Going into this year end review, I wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as I was last year. I can’t pinpoint why, other than perhaps I simply wrote so much I wore myself out. All my drama writing in the 365 days since the 2010 year end review did make my fingers consider going on strike. My brain wasn’t that far behind either. I convinced myself that everyone already knows what I think about the dramas I watched, so why bother writing more. It was only later that I conceded the redundancy argument was really a smokescreen for my laziness at play, so my gunner personality took over and evicted the striking fingers and brain from Occupy The Bed and made them get back to work. After much coffee and lots of random introspection, I managed to produce a year end review that has a lot of words. I make no promises any of it strings together into a coherent sentence.
I’ve always watched more than just K-dramas, but this year I started writing about those other dramas, namely a select few from Taiwan, Japan, and China. I cherry picked what interested me moreso than what was a worthy subject matter, which ended up being the approach I took with K-dramas as well. My earlier wholesale consumption of each and every drama dwindled to a handful (and even less) by the time the Christmas lights were strung. It wasn’t lack of time but rather a lack of interest. Part of me misses the good old days when every drama was a happy surprise to be unwrapped, but one too many stinkers taught me a lesson to peel back the wrapper with care.
I enjoyed 2011 as a whole, because the dramas I fell in love with made me so very happy. But quality-wise it was nevertheless a lean year, with very few that will end up withstanding the test of time and the harsh realities of a re-watch. But the good and the crappy aside, it was an interesting year that had its fair share of crazy. Be forewarned that this review has SPOILERS about the plot since I’m not sharp enough these days with the surfeit of spiked eggnog to think about creative ways to rephrase such shockers like “the ending sucked because she died!!!” or “I can’t believe she chose the douchebag!” in non-spoilery ways.
The Beloved – these are the dramas which I loved, moving me in ways happy and sad.
President premiered in late 2010 but the majority of the drama aired in 2011, which was also when I started watching it. Funny enough, it created a dichotomy of sorts since I watched it alongside My Princess (which I will discuss later). One was detailed and thoughtful, the other frothy and pointless, but I ended up liking both for it’s unique strengths. Assessing President on merits alone, the drama can only be described as a tremendous attempt to dramatize the present day politics of South Korea through the lens of a presidential election. It sounds dry but watching it is an experience at times exciting and enriching. The ending was a bit sensationalized, but everything leading up to it was pure quality fare.
With real life longtime married couple Choi Soo Jung and Ha Hee Ra parlaying their immense acting talents and real life chemistry onscreen to play a presidential candidate and his ambitious wife, President is worth watching just for their acting prowess alone. It’s a tour de force, especially Ha Hee Ra just upping her intensity as the story progresses. She got right to the edge of overacting, but never once crossed over. That’s some skill right there. Choi Soo Jung deserves equal acclaim for creating a complicated character that appears to be admirable and sketchy at the same time. The drama doesn’t package him as the perfect and righteous presidential candidate, it seeks instead to debate and discuss what it means to run for president
The supporting cast is across-the-board excellent. Rather than suffer a slew of idols reciting lines, President affords the viewer a chance to see genuine acting talent in action as veterans of the industry show up in numerous roles as politicians and playmakers. I enjoyed President for its incisive look at the dirty (and the hopeful) debate within the highest reaches of Korean politics. But beyond that, the drama was also able to capture the thrills and excitement of drama watching, with plenty of cliffhangers and stunning revelations dotting the landscape. While politics remains the central subject matter, the political grind is presented with such deft skill that it never drags the storytelling down to a plodding dull mess. President is quality entertainment on all levels, and it’s a shame so few people watched it. I believe the drama is for everyone, as long as you get over the “I’m watching a show about politics” hurdle first.
The Princess’s Man
While The Princess’s Man is one of the best dramas I watched this year, for some strange reason it just doesn’t own me emotionally. I marveled at the great acting, the gorgeous directing, the beautiful score, and the taut and riveting storytelling. Everything was just excellent, but I always felt like a casual voyeur observing the proceedings with a dispassionate eye. The reason probably lies in the fact that I never connected with the love story which was supposed to be central to drama. Instead, what did connect with me emotionally was the father-daughter schism between heroine Se Ryung and her power hungry father Prince Suyang, and the strength of Princess Kyung Hee fighting to protect her brother’s right to the throne.
For me, the overarching political story, about a man who might be best suited to be King but who would spare no means to achieve it, was much more fascinating and gripping than the love story between a naive nobleman-turned-slave-turned-revenge-vigilante and a sheltered-aristocratic girl-turned-righteous princess. My reaction is strange considering I’m such a sucker for a well done love story, especially one bathed in the angst of the your father killed my father variety. Chalk it up to my moon not aligning with TPM and let’s move on.
What really resonated with me in this drama were the various interpersonal relationships governed by differing political interests. Moon Chae Won was luminous as Se Ryung, eldest and beloved daughter to Grand Prince Suyang, a man always just one step away from the throne. Park Shi Hoo plays Seung Yoo in what might be his best performance to date, creating a man who experiences the first brush of love only to have it followed by the greatest of horrors to befall his entire family, perpetrated by the father of the woman he loves. It’s not personal, it’s just business for Se Ryung’s father, who gets rid of Seung Yoo’s father and brother because they are the strongest force standing between him and usurping the throne. Seung Yoo survives the massacre and his banishment, only to return seeking vengeance, and he’s not above punishing the daughter for the wrongs of the father. Se Ryung and Seung Yoo find themselves entangled time and again, until misunderstandings are cleared away but the reality remains ever so bleak.
Running parallel to the story of Seung Yoo and Se Ryung is the story of Princess Kyung Hee and her husband Jong, a kindhearted man who turns out to be as courageous and righteous as any character I have ever watched onscreen. The secondary love story in TPM was, for me, the more memorable one, because it was so steady and patient, so hard earned and so transformative. They were not the titular Romeo and Juliet of this story, but my heart wept for their fate even as I knew it was all inevitable. Added to it a career making performance from Hong Soo Hyun as the other Princess, I appreciated TPM more than just for the star crossed love story.
