Review – Bulgasal: Immortal Souls

I mean… can you resist this goth aesthetic???

There’s gonna be a lot of gifs and images in this review… so if you’re internet is slow, give it a minute to load up cause… lights camera action.

Ah, Bulgasal! I’ve been sitting on this review a while because this is a tricky show to discuss. Like many other poor fools out there, I watched this drama as it was airing. And in a strange way, that contributed to my love/hate relationship with this fantasy. Cause I should have hated it. I shouldn’t really recommend it to anyone in good faith. But I had such a blast watching this show!

I was soaked in the fandom, giddy with anticipation as the mystery unfolded, and horny over too many characters not to love it. I was amused as often as I was annoyed with the outcome week to week as the story unfolded two episodes at a time. It doesn’t deserve a high rating. It’s slow paced, the plot line is a huge mess, and the characters are weird. But I’m giving it a high rating cause I loved this dumb, beautiful disaster of a show with my whole heart.

Everything you need to know about Bulgasal is revealed in the first ten minutes of the show with the narration introducing the last monster, the flashes of mysterious scenes on a bridge, and the cool opening title sequence. Not once did I hit the skip button, either. I love that title sequence.

Bulgasal has an unknown story line (we’re not following any real historical royal families or diving into era specific conflicts or politics), so there’s no easy guessing of the plot’s major conflict. It’s got reincarnation angles, so there are multiple timelines with multiple versions of characters popping up. It’s got a grumpy protagonist who spends the large majority of the show sulking around a dirty house while a bunch of sunshine characters come in upset his world. It’s got a very enjoyable and theatrical antagonist who has more chemistry with the leading man than the leading lady does. And it’s got all kinds of wacky supernatural stuff at play without clear rules so it’s always a mystery how it’s going to effect the storyline and all the characters.

I mean, you won’t really know what’s happening or why in this show for a long time and even when you find out it’s not particularly inspired, but it’s so much fun guessing. If you have any imagination whatsoever you will invent a plotline three times better than the one offered and bask in the glory of your mental fanfiction as you stare at the beautiful people on your screen.

Bulgasal is a whole vibe. You’re either on board or not. Do you want on this ship?

Wait, I’m sorry. What was that? I don’t think I heard you.

I said DO YOU WANT ON THIS SHIP?

Meow Meow.

ALL ON BOARD.

My personal rating 10/10. My subjective rating? Uhm… 7/10? But why be subjective with Bulgasal? That’s not what this drama is bringing to the table. Let’s adjust to uh… Overall rating: 9/10. A beautiful disaster that captivated the fandom.

Now let’s talk about what made Bulgasal… Bulgasal. Or rather, let’s just follow tangents along and ramble as I reminisce on the fandom and the characters in this show.

SPOILERS BELOW.

Continue reading

Review – The Red Sleeve

The Red Sleeve had a solid start but unfortunately wandered off the track towards the end and got lost in its own introspection. For nearly everything I liked about this drama, there was a counterweight of something I didn’t like. I will also admit I went into this with expectations of a sweeping historical romance, as I had heard this was a drama that captured people’s hearts with its love story, but, uhm… well, more on that in the review. Cause there was good and bad there, too, unfortunately.

The story itself was interesting and fresh. Though I am familiar with the fate of Crown Prince Sado, I am less familiar with the story of his son, King Jeongjo. I was captivated by the struggles of this young man, his fierce battle to always appear even tempered, intelligent, and upstanding so as never to be compared with his violent, mentally unstable father. You could really sense the pressure this young royal was under, how practiced his manners were, how he forced himself to endure any hardships with near silence and restraint. Lee Joon-Ho was surprisingly good in this role, for the most part, his bright eyes barely hiding the amount of intense suppressed emotion he carried around inside him.

He was especially charming in the beginning of this show. We got to enjoy one of the most tried-and-true tropes, the prince in disguise, as he sat around the library flirting with our lead female, the palace maid who somehow failed to recognize him as royalty.

These were the best episodes, in my opinion, and where both the lead male and lead female truly shined. At this point in the drama, the script felt focused and on track to deliver a great story of a young man navigating the complexities of politics and the dangers of the royal court while finding a loyal and intelligent woman to stand by his side. The King even says this. Verbatim. Like a thesis statement. That the crown prince will need to find solace and comfort in a woman, someone who can be his rock as he navigates the raging sea of politics. And for about half of the drama, that is the storyline we were given. And it was great.

