(thundie: I’m absolutely thrilled to introduce my first guest blogger, ockoala, whom some of you know from the Dramabeans’ Open Threads. Please welcome her!)
For the Love of Woof-Woof:
Before diving right in, namely, to talk about one of my favorite k-dramas, I want to thank Thundie for honoring me with an invitation to write a guest post on her blog. I’ve been reading Thundie’s Prattle for almost as long as I have been watching k-dramas. Never in a million years did I imagine a day would come when I can contribute and give back to the world of k-dramas through Thundie’s Prattle. Thundie, and all the dedicated, thoughtful, and prolific writers who spread knowledge and enjoyment of k-dramas worldwide, are an inspiration to me. I am beyond excited to take a tiny step in their direction.
Since I am woefully ignorant of Korean culture and language beyond what I have read or watched, I must apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in my review as I watch all my k-dramas with subtitles. So without further ado, I want to entice each and every one of you to consider watching (if you have not yet done so) a rather well known yet criminally underrated drama which aired on MBC in 2007: Time Between Dog and Wolf (“TBDAW”), starring Lee Jun Ki as Lee Soo Hyun/Kay, Nam Sang Mi as Seo Ji Woo/Ari, and Jung Kyung Ho as Kang Min Ki.
Introduction (or just so you know, not a single dog or wolf shows up in this drama):
The official promotional synopsis for TBDAW is as follows:
The time between dog and wolf – L’heure entre chien et loup – is seen when dusk becomes night as the sun slowly wanes between the mountain ridges. This is the time when day and night exist together. This is the time when objects become dim to sight, and from far away, the lingering approach of a silhouette can be seen. Friend or foe. Or someone who protects. Or just a dangerous wolf. This is the moment when both the righteous and errant paths all become crimson. This is the time when friend nor foe are indistinguishable, and it is in which the epic story about the defiance, surrender, love, and friendship of young agents takes place.
Are you confused yet? Because I was when I first read the above. This is one drama synopsis where the words look interesting on paper, but actually makes no sense. For anyone interested in what this drama is about, being confused is one big turn-off. If that bit of hoodoo wasn’t accompanied by a picture of Lee Jun Ki and Nam Sang Mi, I would have said “thanks, but no thanks” and moved along my merry way (probably to pick up a drama with shirtless Chung Jung Myung on the cover, since I know what I’m getting with that baby).
I’ve attached the picture which made me stare with my mouth open for a good minute (and some drool may or may not have dribbled out, I can’t be certain), and then proceeded to pray that these two gorgeous human beings will go off in real life and make beautiful chubby babies, kinda like a k-version of Brangelina. Look at the pretty, people!
Back to the drama. The title and official synopsis of a k-drama can be embarassingly inaccurate, if not flat out ineffective, in conveying both the tone and the plot of a drama. TBDAW is a victim of such shoddy marketing. Whoever wrote that blurb was purposely going for opaque and mysterious, but comes off sounding pretentious and overwrought.
It would have been much more effective to have simply written this: Lee Jun Ki is in this drama and he looks hot. If you thought he is just a pretty boy, be prepared to bear witness to his hotness as an alpha male lead, but with lots of emotional depth as he embodies multiple characters. He will be playing an agent of the Korean National Intelligence Service (“NIS”), an undercover operative, and an amnesiac spy. He will sport many different hairstyles and outfits (c’mon, this is Jun Ki we’re talking about, if you’ve got it, flaunt it, oppa!), and all are equally Junkilicious looks (and yes, Junkilicious is a real word, at least in my dictionary). See the many looks of Jun Ki in TBDAW which has been helpfully compiled for your enjoyment.
Nam Sang Mi will for the first (and hopefully not last) time shed her bubbly girl next door image, playing an alluringly sensual femme non-fatale. And Jung Kyung Ho will round out the trio under the guise of creating a compelling love triangle, but really to showcase a truly meaningful bromance storyline. All of this will be accompanied by a near pitch-perfect soundtrack, a gripping storyline, plus a lush overseas locale (Bangkok, Thailand) organically and integrally used to propel the story forward. Be prepared to be captivated by a thrilling tale of fate, revenge and redemption.
