Dear Ms. Kim Jung Eun:
Hello. Please don’t be alarmed. I come in peace, and I mean no harm. You don’t know me. You are an actress, singer, and all-around entertainer. You live in Korea. I am a koala…..who lives in the OC. We’ve never met in person, and likely never will. But I do know something about you. I know you based on your acting performances in K-dramas, where you have sort of made a niche for yourself like a Korean Meg Ryan of romantic melodramas.
Until last week, I despised every one of your acting performances which I have seen. I watched you in Lovers in Paris, and subsequently, in Lovers. While I merely disliked the banal and plodding melodrama of both productions, I flat out hated your characters and how you portrayed both of them.
Please don’t tear up this missive! This is not a flaming troll letter. Not at all, I am simply stating my opinion of your acting I had seen in the past. I took those two performances (of which I hated your work in Lovers in Paris by a good wide Parisian mile) to mean you simply sucked as an actress overall. Yes, I made an expansive judgment, as all koalas are wont to do.
I had no desire to watch you in any other drama, and even went so far as to coin a term Annoying Face Syndrome to describe why watching you on screen incited me to fits of raging dislike. Why am I telling you this, if not to be a thoroughly mean koala? It’s because today I am here to offer my mea culpa.
Ms. Kim, I am sorry for saying you have AFS, and for swearing off all your dramas for life. Ten days ago, I watched one episode of I Am Legend, your latest drama, and you quite effectively and wholly changed my mind about all my previous conceptions of you as an actress.
Ms. Kim, I still think you sucked donkey balls in Lovers in Paris and Lovers, but I no longer automatically think you suck at acting in general. On the contrary, you have shown me quite unequivocally that you are the very definition of an actress. You have the ability to perform, to act in roles that require showing different personalities, and you do it quite convincingly.
I probably hated the characters you played in those Lovers dramas way more than I realized, and subconsciously attributed that aversion to you personally. It happens. I am a viewer, and I won’t apologize for having an opinion. I, however, am more than happy to announce to the world that I think you have become the sole reason for me to continue watching a drama I had very little interest in based on the set up.
If I have insulted you, I didn’t mean to. I wanted to be honest, and to say that my opinion of you has changed so much recently I rather have a weightless sensation that I am in an alternate universe. Perhaps I am, but I doubt it. I think you simply have been graced with a wonderfully intricate and meaty character to play, and you are playing her so marvelously I cannot look away. For that, please accept my standing ovation.
Bravo – for breathing life into a character such as Chun Seol Hee, all tightly wounded wife one minute, relaxed and energetic rocker chick the next. I love you in I Am Legend, and I will watch this baby until someone dies of cancer, goes to jail, or runs off to Paris. If that happens, I still love you as Seol Hee, but it’s adios.
A Proper Review
Hey drama chingus! How’ve you been lately? I’ve been good. Like, really really good. It’s the dog days of Summer, but I’ve had exceedingly lovely weather and a charming existence outside of dramaland. Within dramaland, have y’all read my Mid-Point review of Giant yet? If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? If you did, you must know which drama has left me feeling so perky and cheery.
But that feeling of euphoria had actually started to dissipate (it always does, that’s why we all need ever more doses of drama, right?) when I decided to check out one episode of I Am Legend (“IAL”). Good thing I did, because within one episode that feeling of being taken for a ride came back again. How is that for a kicker – the two dramas I am most interested in at this very second are both airing on Mon-Tues on SBS.
Since IAL has only aired six episodes, this is of course a First Impression review. I reserve the right to change my overall opinion of IAL. Right now, it’s actually 50-50 that I’ll end up either really liking IAL or thinking it’s just alright. I doubt I will love it like the way I am primed to love Giant until the very end, or I’ll hate it the way I ended up hating the two Lovers dramas Kim Jung Eun starred in. I’ll explain why shortly.
Just be certain that chances are I won’t be writing a full review of IAL after it finishes airing. Unless, of course, the remaining episodes suddenly take off all cylinders firing in writing excellence. If you are waiting for a recap of the story from me, mianhe, off you go to Dramabeans where kaedejun is recapping IAL. I’m just here to share a bit of my own personal impressions so far.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room right away, because frankly it doesn’t serve any further purpose other than as a fascinating tidbit of pre-production fact. I was initially interested in IAL because it was Kim Suh Na’s follow-up drama since City Hall. The premise sounded interesting because Kim Suh Na was attached to it – a newly-divorced high society wife reinventing herself as a lead singer of a rock band.
