August 18, 2012

Can Love Become Money? – Episode 18 – Korean drama review

Uhm Ji Won rides behind Yun Jung Hun on a bicycle with her arms wrapped around him as he pedals happily;This episode brings Yeon Jun Hun and Uhm Ji Won together in real romance at last. And it was worth waiting for. They are so very adorable together. In Tak is open and relaxed, while Da Ran is carefree, and just the right amount of strong. Although his transformation is more drastic than hers, it has been a shift by such gradual degrees that it’s completely believable. We feel this is who he really is, should have been all along.

Jo Yeon Woo looks haunted and stressed as his plot starts to unravel; In Tak describes his feelings about Da Ran to Mi Mi, who has to notice that they don’t in any way resemble her relationship with Seon Woo. She is starting to see the driven, haunted Seon Woo behind the charming and polished veneer, which has been cracking for several episodes, ever since the real Hong Mi Seun put in an appearance. His control is slipping on all sides, and Mi Mi defiantly chooses the role of In Tak’s cousin over the role of Seon Woo’s lover. In the end, though, she implements the next phase of Seon Woo’s plot for her own reasons. It must rankle that she’s doing it for In Tak, rather than for him, but Seon Woo is way too far gone into obsession to consider that a happy relationship might do more for his pain than an elaborate revenge scheme.

Yun Jeong Hoon and Eom Ji Won shop for furnishings for their new life together;Meanwhile, In Tak and Da Ran are such sweet lovers that we feel we could watch them for a whole series. In Tak even tells Da Ran his darkest secret, and she takes his hand, reminding him how young he was. Later, she puts two and two together to make Seon Woo. Her co-conspirators are stunned when she bows out of the game at the moment of triumph, in a long overdue fit of conscience. There are still too many secrets for the idyll to last, and by the end of the episode, Yeon Jung Hun gets another opportunity to express emotional extremes, and does it fabulously, leaving me to wonder for the umpteenth time what kind of training Korean actors get that makes them so very good.

The conspirators are closing in on In Tak, though the details are sketchy, as if the writers think we don’t care as much about the financial machinations as we do about the relationships. Now where would they get an idea like that? Actually, as involved as this plot is, they’ve kept it pretty clear, which is saying something where Korean drama is concerned. If we don’t know something, it’s because they haven’t revealed it yet.

When I first watched episodes 14-18 without subtitles, I was extremely confused by all the different women In Tak was meeting. He went on an obvious date with Eun Seol. Not only was Da Ran tagging along, she seemed mysteriously pleased by it, despite the fact that she and In Tak had already kissed (did I guess that was for the benefit of a Dalmatian? I did not). There were a number of emotional scenes with Mi Mi, who was calling him 오빠 (oppa – could mean big brother/male relative, could mean boyfriend. Are you thinking “eww”? Join the crowd). Then there was the real Hong Mi Seun, and finally, the contract bride (do I even want to know what that is?). Last but not least, Da Ran. Glad to have that all cleared up. I certainly never could have imagined what it was all about on my own!

Curious about the lyrics of the theme song? English translation

[I’ve already posted a series review, so I probably won’t go back and review episodes 14-17 and 19-20, but I thought my readers might enjoy this episode review anyway]

Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

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August 12, 2012

Can Love Become Money?
Moral Relativism and Paradigm Shifts

Can Love Become Money? is full of things that make you go “hmm,” though most fans may take it at face value, and ignore the implicit philosophizing. I regard philosophy as a misbegotten hybrid of spirituality and practicality that retains the value of neither, and therefore avoid it as much as possible. A philosopher can spend an entire lifetime stuck on the definition of a single word (“value,” for instance), which is a writer’s worst nightmare. But despite my antipathy, Can Love Become Money? got me googling philosophical concepts like “moral relativism.”

Personally, I think we are all part of one big something (you could call it God, but I don’t), perpetually experiencing every conceivable aspect of itself from every conceivable perspective. In the cosmic sense then, there’s no such thing as bad, good, right or wrong experience, since it’s all part of the big whatever-it-is. That perspective can be comforting when the chips are down. Yet it’s not much of an experience unless we give ourselves fully to whatever our particular path offers. So there’s a balance to be found between engaging with life, while taking it all with a grain of salt.

