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!

8 am
With a mug of milky coffee and some toast, I settle down to start watching. I’m in full-on Dok Mi regalia—fleece pajamas, wool socks, and a fluffy sweater. As all marathoners know, comfort is key.

Why look who shares a screen during the opening credits! For a change, I’m actually pretty unspoiled going into this drama. I had thought that Kim Woo Bin and Sung Joon must play the leads, but it looks as if that’s not the case—other actors had screens to themselves. Also, I’m a little concerned about possible foreshadowing here. Some frames in the opening credits seemed to offer hints about what’s to come. One guy had pills, for example. What might it mean for my boyfriends that they’re shown in front of what looks like blood spatters from bullets to the head? (Or is my concern on this front just evidence that I’ve watched too many zombie movies lately?)

In spite of its (insanely) rigorous focus on academics, I think this school is a failure. In the opening narration, one of its students mentions that the building is a glass pyramid based on Paris’s Louvre Museum. I snoozed through most of geometry class back in the day, but I see no pyramids here. What I do see is a creepily isolated building that’s like a modernist take on the Overlook Hotel in the Shining.  The looming mountains in the background dwarf this manmade structure, threatening to consume everything before them. Being profoundly alone can be a scary thing, and with its barren landscape this show is already taking advantage of our human unease at the prospect of emptiness.

(P.S.: Any suggestions for Mac-friendly screenshot software? I’m using Grab but it sucks to have to open the file in another program to save it as a jpg.)

This opening sequence is powerfully atmospheric and foreboding. It uses darkness in the way other shows use light, obscuring the world it’s creating instead of revealing it. Everything in this cavernous, window-walled room is concealed by the black night, with the single exception of this dinner table, lit up as if it were on stage. In the daytime, this room would be conducive to sight—with no real walls or partitions, you could see far into the distance both inside and outside. But now, all that dark is filling in the blank spaces, leaving the characters exposed to a world they can’t see. They’re at the strange crossroads between blind and sighted, and the occasional forays the show makes into handheld footage only increases the feeling. Through the camera lens, you can see only in front of you—there is no periphery, and as its attention swirls from character to character, you’re left painfully aware of the hidden edges of existence.

I don’t know how this show can sustain 8 hours of this deliberate pacing and eerie vibe—or even if it plans to. I just hope it doesn’t get too scary. One of the Christmas Day traditions in my family involves watching horror movies, and I’m still freaked out from yesterday’s viewing of The Conjuring. Should I go buy a nightlight now?

So far, this show is almost perfect. I have to say, though, that all the meaningful glances being exchanged with the camera make things feel slightly overwrought. Come on…nothing bad has even happened yet. Why are a bunch of high school kids—a group known for their bravado—getting spooked out and treating each other like suspects in a game of Clue? Another pressing question at this point is whether I’ll actually be able to do a posting marathon of this show in one day. I’ve been watching for an hour and half, but thanks to writing and taking screen caps I’m only twenty minutes into the first episode. I don’t understand how people who post real recaps manage to write them up in less than two million hours.

It’s easy to see why they wanted Lee Soo Hyuk in the cast of Vampire Idol—with his narrow, sharp face he really does look like an alien being. In fact, he’s so uncanny looking that I don’t even think he’s attractive. (Which, frankly, is probably just as well—I bet I’m old enough to be his mother.) It’s funny that unusual faces seem to be so much more accepted among Korean actors than actresses. Most of the women in the industry seem interchangeable, with their tiny chins, double-lidded eyes, and perfect straight noses. But their male counterparts are allowed to be a bit more different, if you look beyond the requisite chocolate abs. I don’t think the idiosyncratic, nonstandard female equivalent of Lee Soo Hyuk would ever make it on screen.

Like the drama Nine, this show is obsessed with mirrors and other reflective surfaces. Practically every scene includes someone’s reflection, a decision that I think is meant to make us consider personal identity and the many different facets inherent in every person. In the screen grab above, the character of Yoon Su appears three separate times—once as his true self in a human form, and twice as one-dimensional representations of that self. It’s a little like the dinner table discussion about whether “monsters” are created by nature or nurture. Do people commit atrocities because their body chemistry is different from everyone else’s? Or is it because their mom didn’t read them enough bedtime stories? (The show’s take on this was “because their mother was irresponsible.” Ouch.) Nobody knows how character is forged, so it’s open to multiple interpretations, as represented by all the different versions of each character that exist in so many scenes. Another interesting use of mirrors in this show was the early moment that showed a row of framed portraits of award-winning students, followed by a mirror with the label: “Next is…” Although it’s intended to be inspirational, this mirror is vaguely threatening—“next” to what? To be an academic success? To be a murderer? To be murdered? There are infinite possibilities in that open statement, but unavoidable conclusions are that you can’t hide from the future, or from yourself.

