Sunday, October 4, 2020

Pandemic Diary September: Half A Year



The pandemic has changed me. It took away a lot of things I loved—travel, live performance, a writing career, and an overstuffed life. My life got small really quickly. It also got slower, quieter, and more self-centered.

I was having a hard time before the pandemic came along juggling all my jobs and interests with the limited free time in my life. Now, six months later it’s not time I feel the most (time is both fleet and slow now), but space. Physical and mental. Yes, I live in a New York apartment so space is fundamentally different compared to many places. We are a crowded, dense city where personal space often is sacrificed to make it possible to get around. 

But now my space is my apartment, perhaps the building’s small back terrace, and the streets of my immediate neighborhood. I’ve started walking in directions I had no reason to ever go before. I’m exploring things away from the subway, where there are single family houses, cars parked in back alleyways, and lovely old building details.


But beyond the layout of my neighborhood, I’ve also been thinking about my mental space. I’m enjoying learning a new language—something I would never have had time for before. I’m spending more time with my own thoughts—focused on self-care, home projects, and just the maintenance of a life (tidying, organizing, throwing things away, making all the phone calls to demand refunds and get warranties honored, slowly making my way through a to-do list of board activities for Exeunt, and paying attention to my own wants and needs).

The pandemic has taken a lot of joy out of my life. I’ve been fighting to put joy back in. While writing about Korean dramas started out from a place of panic, sadness, and distraction, it’s grown into something I treasure. A new space for me to visit—who am I in relation to this work, to this language, and to this culture.

One of the things I love about travel is that it changes you. For better or worse, the new memories and experiences of a place visited shape your understanding of the world and your own sense of self. You can visit Hiroshima and be mentally overwhelmed by the scope of the horrors. You can spend the dazed and sad turning over what you’ve seen in your mind. Then also discover the best lemon cakes in the world are made from Setoda lemons local to the area.

You can find out that you can spend a week driving a car around Croatia, white knuckling your way down undivided highways and panicking on the steep hills of Istria. But you learn that maybe driving vacations are not for you when you abiding memory of that trip is talking to the GPS who you called Senor Prestigio.

With my travel and theater wings clipped, I can only go so far as my living room. But maybe I can find value in this new journey.

********

 

I Will Come to You When the Weather is Nice 

(aka I’ll Go to You When the Weather Is Nice aka When the Weather is Fine)

While it appears the title can be translated a couple of different ways, this all adds up to a beautiful, sweet, sad series that goes good with a cup of hot cocoa and a box of tissues.

The show floats in this nether space between indie film dreaminess with a strong sense of texture, taste, and sensualness, Hallmark going-home-to-small-town and rediscovering yourself, and Portuguese saudade. It’s gentle, melancholic, nostalgic, and full of longing and depth.  Things are complicated, lives are messy, and nothing is easy. But these characters have found each other and finding a shred of happiness is a beacon of light in a dark world.

Mok Hae-won (Park Min-young) leaves her miserable life in Seoul to move back to where her Aunt (Moon Jeong-hee) lives and where she spent some time growing up. In this small down, she runs into a boy she went to high school with Im Eun-seob (Seo Kang-joon) who runs a bookstore down the street from her house. While they were not close in high school, he was in love with her from afar. She gets drawn into his orbit now and he provides the warmth and care she has been searching for. She in turn helps him open up and helps him stay connected.

There is a sense of community in the show, though neither small-town life nor family is idealized. What it means to be a family, show love, communicate, and care for one another also gets an airing.

The show benefits from a larger circle of local characters whose struggles with guilt, poverty, domestic violence (CW: for some very graphic domestic violence), and romance also get screen time.  There is also a past friendship that haunts Mok Hae-won. Her best friend in high school Kim Bo-yeong reappears and their relationship breakdown gets revisited.

This is a show where nothing and everything happens. The drama is personal, localized, and almost entirely in their hearts. I appreciate stories that acknowledge how hard it is to just be. That life itself is a struggle and it takes work, time, and others caring about each other to ease that difficulty.

The cast is impeccable. This one won my heart.


 It’s Okay To Not Be Okay

This high budget, stylized gothic-fairy tale production from Netflix felt like a squandered opportunity. It delved into mental health, neurodiversity, and trauma, but how it handled those topics often felt unhealthy and unbalanced. It also showed the least secure and worst run psychiatric facility on the planet and I do hope all the patients there sue someone over this.

As with many K-drama romances, the intention is for two people to complete each other in ways they didn’t know they needed. Here, they’ve unfortunately paired the Queen of Self Interest with the King of Self-Sacrifice. Children’s book author Ko Moon-young (Seo Ye-ji) is a vicious, reckless, sexually open, emotionally-unleashed woman who encounters care worker Moon Gang-tae (Kim Soo-hyun) a deeply internalized, buttoned-up, sexually repressed, but calm man who has been taking care of his autistic older brother since his mother was murdered when he was twelve.

Frankly, these two halves do not add up to a healed whole. Rather than a balancing each other out, their dynamic often functions like mutually-assured destruction. Extremes on either end that do serious damage to each other—but in this fanciful universe this gets converted into “healing.”  I struggled to see the “care” here.  

They do satisfy each other’s urges—he’s enticed by her liberation and the chaos she sows in his overly-structured life. She needs to calm the fuck down and he’s good at petting her. I mean. Jesus. There are moments that uncomfortably flit with Taming of the Shrew territory even if that’s not quite the story. 

There are some important topics that do get covered including how a neurotypical sibling cares for and takes responsibility for a neurodivergent sibling.  Moon Gang-tae confronting the choices he’s made to dedicate his whole life to protecting his brother and his brother’s growth to become more independent was nice to see. But it got buried under this destructive “romance” which I had trouble stomaching.  

The show offers a much broader visual palette than I’ve seen in Korean dramas, with bits of ghost stories, fairy tales, the macabre, silent movies, and storybook illustrations that come to life it. More Jean-Pierre Jeunet than Tim Burton to my eyes.  Although the narrative seems to lose track of the fairy tale aspects over time and then once it tries to reclaim them it becomes over-the-top in a way that’s hard to reconcile.


Hospital Playlist

This medical procedural benefits from a great ensemble of actors, but pacing issues and the musical interludes made me fixate far too much on where it was failing, rather than where it was succeeding.

Based around an interesting mix of five friends who met in medical school, each have issues from their past they are dealing with—fractured families, challenging relationships, parental expectations.

I was really invested in the characters and their relationships, but they kept interrupting their lives with medical emergencies that were drawn-out and did not necessarily add much to the characters or their relationships. They kept using some medical students in scenes as an excuse to explain the medical procedures in depth and this is not the level of detail we needed. I deeply did not care about how the surgery would be performed. 

They spend an INORDINATE amount of time doing liver transplants. There are so many liver transplants in these 12 episodes that I now can perform one myself. Bring me your tired, your poor, your cirrhosis liver. Every time they went into surgery, I just lost interest. 

Also, so many crying parents over dying children and then rubber babies in hospital beds near death (we can tell that’s not a baby).  I swear the casting must be 90% “Can you cry over your medically at-risk child? Please show us. Ok that’s good ugly crying you’re hired.”

It took forever for the hinted at romances to even get going. I think it was 9 episodes of hint dropping before there was something meaningful.  NINE EPISODES.

The “playlist” of the title comes from the fact that these doctors also have a “band” that never performs anywhere. They play songs together in one of their basements. Certainly, these musical interludes would have worked better if these were nostalgic trigger songs for me. Since I don’t know Korean pop hits from the 90s and aughts that they are playing, it was just a lot of time spent in the basement with these 5 folks jamming to tunes for no reason. They sing them very well. Congrats to them. 

It would appear this is built for a second season. I can only hope to learn gallbladder surgery then. But there better be non-stop romance for all 12 episodes if I waited so long for any of these characters to even kiss.  I just want to spend more time with the characters and less time in livers. 


Oh My Ghost

While I grumbled about Hospital Playlist, I absolutely adored Jo Jung-suk. So, I went looking for another show of his to watch.

