2010 Korean Drama Year in Review: Part Two
Mary Stayed Out All Night
Fortunately, I went into Mary with fairly low expectations, otherwise I'd currently be down in the basement crying. Mary started out deceptively charming - the first few episodes were a bit less dramatic in many ways than we're used to, but the chemistry between Jang Geun Seuk and Moon Geun Young more than made up for that. Mae-ri and Mu-gyul are highly charming characters, quirky and forthright and warm-hearted, and it was refreshing to see a romantic pairing in which the two actually have something in common and aren't complete opposites as far as temperament and life situation. And then a few episodes in we all realized there really wasn't much to the plot. But you know what - we can deal with that. Ephemeral story and low-key indie vibe may not be ideal, but the world of a bohemian indie musician and a down-on-her-luck college dropout is very charming and isn't something we get to see very often, and our main couple was pretty much the Definition of Cute.A few more episodes in and we began to realize with a sinking heart that all the supporting characters were either despicable and rage-inducing(the two dads), and not in the good way or paper blank cliches, woefully underwritten and predictable (Jung In and Seo Jun). I've never seen two supporting leads so misused and caricaturized - Jung In was a Plot Device and Seo Jun was the typical Evil Secondary Girl. Pasta didn't give its secondary leads much to do, but at least it didn't slam them into a nice little box with a label for the entire drama. And then, about halfway through the drama, Mae-ri and Mu-gyul got together, and bam! say goodbye to romantic tension. We'd already given up on plot and all characters except for Mae-ri and Mu-gyul, but we were still watching for those two. It's always a risk to have a couple get together before the end of a drama - it takes competent hands to create realistic tension after that and to capture the nuances and tensions of being in a relationship. Unfortunately, "competent" and "nuance" are two words the writers of this drama are not familiar with, and the pace, already snail-like, slowed to a crawl. Then a new writer came on...and all of a sudden there was plot. Really really bad plot. If the writer of the latter half of Mary were a cook, I'd envision her as grabbing everything within reach in her kitchen, throwing it haphazardly in the pan, and frying it up with zany, wild-eyed enthusiasm. Which works great - if you're a good cook and you know what you're doing. Mary may have been slight and somewhat boring in its first half, but at least it was charming and inoffensive. The Mary of the second half pulls out all stops to create events, dialogue, and character interactions which make no sense - which would make no sense in any universe but which make even less sense because they're a direct contradiction to the way the characters behaved in the first half. And it doesn't even do it gleefully - if there were a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor about all this, I'd have a few remaining shreds of respect, but the drama and the writing is still taking itself seriously as it runs through every cliche in the drama-book and then some. Even Boys Over Flowers, as nonsensical as its second half was, didn't careen quite so quickly and determinedly toward chaos. (Though for the record, the leads of Mary were and always will be ten thousand times more endearing than the leads of BOF). I have only one explanation for this change, and that is that everyone involved in the production - the writers, the director, the characters - all got high. And stayed high for the rest of the drama. Mu-gyul was probably the first to go - whether it's because he couldn't handle being in such a crappy drama any more (I'm sorry Jang Geun Seuk), or because he decided he needed to get more in touch with his alternative, hippie lifestyle, or because his latest perm came out wrong and he needed an escape from the Sturm und Drang of conditioning, we'll probably never know, but there you have it. And the rest of the team followed.
