August 2022: Whales and Wizards

All 13 of Seventeen

It was a hot month and I didn't want to leave my house much. I did go see Seventeen in concert which was fun. I had not really been following their work but still a good show.  

I started a ton of dramas but still waiting for a bunch of them to wrap-up so these were the ones I finished in August. 

Controversial opinion forthcoming. 

Extraordinary Attorney Woo

Extraordinary Attorney Woo was a big hit in Korea.  While I'm thrilled to see audiences catching on Kang Tae-oh's charms, I struggled with what this procedural law drama was trying to do and what exactly should we expect from media portrayals of neurodivergent characters. 

Attorney Woo Young-woo (Park Eun-bin) is the first attorney on the autism spectrum in Korea and she is hired by one of the best firms in the country.  She can recite any law she has read, but this is her first job and encounters new challenges being in the workplace including catty colleagues, misreading social situations, and a daunting revolving door. But a co-worker Lee Jun-ho (Kang Tae-oh) tries to help her and he develops feelings for her. They then try to navigate a relationship. 

Park Eun-bin is not on the autism spectrum so this is a case of an actor "performing" autism (which unto itself is a practice we should be seeing less of).  The instructive tone of the show is focused on trying to get audiences to see the challenges, skills, and humanity of people on the autism spectrum.  They show her sensitivity to sound and emotional overload and her coping mechanisms with entering new rooms or encountering the revolving doors. 

Attorney Woo is obsessed with whales and they incorporate this into the show's imagery.  Sometimes beautiful CGI whales appear besides her as a kind of expression of her mind. Attorney Woo proves herself in the courtroom and her colleagues who, at first, struggled with someone who was different from them, come to see her as a valued member of the team.

The mystery restaurant that is haunting me showed up again

But it's still an infantilizing and "cutesy" portrayal. Whenever Attorney Woo has an idea breakthrough,  they show a whale shooting water from its blowhole--like she's just had some sort of idea-whale orgasm. And honestly anything beautiful and creative that was done by using the whale imagery gets undone with this obtuse visual.  

The nature of the romance here also gnawed at me. Jun-ho is the picture perfect, noble romantic foil with zero personality of his own and in total service to her.  We make allowances for partners and their wants and needs. Not every relationship is in perfect balance. But this dynamic is so one-sided. Jun-ho hardly even gets to be a person. I love Kang Tae-oh and he performs this role admirably. But Jun-ho articulates more of caretaking relationship with Young-woo than a two-sided romance and that too is infantilizing.  

The one relationship that felt balanced was Young-woo and her best friend from childhood, Dong Geu-ra-mi.  At least they seem to enjoy each other, fully embracing their differences. 

With it's popularity, might this show chip away at preconceived notions of neurodivergency--maybe.  But it is also still an autistic "genius" narrative--as we've seen many times before. It left me wondering about the employment reality for anyone without such a perfect memory.   

If people on the autistic spectrum find this an accurate portrayal and it serves to further greater representation of neurodivergent characters on the screen (and employment of neurodivergent actors), then great. But something about it just felt off from the get-go and in the end the series ended with me just as uncomfortable as it started. 

Alchemy of Souls

This sweeping magical fantasy epic, with the budget to back it up, is at its core about a young man fighting to be taken seriously and a woman, who has been wronged, forcing her way back from death.  Sometimes it can get bogged down a little in its own internal mythology (ice stone fog, what?), but the vibrant characters and the interpersonal struggles are strong enough to overcome this. It's also the case of a romance that the characters resist for as long as they can making for peak romantic tension. 

Set in the fictional world of Daeho, there are powerful mages (sort of wizards/magicians) who train for years to control their magical powers.  There are rival mage families in Daeho who are at a tenuous peace. There is also a royal family they try not to overshadow. Amidst this is nobleman Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook) who is supposed to be the son of one of the most powerful mage's but his father sealed up Uk's magical energy so he could not use it and then disappeared. Uk is constantly trying to find someone who will unleashed his powers and train him in magic.  

Uk encounters an assassin Nak-su who is killed by the mages. But through a powerful spell--the alchemy of souls--Nak-su is able to live again by taking over the body of a poor, physically weak woman from the countryside, Mu-deok (Jung So-min).  Nak-su, in the body of Mu-deok, will train Uk in an effort to help her regain her powers.  She pretends to be Uk's servant to stay close by. 

The show's great pleasure is the bickering romance that grows between Uk and Mu-deok.  She is full of snarky fury and he is arrogant which just leads to constant fireworks.  They are both fighting powers beyond themselves against the odds and they recognize that in each other.  Mu-deok is an honest and loyal partner even if she’s not nice to him at all. But then this grows into a grumpy affection as she warms to him. She also has to fight her years of assassin training and cold, dead heart to accept love.  It's a journey that's fun to be on with her. 

Three different men end up drawn to Mu-deok including the Crown Prince (Shin Seung-ho), Uk's friend Yul (Hwang Min-hyun) who has a childhood connection to her, and Uk himself.  Personally, I was rooting for sweet, uptight Yul. 

While there's a lot of magical nonsense (powerful ice stones that help people change bodies but also could turn people into soul sucking zombies) the themes of family, honor, and the dangers of absolute power transcend this. It's also a beautifully designed alternative universe, with a heavy emphasis on fabulous eye make-up.  

Jung So-min is absolutely transfixing here. There are times she is playing Nak-su in Mu-deok's body and then playing the wholly different character of Mu-deok. She is such a dynamic presence. I love to watch her character react and how her machinations cross her face. I could watch her just reading a phone book but she really gets to shine in this performance. 

Season 1 ended on a major cliffhanger and a mini-season 2 is coming soon. I cannot wait. 

High Society

Sometimes you choose to watch an old soapy unsubtle drama that is chockablock with class issues, star-crossed lovers, objecting families, a brother lost at sea, a showy mistress, and an unloving chaebol dad (natch).  I did it for Park Hyung-sik and I don't totally regret it. 

A rich chaebol heir (Park Hyung-sik) falls for a poor woman who works in one of his companies. Meanwhile, the chaebol woman he was supposed to be set-up with to forge a marriage alliance between their two family companies has also fallen for someone her family will not accept. 

What will happen? You know what will happen. But sometimes you just want to watch Park Hyung-sik cry through his struggles to make the right decision.