Then Kim Suh Na dropped out, and my interest dropped by half. Then Kim Jung Eun came onboard, and my remaining interest plummeted to zero. I absolutely detested Kim Jung Eun’s performances in the two Lovers dramas she starred in. She was terribly self-aware, and that her character was exceedingly annoying on top of that only made her comedic tics and awful crying scenes so much more grating.
I thought I had written off Kim Jung Eun forever, and no amount of temptation could convince me to check out any drama she starred in. Then I heard my favorite leading-man-in-the-making Lee Joon Hyuk was cast as her love interest in IAL, and my interest revived itself, albeit barely. I resolved to check out an episode or two if the word-of-mouth was positive after it aired, to see how cutie pie Lee Joon Hyuk was doing.
What I was unprepared for was the overwhelming positive reception the drama garnered after it premiered. What I was even more taken aback by was that all the reasons for me to like IAL turned out not to work, and all the reasons I thought I would dislike IAL turned out to be the very reasons I now love it. I totally feel like I’ve fallen into a Twilight Zone, and this is leaving me rather discombobulated. Maybe if I can figure out what is going on with IAL, I can find my drama-bearings again.
Story and Writing
From the outset, I’ve always thought the IAL story concept was rather interesting and ripe with many different directions to go. Kim Jung Eun plays Chun Seol Hee, an unhappily married high society wife who has finally decided to put an end to her sham marriage and pursue a divorce from her unfeeling husband, who happens to be cheating on her with his lawyer co-worker.
The husband refuses to divorce Seol Hee because that would embarrass him, so Seol Hee must resort to pursuing a lawsuit in court over this contested divorce. In the meantime, Seol Hee turns to her recreational rock band friends for support and companionship during the dissolution of her marriage, all the while simultaneously pursuing her rocker dreams. This brings Seol Hee into the orbit of her first crush, musician Jang Tae Hyun, who so happens to be the ex-husband of the woman Seol Hee’s husband has been two-timing her with.
IAL is not a drama where there is only the possibility of A leading to B ending up at C. If I were the writer, I may even wait to see which way the viewer winds blow and adjust the story according. Just saying that this story has legs, and whether the writer chooses to make it a half marathon or a 5K run depends on the writer having depth and some balls.
The writing for IAL is currently one of the weak spots. For now, I find the writing pedestrian and always shy of being stellar. My biggest beef to pick with the story is this – why did you make Seol Hee, our heroine, so very interesting and memorable when you surround her with some stock cardboard cut-out stereotypes?
Especially when said stereotypes are being acted by performers that are straining to deliver more (especially one guy in particular). The other three leads are being given limited material and told to play asshole evil future ex-husband, icy brainy bitchy mistress, and intrigued and grumpy love interest. I want so much more than that.
Sorry, writer-sshi, I don’t buy your fixation on delineating black and white, especially on a subject so fraught with shades of gray such as failed marriage. By making the other three leads so one-note from the beginning, you fail to see the richness in the other three lead characters, who have the capacity to create a compelling love square.
You have Seo Hee, a woman who married a rich-as-Croesus lawyer husband because she loved him (and he her). We drop into their lives at the brink of implosion, and we are intrigued by what went wrong. Yet you make her husband Cha Ji Wook so utterly heartless and vile, he’s pretty much unredeemable. What I would give for their relationship, however broken, to have a frisson of possibility for reconciliation. But now, that’s pretty much not your modus operandi.
You want us to have eyes only for Jang Tae Hyun, our heroine’s first love, and already her pseudo white knight. I am keen on this set up, don’t get me wrong. I just wish the writer would make it all more complicated, more twisted, rather than so blatantly anointing one guy Jerk of the Century and the other guy Awesome Dude of Her Past.
Same goes for the second female lead, the mistress/lawyer/perpetual bitchface. I already despise her guts, because she has been nothing but disdainful towards everything warm and decent, and is generally just itching for me to dump some holy water on her to see if she burns right up.
I am still very invested how IAL will all pan out, and am curious to see how you take Seol Hee’s journey from repressed and mistreated society wife into independent and spirited rocker chick. I wished only that I didn’t care so much about Seol Hee, and thereby making me less annoyed with what I see as potential in your story construct and a failure to reach said potential so far.
