May 2022: Demons, Suicide, and Complicated Concubines

Bigfoot was more into The Red Sleeve than I was

A lot of Sad Rowoon this month and it would be nice to see him in a light comedy. If you're listening Korea, please let him have a fun and lighthearted show. We love him.  


With a dark subject matter, Tomorrow is a heavier drama to watch.  But it boasts a solid cast, strong writing, and mostly thoughtful handling of sensitive subjects. 
Set in the bureaucratic land of grim reapers,  Choi Jun-woong (Rowoon) ends up in a coma in the Land of the Living but he temporarily joins a team of grim reapers, Koo Ryeon (Kim Hee-sun) and Lim Ryung Gu (Yoon Ji-on), who try to stop people from dying by suicide.  If he does his time with this team, he will be returned to his body and family. 

The reapers themselves have emotional baggage to unwind. But the series focuses on a different character each week and what has driven them to the edge of suicide. The premise is to get the audience to stand in their shoes and understand what it feels like for these characters to experience miscarriages, online bullying, sexual assault, workplace harassment, and community driven shame.

Much like Move to Heaven which had a story arc around the main characters while also exploring individual character stories in each episode, here the pasts of the reapers (and Jun-woong) are brought out as well while they help each person at suicide risk. There's also a mysterious connection between Koo Ryeon and the hostile leader of the reapers who escort souls, Park Joong-gil (Lee Soo-hyuk) that the series teases out over time. 

Not all subjects were handled as well. The eating disorder episode really lacked in understanding and sort of diminished the reality of body dysmorphia. But episodes addressing the experience of veterans, comfort women, and the failures of the Korean justice system with respect to sexual assault were strong. 

The show can be graphic at times but it felt justified by the storytelling. 

They also create a nice juxtaposition between Jun-woong who open-heartedly cares so much about each person and the stand-offish reapers who have deep feelings about these issues but do not show them as readily. I appreciated how quick to tears Jun-woong was and how healthy his attitude was about showing affection and emotion. 

I have not found Lee Soo-hyuk to be deft at romance but he does better with a role like this where he's cold and calculating.  

Rowoon who was great in The King's Affection takes on a very different role here.  But again he shows his range and gives us another sensitive character portrait 

Semantic  Error

Sometimes Boy Love series look like one step away from straight-to-video soft core porn in their filming and writing. With low-budgets, weaker casts, and dreadful writing, I have fast-forwarded my way through a few and have been waiting to come across one that feels worth writing about. 

Semantic Error is definitely one of the best ones I've seen. It's an enemies to lovers story of an engineering student, Chu Sang Woo (Jae Chan), who ends up taking on a group project at university. The other students bail on him.  So he torpedoes them all on the project, including graphic design student, Jang Jae Young (Park Seo Ham) who then cannot graduate because of his grade in that class.  

In an attempt to get back at Chu Sang-woo, Jang Jae Young starts following him around obsessively and getting on his nerves at every turn. But they end up getting to know each other well by getting under each others' skin and a romance blossoms.  Naturally, one is uptight and the other too laid back, and they learn to be more tolerant and appreciative of the others' strengths and weaknesses. It was also nice to see casual queerness in a Korean series--no one is batting an eye at queer romances and queer characters here. 

It's a short series full of longing and attraction.  A bite-sized delection.

The Red Sleeve

Ugh. I really wanted to like The Red Sleeve. It was nominated for several number of awards at the Baeksangs this year (Lee Jun-ho won one award for it). It offers an uncomfortable romance, but works better as historic melodrama. 

It is based on the historical relationship between King Jeongjo (Lee Jun-ho) and court maid Sung Deok-im (Lee Se-young).  They meet as children in the palace. She is training to be maid in the Crown Prince's household and she does not realize he is the Crown Prince when they meet. Years later she begins her formal service to him and again she runs into an arrogant man not understanding he's the Prince. She’s troublesome and headstrong and he has never encountered that before. No one ever challenges him. She treats him as an equal when their circumstances are anything but. Eventually she untangles her confusion and dedicates her life to protecting and serving him as the Prince.  While he has romantic feelings for he, she rebuffs him over and over.  He wants her as his concubine and she does not to give up her whole life and her whole self to that role (even if she may have feelings for him). 

It's a little hard to watch this today and not struggle with the concept of the concubine.  At some point there is a child playing a court concubine and I don't even know what to do with that. 

It's not really a sexy path to romance to start out as a loyal servant who is cornered and negged by this powerful person who can have you killed at any minute on a whim.  It's quite clear in the court that the lives of the servants were often quite meaningless to the royals. 

And while it's refreshing she's so independent and self-assured, she comes up against his petty fits of jealousy a lot. It's also of "affection" through aggression. 

So while I enjoyed their bickering and genuine moments of tenderness early on things get messier later and it was hard to give in to the romance where the power dynamics are so out of whack and frankly where the script does not give us real transparency into her thinking.  She speaks to him with defiance.  It’s not that her resistance isn’t principled. It is. It’s just not articulated in a way that gets at how she's going to get from "Not a Concubine" to "Okay For Sure I'm Your Concubine." I don't know as a modern viewer if this leap can ever be traversed. 

There's also just an undercurrent of cruelty with him that is not sexy. There is an oddly erotic bath scene that's almost laughably too much. 

The romance is just not unfettered so I think stepping back and looking at this as more of historic melodrama makes more sense. The plot there ranges from intriguing to batshit crazy. But this Prince is also the son of Prince Sado who was killed by his own father by locking him in a box for days.  So this family has a lot of issues to work out. The Prince has suffered his whole life. His grandfather was both his torturer and his greatest champion. His aunt is out to get him. His mother has been kinda banished because she was married to Prince Sado but she's got some machinations happening behind the scenes too. I mean he's got good reasons to keep his guard up and be suspicious of everyone.  Even his best friend is SUSPECT. So the ONE palace maid who looks out for him is his saving grace. 

But it's a lot easier to tell this story from his POV than it is to tell hers.  While I think they are trying to do both, fundamentally her story is just less clear. I don't know if she ever really had power or control or consent to what was happening to her.  Everything she does is always fraught because of her powerlessness.  And no amount of romance can soften the edges of that truth. 

I know the point is to suspend your disbelief but I could not turn off my brain on this that much. 

Lovers of the Red Sky

There is a demon god possessing people here and it's pretty goofy.  I enjoyed this romance when there was not a demon god ruining things. It took many episodes before I got into this show and then it was hard to sustain my interest. I think you can skip it. Unless you really want to see a Painting Crazed Goblin.