Thursday, August 30, 2012

Drama Review: Autumn’s Concerto (2009)

Grade: A

Romantic melodrama

What it’s about
A spoiled rich boy with a tragic past and a bad attitude finds angst-ridden love with a cafeteria worker at the college his family owns. After separating them with a slew of soap-opera-style obstacles, the drama catches up with the couple seven years—and one illegitimate son—later.

First impression
After the incessant cheerfulness of A Gentleman’s Dignity, I’m hungry for something unapologetically melodramatic. Looks as if this show is going to fit the bill—there was a dead parent and an attempted child abandonment before the first episode’s opening credits even rolled. That must be some sort of world record for misery, and I, naturally, couldn’t be happier.

Final verdict
Some things are heart-warming—this epic melodrama is closer to heart melting. The 21 lengthy episodes of my first Taiwanese series flew by in a delightful blur of stabbings, terminal diseases, spontaneous amnesia, court trials, and ill-fated (but ultimately triumphant) love triangles. A distant cousin to the Endless Love series of Korean dramas, Autumn’s Concerto is less innocent than most Kdramas when it comes to sex and violence, but is still built of similarly good-hearted DNA. Showcasing a pair of so-beautiful-it-hurts lovers and their mind-bendingly adorable son, it pulls out all the stops when it comes to soapy tribulations, but never fails to keep a relatable human face on the madness. Its somewhat draggy final quarter and inexplicably random final episode didn’t even dent my love for this refreshingly bad-guy-less show, all thanks to its squee-worthy love story and the respectful way it treated its quirky cast of Gilmore Girls-esque characters.

Random thoughts
• I can’t remember if I started off feeling this way, but I love the sound of the Korean language—it has lovely, crisp consonants and pleasantly curvy vowels. Japanese is nice, too. But Chinese? I’m really having difficulty watching this show with the volume on because the dialogue is hurting my ears. In contrast to the other Asian languages I’m familiar with, Chinese is choppy and harsh. Here’s hoping it grows on me, or this might be a long 21 episodes.

• So is it a Taiwanese thing that drama end credits ruin the suspense of the story? “I wonder if the leads get together…but wait, according to the cuddly, sun-drenched closing montage in every episode, they must!” I like to know there’s a happy ending in store, but leaving a little something to the imagination is cool, too.

Episode 3. I can’t say that Vaness Wu is doing anything for me; he’s too much of an over-processed flower boy for my taste. The female lead’s gardening friend is another story—he’s just my flavor of cute. Clearly, second lead syndrome is going to be an issue in this drama. Finale update: Vaness Wu totally pulled a Gong Yoo—at first, I thought he wasn’t much to look at, but by the end of this drama I was ready to pack my bags and head to Taiwan just in hopes of camping on his lawn. His lovely, expressive face made the show.

Episode 5. So now I see what people mean about Taiwanese television. This show is like a giant Saturday Night Live sketch spoofing Korean dramas. The plot is so stuffed full of unbelievable, outrageous developments and coincidences that it already puts all 16 episodes of the lunatic Winter Sonata to shame: it has dead parents, abandonment, bullying, over-privileged schoolboys, near-rape, court trials, stymied artistic dreams, and terminal illnesses. What in god’s name is left to fill the next 16 episodes?!? (I’m waiting with bated breath, let me tell you.)

What’s this? Asian actors believably conveying physical affection? I never thought I’d see the day. ::fans self::

Episode 10. I’m not a big fan of the young of the species, especially when they suddenly appear in my television shows, but I’ll make an exception this time: the little boy in this drama is so cute my ovaries are all but exploding. On top of that, he actually improves the story, giving the plot more to do than simply split up the main couple and get them back together, time and again. Love the burgeoning family dynamics, love the male lead (now that his hair is shorter, thank god), love the show.

Episode 16. I’ve heard of hate sex, but a hate marriage? That’s hardcore.

Episode 18. Picture this: the female lead is locked in a phoneless bedroom by her scheming rival for the male lead’s attention. What happens? In a Korean drama, the girl cries a little, knocks on the door, and then waits to be rescued. In a Taiwanese drama, the girl finds a lighter and burns a towel, thereby setting off the smoke detector and sending the hotel staff running. Well played, drama.

Episode 20. Having caught up with Dramafever’s subbing of this series, I’ve reluctantly moved over to Dramacrazy for the last two episodes. The bright side? JKShows, whom I hereby nominate for the title of Asian drama fan of the decade, has been there first: he or she has made full-episode files available at YouTube. The not-so-bright side? There’s so much Japanese language subbing on the screen that it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. It is amusing, though, to watch a character say the word “boss” in Chinese, which is the word “boss” in English, then see “boss” flash by in the Japanese subs, immediately followed by the word “boss” in the English subs. Talk about going full circle.

Episode 21. This wasn’t an episode so much as it was a 23-minute denouement nugget. Totally discordantly, every single plotline was given its own music-video style happy ending, with little or no connection to the rest of the drama’s narrative. Weird.

Watch it
DramaCrazy (look for the JKShows posts—they’re full episodes)

You might also like
The Endless Love series, for their fabulously over-the-top melodrama

(P.S.: So I figured out what was behind the missing comments—Blogger spontaneously decided they were spam, and hid them away. I've liberated them, and will keep an eye out for this in the future. [And think about finally making the jump to WordPress, where the cool kids hang out.])

