Elly McDonald

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K-drama. I’m not addicted. It’s because…

Ever had that moment, that pseudo-intimate moment, when you give your heart to an actor, sincerely and fully, when you say (out loud) “I LIKE YOU”– then discover your discovery has a fan club numbering in the millions?

It happened to me. This may (or may not) shock those of you who know me. And Cho Seung-woo, I’m sorry, but I just don’t think it can work out between us. Us and those millions others. Even if time travel could make me 20 years younger.

I have become addicted to K-drama. It happened abruptly – not the drama part, I’ve been a drama addict life-long: the ‘K’ part. I have become a Korean TV series tragic.

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In a time-space continuum so short I’m embarrassed to admit it (okay, about 5 months), I have watched all or some of 47 Korean TV series and films. TV series completed: 22 (most K-dramas have a 16 episode run, but one went 50). TV series sampled: 18 (a couple I might revisit). Korean-language films viewed on Netflix: 7

그러므로 Therefore, despite not speaking Korean – yet, beyond the essentials (“Shit”, “Gosh”, “Thank you”, “I’m sorry”, “I like you”, ”Do you want to die?”, a few food items) – I feel qualified to bestow the Inaugural McDonald Korean Netflix Television & Film Awards. Even if not qualified, I intend to do so.

My first challenge is deciding award categories. A hallmark of K-drama is that series transgress genres. My sister, a K-drama novice, was watching what she thought was a comedy with me yesterday when the tone plummeted dark. “Suddenly we’re watching Gaslight?” she squeaked, alarmed. I nodded knowingly, in my best K-drama Big Boss mode.

I see via Google that most lists of Best K-dramas lean heavy on romance. Declaration of Non-Interest: Almost every K-drama features a romance, some more insistently than others, some more charmingly than others. The lovers are quite extraordinarily good-looking, blindingly good-looking. I did know some good-looking men men I was young, but they tended to be the type who’d force you to do hand-jobs in public places. The closest I got to K-drama style romance was my good-looking boss who tried to give me a CD of torch songs and nudged it into his desk-bin when I demurred; and the pop star who kissed me in the street. But that’s another story, or two, and only two. Generally K-drama romances cause me acute longing and make me grumpy.

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Chaebols – the kind of filthy rich good-looking that forces hand-jobs in public

 

⭐ I like it

👎 Not for me

blank = no strong opinion unless otherwise annotated

Here are the categories I came up with, showing titles Viewed or Partially Viewed, with winners, annotated:

SAGEUK – historical costume drama
NB Does not include costume drama assigned to a different primary genre e.g. Comedy, Supernatural.
Titles listed roughly in historical chronological order.
Spoiler: Not all historical dramas are credible history.

Hwarang (P/V) 👎 – Let’s create a crack combat squad and let’s select warriors based on their good looks. Only in Goreyo/Korea.

CATEGORY WINNER: Six Flying Dragons (V x2) ⭐ – This is the one that started me, ended me. Obsessed. Charts the overthrow of the Woo kings of Goreyo and the founding of Joseon by the Yi clan. Great exploration of the mechanisms of power and politics, relative historical veracity (I said RELATIVE), with romance that got the tear ducts working. “This series is a GEM,” sobbed my sister. “This is the ending GoT failed.” Honorable mention to Yoo Ah-in as Yi Bang-won but really, cast is flawless.

My Country (V) – Covers the same historical events as Six Flying Dragons, with relative veracity stretched. Honorable mention for the fiercely sexy Jang Hyuk ⭐as a convincing Yi Bang-won. Fast forward and only watch sequences with Jang Hyuk. Priority to face-offs between Bang-won and his dad Yi Seung-gye (Kim Yeong-cheol). Also worth watching the always reliable Ahn Nae-sang, as the villain.

Deep Rooted Tree a.k.a. Tree With Deep Roots (V) ⭐ – Jang Hyuk again [big smile]. The Joseon dynasty’s finest hour: I give you King Sejong (not Jang Hyuk, the king is Han Suk-kyu, and excellent he is).

The Rebel (V) ⭐– Honourable mention, especially for final credits sequence. Structure and tone odd for those not familiar with Hong Gil-dong folk tales source material. Those unfamiliar with recent Korean politics might not get analogies.

The Empress Ki (P/V)👎 – Yeah right love triangle between Chinese emperor, Joseon king and transvestite concubine. The historical empress also known as Empress Gi.

