I can’t say 2013 has been a great year for me on the personal front, and that sentiment extends to the drama offerings I’ve sampled this year. On the upside is a general feeling of acceptance and I don’t mean that in a depressed and resigned way. I rather came away from the year happy with the ups and relieved that I survived the downs. Same goes for drama watching and seeing the good stuff being so entertaining while the terrible mind-numbing stuff slid right off my back like soft butter. I found 2013 a fun and uneventful year for the drama watcher – there were unexpected surprises both good and bad, and one giant hyped up drama that was a hoot following along with. Sageuks and melodramas ruled the roost while a genuine rom-com was nowhere to be found. There were plenty of Kings and even one Empress, but it was the Heirs that got everyone talking even if mostly to make fun of it. Cable made another giant leap forward to the mainstream consciousness and with it came greater selection but not consistently higher standards.
A good drama was still a rare beast indeed, but I found enjoyment in even the bad dramas if there was something worth staying around for. This year brought another group of new pretty boys to the forefront while some established pretty boys went off to the army. The anticipated couplings weren’t always winning due to poor script or chemistry while a few seemingly random pairings added delightful energy to the viewing experience. I can’t say there was one drama that I loved above all else and beyond all reason and that was one thing I missed dearly. A few dramas came close to tapping that crazy-in-love nerve in me but none quite hit all the right beats and most always limped past the finish line. While last year was all about the time-traveling, this year sageuks ruled the airwaves with more than the usual numbers even if some were better left untold. The year started with decidedly low buzz, ramping up with high profile Spring fare, leading into the supernatural ghost genre having a small run over the Summer, followed by Fall with lots of potential and none fulfilled, and finally a whole new batch of Winter dramas launching even as I press publish on this year end review. Let’s take a look back, shall we?
ALL THAT DRAMA – THE REAR VIEW MIRROR IS STARTING TO LOOK FUZZY AND THAT’S A GOOD THING. MAYBE?
I Summon You, Gold
I always check out weekend dramas on a whim and follow along until I lose interest. Ones interesting enough to keep me following along typically all collapse by the end, but some collapse harder than others. No other weekend drama in 2013 collapsed quite so completely as I Summon You, Gold. I should have known better when the promo posters were the strangest things ever. One showed the whole cast looking into a box filled with gold, another was leading lady Han Ji Hye popping out of a box while male lead Yeon Jung Hoon held a bat stick over his shoulder as if to club her with it. I watched out of curiosity and the early parts were easy to digest with a lighthearted tone. A mega-rich family owns a jewelry empire and the evil mean Chairman Daddy has three sons with three different women. Currently mistress #1 (mom of son #2) lives with him, while his legal wife (mom of son #1) is divorced thanks to the machinations of mistress #1, while mistress #2 (mom of son #3) lives elsewhere and is constantly jostling for power. The first two sons are married while the third son’s marriage takes up the first part of the drama. Son #1 is played by Yeon Jung Hoon and he’s married to the mean bitchy Han Ji Hye, while nice hardworking Han Ji Hye is a completely different character and an aspiring jewelry designer who sells her wares on the street.
Bitchy Han Ji Hye leaves Yeon Jung Hoon, so he finds doppleganger nice Han Ji Hye to pretend to be his wife lest his dad disown him. The rest of the story is all about which of the sons gets to inherit the family jewelry business. The supporting cast is across-the-board bland and no other character or coupling is interesting other than watching Yeon Jung Hoon find romance with a woman who looks like his wife but is not a raging bitch. Then all hell breaks loose mid-way through the drama when its revealed that the two girls are twins separated at birth. This comes as news to everyone in the drama (but not to the viewers), and the main love time promptly dies a flaming death. Yeon Jung Hoon goes from trying to divorce his wife to marry the nice version to going abroad for a year to clear his head and comes back to find his wife has magically become nice. In the end he stays with his wife, no longer bitchy Han Ji Hye, while the nice doormat Han Ji Hye (the one he fell in love with during the majority of the drama) becomes a jewelry designer and achieves that dream and is now his sister-in-law. The drama ends with the three brothers with their three wives being all lovey dovey, while nice Han Ji Hye walks alone by the river looking very optimistic. What The F*ck Just Happened does not even begin to describe this drama.
I’m used to ridiculous makjang evilness on weekend dramas, complete with copious amounts of slapping and arguing in circles until the time comes for a quick resolution to pop up before moving on to the next plot device. Such dramas are meant to be watched without taking anything seriously – families in Korea, no matter how rich or poor, would be hard pressed to ever behave like what is presented in so-called weekend family fare. Even so, the construct of a story needs to at least have a semblance of sanity but this one came across like a really long 50 episode SNL skit. The central love “triangle” was really just two separate love lines that shared the same guy, and was resolved by pushing one side off the cliff. Han Ji Hye played twins wonderfully but it was bizarre for the drama to write rich twin as a bitch from hell and good twin as a paragon of virtue, and then abruptly redeem rich twin when it was clear Korean audiences were NOT having it with a man leaving his bitchy wife for her twin sister, albeit long-lost and recently reunited one. Marrying sisters is a no-no taboo apparently, but what kills me is that the writers clearly knew the two girls were twins since it was written that nice sister was adopted and who the hell has an exact doppleganger running around in Seoul unless it’s twins. So watching this was akin to seeing a someone knowingly shoot themselves in the foot with a loaded gun.
In a nutshell: Avoid at all costs unless you are in need/want of a lobotomy.
Gu Family Book
This was my most highly anticipated drama in the Spring season, heralding the drama return of Lee Seung Gi after last year’s amazing The King 2 Hearts but tackling a new genre for him in the sageuk. I thought the premise looked fantastic – he’s a half-gumiho/half-human hybrid who wants to find the Gu Family Book so that he can become fully human. A hero’s journey with a express purpose that is easy to root for, what could go wrong? His leading lady Suzy didn’t worry me too much with her casting. Despite all the deserved criticism of her painfully flat acting, I thought she had enough star charisma to at least make her character entertaining to watch. The first episode really impressed me with the fantasy elements and an unexpectedly decent outing by Lee Yeon Hee in a cameo role as the mother of the male lead. Everyone was also captivated by Choi Jin Hyuk‘s turn as the gumiho daddy-to-be and all in all it hit all my sweet spots. But episode 2 fell apart unexpectedly with some bizarre character behavior and the seams were never sewed back together for the rest of the drama. I couldn’t figure out how the two parents fell in love that quickly, or why the mom betrayed her husband so abruptly to a murderous rapey villain. If it had to be explained then it was a stretch and that was one too wide for me to cross.
I hoped the arrival of the main cast when the male lead grew up to be my beloved Seung Gi would induce me to reboard this ship but the narrative clumsiness continued now with more added bad acting in the form of Suzy. She wasn’t just bad, she was shockingly bad for a sageuk even one wearing the mantle of fusion and is really more comic book that historical annals. I watched this drama to the end mostly because the problems didn’t vex me to the point I couldn’t continue, but I kept wishing the characters and story could feel more genuine and less cartoonish. It helped immensely that the two main characters were very likeable, even if Yeo Wool had zero depth and was just too perfect all the way through. Because I wasn’t invested in this story, I even found the ending quite endearing because it was so…..out there. How the ending was so unnecessary for the sake of generating a final twist reflected how I felt about the entire story. It was just so clunky and the execution ham-fisted there wasn’t much to critique. The villain was over-the-top villainous, the hero beyond heroic, and the journey all about hitting every trope in the book. With the title having the search for a mystical book, the drama ended up barely touching upon it and instead let the villain’s machinations lead the story. Sometimes the bad guy really does drag a story down and this was one of them. If the drama had focused more on the fantasy human-mystical being love story, that would have been more than enough angst to satisfy me.
