May 2, 2017

Love, Loan Sharks and Lee Seo Jin

Loan sharks are as necessary to Korean drama as water is to fish. They are cupids with brass knuckles, traumatizing Kdrama heroines into sketchy arrangements, where – after misunderstandings, humiliation, heavy labor, and disheartening setbacks – they ultimately find love and economic security. At least, that is the typical scenario.

The loan shark has been as necessary to Lee Seo Jin’s dramas as to anyone else’s, but with a difference. Check out the twists on the loan shark/love/LSJ triangle in his last three romance dramas.

Marriage Contract

A loan shark grabs Uee by the collar and threatens to sell her young daughter for sex if she doesn't pay her debtWith a contemptuous expression on his face, Lee Seo Jin summons Uee with a gesture used only for animals
The hero is as mean as the loan sharks. I guess you could say LSJ rescues our heroine from the loan sharks. But he doesn’t do it for love (at least, not for love of her). There’s a steep price indeed! Maybe she should’ve just gotten herself a lawyer.

Wonderful Days

Debt collector Kim Hee Sun badgers violent loan shark Ok Taecyon
The heroine is a loan shark. Sort of. LSJ’s childhood sweetheart works for loan sharks. She is such an effective persuader that their rougher tactics are rarely called for. She has her reasons for this unconventional career choice, but since Lee Seo Jin is a prosecutor… awkward!

Alas, her bravado, quick thinking and stellar negotiation skills are dust in the wind once she abandons her unwomanly calling to assume her “rightful” role as wife and daughter-in-law. In fact, for the second half of the drama, she creates one mess after another by impulsively acting on misperceptions. This is utterly inconsistent with her previous street smarts. She’s not really cut out for Korean family life – she was better at debt collecting!


Kim Gyu Ri stares at the fist Lee Seo Jin has just pounded on her desk after breaking up her father's shop
LSJ is the loan shark. In one of LSJ’s most popular dramas, we see in flashbacks that he used to be a loan shark. He has moved on to more exalted gang roles and then to rehabilitation by the time we meet him, but his girlfriend remains as a reminder of the bad old days – they met when he was shaking down her father!

Loan Sharks in Real Life

On a more serious note, loan sharks are not just a humorous Kdrama plot device. Predatory lending is an actual and serious problem in South Korea. This 2009 article shows loan sharking complaints steadily climbing, and it is clear from this 2016 article describing a crackdown by Seoul’s metropolitan police that the situation has continued to worsen. The U.S. State Department draws a connection between loan sharking and human trafficking. Let’s hope the next Korean President will make predatory lending a priority on a national scale (improving women’s rights and the economy would also help).

See all reviews of Dramas with Lee Seo Jin

April 7, 2014

Passion Distraction Poll - Move Over, Colin Firth

Episode 10 of Wonderful Days is highly gratifying to those of us who enjoy seeing a man tortured by longing. Colin Firth has long been acknowledged as the hottest frustrated lover of all time, but Lee Seo Jin is giving him a run for best passion distraction scenes – literally!

Lee Seo Jin as Kang Dong Seok in Wonderful Days runs on a treadmill to try and shake off his longing for Kim Hee Seon as Cha Hae Won;Lee Seo Jin stares into a mirror in a steamy bathroom thinking about the woman he loves

Colin Firth in a damp shirt and rumpled hair from the BBC 1995 miniseries Pride & Prejudice

Who is the hottest frustrated lover ever?

October 26, 2012

My Husband Got a Family – Final Thoughts

My Husband Got a Family (넝쿨째 굴러온 당신 – literally You Who Rolled in Unexpectedly or Unexpected You) wrapped up on KBS World last weekend. The series fulfilled its initial promise of utter predictability from beginning to end. Plot developments to come were not merely hinted at, they were shouted from the rooftops with megaphones. The abrupt timeslip at the end of the second-to-last episode seemed entirely arbitrary, as if the writer suddenly got bored and stopped caring what happened to the characters.
SPOILER ALERT: stop here if you haven’t watched yet.