The Royal Gambler (P/V)👎 – Might have to go back and watch throughout because it’s CHOI MIN-SOO [awestruck face]. How did a dark hairy bloke get to be a K-drama lead? (Answer: charisma. Sheer talent.) A royal scandal that’s been told and retold many different ways.

Love In The Moonlight (P/V) 👎Oh these transvestite girls-dressed-as-boys. Shakespearean. But not.

Mr Sunshine (P/V) – Very likely will resume and watch throughout, despite the lead actor’s extramarital scandal and the misery of Shinmeyangyo (“Western disturbance in the Shinmi Year”, 1871). Ain’t no sunshine…

K-drama_bromance

THE SUPERNATURAL: zombies, ghosts, ghouls, gumiho

Arthdal Chronicles (P/V)– It’s pronounced Arse? Really? Watch the UK series Britannia instead, if you must, for Bronze Age weirdness.

Diary Of A Night Watchman (P/V) 👎– Special effects bombast.

Kingdom (V) ⭐– High production-value zombie horrors and Bae Doo-na [hearts emoticon for Doo-na]. Magnificent opening sequence Ep1. Unusually, there’s a S2.

The Scholar Who Walks The Night (V) ⭐– Phenomenally camp, a live action webtoon. The hero is a vampire. The villain is a vampire. Lee Soo-hyuk (villain) is the bomb and if he’s messed with his nose or eyes it’s a crime. Lee Soo-hyuk’s nose and eyes are works of art.

Arang and The Magistrate a.k. The Tale of Arang (V) ⭐– Oh the Grim Reaper! Take me, take me! Funny and fey and hits the spot, despite the lead actor’s makeup.

CATEGORY WINNER: My Girlfriend Is A Five-Tailed Gumiho (V)⭐– Delightful in every way. A strong contender in my Best Comedy category, and maybe in my Best Romance too – for the older couple, not the kid and the gumiho. Fabulous ensemble: Korea’s favourite little brother Lee Seung-gi loves my girl Shin Min-a; Sung Dong-il loves Yoon Yoo-Sun (and Chow Yun-Fat).

Hotel Del Luna (P/V) – 9th highest rating K-drama in cable TV history so might resume watching, if only for Seo Yi-sook, my fave Korean female character actor.

Black (P/V) 👎– OMG even by K-drama standards this plot is convoluted and implausible (best not go near plausibility as a K-drama criterion).

k-drama_Things_I_Learned

FEMINISM in a velvet glove:

CATEGORY WINNER: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (V x2) ⭐– costume drama, with THE most beautiful costumes ever. Sly and funny take on women entering male work domains. Political commentary on free speech and a free press. Female lead Shin Se-Kyung, who was wonderful as Bun-i in Six Flying Dragons. With Cha Eun-woo, perfectly cast.

Ms Hammurabi (V) ⭐– The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. The toolbox is full of tools. Very funny, nice romance, well-written drama. Go Ara has golden eyes and so do I. But I admit she’s prettier than me [wink]. My three faves in this category are all strong, hard to choose winner.

My ID Is Gangnam Beauty (V) ⭐– I didn’t expect to like this but loved it. Feminist critique of beauty obsession, wrapped up in a college romance. Did I mention it stars Cha Eun-woo, that one-man spawn pond of beauty obsession? Another live action webtoon adaptation.

Judge Vs Judge (P/V) – I can’t take it when girl characters screech.

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Cha Eun-woo as Do-won in Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung – pardon me objectifying but gotta admit he’s cute

 

ROMANCE:

Her Private Life (V) – She’s scared her new boss will find out she’s a stalker fangirl. Her new boss, the art gallery director, thinks her secret is she’s gay. Somewhere in here, a pop idol collects pop art. Some terrific screwball comedy, particularly in the earlier episodes, some interesting and oddly realistic insights into the art world, albeit caricatured (I speak as one who worked at an art gallery for six years), but fizzled out into unalloyed soap opera then saccharine with a very questionable takeaway.

CATEGORY WINNER: Chocolate (P/V) – Very likely will resume watching, just wasn’t in the mood. Wins category without being viewed simply for its title. Chocolate, mon amour

Beauty Inside (P/V) – Looks gorgeous, chance might resume watching

Any and all titles listed above and below

K-drama_I_like_you

 

ACTION:

Healer (V) ⭐– Gave it a second chance based on the amount of online love it receives, was worth persisting despite implausible ending (see previous comment re plausibility). Heavy on romance but this romance is sweet. One where I thought at first they definitely DO have sex. Not till near the very end, and they start under the doona wearing heavy winter outdoor clothes then wake up in white underwear (singlet, t-shirt), but was pretty sure It Happened. Apparently I was wrong.