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

From the Outside In: Kdrama Imponderables

“Don’t you know anything? Rinse first, spit second.”

When I posted about feminism in Kdramas last week, I was expecting one of two things: that it would be greeted by the utter, soul-crushing silence generally elicited by tl;dr writings, or that I would be flamed within an inch of my life for cultural insensitivity or daring to criticize beloved dramas.

It turns out that neither happened—the post got many hits and sparked a good deal of interesting discussion. Its contents also garnered some extremely valid feedback: that throughout the entry, the line between dramaland and the real world was uncomfortably fuzzy. Of course, what we see on television isn’t always real. If it was, America would be populated exclusively by beautiful people with perfect makeup, hair, and wardrobes. Even the poorest of the poor would live in funky city lofts worthy of a profile in Architectural Digest. Our kitchens would be clean enough to operate in, and we would all have an endless supply of witty comebacks for every occasion. Even if credulous aliens came to planet Earth expecting American culture to exactly replicate their beloved Friends reruns, one look around would prove irrefutably that it doesn’t come close.

And does anyone really believe that all Koreans yank out their cell phone batteries whenever they don’t want to answer a call? Does every hardworking, poverty-stricken orphan eventually bag her own chaebol? Are bands of Joseon scholars wandering around downtown Seoul as I type, having time-slipped in from their home era? No, no, and no.

Ultimately, though, television isn’t created in a vacuum: It inevitably has a relationship to the people it serves, and represents their values, concerns, and mores. Otherwise, who would watch it? If South Korea and America are anything alike at all, dramaland and the real world are actually part of a neverending feedback loop: one creates the other, while simultaneously being created by it. Take Jackass, for an extreme example. When I was a teenager, this MTV show filled with crazy, death-defying stunts was all the rage. And guess what happened? Much to the chagrin of everyone involved, kids out in the real world started dying when they tried to mimic the show’s lunatic antics. Or how about the Brady Bunch? It would be easy to assume that bastion of 70s cheese bears no relevance to real life—until you remember that it was famously inspired by a news article on the growing number of blended families in America. 

If The Brady Bunch found its roots in hard news coverage of the changing American family structure, is it really too much to think that the 8.9 million Kdrama wrist-grabs I’ve witnessed in the past year might have bearing on things that happen in the real world? The trick, it seems, is to figure out what might be true, and to what extent. 

Sure, it’s important to distinguish between dramaland and the planet we actually live on. And sure, there’s no such thing as one, immutable “culture” shared by every single resident of any country. But that doesn’t mean that plumbing the depths of Korean drama can’t teach you a little something about Korean life.

As (a self-styled) Kdrama ethnologist, I’m full of questions about how the shows I watch relate to the lives people actually lead. Here’s an iceberg-scratching list of imponderables that have been on my mind of late.

—Are students and teachers in Korea really expected to have such close relationships that the student might call the teacher from the police station—and the teacher might actually go bail him out, as did the female lead in A Gentleman’s Dignity? In America, boundaries between students and teachers are carefully enforced, and the teacher would have gotten into an incredible amount of trouble for bystepping the student’s parents.

—The established tooth-brushing order in Korean dramas is: brush, rinse, spit. On the other hand, I am almost totally sure that bathrooms across America see only brush, spit, rinse. Why the difference? Is Korean toothpaste less foamy than American?

—Do lawn mowers not exist in Korea? And even if they don’t, isn’t there some easier option for lawn maintenance than the little hand scissors people are always shown using in Kdramas?

—From what I’ve heard, Korean popular music includes a lot of English. Does the average person sitting at home watching Boys over Flowers know the language well enough to understand what lyrics like “Almost paradise” mean? Or is it just as foreign and indecipherable to them as Korean lyrics are to me? (If so, that sort of explains why the people behind BoF thought they could get away with reusing that song ad nauseum—if the lyrics don’t mean anything to you, the fact that they’re completely inappropriate for the scene at hand won’t matter so much.)

—Girls in Korea don’t really walk around with hand mirrors, gazing adoringly at their own faces at odd moments during the day. Right?

—Is there no such thing as a Korean laundromat? One of the most stunning things early in my Kdrama viewing was seeing people hand (erm…foot?) wash clothes and bedding in a plastic tub. In America, pretty much everyone has access either to pay laundry facilities or their own washer and dryer at home; it literally never even occurred to me that there were people in the developed world who still did laundry by hand.

—On a related note, are linens not included in the price of a hospital stay? Is that why hospital beds are often shown with fancy sheets—someone brought them from home? Presumably that’s why we occasionally see people (hand)washing laundry at a family member’s hospital room? That’s pretty crazy, if so: a less-than sterile wash could bring germs home with them.

—And then there’s the fact that dramas show even average, middle-class people going to the hospital with a little sniffle and getting a bed and IV drip. Is this really the way Koreans react to an illness? In America, hospitals are usually seen as an absolute last resort for someone who’s extremely unwell—we’re a touch suspicious of them, and they can be outrageously expensive, so nobody is lining up to go in for a check-up.

