Serendipity takes a Stab at 2011

2011 has made me ponder my relationship with K-drama. Why do I spend so much time watching? Why do I expend so much energy writing about it?

I’m in a contemplative mood at the end of 2011. Not because it has been a great year in k-drama for me, but because it’s been the worst year since I started watching in 2008. This is probably due to my taste shifting and my becoming somewhat more demanding of my k-dramas, but perhaps it’s also the case that 2011 really hasn’t been a vintage year. It was not altogether hopeless; there were enough wins to keep me from abandoning k-drama altogether. But it seems beyond doubt that for me the flush of k-drama first love, when anything might be forgiven, is long over.

A few basic but important comments first. This is my review. This means that it reflects my opinions and my experience. They don’t reflect the opinions of Thundie or any other writer on this blog; but they do reflect Thundie’s editorial stance, which is that we write whatever we want about k-drama so long as we are real, and we don’t have to feel ashamed of what we like or apologize for what we don’t like. So, don’t crucify me if I don’t like your favourite drama, ok? Thanks muchly.

Why do k-dramas connect with me and many millions round the world? I can’t speak for the millions, but for myself I think I essentially enjoy many k-drama tropes and devices. Provided, and this is the BIG proviso, they are done well.

The Unsubtle

I think one of my first strong connections with k-drama was how unsubtle and in-your-face they can be. Everything is writ large. Humour is broad, even crude. Melodrama is of operatic proportions. (Wagner was into incest long before k-drama; he knew a nice big dramatic device when he saw one.) And crying is with all your might, tears flowing, sniveling unrestrained, and bawling loud. I appreciate this. I am tired of pretentious art that must be cool, dispassionate and ironic all the time.

Girl K

And where better to be gloriously unsubtle than in a no-holds-barred action thriller. After all, Quentin Tarantino was inspired by the cheesy but joyously over-the-top Hong Kong kung fu flicks of old. Still, you can never be sure things won’t go horribly wrong. Veering ill-advisedly into sentimentality, for instance. Or action sequences that embarrassingly don’t quite cut it. Or, given that the premise of Girl K is a girl assassin, for pete’s sake, an unfortunate indulgence in Mary-Sue / ahjussi schoolgirl fantasy.

Happily, none of these pitfalls materialized. Well, at least not in a big way. I’ll admit Girl K is a little predictable and the characters somewhat cardboard-y in that distinctly k-drama way (the long-suffering mother, the protective ahjussi, the evil father figure, etc.). But for three perfectly paced and deftly executed episodes, through a strong story, good acting, a stonking great soundtrack, heart-attack inducing and gritty action sequences and expert editing, it all comes together to deliver what it is billed to do: Kick ass.

Here, have a taste. No subtitles, but you don’t really need dialogue for this scene:

 
I enjoyed Girl K very much. I wouldn’t say it’s a great drama; it doesn’t really bear too much scratching beneath the surface. But it is very well done and very entertaining. Thumbs up. (And, longer review here)

City Hunter

There’s the all-out action thriller, and then there’s the hybrid comedic action flick that mixes action excess with humour excess. Either can work for me; I’m not an action purist.

I think City Hunter was going for the hybrid comedic action flick. How else to explain the deadly serious tone that was mixed so randomly with comic-book sensibility and unapologetic logic fail?

I bailed out of City Hunter in the middle of Episode Four. It just wasn’t working for me. I reckoned that I should just cut my losses if I still wasn’t remotely invested in the story or in any of its people after 3.5 episodes. Even the combined man-pretty of Lee Min Ho and Lee Jung Hyuk could not entice my interest. I was – dare I confess this on a public forum? – bored.

What went so wrong? I think City Hunter was ultimately too ambitious and didn’t sufficiently work through its challenges. Balancing seriousness and funny/cute is hard, and the show just lacked the will or the wherewithal to pull it off. I do get that in this manga-adaptation genre the science / action / logic / politics is not meant to be taken seriously. But if a show is going to demand that its viewers constantly suspend so much disbelief, I think it needs to toss us more by way of … something else. Action, maybe? But the action in this show was heavy-handed and forgettable. Angst, perhaps? I love angsty comic book heroes, but Lee Min Ho ain’t no Christian Bale.

Have an OST MV. I’m not sure about the appropriateness of using images of violence and wanton destruction to accompany sappy love music, but since this vid includes some moments I found dorky, and since the incongruity does rather remind of how I felt when I was watching the show…:

 
I know many people love City Hunter, so I tried very hard to like it. (Also, I hate to think that I’m turning into some grumpy old k-drama viewer who is impossible to please and mocks children who like their candy.) I’m not even a member of the Min Ho anti-club — I think he is a fine looking young man who has the basic acting ability to justify calling himself an actor, and who could probably do all right given decent material to work with. I wasn’t offended by the show, and sort of got what it was aiming for. But my head hurt with how schizophrenic and random the show felt. I found it too silly to take seriously, and too lame to be funny. Perhaps if I had unlimited time and patience I could have stuck it out, but that’s just not where I was in life at that moment. When I bailed I felt giddily liberated.

The Human Drama

I like that k-drama often understands back-to-basics story-telling. That it’s not all about being clever or original or achingly cool.

The Duo

There was a lot in the sageuk The Duo for me to love – see collective rave review. It had assured acting (with just the occasional hiccup), it had a heart-rending story with legs and pace, and it had moments of gentle wit and laughter. It had men in black capes swash-buckling. It had PIE! It had exquisitely detailed sets. It had a beautiful and appropriate soundtrack. In fact, it got pretty much everything right.

For me, The Duo stands out because of its broad human interest. Yes, there is a dramatic main story which twists and turns gaspingly, but the fateful birth-switch is not what I think about when I remember The Duo with fondness and think about it in my moments of quietness. Rather, I think about how the show was grounded in a particular time and place down to its portrayal of mores and artifacts of the time, and at the same time how it touched on the timeless human condition. How it explored the courage and stoicism of people who were human and flawed, and the reprehensible lapses of people who were human and victims themselves. I think of the real meaning of love in a family, and between people whose lot in life throws them together and also wrenches them apart.

