Reviews – Netflix K-Dramas: Squid Game, Run On, My Name, & Hellbound

Squid Game. Overall Rating: 9/10. The Korean Drama That Hooked American Viewers by Using Cliffhanger Bait.

What can anyone say about it at this point that hasn’t already been said?

It was good. I enjoyed watching it. The aesthetics, the acting, the music, the plot – everything was stellar. The violence was nicely balanced with the quieter scenes of character development. The stakes felt real. The motivations that drove people to such desperation all seemed believable. Everything gelled.

I can’t give it a 10/10 because it didn’t… end. Entire story lines were just abandoned, storylines left dangling in the wind. Clearly it’s meant to be continued, but I still like a satisfying to conclusion to each season of a show. So… I had to knock a point off.

If you are one of the few people on the planet who haven’t watched this global sensation, then I recommend you go watch it.


Run On. Overall Rating: 7/10. Getting Your Footing in Life is Easier When You’re Hot.

Ah, rich people problems. Are they even… real problems? This show will not answer that question for you. I don’t think this show appreciates you even asking that question. In fact, this show would prefer you not think too hard about any of its major plot points, thank you, and please refrain from using your brain while you enjoy these attractive faces on the screen.

I enjoyed watching Run On. It didn’t offer anything new (other than finally giving Shin Se-Kyung a role she seemed comfortable in). The romance is average. It was super sweet, mind you, and the actors have decent chemistry, but it’s nothing to write home over. There are better shows about a girl winning over the heart of an awkward man. There are better sports shows. There are better shows about the movie industry. There are better shows about rich, entitled children standing up to their rich, entitled parents.

Originally, I had intended to give this a solid 8/10 and stick it on my recommended list… but the second I sat down to review it, the rating quickly dropped. Because there are a lot of issues with the story line, if you pause long enough to think about it. What is the message? What… is this show saying about life and love? It seems to want to say something, but just didn’t mumbled through the thesis. So… no. It’s just so-so and thus deserving it’s 7/10.


My Name. Overall Rating: 7/10. Pretending a Snowflake Can Cause You Physical Damage for 8 Hours Straight.

Did anyone believe that the leading lady could kick someone’s ass? I wasn’t even convinced she could give someone a stinging slap, let alone step into an underground MMA ring. Maybe it’s something about Han So-Hee’s gently rounded face that makes it impossible for me to believe this story.

Some actresses can pull off the illusion of strength and some can’t. Kim Da-Mi from The Witch and Itaewon Class? I believed she could kick my tail. Kim Ok-Vin from The Villainess? Same. Jun Jong-Seo as the crazy chick from The Call? Yup. Ha Ji-Won can kick all their tails combined. Bae Doo-Na and Lee Si Young, too.

Han So-Hee, however… is a gentle ballerina, a flower petal, a snowflake. I like this actress, but I didn’t like her in this role, and that soured the entire experience for me.

I mean… look at her grip on that knife!

Though My Name did not give us a believable protagonist, it did offer up one of the most convincing villains of all time. Chang Ryul playing the feisty fighter working his way to the top of the Dongcheonpa was golden. His performance was so unhinged, so enjoyable to watch, that I quickly forgot about my qualms with the casting the second he was on screen.

I totally believed this dude would get a neck tattoo and chop a guy’s arm off while taunting him. This is excellent casting. Seriously, he saved the entire show in my opinion.

Was the overall plot stupid, with little to no attempts to be convincing or believable? Yes. Was the romance good, at least? Eh, not particularly. Seemed kinda out of left field to me, if I’m honest. Should I even watch this series, then? Sure. I mean, if you’ve seen all the better shows and you’ve got the time… why not? It’s not very long, with only 8 episodes, and there’s lots of fighting and cops chasing after gang members and whatnot. This show doesn’t have anything to say, really – there’s no message or cultural critiques or unique insights into humanity. It’s just a cheesy action show. Popcorn, if you will. A tasty snack with little to no nutritional value. But most people like it anyways, myself included.

Plus I was gay for the villain. Who was clearly gay for the girl’s father. Anyways, he was just… yum. Villainous perfection. That mob boss can do whatever he wants to me.


Hellbound. Overall Rating: 8/10. What If It’s All Meaningless?

Hellbound was another show that I had to change my rating for as I thought about how to review it. When I originally watched it, it was a solid 7/10 (the first chunk maybe rating around 9/10 – then quickly losing me as it switched focus for part two). But this show lingered in my mind. The implications of this show were… vast. And it made you think about humanity, and how we are culturally conditioned to believe certain things without proof, and how this can be both good and bad depending on the circumstances. So, I rounded it out to a solid 8/10. It’s worth it cause it makes you think.

The plot of Hellbound is relatively simple. A mysterious entity shows up to various people in the world, announces the exact time in which they will die and be dragged to hell, and then makes good on that promise. Huge creatures appear out of nowhere, violently beat you to pulp before killing you, and then just as suddenly disappear. The creatures were awful, by the way – the CGI was sadly lacking, presenting us with these gummy looking children’s’ toys that only seemed threatening due to the performances of the actors pretending to die. But the horror of it, of knowing you were not only going to die – but had been judged and sentenced – is quite an uncomfortable topic. The general public’s fervent desire to cast these people into the roles of “wrong doers” was obvious – they had to deserve it, surely, or else what does that say about the nature of the world? About the afterlife? This series leaves you with uncomfortable questions about the definition of hell, about the unknown things in the universe, about what it means to die or have your life and all your decisions judged by outside and unknown forces. Most of these questions were not answered, either, which works for me… for the most part.

