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.

Save Me 7

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.

될지어다

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).

[SPOILER ALERT]

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.

 

Save Me 5

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.

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Sci-fi With A Heart: Circle: Two Worlds Connected (써클: 이어진 두 세계) (2017)

If you have a chance to erase all the painful memories stored in your brain, would you? I wouldn’t, but probably members of the Cult of Happyness would give it a go. “They said they wanted to be happy. They said all they wanted was happiness. That’s what I gave them”, said Park Deong Geon (Han Sang Jin).

The cinema has long been fixated on the mystery of memory, especially when it’s manipulated. “Memento” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” are my two personal favourites and both are mind-blowingly brilliant (though for me, “Memento” is the first and the last for Nolan). Circle unavoidably gave the first impression of drawing its inspiration from the latter. I even had to re-watch the movie just to see how much of its ideas the drama adopted.

Circle, or Circle: Two Worlds Connected (써클: 이어진 두 세계), is set in two different times and is divided into two parts. The first part, “The Beta Project”, shows college student Kim Woo Jin (Yeo Jin Goo) investigating odd cases prompted by the arrival of alien on Earth in 2017. His twin brother, Kim Beom Gyeon (Ahn Woo Yeon), believes that it’s the same alien that used to live with them 10 years ago. The second part, “A Brave New World”, is set in the year 2037, where future Seoul is divided into the “Smart Earth” where people’s emotions are controlled and no crimes or illness exist, and the “General Earth” where people still suffer from rampant plague and lawlessness.

Not only it draws similarities with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but the synopsis and the utopian-dystopian society theme that it carries are also a slight reminiscence of the Divergent series, in which one of the factions is called “Dauntless” or “The Brave” (which again, I decided to watch too, just because). In Divergent, set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions: Abnegation (the selfless), Amity (the peaceful), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave) and Erudite (the intellectual). The remaining population is the Factionless, who have no status or privilege in this society. While in Circle, as a result of severe pollution, people emigrated to Smart Earth, so places on Normal Earth have become very hollow. As a result, the crime rates have significantly increased. But Brave New World is completely different from the Dauntless faction. It’s even an irony because in this so-called brave world, some people are even afraid to face their painful memories.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Circle 3
Byul (Gong Seung Yeon)

Whether it’s a coincidence or not, both Circle and Divergent suggest a way to store people’s memories which later can be viewed in video format. In Circle, Byul (Gong Seung Yeon), the alien, was able to completely analyse a human brain. She was able to store her memories in a video file format and could use that in order to block out memories. She could choose which ones, too. While in Divergent, they inject trainees with a serum that stimulates the part of one’s brain that processes fear. It induces a hallucination, and then the transmitters in the serum allow people to see the images in the trainee’s mind. Though terrifying, it is not impossible to see this happening in the future, as we have seen some ideas in older movies have been brought to reality or currently being developed. And of course, in this severely corrupt world that we live in, the villain would abuse the technology to serve his/her own greed, or in Circle’s case, his/her illusion of the greater good of mankind. What kind of good can one brins if he or she forgets his/her faults?

But thankfully, that’s just as far as the inspiration goes. Circle, of course, is not as thought-provoking as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind nor is as sophisticated as Divergent in terms of the production neatness, which makes it even more interesting. As the first (claimed) sci-fi drama in the K-drama land, the lack of visual effect sophistication makes the year 2037 look more feasible and visually real. Remember how the 60s-80s movie’s portrayal of what the 2000s look like? Well, we’re in the 2000s now, yet nothing seems to change much since the 90s. We still don’t ride on a capsule car on an overpass literally hanging in the sky.

The writers’ decision to make this drama run only for 12 episodes was a smart choice, because it allows the writers to create intricate plots that are tight, effective and efficient with twists and cliffhangers at the end of every episode, in both parts, keeping the audience’s eyes locked to the screen the whole time. Probably the first of its kind in the K-drama land. No room for nonsense dragging drama as they carefully packed each episode with new findings and revelations while keeping the intensity high at the same time and carefully calculating the timing of when to emerge both worlds. Clever!

Not a critical note, but I just want to acknowledge the impressive job the casting department did. Certain characters in the present, which also appear in the future do share facial feature similarities.