Finally, a drama I can talk about with pleasure. Prosecutor Princess was and will probably remain an underrated drama because 1)It was about law and lawyer dramas by their very nature turn off a portion of their audience who are bored by that theme and 2)The initial three episodes were shaky. Kim So Yeon's character came off in the first two episodes as hopelessly shallow and ditzy, so I don't wonder if some people were turned off by that. If you stuck with it, however, KSY gave such a sympathetic interpretation to a character incredibly difficult to make likable that most of us who watched the drama were left in awe.Screenwriter So Hyun Kyung and director Jin Hyuk, the team behind Shining Inheritance, re-teamed for this drama, and have earned my undying regard for creating two such solid, enjoyable, consistently written, delicious dramas. The plot of Prosecutor Princess isn't brilliant, but it's worked out so well, the details and twists unfolding with such perfect timing and emotional/structural beats, that it feels much more complex than it actually may be (this isn't meant to be a negative comment; most dramas have plots so inane or over-the-top that it's practically an insult to the viewer, and even when a drama's plot is complex, it often loses itself in repetition or obscurity). And, as with Shining Inheritance, it's elevated even further by having two incredibly talented, versatile leads who bring their characters fully to life and share an excellent chemistry (the Hong sisters, who write very flawed dramas but have excellent taste/luck with their leading couples, often have this also). The relationship between Hye Ri and In Woo, as they go from combative strangers to warm friends to a tortured romantic couple, positively sparkles with the nuance and rightness of Kim So Yeon and Park Shi Hoo playing off each other. If Prosecutor Princess does have a flaw, it's that a little slow in the first half and it waits indubitably too long to give up even one of its secrets. Park Shi Hoo was invariably charismatic and frequently charming, but after a while the level of charm becomes irrelevant as we're forced to keep watching with suspicion this completely mysterious figure act in ways we don't understand. The drama spends a few too many episodes focusing on Hye-ri's development, going through the law cases, and putting of the pay-off. When that pay-off does finally come, however, it makes almost everything worthwhile as we realize that the drama has been subtly but surely laying the groundwork and filling in the necessary character and plot details for this to work. From then on it takes off and builds a delicious amount of romantic and emotional angst and plot drama (no pun intended). It's really all about the characters in this one, and for the plot and events which happen at the end of the drama to work, it was necessary for both main leads to change in major ways. Hye Ri begins the drama as a woman whose brain has allowed her to coast through much of life (though certainly not all, as we discover later), and who, while knowledgeable about the law, has no idea of applying it beyond textbook procedures. A fundamentally kind-hearted woman, she's emotionally clueless, and can be thoughtless and even unintentionally cruel as she treats her clients as cases rather than human beings. Yet she's bubbly and determined in the face of adversity when it comes, revealing some real strength of character despite her apparently spoiled upbringing. One of the things that I enjoyed the very most about this drama, perhaps even more than the romance, was seeing her change and watching her progression, as she learns from the lawyers around her and from In Woo how to be a better lawyers and, in the process, a better human being. I can't say too much (really anything) about In Woo without being spoilery, but he has a similar progression, though for him it's less of a character change than an emotional change. Park Shi Hoo makes him sympathetic even in the midst of actions which occasionally appear ruthless, and unlike many a drama hero, he's able on the whole to man up to both the reality of his romantic affections and the consequences of his actions. And to top it all off, the ending didn't even suck:) If you haven't seen Prosecutor Princess yet, give it a chance. It's a romance between two intelligent, articulate people who wind up having electric chemistry - and how can you not like that? (And try not to be annoyed by Hye Ri in the first few episodes; keep in mind that she improves). Watch Prosecutor Princess online at DramaFever.
My description of Prosecutor Princess as a romance between two intelligent, articulate people with electric chemistry also applies to Secret Garden. The difference, perhaps, is that the writing of PP was strong enough to portray two incredibly flawed people without making me lose respect or ultimately, liking for them. But perhaps that's just a personal quibble.Secret Garden is that rarest of all things - a brilliant romance. There have been plenty of good and even great romance/rom-com dramas before. But "brilliant" is a territory usually dominated by sageuks and occasionally mystery (Joseon X-Files), revenge/thriller (A Man's Story, A Love to Kill), and fantasy/fusion (The Legend). But the only straight romance that I can think of offhand that I would unreservedly call "brilliant" is Thank You. Secret Garden is attempting at least to change that - like Thank You, it has writing so incisive and sharp, and presents such consistently good quality in its parts, that it almost but not quite transcends its genre as a Korean drama and a romance and becomes a stand-alone, superb romantic story. What impressed me the most about the first few episodes was the incredibly high quality of all its elements. The cinematography is stunning: it's hands down one of, if not the, most beautifully shot dramas I've ever seen. Everytime I think I've seen it all, or grown accustomed to the sheer luminous beauty of this world, with its glass palaces (Joo Won's mansion), lush greenery and natural settings (Joo-won's lawns, the island, the streets of Seoul) and the vivid, crystalline clarity with which it's filmed, I am surprised