Once again, I am left wondering if the dangling questions were left there with the intention of a second season. Like Squid Game. As you may or may not know (depending on how much of this blog you’ve read), I am not a fan of second seasons in Korean Dramas. In general, I find what I most like about K-Dramas is their ability to complete a storyline. The threads of various storylines and characters in one show all pulling together for a tightly connected plot is one of the reasons K-dramas are awesome. They know what they are and they know where they are going.

But Hellbound was already presented as two different short stories within one larger frame. The first half of the series focusing on one group of characters, and the second half on another. Both stories were interesting, though I found the first more compelling overall.

Anyways, I liked it. I liked it for it’s horrific implications. I liked it for its nihilism. It reminded me of the ending of Revival by Stephen King – a shocking, surrealistic nightmare vision of the afterlife which to this day still haunts me. Humans put a lot of stock into certain ideas – into religions – into how our lives fit into the universe. Souls, afterlives, reincarnations, supernatural beings who navigate our destinies… it’s meant to both comfort us and disquiet us. “Be good or else.” It appeals to our desire for balance and justice. “They might not suffer in this world for the terrible things they’ve done, but they’ll suffer in the next.” A show like this could not be made in America. We can only pick holes into religion in a playful or ridiculous way – ways that are clearly entertainment only and not meant to trigger any real examinations of our spiritual beliefs. The Good Life, Supernatural, Lucifer, and such. Even more drama-heavy shows, like The Leftovers or Midnight Mass, leave room for comfort in beliefs. Hellbound doesn’t bother to try to comfort you. It just kicks you when you’re down and says, “Makes you wonder, huh?”

What can I say? I like the existential dread.

Review – Taxi Driver

What would happen if James Bond, Mr. 007 himself, decided to quit tracking down international threats and instead focused his attention on his own community? “I’m sorry, M, I can’t track down those nuclear codes right now because I’m busy helping this teenager deal with the punks who torment him at school.” I mean… if only, right?

What if Batman stopped chasing after criminals in Gotham and instead opened a help-line? “Oh, sorry Commissioner Gordon, Batman can’t help you with that bank heist right now… he’s helping an old woman who got swindled by a mail scam.”

Well, that’s what Taxi Driver is. It’s everyone’s wild dream of justice-for-hire. So get on board!

In Taxi Driver – people who have been screwed over by the system can seek revenge outside of it, by contracting someone to do their dirty work for them. This is yet another show that illustrates how people with money and power have less fear of retribution. At the same time… it’s a show about criminals who ultimately use money and power to create “justice.” Do you see it? Do you see the Batman parallels? I mean, in this show they have a secret base in an underground lair, access to fancy computer systems and a nerd who inexplicably knows how to use them, they have fancy customized cars and motorcycles with gadgets, and they have connections gained from wealth. All of of these things give our vigilantes the power to act.

Welcome to the bat-cave

What is Batman without his bat-cave and wealth? Who is James Bond without his fancy gadgets and his military combat training? Well, Batman would just be a pissed off dude on a rampage – and one that is bound to be quickly rounded up and tossed into the pen. And James Bond would just be a dishy misogynist. The wealth and power is required. So… it can get a little messy when you’re tackling problems like social justice based on inequality – because the answer to the problem shouldn’t be the problem. But whatever. This show realizes there are problems with the premise and addresses them as best it can. It even makes a point of highlighting some of the pitfalls with vigilante justice. Cause justice is complicated.

But sometimes we just want a hero to rescue us.

A theatrical hero who likes to wear a gold hockey mask on occasion. Cause style matters, damn it.

It’s not like this is anything new. Robin Hood. Hong Gil-dong. Ned Kelly. Bandits we love. Played by attractive male actors. Give them a tragic back story, a broody demeanor, an impressive physique, and it’s cat nip for boys and girls alike. This drama reminded me how much I love Lee Je-Hoon (who I had only known from Signal). I was so mesmerized by his performance that I immediately ran to his wiki page to see if there any other dramas I had missed (and was gifted the beautiful perfection of Move to Heaven, as well as the gift I wish I could return of Where Stars Land).

Though I think Taxi Driver would have been great no matter who they cast in the roles, since the writing was fantastic and the plotlines were action packed and exciting, I believe we should all thank the people who decided Lee Ji-Hoon should play the lead. Cause he nailed it.

Without getting into spoilers, let me say there is an unexpected element to this character that really elevated him beyond your usual Batman-hero-type: The vigilante in Taxi Driver wanted to be theater major. That’s right, folks, this butt-kicking badass is a drama club geek at heart. He gave up his dreams of the stage and enlisted in the military for, you know, whatever reason, but underneath his lean muscled exterior beats the heart of a man dying to act. So when he gets to go undercover to root out criminals and sabotage their lives… he’s not just undercover, he is living for these roles. Not only is this unexpected and really funny, but and it adds a whole juicy layer of nuance to the character. Sure, he enjoys his work of vigilante justice, but you can tell he loves his work when he gets to play a character. When he’s playing a geeky teacher, a shady businessman, a lothario gangster… he’s playing to his heart. He’s putting is full game into it. He’s having so much fun, it’s contagious.

This is where I think the choice of Lee Ji-Hoon really paid off, cause he’s able to shift into all these characters and you can tell he’s having a blast doing it, just like the character he’s playing is supposed to be doing. It’s very meta.