The Duo boasts the Bromance of 2011, in my book. And the most conflicted of conflicted relationships between father and real and/or adopted son(s). The story is epic and it will break your heart (but in a good, profound way). But months later, when I think about this show, it’s actually the secondary characters I remember with a smile. The journey of a man who falls into a slice of great luck when he secures a position through cronyism, then falls swiftly out of it and is left to clutch to himself whatever life and dignity he can retrieve. And the motivation of a woman from the under-class he had abused, who takes him in nonetheless – as a home-improvement project, perhaps? The damo or constable’s assistant who sees more than she should and says what no one else dares voice. The woman who settles down to being a common inn-keeper when the noble household she has served faithfully is suddenly overturned.

And this is why The Duo is a cut above the rest: The care which is lavished on painting realistic characters across the board, whether central to the plot or peripheral. While the plot broadly conformed with drama conventions, the writing took characterization a level up. Upon reflection, you realize that people didn’t react as you might have expected from a k-drama, but probably reacted much as real people would in real life.

The Opening Title gives you a taste of how elegant this show is (and how adorable our two boys are):

 
The Duo is my pick for the 2011 k-drama I most recommend. It’s entertaining. It’s gripping (those episode-end cliff-hangers… Yeowz!). It has lots of pretty people and pretty stuff (and fascinating foods). It warms my heart without making me roll my eyes. It made me think a bit and cry a bit. And at the end of it all I sighed, “What a great show. Dang, I guess this means I can’t give up k-drama just yet.”

Flames of Ambition

Like Duo, Flames of Ambition was a drama about the human condition. But writ somewhat larger, teeth set tighter, and tone upped several notch of intensity.

I very nearly didn’t watch Flames of Ambition. The first episode was screechy and everything I abhor in screechy dramas: Women carrying on crazily, thwarted young lovers smashing violins and walloping bottles of pills in dramatic despair, flashbacks to wimpy fathers and hysterical offspring screaming “I’ll never be hungry again!”, young women hell-bent on advancement by all means fair or foul (mostly foul).

Unlike The Duo, I’m not sure I would recommend Flames unreservedly. Everyone I know who has watched it to the end has also loved it, but then I think the show is self-selecting. Right from the start it flies it colours boldly, so if it is not to your taste you can jump right off the bandwagon immediately. It makes no bones about being all about high drama and high feeling. I barely got through the first couple of rather extreme episodes. But once I got that this show was not going to be about being easy or dainty, and that it was all out to entertain me by being outrageous, clever, and shocking, I gleefully abandoned myself to its agenda of excess and subversion.

Here are the first moments (apologies for poor quality of clip. But, hey! English subs!). And, yes, unless you are a makjang junkie the hysteria is hard to take. It all seem so very over-the-top. But believe me, by the time we cycle back to this scene after 30-plus episodes of magisterial set-up, your jaw will DROP as you understand how every gesture and every word is loaded with terrible meaning, and the same scene that you once considered maudlin now stabs you right in the heart:

 

This show is the thinking person’s melodrama. It has a great plot that often left one gasping at its audacity, but at its heart it has real human beings who create wonderful human drama. I never dreamt I would enjoy watching people behaving badly so much, or that I could ever come to love a character as obnoxiously grasping as Yoon Na Young, but this show proved that it’s not so much the genre of the show which determines enjoyment, but whether the show is executed well. I didn’t need to watch it to the end to know that it was going to be one of my all time great dramas (see ravy review). I savored each episode as it peeled yet more delicious layers off the human condition, in all its glorious hubris and all its flawed beauty.

Midas

How many episodes of Midas did I watch? I can’t quite remember now. Maybe four?

What was it all about? I’m pretty sure it was meant to be about human drama. After all, it starred Jang Hyuk, who is all about the DRAMA and TRAGEDY. We know he is being set up for said drama and tragedy when the world falls into his lap upon his graduation as some kind of genius international financial lawyer (whatever that may be) and he lands a job as a fabulously salaried (and housed) in-house lawyer to a family business linked with a fabulously successful investment fund run by an enigmatic and powerful woman. She and our hero are clearly set on a collision course (of one kind or another), and he is clearly being set up for a fall to earth with a terrific bang, whereupon he will activate his patented Vengeful Narrowed Hyukie Eyes.

Except that, I bailed before we could get there. Bad Hyukie fan, bad. And here’s where I get a bit unstuck, because I can’t even remember exactly why I lost interest. Except that I, um, lost interest. I suppose I could try re-watching it all over again but this time paying more attention to what I found uninteresting? Nope, sorry, won’t do it, not dedicated enough to this review to do it.

Okay, let me try: The pretty (but vapid) Lee Min Jung was staggeringly miscast as Jang Hyuk’s fiancée. I could see the show was setting up their relationship to be broken, but to be interested in an estrangement one must first be interested in a relationship, and there was no viable connection I could see between Jang Hyuk and Lee Min Jung. It was like putting a tiger stuffed toy next to a lamb stuffed toy. Nope, no sparks. Not even the frisson of a mismatched couple. When Jang Hyuk smiles indulgently at her I’m put in mind of nothing so much as a greasy ahjussi. When Lee Min Jung minces at him I feel I’m watching a five-year old play-acting a bride. It’s all too painfully unwatchable.

So, there was couple casting wreckage. That and genius-poor-boy-made-good Jang Hyuk being mechanically and heavy-handedly set up to come a cropper. I think this show was supposed to have been all about the corruption and lure of money and power, but the morality tale was so obvious and I just didn’t feel like being beat over the head with the Beware-Money-Is-Corrupting stick. I suppose it wouldn’t have killed me to watch to the end. It wasn’t that bad. But on the other hand, I’m pretty sure not watching it to the end has not impoverished my life.

Here’s a really long trailer. See, even now I’m still conflicted. As I watch this trailer I vacillate between, “Oo, Jang Hyuk is hot here. Shower scene! And it sure feels Dramatic, maybe I should give this another shot?”, and “Ack, so predictable, and see how lame that piece of acting was? This trailer is great at least it’s not long-drawn and tedious like the show itself gosh I’m so glad I dropped this.”

 
Miss Ripley

I’ve placed Miss Ripley in this category not so much for what it was, but what it could have been.