Characters and Casting
If my heartfelt ode to Kim Jung Eun wasn’t clear enough – I think she is perfectly cast as Chun Seol Hee. So perfect, in fact, she made me question whether Kim Suh Na should have even been offered this role to begin with. Now that is a hard feat, considering how much I love Kim Suh Na and think she can walk on water because she can will it into ice.
The character of Seol Hee and Kim Jung Eun the actress are like a match made in Heaven. Kim Jung Eun seamlessly transitions between the early episodes where Seol Hee was simultaneously high-society wife as well as occasional rocker chick. Now that she has elected to divorce her husband (and really, to divorce his entire family), she plays Seol Hee as determined, weary, and still a dash too genuine and caring. I love it. Like I said, she is without a doubt the best thing about IAL.
The second best thing about IAL shows up in the form of jackass future ex-husband Cha Ji Wook. Why would anyone think Ji Wook and his teeth-gnashing character is a good thing? Because Ji Wook is played by Kim Seung Soo. And here I have to issue another mea culpa.
Mr. Kim, I used to find you kind of fugly and always a dastardly presence on screen. I’d sooner pick a drama just to watch you in it as I would dress like a hooker to work, i.e. not in a million years. Oh, I’ve watched Kim Seung Soo before, in Jumong (all 861 episodes), where I resorted to FF-ing any scene he was in because he had one expression in the entire run of the drama – seething anger mixed with plotty jealousy.
Never would I imagine the day would come that I am opening admitting to finding Kim Seung Soo utterly divine, which I do in IAL. He makes me sit up straighter when he shows up on screen. Oh, I’m not so brain addled that I find his character anything less than revolting and I wished his man parts would be infected with flesh-eating bacteria. No, I am quite taken with his amazingly nuanced, controlled, and captivating performance as a Grade-A asshole who cheats on his wife, refuses to allow a divorce because of his political aspirations and his general ego, and treats a women he onced loved with utter bone-chilling coldness.
That Kim Seung Soo can make this kind of blackguard compelling to watch is a testament to his ability to milk the character for glimpses of depth, leaving me eager to find out how he could have even loved Seol Hee in the first place. I’m probably going to get stoned for saying this, but Seol Hee and Ji Wook have so much chemistry together I’m actually sad they couldn’t make it work.
The writer isn’t going to allowing them the possibility for reconciliation. Even if Ji Wook was not such a complete cad, I still don’t want Seol Hee to actually end up with him again, since his family clearly remains a nuclear option in their relationship regardless. I just wished his character could be more fleshed out, and the writer flirt with the possibility of the making a second go of it, because Kim Seung Soo is making the husband shine even when he is blacker than tar.
This segues perfectly into discussing the actual romantic interest for Seol Hee in IAL, Lee Joon Hyuk’s muscian Jang Tae Hyun. Sigh, where to I start. I have noticed Lee Joon Hyuk as an actor since he was playing fourth-string parts in dramas like A Star’s Lover. I still remember his character’s NAME in City Hall, is how much I adored him in there. That IAL would be his first leading man trendy drama made me tickled with glee. He was actually the reason I checked out IAL in the first place.
So it is with great reluctance that I have to say it’s just not working out. I can’t accurately pinpoint the problem, but my impression is that he’s just not the right actor for the part. He has a dongsaeng-noona vibe going on with Kim Jung Eun, which is fine by me except the writer made their characters the same age. It’s totally jarring to watch because I don’t buy what I am told. Secondly, their pairing has no sensual chemistry, other than a bantering companionship vibe, leaving Kim Seung Soo and Kim Jung Eun bathed in residual romantic tension.
I can’t say Lee Joon Hyuk isn’t acting well, because he is doing just fine in all his other scenes not with Seol Hee. In particular, Tae Hyun’s interactions with his young son are sweet and simply portrayed. He’s also managed to wow me with his unexpected singing talent, and the one song he sings in the drama is hands down my favorite song off the OST.
Unless the ordained OTP, in near future, suddenly gets stranded by a rain storm and seeks shelter in an abandoned cave and need to cuddle naked to preserve warmth, then sorry, I don’t see the sexy time vibes between them anytime soon. Seol Hee is more likely to go drinking with Tae Hyun and drag his drunk butt home like a good noona would. Oh wait! That already happened in episode 5! See what I am saying?
