[TV REVIEWS] 아이리스 (Iris)

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"Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery" might be one of the most overused mantras you can find, but sometimes you wonder whether that is truly all there is to it, particularly when it comes to the Korean mainstream's peculiar relationship with American TV series - in itself a sort of by-product of their approach towards Hollywood blockbusters. No, this is not going to be a diatribe on the cultural imperialism of the good old Californian behemoth and its small screen brethren, since copious amounts of American TV on your screen is pretty much a foregone conclusion by now, whether you live in Stockholm, Yokohama or Bishkek. A discussion on how different countries and cultures favor different genres over others would also be pretty intriguing (such as the Koreans' age-old indifference towards anything sci-fi, as for instance I don't believe the pajama-wearing shenanigans of one Jean Luc Picard ever made their way to network TV), but again that's not the point. What is truly baffling about this 미드 ("mideu," short for 미국드라마/American Drama) craze which even spread as far as Korean drama professionals is that it mostly mirrors the kind of reactions you meet on the big screen: the more bombastic, the better. When it comes to casual viewers, it's nothing too surprising, particularly considering the kind of (dubbed) selection they get on network TV, and the genre slant of most cable channels. But when up-and-coming writers and PD mention their beloved American series, it's not The Sopranos, The Wire or Mad Men, but most likely the CSIs and Prison Breaks of the world that get the nod. It wouldn't be all that baffling, if the adulation wasn't so over the top that it often touched the cultural flunkeyism.

Sure enough, for the majority of their history, Korean Dramas had never been in a position to be able to devote budgets significant enough to even ape some of those concepts (the high octane prison thriller, forensics porn, part-time killers and whatnot) until well into the Korean Wave which exploded in 2002, but when the American TV craze first hit Korea in the 80s, it was simply a case of many overseas shows scoring better than expected ratings, and being treated as a separate entity, not something you had to imitate - sure, it had to do with the size and structure of the industry more than anything, but there also was a certain mentality beneath the surface, a sort of "that's their thing, this is ours" approach to the proceedings which helped both industries thrive on the same playing field, offering different things. And it would have been quite the intelligent modus operandi even today, as there is not a snowball's chance in hell that anyone in the US (or Japan, for that matter) could create something like 신돈 (Shin Don) or 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court), just like you're never, not in a million years, getting a Mad Men in Korea.

But with the exponential growth in overseas acceptance the industry went through between 2003 and 2008, the budgets started becoming more and more inflated, opening the possibility of bigger aspirations, even the wild idea of creating blockbusters on TV, until then an unheard of concept - if not for very long historical or period dramas. Ideally, this could have been a very positive development - just like how 쉬리 (Shiri), an admittedly average action flick galvanized by a hugely talented cast, showed investors in 1999 that Korean films could be profitable even in a blockbuster setting, in many ways igniting a commercial renaissance which had already begun with smaller, more eclectic works a few years earlier. Shiri featured elements of many other (better) films, but at the core maintained its own quintessential Korean identity by focusing on the talk of the town, the very last vestiges of the Cold War, in all their DMZ-enhanced "splendor." The rest, as they say, was history.

The reason why something like 아이리스 (Iris), which concluded its highly rated run tonight in Korea, might be quite topical, is in showing how much that playing field and the players moving it have changed since then, its ambiguous approach to the aforementioned mantra a much more intriguing argument than the lugubrious macho flunkeyism it was so nonchalantly drenched in. Iris started in the summer of 2006, when writer Choi Wan-Gyu - of 주몽 (Jumong) fame - signed a contract with MK Pictures (as president of his newly formed drama writer-filled shingle, A-story) to adapt Shiri for the small screen, a project which could move the divide frenzy from Chungmuro (where it still could put some asses in the seats, but it had largely died down as a subject) to the TV industry, looking for a new Panasian megahit after the exploits of 겨울연가 (Winter Sonata) and 대장금 (Jewel in the Palace). At first the idea was to have a team led by Kang Je-Gyu (continuing the Shiri connection) and PD Lee Hyung-Min of 미안하다 사랑한다 (I'm Sorry, I Love You) as producers, and Choi playing his usual role of Jerry Bruckheimer-style creator (meaning, he shows up at a meeting, tosses a half-assed two page treatment on the table, and gets paid 10 million won per episode just because his name shows up in the credits) while his A-story underlings would write the script. Kang got busy with his projects in Hollywood, and Jumong made huge money for Choi, MBC and Chorokbaem Media - suggesting that shallow, repetitive RPG-like sageuk were the new cash cow of Korean TV - so in the spring of 2007, the project was taken over by Jung Tae-Won of Taewon Entertainment, which would mark their first small screen production. Narrating the vicissitudes and constant starts and stops this production went through would take too long, but cutting to the chase, one of Choi's underlings (Kim Hyun-Joon, which is also the protagonist's name) wrote a new script based on Choi's initial treatment and four-episode draft, and Iris was born.