You know how you can brazen your way into an exclusive club or party just by wearing an attitude that shouts “I belong here!”? I do this frequently at my friend’s gated community when I go pick her up, because I’m too lazy to sign the visitor book. I wave and smile brightly at the security guard and drive confidently towards the barrier, and the guard usually raises the bar for me, slightly puzzled but reluctantly convinced.

This show could have been such an interesting peek into the head of a woman who brazens her way through life. Just how entitled do you have to feel yourself to be, to play not one but TWO desirable rich men and convince an entire profession that you are the hottest new thing in academia? What happens when the make-believe world you cobbled crazily together inevitably comes crashing down? This could have been human drama of Shakespearean proportions.

I probably expected too much from this show. Once it became clear that it was going to do no more than scratch the surface of Mi Ri’s psychology and go for easy scores milking the obvious gratuitous plot moments (e.g., Mi Ri nearly getting caught out in her lies – repeatedly), I lost interest. Lee Da Hae did a decent job playing a woman with chutzpah and attitude (and superpowers of seduction), but the script never explored her more interesting moments of self doubt. One lead actor was extremely experienced and the other rather less so, but in the end they evened out as the script gave neither of them scope to be much more than plot devices. (How could anyone be so trusting and dumb?)

Here’s a Behind-the-Scenes clip featuring Lee Da Hae and Micky Yoochun. Even given that the pair of them are clearly playing up for the camera, they fairly pop with life and fun. Sadly, little of this zip is captured in the show itself.

 
Miss Ripley had problems of pacing and some barely passable acting, but its main problem was that it was just going through the motions and wasn’t trying very hard to write a fresh or interesting story. In the end I couldn’t be bothered to finish watching the show.

The Family Soap Opera

Smile, Donghae

A rich (but miserable) family is entangled with a poor (but happy) family through a love triangle, a birth secret, a forbidden love, and kimchi.

The 160-episode Smile, Donghae was my first daily drama. And probably my last. I’m cheating a bit by including it here because I only started watching somewhere after the mid-point, and only watched every four episodes. But in my defense I’d say that I don’t think I need to watch more identikit episodes to be able to say that this show was: (1) exasperatingly slow-paced (four episodes later – What? They’re still agonizing over that dumb cooking contest? And people still haven’t figured out the glaringly obvious birth secret?), (2) shamelessly predictable, and (3) devoted to head-deskingly spelling everything out in lengthy narrative dialogue. “Oh! You have arrived! You look tired. Why don’t you have a rest? Here, here’s a chair.” “Oh! I will get back at them for this. How dare they! I must win! I’m so angry!” I’m guessing that the show assumes that most of its viewers are preparing dinner and can only keep half an eye on the screen, so everything needs to be verbalized.

Here’s a preview of one of the episodes. Yup, it’s that weird mash-up of the saccharine and the emo which I suppose is the bedrock of daily dramas.

 
On the one hand, I felt my brain atrophy as I watched this. On the other hand, I was fascinated by the phenomenum. Here was a live demonstration of the state of one aspect of k-drama, you could say. The sets were fine, the senior actors – Jeong Ae Ri, Kang Seok Wu – aced every scene (the young ‘uns – Ji Chang Wook, Oh Ji Eun, etc. – not so much), the editing was competent and the soundtrack worked. All the technicalities worked. It was perfectly competent. And perfectly boring. For it lacked what well-oiled machinery can’t churn out – decent dialogue and a story with legs. It was like an entertainment factory production line, churning out the same old clichés, set pieces and milked reaction shots. It was television on auto-pilot. It was hardly even trying, and hardly bothering to hide the fact that it was hardly trying.

Because, the most STAGGERING meta fact about this show is its ratings. Towards the end of its run it was in the upper 30s easily, frequently busting 40%. Dang! Well, if one can hit ratings like that without breaking sweat, why even bother trying? Behold, the Awesome Power of the Dozy Daily Drama!

The Inspirational Growing-up Story

Dream High

I have a fondness for Asian coming-for-age television shows. I think there’s something about the innocence, charm and wackiness of k-drama and dorama that connects with this young persons’ genre.

I had high hopes for Dream High, though the casting of so many idols did give me pause. Still … Kim! Soo! Hyun! whom I’ve had an inappropriate tendre for ever since he made us all cry in Giant. And, with professional idols surely at least the singing and dancing will sweep me along?

Somehow …, not. After all, a coming-of-age drama, even if set in a music school, is still a drama. A drama which needs to have, well, drama. A drama which needs to be acted. And the show was never able to overcome the handicap of its key characters being unable to emote with any conviction (Kim Soo Hyun excepted). Add to that song and dance routines which were surprisingly un-slick, a clunky script, an adult cast being weird and affected, and ridiculously simplistic lessons on music-craft… and essentially I watched this show to the end solely for Kim Soo Hyun. Ah, the things I do for noona love.

This is my favorite scene from the whole series, when our young idol aspirants break into a number to motivate a dispirited hyung. I love this because Kim Soo Hyun the thespian so dorkily throws himself into the moment with abandon. And because it’s all about youthful exuberance and how it carries you above making a spectacle of yourself in public. Just don’t think too much about how the audio system was actually supposed to work, and the improbability of the inspirational message of “Tell me your wish” reducing grown men to tears.

 
Turning Action Thriller-Genre Tricks

Long long gone are the days when Asian cinema was entertaining for its cheap sets and risible special effects. Nowadays, many of the best and slickest action epics have long lists of Asian names in the credit rolls. The Korean film industry has pretty much gotten the action thriller, and even television can without too much effort break out the creditable stunt move and action sequence.

Athena

Athena, however, demonstrates that such technical skill is not enough. It epitomizes the point at which an art form reaches a certain level of competence and success, becomes complacent, and then just stops bothering to try to be anything more than empty bling.

Athena had heaps going for it: A successful franchise to ride on (i.e., IRIS), top stars, lots of moolah for special effects, exotic foreign shooting locations, and a firm placing in the whizz-bang action-thriller genre which doesn’t exactly require rocket science brain-power to cook up. And yet, the degree to which it all went so horribly wrong could probably warrant a criminal investigation.

