I didn’t do a year-end review for 2010 as it seemed like more hard work than I could cope with. Then, silly me, I felt a bit left out of all the fun at the year-end review parties, e.g., Thundie on dramabeans and ockoala in her playground. But, why should I have to wait for another year-end for an opportunity to wax lyrical or whine piteously?
I present, Serendipity’s Snapshot – The State of the K-drama-Nation: Serendipity’s opinionated opinions on currently airing or recently aired shows she is watching (or has given up watching): Athena, Dream High, Flames of Ambition, King Geunchogo, My Princess, President and Secret Garden.
ATHENA – How is it even Possible for a Show to go so Wrong?
I watched a few more episodes of Athena after I wrote my Idiot’s Guide. I now take it back: If I had to watch the series in full, I think I would slit my wrists. It is so SO bad, it’s not even so-bad-it’s-good or so-bad-it’s-funny. It is just plain bad. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but after the five episodes I reviewed, characters get even stupider, the plot gets even more ridiculous and inane, wooden acting gets even more wooden, and the romance gets even more sappy and nonsensical. And throughout all this, the show continues to take itself dead seriously, pounding out the stirring music, striding its (long-legged) actors across the screen, zooming its SUVs purposefully out of the government agency car-park, shooting people left right and centre. And all for… what?
It is all very baffling. I have decided that life is too short for this nonsense. I skipped ahead to watch the Big Earth-Shattering Revelation in Episode 12 where our hero Jung Woo Sung finally realizes what should have been obvious to everybody episodes ago; a simple background check or rifle through a wallet would have sufficed to surface this extremely obvious double-agent who is forever leaving a trail of dead bodies in her wake *sigh*. And the hilarious thing is that I didn’t lose anything plot-wise by skipping three episodes of supposedly thrilling happenings *double sigh*.
Not even the diabetes-inducing eye-candy of Jung Woo Sung and Cha Seung Won can persuade me to fast-forward through this mind-numbing wreck. I might watch the final episode just for completion’s sake and a farewell snark, but that would be it.
DREAM HIGH – It has Song! It has Dance! And Kim Soo Hyun!
The first two episodes bored me and the risible idol acting made my skin crawl. But I was persuaded to soldier on by the chorus of unrestrained squealing over the Atomic Adorableness of Kim Soo Hyun.
Nine episodes in, I’m still kinda bored by this show. And I still find the idol acting barely bearable (fast-forward button to the rescue!). Please don’t ask me what is happening in this show because I’m hardly registering any plot, and I couldn’t care less which boy Idol Girl ends up with. Even the (surviving non-creepy) veteran actors can’t charm interest from me. It does so little for me I can’t drum up the grace to overlook the clumsiness of the basic music-making lessons-of-the-day (Really? It’s not good enough to read the music notes, I have to emote? Really? OMG! OMG! I’ve been classically trained and sung with Sumi Jo and I never knew! Teacher! You are a genius! My life will never be the same!), squandering the opportunity to make the most of the abundance of real-life pop starlets littering the scene.
However, having watched Kim Soo Hyun knock himself out launching not one but TWO Tragic Boats (once as the younger incarnation of the tortured hero of Will It Snow at Christmas, and then again as the younger incarnation of the tortured hero of Giant), I can’t resist the meta cute-fuzzies of watching Kim Soo Hyun wholeheartedly and apparently joyfully shake his thang alongside a bunch of singing idols, with scant trace of embarrassment or apology bless the dear boy’s cotton socks.
Every time I tell myself “Enough is enough, stop watching this you’re not even interested”, I find myself thinking, “But I want to see more of KSH being cute and happy. Or alternatively, cute and angsty, that will do too.” What pretty much sealed it for me was catching the Dream High cast on Happy Together and feeling the irresistible pull of cute dorky real-life KSH. I will watch this unexceptional show to the end (albeit with unrestrained use of the fast-forward function) even if it kills me.
FLAMES OF AMBITION – I’m on Fire! FIYAH!!!
I do not do melodrama. I can’t stand Winter Sonata. I hate weeping and wailing and carrying on. I roll my eyes at the birth secrets, the revenge and counter-revenge, and the suicide attempts.