Circle 2
Twins Kim Woo Jin (Yeo Jin Goo) & Kim Bum Gyun (Ahn Woo Yeon)

Circle is not perfect, nor flawless. There were tiny holes here and there, but I couldn’t grab what they were as the story moved fast and gave the audience no time to catch their breath, even for a short moment. None of the actors gave a stellar performance (I do like Yeo Jin Goo and Ahn Woo Yeon, too bad Ahn seems so underrated), but still good enough to create a great ensemble, though for a second Kim Kang Woo (Kim Joon Hyuk) stole the scene for me in episode 11. Also, it’s good that Gong Seung Yeon has been constantly selective about her projects as most of them, especially the recent ones, have been one great drama after another, but she really needs to step it up a notch.

What Circle does very right is blending the perfect dose of sci-fi, suspense, drama and even threw in a bit of cheesiness element into it, to deliver a sci-fi with a heart, something that K-drama have (almost) always done right. It’s not the end of 2017 yet, but Circle is definitely one this year’s best.

Circle 4
Kim Joon Hyuk (Kim Kang Woo)

I feel that the open-ending gave a hint of a sequel’s possibility. Maybe exploring the ‘cloning’ theme brought in the last episodes? If that’s the case, I’d be excitedly waiting to see what they have in store for the next installment.

 

Friendship, Romance And Beyond: Chicago Typewriter / Sikago Tajagi (시카고 타자기)

Chicago Typewriter 1

 

Writer and revolution. It’s something that I have to see. Literary and history have become the subject of my interests for several years now, so this type of premise caught my attention right away. Well, to be honest, it was more because of Lim Soo Jung’s return to the small screen. Her last drama was 13 years ago and she has since acted more in movies and been dubbed as one of South Korea’s A-list actors, starring in different genres and scales, from romance to arthouse, from indie to blockbuster.

Though I was never really impressed with her acting, but she did fit some of the roles as if they were tailored to suit her. A delusional young woman who thinks she’s a cyborg in Park Chan Wook’s ‘I’m A Cyborg, but That’s OK’ probably is the best example. Throw in Yoo Ah In and Go Kyung Pyo in the picture, the more reason to watch, though I am never a fan of Yoo Ah In and I never get the hype, but I don’t dislike him either.

I'm A Cyborg But That's OK
Lim Soo Jung in ‘I’m A Cyborg But It’s OK’

Chicago Typewriter‘s story revolves around writers who lived in the 1930s’ Japanese occupation of Korea, and are reincarnated into the present as a best-selling writer in a slump, a long-time fan, and a ghostwriter. Using flashback narrative, the story’s going back and forth between the present year and the 1930s, with our heroes keep getting flashing images of their past lives in the present time.

Chicago Typewriter 29
Yoo Ah In, Lim Soo Jung, Go Kyung Pyo

[SPOILER ALERT]

In the previous life, Han Se Joo used to be Seo Hwi Young, a writer who was stuck writing third-rate romance novels as under Japanese colonial regime’s watch, writers didn’t have the freedom to write anything they wish. Hwi Young quit medical school to pursue writing, but he was blacklisted because his writings brought up the social and political themes. Hwi Young was best friend with Shin Yool, who decided to just quit writing and ran a club called Carpe Diem (Seize The Day) instead of writing third-rate novels (whatever that means), where they formed camaraderie with Ryu Soo Hyeon. Soo Hyeon was left alone by her father, who chose to commit suicide than getting arrested by the Japanese soldiers, when she was a kid. The adult Soo Hyeon then became Joseon Youth Alliance’s sniper.

In 1930s, the three were youth revolutionaries of the Joseon Youth Alliance, bound together by the same freedom and independence dreams. Furbabe wrote a very detailed and meticulous historical background of these Korean independence movements, including the resistance groups, and even historical figures, which the drama loosely based upon. Unrelated to the topics, but personally it’s interesting for me to learn that most of these figures were leftist activists (I see so many similarities with Indonesia’s history as both countries were entangled in the same wars), which seems to leave almost no trace in the present South Korea. Quoting from @_Jessee’s analysis, “In the opening sequence, the typewriter is likened to a machine gun that uses the Korean alphabet as bullets. It is especially poignant in the context of Korea under the Japanese rule. Leftist writers who believed literature should serve the cause of class liberation founded the Korean Artists Proletarian Federation (KAPF), which was eventually forced out of existence by the Japanese in 1935.”

