Come one, come all – come and gape at this rare creature. She looks like a koala from the outside, but from the inside she’s likely as crazy as that scrat from Ice Age. She doesn’t acknowledge that there are divides better left unbridged, subjects of discussion that shouldn’t be broached in the same forum.
She thinks all that matters is “but it’s really good, and I want to talk about it!” She may just be right. So give her a moment of your precious time, will you? She wants to share her thoughts about a masterpiece-in-the-making called President (KBS 2010), and a scrumptious delightful little romp called My Princess (MBC 2010).
Who Do You Think You Are, Missy?
Sometimes when an outlandish idea plants itself in your head, it burrows itself deeper and deeper, refusing to go away. I rarely get those ideas, since creativity is not my strong suit. I’m a linear person who does everything the quickest way possible in the least amount of time. Who knows where this idea came about, but I simply couldn’t shake it.
I wanted to write a first impressions review of both My Princess (“MP”) and President, since I am currently done with four episodes of each. Every time I started writing, both dramas kept bumping up against each other in my mind, tangling my thoughts and making it exceedingly hard to compartmentalize. I accepted that my mind had, well, made up its mind. It wants to talk about both, at the same time, in the same place. Good golly, am I digging my own grave here.
I suppose there is a certain proper irony since both dramas happen to be competing head-to-head in the same time slot. Competition and ratings mean nothing to me, since I watch my shows online and have no stakes in the ratings success or failure of a drama. As of this writing, MP is leading the Wed-Thurs time slot handily, and President is trailing in distant third (there is another drama sandwiched in between that I refuse to acknowledge because I hate it).
If I could determine ratings, it would go something like this: President 24%, MP 20%, and that turd of a drama at 6%. This review is not a no-holds barred First Impressions review of both MP and President inasmuch as it’s an ode to drama diversity. After four episodes of each, I adore both – using the same quality barometer, about two completely different dramas. Why? Because both dramas aims to do tell its story with sincerity, does it well within its own capacity, and is increasingly getting better and better with each episode.
I think fans of President will think it sacrilege that I dare lump such robust and stellar fare with fluff like MP, and fans of MP will think it hard to relate that I would throw in a seemingly stuffy drama with MP in the fun-to-watch column. Well, I dare, and I shall. MP and President are two completely dissimilar dramas on opposite ends of the spectrum, occupying only one thing in common – it is very entertaining to watch because it is so well made within its own genre.
Doubt me? Let’s see if I can dispel some preconceptions about each, and share some new perceptions of both. Life’s too short for bad dramas, and I’ve got two dramas that are not bad, not bad at all, and are worth a watch if you care to check it out. I’m daring to talk about MP and President in the same breath. Whether I succeed or fail, at least I’m honest to myself. I am thoroughly smitten with both dramas, inspite and because of its vast disparity in subject, style, and scope.
How To Make A Korean President
I can’t believe how many years passed by since this movie was released, but I really loved The American President (and it had nothing to do with that particular President going to my alma mater, no sirree). I loved it because it was a very well-crafted movie. On the subject matter of politics and the presidency, it was neither too idealistic and sappy, nor too gritty and dark. It was a political fairy tale, one that was both fun and fresh. Suffice to say, I love an entertaining political movie.
Dramas can’t (and shouldn’t) stay within the safe confines of certain well-accepted genres, refusing to discuss subject matters that are important and prescient. Unlike American television programming, which is much more varied, K-dramas hew closely to certain tried and true themes, so it’s all the more refreshing to watch a production like President. This drama is like the K-version of the season of The West Wing centered around the election of a new President, except with decidedly Korean political struggles and pitfalls.
Choi Su Jong, he of the mature leading man aura and looks, plays Jang Il Joon, a presidential hopeful climbing the treacherous Korean political election ladder. Standing beside Il Joon is his wife of over two decades, the still beautiful, always elegant, daughter of a chaebol, Professor Jo So Hee, played with stunning precision by Ha Hee Ra (who is married to her onscreen husband in real life, and OMG is it amazing to watch their sparks and chemistry carry over on celluloid).
Our Presidential candidate and his model wife have three children, the adopted adult daughter In Young (Wang Ji Hye), a green around the gills on-the-cusp-of-adulthood son Sung Min (played by Super Junior’s Sung Min), and a rebellious teenage daughter to round out the family of five. This tight-knit family is in it to win it for their patriarch, a man each seemingly genuinely respects and loves.
