[2008 K-DRAMA] First Half Wrapup

When discussing any industry's output, be it on a yearly or seasonal basis, the most over-used cliche might just be the good old "best of times, worst of times" mantra. After all, any mature business environment will eventually have to deal with both ends of the spectrum sooner or later. For instance, the incredible boom Korean films went through during those fantastic ten years, 1996 to 2006, was fueled by a generation of filmmakers who replaced Kellogg's and milk with molotov cocktails, Playboy with Cahiers du Cinema, and the smoking sessions inside putrid school bathrooms with editing short films. Or maybe they did both?

The result was new blood who changed the landscape of Korean cinema in ways few people could ever imagine. Chungmuro became one of the few remaining Gaul villages fighting against the mighty Roman Empire of filmmaking with their magic potion. But then, all of a sudden, the potion was stolen under their noses, sold off to the enemy along with their fighting spirit. In no time, the whole village had turned into a collection of youngsters and old farts who didn't know how to direct their punches, with the occasional Obelix still hanging around with his magnificent menhirs. Chungmuro's current crisis might have been a predictable outcome, a sort of post dot-com bubble burst going at 24 frames per second, but with a few adjustments things could get better. Alas, when it comes to TV Dramas in the first half of 2008, bringing out that old cliche wouldn't be just optimistic. It would be a mere illusion, as it was the worst of times. Let's find out why.

To understand what really happened, we need to go back to 2007, what might rank as the overall best year of recent memory in both quality and quantity. We had our share of crap, obviously. 대조영 (Dae Jo Young) started with a bang and amazing production values, but slowly descended into the pits of hell; the pretty but empty and superficial 45 billion Won disaster 태왕사신기 (The Legend) forgot mid-way whether it was a trailer for a next-gen console game, or an historical drama with diabolically hilarious fantasy trips (West Baekje?!); the vast majority of miniseries ranged from the mediocre to the useless, with the usual bottom-scraping mess scored by trendy dramas.

Still, since the crowd who sees dramas as background noise for their dish-washing sessions, or the “HoT bOyZ rOcKoRz” battalion and their penchant for favoring visual catwalks over proper storytelling had their choice of mediocrity, nothing to complain about. What was so good about 2007 is that, if you weren't part of such pagan creed and didn't want to waste time with fluff, you could find something to enjoy as well. And it could even be bloody brilliant.

Short Dramas had their best year ever, especially with the trio of Dramacity 변신 (Transformation), 저수지 (Reservoir) and 이중장부 살인사건 (The Dual Accounts Murder) rivaling anything shown on the big screen. Genre dramas started breaking that eternal glass ceiling with the elegant thriller 마왕 (The Devil). But we also had the medico-political drama 하얀거탑 (The White Tower), a powerwalking remake of Yamazaki Toyoko's 1960s novel 白い巨塔 (The Great White Tower) with a monster performance from Kim Myung-Min. Despite its John Woo-influenced finale clashing with the more Western noir concepts shown in its first 15 episodes, 개와 늑대의 시간 (Time Between Dog and Wolf) was a badass actioner with top notch acting and superb production values from the director of 신돈 (Shin Don).

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Korean comedies on TV never had any verve save for their romantic escapades, but 얼렁뚱땅 흥신소 (Evasive Enquiry Agency) and 강남엄마 따라잡기 (Gangnam Mom) went in a completely different direction. The first, from the writer of Alone in Love, was a hilarious Indiana Jones meets B-movie potboiler with tons of pop culture references and Ye Ji-Won's performance of her life; the second a biting satire about Koreans' obsession about education and the cult of real estate speculation, with sparks of brilliant comedy and even some touching moments. There were poignant dramas escaping their conventional roots, like 누나 (My Sister) and 고맙습니다 (Thank You), or truckloads of style and good acting saving average scripts in works like 케세라세라 (Que Sera Sera). And then, the last screams of a dying genre, two of the best sageuk of the last decade.

