2017 – A Year in K-Drama

 

Earlier on, I thought 2017 was all going to be about time travels in the land of K-drama. The year is opened with Tomorrow with You (내일 그대와), then followed by Tunnel (터널), Chicago Typewriter (시카고 타자기), The Best Hit (최고의 한방), My Only Love Song (마이 온리 러브송), Reunited Worlds (다시 만난 세계), Deserving of the Name (명불허전) and Go Back Couple (고백부부), just to name a few.

But halfway to the end of the year, 2017 turned out to be about upholding justice and deconstructing and reconstructing traditional and conservative values. From feminism, gender equality to social justice, many 2017 dramas are offering alternative perspectives to the rather demanding and exhausting widely accepted values. This probably can be seen as a means of escapism from the dreadful reality of Hell Joseon. Strongest Deliveryman in particular talks about escaping this heartbreaking living conditions.

Quoting from Korea Exposé, ”To the South Korean state demanding life, denizens of Hell Joseon answer: “The best thing for a South Korean is never to be born; the second best is to die as soon as possible. For the young South Koreans who have grown to detest their nation, the Republic of Korea — Daehan Min’guk — already ceased to exist some time ago. They now call this land Daehan Mangguk: the Failed State of Korea.”

As alternatives to the cliché love story between a chaebol and a poor girl, this year, K-drama offers love stories between the mediocre in Fight For My Way (, 마이웨이) and the beautiful proletarian love in Just Between Lovers (그냥 사랑하는 사이). In the ultra-competitive dystopian “survival of the fittest” job market and education system where everything wrong about free market (crony) capitalism is amplified to its logical extreme, watching the lives of the working class commoners feels like a relief breath from the suffocating always-on-the-run life.

Age Of Youth 2 (청춘시대 2), Temperature of Love (사랑의 온도) and Because This Is My First Life (이번 생은 처음이라) argue the gender stereotypes and reconstruct conservative family and relationship values. Age Of Youth 2 even brought up issues still considered taboo in South Korea.

I also find a pleasant progress in many of this year’s romantic themed dramas, which is consent. More and more writers seem to emphasise the importance of consent and mutual agreement as K-dramas, especially in the romantic themed ones, are so used to patriarchy, and even worse, misogyny. Man grabbing woman’s hand and drags her around, man forcefully kiss woman where she eventually gives up and falls into his charm after a short resistance are some of the common scenes seen in K-dramas. Romanticising dating violence unfortunately is (unconsciously) widely accepted, that even The Korean Communications Standards Commission (KCSC) ruled out one very problematic scene in Our Gab Soon as portraying dating violence. The scene looks like a rape attempt. Misogynist.

Temperature of Love (사랑의 온도), Because This Is My First Life (이번 생은 처음이라) and again, Just Between Lovers (그냥 사랑하는 사이) came like a fresh breeze, the answers to misogynist dramas, where consent does matter, and men and women are not an entirely different breed, and  women have the initiatives and make the first moves. Without belittling the effort, the offered ideas may look slightly basic or elementary, but it also needs to come into consideration that many things are taken in an extreme level in South Korea, these also include patriarchy and gender biases, and not to be left out, superficiality.

2017 also sees K-drama writers exploring new themes, like sci-fi in Circle, said to be the first in K-drama, followed by Duel; a common theme in movies, but rather rarely seen in K-drama and a prison life in Wise Prison Life / Prison Playbook (which is introduced as “Black is the New Orange” spin-off in Netflix).

If last year tvN and JTBC’s dramas dominated the top list, this year tvN’s sister station, OCN shoots to prominence with its signature crime dramas. OCN even pulled off a hat-trick with Tunnel, Duel and Save Me.

No drama really stands out this year, which makes it more difficult in compiling the list. Having said that, there are so many good, even great, dramas with varied themes that are really worth to watch. So, here are the top 10/11 of 44 dramas I managed to watch in 2017.

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Exploring Young Female Adult’s Life – A Work In Progress : Age Of Youth Season 2 / Chungchoonshidae 2 (청춘시대 2) (2017)

 

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Age of Youth is back, but sadly Kang Yi Na (Ryu Hwa Young) has left the house, which is quite a shame because her character stood out the most and she had the most complex problems in the previous installment. She still makes several appearances in the show, but her story is no longer as significant as before.