So why am I thoroughly addicted to and deeply impressed by this show, which has weeping, wailing, carrying on, birth secrets, revenge and suicide attempts by the truck-load? You may well ask.
And the question is worth asking because it tackles the difference between art and hackwork. Both may wear the same clothing and may seem at a superficial level to be similar, but they are very different. Two works could be about forbidden love, but the play is Shakespeare and the (vampiry) book/movie is teenage wish-fulfilment that will not stand the test of time. What separates the two?
I feel intimidated by the task of explaining why Flames of Ambition is sublime. When something is done well, how does one describe or explain it? How does one describe or explain a perfect rendition of Mozart’s Requiem? How does one explain why a van Gogh moves one? Perhaps I can just describe what I feared to encounter in this show, and what I found instead.
I feared to find people whining and weeping over the slightest provocation. There is indeed quite a bit of weeping in FOA – but usually for a very good reason, and not annoyingly protracted. And there is surprisingly little whining. People who do whine usually have a good reason, and then they pick themselves up and get on with life.
Given the subject matter I find a surprising dearth of over-acting. And a surprising dearth of carrying-on. Toe-curlingly cut-throat family political battles are fought with pleasant (but teo-curlingly tight) smiles during (outwardly) civilised family dinners. Statements of deadly intent or heart-stopping frankness are delivered by calm indoor voices.
I feared to find random and eye-roll inducing plot devices. I found instead that while there are indeed highly improbably coincidences and somewhat unusual behaviours, everything that happens in FOA fits into a story and makes sense with characters that are consistent. If I stop to describe some of the plot elements they do seem rather outlandish, but watched in the context of the whole they are organic and believable.
I feared to find cardboard characters. In particularly, I was scared of the heroine / villainess of the piece, Yoon Na Young (played by the brilliant Shin Eun Gyung), whom I feared would be intolerably shrill and over-the-top evil. But I have been amazed that I find her a believable person and at times even, astonishingly, sympathetic. She does horrible things; but she always has a good reason for what she does. She lies to others and herself; but her lies always serve a purpose, usually contain a grain of truth, and are born out of a real need or pain. The script and the actress make blind ambition and near-psychotic behaviour relatable. It’s astonishing. She is a human being of flesh and bones, not a monster or even a dramatic construct. She is delusional, but I find myself rooting for her. And I can’t wait to watch the next chapter of The Amazing Psychological Adventures of Na Young.
I feared melo predictability and dragging pace. I need not have feared. The pace is neat and snappy without leaving one discombobulated. The plot has moments of mild predictability, but also frequent flashes of jaw-dropping originality and audacity. The dialogue is sharp and smart, never stating the obvious and not insulting the viewer’s intelligence for a moment.
I have been informed that I am an idiot to doubt the genius of screenwriter Jung Ha Yeon (Shin Don, La Dolce Vita, Count of Myeongdong). To which I say, mea culpa, I repent and promise never again to doubt.
KING GEUNCHOGO – Nom nom nom. Yum.
Sometimes, when it comes to Quality, words are superfluous.
Say I eat a beautifully cooked steak. It is delicious. My mouth is full of flavour. I feel happy. What more need I say, really?
I write a rave First-Impressions Review. I patiently wait for English sub-titles. When they come out, I relish one more episode. I sink my teeth into a meaty story and characters I care about. It is delicious. My mind is full of flavour. I feel happy.
MY PRINCESS – Death by Cute
As fluffy romantic comedies go, this one is really quite effective and inoffensive, at least up to Episode Eight where I’m at. The leads Song Seung Heon and Kim Tae Hee are arrestingly beautiful, gamely deliver whatever acting is required of them, and have super-cute chemistry as a couple. Personally, I’m watching for Ryu Su Yeong who as the second lead is pretty much doomed but that’s ok because when his heart is broken I will take him out to dinner to comfort him, the adorable Professor McHotty.
There is cute, there is romance, there is just enough plot to move things along, there is lots to please the eye. This show doesn’t aspire to be more than what it is – a harmless, mindless piece of entertainment. It doesn’t arouse any strong feelings in me, which is just as well because it buckles under any scrutiny or analysis. I forget it soon after I watch it, but I watch it happily enough and look forward to following it to the end.
