Duds And Delights Of 2009
(Just to clarify, this is the first of four guest reviews and is written by Dahee Fanel, whose insights you can read regularly on her own blog, Dahee’s Plastic Castle.
I hope you’ll enjoy reading the guest reviews and get as much as I do
out of their diverse opinions. Thanks all, especially Dahee! —javabeans)
And to think that I headed into 2009 feeling so hopeful, too.
2008 was an awful year for K-dramas. That year ended with me feeling
like I’d just swum through an ocean of excrement, and I figured that
I’d need to soak myself in some good dramas for at least another year
before I’d manage to wash the stink off of me.
Alas, that was not to be the case.
Thinking back on which dramas I saw in 2009, it occurred to me that,
goddammit, I’m a lot more resilient than I’d thought. It awed me that
I’d managed to watch crap like Cain and Abel and Everybody Cha Cha Cha
all the way through, without even any fastforwarding! A year ago, this
would not have been possible. A year ago, my stomach would have
protested three seconds in, and I’d have had to be rushed to the
doctor’s, only to be told (again) by dear old Dr. C that my condition
is a complete mystery to him.
But this year, I discovered the secret to watching bad dramas
without ending up gagging over a toilet. That secret has been spread so
thick over my digestive organs that no amount of stress or disgust can
penetrate it. We’ll get to what that secret is later, but the point of
all this rambling is, I’ve discovered other reasons for watching dramas
besides their innate quality. Call it a survival instinct. Reasons for
drama-watching are a lot more complicated than I’d once thought.
So for this year’s write-up, I’m dividing the categories into the
various reasons I watched the dramas in the first place. It’s going to
be kinda embarrassing, but honest. I’ve found that honesty is always
best in the end, whether people like it or not. As my mom likes to say:
“If I find out you’re lying to me, I’ll turn your legs black and blue.”
If you have family members or friends who watch K-dramas as well,
then you’ll know what I mean. My dad is especially bad when it comes to
forcing me to watch certain dramas with him. He can’t do it as often
now, since I’ve moved out, but he’ll still pester me over the phone. He
has strange taste in dramas – he loves the really good,
critically-acclaimed ones, but every once in a while he’ll like
something that’s so terrible that it gives me hives. And I’ll look at
him and ask, “Why are you, of all people, watching this crap?”. And
he’ll reply without batting an eye, “Because [insert actress’s name
here] is hot.”
The apple sure doesn’t fall far from the tree…
Boys Before Flowers
It wasn’t my dad, but my mom who was the culprit for this one. My
dad wouldn’t go near this drama with a ten-foot pole, but my mom, the
Kim Hyun Joong fangirl that she is (damn you, We Got Married!), jumped on it like a wolf on a raw steak. And she forced me, her oldest daughter, to watch (some of) it, too.
Well, okay, it wasn’t all because of my mom. I tuned in to a couple
of later episodes because I love Kim Hyun Joo, as well. And I saw the
first episode all on my lonesome, without anyone’s prodding, purely out
of the goodness of my heart.
Unfortunately, the first episode left me swearing up a storm,
cursing my foolishness for wanting to give this drama a chance, despite
the astronomical signs that it would be very, very bad. Why didn’t I
trust my instincts, I wondered? I mean, I’d seen most of the anime
version (Hana Yori Dango, you pain my soul, even all
these years later). I knew what I was getting myself into. But still,
against all logic, I hoped it would be better. But I was wrong. It
wasn’t better. It was actually – wait for it – worse than that cursed
anime that should never have even seen the light of day, what with its
anti-feminist and classist messages. It boggled my mind that that could
have even happened.
I watched this drama intermittently, like I’m sure a lot of viewers
back in Korea did. But every glance into this show made my stress
levels rise to monstrous heights. Not only was the script so terrible
that it would have gone to better use in a compost heap, but the
directing, as expected, was a complete and utter mess. And don’t even
get me started on the music. If I have to hear “Almost paaaaradiiiiise”
one more time, I’m going to bash my head into a wall. (Take note,
The acting, too, was just laughable. My heart broke watching Goo Hye
Sun here – those who haven’t seen her in the 2007-2008 sageuk The King and I
will probably assume that she’s just a bad actress normally, but she’s
really not. She started off rocky in that show, but slowly improved to
the point that she became one of the highlights of the drama. She was
so luminous, so strong, so mature in The King and I.