With Kang Yi Na’s departure, Belle Epoque welcomes a new member of the share house, Jo Eun (Choi A Ra), a tall and quiet girl, the complete opposite of Kang Yi Na. Almost mistaken for a boy, Jo Eun’s presence brings in pseudo-homosexuality topic into the drama, though like most of its Korean drama predecessors, the subject never really came to maturity. The only difference is if in other dramas, most characters are mistakenly perceived as other genders or to have different sexual orientations, thus making the others questioned their own sexual orientations when they found themselves falling for the misunderstood person, in Age Of Youth 2, Jo Eun and her friend, Ahn Ye Ji (Shin Se Hwi) are depicted as having an ambiguous same-sex relationship where the line between romance and friendship was rather blurred. At least at first.

Faithful to exploring the lives of female young adults, writer Park Yeon Sun is consistent with her stand on feminism, gender equality and sexuality. All subjects are still conveyed in light and heartwarming everyday life stories, blending young adult’s banalities with the more serious issues, from first loves, break ups, family problems, friendships, platonic relationships to overcoming post sexual harassment trauma. A transition from teenage life to adulthood.

The show is definitely not impeccable. There are flaws and illogical plots here and there, but even so, the show still manages to deliver its solid standpoints without losing the fun, warmth and sincerity.

An Almost Perfect But Ruined Show: Temperature of Love / Sarangui Ondo (사랑의 온도) (2017)

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Temperature of Love got off to a good start with quite unexpected plots and mature narratives. Though it didn’t hook me right away, the show slightly caught me off guard. Too bad, somehow, somewhere along the way, it took a sad turn and dragged me to boredomhood.

Watching the show feels like watching a chef with good ingredients at hands ruins an almost perfect dish by keep adding unnecessary spices, making it an appetising looking dish but is somewhat hard to swallow. Not because it is not delicious per se, but you just can’t quite fathom how you feel about the taste. It really is such a waste because the drama does bring something new to the table, which mainly comes from its intriguing conversations. I especially appreciate the writer’s consistence to stand on the grey area morality ground by refusing to conform to the existing K-drama norms, from the beginning all the way to the end. I really think that it could’ve been small screen’s take on the likes of “Before Sunset”. I also think it’s a waste of impressive performances by Yang Se Jong (who caught my attention earlier that year with his dual role in “Duel”) and Kim Jae Wook (who stole the show in “Voice” as a serial killer). The male characters are poorly written, but the female characters even have it worse.

Temperature of Love is one those rare K-dramas which portrays mature (romantic and non-romantic) relationships between adults who respect and put faith in each other, even if it means that some decisions would cost them ‘losing’ their loved ones, be it friend or lover. In the sea of ridiculous misunderstandings and unequal power relations between lovers, friends and families often present in K-dramas, I find this approach is praiseworthy. But I just can’t help feeling frustrated because it is executed really poorly. Though these characters seem confident enough to put their love on a test or have a huge amount of trust towards their counterparts, they still look wobbly insisting to skate on a thin ice. This part is painful to watch. It is also uncomfortable to see some characters’ determination to chase the objects of their affection resulted in them crossing the line of respecting other people’s relationships, despite the effort is being done fair and square. And this part is pitiful to watch.

Some part of the show is still intriguing to watch, if you could endure the long drag.

An (Almost) Proletarian Love Story: Just Between Lovers/Rain Or Shine / Geunyang Saranghaneun Sai (그냥 사랑하는 사이) (2017)

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“People say this as a word of comfort. “This too shall pass”. They are right. No matter how crappy the situation is, they do pass. Except, the problem is they always come back.”
(Lee Gang Do – Episode 2)

And they always come back, haunting life after tragedy.

Because nightmares always come back, victims of tragedies often have to create their own coping mechanism to survive the agony. Some choose to escape, some wipe those unwanted memories, and some return to the root of their pain trying to reconcile with the past. Gang Doo and Moon Soo (and Joo Won, too) chose the latter, though they sometimes falter in the process.

In a very rare occurrence in K-drama land, we have lead characters coming from blue-collar working class; Lee Gang Doo (Lee Jun Ho), a manual labourer and Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah), an architectural model maker. From early on, we learned that both were survivors and also family of victims of a mall building collapse (probably based on the Sampoong Department Store collapse). Though the world around them seems to have moved on, their lives, along with the lives of the deceased families, are still somehow trapped in the past. Years later, adult Gang Doo suffers a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a liver malfunction, while Moon Soo seems to suffer amnesia, where she selectively erased some part of her past memories. Through a series of coincidental encounters, today’s Gang Doo and Moon Soo slowly enter each other’s lives.

