Drama Review: In Lieu of Flowers, Just Send the Boys!

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

It cannot be easy being third off the blocks in adapting an iconic manga for television. The Taiwanese hit the ground running in 2001 with their version, making stars of Barbie Hsu and the young men playing the notorious “F4” in “Meteor Garden.” The Japanese brought the comic novel to life in 2005 and had a hit with their telling of “Hana Yori Dango.” So when production began in late 2008 for the Korean adaptation, I approached it with both curiosity and trepidation having seen and enjoyed the prior dramatizations.

The two earlier versions had their own unique appeal and created memorable characters: how could this version possibly compete when you have idols like Jerry Yan and Vic Chou competing for Barbie Hsu’s hand (“Meteor Garden”), or the equally talented and attractive Jun Matsumoto and Shun Oguri chasing Inoue Mao (“Hana Yori Dango”)?

Devoted viewers of Asian dramas surely would have their scorecards out, ready to compare one version to the next. The potential for disappointment, especially when you have to go up against a very recent hit, is high. In its favor, the production team worked with the author of the original manga and received very high marks for their adaptation and casting of the main roles. The author even remarked that the Korean cast most resembled her characters. So, how would this play out? Could the new kids win over the loyalists? And more importantly, can they win the hearts of those coming fresh to the “Hana Yori Dango” story? Time would tell – in 25 installments.

The Fabulous F4

The action gets underway at Shinhwa High School, an exclusive academy for the fabulously rich, beautiful, and socially/politically connected. The school is ruled by the infamous F4, four incredibly handsome young men from various backgrounds. There is Song Woo Bin, played by pop star Joon Kim, from pop group T-Max. He’s the heir to a powerful criminal organization. Next up is So Yi Jung, the talented ceramic artist, played by Bum Kim. The third member of the group is the sensitive musician, Yoon Ji Hoo, played by pop star Hyun Joong Kim, from pop group SS501. Finally, there is the leader of the group, arguably the handsomest of this bunch of flower boys, the scion of an incredibly wealthy family, the spoiled and hot-tempered Goo Joon Pyo, played by Min Ho Lee. What F4 says at Shinhwa goes. Into this privileged enclave waltzes Geum Jan Di, played by Hye Seon Gu, or, more appropriately, in barges in Geum Jan Di on her bicycle, making a dry cleaning delivery.

Jan Di confronts Jun Pyo (again)

Unfortunately, first impressions of “Boys Over Flowers” (also referred to as “Boys Before Flowers”) did not initially make a convert out of this viewer. Perhaps because of a familiarity and fondness for the original story, the early episodes of the drama seemed to take some shortcuts with the plot that make the motivation of the main characters confusing at some points and downright inexplicable at others.

Jan Di arrives at this school as an outsider and interjects herself into a situation in which a young man, harassed by F4 to the point of desperation (though the viewer does not, at this point, have any indications as to just how serious this hazing has been), is about to toss himself off a tall school building. She harasses him too because she needs to have his dry cleaning bill paid, but she also manages to prevent him from committing suicide. This creates “a spectacle” that calls unattractive attention to the school and F4, so in a way to keep Jan Di from calling further attention to herself and the school, she is offered a swimming scholarship, thanks to the machinations of Goo Jun Pyo’s manipulative mother. And so she enters the exclusive academy, lured by the promise of pool time, and proceeds to turn her nose up at the members of F4.

Those new to the story will be only slightly confused by her grudge against the members of the elite group, but others more familiar will feel shortchanged. In prior adaptations (and it would aid new viewers to know this), her character has been a scholarship student for a period of time so she has witnessed on several occasions how F4 has turned the school into a bullying machine with the distribution of a single red card on a victim’s locker. When she stands up to them for the first time it is then clearly a “Very Big Deal.” However, in the “Boys Over Flowers” adaptation, Jan Di appears to come into the school without having known the reach and power of F4, but also with a very big chip on her small shoulders. In an early encounter with Goo Jun Pyo, after her nose is bloodied when she’s being hazed, he sincerely offers her his handkerchief and she snarls at him seemingly without provocation. If this is the director’s idea of “meet cute,” it fails. It’s very difficult to see throughout much of the early episodes where the charm is in Jan Di.

She’s slightly more charming, though, when she inadvertently intrudes on private space – a school staircase – of the more reclusive member of F4, Yoon Ji Hoo. Given to venting her frustrations by shouting into the anonymous air space found in every exterior stairwell, her rantings amuse Ji Hoo, and in a quiet, almost behind the scenes way, he befriends her. His quiet and serene manner, a radical 180 degrees from her own personality, makes her heart go pitter-patter and his knight errantry leaves her swooning over him, her first crush. Ji Hoo, however, sees the interest of his friend Jun Pyo in this “weed,” Jan Di, and is content to play second fiddle. He has feelings for another, an older woman and wishes to pursue her.