When I say sageuk, I'm not talking about superficial, lowest-common-denominator hanbok-wearing trendy dramas like 이산 (Yi San), born from the 2006 family-sized sell out of Choi Wan-Gyu and his acolytes. We're talking real history, with real people moving inside it, and real issues bringing debate. The 10 episode cable drama 8일 (Eight Days) and particularly 한성별곡 - 正 (Conspiracy in the Court) showed the best historical dramas can offer. The first was the TV debut of director Park Jong-Won, who helmed the great 영원한 제국 (Eternal Empire) in 1995. The second a 8-episode long serenade to everything that makes this genre great, with amazing acting, visuals that made most things on the big or small screen run in humiliation, and writing so good it could burn the paper it was written on.

2007 was the year when, more than any other time, Korean TV dramas showed they could be a little more than soap operas for undemanding housewives, or superficial star vehicles for star-struck teenagers. It was art, thrown on the screen, for us all to see. But, alas, it wouldn't last.

What happened is pretty easy to explain, a little more difficult to solve. Any business targeting the masses which starts ignoring its customers is doomed to fail, but becoming slave of one's customers will bring you doom as well. 2007 was great in terms of quality and quantity, but not in terms of ratings, which is all the industry cares about these days. Whereas two years ago it would take at least a good 30% to be considered a hit, nowadays anything scraping a mere high 10%, or hitting the low 20%s can make its makers jump in jubilation. Explaining the reasons why ratings are dropping so much would take a long time, but essentially it's a mix of this mobile generation finding network TV too restricting for their lifestyle, an obsolete rating system which ends up benefiting an oligarchy of dramas targeted at older female viewers, and a government that doesn't understand the Internet and TV Dramas' cultural and even political potential. They're too busy with cattle anyway.

Be it the illusions of the Hallyu, the traditions brought up by works like Dae Jang Geum, or the food-oriented onanism of new shows like 식객 (Gourmet), the story doesn't change. It's not a pretty sight, seeing broadcasters squatting with timeslots, as if they were Hollywood majors putting everything on the line for that Long Good Friday; dramas being shortened or extended simply because of their ratings performance; the hit and run planning of timeslots forcing what looked like quality shows on paper, such as Son Ye-Jin's 스포트라이트 (Spotlight), to continuously run against the clock, with working hours that would make hard labor prisoners look like lazy 7-11 employees.

It's become a crazy, crazy world, where quality is never rewarded, discerning viewers at home are losing their cultural freedom of choice, fans overseas are treated like Pavlov's dogs waiting in awe for their rotting bones, and the prospect of money rules the roost. The result is a 10% making all the money with material of dubious quality, and the rest still trying to make real dramas barely surviving, having to constantly adapt to their new surroundings hoping things will change.

Solutions? They're actually not that hard to implement: a government fund just like what happens for Chungmuro, giving some breathing space to those who care to make dramas, not glorified product placement; a legal downloading platform that's as fast, convenient and rich in depth as the illegal webhards supposedly plaguing any 2nd market potential; a new rating system including all the next-gen broadcasting venues like WiBro, DMB, IPTV and Internet downloads; a salary cap for top stars not exceeding the 20 Million Won per episode, so that producers aren't left with peanuts after paying off all the boy-band refugees and their 40-50-100 Million Won per episode cachets; a restructuring of broadcasting timeslots, with a model closer to Japan (1 episode per week), shorter running times of around 50 minutes (against today's 60~85) to become mole palatable to foreign buyers, and full pre-broadcast shoots for all shows except Daily Dramas, to improve overall quality.

It's simple, on paper. But that would require forward thinking, and for someone who just worries about today's money, long term plans are a no-no. Still, crisis or not, talented people continued to make good dramas, and that's what we're here to highlight. Some will eventually get reviews, but let's start with a few brief words for each of the five best dramas of this half year.

달콤한 인생 (La Dolce Vita)
Produced by Samhwa Networks/MBC
Aired on MBC, Weekends - 24 Episodes
PD: Kim Jin-Min (Age of Heroes, Shin Don, Time Between Dog & Wolf)
WRITER: Jung Ha-Yeon (The Lost Empire, Shin Don)
CAST: Jung Bo-Seok, Oh Yeon-Su, Lee Dong-Wook, Park Si-Yeon, Jang Young Nam, Baek Il-Seop, Jo Kyung-Hwan, Jung Kyeo-Woon, Lee Il-Hwa, Jung Myung-Hwan, Kim Il-Woo

A successful and ruthless alpha male trying to find the youth he never experienced, while at the same time piecing together all the fragments that illusion he called life suddenly crashed; his objectified, neglected wife, on the verge of collapse, finding her identity the moment she decides to abandon everything she lived for the last ten years; a young man who spent his youth hating himself and everybody around him because of his dark past, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps the light before the end; an irresponsible gold digger, and all her existential problems, slowly turning her into a beautiful portrait of humanity. Not your average setup for the usual "adultery drama," isn't it? But a quick look at the team behind this show, and you'll understand why.

