Stuff I watched this year, part 1: Dramas of 2009
I watched many more dramas this year than I did the previous years. Maybe it’s because I didn’t find the music fandom too appealing so I turned to the drama fandom. Whatever the reason, I also ended up recapping two dramas and let me tell ya, it was like writing two 5000+ word papers every single week for two/three months, and the papers were due on consecutive days, always.
WHAT THE HELL.
The dramas I managed to finish in their entirety: Boys Over Flowers, You’re Beautiful, Brilliant Legacy, Triple, and an oldie, The Devil/Mawang.
The dramas that I tried to watch, but had to drop out of sheer boredom/ludicrousness: Japanese: Code Blue and Maou (remake of Mawang). Korean: Swallow the Sun, Hot-Blooded Salesman, and Partner.
The dramas I’m in the process of watching: Will it Snow for Christmas? and Black & White.
Boys Over Flowers
I tried to think of an eloquent first-liner to describe this drama, but I have none so here’s an alternate:
This drama sucked.
I was motivated enough at the very beginning to do recaps for the series and I didn’t want to cop out in the middle of the drama, but this drama just makes it SO hard for me to have to relive every scene by recapping it.
The thing I’m most pissed off about regarding this version is that it had two hugely successful predecessors and by virtue of being the third one, all the elements that didn’t work in the first two could’ve easily been corrected through this version. There are a lot of illogical story lines in this that you can blame the original “Hana Yori Dango” for having, but ultimately, this version didn’t bring anything new to the HYD table. I don’t mean that the Korean version had to reformulate the core of the HYD story, but they could have re-envisioned it. There was nothing in this drama that I felt the production team/cast turned and made into their own.
There is nothing iconic about “Boys Over Flowers,” other than the fact that the original story has legendary status in Asia and beyond. This in itself is a pretty big problem. To put it crudely, the entirety of the series’ success is based on just how much Asia loves this story already. That means that any country with a moderately large national and international TV following can make their own version and it will be instantly well-loved and accepted. Korean dramas have a pretty loyal following in and outside of Korea, and there’s already an established quality about them that people enjoy, so why did it fail so much with BOF? I’ll make do with the problems I already have with the story, but the thing that kills me about this version is that it could’ve been so much better.
I think “Brilliant Legacy” is a good example of a drama that illustrates — and then subsequently, over illustrates — the kind of virtues that Korean people value. Working hard, being filially pious, persevering in times of hardship, being completely selfless. The protagonists are all people who embody those characteristics, and if they don’t already, they strive towards embodying them. And then in contrast, the antagonists are the people who are untruthful, greedy, and selfish. These are the characteristics of almost all good/bad guy in stories, and this drama does nothing to step outside the cliche. There is not much depth or complexity to the characters and their pasts, and it makes for very easy, stress-free viewing.
This drama is a whopping 28 episodes long and even for a K-drama, that is long. Maybe it’s because people who usually watch weekend dramas have more time/patience for this sort of stuff, but the 28 episode story really killed me. This is one series that could’ve been told in two and a half hours time, but instead dragged on for hours and hours harping on the same thing. Conflicts would be prolonged in circular motion — character tries to find her brother and just as we get to the point where she finds him, he gets lost again. You see what I mean?
Ultimately, the thing I enjoyed most about this drama was the pretty solid acting from the main cast. They weren’t very hard roles to act, but I was attached to the characters. There was some pretty splendid acting from the supporting roles played by Moon Chae Won and Bae Soon Bin, and the leads were good, but I think it’s safe to say that they weren’t as good as the supporting actors. Lee Seung Gi really got a boost in popularity because of this drama, but was his character very hard to play? Not really. Han Hyo Joo’s character was also painfully easy to play, but the girl can cry, hot damn. Her character cried about almost everything, but I can overlook it because Han Hyo Joo is just that convincing.
Would I watch this drama again if I had to do it over? No. But this was an easy-breezy drama to watch and I just took the episodes as they came.
Since my year-in-review posts never contain only the new projects that came out during that year, I’m including Mawang on this list.
