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July 10, 2013

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 Revisited

I can’t really say why balmy nights turn my thoughts to the blood-sucking undead. Summer and vampires just seem to go together.

Since my dramas-to-watch list is ever-lengthening, I don’t usually watch one I’ve already seen. However, everything I liked the first time in Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – acting, cinematography, music – is just as good the second time around. And the two episodes that wrap up the season are considerably clearer. I think I finally have a firm grip on the storyline.

Now that I’m free to focus on details other than plot, here’s what jumped out at me.

SPOILERS AHEAD

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June 26, 2013

Vampire Prosecutor - Season 1 Review

In May, Korean cable network OCN released a lineup for 2013 that included a Season 3 for the popular vampire/crime drama, Vampire Prosecutor. Nothing more has been said, so who knows when (or if) it will happen. Fans have been waiting impatiently for quite awhile. Just in case, I decided it was high time I watched Season 2.

But first, I’m revisiting Season 1. I’m up to Episode 5, and finding it all makes a lot more sense when you’ve already seen the whole season once through. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that episodes 11-12 will be a little clearer the second time around.

If anyone knows where I can watch a version with subs other than DramaFever’s, please post a comment (Viki and Hulu both use the DF subs). I don’t know whether different subs would make a difference, but I’m curious.

You can read my episode reviews of Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 here.

September 11, 2012

Damo with Lee Seo Jin - Watch with me!

Damo – Episode 1

Something about fall puts me in the mood for sageuk. SO many episodes, though! Do I want to be watching the same drama until spring? But I found just the thing in my DramaFever queue.

Damo (다모), an MBC drama from 2003, is positively petite by sageuk standards, at a mere 14 episodes. I’m curious to see some of Lee Seo Jin’s earlier work, and I always appreciate a storyline that revolves around a Spunky Heroine.
SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you haven’t watched yet
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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:

More Can Love Become Money? reviews
Vampire Prosecutor (Season 1) reviews

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:

More Can Love Become Money? reviews
Vampire Prosecutor (Season 1) reviews

June 4, 2012

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – Episodes 11 & 12 – Korean drama review

You will want to watch the last two episodes of Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 in one sitting. It’s all about the hooded vampire and Min Tae Yeon’s back story now, and works best as one taut, ascending ride.

Although the action-packed two hours had the same plotting issues as earlier episodes (too many subplots, hasty and inadequate exposition of critical plot points, big holes), it was so emotionally satisfying that I didn’t really notice this until several hours later when the impact had worn off.

Somewhere along the line, reviews morphed into recaps, and have been getting longer and longer. There is too much story in the last two episodes to recap in detail, and I’m sure that’s already been done a time or two since the original broadcast in December 2011. The cloaked vampire did not turn out to be the person I thought I saw in the emergency room scene in Episode 10, but did turn out to be someone else I had suspected. However, there is another, much more surprising twist on the killings that ramps up the emotional volume to fever pitch.

SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you haven’t watched yet.
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May 20, 2012

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – Episode 10 Korean drama review

men and women arriving with suitcases at a rural resortWe’re back to TV satirizing TV. Ahh. This time it’s a surprisingly compatible hybrid of finding-love reality show and English country house murder. The Vampire Prosecutor (Yeon Jeong Hoon) gets called away from the crime scene early in Episode 10, leaving Prosecutor Yoo (Lee Young Ah) and Detective Hwang (Lee Won Jong) to work the case on their own.

They’ve finally started to bond – she praises his interview technique and offers to follow his plan. He recognizes her persistence and thoroughness. They rib each other about romantic experiences, and we learn his sexism is fueled by an early disappointment in love (this is rot, of course, but Lee Won Jong is so likable he can get away with it).
Prosecutor Yoo and Detective Hwang listen closely to a witness
However, despite the growing camaraderie, they aren’t making much progress solving the crime. There are cameras all over the grounds, and the alibis all check out. Even the special insights of the Vampire Prosecutor aren’t much help.
SPOILER ALERT – stop here if you haven’t seen this yet.
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April 27, 2012

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – Episode 7 Korean Drama review

TV mocking TV is one of my favorite things. Episode 7 of Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 opens with Chae Wook’s Invective Show. Invective. Now there’s a word you don’t get to use every day – not in my line of work, anyhow. Did you have to look it up to refresh your memory? Me too.

The fictional talk show seems mild by American standards. A supposedly ruthless host lures notorious guests onto the show with promises to avoid unwelcome topics. Naturally he breaks that promise the moment they are on the air. You’d think the title “Invective Show” would tip them off, wouldn’t you? Maybe they neglected to look it up.
talkshow set with semicricle of plastic lawn chairsfor the female audience
It’s hard to be sympathetic towards people who are not only pretentious, criminal and even murderous, but terminally gullible on top of it. And what is up with the entirely female audience on plastic lawn chairs? But I digress. The point is, when the host is murdered, suspects abound. Topping the list is a head-tripping self-styled psychic who predicted the death. Lee Won Jong’s questioning of this suspect, who bedevils him with cryptic nonsense, is a high point of the episode.

In this episode, we learn what happens when
SPOILER ALERT – stop here if you haven’t watched this yet MORE…

April 7, 2012

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – Episode 6 Korean Drama review

Episode 6 of Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 brings a touch of comic relief. From the opening shot, where we think for a split second
Yun Jung Hoon removes his blazer
that we are watching Yun Jung Hoon strip (don’t tell me your mind didn’t go there), to the round robin of verbal posturing between fight club contenders, the episode tickles and toys with us.
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this episode yet, stop here. MORE…