Athena was slick and beautiful. And soulless. And predictable. And kinda dumb. And boasted characters as interesting as paper cups, with IQs of paper-clips. Unsurprisingly, its ratings tanked and it become the butt of reviewers’ snarky humour (self included). It just proved that one can’t take television-making for granted. Throwing a lot of money, resources and beautiful faces at a show doth not entertainment make.

Here’s the OST MV. This is a LOT of fun. Tons more fun than the show itself, and all you need to watch, trust me. It’s got all the best action sequences, prettiest locations, and coolest close-ups of the gorgeous actors. Taken out of context and edited slickly, the patched-together scenes considerably reduce logical WTF-ery:

 
Poseidon

I didn’t think it was even possible for a show in the same action-thriller milieu to exceed Athena in lameness. But Poseidon pulled it off. Lordy, I can’t even begin to explain how this show is so much fail. It is jaw-droppingly, spectacularly bad. I can only speculate that the writers got drunk one night and asked themselves, “Just how dumb a show can we write?” But then decided that that was too much effort, and delegated the job of churning out the script to their pet seagull. Then they lurched drunkenly to the archives, plundered the store of Portentous Music, and got their trained seal to match tracks to scenes. Finally, they left the editing and continuity assurance to their labrador retriever.

All the characters in the show had the collective brain power of a barnacle. The acting is a random collection of boggle-eyed shock / shouty shouty / long-drawn out reaction shot / looking resolute. Poor Siwon’s native charm sinks under the weight of all the seriousness he is supposed to carry (you know, being a hot-shot smart-ass, being emotionally tortured, chasing bad guys, not talking to his father) which unfortunately comes off being more nonsensical than moving. (Lee Jung Sae, on the other hand, (be still my heart) somehow managed to project “HOT!” even in the midst of all manner of WTF-ery.)

And yet, I don’t feel as resentful towards Poseidon as I do towards Athena. I feel it’s more reprehensible to make a bad show with lots of money than it is to make a bad show with very little money. Hating on Poseidon is like hating on a wounded puppy. It was clear that the show had long been fatally wounded but was merely struggling manfully on. It had evidently blown its entire budget on the opening sequence of speeding hovercraft and helicopters and men in black rappelling upside down (why?), and for the rest of the show could only afford a nod to its naval ambitions by filming its (lame) car chases on coastal roads. At points I even felt that the show had an artless, child-like charm about it. Like, y’know, your favorite bad movie.

Have a trailer. It’s deceptive in that it showcases lots of cool nautical hardware (which never appear again in the show) and is quite a bit more exciting than the real thing. But nonetheless the trailer is fairly representative of the show’s tone, including its weakness for indulging in Music of Doom at every opportunity. And even in these snippets you can see whose acting chops can hold up against the nonsense thrown at it, and whose can’t.


 
The Political Saga

President

I felt lukewarm about President when I heard it was about a man’s aspiration to the highest office in the land. That didn’t sound over-exciting. And I wondered whether the industry’s years of churning out historical sagas would be a boon or a bane to a modern day version. Would it be portentous and self-important? Would it be preachy? Would it be convoluted to the point of inducing catatonia?

I needn’t have worried. President was well-paced, solidly acted, sharp, and smart. It wasn’t ground-breaking; there was a moment or two when it succumbed horribly to k-drama stereotypical Big Drama. But most of the time it kept its head and stayed true to its mission of telling a gripping story of politics, integrity, family, and the personal cost of power.

The cast was solid all round. Even the young idol ‘uns did ok – I guessed it helped to have a script that made inherent sense. But it was the anchor couple Choi Soo Jung and his real-life wife Ha Hee Ra who burned up the screen. Choi is always reliable as the righteous royal figure and Ha Hee Ra is an actress with amazing presence, so when they go head-to-head on-screen… yeow!

Here’s clip of Episode Four with Vietnamese subs. Hey, that just means that if you don’t read Vietnamese it’s not spoilery, right? Besides, all you need to watch is the first 1 min and 15 seconds, when Choi Soo Jung and Ha Hee Ra yell at each other, while the young people (and we) stand cowering outside their door, terrified:

 
King Geunchogo

King Geunchogo was supposed to be the pattern card of a sageuk done well. It started out very promisingly, with an ensemble (and not too crazily big) cast and a strong fast-paced story with decent dialogue. It was The Stuff for a little over ten glorious episodes replete with dramatic plotting, scenery-chewing acting, great battles scenes, and nice sets. It had the gravitas of a sageuk without being weighed down by slow-moving and painstaking dialogue. It had hot men and beautiful women. It had comedy and tragedy and gut-wrenchingly dysfunctional royals families doing their double-crossy thing.

Here’s the opening sequences, promising all that we have come to love and expect from our epic sageuk:

 
Then it all went inexplicably to pot. I didn’t actually witness this fatal collapse as I was warned about it and hurriedly cut my losses. It will take better informed minds than mine to explain why it ended up in Dud City. Be that as it may, from a raving recommendation I now have to downgrade this to a diss-recommendation.

The Love Story (and its cousin the RomCom)

I think it’s kinda cute, this Korean fixation with the love story. K-drama floats its legions of auntie and girlie fans with the tragic machinations and/or frothy romping of LURVE. Even the most edgy, hard-hitting k-drama (e.g., Girl K, last year’s Comrades) must shoe-horn a love angle in there somewhere. Even the mystical and sublime Joseon X-Files totally had the Scully-Mulder repressed sexual smolder going.

So all k-dramas have romance, but some k-dramas are totally premised on romantic love. Now this in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. See Romeo and Juliet. And in the k-drama world see What Happened in Bali which was ALL about the love triangle and not much else, and what an exhilarating and unforgettable ride that was.

For me and 2011, however, none of the shows sampled in this category of “lurve or bust” and its cousin the romantic comedy (“lurve and laugh or bust”) connected. And seeing that the love story / romcom is the most popular genre on the internet, this makes me one deeply unpopular reviewer. (I wonder if Thundie keeps me on her writing team and tolerates my grumpiness so that her blog can be considered “edgy”, haha! Y’know, I’m the dwarf she continues to hire so that she can say that she supports diversity.) I really hate to think that I might be losing my sense of romance and/or my sense of humour. I prefer to think that this year’s romantic offerings were simply not to my taste; though in my snarkier moments I want to whine that this year’s romantic offerings were just Not Very Good.

