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

Review: Miracles Happen

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

It is a rare and precious drama that, upon viewing, can make one’s pulse beat just a little faster than normal, from the opening moments through to the final scene. Cable network jTBC performed that miracle with the exceptional “Padam Padam… The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats.”

It is clear from the opening scene that this will be no ordinary story, told in no ordinary way, nor performed by ordinary actors. If it were simply a case of a great story, many viewers of television dramas would be delighted at being treated to a novel and imaginative tale. Yet this is perhaps the least of the not inconsiderable treats provided by “Padam Padam.” It brings to the screen an incredible visual style, cinematic in its scope, as well as beautiful and unique locations in and near Tongyeong, South Korea. But it is the excellence of the performers who make up the drama’s cast that bring these other components to brilliant life and make it unforgettable.

One of the boldest and bravest of these performances is that of Woo-sung Jung.Jung Woo-sung is Kang-chil

The drama opens with an extreme close-up of Jung, dedicated to eating a meal of fried chicken with a single-minded thoroughness. Meat is stripped from the bones with precision and no succulent morsel escapes his unselfconscious attention. He eats without passion.  A voice interrupts his meal to tell him that Prisoner Yang Kang-chil has a visitor. This is to be his last meal; he is destined for the gallows. Are we seeing, in fact, a story told in reverse?

While this is not the case (we are not after all seeing the story’s final sequence), “Padam Padam” is a richly layered story, with multiple timelines. It demands your attention at all times, though this is never a chore. Watching the various threads of the story unravel and become knit together once again is particularly gratifying. It is a story of redemption and retribution, of courage and despair, of love and doubt, and of miracles.

The Unjust Sentence

Kang-chil is a man who has from the age of 19, spent fourteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Released from prison after serving his time, he makes his way back to Tongyeong and to his home. Along the long route homeward, he meets a stranded motorist, an attractive young veterinarian, Jung Ji-na, played by Ji-min Han, in what must certainly be considered a contender for classification as the finest role in her career. She is justifiably wary of this large, blunt-spoken man, and keeps her distance, only to be challenged later to reconsider her prejudicial first impressions by his candor and lack of aggression.

Han Ji-min is x

Han Ji-min is Jung Ji-na

In Tongyeong, Kang-chil returns to find his mother, played by the incomparable veteran actress Moon-hee Na, working dockside as a fishmonger. She is a living illustration of the pejorative “fishwife” in her shrewish nature, harsh words, and actions. She seems incapable of the tender gesture; life has been cruel to her. Not knowing much of what compassion is like, she has little ability to bestow it on others, even her own son.

Kang-chil has deep emotional wounds, owing to key events leading up to the crime for which he’d been framed, and its aftermath, and holds her partially to blame for his suffering. Yet, she is his mother and he must come home to her. The reconciliation between mother and son is one of the tenderest, painfully honest, and most gratifying of the plots in this drama. Na is equally unafraid to play a character that is hard and scolding. Hers is a voice that could strip paint from wood, yet those harsh words turn out to be her ways of demonstrating her love.

Reconciliation

Kang-chil does not return alone to Tongyeong; another prisoner gains release and is “tasked” with keeping an eye on Kang-chil. His task is actually more self-imposed — Lee Gook-soo believes himself to be Kang-chil’s guardian angel. The young actor Bum Kim plays Gook-soo with an impressive maturity. The question is: can Gook-soo actually be an angel?

He is convinced that he is on the path to becoming a bona fide guardian angel and Kang-chil is his responsibility. And given certain circumstances that cannot be described in this review for fear of giving away crucial plot developments, there are reasons to suspend disbelief. Is he delusional? Are those events that transpire miracles, as he claims, or are there other reasons?

Kim Bum brings a slightly shifty and cunning, yet pragmatic tone to his “almost” angel, but it works… oh, it works! His actions at one point were so devious that they made this reviewer (and a friend watching alongside) literally gasp aloud in shock!

A Rehabilitated Life

Life back at home is not exactly easy for Kang-chil, but he and Gook-soo set up as carpenters/handymen and prove that they have a knack for this. Circumstances lead to them undertaking the remodeling of Ji-na’s veterinary clinic. During this period, she comes to learn more about the man that is Kang-chil, and to discover in him a pure heart. He is smitten by the young woman, he has never known a woman, and even though he knows that he’s deemed by society to be unworthy of any woman (let alone one so amazing as she), he looks upon her in wonder and dreams that maybe (somehow), he might be allowed to care for her.

There are many other obstacles in Kang-chil’s way, and not just when it comes to love. He receives devastating news of one kind at one turn, and is pursued by the uneasy individual who was actually responsible for the crime. A further unexpected development comes in the arrival of a young man who claims to be Kang-chil’s son. Tae-joon Choi gives a pitch-perfect portrayal of a teen on the cusp of adulthood who feels resentment and abandonment issues, but who also desperately wants to feel that he belongs. As if this was not enough, the officer in charge of the pivotal crime not only was the brother of the victim, wants his “pound of flesh” from Kang-chil, but is also Ji-na’s father. Hang-sung Jang plays Detective Jung as a hard core, hard –headed career cop not above a little brutality to mete out his own form of justice.

Exceptional Performances

Woo-sung Jung’s performance is amazing on so many levels; it’s hard to know how to stop offering singing his praises. He’s given Kang-chil this gangly stoop and loping walk, and in that physical interpretation, one senses the boy who was confined to the confining and restrictive space (prison) during his peak years of physical growth and development. It’s a small thing, but it’s part of the complete package.

