Review – Mouse

If you like murder mysteries, please stop whatever you are doing and go watch Mouse immediately. I mean… just do yourself this one favor. You’ve undoubtedly earned it. I’m sure you work hard. I’m sure you’ve suffered through enough mediocre and forgettable dramas that you have qualified yourself for a reminder of how good a really good K-drama can be when they get everything right.

I loved this show. It was a perfect 10/10, in my humble opinion.

I love a drama that rewards you for watching it. One that has been intricately plotted before production started. You can always tell when this is the case because you have plant and payoff scenes throughout. Little interactions, little cut scenes, little details that just barely caught your eye in early episodes will be brought back later as major revelations and huge plot twists. This show knew where it was going from the first episode and just circled around you a few times like a predator before pouncing and sinking its teeth in. By the end of the second episode, I was completely at the mercy of this drama.

If, by chance, you are reading this review trying to decide whether or not to commit 20 hours of your life to this show, then let me say again, YES. Yes, you should.

It’s about serial killers. That’s all you need to know. That’s it. Just… trust me.

Don’t read any more reviews and for the love of all things holy – do not wander onto the internet in search of spoilers. If you find yourself confused at any point, don’t seek to have your questions answered outside the drama. The drama will tell you everything. It will make it abundantly clear who is who, what is what, and why. Just wait for it. I know we are all accustomed to instant gratification and carry around search engines in our hands, but just… don’t do it.

RESIST THE SPOILERS.

Let the mystery unfold.

Cause if you do – you are gonna have the most enjoyable experience with this show. Your jaw will drop. Your eyes will pop out in surprise. Not once, but twice, my hand flew to my mouth as I audibly gasped with shock. I cried “OH MY GOD!” out loud, to no one, multiple times. I mean… there are plot twists, and then there is Mouse. This show turned a bunch of messy plotlines into a gorgeous, intricate work of knotted art. Spiders everywhere are watching Mouse thinking “Oh, wow, now that’s a freakin’ web!”

The most enjoyable mysteries are the ones that let you get a few things right, so you can congratulate yourself on your deduction skills, but ultimately push you into a dark room and leave you guessing until the very end.

Of course, the story relies greatly on the acting skills of the cast to make it believable. To draw you in with their performances as their character arcs bend and shimmy and attempt a few feats of now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t. The casting of this show was perfect, down to the most minor characters. Everyone brought their A Game, grounding their characters with passion and heart while understanding the shades of gray this drama wanted to highlight.

This show is not a romance. It’s not a comedy. It’s not an action flick. It’s not a melodrama. It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery about serial killers, so if you don’t want to see some mangled limbs and curiously blurred knives, then you are the only person I steer clear of this masterpiece.

Hopefully this gushing enthusiastic “review” is enough to get you started on Mouse. If at any point you start to feel slightly… comfortable… while watching, then don’t worry – a bomb is about to explode and redirect the entire narrative.

“You thought it was a story about this? Oh no, it’s about this.”

(excited by the change in the story line, you settle in)

“Or… is it…” (drum roll) “this?”

(you gasp and resist texting all your friends about the crazy plot twist you have just experienced)

“You liked that, huh? Well, what about this?!”

(waits until you’ve finally recovered from the last four panic attacks and plot twists before jumping out from behind another mystery door)

“OR IS IT THIS?!!!!”

(you fall over dead from shock – but the drama comes in with automated external defibrillator)

“CLEAR!!!”

(you come back to life, severely shaken)

“Oh… we’re not done…”

(the insanity continues even into the post-credit scenes of the last episode. you have left your body by this point and ventured into Korean Drama Nirvana)

Overall Rating – 10/10. The Less You Know Going In, The More This Show Will Fuck You Up (in a good way, I promise).

Review – Time

This melodrama was a perfect 10 for me – until about 16 episodes or so, when Kim Jung-Hyun dropped out of the show. Sigh. What a shame.

I cruised around the web long enough to read about why the actor dropped out of the show, citing his eating disorder and mental health. I also found a few more recent articles hinting a tumultuous relationship with his then-girlfriend may have also contributed to the shows fate. Who knows. Whatever the reason, it happened. The leading male actor left the show before it’s completion. And no matter how talented the writers are, that’s a hell of a hole to dig yourself out of. I’d say they did a damned good job, all things considered. But it never got back to the high ground it was originally founded on, though I’d say it definitely held its head above the water.