And then she turned into that overacting petulant child in BBF. I felt
like crying, watching her. Also, I like Kim Hyun Joong in variety
shows, but he should stay far, far away from acting in future. I
cringed every time he appeared. And I know Lee Min Ho is beloved by all
BBF fans, and that everyone considers him to be this great actor or
something, but I was deeply unimpressed. Then again, could anyone
shine, when they’re given that kind of material to work with? If he
chooses a good project next time, where one can really see if he has
talent or not, I may change my mind. (Then again, there were a couple
of acting highlights. Lee Min Jung, as usual, was a breath of fresh
air, and Lee Hye Young was deliciously evil.)
Boys Before Flowers may have been a pop culture
phenomenon and all that, but for me, it’s one of the very worst dramas
of the year, and was a complete waste of my time and energy. I should
have listened to Dr. C’s advice, and just stayed away from any stress
Sometimes I really resent my dad. Especially when he makes me watch
a show this idiotic. I saw the first episode of my own volition and
hated it, but the next time I saw my dad, he said he was lonely
watching it by himself, so we watched a few episodes together. Never
has my pity been more misplaced.
Like Boys Before Flowers, I watched this
intermittently. But every time I saw it, I swear I gained at least
three gray hairs. Talk about an over the top, self-absorbed, arrogant
show. It seemed to be under the delirious impression that it was fresh
and glamorous, but it really, really wasn’t. If I could, I would have
slapped it across the face. Some shows are at least quiet and
unassuming in their mediocrity. This one had to broadcast it to the
whole world. How much more obnoxious can you get?
What a waste of an actress like Kim Hye Soo. At least most of the
rest of the cast was utterly forgettable. Ryu Shi Won is his usual
boring self, while Lee Ji Ah is her usual crazy chipmunk on speed.
Newbie Lee Yong Woo has about one facial expression, and I had no
interest in seeing it.
Final verdict: The faster I forget this drama, the better.
I know, I know, it sounds silly. I sound silly. But it’s
true. Fangirliness is the armour that protects my stomach from
terrible, terrible cramps. If there is an actor I love with my heart
and soul (and possibly my loins) involved with a terrible project, then
I will watch that production, and I won’t stop, because goddammit, I
just can’t quit him/her. It’s the great tragedy of my life. And so are
the following dramas.
Everybody Cha Cha Cha
Oh Man Seok, why did you have to pick this drama? Why? And why did
it have to be a daily drama, one that is set for 150 EPISODES? Do you
know what it’s been like, for me to have to trudge through each half
hour of this torture? I’ve wasted over fifty hours of my life with this
garbage, all because of you. IT WAS ALL BECAUSE OF YOU.
It actually didn’t start out so terribly. I had hope that it would
have little moments of family warmth and heartache, and that there
would be semblances of human beings present. And the early cute moments
between Jin-woo and Na-young were refreshing (mostly, I suspect,
because of the good rapport and acting between them). But now it’s all
gone to hell, and then some.
I know daily dramas aren’t exactly known for their quality, but this
is ridiculous. Park Han Byul and Lee Joong Moon’s so-called “romance”
was bad enough, but now the pace has actually slowed to the point that
the same scenes are being recycled, over and over. I remember watching
one episode and thinking, “Wait a minute, why does this all feel so
familiar?”. And then I realized that it was because the characters were
all spouting the same tired sentiments, in the exact same places, as
they had in the episode immediately previous to it. The only difference
was the slight variation in dialogue. THAT’S CALLED LAZY WRITING.
Put on top of that sudden and unexplained changes in affection and
motivation, parental disapproval, memory loss and random car accidents,
and you have, right there, one of the worst dramas of the year. What an
utter waste of talents like Oh Man Seok, Jo Ahn, Shim Hye Jin, Kim
Young Ok, and Park Hae Mi.
Cain and Abel
The last time So Ji Sub was in a drama was in 2004, when he acted in
what would become the major turning point of his career (so far), I’m Sorry, I Love You.
It’s been five years since then, and for a fan, that’s a millenium. I’m
not the praying kind, so I can’t say that I prayed that his comeback
drama would be a good one, but…I hoped very, very hard.
And the drama he chose to make his comeback was…Cain and Abel. Oy vey.
