Lee Soo Yeon is back. And she’s back with a bang.
On 2017 Secret Forest’s review, I wrote:
“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.”
Still rings true.
This year, Lee is back with another drama that once again sets hers apart from the others of the same genre. Last year she did law, this year she does medical, but the objects of her interest remain the same. Socio-Politics.
If there is one subject that most medical dramas try to avoid, it has to be the capitalism in health care. In Hollywood, where most of the country’s systems are built on capitalism and liberal values, drama makers take a long detour from going to the roots of health care problems and instead, they choose to present feel-good and inspirational stories that come out from (supposedly) though times, and of course, the no-exit labyrinth of love relations among hospital workers. But so strong is Hollywood’s influence that we also find these patterns elsewhere.
And then Life appears.
With Life, it’s probably safe to say that it has become Lee Soo Yeon’s signature to depict the complexity of society’s intersected problems through non-black-and-white characters. We won’t find doctors with miraculous hands holding a scalpel in the operating room or blood splattering the emergency room. In fact, there are very little medical drama clichés seen in this drama.
For the first time in I can’t remember how long (probably never), we see doctors and medical practitioners portrayed as mere humans. No superheroes with hearts of gold, just human beings whose idealism is often times overpowered by their own ego, ambition and agendas. Lee mocks doctors’ deep-rooted elitism which for the longest time has made them arrogant beings playing demi-God.
Ye Jin Woo (Lee Dong Wook) & Goo Seung Hyo (Jo Seung Woo)
Set in a top university medical centre, Life depicts what seemingly a power struggle between a patient-centred ER doctor and the hospital’s newly-appointed CEO, but as it progresses, the show unveils unequal fights in every level of hospital’s hierarchy. Oppressing from the very top of the hierarchy is the chaebol (a large family-owned business conglomerate), and oppressed on the very bottom is the pariahs, ER personnel. But the real battle here is none other than socialism VS capitalism.
Much like Jung Sung Joo (Heard It Through ‘The Grapevine, Secret Affair, A Wife’s Credentials), the charm of Lee Soo Yeon’s works is her eloquent multilayered narration. She understands the great importance of individual-collective interrelations in dissecting systemic problems within a society. And because of that, her stories always need a troop of actors to portray the complexity. Some of Life’s casts are also part of Secret Forest’s ensemble. In fact, it almost feels like Secret Forest + Prison Playbook + Just Between Lovers big reunion.
With an impressive assemblage of talented actors, it’s a bit of a let-down to see that the weakest link lies in the performance of the lead actor, Lee Dong Wook, who plays Ye Jin Woo, the ER doctor. Though still considered good compared to his previous works, he’s obviously no comparison to powerhouses such as Jo Seung Woo (Goo Seung Hyo, Sangkook Univerity Hospital’s newly appointed CEO), Lee Kyu Hyung (Ye Sun Woo, Judge of the Health Insurance Evaluation Committee and an orthopedic specialist, who is also Ye Jin Woo‘s brother), Yoo Jae Myung (Joo Kyung Moon, Head of the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery), and Jung Moon Sung (Jo Nam Hyung, Chairman of Hwajung Group). Thankfully, he is saved by the immaculate script and great directing.
Jo Seung Woo, Lee Kyu Hyung, Yoo Jae Myung, Jung Moon Sung
With two consecutive outstanding dramas as a start, I can’t wait to see what Lee Soo Yeon has in store.
black plain paper
the four is coming
should i throw this life
a box of anxieties
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 (쌈, 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.