I was recently at a workshop where the ice-breaking question was “What is your favourite snack?”. I said potato chips (or crisps, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on). I love my crisps. I scoff them down in an exuberant rush and feel happy. But they’re not exactly classy food.
In my fridge, I have a stash of high-qualify chocolate. I don’t snuffle them up like I do my crisps. I resort to them with restraint over time and savour each morsel.
In my computer, I have stashed a high-quality drama. I don’t marathon Flames of Ambition the way I can zip through a pleasant romcom. I watch it with restraint and savour each episode.
This Review is guaranteed non-spoilery. How can I be so sure? Because I haven’t actually watched the end, haha. I’m at Episode 37 out of 50, which is enough for me to say I love this show and to write about my love. How the story wraps up is something of an irrelevancy (though I’m sure it will be a fabulous ending). It’s all about the journey. You don’t need to have to finish the whole box of quality chocolates to know that it’s Good Stuff.
I love love love Flames of Ambition (MBC, Oct’10–Mar’11) or FOA. And I realize that I am in somewhat of a minority in the international internet k-drama viewing world. And little wonder. If not for the cries of delight from my internet k-drama viewing friends, this show would never have pinged my radar.
My non-k-drama indoctrinated friends regard me askance with some indulgence. They think I’m watching soap operas. Which as you can imagine is kind of annoying, particularly as I in fact quite loathe the soap opera. I have no patience for convoluted and long-drawn out plots where people behave irrationally, tearfully, and frankly stupidly. I have never watched a Korean daily drama from beginning to end and based on what I have sampled I don’t intend to, ever. The weepin’ and wailin’ just isn’t my cup of tea.
So it was with some fear and trembling that I embarked on Episode One of FOA. I’d heard that it was melodramatic, and sure enough within the first 30 minutes there was much full-blown emo, ambition of the Scarlett O’Hara I’ll-never-be-hungry-again school of declamation, unsavoury violence against women, tears, and more shouty. The palette was exuberant and the emotional pitch shrill. It took some will-power to slog through the first couple of episodes.
Fortunately, once all the eye-rollingly tragedic happenings of the obligatory set-up was gotten over with, the show settled down and became a lot less vulgar and maniacal. And, to be fair, it did need to put in place enough plot to sustain us for 50 episodes. But its essential philosophy of eschewing the mundane and going for the dramatic kill carried on much as it had begun.
Sample, for instance, music of doom. A bit over-the-top? Perhaps. But, trust me, the gasp-inducing twists and turns totally justify the Soundtrack of Big Drama.
Yes, the plot is a little crazy-making. But that’s because plot is used as a device – and I mean that in a good way and not in a bad way. The carefully crafted plot is used as the lens through which we see people. For FOA is all about people. It may appear at first glance as if it were all about plotty carryings-on. But it is really rooted in people. And life. What makes people tick. And how people deal with life. And what makes them do what they do and feel what they feel.
The Crazy Plotty Stuff (some borderline criminal, some certainly criminal) is mostly front-loaded. As the show settles down, it is more about what people do than what is done to them. That’s not so say that nothing happens anymore — we still occasionally get tossed some pretty heart-attack inducing plot developments which will keep you well safe from boredom. But the focus is more on how the human psychology plays out: What secret information or motivation have people been nursing all along, how everyone deals with the shifting dynamics of the web of relationships, and what depths people can sink to or what heights lift themselves up to.
I’m not sure when I last watched a drama that was so alive with real, breathing people. People who are neither darkly evil nor glowingly saintly, but mostly in between and from moment to moment closer to one extreme than to the other. People much like me – but writ much larger, who have more flair and audacity (and much nicer wardrobes). People who react to life like real people; with determination, with outrage, with sympathy, with resignation, and with fear. And in the glass-bowl world of FOA, with wilder gestures and bolder stance. They are toe-curlingly, deliciously scheming. But when you cut them, they bleed. Sure enough, there is a great deal of weeping, but one would be churlish to complain because generally when they cry they have a jolly good reason to do so. And when they are done with the crying, they pick themselves up, they square their jaw, and they charge forth and fight another day and seize their destinies. I love them all, every brazen bitch, every bare-faced bastard.
They are people who are frighteningly clever, whom you can’t hide a secret from. These people read between the lines and operate in sub-text. They know there is more than meets the eye, because they themselves are more than meets the eye. None of that head-desking transparent stupidity of people who inhabit soap operas, who take episodes on end to connect simple dots. There’s none of that stupefying feeling that comes from watching the dumber variety of daily drama. Instead, we have pace. And heart-stopping unpredictability. And gripping suspense, as characters take turns which are shocking, but which upon reflection are perfectly consistent with their characters.