Since this review is being written and posted after the mega-blockbuster spy drama IRIS has hit the k-drama world, it would be puffery to describe TBDAW as a breakthrough k-drama spy thriller. IRIS has since taken this genre to new heights in production values. But in 2007, TBDAW was indeed a breakthrough k-drama, it introduced a fast-paced cops-triad-betrayal formula culled from the HK-serial prototype and blended it seamlessly with the k-drama conventions of love triangles, destiny, and family.
The Good (and lordy is it GOOD – like a freshly made batch of caramel corn that you can’t stop eating because it has that addictive mixture of equal parts sweet and salty, plus crunch!):
TBDAW is a k-drama that can be described as the origin story of an anti-hero. Lee Jun Ki plays Lee Soo Hyun, a boy orphaned by the death of this father before he was born, and the subsequent murder of his mother before his eyes as a child. After his mother’s death, Soo Hyun is adopted by a former colleague of his parents and taken to Korea, where he grows up with Kang Min Ki, the son of his foster parents.
Soo Hyun is smart, hardworking and dedicated, whereas Min Ki is a slacker, happy-go-lucky type – but the two foster brothers are best friends and both join the NIS to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. The brothers encounter Seo Ji Woo, played by Nam Sang Mi, an art dealer, who turns out to be the childhood sweetheart of Soo Hyun when he was growing up in Thailand, and the daughter of the man responsible for the death of Soo Hyun’s mother. Oh, what a twisted web we weave. A picture is worth a thousand words, so I don’t need to tell you who the OTP is if you see this, right?
Lee Jun Ki as Soo Hyun delivered my favorite performance amongst all his dramas, and I have seen all his dramas. I was never a Jun Ki fan until I watched TBDAW (I was team Team Yoo-rin/Gong-chan in My Girl). While no one can accuse Jun Ki of ever being wooden, he does have an alarming tendency to flail in the opposite direction and occasionally overact, especially in meaty emotional scenes which would benefit from restraint. [Jun Ki-oppa, watch the eyes, m’kay, the eyes, they are a-bulging when you are so overwrought, not your best look, IMHO].
The character of Soo Hyun is like a buffet course for any male actor. In TBDAW, he’s asked to convey a variety of “personas” and he does a credible job of mining each thin caricature for more depth than originally sketched out. His straight-laced NIS agent seethes with simmering hidden pain, as an undercover operative he shows glimmers of doubt and steely resolve, as an amnesiac bad boy he’s all cocky swagger and indifference to maks his confusion, and finally, as the Soo Hyun who embodies all of the above three personas towards the end of the drama, he allows all of the different sides of his personality and experience to coexist within him.
Jun Ki goes from straight-laced government agent to a low-life thug to a badass rising henchman and finally his real incarnation, a man filled with so much pain, anger, and helplessness at how everyone he loves continually gets taken away from him and he is powerless to stop all this tragedy. And this Soo Hyun walks at the edge between being a dog (a protector) and a wolf (a predator). In order to protect those he loves, Soo Hyun takes the reverse journey from black and white hero to an anti-hero, in essence becoming both the titular dog and wolf.
Jun Ki even does a credible turn as a Muay Thai fighter, and obliterated any preconceptions I may have had that he was a very pretty boy (for the record, the love of my k-drama life is a man by the name of Jung Woo Sung, and he be as different as night and day with Jun Ki). In My Girl, the Hong sisters capitalized on the more feminine side of Jun Ki’s androgynous looks. The PD in TBDAW wisely shifted the pendulum in the opposite direction, and showcases the inherent masculine attractiveness of its leading male. My favorite Jun Ki incarnation in TBDAW is when Soo Hyun loses his memory and becomes Kay, the loyal right-hand man to his intended target. Kay allows Jun Ki to be the bad boy I’ve been dying to see, and he is charming without being sleazy. (Okay, I’m not being 100% truthful, my ultimate favorite Jun Ki persona in TBDAW I can’t discuss without giving away too much plot, but I reckon if you watch it won’t be hard to guess).
