Saturday, June 15, 2013

Drama Reviews, Pt. 1

Remember these? 
The first Korean dramas that I can ever remember watching were Star In My Heart and Autumn Fairy Tale. Those were truly the olden days, so in order to watch them, my parents would have to go to the local Korean supermarket and rent home-recorded VHS tapes, still in their generic off-white covers. I think there was one obscure cable channel that occasionally relayed Korean network TV all the way to North America.

Now, all I have to do is go to a website like Viki to have easy access to HD quality of every Korean show out there. And after watching it, I can go to Dramabeans for a recap in case there were some things that I missed, and see how others felt about this and that.

What a different world it is now.

Answer Me 1997

Answer Me 1997 is about a boy band-obsessed teenage girl named Shi Won. She lives in Busan with her parents. She and her father constantly fight, especially because he thinks her beloved pop stars are ridiculous. The show follows the lives of her and her friends through their high school years before jumping to depict them as a adults in their 20s.

Shi Won and Yoon Jae: Childhood friends and... future lovers?
What makes this show work is that it stays as grounded as possible and pays very close attention to its time period. While it may be a little silly to refer to a 90s-centered show as a period piece, there were very distinct and unique elements of that era, especially in a rapidly-changing society like Korea's. Of course, I didn't grow up there so most of the attentions to detail were lost on me.

But even so, it was easy to tell that this show was dedicated to telling an honest story. There are no gimmicky plot points or high-concept ideas that could easily be converted to an elevator pitch. This is "just" a show about a pretty normal teenage girl who's obsessed with pop idols and finds school to be a struggle, both in terms of academics and personal relationships. Her story isn't particularly exceptional or different from those of others like her, but a story doesn't need the bizarre or the extreme to be interesting.

It's the characters who make stories, and this drama has plenty of good ones. You can tell if a show has solid characters if you can envision each one being the protagonist of his or her own show. That's evidence that the characters, even the supporting ones, have enough depth and motivation to not simply be plot devices for the leads around whom everything in the universe revolves. Every character here is well-defined, so much so that viewers become emotionally invested in the little life events that are familiar to us all.

Shi Won and her friends making good use of school time by perusing
through celebrity magazines
Answer Me 1997 is beautifully shot in warm cinematic tones, and it deftly moves from funny to sad to bittersweet to funny again. It deals with issues like homosexuality in a sensitive and fairly realistic manner, and the story is paced well so that it doesn't drag on towards the end as a lot of dramas do. The only flaws that I can think of is that the story becomes a bit less interesting once it shifts to their adulthood. Plus, they don't even change the kids' hairstyles. Come on, who keeps the same hairdo at 27 as they did at 17. Also, this is just due to my lack of Korean fluency, but the Busan accents made it difficult to understand what they were saying sometimes. It almost sounded like Japanese when I couldn't understand.

Very highly recommended.

School 2013

I was never educated in the Korean system, and I'm quite grateful for that fact because the stories of unbearable pressure and anxiety are rife and infamous. So I'm very curious as to what the actual experience is like.

School 2013 tries to examine the issues that contemporary Korean high school students face. The show revolves around 2 teachers of very different types. There's Teacher Jung In Jae, who believes that it's her job to instill a love of learning (especially her subject, literature) in her students, and that she should become emotionally invested in their personal development. On the other hand, Teacher Kang Sae Chan believes that his job is to maximize his students' test scores so that they can enter the university of their choice. He sees himself as working in a kind of service industry, and he is loath to get attached to any of his students.

Teacher Jung In Jae (left) and Teacher Kang Sae Chan (right)
Perhaps the dichotomy is a little heavy-handed and obvious here, but it does give us a chance to see the clashing of two diametrically opposed philosophies. And this isn't some fairy tale in which the effortlessly idealistic Teacher Jung magically inspires her demoralized and stressed out students with a few poem readings, thus vanquishing her cynical counterpart. The harsh realities of public education and the competition they engender in not only the students but also the administration are made apparent at every turn.

Two things made this drama particularly compelling. First, the give-and-take relationship between the two teachers provided the show with a strong heart. Teacher Jung isn't a totally naive, and Teacher Kang isn't completely heartless. They exasperate one another, but they also yield as well because they're not perfect people who have nothing to learn themselves.

Long-time friends Park Heung Soo (front) and Go Nam Soon (back)
have to deal with troubled home lives and constant run-ins with
the law
Second, I loved the show's panoramic treatment of the students. Almost every type of student is given a fair and rounded treatment, from the try-hard to the overachiever-with-the-crazy-mom to the bully to the joker to the drifter... The show even pauses to pay attention to the "nobody" students, the ones who lack any sort of distinguishing characteristic, whether good or bad, at that stage in their lives. I thought that that was a very insightful touch because high school stories tend to solely focus on the extreme personalities as if they're the only ones that matter.

I immensely enjoyed this drama because of its diverse portrayal of characters, and its realistic treatment of a complex problem. Some drawbacks are that a few of the young actors who play the supporting student characters aren't that great at acting, but they're not distractingly so. Besides, the drama is carried well by the two actors who play the teachers, as well as the two young actors who play the two main students. The actor who plays the bully is also very engaging as well.

Song Ha Kyung (left) is too much of an academic gunner, and
Lee Kang Joo (right) is always trying to help others, even
at her own expense
Another highly recommended drama.

Flower Boy Next Door

I was excited about this one because it's a TVN show (the same cable channel that made Answer Me 1997), and it stars Park Shin Hye. The story revolves around a reclusive girl named Dok Mi who rarely ever ventures out of her apartment and lives a frugal life as an underpaid copywriter. She has a crush on a man who lives in the building across from hers, and she likes to spy on him. Her neighbors are two struggling web-comic artists, one of whom starts a comic based on her because he's been secretly in love with her from afar.

Park Shin Hye: So cute! Even when she's
supposed to be a Howard Hughes-esque
I stopped watching it because I didn't feel that the show had a sense of direction. It seemed to be mainly about this group of zany characters who existed in this claustrophobic little universe that revolved around them. It was hard to get a sense of who Dok Mi was because she was always hiding away or running away, and just being passive and quiet. If that's her character, then that's all well and good, but I needed more of an explanation as to why she was like that in order to care.

I really want to give this another chance, so I'll start from episode 1 again soon.

Queen In-Hyun's Man

I was drawn to this one after seeing how gorgeously shot it was (I guess I'm just a superficial jerk), and hearing how the chemistry between the female and male leads was great. In fact, they're dating in real life now, I believe. I also saw the lead actress Yoo In Na in the TV series High Kick 2 and the drama Secret Garden, and I liked her in both.

The plot is pure fantasy: a Korean warrior-scholar from centuries ago somehow time travels to modern Seoul and just so happens to run into the actress who is playing the TV show version of the very queen that he served. This time travel conceit was all the rage last year in Korean dramas, and while I usually despise time travel as a premise, reliable reviews praised the show as being the most consistent and realistic in adhering to its own time travel rules.

The problem with the show is that I'm still not a fan of historical Korean dramas, and significant parts of the early episodes are set in old timey Korea where everybody speaks in very affected ways and act in manners that seem very theatrical to my gyopo eyes and ears. I liked the show when it stayed in the modern era, but whenever it went back to the time of swords and horses, I found my interest flagging and eventually, I stopped watching.

But the drama as a whole looked promising, so I will probably revisit it soon.

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