So that don't we spoil the upcoming review (the drama ends this weekend), let's put it bluntly: La Dolce Vita is everything a TV Drama should be. Incredibly well shot, with the kind of atmosphere that wouldn't feel out of place in an European art flick, mixed with strong film noir sensibilities; the predictably brilliant score by Hwang Sang-Joon, who not only is one of the two-three best composers in Korea, but also happens to be Hwang Jung-Min's brother. Talented bloodline, folks; a perfect casting, highlighted by Jung Bo-Seok's majestic performance, Oh Yeon-Su's best acting of her career, and the shocking improvement of Lee Dong-Wook and particularly Park Si-Yeon; Jung Ha-Yeon's novel-like, almost flawless script, mixing existentialism with moments of touching warmth, pungent self-criticism of his generation and an impressive rendition of the young's inner demons and their darkness-drenched sorrow.

It's a drama which predictably scored low in the ratings department, but will become a vivid memory for years to come, to those lucky (or smart) enough to see it. Jung Ha-Yeon said all he wants to do in these last few years of his phenomenal career is write whatever it pleases him, regardless of ratings and money. After these last few years' spent writing gems like Shin Don, 명동백작 (The Count of Myeongdong), 지금도 마로니에는 (Still in Maronie) and La Dolce Vita, I sure hope he will. Until his 100s, his pale gray hair touching the floor. Write for us, Master.

달콤한 나의 도시 (My Sweet Seoul)
Produced by CJ Entertainment/SBS
Airing on SBS, Fridays - 16 Episodes
PD: Park Heung-Shik (I Wish I Had a Wife, My Mother the Mermaid)
WRITER: Song Hye-Jin (My Mother the Mermaid, Sundays in August)
CAST: Choi Kang-Hee, Lee Seon-Gyun, Ji Hyun-Woo, Moon Jung-Hee, Jin Jae-Young, Yoon Hee-Seok, Kim Jae-Young, Lee Han-Wi, Kim Hye-Ok, Lee Ho-Jae

We still can't call it a trend, but it's the beginning. Be it because Chungmuro is doing badly and many directors have to wait too long in between works, or because it's just a nice experience to add to your curriculum vitae, film directors are starting to cross over. Last year it was Park Jong-Won with the fantastic Eight Days, this year we have Park Heung-Shik, better known for lovely rom-coms like 나도 아내가 있었으면 좋겠다 (I Wish I Had a Wife). Joining him is writer Song Hye-Jin, who already worked with him in the past, and a mostly film-trained crew. Park adapted the chick-lit bestseller by Jeong Yi-Hyeon into one of the most creative and irreverent little dramas of the year, and one that's filled to the brim with movie atmosphere.

Where else on Korean TV would you possibly see a drama referencing Truffaut's Jules et Jim and actually connecting it effectively to its story; a drama spending a full three minutes without saying a single word, as the two protagonists stare at each other before a kiss; a drama that can get as unnerving and uncomfortable as real life can be, with a collection of musical and theater-trained actors making this a great ensemble. My Sweet Seoul is sweet when it needs to be, it becomes so close to home it's also kind of irritating in its frank realism, and makes the most ordinary moment shine like a serenade under the moonlight. SBS calls this its first "Premium Drama," to hopefully shed the image Friday dramas had carried during the last few years. If the future looks like this "sweet" beginning, I'm totally sold.