Listen, you need to watch this show. Unless you’re put off by violence, this show is going to win you over completely. It’s got it all. A great cast (and every character gets their moments to shine), a unique overarching storyline as well as amazing individual episode plotlines, fantastic production design (it’s beautifully shot, the action scenes are epic, the aesthetics are spot on in every scene), and a killer soundtrack (a cool mix of rock and synth that will have you searching the internet for the OST). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be invested. The show is based on the webtoon The Deluxe Taxi by Carlos and Lee Jae-jin, and apparently many of the crimes are based on real crimes committed in Korea.

What can I say other than watch it? WATCH IT. Watch it now.

Rating: 10/10. Deluxe Taxi Service Includes Stylish Revenge.

And now for a few spoilery-extra thought…

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Review – Devil Judge

I loved this drama. It was a 10/10 for me. It had all the hallmarks of a good melodrama – plenty of angst and anguish. Child abuse, dark secrets, shadowed mansions, homoerotic antagonism, BDSM, murder, mayhem, and more. There’s plenty of twists and turns in this drama, keeping the excitement running full speed and the tension high. It’s over the top and a great escape from the norm when you want something different.

Overall, it’s a story about one man trying to determine what kind of person another man is. This evaluation is a difficult and ongoing process – because the man in question does not behave or react in typical ways. He’s contradictory. He’s secretive. He’s extremely clever and ruthless. He’s manipulative and brazen. One minute he’s nurturing and the next minute he’s throwing punches. Mercurial is an understatement. Determining whether or not he is a “good” buy or a “bad” guy is the ultimate challenge – which is intriguing as both the men in question are judges. It is literally their job to figure people out.

It is also a nice metaphor for figuring out your sexuality when it doesn’t fit neatly into the standard package (the bisexuals in the audience will get this message right away) – there’s a lot of second guessing, a lot of flip flopping sides, a lot of confusion and emotions, and depending on your circumstances a lot of internal resistance, guilt, anger, and shame that you may have to process before you come to acceptance of your unique self. What is good and bad, right and wrong? What are the rules and who made them? Justice is tricky shit, after all. About as tricky as realizing there is no “normal.”

There’s so much to talk about with this show that I had to narrow it down to keep this review from turning into a novel. But I think I can manage it… maybe. This review is going to be focus on 2 major plot points – the Justice, aka the politics of the drama – and the Queer-Coding, aka, the characters.

There’s gonna be spoilers mixed in with what follows… so go ahead and watch the show. Come back when you’re ready to discuss.

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Review – Love Alarm

A short, simple, and relatively enjoyable show about romance and insecurity. Though most people know, by context clues and awareness of themselves and others, who likes who in this world – for some reason we still manage to muck up relationships. Cause people are kinda dumb and we live in fear of rejection. Because rejection leads to shame – and shame can be just as powerful an emotion as love, so… you know… it’s a toss up. A gamble, so to speak, to pursue the ones we know like us. Wouldn’t it be nice if it we could avoid the whole stressful gamble with a handy app that loudly, publicly declared our interest? I mean, sure, we could swipe right, but that’s private. If someone likes someone online does it really count before there’s evidence of it to share publicly? It is the question of the ages.

Anyways… this is a show about a silly phone app that lets people know who’s attracted to them. And that’s generally pretty cool cause almost everyone in this show is attractive or at the very least fit and standard “Hollywood Extra” quality. In other words – this isn’t going to be a show that dives into how an app like this could revolutionize society by saying out loud things that people keep quiet. I mean, sure, the hot people are going to get tons of hearts and likes or whatever – but the truth is, people are pretty varied and we like a lot of stuff. And we find a lot of things attractive. Different ages, different races, different body types, different genders, and so on and so forth. This could have been a show that got really deep in the weeds of human behavior, societal expectations and control, suppression and desire. But… nope. It’s a show about a silly app.

No one really has a hard time with this app. I mean, not really. Cause, remember, they’re all pretty attractive and young and finding a romantic partner doesn’t seem like anything the majority of the characters would struggle with.

There’s like… one short nerdy guy who’s not extremely attractive but he’s also not unattractive either… I mean… at one point, he changes his hair and is suddenly pretty cool, so, that’s what we’re dealing with. Short nerdy guy’s got a crush on the hot mean girl at school, who clearly and obviously does not like him, but I guess we’re supposed to feel he’s being bullied or something for that… but honestly… why? Isn’t the whole point of the app to match you with people who also like you? Were there no short, slightly less than standardly attractive women who might fancy this nerdy guy? Who knows… cause the scope of this show is very narrow and the writers try very hard to divert your attention from such obvious plotlines queries by not spending much time on these side stories.

There’s a few gay boys who are embarrassed about being outted by the app (but who also turned it on, so you’re not really sure how you’re supposed to feel about it)… and as far as we know there are no gay girls in the school (though perhaps the gay girls were smart enough not to out themselves with an app if they preferred to stay closeted until college).

Anyhoo… the main characters of this show are attractive and well aware of it. This app only confirms what they already know – that people like them for the way they look. The things they struggle with are internal or unseen stuff. You know, like horrific childhood trauma or difficult family situations. So it’s your cookie-cutter storyline of “which hot guy will the beautiful girl choose?”