Oh My Ghost involves a angry, virgin ghost Shin Soon-ae (Kim Seul-gi) who refuses to crossover because she is holding onto her regrets. She thinks if she can have sex then she will be able to move on. But the clock is ticking, and she must move on before the 3rd anniversary of her death which is rapidly approaching.

She ends up possessing a pathologically shy girl Na Bong-sun (Park Bo-young) who works at a restaurant in an attempt to get close to the chef Kang Sun-woo (Jo Jung-suk), who the ghost thinks she’s very compatible with. Bong-sun also has a crush on him but with her lack of confidence and nervous nature has never even thought of getting close to him. Chef is secretly a “good guy,” but outwardly a bossy jerk to everyone including Bong-sun.

Once possessed, Bong-sun becomes effervescent and aggressively randy with Chef. Frankly, it gets disturbing and uncomfortable because she’s practically trying to rape him. She is constantly grabbing at his crotch and physically molesting him. While the ghost does not have a lot of time, this excuse just plays badly in these circumstances. I think there was a way to make this ghost impulsive without rapey and they failed.

She’s also a terrible guest in Bong-sun’s body. Every time she possesses her Bong-sun has no memory of what transpired, and the ghost doesn’t even leave her helpful notes. Poor Bong-sun has no idea what’s been going on and her co-workers are struggling to chart these dramatic mood swings.

Bong-sun has always been able to see ghosts and its actually part of what has caused her to become so introverted and miserable. Eventually, Bong-sun has a conversation with the ghost and consents to the possession both to get closer to chef and to help this ghost in her plight. But “consent” is kind of ignored with respect to Chef. I mean HE doesn’t know he’s in a relationship with a ghost-possessed kitchen assistant. Then again, the Chef-Bong-sun dynamic is uncomfortably paternalistic and weird anyway.

Add in a whole dramatic twist that pushes the tone of the show far too much and I barely clung on until the end.



Saturday, August 29, 2020

Pandemic Diary August: Zombies, Lawyers, and Sexual Tension


August has been heavily defined by suddenly having homework to do. I signed up for a Korean language class and now I make a lot of flashcards and recite them walking down the street. My brain needed this jolt and maybe I needed something else non-pandemic related (and non-day-job related) to focus on. With my theater and travel life on hold, I definitely needed to give myself something else.

Still haven’t really left Queens. I did make one trip to Manhattan to finally get a hair cut after six months of letting it grow. I suddenly have very curly hair—something I have not had since I was 4-years-old. Is it stress? Is it age? Are my hair follicles freaking out? Who knows.

As for my drama-watching, the Viki app stopped working for me for weeks on end and technical support took forever to get back to me so I was forced back into Netflix-land for much of August. I gave into a couple of the shows they were endlessly promoting. Some greatness, some questionable choices, and some things I should not have watched. 

******

Kingdom 

As I have mentioned before, I had accidentally watched King: Eternal Monarch when meaning to watch Kingdom. I finally rectified that mistake—Kingdom was worth the wait.

This show written by Kim Eun-hee (of Signal fame) pulls together Shakespearean succession issues with a pandemic of zombies, then throws in a little Handmaid’s Tale reproductive horror to boot. Politics, parentage, inheritance, duty, and power all get equal airing and even if you don’t enjoy zombie chomping or horror (I definitely do not), it’s a compulsive watch and thrillingly apt for this very moment.

In it, the aged King has a new young wife, Queen Consort (Kim Hye-Jun) who is pregnant. He also has a grown son, Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-Hoon) who was groomed to take over upon his father’s death. But if this baby is born before his father dies, then the baby will become the heir.

Behind the pregnant queen is a powerful father Chief State Councilor Lord Cho Hak-ju (Ryu Seung-ryong) who has placed members of his clan in many official roles and has kept others throughout the country in line through fear of his consolidated power.

When the King takes ill, all these fears around succession reach a fever pitch. Suspicion around his illness leads many to believe he has already died and the Queen and her father are just trying to preserve power for themselves and control the heir.

What has happened in reality is that Lord Cho has summoned a doctor to resurrect the dead King with a “resurrection plant.” The King comes back to life, but as a snarling zombie. This zombie illness inadvertently leaves the royal court and begins spreading quickly across the country.

Prince Lee Chang tries to get to the bottom of what has happened to his father only to uncover the zombie plague. With the help of a doctor, Seo Bi (Doona Bae) and his loyal guard Mu-yeong (Kim Sang-ho) they start to figure out what is causing the plague and how they might stop it. The spread of the zombie plague is compounded by self-serving politicians looking to preserve their power first over serving (or saving) the populace. The political maneuverings are so infuriating and yet so familiar

While this might feel on the nose to watch during a literal pandemic being massively mismanaged by the American government, watching the Prince Lee Chang put aside his own self-interest and start to lead the people was the leadership porn I really needed right now. He tears a fumbling minor league bureaucrat a new one and I perhaps cheered out loud.

Photo of my TV of Kingdom on Netflix

Time and time again, the show demonstrates how selfish people ruin everything for everyone else just to serve themselves. One man steals food for himself and accidentally burns down the warehouse of food for everyone else. Despite being warned that these dead bodies will rise again, a mother refuses to let go of her son’s corpse which naturally wreaks havoc upon its reawakening.

The Shakespearean aspects come down to the struggle between father and son, King and Prince, an inherently fraught dynamic where one only gains power when the other loses his life. Prince Lee Chang does not want to be the guy who takes the throne by force, but if he does not fight for his birthright he will watch his nation fall to power hungry nobles who have no sense of duty or honor.

Duty may have been an abstract he was fed throughout his childhood but he has to choose whether to follow that path now and what it means in the midst of <waves arms at burning nightmare of a country>.

As Korean dramas go, this one certainly has a sophisticated visual look with more fancy camerawork than you usually see (there’s definitely a decapitation cam).

Ju Ji-hoon as Prince Lee Chang brings a mix of suffering, nobility, and sadness to his character. Doona Bae can do it all—save children, cure diseases, and fight zombies. She’s the complete package. It’s a strong cast who dig into this rich script and bring humanity to this vortex of creatures and frights.

And even with the relentless plague bearing down, political machinations, and secrets a plenty the show also throws in comic relief throughout. A great deal comes from the inept magistrate (Jeon Seok-ho) who endlessly and gloriously fails upward.

And if the real pandemic ever ends, there may be a Season 3 of Kingdom when the actors can get back to filming.

Hyena 

Coming off of Kingdom, I wanted to see another Ju Ji-hoon show. So, I opted for Hyena. It had a vague description and I had no idea what I was getting into.

I will say upfront I DEEPLY struggled with the premise and it was hard to push past it. But once I did there was more to this show and a fun frisson between Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hye-soo.

The show sets up a love/hate dynamic between two lawyers. Jung Geum-ja (Kim Hye-soo) is a woman with a mysterious background, questionable ethics, and will do just about anything to win a case. Yoon Jae-hee (Ju Ji-hoon) is a wealthy, successful lawyer at the number one law firm in Korea who has literally everything going for him. But he falls for a mysterious woman he meets in a laundromat. He thinks he’s in love. She’s however duping him about everything. He discovers she’s lied to him about her identity and it’s actually Geum-ja who is his opposing counsel in a big case. She’s stolen his case materials after sleeping with him and humiliates him in court. She makes such a big splash on the legal scene that she gets hired at his firm and now he has to face her and her questionable methods all the live long day.

While the show is written by a woman, I truly HATED how the show frames this woman and has her sleep with this man to win a case. Beyond it being a massive ethical WTF (which the show does address), the show makes clear she’s smarter and better at problem solving than all the men she encounters. 

The show thinks it needs her “unthinkable” actions to pit her against Jae-hee, but DOES IT? I wish it was not her using sex to pull one over on him, because it just plays into such an old and damaging stereotype.  I think the show wants us to fall into the trap of judging her and then questioning our basis for doing so. But the show largely comes from Jae-hee's perspective and it takes a while for him to get over himself. 