I actually have a backlog of entries that I wrote up for Mawang, but I’ve never gotten around to finishing them. (Maybe in 2010 … ) This drama is definitely my favorite drama of the year, and my favorite Korean drama hands down. Score, directing, acting are all A+ quality, and that’s really the K-drama tri-fecta, isn’t it?
This actually is one of the few non-romantic dramas that I’ve watched since starting with K-dramas. There is romance, but the romantic storyline isn’t the main focus of the story, and I think that’s what kept me interested. I still am a sucker for romantic K-dramas, but a majority of them don’t turn out the way I want them to, because you can only stretch a romance out in so many episodes before it becomes a big puddle of forced circumstances created to prevent the two leads from being together.
The best thing about Mawang is that the writers knew how much information to dispense at a time, as to keep the viewer on his/her feet, while still letting him/her figure out pieces of the puzzle along the way. I never felt for a second that the drama was moving too slowly, because there were always things happening within the story that kept me enticed.
The story is in essence a very meticulously crafted detective story. Everything happens for a reason and the backstory for the character’s motives are well-explained. There is no easy right or wrong answer, which is why the story is so compelling and the characters so relatable. The acts that the characters committed are so complicated that the drama leaves you with a lot to think about, even after the story is over, and that’s why it’s so brilliant.
This was really the funnest I’ve ever had watching a Kdrama, and the only drama that I’ve ever kept up with from beginning to end as it aired (and did not hate myself for it, like I did with “Boys Over Flowers”). The writing was really consistent and the story progressed at a very solid pace. There was humor in it that I never expected and the best thing about this humor is, once again, that it came consistently. It wasn’t just funny in the beginning when the writers still had fresh ideas; it was funny throughout.
The set-up of the drama was interesting, but the important thing about this is that the drama didn’t lose its novelty as the story progressed. You have the girl who’s playing the boy in a male idol group, with a majority of the people knowing her true identity, as opposed to not knowing. While the Hong sisters defied a lot of K-drama conventions, which is super refreshing to watch, they couldn’t completely rid themselves of a good number of them either. The misunderstandings, the bitchy second female lead, the quiet and observant second male, the tears, the misunderstandings-induced-wangst.
Park Shin Hye’s Go Minam/Go Minyeo was also one thing that really infuriated me. It wasn’t that she didn’t have depth or complexity, but there’s just nothing about her that makes me want to root for her. I still have a huge problem with the Hong sisters writing her as a nun, because ultimately, what did being a nun add to her as a character? There was not a lot of internal or external conflict about how she should or shouldn’t do this or that because of religious restraints, so the fact that she grew up in a convent and was on her way to becoming a nun did not come into play. It only served as a justification for Go Minyeo being pure, bright and innocent (and virginal), which is a complete step back from any semblance of a strong female.
My ultimate biggest issue is still with the female characters, and that’s one thing that hindered this from being a truly good drama to me. I can overlook the overacting and lack of acting from some actors/actresses, but to have one of the most important characters be less than compelling prevents this story from being a successful one. (The Hong sisters are in general pretty bad with writing girls, aren’t they?)
This drama could’ve been super good, but it was underwhelming, and that makes me sad because there are several scenes within the drama that I loved so much that I would replay them constantly. Looking at this as a whole, Triple failed. It’s like the writer had super spurts of energy, zeal, and creativity and was able to come up with some of those well-written scenes, but for the majority of the time, she wandered around aimlessly and tried to make a point through her characters, but didn’t know herself what she was getting at, which resulted in all the other poo poo scenes.
This drama was easy enough to watch and one thing I did like about it was that it was easy breezy and coasted along without too much drama-rama. But the problem with Triple is also that it was easy breezy and coasted along. It coasted and coasted … and coasted and then coasted some more. Where was the climax of the story? What was the point?!
But let’s not dwell, because there was this guy:
And this one:
And also, this one:
Life’s not too bad.
Maou (Japanese remake of Mawang)
I was so disappointed with this. This is the one Japanese drama that I could’ve potentially loved because I loved the original so much, but Maou is a terrible re-envisioning of its source material. It severely lacked the concise character and plot developments that made the original so good. It’s not because I knew whodunnit from already having watched Mawang, it’s the fact that Maou made the culprit so obvious. It didn’t captivate me or make me want to know more, and the best thing about the original was the fact that you were kept in the dark for a good half of the drama.
