After a series of visually stunning teasers, Bad Love has finally arrived, and it is everything that we have expected from Key. Grand, loud, and meticulous. It even hints the superficiality of not only the whole 80s-inspired and retro space concept, but in a way, also the Cheongdam-dong It boy persona alias anak gaul JakSelnya Seoul (intentionally or unintentionally), in a good way (after all, there were times when the 80s music, especially synth-pop and new wave, was denigrated as ‘style over substance’ and ‘superficial’). Bad Love is the epitome of Key.
Though super excited, I felt slightly nervous and skeptical as his previous works never sit quite well with me, but Bad Love sheds a new light on Key as an artist. “In the stunning new visual for the ’80s-inspired synthpop track, Key pays homage to retrofuturism through its fashion and colourful sets,” according to NME. What you hear and see in Bad Love is profoundly Key, through and through. It is Key’s manifestation of his fascination with every intersecting aspect of pop culture he experienced growing up. He took control of the whole process by being the creative director of the entire project and conceptualised everything from A to Z. Though I don’t know how far his involvement goes, a quick glance at the teasers is all that it takes to recognise his imprints all over this work. Bad Love is Key’s embodiment of SHINee’s unrivaled experimentalism and risk-taker trademark.
Bad Love Image Teasers. Credit: SHINee’s Twitter
Key avoids cliché reproduction of 80s synth-pop by mixing in American rock-pop and Korean pop melodies, which suit his bright nasal-y baritone (that can also reach higher pitch) well. The title track exudes Laura Branigan’s Self Control and Kim Wilde’s You Keep Me Hangin’ On‘s feel, and when belting higher notes, his runs somehow remind me of Steve Perry, especially in Foolish Heart. The latter is a great reminder that Key is an excellent wide-ranged vocalist, aside from being a SHINee’s fierce rapper and dancer. In fact, he is probably one of the most stable ones, which he has proven over and over again in live performances. Unfortunately, many people oftentimes overlook Key’s many talents for his sassy entertainer and fashion aficionado persona.
The rushed beat of Yellow Tape feels like “Run Lola Run” set in a futuristic crime scene. If SM ever plans to make an MV out of this song, I can visualise red-haired Key running around the entire duration while occasionally rest to catch a breath as he sings “breath in, breath out.” Now come to think of it, ‘Ziggy Stardust‘ Key as ‘Lola’ Key would make an epic MV concept for Yellow Tape. In an odd juxtaposition effect on Helium’s song structure, I feel thrown down in the high-note chorus, but lifted up in the low-note pre-chorus/bridge (pardon me if I get these musical terms wrong as I’m no expert in music). The same feeling I get from Eighteen (End Of My World). Love the rhythm and melody of the instruments, not so much with the singing part, which has always been the element that kept me off from liking his previous works. Probably because it sounds very Lady Gaga-esque (maybe because he is a fan?) and Gaga is always a no for me. Hence, it took me a few listens before I could finally have a solid grasp of Bad Love.
If there is one thing that Bad Love can do without, I think it is Hate That… because it messes the sound consistency and feels out of place. But then again, it is not something new in K-pop albums (or any other album, really).
The visual aesthetics for the entire project is nothing less than astonishing and Key’s impeccable fashion style is not just a cherry on top, it is quintessential. All of these may sound too much to take, but he blends them smoothly, treating the audience to wholesome audio and visual experience. Even the physical albums look like sets of collector’s items.
Do I think this album is perfect? No. There is still a wide room for improvement in the singing part’s melody (but that could have been just my preference) area. I would also love to see him play with his vocal register and techniques. His high notes are great, but his low notes have their own charms, like the one he showed in Yoo Hee Yeol’s Sketchbook where he sang Kim Kwang Seok’s The Story of a Couple in Their 60’s. For such a tour de force, this mini album also feels regrettably short, I wish that it was a full-length album so he can show a wider range of sounds. But his growth is tremendous, which is a good sign for future development. This album sees an inundation of Key’s enormous potential.
Aside from the minor drawbacks, Bad Love is near-impeccable. And it is something that can only come from Key, the epitome of K-pop’s pop child.
Beruntung aku berkenalan (kembali) dengan Hallyu di awal 2014, because for the next two years, I got to experience what fans dubbed as the golden era of K-pop. Probably the second, because many also said 2008-2011 (or in between 2007-2012, it’s debatable really) is the first golden era of K-pop.