Oh, wait, was I writing a drama review? Right. About that…

ALL of the major characters in Can Love Become Money? deceive and manipulate others for their own ends. In Tak does exactly what he has vilified Da Ran for, and they forgive each other in the end because it was a question of “survival.” But was it? Da Ran tells In Tak she had no choice, but her actions contradicted her own defense, since she returned what she stole instead of pawning it, and drew the line at “becoming a scumbag.” In Tak, on the other hand, doesn’t hesitate to “borrow” what isn’t his to extricate himself from a dicey situation. Is it because he has the well-being of the employees and his obligation to shareholders in mind? Or because he arrogantly sees his needs as paramount to all other considerations? And by the way, a “Caucasian-only” hotel?? What was In Tak thinking!?

I don’t mean to suggest that Da Ran has any claim to moral superiority. After being romantically scammed for money herself, how could she dream of doing that to someone else? And yet, the comparison never seems to occur to her. An attempt is made to distinguish her from her con man ex-boyfriend. For her, it’s a last resort, while he’s a sadistic control freak who gets off on the emotional torture as much as the profits, with no mitigating backstory to explain how he got that way. But he’s irrelevant to the moral question: is financial “survival” a legitimate defense for dishonesty and exploitation?

Deputy Chief Bang (Kim Hyeong Beom) raises the point that to some people, dishonesty is simply not an option, regardless of their circumstances. His credibility as that kind of person is promptly eviscerated by In Tak’s attack on his knock-off wardrobe, and no one else in the drama argues for moral consistency. In fact, I get the distinct impression that the writer(s) regard any such thing as sheer pretension. Moral ambiguity is pretty standard in Korean drama – heroes have flaws, villains have tragic backstories, and it’s often difficult to tell them apart. However, beneath its comedic veneer, Can Love Become Money? is more cynical than most. Transgressors reconsider their behavior in light of emotional fallout, not moral absolutes or ethical standards. We are to believe that people who do bad things under duress don’t really compromise their integrity. Some viewers find this appalling, and I’m inclined to agree. It may be true that no one lives up to their values 100% of the time, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother to have any?

What I love about Korean drama is the way it makes me think. Sure, American TV raises Big Questions from time to time. But in Korean drama, Big Questions are front and center all the time, no matter the genre.

Have the philosophers gotten to me after all? I deny it. I’m interested in practical solutions. Since the first humans sat around fires in caves, entertaining each other with stories during bad weather, we have worked out our collective fears, self-conceptions and goals by imagining scenarios. The quantity of resources and attention we continue to invest in these shared fantasies reveals how important they are to us as a species. We are facing some very big problems in this moment of human history. We have to find solutions, or else. I don’t believe the answers can be handed down to us from hierarchies, since hierarchies themselves are one of the problems. More importantly, that isn’t how cultural paradigm shifts happen. Somehow, the time becomes right, and change occurs spontaneously, organically. People scattered around the globe start to think differently, and you can never really pin down the genesis of change to a single seed.

What has that got to do with Korean drama? Maybe nothing. But it intrigues me that an entertainment format so persistently concerned with difficult moral questions as they play out in daily lives should suddenly, just now, achieve international popularity across widely divergent cultures. I wonder whether the Korean Wave isn’t a sign of a paradigm shift in the making.

The title of Can Love Become Money? (also translated as Can Love Make Money?), still doesn’t make much sense to me. The answer seems to be, no, but money can become love. I think we are supposed to conclude that everyone learned a Valuable Lesson about the importance of money vs. relationships. That’s all well and good, but it’s not so clear what they learned about integrity.

Can Love Become Money? raises a lot of interesting questions, and doesn’t answer most of them. I guess that’s up to us.

Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

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Season 2 of Vampire Prosecutor starts on Sept. 9. Hope it doesn’t take too much longer to reach us in the U.S!