The second female lead I hate (her character’s name is Oh Seung Hye, by the way). On principal, and because the actress is so blah and boring in her career-woman-with-no-heart ways that I have no interest in whether she eventually finds her compassion or her soul. I wished she’d get eaten by 3D piranhas so I don’t have to see her acting opposite Kim Seung Soo, because she steals his radiance in scenes.
He emotes subtly, she just does the “I smell my own fart” face. I would have loved for her to have been constructed as a throwaway bimbo mistress character, and just have all the angst between Seol Hee, her ex-husband, and her new love. Sometimes a triangle is a stronger shape than an irregular rectangle with one leg so short it might as well be called a toe.
All the Other Stuff
It’s too early to tell, but so far I (1) hate the name of the Comeback Madonna Band, (2) love Seol Hee bandmates, including the theatrical Fa Ja, and (3) am enjoying the music wholeheartedly. Since IAL is centered around Seol Hee’s metaphorical rebirth and physical transformation from a rich wife to lead singer of a rock band, clearly music is going to play an integral part of this drama.
IAL is doing a good job of using its songs and inserting all its musical cues. Granted, the music sung by the band is as much rock as I am a knowledgeable drama reviewer, i.e. not so much. But it’s all really easy on the ears, and sung with a lot of raw emotion. I appreciate and enjoy that. Much like I enjoyed A.N.Gell’s faux-boy band stylings and pop-lite songs.
I’d say the entire supporting cast is uniformly spot-on. Special mention needs to go to established omma actress Cha Hwa Yun, who plays Mrs. Hong, Seol Hee’s ice-water in her veins mother-in-law. She is not evil and sprouts horns as much as she is cruel, condescending, and inhuman in her treatment of Seol Hee. She’s also the second City Hall alum to show up in IAL, as she had a small but memorable turn as Cha Seung Won’s character’s mom in that drama.
The other members of the Comeback Madonna Band are wonderfully cast and have quickly established a sisterly rapport with each other. Hong Ji Min as best friend and band cut-up Fa Ja alternates between annoying and adorable, and she knows it. I love her self-confidence, and her devotion and loyalty to Seol Hee.
Jang Shin Young as drummer Soo In, and Hyun Ju Ni as single mother guitarist and singer Yang Ah Reum are both talented in performing and a steady presence on screen as their characters. Whether the writer chooses to keep the focus on Seol Hee, or allow her three band mates to get more fleshed out back stories, these three ladies definitely are a great complement to creating a credible female friendship dynamic in this drama.
The director of IAL also did Can & Abel, Surgeon Bong Dal Hee, and Lovers in Prague, among his more high profile works. None of those projects were ever panned, if panned at all, because of a lack in directing talent. The director has an able and confident hand, and so far I really pleased with how he films each scene and transitions between scenes.
In episode one, there was one scene where Seol Hee is leaving a high society party alone after being belittled by everyone in attendance. The camera goes wide, showing Seol Hee walking in this sprawling hallway, a distant and solitary figure, capturing her loneliness perfectly. The director has quite an active approach to filming scenes, I never got bored with static shots or a feeling that he is a one-trick pony.
I especially applaud the judicious use of snippets of either Seol Hee or the Comeback Madonna Band’s performances at the end of each episode, effectively highlighting the emotion of the characters at that moment in the drama.
The most effective use of this technique is also in episode one. Towards the end of the episode, Seol Hee announces her intention to divorce Ji Wook to the entire family at the dinner table. This announcement cuts away to Seol Hee singing alone with a guitar acoustic, singing a song about how the person she hates is really herself. Yes, it’s not terribly subtle stuff, but it’s heartfelt, because Kim Jung Eun makes Seol Hee’s weaknesses and convictions feel like it’s coming from a living, breathing woman.
IAL strikes me as a fairy tale (I know, I know, how can I say Seol Hee’s hell-on-earth-marriage is anything idyllic). What I mean to say is that IAL is yet another fairytale for mature women who are stuck in an unhappy state of being in their lives, whether its professional or personal. It’s actually City Hall’s successor in that very respect.