Oops, I forgot, let’s make that a family of six. Episode one introduces us to Jang Il Joon’s adult illegitimate son Yoo Min Ki (Jay Kim), and the ticking time bomb in his bid for the presidency. See, I told you this is a K-drama. The even juicer subplot is that supposedly the illegitimate son ends up in a romantic subplot with the adopted daughter. President is so opposite of makjang that I’m doubly curious to see how it pulls off this most makjang of plot devices.
While fauxcest never fails to make me happy – in President all the reasons for both the existence of an illegitimate son and the burgeoning wary friendship between the son and daughter are actually integral to the plot and realistic within the dramatic narrative. Damn, and here I thought fauxcaust was always “just because.”
At the crux of President is a single question – is Jang Il Joon a man worthy of being elected the President of Korea? Worthy encompasses many judgment markers, which I shall sum up as the three Cs – capacity, character, and commitment. Can he run a country? Should he run a country? Does he want to run a country?
At the end of four episodes, I’m stunned into silence time and again by how complex and complicated the drama chooses to portray Il Joon. So much so, I cannot even tell if he’s a genuinely good guy who is willing to play dirty to win the highest office, or a bad guy who dons the mantle of principle in order to playact the part of the idealistic underdog.
President doesn’t give any easy answers, and I love this drama even more for it. I went in thinking that the lead character would be easy to root for, and instead found a drama where oftentimes I find Il Joon’s opponents, the other presidential hopefuls, to seemingly possess more integrity and backbone. How’s that for subversive? President is sometimes grounded in nitty-gritty minutia of campaign politics, but always wrapped in the dramatic narrative of K-drama structure.
There is not a single minute watching President when I was bored. The drama doesn’t hand you easy answers, but asks the viewers to watch carefully and take your time before making any definitive judgments. I’m more than happy to do that. But before I go any further down the Presidential rabbit hole, let’s hope over the fence and see what’s cooking over in the land of lost-princesses and an uppity adorable diplomat.
When a Princess Met a Diplomat
It’s no secret that I was both dreading and anticipating MP. A drama starring one of my most random actor loves (Song Seung Heon), with one of my most rationalized actor hates (Kim Tae Hee), in a drama with a title as inane as My Princess – yeah, I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I wanted to watch it, but I knew it was likely going to suck. How can it not, since the previews were dreadfully brain dead. And the less is said of the mostly drippingly sappy posters and stills, the better.
Like waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop, I watched MP immediately when it aired. I anticipated it would be like pulling a band aid off a wound, but to my surprise I wasn’t cringing six-ways to Sunday. In fact, episode 1 was more or less okay entertainment, starting off uneven but gradually finding its footing by the end of said episode. I gamely soldiered onward to episode 2, where the time flew right by, and in the end I discovered that I really enjoyed watching this drama.
Not an enjoyment borne of a need to rationalize my delight (you know what I mean – that constant refrain of “this is stupid but I love X actor or Y character so I’ll keep watching”), but a genuine adoration of this seemingly simple and unoriginal story. What can I say? Somehow MP works, and I gladly accept that.
Kim Tae Hee plays Lee Seol, a hard-working-sassy college student who discovers that she’s the last descendant of the Korean monarchy. Song Seung Heon is Park Hae Young, the diplomat grandson of a chaebol. Hae Young’s chaebol grandfather is hell bent on restoring the monarchy if he has to give away every penny of his assets. Our princess and diplomat meet cute, re-meet even cuter, and then proceed to be so cute in each and every interaction thereafter I am literally bathing in a river of cute.
What makes MP so charming is it’s effortless vibe. It doesn’t try hard to be something it’s not. It’s not a story that has a lot of substance, it’s emotional hooks are soft rather than hard hitting, and it’s purpose is to cheerfully tell a love story that reminds me of Roman Holiday mixed with My Fair Lady, with a dash of a grown-up version of The Princess Diaries.
Throw in a dashing second male lead in Professor Nam Jung Woo (played with a wink and a smile by Ryu Soo Young), and a channeling her inner-bitch second female lead Oh Yoon Joo (the always excellent Park Ye Jin), and we have a very adult rom-com that doesn’t pander to the lowest common denominator even for such a trifle of a drama.
