Drama Drama Review: Cinderella Meets Her Prince (But There’s a Catch)

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

In “Rooftop Prince,” the SBS network entered another drama into the 2012 time-travel sweepstakes* and came up with two-thirds of a cracking good story.

Our first introduction to the drama’s protagonist takes place one traumatic evening in 18th-century Joseon; Crown Prince Yi Gak, played by Micky Yoochun (who also goes by Yoo-chun Park), awakens to find himself alone in his bed, no sign of his princess. The alarm is raised and soon grim news is brought, news that sends him racing through the palace. Shockingly, a body is floating in the pond and it is that of his princess.

Continue reading “Drama Drama Review: Cinderella Meets Her Prince (But There’s a Catch)”

Drama Review: Second Chances at Living (or Dancing the Darkness Away)

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

When we take stock of our lives and how we’re living, sometimes it’s pleasant to fantasize about what we’d do if we could run away to a desert island. Who would we take to keep us company – no rules, it could be your Hyun Bin or Tae-hee Kim because this is just make-believe. What would we bring? Favorite books? Music? What foods would sustain us?

This is a harmless diversion, but what how would your list change if Fate handed you a different playbook? What if you were told you had just a short time to live? How would you live that last chance at life on your terms? This is the premise for a beautifully produced melodrama that first aired in fall of 2011, “Scent of a Woman,” in which one woman learns that there are indeed second chances at living life.

Continue reading “Drama Review: Second Chances at Living (or Dancing the Darkness Away)”

Song of the Day: 그게 사랑 (That’s Love)

Album artwork for 인생은 아름다워 [Single]
Album artwork for 인생은 아름다워 [Single]

This song by an Indie group known as 달콤한 소금 (Sweet Salt) is one that I fell in love with while watching a Korean drama. The song is  그게 사랑 or “That’s Love,” and it was featured in “Dr. Champ.” It is sung in the drama by the actress Kim So-yeon.

It’s simple melody and pensive lyrics guarantee it a repeat play when the song randomly comes up in a playlist. You can find the title on the single, 인생은 아름다워 (A Beautiful Life).

달콤한 소금 – 그게 사랑

사랑은 이렇게
사랑은 이렇게
사랑은 이렇게
잊혀질만 하면 또 다시 생각이나 어쩔 수 없는
하루가 지나 이틀이 지나 그래도 생각이 나면
잊어볼래도 지워보려해도 자꾸 생각이 나 어쩔 수 없는
그게 사랑
 
사랑은 이렇게
사랑은 이렇게
사랑은 이렇게
잊혀질만 하면 또 다시 생각이 나 어쩔 수 없는
하루가 지나 이틀이 지나 그래도 생각이 나면
잊어볼래도 지워보려 해도 자꾸 생각이 나 어쩔 수 없는
그게 사랑
 
사라졌다 한 순간에 선명해지는 건
그게 사랑
 
아무렇지 않다가 다시 간절해지는 건
거리를 걷다가
그대 닮은 누군가를 보게 될 때면
거리를 걷다가
그대 목소리에 놀라 돌아볼 때면
거리를 걷다가
그대 닮은 누군가를 보게 될 때면
거리를 걷다가
그대 목소리에 놀라 돌아볼 때면
그게 사랑 그게 사랑
그게 사랑 그게 사랑 。。。♡

There’s a Sweet Salt page on tumblr; I don’t know if it’s their own or a fan’s page, but it will give you a chance to hear more.

Drama Review: It’s Not Easy being a 3rd Generation Chaebol

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

What’s a neuroses-riddled chaebol scion to do when everywhere he turns germs or ambitious rivals may be lurking? It turns out; he just needs a little protection!

2011 may be one of the finest in recent years in terms of Korean drama productions, and for rom-coms especially. “Protect the Boss” joins the list of entertaining titles like “My Princess,” “Flower Boy Ramyun Shop,” and “I Need Romance,” and goes to the head of the class with its sharp ensemble acting and clever storytelling.

