2010 Korean Drama Year in Review: Part One
Most of the online Kdrama commentators have spoken of 2010 as one of the better years of Kdramas. And it's certainly better than the wasteland that was 2008. 2010 was a great year for sageuks - Chuno, Jejoongwon, Joseon X-Files, Comrades, Giant. A steady succession of wonderfully crafted, solid historical dramas populated the year. On the rom-com front, however, it was a bleak year. And while I appreciate a good thriller or sageuk now and then, by far and away my favorite genre is the trendy, modern romance, which means that my initial look at this year's offerings is a tad dark. This was a year in which rom-coms took advantage of, rather than providing a forum for, the incredible acting talent available to them.
In no particular order...Dr. Champ. I love Kim So Yeon and had heard raves about Uhm Tae Woong's acting, so I was excited about this one despite my general lack of interest in sports dramas.And I enjoyed the first few episodes, with the sparring between KSY's inexperienced doctor and her sardonic mentor played by Uhm Tae Woong. I even enjoyed her interactions with Jung Kyu Woon for their comedic element. And then as the drama went on, I gradually realized that this was all there was to it. There wasn't going to be any upping-of-the-stakes, no significant new characters were going to be released, and the less-than-compelling conflicts which had already been introduced were just going to be replayed and recycled for the rest of the drama. Ji Heon was going to pursue Yeon Woo with his puppy love, Yeon Woo was going to long after Do Wook while he rejected (yet still longed for)his ex-girlfriend Hee Young: mix and repeat. None of these conflicts were presented in a fresh or way, and not a single one felt important enough for me to commit to. I've had this problem with dramas several times before, where I feel that the stakes are simply not high enough. All three main characters are professionally successful (even Yeon Woo fundamentally), stable, emotionally balanced adults (Do Wook and Ji Heon both had their problems, but they were functioning just fine and had been for years). As a result - particularly with the mediocre writing - I simply didn't care about their emotional and romantic problems; a nagging voice just kept telling me "but even if this doesn't work out they'll be fine". That's not to say that every drama needs to have financial stakes or deep emotional problems - one of the things I enjoyed the most about Kim So Yeon's other recent drama Prosecutor Princess was the pairing of two intelligent, competent, financially secure adults (so rare in Kdramas). However, in that drama, Hye Ri was a deeply flawed human being who needed to grow up and gain emotional sensitivity, and In Woo had that deep trauma from his past which was driving him to revenge. These two problems drove the plot. Dr. Champ has no such elements, and loses itself in slight, cyclical clashes between the characters and dull medical/sports storylines (dear writers: want to see medical storylines done well? Go check out Surgeon Bong Dal Hee). Jung Kyu Woon was serviceable but not exceptional and Uhm Tae Woong was under-utilized (why when you have an actor of proven experience and charisma you would cast him as second lead in subordination to a younger, more inexperienced and uglier star I have no idea). I can't talk about this drama without mentioning the exquisite cinematography however - one of the things which initially drew me to the drama was the gorgeous way that it was shot and the low-key, thoughtful vibe. The plot never quite manages to pick up speed and get off the ground however, so the drama begins and ends on a decidedly underwhelming note. Dr. Champ premieres on DramaFever on January 6. Playful Kiss to cotton candy, but that metaphor is over-used. So instead I'm going to go with: this drama is like ramen. It's not top-notch food, and it may not be that good for you, but it's warm and filling and it's always there for you when you need some quick nourishment. I've written a fair bit about this drama already, so I won't belabor the point too much. The first four episodes are horrible - awkward directing, uneven plot and pacing. Episode five abruptly picked up the pace however, as if the writer finally figured out how to tell a story, and the drama pulled itself together from that point on. At its best, however, Playful Kiss was never particularly good. The stakes are low, the pace is middling, and the story is invariably and inevitably slight. Yet, like comfort food, Playful Kiss is oddly satisfying and can be very addicting. Jung So Min was a revelation in her polarizing role (I hope the drama makers realize what a godsend they had in her - without her, the already low ratings would have been virtually nonexistent). She made Ha Ni, a character who has sparked more feminist debates than probably any other drama character, warm and identifiable even in the midst of all her cyclical chasing after Seung Jo. Kim Hyun Joong still isn't a great actor, but he was perfectly cast and has definitely improved since Boys Over Flowers. Playful Kiss is very, very low-key, but it's meant to be so as a growing-up story that follows two kids through high school and into college. There's something endlessly endearing about watching these two clash and grow closer together in a romance that occasionally has pitch-perfect moments, and the drama captures well the headiness, the heartache, and the seeming all-importance of adolescent crushes and first love. Playful Kiss is deeply flawed and remains well within the bounds of its limitations, but it's warm and lovely and affection-inducing. Watch Playful Kiss online at DramaFever. Pasta is a lot like Playful Kiss; not a successful drama, because after the first few episodes it becomes very clear that it is contained within fairly narrow limitations and that you can either take it or leave it at that. As such, it's hard to hate. Like Playful Kiss, it's a drama to watch not for the plot - because there's little of it to be seen - but for the chemistry between the main couple. The plot rapidly devolves, especially in the second half, into circular, pointless shenanigans (she's in the kitchen! then she's fired! she's back! he quit! he comes back etc), and if there's ever two characters that are under-utilized, it's secondary leads Kim San and Oh Sae Young. We gripe about characters being used as simple plot devices, but in this case I'd have been grateful to see them be used at all (especially Alex as Kim San). At the same time, I appreciated that the secondary leads didn't really ultimately impinge on the main romance, because slight plot regardless Gong Hyo Jin and Lee Sun Gyun made up one of the cutest couples all year. Their chemistry, alternately sizzling and affectionate, was a living thing that lit up the screen through all its 20 episodes. And as the only real bright spot, it's a good thing it shone so brightly. Pasta did have one other strength - in a year full of beautifully shot dramas (Kdramas are making huge strides as far as cinematography lately) I still remember Pasta for its lovely, delicate cinematography and colorful sets - the drama really made the most of the visual appeal of a the kitchen where most of it was set, and brought a luminosity to even the ordinary places such as outdoor bars and streets. I don't want to label Pasta as slice-of-life - that would be to excuse the genuine laziness and slightness of much of the plot - but it can be enjoyed,much like Playful Kiss, as another low-key romance that often hits wonderful relationship notes. Ultimately, however, it's a cooking drama that doesn't break out of or effectively utilize the limited world it creates. (Note: I included it on my list of Best Dramas To Watch When You're Sick) Watch Pasta online on DramaFever. Continue to Part Two of 2010 Korean Drama Year In Review. Or skip ahead to Part Three.