Drama Review: Taking the Path Less Traveled: The “Misaeng” Journey

This review was written for and appeared in the Korean Quarterly

Do you (or have you) work in the corporate world in a “cubicle farm,” or do you love someone who goes into the office day after day? Perhaps you’re in the medical field, and fight a never-ending battle every shift to see to the welfare of your patients.

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Do you go to school, and crack the books night after night to keep on top of each day’s lessons, or do you watch over someone who does?

Is your daily life a harried blend of chores and obligations, with just enough sunshine to keep you emotionally fueled and able to continue?

Have you ever felt that you were an outsider and were challenged to find ways to fit in, or have you seen others on the outside and witnessed their efforts?

If so, then the special 10th anniversary drama from the Korean cable channel tvN, “Misaeng” will touch you and inspire you!

“Misaeng,” translated as an “incomplete life,” or one that is not yet lived, takes its characters on voyages of discovery, as they seek the paths that will lead each to find his or her own place in life, and fulfillment. Continue reading

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Review: Arang Fights Heaven and Hell for a Good Cause (and Saves the Universe)

This review was written for Korean Quarterly and appears in the 1st quarter 2014 issue.

Here is some advice before viewing the fantasy period drama, “Arang and the Magistrate”: let the story unfold like any good ghost story told before a crackling fire on a dark and stormy night, but pay attention! There are hundreds of little plot details that are laid out in each episode. In fact, this drama unfolds like a complex mystery novel, or perhaps a better analogy would be painting a picture. You begin with an initial sketch and the composition is interesting, it tells a story, but as the layers and layers of paint are added the image becomes richer and more nuanced. As each incremental piece of the tale is revealed, you become more and more engaged in it, wanting to know why someone is a particular way and what will happen next… and then bam! You get the answers, and they shock you!

In an opening that is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” in which the reader is told that it’s important to believe that Jacob Marley is dead (or else you won’t believe in the miraculous tale that unfolds), the drama begins with a similar explanation. There is something odd about things these days; the barriers between the living and the dead have altered and now ghosts roam freely amongst the living. Oh, and ghosts have the advantage of being able to see humans but not the other way around. Except for one person, that is: a young man by the name of Eun-oh.

Continue reading

A Garden of Earthly Delights

This review was written for and was published in the Korean Quarterly

One of the most popular dramas of 2010 was the inventive and fanciful “Secret Garden” and it justly deserves the many accolades. Not only does it boast two of the most handsome and star-powered acting in Korean movies and television in its lead actor and actress, Hyun Bin and Ji-won Ha, but its riches include an impressive book, direction, camera work, and OST (official soundtrack). It also serves as one piece of Hyun Bin’s temporary farewell tour, completed just prior to his entering the Marines to fulfill his mandatory military service. And what a sendoff! Not only does he create a memorable character in his “dual” role, but he scored a major hit on most music charts with, “Keu Namja” (“That Man”) for the drama’s OST. Equally, his costar Ji-won Ha gets the perfect showcase in her “roles” to illustrate why she is so sought after for film and television work. Why the reference to “roles” for both actors? This is a fantasy drama that has a lot of fun with the body – or perhaps it is more accurate to say “soul” – swapping concept!

For some, the idea of a drama that deals so heavily in a fantasy make-believe world may be a turn-off, getting in the way of the delicious meat-and-potatoes of dramas: romance. In “Secret Garden,” viewers will have the chance to feast on both the desired romantic staples and have as dessert the extra fillip of fantasy as tempting as the sweets table at an Italian wedding!

The story introduces us to the respective worlds and personalities of our protagonists and the people close to the in the first two episodes.

Joo-won Kim (Hyun Bin) is the head of the exclusive Loel Department Store, and a man of seemingly infinite neuroses. He works only two days a week (much to the chagrin of his family and top management), yet is very successful in his work. He is all competence and perfectionism and an emotionally distant figure. One of his tendencies – much to their annoyance or fear – is to question those who report to him with, “Are you sure? Is this the best that you can do?” But this is a mask. He is a man who suffers from extreme claustrophobia and related panic disorder. His shrink is number one on his speed dial. He’s lived his life in the insulated bubble of the very rich upper class, so his meeting and subsequent dealings with Ra-im Gil bring him into a world that is foreign and confusing to him. She seems as poor to him as someone you might encounter in the pages of National Geographic!