City Hall flirted with the wholly fantastical concept that a middle-aged woman could change a city, become it’s mayor, and end up married to a desirable cad-turned-lovestruck hero/future president of Korea. It was a fairy tale with Kim Suh Na as the Cinderella and Cha Seung Won her Black Knight. IAL strikes the same chord in its viewers, showing a woman unhappy with her life and taking control of changing it.
Throw in some delicious comeuppance for those who have mistreated and/or wronged her, a likely successful reinvention of herself of a pseudo-rock star, plus a happily-ever-after with her true knight-in-shining-guitar, then IAL clearly understands how deliver a modern ahjumma fairytale.
Furthermore, whereas in City Hall, Kim Suh Na looked frumpy or starched for the majority of the drama, in IAL Kim Jung Eun is drop-dead ravishing and strikes both a visceral and an emotional chord with ladies dreaming we can still have mile high legs in our thirties and run into our high school crush again.
Seol Hee looks glamorous and refined as a rich wife, then sexy and hip as her rocker persona. I know folks have expressed dismay or dislike of her penchant for short shorts. I say, if you got them legs, baby, flaunt them!
Yes, I do think she shouldn’t be parading in said shorts in the middle of court during her divorce trial, but the rest of the time, Kim Jung Eun works her wardrobe and I love it. Seriously, I cannot fathom how Ji Wook could cheat on Seol Hee with that ugly block of ice Seung Hye. Any hot blooded male would be lusting after Seol Hee, and asking Seung Hye to represent them in court for lusting after Seol Hee.
A Penny For My Final Thoughts
Does anyone have this niggling sensation that the first half of 2010 is like a different beast altogether than the second half of 2010 is shaping up to be? I feel like 2010 started off with so many highly anticipated and/or highly promoted dramas, a lot of which turned out to be quite middling if not outright risible.
Feel free to contradict me or tear me from limb-to-limb for my affront to perhaps your beloved drama(s), but from Chuno into Pasta, onward to A Man Called God, to what Serendipity affectionately calls the Trifecta of Suck (Cinderella Unni, Personal Taste, and Prosecutor Princess), and rolling into Dong Yi – everything pretty much fell into the meh pile at the end of the day.
The second half of 2010, on the other hand (with the exception of what I have been told is a shoo-in for worst drama of the year Road #1), have delivered a smorgasbord of interesting, entertaining, and well-made dramas. A few of which have only just begun airing, so any one of them can go the route of Pick the Stars in my book (a great first half paired with an atrocious second half), leaving the back end of 2010 no better than the first half when all is said and done.
What I have been feeling recently is a sense of warm surprise, like the feeling you get when your kid unexpectedly gives you a bear hug and says I love you. IAL is one of the dramas contributing to this general feeling of encountering a cresting wave in the great K-drama expedition of 2010. And I fully intend to ride that wave until it dips back down.
I’m not talking about blockbuster ratings, of which IAL does not have. I am talking about a swath of netizens expressing one sentiment: IAL is surprisingly very good. Now that is something that caused my interest to surge again, and so I checked out one episode of IAL with a reluctant but curious attitude. I was worried that Kim Jung Eun’s OTT-acting tendencies would cause my brain to shut down before giving this drama a fair chance to impress me.
Boy, do I have to eat my words today. Not only is Kim Jung Eun not OTT, she is in fact unlike her previous annoying incarnations in both Lovers in Paris and Lovers. Kim Jung Eun is quite simply, absolutely wonderful so far in IAL. I love her character, and I adore her performance of said character. She is 100% the sole reason I am continuing to watch IAL. See, a koala can make a 180 degree change in perception, and happily eat her humble pie. Ms. Kim Jung Eun, I salute you, for showing that as an actress you are not simply one-note, and an annoying one at that.
IAL isn’t groundbreaking. It’s also neither poised to become a full-blown ratings queen or an under-rated cult hit. I find that viewing this drama with an open mind and allowing yourself to hopefully connect with the performances really heighten the enjoyment of its rather straightforward and not terribly well-constructed story. IAL is a drama where the acting and the actress is elevating the mediocre material.
My strong positive reaction to IAL does not stem from any personal experience with the emotions or plot of the story. Rather, as a thinking, feeling human being, my feelings have simply been touched by Seol Hee and her plight and her resolution to change her life. And Kim Jung Eun’s very heartfelt, raw, and delicate performance. With 10 more episodes to go, I already know that it’s captured my interest and garnered my goodwill.