—Do celebrities actually engage in martial activities while they’re doing their mandatory two years in the military? Or is it all cucumber facials and Abs of Steel on DVD?

—When you see giant racks of squid drying in the sun in shows like Padam Padam, does the entire town reek? I’ve walked by outdoor fish markets in midsummer and almost lost my lunch—I can’t imagine what 2,000 dead squid would smell like after a few hours out in the elements. (And even if it does smell bad, is it a nice smell to people who live there? I’m from a rural area, and every summer nearby farmers spread cow manure over their fields. Even though this is generally acknowledged to be the worst smell ever, I secretly kind of like it—it smells warm and earthy, like home.)

—Do people really leave cooked food lying around on tables under those funny little umbrellas? Does “Plate’s in the fridge; 2 mins. on high in the microwave” not translate into Korean?

—Is there a cultural aversion to eating out of hand? In America, people are delighted to pick up big, juicy hamburgers and take a bite. We also eat apples whole, bite after bite, until we get to the core. But in Kdrama, these things are almost always cut up and eaten with the help of a fork. In the Japanese version of Boys over Flowers, the second male lead’s unwillingness to bite off a piece of apple was actually a plot point. Is this an Asia-wide thing?

—Do some people really reckon their birthdays based on the solar calendar and others on the lunar? That must get pretty complicated.

—If the Korean government is involved in the funding and running of the major networks, do they have censorship power over drama content? I know the strike earlier this year was related to government influence on news broadcasts, but do they care about shallow drama things, like how the Joseon king is depicted in the umpteen-millionth sageuk airing this decade?

—Does nobody in Korea have a regular metal key? Even in older dramas everyone has electronic keypads and weird little fob things.

—I love those contract stamps people have with their names on them, but aren’t they incredibly easy to fake? They’re just purchased from a regular store, not government-issued or anything.

—Is there really still milk delivery in Korea, or is that a job invented for the sake of hardworking Kdrama girls? About the only thing I could have delivered at my house is the newspaper—there’s one pizza place that serves my area, but with a two-dollar per mile fuel charge, the delivery fee would be higher than the price of the pizza.

—SOLVED! Whenever someone gets food delivered in a Kdrama, it looks as if it arrives in plates that aren’t disposable. What the what? 

  • [According to Eat Your Kimchi, you just leave the plates outside your door and the restaurant comes back to pick them up. That’s the long as you’re not the delivery guy.]

SOLVED! So. Circumcision in Korea—yes, no, maybe? (Wipe that shocked look off your face, dear reader. You should feel free to tell me you’ve never wondered, but be aware that I will feel free not to believe you.) 

  • [Yes, maybe. The answer to this one comes from the unlikeliest of places—last week’s Dramafever podcast. Stranger things have happened, but most of them involve sightings of Elvis.]
I guess all this means that I’m the Kdrama-fan equivalent of that nosy person who sits next to you on an airplane, asks all sorts of inappropriate questions about your personal life, and then totally misinterprets your answers. Oh well.

Anyone else have other Kdrama imponderables, or more information about any of these things?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Drama Review: A Gentleman’s Dignity (2012)

Grade: Incomplete/dropped
(I watched to episode 7 and then skipped to the last half of episode 20 for background noise while finishing this post)

Category: Romantic bromance

What it’s about
After approximately 30 years of acting like teenagers, a quartet of middle-aged male best friends finally manage to grow up. (Or so I hear.)

First impression
As promised (threatened?), the first episode of this rom-com mostly involves adults acting like annoying teenagers. The female lead has potential, but come on—sure, you had a minor wardrobe malfunction, but let’s be honest here. That slip was a good two inches longer than any shorts you might wear (as you are, after all, a character in a Kdrama), so is it really such a big deal that you flashed it at some strangers? Word on the street is that this show improves with every passing episode, so I’m still hopeful that I’ll end up loving it.

Final verdict
Not the show for me. As I sometimes do, I decided to start fast-forwarding through the boring parts at about episode 7. When I realized I’d skipped through the first 45 minutes of the episode without finding a single scene I actually wanted to watch, it became clear that it was time to call it quits. The characters weren’t interesting enough to carry the decentralized plot, and the plot wasn’t compelling enough to make up for unlikable characters. Although this is not a show without its charms—the bromance is cute, and I really liked the soundtrack—life is just too short to watch twenty hours of people I don’t like doing things I don’t care about.

Random thoughts
Episode 2.

Dear characters of Gentleman’s Dignity:

I hate you and your petty concerns.


Episode 3. There are a surprising number of Kdrama filming techniques that have never really made it to America—including one that was used in this episode. The leads were having a conversation while standing on a beach and looking out over the ocean. In front of them was the water, and logic would dictate that behind them was an inland view of a road or parking lot. But rather than waste the pretty scenery, every shot of the couple showed the ocean in the background, even if it should have shown the inland parking lot. The director must have pointed his camera at the ocean and filmed the dialogue twice, once with the couple facing the camera, and once with them facing away from it. The two versions were then edited together, so when the actors were seen from behind, the ocean was in front of them. And when the actors were shown from the front, the ocean was behind them. This happened a few times in last year’s Padam Padam, too, including the amazing fireworks scene. In a way, it’s totally contrary to any attempt at naturalistic cinematography ... but in another way, it really does make the most of the backdrop.