The upside of the show is that Geum-ja exposes the hypocrisy of the men in these law firms, because at the end of the day it’s not that the polished, fancy lawyers are more ethical or better lawyers than her, it’s that they have the cozy old-boy network to lean on and other men in power to protect them. Everyone is terrible, but one group gets unearned respect at the expense of the other.

The show also reveals how much male egos drive all the mistakes. I mean no one would need a lawyer if these men were not allowed to touch things. And like in other shows, competent women will be overlooked over and over again for idiot sons to hand corporations to. You cannot unsee this. Society may be patriarchal, but the show shines a big bright light on why that may be the central problem.

While I didn’t love how the show started, the show ends up is a much more interesting place. I liked the fraught sexual tension between Jae-hee and Geum-ja and how they perfectly get on each other’s nerves. An undone Ju Ji-hoon is actually quite fun to watch. There’s a talented and colorful ensemble of supporting characters too.

Also Kim Hye-soo is 50. I love a show that centers a sexy 50-something woman.

Tunnel

This show is basically a very sloppy version of a much better show, Signal. The difference is here there is a magic tunnel and Signal had a magic walkie-talkie. 

Tunnel on Netflix
Photo of my TV & IG commentary of Tunnel on Netflix
Do not recommend. It’s another serial killer mystery, but the stylized, gratuitous violence towards women was unwelcome. There was a generic relentless score to push things along because the writing was not doing it. They tack on a message about the way victims suffer from failures by the police. But it’s not a strong through line.

It’s a high concept show without careful character work. I didn’t get invested in the individual journeys and the pain the show was selling. There’s some really unfortunate paternalism.

I came away from this show asking “Why do smart women do dumb things in Korean dramas just to move the plot along?” Discuss.

Because This Is My First Life 

I got quickly and deeply invested in this romance, but writing choices made at the end undid a lot of my goodwill. Grumble, grumble. There was a spirit of rebellion here I really responded to but then the show's efforts to subvert "traditional" narratives (and possibly even traditional "values") betrayed their own intentions. 

Much like Romance is a Bonus Book, financial and housing precarity are at the center of this story. Focusing on the “88 generation,” it also addresses marriage, hooking-up, and dating.

Yoon Ji-ho (Jung So-min) went to the best university, but she has been struggling as a writer’s assistant in television dramas for awhile. She longs to write her own show, but she doesn’t even have a roof over her head. Through a friend-of-a-friend, she finds a perfect rental and sets about to dig into writing. But it turns out she’s scandalously living with a male roommate Nam Se-hee (Lee Min-ki), each not realizing the other was of the opposite sex since they’d been on opposite schedules and never met.

Se-hee is never expressly described as neurodivergent, but he’s a computer engineer who fixates on logic over emotion and lives a strictly organized closed-circuit of a life that involves work, his cat, and his house. Once they find out who the other is, they agree to keep living together. Eventually Se-hee calculates that this arrangement is financially beneficial for the both of them and he suggests they marry—purely for financial reasons. It provides Ji-ho with the stability she’s long craved, and her paying rent gives Se-hee a leg up on his hefty mortgage which he will be paying for a long time.

While these are the mechanics of how they end up in this predicament (of course, feelings of attraction do come in and upend the balance), the show spends a lot of time inside Ji-ho’s head giving us her perspective on how hard her life has been. She is sexually assaulted by an old colleague and then other colleagues try to cover it up. 

Having a safe, comfortable home and someone she gets along with, after a life of struggles and discomfort, is for her an achievement. But this broken sadness around settling for something less than her dreams gnaws at the edges of this new life.

The show also brings into the mix Ji-ho’s two best friends from childhood—one obsessed with getting married to her longtime boyfriend and another fighting non-stop sexual harassment at work while trying to climb the corporate ladder as a woman.

Ultimately, the show is about all of these women trying to figure out where they belong and what traditions to embrace and what ones to shed. 

The show rides a pretty strong wave of sexual tension and longing between Ji-ho and Se-hee. But then Ji-ho makes some dramatic choices at the end of the series that don’t quite fit with her character. It feels like they were needed just to goose the plot and generate a fake crisis at episode #14 etc.

Otherwise, I really liked its tone of sad nostalgia, lost promise, and drowning in a life that has not quite measured up to one’s dreams. It gave the entire romance a pensive, grounded edge. So even if there is romantic heart-thumping longing it crashes into a world that is very real. All the more reason for the incongruous missteps in the writing at the end to crush much of my enthusiasm for the show. 

Photo of my TV of  Because This Is My First Life on Netflix 
It was nice to see the show address issues around disability and even flirt with bisexuality in a tingly moment. 

I was not expecting a major queering of a K-drama text, but the sense of challenging expectations around marriage and relationships felt progressive and even transgressive. Yet, the show could not sustain that transgressive energy in the final reel. 

As an aside, the actor playing side character Bok-nam, Kim Min-kyu, has the face of a Disney cartoon prince and he was delightful. Also, the cat who plays Kitty is maybe the floppiest muppet of a cat ever and I would watch a TV show starring just that cat. 

Vagabond 

If First Life had a sense of grounded reality, Vagabond has le none. This is an action-romance about a stunt man (Lee Seung-gi) trying to get to the bottom of the plane crash that killed his young nephew in Morocco. He teams up with a low-level covert intelligence official (Bae Suzy) to try to solve the mystery.

At some point, I started to wonder if this was a deep satire on the poor state of the Korean intelligence agencies because the most “sophisticated” thinker about conspiracies and terrorist plots is a stunt man. Even if everyone is corrupt, and he is the only pure being left in Korea, I found him endlessly annoying for constantly getting involved in everything.

Lee Seung-gi seems sweet and charming, but the writing and plot was just doing my head in. It is truly ridiculous with a side helping of WTfuckery.

The show is also notable for one assassin having the worst hair in the world. It’s like they looked at No Country for Old Men and said, “How can we make that bad hair worse?” And they succeeded.

From the way this ends, I assume there are plans for another season. I do not know if I will tune in. I like closure, but I may have reached my limit for nonsense.

Melting Me Softly 

Finally, the Viki app started working for me once I paid for a subscription. And what I did with that opportunity was watch a truly terrible show that even I could not believe I was watching.

I should have stopped when I read this was about cryogenically frozen humans. But I watched some trailers and thought this might be a kind of cute look at what happens when you literally sleep through 20 years and have to deal with the world that has changed. But it’s not really about that.

Photo of my TV of Melting Me Softly on Viki
I tuned in for Ji Chang-wook, but alas even he couldn't convince me this show was watchable.

While there is a TOTALLY NARRATIVELY JUSTIFIED shower scene (perhaps the only one in the history of K-dramas), I do not think I can defend watching this dumb show in any way.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

My Favorite K-Dramas Ranked

Just to keep a ranking of the shows I have blogged about...all subject to change: 

1) Crash Landing On You: Just the perfect blend of comedy, drama, and romance with a narrative that sustains itself and interesting conversations about borders and separation. Characters and chemistry win the day. I can't imagine a more perfect pairing than Hyun Bin and Son Ye-jin.

2) Mr. Sunshine: Strong historical drama focused on important issues but never losing sight of the personal connections between the characters and the impossible choices they face. So heartbreaking.

3)  Kingdom: A little bit of Shakespeare, a little bit of Handmaid's Tale, and a whole lotta what-happens-when-your-leaders-care-more-about-preserving-their-power-than-serving-the-people." Apt for pandemic times.

4)  Itaewon Class: I heart this group of misfits and their struggles feel poignant and grounded in important issues. Also Park Seo-joon heart eyes 4-eva.


5) Signal: Strong writing and compulsive plot make up for shortfalls in some character development.

6) What's Wrong With Secretary Kim: It's sexy and flirty and knows what it needs to do and thank you for that. Dynamic duo of Park Seo-joon and Park Min-young.

7) Stranger: Doona Bae. Send tweet.

