Review – Hwayi: A Monster Boy

Hwayi: A Monster Boy is melodrama mixed with mayhem. It’s bloody, it’s brutal, and it’s blunt in its delivery… but it works. I enjoyed this movie so much I watched it twice.

The plot is relatively simple – a young boy is kidnapped and held hostage, but something goes wrong in the exchange. Rather than kill the boy (or, you know, return him), the group of vicious criminals known as the Daylight Robbers decide to keep the kid and raise him themselves.

Shockingly, the young boy grows up to be a solid student, a talent artist, and an overall nice guy. Sure, he’s got obvious problems… like imagining a gigantic, horrific creature stalks him, always just around the corner. He seems shy around girls, which is not surprising considering the only female influence he’s had is the shattered woman the gang keep chained to the kitchen sink. But overall, all things considered, our hostage seems to be hanging in there with his rowdy bunch of degenerate fathers.

Of course… that’s all about to spiral drastically out of control in the next hour and a half of the film, so… buckle up.

The main plot kicks off right before our young protagonist is set to go off to art school and possibly escape his “family.”  Fate lures the whole gang back to the beginning – to the boy’s parents and secret grudges and haunting connections between all the characters. It was… tragic and heartbreaking and deeply, deeply disturbing.

This movie felt like someone had condensed an entire 16 episode violent melodrama drama down into 2 episodes. Each character felt fully realized, unique, and solid in the world – and it was easy to imagine exploring each of their backstories and current lives in more detail had it been a drama series instead of a film. The twists and turns of the plot were wild but also worked easily within the narrative and world of the story. The acting was exceptional – in particular the two male leads (Kim Yun-Seok and Yeo Jin-Goo) – though even side characters charged into their scenes with the gusto and confidence of a leading role, as if each were trying to steal the entire movie.

Watch it when you want an evening of exciting, blood-soaked melodrama.

4.5/5 Stars

Review – Awaken

Awaken was one of those rare dramas that tagged all of my favorite tropes. Compelling, badass male lead with swagger and a secret past? Check. Courageous, self-reliant badass female lead? How about two? Check, check. Is there a complicated “murder wall” with a bunch of photos and papers tacked up that someone obsesses over?  Oh, we’ve got two of those too. It’s gonna blow your mind. Check, check. How about ominous overtones of dark forces, corruption, and shocking evildoing lurking just below the sunny surface of Seoul? Check, check, check. Really cool synth music that sets a tone and doesn’t overpower? Check, baby. What do you think this is, Prisoner with its overly bombastic soundtrack that makes every episode feel like a cartoonish Scooby Do cartoon? Heck no, this is the cool Namkoong Min show. We’re all synth and slink here. 

I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish this series, hooked from the opening shot and not content to leave the couch until I had all the answers to the mystery.

Namkoong Min once again proves he’s A-List All the Way with this stellar performance as a chief detective with a secret agenda. Does anyone swagger more than Namkoong Min? Maybe Kim Na Gil, back in the day… but otherwise, no. No one. Namkoong swaggers into every scene, sucker stuck in his mouth, zero tension in his body but you can sense all the action churning around in their minds. His eyes are alert and constantly assessing while he leans comfortably into walls. You know he’s aware of everything, that he hasn’t missed a clue, but you also know he’s not about to clue you in on that fact unless it serves his purpose.

Can I just say now that I am deeply annoyed GIFs are no longer supported through my website software? Cause I saved about a dozen gifs of Namkoong Min just slinking about in this show, grinning and causing trouble and looking cool as hell.

The man was born for this role. He’s just such a cool shark, gliding through the waters. 

The female leads were also outstanding. 

We get our cool as a cucumber FBI agent from America – incredibly intelligent,  gorgeous, and blunt.  She’s level headed and practical and detail oriented… 

She’s also socially awkward and suffering from ever-increasing OCD behavioral ticks…

the exact opposite of our second female lead, who is impulsive, outspoken, and a bit insecure of herself around our male lead and the new FBI lady.