Sunny Happiness isn’t just the best Taiwanese drama I watched this year, it’s my favorite of all time and looks to stay there for the foreseeable future. I say this after having watched this drama from beginning to end three times. The first when it first aired, the second when I elected to recap it, and the third just last month when I was feeling down and needing some comfort drama. SH holds up with time and distance, which is always a confirmation a drama is the real deal and not just some spur of the moment heady love affair. How SH won my heart was like a shot out of left field that I never expected, but it served more than to entertain me. It reinvigorated my affection towards TW-dramas as a whole, which had waned considerably with a very lean year in 2010, and overall with the dramas veering away from sweet and cute towards annoying and draggy. SH combined the best of the rom-com formula and created something tender, poignant, and complete, a love story that rings realistic and feels heartwarming.
This drama has all the basic tropes you find in any trendy drama – the contract marriage, the Cinderella story, two brothers in love with the same girl, first love versus true love, manipulative exes, unexpected pregnancy, and the Noble Idiot complex at work. What’s shocking is how the writing takes the far-fetched and overused situations and shows the characters reacting in low key and reasonable ways. Conversations are meaningful, relationships take time to develop, and battles for the heart are fought with honesty and candor. The plot devices doesn’t drive this story, the characters feelings and considerations create the unforgettable journey.
Mike He and Janine Chang, the former better known to play hotheaded rebellious characters and the latter known as the ice queen who never loses her cool, instead switches roles and suddenly a perfect OTP pairing is born. Mike was surprisingly perfect to play hotel president Xian Yun Jie, and Janine shared a seamless chemistry with him as the hotel maid turned contract wife Fang Yong Yong. Add to the mix the most adorable second male lead ever in Li Yi Feng as younger brother Xian Yun Chao, the drama coalesces into this addicting and inexplicably perfect romantic portrait. With a great OST and efficient directing, SH never gets bogged down in any scene or any situation. The love story was so beautiful and believable, in the end I simply wanted to spend more time with their story.
This drama is, in a word, magnificent. So much so I have trouble piecing together everything into a worthy macro overview. At first blush it was billed as a story of two boys switched at births, the beggar son becoming the young lord while the blessed by birth baby tumbles into the den of thieves. The story rewards the patient and satisfies the choosy, taking its time to create a world so realistic and the denizens so flawed that its hard to believe this was merely an original screenplay and not a novel written with the luxury of multiple drafts and years to craft. I’ve rarely seen a sageuk focus not on politics, battles, and court intrigue, but instead spends all of its time and affection on presenting the lives of the regular citizens of Joseon from all walks of life. Yes, there are officers and government officials, but we also meet merchants, beggars, craftsman, and the list goes on until you are fully immersed in the daily struggles of existing in an era full of inequality and poverty. The law is decided by the mighty, and the poor are made even poorer because they are so weak.
The Duo asks you to consider that right and wrong is not black and white, but sometimes it’s the matter of perspective. Chun Jung Myung gives a decent performance as Chun Dong, a man who grew up in a beggar hovel who has bettered himself to the point where he heads a merchant convoy. But the truth is Chun Dong is the son of the highest government official in the area, but he was switched at birth with the son of the downtrodden woman forcibly brought in to nurse him. Her son is raised Gui Dong, and grows up into a spoiled teen. But a chance meeting between the two boys turns their fate into one of friendship, one that will more meaningful than even the birth secret that forever binds them. The bromance in The Duo was my personal favorite of the year, digging deeper into what it means to respect and protect a beloved friend.
Through the course of the drama, the birth secret is discovered one-by-one yet the aftermath is handled with integrity and honesty to the human spirit. There is not a whiff of sensationalism to be found, and people deal with the present and never dwell on the past. As the father who raised someone else’s son, and had his blood son raised in a beggar hovel, the father never stops loving the son he raised and instead wants only to secretly love his real son as well. Running parallel with the birth secret reveal is a story about how people deal with injustice and feeling powerless. The story never ever descends into shock and awe plot twists for the sake of titillating the viewers. It always remains true to the principle that a memorable story lies not in the hook but in the heart.
Bu Bu Jing Xin
Bu Bu Jing Xin is epic in a way that almost can only result from a drama adapted from a literary source material. An original screenplay is written for a visual medium as a showcase for acting, while a novel aims tell a story through words and the imagination. BBJX combines the best of a vast imagination and turns it into a breathtaking sensory and emotional experience. The story is based on the fantasy conceit that a modern 21st century girl can time travel back to the early part of the Qing dynasty and find herself embroiled in a love and power struggle between a bevy of Qing princes. The time travel portion bookends the drama and serves as a catalyst, but ultimately the story is not about the magical insomuch it’s about the inevitable.
A modern twenty-something woman named Zhang Xiao finds her soul zapped into the past after getting hit by a car. She awakens in the body of a teenage young aristocratic girl named Maertai Ruoxi. She discovers that not only is she stuck in that body, she is surrounded by the princes of Emperor Kangxi who governed during the early days of the Qing dynasty. Ruoxi quickly adapts and goes on to live a fateful life intertwined with the destiny of the various princes battling for succession to the throne. Ruoxi likes, loves, and marries three different princes, but her story is about how her knowledge of history sets into motion the very events she is trying to alter.
BBJX was breathtaking to watch, with glorious visuals, exquisite costumes, expansive set pieces, and a general glamour to the proceedings that made it a feast for the eyes. With a narrative that is measured and deliberate, the drama takes its time to build the tension and develop the relationships between all the major players. Its not just the romantic aspect which is so riveting, the friendships and the battle of wits also add layers to the story and make you care about even the side characters. Watching it, sometimes your heart is literally in your throat as you gasp over what is happening but is helpless to stop it.
