Thursday, April 17, 2014

Drama Review: Miss Korea (2013)

Grade: B+

Light melodrama

What it’s about
Ji Young was always the prettiest girl around, but it turns out that adult life doesn’t live up to her high school expectations: She’s single and lives at home, the only girl in a working-class family of misfit men. At work she’s an elevator girl, valued for her good looks and pretty smile but constantly demeaned by her creepy boss. But with the inspiration of an old boyfriend and President Ma, the director of Seoul’s greatest beauty salon, Ji Young decides to change her life—and save a cosmetics company—by becoming Miss Korea, 1997.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Heroine addict

Sometimes I think 90 percent of Korean dramas are about the same girl. (See above.)

You know her: always hardworking and self-sacrificing, wide-eyed and innocent. Sure, the details are different. She makes a mean omurice, or she likes watching horror movies. Maybe she’s a little snarky, maybe not; that’s where her individuality ends. And while she may be the star of the show, she never really grows or changes. Things happen to her, not in her. It’s her love interest that becomes a new person, usually thanks to her positive influence.

Other kinds of girls—the ones who are troubled, conflicted, and unsure—tend to be the “bad guy” second lead who may or may not find redemption by the end of the show. They’re Rachel from Heirs, pushing meek little Eun Sang’s suitcase down the stairs. They’re Yoon He Ra in Playful Kiss, doing everything in her power to make the female lead look stupid. They’re Oh Se Young in I Need Romance 3, sleeping with the lead’s boyfriend because...well...why not?

It’s a rare, special Kdrama that allows malcontents like to take the lead, and then dares to allow her to evolve rather than punishing her. 

Here are some dramas to watch if you’re looking for a girl who has a mind and a journey of her own.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

My love affair with Love Affair

Last December, I posted a wish list of things I wanted for the coming year in dramaland.

The first of those wishes seemed the most unlikely to come true: I asked for a new show that I would love as much as Coffee Prince. In my three years of drama watching, no other series has gripped my heartstrings or my head quite so hard. I’ve rewatched it an insane number of times (six? seven?) and written tens of thousands of words about it, ranging from appreciative fangirling to fan fiction.

I don’t want to jinx anything, but I think Secret Love Affair might just be my wish come true. It’s not much like Coffee Prince—one is a dark, indie thriller of compromised morals and bad behavior, and the other is sunshine on a stick—but both shows feel compellingly real and nuanced. And like Coffee Prince before it, I’m so wrapped up in SLA that I can barely function. 

Here are some of the Secret Love Affair points I’m pondering these days.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

From zero to hero (and back again)

Secret Love Affair is a perfect storm of awesomeness.

The script is so low-key and wonderful that I want to watch episodes again and again to mine for details that I missed, while the director’s creative vision of a dim, obstacle-filled world is giving the story an intense, atmospheric resonance. Leading this parade of excellence are the show’s actors. Only four episodes in, they absolutely own their roles: Kim Hee Ae is perfect as crisply efficient, chilly Hye Won; man-boy Yoo Ah In has captured Sun Jae’s growth from puppyish innocent to troubled adult; and Park Hyuk Kwon is so petulant and unlikable that I want to throw things whenever he appears on screen.

The people involved in this show are all at the top of their game. But being an eternal pessimist, the sheer fabulosity of Secret Love Affair makes me think about how unpredictable quality is in the world of Korean drama. Maybe it’s the frantic pace of production or the struggle between creative and commercial motivations, but it seems as if nobody is immune to epic fails. No matter how good an actor may have been in one project, no matter how incredible a director’s work was on their last job, it’s almost impossible to predict how their current show will turn out.

Take Yoo Ah In, for example. I think we can all agree that his magnetic, expressive turn as Sun Jae is one of the best things about this series. But two years ago at this time, he was starring in Fashion King, possibly the most reviled Korean drama in recent memory. (If you’re ever bored and looking for a laugh, I highly recommend Googling reviews about it. I’ve never seen the word “sucks” used so often, or with such fervor.) I never did watch Fashion King, but it seems to have been the exact opposite of Secret Love Affair. Instead of riding a wave of individual successes that added up to a great show, it was dragged down by a series of personal failures that just compounded as time passed.

The awfulness of Fashion King wasn’t Yoo Ah In’s fault—or anybody else’s, really. It takes a village to make a good drama: Without the writing, the actors have nothing to do. Without the actors, the characters will never come to life. Without the directing, the other pieces of the puzzle won’t come together in a way that makes sense. And the reverse is also true. Even people who are good at their jobs can produce something that isn’t worthy of them when the big picture isn’t auspicious.

So in honor of smashing successes and crashing failures, I give you these curious highlights and lowlights of a few drama careers.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Still more swooning for Secret Love Affair

You know that feeling when something you’re looking forward to doesn’t live up to your expectations? Well, the first two episodes of Secret Love Affair made me feel the exact opposite.

I watched and admired both A Wife’s Credentials and End of the World, the other recent dramas made by the writer and director behind Secret Love Affair. But this new show is the first time I feel as if they’ve set out to do what I really want: Tell a love story. Those other series were great, but they were primarily about bigger things, which meant that their romantic plotlines had only secondary importance. This time around, the relationship between female lead Hye Won and young pianist Sun Jae feels as if it will be the driving factor behind most everything that happens in the show.