Listen, this ain’t a serious drama. It’s a romantic drama. And it’s pretty enjoyable, largely carried on the shoulders of the leading female, Kim So-Hyun. I also liked both of the male leads, which was shocking because I watched Nevertheless right before this and found Song Kang dreadful in that show. To my surprise, he was quite charming in this drama with a wide variety of facial expressions and emotions. Who knew? I had to change my mind about this actor so fast it gave me whiplash. The other guy, Jung Ga-Ram, was also great (more on him in a second). So… the trio of main characters were awesome and that’s a win right there. I mean, it’s not a drama I’m gonna run out and tell people to watch – but it’s only six episodes and pretty cute and… yeah. Thumbs up. I guess. Eh. Whatever.

On a random note… I decided to watch this show because I read somewhere that there was an LGBT storyline. Perhaps this expectation caused some wishful thinking – but I swear, I thought Jung Ga-Ram’s character was going to be gay.

I mean… think about it (if you’ve seen it)… the set up was there! His adorable and questionably over-the-top affection for his best friend (I mean, seriously, the first episode had my gaydar alarm going off like crazy). Encounters with not one, but two gay boys at school – both of which ended with Jung Ga-Ram’s character supporting their same-sex attractions with an odd reserve… a reserve that I read as “I too am familiar with this feeling”… and not because of his crush on the main female, but because he too liked cute boys. I figured that was why he hadn’t turned on his love alarm. Because he was in denial of his sexuality. I also figured that was why he hadn’t approached his crush, but kept her on a pedestal out of arms reach… a known occurrence of some teenage boys in their last chapters of coming out to themselves. Spoiler alert – he ain’t gay. Other than the two random gay boys at school who are on screen for a split second, there’s no rainbow to be found.

Apparently this show is getting a “season 2,” which is awful really cause revisiting a love triangle story line – AGAIN – just means these attractive people still haven’t resolved their shit. Even though the ending of the show suggested they had. Learning there is a season 2 ruins the happy ending of the first season. If that wasn’t the end – then they shouldn’t have made the show 12 eps instead of 6 – though can you imagine? The last few episodes were already starting to drag… I would have DNF’d this show had I seen there were still lots of episodes remaining.

I wish I could assume that Season 2 would show that relationships change – that the people you may have connected with in high school don’t always align to your future. Or dive deeper into the reality that human beings are attracted to multiple people at the same time and that love may be possible with any of them, or even with someone you’re not attracted to at all. Do I imagine the scope of the show will broaden and develop into a more nuanced story? Uh, no. I have zero hope for that. This is a teen romance – and you’re going to find your soul mate in high school, damn it, and that is the ONE and ONLY forever and ever amen, ya dig? It’s just gonna be love-triangle Part 2. And… do you really care which hot guy the hot girl ends up with? I mean, they’re both pretty decent dudes so I didn’t care. Sure, one relationship was developed more than the other – and this caused viewership bias. But do we really care?

I’ll be skipping the sequel.

Overall Rating – 6/10 – Silly Dating Apps and a Standard Love Triangle.

Review – Nobody Knows

Before I even attempt to review this magnificent multi-layered murder mystery of conspiracy, crime, and corruption… let us first take a moment to step back and admire the bold choices of the casting and the writing. In particular, in regards to the two main protagonists.

We have the tall, steely cop – who uses few words, has a secret streak of kindness, and dedicates all to the job. This cop leads a team of dedicated followers, kicks ass in physical altercations, and lives alone without close family or friends.

We have a passionate teacher – who gets caught up emotionally in the lives of students, who is quick to express themselves, who worries over and looks after those around them. They live with their extended family, care for their niece who adores them, and works easily as a group amongst his peers.

Now… tradition tells us which gender to assign these roles. But Nobody Knows is not about following your standards, thank you but no thank you. Nobody Knows had the audacity to give us a female protagonist who is not only significantly taller than the male lead, but also the cold, confident, and calculating character usually assigned to the dudes.

If you think this is not a big deal, then help me out: Name me one show where the central female is the single, solitary figure in a leadership role and the central male is the outgoing, extroverted emotional character in a general worker role. Even if we do have occasional broody female characters, they are not the head of the department or the main character. And if they are, they are certainly not paired with emotional male leads with less “powerful” roles. We are so boring with our gender roles in media – and characteristics we assign to those roles – so I believe dramas like this deserve a round of applause for breaking the mold.

I mean… can you name one show that even has a female lead who is taller than the male lead? Name for me a romance that has a man looking up into the eyes of his beloved. Even in ensemble media, there is still hierarchy of height according to gender. The only exceptions are characters that are significantly short (like Danny Devito). I mean… off the top of my head I can think of… Brienne and Jamie in Game of Thrones, though her tall stature was a big part of the storyline. Usually when it happens the industry will bend over backwards attempting to trick the eye – having the men stand on boxes, always having the women in flats, and so forth. Now… there are a few outliers, like this show, who just have tall women and there is no plot point to made of it, no tricky camera work to hide it… the movie Tenet featured an exceptionally tall woman who slinked around in heels, looming over all the males in the film. Our lead female in Nobody Knows also wears stocky heels – but the kind you can run after criminals in. There are other men in the show that are as tall as her or taller – but the leading man is a shorter. And it’s cool. It’s just… so nice. I noticed it every time they were standing side by side in the show (which is often) and I only noticed it because it’s so uncommon. In the media. Not in the real world.

The music was also… unbelievably good. I’m used to a sorta “standard” with Korean dramas. There is a consistency to their musical choices – but not so with this drama. Every single moment was taken into consideration. I was blown away at how seamless the music blended with the story, building tension, drawing out a character, creating a mood, moving fluidly from scene to scene, always perfectly blended, never a distraction. The instrumental music was perfect – the soundtrack songs were perfect. I was stunned.

