Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The 2nd Annual Go Dok Mi Memorial Wish List

Dear Drama Overlords,

Another year has passed, and once again I spent an absurd amount of time watching and writing about your mighty works. In this light, I feel entitled to make a few small requests this holiday season. So here’s my 2014 wish list, which should be considered a supplement to the 2013 wish list you essentially ignored. (Although I suppose that it’s possible the character of Young Do was created specifically to punish me for requesting that the second lead get the girl for a change?)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing Day Marathon: White Christmas

Although most Korean dramas are bite-sized compared to American television shows, they still tend to be too long for a true marathon—at more than 16 episodes, it’s actually a punishing experience to watch one from beginning to end in a few days. (Not that I haven’t done it.)

But 2011’s White Christmas is a different story: as part of KBS’s series of drama shorts, it’s only eight hours long. This well-reviewed miniseries is an atmospheric thriller detailing the horrible events that happen when a group of students stay at their demanding boarding school over winter break. Nowadays, White Christmas is especially notable for its casting. Among other familiar faces, it includes early career appearances from both Kim Woo Bin (my beloved Choi Young Do from Heirs) and Sung Joon (star of Shut Up: Flower Boy Band and the upcoming I Need Romance 3.)

As today is the first day of my own winter break that I actually have to myself without family or work responsibilities, I thought I’d use it for a true marathon. I’ll post updates and thoughts here as I go.

Note that the discussion of episodes 1 and 2 are fairly spoiler free, but from here on out I’m going to chart my theories about what’s going on. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, tread carefully!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My (carbon copy) Love from Another Star

I sometimes think originality is overrated.

It’s a pretty standard assumption that the first is always the best, and that everything following afterward is a pale imitation. We think originators are motivated by the pure and noble spirit of creativity, while imitators are motivated by a failure of imagination or—even worse—money. As someone who has watched Jaws, Orca, and Piranha, I can say without reservation that this is sometimes true.

The more I watch Korean drama, though, the more I see an alternate interpretation: things can also start off as rough and unpolished, and repetition can be the thing that smoothes out the sharp edges and actually makes them good.

Take the recent spate of supernatural dramas. One of the leaders of the pack was 2012’s Operation Proposal, which was barely watchable. Its time travel device was ridiculous, its plot wafer thin, and its storyline frustratingly repetitive. Again and again, the main characters did the same stupid things and got the same stupid results. Since that show aired, many others have played with time, and each has had its own failures and successes. But it wasn’t until early 2013 that Kdrama finally created a truly great show on the theme of time travel—Nine. And Nine was so good not because it was some magical, pathbreaking innovation; it was so good because it learned the lessons of the shows that had failed before it. The mind-numbing back-and-forth of Operation Proposal was suddenly exciting in Nine. The underused murder mystery of Rooftop Prince became the star of the show.The bizarre baby-in-a-jar time travel device of Dr. Jin turned into suitably mystical (and portable) sticks of Tibetan incense. The impact-free relocation of Faith’s heroine became a dangerous game that changed both past and future. And the logic fail ending of Queen In Hyun’s Man became a set of internal rules for time travel that were almost flawlessly obeyed, guiding Nine’s story instead of falling victim to it.

And now there’s My Love from Another Star. (Or You Who Came from the Stars. Whatever you call it, I’m sure you agree its title is ridiculous.) Its central premise may not be as easily categorized as some Korean dramas, but it draws so heavily on other shows that its script almost qualifies as an act of remixing.

This might sound like less than a good thing. But Korean dramas are the magpies of the entertainment world—they borrow and reiterate and reconfigure and end up with something even better than their intact raw materials were. Scenes used again and again develop their own emotional resonance, building a giant, interlocking web of references that encompass a thousand dramas that came before them. From the fade-to-white death scene to the Dramatic U-Turn (tm), Korean dramas are full of what Tumblr user This Won’t Be Big on Dignity recently called “visual tropes and metaphors; universally understood coded content.” That code was developed over years of repetition, and it serves Kdrama—and us—well.

For the sake of appreciation, here are some of the borrowings I’ve noticed in My Love from Another Star.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Some Tiny Notes

Although I usually don’t post reviews on Tuesdays, the Heirs series review below is the best I can do this week. My blissfully long winter break starts Friday, though, so I’ll have lots of time for dramatic things soon.

And one of those things will definitely be watching the new drama you’ve chosen for me: You Who Came from the Stars. I’m excited enough about it to be scoping out the earlier work of Gianna Jun, its female lead. In an industry where everyone tries so hard to look the same, I love that she’s kept the dainty little birthmark on her nose. It gives her a lot of much personality; I really hope it isn’t hidden with make-up in the drama, as it is in the image above. So far, I’ve seen her in both The Thieves and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Both movies were good, and had one unexpected thing in common: they included a good deal of English dialogue, which she was great at.

From its light, capery beginning and huge cast, I expected The Thieves to be a Korean version of Ocean’s 11. This was true in some ways, but it was surprisingly heavy on the stakes and full of real violence. It was also grittier and much less light-hearted than the Ocean's franchise, spending a lot of time dealing with background relationships rather than just focusing on giddy, clockwork-perfect breaking and entering. An added bonus is that The Thieves gives a sneak preview of Jun’s chemistry with her love interest in You Who Came from the Stars—Kim Soo Hyun appears as a younger criminal with an incredibly cute crush on his noona.

I wasn’t as crazy about Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. It was gorgeously produced and told an interesting story, but I hate that it deviated so wildly from its source material, Lisa See’s novel of the same name. The book focuses on a pair of nineteenth-century Chinese girls and their powerful friendship, painting an immediate and haunting picture of the way women lived in that era. They spent their lives unwanted guests—at home, they were just another mouth to feed until they married out for their family’s benefit. And when they did marry and move into their husband’s homes, they weren’t even considered part of the family until they’d borne a son. The movie hits most of the emotional high points of the book, but they’re treated more like a music video than a cohesive narrative. This is mostly because the filmmakers—for some inexplicable reason—decided to shoehorn a modern twist on the same story into the movie’s running time, meaning they didn’t have time to really develop either story. The acting was good, though, and it was fun to see the clothes and settings described in the book.

Other big drama plans for my break include finally getting around to the 2011 short White Christmas, and yet another Coffee Prince rewatch. (Auto-correct keeps changing that to “rematch,” which might also be appropriate.) (Why is it that I’m more excited about these plans than the ones that involve other people?)