王과 나 (The King & I)
Produced by Olive9, SBS
Aired on SBS, Mon/Tue - 63 Episodes
PD: Kim Jae-Hyung, Lee Jong-Soo, Son Jae-Seong
WRITER: Yoo Dong-Yoon (Im Kkeok-Jeong, The Age of Warriors)
CAST: Oh Man-Seok, Gu Hye-Seon, Go Ju-Won, Jeon Gwang-Ryeol, Shin Gu, Jeon In-Hwa, Ahn Jae-Mo, Jung Tae-Woo, Lee Jin, Jeon Hye-Bin, Kim Myung-Soo, Kim Sa-Rang, Han Da-Min, Yang Mi-Kyung, Han Jeong-Soo, Kang Jae

What is historical dramas' real meaning and value? Representing ancient history, connecting it to our reality, and creating a discourse between past and present that allows us to understand the future a little better? That's too obvious. Let's go beyond that. What's really the biggest benefit of having plenty of serious, well made historical dramas? The King & I proved it all this year. When it started, the complains about the casting of youngsters Go Ju-Won, Gu Hye-Seon, former FinK.L. member Lee Jin and variety show mainstay Jeon Hye-Bin created huge controversy. And it was well deserved. They sure were trying, but there was no sincerity in their acting, it was merely a group of young actors reading the script. Forget for a moment that the beginning of the show was actually very entertaining, showing the life of palace eunuchs with the kind of detail we had never seen before.

But the biggest, most pleasant surprise of this drama was seeing all those young stars slowly turn into real actors under our eyes, thanks to the guidance of veterans like Jeon Gwang-Ryeol and Jeon In-Hwa, and the unyielding fighting spirit of the 70 years old and counting uber-veteran director Kim Jae-Hyung. Gu Hye-Seon in particular played Lady Yoon, the future Prince Yeonsan's mother, with such energy and panache, it was hard to admit this was the lady who, just a few years ago, was stinking up the place on 논스톺 (Nonstop). This drama was filled to the brim with such cases, like Han Da-Min, who found her footing beautifully through the show. Or sageuk regular Han Jeong-Soo, with tons of charisma and a possible future as an action star. And it was also Oh Man-Seok's time to shine, still one of the best talents of his generation. It was, finally, a showcase of some of the best veteran actors in the country, with Jeon Gwang-Ryeol, Shin Gu and Kim Myung-Soo stealing the show.

Yet, sadly, it was also a metaphor for the current state of the industry if there ever was one. Always fighting with its main competitor Yi San, SBS completely dropped the ball, first forcing producers to cast actors and even comedians in the hope of stealing some viewers from MBC; then, in one of the stupidest moves of the year, going back and forth, extending the show to 67 episodes first, then back to 61 because of bad ratings, and finally to 63. There were little scandals in between, like the scuffle between actor Yoo Dong-Geun (husband of Jeon In-Hwa) going Muhammad Ali on two of the producers, or Yoo Dong-Yoon falling into a writer's block thanks to the ping-pong market sensibilities shown by SBS. The drama always ended its shooting just a day or two ahead of broadcast, the atmosphere was very nervous, and the overall show suffered as a result. The middle part of The King & I even reached indecent levels of boredom, but you can't really blame the cast and crew for that. Not entirely, at least.

Still, this remains a significant achievement for SBS, usually known for sub-par sageuk, despite being responsible for one of the best ever, 1996's 임꺽정 (Im Kkeok-Jeong, ironically written by this show's Yoo Dong-Yoon. It was generally well written, it offered food for thought, it was extremely well acted and affecting, with a great finale and scenes which still linger on even after months. It wasn't everything people asked for, nor all that we expected, but it was a special experience. The kind that only sageuk are made of.

대왕세종 (Sejong the Great)
Produced by KBS
Airing on KBS, Weekends - 80 Episodes
PD: Kim Seong-Geun (The Age of Warriors)
WRITER: Yoon Seon-Ju (The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin, Hwang Jin-Yi)
CAST: Kim Sang-Kyung, Kim Young-Cheol, Choi Myung-Gil, Park Sang-Min, Kim Gab-Soo, Lee Yoon-Ji, Yoo Seo-Jin, Oh Yeon-Seo, Jo Seong-Ha, Lee Jin-Woo, Kim Seong-Ryeong, Lee Jung-Hyun, Lee Cheon-Hee, Lee Dae-Yeon, Lee Won-Jong, Jung Yoo-Mi

If we used theory to judge every work of art, then we'd end up with wildly different results. Sejong the Great is one of those examples. It started with what was probably the most promising cast of recent memory, starring many interesting youngsters along with returning faces like Kim Young-Cheol, Choi Myung-Gil, Kim Seong-Ryeong, Kim Gab-Soo and the rest of KBS weekend sageuk's crew; it had the team behind the amazing 무인시대 (The Age of Warriors), and one of the easiest jackpot subjects you could find, the rule of King Sejong, the most lauded and respected monarch in all of Korean history. Is it that then, the curse of good rulers not making for satisfying drama? After all, what's so fun about a man doing things right so often?

