cleaned up all the extra servings lying around the set.) It’s amazing that everyone managed to stay so thin throughout this show, when practically every scene requires them to consume carbohydrates.

Episode 2

Dear Goldfish: 
Consider moving to America! Here, you could sue this creep for gender discrimination.

Episode 8. You know what else would be bad for business, Chef? If somebody died in the walk-in freezer, thereby necessitating legal intervention and probably shutting the place down altogether for the foreseeable future. 

Episode 17. Screaming doesn’t seem to be the most effective of teaching methods, does it? Maybe you should try something new, Chef. Say...telling the person why you’re rejecting their dish instead of making them redo it again and again without feedback. But then again, your student should probably be looking for a day job anyway—she grew up in a restaurant family, went to culinary school, and worked for three years as a kitchen assistant and still can’t grill a scallop? (Frankly, this makes me feel better for being totally inept in the kitchen. Of course I suck, if someone with those credentials can barely manage to feed herself.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Drama Short: Kimchi Family (2012) Review

Kimchi Family poster

Grade: C+

What it’s about
A family drama set in a traditional Korean restaurant. Food porn ahoy!

First impression
As of episode 5, I really like this show—it’s sweet, sentimental, and just this side of magical realism. Now if only it didn’t make me desperate to eat kimchi…

Final verdict
Overall, this show is nicely done. I don’t think it lived up to the promise of the first few episodes, though—in place of a genuine, nuanced exploration of family relationships, it gives us lots of meaningful smiles shared over vats of kimchi ingredients and approximately zero narrative friction. The drama feels disingenuous and standard issue, especially when the show started off hinting that its female lead had fought so intensely with her father she vowed never to set foot in her childhood home again. (Read full review here.) 

Drama Short: What Happened in Bali (2004) Review

What Happened in Bali poster

Grade: C+

What it’s about
Downtrodden and impoverished Lee Soo-jung sells her soul (and a few other things of value) to a spoiled chaebol while dealing with her feelings for his sad-eyed rival, a poor man whose hard work and iffy morals bring him professional success.

Initial impression
A slow beginning nearly had me saying annyonghi kyeshipshiyo to this Korean hit, but the plot picked up significantly by episode 10.

Final verdict
A dark, easy-to-watch drama that explores humanity’s less noble impulses: jealousy, greed, obsession, and violence. What Happened in Bali boils down to twenty very long episodes filled with terrible people doing terrible things to each other, with no possibility of redemption in sight. While Que Sera Sera made misery seem sexy, this show just makes it seem … miserable. In short, the Wuthering Heights of Korean drama (only less good). Worth watching if you’re a fan of pitch-black melodramas that focus on overblown tragedies, but maybe not otherwise. (Be prepared for a nasty O. Henry twist ending, if you do watch.)

Stray thoughts
• Everywhere I go, there’s Ha Ji Won. Which is a pity, because I think she’s totally uninteresting: the only time I’ve ever enjoyed watching her on screen was King 2 Hearts.

• Hot leads, but 2004 was clearly a bad year for male hairstyles.

Episode 9: Man, that was the most soul-besmirching wish-fulfillment shopping spree ever.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Big: Homestretch, Here We Come

Watching Big as it airs in Korea has been a weird experience for me.

Usually, I wait until a drama is fully subtitled and available online before starting it. I’m now realizing this means that I spend very little time assessing the show’s ongoing quality—it’s an organic whole when you’re free to watch episodes at will, a complete entity rather than 16 (or more) free-standing episodes that each demand individual scrutiny.

Spending time with a drama that’s currently airing is also strange for another reason: I’m not spoiled rotten the way I usually am when watching older shows. When deciding what to watch based on years worth of online reviews, there’s no way to avoid spoilers. I almost always know what’s coming from the very beginning—the way the OTP will fizzle out by the drama’s midpoint, that the show will take a quality nosedive after episode 12, that the shocking surprise ending involves incest. (Okay. I guess that one’s a surprise to no one watching a Korean drama.)  Truly, I’m not convinced that I want to avoid spoilers, anyway; there’s something to be said for the comfort of knowing just what to expect.

This is exactly what I don’t have with Big. Waiting for new episodes to air feels like hanging in suspended animation: there’s no moving forward of my own volition, so I have lots of time to think about exactly where the show stands, snapshot-style, at any given moment. And episodes watched this way take on their own independent identities (“episode 2 was amazing, but episode 8 was kind of boring”) in a way that just doesn’t happen when marathoning an already completed drama (“Dal Ja’s Spring was awesome!”).

At this point, it’s hard for me to judge Big’s quality because my experience of watching it has been so very different from all the other dramas I’ve seen.

Here’s what I know for sure: At the beginning, I loved how Big’s traditional-to-the-bones noona romance was enriched by the drama’s trippy premise and mindfucky storytelling. With each passing episode, though, the former is overpowering the later. After the time skip, my greatest fear was that the changed circumstances would downplay the body swap angle and level the balance of power in the OTP’s relationship, turning Big into a straightforward romance just like all the others. And guess what? That’s exactly what happened.

