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 with a mean right hook and a secret crush? Check. Ominous overtones of dark forces, corruption, and shocking evildoing lurking just below the sunny surface of Seoul? Check, check. 

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. 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, slinking 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 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, 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, committing suicide, and acting crazy – all with pleasant smiles on their faces as the world goes up in flames around them. We find three children in the midst of this madness, seemingly unaffected. 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?”

 

Welcome to the White Knight Village!

I don’t know about you… but I was hooked 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? 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 overt bash you in the face with it, spell it out for you in block letters 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 outstanding villains, each of which were as enthralling and complicated as the protagonists. 

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. 

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 let the foot fall 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!

Review – Extracurricular

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

About inequality.

About capitalism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPOILERS AHEAD ———————-

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Review – He Is Psychometric

File:He is Psychometric-mp001.jpg

He is Psychometric is half romance, half murder-mystery. Korean dramas are especially talented at mixing dark subject matter with light humor and adorable romance. The lead actor in this series, played by Jin Young, is psychometric – which is the ability to see the memories of people and, baffling, objects. He gained this strange ability after a childhood tragedy that claimed the lives of both of his parents. I’m unfamiliar with Jin Young, but must admit he was a strong enough actor to carry the leading role. His smile is infectious, and he had great chemistry with both his adopted older brother and his love interest.

He is Psychometric': The all-new supernatural K-Drama starring GOT ...

His love interest is played by Shin Ye-Eun, a whipsmart young woman whose life was also altered forever by a childhood tragedy. The same tragedy (obviously) that took the life of our psychometric’s parents. She’s smart and he’s dumb. She’s a hard worker and he’s a bit of a lazy screw up. She’s serious and he’s carefree. They were an adorable odd couple that really warmed my heart and I loved watching them fall for each other.

The side characters were memorable and enjoyable to watch. Though a bit heavy handed with characterization, I still enjoyed following the lives of all the friends, family, and coworkers that inhabited this story. In particular, the determined female cop played by Kim Da-Som who acts as both a role model and older sister to the young couple. In many ways, this lady stole the show as she seemed to be the most capable actor in the series – and thus naturally inhabiting her role.

Kim Da-som | KdramaDaily

He is Psychometric follows the recent trend of dramas that would have been stellar had they been about 10-12 episodes instead of 16 – or if they’d developed side characters further to fill out the gaps in the script.  Even in the first episode there was an unnecessary amount of flashbacks to things that literally happened only a few minutes before. There isn’t a great deal of tension trying to figure out “who did it,” due to some heavy handed visual clues and tropes – though perhaps if you haven’t seen a billion dramas like me this may not be as obvious. Had the last four to six episodes been condensed to one or two, this might have stood up better to other dark themed dramas with soft cores, such as Pinocchio, While You Were Sleeping, or Hello Monster. As it is, the last few episodes dragged around long after the initial excitement and tension had  faded. Still, I enjoyed it overall.

Overall Rating – 8/10.  An Average Tale About A Supernatural Ability.

Review – Come & Hug Me

Come & Hug Me. What should have been a 10/10 winner – combining psychopathic serial killers, star-crossed lovers, fractured families, societal judgement, and a thrilling story of cat and mouse… barely made it to 7.5/10 due to its excessive use of unnecessary flashbacks, painfully long sequences of staring and slowly rotating cameras, faulty dialogue (and lack thereof), and jarring tonal shifts. Let us all examine this tarnished show as what happens when editing goes wrong.

 

Which poster most accurately represents Come & Hug Me? Unfortunately, they both do… and that’s a problem.

Korean dramas have mastered the art of blending genres – especially when it comes to mixing dark plotlines with beautiful romances. Think of Pinocchio, for example. This is a masterpiece of blended genres – adorable, genuine romance – gritty, urban crime – melodramatic, dark pasts coming to light – and an unflinching commentary of modern society. It had a large cast and plenty of subplots and characters to follow around and not a wasted minute in the entire show. There are also dramas like Just Between Lovers, that kept everything close to the main couple and focused heavily on their inner turmoil, tortured pasts, and slow healing from severe trauma. I Remember You has not one, not two, but three serial killers, a boat load of family trouble, and a whole mess of relational, dark plotlines and it still gave us a swoon worthy romance. These were tightly paced, well plotted shows worth every award and accolade given to them.