The drama contained a bevy of outstanding acting performances, but the one what stands out the most is Nicky Wu‘s controlled and raw performance as 4th Prince/Emperor Yongzheng. He created a love story for the ages with Liu Shi Shi playing Ruo Xi, his maturity a perfect foil for her vibrant youthful spirit. Their love story was both hard earned and impossible to maintain, so you ended up crying with them even as you know that this is a story that will stay in your heart for a long time to come. With the added bonus of Yuan Hong as the steadfast yet adventurous 13th Prince, Kevin Cheng as the passionate and proud 8th Prince, and Lin Geng Xing as the loyal and impetuous 14th Prince, BBJX created a world full of love and betrayal in equal measure, sometimes I still wake up thinking that perhaps it was all only my dream.
The Satisfying – these are the dramas I enjoyed, entertaining and worthwhile
Lie to Me
I’ve written enough words about Lie to Me to publish a small volume of meandering thoughts punctuated by the occasional squeal of delight. LTM was an experience more than a drama, a connection more than a qualitative piece of cinematic offering. Those who loved it judged it by a completely different metric than the typical viewer norms, eschewing the lack of a cohesive or even compelling story, and instead discovering the heady fragrance of attraction that overwhelmed the senses and laid waste to logic.
Taking two top rom-com stars in Kang Ji Hwan and Yoon Eun Hye and tossing them headfirst into a story billed as a marriage farce, everyone ought to have suspected this thing wouldn’t be so much a substantive drama insomuch as sixteen hours for the two leads to showcase their ability to have chemistry with anyone. Putting them together was like throwing tinder into a fire and then getting burned by the flames. Who cares that the story made no sense from the beginning and later devolved into no story at all. Did anyone mind that the second leads served no purpose and every supporting character was wasted. I sure didn’t. I love LTM for making me feel like I was a voyeur watching love blossom before me, even if the logical me ought to chalk it up to great acting.
LTM is nowhere near the crappiest drama in 2011, nor is it my favorite drama of the year despite clues to the contrary since my love for it was so exhaustive. This drama’s lasting memory with me is a reminder that drama watching is so very personal – a bond between the individual viewer and what is unfolding onscreen. Good or bad, that’s beside the point sometimes. LTM and I had a whirlwind love affair in that early Summer of 2011 that I will always remember fondly, even if the story evaporates into the ether and my heart moves on.
Dream High was a drama that started off shaky and gradually built up its momentum and trajectory. I initially wrote it off, only to return once I heard murmurs that it was getting so good. Sometimes that still doesn’t make it my cup of tea, but DH turned out to be a genuinely satisfying meal. The story of six students at a performing arts high school turned me into a toe-tapping K-pop loving fan for sixteen episodes. Aside from lead Kim Soo Hyun and Eunjung, the others were serviceable actors at best and woefully limited at worse. But the charm came across by the use of the mostly idol casts lack of acting depth and parlayed that into finding roles that suited them. The cast had fantastic chemistry, the lack of which has tanked other dramas with better actors.
Watching DH made me nostalgic for high school and giddy to watch youngsters work hard to achieve their goals. While the storylines were simplistic and the lessons overly packaged, it still resonated with me because the kids were so earnest. The execution was really fluid, making each episode just fly past and the story barreling full speed ahead towards the unveiling of the identity of secret mega-star K. Ultimately the story was about deciding if your dreams were worth fighting for, even if unexpected obstacles arise and requires you to work even harder. Nothing came easy to the kids of DH, with the drama laying it down thick that talent doesn’t equal success and hard work might not always be enough. Some kids made it, other kids found a different and equally rewarding path.
DH wouldn’t have worked for me without the presence of Kim Soo Hyun, who anchored the drama along with his leading lady Suzy. He helped smooth over her inexperience with acting and made us love Suzy’s haughty Hye Mi because his character Sam Dong adored her so much. Along the way, loving her helped him find music, and finding music led to the discovery of his talent and work ethic. I thought Eunjung’s turn as the insecure and competitive Baek Hee was wonderfully done, and her character’s arc felt very rewarding to watch, as she went from good to evil and finally found her way in the end. I can’t dismiss Taecyeon‘s presence as the hunky Jin Gook, who was an equal competitor for Hye Mi’s heart, but ultimately his story was less about romantic love as it was about his finding familial acceptance.
What I loved the most about DH was its spirit, tapping into the themes of youth dreams and competitive hopes in a way that makes you care about the characters and their trials and tribulations in making it as a performer. The petty fights were entertaining and the heavier angst was deftly woven into the kids accomplishing specific milestones. The romance was sprinkled throughout without ever overwhelming the core of the drama, which was about the pursuit of musical dreams. I appreciated the drama creating a viable love triangle and would have been fine with lead Suzy’s character choosing either boy, but her choice of Kim Soo Hyun’s Sam Dong over Taecyeon’s Jin Gook was the choice I would have preferred. The secondary OTP of Wooyoung and IU were the delightful and steady sweetness anchoring the show’s emotional thread.
On a micro level DH worked because there was bound to be a character among the six leads (also including IU in a decent newbie performance and Wooyoung in a less decent but serviceable one) that the viewer can connect with. Uhm Ki Joon and Lee Yoon Ji were excellent as the adult teachers using different ways to motivate their students but discovering that sincerity paired with technical prowess was the perfect combination. As a drama, DH gave the characters and the viewers a complete story arc with an all-around satisfying ending. I enjoyed this drama immensely and it’ll always have a soft spot in my heart.
This drama was the dark horse that bound out of nowhere and captured my heart. Like an earnest puppy with slight bowel retention issues, OG was always ridiculously cute while needing to be reined in at times. It was one of those rare TW-dramas that managed to find a lighthearted tone yet injected it with subtle touches of emotional honesty. Leads Roy Qiu and Alice Ke were just fabulous in their roles, and together created a fresh new pairing that won me over in their first scene together. Alice has that toned down aura that makes her character seem like the lone beacon of sanity surrounded by kooky characters all around her, which works to ground the drama rather then let it float off into lala land. Roy is a certifiable leading man in looks, but he’s got the acting chops to delivery fast quippy dialogue while turning on a dime and knocking it out of the park with his soulful gazes. Add to the mix Patrick Li creating a manic and cartoonish character in department boss Stallone, OG launched as a comedy with hidden emotional depth.