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Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah) & Lee Gang Doo (Lee Jun Ho)

Had it provided a profound social background, Just Between Lovers could have been a potent proletariat love story than a mere healing and brokenness drama. I supposed it was never meant to be about that, but it is quite unfortunate because the elements are there, which could add depth and layers to the story. For example, when Granny (the neighbourhood grandmother who is more like a friend to Gang Doo, impeccably played by Na Moon Hee) refuses to be treated for her illness, she says “Do you know what people die the most of? Cancer? Accident? Suicide? None of those things. People die because of poverty. They can’t receive medical treatment when they are sick because they’re poor. They die from accidents doing dangerous work while trying to escape poverty. They kill themselves because they hate being poor. People die from poverty.”

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Grandma (Na Moon Hee)

Thankfully, where the drama lacks, it makes it up in other areas. Regardless the small-dose infused K-drama clichés (We’ve Met In The Past-Turned-Today’s Lovers, terminal illnesses, and second leads syndrome) and the lack of more profound social background, Just Between Lovers triumphs in portraying organic human relationships among its characters, with Gang Doo and Moon Soo’s being the centre of the story. They feel sincere and are built gradually upon candor and empathy, except probably for Seo Joo Won (Lee Ki Woo) – Jung Yoo Jin’s (Kang Han Na) and Kim Wan Jin (Park Hee Von) – Jin Youn’s (Kim Min Gyu), whose character development fell a lot short, not just a little.

Moon Soo’s unwavering affection and persistence to stand by Gang Doo’s side eventually softens his rough edges and settles his uncertainties, which in the end gives a reassuring presence to Moon Soo. Both Won Jin Ah and Lee Jun Ho are wonderful in portraying the layered emotions with their subdued acting in both first leading roles, making them enough reason to watch this drama.

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It is also noteworthy for the writers to explore unconventional types of relationships, such as Gang Doo’s with Granny, an illegal medicine seller; and Ma Ri’s (Yoon Se Ah), Gang Doo’s older sister-like friend who is a nightclub hostess, with Jung Yoo Taek (Tae In Ho), her regular customer. By using a lot of body gestures to show empathy, encouragement, assurance and affection in these interpersonal relationships, the makers save the drama from falling into the hole of cliché self-motivational narratives.

Not all stories have to have a happy ending, and feelings like pain are just as important because they show that you are still alive, whether one takes it as a good or bad thing (depending on the circumstances). Some things have to end to give new beginnings a chance, and some resume with a lot of struggles and hard work. Nothing is binary in Just Between Lovers, and that’s just how life is.

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Finding a Light in the Forest of Secrets: Secret Forest/Stranger / Bimilui Soop (비밀의 숲) (2017)

 

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I always find the most successful K-dramas (read: satisfying) are the ones that meticulously connect multiple aspects of human lives, where individuals are part of a larger collective, hence our personal problems always intersect with larger and more complex problems within the social system. And this is what sets Secret Forest apart from the surge of legal dramas in 2017.

By now, I have become quite familiar with most legal-thriller K-dramas’ core theme; social injustice caused by the corrupt, broken and rotten system. Much of it is probably a reflection of people distrust towards the government and the nation’s judicial system which statistically is very high in South Korea.

The show’s story itself is said to be inspired by real life prosecutor graft scandal, most likely to be Sung Wan Jong, a construction tycoon and former lawmaker, who left a suicide note accusing those who had received money from him, known as “Sung Wan Jong’s list”.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Some parts of the drama do look like a reconstruction of the actual case’s details, particularly noticeable is the use of the same method to reveal politician names receiving bribes in the last episodes. As political corruption works in many layers and levels, Secret Forest’s storyline is unavoidably complex, too. Not simply for the sake of making it look complicated, but because the layers are necessary to give a thorough illustration of structural crimes’ complexities, thus making the drama is slightly abstruse. I did find myself sometimes lost in between sequences or vaguely groping which direction the drama is heading, which is why I appreciate the writer’s choice to focus on making one tight plot to connect ‘smaller’ cases to bigger ones, from naked-eyed crimes to invisible high power conspiracies, rather than the common practice of creating unnecessary subplots. Hats off to Lee Soo Yeon on her superb first drama screenplay.

The intricate plot thankfully is delivered by an ensemble of excellent casts, led by dynamic duo Cho Seung Woo as Prosecutor Hwang Shi Mok and Bae Doo Na as Police Lieutenant Han Yeo Jin. Portraying a prosecutor who barely shows emotions due to insular cortex surgery which removed part of the brain that activates them, Cho is in a league of his own. His stoicism and aloofness look like a metaphor of what justice should be, apathetic towards reasons behind any crime, which in this case is the greed of high crimes and misdemeanours. Ha Jae Geun, a culture critic, said Hwang is a “fantasy that was borne out of a time of distrust. For those who desire money, those higher-ups buy the elite with money. For those who want power, they lure the elite with power. But there is no way to lure the person with no desires. And if the person has no emotions, he knows no fears and thus is free from any threats. The result is the most ideal prosecutor, Hwang.” Far from one-dimensional and mannequin-like expression, Cho delivers the most impressive and realistic stoic and aloof portrayal I’ve ever seen in K-dramas or any other show.