September 25, 2012

Damo – Episode 2 – Korean drama recap

Episode 2 of Damo introduces us to the back stories of Hwangbo (Lee Seo Jin) and Chae Ohk (Ha Ji Won) and their early relationship, as they continue their investigation of the counterfeiting ring.
SPOILER ALERT: Stop here if you haven’t watched yet.

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

August 31, 2012

My Husband Got a Family – Korean drama review

promotional poster for series featuring a wedding photo of Kim Nam Joo and Yu Jun Sang;My Husband Got a Family is airing on KBS America as a weekend drama. The first few episodes were so excruciatingly predictable that I gave it a pass for many weeks. Here’s the opening setup: adult adoptee seeking birth family moves into the same building with wounded family seeking long lost child. Guess what happens next? Ten million Koreans live in Seoul, and 100,000 Korean children have been sent to the US for adoption, but what’s a statistical impossibility to a drama? Dickens. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.

However, for all its faults, My Husband Got a Family inhabits the dinner hour timeslot, where it faces little competition. It’s true what they say about timing being everything. Just when I’m ready to put my feet up and rest my brain, there it is. I drifted back to it, gradually at first, but now, I admit, I make a point of watching it.

Na Young Hee with a very unhappy expression on her face;Yoon Yeo Jung with a very unhappy expression on her face;The family dynamics at the core of this drama are just like every other Korean family drama you ever saw. There’s sibling rivalry, abusive parenting, and a secret that’s too big to keep, yet too horrible to tell. According to my drama sun dial, we’re due for a life-threatening diagnosis or accident any episode now.

Other familiar elements appear in a modified form. As in Love Rain, the incest love-obstacle appears in the form of the in-law relationship taboo, instead of a scare over being half-siblings. Since in-law incest is not even a thing in the US, this substantially reduces the ick-factor. If there were loan sharks, I missed them. Drat. No, really.

Kim Nam Joo and Yu Jun Sang having an emotional conversation;The central couple (Kim Nam Joo and Yu Jun Sang) are annoyingly smug and self-satisfied at the beginning of the series. They’ve had ups and downs since then, matured a little, and lost some of their insufferability.

Yun Hui, a successful professional woman battling sexism at work as well as in her husband’s family, is an unexpectedly sympathetic character. Her deficient housekeeping skills may be more damning to a Korean audience than they are to me, but she sure knows how to navigate the backbiting power dynamics in her entertainment industry workplace (which is in a different universe from the cozy little production company depicted in Sent From Heaven). The developing independence of her sister-in-law (Yang Jeong Ah), everybody’s punching bag, is also refreshing.

A smiling Lee Hee Joon sits close to Jo Yoon Hee, who is holding up a teddy bear;However, my favorite storyline in My Husband Got a Family concerns the budding relationship between two people who are monumentally slow on the uptake about their own feelings. In real life, I’d be unimpressed by that, but for some reason, I find it irresistibly charming in this drama. It’s mostly Lee Hee Joon’s comical dialogues with himself (with a few well-placed jibes at drama conventions) that keep me coming back for more.

Not so funny (through no fault of her own) is Yang Hee Kyeong, a rare (in Korean drama) large woman, as a comic relief character. I wish I could applaud this drama for taking a step forward in diversified casting. Unfortunately, the running joke is that her character audaciously believes she’s a worthwhile and attractive person regardless of her weight. Ha ha. Two steps back.

Despite its lack of originality, there are engaging moments in My Husband Got a Family. Last weekend, I cheered when the family’s women put aside their differences to team up on a man who done one of them wrong. I tittered at Terry’s bemusement when his sophisticated wife and her adult little brother screamed at each other like kindergarteners on the playground. Yes, this is drama with a small d, but there’s a place for that.

[NOTE: After I posted this review, I learned that My Husband Got a Family has received surprisingly high ratings in South Korea, though I suspect this is mostly due to the presence of Kpop idol Kang Min Hyuk of CN Blue in a relatively minor role. His “Code Name” (CN) is “lovely.” ‘Nuff said.]