The story unfolds and begins to make more sense by the third episode, once some of the background information concerning the power of F4 and their hold over the students is clarified and the young cast settles down into their roles. Hyun Joong Kim (Ji Hoo) received some harsh criticism for his performance, particularly in these earlier episodes. To a degree, this can be attributed to this being his first acting role in a drama, but the almost emotionless – some might say “wooden” – performance is something that is also prescribed by the role of Ji Hoo (Hanazawa Rui, in the original manga). The character is described as almost autistic, very withdrawn. It is the outgoing and vivacious Jan Di (Makino) who helps pull him out of his shell. And this is indeed the case as the drama unfolds.

The Perils of Pauline Jan Di

The pattern of the story is fairly repetitive: Jan Di will get into trouble, Gun Pyo or Ji Hoo (or all the members of F4 will pool their talents and resources) work to get her out of trouble.

Those who are sensitive to the insidious aspects of school bullying will find several scenes in which Jan Di is bullied, once even to the point of near sexual assault, appalling and should consider whether to allow younger children to watch this story. There is no denying the attractiveness of the actors, the settings, and the wardrobe, but underneath it all, there is a story of some cruelty. This Cinderella gets to go to a ball or two, but she also faces humiliation on a fairly regular basis. That said; her resourcefulness and optimism go a long way towards making her less of a victim than she might have been. And not every mishap is one caused by someone looking to harm Jan Di. She does a pretty good job of making her own problems!

Hye Seon Gu is a very popular young actress, having created memorable roles in dramas such as “Pure 19” and “The King and I,” but she fails to set the right tone with her interpretation of Geum Jan Di. Her interpretation is often unflatteringly cartoon-like and does not convey the subtle strength and pluckiness of the character. An invincible spirit is not conveyed by shouting, or by screwing up your face into a pout or a grimace.

Yes! I am the cream of the F4 crop!

 

It’s very difficult to see how or when she realizes the heart of Gun Pyo – too often he is all but handing it to her on a silver platter and Jan Di, as played by the actress, reacts with a brittleness that does not convince one that she’s at all interested in the young man. And when one considers the young man in question, it’s all the more puzzling because Min Ho Lee is physically the most attractive of all the actors who have played this role. While he lacks the reckless anger that Jun Matsumoto brought to his interpretation, Min Ho Lee more than adequately conveys the isolation and frustration and longing for love and belonging that is essential to the role. He brings a strength and maturity to the character too, in spite of his relative youth. When, in the latter stages of the drama, he and Ji Hoo are competing for Jan Di’s love, both young men come alive and you feel the dramatic tension, and yes, heat, rise too.

The Good, the Bad, and the Unnecessary (Plots)

As mentioned, this drama is 25 episodes long so there are additional storylines to round out the drama, including a number of jealous girls who want Gun Pyo for themselves and try their best to win his affections. Gun Pyo’s controlling mother (Hye Young Lee) who wants no weedy little Jan Di for her son and will do what she can to pluck that pesky weed from her son’s world, including introducing a pretender for the prince’s hand. The last member of F4, Song Woo Bin, is primarily along as a support system for the gang and unfortunately represents a wasted opportunity.

Also included in the subplots are Jan Di’s parents and young brother (Suk Hwan Ahn, Ye Jin Im, and Ji Bin Park, respectively) who are thoughtless, greedy, and really don’t seem to have that much affection for their daughter or sister. The one plus to their storyline in this adaptation is that they are not as venal as the single mother in “Meteor Garden,” but they are also not as hapless but well-meaning as in “Hana Yori Dango.” Mostly, they are extraneous, but perhaps the greatest sin of omission in this adaptation is the love between family members, so much so that Jan Di would tolerate bullying and other hazards to remain at the school to garner the diploma that would set her family on the path to future success. Instead, her primary motivation for staying at the school appears to be the swim team.

Charming Best Friends

The biggest of the subplots involves Jan Di’s friend, Ga Eul, played by So Eun Kim, who falls hard for the unattainable playboy potter Yi Jung.  So Eun Kim is fresh and likeable, and in fact brings some of the sweetness and strength of character to her interpretation of Ga Eul that is missing in Jan Di. Her resolve and sense of self as she tries to figure out why Yi Jung is the way he is (it’s a brother and a love issue) makes her an attractive character. Her scenes with Bum Kim play beautifully and one could wish for more (and a resolution to their story). Bum Kim is also very appealing as the bad boy with his own secret. When he slants his eyes and gives the viewer (or the love-struck Ga Eul) a wicked sideways glance, you’re sunk. It’s impish and knowing and surprisingly mature.