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Police Lieutenant Han Yeo Jin (Bae Doo Na) & Prosecutor Hwang Shi Mok (Cho Seung Woo)

Bae Doo Na is, of course, the epitome of coolness. She moves nonchalantly. She doesn’t try to look cool, she just is. Her quirky gesture, which is very far from the South Korean actress archetype, gives a pleasant and edgy nuance to such an ordinary character. When these two are in the same frame, the audience is in for a treat of atypical interactions in a very rare male-female platonic relationship with an explosive chemistry. A very stylish duo, I must say.

Shin Hye Sun (as Prosecutor Yeong Eun Soo) and Lee Kyu Hyung (as Prosecutor Yoon Se Won) who are relatively new to television shows also steal the scenes with their strong presence even when they are not the lead actors. Shin Hye Sun started small in Oh My Ghost, stole the show in Five Enough, solidified acting in Secret Forest, and really took off in My Golden Life.

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Prosecutor Yeong Eun Soo (Shin Hye Sun)

Lee Kyu Hyung, though is considered new in the small screen, has actually had a long stage acting career prior to his television and movie appearances. Later in 2017, he showcased a complete opposite outstanding performance in Prison Playbook and will reunite with fellow cast mates, Cho Seung Woo and Yoo Jae Myung in JTBC’s upcoming drama, Life.

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Prosecutor Yoon Se Won (Lee Kyu Hyung)

Secret Forest may not offer something new to the genre, but it sure has everything it needs to be a impaccable show; detailed directing, solid screenplay, outstanding actors’ performances, gripping background music, and as a bonus, a hipnotising gloomy un-melopop soundtrack.

 

At the end of the show, we are shown a glimpse of how some things are back to the way they were. We have hopes for a  better future, but nothing really changes. Which sadly is our world’s bitter truth.

K-drama’s Manual on “How to be in a Mature, Consensual, and Respectful Relationship”: Because This Is My First Life / Yibun Saengeun Cheoeumira (이번 생은 처음이라) (2017)

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In a country where patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes remain deeply embedded in the mainstream culture and television shows and dramas confuse dating violence as romantic acts, fighting back through popular culture mediums is probably the most effective way to reconstruct the toxic cultures as movies and television series have long been used as weapons of cultural propaganda as they infiltrate the audience’s mind subconsciously.

I always believe that the gender equality and feminism movements in South Korea will have a smoother ride on dramas than on movies. The argument is quite straightforward, actually. Most drama writers are female, whilst the movie industry is basically still a men’s playground, though these female writers probably are the same ones that romanticise misogyny in the first place. Or not. But we have seen a pleasant progress where in recent years as more and more writers are bringing up the gender equality and feminism issues in their works. This trend seems specifically significant among the cable TV networks. Some bring them with subtle hints, while others are quite literal, like this one.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In Because This Is My First Life we have three couples who each have their own style of relationships. The anchor couple is Yoon Ji Ho (Jung So Min) and Nam See He (Lee Min Ki), who agreed to live together upon a contractual marriage to which both are in for practical reasons and solutions. Se Hee needs a housemate to pay off his mortgage faster, while Ji Ho needs a living space without having to pay the deposit. A win-win solution.

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Nam See He (Lee Min Ki) and Yoon Ji Ho (Jung So Min)

 

Yang Ho Rang (Kim Ga Eun) and Shim Won Seok (Kim Min Seok) are the typical high school sweethearts. Both are living the relationship within the conventional path. Date, live together with marriage as their final destination because they could never have thought of any other way. At least Ho Rang does.

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Yang Ho Rang (Kim Ga Eun) and Shim Won Seok (Kim Min Seok)

 

The last, and probably the ones that unexpectedly steal some of the focus from Ji Ho and Se Hee, are Woo Soo Ji (Esom) and Ma Sang Goo (Park Byeung Eun). Sang Goo is Se Hee’s colleague who unknowingly finds himself falling deeply in love with the charm of Soo Ji, a business partner and an old one-night-stand buddy. Despite her constant refusal to be involved with him in a romantic relationship, but his sincerity eventually melts her icy heart. Cliché, yes, but it is delivered in the most charming way possible.