In 2017, they meet once again. This time Seo Hwi Young has reincarnated into Han Se Joo (both played by Yoo Ah In), an idol-like best-selling writer who finds himself trapped in a long-term writing drought, or as they like to call it, a slump. Se Joo meets Jeon Seol (Lim Soo Jung), an ex-shooting athlete turns veterinarian and his long-time hard-core fan who is willing to jump at any chance to get close to him. The story later reveals that Jeon Seol is the reincarnation of Ryu Soo Hyeon (also played by Lim Soo Jung). Then there is Yoo Jin Oh (Go Kyung Pyo), a mysterious guy who suddenly appears in front of Se Joo and claims to be Se Joo’s ghostwriter, who is literally a ghost writer. He was trapped in the in-between world not being able to rest in peace because he didn’t know why he died, or what we Indonesians call it, hantu penasaran. The three then work together to finish a novel which will supposedly can help Yoo Jin Oh to discover the cause of his death.

The first eight episodes are quite a drag to be honest. Only after the past lives story takes over most of the plot, the drama gets more interesting. Too bad that it had to take eight episodes for the drama to finally pick up its pace. To make it worse, the present story feels underdeveloped compared to the past lives’ story.

Lim Soo Jung’s performance unfortunately is a big disappointment. She seems lost in figuring out how to portray these two different characters. Both Jeon Seol and Ryu Soo Hyeon come across as weak characters, which is ironic since both are shooters, so I expected they would have some sort of tenacity as well as versatility and resilience, but instead she looks like a fragile glass doll.

Same case with Go Kyung Pyo, especially since he only had to play one character. In his hand, both Shin Yool and Yoo Jin Oh fell a little bit flat. Shin Yool was supposed to be Hwi Yeong’s Fitzgerald to Hemingway, Lee to Capote, Yin to Yang. Unfortunately Kyung Pyo’s performance couldn’t match up to Ah In’s, making him look more like a subordinate rather than a comrade.

Now Yoo Ah In. I finally get what the hype was all about. He does exude this so-called ‘star’ aura. Though I find his acting is always a bit too theatrical, it kind of works for this drama. He’s the only one of the three that sort of successful depicting both characters given to them. Han Se Joo is a kooky and awkward writer hiding behind his palace of fame and fortune, while Seo Hwi Young is the leader of an independence movement hiding behind his third-rate author identity. It still doesn’t impress me that much, but I finally get him. Slightly off topic, I even think that he’s probably one of the very few of South Korean celebrity that can pull off the 80’s oversized slouchy trousers trend while other failed miserably (even Gong Yoo and Lee Dong Wook looked ridiculous in them). The other one being Bae Doo Na in ‘Secret Forest’. Further analysis of Han Se Joo/Seo Hwi Young’s characterization and backgrounds can be read here, though it’s Yoo Ah In’s biased (since it’s a fansite).

 

While the show is far from being flawless, but the details (especially the past era parts) are commendable. For me, the highlight of the show is the relationship that goes beyond friendship and romance. It’s a camaraderie shared for the love of motherland and freedom, to achieve a higher purpose, a sovereign nation. It’s heartwarming, though unavoidably heartbreaking in the process.

A Familiar Formula Yet Well-Executed Drama: Tunnel / Teoneol (터널) (2017)

Tunnel 1
Choi Jin Hyuk, Lee Yoo Young, Yoon Hyun Min

It seems like that time-slip is K-Drama’s favourite plot this year. After the success of last year’s ‘Signal’, several dramas soon following its step and use the same concept with different themes. Earlier this year we have ‘Tomorrow With You’ (which slightly reminds me of ‘The Time Traveler’s Wife’), a fantasy wrapped in a love story. And then there is also ‘Chicago Typewriter’, which relies on political history to be its background as well as part of its plot, though it’s not exactly a time-slip drama. I guess this trend won’t end any time soon as several upcoming dramas have revealed that they will also be using the time-slip plot, like Deserving The Name.

Using a familiar plot or theme is not an uncommon practice as plagiarism is unfortunately still prevalent in South Korea. From little observation I did of the K-entertainment industry, what usually happens is that they “borrow” other work’s ideas and than recreate it into new works, which then makes it morally vague to be called plagiarism.