The song “The Secret Not Revealed” which is the theme song, really… sums up the series perfectly. The slowly building composition, the haunting lyrics, the beautiful voice… I mean… just listen to it. It’s so stunning.

Above all else, of course, were the awesome characters. I thought this show did a particularly good job of capturing the nuances of young adults – especially young men – and how secretive, withdrawn, and emotionally vulnerable they can be.

This drama was a hit for me. I enjoyed every single episode. There were no wasted moments. Although there were slow meditative scenes, they weren’t “filler” – they were character moments. The flashbacks were minimal and almost always new content (instead of just rehashing a scene from the last episode). The dialogue was natural, as was the setting, the costuming, and the overall feel of the show. There was a foggy, cool tone to this series, like a mood that lingered… setting the tone. It had sweater-weather vibe.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the actual plot because this is a mystery – and the less you know the more you will enjoy it. But I will point out a few things that I thought made this show superior (other than what I have already mentioned).

Secrets.

Every character in this show has a secret – and whatever that secret is, it is their driving motivation and their character arc to be resolved. Whether it’s a secret from their past, a secret connection to another person, a secret job, a secret relationship, a secret part of an organization, a secret business deal, a secret shame or a secret crime, they all have secrets. Maybe secrets are human nature. There are the rules of society, and there are also rules behind how we break them. Society has many layers, and shows like this are all about exposing just how complicated each human is – by themselves as well as in relationship to others. This is a show that reveals in character nuance.

Bad Things.

Every character in this show also does bad things. It may be justified to the character (and even the audience) but it’s still a bad thing. No one is perfect. The students, the teachers, the cops, the parents, the adults in the community – they each have instances of doing something bad, of crossing a line. It may be small – like being a poor care-taker, mistakenly misjudging someone, covering up something to help someone else, or keeping their mouths shut when they should have spoken up. Sometimes it’s larger – like committing a white collar crime or engaging in physical or verbal abuse. This show never points out these differences, but it subtly alludes to them and hopes you make the connection.

These various levels of misdeeds create a vivid tapestry of human connections, irony, and complicated justice. For example… a child is abandoned and then taken in by a respected community member, only to be abused again. When the child grows up, they too abuse others. These manipulations and methods were learned, endured, and now being used by the victim. Are they still victims? Does it depend? On what kind of abuse are we dealing with? Abandonment? Physical abuse? Psychological abuse? Verbal abuse? How often does it occur and from how many different sources? Does it depend on whether the victim of the abuse is perceived as innocent or guilty? On how well matched they are? Do we have less sympathy for a teenage boy beaten by another teenage boy if we estimate it to be a “fair fight”? If they “had it coming”? Does it depend on their perceived value to society? All these questions just sort of float around in the air of this show… causing you low key anxiety as you attempt to catalog the characters into good/bad boxes that they refuse to fit into.

Justice is complicated. Crime and punishment are complicated. This show does not pretend otherwise. There are no “good” people and “bad” people in this show. There are just people, who have done varying degrees of bad things for various reasons – whether its insanity, defensive, profit, revenge, or some other motivation.

Characters

The characters of this show ruled. They were so well-rounded and memorable. In particular, the man who owned the big hotel near the water.

This guy was just… mesmerizingly odd. Snaps to Park Hoon for delivering such an exceptionally bizarre and charismatic character. It reminded me, in an odd way, of Jang Hyuk’s performance in Fated to Love You. A completely original vibe – everything about them stands out, their mannerisms, their voice, their expressions and interactions with others. Someone give this dude an award.

So, I think you should watch it. If you haven’t already. Sit down and enjoy a drama that doesn’t rely on tropes or familiar story lines. It’s unique. And it will keep you guessing, episode to episode. And it will make you ruminate on a lot of things as you bask in the moody ambiance of this amazing noir mystery.

Overall Rating – 10/10. A Modern Noir Masterpiece.

Review – Nevertheless

I just finished Nevertheless and… I liked less of it than I expected.

Listen, friends, I went to art school. So there were certain expectations I had going in. I expected a lot of partying (which we got, more or less) and a lot of emotional relationship rollercoasters (which we got). I expected lots of art of the middle-tier level, cause honestly only about 10 percent of art majors go on to become professional artists. Does this invalidate art school in any way? Of course not. Lessons learned while pursuing your interests cross over into all fields. I was pleasantly surprised to see the studio filled with a bunch of rather boring bust sculptures and a few welded creations of various skill level. Regardless, students were constantly in the building working at odd hours, sometimes throughout the night. They say art and architecture majors put in 2X the work outside their already extremely long official classes and that is no exaggeration. Creating art takes time.

There were a lot of things I had hoped to see but didn’t. School cafeterias. Cramped dormitories. Tiny cheap apartments elaborately decorated with a hodge podge of items – hand me down furniture, half broken shelves, beaded curtains, posters, mismatched pillows, the typical first apartment scene. There is nothing quite like the glorious disaster of your first apartment, and art majors can make any hovel into a truly unique and fun hobbit hole. Unfortunately we really only got to spend time in the leading female’s apartment, which was very spacious and swanky. But due to the global pandemic, I am willing to overlook location choices at this time.

There is a whole vibe to art majors. Here are some pictures from my years as an art major…

Nevertheless captured most of the overall vibe of art school, kinda. The unique, casual fashion choices. The close knit group of student-friends who practically live at the studio. The concern over what’s next always looming, the insecurities about the future constantly needing to be drown out with booze and dancing and kissing and long hours making art work.