Whatever happened, after an interesting start with great acting from young Lee Hyun-Woo, who played Sejong in his Prince days, the transition to the adult actors brought us two months of useless romance, characters introduced too early (Jang Young-Shil), diplomacy with the Ming simplified to almost insulting levels, and pretty dialogue covering what was a distinct lack of substance. It was like a bottle of expensive wine with all the embellishment you could find, but deep inside was simple orange juice, not even cold at that. So, what? Why is it so high on this list?

I guess Yoon Seon-Ju has a way with humanism, or perhaps the moment you stop regretting about what this drama could have become, you'll start seeing the quality beyond that. It's over 50 episodes already, and we're still dealing with Sejong's first few years as a king; it's very likely the real accomplishments of his reign will be passed over in about a dozen episodes, because there's no time (unless they extend this, but judging by the disappointing ratings, it's not likely); in all honesty, Kim Sang-Kyung's acting is below par, even doing worse than his previous sageuk role in 홍국영 (Hong Guk-Young).

Still, this is a beautiful drama. Beautiful because of its insane production values, the great music, the elegant and meaningful dialogue, the humanism on display and most of all the best ensemble cast of any drama this year, even better than La Dolce Vita. After 용의 눈물 (Tears of the Dragon), few people thought anybody would top Yoo Dong-Geun as King Taejong/Lee Bang-Won, but Kim Young-Cheol has done it, and Choi Myung-Gil is superb as expected. But it's the depth of the cast that's staggering, with all the young ladies, from the surprise of the year Yoo Seo-Jin to Lee Yoon-Ji, from Oh Yeon-Seo to Kang Gyung-Heon, that really make a mark. And, despite the historical inaccuracies and the superficial portrayal of palace politics, at least you get the sense people are trying to narrate history here, unlike most of this year's sageuk.

It's a deeply flawed drama, in many ways showing Yoon Seon-Ju's shortcomings and even amplifying them in ways 불멸의 이순신 (The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin) never had to. But it's still a meaty, touching, and madly well done sageuk. For that, even if you can't forget what it could have become in theory, you still can go home satisfied.

라이프: 특별조사팀 (LIFE: Special Investigation Unit)
Produced by MBC
Aired on MBC, Sundays - 12 Episodes
PD: Im Tae-Woo, Kim Kyung-Hee, Yeo In-Joon, Lee Dong-Yoon
WRITER: Yeo Eun-Hee, Choi Yoon-Jeong, Kim Soo-Jin
CAST: Shim Eun-Jin, Eom Gi-Joon, Kim Heung-Soo, Solbi, Lee Doo-Il, Jung Gyu-Soo, Im Hyeon-Shik, Jeon Ye-Seo

One of the biggest trends in recent Korean dramas is that of trying to ape the season formula, already the norm in the West and even Japan. Why this is not easy in Korea would require explaining various cultural differences, but let's just say Korean Tv, ever since the early 90s, has been all about long-term storytelling in a non-episodical manner. The reason could be found going back to 1991, when SBS was founded and started paying top dollar for the industry's best talents. The competition between the three major stations became so harsh, instead of long term planning or situation dramas running for decades, the market needed quick responses and competitive content. Hence the explosion of miniseries, from 1987, and trendy dramas, from 1992's 질투 (Jealousy).

Why Korean TV head-honchos want to go back to season dramas all of a sudden is obvious, as the prospect of franchises and the smell of dinero can do wonders. The problem then is structural, as in the US you have syndication and a huge export infrastructure that has been in place for decades, and in China or Japan the market has absorbed the format relatively well already. The only successes in terms of season dramas in Korea have come from cable tv, the most unlikely of competitors. tvN's 막돼먹은 영애씨 (The Rude Young-Ae) already completed its third season, and MBC Dramanet's "CSI in Joseon" 별순검 (Byeolsungeom) is preparing for a second one, while an endless array of season-based quasi-porn content has hotted up cable weekends for the last few years.

