Dissecting Neo-Liberalism – Life / Laipeu (라이프) (2018)

Lee Soo Yeon is back. And she’s back with a bang.

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Writer Lee Soo Yeon

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.

Life - Casts

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.

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.

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”.


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)

Because This Is My First Life 2

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.


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 feels like a call out for deep-seated patriarchy and misogyny shown in 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner’s Han Kang‘s “The Vegetarian (채식주의자)” (2007) and Cho Nam Joo’s best-selling novel “Kim Ji Young Born 1982 (82년생 김지영)” (2016). 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, depicted in 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 writing despite the initial premise’s alleged 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.

The bunch in happily ever after ride

The Politics of Religion: Save Me / Goohaejwoe (구해줘) (2017)

Save Me 1

No 2017 K-drama is more relevant with today’s world political situation (hail the rise of the right!) than OCN’s ‘Save Me’. Watching the show, there’s this eerie feel that I can’t seem to escape from, like that of Nic Pizzolatto’s ‘True Detective’. Both are set in somber rural towns and both explore the theme of Christianity. While ‘True Detective’ (Season 1) followed two detectives in their pursuit of a serial killer, ‘Save Me’ depicts one town’s Christian cult and its connection with the town’s politicians. Based on a webcomic Out of the World (세상 밖으로) by Jo Geum San, the timing of ‘Save Me’ couldn’t be any more perfect. Though the webcomic was published from 2011 to 2013, but South Korea recently was shaken up by a similar scandal, where former South Korea’s President Park Eun Hye was impeached last year after her bizarre political scandal with advisers, Choi Tae Min, a self-proclaimed pastor and founder of an obscure sect called the Church of Eternal Life, then his daughter, Choi Soon Sil.

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But if we are going to look at it from a different perspectives, quoting this article, “Many South Koreans speak contemptuously of Choi as a shaman, and rumor abounds that the Ms. Park might have held shamanistic exorcisms with Choi. But to go by the culture in South Korea, where it is still common to consult shamans and make spirit offerings at important events in life, not to mention attend these fervently spiritual church services, what the president might have done, if it is true at all, wasn’t that unusual.” Personally, when it comes to faith, it really is a grey area.


Somber and cinematic, ‘Save Me’ feels like the small screen’s interpretation of Korean noir cinema, with dark visuals and bizarre characters. It even doesn’t shy away from gore (though of course, it is altered way milder to follow the television rating system guidance), something that the genre is really familiar with.

The story follows Sang Mi (Seo Ye Ji) and her family who move to a small town then later join the congregation, called Goosunwon, following a series of unfortunate events. The town’s cult leader, called the Spiritual Father, apparently has set his eyes on Sang Mi, the moment he laid eyes on her. Spiritual Father wants to “save” her by turning her into Spiritual Mother because “the world that we live in is full of evil and in order for all of us to get on the Boat of Salvation on the day of judgement, we need to take in a pure scapegoat.” Sang Mi, is that pure scapegoat that will allow all of them to receive salvation (Episode 8).


It is probably best described by Hong So Rin (Jeon Yeo Bin) when she said, “This is just my hunch, but I don’t think it’s a simple alliance between a religion and the political circle. Muji will be thrown upside down. Actually, it may affect the entire country” and also by Han Sang Hwan (Taec Yeon), “My father, Governor Han Yong Min, colluded with a religious cult and tried to build a sanitarium in order to obtain and launder illegal funds.”

To refresh our memory, the Holy See too was caught in the Vatican leaks scandal in 2012, where leaked Vatican documents exposed alleged corruptions. Several high-ranking officials within the Curia viewed the Vatican bank, officially known as the Institute for Works of Religion (IOR), as something akin to a trust company for clandestine monetary transactions that is not only used by the Church, but allegedly also by the mafia as well as corrupt politicians and companies. For more than 40 years, the IOR, founded in 1942, has been regularly embroiled in scandals, including bribery money for political parties, mafia money-laundering and, repeatedly, anonymous accounts.

Scandals involving religion institutions are of course, nothing new and have been happening for centuries, so it shouldn’t be as shocking. But I guess, still, it’s a reality that some find it uncomfortable and disturbing to accept, especially for the devout (organised) Christians in this case. And I also guess that portraying a cult is easier to accept to some, because cult is the other.

Religions, whether they are organised religions or cults, and politics have been intertwined since the early days of human civilisation. They mutually work for each other’s benefit and goals and ‘Save Me’ got most everything right, delivering the complex relations in an unassuming narrative.


The bleak depictions of this sad reality are thankfully delivered by a great ensemble of well-cast actors. All of them give an enjoyable and believable performances, but for one. Unfortunately, that one is the supposedly main lead, Taec Yeon, whom parts I suspect are intentionally watered-down because of his rookie-ish performance. Instead, they bring Seok Deong Cheol (Woo Do Hwan) to the limelight, which turns out to be to be the best decision the makers made because not only he triumphs over Taec Yeon, but he also matches perfectly with Seo Ye Ji. Theatrical at times, Seo Ye Ji breathes a cinematic feel to Im Sang Mi, if that makes any sense at all. I can’t pinpoint what it is exactly with her. Maybe it’s her poetic visual and the deep, charismatic voice.



I don’t think I have ever seen Park Ji Young in any role as complex as Apostle Kang Eun Sil before (well, not in my obviously short history of watching K-dramas). A mother who lost her daughter to, guess who? None other than the Spiritual Father. But strangely, instead of leaving the congregation he built, she went even deeper in hopes of reaching the ultimate dream, the nirvana. Her vicious partner is Apostle Jo Wan Tae (Jo Jae Yoon). Though most of the times I can’t get rid of his comical image, but Jo Jae Yoon is definitely an all-round actor. He switches gestures smoothly, from obedient servant to sexual offender to the materialistic con artist.



There is also Go Joon as Cha Joon Go, who stole many scenes for me. Playing a small supporting role, he looks strikingly similar to Hwang Jung Min in ‘Man In Love’, from his facial expressions, gestures to his flowing tacky printed shirt.



The most impressive of them all is of course Jo Seong Ha as The Spiritual Father, who somehow looks like the interpretation of Benny Hinn, an Israeli televangelist, best known for his regular “Miracle Crusades” — revival meeting or faith healing summits (Spiritual Father also holds such meetings in the show), also infamous for his controversial aspect of teaching on, and demonstration of, a phenomenon he dubs “The Anointing”—the power purportedly given by God and transmitted through Hinn to carry out supernatural acts. The Spiritual Father too, thinks that he is the father of all spirits who will lead his people to the paradise. He is undoubtedly a paedophile psychopath hid in a reserved and dignified facade and a fatherly figure.


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Save Me 6

Save Me

Though I had wished for a less cliché and a grimmer ending, but I assume it’s probably considered too much for the majority of the K-drama audience. Still, it’s one hell of a solid ride though.