Related posts:
Final Thoughts review for My Husband Got a Family
10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama

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:

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

July 1, 2012

KBS Drama Specials - Korean short drama reviews

KBS regularly airs short dramas with 1-5 episodes under their “KBS Drama Special” umbrella. They used to be buried in late night/weekday day timeslots, but KBS World recently added a Saturday afternoon timeslot that makes them more accessible to working viewers. I’ve reviewed a couple of these previously – For My Son and The Most Glorious Moment in Life. Here are some others:

Amore Mio

This 4-episode drama is a great partner to Love Rain, for a grittier version of the same era of Korean class struggle and political unrest. Jeong Woong In delivers a fabulous dual performance as his younger self, and as a present-day dad, in the most convincing portrayal of the same character at different ages that I’ve ever seen. The youthful character was so unsympathetic that I stopped watching the drama after the first episode. [It aired in January, before I’d caught on to the Kdrama convention of showing characters at their worst before transforming them.] However, I came across the series again at episode 3 and got pulled back in to the story.
Jeong Woong In and Dana walk away from a confrontation with a man from their past
True to the title, there is a romance at the heart of Amore Mio, and the requisite supreme self-sacrifice for love, which Jeong Woong In sells well. There is also violence – be warned. If you are only interested in Kdrama as entertainment, you may find Amore Mio too raw, but if you want a window into 1980s Korea, check it out.


Crossing Yeongdo Bridge

My memory of this one-episode drama is a bit hazy, but I thought it was a well-acted story about a troubled father-daughter relationship. As often occurs in Korean dramas, drinking is semi-recognized as an issue without really being understood in its full implications as alcoholism. Deals somewhat more frankly with sexual matters than many dramas.

Park Hae Sol, Maiden Detective

The quaintly Victorian title of this drama caught my attention – when’s the last time you heard the word “maiden” in casual conversation? It sounded promising – young woman uses psychometric gifts to solve crime. Psychometry is a favorite with Koreans, though here it’s more like aura-reading.

Alas, this 4-episode drama was so slight that it wasn’t even worth recording, much less staying up late for.


Strawberry Ice Cream

I watched this one-episode romance last night (new to me, but it was a re-broadcast of a 2011 drama), and appreciated the writing as well as the acting. It’s a sad but ultimately hopeful story of a woman who doesn’t fully appreciate her boyfriend until after she breaks up with him, and has to come to terms with some major guilt and regret. Eom Hyeon Kyeong carries many scenes without dialogue, and ably projects emotion that could have easily become maudlin or repetitive in the hands of an actress with less range. Kim Yeong Hoon also delivers a nicely understated performance, as the boyfriend who “gets” her, even when she is not at her best. Their chemistry is charming.

A language note may be useful to non-Korean-speaking viewers of Strawberry Ice Cream. Korean sentences don’t necessarily include pronouns. KBS World helpfully adds them to the English subtitles, but that’s a little confusing for this drama. Just bear in mind that the Korean sentence translated as “I miss you” literally means “want to see,” without any specifics about who wants to see whom. Also, questions are formed by simply making a statement with an upward inflection at the end – there is no rearrangement in the word order. This means that the exact same sentence would be used to express “let’s meet,” “I miss you,” and “do you miss me?” Other sentences are similarly flexible.

Drama elements can seem a bit heavy-handed in the KBS Drama Specials – perhaps because they are packing a series-sized story into a smaller number of episodes. Nevertheless, some of these short dramas are of high quality. Don’t overlook them just because they are aired outside of primetime.

June 23, 2012

10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama

Wherever there is romance in Korean drama, there are obstacles, and lots of them. Here are 10 common (but temporary) obstacles to love in Korean drama:

1). Your Dad Killed My Dad. Rarely fazes determined young lovers, but is a real deal-breaker for their families. Luckily, the murder always turns out to be an unfortunate accident, or was actually committed by somebody else. Sometimes dad even turns out not to be dead.