In a nutshell: Story has no shades of gray or depth though the leads are cute as a button together, but beware of a out-of-left-field ending.
Scandal: That Very Shocking and Immoral Incident.
Best weekend drama of the year. Also, hands down worst drama posters of the year. The end. Oh, I’m supposed to talk about Scandal: That Drama With the Overblown Title? This will be an accolade filled discussion so get ready for superlatives to fly left and right. Kim Jae Won returned from the military and hasn’t picked a project I liked until this one came along. May Queen was last year’s I Summon You, Gold, and he had to drop out of Me Too, Flower! due to an injury and Yoon Si Yoon took over. I’ve also never been wowed by him even before he went to the army so I figured he was always going to just be easy on the eyes but fleeting on the impression he leaves. This was the drama that turned me into a fan, not a raging fan but a drama fan who appreciates watching a seasoned actor actually improve before my eyes and in ways that is understated but impressive. This drama probably isn’t for everybody and definitely not for the faint of heart, but for those who enjoyed chewing on a dense meaty makjang melodrama, this one hits all the right spots.
The set up is the usual convoluted coincidences and tragedy rolled into one. Evil villain is married to suffering wife who lives apart from him. He has a mistress and daughter on the side. When he tries to divorce suffering wife, she reveals they have a son together. Before evil villain can claim his rightful heir, his greed has caused the collapse of a building and led to the death of heroic cop’s son. Heroic cop goes to kill evil villain who has used his money to evade justice, but in his grief stricken state he encounters evil villains adorable son and in the spur of the moment takes him away. This becomes a inadvertent kidnapping, but heroic cop and real son grow to love each other, while suffering wife has found an orphan to pass off as real son so that she can avoid evil villain divorcing her and taking all the family money. 25 years pass before everyone gets intertwined in each others business, and the fundamental theme of this drama is forgiveness and atonement for sins and the story executed it magnificently. A well done makjang is taking totally ridiculous events and making it a meaningful discussion of the human condition and Scandal did just that.
With the acting of powerhouse veterans like Jo Jae Hyun, Shin Eun Kyung, and Park Sang Min, the parents brought their pain, suffering, hope, and hubris to life while reminding us that even good people can do bad things while evil villains are also capable of love in limited ways. The acting was so good it helped sell the improbable story, and each development was always so beautifully rendered by well-wrung tears and a successive string of great OST songs. Leading man Kim Jae Won turned in a career-changing performance playing the real son who has to deal with the father he loves being a kidnapper and the criminal he is hunting being his real father. His character was reticent but capable of great wisdom and understanding, and he was the one who held the key to resolve the impasse. The ending was both cathartic and healing, allowing the pain to be addressed so that the innocent ones can face a future without the baggage of the past. The romance in this drama is very ancillary so don’t go in expecting much of it and leading lady Jo Yoon Hee was merely serviceable and there for the needed sanity when everyone else was caught up in absolutely devastating circumstances. This drama doesn’t give makjang a bad name and reminds me of the gold standard of writing utterly shocking dramatic elements but presented in a very moving and sincere way.
In a nutshell: If you are suffering from water retention, this is the drama to milk your tears dry through amazing acting and a surprisingly heartfelt story that rolls to a smart conclusion.
Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love
This drama turns me bipolar but in hindsight I really do appreciate that it existed. Kim Tae Hee continued her re-invention and redemption tour from a pretty flower vase to a bona fide actress deserving of her A-list status. She’s not totally there yet, but Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love proved that it’s a wise decision to throw my hat in the ring for her corner to win it all. When the Spring K-dramas were announced JOJ was the one that caused eyebrows to raise everywhere. It was a reinvention of the Jang Heebin story that every Korean knows. There once was a beautiful but power hungry concubine who seduced a Joseon king and ousted his good queen and caused turmoil in the nation until she got her just rewards and was sentenced to death by poison. Forget the “blame the beautiful woman” historical subtext of it all, it was an ambitious undertaking to take such a well-known villainess and turn her into the heroine of the tale. I thought this drama would be a hot mess but it never crossed my mind that Korean audiences would never even stay long enough to render a verdict on quality. They disdained it from the outset because of the vast discrepancy of changing a hated femme fatale into a Candy heroine, and that ultimately caused a promising drama to devolve into a mess in search of ratings.
I watched JOJ expecting to laugh at the ridiculousness and the bad acting and instead walked away from episode 1 in love. Totally and completely won over by an unexpectedly fascinating story and a truly impressive improvement on the part of Kim Tae Hee. The other leads were just as wonderful from Yoo Ah In playing King Sukjong, Hong Soo Hyun as Queen In Hyun, Lee Sang Yeob as Prince Dongpyung, and a masterful turn by Song Dong Il as the resident queenmaker. It was a little weird that second male lead Jae Hee kept not showing up with each successive episode, but other than that the first 8 episodes was glorious sageuk magic – impressively intense with thrumming epic romance. It was as good as it gets for me, and helped lessen my disappointment with Gu Family Book. Then the first cracks appeared by episode 9 when the typical overwrought elements started sneaking into the plot, and for a drama which had mostly single digit ratings I thought SBS would just let this one unfold on its own without much intervention. I was wrong and the beautiful JOJ turned into the hot mess that I thought it might be prior to its airing, almost like a horrible nightmare coming true.
The entire second half of the drama resembled a weekend makjang but wearing sageuk clothes. The early episodes had genuine sincere angst but the latter episodes had all the leads plotting in illogical ways for the sake of generating conflict. The worst part was the whiplash personality change of Jang Ok Jung from a woman with personal fashion dreams of equality to a woman focused only on her love with the King. It reduced the entire drama to their love and left nothing for creating a world beyond petty plotting palace intrigue over success and power. Jae Hee did end up showing up midway through the drama and had about as much screen time as extras, which encapsulates the irony of this drama rewriting itself into the mess it never was in the first place, including the random screentime shafting for the second male lead. In the end I’m not terribly mad and thought JOJ at least tried and it couldn’t have expected such vehement rejection from the domestic audience from the outset. It’s not a drama I would ever re-watch, not even the perfect first 8-episodes, but I have no regrets that I took it up and walked away loving Kim Tae Hee in a whole new light.
In a nutshell: The first half is unicorns and rainbows and singing hallelujahs to the wonders of perfect K-drama magic, the second half is repeatedly stifling the urge to yell at the screen “where is my perfect drama and what did you do with it?!?!”
The Strange Housekeeper
The most important thing to keep in mind when watching The Strange Housekeeper is to temper any inclination to compare it to the original highly rated J-dorama Kaisefu no Mita. It’s a remake, yes, but it’s also a drama with its own take on the basic outline of a robotic and emotionless housekeeper who enters the broken home of a newly widowed father and his four scared and lonely kids. Japan and Korea have always produced dramas that are tonally very different and the process of adaptation naturally allows something new to blossom from the same plant. I found this drama a fun watch for when I was working out on the treadmill. It had a predictable cadence of the strange housekeeper dealing with the issues of each of the four kids, then the father, and finally even the co-workers and neighbors of the family. I always thought the original J-dorama was inexplicably overrated and this version garnered the decent ratings I thought this story deserved.