8) I Will Come To You When the Weather is Nice: Life, love, family, and getting through every day is hard. This precious little gem of a show lets sadness live alongside happiness giving meaning to both. 

9)   The K2: It's so stupid but it's so fun. Action-comedy-romance guilty pleasure. It has some really terrific moments and falls down the rabbit hole in others. But still would recommend because of Ji Chang-wook and his face.

10) Healer: A great pairing of Park Min-young and Ji Chang-wook. While the story runs out of steam, they are such cuties together, we have to stan. Plus the fashion sequence for no reason is pure pleasure.

11) Because This Is My First Time Life: Two roommates agree to marry for financial reasons, but their hearts start thumping for each other. A look at financial and housing precarity, marriage, and relationships as a younger generation starts to question tradition. 

12) Hyena: A questionable initial premise but eventually it becomes a slick legal-corruption show exposing the hypocrisy of the Korean society and taking aim at the patriarchy and class structures. 

13) Romance is a Bonus Book: Social issues are stronger here than romance or anything else. Wasting a handsome side man when he should be your lead.

14) Her Private Life: Great lens on fangirl culture and some steamy moments for sure. But not quite enough to carry it all the way through.

15) Hospital Playlist: A medical drama about 5 friends creates some engaging characters but then makes us wade through a lot of surgery before we get to see the characters do or feel anything. Hoping for better pacing in season 2. 

16)  Goblin (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God): I just wanted to push all the characters into a volcano at some point. Dragged out. I was not into it at all. Surly, sly comedy works. Treacly cringe romance with a teenager not so much.

17) It's Okay To Not Be Okay: A stylized, gothic fairy tale that mixes serious and important mental health and care issues, with a destructive and unhealthy romance. 

18) The King: Eternal MonarchI was confused and didn't mean to watch this. I regret the error. 

19) Vagabond: A stunt man is going to solve a complex terrorist conspiracy with his bare hands and maybe also his kicky feet. 

20) Oh My Ghost: If only this ghost were not so rapey, this show might have been a cute romance. Or maybe I would never get over the consent issues.  We'll never know. 

21) My Holo Love: I was so offended for 85% of this show.

22) Something in the Rain: It was bad. But I do keep thinking about sexual harassment story line.

23) Melting Me Softly: 2 people get cryogenically frozen thinking it will be for 24-hours and they get unfrozen 20 years later. This might also melt your brain. 

Shows I turned off before watching all of: Black, My Mister


Pandemic Diary July: Goblins, Kings, and No Zombies


July was packed with personal self-care. I found a new therapist and said goodbye to my old elliptical machine.

I hilariously tried to stop the elliptical from squeaking with a series of lubricating products, beginning with olive oil (which has worked for years, for the record) and escalating to white lithium auto grease, whatever the hell that is. This purchase involved me standing in a parking lot waiting for “curbside” pick-up and being asked what kind of car I drive. I do not have a car. In the end, the squeaks got worse and a new elliptical was purchased.

So some mental and literal squeaks got oiled out in July.

While New York City continued to do its part to stay home where possible and keep infection rates down, the rest of the country lost its freaking mind.

I went to Manhattan for the first time since March for an absolutely annoying doctor’s appointment so I could have an absolutely necessary doctor’s appointment later. Besides living mask free while under anesthesia for a period of time, my life still remains pretty much locked down all the damn time.

After the rough time I had in June, I went searching for comfort from familiar K-drama actors this month and then stumbled into a pocket of really problematic romance narratives where lack of consent and surveillance was uncomfortably centered. I watched so much this requires two separate blog posts.

I also signed up to take Korean language classes starting in August. So. I’m in deep.

**** 

I kicked off July with a k-drama error of epic proportions.

I meant to watch Kingdom, a period, political, zombie show everyone’s been talking about. But I accidentally watched The King: Eternal Monarch.

There were no zombies which was very confusing at first. This should have been the first clue I had started the wrong show. The King was a time-traveling romance and mystery by the writer behind Mr. Sunshine and Goblin (Guardian: The Lonely and Great God). Think Doctor Who with more smooching and guns and less emotional investment. <sad trombone>

Lee Gon (Lee Min-ho) is the monarch of the Kingdom of Corea who becomes King when his uncle, Lee Lim (Lee Jung-jin) murders Lee Gon’s father, the current King. Lee Lim escapes capture. Lee Gon figures out he is able to cross between parallel worlds. Once he crosses over to the Republic of Korea, he finds the woman who he’s been searching for his whole life, Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun). Ever since the day of his father’s murder, he’s had her ID badge for mysterious reasons. She’s never heard of him and thinks his ideas about parallel universes are made up and he’s crazy.

Eventually she succumbs to his charms (I did not) and learns that there are people in both worlds who look identical but with very different personalities. For instance, the King’s main bodyguard Jo Yeong looks exactly like her goofy pal Jo Eun-seob (Woo Do-hwan)

While some may tune in for the romance, I found Lee Min-ho to be too stiff and dull. I never quite understood what was special about their “fated” relationship. They stared at each other until it was love. It quickly got tiresome. Yet, I stuck it out because the mystery of how and why people were crossing into parallel universes was intriguing. But that lacked in pay-off in the end.

Lee Lim’s nefarious plans and the inevitable crash between the worlds was semi-compelling until it got incomprehensible. Even on a good day time travel can make things get confusing narratively, but by the end I was not quite sure what was going on.

More importantly, I did not care what happened to anyone except a somewhat neglected side character Kang Shin-jae (Kim Kyung-nam), who is Tae-eul's bff and has had a crush on her since high school. He was a handsome, sad one and I would have been much more interested in a romance with him.

This was a big budget production with slick special effects and beautiful sets and costumes, but it was ultimately a very pretty vessel lacking in substance. And no zombies.

**** 

I ended up watching Goblin afterwards and found I had similar problems with the high stakes, barely explained romance there too.

Here, Ji Eun-tak (Kim Go-eun) is a school girl who can see ghosts and her life is miserable. She is told she is the goblin's bride and then she meets the goblin (Gong Yoo). He's been wandering the earth for 939 years waiting for someone to put him out of his misery. Turns out his bride can pull the sword plunged into his chest and it will release him. But he's not sure Ji Eun-tak is his bride. So they ended up spending a lot of time together because she can magically summon him by blowing out a flame. While he is very rich, he ends up with a roommate who it turns out is a Grim Reaper (Lee Dong-wook) who has been trying to collect Ji Eun-tak's soul since she was born. This makes for some awkward times when Ji Eun-tak also moves in.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy a “fated love” narrative, but I think character has to drive that and not just magical nonsense. Here, the I-zapped-my-magic-into-your-mother’s-womb-and-accidentally-created-my-future-bride scenario is not enough to convince me of a deep-seated love between a 19-year-old and a 939-year-old who otherwise share very little in common.

Goblin and bride have an antagonistic dynamic, but based on nothing. It's not witty, sexy repartee that builds to a frisson of chemistry and love. It's sniping, that leapfrogs to "love" leaving me a bit whiplashed in the process. Give me fate plus something meaty. Their personalities or dynamics need to build off of each other. Insta-romance without richer characters is wholly unsatisfying and here with the age difference there’s an undercurrent of cringe.

Yet, Goblin has a dynamic duo at its core. Goblin and Grim Reaper are a comedy buddy team made in heaven-hell-the afterlife. They are roommates and one runs hot, one runs cold, comedy ensues. While the bromance is fun, a queer romance would have been much better. It ends up with more of a teasing sibling energy and at least a sincere and emotional connection, which is more than I can say for the central romance. They've been wandering the earth for a long time and kind of get the epic sadness that the other carries. 

The comedy functions far better than the romance. Grim Reaper is sarcastic and there's a lot of tongue-in-cheek aspects to the show. I also enjoyed the bureaucracy and organization of death and the afterlife. So much paperwork.