PRESIDENT – You’ve got my Vote!
What’s there not to love? Who wouldn’t want Comrade’s righteous Sergeant Lee to be their President?
Better yet, if Choi Soo Jung can bring a hint of interesting ambivalence to his usual charismatic-leader persona, and carries in his train photogenic (and interestingly complicated) screen offspring and a screen wife who could stare down the hounds of hell and outwit Machiavelli. That his screen wife is also is his real-life wife He Hee Ra is a meta bonus adding one more source of frisson in a show that already sends tingles up and down your spine, pulling no punches in its story-telling.
This is good stuff, folks. Intelligent plotting that keeps you on your mental toes without losing you in convolution, excellent convincing acting all around, and compelling story-telling that trundles along at a nice pace. Being a K-drama it even fills its statutory quota of romance; and quite an interesting romantic sub-plot it is too.
I have one nit to pick, and that is that the politics are a bit simplistic and predictable. It can’t begin to measure up to the realism and twistiness of West Wing, its ideological cousin. But I understand that the show has to cater to a general audience, and I’m happy to forgive this shortcoming because everything else about the show is so delectable. It may not have the intellectual sophistication of West Wing, but in terms of emotional impact and engagement it more than holds its own. I’ve watched eight episodes, and from the quality and commitment I’ve already seen I have every confidence that this show will hold up to the end.
SECRET GARDEN – How Do I Loathe Thee? Let Me Count the Ways
OK, here’s where I have to insert a very stiff HEALTH WARNING, because here is where I’m letting it rip. If you (like every other person on the planet) loved SG, and if in addition you are the sort of person who hates that other people don’t love what you love, you may want to stop reading NOW. On the other hand, if you couldn’t stand SG and can’t understand what all the fuss was about, or if you liked SG but are curious or open-minded enough to want to know how any person alive could possibly not be in love with SG… Welcome to my rant!
I’m not going to say much about the inexplicable plot twists in the last few episodes. The show actually lost me way before then. By that stage I was so utterly disengaged Ra Im and Joo Won could have turned into tap-dancing zebras who drove a convertible off a cliff for all I cared.
My reaction when I started watching the show was piqued ambivalence, which graduated to full-blown love-hate by the first body switch, and by the time the episodes hit the double digits I was so not into it I didn’t even have morbid fascination to propel me forward anymore. I watched to the end partly because I was curious to see just how big a wreck it was going to be, but mostly in order to get SG done, dusted and deleted.
Believe you me, I have spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about why SG did not work for me, when the rest of the planet seems to regard it as the best thing since sliced bread. (More time and energy than the show deserves, forsooth.) On the surface, it should not have failed so spectacularly: I adored Ha Ji Won for whom I would have gladly switch teams, I liked Binnie Boy and had fond memories of him as an agreeable romantic lead. The show starred some of my favourite cars, and I liked the vibrant palette of SG’s aesthetics. I like a well-turned romance, and I have no problem whatsoever with fantasy elements being injected into a story. I enjoyed City Hall, the writer Kim Eun Sook’s previous work. So, what went wrong?
I could rant in all directions, but let me focus on one aspect: The show is predicated on the viewer adoring Ra Im and Joo Won, the One True Pairing, truly, madly and deeply. The show could work if you are into the OTP, but falls apart very early on if you can’t get on board with it.
JW manhandles RI
OTP Love: So masterful! Ooo, the frisson!
OTP Indifferent: Ack. Technical assault and battery. Gads, I’m just itching to slap a restraining order on that invasive and pushy man!
JW to RI: “Why don’t you think about me? Can’t you see I’m crazy about you?”
OTP Love: His love is so awesome! Oh, how I feel for him!
OTP Indifferent: What the heck? Where’s the logic in that? Why should she be obliged to reciprocate his (inexplicable) infatuation?
JW spies on RI, goes through her locker, follows her around…
OTP Love: He loves her so much!
OTP Indifferent: That’s kind of creepy…
JW is all angsty about loving a poor girl
OTP Love: Oh, the obstacles in the way of True Love! So tragic and poignant…
OTP Indifferent: Oh good grief, it’s always all about him!
