Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Because this is the time to revisit all-time favourites.

These are probably my all-time favourite Korean romantic/romantic comedy dramas. They are not entirely the ‘best’ ones (some even have red flags all over them), but the ones that I keep coming back to over and over again.

1. Emergency Couple (tvN, 2014)

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Oh Jin Hee (Song Ji Hyo) & Oh Chang Min (Choi Jin Hyuk)

Emergency Couple is my first love, as with Oh Jin Hee (Song Ji Hyo) and Oh Chang Min (Choi Jin Hyuk) with each other. The drama follows the rise and fall of Jin Hee and Chang Min’s relationships post-divorce – including the people around them – as the couple’s separation left so many unfinished businesses. There’s no excruciating push and pull in sorting out their unresolved feelings. No glorious wake-up calls and grand romantic gestures, only reflections and introspections in retrospect of their failed marriage. Their going back and forth came from confusion and uncertainties towards their own feelings. Their enlightenment appeared slowly as they find small awakenings along the way.

The beginning and ending show Jin Hee runs in the emergency room as patients come rushing in, but for a moment she stopped and paused to reflect on her life in the slow-motion of the emergency room’s chaos. Jin Hee’s life has come to a full circle.

2. Discovery of Love (KBS2, 2014)

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Han Yeo Reum (Jung Yu Mi) & Kang Tae Ha (Eric)

I guess unfinished business always gives a spacious room for exploration. Or maybe it is the spot on depictions that makes the story feel so familiar.

Han Yeo Reum (Jung Yu Mi) has been dating Nam Ha Jin (Sung Joon) for a year when her ex-boyfriend, Kang Tae Ha (Eric), suddenly appears in front of her. As the three of them try to resolve their past and current feelings, they find the answers to their long unanswered questions.

“And… let’s break up. Let’s break up properly now. I didn’t know why we broke up, so I couldn’t break up with you. And you’ve hated me this whole time. While you still hate me, it hasn’t over yet.” – Kang Tae Ha, episode 10.

(By the way, still one of my favourite lines of all time)

“Can’t you be happy? Don’t think about lying, just because you’re doing fine. I know you’re not okay. Tae Ha, you said you wanted me to be happy. I too want you to be happy. But, why do you keep looking for me? Go and live your life. Why do you keep looking for me? If you keep looking for me like that, I’ll start waiting for you. Do you know how many times in a day I look out the window?” – Han Yeo Reum, episode 11.

“I realised it then why Yeo Reum acted that way. Why she said those mean things to me. Why I held back so much like an idiot. I’m the kind who can’t say, ‘let’s break up’. I don’t know how to break up properly. So I have nightmares, I take pills for headaches, Yeo Reum knew that’s how I was. That’s why Yeo Reum waited for me even when her heart already left.” – Nam Ha Jin, episode 15.

“Yeo Reum waited for me even when her heart already left.” Sobs.

3. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo (MBC, 2016)

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Jung Joon Hyung (Nam Joo Hyuk) & Kim Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung)

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo fooled us into believing that this cheery and youthful show was nothing more than the typical cute coming-of-age story, but it turns out to be so much more than that. Inspired by Olympic weightlifting gold medalist, Jang Mi Ran, teenage love story, the show initially gained criticism for its lookism.

Despite their age, Kim Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung) and Jung Joon Hyung (Nam Joo Hyuk) show what a mature and healthy relationship looks like. A quality that many dramas with supposedly more mature characters fail to achieve. Their relationship grows slowly but steadily from frenemies to lovers. The young love is sweet and supportive. No nonsensical demands and expectations, and misunderstandings only came from pure innocence and naïvety. Rather than projecting adults’ perspectives into her characters, writer Yang Hee Seung tried to explore what’s in young adults’ hearts and minds. Their search for love and identity creates conflicts and problems that for many of us who have passed that phase might feel familiar.