But the girl can kick ass and run for miles without slowing down. She’s so feisty and headstrong, I loved her! 

To balance out our enigmatic male lead we got two competent and unique female characters, each with their own agendas and stakes in the plot. 

And oh what a plot!

As it’s a mystery-thriller, so I will not dive into spoilers or a long analysis of the series. Instead, I’ll give you a basic outline.

26 years ago, something horrible went down at hospital/research facility. This is the opening scene of the drama – and quite a shock! People are randomly attacking each other and/or committing suicide – all with pleasant smiles on their faces as the facility goes up in flames around them. Here in the fiery inferno of madness, we find three children, seemingly unaffected by whatever is happening to the adults. One of them gives us a creepy speech: 

I am standing on an empty road all by myself. The sun is shining brightly, and the clock that’s never wrong says it’s 12. Then, I wonder to myself, “Is it noon or midnight?”

 

What does that mean?! It was cryptic and enigmatic and had me totally hooked. I don’t know about you… but I was ready to settle in for the long haul after that scene. What in the world just happened? Who are those kids? What sorta freaky facility is this and what were they up to?

Welcome to the White Knight Village!

This is the foundational mystery of the series – and you will have a very good time finding out the answers.

This drama is “Sci Fi Light,” as I like to call it. There’s some science fiction elements… with mad scientists and nefarious human experimentation projects… but it does not lean too heavily into this aspect. Awaken is not the Avengers, after all, oh no no. None of that bash you in the face with it, spell it out for you in block letters, overt American-style super hero nonsense here, oh no no. Awaken is gonna sneak it in subtly, little hints here and there. You might even forget you’re watching a science fiction show for a while, distracted by the police procedural elements or the human relationship drama… but then it reminds you. It gives you chilling backflashes, suspicious “something ain’t right about that” scenes, creepy lingering stares filled with subtext, layer by layer as you get closer to the dark heart of the mystery behind the White Knight Village and the massacre you witnessed in the first episode.

I absolutely LOVE the slew of mad scientist storylines coming out of South Korea in the past year or so. That’s a trope that never gets old, in my opinion. With all the miracles of modern technology and medical sciences, it’s frankly shocking we don’t have more of these dramas globally.

On a more random note, perhaps, I’m pleased that South Korean mad science shows don’t try to convince us of the realism of their experiments, either. There is nothing more annoying than pandering to the small percentage of fans who are gonna pull out their dry erase markers and draw us a diagram of how and why some mad scientists’ project is unrealistic and thus deserving of scorn. I don’t care in the least if genetically altering humans isn’t plausible. No one stopped enjoying Spider Man or the Hulk because they thought the science behind their transformations was faulty.

The more outlandish and overdramatic the science project the better, in my opinion. I want secret laboratories and mad scientists with wild hair and white coats who make grand speeches about why they’re destined to control nature and bend it to their wills. I want unrealistically dark corridors and medical wings with no overhead lighting. Give me brains floating jars and syringes full of neon green liquid! (speaking of – we’ll get into this more with my review of L.U.C.A.: The Beginning… which I am L.O.V.I.N.G.: Every Minute of It).

This series had deliciously devious villains. Each of which were as enthralling and complicated as the protagonists. Let’s face it, we’re all suspect of rich people… so it’s not a stretch of our imaginations to believe they’d be up to no good.

Though I’ve seen this listed as a romance… I’d be reluctant to call it that. It’s got romantic elements, for sure… with some serious simmering stares and pining from afar, but you’re not gonna have any piggy back rides or hangover soup scenes with this show. They’re all too busy trying to stop people from spontaneously committing suicide and keeping secret organizations from taking over the world to have time to go on dates or make out in an alley way. Which is honestly a little unfortunate, cause they could have squeezed it in. There was room. They made it work in other dark mystery dramas like Hello Monster, so I know it can be done. But c’est la vie. It’s my only gripe and really more of a side note.