A knowing look from Kim Bum

This is a very glossy drama with a lot of eye candy for the viewers, especially with the handsome “flower boys” of F4. The work of the production team shows too: every episode looks expensive and polished. The drama filmed on location in New Caledonia, Macau, and Jeju Island, and the sequences at Shinhwa, Gun Pyo’s mansion, Ji Hoo’s home, and Yi Jung’s pottery workshop look and feel high class. Of each of the versions, this one has the best wardrobe and settings.

In spite of some intrusive subplots, or the shampoo, rinse, repeat nature of Jan Di getting into trouble, getting rescued, etcetera, there is a quick and lively pace to the drama. The drama spun off several soundtracks, including the debatable choice of “Almost Paradise” as a theme, that have included a number of popular tracks. Generally, it’s glossy good fun on the surface. The actors should go on to bigger and better things and no doubt will, especially the highly charismatic and telegenic Min Ho Lee. But, when all is said and done, “Boys Over Flowers” is not the one to claim the prize as the best adaptation of the manga. For this viewer, that goes to “Hana Yori Dango.”

Watch “Boys Over Flowers” on Dramafever.com.

Review: The Jury’s In: “Prosecutor Princess” Wins Hearts

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

Some people choose their dramas because a particular actor or actress has been cast as a lead, others because they are fans of a particular genre (“I never miss a good sageuk”), but there is much to be said for choosing a drama based on its writer. “Prosecutor Princess” is a case in point; while this writer is very much a fan of Shi-hoo Park for his work in “Iljimae” and “How to Meet a Perfect Neighbor,” and was impressed by So-yeon Kim’s work in “Iris” and “Gourmet,” the knowledge that Hyun-Kyung So penned the script made this a must-see. So was responsible for the excellent 2009 melodrama “Shining Inheritance” and another successful outing in one of 2011’s best dramas, “49 Days.” Writer So has a genuine gift for creating characters grounded in honest emotion and substance, and when that is combined with talented and charismatic actors, you know you’re in for a treat.

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Kim So-yeon and Park Shi-hoo

 

One of the hallmarks of a So story is the natural and progressive growth that characters will experience during the course of the story and “Princess” is no exception. The story begins by introducing us to new lawyer Ma Hye-ri (So-yeon Kim) who will clearly not fit the stodgy image of most lawyers. She attends her graduation ceremonies in a wardrobe fit for Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex and the City,” like a peacock amongst the crows, and shows a frivolous side in her actions as well. She’s opted to join the Prosecutor’s office but, rather than attend the new lawyer orientation session, she treats herself to a shopping trip — one with a very specific agenda — to score some pricey designer shoes at an exclusive auction to be held at a ski resort. She’s aided and abetted in this by her mother (played by veteran character actress Hee-kyung Ae), who endures a few insults from Hye-ri’s father (Jung-woo Choi) gladly if it means that her daughter is happy.

“Crime” doesn’t pay

Hye-ri’s plans, however, don’t run smoothly. While at the resort her belongs, including cell phone and wallet are stolen, and someone has mysteriously cancelled her room reservation, stranding her and leaving her without the wherewithal to pursue her desired objective: a pair of designer Gioberni shoes. Someone else is occupying her room, an attractive young man by the name of Seo In-woo, who in learning of her plight offers to share the room with her — and his date. She assumes he means for illicit purposes and stalks off, but attends the auction all the same and attempts to complete her mission. Now we see how she managed to get through law school; the girl is single-minded, dedicated, and resourceful. Unfortunately, she’s not the only one interested in the auction. It’s also the scene of a prosecutorial investigation, looking to capture a high-end counterfeiter. This stakeout is headed up by Prosecutor Yoon Se-joon (played by Jung-soo Han, who most recently made hearts flutter in “Chuno”), a dedicated, action-oriented, and single-minded individual. To say that things do not go as intended for Hye-ri and Prosecutor Yoon would be an understatement. Only (perhaps) Seo In-woo got what he came for this evening!

Back to the city, Ma Hye-ri reports to the Prosecutor’s office in her completely inappropriately high fashion, high heeled wardrobe to take up her assigned position and, sure enough, it happens to be the same one where Yoon Se-joon is a lead prosecutor. Still stinging from his failed stakeout thanks to events that unfolded and her role in them, he pretends to not recognize her. There’s something else going on as well, having to do with that level of recognition, could it be attraction? Interest? Whatever the emotion, he bottles it up well and maintains a stiff, all-business approach, though he’s dismayed to learn he’s assigned to be her lead in the office. This doesn’t sit well with another prosecutor, Jin Jung-sun (Song-hyun Choi), who is the female counterpart to the flashy Hye-ri, appropriately dressed in suit, stodgy glasses, and sober haircut. This solid, respectable citizen and civil servant has a beating heart under her drab clothes and it beats for the widower Se-joon.

Role Model, Mentor, and Man of Mystery – Lucky Hye-ri!