Perhaps all of that hassle over cancellation and PD/writer switches
and whatnot made everyone involved feel confused and rushed. Perhaps
they just chose the wrong writer to take charge. Whatever it was, this
show was a major, major disappointment.
I’ve talked extensively about this already in my review on this drama over at me wee little blog, but Cain and Abel
is one of those dramas that thinks it can handle more than it can. It
wants to be several different things at once, but it doesn’t succeed at
any of them. When it does anything, it goes big, but only touches on
each element in a shallow way. As a consequence, it’s all flash without
And don’t even get me started on the writing. How anyone can write
that kind of script and still have a job is beyond me. Characters
suddenly change motivations for no reason, random people die purely for
dramatic effect, the hospital setting is a mere afterthought, the
romance is saccharine and strained. There’s zero subtlety, and that
transfers over even to the acting. At first glance, this is not a bad
cast, but no one was really able to shine, despite their best efforts.
Oh, a lot of tears were shed, and So Ji Sub’s acting has changed in
some subtle way that I can’t yet pinpoint, but without real characters
to work with, how could anyone show any truly meaningful acting? The
characters in this drama are mere caricatures, nothing more. There’s no
heart here, no soul. So why on earth should I care?
The Accidental Couple/That Fool
As I mentioned in my Accidental Couple review here
months ago, I love Hwang Jung Min. And, as expected, he’s an absolute
marvel here, pulling off what I consider to be the best performance of
the year (and, if not the best, at the very least the most heartfelt).
His exquisite acting elevated this drama, which should have been utter
crap that would have been better off in the bottom of the ocean where
no human eyes could see it. Just imagine what this show would have been
like without him – terrible acting, caricatures for characters, cliched
writing, clueless directing. What a mess!
But with his magic touch, it became a puzzle, a head-scratchingly
enjoyable ride (at least for the last eight or so episodes). It’s
really rather miraculous that, after its molasses-slow beginning, and
its generous usage of cliches, it managed to pick up after so many
episodes and find a halfway recipe for success. I like to attribute it
all to the power of Hwang Jung Min’s acting. He’s already proven
himself, over and over in his films, to be one of the best actors in
Korea today. One can only look forward to the kind of performances he
will show in future.
Look at the cast list for this drama: Lee Yo Won, Go Hyun Jung, Kim
Nam Gil, Uhm Tae Woong, Baek Do Bin, Park Ye Jin, Yoon Yoo Seon, Yoo
Seung Ho, Lee Moon Shik, etc, etc, etc. With the exception of Lee Yo
Won, that’s quite a fine bunch of actors. So, despite my trepidations
about everyone behind the camera, I was really looking forward to this show before it aired.
I really should learn to crush hope before it flutters up to choke me.
It actually didn’t start out so bad. The first few episodes were
fun, if somewhat shallow, and the child actors did well. From the very
beginning Go Hyun Jung was exquisite as the sultry, evil, irresistible
Mishil, and upped the entertainment aspect considerably. I enjoyed
And then, somewhere down the line, it all started to
feel…exhausting. I kept waiting for a deeper moment of intelligence or
sense to pop up to counter all the fluff, but it never happened. I
watched as logic was absolutely crushed repeatedly (running away from a
village that’s dying away from drought, only to come across a booming
waterfall just ten minutes away?), and as characters showed no signs of
real development or depth. And historical accuracy? What historical
accuracy? If that even remotely resembles what really happened back in
good ol’ Silla, then I’ll eat my grandmother. And I imagine that she
wouldn’t be very impressed if I tried that.
This is just such a repetitive, unimaginative, even, yes, stupid
show. It’s so incredibly episodic in its format, without any sense of
it all actually going somewhere. Okay, so it’s about Queen Seondeok.
What about her? What did she accomplish in history? Why is she so
important? What are you trying to say, dammit?
Oh, wait, it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say. You’re too
busy trying to gobble up as many ratings as possible through the
easiest and laziest means. Sorry, I forgot for a second there. Silly me.
Even the actors, usually so good overall, seemed to realize that
there was no point in trying, and churned out rather lackluster
performances (my poor Uhm Tae Woong, sob). The only real exception was
Go Hyun Jung, but this is no Accidental Couple. It
invests too much pretense in grandeur and scale for that. As a result,
it’s crippled every time she’s not in a scene. What does that say about
a drama’s innate quality?
