Monday, October 22, 2018

Worth the Binge! Blog Hop - the K-drama edition

When Caroline Fardig asked what our next blog hop should be, I immediately thought of Netflix binging, because oh my, I’ve been binging shows on that platform a lot lately. I mentioned that my stints in the hospital made me reevaluate my stance against screen time. (Honestly, it is much easier to watch an engrossing story than to read it when you’re somewhat disoriented.) One of my happy discoveries was that, after a few years of shunning Korean dramas, many of the ones offered on Netflix are really good, and totally worth a few hours of my time (or, you know, half a day, or maybe an entire weekend).

K-dramas succeed for the same reason that British dramas do: limitations of time prevent them from getting too greedy and force them to keep the story tighter than some bloated American dramas that want to milk as many seasons, episodes, and syndication fees as possible. (I don’t even watch The Walking Dead, and after eight seasons I’m sick of it.) Which isn’t to say that some dramas don’t drag on longer than they need to (if something goes over sixteen episodes, be suspicious), but in general the story ends on a satisfying if not always perfect note.

I’ve watched numerous dramas in less than six months, and I originally started this post with the intention of going into all of them. But once that draft started hovering around 3000 words and I wasn’t quite done, I decided to focus on four: Stranger (aka Secret Forest), Life, Mr. Sunshine, and White Nights aka Night Light.

Stranger wasn’t the first Korean drama I watched, but the second. More importantly, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television and a new standard I measure all shows by, not just the Korean ones. It might be simplest to think of this as (yet another) updated version of Sherlock Holmes, with Cho Seung-woo’s Prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok as the (literally) emotionally scarred Holmes and Bae Doona’s Lieutenant Han Yeo-jin as the warmer John Watson. And if that’s what gets you there, fine, but it’s sooo much more. It’s an intricately plotted mystery that was planned in order to expose the corruption (I mean, no kidding, it’s Korean entertainment) that includes the police, the prosecutor’s office, the ministry, and, of course, the CEO of a powerful chaebol (conglomerate). You won’t really know what you’re looking at until Episode Four, but by then you’re already going to be sucked in by the characters, including Deputy Chief Prosecutor Lee Chang-joon (Yoo Jae-myung), sleazeball prosecutor Seo Dong-jae (Lee Joon-hyuk), ambitious prosecutor Young Eun-soo (Shin Hye-sun), and inspector Yoon Se-won (Lee Kyu-hyung). When you find out exactly who did what and why, you’re not going to feel any better when they catch the culprit. (I don’t think I’ve ever cried during a confession before.) But it’s the chemistry between Cho and Bae that’s going to find you binging as many episodes of this per day as you can and asking yourself will they/won’t they/should they?

Most of the main characters from Stranger (and oh my god is there going to be a season 2?!)
Everyone on the planet has probably heard of Descendants of the Sun, an internationally successful juggernaut that may have made the viewing public take K-dramas seriously. This year, the same team brought us Mr. Sunshine. (Unlike many other Korean dramas, that really is the original title. You won’t find out why it’s named that until halfway through the series, but I’ll preview that you’ll be tearing up when you get to that moment.) I admit to being more than a little indignant to read people hoping for a “happy ending” while they watched this, because the subject matter is the beginning of the end of the Korean kingdom/empire aka Choson as the Japanese tightened their grip and turned it into a colony. While this was criticized by some for being too charitable to the Americans and demonizing the Japanese, as someone who has read much about this period, I thought it did a good job of showing all sides. You shouldn’t thank the Japanese occupiers for anything they did—but it’s worth noting that they were the ones who forced Choson to outlaw slavery. And while most former Korean slaves still led lives of desperate poverty, it was no longer legal to murder and discard them. As Eugene Choi/Choi Yu-jin (Lee Byung-hyun), the son of slaves who became an American Marine captain, told his friend Gu Dong-mae (Yoo Yeon-seok), the son of butchers who became a Yakuza samurai, they may live in treacherous times, but they, unlike their parents, have choices. Would that have been possible without the Japanese occupation? Eventually. By 1894? Probably not.

Just some of the motley assortment of people fighting for Korean independence in Mr. Sunshine
As with, oh, history in general, it would be a mistake to think that this is just a story about the Japanese versus the Koreans. As to be expected from an ancient civilization, Korean society was both deeply complicated and deeply flawed. People had many reasons for fighting for independence with qualifications, just as they did for collaborating with the Japanese. This is is not to excuse the atrocities or to say that there weren’t ever clearcut victims and villains, but in most cases, choices were messier than we might think looking back, and Mr. Sunshine explored that.