I am most familiar with Lee Joon-Ho from Cheese in the Trap, one of my favorite coming of age stories (despite its flaws). He was excellent in that show as the extroverted, charming, troublemaker second male lead – the counterbalance to the serious, near psychopathic male lead. As a casting director, I can’t say Lee Joon-Ho would have been my first choice for this role, but overall the actor pulled it off. Personally, I think he’s better suited to a historical drama with more comedy, but whatever.

The most emotional aspect he was required to deliver was his conflicted relationship with the King. And he nailed it. You could sense how much he feared and probably despised his grandfather. And with good reason.

For those of you who may not know – Crown Prince Sado was murdered by his father. His death was particularly cruel – as no one wanted to outright murder him – so they shut in a small box until he died from starvation and dehydration. There were a lot of reasons behind Sado’s murder, but the constant criticism and strict disapproval of his father, the King, were certainly culprits. The King, played by Lee Deok-Hwa, was outstanding and captured both the disarming charm of the man as well as his mercurial nature, his fits of rage and suspicion, and his descent into dementia. Would it have been nice to have a little more overview into what exactly transpired between the King and his son Sado? Well… yes. I imagine it’s common knowledge in South Korea and no one needs the refresher course, but for us foreigner viewers I was grateful I had seen several movies and shows about Sado so I knew what was going on.

So that’s the basic plot. The male lead, our crown prince, is doing everything in his power to appease his grandfather the King and stay in his good graces so that he may one day take the throne. Our crown prince has many ideas for improving the country and is eager to step up and rule. Again, this is another area of the show that is both good and bad. Good, cause I understood why he’d been so studious and forced himself to remain stoic and even tempered in order to secure the crown. Bad, cause the show remained quite vague about the specifics of his grand plans of improvement. It was also quite vague about all the political and bloody turmoil that happened after he took the throne. They felt rather skimmed over and when they did take to the front of the stage, the emotional weight was lacking because those characters hadn’t been developed enough for me to care. Where the script chose to focus its attention often meandered and left me, the viewer, quite annoyed by its choices.

Listen, creating a good historical drama is a tough gig. Most sageuk’s end up like this one, with some solid episodes but overall sort of messy. They can’t all be Six Flying Dragons, I guess. For me, this was worth watching but I’ll never rewatch it. And if I am going to be recommending historical dramas, this won’t be near the top of the list.

Overall Rating: 7/10.

To say more is to venture into spoiler territory so come along with me, my friends, further down the page if you want to dig into the female lead and the awkward handling of gender in this tale.

Continue reading

Review – Gu Family Book / Kangchi, the Beginning

I watched this series when it first came out, slapped a 7.5 star rating on it, and moved on with my life. Except I didn’t move on. I kept coming back to it. I don’t know how many times I have watched it now, but it’s a lot. A lot, a lot. And I honestly think it gets better with each rewatch. Now I’d say it’s a perfect 10/10. Occasionally our first impressions are just… wrong, okay?

Listen, sometimes you have to change your mind about stuff. It’s good for the soul.

Just like this drama.

Just like these two.

Bae Suzy and Lee Seung-Gi are the two leads, both of which are notoriously charming in all their dramas. Sticking them together was like the first person who thought to create a double layer cake. What if we put a cake… on top of a cake? Afterwards humanity forever wondered why they hadn’t been doing this the whole time. Cause of course, of course, cake on cake is perfect. And Bae Suzy and Lee Seung-Gi are perfect. They’re both charismatic actors who bring innocence, humor, and sincerity to all their roles. And just so you know – they don’t even really show up until episode 3. Like Queen Seon Duk, the first two episodes are all about the laying foundations of the story with the generation before.

The plotline of Gu Family Book is fantastic – both the supernatural plotline and the political one. There’s melodrama, action, revenge, political intrigue, and the supernatural. But at its core, this is a romance. And the romance is achingly romantic, with the plot winding slowly around your heart until by the time things start coming together for these two, you’re already desperately bound to their stories.

