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.



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 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…

Also with Yeon Jeong Hun:

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

June 10, 2012

Love Rain – Romance vs. Family in Korean Drama

Yoona and Jang Geun Suk huddled together under a yellow umbrella walking across a leafy summer campus in the rain;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

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.

May 27, 2012

Korean Beauty Standards - Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beheld

close-up of human eyeThe focus on appearance in Korea is really intense, and the uniformity and rigidity of Korean beauty standards is at its height in the entertainment industry. I’ve previously mentioned my puzzlement and distress about double eyelid surgery.

The distortion of actresses’ eyes by surgery, circle lenses, tape or even (shudder!) eyelid glue was so pronounced in one drama I stopped watching it – it was just too creepy.

Younghui Kim, a Korean designer who moved to the U.S. in her teens, discusses her decades-long battle with friends and family pressuring her to get her single eyelids “fixed” in this post. Check out the comments for a taste of the extremely negative internalized stereotypes associated with single eyelids.

Here is the website for an intriguing project about pressures on Korean high school students. It’s a film in progress by a young American filmmaker, Kelley Katzenmeyer. In particular, check out the Fundraising Video, which is mostly filmed in Korean high school classrooms. It addresses study pressures for the first 5 minutes, but after that, it gets into Korean beauty standards.

The project’s Kickstarter page says the film will also explore how such intense standards developed (scroll down below the photo of the pile of books in the hall). That’s something I’m personally very curious about.

Check it out and spread the word – for a $10 donation, you can download a copy of the film when it’s completed.

May 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Sisters – Korean horror film review

film poster two girls in blood-covered white dresses seated on a vintage couch, a man and a woman dressed in black standing behind them A Tale of Two Sisters or 장화, 홍련 (2003) is an eerie psychological horror film, reminiscent of American films such as The Others and The Changeling. Although it’s set in the present, the shadowy, timeless ambiance of the Korean-Victorian country home gives it a period feel. For atmosphere, on a scale of 1 to 5, this film rates a 6.

The story is about two girls (Moon Geun Young and Im Soo Jung) who return home to their father (Kim Gab Soo) and new stepmother (Yeom Jeong Ah) after a stay at a mental hospital to recover from the shock of their mother’s death. Or is it? As the film progresses, things get weirder and weirder, until we understand less about what’s going on than we did at the start. The ambiguity between reality and hallucination in this film reminds me a lot of the first half of Hon. Since A Tale of Two Sisters is reputed to be the largest grossing Korean horror film to date, and predates Hon by several years, this is probably not a coincidence. However, Hon does a much better job of using the fantasy element to set a tone without drowning in its own murk.

I’m all for suspense when it’s leading to something, but in A Tale of Two Sisters, the build-up loses focus long before the storyline is hastily wrapped up in the final scenes. The film could have made better use of all that tension if elements of the resolution had been woven in more gradually, and much, much sooner.

As one might expect from the poster, blood abounds, and the film meets all horror requirements for sudden moves by scary figures in odd ways and places. However, the true creepiness of A Tale of Two Sisters lies not in a sense of physical vulnerability, but in the utter helplessness of not being able to trust one’s own brain. The plot is loosely based on a Korean folk story. The folk story’s evil and defamatory stepmother must resonate in Korea, as there have been half a dozen other films based on the same story. But the real strength of this version is its chilling portrayal of the cruelest effect of abuse – corrosion of the victim’s trust in her own perceptions of the world around her.

Although the writing isn’t as engrossing as the mood, A Tale of Two Sisters is worth seeing. Even if its shortcomings leave you unsatisfied, it is undeniably visually arresting, and a necessary entry in any survey of the Korean horror genre.

April 30, 2012

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – Episode 8 Korean Drama review

Episode 8 of Vampire Prosecutor, Season 1 opens with a car chase.

Looking out Detective Hwang's windshield at Detective Yoo's car blocking his way
Detective Hwang (Lee Won Jong) pursues a suspect fleeing from a murder scene. He calls for backup, and is startled when Prosecutor Yoo (Lee Young Ah) responds. Working together, they manage to corner the suspect, but
SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t seen this yet, stop here

April 4, 2012

Vampire Prosecutor Season 1 – Episodes 4 & 5 Korean drama review

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

Hon | Soul – Korean drama review, Pt. 2

(Pt. 1 of this review is here.)

“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.