But Goblin also showcases some of the worst designer knitwear in the history of cozy Korean winter dramas. At some point, it just feels like a cacophony of ridiculous and loud Charlie Brown sweaters have just overtaken any plot. There is a Burberry yellow sweater vest that is, without exaggeration, a crime against humanity. As someone deep into crocheting during this pandemic, a bad color choice will get you every time. I cannot take a serious scene seriously if you’re wearing a vest made of lemon curd.  

At some point, this show became Lord of the Rings for me: an overlong mythology that outstayed its welcome and I just wanted to push everyone into a volcano.

Pandemic Diary July: Wounded Men, Questionable Healing

In July, I fell into FOUR shows which involved men with traumatic childhoods and the women who patiently put up with their nonsense and fall in love with them so they can heal. The woman may also have some healing to do, but it is often secondary. Hrumph.

While on the one hand I can easily get swept up by the allure of a wounded man narrative (ugh we are so conditioned to), how these shows frame and shade those wounds and how the female characters get treated deeply impacted my experience of them.

I also came away a big fan of Park Min-young. What a ray of fucking light and more of her please.

**** 

The worst show in this selection was My Holo Love which ended up a bit like You’ve Got Mail with more stalking and less consent. A technological Cyrano mixed with some troubling “bed trick” type of switcheroos. Add in a woman with her own vulnerabilities and trauma and the more it went on the less I was happy with its path.

In this show, a loner, pissy, angry, hostile, asshole of a programmer Go Nan-do (Yoon Hyun-min) develops an AI, Holo, that looks just like him. The hologram works through a pair of eyeglasses which end up in the hands of the unsuspecting Han So-yeon (Ko Sung-hee). She suffers from face blindness (after a childhood trauma) and becomes quickly attached to the attentive and caring Holo who helps her identify people and tends to her every need. Her lonely, isolated life becomes a lot more fulfilling and she comes out of her shell with Holo’s help.

Sounds great, except the programmer and his company are watching everything she does and treating her like she’s beta testing the hologram. They are fascinated by how much the AI is growing and changing with his involvement with her. BUT SHE HAS NO IDEA SHE’S BEING WATCHED.

Because she is faceblind she does not realize Go Nan-do moves in next door to spy on her further. There are a couple of incidents where Go Nan-do steps in to pretend he’s Holo with her.

Of course, there’s a reason for his hostile attitude and frustrations with Holo and So-yeon getting close. He’s developing feelings for her himself. But he has zero ability to process any of his emotions so they just come out as rage and misbehavior. It borders on the disturbing.

One thing I’ve learned this summer from K-dramas, is that there are a lot of evil, abusive dads who run chaebols and they pass along terrible lessons to their sons. This show has one and the bad dad looks like the Wayne Newton of Korea. I don’t know what was happening with his hair.

During this entire “limited” series (I could not believe even got to 12 episodes), I shouted at the TV that everyone should just get a therapist. While that might eliminate the “drama” in this K-drama it would be healthier all around for everyone involved. Probably including me who was getting irate at the bad choices everyone kept making in this show.

Eventually, they get around to trying to explain the why behind the characters, their trauma, and their connection, but I was never comfortable on the path the show takes. There’s just something abusive about this set-up that never is ameliorated. Go Nan-do’s trauma is never a sufficient justification for his egregious behavior. I’m particularly bothered that any woman would wait around to heal his stupid inner hologram child too. She literally cuddles his inner hologram child at some point.

However, there were some very good kisses. I hate myself.

**** 

Speaking of kisses, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim, has correctly been ranked as a show with the steamiest kisses and I understand why it's a fan favorite. 

In it, a demanding, narcissistic corporate Vice Chairman (Park Seo-joon) comes to completely depend on his endlessly competent secretary of nine years Kim Mi-So (Park Min-young). When she announces she’s quitting, it upends their professional and synchronous working relationship and opens the door to an unexpected romance between them.

While the Vice Chairman is a self-involved, buffoon from the start, there’s something softer about it. He is too direct in all aspects of his life. He is constantly unfiltered and his relationship with Secretary Kim is not the only space where he acts this way.

In fact, you can’t take his ridiculous narcissism literally or seriously. It is a coping mechanism and there’s no malice in it (Holo take some notes). Even when he calls Secretary Kim “my woman” it’s laughable more than chauvinist (ok it’s a little chauvinist and she gives him side-eye over it at one point). Quickly the show provides vulnerability and flaws to his “perfect” fa├žade. It helps his harmless arrogance is played for comedy and that Park Seo-joon plays this with stupid adorableness.

Secretary Kim’s patience with him is enormous, but that too starts to unfold into something more complex for her. Her own family history and trauma shed light on her caretaking behavior and put a why on her dedication and self-sacrifice. The class issues that exist between them are handled with some interesting candor and confrontation between her sisters and Vice Chairman.

The “justifications” for all their behaviors are promptly revealed (unlike Holo) and it takes the edge off some of the questionable workplace dynamics. Also, Secretary Kim holds her own even if Vice Chairman has all the power and money. In the end, it ends up a stumbling, awkward sexy workplace romance that also unpacks past experiences they both need to heal from.

The show blends highly stylized comedic visuals and sound effects. These play like comic book word balloons with bleeps, bloops, squeaks, quacks, whistles, meows, and tweets accompanying reactions, quizzical looks, and asides. There are also quirky animations that pop-up from time to time. Not my favorite approach.

But then there are the kisses. So hot, guys. So hot.

I tuned in specifically for Park Seo-joon after his role in Itaewon Class and no regrets as the show delivered on him shirtless, sexily flummoxed, and truly pained. I was also rewarded with my introduction to Park Min-young who I came to love over the month of July.

I didn't like the hyper-stylized comedy with the ensemble and cared less about the other characters who develop their own workplace crushes. But Vice Chairman and Secretary Kim (they use their titles even when they start dating) made for such a precious, swoon-worthy couple I muscled through it all for them.

**** 

Some of my best friends met through Hanson fan boards back in the day. I came to fangirling very late in life and growing up before the internet really took off, any fangirling I did was solitary and involved photocopying articles about Harrison Ford from the public library and making a scrapbook of them. Sooooooo analog and there was no community to it. The upside is there was minimal harm when fangirls turned on each other.

Her Private Life offers a deep cultural dive into Korean fangirl culture. Here, a thirty-something fangirl Sung Deok-mi (Park Min-young) runs the most popular fan website for Cha Shi-an (Jung Jae-won). By day she is a mild-mannered art gallery employee and at night she is essentially a top-notch paparazzo covering the object of her affection. But through her job she ends up meeting Cha Shi-an and gets caught up in an internet rumor that she might be dating the Cha Shi-an. The fangirls turn on her quickly so her stern and aloof boss Ryan Gold (think a stuck-up Mr. Darcy type) proposes they fake a relationship with to convince the sasaeng (obsessive fans) that she’s not a threat to them.

In a rare queer storyline, Ryan Gold (Kim Jae-wook) mistakenly believes Deok-mi is a lesbian which is why he steps in to pretend to be her boyfriend. He defends and protects her against discrimination, even though it turns out she is not a lesbian. There is another queer storyline here too that is handled with great sensitivity. Because so much of the drama romance is straight, I really feel like these small queer nuggets are so important. 

They cast a real life rapper as the superstar. I feel like they wanted him to be a Harry Styles-esque art collecting trend setter, but he ends up more a little wisp of a Korean Justin Bieber. He is quite sweet and a mess. 

As with all these shows, both Ryan Gold and Deok-mi have got some childhood shit to work through. At some point, Gold says “I’m fine” and Deok-mi says “You’re not fine.” This moment of honesty caused me to applaud. Sometimes you need someone to speak out loud that this is a lot of fucking trauma guys and you’re not ok.

In theory, all these shows are supposed to be about mutual healing for both partners, but they don’t always feel totally reciprocal. 

Here, the story is stretched quite thin at times, but there was a narrative twist I did not see coming. So congratulations to this show for sliding in that surprise. 