Even if they’re pretty, the camerawork in most Korean dramas is workmanlike at best. White Christmas is a startling exception to that rule: the cinematography adds enormously to the content and atmosphere of this show. In this scene, we follow a female student down a flight of stairs as an unsettling folk song drones in the background, sung in the disquiting voice of a child. The moment is at once utterly open and utterly claustrophobic—we see the girl from the tiny space between a wall and the stair railing, but above her stretches forever into bright sunshine hardly interrupted by the structure of the building. It’s sort of like life in high school, which is why the setting for this show is so genius: everything is possible and undetermined, but you’re trapped in this narrow little world of school and work. You can see forever, but you’re frozen in place.

In the West, the color white has connotations of purity and freshness. It’s wedding dresses and picket fences and doctor’s coats. But in Eastern traditions, white has a another connotation: death. Interesting that this show is called White Christmas, and that its characters are so often adrift in a sea of bright snow. Also, how about that obelisk? Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but it’s pretty hard not to see this as a phallic symbol. The only female character in the entire drama  lies sprawled beneath it like a snow angel, apparently having slit her wrists after being reminded of a boy who once stalked her. It’s all that male aggression and sharp, unyielding force that drove her to this point, perhaps believing that she’ll never be free of his obsession with her.

Dear Tumblr,

I’m writing this note to tell you how deeply disappointed—nay, betrayed—I feel knowing that you didn’t alert me to the fact that Kim Woo Bin appears in his panties in this show.


Kim Woo Bin’s character is obviously supposed to be badass in this show. They’ve been hinting at his existence throughout this episode, playing AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and flashing snippets of his dorm room. Now he finally appears in the final few minutes, complete with punky magenta hair and rockstar swagger. (Note, also, that we go from the menacing phallic symbol in the snow to a shot of a glistening, practically naked boy who has no head. I see what you’re doing there, show, and I like it.) However, I can’t forget one of those earlier glimpses of his room, where an Abba poster was plainly visible. Is this show’s big bad a fan of “Dancing Queen” or what?

11:52—Episode 1 ends
So far, White Christmas has lived up to the Internet’s glowing praise. It’s an intriguingly crafted mystery with noir touches, slowly revealing its secrets and relentlessly building an ever-heightening sense of dread. As it has taken me all morning to get through this one episode, though, I suspect that this won’t be a one-day marathon after all. (Damn your siren call, you stupid blog.) I’m headed off to get dressed lest the plow arrive while I’m in my pjs—there’s no way I’m going out to move my car in pajamas with tiny dogs printed on them. I’ll be back shortly to start episode 2.

After polishing off the last remnant of my trip to Hmart—a tub of seafood-flavored instant ramyun—I’m recharged ready for episode 2. At this rate, today would have to be about 32 hours long for me to actually complete this series. I knew I should have marathoned Puberty Medley instead.

The kids who attend this huge, gorgeous school sure have to make some big sacrifices. They’re stuck in the middle of nowhere and forced to do nothing but study for four years—and they’re being recorded by Big Brother all the while. The show has made it clear that nobody is ever far from a piece of surveillance equipment, and also that they’re all well aware of this fact. In the first episode, one of the characters mentioned solving the mystery of the letters by rolling back the video footage. But the only one who’s really managed to make the spyware work for him is “Mad” Mi Reu, who has figured out how to tap into it in his dorm room. Guess he really is a genius after all, even if he isn’t willing to work for good grades.