I also finally decided to abandon Blogger’s list widget for the random thoughts I post while watching dramas. This widget was never well-suited for the purpose (or any other, as far as I can tell). It only allows you to see a few words at a time, so I was always having to scroll back and forth to proofread. I’ve relocated these snarky tidbits to Tumblr. I find that I post a lot more often at this new home because it’s so much easier to use. Hopefully these latter-day random thoughts are still fun to read. Maybe someday I’ll even start adding screen caps so you can see what I’m talking about, but they’re a real hassle to create when I normally watch dramas on a television, not a computer. (Unfortunately, there’s no useful Tumblr widget, so I can’t include those posts on this page. The best I could do would be an RSS feed that would show only the titles. And what’s the point of that?)

Drama Review: Heirs (2013)

Grade: B-

Light melodrama of the high school persuasion

What it’s about
Thanks to her mother’s position as a live-in maid, hardworking Cha Eun Sang is exposed to a world of privilege she never imaged. But when her mom’s employer gets her a spot at a posh high school intended for Korea’s one percent, Eun Sang quickly comes to realize that life with money isn’t always perfect. At Empire High, you’re either bullied or a bully. And when two of the most dangerous boys at school show an interest in Eun Sang, things really spiral out of control.

First impression
This underwhelming, overstuffed pilot episode is not without promise. It’s shaping up to be a twist on the Boys over Flowers–school of mean-boy storytelling, complete with a healthy dose of corporate intrigue and lots of forbidden young love—the rich boy and poor girl, the almost step-siblings, the celebrity offspring and the regular guy. As expected, Park Shin Hye is immediately compelling as the sad, old-before-her time Cha Eun Sung. Lee Min Ho is okay as the laid-back Kim Tan, but I’m not quite sold on him in the role yet. (Also, as predicted, he looks way too old to be in high school.) What I am sold on is that, in spite of his aloofness, he’s thoughtful and introspective and might just have Prince Charming tendencies.

Final verdict
If you’re willing to spend twenty hours with a show that never really develops a central plot or finds satisfying resolutions for most of its characters, you could do worse than Heirs. It’s an easy watch that’s filled with cute moments and the kind of snarky one liners that rarely make appearances in Korean dramas.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What next?

I’m a big fan of order and routine. I sometimes think this is why I like Korean drama so much—once you master the key elements, everything about them is as straightforward as the basic geometry proofs I learned in high school. From their inevitable plot twists to the hierarchical social order tying their characters together, Kdramas give me just the right mix of predictability and imagination.

My love of consistency definitely impacts how I watch dramas. During the first year of my obsession, I patiently waited for shows to finish airing before I started them. This allowed for marathoning at my own pace, and meant I never once suffered through a cliffhanger; the resolution was only as far away as the “Play” button. The next year of my obsession, I started watching one currently airing drama at a time. Much to my surprise, keeping up with a new series was a totally totally different viewing experience. I came to the show without baggage, forming my own opinions as the story revealed itself. This usually isn’t the case when I watch an older show. Even though I try to avoid spoilers, I’m still an avid reader of the dramaweb. This means I’m always aware of other people’s opinions: Koala hated most of Mi Rae’s Choice, and practically everyone I follow on tumblr is in love with Answer Me, 1994. I haven’t seen a minute of either of these shows, but I’ll never be able to escape this knowledge—when I finally start watching them, I’ll be prejudiced against one and in favor of the other.

Keeping up with a new show from episode one, you come to understand it on your own terms. The existence of an unwritten future can make even a mediocre drama feel immediate and compelling. You’re not a passive watcher checking off episode after episode on your Mydramalist profile; you’re an active participant who’s invited to devote brain cells to conjecture and theorizing. And best of all is live-watching a show that has been adopted as a Tumblr favorite—everywhere you look are short, pithy commentaries and glorious gifsets of all your favorite moments.

So far I’ve live-watched seven dramas: Big, To the Beautiful You, Nice Guy, I Miss You, Flower Boy Next Door, Master’s Sun, and Heirs. They’ve been a pretty mixed bag—some were great, some were good, and some were downright bad. (I’m looking at you, Big.) But they all benefitted from a kind of engagement it’s hard to experience with an older drama.

For year three of my obsession with Korean drama, I’m thinking of being a crazy rebel and watching two currently airing dramas. I’m not sure how this will change my experience of the shows—will it mean that I like them both more? Or will watching two ongoing dramas divide my limited time and attention, making it impossible to appreciate each one as much as it deserves?

And here’s another question: Which two dramas should I watch?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Drama Review: Bridal Mask (2012)

Grade: B-

Action-flavored fusion sageuk

What it’s about
The struggles and triumphs of a masked vigilante who stands up for the Korean people during Japan’s occupation of Korea in early twentieth century.

First impression
As voted by readers of my blog, I’m giving another shot to this 2012 drama about a masked freedom fighter during Japan’s occupation of Korea. The first time I started watching it, I sat through all of ten minutes before moving on. I made a snap judgement back then: Between a cartoonily impossible opening sequence and the impromptu dance party that followed it, I was sure Gaksital wasn’t for me. But this time I’m going to stick with it. I’m in the mood for a show that has more on its mind than goofy comedy and the same old love triangle angst. Will Bridal Mask give me what I want? Only time will tell.

Final verdict
Unpopular opinion alert: I thought this much-loved drama was middling at best. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Showtime: Korean movies

In spite of my obsession with Kdrama, I’ve never been very interested in Korean movies. For me, the most satisfying storytelling is done on a grand scale. I’d rather read a fat novel than a collection of short stories, and I’d rather watch a series than a movie.

The sixteen-episode running-time of most older Korean shows is perfect for my taste: there’s plenty of room for character development and expansive plotting, but the limited screen time still allows for the possibility of a satisfying, novelistic ending. But these short and sweet dramas are becoming increasingly rare as trends turn toward series that last for twenty episodes and beyond. To me, most of these super-sized shows just feel too long—they’re War and Peace when I want Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. No matter how good the show is, watching anything that lasts more than about twenty episodes starts to feel more like a pain than a pleasure.

This inspired me to give Korean movies a try. It’s a refreshing change to watch something I can finish in one sitting, to experience the beginning, middle, and end of a single overarching narrative in not much more time than it takes to watch a single episode of a drama.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Woe-TP blues: Eun Sang and Young Do

As a denizen of the Internet, you’re probably familiar with the initialism OTP, which is usually translated as “one true pairing.” People use it when referring to the fandom couple they most desperately want to live happily ever after. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about a clever alternative translation that has been making the rounds on Tumblr: “Only Tears and Pain.”

An OTP can give incredible delight if you’re lucky enough to be sucked in by the right one. For me, I Hear Your Voice was a good example: I instantly loved Park Soo Ha and Jang Hye Sung, and every step the show took toward bringing them together left me giddy with fangirl joy. Things could have taken a turn for the worse; unlike most Korean dramas, it wasn’t immediately clear who would actually be the show’s lead couple. (There were even rumors midway through that the writers intended to kill off Soo Ha, which would have also killed me.) But the pairing ultimately worked out, and I was left in a sublimely happy state of OTP realization.