What makes TSH stand out is a solid performance by Choi Ji Woo in her continued role selection beyond trying to squeeze herself into the rom-com or melodrama leading lady crying about love. She plays the titular suspicious housekeeper who is expressionless and does exactly as she is told. I actually loved the performance by all four kids Kim So Hyun, Chae Sang Woo, Nam Da Reum, and Kang Ji Woo. They played their parts perfectly even if their characters were crafted out of stock paper. The other adults leads were also wonderfully played, bringing the drama without overacting the melodrama. Lee Sung Jae was pitch-perfect playing an unwilling father of four, Kim Hae Sook was delightfully quirky, and the late addition of Song Jong Ho threw a twist in this story in a good way. I’m don’t necessarily think TSH executed the twist well, but it does completely deviate from the original J-dorama as well as infuse a more traditional Korean flair to the proceedings. I think it worked more than it didn’t, and ultimately TSH stands well on its own without comparisons to the original.
In a nutshell: Not a bad remake and adds its own crazy flavor to the soup that turns out to be unexpectedly tasty, with zilch romance but familial affections aplenty.
That Winter, the Wind Blows
This drama looks a lot better when stacked up against the general creative mediocrity out there. But it isn’t much fun either, and for that I dock it points because shallow stuff with more energy ends up being a more entertaining way to spend my time. Written by one of my favorite screenwriters Noh Hee Kyung, That Winter, The Wind Blows is an adaptation of a J-dorama which had already spawned a Korean movie version. I honestly don’t know what the allure of this story is that keeps generating remakes, centering around a blind heiress and a con-man who pretends to be her long-lost brother but then ends up falling in love with her. I’m not adverse to the fauxcest and it certainly sounds melodramatic enough. When I heard this was coming down the pipeline I started at zero opinion and waited to see the pieces placed together. I loved the cast consisting of Jo In Sung, Song Hye Kyo, Kim Bum, and Jung Eun Ji, and none of them let me down in the slightest bit with the acting. I was particularly impressed with Song Hye Kyo, who normally leaves me cold and unattached to her performance but she was really on fire playing the blind heiress. Jo In Sung played a variation of so many of his previous characters mashed together from dramas like What Happened in Bali and Spring Days as the emotionally broken bastard who is deep down a good guy. Kim Bum and Jung Eun Ji were clearly there to play sidekicks and have their own little romance off to the side and they served their function nicely.
My disconnect with TWTWB is aptly described in the drama title. if it’s Winter and the wind blows, then its cold and the frigid air leaves me passive and disengaged. That is how this drama came across, creating a very implausible scenario with a conman with the same name as the dead brother of a blind heiress can build a con but they fall in love and alls well that ends well. The cinematography was breathtaking though, capturing the very essence of Winter in all its dry brittle glory as well as making all four leads look so gorgeous it was like a work of moving art. I thought all the characters were intriguing but the motivations and decision-making aspects of each character didn’t always make sense. As a melodrama this piece had a lovely cadence and flowed nicely, but I ended up looking at it like a casual observer unable to get into the world of this drama. Kim Tae Woo did drop an amazing performance that elevated his side character into something much more memorable than any of the leads. Would I recommend this drama after all is said and done? Absolutely, it’s one of the better dramas in 2013 and a pretty decent outing all things considering. The story flowed even if not everything made sense, and it was so pretty to watch no one has to suffer poor camera work and choppy editing to try and patch together a cohesive story. I just wish there was a nugget of a beating heart in all of this but I couldn’t find one.
In a nutshell: That Winter, there was a lot of angst but not a lot of rational storytelling, but in the end the pretty made it an easy hit to swallow.
Goddess of Fire Jeongi
I keep wanting to call this the worst drama of the year but that’s just my anger talking. Fundamentally this drama isn’t that bad, but it is deadly dull and rather toothless. It did the unthinkable which was make me dislike Moon Geun Young in a drama, but that feeling is very project specific and I still love her to pieces. She was unfortunately saddled with a really irksome character and her performance was very annoying to watch. Goddess of Fire was the drama that tried to sell itself as the second coming of Painter of the Wind. That famous sageuk was about the life of a Joseon painter, so this sageuk substituted a pottery profession for painting and tried to re-create the same sense of beauty and wonder around this particular craft. The problem was 100% in the writing and there was nothing that could be done to salvage this drama when the story was written with as much flair as an elephant dancing ballet. The whole set up was created around a girl born of an ambitious potter but raised by his rival and in the ensuing parental strife she ends up hating her real dad and vowing to become a famous potter to bring him down. By premising the entire drama around revenge, the makjang was built into the central narrative while the idea of the birth of a Joseon pottery legend became a journey built on vengeance and conflict. Each episode was like a mini contest on making a different ceramic item and that was intended to pass as celebrating Joseon ceramic art even if most of the screen time was devoted to plotting and staring of the garden variety K-drama conflicts. This is a bait-and-switch of the most pedestrian variety.
If the drama was at least filmed beautifully it might’ve made it easier to watch. But the PD was as inept as the screenwriter and the cinematography was clunky from beginning to end. The OST wasn’t bad but it’s not enough to compensate for utter lack of story and visual splendor. The acting was a mixed bag, with my fave Moon Geun Young trying her best as usual but failing to overcome a very annoying character and being filmed at her utter worst. Lee Sang Yoon is at home in a sageuk role and he did the best he could as well, but his character did a disservice to the historical legacy of Gwanghaegun, not to mention he had a sibling type of chemistry with Moon Geun Young and their tepid romance was the type to send insomniacs into blissful slumber. I only stuck around watching this drama for Kim Bum‘s character and performance, playing the typical second male lead protector with a dedicated love for the heroine and never asked for anything back. His character may have had zero development throughout the drama but at least he wasn’t dull or stupid, which is how the other two leads came across. The only thing good to come out of GoF ended up being the real life romance of Moon Geun Young and Kim Bum, a development not surprising to anyone who watched the drama since their chemistry was off-the-charts and their behind-the-scenes playfulness was witnessed by all. As a drama GoF sucked but as a matchmaker this drama goes for the win and brought together a lovely new star couple.
In a nutshell: This drama is like listening to a very boring lecture on a very boring subject for a very boring major.
Marry Him If You Dare
Sigh. I’ve written so much about this drama and the thought that I needed to write about it one more time for the year end reviews really made me depressed. It’s like asking me to kick a corpse a few more times for good measure when I just want to bury it and move one. There is no way I’ll not write about Marry Him If You Dare in a year end review but sadly there isn’t anything positive I can impart about this drama. Was the cast good? Absolutely. Leads Yoon Eun Hye and Lee Dong Gun had all the necessary ingredients to make cinematic magic and gave it their all but they were shafted big time by a story that insisted on keeping them apart for the duration of the drama. Seconds leads Jung Yong Hwa and Han Chae Ah were also good but their characters were underdeveloped and then wasted in story lines that felt forced and went nowhere. As I watched this drama, with each successive episode I kept thinking that even fan-fiction could be written better than this. In short, MHIYD had an interesting concept time-travel concept of a older woman traveling back to change her younger self’s marital choice, but when the idea was paired with a wonky execution the result was a mess of epic proportions.