When given a raw deal by life, they fight their way into the light of hope. When wronged, they exact retribution. When threatened, they protect their interests with terrifying fervour. When loved, they respond with fierce loyalty. When needing love, they swallow their pride and suborn their own interests.
And all this extraordinary jaw-dropping, nail-biting psychological drama takes place among the everyday furniture of life. At the family dining table. In the communal bedroom of a humble dwelling. In the precious son’s bedroom den. In a family restaurant. In a starlet’s over-decorated living room.
Okay, there’s the occasional boardroom meeting. But by and large the description of the show as being about a chaebol family is (once again) deceptive, for this is not primarily about being chaebol.
That the family is filthily rich just makes the stakes so much bigger (and the clothes so much more fabulous). This show is about ambition, any ambition. The chaebol stuff is just a convenient context, the handy plot device. Really, it’s about the ambition that beats in every human heart. The ambition not just for riches, but for security and acceptance. And pride and self-actualization. And, primarily, the ambition for love. For a drama ostensibly about overweening ambition and revenge, there is a great deal of tenderness, vulnerability and regret.
It is in this juxtaposition of ordinary life and high drama that dramatic frisson is cooked and served up: The family dinner at which all the metaphorical knives are blatantly laid out, the coffee shop in which high-stakes games of blackmail and chicken are played out, and the cosy living room set on which two women calmly discuss whether and how they are going to drag each other to hell.
It is theatre. Minimal sets. Not much by way of gimmick. Pure unadulterated human drama. And like theatre, it tells its story and connects with our hearts through solid writing, convincing acting, and skilful directing. But though it may be relatively straight-forward in terms of set and camera, it isn’t short on quality. The editing is water-tight. The soundtrack is fitting. The camera seamlessly focuses our attention where it should be. Everything, pretty much, is subtle and barely noticeable. Everything except the acting.
The acting. Which is totally on your face. Which induces me to burst out periodically: “Oh My Lord, she did NOT just do that!” and “Yikes! Look at those CLAWS!” and “Oh my lovely Min Jae / In Gi / Na Young / Young Min – poor baby let me comfort you my sweet” and “Yoon Na Young / Baek In Gi / Nam Ae Ri / Yang In Suk! You great scheming bitch! I love you!”.
The actors in this show deliver the goods just right. They are expressive but not over-the-top. It would have been very easy, handed such red-hot material, for actors to go cray-cray with the hamming, all wild-eyed and shouty hysterical. But there is surprisingly little overacting. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with competent casting, moderate to superlative acting skills, a fantastic script (by the Master Jung Ha Yeong) and sympathetic directing (Baek Ho Min).
Yoon Na Young is the heroine (or villainess?) of this epic piece. And Shin Eun Kyeong carries all this weight on her capable (and beautiful) fur-draped shoulders. Has there ever been such a schemer I have loved to hate so much? Has there ever been a mother I have loved (and feared) so much? Has there ever been a wife whom I have feared (and loved) so much? Has there ever been a relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law so adversarial and so full of unspoken empathy at the same time?
When we meet Na Young as a girl, she is emo, bossy, shouty, and entirely obnoxious. When we meet her as a young woman she is calculating and scarily over-reaching, and I wonder how I am going to endure a 50-episode piece with such an unlikeable person taking centre stage. Much to my surprise, I find myself understanding Na Young. Then sympathising with her. And finally, loving her. She does terrible things. She is the smothering mother from hell. She is frighteningly implacable. But as brilliant actress and writer together weave her story, I understand what drives her, and I embrace her. I root for her. I cry for her, and I fear for her.
It’s so refreshing that it is the women who are wearing the pants in this show. When was the last time a woman was so much the protagonist of a show that it was she who took Showers of Self-Loathing?
When we meet Kim Young Min (played by Jo Min Ki) as a boy, we conclude that he was born to be hen-pecked by Na Young. Bookish and sensitive, the youngest Chaebol son chooses to study whimpy envinronmental engineering in New York rather than bask in his Chaebol glory. Na Young marries him by hook and by crook, and we think that Young Min is thoroughly cooked. But in the FOA world, nothing is as it seem. Some of the show’s most memorably toe-curling moments are when Young Min comes into his own (baring fangs).
The casting of (underaged) Yoo Seung Ho as Kim Min Jae, Na Young and Young Min’s 20-something son, raised eyebrows. But on the whole I think it works very well. He was convincing as Min Jae the naive and wholesome favourite son. And as Min Jae’s demons start to catch up with him and he struggles to escape the trap of the adults’ machinations and find his own way in life, Yoo Seung Ho has just enough acting experience to up his game – with assistance from good direction and a coherent script – to just about pull off the depth and intensity required.