But that’s not always the case. Falling in love with an OTP is like falling in love with a person—it’s unpredictable, and quite often regrettable. Sometimes you’re drawn to a second lead who will absolutely never get the girl, or maybe you even dream of the show’s villain triumphing in the end. And that’s when the tears and pain come into the picture. Thus, a Woe-TP is born.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Drama Review: Flowers for My Life (2007)

Grade: A-

Black romantic comedy with hints of melodrama

What it’s about
Having grown up in a funeral home, Ha Na is immune to the range of human emotion. Money is the only thing she really loves, so she comes up with a scheme: She’ll find a terminally ill guy who also happens to be fabulously rich, marry him, and then inherit his fortune after he goes to the great beyond. But nothing goes according to plan from the start, and things only get worse when she meets Dae Bak, a man with ulterior motives of his own. Pennyless and on the run from gangsters, he’s taken on the identity of a wealthy dead man. When she discovers that Dae Bak has been diagnosed with incurable cancer, a deceived Ha Na adopts him as her lucky stiff. The problems? She doesn’t know that he’s even poorer than she is. And he doesn’t know that he has cancer.

First impression
A long string of romantic comedies has left me longing for something grittier. And what’s more gritty than a drama about a girl whose first love is money, followed closely thereafter by dead people? (And unlike today’s spate of supernatural dramas, they’re real dead people—the kind that mostly just lay there.) I’ve had my eye on this show for some time, thanks to a positive review on the Dramabeans rating page. Their recommendations have never let me down before, and based on the quirky, realistic vibe of this drama’s premiere, they’re not going to start now.

Final verdict
Part workplace comedy, part romance, and part tear-jerking melodrama, this show is a strange delight. It’s also one of the few examples of a drama that actually improved during its running time, growing from a silly farce to a thoughtful consideration of death, dying, and the people left behind.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

For the birds: The quietly feminist leanings of Korean dramas

Ojakgyo Brothers’ Baek Ja Eun and her ajumma.

“I don’t know why feminists like you watch Korean drama.”

Although they’ve since deleted it, an anonymous commenter left this note on one of my posts about Kdrama girls. I guess the person who wrote it wasn’t happy about my criticisms of the way women are sometimes treated in Kdramas, which is fine. But the perhaps unintended implication of their words is that the whole of Korean drama is fundamentally anti-feminist, making it a lost cause for people like me (or vice versa). Seen in this light, Kdrama will never fall in line with my ideals, and if my ideals are so important to me I should just stop watching it.

As someone who thinks that all people—whatever their gender, whatever their religion, whatever their color—should have the same freedoms, rights, and responsibilities, I do find troubling things in Korean dramas. I’ve written about a lot of them, from wrist grabs and forced kisses to virtually enslaved daughters-in-law. But there’s more to the story than that. Korean dramas actually allow understanding of the world in ways that are too “feminine” for the West. They build stories from things we overlook here in America, because to our eyes they’re old-fashioned and silly and womanly. But respecting women and telling their stories is one of the most feminist things you can do—and that’s exactly what Korean dramas specialize in.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Drama Review: Smile, You (2007)

Grade: C

Romantic comedy, home drama

What it’s about
After her wedding is derailed by the revelation of her dad’s bankruptcy, Seo Jung In is forced to move in with the penny-pinching family of her dead grandfather’s faithful chauffeur. From the beginning she doesn’t fit in: the chauffeur may be kind to her, but his long-suffering daughter-in-law and henpecked son resent her presence. And then there’s Hyun Soo, the chauffeur’s clueless, gawky grandson, who turns out to be nursing an 8-year crush on Jung In’s sister. Just when Jung In thinks things can’t get worse, they do—her spendthrift family looses their home and squeezes into the chauffeur’s tiny house, causing even more drama.

First impression
It sure is a difficult transition to go from the movie-quality filming and sets of Love Rain to the chintzy, weekend drama production values of this show. I usually stay away from home dramas because I don’t have the patience for their mammoth running times, but I’m hungry for more Jung Kyung Ho after watching Cruel City. I’ve read good reviews of Smile, You, and have my fingers crossed that it won’t be too broad and silly in spite of its genre.

Final verdict
My feelings about Smile, You are exactly divided between love and hate.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Another open letter to Kim Eun Sook, screenwriter of Heirs

Dear Kim Eun Sook,

Now that Heirs has hit the halfway mark, I wanted to follow up about our recent correspondence.

When I last wrote to you, I wasn’t convinced that you and I would make it this far—I dropped A Gentleman’s Dignity by episode seven, after all, and I would have called it quits with Secret Garden even earlier if I had allowed myself to do so back then. (Instead, I watched it until the very end, even though it was like torture. This is probably one of the reasons why my relationship to your work is so hate-based.)

Unlike those earlier shows, there are things I really like about Heirs. Primary among them is Park Shin Hye, who is wonderful in the role of Eun Sang. She imbues her character with a sense of depth and dignity, something I thought was sorely lacking in the female leads of both Secret Garden and A Gentleman’s Dignity. (It’s possible that a speaker of Korean would say that Park Shin Hye overacts, but to someone who gets by on subtitles, her beautiful, expressive face tells me everything I need to know about what her character is feeling.)

Right here, Park Shin Hye’s face is saying “I regret that I have no option but to karate chop you now.”

You deserve some credit for this performance, too: in Eun Sang, you’ve created a female lead who has moments of true strength and self-possession. She’s pragmatic and realistic, refusing to risk her family’s security for a boy she likes. She works hard to make the best of a bad situation, pitching in to help her mom with her duties as a maid. And when random men make unwanted advances, she handles them with a matter-of-fact threat—“I’ll call the cops if you don’t leave me alone.” We’ve seen her go through with it, and we’ve seen the strategy work. (Now if only she didn’t loose every shred of confidence the second anyone from Jeguk High came on screen.)

Just because I like Eun Sang, though, doesn’t mean that I’m all that crazy about the show you’ve built around her.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Boyfriend Bot: Kdrama Edition

The Song Joong Ki *

Has Korean drama ruined you for real men?

Traditional relationships are such a hassle. First you have to find someone you like, which is no easy task. Whether you try Internet dating, hit the bar scene, or ask your friends to set you up, it won’t take long for you to realize that the frogs of the world far, far outnumber its princes. And even when you do find that special someone, you have to live with him. This, as we all know, can be even harder than making an initial love connection. From toilet seats that never get put down to Grand Theft Auto marathons when you’d rather be watching dramas, the care and keeping of a boy can mean lots of sacrifice and frustrating, time-consuming work.

Well, fret no more! Boyfriend Bot(tm) is proud to announce the release of its latest collection of ultra-realistic boyfriend simulators: The Kdrama Male Lead. The man of your dreams is now as close as a phone call away.