Secret Garden

The year started as it meant to carry on, for me. Yes, Secret Garden. That great divider of humankind. One either loves it or hates it, and not much in between.

Recently I confessed to being me (Serendipity) to someone and she said without missing a beat, “Oh! You’re the one who hates Secret Garden!”. Gah. Worldwide web infamy. Greaaaaat.

Yes, I dissed Secret Garden. And I stand by my opinion. Why do I keep picking on this poor helpless drama, you may ask? Because I resent Secret Garden for shamelessly plundering all the proven and beloved tropes of a love story – masterful but damaged hero, feisty and pitiful heroine, the joy of romantic discovery and the euphoria of epic love – and randomly tossing it all together without much thought or feeling. And lazily throwing into the mix beautiful and well-loved actors, tons of fan-service (meta and otherwise), a casual nod to whimsy and fantasy, and lots of easy laughs. And then expecting us to find it all Epic.

Here a music fanvid (by Shelynet2) featuring the man himself Hyun Bin singing that song, “That Man”. (Wow, even stripped of Joo Won’s creepy, self-absorbed and borderline psychotic behavior and pared down to the wordless moments of frisson between Ha Ji Won and Hyun Bin, I still get a stalkery vibe. *shudder*)

 

Best Love

Best Love was also predicated on its OTP. If you can’t get into the OTP, you’re pretty much doomed. I love Gong Hyo Jin as an actress. I watched the show to its bitter end pretty much solely for her wondrously under-stated acting. Unfortunately, much as I liked Cha Seung Won in City Hall, here I found him grating, and as a result couldn’t give a fig about the OTP.

I felt the show got too carried away with its cute little jokes and uber meta self-consciousness and didn’t pay enough attention to basic story-telling. I also wanted to shoot the music director – most k-dramas suffer from Unsubtle Soundtrack Syndrome, but Best Love took blaring and manic music to new heights. And while we are dispensing with the music director can we also fire the editor? Usually even the most risible (and rushed) shows can manage better scene transitions. Hong Sisters humour is always in-your-face, which is okay when I find it funny, but rather headache-inducing when I don’t. I feel as if I am with someone which is suffering from an attack of hysterical giggles and can’t even eke out a coherent sentence, which is funny for about 30 seconds and then, for the remaining 15 hours and 59 minutes, not so much.

Here’s a fan-made clip (by asesege) I found on Youtube which pretty much sums up the chasm between me and the rest of the world as far as Best Love is concerned. The clip is entitled “The Greatest Love Funny Scenes” so presumably people find these scenes funny. I… don’t.

 
What happened over 16 episodes, except for Cha Seung Won carrying on manically like a parody of a parody of a parody of himself, and Gong Hyo Jin looking (understandably) pained and put upon? Could a whole string of silly pratfalls really fill 16 whole hours? Apparently. But not happily, at least not for me. Even cutie patootie Yoon Kye Sang couldn’t save this one for me, he was so clearly stuck in as Cute Second Lead Caricature, poor dear.

My Princess

Remind me again, what happened in My Princess? For sure there were two beautiful people, one bubbly and the other falling over himself being cool. There was also an extremely hot professor. There was a pretty hot kiss on a flight of stairs. Some angst. And an extremely ungracious and annoying sister, somewhere. A lot of nonsense about royal protocol and learning princessly manners and some kerfuffle over an inheritance I can’t wrap my head round now. And a sweet adoptive mother. And a prune-faced woman who didn’t approve of our princess (off with her head!). Er, what else?

Here’s the trailer, which I think quite nicely captures the charm of the actors and the flakiness of the show. (Also, shirtless Song Seung Heon. You’re welcome.):

 
I mostly enjoyed this show. I may have employed the fast forward button towards the end, but the experience was inoffensive and didn’t make me feel cheated or ragey. The show didn’t pretend to be more than what it was, a fluffy and forgettable romantic comedy. It was a harmless way to waste 16 hours.

Can You Hear My Heart

I’ve stuck Can You Hear My Heart into this category, but not without hesitation. I know that this is a k-drama which has strengths in many areas other than its romantic storyline. But I call it a love story foremost because it seems to me that enjoying the OTP is crucial to enjoyment of the show. I personally couldn’t get into the OTP, which just nudged this show into a “miss” rather than a “hit” for me.

For the first ten episodes I was quite addicted to the show. It’s a decent showpiece for k-drama and its Asia-wide auntie conquering powers. It’s like better quality candy. It’s chock-full of what has served k-drama well over the years and across continents: Lush soundtrack, beautiful cinematography, decent pace, artful episode ending cliffhangers, and at its core a rooted and consistent heart-warming story (involving birth secrets, of course, and familial plotting) that like momma’s soup is comfortingly cooked just right, not too predictable but not too funky either. We have a varied tableau of familiar characters: The spunky heroine, the poor little rich boy, the noble idiot, the cranky and beset halmoni, the evil father figure, the rough but big-hearted oppa-next-door, the outwardly-successful but inwardly-tortured young man, the rich but miserable and deeply dysfunctional family, and the poor but happy family. Portrayed with enough sincerity that they feel like a variation on a theme rather than the same old stock characters rolled out once again. It has moments of Oh! Tragedy! And moments of broad k-humour, without crossing the line into dread schizophrenia. Everything, in short, we have come to expect from a k-drama.

Have a pretty opening sequence, which nicely captures the gently sentimental tone of the show:

 
Sadly, I can’t take to the lead actress Hwang Jung Eun. I try SO hard to like her, to embrace her cuteness. But I just can’t. Her every affected gesture seems self-conscious to me; the penguin walk, the tilt of the head, the blinking of the eyes in feigned innocence. I don’t find Kim Jae Won nearly as annoying, but I don’t find him a strong actor either. I don’t find their characters compellingly written, so to get me invested would take actors of considerable skill and charm; which I personally don’t find them to be. The elder actors were much more winsome, but I didn’t find them interesting enough to sustain my interest in the show all by themselves. For instance, Jung Bo Suk was amazing in his portrayal of a simple-minded man, but I found the character’s innocence and sheer saintliness too monotonal and unrealistic to be interesting.