2014-2016 were definitely my formative years. Segala yang berkaitan dengan Hallyu kulahap, from its pop culture; cultural, social and political history; gender analysis, to US imperialism. I practically watch/listen/read-hopping everything.
Mungkin itu juga sebabnya saat itu aku belum fanatik terhadap apapun, atau siapapun. Variety shows, terutama Running Man, berkontribusi besar atas pengetahuanku karena banyak membukakan jendela budaya populer Korea Selatan yang dari luar seringkali dilihat secara sempit hanya sebagai K-pop, lebih sempit lagi, musiknya idol groups. Itu sebabnya dalam konteks musik, segalanya kudengarkan.
Now, back to mainstream K-pop. More often than not, most albums consist of a few hits and the rest are fillers (and by this, not just K-pop), but 2015 saw a change with many artists released solid songs well-curated albums.
Great songs were released one after another making 2015-2016 arguably the most exciting years for K-pop (on a side note, even “Heard It Through the Grapevine”, the best K-drama of all time (for me lol)), by far, was also released in 2015).
Whether the song(s) laid a foundation for the artist’s future sound or marked a turning point in their sound and artistry, here are the songs that define the year:
11. AH-CHOO (LOVELYZ8) – LOVELYZ
Ah-Choo is that simple, banal, fun song that I just could not stop replaying. There’s nothing much to it, but the notes are so addictive, making you feel like you just took on a happy pill. It also has that happy-adventure animation movie soundtrack feel.
10. IF YOU DO (MAD) – GOT7
GOT7 released ‘Just Right’ (EP) in July, but it is If You Do, the lead single in ‘MAD’ (which was released in September, also as an EP) that marked a turning point, shaping GOT7’s future sound and their more mature and sexier image.
9. BANG BANG BANG (A) – BIGBANG
Never quite a fan of Big Bang’s sound (or YG’s in general), but MADE is phenomenal and Bang Bang Bang from the single album ‘A’ is just too distinctive and iconic to ignore, despite the sound was not much different from most Big Bang’s songs.
8. SPRINGIRLS (SPRINGIRLS ) – SUNWOO JUNGA
Finding Sunwoo Junga was like finding a gem. Whereas so many female vocalists sound pretty much the same (this also applies to male vocalists, don’t get me wrong), especially in mainstream K-pop (though she’s more of an indie artist), her husky timbre (probably a contralto, my favourite type) and her music set her apart.
7. UPGRADER (SIMPLE MIND) – LIM KIM
Upgrader definitely sounds less experimental than Awoo, but this B-side synth-pop was the one that I played in an infinite loop at the time.
6. LOVE ME RIGHT (LOVE ME RIGHT – REPACKAGED ALBUM) – EXO
‘Love Me Right’ perfected the already great ‘Exodus’ album, making it one of the impeccable albums of the year. Love Me Right and Call Me Baby marked a shift in EXO’s music, setting the tone for the group’s future sound.
5. 4 WALLS (4 WALLS) – f(x)
4 Walls is SHINee’s View soul sister sharing a similar sound of electropop/UK garage/house/synth-pop, thanks to LDN Noise who was responsible for both songs’ tunes. ‘4 Walls’ as an album could have been a musical turning point for f(x), but unfortunately, the rest of the songs are just not on par with 4 Walls. Plus, they are on indefinite hiatus now, so what will happen with the group’s future is still unclear.
4. AWOO (SIMPLE MIND) – LIM KIM
My friend, Ninin, introduced me to Lim Kim. I think we were on some sort of a quest to explore the K-indie scene at that time. Simple Mind has a meticulous tracklist that I feel every single song in this album should have been included in every 2015’s best list. SHINee’s Jonghyun composed, wrote, and produced a track titled No More.
3. CALL ME BABY (EXODUS) – EXO
It is extremely difficult to be distinguishable in a saturated industry and to achieve that, an artist must have a distinctive identity to be recognised. Call Me Baby did exactly just that for EXO. The cohesiveness of thumping beats, vocal harmonies (one of the best in the industry), the sliding-staccato sexy choreography topped with a slick (and sick!) look created an identity that is distinctive EXO’s.
