August 17, 2012
KBS is keeping the one-act Drama Specials coming. Here are four more that I watched recently:
Butcher Barber (aka Knife Barber) – A battered woman tries to hire a killer to free herself from her vile husband, a loan shark whom she has married under duress. She approaches three former thugs who have been pointed out to her. Two are butchers in a shop owned by the third, a barber. They reside together in an apartment above the shops, and insist they are now living peaceful and ordinary lives. However, they succumb to her combined desperation and persistence, and help her out by giving her a job and a place to stay. Soon they learn just how dire her straits really are, and she learns their lives are not quite as ordinary as they seem. She and the barber begin to fall in love. He has another secret, and has to weigh his commitments and risks.
The outcome is pretty predictable, but it’s still worth watching how they get there. Park Sung Woong, last seen in Young Love Jae In (read my review on Drama Fever), once again performs well as a man of contained passions. There are a couple of violent scenes – both turn out not to be as they initially appear, but the second one is a bit hair-raising all the same. At least, if you, like me, cringe at straight razors!
Korea really needs to get a handle on the loan shark problem, even if it means the end of Korean drama as we know it. I’m prepared to make the supreme sacrifice and watch nothing but sit-coms to free the Korean people from this terrible scourge. Is it really necessary to barge into homes and businesses, beat people up, break their stuff, and force them into unwanted marriages and pornographic videos? SO uncouth. Why can’t their predatory lenders just garnish paychecks and ruin credit ratings, the way they do in the U.S.?
Don’t Worry, I’m a Ghost – Korea has a bit of an amnesia problem too. Shall we send specialists? They can’t possibly have enough to treat all the cases that occur in dramas. Perhaps they could persuade a few plastic surgeons to switch specialties. I suppose treating an amnesiac ghost, like the one in this drama, would be a challenge, unless she happened to be haunting a neurologist. Don’t Worry, I’m a Ghost started out as a nice, if convoluted, little romance, but just when a satisfactory conclusion was in view, catapulted us into one of those moral quagmires where a decent person takes way too much responsibility for events he couldn’t possibly have controlled. A big “huh?!” from me.
Gate of Truth – I kinda liked this one, primarily because most of it takes place on the grounds of a scenic Buddhist temple, where the illegitimate daughter of a monk’s fall from grace is growing up. It’s not a bad life, but she longs for real parents, and is crushed when her dad, back on the path of non-attachment, passes through and refuses to engage with her. She carries her bitterness about this into adulthood, until she watches the lengthy flashback with us, and realizes she has taken it all too personally. I don’t really get the point of living an indifferent life, and neither does she, but she learns she was better loved than she suspected, and finally respects her dad’s struggle to live by his chosen values. A rare window into the Buddhism which provides an intriguing counterpoint to Confucianism in Korea. Both perspectives inform most dramas, but not usually in a way that is discernible to westerners.
Re-Memory – This story revolves around a woman with severe prosopagnosia (more commonly known as face-blindness), an intriguing real-life condition that I happen to be familiar with. A museum staffer who can’t recognize faces is assaulted, and her assailant is killed in the struggle. She can’t identify the man who rescued her, and can’t quite remember what happened either (what did I tell you, amnesia everywhere). As she grows closer with the investigating officer, who has reasons of his own for being interested in the incident, moral quagmire again ensues, and they learn something about themselves and each other. This was an icky mix of gratuitous female helplessness, vengeance quest, and romance. Not entirely unlike Knife Barber, come to think of it. There is a twist at the end that redeems it partially, but it’s still icky.
KBS Drama Specials deal with ordinary people in extraordinary situations. I wish they’d trust the viewers a little more, and give us ordinary people in ordinary situations instead. Writers like to pose the question “what if?” What if nobody died, developed major health problems, or lost everything? Are there other stories that would interest viewers? Try us.
Other KBS Drama Special Reviews:
For My Son
The Most Glorious Moment in Life
Amore Mio, Crossing Yeongdo Bridge, Park Huisol: Maiden Detective, and Strawberry Ice Cream
August 12, 2012
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
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.”
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.
We 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.
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?
We 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.
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 10, 2012
I stumbled across Love Rain (사랑비) on KBS World, and hopped on over to DramaFever where I watched all 20 episodes in 2 days (or was it 3? it’s a bit of a blur).
SPOILER ALERT – Quit now if you haven’t seen it yet.
June 4, 2012
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.
April 12, 2012
I caught the first episode of Dream High 2 awhile back. I found it engaging, but couldn’t really relate to high school students struggling for stardom. However, I’ve stumbled across a few more episodes since then, and now I’m hooked (I can’t resist a morality play). I’ll be going back to catch up on the episodes I’ve missed.
I will get back to Vampire Prosecutor, I promise. I’ve been doling out the remaining episodes of Season 1 to myself a little at a time, like the last few pieces of a really sublime chocolate bar, since I know Season 2 won’t be available until August. I don’t want it to end!
I thought starting another Yeon Jeong Hoon drama might ease the pain. Can Love Become Money? is airing without subtitles on a local channel. I try to watch a little non-subtitled Korean TV every day. It’s easy to ignore audio when you’re watching subtitles. Watching without subtitles helps me build the habit of using my ears as well as my eyes. Also, when I start to understand what’s going on, I’ll know my Korean has progressed! Can Love Become Money? without subtitles was mystifying, however, and since Yeon Jeong Hoon is in it, I decided to check out subtitled episodes from the beginning.