So go watch Awaken! It was great.

Overall Rating: 9/10. Secret Science Projects of the Wealthy Elite and Why to Fear Them.

Review – When the Camellia Blooms

When the Camellia Blooms stars perennial favorite Kong Hyo-Jin as a single mom struggling to make ends meet by opening a bar in a small fishing town. As the majority of the women in the town are small business owners, the men flock to the new bar as the one place where they can get drunk without worrying about the prying eyes of their wives and relatives. Unfortunately, this does nothing to help our mom’s popularity amongst the community, who are suspicious of a young single woman anyways.

This is one of those shows were the main antagonist is other people’s prejudices (I mean, sure there’s a serial killer but I’ll talk about that mess in the spoilers section). It’s a very blunt exploration into the prejudices, contradictions, and difficult natures of human beings. It wasn’t a melodramatic exploration of human connections, like Angel Eyes or Will it Snow for Christmas or Just Between Lovers. It wasn’t as cute and playful in its depiction of adults struggling to find love and fit in, like Dear Fair Lady Kong Shim/Beautiful Gong Shim, Flower I Am!, or Heart to Heart. It was just kinda… good. Without being great. It wasn’t anything new, and yet it was enjoyable. You’re not gonna stay up all night to finish this one, but you’ll probably stick around until the end. This show will cause you to hate people. And conversely, to love them a little too. 

This screenplay won Best Screenplay at both the KBS Awards (2019) and the Baeksang Awards (2020), so I had high expectations of a well-crafted drama full of memorable characters and a tightly laced plot. I dunno… I guess it was a weak year, cause if this is the best they’ve got, that’s not saying much.

This is not to say there weren’t moments of sparkling dialogue – cause there were a few: 

We also got this perfect line of dialogue:

Writer Im Sang-Choon also wrote Fight My Way, which I thought was better. Also not perfect, but definitely more enjoyable over-all. 

More often than not, When the Camellia Blooms felt like a drama that was supposed to be set in the 80s. Before cell-phones. Before late-stage capitalism took over the country. Before the internet. The behavior of everyone reeks of the old-fashioned stigmas of the 20th Century – the stigma of unmarried mothers, the ability to “disappear” in a small country, the weird detail that none of the women ever stepped foot in the bar they were so all so suspicious of to check on their husbands (as if ladies going into a bar was too scandalous to consider!), and the fact everyone commonly associated bar owners with prostitutes. How ostracized orphans were (by adults, too, and openly!). How the police work to solve crimes was also incredibly old fashioned and low-tech. How no one ever checked the internet or their phones for immediate information, entertainment, and social connections. I mean… video arcades were still a thing in this drama… yet at some point, a kid has a gameboy… I dunno, it was all over the board. So I assumed, for a while, it was set in the past… but then they ruined it with occasional references to Instagram and cell phones. So  either it was just a mess to begin with or the producers changed the setting at the last minute to accommodate more advertisers. I suspect it was the latter.

So… 

Overall Rating – 7.5/10. Cranky Locals Learn to Love the Town Outcast.

SPOILERS & MORE RAMBLINGS ON CHARACTERS FOLLOW

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Viewing Update – Summer 2020

I’ve completed a few new (to me) Korean Dramas that are worth reviewing, for a myriad of reasons, some good and some bad – but I am backlogged right now, due to the pandemic and attempting to get materials ready for students and being overwhelmed with new software.

But still… I thought I would drop a hint! Coming Eventually (maybe not soon, but as soon as I can)… drumroll please…

Dear My Friends – rating 9/10

Arthdal Chronicles – rating… uhm… 7 or 9… depending on my mood.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay – rating 8/10

Mr. Sunshine – rating 7.5/10

Crashing Landing Into You – rating 7.5/10

Kingdom – rating 7.5/10 (just watch Train to Busan)

The King: Eternal Monarch – rating 7/10

Memories of the Alhambra – rating 4/10 (I actually watched this a while ago and it left zero impression on me)

Mystic Pop Up Bar – rating 2/10 (I just turned it off… it’s muck)

 

 

 

Review – Itaewon Class

Itaewon Class. What a strange love story to Capitalism, am I right?