The warrior’s daughter and the gumiho’s son

Oh, Gu Family Book! This show has it all. It packed in everything you can think of in its suitcase of plot devices to spellbind an audience. Kang Eun-Kyung wrote a script to rival some of the best historical dramas of all time. The story is huge, complicated, and multi-generational – yet it’s easy to follow and just builds on itself as it goes. There’s tons of humor to balance all the tragedy. The stakes are high but realistic. All the characters are fully developed, and I mean all of them. And they all get complete characters arcs, too, with transformation and growth (even if towards the dark side). I’ll get into all of this in more detail in the spoiler section.

Sometimes your protagonists are only as good as your antagonists, and Lee Seung-Gi plays one of the most monstrous villains of all time. You’ll be rooting for someone to cut this man down from the very first episode. Lee Seung-Gi will make your skin crawl. He plays his role with such menace, such devious certainty, that you never once doubt his character’s soul is blacker than the eyeliner of the lead singer of The Cure.

There are really dark aspects in this drama – human slavery, rape, torture, and murder – though their presentation is PG-13, you might be disturbed by the content. Gu Family Book does not pretend that the past was an entirely pleasant experience – it could be a very, very harsh world. But our characters still find ways to survive, to find beauty, joy, and pleasure, in the world they occupy. Sometimes the darkness can be overcome, and sometimes people have to make room for the light despite of it.

Listen, I’m hard pressed to think of a reason why you won’t like this drama. Other than the “old-school” special effects – which okay, sure, they’re old fashioned… it’s just glowing lights and rather painful looking colored contacts most of the time, but whatever. I’m embarrassed to admit I was overly dismissive of the simplistic special effects first viewing – which now don’t bother me in the least. In fact, I actually prefer a lot of these FX tricks over more tedious CGI. Don’t let your modern eye keep you from enjoying this fairy tale goodness just because its special effects are a bit dated. Maybe at first you’ll be a little unsure of how to feel about some of the show, but it will hypnotize you. Next thing you know you’ll be utterly delighted every time those little blue will-o’-the-wisps show up, every time Kang Chi’s eyes switch colors, every time the operatic theme song by Yisabel busts in… “There’s a stone for the things forgotten…”

Around the early 2010’s is when Korean dramas started picking up a substantial fan base in America. There is something particular about the shows coming out during this time – they were so universally loved by viewers (with a few problematic elements here and there, sure) – they were so addictive, so shamelessly full of love, sorrow, hope, honor, and friendship – that they swept people up into the fan base and retained them as permanent K-drama addicts. Warrior Baek Dong Soo, The Moon Embracing the Sun, Queen In Hyun’s Man, Sungkyunkwan Scandal. If you’ve watched any of these dramas – then you know what I’m talking about. They’re distinctive. Distinctively freakin’ good.

Check it Gu Family Book and fall in love with a smitten tomboy warrior girl and the half-human half-mythical creature whose big heart and dimpled smile will win you over.

Overall Rating: 10/10. Supernatural Tale Involving Magical Blue Lights and Colored Contact Lenses.

Character Discussion & Spoilers Follow…

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Review – Kingdom of the Winds

Review – Kingdom of the Winds

How epic is this cover image, am I right?  Well, don’t be fooled…. cause this drama doesn’t live up to its own glorious press.  I might have enjoyed it more if I had watched it when it originally came out – before bigger, better, more impressive historical sagas came out and destroyed all contenders.  Maybe this drama helped pave the road for the big budget beauties I so adore, but I still can’t hep but feel underwhelmed.

It’s basically about this prince whose life was ruined on the day he was born after a shamen said that the heavens cursed him – doomed to kill his parents, his siblings, his own children, and destroy his country.  Yup.  All that.  It was enough for his daddy, the King, to seriously consider stabbing his own infant son – but instead he sends him away and tells the nation he died.  Well, our young prince grows up.  Goes through a series of misadventures.  And basically proves he’s immortal – cause the man escapes death a billion times, it’s ridiculous.  He falls in love with this blank faced medic, who just happens to be a princess (conveniently allowed to leave the palace, wear commoners clothes, and be unattended by guards… wtf?  Since when does that happen?).  He’s got a dorky side kick.  He’s got a rival for his love interest.  He’s got a bunch of political schemes and hurdles to leap over before he can jump on his rightful throne.  The bad guys aren’t terribly malicious or cruel, the schemers don’t seem too troubled when their plans are constantly thwarted, the action never makes you wonder who will survive and whose heart and soul will break in the process.  And even with the tragic ending (was it though?), it still felt like a mediocre historical adventure through cliches and tired story lines.