Ra-im Gil (Ji-won Ha) is making her way in the world as a passionate and dedicated young stuntwoman. She works on a team headed by Jong-soo Im (Phillip Lee), and at the beginning of the story is working as a stunt double for a spoiled starlet. Because the work status of a stunt double, especially, it seems, for a woman, is so low, she is treated with relative disdain by the star and the director, yet she redoubles her efforts and apologizes when things go wrong because that is how things are and what she must do. She behaves like one of the guys on her work team in order to blend in, but there is a part of her that wistfully wishes that she could revel (and reveal) her feminine side too.

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This story includes a number of interesting characters, most notably Sang-hyun Yoon, who plays a “Hallyu Star” known popularly as Oska. His character’s real name is Woo-young Choi and he is Joo-won’s older cousin, rival, nemesis, sounding board, and friend. Oska is equal parts brash, sensitive, self-aware, sincere, blunt, and a tiny bit full of himself, but in such an amusing way that viewers will fall completely head over heels for him. Oska is a singer, performing songs that skew just a little (read: a lot) too young for him and he knows it, but he has a huge fan base, especially in Japan, and is putting out a new album. Bored with this, or perhaps realizing that he’s trapped in a place he doesn’t want to be, he decides he’ll mentor a new talent when he spots Tae-ssun Han (Jong-suk Lee). Too bad that the kid wants little to do with him, at least until they come to terms!

Oska not only has the adoration of thousands of fans, he is Ra-im’s idol too. She turns to his music as solace in times of stress and warms herself with a memory of once having met him and worked on a film with him when doubling for Seon-ah Kim. (The drama’s writer has a field day with a number of meta-type references to previous dramas, real life actors, singers, and situations.) Two of the lovely songs from the drama’s OST are performed in the drama by Yoon; they are “Here I Am” and “Bara Bonda” (“Looking at You”). Spending a lot of his time as a careless playboy, he has “a past” with Seul Yoon (Sa-rang Kim), who has decided that she’s going to make him pay by setting her cap for his cousin, Joo-won.

Oska’s playboy ways are the catalyst for introducing Joo-won and Ra-im; Oska needs Joo-won to prevent the spoiled actress for whom Ra-im’s doubling from holding a press conference after he dumped her. As Oska is the image of Loel, it’s important to Joo-won to protect his louse of a cousin, but it’s also great leverage to get him to resign his contract with the store. Fortunately for us viewers, on the movie set he’s directed to Ra-im who, because she’s dressed like the actress and mistakenly identified, and away we go! He manages to insult her but when put into his rightful place by the fiercely proud Ra-im is struck by the force of her personality. She is like no one he’s ever met before and he finds any number of ways to meet up with her, including going to the Stunt Actors Academy to find her and going through a hilarious audition process to have the chance to talk to her! Yes, you’re going to score with the ladies when you wear a tracksuit that is made of dark blue sequined fabric – and it’s not going to matter if it was hand-stitched in Italy! He gets her attention during a workout session that will have many viewers wishing that all sit-ups could be so… “Stimulating!”

More of his neuroses are revealed as he finds himself imagining Ra-im accompanying him in his solitude; he talks to her, chides her for not being the type of woman he should know or care about, and pictures her in many different ways. In short, he’s captivated by her and has no clue how to deal appropriately with his feelings. Maybe she could be like “the little mermaid” in the children’s tale; he can enjoy her company and then she could disappear? He is often a world-class jerk, until the fateful events that lead to the soul swapping (and sometimes even after that, because hey, soul-swapping is a stressful business!)

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Ra-im is understandably confused and irritated by Joo-won’s high-handed ways and makes no effort to hide these feelings. Why is he so persistent? Why should he care about how people perceive her? Doesn’t he know that he just makes her life that much harder? But his attention reminds her that she would like to be seen as a woman too. She’s fortunate in having as a friend and roommate Ah-young Im (played very appealingly by In-ah Yoo), who works at Loel. She’s called upon to be both confidante to Ra-im and to occasionally help as a go-between for Joo-won, ably assisted by the scene-stealing Kim-sung Oh, who plays Joo-won’s hapless assistant, Sung-woo Kim.