4. Fight For My Way (KBS2, 2017)

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Choi Ae Ra (Kim Ji Won) & Go Dong Man (Park Seo Joon)

Though still beautified, Fight For My Way depicts quite a realistic portrayal of the lower-middle-class young adults, making it a refreshing and pleasant break from the overused middle-upper social class settings. Despite some unnecessary stories, the undeniable charming chemistry between Choi Ae Ra (Kim Ji Won) – Go Dong Man (Park Seo Joon) and Baek Seol Hee (Song Ha Yoon) – Kim Joo Man (Ahn Jae Hong) as romantic couples and the four of them as a group of friends make up for what the drama lacks.

Their non-privilege start inevitably leads to mediocre jobs. Go Dong Man was a former high school Taekwondo hotshot, but now works as a pest exterminator while going after the UFC title. Choi Ae Ra always dreamed of being a TV anchor, but after failing too many times, she gave up her dream. Now, she works as a customer service representative at a mall information desk. Both Baek Seol Hee and Kim Joo Man, who have been dating for six years, work at a home shopping network. Seol Hee as a customer service and Joo Man as a buyer. They call themselves the Fantastic Four Knuckleheads. No victorious end for these four, but they do find love in the end. And that’s enough to get them to go through their ordinary lives.

But I have to admit that the strongest attraction of this drama is the pairing of Park Seo Joon & Kim Ji Won. They look great together from the get-go. Their strong chemistry and adorable portrayal of (what I like to call as) dumb and dumber couple are probably their best and most favourite performance of them I’ve seen so far.

5. Ex-Girlfriends’ Club (tvN, 2015)

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Kim Soo Jin (Song Ji Hyo) & Bang Myeong Soo (Byun Yo Han)

The idea of four ex-girlfriends lives become entangled in the same ex-boyfriend’s present life can really be a turnoff, but Ex-Girlfriends’ Club managed to (kind of) dodge the bullet.

Kim Soo Jin (Song Ji Hyo) is a producer at a film production company. Her failing company decides to make a film based on a popular webtoon. Only later did Soo Jin find out that the webtoon writer is her ex-boyfriend, Bang Myeong Soo (Byun Yo Han), who writes about his ex-girlfriends. As the movie starts shooting, the project also brings Myung Soo’s other ex-girlfriends back into his life all at the same time; Jang Hwa Young (Lee Yoon Ji), Na Ji A (Jang Ji Eun) and Geun-hyung/Ra Ra (Ryu Hwa Young).

Interesting storyline, good execution, quirky narrating style, catchy tunes from South Korean indie scene, and its casts’ wonderful chemistry are some of the show’s charms; but it is probably Byun Ho Han’s stellar laidback performance (in his first leading role) and his chemistry with Song Ji Hyo that makes it one of the most memorable (though way too underrated) romantic comedy dramas. Sadly, the drama was abruptly cut short because of the low rating, making the ending felt rushed.

6. Just Between Lovers/Rain Or Shine (JTBC, 2017)

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

Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah) and Lee Gang Doo (Lee Jun Ho) are both survivors and also the family of victims of a mall building collapse. Though the world around them seems to have moved on, their lives; along with the lives of the deceased families; are still somehow trapped in the past. Today, Gang Doo suffers a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a liver malfunction, while Moon Soo seems to suffer amnesia, where she selectively erased some part of her past memories. Through a series of coincidental encounters, present Gang Doo and Moon Soo slowly enter each other’s lives. Jun Ho and Jin A’s relationships feel so real, organic and sincere that my heart is shattered too as they crawling out of the hole of despair. Their relationship feels sincere and is built gradually upon candor and empathy.

Not all stories have to end with a happy ending. Some relationships have to end to give new beginnings a chance, and some resume with a lot of struggles and require hard work. Nothing is binary in Just Between Lovers. And that’s how life is. Suffering shows you that you are still alive, whether that means good or bad depending on the circumstances.

7. Personal Taste (MBC, 2010)

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Park Gae In (Son Ye Jin) & Jeon Jin Ho (Lee Min Ho)

Park Gae In: “Your back is really warm. I wonder if my father’s back was warm like this too.”
Jeon Jin Ho: “Hasn’t your father ever carried you on his back?”
Park Gae In: “This is the first time I’ve been carried on anyone’s back. I always thought that people’s backs were just cold.”