This is our leading ladies’ expression about 90% of the show… blank, bewildered and beautiful… for someone so interesting, with her regal past and medical interests… she was so boring. But it’s not just her. They all were.

Where are the grand ambitions?  Where are the personal faults and self destructive tendencies of our heroes?  Where are the clash of wills, the grand romances, the small moments of humor and heart?  Well… scattered to the wind, apparently.

I had a lot of time to kill, so I watched it all.  Every stinking episode.  I confess I napped quite frequently and didn’t seem to miss a thing.  There are better sageuks.  Far better.

Overall Rating – 6.5/10.  An Echo Chamber of Worn Cliches.

Special shout out to Kim Sang-Ho – who played a devious, funny merchant.  I got him.  His character made sense – his ambitions, his life, his personality – there were no question marks around his motivations.

Review – The King Loves / The King in Love

Review – The King Loves / The King in Love

This drama was divine.  It took your basic love triangle and raised it up to levels of discomfort, pain and joy that I don’t recall ever experiencing in another drama.  Kings are always lonely, isolated people – by design – the people they can trust or count on are few and far between.  In this story, our King had one friend.  One.  So when they both fall in love with the same woman… cue the twenty hours of beautiful agony this show will provide.  I think what made this particular love triangle special was that our lady in the middle really loved both men.  She just happened to love one of them a little more…

Add to that some outstanding political intrigue – none of the boring filler that so often accompanies historical dramas – and brilliant side characters – and you’ve got yourself a historical drama that stands above others.  Let’s not forget how freakin’ sweet this show was!  So many sweet moments.  And tons of genuine humor, too.  There was a great mix of everything, honestly.  Gorgeous cinematography,  detailed costuming, and a complicated but tightly woven plotline that deeply satisfied.  Until the very end.  The very bitter end.  Cause… only one of these absolutely lovable men is getting the girl, after all.  And your heart is going to break for the other dude.  It wouldn’t have mattered which one.  That’s why this drama was amazing… it was a win-win and a lose-lose either way…

Overall Review – 9.5/10.  Love Is A Game That Demands Losers.

More musing on heartbreak, some spoilers, and character thoughts follow… let’s dive in.

Continue reading

Review – Sungkyunkwan Scandal

Review – Sungkyunkwan Scandal

I recently rewatched Sungkyunkwan Scandal, for… what?  Maybe the sixth time?  It’s an adorable romantic comedy.  It is, in my opinion, the best historical romantic comedy.  Still standing strong since 2010.  It has it all.  The best of all the tropes.  All your favorite things.  All the things you hope to see in a romantic comedy.  All the tricks of the trade done just right.  And for some reason, it’s impossible for me to write a review about it.  Every time I try, I just end up wanting to watch it again.  Sometimes you just have a to watch it.  When everyone agrees that it’s awesome – how many reviews do you need to read, anyways?  Trust the crowd.  It’s true.  It’s really, really freaking good.

The cast is perfect.  The lead male is the most delightful stick in the mud nerd… and let’s face it, how often is the main character an uptight, mega nerd?  But it works!  It works because they paired him off with a equally smart lady disguised as a man, who has a sense of humor and a flair for drama.  It works because they balanced him off with polar opposite friends – a carefree, socialite who is interested in fashion and flirting (Yeorim!  Oh, how I love him!) and a misfit, rebel who is interested in fighting and social justice won through actions over words.  They’re all awesome.  I wanted to be bestie with all these besties.

Just watch it.  You won’t be sorry.  You’ll laugh and be entertained and smitten and charmed.  It’s unavoidable.  It’s so well written – the cast is large and memorable.

Overall Rating – 10/10.  Nerds in Love.

Review – Queen for Seven Days

Review – Queen for Seven Days

Did you order some tears with your romantic salad?  This was a good show… that I’ve been watching unfold over the summer.  Not quite great, but definitely on par with most quality sageuks.  As you can tell from the name, it will not have a happy ending.  But until then, it does manage to be shockingly romantic – more so than any other sageuk I can think of.  Or least, more overtly romantic, in a modern contemporary way, as opposed to the subtle, slow burn romances we generally get in these historical shows.  Our lead couple was charming – in particular, her overt nature compared to his reserve.  Especially when they were older, her understanding of his introverted tendencies showed a level of maturity rarely seen in dramas – with her always knowing when she needed to go back to him first after an argument, or infer all the things he left unsaid.  And like Romeo & Juliet, their romance was all the more delicious as everyone was actively trying to tear it apart or come between them.  Nothing like opposition to make things exciting, eh?