Lovingly handcrafted using the finest of raw materials and the world’s most advanced cybernetic technologies, you’ll swear your Boyfriend Bot is better than the real thing. He’s low maintenance, fully waterproof, and—best of all—programmed to learn from your every interaction. Before long, he’ll be greeting you at the door on cold winter nights with your favorite hot chocolate, ready to give you a professional-grade massage to erase the cares of life.

Your Boyfriend Bot will arrive pre-loaded with a number of your favorite Kdrama scenes and phrases, prepared to romance you and take out the garbage without making a fuss. His delicious, built-in washboard abs require no gym upkeep, while his lifelike gaze will make you weak in the knees. And thanks to an initial vocabulary of over two million words in the languages of your choice, you’ll never run out of things to discuss with your Boyfriend Bot. (We would say that his stellar conversation skills could fool you into believing your Bot is another human being, but it’s immediately obvious that the Bot’s insightful, thoughtful discussion is of a calibre most people will never attain.)

A world of romance awaits. So what are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Drama Review: Master’s Sun (2013)

Grade: A-

Supernatural rom-com

What it’s about
After she begins seeing ghosts, Tae Gong Shil’s promising future self-destructs. She can’t hold down a job, have regular friendships, or even get a good night’s sleep, because the ghosts find her wherever she goes. But then she meets Joo Joong Won, the flamboyant president of one of Seoul’s ritziest shopping malls, who can make her spectral companions disappear with a single touch. Stealing skinship at every opportunity, Tae Gong Shil starts to feel in control of her life for the first time since her inexplicable powers appeared. Desperate to stay by Joong Won’s side, she swears to solve a mystery that has haunted him for more than a decade.

First impression
In spite of my enormous backlog of half-watched dramas, I finally broke down and decided to start this currently airing show written by the Hong sisters. I’ve been holding off because it’s already being covered to death on the dramaweb, but I’m being tortured by fabulous Tumblr gif sets of its ghosts every time I visit my dashboard. Two of my greatest loves are horror movies and romantic comedies, so it seems that Master’s Sun and I were made for each other. But after last summer’s debacle with the Hong sisters’ drama Big, I’m a little wary of this show being another flameout. Master’s Sun is starting off as a fun Kdrama take on the American movie Ghost—but then again, Big started off as a fun take on the American movie Big. And look where that got us.

Final verdict
I am incredibly happy to report that Master’s Sun is no Big.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Casting Call: Kim Tan

Here’s my dirty confession of the week: I’m quite enjoying Heirs. Now that the drama has wrapped up its (literally as well as figuratively) rocky opening sequence in California and returned to Seoul, everything is starting to come together. With all its characters in one place, we’re finally able to enjoy the thermonuclear reaction of their worlds colliding—one full of luxury goods and bullying, the other full of hard work and being bullied. It’s a Boys over Flowers-style love story, if Boys over Flowers had been dropped on its head less often as a baby.

The past few episodes have even put to rest my biggest concern about watching another drama written by Kim Eun Sook, screenwriter of Secret Garden and A Gentleman’s Dignity. Those shows were ruined for me by their male leads, who were both physically aggressive and mean to the women they were supposed to be in love with. So of course I was apprehensive about watching Heirs. Would Kim Tan, its male lead, be prone to shaming his female lead for her subpar purses or using his superior strength to force her into skinship?

I’m happy to report that—so far, at least—Heirs is much better than I imagined. Kim Tan is a pretty nice guy. He’s been a little creepy and done some nonthreatening stalking of Eun Sang, his love interest, but he’s mostly on her side. He hasn’t called her stupid or made unwelcome sexual advances. He’s driven her places, fed her, and offered her guidance about how she can survive at their snooty high school. In response, Eun Sang isn’t scared of him in the way Kim Eun Sook’s other recent female leads have been scared of their male counterparts. She’s just frustrated and annoyed, and a tiny little bit intrigued.

But I still don’t like Kim Tan much. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Size matters

When I first discovered the existence of Korean dramas, the most surprising thing about them was probably their length. I had always assumed that there was only one way to make a TV show: build a premise for which you can create an infinite number of story lines, and then prepare to tell those stories in hundreds of episodes that will air over the course of years. This makes for lots of programs about doctors trying to cure an ailment of the week, lawyers bringing a never-ending stream of criminals to trial, and families with a plethora of miniature problems that can be solved in thirty minutes or less. Nobody grows or changes or learns, because the whole point is to preserve the central premise in amber, forever unchanged and incorruptible.

This is one of the reasons why Korea’s miniseries were such a revelation. In the space of sixteen episodes, they create worlds, establish characters and conflicts within those worlds, and then guide their stories to satisfying conclusions. That’s my kind of storytelling—novelistic and self-contained.

It took me a while to realize, though, that there’s more to scripted drama in Korea. The short miniseries I love (which themselves are creeping ever upward from the 16-episode standard of yore) are cousins to both the weekend home drama, typically running in the 50 episode range, and the weekend sageuk, sometimes lasting for more than a hundred episodes. And there are other shows that hit triple digits—both daily dramas and sitcoms sometimes run for more than 170 episodes, airing for around a half hour on every weekday.

The online Kdrama fandom tends to focus on miniseries, with the exception of the occasional youth-oriented sitcom like High Kick. Add this lack of coverage to the fact that many of the longer series aren’t available subbed in English, and it becomes easy to forget they even exist.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Guide for Kdrama Characters in America

Congratulations on your decision to visit the United States of America! Whether you’re here to work, attend school, or just loaf around while exiled from Korea, we think you’ll find our country to be full of interesting people and amazing experiences. But best of all, when you finally return home you will be forever seen as an exceptional individual, blessed with the sparkly glamor of having spent time in one of the world’s few remaining cultural, financial, and political superpowers.

America is a large country. Your homeland—inclusive of North Korea—is approximately as large as Minnesota, one of our mid-sized states. We’ve got 49 more just like it (plus assorted territories around the globe). As you can imagine, life and traditions in the different areas of this enormous country can be extremely varied. But in general, this list of helpful tips should guide you safely through your travels.

• First and most important, don’t panic. However scary America may seem as a nation of gun-toting drug fiends who wear shoes inside, it is quite common for tourists to survive their visits here. As someone smart enough to consult this list, the odds are likely in your favor.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Drama Review: Love Rain (2012)

Grade: B

Romantic melodramas

What it’s about
In the 1970s, a young couple is torn apart by fate. Forty years later, their children meet and fall in love, only to find their relationship complicated by their parents’ shared history. (Not to mention a scheming model, a nasty mother in law, and a ridiculous amount of miscommunication and laughably misguided self-sacrifice.)