I still enjoy watching Big and am excited to see where it goes, but as things stand my primary reaction to the show is disappointment. As of episode 12, the originality and excitingly skewed perspectives of the first few episodes have been jettisoned in favor of a slightly above average love story and enough mercenary product placements to choke a blue whale. And now that much of the mystery has been revealed to the viewer it’s physically painful watching the characters slowly, sllloooowwwwllly piecing it together for themselves.

What’s good about this show could still save it—an amazing, knock-your-socks-off performance by a beloved lead actor (although even Gong Yoo’s significant charms seem to be flagging in the most recent episodes, thanks to the underwriting of his character), a compelling central storyline that is chock full the of potential for greatness, and a pleasantly amiable tone and cast that shouldn’t be underestimated.

I could easily fall back in love with Big, provided that the home stretch uses some snazzy narrative sleight of hand to pull the many fragments of this drama into focus. Will that happen? Painfully, the only option is waiting another two weeks to see.

Some notes:
• There are still random mysteries out there:
—Did Kyung Joon’s dad fall in love with his mom, the surrogate? Is that why Yoon Jae’s mom hates them so much?
—Why did Da Ran’s mom have a shaved head, as mentioned in episode 12? Did she shave her hair in protest of her parents’ disapproval of her lover? Or was she being treated for cancer, maybe bringing her into orbit with Yoon Jae’s dad?
—Will Ma Ri’s talismans—and Choong sik’s involvement with them—come back into the story?
—Does the Miracle book have another part to play? Da Ran and Kyung Joon don’t know about it yet, after all.
—Did anything significant happen at the wedding? Why hasn’t the drama included a single scene from such a momentous event? Was another wedding not in the budget? Or are those wily Hong sisters intentionally holding out on us?
—Will Kyung Joon’s body wake up on his birthday, as Ma Ri’s dream seemed to portend? And whose soul will be in it if it does? (I suspect the catalyst for this will be gathering the four family members together in one place—Yoon Jae, Kyung Joon, and mom and dad.)

• When Da Ran removed her ring and put it in a glass in episode 12, it recalled Kyung Joon’s soul-swapping demonstration in episode 2. But in contrast to the earlier scene, Da Ran’s soul is represented by the ring and the ties she has to another person. It’s oddly fitting that such a flat, motivationless character is embodied by nothing more than a symbol of matrimony, while Kyung Joon and Yoon Jae’s souls were embodied by fully-formed beings in the shape of robot figurines.

Big: Gong Yoo with cups
In his cups, episode 2

Big: female lead with cups
In her cup, episode 12

Drama Short: Que Sera Sera (2007) Review

Que Sera Sera poster

Grade: A 

What it’s about

Four people—two poor and two rich—couple and uncouple in the most hurtful ways you can imagine.

First impression
Is that a faint whiff of Cruel Intentions I detect at your pulse points, you strange, saucy little drama?

Final verdict
How is it that this dark gem of a show isn’t on more top 10 lists? I love it, at least partially because it’s so refreshing to watch a drama that doesn’t rely on an evil character to drive the plot. Instead, this show relies on the ultimate evil: human nature, and all its jealous, greedy, unholy desires. A rare bird, indeed.  

Stray thoughts
Episode 9: Dear Han Eun Soo: The correct answer in this scenario is “If you loved me, you would never, ever have done what you just did.” Cordially, Amanda

Drama Short: Rooftop Prince (2012) Review

Rooftop prince poster

Grade: C+

What it’s about
A stuffy, self-important Joseon-era prince and his entourage time travel to modern-day Korea and try to solve the mystery of his beloved princess’ murder. While living with a modern-day girl, they become embroiled in the corporate intrigues of the family company belonging to the prince’s contemporary reincarnation.

First impression
Fun sageuk mystery meets...standard-issue chaebol/poor girl romance. Sigh. Are there really no other plots available, dear Kdrama overlords, especially given the spiffy time-travel raw materials you had to work with?

Final verdict
Saddled with a weirdly unsatisfying ending, this lighthearted romantic comedy is occasionally cute but overall tiresomely average. 

Random thoughts
• The jury’s still out: Park Yoochun, total babe or E.T. lookalike?

• Do Koreans actually hang giant pictures of themselves above their beds? That’s bizarre—although I guess I have no right to judge. I, like all good little Catholic girls, grew up with a sculpture of a crucified guy in a loincloth hanging above my bed.

• At first I thought I was going to hate the Joseon Larry, Moe, and Curly who make up three-quarters of this F4 grouping, but now I totally love them and their goofy clapping.

• Okay. I’ve never been very good at geography, but riddle me this: he fell off a boat off the coast of New York City, and somehow ended up in the landlocked city of Chicago, 900 miles to the west. Did he float up the Eerie Canal? Was the St. Lawrence Seaway involved somehow? UPDATE: In a later episode it’s mentioned that they were sailing on a lake, not the ocean. Which presumably means they drove 13 hours or so upstate to sail on Lake Michigan, rather than just heading to the ocean. Sounds like a great idea.