Time-travel is a tricky plot device and 2012 is littered with the detritus of that year’s hot theme du jour time-travel dramas ranging from Faith, Dr. Jin, Rooftop Prince, Operation Proposal, and many more. The only one to emerge unscathed was Queen In Hyun’s Man which proves that this is a difficult thematic concept to translate onscreen in both logical and satisfying ways. MHIYD marketed itself as a rom-com, what with bickering OTP stills and the opposites attract conceit with a principled newscaster paired with a flaky unmotivated aspiring screenwriter. Yoon Eun Hye went all out in her usual way to get into character, sporting one of the worst character hairstyles this year with the too-light fried perm, while Lee Dong Gun returned from a 5 year hiatus and put on some suits and a hard-ass attitude. I was looking for sparks to fly and initially it did. All signs pointed to this drama being about the future version of Yoon Eun Hye’s character returning to the present to stop her from marrying her future husband Lee Dong Gun’s character, but in the process show us they still fall in love but perhaps with this added information can avoid repeating the mistakes to come.
I don’t think its asking for much to have a drama with words like Choice in its Korean title or Marry Him in its English title to actually have the leading lady make a choice or at least marry a guy. In the end she did neither, and for that unsatisfying conclusion the journey wasn’t even worth it as well. The drama lacked any romance on the OTP front, instead shoving second male lead Jung Yong Hwa’s inexplicable one-sided crush on the heroine to continue through the entirety of the drama rather than have him accept no-means-no and move on. To say domestic viewers preferred him is such a laughable concept to me – the idea that love is about the persistence of one side and by the sheer willpower and devotion will somehow earn the love of the object of affection. I wanted to watch a drama about people who love each other battling fate and overcoming their own weaknesses, instead I got a drama about one unhappy old lady returning to the past to mess with a bunch of people who turned out to be unrelated to her own shitty life because the entire drama was based on alternate timelines except no one bothered to tell her. In the end I wanted to drop-kick this drama into another dimension and hope I can erase it from my timeline.
In a nutshell: Watch it if you dare, but bring a punching pillow as an outlet for your frustration.
Heirs was the most talked about K-drama all year, for good or for bad you simply couldn’t get away from it. Sometimes I did want to take a break from it, from all the noise and chatter and just watch it alone in a room without any distractions. I wanted to judge this one on its own merits with as little preconceived ideas of what to expect. If Kim Eun Sook wanted to do her first high school drama, then by golly I’ll watch it with a straight face. Perhaps my attempt to lower my expectations worked much better than I could have ever hoped for because I was sorta onboard this drama from the start. It was never any good, though it did pick up the pace and narrative zip in the middle episodes. Ultimately a drama centered around copious amounts of staring and a love story that works on paper but never sells itself onscreen isn’t anything to write home about. Throughout the entire watch one thought kept recurring. I kept muttering “that’s it?” as if sitting down for a meal and getting a teensy portion and wondering where the rest of my dang dinner is. It was hard to critique the meal because I kept thinking a lot of stuff was missing. In what might be the largest main cast ever assembled, Lee Min Ho and Park Shin Hye led a bunch of other actors like Kim Woo Bin, Kang Min Hyuk, Kim Ji Won, Krystal, Kang Ha Neul, Park Hyung Sik, Choi Jin Hyuk, and Im Joo Eun on a well-choreographed drama routine that hit all the necessary notes but never came alive. That’s really the crux of Heirs, a drama that fails to breath life into its own narrative world and instead paraded around an outline but failed to fill in the blanks.
I’m still surprised by how much I enjoyed Heirs despite being frustrated by it. Chalk it up with low expectations and being amused by the entire endeavor rather than hung up on all the coulda-shoulda-wouldas. Yes, this felt like a drama written around a sprawling cast and intended to shill a bunch of shiny new products, but it’s hardly unique in that regard and it wears its intentions openly. I thought the leads Lee Min Ho and Park Shin Hye did a decent job, they are far from being bad actors but both were saddled with poorly written characters and that they had limited romantic chemistry. Second male lead Kim Woo Bin was the scene-stealer of the drama even if his character was mostly abhorrent. The rest of the supporting cast did exactly that, supported the central teen romance as either friend or foe, opposition or help, and there isn’t anything worth mentioning because no one was given any back story that rendered their characters of any consequence. The fundamental kicker was knowing that these characters could be fleshed out, if this was a 50-episode weekend drama, or even if the repetitive back-and-forth staring between the OTP could be cut back to make room for substantive development of other characters and story lines. When the end of Heirs rolled around, putting aside the question of like or dislike, I couldn’t figure out what was the point of this story. Nothing happened was remotely real nor did it impart any wisdom beyond the superficial rich people have feelings and problems too.
In a nutshell: It’s an event drama so definitely check it out, maybe it’ll be your cup of tea and if not at least you aren’t left out of the hype.
Probably the most underrated K-drama of the year judging from its domestic ratings and online buzz. Sometimes I wonder if format is the reason and that Two Weeks would work better as a movie without the breaks in episodes and weekly airings. And then I remember there already was a movie about this called The Fugitive, so its back to drama land we go to see if this concept translates well into a Korean drama format. The answer is a definite yes, and there was nothing wrong with Two Weeks from casting to writing to directing. This drama was good from start to finish, but it was never great in that addicting rush viewers crave because of the live airing quandary. Each week I tuned in and was riveted for two hours, but I always knew in the back of my mind that nothing irrevocably bad could happen to hero so it was like riding a very safe roller coaster. What worked about this drama was the sincerity of the storytelling and the fantastic performance of Lee Jun Ki playing a loser gangster on the run from a murder allegation trying to stay alive long enough for a bone marrow transplant with his sick newly discovered daughter.
The drama set up is simple and the execution was equally as spare and sleek. There wasn’t any extraneous elements tossed in to bog down the run-and-chase central narrative, and all the characters played a critical role in the story. There isn’t any romance to be found which is actually a refreshing change from the K-drama penchant to throw romance into any narrative regardless of how awkward its shoehorned in. Two Weeks delivers the satisfaction of watching good triumph over evil, of seeing people sow the seeds of their own downfall and get their just rewards, of knowing that sometimes a far-fetched story can feel plausible because the characters are humanized and we can relate. Lee Jun Ki’s Jang Tae San was an heartfelt effort and his performance was so central to grounding this story in his last ditch effort to survive and turn his life around. The narrative has its fair share of twists and turns that kept the action entertaining while always giving off the self-assured sense that it had the entire story mapped out. I appreciated that so much, seeing a story told without adjustment for ratings or preferences, which ended up delivering a lot of satisfaction in a pretty small package.
In a nutshell: A thriller drama that had equal measure heart and action but ended up being all about the human spirit.
There are no words adequate to describe how angry I am that IRIS 2 even exists. I was not a fan of the original IRIS even if it’s by far the better product. A spin-off called Athena: Goddess of War had a cast packed top-to-bottom with my favorite actors and actresses and still sucked so hard I still have nightmares about it. So IRIS 2 comes at the heel of mediocrity and utter crap, and it managed to pack those two together and produce mediocre crap. Congrats on combining the worst of its predecessors and being a pale carbon copy of both. Starring Jang Hyuk, Lee Da Hae, Lee Bum Soo, Im Soo Hyang, Yoon Do Joon, Lee Joon, Oh Yoon Soo, and Baek Sung Hyun, this one was a direct sequel to IRIS in terms of continuing that story line with Mr. Black and Kim Young Chul reprising his role as Baek San. I can go into detail about all those conspiracies and world domination plots but trust me when I say this was all about production values over narrative intelligence. I could write about the big conspiracy and how the world might end in a World War III and how the heroes sacrificed it all for the sake of humanity blah blah blah. But that’s giving this drama too much credit and wasting my words on something so bombastic and brainless it really ought to reside in the bottom of the ocean much like how it all wrapped up. Jang Hyuk was awesome as usual but totally came off like he was earning his paycheck, while Lee Bum Soo as nnnngggg hot and sexy and perfect but it’s such a pain to watch him rising above crap dramas all the time. But I did get the satisfaction of watching these two in a drama, too bad it was this one. Unlike the original IRIS, this one didn’t even garner the high ratings despite all the money poured into producing it. In the end, everything went up in an nuclear bomb over the ocean and I said good riddance and hopefully this franchise is never resurrected for yet another go-around. IRIS II would be perfect at a frat party where drinking games are being played and occasional gun fights and bomb explosions can be enjoyed without any understanding of the nonsensical plot.