First impression
I’ve saved this drama for a rainy day (har har), and in the wake of Cruel City I’m in the mood for a melodramatic romance that’s dripping cheese. Love Rain is sure to deliver on this front: it reunites the creative team behind the Endless Love series of dramas, which includes the hugely successful Winter Sonata, Autumn in My Heart, Summer Scent, and my beloved Spring Waltz. Love Rain’s pedigree is obvious from the very first scene—it’s slow and gentle and full of gorgeous scenery. I don’t find either of the leads very appealing, though, and I have a love-hate relationship with the works of the show’s creators: they can be swoonily romantic and frustratingly stupid, often at the very same time. Looks like I’m in for more of the same here.

Final verdict
Usually I like reviewing dramas right after I finish watching them, when things are fresh in my mind. In this case, though, I’m not so sure that’s the right approach—it’s hard to remember how much I enjoyed the early episodes when the show’s last quarter was such a mess. A solid, well-thought out finale that brought together the drama’s many characters and narrative threads would have left me in the mood to talk about the lead couple’s great chemistry, the cast of compelling supporting players, and the charm of this drama’s multigenerational love story. But now all I can think about is how all those good things were wasted by a rushed, unsatisfactory finale.

(Spoilers ahoy!)

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Nonessential words Korean drama has taught me

If life were more like television, I would speak perfect Korean by now. Characters are always coming to Earth and/or America and picking up English from a couple of episodes of Wheel of Fortune or reruns of The Cosby Show. (But then again, if life and television were more similar I would also be embroiled in a love triangle with a supportive nice guy and a jerk chaebol who might be my brother. Alas, that’s not the case, either.)

According to my Drama Fever profile, I’ve watched 1,654 hours of Kdrama over the past three years. (Whatever you do, don’t do the math—it’s scary.) And yet, the level of my Korean vocabulary is still hovering between what you would expect from an elephant and golden retriever.

It’s just as well that I’ll probably never actually go to Korea. While I have learned some Korean words that would be helpful from a tourist’s perspective—eotteoke and choogoolae come to mind—most of my vocabulary is probably not that valuable. Here’s a brief catalog of the most random Korean words I know.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Drama Review: Cruel City (2013)

Grade: A

Crime thriller

What it’s about
Fate forces a young woman into undercover police work, leading her to spy on Seoul’s up-and-coming drug kingpin—a suit-wearing uber-gangster known only as the Doctor’s Son. She discovers a dark, dangerous world where nothing is what it seems.

First impression
After a long string of romantic comedies, I decided I was in the mood for something with teeth. I think I’ve chosen wisely—Cruel City is crisp, cinematic, and brutally effective as its follows cops and gangsters on their bloody travels through Seoul. Like many shows on Korea’s cable channels, it pushes far, far beyond what would be acceptable on a mainstream network: it’s graphic and unvarnished in its depiction of violence, and also in its exploration of moral ambiguity. Its characters aren’t necessarily nice—or even on the right side of the law. I do think, however, that jTBC might have been influenced too heavily by this spring’s (revolutionary) flop The End of the World. Cruel City is completely different from other Kdramas, it’s also a little bit the same—there are diarrhea jokes and plucky young women and hammy drug lords in showy outfits.

Final verdict
Stylish, thrilling, and filled with a cast of indelible characters, Cruel City is the most compulsively watchable drama I’ve come across in a long time. It may not be my usual kind of show, but whenever I sat down to watch a few minutes of it, I would stand up dazed and sweaty-palmed two hours later, trying to figure out how to shirk my real-world responsibilities in favor of another episode.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Self-help, Kdrama style

If watching Korean drama has taught me anything, it’s that originality is overrated. Last year’s gaggle of time travel dramas are evidence of one of life’s great hidden truths: What really counts isn’t how novel an idea is—it’s how well it’s executed.

Which is why this week’s post is about Kdrama life lessons. Yes, the topic is cheesy and trite. And yes, I’m not the first (or the hundredth) person to blog about it. But the combination of shows I’ve been watching lately keep bringing me back to the same point: Asian dramas have some good advice about how to live.

Cruel City—The world is a mirror; it will treat you as you treat it. All the characters in this show have ample reason to be pissed off at life. They’ve been abused and abandoned, and nothing has ever been easy or safe for them. The Doctor’s Son is the most wronged of them all: even when he tries to do the right thing, the people he trusts most let him down. But he still tries to protect the people he loves by reminding them of this old truism, which we’ve been telling each other in one form or another for thousands of years. The world gives us what we give it. If we’re nasty and vicious, people will be nasty and vicious to us. But if we’re kind, they’ll probably be kind back.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Drama Review: They Kiss Again, 2007

Grade: C+

Taiwanese romantic comedy

What it’s about
This sequel to 2005’s It Started with a Kiss follows Zhi Shu and Xiang Qin as they settle into married married life and try to find their places in the world.

First impressions
They Kiss Again starts off a lot like its predecessor—add one part goofy, I Love Lucy-style antics; one part adorable, fanficy love story; and one part taciturn male lead, and you’ve got it exactly. Playing spot-the-grin is quite fun—Zhi Shu might not be fully domesticated yet, but he obviously finds his new wife to be quite amusing. He keeps hiding smiles whenever she does something silly.

Final verdict
The first half of this drama was a pleasure to watch. Its setting and characters were cozy and familiar, and it did a great job of surrounding its lead couple with a constellation of family, friends, and colleagues who provided interesting, almost free-standing, plots for each episode. It was funny and silly and cute, and the couple scenes featuring Zhi Shu and Xiang Qin made my heart go pitter-patter.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

An open letter to Kim Eun Sook, screenwriter of Heirs

Dear Kim Eun Sook,

I know we’ve had our differences of opinion in the past. For example, you probably think you’re a good screenwriter, while I do not.

After sitting through approximately 1.5 of the dramas you penned, I vowed to never again watch a program you’d been involved with. It was for my own sanity—I’m not sure how you did it, but in both Secret Garden and Gentleman’s Dignity you found a foolproof recipe for combining characters I hated, copious amounts of misogynism, and frustratingly go-nowhere plots in such a way that made me want to scratch my eyes out with a spork rather than continue watching.

Lots of people disagree with me, and even I admit that you have some strong suits. You write funny scenes well, and your female leads are reasonably capable. (When your male leads aren’t around, anyway.) Based on my limited experience, you also tend to write men who are passionately involved with the pursuit of a woman, which is kind of cool—when it doesn’t involve physical intimidation or aggression, anyway.

I’ve been thinking about you as I await the premiere of your awkwardly named new drama, He Who Wears the Crown, Endure Its Weight—Heirs. (Are they paying you by the word or something?) The dramaweb has been abuzz with talk of this show for months already, and it’s definitely going to be what everyone is watching this fall. Even I intend to give it a try: my love for high school stories and Park Shin Hye just barely outweigh my distaste for your work.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Book Report

As hard as it might be to believe, I’m even more of a book geek than a drama geek: I live for used bookstores and have a whole bookcase full of things waiting to be read. Of course my two great obsessions overlap, which means a lot my reading list is related to Korea in one way or another. In honor of Eleanor and Park, a sweet, swoony romance I tore through (twice) last week, I thought I’d share some titles that are on my radar.