The benefit to the soul-swapping storyline not occurring until very late in the fifth episode is that the viewer has time to understand the characters, and to sympathize with them (or hope, in the case of Joo-won, that he gets a big karmic comeuppance and learns some valuable lessons). Once the switch happens, the story takes off in a whole new direction – or perhaps it should be compared to a parallel track. The main romance and discovery storyline is still ticking away very nicely, but then you get the added bonus of the simultaneous “OMG I’m her/him!” storyline in which the two lovers learn important things about each other and life. The moment in which the two discover that they have become “Joo-wonda” (Ra-im inhabiting Joo-won’s body) and “Ra-him” (when Joo-won discovers he has breasts) may require you to replay the scene several times because you will have been laughing too hard on the first viewings to have caught all of the dialogue!

Major praise goes to both Hyun Bin and Ji-won Ha for throwing themselves completely into the characterizations of their “other” roles. As Joo-wonda, Ra-im could be said to have a leg up because she’s been working in a man’s world in a physical profession, but she’s got zero experience with the intimate side of the man’s world, let alone the elite world of the rich Joo-won. Plus, she finds herself in close proximity to her fangirl idol Oska and can barely hide her urge to “squee” whenever near him! On the other hand, as Ra-him, Joo-won must deal (in a side-splitting moment that will be relished by most women) with female undergarments, the unrequited love of Ra-im’s boss (and therefore his rival) Jong-soo, but a thousand times worse for him is that he must be the physical and unafraid Ra-im, Stuntwoman.

A fellow viewer with whom this reviewer shared the “Secret Garden” experience complained that she felt the drama could have stood on its own without the soul-swapping storyline, but I could not agree. Joo-won needs to understand Ra-im’s world and her pride and to gain a bit of her courage and Ra-im needs to learn how to face the world with a greater sense of self-worth and yes, entitlement. By learning more of each other by being each other, the two grow into a couple that breathes for each other. And this is a beautiful thing!

There are myriad reasons for watching this drama: the most significant one being the incredible chemistry between Hyun Bin and Ji-won Ha. Yes, chemistry, chemistry, chemistry! What a beautiful thing that is! I love the way he falls for her so completely and he knows what this is because he feels it, and yet he doesn’t because he’s never felt this way before. I shouldn’t enjoy his dominating her by sitting on her the way he does in one scene in the Stunt Academy (he’s so tall and she’s so tiny) but, well, she had it coming because she was the one kicking him and tossing him around at the time. If you play with fire, you get scorched by Hyun Bin’s eyes! There are times where they are so angry at each other that you don’t know if they’re going to self-combust or fall on each other and kiss each other madly. You will hope for the latter, though be prepared for Joo-won’s incredible pill of a mother (played by the incomparably icy Joon-geum Park) to step in just at the worst possible moment.

Much too can be said about the world these characters inhabit, especially the brilliant choice of the home used for Joo-won. An architectural stunner, his house (it cannot in truth be called a home unless Ra-im is there with him) is a crisp, white, ultra-modern showpiece set in acres of open space, with a deck overlooking a beautiful ornamental and natural-looking pond. It is open plan and minimalist and a sterile cocoon for the neurotic Joo-won. It’s almost as if it is a geometric eggshell of a womb in which he can hide from the world, yet it is so open and airy that he is free from his fear of enclosed spaces. In spite of this, there are spaces in this house that are inviting, such as the library and his loft-type bedroom. Even if you do not care for modern architecture, you may find yourself wanting to move in. And, it contrasts beautifully with the small apartment that Ra-im shares with Ah-young, filled with the objects one collects during one’s life, cozy and warm.

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You may notice that this reviewer has not provided many details to the drama and there is a reason for that; there are so many delightful moments to the way the story unfolds that to describe them here would rob the story of its impact. They should be experienced first-hand, without spoiling one’s personal discovery. When you can, as soon as you are able, make time to go play in this garden!

Watch “Secret Garden” at Dramafever.com – http://www.dramafever.com/

Review: A Most Delicious Scandal

Reviewed for the Korean Quarterly

Have you been looking for a drama that will satisfy everyone in the family? Well, look no further, because Sungkyunkwan Scandal is up to the challenge!

This drama is definitely a little charmer, mixing in some of the best features of stories like those in You’re Beautiful and Coffee Prince, only this one is pure Joseon fusion sageuk fun, based on a comic novel of the same name. With a similar premise of a young woman dressing as a man to function in a male environment in common, a lot depends on the ability of the actress in question to convince you not so much that she’s convincing as a man (though it might be more appropriate here to say “boy”), but rather that her character belongs in the world she’s inhabiting. Min-young Park as Kim Yoon-hee (and disguised as Scholar Kim Yoon-shik) is central to the success of the story. It is how those around her behave and treat her and how she responds in turn that make this drama the delight that it is. But more on Miss Park and the rest of the cast after a brief description of the story.