As the drama progressed, it became clear that story (or shall I say plot) is OG’s weakest link, a series of random incidents strung together. But my impression is that the drama is not really trying to tell a comprehensive story. It feels more like OG wants to entertain the viewer with some laughter combined with a darling OTP that will activate your urge to coo at the screen whenever Roy and Alice show up. The office politics and the various professional endeavors the characters undertake are excessively simplistic, but the drama is written with broad strokes on purpose to maximize the entertainment and minimize the critical thinking. More than any other TW idol drama this year, OG is suffused with Taiwanese humor and linguistic jokes, of the type that doesn’t translate as well when watched with subtitles. I was surprised when OG got popular amongst the online viewers, though I always suspected this drama doesn’t have the narrative hook to maintain its popularity. It’s really a sitcom masquerading as a drama, using simple obstacles to showcase the chemistry between the leads.
Compared to some dramas that splurge on the set and costume design, OG is refreshingly down to earth. Much like Alice’s character Xing Ren, a girl who values substance over the superficial. I like how the drama focuses on the situations and doesn’t try to use fancy camera work or luxe set pieces to overcompensate. But what I appreciate the most is how likeable Xing Ren and Zi Qi are, and they are likeable and relatable from the get go and doesn’t require some miraculous transformation due to love to redeem them. Zi Qi is at times immature and definitely spoiled, but he has a good heart and a willingness to better himself. So the love story in OG is really about two strangers who become friends who fall in love, all the while they pursue their own professional and personal goals. Initially they were alone, but now they have each other. They are precious together, and make OG a drama that I can only describe as happiness inducing.
Ouran High School Host Club
Ouran is a love it or hate it proposition, which holds true whether you are familiar with the source material manga or arrive at it as a newbie. You either can’t understand what’s so charming about the antics of a bunch of rich private school boys starting a host club and the cross-dressing girl who becomes their collective darling, or you loved the story so much nothing about the live-action drama could live up to your fervent imagination. I found the drama utterly winning because it made me laugh in side-splitting ways and care about characters who are as true to life as the tooth fairy is real. It captures that exaggerated manga vibe but remains so earnest in its silliness. Watching it was always enjoyable because it always delivered what it set out to do.
I also got to enjoy some unexpected sizzling onscreen chemistry between lead actress Kawaguchi Haruna as the grounded and sensible Haruhi and second male lead Daito Shunsuke as calculating and dark Kyoya. It was so random yet fascinating to watch unfold, stealing some of the thunder away from Yamamoto Yusuke‘s spot on performance as the flighty yet loving Tamaki. What sells this wacky little story is in the slow realization that it’s a sincere attempt to discuss serious teenage concerns such as finding an identity, earning the acceptance of elders, and pursuing individual dreams. So while the set up was ridiculous, it’s ultimate message was anything but. As a life long manga fan, I’m predisposed to connect with this type of drama easily when it’s done right, and Ouran did everything right in my book.
49 Days, like Dream High, took the opposite trajectory as most other dramas out there. Instead of starting off fast and losing steam to limp to its inevitable conclusion, the story about a girl who has a brush with death too early and is given 49 days to acquire three genuine tears for another chance at life was the best kind of drama experience. It tackled the heady subject matter of death, as well as living a meaningful life, and did so without being overly preachy or didactic. There were a surfeit of coincidences and happenstances littering this drama, but the emotional impact it wrung out of the viewers felt organic and grounded. For a fantasy melodrama, 49 Days left me feeling a realistic sense of peace.
49 Days was a marathon runner in a world inhabited by sprinters. It starts off slow and choppy, but with a sureness of hand where the writer is not going to cave to a demand for instant gratification but remains true to her vision of the story. As a viewer, the connection with the drama takes a long time to form, but when it does, it feels exhilarating and gratifying. Much like a marathon runner feels when they hit that plateau and no longer feel the pain but only the sense of hard-earned satisfaction.
The ensemble acting was the weakest part for me, with some actors much stronger than others. Lee Yo Won carried the majority of the acting load by playing two characters, severely depressed Yi Kyung and cheerful princess Ji Hyun’s spirit in Yi Kyung’s body. She captured Yi Kyung’s walking dead essence much better than Ji Hyun’s optimistic innocence, but managed to convey both character’s conviction and passion by the end of the drama. Jo Hyun Jae started off creaky but dropped a decent performance that was made more memorable because his character was just so easy to root for. Bae Soo Bin was overacting enough for the entire team, but I found his performance somewhat entertaining because it was so out there at times it livened up the proceedings which sometimes veered towards the dull and plodding.
Any discussion of 49 Days necessitates delving into its ending because the drama doesn’t have an overarching narrative unless you take into account how the ending brings the story full circle. While 49 Days appeared to be a drama about two girls getting a second chance at life, with the comatose Ji Hyun needing to obtain three pure tears to resurrect while the heartbroken Yi Kyung discovering the will to go on, the ending tossed that conceit out the window and instead presented a different purpose behind the story. 49 Days was about living a life full of purpose, with integrity and honesty, cherishing what is before us rather than lamenting what should have been. In the end, Ji Hyun got her three tears and resurrected, only to discover she was always supposed to die shortly thereafter. Without the accident that put her in a coma, she would have died never fixing the mistakes in her life or righting the wrongs around her. Her quest was not about the chance to live, it was about the opportunity to die with no regrets. Ji Hyun got that, and everyone around her learned a profound lesson about humanity.
Me, Too Flower!