Monstrously overrated, this is one show that gives other sageuk a
bad name. Call me when it’s January 6th, and we get to see what a real
sageuk looks like (ChunoChunoChunoChuno).
Despite the PD/writer combo (I wasn’t at all enthralled with The Last Scandal Of My Life),
I was looking forward to this show, because the cast was so solid. I
mean, Jung Kyung Ho, Lee Min Jung, Lee Chun Hee, Choi Jung Yoon, and
Lee Kyu Han, all in ONE drama? Consider me sold.
However, yet again, I was proven to be foolish. This is an
incredibly over the top, silly, and childish drama, that wouldn’t know
subtlety if it hit it in the forehead with a killer truck. And talk
about over-usage of music! Every time I watch this drama, I’m reminded
of something my old screenwriting professor once said: “Today’s movies
really need to learn the power of absolute silence.” Replace “movies”
with “dramas”, and there you’ll see my point. We don’t need music every
five seconds to cue us in on what we should be feeling. We ought to
know how we should feel from the set-up, dialogue, and acting, and not
have it bashed into our skulls with yet another sudden blast of
obnoxiously bad K-pop.
There are only 2 reasons I’m still watching this drama:
1) The overall good acting
2) Lee Min Jung and Jung Kyung Ho’s romance
Yeah, that’s right. Me, the girl who’s notoriously picky with
romance, is actually enjoying one. The two of them infuse so much
energy into their characters, and they just mesh so well together. And
I love how forward Jung-in is with her feelings, how she’s not just
some mopey damsel in distress. And I love that Hyun-soo isn’t a jerk
with machismo problems like most K-drama heroes. They’re the best
K-drama couple of the year for me, and are what make the drama
bearable. Let’s hope it continues in this vein!
These are the dramas that I had some expectations for going in, and
that ended up disappointing me deeply. Or, if not deeply, then at least
a little bit. A little deeply?
He Who Can’t Marry
As one of those people who saw the classic Japanese dorama Kekkon Dekinai Otoko
on which this drama was based, there were a lot of expectations for
this show going in. Would it be able to reach or even surpass the
brilliance of the original, I wondered? Was that even possible?
Well, as it turns out, it wasn’t possible. At least not this time around.
At first I had hope. Kind of. It was just such a close copy of the
original dorama. It duplicated the exact same scenes, sometimes with
even the exact same camera angles and whatnot. And because it did that,
it managed to capture a kind of shadow of what the original had been.
Kind of like buying a knock-off purse instead of the real thing (god, I
really want a new purse right now). It may look the same, but there’s
something innately different about it. It just ain’t the same, y’know?
Even worse, whenever it did deviate from the original, it ended up
showing its massive flaws. Unlike the original, this show was not
subtle, and it didn’t appear to have any deep understanding of its very
subject matter. It had no spark of life, none of the quirky charm that
made the original so appealing.
Part of the problem was the casting of Ji Jin Hee. He’s normally a
solid actor, but here, he failed to make the character his own. He was
so caught up in chasing a spectre of Abe Hiroshi’s amazing performance
in the original that he just ended up looking silly and foolish. Over
the top and full of nervous energy, he missed all the right emotional
notes. It was unintentionally sad to watch.
The rest of the cast, however, was good. Kim So Eun continues to be
one of the most promising young actresses in Korea today, and both Yoo
Ah In and Yang Jung Ah pull off solid performances. Uhm Jung Hwa, too,
while not at her best, looks lovely and managed to differentiate
herself from Natsukawa Yui’s glowing performance in the original. It’s
just too bad that none of that could make any real difference.
If anyone wants to provide an example for an argument that all remakes suck, then congratulations. You’ve found it, right here.
I resisted for as long as I could. I vowed to never go near this drama with a ten-foot pole.
I always break self-made promises.
There was just so much open adulation for this drama, you know? I
had to know what the hype was about. My curiosity, as always, got the
better of me. All of my past pet cats should’ve come back and warned me
what would happen.
I approached this drama with as much optimism and open-mindedness as
I could muster. I tried to tell myself that no drama is perfect, and
that sometimes, entertainment value isn’t about innate quality, but
something more elusive. With the end of each episode, I told myself
that it would get better, that I should just give it one more chance.
And another. And another.
I am such an idiot.