Mixing a dash of reality with a big dose of playful fiction, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is set during the reign of King Jeong-jo (played by sympathetically by Sung-ha Jo) and is populated by real characters (Yak-yong Jung, one of the leading philosophers of the era in which the drama is set, as played by Nae-sang Ahn) and fictional ones. It describes genuine historical issues, namely the geumdeungjisa and the search for this document. The geumdeungjisa was an historical document that was said to have described how one political faction, the Norons, manipulated King Yeong-jo into killing his son, the Crown Prince Sado (father to King Jeong-jo). Its significance is revealed during the course of the drama and the search for the document has consequences for the main heroes and heroine. It also includes entertaining fictional challenges to the success and/or safety of the protagonists, regularly placing one or more into jeopardy.

Into this world comes Yoon-hee Kim, who has been making her way in the world camouflaged as her brother, Yoon-shik Kim, in order to support her family and pay for her brother’s medicines. Her deceased father was a respected scholar but he has left the family with few resources. The most notable one is the education he provided his daughter. She’s used it in copying books and other documents for a local bookseller, but a situation arises that places Yoon-hee and her family’s wellbeing at risk. She makes the decision to sit the entrance exam illegally for Sungkyunkwan University. (Note: the drama is set in a fictionalized version of the real life Sungkyunkwan University, the original school founded in 1398 was the most important seat of learning in the Joseon era.) This is a decision that will radically change the course of her life (and, perhaps, history!)

 

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She’s challenged in her mission by the exceedingly intelligent, highborn and well-connected (his father, played by the ever-excellent Gap-soo Kim, is Left State Minister Lee Jung Moo), handsome, and oh yes, exceptionally rigid-minded Lee Sun-joon, played by Micky Yoochun in his first major acting role. Whereas Yoon-hee is more cynical, expressive, and passionate about the world and how things are, up until this point Sun-joon has only thought about the “haves and have nots” in theoretical terms, but his fateful encounter and subsequent relationship with Yoon-hee will change his life forever as well. This drama is a perfect example of a couple who are clearly written as two individuals of strong mind and character who complement each other – to use the cliché, “complete each other” – in the fullest sense of the term. It’s a delight to watch them grow and develop a genuine friendship that is not contingent on a male/female relationship, but more as two intelligent and counterbalanced minds.

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Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t a male/female relationship that blossoms in this tale – but it’s a twisted path to get there because our singularly straight-and-narrow-path Sun-joon hasn’t got a clue that his new fellow scholar is a girl. And yet, he feels compelled to defend this strange small-boned “lad” in a number of situations that range from the hilarious to tension-filled dangerous.

Descriptions of this drama make reference to the “Joseon F4,” a nod to the infamous F4 of Boys Over Flowers, the four famously handsome and charismatic young “flower” men of that drama. The writer tosses a wink and a nod to that concept with the addition of two other important characters: Joong-ki Song as the flamboyant provocateur and ladies man, Goo Yong-ha, and Ah-in Yoo as the surly radical with a cause, Moon Jae-shin. The popular Yong-ha goes by the nickname “Yeo-rim,” in tribute to his skill with women, and Jae-shin is known as “Guh-ro,” or Crazy Horse, for his wild and untamed behavior. These two are the first to discover Yoon-hee’s secret but, for their own reasons, undertake separately to protect her identity. And really, they’ve got enough to worry about!

Yong-ha is busy playing both sides of the political arena at Sungkyunkwan – when the story opens, he’s part of the coterie of the school’s president, Ha In-soo, son of the Minister of War (and the man who holds the threat of ruin over Yoon-hee’s family, amongst his other crimes), played by Tae-soo Jun. In-soo can give Sun-joon a run for his money when it comes to rigid, but he’s not blessed with the latter’s same sense of fair-play and fair-mindedness. Yong-ha tosses in his lot with Yoon-hee, Sun-joon, and Jae-shin, ostensibly because it amuses him, but he becomes a powerful ally in the process as he brings a clever mind to the table as well and is gifted in all manner of game playing and schmoozing.

