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

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

And they always come back, haunting life after tragedy.

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

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

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

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

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Grandma (Na Moon Hee)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

[SPOILER ALERT]

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

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

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

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

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

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Prosecutor Yeong Eun Soo (Shin Hye Sun)

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

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Prosecutor Yoon Se Won (Lee Kyu Hyung)

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

 

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

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

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

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

[SPOILER ALERT]

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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Woo Soo Ji (Esom)

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

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Ma Sang Goo (Park Byeung Eun)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The bunch in happily ever after ride

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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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]

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.