—Like me, the male lead names his cars. I have a weird feeling, though, that he’s also the type to name other things. “Hong Gil Dong” much?

Episode 4. This show is starting to win me over, but the appeal of the male lead is still an utter mystery. I know he’s supposedly the Korean George Clooney, but his deathly pallor, razor-sharp cheekbones, and shadowed eyes make him look like an extra from a particularly bleak Tim Burton movie. And even though he says he has a crush on the female lead, he acts like a total dick whenever they’re together—it feels more like he’s set out to torture her than romance her. When normal grownups think they like someone, they chat; when this guy thinks he likes someone, his first order of business is to completely alienate her. I sure hope AGD has something up its sleeve to explain this behavior—I’m no good at love, but even I can see that this isn’t a winning strategy.

—WTF's up with the male lead's pen recording device? <old person joke>Who does he think he is, Richard Nixon?</old person joke>

Episode 5. Jang Dong Gun, I would have thought that someone of your age and experience would know that there's more to acting than exaggerated blinking. Guess not, though.

Episode 7. Did you know that some forms of Islam make ending a marriage as simple as saying “I divorce the” three times? Let’s see if it works with Kdrama: I divorce the, I divorce the, I divorce the. Guess what, Gentleman’s Dignity? It did work, which means it’s the end of the road for us. I can’t take one more episode of your unlikable characters, dull plot, and woman-hating tone. Thanks for the bromance, at least.

Watch it

You might also like
The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, for the close friendships 

Protect the Boss, for the cute, realistically competative bromance 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Other F Word: Feminism versus Korean Drama

Family’s Honor: “I do...give up everything about my life so I can
go on shopping sprees with your obnoxious mother and dust your living room.
Remind me again what you’re giving up for this relationship?”

This week’s post could have been devoted to sane and sensible things that people might actually be interested in reading, like reviews of the new crop of Kdramas. Being a difficult human being, I instead opted to write the following diatribe about the finer points of gender relations in Kdramas. Sorry.

Feminism is a weirdly fraught topic in America, as if there’s something controversial about the notion that women are equal to men and deserve to be treated as such. I suspect that it’s even more so in Korea—as in most of Asia, Confucian-rooted patriarchy is still a major cultural force there.

I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist. This can be a difficult thing to reconcile with a love of Korean drama: As much as fun as I have watching these shows, I often find myself cringing when it comes to their depictions of relationships between men and women. Dramas that are geared toward younger audiences generally aren’t so bad, but I’m quickly learning to carefully approach series with more adult appeal, lest their depictions of gender roles leave me clutching the back of my neck in psychosomatic pain, Kdrama-style.

The two most off-putting shows I’ve seen to date when it comes to women’s rights have been A Gentleman’s Dignity and Family’s Honor, a 56-episode drama that aired in 2008. Both shows were targeted at audiences in their forties, an age group that seems more likely to have attitudes about women that are contrary to my own beliefs.

What I would consider casual sexism suffuses the plot of A Gentleman’s Dignity: Hate your older wife and cheat on her constantly but don’t want to divorce her because you need her money? Fine. Express your admiration for the woman you like by forcibly pinning her against a bathroom door against her will? No problem. Tell your friends you’re not interested in a girl because “to me, she’s not a woman, she’s a human being”? Right on! But for the kind of show it was—one trying to appeal to both older viewers and male audiences—A Gentleman’s Dignity could have been a lot worse. 

It was Family’s Honor that really broke my heart. Its portrayal of traditional family life was one of the most interesting things about this funny, sweet drama, but it also required an old-fashioned approach to women’s rights. When its characters got married, the women were expected to completely abandon their pasts and their birth families to fill a domestic role in their husbands households. Marriage vows in the world of Family’s Honor aren’t a pact between two people; they’re very much a pact between two families, with the daughter-in-law functioning as equal parts hostage and maid. (Seeing this made me appreciate why there’s so much Kdrama conflict about children’s spouses. Getting that perfect daughter-in-law is like hiring an employee whose responsibilities include bearing your grandchildren.)

The worst thing, though, was hearing the capable, confident female lead in Family’s Honor tell her new husband that for the duration of their marriage, he would never see her without makeup. Up to this point I had really loved her character—in spite of being a goodie-two shoes raised in a deeply traditional environment, she brought a healthy serving of snark to the table. So a tiny sliver of my soul died when she told him it was her responsibility to be up early every morning so she could look good for him when he woke up, just as her grandmother had done for her grandfather. The male lead only grinned bashfully in response, as if he couldn’t believe his good luck. This seems like no kind of intimacy to me: If you can’t allow someone to see you as you really are underneath the mask you very literally wear in the public sphere, you can’t let them love you, either.

In the youthful, girl-centric dramas I usually seek out, the patriarchal nature of Korean culture has a subtler influence. But it’s still here, sometimes in unexpected ways.