In a nutshell: This is the last of the Three Stooges, with the first two being IRIS and Athena. Now they have each other for company.
The Master’s Sun
I readily accept that The Master’s Sun is probably a much better drama than my not liking it would indicate. This is really a case of personally not connecting with it or finding it all that entertaining. I was one of the few who liked the Hong Sister‘s last work Big, but TMS was a return to her snappier fare from earlier outings such as My Girl and I’m surprised or unhappy that it was such a popular drama domestically and internationally. I’m actually quite sad that I didn’t love it like I thought it world. When the casting and concept was announced I was all over it like cat on cream. So Ji Sub and Gong Hyo Jin were a theoretical perfect acting match, I’ve seen almost all their dramas and movies and instinctively felt they would mesh well in acting style and visual looks. The early trailers and promos looked fantastic and I eagerly dug into episode 1 and was enchanted. What turned me off this drama was twofold: the ghost stories were overly simplistic and shoehorned in, and the dialogue made me exhausted with so much talking but not much said. I know the Hong Sisters are known for their witty words and punny lines but TMS had too much of it and not enough genuine narrative.
The story of a poor girl who sees ghosts and a rich man plagued by one hits all my kinks on paper and its undeniable that So JI Sub and Gong Hyo Jin have very good chemistry. Watching them sometimes feels like they are doing an acting pas de deux which is such a treat. Perhaps it was watching too many dramas and all of it coming to a head but Gong Hyo Jin’s character felt so similar to the one she played in a previous Hong Sisters drama Best Love, all genuine goodness and self-sacrificing grit, while So Ji Sub’s character was basically a less jerky version of Hyun Bin‘s iconic male lead in Secret Garden. I just wanted to watch two people communicating and falling in love, but TMS frustrated me because it was two people speaking in circles around each other and falling in love. This drama lost me really early on but I continued to follow along without any urgency. I think if the writing sisters had cut down on the quips and upped the plain speak, I would have fallen madly for it. Because who does’t have that secret soft spot for the broken chaebol hottie who needs the emotional saving from a kindhearted girl who pierces through his cold armor.
In a nutshell: By-the-book ghost of the episode stories are trite plot drivers but the witty banter between the OTP works for some while the chemistry between them is undeniably potent for most.
Goddess of Marriage
If ever there was a drama premised on pain and suffering, this one is it. The title should have been Goddess of Divorce or Breakdown of a Marriage. I don’t know what possessed me to follow along during the entire run other than a morbid curiosity over how much more depressing this could get. Let me preface by saying this drama is not bad, it is neither poorly written nor did it suffer a second half meltdown. I would rather place it in the category of dramas that make you hate every character onscreen and then want to get raging drunk after each episode. If dramas are meant to be entertainment, then I wasn’t entertained in the standard definition of the word. Was I hooked? Somewhat, but only because the drama set up a very oddball love triangle that led me to wonder what the writer intended and how it was going to be resolved. The hook was finding three leads that have always given off warmth guy or girl next door charisma, and then have them playing totally annoying characters.
My faves Nam Sang Mi and Kim Ji Hoon pair up as an adult couple contemplating marriage when the drama starts. His chaebol status becomes a source of strife for the proud Nam Sang Mi and she hies off to Jeju for work and some contemplation. Too bad she sits next to hottie Lee Sang Woo, and a chance meeting leads to a one-night stand and some sort of maybe they are soul mates questioning. But Kim Ji Hoon is even more stubborn than his woman and fairly steamrolls her into marriage because at least she picks the smart choice and not the ephemeral possibility. What ensues is twenty episodes of painful marriage for the OTP because of his family interference and their personality clashes. Most of the other married couples in this drama fare no better and we’re subject to cheating and abuse until anyone still single ought to consider a lifetime of singlehood. In the end, the couples who ought to divorce end up there and I think the point of this story was that people suffer in marriages but there is always a way out? And you can find yourself after going through epic struggle, despite the fact that I would argue the angry married couples ought to have known better and not gotten married in the first place? After all that anguish, I walked away feeling no smarter about how to make the institution of marriage work. Boo on that.
In a nutshell: Guaranteed to send unhappy marrieds towards divorce and scare off singles from ever tying the knot.
Flower Boy Next Door
This is one of my favorite dramas all year and the fact that it aired so early in the year made me worry that my love for it would decrease as newer fare came along but that never happened. Flower Boy Next Door is the drama that Park Shin Hye should be remembered for in 2013 and not her lackluster performance in Heir. She beautifully brought to life a character suffering from shut-in syndrome and struggling with the lingering after-effects of teenage bullying and betrayal. She was paired with an equally rock solid performance by leading man Yoon Si Yoon, whose character was the exact opposite being gregarious, a little loopy, and absolutely endearing in his generosity and kindness of spirit. This was a drama that looked fluffy and cute on the outside but actually packed a real punch on the inside with all the main leads going on a real journey of growth and change. I thought this was the drama that had it all this year – entertaining to watch, romantic but not overly sentimental, shared a thoughtful takeaway for viewers in the end, and filled each moment with delightful performances that will likely withstand the test of time.
Flower Boy Next Door was the third of the flower boy series of cable dramas aired on tvN. All share the same overall trendy vibe and isn’t shy about throwing in PPL openly and shilling its wares covertly. I’m fine with that if the drama tells a good story and this one did. Park Shin Hye plays Go Dok Mi, a lonely girl of sorts for the 21st century. She lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment and never ventures out unless absolutely necessary. A traumatic bullying experience in high school has rendered Dok Mi absolutely averse to human contact and her job as a grammar editor affords her the freedom to live in seclusion and still support herself. She lives in a rather low-rent apartment complex and her neighbor happens to be a middling webtoon artist named Oh Jin Rak. He harbors a crush on her but the arrival of Spanish-Korean wunderkind gamer Enrique Geum throws everyone’s well ordered life into a tailspin, including the unwelcome arrival of Dok Mi’s former high school best friend turned nemesis.
This drama doesn’t really fit any category easily – it’s a tad too serious and somber to be a rom-com, it lacks the makjang to be a melodrama, there isn’t any thriller element to be found, and it doesn’t have a slice-of-life feeling that renders it a coming-of-age story. If I had to describe it using a literary reference, it feels like a perfectly written short story. It lacks the broad reach of a novel, but within the short length it captures one essential story line perfectly. That story line would be daring to live a full life and stepping outside our comfort zone, and I mean that without any snark or witty aside. This drama sincerely shared a lovely story about friendship and courage, about at least having courage to face the painful experiences in life even if it doesn’t magically heal, and about facing life’s difficult moments with the determination to overcome it. Human interaction was the key to this story and I was quite touched by most of it. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare about this little drama but it left a big imprint in my heart.
In a nutshell: Lovely and poignant, funny in a bittersweet way, a drama for the quiet moments in life.