2. MARRIED TO THE MUSIC (MARRIED TO THE MUSIC – REPACKAGED ALBUM) – SHINee
Married to the Music is an homage to 80s-90s pop/R&B tunes with a quirky music video that’s reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s Thriller and The Rocky Horror Picture Show meet American-college-party-turns-into-a-disaster movie
The fact that they played with a completely different theme of the same concept, but taking the oddness up a notch for this song, only strengthens the group’s brand as THE experimental contemporary group.
With this album, the group ventures a new area in their vocal arrangement experimenting with overlaying vocals, equally divided parts (which made possible because they are all vocal lines, though objectively speaking, Minho is on the weak side), and interspersed raps everywhere in between singing parts.
1. VIEW (ODD) – SHINee
View was probably the first song that opened the floodgates of UK-garage/deep-house-infused and retro-inspired songs in K-pop. Odd & Married to the Music also marked SHINee’s another turning point, which they have created constantly with every album up until now (2021) since their third. At this point, we don’t even know what’s a turning point for them anymore because they always bring something new to the table, but Odd was definitely a major one for them as it was also the first album they had direct involvement in the production.
It is still mind-blowing how they thoroughly conceptualised every little detail, from music, vocal arrangement, tracklist, choreography to stage outfits! View & Married to the Music era also have the most gorgeous stage outfits and looks I’ve ever seen K-pop. Not even once did they set a foot wrong in those comeback stages. Brilliant job by Key who since then has been involved in designing SHINee’s stage outfits (and he never disappoints). A truly wholesome experience which makes the series a masterpiece.
Lastly, SM basically crushed 2015 by delivering some of the best albums of the year. Not only did they make brave shifts in musical and artistic direction, but they also executed them flawlessly.
I haven’t been so intrigued and emotionally invested in a drama for quite some time, until Flower of Evil came and blew me away. Not aware that the drama is helmed by Kim Chul Gyu; the director behind commendable dramas, such as Emergency Couple (one of my favourite dramas of all time and the first that triggered my K-drama addiction), On The Way to the Airport, Chicago Typewriter and Mother; it was off my radar of the must-watch upcoming dramas.
From the get-go, tension, intensity, and melodramatic feeling have set the tone for the drama. It opens with Cha Ji Won dive in trying to save Baek Hee Seong, her hand-tied-on-the-bottom-of-the-pool husband. Nearing the end of the scene, we hear them converse in the background,
Baek Hee Seong : Should I tell you what kind of a person I am?
Cha Ji Won : I’ll love you even more from this moment on. I’ll be good to you. Then, before you know it, everything will change. In a way that seems unreal.
This short dialogue serves as prologue (and later also the epilogue) and lays the groundwork for the drama’s narrative.
Perfect is the only word that I can think of to describe Flower of Evil. Maybe not perfect perfect, but more like close to perfection. Despite some minor hiccups (and a major one, but we will get to that later), Flower of Evil is a perfect blend of romance, melodrama, and suspense. Playing with contrast elements, Kim Chul Gyu shared, “This drama has a ton of hidden contrasts. Most notably, the contrast between good and bad, lies and truth, love and hate, and though this is a slightly different concept, the contrast between melodrama and thriller. I think the way these conflicting ideas are all in full force creates the tension that becomes the strength that carries the plot.” Mix this blend with tight plots, high tension scenes (be it the action or the drama), and cliffhanger ending in every episode; stitched them together with meticulous editing; then intensify it with hollowing and melodramatic music (thanks to Kim Joon Seok for such beautiful compositions), Flower Of Evil keeps the audience on the edge of their seat throughout the show and leaves them breathless, every time.
Said to be inspired by Charles Baudelaire’s book of poetry called ‘Les Fleurs du mal’ (‘The Flowers of Evil’ in English) in creating the couple’s relationship, screenwriter Yoo Jung Hee thought it was interesting to ask this question: If someone does their absolute best for their partner in order to take their own dark secret to the grave, can you really say that they are living a lie? “I wanted to beef up that story, so I raised the stakes in making the couple a serial killer and detective.” Brilliant!