“I’ll take responsibility.”
If you’ve seen more than one or two Kdramas, you’ve almost certainly come across this sentence. Most often spoken by a dashing male lead, it’s an oblique, drama-ese proposal of marriage. A character who says these words is stepping forward as a potential husband, as someone who will be around for his significant other through good and bad, thick and thin. I definitely kvelled the first time I came across a character saying he would “take responsibility,” back when I was watching the 2006 noona romance What’s Up Fox. But then I really thought about what the words meant, and now find it a bit harder to get excited about them.

“I’ll take responsibility for you and our relationship,” the man is declaring to his object of desire, as if she’s a pet in need of an owner, not an adult woman capable of caring for herself. Ultimately, it’s not a confession of love—it’s an acknowledgment of an uneven balance of power. It’s the person in control deigning to take on the burden of a wife, begrudgingly accepting the role of being her leader, boss, and master.

Gentleman's Dignity: “Duh...Wait! I mean otokay!”

Many Kdrama indicators of women’s status are external, acted upon one character by another. Some, however, are internal—like the exclamation “Otokay?” (What to do?).  This rhetorical expression of uncertainty and doubt is used by characters who feel out of their league and unable to chart a course of action.

Drama characters of both genders have been known to say it, but Otokay is a predominantly a female exclamation. In particular, it’s perhaps the most essential vocabulary word for rom-com leads. Of late, the character Yi Soo in A Gentleman’s Dignity has been driving me especially crazy with it—in every single episode, she’s had at least one spazz fit where she dances around, impotently moaning otakay in the face of whatever small-scale, childish embarrassment the show’s male lead has inflicted on her.

To me, otokay is an uncomfortable admission of helplessness and self-doubt that actually functions as an apology for the personal agency of female characters. Sure, they eventually make the decisions the plot requires of them, but not before the writers take time to stress just how hard it is for their women to think independently and solve their own problems.

One of the things that I love most about Korean drama is that it values any technique that allows the viewer to fully experience a character’s emotional life. And this is a key factor why otokay plays such an important role in so many dramas: it’s an opportunity to depict on screen what’s going on in someone’s head. I just wish that it didn’t preclude showing Kdrama girls in a self-confident, take-charge light.

Heartstrings: If a girl won’t do what you want, make her.
 It’s the Kdrama way.

The wrist grab.
I watched a number of dramas before it even occurred to me that the wrist grab existed—if you’re not paying close attention, it doesn’t look so different from holding hands, after all. But the distinction between the two is still worth considering: Holding hands is a mutual act of connection in which both sides are equal; if you don’t want to hold someone’s hand, you let go. In contrast, grabbing someone’s wrist is a one-sided assumption of power, with the grabber in complete control; as a physical gesture, it’s much more difficult to reject.

And guess who’s always the grabber and who’s always the grabbee? That’s right—men grab women to drag them off for lengthy, one-sided conversations; to prevent them from leaving the room; or to steer them in crowds. In all my many, many hours of watching Korean television, I can’t think of a single instance of a woman taking a man’s wrist. The only parallel thing Kdrama women are allowed is to grip the edge of a man’s jacket, something they generally do in fear or to ensure that they’re not separated from him on the street. Yet it’s always clear that grabbing a wrist is an assertion of power and a denial of the other person’s free will, while grabbing a jacket is an admission of weakness.

The ultimate wrist grab, I think, comes toward the end of Boys over Flowers. While standing in a huddle of irate characters, Joon Pyo took what he thought was Jan Di’s wrist and dragged her for blocks. What he didn’t realize until far too late was that the wrist he grabbed belonged not to Jan Di, but to her rival for his affections. This was played for comedy, but it’s actually just a reminder what a one-sided, impersonal act of aggression the wrist grab actually is: He dragged that girl so far she had to ask for cab fare to get back to where they started, without ever realizing who it was.

“No” means “Whatever you say, Sir.”
Wrist grabbing is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to domineering physical contact in Kdramas. Again and again, we see men who force women to do things against their will. Whether it’s Ra Im’s struggles against Joo Won’s “romantic” kisses in Secret Garden or Jan Di’s eternal ambivalence to Joon Pyo’s obsession with her in Boys over Flowers, what female characters want isn’t of the utmost importance even in Kdramas geared toward women.

Seemingly progressive shows like I Need Romance 2012 aren’t immune, either: This series didn’t even make it past its third episode before a female character was physically restrained and carried into her bedroom for her first sexual encounter with her boyfriend, in spite of her longstanding protests that she wasn’t ready for that kind of relationship with him. It’s true that the show painted said boyfriend as a creep, but not because he was a date rapist—because he was a jerk who didn’t please her once he got her into bed, and then had the nerve to criticize her sexual skills in public.

When it comes to desire and physical relationships in Kdramas, women are doubly cursed. Only in the rarest of circumstances are they allowed to want to touch a man, but when that man wants to touch them they’re almost always expected to let him do so. Episode 5 of A Gentleman’s Dignity included a particularly skin-crawl-y example: Do Jin, the male lead, had been pursuing the female lead, Yi Soo, for a number of episodes. She had yet to give in, though, and regularly told him to get lost. One night she was in desperate need a ride and called him for help; he took Yi Soo to her house and invited himself in. While eventually excusing himself, Do Jin gazed leeringly at Yi Soo and said “I’d better leave, or I’ll do something bad.” The line was delivered as if it were scampish and charming, much in the tone I’d use to fret about being alone with a quart of Ben & Jerry’s. But this isn’t ice cream he’s talking about—it’s a person with an agenda and motivations fully independent of his own, and someone who is clearly disinclined to accept his sexual advances. I might be helpless against the impulse to devour that tub of Chunky Monkey. But what “bad” thing is he threatening to do here, when alone with this woman he professes to have a crush on? I wonder. And would it matter what Yi Soo had to say about it?