Personal Taste has all sorts of classic Korean drama clichés, from ridiculous misunderstandings to toxic masculinity and false wokeness. But it was lines like the above, the chemistry between Son Ye Jin and Lee Min Ho (despite Lee Min Ho’s flat expressions) and the underrated amazing performances of Jo Eun Ji (as Lee Young Sun, Gae In’s best friend) and Jung Sung Hwa (as No Sang Jun, Jin Ho’s colleague/fake boyfriend) that stole my heart and making me keep coming back to it despite all its cringes and cheesiness.

8. Familiar Wife (tvN, 2018)

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Ji Sung (Cha Joo Hyuk) & Han Ji Min (Seo Woo Jin)

It was inevitable that K-drama fans instantly compared Familiar Wife to Go Back Couple with the latter being aired almost a year ahead. Both dramas told a story about married couples struggling to keep their marriage alive and suddenly one day they find themselves travelling back in time.

But that’s as far as it goes. Though sometimes touching and heartwarming, but most of the time Go Back Couple feels immature and juvenile. Plus Jang Na Ra and Son Ho Jun are pale in comparison with Han Ji Min and Ji Sung. True that both couples portray their characters very well, but Ji Min and Ji Sung’s versatility as actors create much more realistic and nuanced characters, hence a more believable portrayal of struggling and tired married couple who is given a chance to re-examine their relationship to eventually re-discover their love for each other.

9. It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)

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Jang Jae Yeol (Jo In Sung) & Ji Hae Soo (Gong Hyo Jin)

As banal (and possibly misdiagnose and misrepresent) as it might be, It’s Okay, That’s Love is one of the very few dramas that specifically address mental health issues. Jang Jae Yeol (Jo In Sung) is a bestselling mystery fiction novelist and radio DJ. Because of his troubled past and obsessive–compulsive disorder, Jae-yeol can only sleep in his own bathtub. Ji Hae Soo (Gong Hyo Jin) is a psychiatrist in her first year of fellowship. She self-diagnosed herself as having insecurity/anxiety issues, a fear of commitment, and sex phobia due to an incident where she saw her mom cheating on her dad with another guy. Together, they go through a tumultuous relationship to eventually heal each other’s deep-seated wounds and face their own battles.

Said to be the first Korean psychiatric drama, as expected, Hae Soo and Jae Yool are not the only ones with mental health issues. Most people around them are also dealing with their own psychological problems, which in a way gives solid backgrounds for their actions and behaviour.

Just like in most of Noh Hee Kyung’s dramas, the heavy subjects are balanced with wits. Gong Hyo Jin and Jo In Sung’s sassiness is a fundamental trait in carrying Hae Soo and Hae Yool endless bicker and banter, making them the coolest couple in romantic K-drama land.

10. Fated To Love You (MBC, 2014)

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Jang Hyuk (Lee Geon) & Kim Mi Young (Jang Na Ra)

The ridiculous plot and overdramatic storyline did not hold Jang Hyuk from delivering one of the most iconic performances (and hairstyles) of his career and probably in the history of K-drama.

I don’t think anyone else can pull off portraying the eclectic Lee Geon better than Jang Hyuk. He makes the character looks like it is made and tailored just for him. Sometimes comic-y, extravagant, over the top; especially with the laugh; and even unnecessarily bizarre, Lee Geon is also warm and fragile. Jang Hyuk flawlessly glides from one emotion to another. One wrong step can turn Lee Geon into a despicable character, but instead, he makes Lee Geon’s flaws (kind of) understandable and even makes us empathise with him.

Lee Geon’s antics is in contrast with Kim Mi Young’s unassertiveness, even submissiveness, which suited Jang Na Ra’s melancholic face perfectly. So great their chemistry is, they were paired up for the third time later that year for a one-episode drama special, Old Goodbye.