Eleanor and Park, Rainbow Rowell. This novel geared toward young adults is only tangentially related to Korea, but it’s still the perfect read for drama fans who are into coming-of-age love stories. As the only (half-)Korean kid in his middle-American high school, Park never feels as if he really fits in. When he strikes up a friendship with the new girl at school—heavyset, crazy-haired Eleanor—Park realizes just how lucky he is. Eleanor is bullied by the other kids for being strange. Plus, her home life is a nightmare. She hates her abusive stepfather and her mother is too broken to care if Eleanor is happy, or even safe. Park and Eleanor fall in punk-rock misfit love over comics shared on the school bus, and the rest of the story deals with their attempts to be together. If you read this book I promise you will laugh and cry. You’ll almost certainly also perv over the delicious Park, who’s described as all honey-colored skin and sharp cheekbones.

Since You Asked, Maurene Goo. The heroine of Since You Asked, another YA novel during the dark days of high school, is torn between modern American life and the traditional Korean values of her parents. She writes a snarky article for her school newspaper that’s accidentally published, and the book explores the aftermath. This one is near the top of my wish list, but I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mock-Heroic: Kdrama’s Hidden Antiheros

Boys over Flowers: Cake wreck in 3... 2...1...
With the American TV series Dexter and Breaking Bad ending, there has been a lot of talk in the entertainment press about antiheroes. Korean drama tends to shy away from the leads quite as unsavory as the ones in these two shows—one a “good” serial killer, the other a meth-cooking drug kingpin.

But Kdrama does traffic in antiheroes. There’s the recently wrapped Cruel City, which by all reports was peopled by drug dealers and prostitutes. Essentially every male lead written by Lee Kyung Hee obviously fits the bill, from tricksy former gigolo Ma Roo in Nice Guy to I’m Sorry I Love You’s dirty, mean Moo Hyuk. And you can also find a cache of antiheroes in an unexpected place: romantic comedies and melodramas.

What else can you call a character like Boys over Flowers’s Joon Pyo? He doesn’t eat orphans for breakfast or spend his spare time torturing kittens, but he’s certainly no hero. Instead of being morally upright and sympathetic, he’s self-centered and devoted to making people miserable. When a girl with a crush on him gives Joon Pyo a cake, he throws it in her face in front of their whole school. And when somebody offends him, they’re marked for destruction by Shin Hwa’s entire student body with the dreaded red card of the F4.

But the drama never really acknowledges that his behavior makes him something less than desirable. He goes about his business without remorse or repercussion, with girls falling at his feet wherever he goes. He’s rich and powerful and handsome, so naturally they want him. The fact that he would be happier to crush you than look at you is never really discussed—by the drama, or by us. Nobody writes about Joon Pyo as anti-hero, because we’re so wrapped up in Joon Pyo as babe.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Drama Fiend: A Personal History

Korean drama and I are celebrating our two-year anniversary this month. I’m prone to random pop-culture fixations, but this one might be the most unexpected—and educational. In the course of watching a truly embarrassing number of Kdramas, I’ve learned more about Korean language and culture than I ever thought possible.

So in honor of this auspicious occasion and my constant curiosity about other people’s drama biographies, here’s a brief rundown of the chronology of my obsession.

Summer 2006—The first drama. What international fan can forget that first Korean drama they watched? Funny or tragic, good or bad, it opened a door into a new world. My introduction to dramaland was a DVD box set of My Lovely Sam Soon that belonged to the friend of a friend. When it finally found its way to me, I watched all 16 episodes over the course of one summer weekend. I loved the actors, the show, and the finite length of the series. But back then Kdramas were hard to find in the rural outpost I call home, so I made a mental note to keep an eye out for more of them and carried on with my life.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Drama Review: Can We Get Married (2012)

Grade: B+

Family drama

What it’s about
Can We Get Married explores the stormy romantic and family relationships of six women of different ages, including a brash middle-class widow and her two daughters. Its story charts their interconnected lives through breakups and reunions, weddings and divorces, late-arriving love and contented parenthood.

First impression
This stylish and cinematic opener suggests a more sophisticated take on life and loves than most rom-coms. (Now if only the characters would speak a little more slowly....) I’m still fairly apprehensive about this show, however. I’ve read wildly varied reviews about it, many of which weren’t positive. Other bloggers have reported hating all the characters and finding the plot draggy. But I’ve also heard that it’s realistic and more nuanced and well made than the typical Kdrama romance. All I know is that I better like it, because I’ve sworn to stop being so wishy-washy and giving up on dramas midway through their runs.

Final verdict
Can We Get Married is a realistic, quietly funny and subtly feminist take on modern love.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kdrama Makeovers: A Field Guide

Korean dramas hold sacred the magical powers of the makeover. In their world, fake eyelashes and a name-brand outfit are all it takes for an ugly duckling to be reborn as a swan. And these transformations are more than just skin deep—to Kdrama characters, they represent both new beginnings and opportunities to be seen in a different way by the world around them.

Here is a brief taxonomy of the principal makeover species that have been spotted in the Kdrama wild.

The Fairy Godfather
makeoverus oppaknowsbestus

As seen in: Personal Taste and Boys over Flowers

Natural habitat: Tony salons and upscale department stores

Distinguishing characteristics: Everyday guys who just happen to have a crack team of hairstylists, cosmetologists, and fashion consultants on staff; girls who mistakenly think there may be things in life that could be more important than looking good; Lee Min Ho

A single human body isn’t a canvas large enough to express the glorious and refined sense of style prized by Korea’s enormous population of flawlessly groomed flower boys. Having attained bodily perfection themselves, these extreme metrosexuals have been seen to develop symbiotic relationships with girls who have bad fashion sense. The flower boys step in and—with a cheery exclamation of “Project!”—remake their less chic companions into the ideal woman. (And then fall in love with them.)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Rec List: BFF Couples

Last week’s contrasting posts—one about the problem of consent in Asian dramas, the other about the coziest lead pairing of 2013 thus far—got me thinking about my favorite kind of Kdrama couple: the best friends.

Some dramas revolve around lovers who have exactly one thing in common: mutual attraction. Take Boys over Flowers. What do Jan Di and Jun Pyo talk about when they’re by themselves? Not much, beyond whatever obstacle is currently keeping them apart. Their union is based solely on a whim that’s heightened by the forbidden-fruit thrill of his mother’s objections to their relationship. The hardest work of their romance—building something lasting and real that can weather the difficulties of life—is still ahead of them.