Can a Princess Co-Exist With a President?
So how does MP and President, who wholly dissimilar dramas, co-exist in my drama-loving heart? Easy – I just expanded my drama world to make room for both of them. I have the luxury of not making the Solomon’s choice of picking between either drama live, and so do most of you. I recommend watching each new episode of MP first, and then savoring President second and last.
MP is the quintessential definition of a crack drama, and is shaping up to be just that if the end of episode 4 is any prediction. It’s got a sizzing OTP, a brisk albeit improbable story centered around Seol’s transformation into a princess whether in name or drama reality, and a stellar OST that completely bathes the drama in a blanket of sweetness and poignancy that is likely not as present in the script itself.
President is the kind of drama that we’re lucky enough to still see every so often – a drama that aims to leave a lasting mark on the cinematic landscape. It doesn’t do so in an intelligentsia-looking-down-on-the-masses sort of condescending way. President critically presents about something of important to Korean society (the nature and state of its democracy) through entertaining the viewer with thoughtful plot twists and heady melodrama fare.
It’s a shame that President’s ratings are so low, but I suppose an exceptional drama like Giant getting monster ratings is really the exception and not the norm. What makes MP merit its solid ratings is that it proudly accepts what it was meant to be, and then tries its darndest to do it well. Not every drama can profess to merit inclusion into the elite echelons of quality, substance, and heart (and President is working its way up there), but when a drama intuitively and proudly understands its purpose (to make viewers happy), how can I not applaud that as well.
I don’t have to be at Lincoln Center hearing Yoyo Ma play to enjoy a cello concert – a truly talented and genuine amateur musician can move me when the music is played from the heart. At which point, you don’t need to obsessively compare the two, you simply say “that was a lovely performance” and sit back and enjoy yourself. In my mind, MP and President are equals in their own unique ways.
The Exceptional and The Gosh-Darn-It
Just because I find MP and President disparate but equal doesn’t mean it’s impossible to assess its qualitative merits vis-a-vis each other. In fact, I argue that I have to do such a daunting task because I dare not write a review recommending both dramas simply because I like it, whatever the hell my opinion is worth. If I am recommending both dramas, I at least ought to provide more specifics as to substantiate my pretty ballsy opinions.
Pardon me for some more random analogies, I find these analogies keep popping up when I put the two dramas side-by-side. President is like that really brilliant kid in 1L that knows everything because he’s got a photographic memory and a subtle lack of social graces. At first blush he seems like an awkward genius, but a deeper friendship unearths a kid who just wants to do what he is good at, and is a totally normal guy. He’s cool in his socially awkward way, probably never going to be the life of the party, but knowing him enriches your life in ways both small and significant.
MP is that blond girl who shows up at law school in a pink convertible, her matching Chihuahua in tow, asking not for a syllabus but a social calendar. She seems to be the very definition of an airhead, but she actually aced her courses in fashion merchandising back at CULA. Once she chooses to apply herself, it appears that this blondie can be taught, and can contribute to the legal profession in her own vapid but insightful way.
Yes, President is the socially awkward kid who de-wormed Somalians and had a PhD, and MP is Ms. Legally Blonde herself. What that silly and charming movie extolled was the cinematic equivalent of “everyone has a worth”, be it the super-smart kid or the mega-superficial ditz. It doesn’t hurt to be open-minded about something that at first blush seems not to be your style. I find that spending time with both President and MP enriches my viewing experience. I’ll endeavor to explain why four short episodes of both dramas have lead me to reach such a first impression conclusion.
Presidential Authority – It’s How You Wield It
President is that rare breed of K-drama which shows a story rather than tells it. That’s exceedingly difficult to do. So much of becoming a drama veteran is growing impatient with the dramas that preach, or worse yet, spell it all out for you. The only way to construct a gripping tale of political intrigue is to keep the viewer always on their toes. President engages both my visual and mental acuity, asking me to watch every interaction and consider what it means, because this drama sure as hell isn’t going to tell you what is right and what is wrong.