As for Jae-shin, school is the perfect place for hiding a little open rebellion. He’s busy masquerading as a leafleting ‘terrorist’ known as the Red Messenger. One of his red paper leaflets, in fact, points fingers at the government for burying the truth about the geumdeungjisa and starts the hunt in seriousness for both the perpetrator known as the Red Messenger and the geumdeungjisa. He too is drawn to the fierce intelligence and determination in Yoon-hee to excel, no matter the task, and as well to her sense of right and wrong which marches firmly in step with his own. His knowledge of her gender gives him a different perspective than that of Sun-joon’s and the reactions of both young men to this “cuckoo in the nest” lead to many laughter-filled moments.

 

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Many of you will discover, in watching Sungkyunkwan Scandal, a newfound (or heightened) appreciation for the introspective, observant, not highly verbal, men of minimalist facial expressions, repressed, but still manly types – namely Micky Yoochun – and Ah-in Yoo. Micky especially looks well suited to the school uniform, the top-knot and headband – even in the gat (the wide-brimmed horsehair hat worn by the scholars and most highborn men) that often suits no one well! Yoo is equally charismatic in those robes, but sporting a wild and unruly mane of long locks, restrained only for official school functions. If you find yourself wishing that somehow both young men could win the girl, you will not be alone!

And about that girl… One of the stumbling blocks for many in a cross-dressing drama is the complaint, “Well anyone can see she’s a girl!” Yes, this is true enough when you just look at Min-young Park. She’s slight, has large, expressive eyes, fair skin, and to our eyes she’s a girl, but she’s not wimpy when it counts. Her Yoon-shik remembers that “he” is a young man at most times and behaves with the natural freedom that a young man would enjoy (though occasionally she’s hesitant the way a young woman might be in the era when women are the bottom of the totem pole). She has, after all, been playing her brother for a while now in order to support the family. She’s also a character you can root for. In particular, while there are several well-done subplots through the series, one in particular highlights the character growth of “Yoon-shik” and Sun-joon. The sequence of events dealing with the archery competition (episodes 4-7) is a terrific little story arc.

These kids aren’t just there playing school, there are some serious life-and-death types of things happening to them and the loveliness of the surroundings and the attractiveness of the cast doesn’t mask the fact that if Yoon-hee is found out she can be killed, or that ‘Crazy Horse’ is playing a dangerous game, and even Sun-joon has a lot at risk. He’s got that family connection to live up to/down, and doing things that challenge his ideals of right and wrong really pull him out of his comfort zone and also place him at risk.

Arguably, the most charismatic performance of the drama is that of Ah-in Yoo, as well as the showy role of Yong-ha by Joong-ki Song, but truthfully, this drama belongs to Micky Yoochun’s Sun-joon. He came in for criticism for his characterization of Sun-joon during the early episodes of the drama, but he worked for this viewer completely from the very beginning. His facial movements in many scenes are limited but it works with his feelings, even any nerves he might have had also play right into his role. He’s asked to play someone who could be a prig but his eyes always convey a wider range of emotions. Perhaps his life in the intense spotlight as a member of DBSK and subsequent highly publicized split from the group contributed to his ability to mask his outward expression. If you want to know what he’s feeling, you have to read it in his eyes. How Sun-joon grows from the stalwart, self-controlled young man who learns to act with his heart instead of his head, and to trust in doing the right thing for the right reasons and accept consequences is one of the great delights in this drama.

There are many entertaining sequences in this drama but it doesn’t forget the romance. I never knew that removing hats could be so intense! Without giving away the pleasure in watching the scene for the first time viewer, this scene involving the simple removal of a hat is absolutely one of the sexiest scenes I’ve seen in a while and it yet it was so chaste and pure. There are also a number of other “ill-advised” love stories in the drama that could be seen as ripped from the pages of a Shakespeare comedy; In-soo’s sister (played Heo-rim Seo) does her best to marry Sun-joon, a noted gisaeng has a passion for the considerate Yoon-shik, whereas In-soo is driven mad by his jealousy and unrequited love for the gisaeng.

It’s also worth noting that both the setting of the drama and how it was filmed makes it as lovely to look at as it is entertaining. It also features a number of melodic songs (some performed by Micky Yoochun and other members of his new group, JYJ) as part of the soundtrack. Sungkyunkwan Scandal was served well by its youthful leads but the contributions by more senior members of the cast are exceptional as well. King Jeong-jo (Ha) is represented as fair-minded and attentive to his peoples; his close ally and friend, Professor Jung (Ahn) is a friend and guide to the young scholars, and protector to the daughter of his friend; Minister Lee (Kim) is a principled man who appears to have made terrible choices for the good of the kingdom, even if it means sacrificing others.