Right from the beginning, we learn that Baek Hee Seong is not really Baek Hee Seong. His friend, Kim Moo Jin (Seo Hyun Woo) recognises him as Do Hyun Soo, an old-time friend who is also a murder suspect. Hee Seong has an antisocial personality disorder, which shown in scenes where he learns to mimic facial expressions, something that he is not capable to do naturally. As the story progresses, we slowly learn that all his efforts to connect to other people are all for Cha Ji Won (and later in life, their daughter). She somewhat has become his shield from the ghost of his father, a symbol of the lingering horrifying past. Without him even realising it, Ji Won has become the only person in his life who gives him a sense of security. She is his anchor, later symbolised by their wedding ring, the thing that gives his hand the stability to do his crafting works. She becomes the guardian who fills the empty spot his mother left. Ji Won is also the one that gives and teaches the meanings to feelings his brain cannot compute.
Cha Ji Won’s unwavering love for Baek Hee Seong, on the other hand, is so pure it almost feels naive at times. But being a detective over the years has trained her to only believe in facts, which keeps her grounded and level headed in challenging times and guides her to escape the conflicting feelings. In the end, no matter how big her doubt is, she always chooses to put faith and trust in the good person Do Hyun Soo that she knows.
Do Hyun Soo’s antisocial personality disorder is a clear case from the start, but the drama also portrays an array of other psychological issues and mental health conditions without having to be so in-your-face and to try too hard to be recognised as a psychological drama while in fact it kind of is. Most key characters in this drama, each shows a form of mental health condition. A foot wrong could have made Flower of Evil pretentious, but on the contrary, I would say that this instead enriched each character’s background and lay out the rationale for their actions.
The real Baek Hee Seong (Kim Ji Hoon) and Do Hyun Soo’s father, Do Min Seok (Choi Byung Mo), are psychopathic serial killers. Baek Hee Seong was raised with privilege by toxic parents. His mother, Nam Gi Ja (Nam Gi Ae), easily gets maniacal and constantly anxious; his father, Baek Man Woo (Son Jong Hak) is authoritative. Do Hyun Soo’s older sister, Do Hye Soo (Jang Hee Jin) seems to be depressive and she suffers from anxiety. Both Hye Soo and Hyun Soo might have inherited the conditions from their father, but the flashbacks show how their environment also played a big, if not major, role in nurturing their conditions. Hats off to each and every one of these actors for portraying such difficult characters with layered emotions, especially to Nam Gi Ae, who gave a chilling performance in “Mother” and Jang Hee Jin who also starred in “On The Way to the Airport”. Amidst the intensity of all these characters, the writer slips in comic relief in Kim Moo Jin (Seo Hyun Woo) character, Hyun Soo’s childhood friend and also Hye Soo’s teenage lover.
Do Min Seok (Choi Byung Mo), Baek Hee Seong (Kim Ji Hoon), Do Hye Soo (Jang Hee Jin), Kim Moo Jin (Seo Hyun Woo), Nam Gi Ja (Nam Gi Ae), Baek Man Woo (Son Jong Hak), Lee Woo Cheo (Choi Dae Hoon), Choi Jae-Sub (Choi Young Joon)
Without a doubt, one stood out the most, Lee Joon Gi. He is magnetic. There is not a moment when I am not in awe of his actorship. He injects micro emotions into his stoicism whenever faced with unexpected situations or incomprehensible actions (mostly of Ji Won). Just like his character, Lee Joon Gi meticulously premeditates and calculates his expressions to deliver a smooth transition from being emotionless to eventually bursting out his primeval emotions when the feelings in Do Hyun Soo’s brain start to unlock at his most desperate moments.
Do Hyun Soo/Baek Hee Seong (Lee Joon Gi)
All the emotions he pours into his acting would have not been so impactful had his counterpart’s performance is subpar, which could have been the case for Moon Chae Won. Moon has a tendency to be bland and too melancholic based on her earlier works, but this time, that melancholic persona works to her advantage in portraying someone who loves with an innocent heart. Together, Moon and Lee are beautiful and bewitching.
Cha Ji Won (Moon Chae Won)
One major flaw that taints what could have been an impeccable drama is Baek Hee Seong’s illogical speedy recovery after 15 years of being in comatose. Having said that, it does not ruin everything that has been built up until that moment. It just leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth.
Kim Chul Gyu takes time to wrap things up in the last episode and weave the thread to create a perfect circle. The intense journey ended with a beautiful bluesy happy ending that leaves us breathless till the end.
Through a series of tumultuous and unfortunate incidents, Cha Ji Won and Baek Hee Seong, later Do Hyun Soo, decide to stand by each other to the end. They have faith and put trust in each other, which triumphs every time doubts creeping in. Above all, Flower of Evil is a love story. A perfect one I must say.