Take New World’ for example. It is South Korea’s take on the classic ‘police-triad moles in both organisations’ theme, popularised by Hong Kong’s ‘Infernal Affairs’ and later remade by Hollywood’s ‘The Departed’. Does it bring anything new to the equation? Nope. Does it do this formula well? Yep. Way better than the over-hyped Hollywood version even, I’d say.

Or ‘My Palpitating Life (My Brilliant Life)’ (2014) which I can’t help but be reminded of ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ (2008). My Brilliant Life was based on Kim Ae Ran’s 2011 novel of the same name, while Button was loosely based on the 1922 short story of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Now on with Tunnel. I once said when talking about ‘Marriage Contract’ that “not bringing anything new to the table doesn’t mean that something will instantly fail. Sometimes it’s a matter of execution,” and this is also the case with Tunnel (as also with New World’).

Tunnel is the latest drama to draw its inspiration from the “Hwaseong Serial Murders”, proceeded by Bong Joon Ho’s masterpiece, ‘Memories of Murder’ (2003); Jung Byung Gil’s ‘Confession of Murder’ (2012); and tvN’s ‘Gap Dong’ (2014) and ‘Signal’ (2016). It was accused of alleged similarities with ‘Signal’, not to mention that the story also revolves around detective life, but if we look at it closely, looks like it might be a combination of ‘Gap Dong’ and ‘Signal’’s plots and characters.

In Tunnel, Detective Park Gwang Ho (Choi Jin Hyuk) desperately tries to catch a serial killer in 1986. He chases after the serial killer and goes through a tunnel. On the other side of the tunnel, Detective Park Gwang Ho finds himself in the year 2017. The serial killer has resumed the killings that began 30 years ago. Detective Park Gwang Ho works with Detective Kim Sun Jae (Yoon Hyun Min) and Professor of Criminal Psychology Shin Jae Yi (Lee Yoo Young) to catch the killer.” [Asianwiki]

While in ‘Gap Dong’, “Moo Yeom’s (Yoon Sang Hyun) father was a suspect in the “Gap Dong” serial murder case. Because of the detectives’ oppressive investigation, Moo Yeom’s father killed himself. 17 years later, Moo Yeom is a police detective who spends his career chasing dead ends and helping juvenile delinquents. After the statute of limitations on the case expires, Moo Yeom becomes resigned to the belief that Gap Dong is dead. But then a series of incidents occur in the town that bear an eerie resemblance to Gap Dong’s crimes. Yang Cheol Gon (Sung Dong Il), who was a police inspector at the time of the original murders now a well-decorated officer, has recently transferred back to Iltan, and to his dismay, Moo Yeom joins his investigation team to catch Gap Dong once and for all.” [Asianwiki and Wikipedia]

I haven’t watched ‘Gap Dong’ so I can’t be firmly sure in comparing both dramas (and I don’t intend to watch it in the near future yet), but from the synopsis alone, I guess I can say that there are three characters in Tunnel who seemingly are the development of Gap Dong’s characters, and they are:

  • Park Gwang Ho (Choi Jin Hyuk) =  Yang Cheol Gon (Sung Dong Il)
  • Kim Sun Jae (Yoon Hyun Min) = Moo Yeom’s (Yoon Sang Hyun)
  • Shin Jae Yi (Lee Yoo Young) = Maria Oh (Kim Min Jung)

I also found a few similarities in the plot twists which I’m not going to reveal since spoilers might ruin the thrilling sensation of watching those detectives attempts in unraveling cold cases.

So is it original? No. Is it plagiarism? Grey area. Does it work? Very well, indeed.

Tunnel’s strength is definitely its solid story development. It is neat and intense as each episode almost always ends with an unpredictable twist. Sure, it’s not as intricate and as multifaceted as ‘Signal’, but every episode is as carefully planned to keep the revelations suspenseful from beginning to the end. While ‘Signal’ also touched the social and politics subjects, Tunnel chose to stay true to its crime-fantasy path.

There are of course some flaws and loose ends like how the drama fails to maintain the consistency of Park Gwang Ho’s time-leap formula. The three lead actors, though are good, sometimes do come across a little theatrical, especially Lee Yoo Young with her doll-like wide-eyed flat expression. Yes, she was supposed to have that cold exterior look to her, but it’s just too predictable and one dimensional. Same case with Choi Jin Hyuk & Yoon Hyun Min’s all dense and steely personae, though Choi’s gesture as a father when he suddenly found out about it is quite commendable.