From Gangster to Gal Friday

From the first episode the tone is set as characters are introduced, beginning with the pixie-like Kang-hee Choi as ex-bad girl Noh Eun-seol. It’s not easy living down a past as a gangster-like teen, but Eun-seol renounced those days and has since worked hard to remake herself and find a job in a white-collar world. (It’s too bad that leading a student strike doesn’t really demonstrate leadership qualities to most interviewers.) She’s gone from one unlikely prospect to another and her most current bad luck runs to a position in a very shady company. This employment misadventure will soon bring her into the orbit of our next protagonist.

Choi Kang-hee as Noh Eun-seol
Choi Kang-hee as Noh Eun-seol

Whereas Eun-seol has nothing but rotten luck in the job world, the same cannot be said for the aforementioned third-generation chaebol, Cha Ji-heon – unless you factor in that his golden job involves working for the family business, where he’s bullied by his father and dogged by his smart, ambitious cousin. Oh yes, and he is completely, excessively neurotic about an increasing list of hang-ups (cannot stand tissues lying on the ground!) Will the axiom about chaebol power and wealth being blown away by a third generation come true?

Playing against his usual manly type, Ji Sung manages to be immature, quirky, part manic, part obsessive, and surprisingly boyish – though he is saddled with an awful curly perm. His Ji-heon is a man trapped by responsibilities (and unnamed burdens); these pressures trigger his neurotic behavior and panic attacks. He either acts out, or fails to act as a company director ought, much to his father’s dismay.

Ji Sung as Ji-hyeon
Ji Sung as Cha Ji-heon

The third member of the ensemble is Ji-heon’s first cousin, Cha Moo-won. Played by Jaejoong Kim, best known as a member of the group JYJ, and formerly of DBSK, his Moo-won is suave, intelligent, dedicated to the business, and eager to put a stake in his cousin’s professional heart. He and Ji-heon take great pleasure in messing with each other and as the story heats up, their rivalry soars to new heights of comedic lunacy. He has the misfortune of being number two in contention for role as heir to head up the Cha business because his father died early, leaving his uncle to assume the leadership role.

Kim Jaejoong as Cha Moo-won
Kim Jaejoong as Cha Moo-won

Through a set of unusual circumstances, leading to a spot of misfortune for Ji-heon’s father, Chairman Cha (in a very funny performance by Young-kyu Park), and for the company, a new position opens up at the company – as Ji-heon’s secretary. Eun-seol spots the chance and applies, but after being ignored (again), the girl who once led a student strike surges forward and she speaks her mind, knowing that she doesn’t stand a chance. Surprisingly, Moo-won is taken with her forthright attitude and senses something in her, some strength of character that he and others at the company can use. It’s also possible that he’s not just looking to use her strengths in a positive fashion; he may also be looking for someone he can manipulate in his ongoing battle for the chairman’s throne. He offers her the position and becomes, in her eyes, not Moo-won but “Moo-god.”

The Resourceful Human

As Ji-heon’s secretary, Eun-seol is challenged by his finicky ways – “You personally must clean the office, my call must be answered by the second ring” – but she quickly becomes his champion, taking his side in a startling elevator confrontation with his father. Chairman Cha is also amused by Eun-seol; perhaps it’s the recognition of one ex-gangster-like character to another. He demands that she do what needs to be done to whip his son into shape to become the heir to the role of chairman. In order to protect her job, it’s up to Eun-seol to indeed “protect the boss” by helping Ji-heon find a way to conquer his personal demons and as well to become the boss.

She becomes a mother, a friend, wise counsel, a sounding board, and a problem-solver. Resourceful and plucky, Eun-seol soon becomes his rock; then more like a “rock in his head,” so firmly is she embedded in his mind and heart. And Ji-heon learns that to protect his “boss,” he needs to become more of a man and less of a mouse and to stand on his own two feet.

