Pandemic Diary January 2021: Monsters and Meanies

I felt oddly positive this month despite it getting colder and making it harder to socialize at all. Virus numbers were going up, but the vaccine roll-out began. Sure there was an insurrection, an impeachment, and an inauguration. We packed a lot into one month. But I felt a deep exhale with Trump leaving the White House.  Maybe my winter wall is coming and I will hit it.

My cat bit me so badly at the end of the month I ended up at the doctor’s and on antibiotics because I could not move my wrist. So, it has not been all unicorns and rainbows. It has in fact been all fangs and trauma.

As for my month of dramas, I am, for sure, drawn to stories where people are a little sad, a little messed up, a little lost, or struggling to find their way. This month I managed to find a bunch of those shows. Came across some actors new to me who I really liked but did not love all the stories being told. 


Sweet Home

This gory, violent allegorical ensemble drama asks the question: What is a monster?

Some people are monsters. Some monsters are monsters. The government are monsters. But monsters are not always who you think they are.

Set in an apartment block, people discover some sort of monster pandemic is happening. It's still a little unclear to me exactly how it is spread. But there were monsters lurking outside who tried to kill them so the residents end up locked inside. 

Organized by the calculating but impersonal medical student Lee Eun-hyuk (Lee Do-hyun), the residents over time find themselves working together and caring about each other. Everyone who lives in this sad building has already lost something or someone before this monster-attack began. When it’s discovered that Cha Hyun-su (Song Kang), a teenager living on his own in the building, has already turned into a monster (his inner monster sort of flares up and then it dissipates) the building uses him as their weapon against the other monsters. 

Literal angel

Cha Hyun-su is a pretty, wide-eyed angel with a mop of Muppet hair, legs that go on for days, and a deep inner sadness.  He was already planning to kill himself so being harangued into being the sacrificial lamb for this group of strangers does not seem to bother him much. He doesn’t fight for himself. He just goes along with being used.

Cha Hyun-su is designed in a lab to make you and your ovaries care about him and every time he is injured you are by law required to get upset about this. I resented this manipulation but also fell into its trap every time.

Among the rag-tag crew is a brooding mobster of some kind (Lee Jin-wook) who has no problem beating people to death. Handy in crisis. A devout Christian who is also an accomplished swordsman (Kim Nam-hee).  A teenage dancer (Go Min-si) who is always challenging authority and pushing others to be more selfish/self-interested. There’s a firefighter/EMT (played by real-life boxer Lee Si-young) who reveals arms of steal and some inner mettle.

Some special effects look like Saturday afternoon monster movies from the 70s but many are pretty sophisticated. It’s a high budget, slick production that oscillates between real horror and kind of comic book snark. It got really graphic and was frequently too much for me.

The show’s nihilism was a lot to take at this point in the pandemic. Much of the show sets up character vulnerabilities only to crush those characters with them. It works, but the manipulation is so obvious I could never “trust” the show from the start. Is this what horror movies do? It’s a genre I have pretty much avoided my whole life. Maybe this is de rigeur, but this was doing violence to my soul.

Sweet Home is certainly an interesting collection of characters, with some great actors involved, but I was not sure what it was saying or why it insisted on doing so with violence. My delicate heart could not handle it.


Fight For My Way

Fight For My Way could have been just a working class kids try to make good with some romance thrown in, but with an exceptional cast they elevate this tender comedy to something meatier. Even if the narrative loses a little momentum by the end, the performances make this a worthwhile show to dig into.

Park Seo-joon plays Ko Dong-man a down on his luck exterminator who was once a leading taekwondo athlete and now contemplates becoming a mixed martial arts fighter. His best friend is Choi Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won) who is desperate to become a TV announcer but is stuck working in a department store and worried she is quickly aging out of the race to make it on TV. They are both childhood friends with Baek Seol-hee (Song Ha-yoon) who is a quiet, attentive, and the secret girlfriend of Kim Joo-man (Ahn Jae-hong) since she and he work in the same office.  This foursome all live in the same housing complex and the show oscillates between each character and their efforts to grow up, figure out their careers and find happiness in whatever they are doing.