July 22, 2012

Can Love Become Money? – Episodes 10-13 – Korean drama review

In episodes 10 through 13 of Can Love Become Money?, there is further development along story lines that have already been introduced. Ma In Tak (Yun Jung Hoon) and Yoon Da Ran (Uhm Ji Won) start to see each other as people. Da Ran experiences a crisis of conscience, and concludes that no matter how bad her situation becomes, she will draw the line at “becoming a scumbag.”
Da Ran and In Tak gaze at each other over a bowl of soup she has prepared for him
In Tak is confronted with his own black and white thinking, and the shades of grey required by a more compassionate perspective. They learn more about each others’ backstories, grow closer, and deny it to themselves, each other, and everyone else. They regard their upcoming separation with obvious but unexpressed reluctance. Both wrestle with ambivalence towards their problematic parents. We are given reason to question whether In Tak’s mom actually behaved as badly as he believes she did.

In Tak's Dalmatian dog Ttak Jji looks attentively into the cameraWe know where all of this is leading, of course, and it’s not entirely good. Da Ran gets to dress more like herself, but develops an annoying childish cutesiness. Ludicrous plot twists to throw couples together (like those that brought Da Ran and In Tak together in the first place) are practically mandatory in Korean drama, but the justification for the opening scene of Episode 10 rises to new levels of absurdity. Poor Ttak Jji appears and disappears from the plot as needed. If he understands the significance of kissing, that’s more than can be said for Da Ran and In Tak!

As for Kim Sun Woo (Jo Yeon Woo), we discover another reason for his escalatingly inappropriate interest in Da Ran. But why is he so blatant about it in front of his girlfriend’s (alleged) family, endangering a scheme into which he has invested so much?? Despite this, he manages to charm In Tak, who ought to know better, with a skillful blend of disarming honesty, flattery, and chutzpah.

We have learned Sun Woo’s motivation by now, thanks to Hong Mi Mi’s relentless jealousy (but understandable! the man is a total flirt!), but his plans for In Tak have yet to be unveiled. And there are hints of other conspirators lurking in the wings. As for Mi Mi, I fear he’s using her shamelessly. I don’t like her very much, but still. I hope he’s not that nasty.

In Tak and Da Ran sleep on the couch. His head is in her lap, and hers is on his shoulder

Mi Mi still eludes me, despite the new secret we learn about her, which is apparently unknown to Sun Woo. Wang Bit Na portrays Mi Mi competently enough in each of her several aspects, but somehow there is no center to unite them into a believable character. Once I started thinking about it, I realized this is true to a lesser extent of the other major characters as well (possibly excepting In Tak). Already-established personalities are bent to fit to the plot, which is a shame, since performances are definitely the best thing about Can Love Become Money?

Cha Eun Sol, poutingWe finally learn what In Tak was doing in the private room with Eun Seol. If anyone knows the name of this actress, please post a comment – she’s hilarious, a Princess of Pouts. In Tak’s other transgression develops a silver lining.

Yun Jung Hoon’s speech to visiting business partners is golden. He is utterly believable as a charismatic CEO. However, his daily working life and Da Ran’s role at the office are less convincing. For a high-level executive, he sure has a lot of leisure time to lounge around at home reading magazines (have you ever seen a man read so many magazines?!), and building models. And Da Ran may work like a slave at his home and on trips, but she seems to be primarily a water-bearer at the office. Drama writers, do your research! Executive assistants work their tails off, and your mostly female audience knows it, if you don’t.

Like a lot of Korean drama, the themes and storylines in Can Love Become Money? are quite Victorian (downright Dickensian at times). Characters refer to works of Victorian-era writers Victor Hugo and Hans Christian Anderson, and quote the Confessions of St. Augustine (also popular in that era). Western cultural references are not unusual, but these are more classical than most (compare to Love Rain, which references 70s tear-jerker Love Story). Weird, but fascinating.
In Tak's mom in a hospital gown begs his uncle to let her see her baby just once
Can Love Become Money? could go either way from here. I can’t tell whether it’s losing steam, or just pausing to deepen and gather momentum. I had no trouble watching 4 episodes in a row (twice), but I’m a lousy barometer, since I don’t fight very hard once I’m hooked. It’s still better than I thought it was when I watched it without subtitles, but less intriguing than I found it during episodes 8 and 9. I hope DramaFever doesn’t release the last 7 episodes all at once, or I’ll be in trouble!

Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

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July 18, 2012

Can Love Become Money? – Episodes 8-9 – Korean drama review

Ma In Tak kicks Da Ran's con man ex, while Da Ran looks on in shockCan Love Become Money? is turning out to be far more thought-provoking than I ever would have expected from watching without subtitles. Let that be a lesson to me! Episodes 8-9 address bullying in its many varieties and degrees, a hot topic in Korea right now. (If Koreans figure out how to reconcile the contradiction between inclusiveness and hierarchism, they might just pave the way for the rest of us.) The writers display sophisticated and compassionate insight into the origins of abusive behavior. When Ma In Tak despises Da Ran’s “weakness,” they show us that his extreme measures to make his point arise from his own abandonment issues, and the vulnerability they make him feel. This is one of the major points of departure between American and Korean drama. It’s a given that the behavior is not the person. Transformation is always on the table.

Da Ran walks towards the camera, wiping tears from her face, while In Tak looks after her, stunnedDa Ran has deeper flaws than your average Spunky Heroine. Anyone with a heart would empathize with her situation, but her judgment leaves a lot to be desired. She can be superficial, vain, self-serving, and even mean. However, when she articulates her pain and indignation to In Tak from the heart, she touches us as well as him. And he, for all his deficiencies, has the capacity for self-examination and to recognize truths, even unpleasant ones. He has a way to go in understanding his own behavior towards Da Ran, though!
In Tak lies propped up in an enormous bed with his arms crossed, thinking over what Da Ran has said to him
I’m particularly intrigued by the bully-on-bully interactions. There are plenty to choose from – everyone in Can Love Become Money? is after something, and pretending to be something they’re not to get it. Thanks to one con man, Ma In Tak has already seen his own behavior in a new light. What can we expect when yet another con man faces off with a lovelorn rapist loan shark?
a table is laid with many dishes of colorful and attractive food
Despite all of this deeper meaning, it’s still Korean drama, so there is eating, beating, silliness, and tears. And a gay joke! Oh, and let’s not forget kissing that appears to produce actual enjoyment for both parties (and their bodies touched, not just their lips!). Not between our primary couple, of course. They constrain themselves to romantic bandaging. Da Ran carefully bandages In Tak's knuckles, while he gazes at her
That is, until…

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July 7, 2012

Can Love Become Money? - Episodes 1-7 - Korean drama review

Yun Jung Hoon bites an award to test whether it is pure goldNow that Can Love Become Money? is available on DramaFever with English subtitles, I succumbed to the temptation to find out what it’s all about. Yes, I know I said in my un-review that I was happy to be free from the distraction of ridiculous plot twists. Perhaps I exaggerated a little.

Yun Jung grins evilyBut not about the plot twists – they are every bit as ridiculous as anticipated. Yeon Jung Hoon is deliciously slappable. Comic gifts that were merely hinted at in Vampire Prosecutor (mostly in scenes with Lee Won Jong), are given full rein in Can Love Become Money? His stock of sneers, pouts, glares, and evil grins is bottomless. We love to hate him.

However, there’s more serious subtext to this “romantic comedy” than I expected. We’re starting to see that even the characters we like are deceiving others for their own ends. A particularly nasty character brings this to our attention at the end of Episode 7. Despicable as he is, we have to concede the point. While the motivating backstories of unsympathetic characters unfold, sympathetic characters bare their claws, and it becomes harder to tell the difference.

A big initial turn-off was the implied rape and total physical subjugation of Uhm Ji Won early in the series. It’s supposed to explain her choices for the rest of the plot, but nothing so heavy-handed was necessary. Yoon Da Ran isn’t overly fastidious about ethical considerations. I’m seeing a lot of near and implied rape in Korean drama lately (two Vampire Prosecutor episodes, Love Rain hotel scene, etc.). In Can Love Become Money?, the perpetrators subsequently become comic characters, while Da Ran seems more traumatized when her underwear shows than she was by a group sexual assault. That’s troubling. People who write rape into plots should talk to some actual rape survivors first.