As the love interest for Jun Ki, Nam Sang Mi’s Seo Ji Woo is simply luminous. She glows, all moist dewiness that makes her a start contrast to the loads of testosterone rampaging around her. This is a marked departure from the typical Nam Sang Mi role as the spunky, never-say-quit, girl next door. Ji Woo is sultry without being sexy, and her assertive personality was both a win in my book as well as well-suited for this story. She is not a damsel in distress or a gun wielding she-spy, as the two most common female characters in spy thrillers are wont to be. Her character is integral as her presence underlies the meaning of fate.
Soo Hyun and Ji Woo meet at kids, and because of that brief but fateful meeting, they sow the seeds for their future happiness and unhappiness. To explain any further would spoil a lot of the plot. I really liked her character, but I’ve hear chirps here and there that some folks find her annoying. Since I have a giant girl crush on Nam Sang Mi, my joy at watching her sweet smile light up the screen may have blinded me to her character’s annoying traits. I would love to read what others have to say on this subject. But even if you don’t like the Ji Woo character, I think its safe to say that Nam Sang Mi was consistently wonderful as Ji Woo, displaying in equal parts sassy gumption and hidden vulnerability.
Ji Woo is a character who comes from the dark but walks in the light, where Soo Hyun comes from the light and is pushed into the dark. Their personalities could not be markedly any more different, so this pairing is liberally sprinkled with the opposites attract pixie dust that makes certain couplings instantly look shinier and magical. Jun Ki and Sang Mi have a palpable chemistry, earthy yet slightly standoffish. I was captivated by their every interaction.
Jung Kyung Ho as Kang Min Ki is one of the better written second leads in any drama. While he knows and we know that he’s never going to get the girl, the real importance of his role is not actually as the love rival, but to bring the quintessential best guy friend element to this drama. Devotees of HK gangster movies know this set-up quite well, and regardless of how often its used, if used correctly, it never fails to elicit shrieks of “OMG, look at that bromance! I swoon over such manly friendship. Screw the girl, the two guys should just bat for the same team.” If not for Ji Woo being such a central character, as well as Nam Sang Mi’s effortlessly charming performance, I’d so be on team Soo Hyun/Min Ki FTW! (Um, hello! Hot guys in matching outfits shooting guns? Yeah, I’m so on board with that!)
And Jung Kyung Ho was wonderful as Min Ki. He probably delivered a more nuanced and consistent performance than Jun Ki. But life is unfair, and Jun Ki’s just got “IT”, you know, that extra movie star aura that smooths over the rough edges. So Soo Hyun runs the show and Min Ki has to play second fiddle. But Jung Kyung Ho convinced me after this performance he’s deserving of a promotion to leading male, and voila, he got it shortly thereafter in Jamyungo (where he was great but the drama writing was all sorts of bad), and in Smile, You (which is probably the big break of his career).
While I adored the OTP and the bromance, the love triangle was not too shabby either. Soo Hyun and Ji Woo’s love gets pulled through the ringer but the emotional connection between them never feels false or lightweight. We seeth when Soo Hyun must leave Ji Woo and risk losing her. We grieve when Ji Woo thinks Soo Hyun is dead. In the interim, Min Ki never annoyed me with his straightforward yet considerate pursuit of Ji Woo before the OTP classically reunite. TBDAW is one of the rare k-dramas that eschews the presence of a fourth lead to create the usual rectangle of love (which usually involves two sad and hopeless people clawing at the OTP trying to get a hand or foot in edgewise – I always think wouldn’t like be better if those two got together from the get-go and avoided annoying us viewers with their sad pathetic attempts to separate the OTP?).
Since k-dramas rarely recycle fave pairings (my dream of Jun Ki-Sang Mi part deux is just a fancy), I would be delighted if Nam Sang Mi and now leading man Jung Kyung Ho did a drama together and he got the girl this time. Ji Woo and Min Ki had a lovely, understated chemistry and rapport in TBDAW, which contrastly nicely with the more intense and passionate relationship between Ji Woo and Soo Hyun. I would have merely liked TBDAW if it didn’t have a credible love story, which worked to ground all the spy and revenge shenanigans in the warmth of a k-drama romance. With the presence of a very meaningful love story, I simply loved TBDAW.
I would be remiss to not devote as least one paragraph to the riveting supporting cast in TBDAW. Kim Gab Soo needs no further introduction, all of you have probably watched him frighten small children in a drama somewhere. He delivers yet another solid, controlled performance as a NIS director, the puppetmaster wielding the sword of righteousness to combat crime without mercy or moral compunction for the lives of those who serve him.