They all come from lower income families and the climb for them in Korean society makes this even harder. These characters have been putting off their dreams and scared to go back to the things that they “failed” at before. The world has been chipping away at their confidence. They keep picking themselves back up after being mistreated by others, looked down on, or used.

It’s a hard tone to strike, but the show manages to hold all these setbacks against some playful comedy, heart thumping romance, and real heartbreak.  Throw in a jealous ex-girlfriend, a questionable new boyfriend, a mysterious landlady/fairy godmother who always seems to be helping out this quartet and you get deeply involved in whether these young people are going to make it.

Park Seo-joon consistently gives performances that just find layers of depth in his characters. He can be a broken little boy, a wall of protection, a bratty young man, or a mature, responsible boyfriend all within a few scenes of each other here.  He’s carrying so much sadness and regret in this story and you feel that dripping off him. At the same time, he has this big heart and just wants to protect those around him. 

While I had seen Kim Ji-won in Descendants of the Sun, I felt her character there was limited (a little too stern and one-note for me).  This role gives her a lot more opportunity to play full-spectrum comedy, romance, and drama.

But truly the show’s greatest gift is reminding us that when Park Seo-joon wraps his arms around someone, we all melt. Maybe he can cure anything with his embrace.


Record of Youth

Record of Youth is actually a decent companion piece to Fight For My Way. Both shows focus on working class people and their grasping for dreams that seem out of reach to some. But Record of Youth goes deeper into the world of celebrity in Korea.  In some ways, that’s why it gets dull and loses its appeal. The “drama” of behind-the-scenes celebrity PR and gossip is not as interesting as the writers think it is. Worst, the show unforgivably forgets there is a female lead who also has a story.

The show begins with tremendous promise. These young people are struggling against the odds to “make it” in their fields.  Sa Hye-jun (Park Bo-gum) is a once successful model who has not been able to transition to acting and his modeling career has stalled. Time is running out for him as he approaches the age where he must enlist in the military. His family, who once indulged his “fantasy” of acting and modeling, is not supportive of him. He juggles a number of part-time jobs while waiting for his big break.  Meanwhile, his wealthy bff Won Hae-hyo (Byeon Woo-seok) seems to be able to score modeling and acting gigs with ease thanks to his well-connected mother’s secret meddling. They both meet Ahn Jeong-ha (Park So-dam) who is working at a salon and is an aspiring make-up artist. And the three get closer until a triangle forms.

What? Shouldn't it be more than a utensil to an actor? 
I liked how hard the path was for the characters at the start.  Their efforts felt real and they were met with a series of defeats. They witness a lot of jerks who get ahead. They can’t catch a break. Without money or security, they cannot take the same risks as wealthy friends or don’t have same kind the leverage.

But when success does come, life does not get any easier.  But the show does not quite crack the interiority over what this feels like or what this means.  We get external elements of it—missed dates, paparazzi, loss of privacy—but the characters are too busy to dwell on this.

All we get is the reaction of those “left behind.” Worse, Ahn Jeong-ha, who starts out with a strong, unique personality kind of disappears. When the show finally catches up with any emotional stakes, I had mostly lost my interest.

That said, I truly adored Shin Dong-mi as Sa Hye-jun’s manger and her endless enthusiasm. The  snarky banter they have with each other is delightful.  Her losing her shit over the real Park Seo-joon in his cameo role was truly a gift to all of us who would have done the same.

Even Sa Hye-jun and Ahn Jeong-ha’s relationship had a sweet, sarcasm to it.  I always appreciate a bit of bite to keep the cloying at bay. But it gets lost in the celebrity tide and storylines.

I was not a fan of how the show used a “predatory” work place harassment storyline with a gay character. There are so few gay characters in dramas generally and this felt retrograde.

I didn't mind that the show pushed the romance to the background to explore issues of growing up in your 20s.  It makes Record Of Youth feel unconventional on that front in the drama landscape. But the writing never quite went deep enough. 


She Was Pretty

The only character I liked in She Was Pretty was an onion with a smiley face drawn on it. And it stars Park Seo-joon! So, you know someone screwed up. What a crushing disappointment.

Park Seo-joon is an incredibly dynamic actor, but the writing and plotting of this show made me want to run in the opposite direction.  