White Christmas was an incredible opportunity for these young actors, most of whom had only a few credits to their names before the series aired. It’s not every day a Kdrama is set entirely in the world of young people without making them share screen time with the older generation. While focusing almost exclusively on its younger characters, White Christmas avoids easy stereotypes—there are no spoiled chaebol sons, no hardworking poor girls, no bitchy mean girls. Instead, each role requires the person who’s playing it to be many shades of grey. As the mysterious black letters are always reminding us, nobody on campus is an innocent victim, just as nobody htere is blameless. So far, the cast is doing a great job. There is one dead spot, though: The male lead. This is partly a character issue—Park Mul Yoo is completely bland. He’s walking through the show peering at other people, not examining himself, which almost turns him into another one of the never-ending mirrors. He’s present in every scene without bringing to them anything of his own. On the other hand, I’ve seen enough of Baek Sung Hyun elsewhere to know that he himself isn’t helping matters—blandness comes naturally to him. I’m of course not surprised that Kim Woo Bin is fabulous bringing his dangerous charm and expressive face to bear as Mi Reu, a role that gives him a chance to go big instead of reigning things in as he did as Choi Young Do in Heirs. But the real revelation for me so far is Lee Soo Hyuk, who tempers the cold, distant character he usually plays with Yoon Su’s delicate brokenness. Part drug-adled basket case and part angry young man, he’s just the tortured angel the show needed. (But Sung Joon’s indifferent perfectionist is obviously the bad guy. Right? He was the one who told Mul Yoo that each line in the poem referred to a separate person, after all.)

Random fact: This sign across from the nurse’s office reads “Suffering life makes us rise.” As school mottos go, that's quite the step down from the one in Heirs: “He who wears the crown must endure its weight.” I wonder if it’s significant that Mi Reu’s fingers are all green in this scene...

3:39—Episode 2 ends
Well, I’ve managed to pick up the pace a bit. This episode continues to play with light and dark, both physically and metaphorically. While the school is always either drenched in blinding sunlight or bathed with inky shadows, the characters continue to be ambiguous—they’re all both a little bit threatening and a little bit threatened. Reflections and altered selves are still everywhere, from mirrors and windows to television sets and hallucinations. We’ve just had what seems to be a big, menacing reveal about the teacher, although I bet he’s actually just protecting Mi Reu from the principal. Beyond this, the show has still given us only the slightest insight into some of it’s most intriguing characters—there’s no way the psychologist is there by accident. Is this a BoF-style revenge mission? (And did he hypnotize the girl into slitting her wrists?) We’ll see, as I pick up with episode 3 in a few minutes.

Somehow my file names for this drama are in another language—Vietnamese, maybe?—and I keep mismatching the video and subtitle versions of each episode. I only realize when some impossible combination appears on screen, sending me back to the beginning. This is just another reason why I prefer to watch shows through legitimate streaming sites like Dramafever whenever I can. But as far as I know, White Christmas is only available illegally. (It was once part of the offerings on I’m not sure if it still is, though—I can’t get that site to work at all anymore. Not that this is a great loss. They never bothered much with English subtitles over there.)

That Mi Reu has interesting tastes—he decorates his room with posters for American horror-punk band The Misfits (and Abba) and reads English-language guidebooks for exotic places. Has he been to Egypt, South Africa, and Burma, or does he just want to know about them? His crazy pastiche of Western things is a good match for this show’s soundtrack. I haven't noticed much Korean music, but it includes a number of heavy-hitters from the West. Two of them seem to be Ma Reu’s themes—the hyper-aggressive scream of “Back in Black” and Arcade Fire’s whimsical “Wake Up.” And then there’s the song that closes each episode: “Toxic” by Britney Spears. That’s a fitting choice, as it’s about a guy who’s so dangerous he should wear a warning. Also, I’m loving it.

It’s so bizarre and wonderful that Yoon Su is often shown perched in high places. It gives his Angel nickname another meaning—he’s a character who’s always in the clouds. (And as always with this show, that’s true both literally and metaphorically. Here he’s sun-dappled and near the sky, but normally his head is in another cloud: the one provided by drugs.) It also reminds me of the angels in the German movie Wings of Desire. Well played, Mr. Director.

The one thing White Christmas is lacking at this point is a real sense of urgency. Because nothing really bad has happened—like the girl said in this episode, most of the fracas has been about little, personal things—the show doesn’t have the kind of stakes that would make it fully compelling for me. And yes, getting those stakes would probably require someone to die, or at least be seriously injured. What can I say? Like Cha Eun Sang, I grew up on bloodthirsty 80s movies. I want at least two promiscuous coeds dead by the end of the first act.