Here is how I imagine this drama was pitched between the writer and the studio executive.

Executive: “So what have you got there? You said it’s a revenge story set in the food industry?”

Writer: “Oh yeah. It’s gonna be great. We’ve got this stubborn, solitary guy who doesn’t need anyone’s approval, he’s just gonna go his own way and do what’s right. Stick to his principles. Never budge an inch.”

Executive: “Like a John Wayne type?”

Writer: “Teenage John Wayne.”

Executive: “But better looking than John Wayne.”

Writer: “Much better looking.”

Executive: “Who does he want revenge against?”

Writer: “A CEO of a worldwide food company. This guy is just super rich and powerful, so it’s gonna be hard to get revenge, ya know?”

Executive: “He’s gonna get his revenge by becoming rich too, right?”

Writer: “Of course. That’s how justice works.”

Executive: “It’s how product placement advertising works too. Sounds like a win!”

Social taboos unveiled in hit South Korean drama Itaewon Class ...

Itaewon Class had all the elements of a quality fairy tale K-drama: A strong archetypal hero with impeccable values and a heart of gold who rises over adversity, meets his goals, finds loyal friends and allies, and of course discovers true love. There was a nice sized cast of diverse characters with unique plot lines and motivations. I was interested in the fates of everyone I’d been introduced to, good and bad. It was far better than the majority of K-dramas I have seen in the past year and not bothered to review.

And yet it had serious problems. The last few episodes really fell off the gas pedal and the plotline slowed down considerably. Ironically, the most dragging episode was the finale – which had a preposterous amount of exciting things happening and somehow managed to muffle all the energy of the climax. And worst of all, in my opinion, there was the problematic underlining theme of the entire show. It’s what I like to call the Capitalist Dream, the lie we all tell ourselves: If you just work really, really hard then you can achieve anything. Entry into the golden palaces of the 1% is possible for anyone willing to work overtime. This idea has tucked the poor into bed since the dawn of time, soothing their anxieties about class inequality with a little fairy tale about how some people sneak into the castle… and get the prince to fall in love with them… and that could be you.

So, yeah, there were issues. But I still highly recommend this drama. It’s 16 episodes, which is a nice length for a series. They managed to fill each episode with enough plot that we didn’t have to over indulge in excessive flashbacks, pointless walking or staring scenes, or other fillers. It was lighthearted and funny at times without being silly or cartoonish. I especially enjoyed the spunky, quasi-sociopathic lead female. And who doesn’t love a good revenge story?

Itaewon Class – Overall Rating: 8.5/10. Feel-Good Capitalist Propaganda.

More – about characters and themes below. SPOILERS GALORE so watch the show first, my dear readers.

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Review – Where Your Eyes Linger

Where Your Eyes Linger is the first openly gay romance where the two lead characters fall in love. Can we call this a drama? It’s really not even as long as a traditional film, let alone in the league of sprawling K-dramas. It was released online, so technically it’s a web series, but whatever. We’ll take the 8 episodes (only 10 minutes long each) and be happy we got it – because when they start handing out appetizers surely it means they’ll be serving up a main course of gay loving soon!

The plot in a nutshell is basically this. There’s a rich boy who’s dad is some mega CEO tycoon but also clearly mafia. Rich boy has a best friend, who is also his guardian and protector, and adopted (I guess, we didn’t really get much of a backstory here, though honestly it would be cool to know – this mini short could easily turn into a full blown drama in the hands of gifted writers) boy who relies on the charity of the mafia family for survival. The boys live together and go to school together and work out together and fall in love together and that’s about it. Two very handsome young men pining over each other with increasing intensity. There isn’t much to the story beyond this, so I won’t really spoil the ending except to say neither of them die. That’s saying a lot, as the Kill Your Gays trope has been around for a long time and it’s often easier to have one character sobbing on a grave than deal with the backlash of angry homophobs upset that gay people might be happy.