But best friend couples, in life and in drama, already share a meaningful connection; they start out spending time together because they like and respect each other. When they fall in love, it’s with another human being, not just a fantasy of what someone would be like as a mate. And being best friends allows them to step outside the traditional roles that define the interactions between so many Kdrama lovers. BFF guys are hardly ever physically aggressive with BFF girls, and they don’t force kisses on them. In turn, BFF girls aren’t modest or retiring; they are simply themselves.

Here’s a brief catalog of the BFF couples I’ve enjoyed most.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Drama Review: I Hear Your Voice (2013)

Grade: A-

Courtroom romance

What it’s about
As a young boy, Park Soo Ha watches the murder of his father and is only saved from the same fate by Jang Hye Sung, a reluctant hero in the form of an uncertain teenaged girl. When she stands up for him in court against her better judgment, Soo Ha vows to spend the rest of his life protecting her. The two meet again ten years later, after she has become a public defender and he has started his senior year in high school. They work together to solve cases and bring his father’s killer to justice. (And did I mention Park Soo Ha can hear people’s thoughts?)

First impression
This breezy and bright drama finds a perfect middle ground between melodramatic romance and light comedy. Although not without failings, the first few episodes are enjoyable and set the stage for an epic lead couple (or OTP, in Internet parlance).

Final verdict
Despite being about two episodes too long and a little shaky in the logic department, I Can Hear Your Voice is a charming distraction with a cast of likeable characters and an impossibly compelling central romance. It gives viewers a mouthwatering taste of many of Kdrama’s biggest tropes—noona romance, cohabitation farce, revenge quest, supernatural drama, and birth secret mystery.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hands Off: Consent and the Asian Drama Male

When I first started watching Korean drama, I spent a lot of time being preoccupied by things I don’t even notice nowadays. I would zone out for entire scenes because I was so transfixed by someone’s expert use of chopsticks, or so stunned by just how much makeup the male lead was wearing. But after two years of being the world’s most obsessed fan of Kdrama, this sort of stuff is second nature to me.

A comment on my recent review of Queen of Reversals made me realize that I’ve also become blind to something else: sexual violence. The commenter, Vivi, asked about the first kiss shared by that show’s leads. “That moment was really problematic for me,” she said. And I didn’t even remember what she was talking about, because you can only see something like this so many times before developing defense mechanisms to tune it out.

The kiss in question occurred at the very end of episode 20, with its aftermath playing out at the beginning of episode 21. In this scene, the male lead is shown as sad, upset, and a little desperate. He has just met his birth mother for the first time and discovered that she had borne and raised other children after abandoning him. It’s a snowy midwinter night and he sits on a bench surrounded by bright Christmas decorations. It’s the kind of sublimely romantic setting Kdramas are so fond of—colored lights sparkle, a scattering of snowflakes falls, and a moody rendition of “The First Noel” plays in the background.

(Spoilers and triggers ahead.)

Thursday, August 8, 2013

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who stopped by for the chat! It was fun to “meet” you and for once talk about Kdramas without being the most knowledgable person in the conversation. I will definitely try to organize another one in the future, perhaps for a live watch. 

You are cordially invited to a Kdrama chat!

Where: Amanda’s place

When: 2 pm EST on Saturday, August 10

Attire: Casual (This is a text-only chat)

Why: Because we just don’t think about Korean drama enough

Drama review: Meteor Garden (2001)

Grade: B+

Category: Youthful love story/Taiwanese

What it’s about
If you’re visiting this website, you almost certainly know already. Along with its international cousins Boys over Flowers and Hana Yori Dango, Meteor Garden is the most essential of drama romances. The first of four live-action series to be based on an original Japanese manga, Meteor Garden tells the story of an everyday college girl who catches the eye of her richest, meanest classmate. When she stands up to him, he decides to bully her out of school, only to fall madly (and rather inexplicably) in love with her unrelenting stubbornness and brave personality. They overcome countless obstacles on their quest to be together, including a number of other love interests and his nasty, controlling mother.

First impression
Oh, how I love you in all your guises, Hana Yori Dango. You are the queen of Cinderella stories and the ultimate comfort-food viewing. Your Japanese and Korean incarnations introduced me to new cultures—they were the first dramas I watched from each of their respective nations. This makes it strange to come to Meteor Garden with some knowledge of Taiwanese television—I’ve already seen all three of the leads in other shows, and have a good idea what to expect from both this drama’s story and its execution. Tdramas always seem to be more romantic than Jdramas and sexier than Kdramas, so I’m pretty certain that love is in the cards for the two of us.

Final verdict
Meteor Garden has all the shortcomings you’d expect from a drama of this vintage—it looks, feels, and sounds dated and its production values are bargain basement. But I’m still a sucker for its swoony, starry-eyed love story, and this might just be my favorite of its incarnations.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Furrowed Brow


A few weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog ran a short piece about Chinese viewers of Korean dramas. It caused something of a furor on the dramaweb, and no wonder. Even from the headline, you knew trouble was ahead: “South Korean Soap Operas: Just Lowbrow Fun?”

When someone is talking about scripted Asian television, they generally use one of two names: drama or soap opera. To speakers of American English, drama is a neutral word that describes a show’s format without judging its content. Soap opera, in contrast, is a loaded term. It tells you not only that the program is a scripted series, but also that it focuses on the domestic realm and is characterized by sensational storytelling. The phrase arises from the early days of the radio, when companies—often manufacturers of soap—funded programming geared toward housewives who would be listening on weekday afternoons. In America, soap opera is still shorthand for a dying breed of schlocky daytime series (although it occasionally pops up in reference to “prime-time soaps” like Dallas and The OC).

The real distinction between these two names is their assumed audience: Anyone can watch a drama. But it’s women who watch soap operas. Their scripts focus on things that are automatically gendered female: relationships and family and home life. They don’t necessary have complicated, self-consciously clever plots or deal with lots of thrilling action. Instead, emotions and the doings of the human heart are their canvas. And that’s exactly what’s undervalued by the sort of people who scoff at Korean television as being simplistic.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Checking in

Possible reasons why I don’t have a real post this week:

1. Korean law enforcement raided my home after realizing that I’ve made snide comments about assorted Korean actors and also used questionable methods to acquire subtitled dramas for viewing. I am now awaiting trial in a Seoul-area detention facility. Prison kimchi is surprisingly tasty, but internet access is hard to come by.

2. A bevy of attempts at recording an audio post on my iPad proved fruitless. In more than twenty tries, I never once made it past the one-minute mark without saying something so incredibly stupid that I was compelled to start over from scratch. Javabeans and Girl Friday may make it sound easy to talk about Kdrama, but I can assure you it’s not.

3. The fifteen-minute memory upgrade the computer shop promised me has taken six days and counting, leaving me without easy access to a computer.