This adaptation disappointed me also because my biggest gripe with Korean dramas is that they go on for too long. And consequently, the thing I like most about Japanese dramas is that they wrap up nicely in 9-10 episodes, which forces the writer to be concise with plot/character development. The two versions could’ve complimented each other perfectly, but unfortunately for me, Mawang is the one drama that I feel does not need to be shortened. It was perfect at 20 episodes. Everything in the Japanese version happened so quickly that it lost all the mysteriousness of the original.
Another glaring problem with the Japanese remake is that the main leads were horribly — and I mean horribly — miscast. Ikuta Toma playing a character that Uhm Tae Woong played?! Not only is there a pretty big age difference between the two (more than a decade), Ikuta doesn’t have the intensity that Uhm has. Sometimes, it’s not even about the intensity that Ikuta Toma has or doesn’t have, it’s the fact that the character is a very heavy one, who experiences a lot of internal grieving and remorse. Ikuta Toma was so frowny and shouty and so obvious with his show of remorse that it felt like acting, it didn’t feel real.
And then on the other hand, you have Ohno playing a character Joo Ji Hoon played. I think Joo Ji Hoon was excellent in Mawang and there was a certain slick coldness about his character that wasn’t there in Ohno’s portrayal. Ohno was also pretty obvious in his acting, and the dynamic of the relationship between him and Ikuta’s was obviously one of mistrust and outright good versus bad. There was made you think, “Wait, so are they friends? Is there any trust at all between them?”
Ultimately, my biggest problem with the remake is that it felt like a caricature of a fight between good and bad. There was spooky music, obvious satan imagery, and voiceovers that told you very obvious things. I really disliked this. Mawang succeeded because it left a lot for you to consider because good and evil aren’t always so apparent. Is “good” really good when it’s only done out of guilt? Is “evil” just bad because the norm states that it’s bad? Can people repent? It wasn’t that easy to differentiate whose actions can qualify as what.
Maou had a lot of potential to be good, but I feel that its interpretation of the original was too shallow and it severely lacked the complexity that Mawang had.
Partner: Let’s be honest. I wanted this to be a good drama so that I could have a ton of Lee Dong Wook-ness to dote on, but unfortunately, all I got was a pretty half-assed story and half-assed characters. This drama didn’t know whether to be funny or serious. It’s completely possible to do both and to straddle the divide evenly, but this drama couldn’t. I wish there were a more compelling backstory as to why Lee Dong Wook’s character is the way he is, but there was always such a sudden shift between slapsticky him and completely angsty him that I was like this while watching him: And I wanted to like Kim Hyun Joo because I really love her, but blah, so blah. Everything was so blah!
Hot-Blooded Salesman: Park Hae Jin. I stuck this out for Park Hae Jin, but I couldn’t even make it past episode 5. There is no way that there can be a whole 20 episodes on a drama about selling cars. Even though Park Hae Jin is pretty good, I.. just. can’t! Car selling! WHUT. On top of that, for a 20 episode drama, things moved at an incredibly fast speed, and there was no need to be so manipulatively dramatic within the first few episodes to try and elicit emotion from viewers.
I also noticed that weekend dramas tend to concentrate a lot more on filial piety. Maybe because more ahjummas and ahjusshis watch dramas on the weekends? Just a hunch.
Swallow the Sun: Dear god, this drama. What can I even say about the terribleness of this drama? I really, really enjoyed the first two episodes, so I was disappointed that the story turned out as bad as it did. I feel like the writers had a good idea what they wanted the story to be about, but in trying to up the wow factor, up the shock quota, up the rivalry, up the excitement, they forgot about the foundation. There was much meandering, and for no reason at all. There were unnecessary time jumps, jail stays, illogical love lines. I didn’t understand Ji Sung/Sung Yuri’s character’s love connection at all, and on top of that, I feel like they’re both poor actors, so it made everything a mess. Not only that, but the cast made up of the younger actors (Ji Sung, Sung Yuri, Lee Wan) were all pretty bad. Random explosions and gunfights + bad acting = terrible drama.