King Flower (Substitute Princess)
I don’t care how silly this drama is, I was rabidly addicted when King Flower aired and I’m never going to run away from that fact. It was fun and made me feel excited about every Sunday when a new episode aired. This was one of those fluffy SETTV dramas where the production tried to change up the routine and have as leads a poor guy and a poor girl rather than the usual rich-handsome-tall male lead who needs to grow a heart. Too bad life is full of surprises and this drama hit the skids and went off the rails when the second male lead turned a token stereotypical character into the most fascinating and wonderful thing in the entire drama. King Flower was about a poor unattractive country girl named Jin Da Hua who gets a chance for a plastic surgery makeover to pretend to be a rich girl fiancee to your typical tall, rich, good looking real estate magnate. Da Hua has an adopted older brother Guan Jun who she grew up with and harbors a major crush on, too bad he’s a useless lunkhead that sees her only as a sister. To save the family store, Da Hua transforms herself into beautiful Liang Yen initially for a year stint, but then Liang Yen unexpectedly dies and the entire story gets tossed into the spinner and comes out a different beast.
SETTV initially wanted a cheery drama where the OTP wasn’t the typical rich guy needs emotional saving and instead show two kind poor leads finding love after going through a journey. The production couldn’t have foreseen that leads Nikki Hsieh and James Wen would have no chemistry save as siblings, and instead she had a mountain of chemistry with second male lead Chris Wu playing Terry. The journey was also upended when Da Hua’s extravagant adventure when Terry’s emotional rebirth became the heart and soul of the story. The drama was live-filmed so the ground swell of audience reaction actually changed the course of the story so as Terry fell for Da Hua and she gradually blossomed spending time with him. James Wen was shunted to the side but still had a paycheck to collect so the final episodes charted the usual love triangle course leading to a ridiculous runaway bride routine all for the sake of filling airtime. The end brought the couple that ought to be together across the finish line on a plane and the drama took off into the rare territory of being completely rewritten on the fly to tell an odd but palpable love story that took on a life of its own.
In a nutshell: Watching it drove me nuts but it was all worth it for a fantastic second male lead character and performance.
Cruel City (Heartless City)
That this drama wasn’t underrated is one of the most satisfying things in 2013. I don’t need a lot of dramas as well made as Cruel City but it does hurt my drama psyche if it goes unnoticed and unloved. That wasn’t the case at all as the viewers realized what a real gem it was and admired it from start to finish. Airing on cable network jTBC and starring a cast that didn’t have a buzzy big-name lead, CC ended up exceeding expectations and delivering a lot with a limited budget and cast. Compared to the ten-fold reach of a drama like IRIS 2, CC proved that quality does not require throwing money at the screen and hoping something sticks. Jung Kyung Ho came back from the army with a bang by choosing this role as his first drama return and he was mesmerizing from the first frame until the last. This was the type of actor-character perfect synergy that comes along once in a blue room, with Jung Kyung Ho’s lanky physique exploding onscreen as the whip smart and fierce The Doctor’s Son. His was one of the best performances I watched all year and absolutely vaulted him into a new level of acting prowess.
The drug trade story line in drama was relatively small in scale but packed a big punch with every performance throbbing with intensity. I felt all the supporting roles were memorable and well fleshed out in the course of the never-ending conflict between law enforcement and the brazen drug lords. The tension was deftly strung throughout the entire drama without any dip in quality or narrative coherence even if the plot required some gimmicky timing and coincidences. The execution was so superb that it’s a no-brainer to give this story the benefit of the doubt and accept that it’s really a parable of the never black-and-white struggle between so-called good guys and bad guys. This drama is like a fine tumbler of whiskey that needs to be savored and sipped for its richness and depth of flavor. It even made me not cringe at Nam Gyu Ri‘s performance though it was definitely the second female lead played by Kim Yoo Mi who was the most interesting and memorable female character in a decidedly testosterone filled story. While not a drama I’m inclined to re-watch for the heck of it, it does deserve a spot on the best-of list of any 2013 K-drama review.
In a nutshell: A genuine cops-and-robbers noir thriller with heart and smarts, plus an unexpected dose of hot hot passion.
Who Are You
I wouldn’t have stuck with Who Are You but for the involvement of second lead Kim Jae Wook. The drama is a trifle without much narrative impression other than Kim Jae Wook turning it into his own one-man show playing a ghost who couldn’t even talk. In the end the enjoyment balanced out the frustration and I don’t regret sinking some time into this drama. Starring So Yi Hyun, Taecyeon of 2PM, and Kim Jae Wook, WAY was one of the two ghost dramas this Summer that both revolved around the leading lady being able to see ghosts (the other being The Master’s Sun). WAY marketed itself as a supernatural police procedural, but it neither delved into the supernatural elements beyond the superficial and the police procedural bits were so laughable it was akin to pointing a gun at the screen and going “pew-pew” hoping to scare away baddies.
This wasn’t a particularly poorly made drama, but it definitely felt like a kid swimming in the big leagues. The two leads played relatively wafer-thin characters and had a sweet noona-dongsaeng chemistry that was inoffensive to watch. But it paled in comparison to the cannot be love story of the heroine with her dead cop fiancee, what with their childhood growing up together leading to love only to have it taken away in a senseless act of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. There was a twist towards the end that hinted at something more but it ended up being as ephemeral as this entire drama was. If the heroine could see ghosts after being in a coma, then this drama was like seeing ghosts for a few weeks during its run and thankfully being rid of that affliction when it ended.
In a nutshell: There was no rhyme or reason for the supernatural element and everything felt like it was done on a smaller scale, but ultimately worth checking out for a scene-stealing performance by the second male lead.
Dating Agency: Cyrano
This was a fun and breezy drama, one that feels like cotton candy that melts on the tongue and leaves a fleeting sweetness. That it aired during the Summer was perfect for the season of romance and lighthearted conflict. It’s hard to talk about this drama because it was an episodic format with client of the week stories that served to highlight certain aspects of romance but didn’t have the cohesive stickiness of a drama built on a central conflict or romance. The cast was wonderful all around, most notably with Sooyoung being a revelation for me as a natural at acting and totally charming and beautiful to boot. Her two male leads were the always effortless Lee Jong Hyuk and Lee Chun Hee, and she held her own against two very talented leading men. The drama had a lovely light OST and the filming was equally as delightful to gaze upon, adding to the overall effect of being oh so charming. There were plenty of cameos raging from idol boys to A-listers like Gong Yoo and Jung Yumi, but honestly I never felt like any of the side stories were memorable other than to act as plot filler. Even the fluffy vibe fell by the wayside at the end in the form of typical romantic obstacles that really had no reason to be at this party, but ultimately it ended sensibly with a dash of sweetness.
In a nutshell: Cute and easy to watch but oh so forgettable.
I love this high school music drama so much, and it isn’t just because that genre is one of my personal faves. While Dream High owns my heart as well, Dream High 2 is a turd that needs to be flushed so not every kids singing music outing is a win. Monstar was the biggest out-of-nowhere surprise for me in 2013, a teen drama airing on cable music channel Mnet starring a cast of complete unknowns (to me) with a subplot about the Korean idol music industry which I don’t even follow. It’s like this drama was made to sail under my radar, but thankfully I gamely checked it out and the rest is madly in love history. What I took away from Monstar was the chance to enjoy high school students interacting like kids and dealing with adolescent issues wrapped in a layer of dramatic narrative. It doesn’t have to be my personal high school experience insofar as it feels believable and is entertaining to watch. I became a newly minted fan of rapper-turned-actor Yong Jun Hyung of BEAST, who got lucky paired with fresh-faced leading lady Ha Yeon Soo with her giant eyes and mega smile. They could both act and have lovely chemistry, it was like a manga come to life and they were the characters stepped off the page.