As Hye-ri’s professional career begins on a less than enthusiastic welcoming note, we begin to see a little more of Seo In-woo’s background unfold. He’s apparently also a lawyer, one who picks and chooses his cases based on his own inclinations — and rarely loses a case. For some reason he’s very interested in Hye-ri, and has been keeping a close eye on her actions, with the assistance of his colleague Jenny Ahn (Jun-ah Park). At every turn he puts himself in front of Hye-ri, acting as savior, friend, sympathetic shoulder, and you could even say as a mentor. Because Hye-ri needs a mentor. While she knows the law, she has a blind side to understanding the human side of the law. And she also has a fairly blithe disregard for many of the “do it for the team” side of the workplace, especially a Korean workplace. She refuses to work overtime as she’s a civil servant (there will always be more work, she’s not paid overtime, if they have more work to do they should hire more workers, so why bother?) and puts her well-shod foot wrong in a few cases, leaving her ostracized. In fact, in short order no one wants to work with her and she’s shuttled off to her own office and given no work to do in the hopes that she’ll quit. In-woo, for mysterious reasons, can’t have this and steps in to give her work and guide her into being a contributing member of the prosecutorial staff.

You could say that this drama is fundamentally a mystery, masquerading as a fluffy romance — at least it seems to be a fluffy romance initially, with Ma Hye-ri in her flirty skirts, sky-high heels, and girly office accoutrements. (And oh, how her two assigned staffers hate the ridiculously feminine touches all around them!) But little by little secrets are revealed about each of our characters. Why is Hye-ri so certain that you can’t count on the love of others so you must love yourself first and foremost? Why is her mother obsessed with her weight?

The answers to those questions reveal a particularly poignant and contemporary touch to the story; the way people are treated in a relationship shapes their perceptions of relationships in the future. The marriage you see your parents’ having informs your view of your own potential relationships. It’s a smallish detail in the grand scheme of things, but it’s one of those character and plot points that goes a long way in helping the viewer understand why Ma Hye-ri acts the way she does and makes her growth as a person all the more meaningful. Early on you could say that the plot takes a few cues from “Legally Blonde,” but by the midway point in the drama the differences become more distinct and for a simple reason: Hye-ri does not really see herself as a beautiful person with a brain. She is someone who’s worked hard to make the most of her attributes, both physical and mental, but doesn’t have the blithe confidence of Elle Woods, as you will discover. This makes her progressive improvements in her career more plausible and the character more likeable.

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Park Shi-hoo confuses and bemuses Kim So-yeon’s Prosecutor Princess

Even more significantly, the flow of the story brings us more and more curious behavior from In-woo and then finally the tide turns and we begin to get the details on how and why he’s acting the way he does. Why exactly is he so interested in Hye-ri to the point of deserving an order of protection writ against him for stalking (which of course does not really happen because if he didn’t follow her every move, how else would we get to see how absolutely adorable he is?) Best to let you discover this for yourself: telling would be spoiling!

The story comes complete with a sort of love quadrangle: In-woo obsesses over Hye-ri; Hye-ri comes to have a serious crush on the dedicated Se-joon; Jung-sun longs to have Se-joon look her way too; Se-joon is kind of hung up on his deceased wife who happens to have looked a lot like Hye-ri, but he respects Jung-sun as a colleague and mother figure to his young daughter; and Hye-ri feels very comfortable with and relies upon In-woo. Is that complicated enough? The beauty of it is that Writer So manages to make the stories work and the actors bring the characters to life.

So-yeon Kim reveals a deft touch with the rom-com genre and is successful with playing a woman who is not cool, elegant, or a North Korean assassin. She’s smart, but kind of a screw up. She’s warm-hearted, but lacks a certain amount of common sense. She’s got great instincts for the law it turns out, but she’s also sometimes shortsighted when it comes to planning. It seems like Kim’s trying too hard to play ditzy and frivolous and that may turn off some viewers (as it did some friends of this writer), but once she starts relaxing into her role as a prosecutor, So-yeon Kim let’s us see that sharp brain of Hye-ri’s as it starts to click. The reasons for hiding that brain come to light and we are let into the character’s inner world of hurt thanks to Kim’s performance, just as we come to see the day-to-day bravery of the young woman to cope with heartache and cruel expectations.

Stop! Thief! (No… Don’t!)

Shi-hoo Park is a well-known scene-stealer — he’s twice been cast as the second lead and ended up with the girl due to changes in the story in previous dramas — and it’s clear to see how and why he’s moved up to first lead position. With such a handsome contender as Jung-soo Han, who brings a smile to any girl’s face with his cheekbones and stellar physique, it seems that he’s the primary candidate for the love interest. But Park has a way of sneaking up on you and making you connect with him emotionally.