[SPOILER ALERT]

Tunnel 2
Choi Jin Hyuk, Yoon Hyun Min

Though the chemistry and dynamics between the two main leads are undeniably charming (Gong Yoo – Lee Dong Wook successors FTW!), it is Kim Min Sang who plays Mok Jin Woo that captivates me the most. He brilliantly evolves from a nice guy and a detailed forensic expert into one creepy psychopath killer.

 

All and all, Tunnel is a very well-crafted drama that will glue eyes to the screen despite bringing nothing new to the table.

2016 – A Year in K-Drama

2016 had been a year of K-drama for me. Of the 137 K-dramas aired in 2016, I gave in to 33 of it. Thirty three… that’s like… a huge waste of time *sigh* I feel I missed one drama still, Memory. I’ll probably watch it sometime soon.
[Update] “Memory” is a nice drama. Both Lee Sung Min and Junho did deliver, but the drama is definitely not as solid as other tvN’s dramas will be mentioned in the list.

Mostly popular for its romantic comedy clichés, tragic melodrama or over-the-top family conflicts and never ending feuds, much like its counterpart in the cinema world, K-drama is at its best when it touches subjects with sincerity and genuineness (that of course applies to basically any kind of work of arts).

Of the 137 K-dramas, I passed the daily and weekend dramas which are mostly equal to our daily sinetron. Think of dreading love story which includes conquering abusive mother-in-law’s (to her daughter-in-law) love, betrayal, all sorts of illnesses, from sudden nosebleed to amnesia you name it, the daily and weekend dramas have them all. But once in a blue moon there’s family drama like Five Enough which is just sweet and simple (still with a bit of touch of silly and unreasonable but tolerable conflicts, of course) like the good ol’ TVRI’s family dramas.

2016, for me, belongs to Jo Jin Woong. Underrated oftentimes and mostly played supporting roles, 2016 finally saw Jo in two strong leading roles. Early in 2016, Jo played an upright and morally conscious but heartbroken Detective Lee Jae Han in Signal and in the second half of 2016 he came back to small screen transforming into an uptight and ambitious, rough-spoken but a soft-hearted family American television series’ Entourage. And in between, he starred in the highly anticipated and critically acclaimed The Handmaiden”, a Park Chan Wook’s mesmerising erotic fantasy/thriller.

So I guess it’s only fitting to start this list with one of the dramas he starred in this year, Signal.

Next >

A Small Thought on tvN’s First Awards

tvn10

tvN just held its first tvN Awards as a celebration of its tenth anniversary on October 9, 2016, and by far it’s the best Korean awards in the Korean entertainment universe I have ever seen. It’s fun, cheery, loose, laid-back and unpretentious, in contrast with other Korean entertainment award shows which mostly are stiff, awkward with dead airs here and there, look scripted and unprepared. Not to mention the corny jokes which a lot of times are offensive.

Substance over style

Much like its dramas, tvN Awards doesn’t rely on fame and sensations (I’m looking at you DotS & Song-Song couple 👎), instead it relies on contents, hence the Content Grand Excellence Award (Daesang). Substance over style. The thing is, tvN has a lot, I mean a loooooooooooottttt of great contents (I’m referring specifically to its dramas). 2016 alone sees more tvN’s (not just good but) great dramas then the three largest national TV networks (KBS, MBC, and SBS) have combined (and it’s not even the end of the year yet); such as Signal, Reply 1988, Dear My Friends, Memory and The Good Wife. Though that doesn’t mean that its dramas are not famous and sensational. They are. But you know what I mean.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean that all tvN dramas are impeccable, but the ones that stand out are carefully planned and conceived, resulting in complex yet relatable issues with many characters are thoroughly developed and not just the leads. With a wide spectrum of themes, tvN dramas manage to keep itself away from having too many clichés, especially in the romcom department, where Cinderella-esque stories, second-lead problems, never ending misunderstandings, amnesia and other unfortunate events, etc are the norms.

This is just a rough assumption. As pointed out by my friend, Ninin, probably because tvN is a joint venture developed by Fox International Channels and CJ Media, the media’s contents feel a bit more liberal than the ones in other TV stations (especially those of the big three) and it has more freedom in exploring themes and issues. It doesn’t shy away from sex-related themes and seems to be more progressive in terms of they convey (probably) the least conservative values; such as hierarchy and stereotyped gender roles. In the sea of sickening gender biased K-dramas, most tvN dramas feel like a breath of fresh air. 