Secret Garden: “Her hands might be saying no, but I’ll make her mouth say yes.”

“How will she run the household?”
I love Coffee Prince like other people love air, at least partially because it’s a shining bastion of girl power. Both its female leads live the lives they want, in spite of the world’s expectations of them. But even Coffee Prince doesn’t completely escape the patriarchal nature of Korean society.

Undercurrents throughout the show hint at just what the tomboy Eun Chan should be, but isn’t. When faced with the possibility of acquiring such an unorthodox daughter-in-law, the male lead’s mother was flummoxed at the thought of how the household would be run under her supervision. Because, of course, when a woman becomes a wife in Kdrama it’s usually expected that she also becomes a professional housekeeper—either for the male lead, or, as in this case, his entire family.

And then there’s the male lead himself. Unspeakably charming and supportive as he is, even Choi Han Gyul doesn’t exist outside of the patriarchy. “What kind of man do you think I am? Of course you can keep working after we get married,” he says to Eun Chan after she’s confessed she’s unwilling to marry him immediately. The stickler here is that it actually matters what kind of man Han Gyul is when it comes to Eun Chan’s ability to remain active in the world outside his home. It’s understood by every character in the drama that once they’re officially together, everything about her life becomes his prerogative.

It’s not that I think these characters (or the writers who created them) have to-do lists including the item “be culpable in the oppression of women.” It’s just that as an outsider seeing Korean culture for the first time, I’m not desensitized to these things the way someone who grew up there would be. Just like in America, some things are so embedded in the native worldview that their actual meaning has been all but forgotten. Although a man might say “I’ll take responsibility,” I suspect it’s the equivalent of someone like me buying Uncle Ben’s rice at the grocery store. If I really stop and think about the history of racism and slavery in America as represented by this product’s name and marketing, it’s damn upsetting. But in my day-to-day life, it’s just another box on the shelf. And in his day-to-day life, it’s just what you say when you want to marry someone. 

And while my own values and those shown in Korean dramas are sometimes in conflict, Kdrama does have a lot to offer women viewers. Koreans are not afraid to tell stories from a female point of view, even if they’re meant for general audiences (Girl K, Miss Ripley). Kdrama girls who work hard and believe in themselves always, always win in the end (Shining Inheritance, Sungkyunkwan Scandal). In Korean drama, women are rarely sexualized (Boy over Flowers, which never showed a single Korean girl in a bikini, in spite of ample opportunities). I would also like to add, with no small degree of irony, that to the best of my knowledge Park Shi Hoo has never yet made a drama without at least one shirtless scene.

• • •

Fascinating things discovered while procrastinating about this post:
on Homegrown Social Critique

on Not Another Wave

on Idle Revelry

Master List of Feminism x Kdrama Blog Posts
on Malariamonsters

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Drama Review: Nobuta wo produce (2005)

Grade: A

Jdrama; Coming-of-age friendship

What it’s about
Two high school boys—one the class clown and the other the school heartthrob—make a project out of winning popularity for the new girl, a strange, shy loner. 

First impression
I decided to give this show a try on the recommendation of a Kdrama friend, and really like it as of episode 1. I was turned off Japanese drama early on in my Asian TV obsession after watching some of the freaky Yamato nadeshiko shichi henge. I didn’t understand that show at all, but now I know why: it’s a miles-over-the-top spoof of Nobuta wo produce. Duh.

Final verdict
Television doesn’t get more heartwarming than this show: it’s a tale of an unlikely friendship and a poignant reminder that the perils of adolescence aren’t so different, no matter what country you’re from. Tinged with a dark hint of magical realism, Nobuta wo produce’s 10 forty-five minute episodes were over far too quickly—and made me realize just how bloated and listless Kdrama plotting can be. Every episode stands refreshingly on its own as a fully contained story, but also contributes to the larger narrative arc of the three central students journeying to adulthood. With its slice-of-life vibe, quirky cast of characters, and zippy pacing, this is a drama that pulls you fully into its world.

Random thoughts
• Watching a Japanese drama feels like traveling to a foreign country for the first time: Who are these peculiar people and what is this crazy language they’re speaking? Funny to think Kdramas once felt that way, too—especially now that I’ve internalized Korean culture to such an extent it’s my fellow Americans who leave me confused.

• It might be a touch early in my relationship with JDramas for sweeping generalization, but far be it from me to think I actually need to know about something before I can write about it. So I’ll just come out and say it: To me, Korean drama is 100% fairly dust. Japanese drama, on the other hand, is 30% fairy dust, 60% Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, and 10% unicorn farts. A strange, shocking mixture indeed.