While the trio of writers were newcomers who had worked under Choi as "cub scribes" and were now making their bonafide debut, the choice of producers was rather eclectic - in no small part because it mixed KBS producer Kim Gyu-Tae, and film director Yang Yoon-Ho. Until about 2004, Kim was pretty much one of the hottest new faces on the scene, mostly because of two masterful short dramas he produced in 2004, which ended up becoming amongst the very best of the decade - the badass, eery 아나그램 (Anagram) and the fantastic 제주도 푸른밤 (Blue Skies in Jeju Island), ironically both starring Kim Yoon-Seok, when he was still largely ignored by Chungmuro. His visuals were very strong, and had a indie flick-like sensibility which always made them stand out. Alas, when Kim moved to feature producing his limits started to show, particularly when he and writer Lee Kyung-Hee created one of the most disconcerting clashes of style in all of Korean drama history, the 2005 Rain star vehicle 이 죽일놈의 사랑 (A Love to Kill). Kim has dabbled in a few other projects over the last few years, namely acting as Pyo Min-Soo's co-PD for last year's 그들이 사는 세상 (Worlds Within), but he never was able to recover the flair and originality he had shown on those low-budget, memorable shorts.

Yang will be a little more familiar to Korean film fans, especially for his action flicks. He started in a completely different direction in the mid-to-late 90s (after his 1996 debut starring Park Shin-Yang), with romcoms like 미스터 콘돔 (Mister Condom), youth dramas like 짱 (Zzang) and the Jeon Ji-Hyun melodrama 와이트 발렌타인 (While Valentine), but he converted to action with the 2000 blockbuster 리베라매 (Libera Me), and "biopics" 바람의 파이터 (Fighter in the Wind) and 홀리데이 (Holiday), with the maligned thriller procedural 가면 (Rainbow Eyes) being his last in line. As you can see, not exactly a great lineup, and what was even more worrying is that Yang wasn't exactly subtle on the big screen to begin with, so imagine how his TV debut would be, with the specter of the live-shoot looming behind the corner and producers pushing him to bastardize every possibly angle to its most shallow and accessible extreme, to score big in the ratings. Admittedly, the fact that Iris started shooting nearly a year before its first broadcast made sure the cast and crew wouldn't have to go through the usual insane working conditions (the norm on TV for a miniseries cobbled together in a few weeks' worth of planning is usually 14 to 20 hour shoots a day, 6 days a week, for three months), but even with that long a window, it was shooting its final episodes only days before broadcast, another sign that the Korean TV industry will never really embrace having the entire show in the can before going live.

Did all the time and money spent - 20 billion Won, the second highest per-episode average in history after the 57 billion won for 태왕사신기 (The Legend)'s 24 episodes - truly help the proceedings? Yes and no, as the show's exotic grandeur (location shoots in Budapest, Japan and China, for instance) certainly made for a pleasant novelty factor in most Korean viewers' eyes (although it wouldn't get past its pilot stage by US standards, obviously), but once you start scrutinizing the details, you realize just how lazy and amateurish this production really was. I'm not even bothering with realistic use of weapons, verisimilitude (you had people sniping at each other a few dozen meters apart, and deployment strategies drawn out of a novice PC gamer's handbook) or even giving only the slightest impression that some of those sitcom rejects were in fact highly-skilled secret service agents. What makes you truly go crazy is seeing a drama spend huge money on car chases and shootouts in Eastern Europe, and then being unable to spell "success" on some full screen graphics, on more than one instance. Wild gaps in logic and realism aside, it's the lack of attention to detail which makes this a third rate production trying to ape shows like 24 or films like the Bourne series, even before you start criticizing the script and acting. Until the industry starts understanding the simple fact that you can't half-ass such elements and expect to have a drama succeed from a critical standpoint (not that they'd care), they'll only end up with a cheap replica which smells of cultural flunkeyism and a huge inferiority complex, more than the flattery I mentioned before.

All the bombastic shenanigans you get served with, as ridiculous as they are, could work if surrounded by a solid story, but - be it because the three writers were contaminated by Choi Wan-Gyu's horribly patterned and intelligence-insulting machinations while working under him, or just because they didn't have talent to begin with - what you get are only shallow pretexts, narrative pillow shots which only exist as a lead in to the next car chase, guns blazing et al, or maybe Lee Byung-Heon getting half naked, making a mess out of a nation of Japanese housewives and their poor husbands while he has his romantic interludes with co-star Kim Tae-Hee. It's all hollow, directionless fluff, held together by misguided and insipid action and syrupy romance, not to make the impressionable audience reflect for a second upon what kind of mess they've been wasting their free time for.