So what’s my problem with Nevertheless?

My main problem?

The main couple.

I absolutely did not care for either character – or actor – and found them insufferably boring, one dimensional, and annoying. The girl reminds me of Seo Hyun-Jin, who I’m not a fan of. It was uncanny really, and I actually had to stop the show to look it up on my phone to see if the actresses are related. It’s not that they look alike – it’s that they behave alike. The same weird style of flirtation. The same awkward wooden physicality. I have never really understood the dynamics of the romances with Seo Hyun-Jin and I didn’t understand this romance either.

The male lead just reminded me of one of those goldfish with really big eyes. Kinda pretty I guess, but not a lot going on in the brain pan. I did not see the appeal. (*update – I recently watched Love Alarm and was startled to see this catatonic lover boy can indeed pull out some facial expressions when so required! Just… not in this show). Though to be fair, these two secretive people seemed perfect for each other – both enjoying their clandestine romances and using their cold shoulders to keep people at arms length. We got a lot more “skinship” and booty scenes than your typical Korean drama in this show. The lead couple really only looked happy when they were making out – though still they seemed so busy being beautiful it felt more like a photoshoot than a natural occurrence of body chemistry and desire.

After the third episode, I just started skimming their sections entirely because I did not care. Was it because my first week back at work had been a stressful, hellscape and I just wanted to escape into a blissful alternate reality? Perhaps. But I don’t think I will like these leads even if I go back and watch it when less stressed out. You can’t cut it with a table knife, you can only spread it around.

With that said – the less ended up being great! By that I mean outside the main couple, the side couples were awesome.

There were several and I found each of their stories adorable and engaging.

Can you spoil a very short romance drama by saying people get together? I’m never really sure and I would hate to ruin the few enjoyable moments of this otherwise dreadfully “Meh” drama with spoilers. But then again… it was a “Meh” drama so really any encouragement to watch this show should probably be mentioned here.

So… spoilers? I guess. Not really, but whatever.

Let’s start with the best side-couple, our ladies in love. When you’re given rainbow crumbs, you gotta eat them, I guess… cause how else will they know you’re hungry? We’re hungry! We’re starving! Give us more gay characters in mainstream dramas, please.

These girls had been friends for years and over time their feelings had changed. Though they were both noticing the difference between their emotions for each other, they both experienced it differently – and processed it differently – and I really appreciated the differences between their characters. They were refreshingly not stereotyped either.

These were two ladies who couldn’t seem to stop touching each other. As it happens with many people who develop feelings for each other out of a friendship, jealousy of an “intruding” party was the catalyst for change.

I loved this couple. Was I annoyed by how little romantic skinship we got between the two compared to every other couple in this show? Yes. Yes, I was. Deeply. But was I also happy on how much physicality, flirting, and gayness we got from this couple? Also yes. Yes, I was. Extatically. At least they let them cuddle and frolic and hold hands and hug and confess feelings and be openly in love.

We also had the wild-child girl with the multi-colored hair who enjoyed being young and sexual, but could not resist the stoic guy with the deep voice. I love couples like this – with clear similarities but also opposite personality types. They’re always such to watch.

This couple also had the sexiest kiss scene, in my opinion – when our funky gal was wasted and made a move on our quietly nurturing hottie.

There were a few other couples scattered throughout the art major friend group. We even got to enjoy the adorable cohabitation romance of the graduate students. All in all, the side characters stole the show.

Overall Rating – 4/10 (side couples story lines 9/10). Worth it for the Side Couples.

Review – Move To Heaven (cause this drama will kill you)

Move to Heaven is currently airing on Netflix. It’s only 10 episodes long, so I highly recommend you wait until you have 10 hours to spare because it will be very difficult not to binge this drama in one sitting. I myself stayed up until 3:00 AM last night, even though I had to get up at 7:00 AM, because I had to know how it ended… I needed the completion. I was a total emotional wreck for, roughly, ten hours. And I am extremely glad to be working from home today so I don’t have to see anyone in person, cause my face is a puffy mess from crying… repeatedly… just… sobbing all over the couch. I haven’t cried over a show in a long, long time, ya’ll… but this one hit me hard.

It’s a perfect 10/10 drama. It has it all – blood, sweat, and tears. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking. The characters are so memorable and fully developed over the series. The individual story lines that tie to the deaths are diverse and show the “end” may be different for everyone but every life is valued. The cinematography, music, and editing are perfect – and with a tight 10 episode run time, you don’t have to suffer through the dreaded flashbacks upon flashbacks or ridiculously long sequences of, say, staring at someone, that are the plague of so many lengthier dramas. This drama hooked me from the first episode and did not let go until the final credits… and arguably is still holding on to me, cause I am rooting for a second season (and I don’t like multi-season dramas – and hope that their creation and use remains sparse so we can ensure K-dramas maintain their originality and casting shuffles).

There is a little humor, a little mystery, but overall I would call this a standard DRAMA drama. It’s a story about people – a very sentimental one, but also a highly unusual one. It revolves around trauma cleaning – which is a specialized service that comes in and cleans up homes in which someone has died. They both sanitize the spaces, as well as pack up and organize the possessions of the deceased. It is not for everyone, certainly. Just like working in a hospital or a meat processing plant or a nursing home is not for everyone.

There will be blood. And… other icky things.

But such is life, and death, and this show does not gloss over the nastier aspects of the gig.