This is not as horrible a drama as, say, Boys Before Flowers or that stain on Korean drama history known as Wife’s Temptation. But it isn’t a good drama, either. Oh, I know all you You’re Beautiful
fans all going to come rushing at me with burning pitchforks, yelling
“Off with her fat head!”. I don’t care. Honesty is my policy, and I’m
being honest when I say that I regret the day I decided to start
watching this drama.
Oh, there were moments when I saw glimpses of hope. There were
glimmers of cleverness, like every scene where Tae-kyung outwitted
He-yi (that scene where he throws her shoes actually made me laugh out
loud…for once). And episode eight was the closest this show ever got to
showing any real human emotion, where it seemed for a moment that there
was actually going to be a semblance of character development and
depth. Alas, it was not to be.
You’re Beautiful has a strange sort of quirkiness
to it, and I can see why people were so addicted. But it was just
inconsequential and unoriginal fluff for me. I never felt for the
characters because they were never real. They were just pretty
cardboard cut-outs who lipsynched every once in a while. And don’t even
get me started on the overwhelming angst (a definite recurring flaw in
the Hong sisters’ dramas), the terribly shallow acting (go back to
singing, Jung Yong Hwa), the super-cheesy dialogue, the ridiculous
plot, or the annoying over-usage of two or three songs (if I have to
listen to an A.N. Jell song one more time, I’m going to amputate my
ears). And that ending! Talk about being one of the laziest drama
endings of the year. (Should I put a semi-spoiler alert here?) I mean,
I get that they were just making an allusion to what is probably the
most famous trendy drama ending of all time, the ending for the cliched
and ridiculous but oh-so-entertaining 1997 drama Star In My Heart.
But it wasn’t even a parody, not really. I would have felt much better
about their choosing not to come up with their own ending, and ripping
off another, better one, if they had taken it and injected some kind of
humour or twist. But no. It was done in complete seriousness,
straight-faced, as though it was the most romantic moment EVAAAAH.
Uh-huh, right honey, we’ve all been there, seen that. Next!
Seriously, can someone invent a time machine for me? I feel like I’ve wasted so many hours of my life with this childish drivel.
Will It Snow For Christmas?
I’m kind of a fan of writer Lee Kyung Hee. That is, I’ve seen 5 1/2 dramas she’s written: The short one episode drama My Older Brother, some of Let’s Go To School, Sang-doo!, I’m Sorry, I Love You, A Love To Kill, her two episodes of Beating Heart, and Thank You. And she’s been an overall hit with me, with the notable exception of A Love To Kill.
This drama in particular…is not her best work. Far from it. After 2007’s Thank You,
despite its flaws, I thought that she had noticeably improved. I was
hoping that her next work would be even better, and that her tendencies
towards cliches and excessive melodrama would tamper down.
However, Will It Snow For Christmas?, while it
holds all of the charms of an Lee Kyung Hee drama (nice sense of
nostalgia, quiet touching moments, engaging romance), it showcases all
of the glaring flaws as well. One of the things about Lee Kyung Hee
dramas is, they need really strong actors in order to work. Without
that, everything can fall apart in a moment. And unfortunately for Will It Snow For Christmas?, it has a very weak link in its leading lady, Han Ye Seul.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Han Ye Seul or anything. But she’s
always been a weak actress, and although you can tell she’s trying
here, she just isn’t making the cut. And it’s hurting the drama as a
That doesn’t mean that all of the faults of the drama rest on Han’s
shoulders. Far from it. The directing tends to make things seem more
dramatic than they really are; I really wish he’d tone things down a
little bit, create a calmer kind of atmosphere. The overwhelming music
tends to invade scenes that shouldn’t be invaded. And Lee Kyung Hee’s
gone right back to where she’s always been, writing cliches by the
handful. Her skill is in making those cliches somehow work and feel a
little different by creating living, breathing characters to carry them
through, but hasn’t everyone who’s seen an Lee Kyung Hee drama seen
these characters before? She’s just recycling the same traits that made
her past characters so popular and beloved. It’s disheartening, to say
the least. And when you have such a weak leading actress who can’t
completely bring your character to life, then you find the drama
tripping itself up every so often.
And while I’m on the subject, let me just say that I wish Lee Kyung
Hee would go back to writing dirt-poor male characters. At least back
then, they weren’t perfect catches. Now that she’s trying to escape
that trend, she’s fallen into the Rich Guy With A Secret Heart of Gold
cliche, and it’s aggravating. If she writes one more scene showcasing
how smart and kind and perfect Go Soo’s character is, I’m going to
scream. I’d like to see more flaws in the guy than a quick temper.