Choi Jae Sung as Mao, the leader of the Korean-Thai triad, Cheongbang, is the rare k-drama bad guy who is genuinely menacing without resorting to glowering and overacting (I’ve read that Choi Jae Sung was the lead in Eyes of Dawn, widely regarded as the best k-drama of all time, and I can believe this actor can deliver such a powerhouse performance). The character and portrayal of Mao is steely and powerful, and has far-reaching depths that is revealed layer after layer as the story progresses.
And my personal favorite secondary character is played Lee Ki Young, who is Min Ki’s father and Soo Hyun’s adoptive father. This is one daddy who put on a masterclass on exemplifying “a father’s love”, and really moved me with his devotion to protecting his sons above completing the mission.
TBDAW effectively uses its exotic locale by making it integral to the story. The Thailand scenes are infused with Thai culture and capture the essence of this vibrant bustling country. You can almost smell the exhaust fumes from all the cars, feel the muggy humidity perfume the air, and envision yourself walking down the streets of Bangkok’s bustling red light district. Unlike some dramas which film its overseas scenes as a de facto tourism film, here there are no unnecessary scenes to showcase a famous locale. The characters live or return to Thailand because of the existence of Cheongbang, which together with the NIS, inextricably forms a chain around their lives.
The PD’s directing style in TBDAW is one of the biggest treats of this drama. Now I don’t know anything about the art of directing, such as framing, shot angles, lightning, heck, I can barely hold a video camera to film mine own family. But even with a layman’s level of comprehension, I felt that TBDAW moved at an engaging pace. Scenes were crisp, fast, and on point. There’s nary a wasted frame. Action scenes aren’t protracted and emotional scenes aren’t truncated, everything simple “feels” right. In fact, it may be so seamless you won’t even notice it, which is a sign its a success. We normally only notice things when it goes wrong, and a poorly directed drama oftentimes manifests itself by leaving the viewer feeling bored or confused. I was never bored or confused watching TBDAW, the writing is swift and the directing keeps the pace up and the flow smooth.
It was a genuine treat to watch such a cohesive production. The director eschews drawn out reaction shots, and allows the action to tell the story. For example: person X shoots person Y, we see the action, rather than a drawn out shot of person X’s face as he’s mentally preparing to shoot person Y. Long reaction shots accompanied by soaring musical scores are often the lynchpin of an effective melodrama directing style, and many dramas I love employ this type of direction. But that wouldn’t work here, and the PD selects a style that propels the story rapidly and sets the mood: in a spy thriller, there is no time for reaction and ten seconds of a character’s eyes widening as he contemplates the situation. In TBDAW, shit happens, and you better run fast or you’ll get mowed down! (But when a long lingering shot is needed, the PD wisely gives it to this man below. I swoons.)
But what’s awesome about TBDAW is that even dramatic moments are not mined for its effect, but allowed to wash over you with its meaning. Soo Hyun and Ji Woo’s reunion (each of the many times they are separated and find each other again) is shown without any sentiment other than the understanding that it means something to the OTP. We’re not forced to wring tears out of situations by the direction. We feel sad because the story is sad. Bravo PD, for not treating me like a five year old, and for understanding that the script your writer has delivered packs a punch even without any heavy-handed imagery.
But TBDAW does contain lots of imagery, just used with a deftness and skill. The PD chooses two main color palates, the cool blue and whites for the scenes at the NIS, in stark contrast with the reds and golds of the Cheonbang and Thailand scenes. Each scene feels alive, with passion, intrigue, or heartbreak. The characters sweat and bleed, and bring us closer to their plight.
The soundtrack to TBDAW provides the appropriate accompaniment for the scenes, and contains some of my favorite k-drama songs to this day. It sets the mood but never dictates how you should feel. The score simply elevates the mood one notch. The organic insertion of music into this drama means that there is no intrusion to take us out of a scene. It’s what happens when music and visuals blend seamlessly together, and gives a scene that final little decorative rose on the cake before you send it out ready to be served.