Man To Man (P/V) – Too much man.

Vagabond (V) – Terrible prologue, terrible last episode. Everything in between entertaining and, again, quite sweet.

CATEGORY WINNER: Memories of the Alhambra (V) ⭐– Special award for best drama about Augmented Reality and gaming, and worst case of “Gosh I wish I had NOT killed that person” [horror face]. Stars Korea’s top-paid male star 2019, Hyun Bin (who immediately moved on to the popular romantic drama Crash Landing On You, not yet seen by me). Barrier to entry: a drawn-out sequence checking into a seedy hostel and the foulest clogged toilet ever shown on TV. After that it takes off 🏹  (After-thought: If you want feel-good, go with Healer.)

K-drama_holding_hands

TIME TRAVEL:

CATEGORY WINNER: Signal (V) ⭐– Outstanding. Based on the Hwaseong serial killings that began in 1986, ended 1994 and were only solved end 2019 (before this TV drama was made). Koreans must have wanted that c* I mean crim held to account so bad. Also the subject of an award-winning film, Memories of Murder (2003), by director Bong Joon-Ho (Parasite, Snowpiercer, The Host). And at least half a dozen other films and TV. Signal was remade in a Japanese version. Where Signal really scores is its innovative writing. There are popular tropes used and reused in K-drama, and time travel is one of them. This manages an original spin. It also packs a syrup-free emotional wallop, especially episodes where female lead Cha Soo-hyun is the focus. Don’t be put off by the opening episodes. Signal is worth it.

Tunnel (V) ⭐– More time travelling Korean cops, working to ‘solve’ the same real-life serial killings as the cops in Signal. This is essentially a more palatable rewriting of Signal: easier to follow, more conventional in every respect, often funny, more optimistic. Was that a spoiler?

Live Up To Your Name a.k.a. Worthy Of The Name (V) ⭐ – A time travel costume drama that hits all the right notes. Extremely funny. Touching romance. Some lovely, witty writing.

 

K-drama_Inadvertent_Time _TravelDRAMA:

CATEGORY WINNER: Stranger a.k.a. Secret Forest a.k.a. Forest of Secrets (V) ⭐ – Directed by Ahn Gil-ho, brilliantly. Stars Cho Seung-woo and Bae Doo-na, with exceptional support from a talented cast, not least Lee Joon-hyuk as a prosecutor more like malevolent feline. The ‘My head hurts’ stuff might not be neurologically plausible but the noir plot – more corruption, in politics and the prosecutors’ offices – is gripping.

Life (V) ⭐ – Same writer who wrote my fave series Stranger: Lee Soo-yeon. Similar themes of institutional corruption, this time a major teaching hospital and a corporation. Several same lead actors (Cho Seung-woo, Yoo Jae-myung, Moon Sung-geun, Lee Kyu-hyung). Great team 💚 Honorable mention to Moon So-ri as Director Oh. She fires all directions, like Brother Mark in that John Woo classic 💥

Pride and Prejudice (V) ⭐– At first I thought this might be a kind of sex comedy with humour that does not translate, then I thought maybe an office satire with humour that does not translate. I wondered why Netflix labels it “Dark. Unsettling”. By Ep4 I understood. A bravura turn by Choi Min-soo.

The Lies Within (P/V)👎– Nope, lead actress lost me.

Remember (P/V) – Revenge drama. From a kpopmap review: “Yoo Seung-ho’s crying and pitiful acting left viewers’ hearts in pain”. Never mind, I liked him as the Jade Emperor of Heaven in The Tale of Arang.

Distorted a.k.a. Falsified (P/V) – highly rated by Koreans who recognise the media-gagging scandal this refers to so chance might resume watching. See comment above about cannot stand the screeching. [UPDATE: I did go back. I’m still only a few episodes in but am hooked. The off-putting elements I saw as puerile fantasist stuff have given way to a more serious tale of investigative and tabloid journalism challenging corruption.]

Designated Survivor: 60 Days (V)⭐ – Remake of U.S. drama works better in Korean context. Highly polished, highly professional. Lead actor Ji Jin Hee is appealing.

Chief Of Staff (P/V) – Politics as soap opera. Again.

Suits (P/V) – Remake of U.S. drama, not needed in my life.

K-drama_Cho_Seung-woo

Cho Seung-woo breaking my heart

 

SPECIAL AWARD for Uncategorisable Brilliance:

Unchallenged Winner: Misaeng ⭐– live action adaptation of a webtoon. You can view it as workplace satire, comedy, feminist commentary, inspiration (yeah well not sure about that last). Just disregard completely the prologue and the final episode. Or view them as absurdist.