So it can be done, this contrast of light and dark. It has been done. Come & Hug Me just didn’t manage to do it and that’s a shame. It felt like a significant chunk of the writers quit halfway through the project. Or maybe the studio said, “I love this 12 episode drama – let’s make it 32 episodes!” and then tossed it to an editing crew to pull on it like taffy. There were sooo many spaces that just felt empty, drawn out, padded, and needlessly prolonged. Every character in it could have used additional development – there were plenty to choose from, too. It would have been easy to tighten this drama into a finely crafted show. Instead, it just unspooled into a mess on the floor.

The plotline of Come & Hug Me is amazing, though, and thus despite its many editorial flaws and awkwardness, it’s impossible to deny the plot is pure melodrama. It’s a blood soaked cocktail of murder and romance and that just so happens to be my favorite drink… so let’s discuss…

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Review: Kill It

Kill It is a twelve episode action-mystery drama that feels like it started out as a six episode drama that was handed over to an intern in editing who then chopped it up into a billion unnecessary flashbacks (flashbacks to what happened, literally, ten minutes before in the same episode) and excruciatingly long staring scenes where no one moves (did time stop? are there photographers on set? why do they keep doing this in dramas?).

It stars the handsome, tall Chang Ki-Yong as a brooding, introverted assassin… who is also a veterinarian. There are two ways to make scary men lovable, and that is to surround them with cute small children or cute fluffy creatures. This show chose the latter, as all children were too busy being horribly abused in this drama to enjoy even a  moment of cuteness.

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Review – Who Are You: School 2015

Review – Who Are You:  School 2015

Oh, what to say, what to say?  It was… tolerable.  A story about a bullied girl who gets into an accident, loses her memory, gets mistaken for another girl, who also got into an accident, and gets to suddenly live a new life as a pampered rich girl at a fancier school.  It’s just one dumb plot device after another.  Secret twins!  Near Death Experiences!  Amnesia!  Imposters!  Generic Love Triangle!  It still managed to be slightly enjoyable though.  The cast was solid, the cruelty and kindness of teenagers adding drama to each episode.  But overall, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Watch School 2013.  It’s better.

Nam Joo-Hyuk proves he’s got leading male capabilities.  Kim So-Hyun beguiles us with her big eyes and expressive face.  And Yook Sung-Jae gets pushed to the side in the generic role of second male lead.  I really enjoy Yook Sung-Jae, but have yet to decide if he’s strong enough to pull off a lead in a drama of his own yet.  He’s a bit too idol for me, a bit too hammy, a bit too adorable.  Super adorable as a blonde.

Our second female lead, however, is amazing.  The bully.  The villain.  She’ll never want for work.  When she’s old enough, she can easily migrate into the “evil mom,” “evil boss,” and “evil ex” roles.  She delivered some blood curdling coldness.  Jo Soo-Hyang is amazing, but I’m not delusional enough to expect her in leading female roles… she’s lovely, but the beauty standards of South Korea are as strict as Hollywood’s.  And that’s a whole other post.

Overall Rating – 5/10.   Ridiculous Plot Devices & Attractive Teenagers.

Review – Lucifer

Review – Lucifer

Recently re-watched Lucifer, one of my top 20 Korean dramas of all time, and it still holds firm in its position.  This isn’t a typical story of a cop tracking down a serial killer.  This is a morality play, in which the reasons behind the killings are the plot line.  Much like one of my other favorite shows, I Remember You, the murderer isn’t necessarily the bad guy.  Or rather, they are not the only bad guys.  The people who made them, who drove them to such extremes, are equally culpable.  In a fantastic twist, the cop hunting the killing has also committed a terrible crime in his youth – and now his dark past is coming to light as he races against time to save those who may not deserve saving.  It’s a story of revenge, a story of guilt, and a story of the personal choices that define us.  It’s a drama that asks you to ponder the hard questions, to twist around your normal definitions of right and wrong, to see multiple angles to dubious actions.

And I loved it.  I loved it just as much the second time as I did the first time I watched it.  It’s beautifully filmed and the story is expertly crafted.  It is the second installment in a “Revenge” trilogy by director Park Chan-Hong and writer Kim Ji-Woo.  The first was Resurrection, a haunting mystery, and the third was Shark, a gorgeous slow simmer show.  All three films are remarkable, unique and highly recommended.

Overall Rating – 10/10.  Where the Good Guy is Bad and the Bad Guy is Bad too.

More musings on the morality lessons, the plot, herpes, and spoilers follow:

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