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Woo Soo Ji (Esom)

Soo Ji is a suppressed feminist, which resulted in her complicated attitudes. She plays along with the sexism and sexual harassments in her work place because that’s what many women forced to do as a survival system in order to not lose their jobs, but in doing so, she became frustrated, thus putting up a defensive and offensive fronts at the same time.

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Ma Sang Goo (Park Byeung Eun)

Sang Goo (and Se Hee) is a metaphor of how an ideal male partner should be in this war against deep-rooted sexism and misogyny. He never pushes his opinions or plays the patriarchy card, instead he stands by her and be her support when she needs it. He only enters her territory when he is invited and allowed to. I especially love the flipped stereotyped gender roles and characters with this couple, with Soo Ji is the one always having the upper hand, though at times it’s a little uncomfortable that she uses the sex card to have it. I found it quite lame. But then again, maybe it is an unavoidable survival mode to challenge the oppressed sexual freedom women suffered in such society. These two characters have the most progression in their relationship as they constantly argue and converse to meet it in the middle, compromising without sacrificing their values, ideals and feelings.

What immediately sets this drama apart from the romantic and romantic comedy K-dramas convention is the distinctive consensual acts. All of our main and supporting characters always ask first to get their counterparts’ approvals and permissions, even to the smallest things considered trivial. None of them ever crossed their partner’s territories. No silly misunderstandings because our characters communicate. Communicate. A simple act which seems really hard to be understood by the conventional K-drama makers. Hence, I call it Consent 101 because everything is delivered in a very literal manner, like giving a lecture to very clueless and backward students, but it still manages to keep its sense of romanticism. A manual on “How to be in a Mature, Consensual, and Respectful Relationship”.

In classic K-drama’s formula, there is always (a) third person(s) to intensify the conflicts which many times are plain unnecessary. I respect the idea of not demonising the third person in this drama. Se Hee’s ex, Go Min Jung (Lee Chung Ah) is described as a smart and composed woman that makes Ji Ho even has a girl crush on her. Ji Ho and Min Jung share a level-headed working relation even when they know that they are once and still involved with the same guy. Only a reasonable level of jealousy is shown, never destructive. Shin Young Hyo (Kang Sung Wook) who tried to approach Ho Rang with a well-prepared marriage plan accepted Ho Rang’s rejection also with a level-headed attitude. Same response from Yoon Bo Mi (Yoon Bo Mi of Apink. Her deadpan expression is spot on and adorable I must say), the female version of Se Hee, who ask Won Seok to date her by giving him a match rate analysis.

Because This Is My First Life not only addresses the problematic and deep-seated patriarchy and misogyny in the society but also challenges the burdensome traditional values and demands that come as heavy baggage to every individual entering marriage institution. Ji Ho and Se Hee agreed to revise their contract every year. One of its clauses stated that they will visit their families on holidays separately as to avoid the ‘unpaid labour’, in Se Hee’s term, which is an uncommon practice experienced by South Korean daughters-in-laws And it’s only fitting that such literal description comes from an exceptionally literal and logical person with a stoic facade, which by the way is portrayed wonderfully by Lee Min Ki, in his first leading drama role after Dalja’s Spring in 1997.

Put aside the multiple plagiarism accusation, I learned that the show seems like popular culture’s interpretation of 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner’s Han Kang‘s “The Vegetarian (채식주의자)” (2007) and Cho Nam Woo’s best-selling novel “Kim Ji Young Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)” (2016) as I searched for references,. Some subjects look like lighter visual translations of structural and cultural violence Kim Ji Young and Yeong Hye have to endure as expected behaviours for women, such Soo Ji’s forced submissiveness to South Korea’s workplace culture of sexism and misogyny and her dislike of wearing bra or Ji Ho’s unpaid labour at her in-laws. Hats off to writer Yoon Nan Joong for her meticulous translations despite the initial premise’s similarity to Japanese drama, We Married as a Job/The Full-Time Wife Escapist/Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (逃げるは恥だが役に立つ) (2016). Though it will be problematic if this drama is later proven to be a compilation of plagiarisms from different sources.

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian” (2007) and Cho Nam Woo’s “Kim Ji Young Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)” (2016)

We Married As A Job
We Married as a Job/The Full-Time Wife Escapist/Nigeru wa Haji da ga Yaku ni Tatsu (逃げるは恥だが役に立つ) (2016)

The last two episodes did feel slightly anti-climax for me, maybe because in the end they still try to conform by being a crowd-pleaser. Or maybe because despite the dim reality, the writers chose to offer an alternative in hope of becoming a more equal and better society, thus a happier place to live in. Regardless the slightly unsatisfying ending, I guess it has been a wonderful 14-episode ride, still.

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The bunch in happily ever after ride