Code Blue: I watched this drama at the very start of 09 and since I didn’t finish it, it barely made an impression on me. All I remember is that I wanted to see for myself if Yamapi is a good actor or not, and this is a bad place to start. It’s a medical drama, something that I really hate unless I were watching House, and a boat load of characters are either annoying, or didn’t pique my interest enough for me to stick around. I really liked Aragaki Yui though!
Will it Snow for Christmas?: I’m still going to be writing up thoughts on this series as I go along, so there won’t be too much here, but I’m really enjoying this. Go! Soo’s! Expressive! Eyes! This should be the subject of an entire post by itself, but back to seriousness. The storyline is compelling enough for me to want to keep going with it, and the connections that the characters have are interesting. Everyone is connected in some way, and there is purpose to all the characters, even if they’re all just fulfilling the “romantic” duty in a K-melodrama. I really love the difficult and complicated relationship that Cha Kang Jin and Han Ji Wan have, because there’s a lot of unsaid things between the two of them, and they’re both very reflective of their love for each other. In short, I love their unspoken love for each other. This can get tiring if the writers don’t do it correctly, but the pairing is successful in this one because of the complexity of their past and present relationship. Let’s hope this one ends okay…
Black & White: I’ve only watched five episodes of this drama so I can’t say much about it yet, but the noir genre is a forte of Taiwanese and Hong Kong media. Maybe moreso for HK than for Taiwan, but I have faith in Taiwan. Five episodes out of 24 doesn’t tell me a lot yet — especially since every four/five episodes we get new storylines and new characters — but so far it’s been a pretty compelling watch. Vic can have my babies (as usual) and the female leads (Janine and Ivy) are good. The only problem I have is with Mark Zhao because he’s such a newbie and it shows. Vic is a better actor than he is a singer (oh my god the cruelty of the deities, making us listen to him sing) and he outshines Mark on his worst day, so I’m completely surprised as to why Mark got the best actor award for his Black & White performance. The acting is the most important factor in this drama so far because the stories are always evolving and the only constants we have are the main characters.
There you have it. My epically long drama review of 2009. I’ve written way too many words on dramas this year (I’m sure I could’ve done Nanowrimo several thousand times over by now), but I’ve very much enjoyed writing so excessively this year. Writing really helps me understand what I like and don’t like, and the things that have affected me on an emotional level are made even more important when I try to convey it through words. Aside from the practicality of excessive writing (me becoming a journalist), I love having a conversation about the things I enjoy. Even if the conversation can be somewhat one-sided at the moment, it’s fun to dissect and discuss with the hopes that I’ve made sense of something for someone. Even if I didn’t make sense, I really enjoy the exchange the comes from discussing pop cultural topics, and nothing is more pop cultural than television and film.
One other important thing this year was recapping. I’ve never recapped before, and after 2 dramas, I can see it’s not my forte. Sometimes I feel compelled to do it, but most of the times I’m too lazy to do it. The essential thing is that the recapping process was a huge learning experience. Translating strengthened my language skills and I discovered my subbing style. I actually really enjoy translating, and I consider it my language forte, and I also learned that subbing for a drama is a totally different thing from translating written work. I actually prefer it when subbers translate everything that someone says, instead of looking at the entire sentence in retrospect, and rewording it to be grammatically correct in English. For example, something from episode 21 of “Boys Over Flowers” when Jaekyung says to Jandi:
For breaking your heart, I’ll repay what I owe, bit by bit. Forgive me.
This is just a Korean to English thing, but this is the way the sentence would be structure in Korean (above), but I guess a more perfect English translation would be something along the lines of, “I’ll repay you bit by bit for breaking your heart. Forgive me.”
Similarly, something Jihoo said to Junpyo in episode 15:
Because I was being a friend, I stepped aside. Because it was a friend’s girl, I stopped pursuing. Up till now, I’ve given you a chance…
It’s not like this sentence doesn’t make sense, but I wouldn’t have translated it into this even if it were the more grammatically correct version, “I stepped aside because I was being a friend. I stopped pursuing because it was a friend’s girl. I’ve given you a chance up until now.” And etc etc.
And there you have it! 2009 was a good drama year for me and here’s to watching even better ones in the new decade :)