The two leads have believable chemistry, which was a plus. The side characters are minor, to say the least, but we really weren’t given time for anything else. The whole show feels a lot like a play, set on a few key locations, generally no more than two or three people in the room at any time. It had just enough conflict to make it satisfying, just enough dialogue to set up the structure of the story, and heaping spoonfulls of very PG but also very joyously-overt gay flirting and repressed longing.

It was a short but sweet addition to Pride Month. Is it perfect? Far from it. Did it end up seeming more like porn for girls? Definitely, but I’m not in the mood to do a deep dive essay on the problematic nature of female objectification of gay men through boys love media right now. Was it a bit of a rip off of Tight Rope and about a dozen other Yakuza themed BL manga? Okay, yes, but let’s not split hairs in the genre. Did I kinda love this very short gay love story? Yeah… I kinda adored it. I was texting my best friend during the entire screening.  “Oh my god, the waitress lady just asked which of them is the top. Straight people are so freakin’ rude” and “Oh my god, they’re wrestling with enthusiasm, this is definitely code for sex” and “Oh my god, he’s washing his freaking hair. This is the most orgasmic sudsy nonsense I’ve ever seen, it’s gotta be code for a blowjob” and “Oh my god, now he’s begging him to snuggle in the bed, cause of course they share a bed cause how positively heterosexual of them, hahahahahaha” and “Oh my god, why is forbidden love so ridiculously addictive?” and “Oh my god, I think we might actually get a kiss in this show. Like, mouth to mouth!” and “OH MY GOD!!!!

Anyways, it was cute and there’s no reason everyone can’t give up 80 minutes of their day to watch it.

Overall Rating: 8/10. A Rainbow Sprinkle Romance.

Now I get to go update my Gay K-Drama List!

MORE HAPPY THAN NOT by Adam Silvera

More Happy Than Not is the book that tried to kill me.

It was exceptional – incredible! And it just walks you right off the edge and leaves you a devastated puddle at the end. 100% worth it, though.

It’s the story of a young guy growing up in the Bronx, in poverty, all the games he and his friends play, their favorite comic shop, their quest for tail and a free beer and even a flicker of hope in their lives. I don’t even know how to talk about this book… it’s so good! It’s completely unexpected and emotionally gut wrenching and romantic and raw and remarkable for a first novel (well done Adam Silvera). It’s written with the authenticity of someone who grew up the same way… so I can’t help but suspect there are many mirrors of Adam’s own story in the text.

Anyways, nothing you think is going to happens. I think anyone who reads a lot or even watches a lot of television gets used to following certain plotlines – and this book destroyed them all. Repeatedly. Gah. I cried. And then I kind of gaped in horror as the narration drew to a close because… gah. For the brave readers, I highly recommend jumping off this cliff.

RATING: FOUR STARS

Title: More Happy Than Not
Author: Adam Silvera
Originally published: June 2, 2015
Genre: Fiction

Review – The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion

The Witch starts out with a bang – including eerie opening credits that feature archival (real or fake, who knows?) images of human experiments and cruelty: witch hunts, the Holocaust, and more. As if that didn’t set the tone enough, you’re then greeted with a ridiculously bloody aftermath scene. There is blood splatter galore, but all seems quiet… men with bats catch their breath as something or someone twitches underneath a tarp. You quickly deduce this facility has been experimenting on children and that one of them has escaped.  A cold, cruel-seeming woman shrugs it off, saying the child won’t live long anyways… and a blood soaked girl runs through the night.

The Witch quickly shifts from the dark, bloody, and tension filled opening to a misty morning on a small farm. An older man spots the runaway sleeping and scoops her up, calling for his wife as he runs towards the house.