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Known scene-stealer Park Shi-hoo and gorgeous Kim So-yeon shine

 

When we first see him in the drama there are times when he’s almost creepy, and others when he’s definitely creepy! There’s that smile of his when he is trying to charm Hye-ri, or deflect her attention — it’s just a little… off. It’s the right touch to make us suspicious of him, and so we should be. But as we learn that he’s carrying some serious and painful secrets of his own and his face takes on a more guarded and tentative expression, or one that slips and reveals his truthful feelings, then all bets are off on who’s going to get the girl! The question is no longer whom, but when (and maybe how). It’s maybe a strange thing to say, but one of the things that Park excels at is looking anguished, so storm clouds on the horizon in a drama mean that he’s going to break your heart and make you swoon just a little bit more!

As with the prior year’s “Shining Inheritance,” this drama deals with a “sins of the father” storyline and raises the issue of filial duty. It’s the central driver for “Prosecutor Princess,” in fact, and represents a satisfactory mystery. It unfolds at a fairly rapid pace in the latter episodes, but the pacing does not seem to rush the impact of the story. You’re not left wondering how things happened and why, and for those who prefer to have dramas that focus on the relationships-side of the story, this tidying up of that aspect of the plot allows a satisfying amount of time to allow our protagonists to sort themselves out romantically.

And at the end of the case of “Prosecutor Princess,” the verdict is in: it’s entertaining and well-spun yarn with performances from a telegenic and likeable cast, well worth your time. Make plans to see it, and if you haven’t already had the chance to explore the works of Hyun-kyung So, add “Shining Inheritance” and “49 Days” to your viewing list as well!

Watch this drama legally at Dramafever.com!

Review: The Truth Is Out There (And So Are Creative Dramas!)

Review originally written for The Korean Quarterly

The cable drama “Secret Investigation Record” (조선X파일: 기찰비록, or Gichalbirok, and popularly known as “Joseon X-Files“) makes a promise to be addictively mysterious early on in episode one and keeps true to its mission throughout the entire 12-episode run.

This is a highly ambitious drama; it time-shifts the premise of aliens and supernatural beings to 17th century Joseon Korea, with a wink and a nod to the popular Fox sci-fi series, “X-Files.” “Secret Investigation Record” looks to the source materials for inspiration and makes the concept feel both homage and yet at the same time an original work of fiction.

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The events recounted in the drama occur in the early 1600s and purportedly recount (in part) a series of inexplicable and bizarre events recorded in historical documents of the period. The most significant of these are the recorded sightings of UFO-type shapes occurring in various locations around Asia.

The story, in fact, begins with a scheduled execution about to take place in the province of Gangwon-do. However, before the prisoner can be dispatched, a brilliant light splits the sky and a familiar (to viewers of sci-fi everywhere) saucer-shaped machine appears in the heavens, creating chaos on the ground. This event is duly recorded by the governor, against the advice of his staff, and sent to the king.

Unfortunately, no one appreciates that the truth “is out there,” least of all a group of mysterious figures at court. They see the news of this kind of phenomena as something that must be suppressed at all costs. The governor is brought before the courts and tortured to make him recant and an investigation is called for to discount the claim and therefore find a reason to execute the governor as a liar (therefore guilty of treason against the king).

The investigator chosen for the assignment is the stolid, duty-oriented and grounded Kim Hyung-do, played by Ji-hoon Kim. Those choosing him for the task no doubt assume that they’ve picked the kind of investigator who will be not predisposed to flights of fancy, and would dismiss the seemingly illogical reports of space machines readily. Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for the viewer, Hyung-do is not one to let an unexplained experience go; he’s like a dog worrying a bone over things that cannot be reasoned through and soon he finds himself on the ground in Gangwon-do province, sneaking into the former governor’s rooms (now off-limits), stealing private diaries as evidence, and basically doing the opposite of what officials hope he’ll do to put this case firmly to rest so that they can go ahead with their plans.

If you’re looking for a comparison to “X-Files,” you could say that Hyung-do is the more grounded, fact-based observation and detail-oriented Scully of the story, with a dash of the occasionally more impulsive Fox Mulder thrown in when the situation warrants it!

He’s accompanied in this investigation by his assigned officer, Jang Man, played by character actor Hee-bong Jo. Jang Man is a cross between the canny civil servant who knows how to keep his head down, an aide who will follow orders loyally when asked (even if he really, really doesn’t want to do so), and an outright bumptious coward. He doesn’t like any of the situations they increasingly find themselves in, and voices that alarm most readily, but in general he’s surprisingly loyal and as dogged in his own way as Hyung-do, and in that makes a good sidekick.

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During the first episode, Hyung-do has a brief encounter with a young woman, Heo Yoon-yi, played by Jung-eun Im, the owner of a bookshop. He’s startled to see in the materials she’s dropped, images similar to those drawn and described by the governor, however there is no opportunity to pursue this discovery – until they meet again.