There is a huge possibility my opinion of this drama may change by the end of its run. It can either end brilliantly, thereby validating how awesome the drama has been up to episode 12, or it can flame to a puttering close and leave me reluctant to revisit it in the future. For now, it’s securely in my satisfying category. A drama about a man suffering from severe childhood trauma and a woman dealing with depression, M2F is shockingly good. The characters are well fleshed out and the various interactions crackle with energy of all types, from anger, to happiness, to vengeful jealousy. This is not makjang, even if evil villains are plotting to separate the OTP who have worked hard to earn this chance at happiness.
Yoon Si Yoon shatters all my preconceived prejudices towards his acting skills, delivering a performance that is mature beyond his years. Lee Ji Ah also follows suit, really drawing out the insecurities and frustration of her character in measured ways. I love how the love story is both tender and passionate, with the two leads just exploding with chemistry in every scene together. I hope this drama ends well, because I’m so invested it would break my heart if the viewers don’t get a satisfying ending.
The Middling – these are the dramas that gave me a split personality, the good parts I loved, the bad parts I hated
Best Love arrived on the shoulders of lofty expectations. A Hong Sisters penned drama with two top actors in Cha Seung Won and Gong Hyo Jin, if any drama could resurrect the rom-com genre this would be it. I loved bits and pieces of it more than the entirety, like a too-rich cake you can only nibble on small bites. On a macro level this drama was good, delivering laughs, tears, and romance in equal measure, with a passably interesting story tying it all together. The unexpected love between a top male star and a has-been female idol was genuinely touching, if only the writing and directing reined itself in more. So much happened in each episode it left me almost tired from watching it, feeling rather out of breath and exhausted rather than breathlessly excited.
One of the Hong Sister’s weaknesses has always been writing characters. They write wonderfully cracky scenes and amazingly deft puns, but they can’t seem to write characters without plopping them into extremes. BL has a surfeit of that, with the male lead a cross between Bugs Bunny and Cary Grant, and the female lead just a step above a doormat. The only way these characters felt relatable rested solely in the portrayal, and Cha Seung Won and Gong Hyo Jin did the best they could. What was initially funny became less so with the characters never really maturing during the course of the drama, and only ending up together because they fell in love.
Another crinkle for me in BL was discovering that Gong Hyo Jin had much better chemistry with second male lead Yoon Kye Sang, who added another reason to watch this drama in creating the most considerate and caring second male lead character this year. Gong Hyo Jin’s naturalistic acting style just didn’t mesh with Cha Seung Won’s forceful heightened delivery, leaving me often with the impression that they are acting around each other and not with each other. I think the Hong Sisters are so talented, dreaming up really far out drama ideas and then making it an addicting reality. My only suggestion is for them to take every third joke and pun and shelve it, thereby dialing down the excess and focusing on the essence of their story.
I look at Zenkai Girl as a glass half full kind of drama. It is one of those rare romantic J-doramas where there is an actual movement towards the OTP getting together by the end of the show. So even if it took a detour to get there, it was worth the trip nevertheless because the destination was wonderfully picturesque. For a drama about ambition versus affection, with the presence of two of THE cutest child actors to walk the earth who formed their own baby OTP, ZG was simply a forgettable story aimed at eliciting all your dormant feelings to bubble forth. I was won over by its heart while completely aware that it was likely lacking a brain.
It marked the first time I’ve ever liked Aragaki Yui onscreen in any role, and brought Nishikido Ryo back to romantic leading man status after he’s been in the dark side. The directing was fast and peppy, with a pretty color palate that was a visual treat to behold. Like all J-doramas, each episode was a stand alone one where Gakki and Ryo deal with a situation that seemingly reinforces their differences but in the end brings them closer together. I laughed and cried with this drama, which really felt sincere despite its very broad stroke characters. I connected with the leads and their dilemmas in life even if it’s nowhere remotely similar to mine.
I appreciated how the drama tried to discuss the merits of living a life in the pursuit of material achievement versus the comfort of seeking a low key existence filled with familial warmth. Of course the drama focused on the two polar extremes as shown by Wakaba’s money-is-my-goal existence and Shota’s caring-is-my-forte mantra. But it was satisfying to see the two extremes edge closer towards each other like two moths drawn to the same flame. It was a darling conceit to have the two six year olds Hinata and Piitaro act as the adult at times, doling out sage advice way beyond their years. ZG ended up winning me over because it tried so hard and delivered the crucial elements when it counted, all with a truckload of feelings.
I Need Romance
I Need Romance was a refreshing and beautifully filmed friendship drama with some romantic twists and turns. It’s funny how I was coaxed into watching it by diehard fans, many of whom hated the ending and scrapped the drama as a whole, whereas I never fully loved it but found a measure of understanding and acceptance of the ending. A drama about three modern and sassy best friends living and loving in Seoul may evoke last year’s The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, but the similarities stop there. INR takes an edgier approach than its primetime cousin, with the latitude to have the friends in frank conversations about sex, and then have the various couples actually have quite a lot of sex. In a K-drama. But it wasn’t sensationalized or used to garner ratings, it fit organically into the story about three women with different personalities and outlooks all looking for a romantic connection in a realistic way.
Jo Yeo Jung really wowed me with her portrayal of In Young, a bright and capable young woman who has been dating her hunky boyfriend Sung Soo for ten years only to discover early on that he’s cheated on her. And it’s not his first time either, having done so once already and she took him back. In Young finally cuts the cords and moves on, which happens to be into the arms of her younger and equally hunky colleague Sung Hyun. The drama takes its time to mull over the difficulties of building and sustaining a relationship, while never once painting any character as evil or hateful. Sometimes people fall out of love, in the same way people are prone to fall into love. The three best friends examine their new and old relationships in all its warty glory, accepting that romantic perfection is a fiction and messy relationships a fact.