Because this is the time to revisit all-time favourites.
These are probably my all-time favourite Korean romantic/romantic comedy dramas. They are not entirely the ‘best’ ones (some even have red flags all over them), but the ones that I keep coming back to over and over again.
1. Emergency Couple (tvN, 2014)
Emergency Couple is my first love, as with Oh Jin Hee (Song Ji Hyo) and Oh Chang Min (Choi Jin Hyuk) with each other. The drama follows the rise and fall of Jin Hee and Chang Min’s relationships post-divorce – including the people around them – as the couple’s separation left so many unfinished businesses. There’s no excruciating push and pull in sorting out their unresolved feelings. No glorious wake-up calls and grand romantic gestures, only reflections and introspections in retrospect of their failed marriage. Their going back and forth came from confusion and uncertainties towards their own feelings. Their enlightenment appeared slowly as they find small awakenings along the way.
The beginning and ending show Jin Hee runs in the emergency room as patients come rushing in, but for a moment she stopped and paused to reflect on her life in the slow-motion of the emergency room’s chaos. Jin Hee’s life has come to a full circle.
2. Discovery of Love (KBS2, 2014)
I guess unfinished business always gives a spacious room for exploration. Or maybe it is the spot on depictions that makes the story feel so familiar.
Han Yeo Reum (Jung Yu Mi) has been dating Nam Ha Jin (Sung Joon) for a year when her ex-boyfriend, Kang Tae Ha (Eric), suddenly appears in front of her. As the three of them try to resolve their past and current feelings, they find the answers to their long unanswered questions.
“And… let’s break up. Let’s break up properly now. I didn’t know why we broke up, so I couldn’t break up with you. And you’ve hated me this whole time. While you still hate me, it hasn’t over yet.” – Kang Tae Ha, episode 10.
(By the way, still one of my favourite lines of all time)
“Can’t you be happy? Don’t think about lying, just because you’re doing fine. I know you’re not okay. Tae Ha, you said you wanted me to be happy. I too want you to be happy. But, why do you keep looking for me? Go and live your life. Why do you keep looking for me? If you keep looking for me like that, I’ll start waiting for you. Do you know how many times in a day I look out the window?” – Han Yeo Reum, episode 11.
“I realised it then why Yeo Reum acted that way. Why she said those mean things to me. Why I held back so much like an idiot. I’m the kind who can’t say, ‘let’s break up’. I don’t know how to break up properly. So I have nightmares, I take pills for headaches, Yeo Reum knew that’s how I was. That’s why Yeo Reum waited for me even when her heart already left.” – Nam Ha Jin, episode 15.
“Yeo Reum waited for me even when her heart already left.” Sobs.
3. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo (MBC, 2016)
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo fooled us into believing that this cheery and youthful show was nothing more than the typical cute coming-of-age story, but it turns out to be so much more than that. Inspired by Olympic weightlifting gold medalist, Jang Mi Ran, teenage love story, the show initially gained criticism for its lookism.
Despite their age, Kim Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung) and Jung Joon Hyung (Nam Joo Hyuk) show what a mature and healthy relationship looks like. A quality that many dramas with supposedly more mature characters fail to achieve. Their relationship grows slowly but steadily from frenemies to lovers. The young love is sweet and supportive. No nonsensical demands and expectations, and misunderstandings only came from pure innocence and naïvety. Rather than projecting adults’ perspectives into her characters, writer Yang Hee Seung tried to explore what’s in young adults’ hearts and minds. Their search for love and identity creates conflicts and problems that for many of us who have passed that phase might feel familiar.
4. Fight For My Way (KBS2, 2017)
Though still beautified, Fight For My Way depicts quite a realistic portrayal of the lower-middle-class young adults, making it a refreshing and pleasant break from the overused middle-upper social class settings. Despite some unnecessary stories, the undeniable charming chemistry between Choi Ae Ra (Kim Ji Won) – Go Dong Man (Park Seo Joon) and Baek Seol Hee (Song Ha Yoon) – Kim Joo Man (Ahn Jae Hong) as romantic couples and the four of them as a group of friends make up for what the drama lacks.