I recommend this show to anyone who is looking for a good old-fashioned k-drama tear-jerker. You could really knock yourself out with this one!

Me, it just didn’t capture my heart. I watched to the end largely because I fell in love with Maru, the tortured second lead played wonderfully by the revelatory Nam Goong Min. I loved his under-stated acting and non-hysterical tone (with just a couple of notable lapses, which might just be due to misguided direction). When he gazes from afar at the family he ran away from and the tears start brimming in his soulful eyes, I just want to hug him and stroke his head. Who can resist such man-pain?

Scent of a Woman

I was looking forward to this show because I liked the two leads. I don’t think either are particularly talented or versatile, but they can be very charming in the right role and if they could rub up some chemistry we should get some sparky fun. The plot-line of a terminally ill woman falling in love with an aloof chaebol heir did, I grant you, give me a moment’s pause…

It was probably unfortunate that I caught Scent of a Woman at Episode Twelve, right at the point where everyone was suffering from a terminal (ho ho) attack of noble idiocy: Hiding your terminal illness from your mom because you don’t want to make her feel bad, and it’s so much better to deceive her so that once you are dead she can feel REALLY horrible about insensitively nagging you to get a job and get married. Cruelly rejecting someone you adore and who adores you, because slapping them in the face now is so much better than dying on them later. Allowing yourself to be cruelly rejected thus, because it’s so much jollier to marry someone else whom you can’t stand.

I found this episode deeply aggravating. Why was everyone being so stupid? And, where had they taken my lovely bubbly Kim Sam Soon / Shin Mi Rae of City Hall, and who is this limp and lifeless woman they’ve left in her place? My flagging spirits were lifted momentarily by a gratuitous shirtless Lee Dong Wook, but soon sank back into the morass of misery. The moment sad-faced Kim Sun Ah walked into a wedding boutique with her about-to-be-married friend I just knew she was going to torture herself by trying on a gown and looking beautiful and resignedly tragic in it. Les Sigh.

Here’s clip of the start of Episode 8. No subs. She is confessing to her doctor her love for lover-boy who is conveniently eaves-dropping. Kim Sun Ah is limp, Wookie is trying to look stricken, and Eom Ki Joon is being heart-broken (Oh, don’t cry, cutie doc, let me comfort you!).

 
Determined to salvage the situation, I cycled back to the opening episodes where I hoped to find a more vibrant Kim Sun Ah and a less wet Lee Dong Wook, and perchance thereby a more watchable show. But alas, while the tone was definitely less depressing at the start, I found the story as predictable as ever, Kim Sun Ah merely phoning in a persona, and Wookie no better able to project a breathing personality. When I read about how the series ended, it pretty much killed any residual completist impulse and I wrote this one off.

Conclusion:

It’s been a patchy year in k-drama for me. Mostly cloudy, with a few intermittent rays of sunshine. To borrow Poseidon’s nautical theme:

The ships that sailed for me in 2011 were The Duo, Flames of Ambition, Girl K and President. The Duo was a beautiful, elegant, stately tall-ship that made my heart sing. Flames of Ambition was a nippy little sailing yacht; classy, nimble, and exhilarating to sail. Girl K was a powerful little speed-boat – a total adrenaline rush. President was a dreadnought – solid and reliable.

Can You Hear My Heart was a trusty old river boat that eventually got me over to the other side. While parts of a river crossing are fun, most of the trip is unremarkable.

King Geunchogo was the Titanic. It launched beautifully and looked unsinkable. But, alas…

Smile Donghae was a wreck, just a wreck. Best Love, Dream High, My Princess and Secret Garden were leaky from the start and sank mid-ocean. As for Athena, City Hunter, Midas, Miss Ripley, Poseidon and Scent of a Woman, I didn’t get very far from the pier before I grabbed a safety tube and jumped off, heading for shore and never looking back.

Indeed, I’m not very nice to 2011 k-dramas. Yup, the honeymoon is over.

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100 thoughts on “Serendipity takes a Stab at 2011

  1. Imagine in real life you chanced upon a group of passionate theatergoers who organised weekly dramatic performances of THEIR choice. They are accomplished bankers, lawyers, teachers, computer geeks, doctors during the day but once every week, they run an amateur drama troupe. Still with me so far? Held open air, so all & their cats can drop by to watch it …..or GO AWAY. You have an interest in this sort of thing, so you hung around & saw a couple of them, but generally hates the selection. Now, what is one to do, Oh Genteel Ones?

    1) Go away? Because you don’t like it anyway & you have nothing useful to contribute
    2) Make catcalls from sidelines, so performers will be disheartened after the continuous assault & hopefully stop this nonsense which you dislike intensely?
    3)Put up a better show to rival?

    If you are (1) you are a decently brought up, inconsequential person …….like a billion of us. Which isn’t a bad thing!
    If you are (2), you are a BITCH.
    If you are (3), let me bow to you.

    Before you scream freedom of speech, I say I see no constructive criticism anywhere. Because it’s a convenient term to hide an unsympathetic heart while violating the laws of logical criticism, which is the ONLY sorta of criticism that matters anyway.

    And lest I forget the point of this parable-”You can talk the walk, BUT can you walk the talk, Honey?”

            • But when you deliberately qualify your otherwise generic comment with petty comparisons, you are being catty, no matter what.
              I think my description of a certain behaviour was right in the context of my comment. The comment itself was to make a point as to how some people go out of their way to be dismissive & condescending without providing any point wise arguments supportive of their assertions.
              But rather than succumbing to an easy & convenient one-word juvenile summary, I should have just called out the commentator for indulging in Casual Cattiness…… Ah, Afterthoughts:)

  2. Aww Serendipity, I loved your review! In particular, I loved what you wrote about each drama — I smiled while reading your review on Prez, which is one of my faves from this year — though I certainly didn’t watch them all. I still have to finish most dramas from 2011, but I agree that this year pretty much sucked; it doesn’t help that I’m getting grumpier and pickier by the year too.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and for continuing to write on TP. Moar moar moar! <3

  3. I loved your review SO much! I only missed The Princess’s Man in the mix, but the overall was great. Love the well founded comments and more mature taste. There were so many baaad dramas this year *City Hunter, cof, cof*, that treats the viewer like a 10 year old kid with a serious logic problem. But, the few ones that surfaced did an awesome job. Congrats! :D

  4. Wow, excellent review!!! Thanks Serendipity!!! I always enjoy your writing!!! Thanks for your hard work!!! I hope you can continue to contribute to this blog….I read everything you write in this blog!!! May you have a wonderful new year ahead of you!!! <3

  5. Last year I would have been totally offended with this review. In 2010 I discovered the KDRAMA and was so in love that I had a hard time reading criticism about it. But, now with almost 30 completed shows under my belt I know how you feel. I want shows that are like….good.