11. Something About 1% (Dramax, 2016)

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Lee Jae In (Ha Seok Jin) & Kim Da Hyun (Jeon So Min)

Almost everything about the show screams political incorrectness. The toxic masculinity is quite disturbing, moreover, in this age of #MeToo. Many K-dramas have been criticised for romanticising rape culture and this one ticks so many alarming boxes. The story is also a conservative cliché with too many unnecessary sub-plots (it is a remake of 2003’s same-titled drama starring Kang Dong Won and Kim Jung Hwa. And apparently the writer didn’t bother to update some of its outdated aspects).

Lee Jae In (Ha Seok Jin), a rude, mean, and arrogant heir of a wealthy family, is forced to get married in order to inherit his grandfather’s fortune. Unable to escape his command, Jae In engages in a six-month contract for a pretend relationship with Kim Da Hyun (Jeon So Min), an elementary school teacher chosen for him by his grandfather. Predictably enough, both Jae In and Da Hyun slowly fall for each other and it is Da Hyun who softens his heart and transforms his attitude. This ‘bad boy turns into a good boy with the help of a good girl’ and arranged marriage (without the woman even knowing!) formula is rather appalling in this age of gender equality and female empowerment.

But Ha Seok Jin and Jeon So Min save this drama with their wonderful display of emotion shifts which helps us get through the lousy story. Not to mention Ha Seok Jin’s sexy flirt. If only their sincere chemistry is shown in a more woke drama, their sweetness will be so much more worth watching.

12. You Drive Me Crazy! (MBC, 2018)

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Kim Rae Wan (Kim Seon Ho) & Han Eun Sung (Lee Yoo Young)

You Drive Me Crazy was almost out of K-drama fans’ radar when it aired. Maybe because it was a filler (drama special) in between dramas with only 2 episodes, there wasn’t much anticipation about this drama.

Han Eun Sung (Lee Yoo Young) and Kim Rae Wan (Kim Seon Ho) are friends for years, but a few months ago they slept together. Now, though nothing changes on the outside, but it seems that they never really get over it as the incident affects their present relationship.

Short, sweet, and cute. A classic ‘friends or lovers’ dilemma. It would be perfect if only it was longer.

Parasite: Nafas Drama Korea dalam Kompilasi Filmografi Bong Joon Ho

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Dulu saya pernah bertanya-tanya, mengapa saya bisa menonton Memories of Murder (2003)  berkali-kali, padahal film tersebut diangkat dari kisah nyata yang artinya tidak banyak ruang tersisa bagi sutradara untuk berimajinasi liar. Setelah menonton Parasite (2 kali!), sepertinya saya menemukan jawabannya.

Membaca filmografinya, Bong Joon Ho hampir selalu menawarkan premis sederhana yang disampaikan dengan narasi linear. Sinematografi dan musik yang dramatis tidak serta-merta menjadikan film-film Bong pretentious. Tapi saya curiga dua elemen tadi justru yang membuat banyak orang seringkali melihat film-film Bong Joon Ho sebagai karya yang avant garde dan gila, apalagi Bong juga suka dengan metafora-metafora kecil. Padahal buat saya kebalikannya. Bong juga suka menyelipkan bercandaan konyol segelap apapun filmnya. Tidak salah jika kemudian ada yang menyandingkan Parasite dengan film-film Warkop DKI yang juga kerap berisi satir sosial.

Menonton drama Korea mungkin bisa memberikan gambaran yang lebih jelas bagaimana kelas merupakan topik bahasan yang sangat lazim, nyaris selazim nasi dan kimchi bagi orang Korea, dalam tayangan yang distereotipkan sebagai tontonan kacangan atau alay. Dari drama harian atau akhir pekan (yang ceritanya kadang luar biasa tidak masuk akal), komedi romantis dengan fairy tale syndrome-nya, kriminal, sosial politik sampai horor; dari ribut-ribut ala orang kaya kompleks vs orang miskin kampung sebelah sampai kesenjangan struktural, kelas hadir baik sebagai subyek maupun latar belakang dalam drama Korea. Bisa jadi ini juga jadi salah satu alasan kenapa Bong bilang film ini mungkin terlalu Korea buat penonton internasional (terlebih bagi mereka yang tidak menonton drama Korea), di luar simbol-simbol lokal lain yang (tentunya sebagai bukan orang Korea) saya juga belum paham benar. Mungkin.