Think of it as the bastard child of a late 90s blockbuster music video for one of Jo Sung-Mo's horribly saccharine ballads and an even dumber 24 (which is adulated by scores of Korean drama viewers... who probably are led by all the adrenaline to forget that it's become a ridiculous farce after Season 2), as Lee Byung-Heon and Jung Joon-Ho start out as elite agents and best of friends, get recruited by super-secret agency NSS, and after a grueling initiation of sorts are welcomed into the pack. Sure enough, since it's a Korean trendy drama with guns, they fall for the same colleague, the impossibly beautiful (debatable) and hilariously talentless (NOT debatable) CF starlet-cum-part time "actress" Kim Tae-Hee, who falls for Lee Byung-Heon stat. Jack Bauer hasn't had a single second to lose in years, but our lovebirds in the making even get a nice holiday in Japan, where they shoot about a dozen subliminal tourist commercials, make some babies for Season 2 (which is under planning as we speak) and even witness little local girls fall desperately in love for our protagonist, before they croak for no apparent reason. Upon their return home, our heroes are shipped to beautiful Budapest, Hungary, killing a top North Korean agent being Hyun-Joon's task. It seems like your regular North-South divide potboiler, when a secret (and super-evil) organization called Iris enters the fray, what with new members popping out of nowhere, fancy exploding devices, and secrets involving our characters' past (why? Think there wouldn't be a secret of birth? These are Choi Wan-Gyu's scribbling offsprings, what do you expect?).

A few Japanese dorama tried the tired 24/Bourne formula as of late, some going completely batty like ブラッディ・マンデイ (Bloody Monday), others faring much, much better, but unless you approach Iris for the star power, and all you ask for is Kim mugging for the camera and Lee flexing his chiseled pecs, we're pretty much dealing with a complete, utter failure. Particularly as the show approached its final arc, the post-it nature of the schizoid script became even more apparent, with last minute switcheroo tactics being the only, desperate attempt the writers had left to somehow resolve the storylines they so egregiously bastardized over the last three months - let's just say that if you care the slightest bit about storytelling structure, narrative flow and believability, this mess will make you as red as swimming in rivers of Tabasco sauce would. With ratings nearly reaching the 40% on the very last episode, you wonder if people these days truly wish for their intelligence to be insulted on purpose, but I've seen much more befuddling examples of "popular consensus" over the last few years in Korea.

Predictably, Lee Byung-Heon does quite well with the little he's given, which is not much more than oozing charisma and shooting left and right, in between a kiss and a shower. And while the veteran supporting cast is mostly blameless (not surprisingly fine turns from Kim Young-Cheol, Yoon Je-Moon, Kim Gab-Soo, Lee Jung-Gil and Choi Jong-Hwan), there's very little else to rejoice about in the casting department. Kim So-Yeon is one of the sexiest women in Korean entertainment, and you'd never believe she's a 15 year veteran who once was considered one of the most promising talents in the industry. But her career pretty much stalled around 2000, when her terrific turn as a villain in popular trendy drama 이브의 모든 것 (All About Eve) sort of suggested she might be typecast for the rest of her career, after which she more or less kept repeating the same listless, vanilla performances no matter the role. Kim Seung-Woo is only marginally better, but both Jung Joon-Ho (timing is off, subtlety a chimera, delivery always subpar) and boy band "singer" T.O.P. (monotone, lifeless performance only banking on what Koreans call 간지, a kinder way of saying machismo) are terrible, just like Kim Tae-Hee - but you knew that already.

I suppose that's really not the point. Making a coherent drama doesn't really matter that much, when all you care about is catering to the most basic, visceral instincts of your audience through such cheap, bombastic tactics. But for something with as spurious and noisy a press presence and hype as this show had, you'd expect something more than the 90s K-pop version of a Steven Seagal flick directed by Nora Ephron. As it stands, the only reason why Iris will be remembered in the annals will be for becoming a sort of pioneer, just like Shiri, showing that the industry has matured financially to the point of being able to produce such shows (and to even turn them into films, later next year! Eh). Now we'll just have to wait until they mature mentally. Just, don't hold your breath. You might croak before gun blazing Korean Wave stars start their bullet ballet....

RATING: 4

아이리스 (Iris)

20 Episodes
Produced by Taewon Entertainment
Aired on KBS2 10/14~12/17/2009
Ratings: 39.9% (Peak)
Producers: 양윤호 (Yang Yoon-Ho), 김규태 (Kim Gyu-Tae)
Writers: 김현준 (Kim Hyun-Joon), 김재은 (Kim Jae-Eun), 조규원 (Jo Gyu-Won)
CAST: 이병헌 (Lee Byung-Heon), 김태희 (Kim Tae-Hee), 정준호 (Jung Joon-Ho), 김승우 (Kim Seung-Woo), 김소연 (Kim So-Yeon), T.O.P., 현쥬니 (Jyuni), 유민 (Yoo Min), 김영철 (Kim Young-Cheol), 윤제문 (Yoon Je-Moon), 이정길 (Lee Jung-Gil), 김갑수 (Kim Gap-Soo)
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