I was very confused by Ryan Gold's wardrobe throughout and his tendency to wear what I can only describe as “blousy” pants. He also wore a double-breasted suit without a shirt? It’s hard to take someone seriously as emotionally wounded when you’re wearing a suit without a shirt under it. Also, why does your sweater not have elbows? These were the hot button questions I had. 

I also deeply hated that the theme song had the lyric, “I wanna be all day. You’re precious little girl.” Vomit. 

As much as I really like Park Min-Young and enjoyed learning more about fangirl culture and fangirl vocab, I didn’t totally ship this couple and fast-forwarded a bunch. Reasonably steamy kisses though.

**** 

I felt like I had neglected my burgeoning crush on Ji Chang-wook after seeing The K2. So when I realized he did a drama with Park Min-young I immediately decided I had to see this collaboration, Healer. While it was no K2 (what is really), I enjoyed their relationship and characters.

Here, Ji Chang-wook plays a “nighttime errand boy” (which appears to be a kind of thief who works on commission and takes on illegal tasks as a mercenary, never caring who hires him). He hides his identity from the world, using the code name Healer, and works with an older woman hacker (Kim Mi-kyung) who provides all his surveillance and tech. He has no cares and lives without emotion or attachment (for reasons OBVIOUSLY) and just wants to save money to buy an island and live out his days there.

But he encounters a journalist Chae Yeong-shin (Park Min-young) during one of his errands. He becomes fascinated with her and why his client Kim Mun-ho (Yoo Ji-tae), a famous journalist and brother of a powerful publishing figure, wants to know more about her. 

He becomes her de facto protector going so far as to go undercover working alongside her at her entertainment news website as a kind of inept, panicky dork, Park Boon Soo. Meanwhile, she falls for this mysterious Healer who has rescued her on multiple occasions. But he cannot quite reveal his true self to her, because he’s not even sure who he is really is after a lifetime of hiding and disguises. They also have childhood shit to work through.

There's a subplot about political action in the 80s and the fight for a free press (which is quite interesting). But at it's heart it's an action mystery with the romance underlying it.

The upside here is Chae Yeong-shin is styled as a unique weirdo who kind of moves to her beat. She’s bossy, cunning, and relentless even if things don’t always work out for her. She’s a plucky heroine who has carved out a life for herself after early childhood tragedy. So, I love her.

There are threats to her safety that she is unaware of, so there is slight justification for Healer’s surveillance of her, but it would be really nice if men were not secretly monitoring the women, they have feelings for. I hate that I keep stumbling upon stories with these creepy invasions. Even if done with “good” intentions, I dislike the framing of this as romantic.

Ji Chang-wook gets to kick a lot of ass and saves Chae Yeong-shin from some impossible situations. But she's no damsel-in-distress. Her persistence and self-possession make for a much more compelling character.

That said, I cannot resist Ji Chang-wook’s wounded, inarticulate but relentless protector characters. His stupid face is my kryptonite. The two of them together therefore are irresistible.

Even if this does get dragged out to a questionable 20 episodes, I will make time for them in my life and I regretted nothing.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Pandemic Diary June: Characters Filled with Fight

I’ve felt quite precious about some of the shows I’ve been watching during the pandemic.

Something about the vulnerability of the characters has made me protective of them. Maybe my heart too needed protection.

As Itaewon Class was coming to an end, I struggled like I had with CLOY, to finish it. Sometimes you don’t want the last chapter written. Good news or bad, it’s over.


With the protests around George Floyd’s death that began in late May in Minneapolis, confrontations and conversations around race, racism, police violence, white privilege, and white supremacy were central to everything happening in June.

I marched. I shouted in the street. I cried. I donated. I got to reading more about anti-racism. Watching Korean TV did not quite fit into this month of action. But I had begun on this project—to immerse myself in K-dramas—and found it soothing to my pandemic anxiety. I needed to keep going. My anxiety had actually ratcheted up in June. I had some panic attacks. It was a really bad month.

In the end, Itaewon Class was perhaps a fair fit for June 2020. Framed as an underdog story, there were story lines about racism and transphobia—topics not widely raised in what I’ve seen so far (but I've only seen 9 shows). It dealt with discrimination, power, and oppression and the simmering rage at injustice in the characters mirrored my own at the world outside.

***

Park Saeroyi (Park Seo-joon) is a principled teenager with a strong sense of right and wrong, a warm relationship with his dad, and a crush on an girl he goes to school with, Oh Soo-ah (Nara). But his hard-headedness comes up against the intractable force of power, money, and influence in the form of Chairman Jang (Yoo Jae-myung) and his sneering, spoiled son Jang Geun-won (Ahn Bo Hyun).

Geun-won bullies his way through Park Saeroyi’s new school. Park Saeroyi tries to put a stop to that with one punch, but ends up getting kicked out of school. Complicating factors, Park Saeroyi's father works for Geon-won’s dad, Chairman Jang.

Because Park Saeroyi refuses to kneel before Zod, Chairman Jang, Park Saeroyi’s dad loses his job. Shortly thereafter, Park Saeroyi ends up in prison because of something else Geun-won does.

It’s a fucking lot to bear. But that’s exactly what he does. He takes the punches, but he holds onto a clarity of purpose—he will destroy Chairman Jang.

Park Saeroyi serves his time in jail and then sets about to open a pub to rival Chairman Jang’s famous pub chain. Declaring himself the enemy of one of the most powerful men in Korea, his rag-tag pub doesn’t look like much of a match, but slowly other outcasts like him enter his orbit and together they work to defeat Chairman Jang. He brings on another ex-con like him, a factory-worker turned chef, and a slightly sociopathic influencer who dedicates herself to Park Saeroyi and his mission because she is in love with him.

With strong writing and a likable ensemble, calling this a “revenge story” feels too pat. There is a love triangle with sequences of painful longing, broken hearts, and unfortunate cattiness between women. 

Park Saeroyi and his employees have a lot of trauma to unpack too, with larger questions of who suffers and survives, who has power over you, and what the costs of fighting power are. All the evil confronted here is deeply of our world, which makes each setback all the harder to take. But each small triumph gives us hope to keep pressing on.  

Park Saeroyi has to unwind the difference between surviving and living on his journey. That came a little close to home for me. Pandemic survival brings what living a life looks like into stark contrast.  

Actor Park Seo-joon was adorkable in the role with his terrible haircut and warm, wounded sad eyes. Park Saeroyi doesn’t have a lot of normal life experiences to draw from and his social skills are wanting. He grabs his head like his brains will fall out when something beyond his comprehension happens—a declaration of love included.

There’s a sweetness under his hardened exterior. He doesn’t know how to console people, but he wants to. He knows that other people are the key to survival and maybe even living, but his struggle is to figure out how. But he’s got to learn to be a person in the world and not just a man hellbent on revenge. Our pleasure is going on this trip with him and it’s not easy on either of us.

Several characters reckon with a past that has damaged or defined them. Some are trapped in roles they don’t want to be in, but they’ve made choices to survive. Like Park Saeroyi, they struggle to move on and live life differently.

I loved these characters and wanted only the best for them. They all stole my heart.

***

I blasted through Signal in one weekend. It is a police murder mystery story which involves a “magical” walkie-talkie that somehow connects a police detective in the 1990s with a case profiler in 2015.

Structurally, it was really smart. Rather than one murder mystery, the detectives end up solving a series of cold cases that are all connected in some way. Information flows from 2015 to the 90s or from the 90s to 2015. These events change the past, present, and future. Sometimes for good and sometimes for worse.  The pacing was gripping and the unexpected direction solving a crime in the past might have on the future kept the series from falling into easy, predictable patterns.

There are three central characters: the schlubby but driven detective from the past, Lee Jae-han (Jin-woong Cho), the young, wide-eyed recruit who loves him Cha Soo-hyeon (Hye-su Kim) (she becomes a more grizzled detective leading the cold cases in 2015), and the young profiler, Park Hae-yeong (Lee Jehoon) who is personally invested in one of the crimes.