Yun Jung Hoon pretends to read a magazine while Uhm Ji Won chats interestedly with his blind date
However, women also fight back in Can Love Become Money? In Episode 4, Ma In Tak is mercilessly dressed down by the friend of a woman he has humiliated. Her no-holds-barred psychological profile of him is a revelation to Yoon Da Ran – who does her own venting later.
Uhm Ji Won takes a mallet to Yun Jung Hoon's windshield
The casting of 31-year old Wang Bit Na as an aging has-been actress is a puzzlement. Yoon Da Ran’s catty put-down of Hong Mi Mi (translated as “expired goods” in fan subs) was toned down to “she’s not so great” in Drama Fever’s subtitles. Was this because it was mean, or because Uhm Ji Won is actually the older actress (34)?? Hong Mi Mi is all over the place: seductive, whiny, confident, desolate, compassionate, calculating. I can’t figure out who she is.

As for Jo Yeon Woo, at first Kim Sun Woo seemed refreshingly likable. He gets a little ugly with Wang Bit Na, however, and what’s on his hidden agenda, anyway? In Episode 7, things with Wang Bit Na take an unexpected turn, and one wonders whether it can possibly end well.

Uhm Ji Won stares sadly after Yeon Jung Hoon through the bars of a gateSince I’ve seen a number of later episodes without subtitles already, I have some idea of what’s ahead. Transformations, for sure – a recurring theme in Korean drama. Sometimes it’s genderized, with love changing men to better human beings, while it changes women to better packaged ones (ala Love Rain). However, this time I think we are in store for personality changes all around. Do I even believe people can change that much? I’m not sure. But I love to watch the timid become brave, the selfish discover the suffering of others, and the crusty crack open to reveal a gooey center. Hmm, I think it’s lunchtime.

Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

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May 1, 2012

Can Love Become Money? – a Korean drama un-review

Can Love Become Money? continues to air without subtitles – and I continue to watch it that way. At first, this was a language exercise. Can Love Make Money? (as it’s also known) is more talk than action, and that’s just what I needed to acclimate my English-hearing ears to spoken Korean.

However, I suspect I enjoy this drama a lot more than I would if I actually knew what was going on. I watched the first 2 episodes with subtitles, which was plenty to establish the utterly makjang nature of the series. Since then, I’ve diligently avoided recaps and reviews. The result: I’ve been free to enjoy marvelous acting without the distraction of ridiculous plot twists. And thus is born – the un-review!

Ma In Tak is a plum role for Yun Jung Hoon, who gets to demonstrate an impressive range of emotions and attitudes. They come through loud and clear, using the time-honored techniques of body language, tone, and facial expression. Although his Vampire Prosecutor is an intriguing and engaging fellow who grows and develops over Season 1, Ma In Tak covers a lot more psychic ground in his character development. That transformation is by far the best thing about Can Love Become Money? I wonder whether I could fully appreciate the rich nonverbal nuances of Yun Jung Hoon’s performance if I was focusing only on the words?

It’s a little harder to tell what’s going on with Uhm Ji Won sometimes, though that’s probably not her fault. Korean drama scripts are forever freezing heroines like deer in the headlights at pivotal moments, as if they themselves don’t know what they are feeling. SO annoying. Really, writers, this is NOT consistent with the Spunky Heroine persona, nor flattering to female viewers, who know women are more resilient than that!

There’s a second couple in Can Love Become Money? I have no idea what their relationship to the primary couple is, but it’s interesting to watch the shifting dynamics in the interactions. Jo Yeon Woo’s facial expressions are particularly effective at communicating an extreme range of reactions through the subtlest changes. If I go back to watch once subtitles are available, he’ll be the main reason why.

Maybe I’ll try subtitle-free watching from now on whenever actors worth watching appear in a series that isn’t. Try it – you’ll see what I mean!

UPDATE, July 4, 2012: DramaFever is now offering subtitled episodes, though they use fan subs, so the pace of release for each ep is still agonizingly slow. Don’t get me wrong, fan-subbers, I love you to death. Seriously, I am so, SO grateful for all the time you put into making Korean drama accessible to us monolinguists, and I aspire to one day become fluent enough to help out. It’s just that my memory is not that good, so long gaps between episodes means I have to go back and remind myself where I left off. Come to think of it, I enjoy that, so I’ll just shut up now and try to cultivate a zen state of timeless mind. What I started to say, dear readers, was that I will probably, eventually, write a non un-review of this drama. Got that? [Further update: I did. Several, in fact. All episodes are now available on DramaFever.]

Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

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