Episode 1. I had nightmares about those damn monkey paws last night, all thanks to W. W. Jacobs’ terrifying 1902 short story of the same name. Eek! Is this show going to scare me?

Episode 4. I’m not a very fast runner, but I’d like to be this truth guy. Imagine what fascinating secrets you’d hear if you made a habit of going up to strangers and demanding that they tell you the truth? (Assuming they actually did it instead of punching you in the face.)

Episode 9. Call me crazy, but I love the little informative notes Japanese-language subbers like to include in their dramas. They make sure their viewers come away from an episode not only having enjoyed the show, but also truly appreciating the finer points of the script. Without them, English speakers like me would never have appreciated Akira’s clever (but goofy stupid) wordplay throughout this drama.

Episode 10. And the award for the most delightful moment of the show goes to: “Does anyone have a saw?” Nobuta asks at random as she and her two friends hang out after school. “Of course I don’t,” the first friend replies ruefully (and understandably, as the request is both inexplicable and utterly unexpected). The second friend pipes up, pulling a small handsaw out of his pocket. “Actually, I do,” he says. “I keep a saw with me just for times like this.” Seriously? Could you be any crazier, drama? Or more wonderful?

• Episode 10.
—::Amanda cries::
 —::Amanda cries some more::
— ::Amanda progresses from crying to weeping::
— ::Amanda edges from weeping toward bawling::
— It’s over??!? What fresh hell is this?

Watch it
Drama Crazy (Psst...some genius has posted full episodes on YouTube that you can access at the bottom of the link list, next to the name JKShows)

You might also like
Playful Kiss, for its homey, coming-of-age wackiness 

Boys over Flowers, for its strong friendships and the gritty, real-world atmosphere of Jan Di’s life outside of Shin Hwa High

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Kdrama Linkapoloza

Updated August 5, 2014

Image from the wildly funny Drama Queen on Tumblr 

As of late August of last year, I was frantically making my way through Boys over Flowers, in shock at both its utter absurdity and cracktacular awesomeness. A total Kdrama newbie, I did some Google searching in hopes of finding smart, thoughtful commentary on this hot mess of a show that was eating more brain cells that I could afford to lose, but wasn’t able to find much of anything. Sure, the ever-wonderful Dramabeans popped up immediately, but beyond that most sites I found were long abandoned.

It turns out that the problem with my search wasn’t the small number of English-speaking Kdrama fans, as I initially feared. Instead, It was the sheer massiveness of the Internet and a complete lack of a central clearing-house for Korean drama links. Most blogs have a short blogroll list, but I’ve only come across one attempt to create anything like a comprehensive list of active Kdrama sites (see the second link for Blue’s Electric Ground, below). Ever since this realization, I’ve been squirreling away the URL of every interesting site I come across relating to Korean drama.

And as someone who regularly surfs the web on a number of different computers, I have pretty much every one of those sites bookmarked at least 4 times. Which is sort of ridiculous. To address this problem and to share the wealth, I’ve decided to move my bookmarking online. Herein are the sites I’ve seen over the course of the past year that I liked enough to want to return to.

(P.S.: If you know of some other site I should add, let me know!)

Drama info

Streaming/download sources

Life in Korea/News/Gossip

Drama commentary, reviews, and recaps

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Just popping in to say...

...I’m not sure if I’m annoyed or thrilled that the unsubbed jTBC dramas we English speakers have been drooling over are now available online...but you’ve got to pay to watch anything beyond episode 2.

I Live in Cheongdam Dong

Wife’s Credentials

Queen Insoo

I guess this explains why most of the recent jTBC dramas haven't been showing up on DramaFever, those sly foxes.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Drama Review: I Need Romance 2012 (2012)

Grade: B

Category: Modern romantic comedy

What it’s about
The trials and tribulations of Yool Mae and Suk Hyun, long-time best friends and sometime lovers, and their group of thirty-something friends. In spite of the shared name and tone, this drama is only tangentially related to the original I Need Romance (2011).

First impression
What a breath of fresh air—a youthful and contemporary rom-com featuring romantic relationships approximating the ones we have in the real world. As of episode 2, I’m still struggling to get past my intense love for the original and enjoy the new one on its own merits—the sequel seems a little more plastic and less realistic, and the characters and actors aren’t as appealing as they were the first time around. Maybe a little more deviation from the original would have been good here; it would have made it harder to compare the two seasons and find the second one lacking. Also, I sorely, sorely miss Kim Jung Hoon, who’s so likeable that he automatically makes me root for his character, no matter how much of a tool he’s being.

Final verdict
My favorite drama of the year to date (Sorry, Shut Up! Flower Boy Band: You’ve been bumped to second place). 

Compared with the first “season,” I Need Romance 2012 is a darker, less comedic exploration of the things that keep us apart and bring us together. While the three C’s of the 2012 edition—cast, characters, and chemistry—aren’t quite on par with the wonderful original, all is forgiven in light of INR 2012’s better-plotted script and tendency toward dialog that’s equal parts painfully funny and painfully truthful. 