Jin-woong Cho is delightfully rumpled and righteous. He’s the detective constantly fighting his department with their cover-ups and corruption. He is also hiding a sensitive heart with outer bluster and gruffness. Always a delightful combo. When his heart gets broken, mine did too. 

Hye-su Kim is stuck with a character who is used poorly. Cha Soo-hyeon is so ridiculously doe-eyed in the 90s, it’s impossible to believe she becomes the sharp-edged detective of the present. I appreciated the show dealt with the sexism in the police department in the 90s and what Cha Soo-hyeon had to tolerate to just get by. I just wish they’d spent more time building her character beyond her love for Lee Jae-han.

That aside (a big fucking aside), it's addictive and even if I used the phrase "magical walkie-talkie" just go with it. 

***

At a totally different speed was Romance is a Bonus Book. I’d heard this was a remake of the American TV series Younger. It feels like a distant cousin with more differences than similarities.

Both shows are about a divorced, stay-at-home mother who needs to lie to find herself a job in publishing after years of being out of the workplace. But the narrative commonalities mostly end there.

Psyching herself up before each job interview, Kang Dan-i (Nayoung Lee) is shot down over and over. She’d worked in marketing and advertising before, but after 7 years away raising her daughter no one wants to give her a chance. In fact, some women are appalled she would try to take up space in the working world after being so “lazy” for seven years.

She hides her situation from her childhood bff, Cha Eun-ho (Jong-Suk Lee) and pretends to be his housekeeper without him knowing to get some money while also working part-time cleaning a spa. She’s barely scraping by and living in her foreclosed-upon house with no water or electricity (her daughter is at boarding school--another cost she is trying to carry herself, since her deadbeat ex-husband is not paying support). 

She lies on her resume, erasing her college degree, to “qualify” for a job which requires someone with only a high school diploma. The job is at the publishing house where Eun-ho works and she gets it, but they must pretend they don’t know each other.

The show deals with both the societal issues Kang Dan-i faces as a woman trying to return to the workplace, the challenges of working mothers, as well as women who opt not to have families in Korean society.

There are hints at the financial precarity of others too. Kang Dan-i is not the only one in Korea today barely hanging on. The sense that it would not take much to drag people under financially is sprinkled throughout this show.

Yet, the show has its frothier side. There are two love triangles, a mystery around a famous author, and it is a generous love letter to book publishing too.

Moments of uncomfortable paternalism pop up when Eun-ho talks about the role of Dan-i's husband and his “responsibility” for her. I was not a fan of Jong-Suk Lee overall. I know he's beloved model-performer, but a bit too ice prince, pretty boy for my taste. Do not get me started on his fashion-y dumb camouflage jacket. I hate it.

I was much more into the young upstart book designer Kang Dan-i befriends, Ji Seo-joon (Wi Ha-Joon). He’s charming and doting and needs someone loving in his life.

The show benefits from starting with romance, but then expanding it into a larger workplace story, giving space to each character in the publishing house. 

Most importantly, Kang Dan-i and her efforts to start her life over again in her late 30s (interesting that the American show had her in her 40s) are at the center. She wants to give herself a future and the small steps back to employment mean everything to her. Simply having business cards again allows her to participate in Korean life in a different way than when she didn’t. These moments are heart-breaking. She’s been so beaten-down by life and these hard-fought small wins are huge for her.

While Itaewon Class on the surface might have little in common with Bonus Book, both shows were about someone fighting their way back to acceptance and success in a world that wants nothing to do with them.

They were characters worth championing in these fights.


Friday, June 12, 2020

Pandemic Diary May: Grasping for K-Drama Straws


Things I learned watching K-dramas

My TV viewing in May was all over the map. This is probably a sign I'm not doing as well as I think I am doing. My brain pinging from place to place as I tell myself it's all quite fine. 

On the surface, I’ve eased into an indoor life maybe too easily. I don't mind being alone. I have a routine with groceries and supplies. By May, I had sorted out a comfortable work-from-home set-up. I'm exercising more than I ever have before. I'm feeding myself--though I tire of my limited skills in the kitchen. Food is complicated for me and I won't get into that here. 

I poured all my May anxiety into slipper shopping. My feet had been killing me from going barefoot or wearing cloth Japanese slippers. I found a nice pair of boiled wool slippers from Austria.  

Without any additional personal K-drama recommendations to go on, I kind of just stumbled my way into some other titles in May. I had some hits and some misses.

***

I was in the mood for a police procedural, so I watched Stranger. It is a show about political corruption where a prosecutor (Seung-woo Cho) (who has had brain surgery which largely eliminates his ability to emote) ends up running a high-stakes legal-political investigation. He ends up paired with a police officer (Doona Bae) who doodles and draws and isn’t quite a fit in her police station. Oddballs unite.

So many leather sofas. All ugly. 

I loved this quirktastic duo (and the actors playing them), but the other characters were not as robust. A female prosecutor in the show makes some dumb choices which did not jibe with her education, background, and demeanor otherwise. I was not a fan of whatever the show was trying to do with her. Sometimes she was flirting with the prosecutor, sometimes she was just screaming.  

I truly need more info about this sparkly trend.

On the positive side, it did introduce me to the processes of the Korean justice system (hashtag law nerd) and where/how political corruption can intersect with class issues. Also I learned about pojangmacha (tent bars). It was not a waste of time. 

***

From there I oscillated back to romance, and tried another show staring Yei-jin Son from Crash Landing. It turned out Something in the Rain was a bad choice. The writing and production elements were terrible. There was no B romance plot, but, in fact, a very unsettling sexual harassment subplot. 

While it provided some insight into contemporary office harassment, it felt weirdly incongruous with the rest of the story. Also the stakes of the romance were odd. The barriers were certainly not as dramatic as CLOY or Mr. Sunshine. The drama from the romance ended up with nowhere to go. 

Worse, someone decided the song that should be repeated throughout the show at wholly inappropriate moments was "Stand By Your Man." I actually had to start muting every time they played it. With a poor sound mix, it nearly drowned out the dialogue at times. But also...what are you even saying with that song and sexual harassment. 

Sausalito was the name of that band in Lost in Translation

There was also an element of co-dependence to the romance I did not like. There were far too many montages and very little character development. It's like they stretched a 6-episode idea into 16.

There was one side character I was interested in, played by the likable Min-Kyung Joo. I wondered if it was a coded lesbian character--in fact I've thought that a couple of times in different shows. I have not seen overt queerness in any show. Go Ae-sin cross-dresses a lot in Mr. Sunshine as a tool of liberation and that's the most "queering" I've noticed.  

I pushed through Something in the Rain to justify the time already spent with it. But I will admit to fast-forwarding a lot. 

Save yourself and do not go down this path. While Yie-jin Son is great, I think the show isn’t quite sure what it is saying about women (or if it does know, I didn’t know).

***

After that debacle, I was a little worried I was floundering in K-drama land. But I just instinctively gravitated towards The K2, an action romance involving a bodyguard Kim Je-Ha (Chang-Wook Ji) who falls for his charge Go Anna (Yoon-ah Im), while he works together with a manipulative and steely politician's wife, Choi Yoo Jin (Yun-ah Song), who is trying to become the First Lady of Korea. BINGO. 

It was so fucking fun and also ridiculous. There is a comedic naked action scene in a shower. I shouted at the TV “THIS IS GIVING ME LIFE,” a phrase I have never used before And I exclaimed it with sincerity. 

It turns out I like a kickass hero who also is a bit of a doofus when it comes to personal interaction. He's unrelentingly cool, until he's a sweaty-handed mess at love. He's loyal and kind to old people, poor people, and the invisible. He's like the uber empath bodyguard who also can kick your butt. 

There are a lot of devious characters in the show and he ends up forging alliances with some. But even in that, he sees when one character has been betrayed and he figures out a way to come to her rescue. The moment is le gorgeous. 

However, Anna, his love interest, is not the strongest female character. Very damsel-in-distress making poor choices, a lot, for a while. Even if they try to justify this with her past trauma, it bummed me out. Sigh.