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Keluarga Kim bekerja serabutan sebagai pelipat box pizza di apartemen semi-basement (banjiha/반지하) mereka

Namun tidak seperti drama yang punya keleluasaan episode untuk bereksplorasi membangun narasi, film harus mampu memadatkan argumen-argumennya dalam waktu yang terbatas. Bong melakukan ini dengan menciptakan penanda yang dihadirkan berulang kali untuk membangun intensitas pemicu konflik. Jika dalam Mother (2009) penanda itu adalah ejekan Bodoh kepada Do Joon (Won Bin), dalam Parasite (2019) Bong menggunakan Bau dan Batas.

Mr Park (Lee Sun Kyun), seperti layaknya kelas menengah atas pretensius lainnya, (seakan-akan) memberikan kebebasan dan menghargai pekerja-pekerjanya, selama mereka tidak “melewati batas”. Dalam kata Batas terkandung makna kesetaraan yang munafik. “I’m all for (insert cause/term), as long as…”. Bayangan melintasnya para pekerja rumah tangga ke dalam eksklusivitas teritori sosial imajiner pasangan Park membuat fake woke people ini gerah, segerah kelas menengah Jakarta yang terganggu dengan gegar budaya masyarakat kelas bawah terbelakang yang tidak pernah mencicipi kedisiplinan bermasyarakat ala negara dunia pertama atau kejijikan kaum borjuis mencium toilet Plaza Indonesia yang hilang kewangiannya tergantikan bau busuk hajat rakyat jelata di gegap gempitanya uji coba MRT. Kemunafikan Mr. Park sedikit banyak mengingatkan saya pada Han Jung Yo, kepala keluarga keluarga Han dalam Heard It Through the Grapevine (2015) (still, one of Korean drama’s masterpieces to date), drama Korea yang juga menguliti dan mengolok-olok pretensi basi kaum borjuasi.

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Mr Park (Lee Sun Kyun) & Yeon Kyo (Cho Yeo Jeong)

Jika Batas adalah penanda bagi Mr Park, Bau adalah penanda bagi Kim Ki Taek (Song Kang Ho). Isyarat Bau yang didemonstrasikan berulang kali menggoyahkan kepercayaan diri Ki Taek karena bau mengafirmasikan posisi marjinalnya. A quite Orwellian of Bong. Maka kemudian ledakan kemarahan Ki Taek melihat Mr Park menutup hidung memang seperti bom waktu, seperti Hye Ja (Kim Hye Ja) dalam Mother yang mengamuk mendengar putra kesayangannya dipanggil Bodoh.

But there was another and more serious difficulty. Here you come to the real secret of class distinctions in the West–the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort think of a working man as his equal. It is summed up in four frightful words which people nowadays are chary of uttering, but which were bandied about quite freely in my childhood. The words were: The lower classes smell.

The Road to Wigan Pier, Chapter 8 – George Orwell

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Song Kang Ho sebagai Kim Ki Taek. Lewat Parasite dan The Host, akhirnya saya akhirnya paham kenapa Song Kang Ho jadi kesayangan banyak sutradara di Korea Selatan

Tidak hanya menghadirkan konflik vertikal (yang dalam film-film Bong sering disimbolisasikan secara harfiah dengan ruang-ruang vertikal), tapi Parasite juga menunjukkan bahwa peperangan sesungguhnya justru terjadi di lapisan bawah. Apapun masalahnya, kaum elit (di seluruh dunia) selalu jadi yang lebih dahulu lolos dari jeratan masalah, sedangkan rakyat jelata tetap gontok-gontokan untuk bertahan hidup. Apalagi ketika sudah menyangkut urusan perut.