The dramas that swept me off my feet and refused to let me down
again. The best dramas of 2009, the ones I’ll choose to remember this
Friend, Our Legend
I’ve had the same core group of best friends since the first grade.
The four of us have watched each other grow up, suffer, and gain a
little bit of wisdom with age. And we’ve gone through it all together.
I live thousands of miles away from them now, and we don’t get the
chance to see each other often. But every time I do see them, it’s like
nothing’s changed at all. It’s like time has stopped. They’re the kind
of friends whom I know I’ll love for the rest of my life.
So watching Friend, Our Legend was a somewhat
painful yet beautiful experience. It was beautiful because I could
sympathize so deeply with its characters, and get swept up in their
lives and the events that led them down different paths. And it was
painful because watching the break-up of a close friendship is like
watching a little part of someone die. I remember watching one scene in
a later episode where nothing much is said – Dong-soo simply looks at
Jun-seok once and walks away. But my eyes immediately filled with tears
watching this tiny little interaction. I could actually feel the gulf
widening between them, and thus my heart ached for these two friends
who were experiencing such pent-up, unspoken grief.
Friend, Our Legend is full of little moments like
that, moments that seem to have been sliced out of time, to be
presented to us for our consideration. The early episodes of Friend
are particularly strong on the slice of life feel, giving the viewer a
light-hearted, warm approach to the memories that surround this group
of four friends (seven if you count the ladies). This makes for a not
particularly exciting but deeply important first few episodes, where
you can actually taste the youth and all the confusion that goes along
with it. As the years pass and the characters grow up and drift apart,
one can’t help but feel a certain sense of inevitability. The viewer
knows what is going to happen – even if you haven’t watched the film
version, it’s revealed to us very early on. So what we’re engaging in
is not the question of what will happen, but how it got to that point,
After last year’s My Sweet Seoul, this drama is
another strong argument for the move for directors from Chungmuro to
Yeouido. I can’t say I was ever a fan of Kwak Kyung Taek (I’ve never
even seen the movie version of Friend), but I love his work here. Friend, Our Legend
is just breathtaking to look at, its visuals so beautiful and gritty
and enticing. I remember watching the opening scene of the first
episode and thinking, “Damn, that’s gorgeous.” The mood and atmosphere
for this drama is just about perfect, soaked in nostalgia for the past,
and bathed in a subtle whisper of tragedy. True, the music is average
at best, and can be jarring in its appearance in certain scenes, but
that’s mostly a minor quibble. And yes, there are times when the
stylistic elements come forward too strongly, and it ends up feeling
like you’re watching a glossy music video instead of a drama depicting
a living, breathing story. But those moments, too, are few and far
between, and grow progressively infrequent as the drama goes on. At the
end of the day, it’s the strengths of the story and the way it is told
that stands out, leaving all of those flaws in the dust.
But what I really want to talk about is the acting. I mean…Holy crap
of a seagull, is that really Hyun Bin? What on earth has happened to
this guy? Suddenly his eyes are glowing with passion and energy,
suddenly it seems like his body is housing a dormant volcano ready to
explode at any moment. Watching his character slowly evolve from quiet,
hurt, gentle soul desperate for just a hint of love to twisted shell of
a human being is just wondrous, as well as heartbreaking. And Hyun Bin
pulls it off beautifully. He took my very breath away. He’s had a rough
few years after the enormous success of My Name Is Kim Sam Soon,
quality-wise, but I think he’s finally back, and a million times better
than he ever was before. This is easily the best performance of his
career. I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us in future.
Even actors that I previously brushed off as mediocre, like Kim Min
Joon, completely changed before my eyes. When did he become this
natural, this into his character? It’s just amazing. And then there are
folks like Wang Ji Hye, Jung Yoo Mi, Lee Shi Eun, Bae Geu Rin, Seo Do
Young. Hell, look at the entire supporting cast, too, with folks like
Kim Dong Hyun. There’s not a bad seed to be seen anywhere (although I’d
argue that Seo Do Young is the weakest link).