Yoon-yi is destined to become his partner in investigation, they are brought together later through the machinations of Ji Seung, the head of a covert organization known as Shinmuhwe. Ji Seung, played by Kap-soo Kim, is a top-class puppet master, and Kim plays him with a steely eye not unlike his role as the spy agency head in “Time Between Dog and Wolf.”

Our first glimpses of Yoon-yi show her to be influential, a member of a group gathering to discuss the appearance of the flying saucers, and an expert of sorts in the subject – or at least as a librarian of the arcane. Her interest and knowledge in this field is impressive, as is her calm, intelligent manner.

As the drama progresses, she is also much more than that; she is an equal to Kyung-do in terms of contributing to an investigation. She is not there as the romantic interest; there is actually very little in the way of romance within the various story arcs, but there is a definite connection that speaks more to partnership and understanding.

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To recount more of the story would diminish the discovery aspect as Hyung-do pursues one mystery after another and tries to make some semblance of logic out of his experiences. It would also involve an overuse of the word “mysterious.” However, it is worth noting that each episode introduces multiple hints – sometimes just the briefest glimpses of a face, an action, or an object – that will have significance later in the drama.

The plotting is carefully laid out to reveal information; this is one drama where it would be worth watching all the way through and then, after finishing, going back and watching it from the beginning to see the many clues placed throughout. The strongest story arc of the series begins with episode 7 and continues through episode 9; it’s some of the strongest writing, acting, and production work I’ve seen in Korean dramas, and it stands out for its uniqueness in tone as well – though there are small flashes of clues earlier in the series. It’s that level of intricacy and detail that make this drama a standout.

Of course, this may not be the drama for everyone. A fellow devotee of Korean dramas was watching it at the same time and struggled with some of the plot. The biggest complaint was directed at the actions of some characters in given situations.

Why, for example does Hyung-do persist in his investigations (when there is another government squad that comes in to clean up and hide all evidence of the supernatural phenomena, including killing all who know the answers). Is the “wet-work” cover up squad working in parallel or does the work that Hyung-do inadvertently lead them to their victims. If so, why doesn’t he stop? My answer: he can’t stop until he finds the truth. It’s his personality and his obsession since his own first encounter. It is who he is, right or wrong.

The other criticism was that there was not enough attention paid to the back-story for Hyung-do and Yoon-yi. Even if this were not intended as a sci-fi driven romance, the emotional ties to the lead characters would have been stronger if the viewer knew more about their pasts.

How did Hyung-do come to be who he is? How did he know that governor? Yoon-yi knows nothing of her past, we learn, but how does she come to know so much about the arcane?

The series sheds no light on these questions, but for this reviewer (and her spouse), the lack of information was not a detriment. In a way, not being so closely tied in to the history of Hyung-do or Yoon-yi meant that you could focus on the story as it unfolds. You are, in a sense, experiencing the emotional jolts and shocks to reason that the characters do, as they experience them. You “live in the moment.”

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The final criticism is that after the incredibly strong story arc running through episodes 6 through 9, episode 10 was out of place in tone and the two-episode arc to close the series was weaker and left more to many questions.

This is a valid criticism, though one might argue that after the intensity of the previous episodes, the relatively lighter tone of the tenth episode calms the story down in order to set up the climax. The ambiguous ending allows for personal interpretation – just what does happen to Hyung-do in those final moments? What was the truth to his relationship (past and/or present and/or future) with Yoon-yi?

This decision is up to the viewer, though the series cries out for continuation. Unfortunately, with Ji-hoon Kim entering the service shortly after the drama wrapped, such plans are out of the question.

It’s worth noting that, as a cable drama, the production team used the opportunity to up the ante on style, camera direction, and occasionally the gruesome.

The hand-held camera work may generate some criticism, but for this reviewer it added that sense of things being off-kilter in a way that was perfectly in keeping with the shocking discoveries, fearful moments, and palpitating heartbeats of those involved.

Much of the set decoration and costumes were exceptionally lovely; the color palette and tones for this drama are particularly notable. A particularly humorous bit of wardrobe creativity comes in the form of Hyung-do’s gat coming in for regular beatings. The increasingly shabby and crumpled look of his headgear is a subtle running theme throughout the drama and it becomes a part of his detective persona, not unlike the rumpled raincoat worn by Peter Falk’s detective, Columbo.

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Secret Investigation Record” deserves much praise for the imaginative setting, fresh and compelling characters, and yes, risk-taking, for gambling on a sci-fi tale that is willing to look to a cult classic and marry it to the familiar setting of Joseon Korea.

The success of the project is undeniable; months after watching this series, my non-drama-watching spouse still brings up how he wishes there were more episodes to watch! And in writing these details I find myself longing too for a revisit to this world, and this time to pay even closer attention to the clever clues laid throughout the piece.

This is one tale that’s not going to be “written and filed away” forever; it’s going to be watched again soon and no doubt many times in the future.

You can watch “Secret Investigation Record” at Dramafever.com.