It doesn’t linger on it, either. Anything shown is important to the story telling of the individual episodes. This is also the case with any violence in the show – and there is some violence as well. My mother would have been disturbed by some of the scenes in this show – but she doesn’t watch television except on rare occasions and hasn’t been as desensitized by the media as most general audiences are. Anyways, I suppose viewer discretion should be advised.

To balance out this rather dark topic of death cleaning, we have the beautiful stories of the deceased which are brought to light as the crew digs through their belongings. We have the lovable characters of the main cast. The leading male has Asperger’s Syndrome and his uncle has just gotten out of prison for illegal fighting. These are two very isolated men, with very distinctive personalities, who are attempting to live together for the first time. Add on top of that an incredibly nosey and overprotective neighbor, and you (as a viewer) have a highly enjoyable trio to follow.

Overall Rating 10/10 – Learning to Live a Better Life by Cleaning Up After the Dead.

And now I shall babble about the characters – including full spoilers for the entire show so please watch it first before proceeding…

SPOILERS BELOW

Continue reading

Abandoned Dramas of 2020-2021

It’s been a year. Since last summer I have tried, and failed, to get back into Korean dramas. I found myself watching a lot of Scandinavian shows and a few made in Germany. But 2020 and now 2021 have been nothing if not strange times.

More Korean dramas are popping up on Netflix, which is great, and I’ve renewed my Viki subscription to get more variety. Slowly but surely I’ve found several that I’ve enjoyed enough to review – and a few I completed but haven’t bothered to review cause there’s not much to say about them (such as Lovestruck in the City). 

But overall it’s been a lot of ship jumping.

Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Matthew West

These are some shows I started but did not finish… and most likely never will. In alphabetical order, for my OCD and your viewing pleasure.

100 Days My Prince – ep 1 – cutesy and not my style.

Absolute Boyfriend – ep 20 – I honestly don’t know why I watched so much of this… it was just kinda on in the background. It felt like a cartoon.

Abyss – ep 5 – certain aspects of this show annoyed me considerably… though I like both actors, I was not charmed by the body swapping shenanigans.

Alice in Borderland (Japanese) – ep 2 – eh. Killer escape rooms is kinda a worn out concept at this point, isn’t it?

Angel’s Last Mission: Love – ep 3 – too cutesy for my taste.

Beauty Inside – ep 9 – what the…? Did we just stop trying, Korea?

Beyond Evil – ep 8 – sigh. Shin Ha-Kyun and I just don’t mix, apparently.

Born Again – ep 6 – what a waste of potential. Felt like a day time soap opera.

Devilish Joy – ep 2 – meh.

Doctor Prisoner – ep 16 – It was exciting but unfortunately it spent all its time trying to be exciting. You can’t stay on Code Red every minute of the day, Doctor Prisoner. Without some calm to contrast your high stakes over zealous plotlines, it’s just cheap tricks. You know the music they play in game shows, right before a contestant chooses and they’re building the excitement and tension? They played it like that the whole hour, episode after episode. It was exhausting.

Doom at Your Service – ep 11 – another show that thinks two attractive leads is all it takes to charm an audience (which apparently is true from how many positive reviews this got). The plot line is paper thin. With some script development this could have been a more interesting and beautiful story – the outline is there, but right now it’s just a child’s coloring book and not a work of art.

Find Me In Your Memory – ep 9 – I like it and I wanted to keep watching… but this drama is soooo long and not enough is happening. My time is precious, people.

Flower of Evil – ep 10 – The sadness of the wasted potential! These are the kinds of story lines that generally suck me in. But… not this show. To be honest, I will probably try to finish this one at some point cause I do love a psycho killer story and Kim Ji Hoon is fun to watch. (update: I finished it. The ending was fun. 8/10)

The Good Detective – ep 7 – meh.

The Guest – ep 2 – really wanted to like this one. Shaman, Catholics, demons, and murder? Sign me up! But it felt unfocused and after the second episode ended, I hadn’t been hooked. Is there a plot? Or just an idea of a plot? Should I give it a few more episodes? Has anyone watched this one?

Guardian (Chinese) – ep 2 – not my style.

Hello, Me! – ep 8 – very cute idea and overall not a bad show… just not that good either. Love the leading actor, Kim Young-Kwang, in particular, though he seemed pushed to the background in this show. 

Hotel Del Luna – ep 7 – decent concept but felt like someone just cut out characters from better dramas and didn’t bother to try to make them work for this particular show.

I’ll Go When the Weather is Nice – ep 6 – I generally adore slow melodramas but this one just didn’t grab my emotions.

Into the Ring – ep 2 – meh.

The Last Empress – ep 2 – dreadful.

Less Than Evil – ep 7 – started out okay but I’m not a fan of the male lead… 

Kiss Goblin – ep 1 – ack, no thank you.

Live Up to Your Name – up to ep 7 – time travel comedies are hit and miss, and this one was a miss for me.

Mad for Each Other – ep 8 – fun concept but not quite funny. It’s Okay That’s Love or Heart to Heart are far superior, if you like love and mental health stories. Kill Me Heal Me is also a zany romantic comedy that was better. I dunno… this felt like something slapped together over a luncheon. 2020 was a tough year, though, so… it is what it is.

Melting Me Softly – ep 11 – snaps for a fun plot line but thumbs down for not putting any real effort into how to hold up such a plot line with narrative structure and intrigue. 

My Country : The New Age – ep 11 – it wasn’t awful but kept reminding me how superior Six Flying Dragons was.