While the series was long (24 episodes in total), I didn’t feel like any of the time was wasted. The story follows both Eugene and Go Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri), the young aristocrat he falls in love with who leads a secret life as a sniper for the Righteous Army. Other main characters include Gu Dong-mae, Kim Hee-sung (Byun Yo-han), the wealthy young man whose grandfather owned and killed Eugene’s parents, and Lee Yang-hwa/Hina Kudo (Kim Min-jung), the wealthy daughter of a traitor to Japan who owns a hotel and despises her father. All of the men share an affection for Ae-shin and, frankly, have nothing else in common. However, the three develop a friendship that transcends class and history as they all come to the conclusion that Choson, for all its faults, deserves its independence. Similarly, while Ae-shin and Yang-hwa begin their interactions with a barely concealed contempt for each other, in the end they both earn the other’s respect by be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to preserve the country they love.

This ends in 1919 and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that few of the characters are left standing at the end. If anything, the “happy ending” is that Korean resistance continued up to that day and right through 1945.


Does everything look lighter after that? Perhaps, but that’s not to say that others didn’t deliver the same kind of sucker punch of desperation after betrayal. White Nights aka Night Light (I have no idea why these names are chosen, I swear) stands out from most of the K-dramas I’ve watched because the two main characters are women. Not only that, Seo Yi-kyung (Lee Yo-wan) is a corporate shark and Lee Se-jin (Uee) is a con woman desperate to learn at Yi-kyung’s feet and become a success like her. Yi-kyung’s motivations are complicated: her father was deeply betrayed by his fellow organizers of the Korean-Japanese Olympics in 1988, but she later falls in love with the son of one of those organizers, Park Gun-wook (Jin Goo of Descendants of the Sun fame). Once out on her own, she begins her career as a gallery owner who follows a twisty (and twisted) plan to slowly take over South Korean business and control the office of the presidency itself, which just happens to involve the former president who also betrayed her father. Se-jin is willing to help her until she sees the moral toll this costs the both of them. I loved watching two brilliant women maintain their affection for each other even as they tried to outwit the other. If anything, the conflict deepened their respect for the other.

An earnest con woman, a ruthless shark, and a wishy-washy chaebol heir walk into a television show...
The final K-drama I’ll mention is the one I most recently completed. Life (that, too, is the original Korean title. Don’t ask why, because it’s not like there isn’t a Korean word for “life”) centers around the staff at a teaching hospital of a university that’s recently been acquired by a chaebol. It’s easy early on to side with the doctors versus the corporation at the beginning, especially when President Koo Seong-hyo (Cho Seung-woo) orders the hospital to shut down the emergency, maternity, and pediatric departments because they aren’t profitable. A threat of a strike causes the Seong-hyo to back down, but shortly after he discovers that the doctors hid a death due to negligence. The president has the moral upper hand until he makes the truth public...and on the back-and-forth goes. We quickly discover, however, that as much as the president wants to turn the hospital into a money maker, he’s the best protection the staff has against the chaebol chairman Jo Nam-hyeong (Jung Moon-sung), who’s willing to destroy the hospital if it won’t become profitable for him.

The most chilling part of the show: these are the people responsible for our health care
It won’t take much for American audiences to recognize the many quandaries that arise when healthcare is seen as a business, just as many of us will sympathize with the argument “big business” makes that they can provide a level of oversight a chummy clique of doctors is unwilling to impose on itself. It’s messy, and no one comes out looking perfectly right, just as in life.

I must mention here that I wanted to watch this was not only for Cho Seung-woo but also for Lee Kyu-hyung. I didn’t think the actor could break my heart any more than he had in Stranger, but I spent 20 minutes of the last episode with tears streaming down my face as I watched him in his final scenes as the paraplegic orthopedist/health administrator Ye Seon-woo. I’ll watch this guy read the proverbial phone book and probably need tissues while I do so.

Lee Kyu-hyung, a rising star
A shout out must also be given to veteran actress Moon So-ri, who played the tough as nails Neurosurgery department head Oh Se-hwa. God damn...not to give anything away, but when she tells a corporate bully that she knows fifty ways to kill someone without leaving a trace and that he’d better take his son’s pictures off of social media, you’re going to clap.

Moon So-ri, a versatile, veteran bad ass 
I feel bad not having given explored the other K-dramas and comedies I’ve watched and loved over the past few months, but here’s a list of other dramas I hope you also decide to explore.

Live (not to be confused with Life!)

And that is that! Thanks for reading, and be sure to check out Kerrie’s post tomorrow, followed by Morgan, Caroline, and then me again (I have thoughts and feelings about the Marvel shows!).

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