Melodramas are a mixed bag for a lot of people, but for me they’ve always been the favorite item on the menu. The more overdramatic and crazy, the more I love it.

This particular melodrama had a lot of call-backs to melodramas of old (Uncontrollably Fond, Mask, Something Happened in Bali) – with an insanely privileged leading male acting like a complete asshole, throwing screaming fits, terrorizing everyone, and basically being a gigantic demonic toddler – paired up with a rather ordinary girl struggling to survive the injustices of her life and economic hardships. Some horrible twist of fate will bring them together – and they will basically make each other’s lives miserable for a long time before slowly finding common ground, helping each other out, and healing past traumas. One of them might die at the end. Roll credits. This is the format and it usually delivers – because we spend the majority of our time in the angsty sections in the middle. Watching things go from bad to worse to… much, much worse. And then, oh my god, I didn’t realize it could get worse but it has and holy hell, these poor people can not catch a break. If you don’t have characters bawling their eyes out in public as often as they’re sobbing their eyes out in private, then you’re not peak melodrama. Melodramas thrive off absolute destruction before they give you the catharsis of rebirth. You’re gonna burn first, honey, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.

If don’t want to throw a shoe at everyone’s head, then the writer’s aren’t doing their jobs right.

Kim Jung-Hyun was soooo mesmerizing as the doomed male lead. I immediately sought out more dramas with his actor after finishing Time and am happy to announce he officially kicks ass across the board.

The premise of Time is as follows:

A rich guy finds out he has a brain cancer and will not survive the year. This is very annoying to him, as he has yet to get over his rebellious stage and make any solid impressions in his life. Everyone thinks he is a screw up because he is a screw up. In typical self-destruct style, our rich guy decides to get wasted and end his relationship with his fiancé by having her walk in on him with a sex worker… cause taking responsibility is not taught at fancy private schools, apparently. He passes out drunk before his fiancé gets there, however, and when he wakes up the sex worker is dead in his hotel suite’s swimming pool (yeah, this guy is so rich he can afford a hotel suite with its own private swimming pool). He has no idea if he is responsible for her death or what happened – but in a tragic twist of fate, ends up meeting the dead girl’s sister. Guilt and a deeply subconscious feeling he should “do something” with his life before it ends, he attempts to help out the sister. And basically makes everything worse. Repeatedly.

It was awesome.

The lawyer, the rich guy, the princess, and the pauper.

The rich guy was a classic jerk fighting a war largely of his own invention.

The pauper was a classic bland girl pushed to one desperate breaking point after another. The most interesting thing about her was how pathetic her life was.

His fiancé was a classic ice queen, spoiled princess, too self involved to even consider the lives of others she crossed paths with.

There was the particularly intriguing character of the lawyer who works for the rich family who also has ties to the destroyed poor family. This dude, played by Kim Joon-Han, literally carried the weight of the drama on his back after the male lead left. He was so… shifty. I found this actor and this role very compelling and always leaned forward a little when he was speaking in his soft, calming voice. The dynamics of this guy, untethered between the other characters, neither for or against anyone but himself and yet… so involved, so obviously devastated and lonely, so broken… I loved him. I loved to hate him. He was fantastic.

This show has all your favorite tropes. Shared living spaces. Fake marriages. Terminal diseases. Rich men atoning for their sins by helping some poor girl become rich too (hey, I didn’t create capitalism).

Even after the unfortunate loss of the leading male, it managed to drag itself to the finish line. Though admittedly flawed by this turn of events, the show still deserves praise. It’s a dark, vicious, tear-soaked spiral down the drain and I highly recommend it anyone who likes melodramas.

Overall Rating – 8/10. A Melodramatic Masterpiece That Died Before The Finish Line.

Review – Mr. Queen

I love time traveling Korean dramas. And I’m also a sucker for the “enemies to lovers” trope. So I figured there was a fair chance I would enjoy this drama. But Mr. Queen surpassed all my expectations by providing a new twist on the old “boy disguised as a girl/girl disguised as a boy” routine. A modern man ends up transplanted into the boy of a woman from the past – not just any woman, of course, but the queen.

This show has a lot of people to thank for its success, but at the heart of it I would say the two leads ruled supreme. The chemistry and the comedic prowess of our king and mister queen carried the vast majority of the weight on their shoulders. Shin Hye-Sun completely nailed the posture, facial expressions, and often over-bearing and oafish behaviors of an attractive modern male. Kim Jung-Hyun blew me away with his sincere performance of a flabbergasted, frustrated monarch. Without his grounding anchor of calm nuance to balance our actresses flamboyant shenanigans, I don’t think the comedy would have landed. The two actors also had incredible chemistry and sold me on hating each other, begrudgingly accepting each other, and ultimately falling madly in love with each other. I confess, I didn’t expect to be so enamored with this couple, but as the show progressed I was spellbound by their story.