Moo-won too is won over by Eun-seol’s forthright nature. Knowing that she has a crush on him, he uses this initially to his advantage as a way to push Ji-heon’s buttons.  But what began as an attempt to control and manipulate his cousin turns into something unexpected. Once again he’s coming in number two to his rival and this is not where he wants to be. The question is, how will Eun-seol’s influence shape him? Will he give in to the push at home to sabotage Ji-heon?

A Perfect Foursome

The fourth member of the inner “square” of “Protect the Boss” joins the story a little later on; this is the woman who once broke Ji-heon’s heart, and did a number on Moo-won’s too. Seo Na-yoon marches back into Ji-heon’s life and wants to pick up where she left off, but he’s no longer interested. Thanks to Eun-seol, he’s making progress emotionally, though he’s not yet made the connection that Eun-seol is more than just an employee.

Wang Ji-hye as Seo Na-yoon
Wang Ji-hye as Seo Na-yoon

Immature, indulged, but surprisingly not mean-spirited, Ji-hye Wang’s Na-yoon is more than a little put out that Ji-heon can move on, and then even more so when Moo-won seems less inclined to be a party to her plan to make Ji-heon jealous by agreeing to an arranged match. What really surprises her is that plain, low-class Eun-seol appears to have both men jumping to pay attention, to the point of fisticuffs!

Fortunately, we’re treated to a character who is actually able to grow and learn from her experiences, and who quickly moves from seeing Eun-seol as a rival to a supportive friend. Her time spent taking shelter from her pushy mother in the tiny apartment shared by Eun-seol and her childhood pal Myung-ran (Jae-sook Ha in an amusing supporting role) has to count as some of the happiest days in her life and a real growth experience.

It’s delightful to spend time with characters who can be petty and jealous, but who can see their own bad behavior and repent. Na-yoon is a brat at times, but she’s got a really good heart, much to her mother’s chagrin.

Childish Plots a-Plenty

Along the way, the dynamic duo of Ji-heon and Eun-seol face a number of backroom dealings and plots hatched by Moo-won’s bitter mother. She will stop at little to make her son the one true heir. Played with a brittle intensity by Hwa-yun Cha, Shin Sook-hee engages in quarrels with her former brother-in-law with the same childish pettiness as seen in those between their two sons, and with equally hilarious results. She is a doting mother, a “Tiger Mother” you might say, and however spiteful and detrimental to the family her actions are, the trouble she causes is – in her eyes – in a just and rightful cause.

Of course, the Chairman doesn’t need anyone’s help to get into trouble; taking issue with the way his son was pushed around by some gangster bullies, he pulls on his black leather gloves and shows them who’s the boss – and ends up doing community service to atone for his sins! His long-suffering secretary Jang (Ha-kyun Kim) manages his agenda, protects his boss and does his best to guard the gruff, no-nonsense Chairman from further incident.

Elevator rides fraught with peril
Elevator rides fraught with peril

In addition to exploring the romantic quadrangle, the drama mines comedy gold in the portrayal of the relationship between Chairman Cha and his mother, deftly played by veteran actress Young-ok Kim. Her son may be over 50, but he’s not too old to be taught a lesson, whether it is making sure to finish your meal so you don’t tempt Fate to leave you hungry or how to be a better parent. Trying to stem the tide of quarrels between her son and daughter-in-law keeps her busy in her retirement. Chairman Cha is often clueless with how to handle his sensitive son, but thanks to the efforts of Eun-seol he learns to stop shouting and make the office elevator a safer place to be.

A Personal Touch

One nice thing about “Protect the Boss” is that, even in creating somewhat broad characters, the writer has done a good job adding touches of personality here and there that it’s very easy to understand their actions and empathize.

Praise is due Kang-hee Choi for bringing to life a heroine that is so normal and unspoiled, as well as resourceful in a truly professional way. Ji Sung deserves applause as well for investing himself completely and showing a hero who can be both adorable and flawed, and who discovers courage in a realistic fashion.