again by some moment of magic, some camera angle that captures Ra Im's emotions or a trick of light that renders Joo Won's privileged world uncertain and surreal. And then there's the music. From the instrumental tracks that suit many of the more thoughtful scenes to the cheery playfulness of Kim Bum Soo's "Appear" that capture Joo Won's often ridiculous world to the soaring wistfulness of Baek Ji Young's "That Woman", the anthem for the lead couple's romance, the music adds so much depth and magic. "That Woman" was a particularly inspired choice - it's wildly overplayed as drama theme songs tend to be, yet it's so wonderful and poignant that I credit it with a verifiable part of the drama's magic. It powerfully evokes (dare I say creates?) the sorrow and longing of the main couple as it's paired with the visually beautiful montages of Ra Im staring into space and Joo Won walking moodily around his grounds. The dialogue is razor-sharp and consistently witty, a trademark of writer Kim Eun Sook (Lovers in Paris, City Hall) - just stellar. And the writing is steady and magical and on the whole, wonderful. This is one of the only drama's I've ever seen about which you don't have to utter the disclaimer "just get past the first two episodes" - it hits the ground running, assured from its first moment. Ra Im and Joo Won are complex figures, as I've written about before, and the drama manages, in the first half at least, to parallel a compelling romance with incisive social commentary about class differences, or more accurately, the distance between individuals in different classes. One of the weaknesses of the first half of the drama is the way in which the physical comedy of the body switcheroo and hyper vapidity of Oska's character sometimes jars with the melancholy and hyper-intelligence characterizing Joo Won and Ra Im's interactions. This tension has faded a little now that Oska's character is becoming more mature, but it hasn't been fully resolved yet. I'm not going to say that the drama is bipolar, because the directing is too steady for that, but there's an inherent distance between those parts of the story. In a less well-handled drama, there would be extreme, awkward shifts in tone. The drama's unwillingness to utilize Yoon Sang Hyun and his character Oska as anything more than a comedic place-holder, a peg for the tent that is the plot, has been a constant frustration to me however. Oska is a fascinating character, a volatile man-child who is also completely kind-hearted and possessed sometimes of an instinct for people and an understanding of women that Joo Won completely lacks. A playboy who's a gentleman at heart, he's revealed odd flashes of maturity in his lectures to Joo Won about Ra Im and his treatment of Ra Im in general, and I've been frustrated that the drama's hasn't delved more into what makes him that way and what makes him tick - hasn't allowed him to show more of the adult side that is clearly there. There's such potential for a really interesting relationship between he and Joo Won, especially. Yoon Sang Hyun is a brilliant, charismatic actor, and if he were allowed just a little more room to be a character instead of a caricature, the drama would be all the stronger for it. Instead, as if afraid that his character will steal the thunder from the clearly hugely flawed Joo Won, the story constantly minimizes him. Which brings me to what I consider the drama's major, and indeed perhaps only, real flaw- the character of Joo Won. Joo Won was always, from the first moment of the drama, intensely arrogant, selfish and demanding. But he was also wacky and neurotic in hilarious ways, and played by Hyun Bin who gave him a nuance and sympathetic edge that counterbalanced the negative traits. And his intense attraction to a woman clearly beneath him financially and socially made his scenes of pride and arrogance (firing the store employee without a second thought, humiliating Ra Im by throwing the clothes on the floor) more palatable. Unfortunately, he's been revealed over the course of the drama as far more (and by that I mean far worse) than your average arrogant drama chaebol - instead he's someone I'd label as downright egomaniacal. Joo Won has many romantic moments in which he delivers the perfect dialogue, tells Ra Im the one right thing she (and we the viewers) want to hear. But as far as his actual actions - and thereby character - goes? He's a man who obsessively stalks (against her will and in the face of her repeated requests and demands for her to back off) a Ra Im while perpetually humiliating her and refusing to allow her any actual status in his life. In the first half of the drama, I overlooked all this because I thought it would follow the usual trajectory of him slowly but significantly reforming over the course of it. Unfortunately, the Joo Won of episode 12 or so has improved to such a tiny extent that at this rate it would take him I about 200 drama episodes to become something like a decent human being, and another 200 to become anywhere near an admirable figure. This to some extent to be a personal quibble, since not everyone has the same standards for a drama hero and/or his actions as I do, and I'll be writing out all thoughts on this particular aspect of the drama in a separate post, since it doesn't belong in a general review. But for me personally, because I cannot like or respect the hero, the romantic pairing, and ultimately the drama, fail to hold together. Which is a pity, because all other aspects of the drama remain amazing - even the weakness of Oska as a character is gradually getting fixed, as he's given more screen time and more depth. The acting, cinematography, music, directing, and much of the dialogue, are exquisite, and if you don't share my problems with Joo Won and with the writing of the central romance, Secret Garden emerges as an extraordinary romance. Even with this flaw, I would still characterize Secret Garden, along with Prosecutor Princess (leaving out Sungkyukwan Scandal and My Girlfriend is a Gumiho, which I haven't seen) as the best romances of 2010. Watch Secret Garden online at DramaFever. Continue to Part Three. Check out Part One if you missed it.