The writers, of course, should also be praised. Historical dramas can be tricky business, and managing to create episodes that will entertain the average viewer while also maintaining some sibilance of historical accuracy is no small task. Finding fun ways to incorporate the “modern” interests of the viewers, the “modern” behavior of the time traveler, and still staying true to the rules and regulations of the era is a challenge. This show embraced the current global love of cooking shows, using the challenge of cooking modern dishes with historical tools. I myself do not enjoy reality television, but I admit I was charmed by these kitchen scenes.

The twist of having a modern man in a woman’s body was explored in intriguing ways. While most of your basics were covered – such as discovering your physical body is weaker, the “gay” comedy, the behavioral comedy of gender roles and expectations – there were some elements that were hysterically ignored. I mean, I thought it was funny that they did not have even one scene in which the dude figures out how his downstairs business functions for gratification. Seriously? And though our queen gets menstrual cramps, they completely gloss over the experience of a man finding out what its like to have a period. I dunno, maybe I’m just knit-picking on this, but I have always found it hysterical that women masturbating and having their periods is so taboo.

I was impressed on how many subtle criticisms or critiques of gender and social norms they snuck in – both about the historical era and the modern one. If you’re looking for commentary about gender roles, various sexualities, and even transgender allusions, you can find them. But if you’re not interested in such things, you can blithely ignore all that commentary and just laugh over the standard poop jokes. Honestly, it’s a path to discourse that has proven successful. Scatter the seeds around (even if only a few take root subconsciously) so you can take a larger step into more “controversial” narratives next time.

Another creative choice was focusing on the close friendship and comradery of a female group instead of a male group. In the majority of historical shows, it is the close friendships of men that are generally the focus of side plots. Guards, scholars, politicians, rebels, commoners and royalty. Whether they are friends or rivals, opposite ends of a love triangle or standing side by side for a goal, it’s usually the dudes who get the most interesting side stories, even when a female is the focus of the show. Think of… well, any historical Korean drama. If there are other girls, they are generally rivals, enemies, or not heavily involved with the other ladies in the show. Mr. Queen gave us the endearing relationships of the Royal Court Ladies. It was so refreshing to watch these women come together and form strong attachments to each other, despite age and status differences. Though the king also had his entourage, I think it’s safe to say the focus for this show was on the queens court.

Historical comedies are generally a mixed bag. Finding one that can balance the conflict of the plotline and the romance, while also keeping its audience engaged and occasionally giggling for hours at a time is a struggle. My favorite historical comedy is still Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but I admit this drama ranks highly with other contenders, such as Moonlight Drawn by Clouds or Queen In Hyun’s Man. Was I invested in the political plotline? Uhm, no. Not even a little bit. But I was invested in the main characters, so I’d call it a win.

Overall Rating – 9/10.  Discovering Your Bisexuality Through Time Travel and Body Swapping.

A few additional thoughts about Mr. Queen’s sexuality and the final episode below…

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

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Review – L.U.C.A.: The Beginning

L.U.C.A.: The Beginning.

This drama started strong, but then it stumbled under its own weight. The first episode, in particular, was thrilling! That opening scene? The mystery of it all? Super powers, action, intrigue, kooky cults and mad science? What’s not to love? I was hooked and sure the show was going to be one of my all time favorites. And for a while… it was.

The first few episodes were amazing. The action sequences were long but interesting, following characters as they chased people through apartment complexes and busy streets, up and down stairs, into train tunnels, hospitals, elevators, and more. You really felt the scope of the city and got to know the characters by how they responded in these intense situations. The camera work was also incredible and insanely cinematic.

Within the first few episodes, I had been given an epic Korean drama that was surely bound to build up on its rock solid foundation. The cornerstones were set:

Mild spoilers for first few episodes.

Corner 1: The Cops and Our Female Heroine: Juan Police Station.