    • BTW, my good shows of 2011 are Baby-Faced Beauty, Best Love (mostly), 49 Days (until the finale), and Flames of Ambition. Fortunately, for me I hunkered down with some good “older” dramas like Harvest Villa and Alone in Love, which were AWESOME.

  6. Love this write-up, serendipity! Yet another who’s disillusioned by the offerings this past year.
    Oh Han Groo was fabulous in Girl K, shame she’s such an uncool Mary-sue in her daily drama.
    Oh and thanks for mentioning Jung Bo-seok’s character in Can you Hear My Heart. He played it well, but he was written so unrealistically I just couldn’t buy any of it. I adored the opening episodes but then it just became makjangy and uncomfortable and everyone had terrible hair.

    Will get round to watching Duo once my drama load lightens somewhat. And inadvertently you’ve sold me on Midas, that MV actually looks really good. I watched the first episode and thought it was pretty decent.

    • Ha ha! You must let us know how you get on with Midas. That’s one that’s right on the borderline. I didn’t dislike it or anything. It just failed to engage me, and I don’t even know why, it wasn’t doing anything egregrious.

      • Oh, I watched the premiere back when it first aired and thought it seemed inoffensive and watchable but then felt too uncompelled to continue and Jang Hyuk’s hair wasn’t pretty enough. Maybe if it’s as good as the trailer suggests andI’m in the mood for something ‘businessy’ I will – meh.

  7. Oops, I’m late! Been trying to finish up some dramas so I can write my own review. I didn’t realize how very many I dropped midway this year.

    Great review. I like how you categorized the different dramas. I felt the same way you did about Dream High – just couldn’t get as excited as everyone else. I didn’t hate it, but I ended up dropping it after 6 eps. And Midas, Oh Lord. I felt my eyes closing with boredom. Much as I love Jang Hyuk, he had negative chemistry with LMJ.

    I usually don’t go for dramas like The Duo and FoA, but since you’re not the first person whose opinions I respect to recommend both, I’ll put them on my list!

    Thanks for the witty, well-written read, as always. :)

  8. I’ve only watched several dramas on your list, and they are in your leaky or even worst category :) but I like to read about others opinion on shows that I won’t even watch, though. For example Girl-K, I read the first recap on DB, too much blood ::shudder:: the thing is I read and see so many bad news everyday, it literally gives me nightmare, so I won’t come near a drama/movie like that, I have a friend who has been telling me for ages to read Stieg Larsson’s books, I told her what’s with the hunger for intrique and conspiracy story, I got the real things on TV everyday, even city hunter didn’t pull me. Different strokes for different folks I guess. I loved BL, FBRS, 49Days, CYHMH. You make want to watch Flames of Ambition. Thank you for the review.

  9. “I know many people love City Hunter, so I tried very hard to like it. ”
    I wonder if this is not the case for quite a few of us out there…

    And as for Do You Hear My Heart, after episode 10, I started to just watch it solely for Nam Goong Min. His portrayal of Ma Ru was right on, and totally heartwrenching.

  10. Wonderful review, Serendipity!! You expressed yourself beautifully, and all your reasons were perfectly valid. I for one don’t subscribe to the school of thought that says you need to watch a drama in its entirety in order to review it – it gives you more credibility, of course, and makes the review more well-rounded – but really, how much someone reads into a particular review is entirely up them. Clearly, I’m not going to discount a series I was interested in, on the sole opinion of someone who’s watched only two episodes… but that doesn’t mean that person had no right to weigh in with their opinions. They’re as valid as anything else.

    In fact, I remember when I was in a similar, silly mindset… thinking, I MUST finish everything I start, no exceptions… and how the viewing experience became a chore rather than something fun I enjoyed doing. I’ve watched many, many wonderful series over the years… and yet, one of the feelings that has stuck with me after all this time, was the feeling I got after dropping my very first drama: that initial feeling of bliss, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, was incomparable. Since then, I’ve never looked back. Time is too precious to waste on something you *might* eventually end up liking.

    So although I may not agree with all your opinions (Can You Hear My Heart and City Hunter were among my favorites), it is RIDICULOUS for people to attack you because your preferences just happen to skew in a slightly different direction. Hellllllo, taste is subjective, you stupid, immature people. Get over yourselves. That being said, reading the comments was actually very entertaining and enlightening…

    Still, I hope 2012 is a much better viewing experience for you. I was surprisingly impressed this year with what the drama-scape had to offer, but again, I realize that scale differs for everyone. ^_^

  11. don’t worry serendipity. i did not like secret garden. i watched it but i found it boring, too saccharine and too hollow. like junk food you know? i still don’t understand why a lot of people actually love it. the only drama that i loved was 49 days because of the relationships and the redemption of the bad people. i liked city hunter too because of the politics and lee’s adoptive father. those were the only ones that i finished. i didn’t want to watch dream high (bec. it’s about high school kids and i’m too old for that), lie to me (bec. oh god, the typical romantic comedy and i got fed up with those kinds of dramas) and can you hear my heart (bec. it’s too long for me; a 30 episode drama is too much time to invest in). hmm, i once came across president and the princess man. i guess i’ll go watch the former since i’ve grown to love political dramas and psychological thrillers. i might see the princess man someday, if i feel like watching period love stories again.