In some ways, this is a case of the right drama at the right time: I’ve watched a lot of fluffy romantic comedies lately, and they’ve left me hungering for something darker. SLA is exactly that, both literally and figuratively. It takes place in a drab world of blacks and grays that are only sparingly punctuated with warm, buttery yellows. Its every scene feels like an epic battle between how things look and how they really are.

All the details in this drama feel lovingly constructed and intelligently conceived—from the camera angles to the amazing lighting to the telling set direction and wardrobe. Its storytelling is sophisticated and reserved, but even two episodes in it’s easy to see that the groundwork has been laid for a narrative roller coaster ride full of great, surprising things. Like A Wife’s Credentials, this is a show that will play with our expectations of Korean drama, taking the kind of insane, over-the-top plotting we’d expect and wrestling it down to earth through a deeply felt script and naturalistic performances.

And oh, the performances. The people behind Secret Love Affair have a repertory theater thing going on—they’ve already worked with many of this show’s actors. The actresses behind female lead Hye Won and her assistant played sisters in A Wife’s Credentials. Park Hyuk Kwon, here playing Hye Won’s bratty husband, has actually been in both of their other dramas—in A Wife’s Credentials he played a philandering jerk, and in The End of the World he teamed up as an evil bureaucrat with the man playing Secret Love Affair’s chancellor (i.e., Coffee Prince’s Mr. Hong). Thanks to their obvious comfort working together and the capable direction of Ahn Pan Sook, the actors are doing the kind of nuanced, unaffected work you hardly ever see in Korean dramas.

While the younger actors are newbies to the team, they will more than do their characters justice if Yoo Ah In is any indication. His hotness is certainly one reason why I can’t tear my eyes away whenever he’s on screen, but another reason is that he’s giving this unassuming, boyishly naive character enough gravitational pull for a planet. It’s no wonder Hye Won will fall in love with him—what woman could be unmoved by his stirrings of puppyish devotion?

It’s a bit early to know for sure what this drama’s end game will be, but for now Secret Love Affair is a riveting exploration of passion, connection, and the perils of living something other than a genuine life.

I was disappointed to realize that Dramabeans isn’t recapping this show. I could really use their help understanding a drama this subtle, and I always love having their general impressions of each new episode before I can watch it. Alas, it is not to be, and I certainly can’t recap it myself. I just don’t have the time or the skills (I’d write a thousand words about somebody’s hair and then miss key plot points). But out of respect for this show’s layered storytelling, I’ve highlighted some of my favorite scenes from the premiere episode and tried to pull apart their many levels of meaning.

(Spoilers to episode 2.)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Drama Review: I Need Romance 3 (2014)

Grade: C+

Workplace romance

What it’s about
This light melodrama revolves around a chilly, no-nonsense career woman who experiences an emotional awakening thanks to a younger man from her past. Sharing the spotlight are her two coworkers—one the office newbie, a wide-eyed innocent who’s uncertain about her romantic and professional future; the other a man-eating career woman who ends up with an unexpected personal life when a no-strings-attached relationship results in pregnancy.

First impression
Our relationships with dramas really are like romances. You can spend forever with someone but never feel anything for them, while other times just a glimpse of a stranger can make you swoon with the force of your attraction. These polar opposites pretty much sum up my response to The Prime Minster and this third installment in tvN’s I Need Romance series. The Prime Minister just isn’t my type—it’s a typical Kdrama with a painfully obvious plot and not even the vaguest correlation to any person, place, thing, or emotion in the real world. On the other hand, just two minutes of I Need Romance leave me giddy with love for its strong voice and naturalistic environs. (Also, its leads have totally amazing chemistry even before he has graduated from diapers.) I’ve always been a fan of the frank, realistic INR dramas, and I’m pretty sure this one will be no different. So you’re on hold for now, Prime Minister. See you in 8 weeks when my new boyfriend leaves town.

Final verdict
Downplaying the strong female friendships that anchored the first two installments in the I Need Romance series, this show turned out to be a slightly sexier version of the standard-issue Kdrama love triangle. There are some interesting things here, including an oblique challenge to prejudice against single mothers and an insanely cute male lead with all the emotional intelligence of a second lead. But beyond that, INR3 was a whole lot of meh.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

An open letter to the creators of Secret Love Affair

Dear creators of Secret Love Affair:

How dare you?

As of this writing on Saturday morning, your show is more than 48 hours from premiering in Korea, and subtitles probably won't be available for more like 72 hours. And yet, you’ve already driven me to the brink of obsession.

First there were the posters, which were burnished and glorious. Then there was the 30-second teaser, which was dramatic and sexy. And then you killed me dead with the 22-minute preview. At first I swore I wouldn’t watch it, not wanting to spoil the Christmas-morning experience of seeing the drama’s first episode. But of course I gave in, and of course now I can’t keep myself from hitting play again and again. 

The preview is intense and sexy, piano porn complete with a healthy dose of human erotica. Everything about it is perfect—from Yoo In Ah’s awkwardness to the way the leads’ faces reflect in the piano’s polished surface to the intimate, bedside glow of the lighting.