Four episodes in, I don’t think I’ve seen a single conversation or a single event where I believed that one person was in the right and the other in the wrong. Almost everything that happens so far occurs under the giant looming shadow of “the greater good.” It’s deliciously challenging to watch, because it requires the viewer to stop asking for road markers, and sit back to soak up the ride.
I watch the stunning emotional performances, all the while listening (and I mean really listening) to the subtle and incisive dialogue, and then wonder if I really digested all of that. By the end of episode 1, I was already thrown for a loop, and each episode rocks my boat just that little bit more.
Is it okay to leak dirty secrets about one politician because if he won the party nomination the party would most assuredly lose the general election? Perhaps, but when you consider that the leaker is also vying for the same political nomination, then suddenly his motives are suspect, and the results no longer so easy justify the means.
As an illegitimate son and a citizen, can you support a father and a candidate who professes to once loving your mother, but moving on because the relationship ran its course? Do you hate him for leaving your mother, and by proxy you? Or do you reluctantly accept that his moving on meant that he could become this political asset to Korea? If I were Min Ki, I really don’t know what answer I would seek – a personal validation or a societal justification.
President puts everyone in precarious positions, where there is no easy mapped out road to travel. Choices have consequences, and decisions are made with the upmost careful rationale. Right and wrong seems to be an afterthought – good and bad for the campaign appear to be the primary driver.
For a political drama, President is refreshingly non-preachy in discussing any political viewpoints. I’ve not once felt that the drama skewed right or left in political dogma. So far the story remains focused on exploring political process and the consequences of aspiring for the highest political office in Korea, as seen through the lens of one man and his immediate family.
In the end of the drama, I don’t think I will care about whether Jang Il Joon becomes President, inasmuch as I will care what he gave up, lost, and threw away in the process of gaining or losing the presidency. President is really a very detailed character study, in subtle yet subversive ways, into the suspicion that every citizen likely harbors about the leader of their country – is the President a saint, a sinner, or really just a flawed and complicated human being that is no different than you or I.
Princess Finery – It’s How You Wear It
MP poses the question every little girl has all asked herself – what would you do if you woke up one day and discovered that you are a long-lost princess? Yes, it really is as inane as that. But somehow, the drama approaches its subject matter without any attempt to be subversive or self-aware. It’s decidedly straightforward and hilariously breezy.
It’s like a girl who shows up at her wedding wearing her dream Princess dress. You can snark all you want that the dress is for all intents and purposes like a giant meringue. But the bride is glowing because she believes she is beautiful, and as a guest you can’t help but applaud her for having the guts to wear what she desires, and to wear it with such charm and confidence. Before you know it, you find the bride absolutely gorgeous, because she glows from within, and makes everything around her lit by that little bit of magical happy dust.
Confidence goes a long way, and MP is confident in its own brand of shallow but exceedingly droll charms that you can’t help but fall in love with it little by little. It doesn’t hurt that the drama is fast-paced and brisk, moving the action along so quickly that it’s like a dragonfly skimming the surface.
Everyone in MP is aware that they are doing a rom-com. Rather than convince us to take them seriously, the actors are having tons of fun with their characters and the lets-restore-the-Korean-monarchy-with-a-newfounded-princess storyline. The charm of MP rests entirely on the interaction between Seol and Hae Young, a twist on the bickering couple dynamic so frequently found in K-dramas.
MP doesn’t waste its time on convincing us of the sheer preposterous premise of its plot. It confidently strides into view wearing that princess wedding dress, and daring you spend time critiquing the finery rather than have fun at this wedding. MP’s skill is in using an abundance of great character-developing interactions between the two main leads to drive the story. Four episodes in, the viewer has bought into the percolating and real sense of growing emotional connection between the leads and could care less if unicorns and elves make an appearance in this drama somewhere down the line.
The characters feel genuine and real, giving the perception that they were written with affection and care rather than for the sake of dramatic narrative. For such an outlandish premise, the main leads are down-to-earth in a relatable and good-natured mockable sort of way. MP feels like it could be a throwback to the great rom-coms that have come down the K-drama pipeline, and only time will tell if the drama can continue to develop a great love story with a fun premise.
Quality: You Know It When You See It – Entertaining: You Feel It When You Watch it
A good drama must be an entertaining and quality production. The breakdown between quality and entertaining can vary, but both must co-exist in a delicate balance, which is the reason I find both President and MP successful dramas (so far).