When and actor is called upon to be facially expressive (and in such tight close-ups as are frequently used in this drama), there’s a fine line between overdoing it and honestly revealing your emotions and Jung never crosses the line into “mugging for the camera.” Jung’s Kang-chil is so candid about so many things, but is not above hiding his feelings (the way a convict might), especially about love.

Kang-chil’s simplicity and the fact that you can see his emotions on his face makes you open your heart to him — except when he makes a conscious effort to hide those feelings and you take an emotional step back at the guile on his face. Your pulse will race as much as Ji-na’s must do when Kang-chil challenges her with his questions because he’s so direct and “simple” in his candor. “Why can’t a guy like me love a woman like you?”

Jung is so good at showing Kang-chil’s wonder at this delicate and beautiful woman he has found. In one of many memorable scenes, Kang-chil has to give her a piggyback ride on a long trek back to his truck. He wants her to hold him more tightly (because it will be easier to carry her) and at the same time he’s not beyond talking about how exhausted he is.  He does live in the here and now! When he switches to carry her in front he can’t help but look at her with wonder, whereas Ji-min Han’s Ji-na observes him back, almost analytically, as if he’s a foreign specimen, both interesting and confusing. And I love how, when he does kiss her, it’s as if he is afraid to show any sort of real passion, or doesn’t know how to do so (yet), but rather by pressing his lips on hers he’s savoring her softness, the sweetness of her warm breath, the proximity to her small features and he’s worshiping in the pure essence of woman.

A worshipful kiss

A worshipful kiss

Ji-min Han is one of those actresses who I always felt had more to her, but often could be too “cute” in her roles for my liking (such as in “Great Inheritance”). I think she’s never been more beautiful than in this role and I like the real emotional conflicts she faces in trusting Kang-chil (and her ex-boyfriend and father as well). She has her reasons and they’re valid, though Gook-soo’s chiding her choice to believe more in evidence than her intuition hits home. The scene in the lake was a beautiful balance between JWS and HJM. I particularly like the wariness in her eyes…

There are other characters that round out the story; the two most noteworthy are Hang-sang Jang because of the distance he goes to play such a realistic and unsympathetic character as Detective Jung. The other is Jae-woo Lee who plays one of my favorite characters in this drama, but for an unusual reason; he breaks new ground in drama characterization by being a character that is completely normal and credible.

As Ji-na’s ex-fiancé Yeong-chul, the way he’s been written and is portrayed he closely resembles real, occasionally flawed men, not the idealized men of dramas, or villains. He’s a cheater, but he’s managed to stay friends (and perhaps “friends with benefits”) with Ji-na. They behave like two friends who know each other perhaps too well, but who have not let go completely of the feelings they once had for each other. He reacts to Ji-na’s attraction to Kang-chil in a very realistic fashion, by proposing marriage when he gets jealous. He doesn’t want to get married, he’s not the “marrying type,” but heaven forbid that she should move on (and with an ex-con!)

At one point he asks Kang-chil how long he and Gook-soo were in prison with that — “Hey, it’s no big deal, right?” attitude — he knows it is a big deal and he was consciously a little cruel. But he apologizes (because Ji-na told him to do so), but he’s playfully petty to make her apologize when she insults Kang-chil too.

Showcasing the South

Finally, the setting for this drama is incredibly effective, from the harbor views, the hilltop home of Kang-chil’s mom, to the abandoned mill that becomes his workshop, it’s all beautifully selected, framed, and captured for us to enjoy. Gorgeous! The direction of “Padam Padam” also deserves special mention.

Kim Bum, angel or delusion?

Kim Bum, angel or delusion?

Every episode includes camera angles and techniques that would deserve praise in high budget films. A small yet pivotal scene at a traffic roundabout was one of the most film-like sequences I have ever scene in a drama and I can’t think of any other time that I’ve seen a roundabout ever used like this. It is a tension-filled moment that will have you on the edge of your seat, waiting and cringing with anticipation. I swear that my heart was pounding like a bass drum! Equally, there are small, quiet moments of companionship and trust that will resonate with their beauty and emotional honesty.

That a small cable network has managed to produce what must surely be one of the finest dramas of 2012 is a remarkable achievement. “Padam Padam” is a drama to be savored and remembered. The drama is currently available on Dramafever.com and hopefully will be made available on DVD as well. It deserves a place in the discerning drama viewer’s permanent collection.

Watch “Padam Padam” at 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.

Prosecutor Princess 1

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.

Prosecutor Princess 2

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.

Prosecutor Princess 3

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!

On my shopping list in Korea…

Loveholics (러브홀릭스) new album drops this week and I can’t wait. “Butterfly,” (track 10 on the new album) is already one of my favorites. Here’s a sneak peak: “바람이 참 매섭다” sung by Loveholics and Whale.

[audio https://dl.dropbox.com/u/7431696/%EB%B0%94%EB%9E%8C%EC%9D%B4%20%EC%B0%B8%20%EB%A7%A4%EC%84%AD%EB%8B%A4.mp3 ]
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01. Raining – Christina (크리스티나)
02. 바람이 참 매섭다 – Whale (웨일)
03. 아픔 (Hurt) – Jang Eun A (장은아)
04. 쉼, 비밀, 위로 – Woo Mi Jin (우미진)
05. Beautiful – Park Hye Kyoung, Park Ki Young (박혜경, 박기영)
06. MIRACLE BLUE – Shin Min Ah (신민아)
07. Message from Tokyo – Miki (The Indigo)
08. 몰라야 할 말 – Abby (아림)
09. 나에게 그댄- Kang Hyun Min (강현민)
10. Butterfly – (Alex, Horan, Park Ki Young, Yi Sung Yol, Christina, Donawhale, Jeong Sun Yong, Mikey, Hye Won, and Jang Eun A)