As I’m getting everything I wish for in relation to this show, let me bring up one more concern. It’s a pity that there’s only one girl in this cast of thousands, and this problem is only exacerbated by the fact that she spends most of her time moping or being protected. She’s almost existing in a separate plot outside of the mystery of the letters—she pops up now and again as an object someone wants to possess, makes a crack or two, and then disappears for the next half hour. Upon further reflection, I’ve decided that the psychologist is actually the father of the boy who died, and he’s carefully orchestrated this whole setup for revenge. Because she’s spending a lot of time caring for him, she’ll probably be the first to realize what’s happened. So instead of blowing the whistle next time, how about she saves the day?

7:06—Episode 3 ends
The show is really ratcheting up the tension as it nears the halfway point. I should be able to squeeze in one more episode before bed, but the jury is out about whether I’ll continue to post like this tomorrow. (But I’ll definitely watch the rest of the show!) How is it possible that I’ve been watching TV since 8 am but only made it through 3 episodes?

After spending far too much time running around pouring white vinegar and baking soda down sink drains (try it—you’ll like it!), I’m back for episode 4. Better not be too creepy, as the sun has long set...

No image for this comment, as the most appropriate shot would be a serious spoiler. But how is it that none of these privileged high school kids has a cell phone? For a decade, it has been impossible to film a thriller without addressing this issue. Does the school have a no-phone policy? Is it located in a cellular dead zone? I’d be surprised if the latter was true; although there are lots of places in America without cell service, I bet that’s not true in South Korea these days.

At this point, he seems to be the only Korean who’s definitely innocent of the crime—I know the military bent a lot of rules for him, but I don’t think they gave him leave to go torment some high schoolers during a winter storm. Well, they probably didn’t, anyway.

9:37—Episode four ends
As the day progressed, I clearly lost the will to post. White Christmas continues to be a fantastic puzzle box of a mystery, though, having moved from its thoughtful, atmospheric opening episodes into a thrilling, action-packed midsection. It’s a pity that, like Wife’s Credentials, this drama is so hard to come by. It’s something that newcomers to Kdrama would really enjoy, and if it ever made it onto Netflix would almost certainly build a devoted international following.

I have no idea what this episode’s talk of doppelgängers meant, but it sure was fun to see Sung Joon playing a dispassionate Sherlock type, complete with a self-satisfied smirk whenever he confirmed his suspicions about something. Was his comment about seeing his double an acknowledgment that he had killed the boy, and had recognized the psychiatrist as another killer?

Now that the show has confirmed who the killer was, I’m not sure what the remaining four episodes will hold. I can’t wait to find out, though.

Signing off for the night, this is Amanda.


  1. Ooooh. I'm doing a /White Christmas/ marathon as well. I had finished with the first episode but then new episodes of /Prime Minister and I/ and /You From Another Star/ came out and I was distracted for awhile there. But episode 2, here I come!

  2. Still my favorite Kdrama of all time - and I've seen 145. Enjoy!

  3. Yess you're finally watching this! You're giving me the urge to go on a marathon rewatch as well.

    I love the cinematography in this. It's so cold and spare, but utterly beautiful at the same time. Director Kim Yong-soo did this on a shoe string budget, too.

    I actually think Esom (who plays Eun Sung) has one of those unusual faces for a Korean female model. She's striking and different (I can easily tell it's her when I see her in photo-shoots and stuff, something I can't do with a lot of other actresses and models), but not really what's considered classically beautiful by Korean standards. It works here though -- someone who's traditionally cute and pretty wouldn't really work with her character.

    Haha, I was wondering when you would fangirl over Kim Woo-bin's shirtlessness. XD

    Anyways, if you don't mind discussions while watching (and slowing you down even more), I'm available on chat.

  4. May I ask where you're watching it? I've been wanting to watch it for so long but I can't find it in good quality anywhere

  5. I'm so happy you've decided to marathon this one! I feel like everyone should watch it for the cinematography alone.

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  8. Please can you tell me where can I download the whole episodes with english subtitles for free. I want to watch it so desperately. But I can't find any site.

  9. Can anybody tell me if this Kdrama ends up being supernatural in any way? I seem to recall reading somewhere that there is a "curse" associated with the school?

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