I don’t believe in any awards as I think almost none is fair and objective. Some are even used for political statement or propaganda (hello Oscar and Argo!). But in tvN Awards’ case, it doesn’t seem to focus on coming out with “The Best”. Instead, it plays it fun and unpretentious, despite having so many great dramas which makes it really hard (at least for me) to debate or argue about winners. You can hardly go wrong with anyone or any show as almost all of them are (almost) equally good.

From Soompi, here is the list of the winners, which I personally am excited for Jo Jin Woong as he is for me stood out the most in this year’s dramas.

Signal 4

Content Grand Excellence Award
“Three Meals a Day – Fishing Village Edition” (Variety)
“Reply 1988” (Drama)

tvN10 Acting Grand Excellence Award
Jo Jin Woong (“Signal”)

tvN10 Variety Grand Excellence Award
Lee Seo Jin (“Grandpas Over Flowers, “Three Meals a Day”)

tvN10 Actor’s Award
Lee Sung Min (“Incomplete Life (Misaeng)”)

tvN10 Actress’s Award
Kim Hye Soo (“Signal”)

Variety Icon
Lee Soon Jae, Shin Goo, Park Geun Hyung, Baek Il Sub (“Grandpas Over Flowers”)

Content Award (Drama)
“Incomplete Life (Misaeng),” “Dear My Friends,” “Rude Miss Young Ae,” “Nine,” “Another Oh Hae Young,” “Signal,” “Oh My Ghostess,” “Reply” series

Content Award (Variety)
“Three Meals a Day,” “__ Over Flowers” series, “New Journey to the West,” “SNL Korea,” “Roller Coaster,” “Martian Virus,” “The Genius,” “Problematic Men,” “House Cook Master Baek”

Made in tvN (Variety)
Son Ho Jun (“Three Meals a Day”)
Kim Seul Gi (“SNL Korea”)

Made in tvN (Drama)
Seo In Guk (“Reply 1997”)
Seo Hyun Jin (“Another Oh Hae Young”)

PD’s Choice
Lee Je Hoon (“Signal”)
Jung Sang Hoon (“SNL Korea”)

Best Kiss
Seo In Guk and Jung Eun Ji (“Reply 1997”)

Best Chemistry
Park Bo Young and Kim Seul Gi (“Oh My Ghostess”)

Best MC
Shin Dong Yup (“SNL Korea”)

tvN Asia Award
Park Bo Gum (“Reply 1988”)

Rom-Com King/Queen
Eric (“Another Oh Hae Young”)
Seo Hyun Jin (“Another Oh Hae Young”)

Special Acting Award
Sung Dong Il (“Reply” series)

Trending Actors
Ryu Jun Yeol (“Reply 1988”)
Hyeri (“Reply 1988”)

Scene Stealer Award
Ra Mi Ran (“Reply 1988”)
Kim Sung Kyoon (“Reply 1988”)

Two Star Award
Jo Jung Suk (“Oh My Ghostess” and “Youth Over Flowers”)

Comedy Award
Ahn Young Mi (“Comedy Big League”)
Yang Se Hyung (“Comedy Big League”)

“Slave” Award (“Hardworking Entertainer” Award)
Kwon Hyuk Soo (“SNL Korea”)
Lee Se Young (“SNL Korea,” “Comedy Big League”)

Perfect Attendance Award
Kim Hyun Sook (“Rude Miss Young Ae”)
Lee Young Ja (“Taxi”)

A Plea For Justice: Signal / Sigeuneol (시그널) (2016)

Signal 1
Lee Je Hoon, Kim Hye Soo, Jo Jin Woong

Saya nggak ngerti kenapa waktu itu saya melewatkan Signal saat dramanya tayang dan lompat dari Reply 1988 ke Dear My Friends. Mungkin karena waktu itu sibuk mengejar (drako) yang lain atau mungkin juga karena saya gak pernah terlalu menggilai genre-nya.

Signal, seperti banyak didaulat penontonnya, adalah salah satu drama terbaik di 2016. Namun dengan genre drama kriminal, sepertinya tidak banyak yang mengulas kentalnya kritik sosial politik Signal.