Truly an unusual female lead, who was given the personality generally reserved for male characters. She was distrustful, antisocial, self-centered, and obsessive about her own private agenda. People seemed to like her despite this, but she remained distant – only slowly drawing closer to the male lead who basically had to stalk her, woo her, and fight her to keep her attention. She was not instantly falling for this hot suspect cause she had shit to do, ya hear me? Her personal life was booked up at the moment and she wasn’t too keen on penciling in some new guy. See what I mean… sounds the like the traits of a lot of male leads in dramas, not the female leads. Naturally, this confused a bunch of people and I noticed a lot of hate mail flying her way via the interwebs. But I thought she was great. At first (like everyone else, she suffered under the writing and direction of plot archs). The other cops are great – all the cliches we love, like the cranky head of the department, the funny guy, the super loyal guy, just… all the guys you like to see in a cop ensemble.

Corner 2: The Male Hero: The Mystery Man.

What’s not to like? A handsome guy who has crazy powers, who seems more confused by them than we are. People are after him and he’s just running away on a survival instinct, because they’re chasing him and so running away seems like the appropriate response. He has no idea who he is or what he’s done. He knows he’s not normal, but other than that… he’s got a blank slate where his memory book should be. He’s drawn to the female lead because she seems familiar, or rather, he seems familiar to her… and that’s a lead he’s willing to follow. Like an adorable puppy with alarming super powers.

Corner 3: The Mad Scientists: Human Tech.

I sincerely appreciate that this show was willing to go Full Tilt Boogie Old School Mad Science. We’ve got secret laboratories hidden in basements. We’ve got mysterious jars filled with mysterious items, back lit with neon lights for effect. We’ve got huge syringes of glowing green liquids and subjects restrained on the operating tables with bulky leather straps. We’ve got a lead scientist with a white lab coat and wild hair. The laboratories are all dark with unrealistic colored lights everywhere and I adore it. Embrace the science-fiction glamor! Mad science is a statement and there’s a certain dress code we expect – it’s visual short hand that tells us whatever they’re up to it’s surely not legal… and probably not ethical… and definitely exciting.

Corner 4: The Cult, The Killers, and The Politicians: Project L.U.C.A.

There’s nothing like a nefarious religious leader to add a little extra drama to your show. We know little about this cult other than it’s got an awful lot of young ladies in it and a fabulous dress code. We also know it helps fund the mad science. The politician is the “outside” man, or the dude who represents the outside involvement on this mysterious side project. This is played by the ever-so-funny and talented Park Hyuk-Kwon (my favorite character in Six Flying Dragons). Does anyone play a shady, loveable villain better? The answer is no. No one. Just cast Park Hyuk-Kwon every single time, please. And of course, you can’t have a secret organization without enforcement, and our villains have super powers too. What is their end game? We are dying to know…

A quick side note about the villain enforcers. They kick ass.

The casting was exceptional all around, but in particular the choice of Kim Sung-Oh as the lead henchman in the black gloves. He plays the complicated, stubborn, tragic super-villain to perfection. Unlike our leading male, who walks around with the blank face of someone who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast and it’s slightly irritating him, the lead henchman seems to be carrying the weight every single mistake and tragedy of his life on his shoulders. He looks absolutely tortured, and resigned to being tortured.

With those rock solid elements as the foundation to a show, you’d think it would be a sure shot to be the most epic, talked-about, fan-favorite show of 2020. It had no where to go but up. It could have built us a mysterious pyramid, a spectacularly futuristic skyscraper, a creepy castle of gothic romance and intrigue, or a secure fortress in the super hero pantheon. But… it just kinda made a box and then asked us to imagine what was inside. I’m sorry, but if J.J. Abrams has taught us anything its that the Mystery Box approach to film making only works as a good hook, not a good plot vehicle. You use it lure bait into the boat… you’re not supposed to use it as the boat itself.

Though the title hints this is only the first chapter in what could be a continued series, I’m not sure it has enough strength in its legs to walk. I mean… I’ll definitely watch it, don’t get me wrong. But if it does get made, I’ll resent that it was it was broken into two parts instead of offering me a more complicated, if not longer, unified story.

Have you seen Gu Family Book – also called Kangchi, The Beginning? In a lot of ways, these two dramas have a similar feeling to them. Gu Family Book has its origin story, leading to the main protagonist, and then loops back around to pick up the dropped threads of the origin story again before reaching its dramatic ending. I think L.U.C.A. would have been better served to follow this format, expanding into a longer series but also weaving its plot lines together to improve viewer satisfaction.

So… where does that leave us with L.U.C.A.?

If you like science fiction or camp, you’re going to enjoy this show. You may not love it, but you’ll have fun with it.