2). Your Dad IS my Dad. AKA “Omo, you’re my half-sibling!”
Usually (but not always) the audience knows all along that the apparent incest is a misunderstanding, or a plot by an opponent of the romance. However, it gives the lovers a few episodes of severe angst and guilt, since they either refuse to believe it despite apparently strong evidence, or can’t keep away from each other even if they do believe it. Incest scares are very, very common in Korean drama (why?).
unhappy lovers stares at each other, as the man reaches out to the woman but does not touch her

“Why did you have to be my sister?”
Chun Jung Myung to Park Min Young in Glory Jane
(aka Man of Honor or Young Love Jae In)

3). Your Parents Hate Me. Completely over-the-top alcoholic single mothers are a particular favorite.

4). Your Ex Won’t Let You Go. So ruthless and malicious that we wonder what the Hero/ine ever saw in them.

5). Alternate Suitors. Alternate female suitors are either conniving, obsessed control freaks, or clingy, immature surrogate daughters to above-mentioned binge mom. Alternate male suitors, on the other hand, are typically rich, handsome, and nicer than the Hero.

6). You’re a Criminal/Player/Immature Jerk/Non-Human. Heroines are obstinately confident that past performance is no indication of future results.

7). I Have a Life-Threatening Illness. Terminal self-effacement, usually. I don’t want to be a burden, so I’m breaking up without telling you why, because that won’t hurt you.

8). You’re Rich, I’m Poor. Resolved by overnight career success or revelation of previously unsuspected wealth for the poor partner, or financial catastrophe for the rich one. Can happen to either gender, but if a poor girl becomes richer than her BF, she loses the money in a plot, or spends it in a worthy cause.

9). My Friend/Sibling Likes You. You don’t like them, but better that I renounce you so we can all be miserable.

10). Our Parents Are Involved. OK, double-dating would be weird, but is this really a reason to break up?? In Korea, yes. In-law incest is not illegal, but it is taboo, since families are considered merged upon marriage, therefore your in-laws are your own relations. Up-and-coming as a substitute for half-sibling incest scares, which is a great relief to western viewers!

NOT an Obstacle to Love in Korean Drama

You’re My Boss/Employee. Sexual harassment policies? What’s that? Korean drama contrives the most unnatural plot twists to throw romantic partners together, frequently involving the workplace. Koreans work long hours, and are expected to socialize after hours with co-workers in the interest of group cohesion. Heavy drinking is often involved. You’d think this would make workplace romances even more problematic, but not in Kdramaland.

You Have No Interest in Me. Stalking? What’s that? Again, this is gender-neutral. No matter how often an object of desire may reject, insult or shun the would-be lover, the truly determined Kdrama suitor never gives up. There’s a hideous double-standard where conniving exes or alternate suitors who do this are highly unsympathetic characters, while lead characters in the very same drama engaging in the very same behavior are portrayed as passionate and courageous, and get the girl/guy in the end.

We Have Nothing in Common Except Attraction. Compatibility? What’s that? First the drama highlights all the reasons these people should not be together. Most of these reasons do not change, but by the end of the drama they are together anyway, and we are to believe they live happily ever after. This is not particularly Korean. We see it all the time in US movies, and in long-running will-they/won’t-they TV series, where they eventually have to, because we’ve waited for it for so long, but they really shouldn’t.

It’s pretty obvious that the target audience of Kdrama romances is women. With some life experience and a robust grasp of the distinction between fantasy and reality, the unlikeliness of romance plots and characters is all in good fun. I wonder about girls and women who lack one or the other, however. Is this story about a Japanese woman husband-hunting for the kind of Korean man she sees on TV a rarity? Let’s hope so.

Related posts:
5 signs that you are watching a Korean drama
7 familiar characters in Korean drama
10 Common Kdrama Phrases, and What They Really Mean
Love Rain: Romance vs. Family in Korean Drama