I’ve only ever seen Seo Woo act in Tamra, the Island, where even though her character was annoyingly childish I could tell that she was an actress of some accomplishment and great charm. Here she plays a completely different character from Tamra’s Beo Jin and proves that she is much more than a mere plastic princess. Baek In Gi is the daughter Na Young never knew she had (no great spoiler – the groundwork for this plot point is laid in Episode One). In Gi has inherited her mother’s fiery temper and determination, which are honed by her early vicissitudes: Born unwanted, fostered (unknown to her or her birth mother, by her birth mother’s interfering sister), run away and fetched up in an orphanage, and driven to extremes to survive in the dredges of society. When we first meet her, she has become a rising starlet with a devil-may-care attitude who is the terror of her handlers.
Baek In Gi is on the surface everything you suspected an artistic temperament would be. High-maintenance and precious, scorning the world. But dig a little deeper and you hit a vulnerable core of insecurity and self-loathing. She is indeed evil tempered and hard to manage. But her strong will is born not so much of self-confidence as survival instinct. She is clawing a life from the unkind fates. She is clawing at the faces of her enemies. She is clawing love and acceptance from a world that has rejected her. And when she cries she weeps from some place deep in her soul. She takes risks and disdains love, then she reaches for love and tosses away her pride. She needs life, and she scorns life.
Said interfering sister of Na Young is Yoon Jung Suk, played by Kim Hee Jung. In this crowd of bold scheming rich people, Jung Suk stands out in her lack of ambition and her desire to do good. At the same time, she of everyone has probably caused the greatest evil by her naive acts of well-meaning and misguided interference. What are we to make of this? Are we to love her or hate her? Her courage all too frequently fails her, but her radiant do-goodery can bring life and hope to a cynical man’s heart. What a complex creature she is, brought to exquisite life in every hard-working finger and every strand of troubled hair by Kim Hee Jung.
Yang In Suk (Uhm Soo Jung) is Min Jae’s real mother and Na Young’s evil twin. She has the power to destroy Na Young. And she is the only person on the planet who can understand Na Young’s mother love. She is a supreme poser, one moment elegantly poised as a victim and next moment glinting with greed and vengeance. And she loves Min Jae truly and deeply, as only a mother can.
Chairman Kim Tae Jin (Lee Soon Jae) is the very pattern-card of the wiley old fox who holds the vast business enterprise and his fractious family in the palm of his hand. Watch in awe as seemingly doddering Grandpa shows the youngsters how back-stabbing is really done.
This show has quite a spread of interesting characters. I shall refrain from boring you by describing them one by one.
But I must play tribute to my favourite — Nam Ae Ri, sister-in-law to Na Young, played by Sung Hyun Ah. Ae Ri is wife to second son Kim Young Jun, and a woman of vaunting ambition. She is ruthless, she is relentlessly scheming and unapologetically immoral. And I love her so much. Sung Hyun Ah is a beautiful actress with commanding presence, who has been tossed some of the show’s best caustic lines. How my toes curled as she and Na Young traded thinly veiled, uber polite barbs and threats. How I snickered with her when she lorded over her in-law womenfolk after winning a major political battle. How my heart broke when she was reduced to begging for love.
No k-drama is complete without a love angle. And what a love. It started conventionally puppyishly enough. But before long turned into a mature passion. A meeting of two young people who were also old souls. Young people with deep hurts and major identity issues. Who accept one another as fellow sufferers and victims. And who draw strength and courage from each other. I never thought I would see the day when I could be convinced that a love between a troubled young actress and a pampered young chaebol heir could convincingly be a grand passion. But here we are.
That it is a forbidden love between Na Young’s real daughter and adopted son is almost beside the point. Almost, but not quite. There’s no blood relation or even early acquintance between Min Jae and In Gi so the ickiness factor is mercifully low. But it IS, indubitably, a great big hairy deal that they share a mother (real or adopted). A mother as formidable as Na Young. Complications and high drama ensue, for In Gi and Na Young meet as women fighting over Min Jae (“Get your trashy actressy hands off my precious son!”) with no notion of their relationship. Yikes. And, Yeow. And, Oh mama!
I’m not done with my journey. I have 12 more Episodes of this feast to look forward to. It has been the unlikeliest love affair. I never thought I would be so smitten by a 50-episode saga of people behaving badly. But it just goes to show that almost anything, even makjang and elements of soap opera, can become great art when done well. FOA is a triumph of substance over form. And of genius over genre.