Two childhood friends plan to reunite. When they were young Ji Sung-joon (Park Seo-joon) was a chubby outcast and Kim Hye-jin (Hwang Jung-eum) was pretty and well put together. Now as adults, Ji Sung-joon is a handsome magazine editor and Kim Hye-jin is “ugly” and struggles to find work. When they are about to meet, Kim Hye-jin finds out he’s become handsome and he walks right by her without a second glance.  She panics. She hides from their reunion by sending her pretty roommate to attend in her place. While the roommate was meant to give an excuse and disappear, she ends up secretly seeing Ji Sung-joon. Meanwhile, Kim Hye-jin gets a job finally, but finds herself working under Ji Sung-joon who has nothing but complaints about her work.  

The entire premise about a woman who is, of course, actually beautiful, suffering because she’s so ugly is hard to swallow. The choice to have her “lose” her looks after puberty is an odd one, compounded by her “ugliness” simply being freckles and maybe rosacea. She also has curly hair that she stops treating so it becomes unwieldy. She was once good in school when she was pretty but then when she’s not pretty she doesn’t do well in school? What?    

In some dramas, the male lead is a jerk to the female lead for a while and then there’s an about face. Here, Ji Sung-joon is positively cruel to Kim Hye-jin and seemingly without reason. It was really hard for me to root for this couple even if there’s a backstory to their relationship. It takes A WHILE for them to show us some glimmer of his humanity with her. 

I get that Korean society is unfairly designed around beauty and even in job interviews and employment this is an issue. But the show doesn’t necessarily strike any blows against this.  


100 Days My Prince

100 Days My Prince also suffered from a grumpy male lead who is unlikeable for far too long. It’s got some basic childhood trauma, a fated love from childhood, and throw in some amnesia, a secret identity, and complications. But it took until episode 6 for me to care about anyone. 
He's more surprised than I was by any plot "twist"

In the end, I rooted for Nam Ji-hyun, the female lead, to end up with Kim Seon-ho who made a much better match for her character and was 1000x more charming and adorable than the Prince. It did not help that the actor who plays the Prince, Doh Kyung-soo, was just so blank. Alas, not one for me.


Love Alarm

I feel like I cannot even review Love Alarm yet because the first season was only 8 episodes. It was basically a half-season of a show that is far from complete.

It also leaned heavily on flashbacks from scenes that happened like five minutes before.  Were they lacking footage? Was this a pandemic victim? Did they have to stop shooting because of COVID? What the hell happened here? Did someone forget to write the whole show? Was this…intentional?

I have only questions and few answers.  

It’s a curious story about an app which rings if someone near you likes you.  It deals with the pain of unrequited teen love, stinging rejections, as well as secret same sex attraction which gets revealed through the app’s pings.

Kim Jo-jo (Kim So Hyun) is a hard-working student who lives a miserable Cinderella existence.  She slaves away to pay off family debt working for her mean aunt. She is taunted about all this by her cruel cousin.  Yet, she keeps a positive attitude and her focus on her goals. But a wealthy, handsome student in school, Hwang Sun-oh (Song Kang) decides he likes her and they become a couple. Meanwhile, his bff Lee Hye-yeong Jung Ga-ram), another working-class student, has a secret crush on Jo-jo. But he does not pursue it because of Hwang Sun-oh.

Suddenly, Jo-jo breaks up with Hwang Sun-oh and we leap ahead a few years and the app’s popularity has only grown. Popularity clubs are created for people who are so well-liked on the app. Meanwhile, the lack of pings when no one likes you back becomes deeply painful for many.  The app begins to change the way people interact with each other and morphs how relationships are formed.

For some shows you just have to accept the universe of the narrative given and for some reason I resisted this show from the get-go. There’s a haziness to the characters and their motivations. I was confused over what the app literally did. There’s a darkness underlying the show too (which I might have liked) but it popped up quite suddenly. It did not feel well-integrated into the whole.

Truly the series just felt like a lot of vamping. I kept waiting for the show to start…when it did, the season ended. But with that kind of cliffhanger, and everything so incomplete, I have no choice but to tune into Season 2 (or as I will call it Season 1: Part 2).