This time around, the show comes off as less of a cartoon caricature of Sex in the City. There’s some naughty talk and at its heart is still a strong female friendship, but INR 2012 lets the thoughtful earnestness inherent in Kdrama take the driver’s seat, rather than going out of its way to shock. Sure, its leads fit into the sacred female archetypes of aspirational modern romances—the Carrie, the Samantha, and the Charlotte (as recently pointed out in this discussion of the original drama)—but their roles aren’t so set in stone. The innocent girl can barely keep track of the number of men she’s kissed, after all, and the Samantha never once has a sex scene in the course of the show’s 16 episodes.

And even if it’s more traditional than the original (there are a lot more pat happy endings and a lot fewer hot make-out sessions), INR 2012 still manages to flout Kdrama conventions. It’s all here—Sex for the sake of sex! Friends with benefits! Cohabiting singles with nary a responsible adult in sight! Characters who are upwardly mobile, independent-minded, and free to live their own lives and make their own decisions! Scandalously, the female lead also steps outside the norm to be a successful career woman who isn’t defined by her job—she loves it and is good at it, but prioritizes it as part of her life, not her whole reason for being.

As part of their iconoclastic approach to the drama canon, each of the I Need Romances re-imagines a standard-issue cliché: the first turns a chaebol/poor girl love story on its ear, and the second finds a new way to explore the terminal disease plotline so beloved of Kdramas. While I whole-heartedly approved of the original’s controversial ending, I was less enthusiastic about the way the sequel came to a close—although the time jump helped, the final decision felt like a pity pick. I wish the show had either gone for the love triangle’s other angle, or found a more convincing way to take the heroine where it wanted her to go. 

It’s the little details that sold me on this series, though, like the silent conversations the characters carry on using only facial expressions. (They’re helpfully translated in voiceover for the viewers.) When you’re close to someone it really does feel just like this, as if you could say all you need to say in a glance without the trouble of words. The freeze-frame still photos inserted into the action in this season are another example of an unusual technique that’s totally successful. Instead being jarring interruptions like they were in the original, they now feel like another storytelling tool—a way to make the characters’ internal lives external within the flow of the narrative.

In spite of being a bit less homey and appealingly naturalistic than the original, I Need Romance 2012 is still a charming, smoothly plotted exploration of love and friendship. 

Random thoughts
• Did I mention that I’m obsessed with the theme song, Lasse Lindh’s “I Could Give You Love”?

• The dramas in this series have really managed to make the technique of voiceover their own. One of the few gripes I had about Dal Ja’s Spring was how hokey and dated the earnest voiceovers felt, but somehow INR manages to make them seem fresh. It’s partially that the voiceover tends to be inserted over edgy-looking freeze-frame stills instead of run over exterior shots, and partially that the delivery is crisp, not moony. 

Episode 1. Good gravy—I just understood an entire conversation in Korean! (So what if it consisted entirely of the words “Okay” and “Go”?)

Episode 2. Oh, Korea. Can’t you save the date rape for episode 3, at least? And of course nobody is discussing it as such—the slogan “Obvious befuddlement and/or resistance means no” apparently never caught on in Asia.

Episode 3. What the hell just happened with the person in the bear suit? And can it please happen in every episode for the rest of the drama? (And maybe all dramas, ever?) It’s like the Tragic Clown in The Sims, only in reverse. Traumatic scene? Hold on, Hugs the Bear will appear and comfort your favorite character! Random, and randomly wonderful.

Episode 4. So it seems that the real common thread between these two dramas is actually a female lead who sabotages her own relationship. In the first season, she lets paranoia and suspicion take over her entire being when she suspects that her boyfriend cheated, blaming him long before he did anything to deserve it. In the second season, male characters keep asking what the girls want, but the female leads are to afraid to actually make their feelings clear. If I’ve learned anything in my time on this planet, it’s that the fastest way not to get what you want is not to ask for it.

Episode 7. Dear show: I think it’s love. Will you marry me? Sincerely, Amanda

—So, Mr. Second Lead. You work at Coffee “King,” do you? You’re no Choi Han Gyul, but I’ll give you points for trying.

—I bet this episode would have been a lot more amusing if I understood any of the references to Korean movies. Couldn’t the screenwriter just have made some jokes about Secret Garden, instead?

• Episode 8. Item 7 million on the list of things this show does just right? Dialogue. Not the cheesy Kdrama lovey kind, but the crisp and funny and smart kind. (Not that there’s anything wrong with cheese, or that INR 2012 doesn’t also bring its fair share of it to the table. It just has more to offer.) My favorite line from any Korean drama ever was is in this episode. The male lead said, mid-argument, “Your mind is there to hide things you don’t want to say out loud.” If only I were a little better at remembering that myself.

Episode 14. I want a Korean Monopoly board! (Even if it’s called Blue Marble.) Also, what’s up with golden retrievers in Kdrama? Must they always come in luxuriantly furred pairs? Is this the same set that appeared in My Princess?

Episode 15. Epic timing fail! I just finished episode 15…but episode 16 isn’t subbed anywhere yet. How can you leave me hanging like this, cruel world?!?

Episode 16. I found it 97% subbed at Viki. (I’m so glad that half of that missing translation is in the final monologue. Really.) Why do I feel like the heart has been ripped from my chest, torn into itty-bitty pieces, and stomped on for 45 minutes? Oh right. Because it has.

Watch it

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