 

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What I think it did particularly well was to build on the tension in the drama, with the plot and the characters. Is Sun-joon’s dad a bad guy? Will he have to choose between father and lover? I think they did a great job of subtly exploring that angle. The awesome Gap-soo Kim’s rectitude is something that could be seen as repellant and standoffish, the way Sun-joon was heading at the start of the drama. And yet he was close to his wife (and son to mother) so you sense that there’s love in that household.

The many other characters that round out the cast play their parts equally well. Indeed, this drama can and should appeal to all ages. By including a few modern principles to the traditional setting, it creates a sense of timelessness; the acting was entertaining, the characters well rounded, and there were personalities for everyone. Spunky heroine who deserves the man who wins her…? Check. Heroic young man who demonstrates his love…? Check (times two)! Great supporting character stories…? Check!
I will enjoy seeing this one again.

Review: "Iris" Brings Big Hollywood Style Action to the Small Screen

This review originally appeared in the Korean Quarterly 

The production team for “IRIS” (KBS 2009) spent every penny of their reputed $20 million budget wisely because this drama shines with class and sophistication. Every episode brings suspense, action, and yes, romance to the screen, providing something for every adult viewer. (Note: scenes involving violence make this drama inappropriate viewing for younger or more sensitive audiences.) And like many Hollywood blockbusters, the gloss hides some flaws.

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The ambitious plot combines spy games, betrayal, political moves for and against reunification, assassinations and conspiracies, and oh yes, a love triangle, all told in 20 episodes. The principle players in the very large and talented cast are: Byung Hun Lee (“All In,” “The Good, the Bad, and the Weird”), Tae Hee Kim (“Stairway to Heaven”), and Joon Ho Jung (“Last Scandal”) as NSS agents Kim Hyun Joon, Choi Seung Hee, and Jin Sa Woo, respectively. Hyun Joon and Sa Woo meet in the service and are recruited by the NSS, with Seung Hee, an expert profiler for the agency, part of the team vetting the two men. Both fall for her but it is Hyun Joon’s bad boy charm that wins her heart. But there is little time for romance in a spy’s world, not with the threat of North Korea possibly ready for a successful nuclear weapons program.  Rounding out the main cast members are Seung Woo Kim (“How to Meet a Perfect Neighbor,” “Hotelier”) and So Yeon Kim (“Gourmet”) as Park Chul Young and Kim Sun Hwa, members of the North Korean national guard, Young Chul Kim as Baek San, head of the NSS, and T.O.P from the pop group Big Bang in his first role as IRIS assassin, Vick. Other familiar faces in the cast include Je Moon Yoon, Joo Sang Yoon, Jung Gil Lee, Jyu Ni Hyun, and Gab Soo Kim.

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The action sequences are where the drama really shines. There’s a dash of “24,” a smidgen of James Bond, a pinch of “Time Between Dog and Wolf,” and a nod to “The Fugitive.” And the drama kicks off with some outstanding location work and a series of dramatic action sequences. Given an unusual “wet work” assignment to assassinate a key figure in the North Korean government by spymaster Baek San, Hyun Joon (Lee) sets up the operation in spite of the high risks involved. The setting at the Budapest History Museum captures that classic spy versus spy element of Cold War dramas, as he tours the massive stone building and narrow streets of a central European capital that has seen many intrigues in its long history. He narrowly avoids contact with the North Korean security service, headed up by the sharp-dressing Park Chul Young and his stern sidekick, Kim Sun Hwa on several occasions, and manages to complete his task and eliminate the target, but not without consequences. In his escape, he is wounded and narrowly avoids capture, but with his wound as severe as it is, he will need backup from his fellow NSS agents. Only that help is not coming…

 

The story takes a step back at this point to identify the major characters, provide the back story for the friendship between pals Hyun Joon and Sa Woo, their recruitment into the NSS (in a harrowing sequence involving physical, chemical, and mental torture to test their endurance), and to set up the romance between Hyun Joon and Seung Hee, leaving Sa Woo on the periphery and jealous. We learn that Hyun Joon is an orphan and his parents, scientists in South Korea’s nuclear program, died mysteriously. And, that he’s driven, intelligent, loyal to a fault, and yes, very charismatic. (Of course.)