Can Love Become Money? is makjang from the get-go, to an almost satirical degree. I wouldn’t bother with it if Yeon Jeong Hoon wasn’t in it, and I’m afraid it will only make me miss the Vampire Prosecutor more. Min Tae Yeon’s cool exterior is only protective – we know inside he’s a sensitive guy, with a worthy mission in life.
Ma In Tak, however, is mega-unlikeable. Nothing and no one is good enough for him. He’s bitter, venal and stingy, treating everyone horribly, and women worse. Even his dog can’t escape criticism. The plot is shaping up to be Taming of the Shrew in reverse (with loan sharks). I know this terrible start is creating room (and lots of it) for improvement, but it hurts me to see Yeon Jeong Hoon in such an unsympathetic role. Gotta like Uhm Ji Won, though, who flips him off Korean-style, only the second time I’ve ever seen a woman do that in a drama. You go, girl! Come to think of it, Yeon Jeong Hoon was the target the first time, too, when Lee Young Ah flipped off the Vampire Prosecutor. There’s just something about him, I guess.
I’m also watching Wild Romance, which is wrapping up on a local station. I haven’t seen all episodes, and don’t plan to, but I appreciate its unconventional heroine and villain, although we’ve known who the real villain is for far too long.
My One and Only is another series I entered midstream, and don’t like enough to catch up – I watch it only because the young lovers are so extremely and rigidly attached to each other that even the
SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you plan to watch this.
April 4, 2012
Well, if I wanted to see the Vampire Prosecutor bested by a woman (and I really did), episode 4 was made just for me. Not only did defense lawyer Yoon Ji Hee (Jang Young Nam) set him up to knock himself down over and over, she got a final laugh, in a twist he could have prevented if he’d done his homework. Or if he’d paid more attention to Prosecutor Yoo when she wondered why Yoon Ji Hee was involved in the case in the first place. We can’t even be very sorry that
SPOILER ALERT – if you haven’t watched this yet, stop here. MORE…
March 20, 2012
(Pt. 1 of this review is here.)
THIS REVIEW IS PRETTY MUCH ALL SPOILERS….
“Whew,” I said, as the final episode of Soul ended. “That was intense.” Hon is deep, dark and thought-provoking – not for the timid, and the opposite of escapist.
One of the advantages to watching dramas online is that you can pause and look things up. I researched a number of subjects over the course of watching Hon, from Confucianism to psychopathy, not to mention the lyrics to the T-ara song that closes the drama. Even so, I have a feeling there are additional nuances to Soul that don’t translate for non-Koreans. Lee Seo Jin’s character is named after a 17th century Korean general. Many of the lines exchanged between his character and Kim Gab Soo’s arch-villain Baek Do Shik are Confucian quotes. The T-ara song is called “Lies.”
This is not to say that there is anything specifically Korean about the issues of morality that Soul addresses – on the contrary, they cut to the very core of human identity. What does it mean that we can examine and judge our own emotion-driven behavior, and that of others? Are killers still human? Where are the boundaries of responsibility, between stepping up and overstepping? Can violence be contained without more violence? Are we capable of creating harmony just because we can conceive of it, or are we doomed to yearn for a safety that is congenitally beyond our grasp?
If Hon offers any answer, it’s that courage to act on an independent moral imperative without honesty – particularly within oneself – is more likely to be sinister than heroic. That’s not a much of an answer, certainly not one that makes the world a safer place. We can hardly rely on the consciences of real psychopaths, who have no capacity for remorse, and can there be serial killers who are not psychopaths? I hope not, but that’s another of Hon’s questions.
Whether or not such a man could really exist, Lee Seo Jin makes his character all too credible in both of his extremes, breaking our hearts in the process. Though his girlfriend (Lee Jin) is portrayed as naive in her comprehension of evil, hers is the stronger moral compass. She lies for him when she believes he’s innocent, but when she discovers a different truth, she faces it unflinchingly and acts immediately.
Although Hon isn’t ultimately about their characters, the performances of Im Joo Eun, Park Ji Yeon and Park Gun Il must not be neglected. They are all essential to the storyline. Im Joo Eun walks a very fine line between vulnerability and helplessness – if she were less skilled, Lee Seo Jin’s investment in protecting her innocence (even as he exploits it) couldn’t have worked. Her connection with Park Ji Yeon is particularly sweet – we don’t see loving sisters very often in Korean drama. Im Joo Eun also does a great job with her spirit possession/psychotic break scenes, which can’t have been easy.
Poor Park Gun Il plays a more familiar character, the devoted and overlooked lover. Yet, we wonder for a time whether he’s the real serial killer. He doesn’t seem to have graduated to larger roles yet – I hope he’ll get that chance. Chun Jung Myung, recently of Young Love Jae In fame, has a brief but effective turn as the young Shin Ryu, where his ability to project open-heartedness enhances the poignance of the backstory.
One of the things I learned during Hon-related surfing was that Korea has produced a crop of extremely violent revenge films during the last decade or two (which were disturbingly popular, inside and outside of Korea). This saddens me, but shouldn’t really surprise me, as revenge and violence crop up in all but the most trivial Korean dramas. The cultural, spiritual and geopolitical pressures that Korea is now grappling with and attempting to integrate boggle the mind. Something’s gotta give.
Perhaps that is why I continue to be riveted. I do ask myself “Why Korea?” What is it about this culture that mesmerizes me and so many others from widely divergent cultures? Korea is a puzzle I’m compelled to try and assemble, even knowing that I may never find all of the pieces I need to see the whole picture. Somehow, Korea’s questions are my questions, urgent and essential human questions upon which the very persistence of our planet may depend. I can’t ignore them, as my own culture seems determined to do. I don’t know whether they can be resolved, but I have to care. That’s my own definition of being human.