A Fairy Tale Setting for an Adult Fairy Tale

Written for the Korean Quarterly

Full disclosure: “Lovers in Prague” is one of those dramas that will always have a top position on my life list of favorite dramas and I hope that you will say the same thing when you have finished watching it as well. I’ve pressed it on friends who have grown weary of their diet of increasingly predictable and hyper sexed Spanish-language telenovelas and they’ve fallen on it with the eagerness of the long parched finding an oasis of pure water, then they email me after every episode to proclaim their love. “Ah! This is how romance is supposed to be!”

Yes, it’s that good.

Why does this drama resonate so? Let’s explore the many things that it does so well, beginning with the authentic flavor of its opening episodes in the city of Prague in the Czech Republic. Too often dramas or movies are set in a location and they are in and out of the place with only a quick nod to the top five places to see. Not so here.

From the red-tiled rooftops to the narrow lanes, from the views of the Vltava River from the Charles Bridge to the wide spaces of the Old Town Square, you feel that the characters inhabit a real place. There are several enduring mental images I carry with me from my own visit to Prague that seem particularly appropriate symbols for the drama: the first are the city’s cobblestone streets and walkways. At a glance they look smooth and sturdy, but make no mistake – if you approach them carelessly (leave the high heels at home, ladies) you’ll end up at the very least with aching feet and at worst with a twisted ankle. They’re complex, rugged, irregular, and durably solid. Kind of like police Sergeant Choi Sang-hyun, played by Kim Joo-hyuk.

Another is the soaring nave of St. Vitus Cathedral and the intricate and glowing stained glass windows. Inspiring, creative, joyful, they remind me of the dedication and hard work of many, and of the resourceful, optimistic, and persistent diplomat Yoon Jae-hee, played by Jeon Do-yeon.

The final image that is incorporated so charmingly into the drama is that of the puppets of Prague. The art of puppetry, both their creation and the stagecraft of puppets, is as much a part of the Prague artistic scene as their devotion to Mozart (who had his first big professional success in the city). When I think of how a simple figure, in the hands of a master puppeteer can be made to perform any number of complicated steps, I think of the special prosecutor Ji Young-woo, played by Kim Min-joon. As the story progresses, the subtle symbolism works its magic on me.

Choi_in_st_vitus

The greatest part of the drama’s success is, of course, due to the excellent work of its strong ensemble cast.

You have a leading man who is dependable, loyal, kind, brave, modest, and yes, manly. You have a leading lady who is intelligent, optimistic, willing to fight for her beliefs, plucky but not childish, and so giving and lovable. The false lover is angry, frustrated, fair-minded (to a point), but unrelenting. And the portrayal by each of these three leads of those characteristics is perfection.

In addition this trio of stellar performances, Yoon Se-ah manages to portray that perfect mixture of pitiable and despicable in the role of Kim Hye-joo, the girl who decides to upgrade her situation in life by pursuing a rich older man, rather than settle for a kindhearted, hardworking police sergeant. Kim Seung-wook has a colorful turn as Sergeant Choi’s partner, whereas Yoon Young-joon shines as Jae-hee’s fellow diplomatic core worker and friend, playing in an unsentimental fashion the part of a handicapped young man. Lee Jung-gil is Jae-hee’s father, the perfect counterpart to Young-woo’s father (played by Jung Dong-hwan), president to evil corporate magnate (the aforementioned rich older man and principal puppet master). Also making a more humorous appearance is Ha Jung-woo as Jae-hee’s bodyguard, and Jang Geun-seuk as her younger brother. With such a talented cast, it’s not remarkable perhaps that they make every scene so memorable.

The Bruiser and the Belle

We first meet our protagonist, Sergeant Choi Sang-hyun as he and his partner are busting heads and rounding up smugglers, earning him an arm injury and a few assorted cuts and a Presidential commendation. He modestly proclaims, when queried by the President about his girlfriend, that Korea is his lover, unlike the young man next to him (Ji Young-woo), also up for a commendation, who remarks that he’s hoping to win a special lady.

Wanting to share the details of the ceremony with his fiancée, Sang-hyun calls her long distance in Prague, but is abruptly told by her to forget she ever existed. Alarmed and perplexed by this, he takes off to find her and discover the cause for this turn of events. Arriving in Prague, he spots Jae-hee in a bar and, owing to her glamorous appearance (she’s got an embassy event to attend), assumes she’s an expensive call girl and he’s ashamed that a good Korean girl would behave such a way. Shortly thereafter, however, he’s forced to turn to her for aid when a local makes the mistake of attempting to pick his pocket.