Without delving too deeply into the storyline, and spoil this well-constructed revenge and redemption story, there were many scenes and moments in TBDAW that I just loved. I enjoyed how the writer never dwelled on the maudlin. The sadness and anger of a moment is expressed, painfully and angrily as befits the situation, and then the character moves on. Soo Hyun watches his mother murdered before his eyes, its an unspeakable tragedy and trauma, and yet the next scene is Soo Hyun curled up on the temple floor in Bangkok, the very temple he just went with his mother to honor his dead father. Boy Soo Hyun cannot move, he is simply a broken child. Moments like this convey so much more of the pain than protracted crying my eyes out scenes.
I was delighted when the writer continued to convey heavy-hearted moments in very spare ways, and it worked each time. Of course, when Jun Ki is your leading male, you have to tap into his willingness to perform full-blown agony. And Jun Ki really gives it his all in the last few episodes when he is forced to confront the man he has become in his quest to right the many wrongs which he has endured. He did veer into ham territory on occasion (the eyes, Jun Ki-oppa, watch them eyes, I tell you!), but he was never anything less than absolutely invested in his performance.
Unlike in Iljimae, I enjoyed watching his struggle to balance his dual nature in TBDAW. I wanted to hug him in TBDAW (okay, and kiss and fondle him senseless, but let’s not digress), whereas I wanted to throw him into the nearest privy hole in Iljimae (and throw Han Hyo Joo’s Eun Chae in there with him, but again, let’s not digress). Hmm, don’t believe me since it appears I have a pavlovian reaction to Jun Ki and drool upon sight of him? I can still tell when someone is overacting, even if said overacting makes me drool some more. And overacting whilst kissing is a BIG GIANT YES!
So, some of you might be thinking I’m simply a corporate shill for MBC, here to hawk one of its less successful dramas, and maybe sell a t-shirt or two. I am not, but don’t take my word for it. I have better proof than simply a koala’s pinky swear. TBDAW isn’t the best thing since sliced bread (well, that would be City Hall, LOL, don’t ask me to explain). It does have two major flaws, which are rather glaring when I call them out. But taken into consideration, do not undermine the effectiveness of the drama as a whole or its impact on the viewer, namely me, to enjoy the drama.
The Bad (or the “Yeah, that shit don’t happen in real life, but I NEED to stop thinking and start enjoying!”):
The first flaw is that inspite of its large budget and wonderful directing and cinematography, TBDAW is a rather quaint and small-scale thriller drama, even back in 2007, especially when you compare it to US or even HK spy thriller shows. Now with the presence of IRIS, TBDAW may feel even more like kids playing with spy action figures. But it doesn’t bother me, because TBDAW is still a traditional k-drama at heart. A well-made k-drama is timeless because the hook is not the snazzy special effects or the in-the-moment setting, but a story that resonates with the viewer whether we watch it now or ten years from now.
TBDAW’s is rooted in the hero’s quest, for truth, love, revenge, and redemption. Soo Hyun’s character takes the hero’s quest and turns it upside down (by going from good to bad), and the pathos inherent in watching this journey remainings compelling to watch. The spy and triad construct is merely a setting, and the action sequences just a tool. The writer could set this story in the world of corporate espionage and betrayal and it would be equally riveting. As such, I can accept the less than first rate action sequences and small scale depictions of gangs and government agencies. I watch for the human element, not the slickness of the set pieces. Nonetheless, doesn’t this look pretty slick enough?
The second flaw may be for some viewers a fatal flaw, but for me is simply a nick and not a kill wound. The script in TBDAW is filled with quite a few loopholes and/or giant leaps of fancy and faith. In order to construct a compelling story, we’re asked to believe Soo Hyun is time and again on the brink of death and yet survives. We are asked to swallow an amnesia turn of events. We are required to accept that Mao, as a leader in the Cheongbang, so quickly accepts Soo Hyun into his inner sanctum, and even after a series of events that would normally arouse suspicion, continues to trust him. I concede that these and many other scenarios, even upon superficial analysis, seem rather preposterous.
But I forgive this flaw because of two reasons. First, the spy thriller genre is inherently difficult to craft, a tight story requires an impossible amount of research and preparation of logistics, and even the best spy movie contains elements that stretch credulity. Yes, characters in TBDAW get shot or beat up a lot, and will recover faster than humanly possible. If that dramatic license bothers you, then skip TBDAW, I can’t help you bridge that gap.