For what concerns network tv, MBC was the first to try, with its "Season Drama" format, which ended up replacing the short dramas of 베스트극장 (Best Theater) on late Sunday nights. These were season dramas without seasons, essentially, as first 옥션하우스 (Auction House) and then 비포 앤 애프터: 성형외과 (Before & After) would just end their run after 12 episodes. The last tentative before the format was dropped was actually the only one with real potential, and one of the most exhilarating shows of the year. LIFE focuses on a group of agents investigating insurance frauds, and although there is a good amount of detail, this is not a CSI style show.

What it has in droves instead is personality. The self-contained, one-episode-per-week format is much closer to Japan than the US even in atmosphere, but it's handled with remarkable wit and panache by Im Tae-Woo and Co. This is one of the first times a US-system (several writers and producers handling one episode each, with a creator in the middle dictating the drama's direction) was used in Korea, and although there is still room for improvement, it's definitely a good start. But the real standout is Eom Gi-Joon, a theater/musical-trained actor who you're likely to see quite often from now on, as he's been cast in Noh Hee-Kyung's upcoming 그들이 사는 세상 (The World they Live in). Good acting, good writing, fun and interesting characters with personality and a nice atmosphere. LIFE would be the perfect launchpad for a season drama, if they ever decide to go back to the format. Otherwise, it can just stand on its own, as one of this year's nicest shows.

Other highlights
The personality and great music of 과거를 묻지마세요 (Don't Ask About My Past), the lovely atmosphere of 사랑해 (I Love U), the top notch visuals and proper adaption of 비천무 (Bichunmoo), the heart and soul of 스포트라이트 (Spotlight). But in closing, even if it won't end up in the "good" nor "bad" category, here's one for "the weird."

최강칠우 (Strongest Chil Woo)
Produced by Olive 9, Future1, KBS
Airing on KBS, Mon/Tue - 20 Episodes
PD: Park Man-Young (The Vineyard Man)
WRITER: Baek Woon-Cheol
CAST: Moon Jung-Hyuk, Gu Hye-Seon, Jeon No-Min, Yoo Ah-In, Kim Byeol, Lee Eon, Im Ha-Ryong, Kim Young-Ok, Choi Ran, Im Hyeok, Song Yong-Tae, Jung Jin, Shin Seung-Hwan

Fake horses, those expensive ones they used in The Last Samurai? Check. Corrupt noble-killing elephants? Check. Joseon-era flying snowboards, rope-jumping villains and bullwhips on fire? Check. Mariachi-like soundtrack accompanying what looks to be a boy-band member playing Zorro in Joseon? Oh mama, check. Hilariously bad acting, on purpose (I.. think)? Check! Silent, pissed off and mustacheless main baddie of doom, looking like puberty was yesterday's breakfast and "today is a good day to die, sucka?" Check. Fear not. Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't. No, it's not a B-movie potboiler thrown out by Nam Gi-Woong or similar artists of the weird, it's Strongest Chil Woo, the craziest drama of the year.

There is crap so bad that's it's entertaining, like last year's 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun), and then crap that knows it's crap, and ends up becoming entertaining on its own merits. This show will not win any acting award, as good old Eric looks like a mummy suffering from de-hydration any time he tries to emote, fellow thespian Lee Eon's facial expression and body language remind of the mating habits of ungulates, and Jeon No-Min looks as comfortable in his sageuk robes as Rob Zombie would be singing the Carmen.

Still, this thing has a distinct charm of its own. First, the script is quite good. This is Baek Woon-Cheol's first miniseries and obviously his first sageuk, but he ably mixes historical autenticity (the "killer elephant" really did exist, for instance. It was even sent away in exile!) with political satire, silly comedy and the occasional touching moment. The ladies, Gu Hye-Seon and and the lovely Kim Byeol, are doing quite a nice job. And even the producers are slowly finding their rhythm, with a mix of B-movie madness and sensibilities closer to the Korean situation dramas of the 80s. You're not likely to stop and reflect in awe at this show's complexity, but it's balls of fun. And that's all we ask.

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