I’ve seen a real shift lately in understanding the power of a strong psychotic character to make any drama more interesting.  The crazed king motif never gets old, frankly, and Lee Dong Gun’s performance as the seriously unstable, yet strangely sympathetic/pathetic ruler was outstanding.  Plus he had the best wardrobe of any royalty I have seen in a saguek to date – the man encouraged color and variety in his kingly robes, thank you.  Scheming adults, lovable sidekicks, secret identities, and a variety of palace drama and violence kept the pace in each episode.  This is a good drama to watch when you’re in the mood for a flagrantly emotional rollercoaster, as the emotional aspect of show is definitely its strength.  The plot is not overly complicated, nor are the characters, really.  At it’s heart, it’s an uber-romantic-romance (it’s not all tears, either, there are some very fluffy care-free episodes and cheeky romance moments before the melodrama sinks in).

There’s also a surprisingly modern soundtrack, yet it worked well with the show, which was sort of a hybrid anyway (there was definitely a lot of modern elements covertly woven in).

Overall Rating – 8.5/10 – If There Is A Prophesy Dooming Your Relationship… You Might Wanna Reconsider Your Choices.

Review – Six Flying Dragons

Review – Six Flying Dragons

This drama was outstanding.  It’s about the end of the Goryeo period and the beginning of the Joseon period – in particular, the revolution leading from one to another.  And it’s the best historical Korean Drama I have ever seen.  Ever.  After the second episode, I was pretty sure it was surpassing my favorites.  And after the epic 3-Prong Rescue Sequence from the Biguk Temple in Episode 6… I was hooked.  By the end of the loop to the opening scene in Ep 1 closing in Ep 10, I thought… wow… holy crap… that’s extremely good writing.  It’s by the same writing team that brought us Queen Seonduk and Tree with Deep Roots… this male/female team, Kim Young-Hyun and Park Sang-Yeon, know their stuff.  And they have been perfecting their craft.  Tightly woven plots in each episode, building on each other throughout yet changing enough to keep you enthralled, extremely complicated but fulfilling character development, action, historical significance, and even some romance.

Seriously.  BEST HISTORICAL DRAMA I HAVE EVER SEEN.  Just… mesmerizing.

Overall Rating – 10/10.  The View Is Only Better From the Moral High Ground If You Don’t Look Down.

More about characters – spoilers spoilers spoilers – thoughts and more…. please watch the show before treading into these waters, you don’t need to muddy up your experience by reading details first.

Continue reading

Review – Queen In Hyun’s Man

Review – Queen In Hyun’s Man

Though the first two episodes of this drama are notoriously slow, this is one of the most interesting (and romantic) time traveling between Joseon Era & Modern Times shows out there.  Why?  Because the two main leads are so interesting (and romantic).  They feel fresh… even though it’s not a new show (it came out in 2012).  Ji Hyun-Woo plays the thoughtful scholar who snickers at jokes, explores the new world with a reserved wonder, quietly observes situations before taking action, and is totally hard for his modern companion and doesn’t hide it.

Ji Hyun-Woo and Yoo In-Na are crackling with chemistry.

Yoo In-Na plays our leading lady, an adorable ditzy actress who’s won over by her time traveler almost instantly… oh the way he talks, she mutters.  Their banter is so refreshingly real.  It feels like an actual couple, not some k-drama construct.  She’s lying through her teeth, flirting, trying to show off, and he’s teasing her, testing her.  They make this show.  There’s really no other reason to watch it.  The plot is decent, but it’s watching this 300 year time gap couple cuddle in the library that makes this show stand out.  It literally made me feel like a giddy school girl every time these two were together, starting about episode three and kicking into full gear by episode four.

You will be helplessly charmed.  It’s not cheesy or gimicky or cutesy.  These are two grown people falling in love, just… head over heels in love.  And it’s magnetic.  Check it out if you’re in the mood for lots of PDA and heart melting romance.

Overall Rating – 9/10.  Dear God, Let Me Be Reincarnated As Yoo In-A In My Next Life.