 

Sekilas Signal mengingatkan saya pada “Frequency”, sebuah film tahun 2000 yang dibintangi Dennis Quaid (sebagai Frank Sullivan, ayah) & Jim Caviezel (sebagai John Sullivan, anak). Jika di “Frequency” si anak berkomunikasi dengan almarhum bapaknya sehari sebelum si bapak meninggal 30 tahun lalu dengan medium walkie-talkie, di Signal Lee Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong) menghubungi Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) saat Hae Young sedang berusaha menghubungi pengemudi truk yang manghalangi mobilnya di tempat parkir. Secara konsep memang keduanya mirip, tapi kekuatan Signal adalah bagaimana penulis mengelaborasi konsep tersebut sehingga hasilnya tidak sekedar menjadi pengulangan.

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Park Hae Young (Lee Je Hoon) & Lee Jae Han (Jo Jin Woong)

Park Hae Young ditangkap Cha Soo Hyun (Kim Hye Soo) karena disangka tuking kuntit seleb yang suka menjual gosip-gosip dunia hiburan. Ujung-ujungnya Hae Young malah bergabung menjadi bagian dari Cold Case Team, bagian dari tim kepolisian yang mengusut kasus-kasus lama yang belum atau tidak terpecahkan. Hae Young dan Jae Han kemudian bertukar informasi dengan medium walkie-talkie dan bekerja sama memecahkan kasus-kasus tersebut bahkan berusaha untuk mencegah agar kejahatan tersebut tidak terjadi.

Kasus-kasus yang ditampilkan dalam Signal berdasarkan beberapa kasus kejahatan terkenal di Korea, seperti kasus pembunuhan berantai Hwaseong (yang juga jadi inspirasi film “Memories of Murder”) dan pemerkosaan berkelompok Miryang. Beberapa insiden besar yang jadi latar belakang juga berdasarkan kejadian sebenarnya. Persamaan keduanya adalah bahwa keduanya merupakan hasil kejahatan manusia dimana tidak ada seorangpun terbukti bersalah dan bertanggung jawab atas insiden-insiden tersebut.

Serial kriminal seringkali tidak memiliki dimensi lebih dari sekedar dikotomi jahat dan baik. Namun dengan mengeksplorasi kasus-kasus kejahatan yang tidak terpecahkan, Signal dengan cerdas juga melontarkan kritik keras, yang bahkan hampir terasa seperti sebuah permohonan, atas cacat dan korupnya sistem peradilan dan keadilan bagi masyarakat dimana hukum hampir selalu tumpul ke bawah. Didukung dengan dialog yang tajam, Signal terasa begitu berlapis secara dimensi maupun perasaan.

“Do you know why your brother was framed? It was because he had no money, power or connections.”

 

“Hilang” sangat lekat menyelimuti Signal, baik dalam arti fisik maupun rasa. Cha Soo Hyun dan ayah Lee Jae Han yang kehilangan Lee Jae Han; Park Hae Young dan kakaknya, Park Sun Woo yang kehilangan kehangatan keluarga hingga Lee Jae Han yang (nyaris) kehilangan harapan pada sistem peradilan dan negara. Heart-breaking.

Penghilangan orang secara paksa (enforced or involuntary disappearances) adalah kejahatan yang paling banyak melanggar hak-hak dasar manusia. Bagi yang ditinggalkan, penderitaannya bisa berlangsung bertahun-tahun karena tidak pernah ada kejelasan sehingga mereka tidak tahu apakah harus terus berharap dan menanti atau merelakan. Penghilangan orang secara paksa seringkali berkaitan dengan kejahatan rezim politik dan terjadi secara struktural. Signal mampu menterjemahkan ini dengan bahasa yang non-politis dan lebih condong ke humanis. Hasilnya bukan hanya mencengkeram namun juga terasa indah walaupun menyedihkan dan membuat patah hati.

Naskah Signal ditulis Kim Eun Hee dengan amat detil nyaris tanpa lubang. Adegan-adegan kunci disebar dan diulang di episode yang berbeda namun dijahit dengan sangat halus sehingga membuat penonton berpikir “Oh, iya waktu itu kan begini…” Cantik sekali. Perpindahan kamera yang cair dan mulus dari masa kini ke masa lalu dan begitu pula sebaliknya membuat Hae Young dan Jae Han seakan-akan tidak terpisahkan oleh masa namun berada di ruang waktu yang sama. Padahal ide komunikasi beda masa ini bisa aja terjebak jadi dagelan konyol gak masuk akal.