If you like action and adventure, then this show is also a safe bet. The fight sequences are great and the choreography, stunt work, and direction – as well as the camera work – are top game.

If you like mystery… you might like. There’s a bunch of mysteries, don’t get me wrong… but it’s a bit wishy-washy on whether or not those questions marks paid off with answers worth the effort.

If you like romance… you might like it. The romance is a side plot, in my opinion. It didn’t have to be, but that’s how it turned out. It’s arguably the weakest link in the show, feeling oddly paced and somewhat confusing most of the time. We will discuss this more in the deep spoiler section below.

Do I recommend this show? Yup. It was a mess, but I had fun with it (clearly I am a science fiction fan).

Overall Rating – 8/10. The Korean Peninsula of Doctor Moreau.

MORE MUSINGS & MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!

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Review – The Penthouse Season 1

The Penthouse. Oh, The Penthouse.

You know when you were a kid and you wanted to mix all the drinks in the soda dispenser at restaurants? We called that concoction a “Kamikaze.” Most people called it a “Suicide,” or… if you’re from the Midwestern region of America, maybe a “Graveyard.” You basically murdered your tastebuds by including everything. And yet… as a kid… you didn’t care. You were gonna do it and you were gonna drink it and it was glorious. It was muddy, bubbly, excitement in a plastic glass. The Penthouse is the Kamikaze of Korean Dramas. It’s terrible. Just… awful. Just fantastically, gloriously, bad. And you’re gonna love it.

The Penthouse is the drama we all needed during lockdown. When you’ve been stuck in your home for days, weeks, months, and everything just seems… overwhelming and yet boring, too much and too little at once… when the globe huddles together as shivering creatures susceptible to germs and you’re painfully reminded of your squishy organic humanity… then you seek escape. You want as far from normal as you can get. You find yourself watching Tiger King or… The Penthouse.

What is more distant and alien than insanely rich people living in luxurious, high rise condominium suites, far above the rules that govern normal society? What could be more niche than… opera?

If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you may have noticed I have a soft spot for melodramas. The more outlandish and ridiculous the plot twists and turns, the better. Grudges passed down through the generations, baby swapping, secret identities, cruelty, fits of rage and passion, character’s breaking up, breaking down, and breaking everyone around them as they lash out in the shallow waters they are drowning in… I live for it.

Melodramas are a required taste and have to find us when the mood is right. Was it a coincidence that How to Get Away with Murder also premiered during a global virus outbreak? If you raised a skeptical eyebrow at my pandemic analogy, then you may not be in the mood for The Penthouse. However, if you find yourself watching a bunch of videos on cults, conspiracy theories, and secret cabals that pull at all the hidden strings of the world… then you may be in the right frame of mind. If you find yourself thinking, “Maybe lizards do run the government,” or “I wonder if my backyard is big enough to house a pet tiger,” or “Is some corporation using my social media data to create clones?”… then the iron is hot and you are ready for a good melodrama to strike!

Melodramas thrive in toxic environments. They are irrational. They are the shapes you interpret in shadows, more about the implication of an idea over substance. You know it won’t stand up to scrutiny and so you purposely avoid turning on the light, willing to suspend belief. And if you hang around in the darkness long enough, your eyes adjust and maybe you forget the light switch is only a few feet away…

Melodramas are best enjoyed when you’re feeling subconsciously vulnerable. You aren’t going to learn a valuable lesson or muse about the subtle nuances of life while watching a melodrama, after all. Melodramas are not meant for self-reflection. They are a funhouse mirror, something so grotesque and fascinating that you can’t help but smile at this bizarre distortion of reality they present you.

Melodramas can be the only drink that transports you to the mentality of childhood innocence, back to a time when you could run through the house with your plastic toy dinosaur and lay waste to the imaginary cities around you. To the drama of your pastel princess dolls who ruled kingdoms, raised families, and then became rock stars in the course of a single afternoon. To the improbable wars of action figures and transforming alien robots. Where you can enjoy the godlike powers of ultimate creation and use them in silly, overdramatic ways without guilt or shame or justification of your outlandish plotlines. No one watches a child play and criticizes their worldbuilding skills. You just vicariously enjoy their enjoyment.

The Penthouse gives you both and adult melodrama and a teen melodrama simultaneously.

If someone is going to make a mistake in this show, it will be on stage or in front of a large group of people who will collectively gasp in horror. Think of any common nightmare scenario (like being chased by a killer, falling from great heights, public speaking, being late for a big test) and multiply it by ten. Think of day time soap operas and then boil them in a pot with Latin American telenovelas. Think of having one major problem, then continue to wrap more problems around it, as many as you think of, until you have this big, crazy, hard asteroid of problems.