What elevated INR for me was in the directing and the scoring, turning what is just an okay story into must-see fare. The conversations whizzed by and the action swirled so beautifully onscreen that I was visually captivated by its fabulous aura. It’s like seeing a shiny pretty bag in the store display and not being able to look away. It might be superficial and shallow, but it succeeded in capturing my interest. Not all the stories were equally compelling, but I enjoyed how the writer obviously tried to be edgy and push the envelope more than on standard K-drama fare. The resolution of the Sung Soo-In Young-Sung Hyun love triangle upset the majority of viewers, but I found it acceptable because she made the choice after much deliberation and with full knowledge. I thought both men came with their own baggage and roadblocks, so In Young’s choice of what she knew and was comfortable with might seem pitifully weak but I found her decision ultimately realistic.
If there was ever a genuine bipolar drama, a drama where the first and second halves are so diametrically opposite in quality, Material Queen would get my vote. It’s like the first half was written by a renowned Pulitzer Prize winner, and the second half was written by Stephanie Meyer (oh, let me have my Twilight teasing, okay). The drama remained one of the most beautifully filmed and wonderfully scored confections to ever come out of Taiwan during its entire run, but the insane writing of the second half pretty much sank the entire production. I look back fondly because the first half was so brilliant in every way, but I can no longer recommend MQ because who wants to watch half of a drama and then stop. After bailing after episode 11, I returned once it all ended and watched the second half up it’s conclusion in episode 22. My curiosity got the better of me, but I should have let sleeping dogs lie because the latter half was a complete dud.
MQ is about an orphaned girl who grows up vowing to be governed by the principles that bread is more important than love and material goods trump human affection because the former can never leave you. Model-actress Lynn Xiong delivered a star-making performance as the anti-heroine Lin Chi Man, a woman who appears shallow but is instead so jaded and seasoned she’s simply wised up and stopped believing in fairytales. Of course this means she’ll get her own fairytale, and Chu Man crosses paths with talented but poor violinist Tsai Jia Hao, played with heart but very limited acting skills by Vanness Wu. For the first half of the drama, Chu Man and Jia Hao’s burgeoning love-hate relationship never followed the bicker and fall in love routine, but was instead two people with diametrically different world views learning about each other.
I loved how they challenged and pushed each other to accept a differing point of view, and learned to care about each other regardless of their differences. We discover along the way that Chu Man has a good heart and always does the right thing when push comes to shove, and that Jia Hao is a dreamer who needs a catalyst to push him to succeed at his musical career. Danial Chan dropped a simmering performance as the rich tycoon Yen Kai Ming, wooing Chu Man for her intelligence and honesty, with their interactions lending such an aura of danger to the drama that contrasted perfectly with the tenderness of Jia Hao’s affection for Chu Man. Watching the first half of MQ left me visually exhilarated and mentally satisfied. If the story had ended with Chu Man calling her off wedding to Yen Kai Ming and choosing Jia Hao in episode 11 of the drama, I would have decreed this drama almost perfect. Too bad it decided to forge ahead with createing an entirely brain dead and painful second half to make Jia Hao and Chu Man do everything they did in the first half all over again (but in reverse) just to earn their happy ending.
Protect the Boss
I loves this drama wholeheartedly for 2/3rd of its entire run. It was well on its way to being one of my favorite dramas of the year before it puttered to a deflating ending. Oh, the last episode was sweet and satisfying, but the final stretch to get there was a stilted mess of disappointing proportions which I blame mostly on the extension. A story about an immature third generational chaebol heir with a surprisingly decent family and his spunky secretary won me over right off the bat with its fast-paced and hilarious set up. Ji Sung was endearingly hilarious as the dilettante heir Ji Heon, a man embracing feckless immaturity as a smokescreen for a very real hidden phobia. Choi Kang Hee really wowed me with her turn as former teenage delinquent turned hardworking dynamo Eun Seol, a woman who managed to be both fiesty and practical. Added to the mix some awesome family members with funny but heartwarming interactions, plus two out-of-the-box second leads played by Jaejoong and Wang Ji Hye, this drama almost felt like it couldn’t fail. And then it sorta did.
PTB fell into the same sinkhole as many dramas when it tried to use the low stakes gambit of shady corporate dealings to create tension while the great interpersonal relationships were shunted to the side. Worse yet, by doing so it made the OTP talk and act in ways that were out of character from what was built up, manufacturing reasons to keep them apart when none were necessary to sustain the story. I fell in love with PTB because it showed people maturing, healthy relationships being built and sustained, and hard work yielding success. PTB did all that with a great sense of snappy humor infused throughout, making even dry corporate storylines seem fresh and vibrant. All of that slowly disappeared in the latter half of the drama, and with it went what initially made PTB so unique and loveable.
Drunken to Love You
This drama hits the viewers exactly like its title suggests. It’s like going on a drunken bender where everything seems like a riot and you have a blast just being goofy. But the next morning you wake up to a massive hangover and a realization that last night was pretty damn stupid. DTLY was worth watching solely for the star-making turn by Joseph Chang as the perfect and awesome male lead Song Jie Xiu, as well as the massively entertaining chemistry between Rainie Yang and Joseph. The fabulous OST provided the needed oomph to rev up even the most inane of plot developments, so even the dull felt breezy and the adorable was made even sweeter.
The production made an attempt to capture the beauty of Taipei in its artistic revival and delve into the nook and crannies that make the city so unique. I appreciated that, even if it was touched upon superficially with the presence of famed artists and bakers making a perfunctory grand entrance accompanied by the lamest of plots. The story never created any meaningful characters other than Jie Xiu and Xiao Ru, and the lack of a set second male lead created an unequal narrative where different male characters got a truncated story arc at various points in the drama. Rainie overacted quite a lot when she was playing comedic, but always nailed it when asked to deliver the angst. Joseph fared much better, doing both with equal aplomb and restraint.
I enjoyed watching DTLY but never really loved anything about it other than Joseph’s performance as Song Jie Xiu. The laughs were of the forced variety, and the romance was sapped of its initial poignancy by the writer refusing to write Rainie’s character with any depth or subtlety as the story went on. Jie Xiu changed, Xiao Ru didn’t really. Some lackluster obstacles got dragged on for too long, and there were too many last minute roadblocks that got resolved immediately the story ended up bordering on farce. But in the end, I built up an easy and casual friendship with this drama, which worked well as a warm weather trifle to while away some hours while not over taxing the brain.