I fully admit that before I started watching this drama in earnest,
I assumed that it would be a show drenched in machismo and male
posturing, exactly the kind of thing I can’t stand. But by the time I
hit the third episode, I realized that I’d been completely wrong. The
four main friends are male, yes, but the women – Jin-sook, Eun-ji,
Sung-ae – are just as important. They’re not relegated to mere window
dressing moved around to give the boys their necessary minute of
romance. No, they’re portrayed as tough, strong, resilient, smart and
independent, with their own lives separate from men and their own hopes
and heartaches. And the actresses portray all of that beautifully, with
so much charisma that it could easily overtake other aspects of the
drama, if it weren’t controlled carefully.
Friend, Our Legend is not a perfect drama. But it’s
a complex, smart, and heartfelt one, and has the ability to dig
straight into your heart and potentially tear it apart. As much as I’m
loving writing about it right now, it hurts me to do so at the same
time. The characters are no longer just characters to me. They’re real
people, ones I love and hate and cherish. And, y’know, the more you
love, the more opportunity for pain awaits you.
Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father
Who knew that such a little drama, comprised of only four hours,
would sneak up on us in this kind of year and prove itself to be one of
the lone gems glowing in a pile of trash?
Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father was the main reason
I entered 2009 feeling hopeful. It aired early this year, and after I
finished watching it, my eyes starry-eyed with excitement, I said to
myself, “If 2009 is starting out with this kind of quality, imagine
what kind of dramas await us in the rest of the year!”.
But instead of being an indicator of how 2009 would turn out, it
ended up being one of the very few exceptions in a very dark year – a
year full of scandals, tragedy, and political asshattery (asshattery
which has now reached even our beloved Korean dramas. Sigh). Looking
back, I realize how lucky we were to be given the opportunity to watch
this kind of drama this year. I wonder when will be the next time we
see something that tackles a sore part of Korean history in such an
intelligent and interesting way?
First things first: Kyung-sook is not for everyone.
As a black comedy, and as a drama that is set during the Korean war, it
deals with some very serious issues: food shortages, parental
abandonment, adultery, betrayal, war, death, prejudice. And yet it does
so in a light-hearted, humourous way, presenting all the bare facts,
raw and painful as they are, and dealing with them perhaps in the only
way they knew how: laughter. As someone who grew up in a family that
refused to talk candidly about the pain of living through the Korean
war, or about the scars they still feel from the events of the Gwangju
Massacre, all I know is that I’m glad it’s being talked about at all,
and in such a candid way. There is no blindness here, no illusions. The
characters are not heroes who freely help others before themselves and
stick together as a perfect family. Kyung-sook’s father is a jackass, a
coward who thinks of himself before even his own family. Kyung-sook is
not exactly being raised by the best of people, and she has to deal
with that with all the pain and tears that implies. And yet she
endures. It occurs to me that this drama is a testament to the strength
of the human spirit, to the ability to find humour and hope even in the
darkest of situations. And most of all, it is about the (dysfunctional,
fraught, complicated) relationship between a father and his daughter.
The directing and writing is awesome, but it’s the acting that
really sticks in the memory here, particularly the acting of little
Shim Eun Kyung, who is quickly proving herself to be pretty much the
best child actress working in Korea today. And that’s saying something,
considering the talent pool of child actors that Korea apparently
holds. And then there are veterans like Jung Bo Seok, once again
essaying one of the best performances of the year, showing without
restraint all of the father’s faults, but also making it impossible to
hate him in the end. Hell, the whole cast is wonderful, from the
smallest child actor to the oldest veteran. With so many good things
going for it, not to mention the legacy of the classic stage play from
which this drama is adapted, is it any wonder it turned out to be the
best drama of 2009? Friend, Our Legend had bigger moments of raw power, but Kyung-sook, Kyung-sook’s Father is the one that came closest to consistent perfection.
I admit, I’m looking forward to January. Jejoongwon looks very promising (if only it weren’t airing on SBS!), and I’m so excited for Chuno that it’s kind of ridiculous. Road Number One,
too, can’t air soon enough. With such promising projects looming on the
horizon, it’s tempting to say that 2010 looks brighter than 2009 was.
But I don’t want to jump ahead of myself just yet. Let’s just say that
now that I kind of know the secret to enduring bad dramas, maybe I’ll
be okay in future. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn to love dramas for
reasons that I can’t quite comprehend right now. At the very least, I
hope I won’t be paying another drama-induced visit to Dr. C anytime