My Strange Hero – ep 28 – the show that is just one head-shot after another. It’s like a teenager who can’t stop taking selfies of itself. Soooo many giant heads on the screen. And I just don’t care to watch even one more minute of these continuous, tedious tight close ups of people’s faces. We get it! They’re attractive! Geesh – just back up, man!

My television is eight feet from my couch and I felt like my personal space was being invaded by this show. I snapped. Honestly, it’s not a bad storyline… and the actors are good. I just couldn’t take one more close up – to the point where I don’t care how this show ends, even though I only have about two hours left. I can’t! Call it a protest.

Private Lives – ep 3 – nope. This is gonna sound mean, cause maybe it is… but Ko Gyung-Po does not have leading man charisma… he’s awesome as a second lead, though. Anyways… dropped it.

Psychopath Diary – ep 6 – cute but sadly does not have a complex enough plot to justify the run time. If they would have developed the whole angle of the killer/cutie weirdness… then yeah. That was truly complicated and strangely sexy and just… wow, what a fun concept! But nope, they hopped over that before it even warmed up. Just watch Me Too Flower or one of his other shows if you wanna see Yoon Si-Yoon be adorable. 

School 2017 – ep 9 – School 2013 is far superior in every aspect.

School Nurse Files – ep 1 – too camp

Sisyphus – ep 8 – I’m hard pressed to think of a show where the leading actors had less chemistry. When separate their storylines are interesting but together they just drag this show into a dull sci fi landscape.

Sky Castle – ep 7 – I might give this another shot eventually… maybe… I do love scheming rich ladies.

Start Up – I made it through the first 3 eps before I realized what direction the love story was headed. This is not to say this drama is bad – it may very well be awesome… but I kinda fell for the second male lead, apparently, and I just can’t support a show that created a leading character who is not the leading love interest.

Tale of the Nine-Tailed – ep 7 – ugh.

Tell Me What You Saw – ep 2 – overacting anyone? 

Train – ep 7 – nice idea but lackluster execution 

True Beauty – ep 2 – Did we need an entire show about the power of makeup? No, no we did not. We still have access to the old YouTube video Contouring 101 by Sailor J… and that’s all we need on the subject.

The Uncanny Counter – ep 1 – too goofy for me. (Update: I finished this and absolutely loved it… so first impression was wrong on this fun gem of a show. Rated 8.5/10)

The Untamed (Chinese) – ep 11 – I tried, ya’ll. This is as far as I have ever gotten with a Chinese drama. I love some smoldering gayness, but gheesh, these plotlines… I just can’t get into it.

Vagabond – ep 3 – I love an action drama but… not this one. 

Vincenzo – ep 2 – I love this actor but could tell I was not going to vibe with this drama.

Review – Woman of 9.9 Billion

Wow! It’s been a while since a drama completely sucked me in like this one did. After a few episodes that established the basic plot and main characters – it ramped up the speed and started ending each episode on cliffhangers – nail biting cliffhangers – and if that’s not enough to make you binge watch late into the night… I don’t know what is.

The premise of this show is simple. A battered wife who has nothing to live for stumbles upon a car crash… with 9.9 million dollars in cash in the trunk. Now, perhaps there are saints in this world who could walk away from such an enormous temptation… but I can’t think of even one living soul I know who could resist. Our miserable female lead is no saint – she takes the money. Every single cent of it.

What happens next is the show.

I don’t like to write detailed reviews about mystery shows. The less you know, the more fun you will have discovering the many – many, many, many – twists and turns of this show. The plot starts off taking you in the logical direction you expect – how will she get away with it? Whose money was it? What will she do with it? Where can she hide it? Who can she trust? But after it jumps through these basics within the first two or three episodes, it starts to do real heavy lifting. It starts to create this intricate web, connecting multiple characters, spinning back on itself, rewriting things, taking you in completely new and fresh directions before marching you back down into the thick of it. There’s a lot of people who are interested in that money…

9.9 Billion won is a lot. A lot, a lot. 9.9 Billion won is $9 million USD.  That’s Life changing money. Lottery money.

Money changes your perception of life. The having and not having. The corrupting influence of it. And at its heart, Woman of 9.9 Million is a morality tale. It’s like an elaborate and violent parable or Bible story. And yeah, it’s pretty violent.

The actors in this show all owned their characters. I understood them – the good, the bad, and all the gray shadow folks inbetween. This show took the time to develop everyone important, to give us moments that put spotlights on different people. Everyone was complex. Everyone had issues and hang ups and distinct personalities. No one was perfect, and no one was exactly who they first appeared to be.

The cinematography is gorgeous – the set designs were awesome (so many cool lamps everywhere!) – the music was perfection in every scene. There were very few flashbacks or wasted moments. You will NEVER look at a suitcase the same way again…

Now, I know right away that this drama is not going to be for everyone. The lead characters are all middle aged. I would not call this a romantic or melodramatic. Most of your standard Korean drama tropes are absent from this show entirely. Woman of 9.9 Million is a unique storyline and will definitely surprise you.

If you liked… Liar Game (another morality themed mystery thriller) or Signal, God’s Gift: 14 Days, and Stranger… or if you enjoyed the gangsters of Extracurricular, Heartless City, or My Beautiful Bride… then you are in luck! This one is for you. It was such a surprise – and such a wild ride! It was just… really, really good.

If you have Viki, go watch it now.

Woman of 9.9 Billion – Overall Rating 9.5/10 – There are no guarantees with people or money.

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).