Amused by his brashness, Jae-hee does help him, and intrigued, also agrees to help him find his fiancée. She’s very taken by his loyalty and candor, perhaps because five years ago, someone she cared about (Young-woo), left her with a promise to return but never did. Is the good Sergeant the kind of man who would abandon her? Definitely not. Plus, he’s a dedicated servant of the nation, a man just like her father, driven by principle. She’s more than interested. In return for her help in finding Hye-joo, she needs his help – will he participate with her in a tandem marathon representing Korea? The manner in which he does come to do so is the deciding factor in her falling completely in love with this man. He is never going to be the type to leave her waiting and wondering.

Sergeant_choi_and_his_diplomat

Of course, Sang-hyun has other things on his mind, like a shockingly unfaithful girlfriend, and the ending of the life path he had plotted out for the two of them. To him, he is more likely to believe a dog than another woman, he tells Jae-hee. This is not going to be so simple.

Complicating matters, she is wrapping up her Prague assignment and will be returning to Korea. Will their paths cross? It won’t be easy, diplomats and sergeants don’t tend to move in the same social circles (especially if the good Sergeant Choi has anything to say about it). However, a lucky traffic violation brings them into contact once again, much to Jae-hee’s delight.

An assignment on a special robbery task force also brings Sergeant Choi into contact with the other winner of the Presidential commendation, Ji Young-woo, and a temporary duty roster in the same building where Jae-hee works. Young-woo wastes no time letting Jae-hee know he’s still interested, but there is the unanswered question as to why he never came for her five years ago. He is territorial towards her, much to Sang-hyun’s amusement and annoyance. But Jae-hee has eyes only for Sergeant Choi and puts her campaign to convince him that a woman can be trusted into action.

Chemistry in Action

The roadblocks that the couple face might seem like some unrealistic fantasy plot in less capable hands. Instead, the issues that the Jae-hee and Sang-hyun will have to confront are powerful and emotional moments, thanks to the incredibly chemistry between Jeon Do-yeon and Kim Joo-hyuk. Their banter, their soul-searching glances, their ups and downs are all fascinating to watch. When they’re happy, you celebrate their happiness; when they’re devastated by various turn of events, you are devastated as well.

Kim Min-joon deserves special mention too. I confess when I watched this drama the first time I seriously despised Young-woo for being selfish, blind, and greedy because that’s how I saw the man who kept getting in the way of the two lovers being together. Upon my second viewing, however, I saw more nuances in his role and performance than I’d had the patience to see the first time around. His actions late in the drama are the lynch pins to the surprising resolution to the drama.

If there is a weakness to “Lovers in Prague,” it is the role of Jung Dong-hwan’s “Evil Daddy.” As the man who A) ruins his son’s life (potentially three sons’ lives), B) ruins a young woman’s life, and C) wants to ruin the President, it strains credibility a bit that he’d have that much power and his portrayal is a little formulaic, but all things considered, it’s a minor quibble in what is overall a highly satisfying drama.

Best of all is the gratifying resolution of the drama, unlike the puzzling ending to another title by the same team in the “Lovers” series, “Lovers in Paris.” The ending to “Lovers in Prague” will have you ready to pop disc one back in the DVD player for a return visit to a magical place – or searching online for travel deals to the Czech Republic to see whether the city can be as magical for you as it is for our two lovers. Either option is a very worthy choice!

You can watch “Lovers in Prague” at Dramafever.com.

Montecristo vs Montecristo vs Montecristo

Currently, the Argentine network Telefe is rebroadcasting on its satellite channel one of its most popular recent telenovelas, “Montecristo,” a modern take on the classic Dumas tale. [Note: This version is now available on Dramafever.]

As it aired in 2006, the producers sold the script to several other network producers, from Mexico and Chile. In fact, the resulting productions are close carbon copies of more than the script: the staging, set decor, even soundtrack, are inspired by the original. The version produced in Mexico by TV Azteca was a highly successful retelling of the story – I had the opportunity to see it first and was impressed by many of the production details, particularly as fully realized, rich storytelling has suffered lately in the telenovela industry. With the airing of the original, I can compare the two productions and both clearly have made their mark.

The scene below is one example of the intense connection between the protagonists Laura (played by Paola Krum) and Santiago (played by Pablo Echarri). Their characters have been separated for over ten years, she has believed him dead, and they meet face-to-face for the first time. He runs (for reasons to complex to detail here) and she follows.

The Chilean version, from what I’ve seen, suffers in comparison. Here Laura is played by Ingrid Isensee and Santiago by Gonzalo Valenzuela.

But the Mexican version, starring Silvia Navarro and Diego Olivera offers a very satisfying comparison: whereas Paola and Pablo created a more fragile, wounded pair finding their way back to each other, Silvia and Diego are fiercer, more engaged in the battle of righting wrongs. Both productions pack a lot of emotional impact. Here’s a direct comparison of the Telefe scene.

The best part of the different interpretations is that, while the stories are almost identical on so many levels, the distinctive interpretations of the actors allows both productions to feel fresh. This is an instance where a remake successfully competes with the original.