K-drama_aish

FEATURE FILMS:

The Great Battle (V) – I learned a lot about siege defence.

War of Arrows (V) – I learned a lot about archer technology.

The Proxy Soldiers (V) – I learned about the Imjin Invasions.

Rampant (V) – I was reminded about zombies.

The Fortress (V) ⭐– I learned about the later Qing invasion.

Inspector K and the Virtuous Widow (V)⭐ – Laughed.

Inspector K and the Living Dead (V) ⭐ – Laughed more.

CATEGORY WINNER: Train to Busan (V)⭐– Zombies. They’re BACK.

K-drama_favourite_character

 


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Six Flying Dragons (Korea, 2015) and Tree With Deep Roots (Korea, 2011) – spoiler-free

All the virtues of adventure costume drama with the added value of surprise.

Incredible sets, costumes, gorgeous young actors, swashbuckling action sequences, revenge, romance… and the whole way through I was trying to imagine how Korean audiences, knowing the framework of historical fact, would be interpreting characters and events.

Then when I realised I was watching the two shows in reverse order – Six Flying Dragons is a prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, made by the same team – I realised Korean viewers watching SFD would already know the fates of key characters, removing elements of suspense I found excruciating, but adding poignancy.

The entire political history of Korea would inform Koreans’ understandings of these dramas. I don’t have that. So my responses are naive, in the sense of… uneducated.

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The FB diary:

“… starts off playing like a kids’ adventure yarn then turns into an examination of political morality, dissidents, the nature of power, the nature of courage, wrapped up in an origin story of the [medieval] kingdom of Joseon (Korea). (The actual founding of the Joseon dynasty differs in marked ways from the hero tale of Six Flying Dragons.)

“This is gathering in power episode by episode and the climactic sequences in Ep4 – the music! – are killing me.

“Some parts so far are so pertinent to what’s happening in Hong Kong but the political parable is encompassing.”

“Rock stars. Amazing. I think I prefer it to GoT.

“12 episodes into Six Flying Dragons and it’s striking to contrast its female characters with how women were presented on GoT.

“Not many female characters in SFD, but those there are, are strong and complex, and respected: a woman spy master, a woman master spy, a peasant village leader, a peasant family matriarch, a resourceful peasant in a player troupe, a very young political ‘genius’ (so described by her father’s retainer).

“There’s a dorm-full of women spy-assassins but no overt prostitution, no femme fatale, no fallen women, no nudity. No conniving queen. The only sex has been one implied rape, off camera.

“Plus one young woman who appears to have an orgasm when the [much higher status] man who is patiently courting her assists her in fitting her first real pair of shoes. But I’d lose it too if I were that particular young woman and that particular young man was fondling my feet.”

“Things are turning very bleak in the last 10 episodes of Six Flying Dragons.

“The essential questions: What constitutes a righteous action? Does loyalty to an ideology take precedence over loyalty to loved ones? Capitalism vs Communism?

“Does a person become evil by performing evil acts or were they evil already?

“And the perennial: Who will live? Who will die violently?”

“Traumatised by Ep48 of Six Flying Dragons then cried the whole way through Ep50, the finale. [And kept on crying for 24 hours.]

” ‘We are stronger when we have someone to protect.’ ”

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“In my quest to become an overnight expert in Early Joseon I have done a deep dive into art history books, Wiki and Korean film and TV series beyond Six Flying Dragons.

Tree With Deep Roots picks up in time where SFD left off. I was going to say it presents a very different interpretation of King Taejong/Yi Bang-won but actually, the characterisation has a certain continuity, for obvious historical reasons. From this perspective, it makes SFD a romantic origins story.

“TWDR a.k.a. Deep Rooted Tree (a nice ironic pun) is more Alexandre Dumas.

“I also tried the popular Netflix series Kingdom, which has the apt conceit of making a Joseon crown prince a raving zombie. I applaud the idea – the entertaining Inspector K: Secret of the Living Dead turned Joseon nobles into vampires – but I couldn’t cope beyond the first ten minutes.

“However (Korean: honne), I am not surprised Kingdom has just been renewed for a second season. Maybe I’ll work my way up to it.”

Tree With Deep Roots turns out to be a conspiracy thriller about… literacy?

“Could you stake your life the pen is mightier than the sword, that debate trumps torture, that a good man can survive wielding power?

“Would you?”

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Seoul Broadcasting System