President is such a stellar quality drama that I find myself entertained despite its dry and heavy subject matter. I enjoy a nice heady Presidential biography in regular intervals, but honestly, I reach for a good brainless romance novel more often than not as a pleasant diversion. But when I do crack open a great hard-hitting political novel, I’m immediately even more engrossed than when I read a throwaway book.
Watching President, the first thing that hits your senses is how it all looks and feels. Immediately you are in the middle of Jang Il Joon’s presidential campaign, and as the camera actively captures the events unfolding, it remains a solid and sure presence. The cinematography is what I call experienced and confident, like an old-hand who knows intuitively what works the best instead of what would be most flashy.
The drama has a script that is brimming with more intrigue and emotional landmines in each episode than most dramas have in its entire run. It takes an experience PD to know how to pace each scene to showcase the all-around brilliant acting by the entire cast of actors. President never relies on musical or camera cues to tell you what is happening. The viewer intuitively is part of the scene, like a fly on the wall.
The cast of President is across-the-board excellent, there is not a single weak link amongst the lead actors. Choi Su Jong is like a hawk circling his prey – his piercing stare is the first and last thing you notice when you watch him in any scene. A nuanced and expansive actor, he manages to be subtle in the smallest gestures, while conveying a wide spectrum of emotions.
As Jang Il Joon, he doesn’t toggle different personas in public or private, appearing in any capacity as a man who is confident without ever coming across as cocky. I am thoroughly in awe of Choi Su Jong’s performance, and hoping his character continues to walk that fine gray line between altruistic and selfish in all his actions. I love a protagonist that could be an antagonist, leaving me to make my own judgment each step of the way.
Choi Su Jung’s actress wife Ha Hee Ra is a revelation for me. I have never watched her onscreen in any capacity before, and I was blown away by my introduction to her talent. She reminds me of Shin Eun Kyung’s fiery screen presence, but I find Ha Hee Ra has more restraint in her craft and frightens me with her hidden intensity. Of all the characters in President, so far hers is the one person I find the most addicting to watch. Underneath her placid and plastered smile, she appears to know all, and that is frightening to contemplate.
A veritable who’s who of K-drama veterans show up in various capacities as campaign staffers, opposing presidential candidates and their ilk, and that is only up to episode four. I wouldn’t be surprised if every single K-drama dad, grandpa, mom, aunt, and uncle showed up to make an appearance, because every single character serves a meaningful purpose in driving the narrative forward.
The two second leads play the children of the would-be presidential couple. Trax member Jay Kim does his first major acting role as Min Ki, an accomplished young PD and the illegitimate son of Il Joon. His acting is raw yet controlled, and his rough edges are perfect for portraying a young man who has his life turned upside down with the revelation of his birthright. Jay looks so eerily like Choi Su Jong that the casting is a masterstroke, and Jay’s performance validates his invitation to swim with the big fishes when he was cast in this role.
Luminous Wang Ji Hye cuts her hair super short and unleashes her considerable talent as a member of her adopted father’s campaign staff and a devoted daughter to the man who took her in when she had no one left. I find that In Young is a stand-in for the viewer – she is down-to-earth and idealistic, an average young man who just so happens to be involved in the monumental challenge of electing her adopted father to the presidency. I breathed a hugh sigh of relief to see Wang Ji Hye back in a role that befits her exquisite acting which she showcased in Friends, Our Legend, which she then almost negated by taking on the thankless bitch role in that rom-com black hole known as Personal Taste.
In Young and Min Ki are just starting to get to know each other, having traveled from instant dislike to fledging détente in four episodes. Even if there is no secondary romance, I connect with this drama because all the character interactions are grounded in reality. I love how President doesn’t discuss politics in a vacuum of human emotion. All the major characters feel emotions and acknowledge the humanity within the context of politics, but the drama never gets bogged down in the maudlin. I remain riveted to the screen for the journey, and the political and emotional pitfalls that come therewith.
MP is such an entertaining drama that I found myself surprised to acknowledge the admittedly fanciful construct is actually housed in a quality effort all-around. It’s hard to do a rom-com right, as the many failed carcasses of this fluffy genre litter the trash bins of my house from where I threw the DVD set in a fit of rage and give-me-sixteen-hours-of-my-life-back hollers of pain. Unless you want to sneer at the very existence of rom-com dramas, which I gobble up and ask for more, the central conceit of a rom-com is also its most deadly pitfall.