Their non-privilege start inevitably leads to mediocre jobs. Go Dong Man was a former high school Taekwondo hotshot, but now works as a pest exterminator while going after the UFC title. Choi Ae Ra always dreamed of being a TV anchor, but after failing too many times, she gave up her dream. Now, she works as a customer service representative at a mall information desk. Both Baek Seol Hee and Kim Joo Man, who have been dating for six years, work at a home shopping network. Seol Hee as a customer service and Joo Man as a buyer. They call themselves the Fantastic Four Knuckleheads. No victorious end for these four, but they do find love in the end. And that’s enough to get them to go through their ordinary lives.
But I have to admit that the strongest attraction of this drama is the pairing of Park Seo Joon & Kim Ji Won. They look great together from the get-go. Their strong chemistry and adorable portrayal of (what I like to call as) dumb and dumber couple are probably their best and most favourite performance of them I’ve seen so far.
5. Ex-Girlfriends’ Club (tvN, 2015)
The idea of four ex-girlfriends lives become entangled in the same ex-boyfriend’s present life can really be a turnoff, but Ex-Girlfriends’ Club managed to (kind of) dodge the bullet.
Kim Soo Jin (Song Ji Hyo) is a producer at a film production company. Her failing company decides to make a film based on a popular webtoon. Only later did Soo Jin find out that the webtoon writer is her ex-boyfriend, Bang Myeong Soo (Byun Yo Han), who writes about his ex-girlfriends. As the movie starts shooting, the project also brings Myung Soo’s other ex-girlfriends back into his life all at the same time; Jang Hwa Young (Lee Yoon Ji), Na Ji A (Jang Ji Eun) and Geun-hyung/Ra Ra (Ryu Hwa Young).
Interesting storyline, good execution, quirky narrating style, catchy tunes from South Korean indie scene, and its casts’ wonderful chemistry are some of the show’s charms; but it is probably Byun Ho Han’s stellar laidback performance (in his first leading role) and his chemistry with Song Ji Hyo that makes it one of the most memorable (though way too underrated) romantic comedy dramas. Sadly, the drama was abruptly cut short because of the low rating, making the ending felt rushed.
6. Just Between Lovers/Rain Or Shine (JTBC, 2017)
Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah) and Lee Gang Doo (Lee Jun Ho) are both survivors and also the family of victims of a mall building 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. Today, 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, present Gang Doo and Moon Soo slowly enter each other’s lives. Jun Ho and Jin A’s relationships feel so real, organic and sincere that my heart is shattered too as they crawling out of the hole of despair. Their relationship feels sincere and is built gradually upon candor and empathy.
Not all stories have to end with a happy ending. Some relationships have to end to give new beginnings a chance, and some resume with a lot of struggles and require hard work. Nothing is binary in Just Between Lovers. And that’s how life is. Suffering shows you that you are still alive, whether that means good or bad depending on the circumstances.
7. Personal Taste (MBC, 2010)
Park Gae In: “Your back is really warm. I wonder if my father’s back was warm like this too.” Jeon Jin Ho: “Hasn’t your father ever carried you on his back?” Park Gae In: “This is the first time I’ve been carried on anyone’s back. I always thought that people’s backs were just cold.”
Personal Taste has all sorts of classic Korean drama clichés, from ridiculous misunderstandings to toxic masculinity and false wokeness. But it was lines like the above, the chemistry between Son Ye Jin and Lee Min Ho (despite Lee Min Ho’s flat expressions) and the underrated amazing performances of Jo Eun Ji (as Lee Young Sun, Gae In’s best friend) and Jung Sung Hwa (as No Sang Jun, Jin Ho’s colleague/fake boyfriend) that stole my heart and making me keep coming back to it despite all its cringes and cheesiness.
8. Familiar Wife (tvN, 2018)
It was inevitable that K-drama fans instantly compared Familiar Wife to Go Back Couple with the latter being aired almost a year ahead. Both dramas told a story about married couples struggling to keep their marriage alive and suddenly one day they find themselves travelling back in time.
But that’s as far as it goes. Though sometimes touching and heartwarming, but most of the time Go Back Couple feels immature and juvenile. Plus Jang Na Ra and Son Ho Jun are pale in comparison with Han Ji Min and Ji Sung. True that both couples portray their characters very well, but Ji Min and Ji Sung’s versatility as actors create much more realistic and nuanced characters, hence a more believable portrayal of struggling and tired married couple who is given a chance to re-examine their relationship to eventually re-discover their love for each other.