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Kakak beradik Kim Ki Jung (Park So Dam) & Kim Ki Joo (Choi Woo Shik)

Seperti dalam banyak drama Korea, Parasite juga menolak dikotomi perspektif hitam – putih, walaupun Bong tetap mengambil posisi dalam film ini. Tipu-tipu keluarga Kim ‘menginvasi’ ruang mewah keluarga Park berangkat dari kebutuhan mereka bertahan hidup. Untungnya si empunya rumah bukan ‘monster’. Dalam kepala Ki Taek, ini artinya “Mr Park adalah orang baik walaupun dia kaya”. Choong Sook (Jang Hye Jin), istri Ki Taek, kemudian mengoreksinya dengan “Mr Park bukan kaya tapi baik. Dia bisa baik karena kaya. Gue juga bisa baik kalau kaya”. Pahit memang melihat keluarga Kim harus menjustifikasi usahanya mencari pekerjaan (rendahan pula) karena merasa bersalah sudah menipu dan menjadi Parasit di rumah keluarga Park. Entah Bong mengutip atau terinspirasi, yang jelas kalimat ini adalah kalimat paling menohok & mengesankan dalam drama My Ahjussi (2018) (yang juga dibintangi Lee Sun Kyun).

Parasite kemudian menjadi salah satu karya Bong yang paling saya nikmati justru bukan karena “kebesaran” idenya. Kebrutalan Parasite bisa jadi tidak “segila” film-film Park Chan Wook dan kesedihannya bisa jadi tidak seperih film-film Hirokazu Koreeda (walaupun di kali kedua saya menonton, saya mewek menyaksikan tatapan sedih Pak Ki Taek setiap tuan dan nyonyanya tutup hidung atau melihat kesigapan Kim Ki Woo (Choi Woo Shik) mengambil setiap kesempatan walaupun dia tidak akan pernah living his dreams), namun saya menyukai keluwesan (dan kemauan) Bong menjembatani ranah film komersil dan the so-called film seni, bahkan memasukkan rasa drama dalam kasus Parasite. Kalau diibaratkan makanan, Parasite terasa seperti masakan dengan berbagai macam bumbu yang menyatu halus dengan rasa yang tidak tajam sehingga membuat penyantapnya ingin mencicipi kembali untuk meraba rasa apa yang tercampur dalam makanan tersebut, if that makes any sense. Ini nampaknya jawaban pertanyaan saya di awal tadi.

Menggabungkan banyak elemen dari film-film terdahulunya, ditambah dengan kerapian semua aspek film, mulai dari cerita, alur, hingga akting para pemainnya, Parasite tak terelakkan terasa seperti kompilasi filmografi Bong Joon Ho. Ala-ala album Best Of lah kira-kiranya.


Tulisan ini pertama kali diterbitkan di sini.

What Makes A Mother? : Mother / Madeo (마더) (2018)

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Mother puts women at the centre of its conversation and in the process, the choices they make liberate them from patriarchy construct of female identities without having to demonise men

I almost forgot how fantastic this drama is until I stumbled upon its rerun just recently. Mother is one of a very few dramas/movies that challenges primordial female identity. Based on Japanese drama of the same title, the drama also placed women at the centre of its grand narrative, detaching itself almost entirely from real-life dictating patriarchy.

When Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young), a temporary elementary school teacher, realises that one of her students Hye Na (Heo Yool) is being abused at home by her family, she makes an impulsive decision to rescue Hye Na and in doing so, she decides to become her “mother”.

Not until I explore the works of Hirokazu Koreeda, did I realise the dire situation of child abandonment in Japan. It is the third largest type of child abuse in the country. Police reported record-high 80,104 cases of suspected child abuse across Japan in 2018. While in South Korea, the number reached 10,647 in the first half of 2017.

Koreeda has repeatedly brought these issues to light in some of his works, most notably are Nobody Knows (2004), which is based on a real-life child abandonment known as the “Sugamo child abandonment case” and Shoplifters (2018).



Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows (2004) & Shoplifters (2008)

One of Koreeda’s signature themes is his constant questioning of society constructs. “What makes a family?” is a perennial theme that keeps on appearing in most of his works. Mother feels like a derivative or a fragment of that theme, challenging the notion of motherhood.

In unfair competitions of capitalistic society, those considered to be economically less valuable, hence weaker, are the first to be eliminated from the cutthroat competition. When this condition occurs in a patriarchal society, it is women who are likely being the first to be sacrificed, then children. Patriarchal society creates unrealistic demands towards women. Even when married women work in non-domestic workplace, they still are required not only to perform domestic and childcare duties, but also to care for aging relatives.


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Shin Ja Young (Go Sung Hee) & Seol Ak (Son Seok Koo)

Shin Ja Young (Go Sung Hee), Hye Na‘s biological mother, is a product of this cruel condition. Unable to stand on her own, she thought she finally found liberation in a man, Seol Ak (Son Seok Koo). She creates an illusion of escaping misery only to find out later that it won’t happen. Trapped between desperation and illusion, Ja Young, along with her abusive boyfriend, abandons Hye Na. Ja Young seems to suffer from post-partum depression and she keeps blaming Hye Na for her miserable life until the end. Rather than creating monsters out of these damaged and deranged parents, Mother also reveals the intertwined social factors behind their abusive actions, though still not justifies them.

(Writer’s note: Though eight years apart since the original version aired, this case bears an eerie resemblance to Ja Young – Hye Na – Seol Ok’s part of the story.)



Soo Jin (Lee Bo Young) & Hye Na (Heo Yool)

Unlike many real-life child abuse and abandonment cases which end in tragedy, Hye Na was quite lucky to be found by Soo Jin, outside in the cold winter night, inside a black garbage bag. From then on, Soo Jin and Hye Na (and consequently people around them) embark on a journey to find a safe haven, and eventually the meaning of “mother” (and family). Soo Jin refuses to be a bystander despite her disinterest in marriage and forming a family of her own (initially), even if that makes her a criminal.

When Soo Jin was asked why she did not turn to the police or the authorities for help, she replied “Hye Na needed immediate protection. And I didn’t want Hye Na to have to explain what happened to her multiple times, to strangers.” This indicates a criticism towards governmental and children related (such as school and welfare centre) institutions’ failure to notice signs of child abuse and negligence in handling child abuse reports which often times lead to horrifying consequences.





Mother puts women at the centre of its conversation and in the process, the choices they make liberate them from patriarchy construct of female identities without having to demonise men. From Soo Jin and Hye Na, to Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) and Nam Hong-Hee (Nam Gi Ae), both are Soo Jin’s mothers, to Hyun Jin (Go Byo Geol), Soo Jin’s sister; each and every one of them takes ownership of their own lives. While men around them; Jae Beom (Lee Jung Yeol), Young Sin’s personal (and family) assistant and Jin Hong (Lee Jae Yoon), a doctor who was initially introduced to Soo Jin as a potential partner; serve as part of the Kang family support system. They are around, help when needed, but never intervened. It is a utopian idea indeed, but probably needed to keep the hope and dream alive.



Hye Na (Heo Yool) & Young Sin (Lee Hye Young)

The show is graced with strong performances from all of its actors, but it is undoubtedly Heo Yool, who was selected among 400 other audition participants, who steals the spotlight as a resilient child fighting life’s cruelty. She displays the psychological impact of a child-abuse victim in an impressive array of emotions.

TV shows sees patriarch in power all the time, but rarely a matriarch in power. Young Sin (Lee Hye Young) is one those very few. She is divorced, then she adopted and raised children on her own. As a star actress who gained fame and fortune on her own, she can afford not to care about society’s opinion and social stigma. Lee Hye Young and Heo Yool show a beautiful and heartwarming relationship between two strangers who decided to become a family.


In a nation where blood ties are presumed to be the base of every nuclear family, much like Kore-eda’s movie, Mother also demonstrates that there are many alternatives to a family (or in this case, mother) and none of them is abnormal as long as there is love and care.


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.


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.

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