Every single rom-com from the dawn of cinematic time aims to do only one thing and one thing only – tell a funny love story. How many ways can you do that? At this point, I think every single approach and story has been done before. Which is why every rom-com feels like it’s retreading on familiar ground, which is not a bad thing in and of itself. The only way to succeed is to take a story and tell it better in ways that feel fresh and entertaining. Again, doesn’t sound that hard, but in actuality likely much harder than it appears.
So far MP is succeeding on the rom-com execution meter. It takes the princess fairytale, ground it in a silly putty version of K-history, adds adult banter and flirt dynamics, and whips it all up with a sincere little flourish. I find MP increasingly delightful as the story develops, charming my socks off regardless of its ludicrous premise and mediocre talent.
Both Kim Tae Hee and Song Seung Heon are showcasing the most relaxed performance I’ve ever seen from either of them. They usually fail at the “acting” because they overcompensate for their limited facial expressions by trying too hard at emoting. Both are stars first and foremost, and it’s a treat to have my opinion changed of their acting abilities, albeit in this limited capacity.
As Seol, Kim Tae Hee is utterly winning, because she plays Seol with earnest self-awareness. Seol is a wonderfully constructed leading lady, and Kim Tae Hee understands that her own brand of natural beauty and artlessness works well in showcasing what makes Seol immediately so curiously befuddling to those around her. While this performance is not likely to change my opinion of Kim Tae Hee’s overall acting skills, I thoroughly am pleased with her casting as Seol because she’s spot-on so far.
Song Seung Heon should have been doing rom-coms his entire life, if his turn as Hae Young is any indication. Perhaps the role was tailor-written for him, but I like to believe that it’s given him the opportunity to have fun with his acting. Usually I find Song Seung Heon stiff because he’s so aware of the camera, and looking his handsomest in front of said camera. As Hae Young, his self-absorption is played for laughs, and Song Seung Heon’s self-effacing performance is darling and too hilarious to measure.
This couple has immediately onscreen chemistry, and that goes a long way in patching any cracks in their acting. I’d venture a supposition that some of the greatest Korea thespians may flail in a rom-com if there is no chemistry with their co-star. Half of a good rom-com is the chemistry between the lead couple, and the other half is all the other requisite elements such as a brisk script, a fluid execution, and an engaging OST. So far, MP shows signs of having all of the above, and that makes it a rom-com with the hallmarks of quality. Whether the remaining twelve episodes lives up to my newly acquired expectations remains to be seen.
The entire supporting cast of MP have been delivering solid performances that are understated within this context of a drama about a modern Korean princess. Both second leads, Ryu Soo Young and Park Ye Jin, are doing a great job with respect to acting, but their characters are sadly destined to be on the sidelines as the central love story is already so solidly established this early in the game. All in all, this drama is less a bubbly fantasy like Goong, and reminds of the delicate vibe of Love Marriage.
Where Democracy and Monarchy Coexist in Harmony
In the few countries around the world where a monarchy still exists, it’s a titular position that serves as the pretty façade while the democratically elected politicians run the show. Ironically, the same applies for a drama about a Princess and a drama about a President. I find the latter meaningful because the story serves to expand and challenge a viewer’s comprehension of the Korean political reality. President actually has a substantive purpose in addition to entertaining. MP is gorgeous and fun to watch, but ultimately doesn’t expand our viewing repertoire.
I find myself enriched in the littlest ways with MP, and consumed with the most impactful of ways with President. In an ideal world, I wish K-dramas could all be as intelligent, thought-provoking, and thrilling as President. In the real world, my ideal would be to have as many rom-coms if they can all be as sweet and confident as MP, and use its success to bring in the cash and subsidize more heady fare like President. It’s a win-win situation.
After a hard day’s work toiling in my eucalyptus tree
sleeping working, I like to unwind with a nice whiskey paired with a delicious soufflé. President is that nice glass of single malt 25 year old Glenfarclas, and MP is that just out of the oven piping hot chocolate soufflé with a side of fresh whipped cream. When I sit down to consume both, it just might be the best darn strange combo I’ve never imagined could be enjoyed together.