When Eun-seol and Ji-heon fall in love, the care these two actors have taken in developing their characters lets us love them as a couple and believe that they love each other so sincerely.

Kudos is due as well to Jaejoong Kim for taking a chance and allowing himself to look perfectly ridiculous every time Moo-won tussles (with unseemly frequency) with cousin Ji-heon. There is not a character out of place in this drama, and that is not something that can often be said.

Ji-heon and Eun-seol
Ji-heon and Eun-seol

This is a well-balanced drama in every respect. Whether evaluating the cast (praised extensively in this review), or the writing that makes the characters come to life and behave in ways that touch you, there are exceptionally few weaknesses. And to this list I would be remiss if I did not mention the fine production values. They clearly took a lot of care with choosing the sets and locations as well – from Eun-seol’s cozy apartment to Ji-heon’s stark bedroom (complete with custom dartboard) to that lovely office wing that Moo-won and Ji-heon shared (with three other hoity-toity secretaries) – it all looked lovely and interesting.

Make time for this charming rom-com and, in addition to enjoying hours of entertainment, you’ll discover that sharing an elevator at the office with the company president will never be the same again!

Watch this drama on legal sites, like Dramafever.com.

Review: Maybe Not My Fantasy Island

An edited version of this review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly.

Before setting sail on the drama best known as “Tamra, the Island,” it’s a good idea to do a spot check on your tolerance for a number of drama tropes.

  • How do you feel about manhwa-inspired dramas, with elements ‘torn from the pages’ of a comic book?
  • Whimsical or nonsensical characterizations?
  • Period dramas that are more interested in having fun with the story than historical accuracy?
  • And lastly, cute and mostly appealing protagonists?

(Okay, the last one cannot be seen as anything but a positive, but your answers to the other questions might impact your ability to enjoy “Tamra, the Island.”) For maximum viewing pleasure, set your expectations setting to “Fun,” “Playful,” and “Low” and you’ll have a very good time on the journey.

An Original Ex-Pat Meets the “Natives”

The drama opens with some cringe-inducing moments as what passes somewhere for the Western world, circa 1640, on the estate of a well-to-do young Englishman by the name of William.

It turns out that young William, played by the French acting newcomer Pierre Deporte, sports not only yellow hair of an improbable hue and (naturally enough, but disconcertingly) a French accent, but a deep and abiding passion for the Orient. His most treasured objects are pottery, with the most prized being a simple, white-glazed bowl. He’s fairly naïve and misguided in his collection it seems, for this bowl is actually a chamber pot, though this he does not know; a mystic assures him it’s magical.

William has great plans; he’s going to join his friend Yan, a Japanese sailor (played by Seon-ho Lee), on an exploratory voyage to Japan. Yan, we come to see, is an opportunist, and has a contract with William’s mother to bring him back home to England as soon as possible. Too bad plans like this go awry; a storm hits the ship and William finds himself overboard, soon to be a castaway on Tamra Island (now Jeju Island).

Once the scene shifts from the laughter-inducing vision of 17th century England and the sea voyage, you might be more inclined to give the drama a chance. There is a reason the Korean government and tourism board is lobbying to have Jeju named one of the ‘new 7 wonders’ – it is lovely. The rocky beaches, the clear waters, the green vegetation… you begin to wish that you could wash up on Tamra Island!

On the island, the locals are introduced, with an interesting gender-reversal twist. On Tamra, it’s the women who rule the roost. The principle income comes from the sale of prized abalone, harvested by the intrepid women divers.

Lead by Jam-nyeo (veteran character actress Mi-kyeong Kim), the women dive to the depths to pluck abalone, clams, and fish to feed their families and use as revenue to pay increasingly onerous taxes cum tributes to the king. There’s an ongoing sense of competition to be the best diver, but sadly the chief’s daughter is not a contender. Beo-jin, played by the impish Woo Seo, doesn’t really care much for the diving and rarely brings up anything worth catching. She’s the butt of jokes amongst the young women for being so inept and is sent to deliver abalone for a ceremonial table and to collect a medallion (a kind of ‘proof of purchase’).