  12. First year i read reviews since i started watching k dramas in August 2010 and didn’t know last year that blogs existed… Yes make fun of me. Must have seen a hundred dramas by now…
    It’s just so funny how everyone passes the same different stages of Kdrama love :
    Discovery : Woaw !! Am i in Heaven ? France and Commonwealth are not the only ones to do TV serials ?
    First time you hear that dramas are shooted Live, the equivalent of a long movie each week :
    OK ! Now i know why seasons follow each other on screen like in my garden. And why poor cast look refrigerated, sleep deprived and undernourished.
    First sageuk : What’s that ?? So exotic and kind of old fashioned ! They didn’t dye their hair on those times ? Long live mane of glory !
    First time you learn that guys have to do 2 years mandatory military service : I’m going to seppuku… Wait, wait ! When they come back they are transformed an shower endlessly on screen. Ah ! That’s better.
    First dropped drama : You feel so guilty and lost and betrayed by the universe. How can a lame Kdrama exist to begin with ? To quote Ice Cream girl in Protect the Boss : ” Even the water is mean with me… “. Then you survive and get more selective : This is Evolution.
    You learn to precise your own taste. You begin to anticipate the next move of Actor X, Writer Y or Producer Z. You trade the frenzy love for more slow comfy relationship.
    Then you get bored and overdosed with all the clichés and plot devices and idols and wrecks.
    And suddenly BAM !! you’re stricken by a UFO borderline drama that reinvents Kdramaland.
    That’s why i’m faithful to K dramas : They are just so good at capturing new trends, new social issues, new lifestyles, new technologies ( the PC Tablets are so needed to rule a business…). Then you see new faces all the time : I just can’t stand Western tv anymore : I mean CSI season 12, Grey’s Anatomy season 8, Desperate Housewives season 8 and so on… I feel lyophilized just talking about it. You know, i bet Cable Dramas will rock in 2012… But you don’t have to believe me.

  13. It appears we have exactly the same comments on the dramas you commented here ! There are many dramas that you didn’t mention and that I liked ; it’s fortunate for this 2011 year . I always appreciate your views . Thanks for the big job .

  14. This is making me think about whether or not I’m in my honeymoon period in watching kdramas. I’d love to think that I’m not, that the time and interest I’ve invested isn’t just a consequence of novelty, but I guess only time will tell.

    I actually loved the hybridity of City Hunter. It was an action-thriller-rom-com-mystery, and I thought the swift pacing pulled it off very well. I went in expecting only action, and then I got some rom-com fabulousness and was surprised and grateful for it, because I adore rom-com and often feel that it’s cast aside as being inherently less than drama, that it’s inconsequential fluff that deserves only scorn. I appreciated that the drama tried to balance all it’s different parts. It wasn’t until episode 16, when the narrative betrayed itself and the writing for Nana became virtually nonexistent, that I started having big problems with the show. (Suffice to say that I totally understand why you put a disclaimer in your introduction; folks can get nasty when disagreements arise!) In the end I felt like the show set up this premise and then deliberately chickened out, or, to put it in milder terms, didn’t reach the bar it set. I didn’t watch Dream High because of the leads, I watched it because of one character, Pil Suk, whose story really resonated with me, despite the fact that it was swaddled in cotton candy and bubble wrap. My fondness for her kept me coming back, and she rests atop my lovely ‘n’ awesome kdrama heroines list, along with Byung Hee and Eun Chan. And Can You Hear My Heart. Ugh, I love that show. I practically have a relationship with it. I wasn’t particularly invested in the OTP, either, but I couldn’t stay away from Maru/Jun Ha, and it was just so satisfying to come to the end and have all the stories and journeys of these various characters before me. It’s a drama that inspires me to imagine more about the characters than the story presents to me: I wonder what kind of a mother the grandmother was to Shin Ae? What was the first meeting between Woo Ri and Maru like? It was a drama that made me think about what I felt, instead of making me just feel, or just think, or feel and think, but separately.

    Then again, I’m a girl who thoroughly enjoyed Playful Kiss AND Paradise Ranch, so…??? Of course, I have no problem leaving behind shows that don’t interest me (every Hong Sisters drama ever, Goong, Personal Taste, etc., etc.,) so maybe leaving behind “the honeymoon era” isn’t something to be despondent over, but rather something to rejoice in, because it means more time and focus for the ones you love.

    • @ ladidah, i agree with you that the best part of the story of can you hear my heart was the journey of the various characters. It was a joy to follow them until the end, how this family not joined by bloodline but by pain and love was 16 years ago and up to their present struggles. It was a story of about a family more than a story about the OTP.

  15. @Serendipity, thanks a great write up. You are one of my favourite writers here. Please don’t ever give up writing here even after Thundie takes a break. Please, we need you here.

    Like you, I couldn’t finish watch Miss Ripley. I had eagerly waited for it for Micky Park YuChun after I fell head over heels in love with him in SKKS last year. His acting was superb in that great saguek. But sadly, this show didn’t exploit his potential . His acting was so one dimensional, I bailed out at Episode 7.

    I felt like a turncoat to my JYJ pop idol. But I love Park Yu Chun just the same.

  16. Pingback: 2011 à Kdrama-land – Mieux vaut tard que jamais | minalapinou

  17. SP, your comments hit the mark on most of the dramas I’ve also watched. It could have been me writing the review! Since our likes and dislikes are similar, I’m going to watch The Duo and Girl K and if I have the time, The President! Thank you.

  18. I’m glad I read this. It confirmed my nagging discomfort about the quality of some k-dramas that were so well-liked by many k-fans: best love, city hunter and secret garden in particular. Athena was the titanic in my book.

    What about The Princess’ Man?

  19. I liked City Hunter, mainly for the three male leads. I had to skip every rom-com scene between Kim NaNa and Yoon Sung though. I just like the revenge-action plot. I found the comedy with ahjussi and the Blue House people to be more palatable than the cutesy romance with NaNa. Just my personal preference.

    Secret Garden is absolutely my guilty pleasure. I stopped caring about logic and plot a few episodes in and I enjoyed it much more. The chemistry between Ha Ji Won and Hyun Bin help mask some of the head-shaking aspects. But I really can’t say much in response to the criticism. I love Secret Garden despite its glaring flaws. Oh, Hyun Bin…

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