Eight years later and our runaway is now a teenager. The country town is bright and filled with lovable characters. The movie is now about a young lady who is trying to help her aging parents as they deal with financial and medical problems. Our teen witch seems perfectly ordinary, a nice young woman who jokes around with her best friend and cares for her parents. Yet there is tension in the air, built with small hints that something dreadful is just around the corner… her increasingly crippling headaches… her unexpected participation in a national singing contest… her mysterious abilities. You know something is about to happen… but what? When? What sort of experiments were they doing in that creepy building from the opening scene? What sort of powers does our innocent girl have…?

I’ve watched this three times now and each time I marvel at how well crafted this film is. The balance of action and humor, the dark scenes and the light ones. Like a Cohen Brothers movie, this film is packed with side characters and each one of them is memorable. They’re given small character quirks, signature elements that make them distinctive. And they’re all drawn together at the end for a high stakes showdown between multiple parties with multiple interests. It’s bloody and violent without being shockingly so – and the end is satisfying while also leaving you wanting more.

Rating: 5 stars. Go watch it.

More musings on The Witch including SPOILERS…. so you are warned….

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Review – Extracurricular

Extracurricular is a dark k-drama that serves up another thick slice of social commentary pie. In particular, it wants to feed you a little story about class warfare.

About inequality.

About capitalism.

There have always been dramas that focus in on this particular subject, of the vast differences in the lives of the rich and the poor. South Korea is generally better at realistically portraying poverty than we are here in America. Unfortunately, they suffer from the same tendency to paint the extravagantly rich as something to aspire to and admire. Namebrand recognition. Mega mansions, fancy cars, and shopping sprees. It’s not just enough to be in the middle, you want to be on the top. And if you’re busy focusing on the top, you might not notice that the middle has disappeared.

In South Korea, they tend to layer messages in their social commentary – from the obvious to the more obtuse. Especially when focusing on class and inequality. Some are better than others. What Happened in Bali and My Mister are two that are particularly good in this layering. What makes them good, in my opinion, is that they expose how bleak reality is for those who are struggling financially, how easily things spiral out of control for them, and how easy it is for others to look away.

Extracurricular is a layered story of class inequality that uses this lack of control to illustrate its message and push the narrative. Just like the characters in the show, as a viewer you’ll find yourself constantly surprised by the ever-increasing disasters that occur with even the slightest misstep. This drama has layers of crime, of bullying, of shocking violence, of consumerism, of abuse and of so much more. It’s layered like a Greek Baklava.

Extracurricular shows how integrated the “unseen” is in the seen world. And it doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to determine the moral of the story or process all the information it provides. It’s messy. And it’s dark. And I enjoyed it, as much for the plotlines as for all the ambiguities and questions it forced me to ponder long after it was over.

Rating 8/10.  Mild Mannered Pimps Always Get Screwed.

Further analysis of the story and the characters follows – with spoilers galore – so you have been warned….

SPOILERS AHEAD ———————-

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OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

Every once in a while you read a book that not only changes how you view the world – but has the potential to change the world. Outliers is one of those books. It digs into our misconceptions about achievement, talent, economics, culture and luck. This book examines how your generation, your date of birth, your upbringing (and so much more) can significantly affect whether or not you achieve in this world.

Malcolm Gladwell is good at getting conversations started. He runs through a room full of huge subjects, lifting back curtains to give us glimpses into his hypothesis. You can learn a great deal from this book, but most importantly it asks you to do more work on your own. The conversation started here is important – and forces you to reflect upon your own circumstances in relation to where you currently are in the world. You’ll probably want to thank you parents or, if not, maybe change your own parenting. You may have heard of a few of these theories before – but I was honestly surprised by quite a few revelations in this book, leading me to “Ah Ha!” moments of my own while reading.

This book should be required reading… for all humans.

RATING: FIVE STARS

Title: Outliers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Originally published: November 18, 2008
Genre: Self-help book