RI is drawn to JW in spite of her better judgement
OTP Love: Love conquers all!
OTP Indifferent: Why?
If you could get on board the OTP Bus, good for you, I’m sure you enjoyed the show and it probably had some great moments for you. Me, I totally missed that bus. Admittedly, I did feel sexual sparks fly between HJW & HB, for instance when they were jammed up against each other in the dressing room, but generally only when he invaded her personal space and she turned her wide doe-like eyes into his intense face. Apart from sheer physical attraction, I couldn’t understand the deal between RI & JW. What do they see in each other? In what ways may they be soul-mates? How do they complete or complement each other? Apart from the gratification of mutual infatuation and the pleasure of making out, what do they do for each other? What exactly is their relationship founded on? I have no idea, and I can’t get invested.
The problem goes back, pre-relationship, to the two people themselves. Just who is Ra Im? All I know about her is that she comes from a humble and mildly tragic background, and that like most other women on the planet she takes pride in her work, is not mean-spirited, is kind to her friends, loved her father and has harmless crushes on idols. In other words, she is a thoroughly average woman. The only thing remarkable about her is that for someone who kicks ass for a living, she dissolves into physical helplessness in the hands of an arrogant chaebol heir (OTP Love: That’s because JW is overwhelming awesome. OTP Indifferent: Are you kidding me? That’s just sloppy characterisation). And that she bears a remarkable resemblance to a hot and gorgeous actress named Ha Ji Won. What does the imperious and impervious princeling see in her? (Apart from said gorgeousness.) What draws her to him? What compels him to throw away his life for her? I just don’t get it.
Joo Won is worse. Just what is his redeeming feature? Why should I accept him as a decent human living, let alone a romantic hero? He is selfish, peevish, childish and borderline psychotic (or, perhaps, Asperger’s). He imposes himself on her and disrespects her in public, ignoring her needs and her point of view. The only thing to recommend him is that he is rich, tall and handsome. And that he bears a remarkable resemblance to a hot and gorgeous actor named Hyun Bin. He displays flashes of humanity, but they feel random to me and smack of attempts to wring sympathy from me. Why should a normal, decent woman succumb to his arrogant importunities? (Apart from said gorgeousness.) What does he do for her? How can she know that his love is real and not some passing (psychotic) infatuation? How can she connect with him emotionally? I just don’t get it.
Many say that SG’s plot went to pot in the late-teen episodes. For me, it went to pot at the first body switch. It was then that I realized that instead of authentic story-telling or characterisation, I was going to be at the receiving end of a series of gimmicks. I have no real issue with the fantastical improbability of the body-switch plot-device, but what killed my faith in the show was that I felt the plot-device was milked for cheap laughs when it could have been so much more.
An entitled man like JW and a woman of humble circumstances such as RI face real obstacles to their love. More than ridiculous objections from stupid relatives, they face a real difficulty adjusting to each others’ worlds. This was eluded to in the show (when he pointed out that if he went down to her social level it would do them both no good because he would resent her before long) but then never explored and totally disregarded in the wrap-up-neat-with-shiny-bows ending. The body switch device could have been the handy means by which JW and RI experienced each others’ worlds, fast-tracking their journey of mutual understanding, and exploring new and hard-hitting ways in which empathy can be learned. But, no. After the body switch, JW is as disdainful of RI as ever and RI is as clueless about JW as ever. I don’t understand either of the individuals any better, they don’t understand each other any better, and I don’t understand the dynamic of the couple or the genesis of their Deathless Love any better. Like so much else in this show, the switch is a clever idea that turns out to be little more than an empty trick.
Because the characters don’t seem like real people to me and their behaviour seems random, the show smacks of cheap wish fulfilment to me. Don’t all thoroughly average women wish that a tall, rich and handsome Hyun Bin-lookalike would fall deeply (and inexplicably) in love with them? I don’t mind my romantic fantasy button being pushed (in fact, when done right, I love it). But when I feel that the show is too lazy to provide me with a believable plot or relatable characters or much more than gimmicks and eye-candy (though it’s not above exploiting my romantic fantasies or my love for the actors), I check out. It says a lot about a show when cute scenes of two extremely attractive actors living happily ever after can leave me bored and indifferent.