I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the above scenarios are true.

Next week I swear I’ll be back on a regular posting schedule, but for now here are a few things I’ve been thinking about lately.

Monstar. I’m still enjoying this drama a lot, but it’s rather less wonderful than I once hoped it would be. The characters and music are great. I love the fantasy sequences. (Last week’s personal troubadours were particularly amusing.) What I don’t like is the listless plotting—the cast has spent the past few episodes pinballing around each other with little real connection or forward momentum. All the fantastic toys in the world are useless if you don’t know what to do with them. Monstar could have used more one-off music challenges, like Dream High, and less makjangy, multi-generational love triangle action.

American Horror Story. I just finished watching season 2 of this FX series. Its violent, sex-crazed subject matter couldn’t be more different from your typical Korean drama, but the show itself actually uses a surprising number of Kdrama tricks: There are nose bleeds of doom, flashbacks to scenes that took place all of two minutes ago, and limitless reappropriation of long-standing clichés. Its short, stand-alone seasons are also reminiscent of Asian dramas—each tells a story that is completed in a twelve- or thirteen-episode running time. If only more US television was like this, maybe I wouldn't have defected to Korea. (More Evan Peters cosplaying broken, beautiful Kurt Cobain wouldn't hurt, either.)

Meteor Garden. As expected, watching the Taiwanese version of Hana Yori Dango/Boys over Flowers is a real treat. It’s goofy and over the top and full of good-looking boys, some of whom even appear to be hot kissers. Its narrative trajectory is almost exactly the same as Korea’s Boys over Flowers, although there are some interesting differences. BoF did away with the female lead’s guy friend in favor of fleshing out her work buddy, which seems like a good decision to me. It may be different from the source material, but I like the tidier Korean take on things (and the swoony romance it developed into). I also miss the brother that both HYD and BoF gave the female lead. It made for some sweet, humanizing scenes showing the male lead getting to try out normal family life. The other members of F4 and the friendship they share isn’t as developed in MG as the other adaptations, which is a pity. But for the first time I can say that I ship the lead couple—Ji Hoo and Rui were just too tempting in the other versions, and the other male leads didn’t capture the petulant little-boy charm of Dao Ming Si. Now if only he wasn’t such a jerk to Shan Cai, I could really be into this pairing.

Welcome to drama city, population 1.  I’ve been having trouble finishing shows lately, which means the Random Thoughts sidebar is getting out of control. I watched the first few episodes of Dating Acency: Cyrano when they first aired, but was seduced away by all the good buzz Monstar was getting. Then came Alone in Love, which is well made but has some lead-likability problems for me. The siren call of Meteor Garden lured me away from that one, and I’m about ready to explode with desire for I Can Hear Your Voice, which is definitely next on my list.  Why are you full of such wonders, Kdrama? I just want to quit life and watch you forever.

Next week, things will be back to normal around here. (Really.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Return of Playing Favorites

It’s hard for me to believe, but as of August my obsession with Korean drama will be two years old. I went looking for something to watch during the summer dead zone between American television seasons, but I came away with a whole new continent worth of dramas, culture, and history. That’s pretty impressive considering that my gateway drug was Boys over Flowers, a show so ridiculous that my attempts to recapture the magic of first love by rewatching it always fail about halfway through the first episode.

Since the fateful day we first met, I’ve watched an insane number of Asian dramas—short and long, new and old, funny and serious. Many of them have been mediocre and some have been outright bad, but I’ve also found shows that were so wonderful they were actually painful to watch.

As my list of favorite dramas was posted last July, it seems time for an update. Here are the shows I’ve loved watching most this year.

1. Answer Me 1997 (2012)
After you’ve watched a few (dozen) Korean romantic comedies, they can start to feel repetitive: they all star the same characters in the same relationships reenacting the same Drama Overlord-approved clichés—a piggyback ride by episode 4, a chaste, closed-mouth kiss by episode 14. But Answer Me 1997 is something altogether different, and never feels canned or recycled. It weaves together genuine and refreshingly original stories about friendship, family, love, celebrity, and growing up, all tinged with a rosy nostalgic glow. Based on its premise, you’d probably never guess how special this drama really is: Starting in the titular year, it traces the friendships and romances of a group of high schoolers from Busan as they grow into adulthood. But Answer Me 1997’s greatest charm is its execution. It’s cleverly written, emphatically directed, and beautifully acted. Even its voice is fresh and compelling, thanks to the dual timelines it explores. Part of each episode is a sly mystery that takes place as its characters attend their high school reunion in 2012, and the rest is dedicated to their school years in the 1990s. We’re blessed with the opportunity to join in on the time they spend following Korean boybands, fighting with their parents, crushing on people they probably shouldn’t have been crushing on, and being best friends. Each of its characters is distinct and utterly individual: from plucky, pushy fangirl Shi Won to Joon Hee with his secret love, you won’t soon forget any of them.

More about Answer Me 1997

Schedule update

After more than a year of updating twice a week, I’ve decided to cut back and post on Tuesdays only. (But I will continue to add Random Thoughts whenever something strikes me. Shutting up isn’t my specialty, after all.)

There are lots of really wonderful bloggers who manage to make thoughtful, well-written posts every day, but I don’t know how they do it—between watching dramas and writing about them, I barely have time for personal hygiene. My obsession with Kdrama is by no means flagging, and I can’t imagine giving up this blog anytime soon. I just need a break.

When I started blogging here I never imagined that anyone would actually visit. But you do, which makes maintaining Outside Seoul incredibly rewarding. So thanks for sharing your time (and obsession) with me!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Drama Review: Queen of Reversals (2010)

Grade: A-

Workplace rom-com

What it’s about
Hwang Tae Hee—a successful, take-no-prisoners businesswoman—ignores her mentor’s advice and gets married. But when that mentor turns against Tae Hee and decides to ruin her life, her hard-won happy ending disappears. With her job and marriage crumbling around her, Tae Hee meets an anchorless chaebol son who might feel even more lost and alone than she does.

First impression
I wan’t sure what to watch next, but I’m glad I picked this refreshing, breezy show. It has been a long time since I’ve watched a light romance with a strong workplace storyline, and this one is known for making Kdrama history: It presents a rare example of a second male lead who actually gets the girl in the end. I can already see why—the original lead seems smarmy and money-grubbing, not worthy of the fabulously capable, can-do Hwang Tae Hee.

Final verdict
Queen of Reversals feels completely different from the more recent Kdramas I’ve been watching lately, even though it’s only three years old. It’s blissfully traditional, with no time travel, no body swaps, and no heavy melodrama. It instead finds the perfect balance between compelling workplace challenges and romantic sparring. It’s also funny, with lots of character-based humor and delightfully absurd (but utterly plausible) slice-of-life moments.