9. It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)
As banal (and possibly misdiagnose and misrepresent) as it might be, It’s Okay, That’s Love is one of the very few dramas that specifically address mental health issues. Jang Jae Yeol (Jo In Sung) is a bestselling mystery fiction novelist and radio DJ. Because of his troubled past and obsessive–compulsive disorder, Jae-yeol can only sleep in his own bathtub. Ji Hae Soo (Gong Hyo Jin) is a psychiatrist in her first year of fellowship. She self-diagnosed herself as having insecurity/anxiety issues, a fear of commitment, and sex phobia due to an incident where she saw her mom cheating on her dad with another guy. Together, they go through a tumultuous relationship to eventually heal each other’s deep-seated wounds and face their own battles.
Said to be the first Korean psychiatric drama, as expected, Hae Soo and Jae Yool are not the only ones with mental health issues. Most people around them are also dealing with their own psychological problems, which in a way gives solid backgrounds for their actions and behaviour.
Just like in most of Noh Hee Kyung’s dramas, the heavy subjects are balanced with wits. Gong Hyo Jin and Jo In Sung’s sassiness is a fundamental trait in carrying Hae Soo and Hae Yool endless bicker and banter, making them the coolest couple in romantic K-drama land.
10. Fated To Love You (MBC, 2014)
The ridiculous plot and overdramatic storyline did not hold Jang Hyuk from delivering one of the most iconic performances (and hairstyles) of his career and probably in the history of K-drama.
I don’t think anyone else can pull off portraying the eclectic Lee Geon better than Jang Hyuk. He makes the character looks like it is made and tailored just for him. Sometimes comic-y, extravagant, over the top; especially with the laugh; and even unnecessarily bizarre, Lee Geon is also warm and fragile. Jang Hyuk flawlessly glides from one emotion to another. One wrong step can turn Lee Geon into a despicable character, but instead, he makes Lee Geon’s flaws (kind of) understandable and even makes us empathise with him.
Lee Geon’s antics is in contrast with Kim Mi Young’s unassertiveness, even submissiveness, which suited Jang Na Ra’s melancholic face perfectly. So great their chemistry is, they were paired up for the third time later that year for a one-episode drama special, Old Goodbye.
11. Something About 1% (Dramax, 2016)
Almost everything about the show screams political incorrectness. The toxic masculinity is quite disturbing, moreover, in this age of #MeToo. Many K-dramas have been criticised for romanticising rape culture and this one ticks so many alarming boxes. The story is also a conservative cliché with too many unnecessary sub-plots (it is a remake of 2003’s same-titled drama starring Kang Dong Won and Kim Jung Hwa. And apparently the writer didn’t bother to update some of its outdated aspects).
Lee Jae In (Ha Seok Jin), a rude, mean, and arrogant heir of a wealthy family, is forced to get married in order to inherit his grandfather’s fortune. Unable to escape his command, Jae In engages in a six-month contract for a pretend relationship with Kim Da Hyun (Jeon So Min), an elementary school teacher chosen for him by his grandfather. Predictably enough, both Jae In and Da Hyun slowly fall for each other and it is Da Hyun who softens his heart and transforms his attitude. This ‘bad boy turns into a good boy with the help of a good girl’ and arranged marriage (without the woman even knowing!) formula is rather appalling in this age of gender equality and female empowerment.
But Ha Seok Jin and Jeon So Min save this drama with their wonderful display of emotion shifts which helps us get through the lousy story. Not to mention Ha Seok Jin’s sexy flirt. If only their sincere chemistry is shown in a more woke drama, their sweetness will be so much more worth watching.
12. You Drive Me Crazy! (MBC, 2018)
You Drive Me Crazy was almost out of K-drama fans’ radar when it aired. Maybe because it was a filler (drama special) in between dramas with only 2 episodes, there wasn’t much anticipation about this drama.
Han Eun Sung (Lee Yoo Young) and Kim Rae Wan (Kim Seon Ho) are friends for years, but a few months ago they slept together. Now, though nothing changes on the outside, but it seems that they never really get over it as the incident affects their present relationship.
Short, sweet, and cute. A classic ‘friends or lovers’ dilemma. It would be perfect if only it was longer.
Mother puts women at the centre of its conversation and in the process, the choices they make liberate them from patriarchy construct of female identities without having to demonise men
I almost forgot how fantastic this drama is until I stumbled upon its rerun just recently. Mother is one of a very few dramas/movies that challenges primordial female identity. Based on Japanese drama of the same title, the drama also placed women at the centre of its grand narrative, detaching itself almost entirely from real-life dictating patriarchy.
When Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young), a temporary elementary school teacher, realises that one of her students Hye Na (Heo Yool) is being abused at home by her family, she makes an impulsive decision to rescue Hye Na and in doing so, she decides to become her “mother”.
Not until I explore the works of Hirokazu Koreeda, did I realise the dire situation of child abandonment in Japan. It is the third largest type of child abuse in the country. Police reported record-high 80,104 cases of suspected child abuse across Japan in 2018. While in South Korea, the number reached 10,647 in the first half of 2017.
Koreeda has repeatedly brought these issues to light in some of his works, most notably are Nobody Knows (2004), which is based on a real-life child abandonment known as the “Sugamo child abandonment case” and Shoplifters (2018).
One of Koreeda’s signature themes is his constant questioning of society constructs. “What makes a family?” is a perennial theme that keeps on appearing in most of his works. Mother feels like a derivative or a fragment of that theme, challenging the notion of motherhood.
Shin Ja Young (Go Sung Hee), Hye Na‘s biological mother, is a product of this cruel condition. Unable to stand on her own, she thought she finally found liberation in a man, Seol Ak (Son Seok Koo). She creates an illusion of escaping misery only to find out later that it won’t happen. Trapped between desperation and illusion, Ja Young, along with her abusive boyfriend, abandons Hye Na. Ja Young seems to suffer from post-partum depression and she keeps blaming Hye Na for her miserable life until the end. Rather than creating monsters out of these damaged and deranged parents, Mother also reveals the intertwined social factors behind their abusive actions, though still not justifies them.
(Writer’s note: Though eight years apart since the original version aired, this case bears an eerie resemblance to Ja Young – Hye Na – Seol Ok’s part of the story.)
Soo Jin & Hye Na
Soo Jin & Hye Na
Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young) & Hye Na (Heo Yool)
Unlike many real-life child abuse and abandonment cases which end in tragedy, Hye Na was quite lucky to be found by Soo Jin, outside in the cold winter night, inside a black garbage bag. From then on, Soo Jin and Hye Na (and consequently people around them) embark on a journey to find a safe haven, and eventually the meaning of “mother” (and family). Soo Jin refuses to be a bystander despite her disinterest in marriage and forming a family of her own (initially), even if that makes her a criminal.
When Soo Jin was asked why she did not turn to the police or the authorities for help, she replied “Hye Na needed immediate protection. And I didn’t want Hye Na to have to explain what happened to her multiple times, to strangers.” This indicates a criticism towards governmental and children related (such as school and welfare centre) institutions’ failure to notice signs of child abuse and negligence in handling child abuse reports which often times lead to horrifying consequences.
Mother puts women at the centre of its conversation and in the process, the choices they make liberate them from patriarchy construct of female identities without having to demonise men. From Soo Jin and Hye Na, to Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) and Nam Hong-Hee (Nam Gi Ae), both are Soo Jin’s mothers, to Hyun Jin (Go Byo Geol), Soo Jin’s sister; each and every one of them takes ownership of their own lives. While men around them; Jae Beom (Lee Jung Yeol), Young Sin’s personal (and family) assistant and Jin Hong (Lee Jae Yoon), a doctor who was initially introduced to Soo Jin as a potential partner; serve as part of the Kang family support system. They are around, help when needed, but never intervened. It is a utopian idea indeed, but probably needed to keep the hope and dream alive.
Hye Na (Heo Yool)
Hye Na (Heo Yool) & Young Sin (Lee Hye Young)
Young Sin (Lee Hye Young)
Hye Na (Heo Yool) & Young Sin (Lee Hye Young)
The show is graced with strong performances from all of its actors, but it is undoubtedly Heo Yool, who was selected among 400 other audition participants, who steals the spotlight as a resilient child fighting life’s cruelty. She displays the psychological impact of a child-abuse victim in an impressive array of emotions.
TV shows sees patriarch in power all the time, but rarely a matriarch in power. Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) is one those very few. She is divorced, then she adopted and raised children on her own. As a star actress who gained fame and fortune on her own, she can afford not to care about society’s opinion and social stigma. Lee Hye Young and Heo Yool show a beautiful and heartwarming relationship between two strangers who decided to become a family.