After the successful resolution to a mission in which the president’s life is saved, Hyun Joon and Seung Hee take off for northern Japan to get away from the deadly seriousness of espionage and play in the snow. They spend an idyllic time playing in the snow, enjoying the hot springs, bonding with a local family, and getting to know each other. At one point in their explorations, they come across a statue guarding a lake and Seung Hee explains the legend behind the figure. Her story reveals a fear she harbors that the work they do may turn them into monsters, and her vulnerability. He too recognizes this, but at this point in his career, feels that they will always be able to walk away at some point in the future. But then, he’s not become involved with IRIS. They return from their vacation to head to Hungary on assignment and from there, Hyun Joon is on a trajectory with fate.

While the plot of “IRIS” is not so complicated that one needs to take notes to keep straight what is going on at any given moment, or who is on what side, but to explain further the plot points would rob the new viewer of the thrill of wondering what will happen next. With only a few episodes just past the midpoint of the drama occasionally bogging down in exposition, most hours end with a cliffhanger that forces the viewer to continue on with the next one. There are more than a few surprises along the way, and not always pleasant ones. This is a deadly serious business, with consequences for those involved.

The performances from the cast make this drama worth watching as well, with few exceptions. Critics have weighed in both positively and negatively regarding Tae Hee Kim’s capabilities as a leading lady. Although she excels as in commercial work, there are times when she is given to overacting – particularly when she is called upon to perform in a high-tension scene – and this makes her less compelling as a leading lady. However, when she is relaxed and playful in her romantic interludes with Byung Hun Lee, she is much more credible.

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She does not, however, come across as strong as So Yeon Kim, as the loyal Kim Sun Hwa who throws in her lot with vengeful fugitive Hyun Joon. So Yeon Kim’s large, luminous eyes shine convincingly with emotion. Her expressions are perfectly scaled for the small screen; whereas Tae Hee Kim’s broader facial expressions might be more at home on the stage. The role of Sun Hwa understandably became a fan favorite during the show’s airing, and many a viewer secretly hoped that Hyun Joon might see her true worth and toss over Seung Hee for Sun Hwa.

Another performance that received some buzz in pop circles was that of T.O.P (real name Seung Hyun Choi) of Big Bang. As the stone cold killer Vick, he certainly has a glamorous bad boy vibe down and this plays well in some scenes with the impressionable junior NSS officer, Yang Mi Jung. However, in some sequences with the more experienced Lee, it’s clear that – while this is a promising start – he has some work to do yet to be completely convincing for an extended period onscreen. It will be interesting to see what he does with his considerable potential in future efforts.

The other performances from the major cast members, as well as supporting players, are generally excellent. Joon Ho Jung as Sa Woo brings a wealth of film and television experience to play here and is highly credible as a very intelligent yet ultimately weak and conflicted agent. His interactions with Byung Hun Lee illustrate how good the level of professional acting is in Korea: both men bring a dynamic personality, conviction, and physical presence to the screen. It is impossible to watch their performances and not be moved. As mentioned earlier, Lee also has tremendous rapport with So Yeon Kim, and his dealings with Seung Woo Kim as the North Korean agent Park Chul Young also reveal two mature and professional actors at the peak of their game.

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One of the interesting aspects of “IRIS” for this viewer is the role of North Korea and its agents and how varied and interesting they are. From the moment you see Seung Woo Kim in his crisp, elegantly tailored attire, neatly groomed mustache, and intelligent demeanor, you realize that this is not your typical communist-bashing plot. His character is thoughtful, balanced, resourceful, and ethical. His junior, Sun Hwa, with her modern, angular haircut and neat, black, Hillary Clinton pantsuit, is equally passionate, loyal, and true. There are unethical types on both sides of the border, looking to advance their own agenda by whatever means possible – and hang the consequences. This makes the viewing more balanced and ultimately more rational.

Is “IRIS” a perfect drama? Not entirely. It does reveal some plot weaknesses in some moments of repetitive themes. Hyun Joon takes (and survives somehow, uncrippled) some horrific beatings and the story as a result treads a little too far into the unbelievable. But the action-driven plotting, the beautiful use of location shoots, and the efforts of a highly capable and talented cast push this into the “Must See” list for lovers of action-oriented drama. It’s also the perfect drama to introduce a skeptical male into the world of dramas – you’ve got “take no prisoners” action for him and the romance for the traditionalist!

Finally, what or who exactly is IRIS? Well, that would be telling… You’ve got to get to the bottom of that mystery yourself!