Sunday, August 25, 2013

Classic Drama Review: Attic Cat

Having first aired in 2002, Attic Cat is pretty dated by now. In terms of visual technology, it looks almost like someone's home video, at least when compared with modern Korean dramas with their cinematic sheen. Also, fashion-wise, the show bears a lot of distinctly '90s iconography such as bucket hats, wide-legged pants, and flashy-coloured fabrics. If it weren't for the strong characters and sympathetic realism of the show, these factors may have rendered Attic Cat unwatchable today.

I watched Attic Cat many years ago, sometime around 2004 or 2005, I think. And still to this day, I haven't watched a Korean drama that depicts a relationship between two young people with as much honesty and empathy as this show does. The characters are refreshingly plain: Jung Eun (played by Jung Da Bin) is a young woman with only a junior college education who's trying to just find a full-time job, and Kyung Min (played by Kim Rae Won) is a struggling law student who can't quite devote himself fully to his classes and exams. There are no heirs/heiresses, or orphans with convoluted tragic backstories, or celebrities-in-disguise...

The plot is relatively simple as well. Jung Eun wants to rent a small place of her own in Seoul, but her down payment money gets stolen. Kyung Min, who comes from a more financially secure family, offers to lend her the money because he wants to impress Jung Eun's friend whom he has a big crush on. A few misfortunes later (e.g. gambling debts), Kyung Min finds that he has nowhere else to go but Jung Eun's little rooftop apartment, to which he claims partial ownership since he made the down payment. So the two of them end up unexpectedly (and secretly) living together out of sheer mutual desperation.

Not your typical Korean drama glamour
And things get complicated.

The show is essentially an observation of two young and broke people who aren't ready for relationships trying to make things work, often with horrible timing. Both of them have a lot of growing up to do, in opposite directions: Kyung Min is spoiled and selfish, while Jung Eun lacks self-confidence and doesn't know what to do with her life. It can sometimes be frustrating to watch 16 episodes of them making false starts in terms of personal growth, but that's the realism that I enjoy so much. People, especially young people, don't develop in consistent and linear fashion; rather, they grow in spurts, then regress, or remain stagnant in doing the same dumb things over and over again that harm themselves and those around them.

It's clear that Jung Eun and Kyung Min have a lot going for them as a couple, but their youthful shortcomings and naivete often sabotage their chances. It's both very amusing and aching to watch.

But here I go, making it seems as if Attic Cat is some super serious character study into contemporary Korean youth culture or something. It may be some of that, but it's also damn funny. Most of the best humour comes from the fact that Jung Eun and Kyung Min have to keep their living arrangement a secret, especially from their very conservative parents and grandparents. Obviously, in a society where most young people live at home until they get married, an unmarried couple that lives together will have a lot of explaining to do.  The cultural and generational clashes between the young main characters and their parents and grandparents are handled with just the right touch of slapstick comedy and serious drama.

The chemistry between the two leads is excellent as well. They constantly fight due to their polar opposite personalities (she's the hard-working ant, while he's the fiddle-playing grasshopper), but it is through these fights that you can get a sense of how much they care about each other and what the other thinks. I also think that Kim Rae Won does a great job of balancing out his character's immature self-centeredness with enough earnest thoughtfulness and goofy charm so that the audience can see why someone like Jung Eun would fall for him despite his many flaws.

Yes, the show bears many of the standard cliches of classic Korean dramas: the love square, the constant misunderstandings that are usually caused by accidental eavesdropping, the very repetitive soundtrack, the evil stuck-up second female lead, the saintly second male lead who just can't spark enough chemistry with the heroine, etc.

The theme song: "Come Back To Me"

But Attic Cat executes these familiar elements perfectly. For example, the soundtrack is repetitive, but the music is chosen very well so that it doesn't become irritating. The theme song has just the right blend of upbeatness and a tinge of bittersweetness that underlines this drama. And the second male lead isn't some wimpy lovesick fool, but rather, more of a mentor figure who's truly a nice guy instead of a Nice Guy™.

Often with Korean dramas, we're witnesses to a fantasy full of wealthy men, poor but beautiful women who'll have multiple handsome men fighting over them, wicked in-laws, celebrities who mingle with lucky commoners, time-travelling royals from the Joseon Dynasty, and so forth. But occasionally, we're treated to a gem like Attic Cat that tries to portray what it's like to be young, foolish, broke, and regrettably in love with someone whom you can't help but fight with every other night.

I wish there were more dramas like this.

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