Monstar is fun watching experience with lovely songs and a meaningful growing up story that doesn’t have easy answers but shows a particular journey that is lovingly rendered. Idol boybander Yong Jun Hyung impressed me with both his acting ease and singing talent playing the high school aged boy bander in this drama who may have fame but is still a kid trying to figure out his feelings and his path in life. Newbie actress Ha Yeon Soo made a memorable leading lady debut here armed with striking features of wide-set eyes and a beaming smile that makes her stand out from the increasingly homogenized look of young actresses in Korea. The rest of the support cast playing high schoolers were all incredibly fun to watch, including Kang Ha Neul making this a break out role for him. The OTP romance was sweet without being saccharine and there was a lot of unexpected tension of the good kind between them. All the friendships repaired through the story made sense and delivered a satisfying catharsis even if it was a tad simplistic at times. There wasn’t any makjang plot twists and the dialogue felt like teens talking to each other, with a side of melancholy and believable conflict. This one is a winner through and through and I only wished it were longer instead of a short 12 episodes.
In a nutshell: The Monster+Star in the title ended up being rather misleading as the drama turned out to be just about a bunch of interesting and well-developed high school students experiencing love through music and maturation.
King of Lan Ling
This highly anticipated C-drama was a bona fide hit in the Chinese speaking countries of Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. It’s appeared viewers were thirsty for any type of mildly watchable period drama and this one was so inoffensive everyone could love it. I followed along with the casting, filming, and pre-production for an entire year and a half so I saw everything there was about this drama before it aired. Everything about this production screamed big budget and big deal. It was produced by the team who did the hit Autumn’s Concerto and the beautifully shot Material Queen. The leads were the popular trio of Feng Shao Feng, Ariel Lin, and Danial Chan. The early stills made everything seem rather chintzy, but I was too excited to let that dampen my enthusiasm. For a year I followed along with the filming, looking forward to an entertaining period love story I could sink my teeth into. It needn’t be historically accurate or even all that inventive, I just wanted something less screechy and silly than the recent period fare coming out of C-dramas.
This drama ended up being a much bigger hit than I expected, but I also ended up liking it a lot less than I hoped for. Overall it was a very easy watch and the production values turned out to be decent and serviceable. The story had large parts lifted from a famous Japanese manga but worked surprisingly well in a historical Chinese context. There wasn’t anything remotely accurate in depicting the conflict between the Kingdom of Qin and the Kingdom of Northern Zhou but rather stayed true to its roots as a romance novel that happened to feature some historical personages. Feng Shao Feng got ragged on a lot for not being handsome enough to play the famed Gao Chang Gong and while I don’t find him objectively that good looking either I thought he did just fine. The problem was that his character wasn’t written with much depth and breadth and he ended up being way less interesting that Danial Chan’s second male lead Yu Wen Yong. This was Ariel’s third foray into period drama territory and she seemed rather out of her element. Her performance was typical Ariel level of acting but either her character was written too modern or she just played it that way, but it lacked the authenticity of some roles to fit the period setting perfectly.
In a nutshell: Trendy masquerading as a period drama, inoffensive but having evil villains manipulate the entire plot is a frustrating kicker.
Missing You (I Miss You):
This drama started at the end of 2012 and wrapped up in 2013 so I decided to include a closing remark on how the second half panned out. Fundamentally Missing You was a frustrating watch because the central traumatic rape of the heroine was glossed over with ridiculous solutions such as her rapist getting murdered right after getting out of jail and by the assertion that reuniting with her first love magically healed her emotional scars because of forgiveness blah blah blah. The emphasis was on easy answers to hard questions and the inexplicable long running love of the leads after meeting for a few weeks then fifteen years apart was laughable but for the drama taking it very seriously. Yoon Eun Hye and Yoochun were actually decent in their roles and had good chemistry, their characters were simply frustrating to watch and the very premise of them getting together made me want to headdesk. She played a victim of both child abuse, neglect, rape, and got run over by a car. He played a kid who ran away after seeing his crush get raped, and then spends years obsessing over his understandable cowardice and all-consuming love for her.
This drama had a lot of pain and suffering but it chose to resolve everything by writing the second male lead played by Yoo Seung Ho as a sociopath and then all the baddies got their just punishment in the end while the good guys skipped off into the sunset. In between were ridiculous plot conveniences and unbelievable twists for the sake of generating cheap thrills. The who-dun-it elements in the drama were so absurd it merits its own drinking game. But what upsets me more than a poorly made drama is that Missing You was exploitative and sold a really bad message about what is sadly a common occurrence in real life which is rape. A girl who has been abused and raped as a young teen does not magically heal because she reunites with her first love and he is there to atone for his past failure and walk the future with her. It’s also piss poor writing to discount the time spent with the second male lead as the heroine’s sole source of comfort and support by turning him into a insane villain who plotted to take advantage of her pain and suffering to keep her with him. Tears in a melodrama ought to come naturally, but MY manipulated every twist and turn to write itself into an ending that felt contrived and distasteful. I would have been happier if the two leads stayed friends rather than sell their unconvincing love.
In a nutshell: I don’t miss Missing You in the least, but it’s worth checking out if you like any of the leads. Beware of Yoo Seung Ho stealing the drama even playing the most ridiculously written character ever.
It’s weird writing about this drama so long after it’s done airing especially this one which disappeared into the consciousness for me and probably for most of the viewers. The problem with Cheongdamdong Alice plagues so many dramas – a fantastic start with an intriguing story line, which then promptly falls apart in the second half by not fleshing out the interesting parts while focusing on the shallow elements. CA is that odd duck of being good enough for a casual watch, but if one was as fervently enchanted by the first half (as I was), then the drama was a painful experience to sit through in the second half. Moon Geun Young tries out a mature adult role as aspiring designer Han Se Kyung, from a relatively lower class family but not particularly cheery or long suffering. She is pragmatic and critically self-aware that she’s got no real hope for professional improvement with her lack of connections and a background. A particularly painful break up leads Se Kyung to try her hand at making herself into a Cinderella, with the help of her former high school nemesis played wonderfully by So Yi Hyun. Se Kyung’s path crosses with strange and surprisingly kind chaebol heir Cha Seung Jo played by Park Shi Hoo, and their chemistry and dance of understanding and attraction was beautifully built up. The first half of the drama surprised me at every turn and felt fresh and fabulous all rolled into one.
The set up inherent in this drama is that intentions may not always matter if the ultimate goal is to be sincere in the outcome. Girls who want to marry rich shouldn’t be disdained if they intend to play the part of the rich wife with genuine effort. I liked that argument especially considering that every relationship and marriage is based on mutual need as well as emotional connection. Too bad CA didn’t actually discuss this any deeper as the drama progressed and instead focused relentlessly on male lead Seung Jo’s shaky mental state and his inability to handle being lied to because of his rich background. A few episodes were spend on Se Kyung trying to hide her initial intentions even though everyone could see that she genuinely loved Seung Jo, and all that wasted time still resulted in forgiveness and acceptance all around. There wasn’t anything particularly inventive about the obstacles thrown in the path of the OTP and their initial chemistry dissolved into weepy clinging by the end. It’s actually the more interesting second leads that I wanted to see more of but sadly they were merely there to play the convenient plot devices. The solid OST and cinematography did make this drama much easier to watch so even when the plot went into the crapper it remained visually arresting with a spot-on capture of the Winter wonder of romance blossoming in the most unexpected of ways.