There were some nice supporting characters and surprisingly moments of comedy between action scenes and longing.  It's gets a little to A LOT over-the-top in moments a la shows like 24 or Alias, but it remained a fun escape.  A good choice to end May with.  


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pandemic Diary April: Mr. Sunshine


The one day I went for a big walk.


If March was a month of bittersweet longing (served up by Crash Landing On You) then April, when I started watching Mr. Sunshine, was more serious and sad. 

Things in the outside world were scary in April and so I went out less and less. The infection and death rates were climbing all the time. Every throat tickle I had sent me into a panic. I did not get sick, but I struggled to sort out what this stay-at-home life would look like. I bought a lot of masks, gloves, and cleaning supplies. I freaked out over getting grocery delivery slots because my local store is small and overrun. Later in the month the shops started to control crowds a bit and my once-a-week errands became a little less harrowing. 

I planned an epic walk to Flushing Meadows Park to meet up with a friend from Forest Hills. It took a big gulp of courage to get over my anxiety of seeing people and interacting with people and my fear that an hour plus walk to the park would be full of interactions with people not social distancing (as shorter trips around my neighborhood had been). But I did it and it was good to get out and feel tired from a long walk. It was great to see a human I knew (while masked). 

After letting go of Crash Landing On You, reluctantly, someone on twitter directed me to a period K-drama on Netflix that was a deep dive into Korean history. Mr. Sunshine proved a fun show, in part, at the start and then it deepened with its evolving plot. 

It's a swashbuckling romance between two rooftop assassins in the early 1900s. While Japan, America, and Russia encroached on Korea and the emperor struggled to fend off Japan’s increasing pressure and control, a Korean-American solider (and former Korean slave), Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun), returns to Korea and meets a high-born young woman, Go Ae-sin (Kim Tae-ri), who is secretly part of the Righteous Army, a militia trying to fight for Korean freedom. There’s also a Korean-Japanese hotel owner, Hina (Kim Min-Jung), who knows everyone and everything and has a handsome, murderous swordsman, Dong-mae (Yoo Yeon-seok), who protects her. But Dong-mae also has a past with Go Ae-sin. 


It was another show where the well-crafted supporting characters build up the story and provide nuanced comedy alongside the serious business of the period politics and romance. 

Both Mr. Sunshine and Crash Landing have really strong female characters and I found this another reason why these K-dramas were hitting me in the right place. 

There are also three different men in love with Go Ae-Sin. The three men, aware of each other, become frenemies and eventually end up in a catty bromance. 

Something for everyone really. 

Go Ae-Sin also cannot totally focus on romance, because she has a rebellion to win. She’s got a lot on her plate. Passing secret love notes goes on for a while, but the reality of the Japanese encroachment becomes all encompassing. Mr. Sunshine also tracks Korean history and, spoiler alert, things go downhill for Korea in the early 20th century. 

Should have been Hashtag 1910 thoughts. 

As a white American with little knowledge of Korean history, getting to see a perspective on class, identity, imperialism, colonialism, and slavery from a different country’s point-of-view was eye-opening. It reminded me how limited the lens can be in American mass media (also American education) or what we (me) generally consume. 

It got me thinking there was good reason to keep watching K-dramas beyond the obvious pleasure I was getting from them. The shot structure, points of view, and tropes were new to my eyes. But there were many stories I had not encountered before. While things were rough going in real life, I was still up to be challenged by the shows I was watching. I also had a lot to learn. 

Maybe also in a month where everything felt like it was about survival and nothing but seeing a character take some time for romance while the world is crashing down around her (knowing that her cause will always come first) gave me a little hope in these dark days. 

As with Crash Landing, I struggled to finish Mr. Sunshine because I knew how profoundly sad it would be.  The defeats start to add up for the Righteous Army and I dreaded how this might play out on the characters I had grew fond of. I had a good cry at the end. 

When I finished Mr. Sunshine, it happened to coincide with the series Asian Americans running on PBS. In the show, they mentioned a real-life leader in the Korean independence movement, Ahn Changho, who came to America in the early 1900s with his wife and continued to fight for Korea from here. Ahn's daughter, Susan, went on to become a Navy gunnery officer. She was the first Asian American woman in the Navy. She later worked at the NSA. Now I’m totally obsessed with Susan Ahn Cuddy and want someone to make a movie of her life. 

I feel like Go Ae-sin would have been proud to see the next generation of Korean rebels out there.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Pandemic Diary March: Crash Landing on You


Talking someone into watching Crash Landing
Talking someone into watching Crash Landing On You


March was the hardest month of the pandemic for me. Someone in my building was hospitalized with COVID-19 very early in the month. From the start, the fear of illness felt like it was at the threshold of my front door. I was le freaked out. I felt smothered being indoors and I was struggling to be around people when outside. Fear filled my days. Rational and irrational.

I thought it would help if I went outside every day for a little sunshine, but other people not keeping a distance was giving me agita. Over the course of the month, I went out less and less. With it, the feeling of my regular life drifted away from me and I wasn't sure how to deal with it. My life had gotten very small, very quickly. 

A few days into quarantine I took a chance on watching a Korean series which sounded ridiculous: Crash Landing On You.  A friend from the UK tweeted about it and described it as thus: 


I had to see what she was talking about. 

Yes, a wealthy, powerful woman Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-Jin) finds herself lost in North Korea and needs the help of Captain Ri Jeong-Hyeok (Hyun Bin) to get her back home. I’m a sucker for a rom-com, but once I started watching there was something else going on in the show for me. 

The bittersweet undertones, the colorful characters, the rich sense of place, the cross-cultural discovery, and the concept of Korean peninsular proximity and yet great distance between nations all seemed to be what I needed in this early stage of my indoor life.  It was an excuse to travel without leaving my sofa. It got me out of my head and my house.  

I loved the gauzy yearning and long ardent stares. The comedy translated so easily (which is not the case with some English-language shows from foreign countries). 

Quickly I was laughing and crying. It was so delightful that I only got 6 episodes in before I started re-watching the series from the start. Somehow 6 out of 16 episodes felt too close to the end. I could not cope with this show ending. I did not want these characters to leave me. No matter their fate, their absence was too much to take. The characters became a proxy for the real-life friends whose absence I had no choice but to accept. 

Geography in NYC has so rarely been something any of us paid much attention to. But suddenly if your friends did not live in your immediate neighborhood or walking distance you were not going to see them for a long time. All my friends elsewhere in NYC were suddenly so far away. Not quite North Korea but out of reach.  

While Yoon Se-ri meets and befriends a bevy of people in North Korea, she makes connections with people who she knows will eventually be impossible to see again. Her deepening friendships and romance are constantly tinged with a bittersweet reality of what was going to have to be a temporary connection. <sobs>

Day-by-day this show was what was sustaining me in March and getting me through the worst feelings of being locked-in. I would finish my work and rush to the sofa to start another episode. It was hard to keep it to one episode a night. I had to drag it out as long as I could. 

****

A friend and I were talking about how we’ve gravitated towards craft hobbies from our youth during lockdown (her sewing, me crocheting). I’ve started to wonder how much of this Crash Landing heart-eyes romance obsession is also about reaching back to the past in another way. 

Is this all reminiscent spiritually of my pre-internet, pre-teen years?  In those years, my best friend and I would get on the phone and together watch 21 Jump Street (classic). We would sit in silence watching the show until the commercials, when we’d start chatting again. The text messages I have been sending to friends about Crash Landing have some of that quality. Just squee and joy and reverie over the characters. 


"He made her noodles BY HAND!" "Oh my god the bra shopping." "His dimples." "Please message me every time you watch an episode. I can't live with this all inside." 



We've lost so much that made our lives rich and complex. Our comforts and joys are whittled down to the bare minimum these days. Other people have poured themselves in bread baking, puzzles, and board games. I found my way to Crash Landing

I survived March thanks to Crash Landing On You, the good people of FreshDirect, and the makers of bleach wipes.