Beo-jin completes her task but along the way bumps into (literally) a young man, Park Kyu. He’s been sent to Tamra as an exile for some unexplained reason and he’s a proud, haughty young scholar of the noble class so their first meeting is not an auspicious one. She loses the medallion (he picks it up, not knowing its significance), and a friction-filled relationship is formed. They’ll have plenty of chances to hate each other, though, as Park Kyu, played most appealingly by Joo-hwan Im, has been assigned to be housed at Beo-jin’s house.

The eventful day isn’t over for Beo-jin; she heads back to the beach and stumbles upon William and brings him safely to shore. They meet an eccentric older man who warns her that foreigners, if discovered, are killed, so as Beo-jin’s found William and decided to keep him, she installs him in her secret cave hideout to protect him.

There’s a fairly innocuous but childish play on words as the two introduce themselves; William mistakes Beo-jin’s name. He thinks that she’s telling him that she’s a virgin – they are, after all, alone in a cave and a young man and a young woman dressed in her fairly skimpy, romper-like ordinary clothes, shockingly bare-legged for the period. He replies “me too” and she thinks that this is his name.

This same sort of willful abuse of language is repeated a few days later when Park-kyu stumbles upon William; only in this instance William mistakes the scholar’s name for a common vulgarity. These misunderstandings are resolved as William proves to be an extraordinarily gifted linguist, picking up Korean in record time.

Good Things Come to an End

As is the way with secrets, scatterbrained young misses, impulsive young Englishmen with French accents, and nosy, dissatisfied young exiled scholars, it’s just a matter of time before William’s existence is revealed to the villagers who are a very accepting bunch (as a general rule).

Park-kyu learns to unbend and begins to see the charm of the natural rhythms of the island and, when things start to go missing, like horses intended for the king, or abalone, he gets involved with the investigations. The story begins to explore further the mystery and the friendship between the three young people. Park-kyu and William are both charmed by the bubbly and naïve Beo-jin, though Park-kyu is reluctant to admit his attraction. Beo-jin, on the other hand, is fascinated by “Hwil-i-yam” and is more than a little in love with him. This three-way relationship is put to a test when William is ultimately discovered and sent to the capital to face his ‘crime’ of being a foreigner.

The relative charm of this drama hinges on the likability of the young cast. Pierre Deporte, as an acting novice acquits himself passably well, though there are frequent times where he seems out of character. It’s as if he’s observing the situations his character is in as if he’s modern-day Pierre and this takes the viewer out of the moment too. Comic book based dramas and comedies in general work best when each member of the cast is fully invested in his or her character, no matter how ridiculous it may be. He does not have the performance experience to do that and it brings the story down at times. When he’s more passionate about his actions he succeeds better.

Woo Seo is charming or annoying, depending on how much you appreciate her pouty/cute approach. When she’s not pushing the aegyo, she’s very winsome and appealing. The rest of the time I found her tiresome.

The one who really shone though in this drama was Joo-hwan Im. His aloof yangban with a heart of gold waiting to be discovered was amusing and touching. He was convincing as a young man struggling to mature, figuring out the meaning of what it is to care about someone and something, and to take action was the heart of this drama for this reviewer.

Sketchy Plots and Sketchier Villains

The not-too-engrossing questions revolve around how to extricate William from the “Perils of being a Foreigner” and a mysterious and sinister merchant group, headed up by the beautifully robed but vengeful Seo-rin (Seung-min Lee).

How will Park-kyu work things out for everyone? What further trouble can William get into? And will Beo-jin save the day? You’ll have to take a trip to Tamra Island to find out!

Note: “Tamra, the Island” aired originally as 16-episodes, however there is a director’s cut 20-episode version available. The latter will no doubt fill in some of the gaps caused by the forced editing to make the shorter version.

This drama is available for viewing on Dramafever.com.