If I look from afar, this drama was cuteness personified. Imagine the cutest little girl dressed in all her princess finery, looking for the world like the embodiment of sweetness and grace. Too bad she has a giant wart right in the middle of her forehead that can’t be ignored once you get up close and personal. I don’t hate MP, and in fact the drama gave me some of my personal highlights of the year. It had a great OST that I still listen to all the time, the sparkling pairing of Song Seung Heon and Kim Tae Hee is one of my top couples of the year, and there were some legendary cute moments between the OTP that I still recollect even when the rest of the drama escapes me.
The problem with MP is that it worked too hard to generate a problem. For a story about a long-lost Korean princess being found and monarchy being reinstated in democratic South Korea, MP had more than enough sturm and drang surrounding the issues of whether a commoner can or should become a princess, and how she can balance her royal destiny with creating a lasting and functional relationship with her diplomat boyfriend. That was the drama that I wanted to watch. But instead we were given the bitch and her mini-bitch show, with the presence of a hateful shrewish second female lead played by Park Ye Jin with her best pinchy-faced glory and even the added bonus of a jealous sister working to undermine the princess’s legitimacy to the throne.
These two characters, which were an insult to the female gender by heaping on the stereotypes of jealous and hateful backstabbing shrews, took over the drama in the middle parts so completely that their miasma overwhelmed the originally light and airy story. Everyone spent episodes dealing with meaningless and petty obstacles constructed by Cruella De Blunt Bob and her lackey, turning the princess into a crying mess and the diplomat into a brooding bore. Thankfully the writer was able to realize her mistake and turn the ship around for the final stretch, but the damage was done. The ending made zero logical sense and was just a fanservce to showcase the dazzling chemistry of the leads. I appreciated it, but by then I had emotionally checked out.
The Exasperating – these are the dramas that just plain pissed me off.
Man of Honor
I had such low expectations going into this drama, coming from the writing and producing team belong last year’s makjang-marinated ratings champion Baker King Kim Tak Gu. I wish my expectations had stayed low and dropped it, saving my sanity in the process. But a combination of the first few episodes being surprisingly dreamy and the immediate awesome chemistry between the leads captured my attention right off the bat. I knew this wasn’t anything but a potboiler by-the-books K-drama about revenge and birth secrets, but I loved Park Min Young as Jae In and Chun Jung Myung as Young Kwang so much that it roped me into climbing onboard despite my initial misgivings. Knowing the limitations of a drama helps smooth over the silly portions so that I can selectively enjoy the solid moments of plot and character development.
Too bad what little this drama had going for it was slowly and painfully seeped away by the sheer ineptitude of the writer to remain consistent with his own thematic structure. The light but darling fantasy elements were obliterated for the sake of turning everyone mopey and the plot duller than dishwater. In some ways MOH reminds me of Cinderella Unni (where PIE was also abused and misused as a character), where the drama started off so promising yet descended into puttering in circles with no discernable direction. The love story in MOH turned into random interactions while the second male lead become a lovelorn Romeo instead of growing a personality and finding a purpose aside from being some misguided knight in shining armor.
I don’t mind a drama attempting something excessive and somewhat farcical as long as it is entertaining. Watching Son Chang Min as the evil villain holler and hoot his way to giving himself an aneurysm was amusing, making him a self-aware character. Add to that the fauxcest and the birth secret revenge potboiler elements, it was almost like MOH knew how stupid it was but wanted to do it all in a new way. So we got a Fairy Beggar Grandpa, a seemingly powerful mysterious team leader character, and plenty of people lurking around making intense faces. I was sad when the original concept of Jae In wanting to become a nurse and Young Kwang struggling his entire life to become a baseball player was shelved so they could pursue a corporate opportunity. I hoped it would be accomplished quickly and the story get back on track, but alas, my hopes were dashed with a splash of cold water to my face.
The second half of this drama completely went off the rails in terms of story and directing, with nothing happening that remotely made sense and everything being delivered as if the actors were miming. When the adored chemistry between Jae In and Young Kwang disappeared because they hardly interacted anymore, I knew it was my cue to get off this sinking ship. MOH is yet another confirmation that sometimes a writer doesn’t even fully map out the entire story beforehand. Every plot development after the midway point began to resemble a kid throwing mud pies against the wall and calling it a painting. I feel terrible for the cast, and dismayed that a prime airing slot was wasted on this drama when something better could have aired.
Why did I watch this? Oh yes, because I have an inexplicable love for Changmin and because the morbid curiosity got the better of me. I lasted almost to the end, but it’s more than enough to render a verdict on this sad little puppy. PR is easily the worse drama of the year, failing in almost every aspect so spectacularly it actually becomes amusing. Starring Changmin and Lee Yeon Hee as a couple married as teens and divorced a scant year later, they reunite as adults and find their strange attraction to each other might not be completely over and done with. Most of the action takes place on the always beautiful Jeju Island, with the drama trying to milk the scenery and hope you don’t notice the horrific acting from the two leads and the all-around stupidity of each successive plot development.
Second male lead Joo Sang Wook actually looked embarrassed to be there, especially since his introduction in the drama came in the form of him riding a mechanical bull while dressed like a cowboy. Ain’t that a kicker. And no, I did not make that up, though I (and Joo Sang Wook) surely wish I did. Since we’re discussing embarrassing entrances, Lee Yeon Hee’s character also falls face first into a pile of horse manure within ten minutes of episode 1.
Normally I enjoyed second chance romances, because the romantic and sexual tension is built in from the beginning. PR couldn’t even do that right, as Changmin and Lee Yeon Hee was as much a credible OTP as a pair chipmunks fighting over a nut. I couldn’t figure out why they even liked each other back then or now, and surely wished one of them was airlifted off Jeju so they could both start over with their respective new love interests.