And if you think a guy who’s just been beaten to a pulp shouldn’t be making love to his girlfriend that same night after he’s all bandaged up, well, you’re missing out on some good old-fashion heart-pumping snogging by dwelling on realism over dramatic beats. Which sort of defeats the purpose of watching a k-drama, where the viewer lives and dies for fantasy moments that make your heart beat faster. TBDAW has got some nice fan service emotional moments and kisses that are heart thumpingly good, not to mention crucial to advancing the story (yeah, that’s important, too, but really, just give me a hot kiss and I’ll give you a giant pass).
Secondly, a seamlessly crafted storyline, if it fails to entertain or engage me, is for me a greater failure than a story with some loopholes in the writing, but is presented so deftly and charmingly that I barely spare a glance at the lapses in common sense. TBDAW entertained me from the first frame where we are thrown into a hurtling car chase in the port terminal, and engaged me from the first pained and confused glance between our OTP Soo Hyun and Ji Woo in said speeding car. I was hooked, and never looked back.
The Complete (or the million dollar question – “Did you enjoy it?”):
TBDAW is what I would label a complete drama. From the first frame to the last scene, it tells a story at an exquisite pace and with a consistent tone. Heart-pumping action scenes transition seamlessly into the quieter moments of peaceful calm and introspection. The writer’s script is not filled with exposition, the plot moves briskly along by showing us what is happening rather than telling us. And when it feels like the plot moves too fast, the PD will drop in an unexpected flashback scene that bridges the gap in a creative way.
How remiss would I be to have the temerity to call TBDAW a complete drama (them is fighting words, missy!) without discussing its utterly satisfying ending. If you are looking for rainbows and unicorns, bouncy babies and white picket fences, I’m sorry but this is not your drama. I’m not saying TBDAW has a sad ending, just that it doesn’t have any of the above. The writer elected to craft a denouement that is entirely credible and fits squarely within the parameters of the drama. There’s a bit of parry and feint going on, but its not a red herring or a cop out. Look at this gorgeous blood-red saturated sunset.
The drama is about the murkiness of twilight, of that time between light and dark, the zone between good and bad, and the ending stays within that fine line. You may need to rewatch it a few times to grasp what the writer is implying, but I think you’ll find the conclusion meaningful and poignant. Above all else, it asks the viewer to travel a full circle back to conversations had at the beginning of the drama. The final scenes strongly echo one of the the central themes of TBDAW, which is that fate may dictate the lives of our characters, but in the end, each character must live with the choices he/she has the free-will to make.
Some parting thoughts:
Now that I have poured forth what seems like a torrent of love for TBDAW, I’ll tell you all a little (not so) secret. I didn’t like TBDAW the first time I watched it. Yup, I came away thinking it was merely okay, a good but not great drama. I probably would have never even considered re-watching TBDAW (Who re-watches dramas you didn’t love the first time? Yeah, doesn’t happen often, does it?) but for a random day when I was riffling through my k-drama collection and was in the mood for neither a rom-com or a melodrama. So I popped in TBDAW, and this time sat down and really watched it. Sixteen hours later, I was a Jun Ki fan for life (though, another word of advice, Jun Ki-oppa – I can take the headdesking caused by Iljimae once, but please don’t subject me to such a drama ever again).
Few dramas have elicited such an one hundred and eighty degree change of heart from me. TBDAW is even rarer in that I like more and more each time I watch it, and I’ve now watched it three times (the third time just this week in order to contribute a meaningful review).
Check out TBDAW. You might be pleasantly surprised. And isn’t life more fun when you take chances and try something different? I did, when I watched my first k-drama, and I’ve never regretted that decision once. If this ends up being my first and only review, I want to thank each of you for taking the time to read it. And if I end up having more thoughts to share with you all about k-dramas, I would be delighted to continue to contribute to Thundie’s Prattle.
Finally, a big big muah to Thundie for taking the time to teach me the bloggy ropes, to format and insert screencaps for me, and in general for being all-sorts of amazing each time I read one of her posts. This review I hereby dedicate to Thunderbolt, may you be nibbling on a neverending supply of kibble in hamster heaven, and watching whatever is the hamster equivalent of k-dramas.