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Namun ini tidak lantas menjadikan Signal melulu serius. Signal juga menyelipkan humor dan romansa yang terasa menyatu dan wajar, sesuai konteks dan tidak dibuat-buat. Walaupun episode terakhir sedikit terasa lepas dan kurang intens, tapi pentupnya membuat Signal menjadi utuh full circle.

 

Signal 6
Lee Je Hoon

Ini dapat terjadi tentunya juga berkat akting andal 3 pemeran utamanya, Lee Je Hoon, Kim Hye Soo dan Jo Jin Woong. Yes, Lee Je Hoon is somewhat over the top in earlier episodes. Tapi seiring episode berjalan, lebaynya mulai menurun dan gak terlalu teatrikal lagi. Somehow that almost didn’t bother me at all. Biasanya saya akan kecapean nonton yang modelan begini, tapi akting Lee Je Hoon masih terasa relevan buat saya.

Signal 7

Signal 10
Kim Hye Soo

Kim Hye Soo tampil sangat menawan sebagai Cha Soo Hyun muda yang sedikit lugu, manis dan penurut sekaligus Cha Soo Hyun dewasa yang berwibawa, tenang dan taktis. Kim Hye Soo adalah satu-satunya pemain yang berada di 2 masa dan mengalami perubahan karakter cukup signifikan di drama ini. Something about Kim Hye Soo’s face that makes her believable as both a 20 year-old and 40 year-old.

 

 

 

 

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Salah satu adegan Kim Hye Soo yang paling mengesankan buat saya adalah saat dia menyadari bahwa ingatannya telah berubah, saat itu juga.

 

 

 

Signal 8
Jo Jin Woong

Tapi buat saya Jo Jin Woong adalah jiwanya Signal. Lee Jae Han di tangan Jo Jin Woong jadi sosok yang sangat memikat di luar kesederhanaan karakternya. Lee Jae Han blas perwujudan naruni manusia yang mendambakan keadilan. Hidupnya lempeng berjuang menegakkan kebenaran walaupun dibikin patah hati melulu oleh sistem yang busuk.

Geraknya grasa-grusu, bahasa tubuhnya canggung, tapi gigih, pantang menyerah dan penuh harapan. Seperti halnya Lee Jae Han merupakan perwujudan naruni manusia akan keadilan, Signal adalah manifestasi sosok Lee Jae Han yang merindukan dunia yang lebih baik.

“Is it the same there? If you’re rich and have connections, do you get off the hook after doing shady deeds? 20 years have passed. Something must have changed.”

“But if someone committed a crime, regardless of how much money or conections they have, they must pay for it.”

Di episode pembuka, penonton dihubungkan dengan karya sutradara Kim Won Seok sebelumnya, Misaeng (yang juga bagus tapi belum sedahsyat Signal. Dua-duanya tayang di saluran televisi tvN), melalui alusi gosip (fiktif tentunya) cinta segi tiga Im Si Wan, Kang So Ra dan Byun Yo Han (ketiganya bermain di Misaeng). Sedangkan di episode penutup Kim Won Seok seperti memberikan homage pada 2 film mafia terkenal Korea karya sutradara Yoo Ha, “A Dirty Carnival” & “Gangnam Blues 1970”, dimana yang pertama Jo Jin Woong juga berada di dalamnya sebagai pemeran pembantu. I don’t know why. Mungkin hanya sekedar adegan perkelahian mafia yang umum. Begitu juga permainan aspek rasio gambar yang diregang secara vertikal sepertinya merupakan homage terhadap “Memories of Murder”. Di luar gambar, musik pun memiliki warna dan rasa yang mirip dengan Memories, gelap dan menyayat dengan lagu-lagu bernuansa masa lalu. Apalagi lagu Melancholic Letter (우울한 편지) oleh Yoo Jae Ha (유재하) yang bermain di latar setiap aksi pembunuhan di Memories juga muncul di Signal episode 10.

(Searah jarum jam) A Dirty Carnival, Gangnam Blues, Signal

 

 

Secara pribadi, saya menempatkan Signal sejajar dengan Heard It Through The Grapevine. Mind-blowingly brilliant.