I suppose my misery was self-inflicted since all previews and promo materials made this drama look as inane and pointless as it turned out to be. But sometimes inexplicable fascination grabs hold of me and I have this urge to click play. Once I started watching PR, I kept going because Changmin’s bad acting was the likes I’ve never seen before (but he was so cute doing it) plus I wanted to see if this stupidity might have an ultimate payoff. Like a Changmin make out session. Nope, that never came either. If this was a movie I paid to see I would have asked for my money back.
What’s That I Watched?
Spy Myung Wol – I watched the entirety of this drama, but can’t even bring myself to write a full review of it, thereby justifying wasting even more time on it’s combination of dithering insanity and behind-the-scenes lunacy. For a drama about a North Korean spy sent to marry a South Korean Hallyu star, SMW ended up writing itself into the K-drama annals as a spectacular trainwreck. Eric had lukewarm chemistry with Han Ye Seul, who showed that she still can’t act beyond looking fierce, and second male lead Lee Jin Wook was the only redeeming feature even if he essentially was a walking, talking statue for the entirety of the show. Just think about what it means when Lee Jin Wook, who normally can’t act his way out of a paper bag, stole the show. Yeah, even I’m amazed.
Midas – So damn boring. Everyone was miscast except for Kim Hee Ae, but let’s not pretend the majority of viewers originally interested in this drama was in it for her. Jang Hyuk played a uptight and boring derivation of his character in Tazza, while Lee Min Jung should have played his daughter rather than his girlfriend. I don’t mean he’s that much older than her, just that their lack of chemistry rendered their romance wholly unbelievable. Financial skullduggery is always dry a subject matter, but Midas managed to put me to sleep because it did nothing interesting with it. I got about 2/3rd in before bailing for good. Plus watching No Min Woo actually starve himself to the point of needing medical attention to play a cancer patient was the type of method acting I don’t care to observe.
Athena: Goddess of War – So stupid and big-budgeted it was like an apocalyptic combination of suck and bling. Wasted every single member of the cast, which contained some of my favorite actors EVER. Jung Woo Sung and Su Ae had zero chemistry with each other, and the piss-poor writing flushed everyone down the toilet. Cha Seung Won was suitably bad ass, but the big conspiracy never made any sense to me so his villainy lacked any punch. In the end, I cursed Taewon Entertainment to the Heavens and then pushed delete so fast my fingers jammed the keyboard.
Poseidon – Managed to be stupider than Athena, which is a feat in itself. It was like a community production of a K-drama.
Sunshine Angel – A remake of Successful Story of a Bright Girl, the beginning was cute enough and Wu Zun and Rainie Yang had great chemistry that I thought it might actually be decent. I was wrong. The conflicts were nonsensical and the resolutions ever more asinine. Even the romance turned into needlessly complicated caused by weak obstacles. I tried FFing but even then I couldn’t find enough to sustain me past the midway point. Rainie went full throttle on her cutesy over-acting routine (after toning it down in parts of Drunken to Love You), and Zun still can’t act but has never looked hotter.
Hayate the Combat Butler – Park Shin Hye‘s first TW-drama was a manga adaptation and co-starred the continually improving George Hu. It was cute. That’s about it. Unlike Ouran, I couldn’t even find a greater purpose to this story. I lost interest with each successive episode until I just plain forgot about it.
In Time With You – Qualitatively an excellent drama, but I hated the heroine so much I wanted to shove her head in a toilet. It wasn’t just that she was unlikeable, it was the drama trying to convince me she was unlikeable yet all these guys around her loved her. And that this drama was meant to be realistic. Come again? I have yet to find men who clamor for a shrewish, waspy, condescending bitch from hell, even if she is aware of her own flaws and sometimes laments why she can’t change. To make Bolin Chen‘s Lee Da Ren remain steadfast in love with Ariel Lin‘s Chen You Qing, the drama turned him into a spineless long-suffering weakling, and for that I can’t countenance a drama so blatantly writing unrealistic characters and then having the gall to sell it as realistic. People like You Qing and Da Ren exist in this world, of course they do, but then they don’t attract the types of affection they are surrounded with. As for the story, it manipulated an easy way to resolve each and every situation (this one is gay, that one is a cheater, etc.). I understand why people appreciate and even love ITWY, it’s just not for me.
Secret Garden – I reviewed SG in my 2010 year end review because 10 episodes had aired by then and I loved it so much I wanted to include it. Too bad the remaining 10 went down the drain for me, eschewing any meaningful character and relationship development after the interesting set up and instead turned it into superficial glossy fantasy drivel for the sake of selling Hyun Bin‘s hotness. The story made no sense even within the fantasy context, and everyone was there just to show off Kim Eun Sook‘s all flash but no substance dialogue. Ha Ji Won was the most listless I’ve seen her in years, though Binnie was excellent even if his character was mildly repellent. I did enjoy second leads Yoon Sang Hyun and Kim Sa Rang‘s interactions well enough. But lacking any emotional connection with the OTP, all the flaws in this drama became glaringly apparent to me, and my disappointment became impossible to ignore.
Year end reviews are really excerpts of a viewer’s mental catalogue of dramas consumed. It’s a retrospective overview but not necessarily the entire picture. Written at the end of the year, when time has softened some harsh edges and brightened some dull recollections, it doesn’t aspire to be accurate or comprehensive. What I loved when I watched may not hold up well with the passage of time, and first impressions may have transitioned into second or third opinions that end up leaving the strongest imprint. For better or worse, these are my final opinions on the 2011 batch of dramas I watched. I wished some dramas I loved were qualitatively better. I also wished I loved some qualitatively better dramas more. But I had fun, learned a thing or two, and hopefully wasn’t traumatized too much. For my end of the year wish, I hope next year’s drama watching still brings me joy and writing about watching dramas still brings me satisfaction.