In a nutshell: Worth watching with a non-critical mind set, with an entertaining and different first half and a nice wrap up that renders this particular drama relatively satisfying.
At 50-episodes Empress Ki is nowhere near done with its run by the time I’m getting around to writing this year end review. Since its aired 14 episodes already which is nearly the length of a prime time drama, I figured I’ll toss in a quick snap shot of its quick start and remaining potential. Empress Ki is the drama that Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love wished it could be. A revisionist take on a real life female historical figure, it’s borrowing only select elements from history but filling in the blanks with dramatic license that is both stirring and excitement. While JOJ was reviled by the domestic Korean audience, Empress Ki has so far coasted to success and acceptance likely due to how it throws so much action at the screen that one doesn’t have the time to mull over all the details and parse any unacceptable deviations. The inaccuracies are so vast that it really does hew close to its disclaimed that it’s all made up, so one doesn’t feel any annoyance especially when there is so much pretty at the screen to captivate the attention.
Leads Ha Ji Won and Joo Jin Mo are well-match in both looks and talent, and their extensive sageuk experience shows onscreen when they do so much with even the tiniest of interactions. I’ve grown fond of Ji Chang Wook‘s petulant performance as the struggling and simpering second male lead. His character is absolutely annoying which is why his performance is so good at making me want to smack him, and if the drama intends for him to have a chance at winning the girl’s heart I hope he starts focusing on the bigger picture rather than his own personal emotional void which needs a confidante to fill. I’m actually not so wholly invested in the sure-to-be-doomed OTP romance that I’m averse to the second lead stepping up, I’m just annoyed that so far he hasn’t stepped up so the narrative remains mired in romance angst when it would be better served to focus on politics and greater issues at stake. With still 2/3rds of the way left to go, I’m optimistic this drama can continue capitalizing on a mix of fast-paced political and battlefield intrigue and heady romantic pining.
In a nutshell: I have all these hopes so don’t let me down, drama!
DROPPED LIKE A HOT POTATO
Incarnation of Money – Even Kang Ji Hwan in a bowl cut couldn’t overcome a very off-putting first episode and the niggling sensation that this drama thinks its being very crazy clever and subversive, but requiring audiences to stick around until all the clues click for episodes on end is an exercise in a joke wearing out the set up before getting to the punchline. Pass.
Ad Genius Lee Tae Baek – The promos were cute, they really were, and the leads were a refreshing breath of unexpected casting. Then the drama arrived and it was set in the advertising world and seemed to actually take it straight and tell a story through PPL. Everyone was by-the-book and there was nothing interesting other than a pretty shell.
Shark – The final drama in the revenge trilogy where the first two were the magnificent Resurrection and The Devil. The pairing of Kim Nam Gil and Son Ye Jin in a revenge seemed like a good idea, but the overwhelmed water and shark motifs turned me off from the start. The drama ended up feeling more style over substance, and even the style was lackluster and a pale copy of the production team’s earlier works.
The Fugitive of Joseon – I liked the first two episodes but then just forgot about it. Lee Dong Wook in his first sageuk was decent but he definitely looks too modern to convincingly pass for a historical personage.
Secret – Hated the first episode, not a single character was likable. And Hwang Jung Eum‘s current face scares me.
The Best Lee Soon Shin – Such a cute cast but such a predicable and boring story. IU definitely proved she can headline a drama and pairing her up with Jo Jung Seok was a win for both of them.
All About My Romance – Ridiculous and shrieky should not pass for rom-com cuteness and this one involved all that plus copious amounts of overacting from leads Shin Ha Kyun and Lee Min Jung.
Avoided because of my allergy to the leading men Joo Won and Lee Jong Seok. I know folks are bound to ask me about these dramas so this is my preemptive announcement that I have not and will not be checking these out. I don’t care if the flowers in the garden are pretty, if I have a deathly allergy to pollen it’s wise not to take a stroll – Good Doctor, 7th Grade Civil Servant, School 2013, and I Hear Your Voice.
NOTABLE HAPPENINGS IN 2013
The Park Shi Hoo scandal
After years of toiling as a second lead and finally hitting the big leagues with The Princess’s Man and Cheongdamdong Alice, Park Shi Hoo’s acting career collapsed under the weight of a Valentine’s Day rape allegation. The ensuing media circus tarred and feathered both sides and was both a trainwreck and a sad state of legal affairs in South Korea. Though charges were never filed and both sides withdrew their mutual complaints, Park Shi Hoo’s reputation suffered a crushing blow. Will 2014 be the year for the resurrection of his career? Only time will tell. His loyal fans certainly stuck by his side through the entire ordeal.
The Drama Queen Ascendance of Lee Bo Young
After years and years of doing dramas as forgettable leads and crazy second leads, Lee Bo Young hit it big headlining two well-received and highly rated dramas – My Daughter Seo Young and I Hear Your Voice. She’s been raking in awards all year long for it, not to mention she got married to long-time boyfriend fellow actor Ji Sung. I’d say she had a phenomenal year.
Celebs Dating and Marriage Bonanza
Hard to find another year with this many high profile couples admitting to dating. A run down of the list still leaves me wide-eyed and wondering if everyone drank from the same well of love: Won Bin-Lee Na Young, Rain-Kim Tae Hee, Jo In Sung-Kim Min Hee, Kim Bum-Moon Geun Young, Yoon Kye Sang-Honey Lee, Lee Sang Yeob-Gong Hyun Joo, Kang Kyung Joon-Jang Shin Young, Teddy-Han Ye Seul, Lee Ki Woo-Lee Chung Ah, Jung Kyung Ho-non-celeb girlfriend, Kim Woo Bin-Yoo Ji Ahn. Over in the Chinese-speaking entertainment world, no dating news was as explosive as famous onscreen pairing of Nicky Wu and Liu Shi Shi admitting to dating,
The ones who got married were: Lee Byung Hun-Lee Min Jung, Ji Sung-Lee Bo Young, Kim Jae Won, Seo Ji Suk.
Arrival of New It-Boys
Lee Jong Seok, Kim Woo Bin, and Yoo Yeon Seok. Enuf said.
Lost To The Army
Yoo Seung Ho and Song Joong Ki. I still cry salty tears every now and then. Come back soon, my precious babies!
WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE
As we round the final bend towards Christmas, I look at all the dramas watched this year as potential presents of coolness or coal. Do I drop a nice treat in someone’s stocking or send them a truly abominable watching experience to haunt their dreams with howls of derision or annoyance? 2013 had the usual share of hits and misses, but the one thing I keenly longed for was simply one rom-com to win my heart and none arrived. That’ll go down as my biggest disappointment with this year despite the fact that it produced some memorable quality dramas. I quite enjoyed the flood gates breaking free and the deluge of star dating confirmations, which only serves to confirm that since the dawn of Hallyu (and beyond), K-stars have been dating except totally on the down low.
Whatever triggered this free for all explosion of dating honesty, I’m happy to support the couples whether they date or break up since it just means they are living their lives outside of the screen. I guess there was some sort of cosmic balance in this topsy-turvy world of dramas – for a year decidedly lacking in memorable onscreen pairings, the entertainment world compensated with a real life dating bonanza. There were also a lot of scandals of the rumored dating as well as more serious variety, but in the end actors are people and we’re just watching their professional careers while they project an image of their personal lives. My new year’s hope for the drama industry is to focus on sincerity in telling a story and their effort will be rewarded as audiences become more adept at spotting quality and showcasing it.