Here is a visual representation of the plotline of The Penthouse.

Don’t try to make it useful or decorative or anything other than what it is. A big mess. Why would you want to untangle that? The individual problems have become warped and stretched out and absorbed into the whole. It’s a colorful disaster now and useful only as a weapon… (otherwise it’s just an embarrassing reminder of time wasted… so you gotta hurl it at someone… how else are you gonna get rid of that thing? call it self defense… call it… survival… but it’s gotta go and you know it’s gonna hurt someone on the way out… but… well… what other option do you have? Self destruction is sometimes instinctual. Humans are weird, friends, that’s all I know. We are strange, strange creatures).

If you’re expecting me to talk about the plotline or the characters… well… I have been.

I have not started Season 2 yet. I’m honestly not used to having a second season of a Korean drama and rather enjoyed the unexpected ending of Season 1. But I’m sure I’ll get around to it eventually and it will be just as fun.

Rating – 9/10. Setting off Fireworks Inside a Panic Room & other Bad Decisions with Colorful, Dangerous Results.

Review – Extra-Ordinary You

Extra-Ordinary You was one of the best teenage romantic comedies I have seen in years – for about 20 episodes. The last twelve episodes of this show slid quickly into “good but nothing special” territory for me, feeling repetitive, unnecessary, and considerably less exciting. This is not to say I didn’t still enjoy it, even after the sudden and steady decline of my attention span. Cause I did. Honestly. And when nearly 3/4ths of your drama is amazing, then you really can’t complain too much as you’re already doing better than most shows.

Even the long haul eps at the end, where the first had gone out, where still entertaining enough that I continued watching. Frankly, I felt I had to. The mystery of the show was compelling enough that I could not let it go without the answers I was promised.

The story is thus: A quirky, popular young lady has suddenly started losing track of time. Hours pass and she has no memory of what happened in between. Then, mysteriously, she begins to notice strange patterns – amongst her friends and her routine. Things repeat themselves. Her world seems in flux. What’s going on? Our heroine discovers she is a character in a graphic novel – and now that she’s become self aware, she is able to experience life “between the panels” when the story is not directing her (and everyone else’s) action.

It’s a really fun concept. A similar story line was W, the 2016 hit series that was also really great for quite a long time before kinda dragging on a bit too long for it’s own good. If I had to choose between the two, I would pick W because it was a more expansive story, but Extra-Ordinary You finds is place in the pantheon of cute romance dramas with just enough conflict, love-triangles, bullies, and generalized school intrigue to keep you entertained.

Though the entire series takes place inside a graphic novel – it’s surprisingly “fantasy light.” The drama doesn’t spend much time musing on the particular physics or mysticism involved in this world, nor does it bother to explain how its possible or what controls it. Why are these imaginary characters able to become conscious? What does that mean about the creator of the characters or the world itself? Is this a reincarnation metaphor or meant to provoke us to think about the uncanny nature of religious beliefs, mortality, the broader expanse of the universe, or the vast unknowns of life? Uh, no. This is definitely not a philosophical show. There is no social commentary. It’s pretty much surface level only, and the surface level is very brightly colored. I think if you scratched at the layer, you’d just smell bubblegum. The “but how though?” question remains unanswered, and I suppose it really didn’t matter in the end as it never bothered me much. It’s a cheesy teen romance. It may have been more… maybe… once… there do seem to be hints at more… but nope. It’s just a collection of tropes and cuteness that’s dressed up in a new style.

I’d considered writing a more lengthy review – about the characters and the concept – but could not motivate myself to do so. The teenagers are all lovely and immaculate in their perfect white uniforms. The school is some insane stylized mansion-esque place, always spotless and expansive. The light is pure. The rain is romantic. Hospital rooms are enormous and comfortable. The streets are generic. The angles of the camera mimic typic manga style – with lots of straight on shots, a few up and down views inbetween, and plenty of focus on the dreamy faces of the leads. It’s a graphic novel, after all, a modern fairytale, so everything worked or was easily excused.

The less you know going in, the more you will enjoy it.

It was a perfect escape and exactly what I’d been craving but didn’t realize it. Something comfortable but just different enough that I didn’t immediately recognize it.

Overall Rating 8/10. A Happy Escape into a Romantic Dreamworld of Teenagers.

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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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!