2013 Year-End Korean Drama Review

I knew 2013 wouldn’t hold it’s ground after what might have been a relatively good year. I was bored with most of the dramas this year. While some of them were interesting, it was only in the beginning. They could never sustained me until the end. I’m just glad they are some gems worth keeping though. Well, here’s to hoping for a better 2014. 

Flower Boy Next Door

It was definitely a good drama to open the year with. It’s not the best but good enough to keep me entertained throughout it’s run. The Flower Boy franchise has managed to create a notable name for itself so going in for the third installment was a must. Flower Boy Next Door was slightly moodier since it managed to establish a nice and silent melancholic tone The story was the uncanny journey two lonely hearts took together. It initially seemed the hero was trying to draw the heroine out into the world for her own good, as their connection grew it became evident that the healing flowed in both directions. When you get two characters changing each other for the better, the development feels much more organic and earned.

It helps that we have a great ensemble cast to portray our characters. Each of the characters will grow on to you. We’ve seen their daily interactions weaving together such rich narrative and poignant development. Each character’s growth is a gradual progression that buildings into compelling emotional momentum.  I love how each try to resolve their issues by talking it out. It’s not forced out of them immediately since we’ve seen the tiny steps involved to make the change possible. The love triangle was one of the stronger ones I have seen in awhile. It’s obvious that the leads will end up together but the juxtaposition of the methods to approach her was good.

While I’ve said my praises, this drama isn’t without flaws. These little flaws become more evident in the latter half as the storyline considerably slows down. There are sub-plots that were unnecessary and some of the sub-characters’ purpose seem like a manufactured plot device. Flower Boy Next Door should have stayed true to form with the contemplative first half because the second half ended dulling the overall picture. Although the characters and the world remain memorable still.

Level 7 Civil Servant

I have never watched the movie, which Level 7 Civil Servant was based on but I’m sure it did well. I envisioned sultry and class in spite of the comedy, but the drama never gave that. This drama was an utter disaster. The biggest flaw was the characters treated everything as child’s play. The spies weren’t professionals at all and took incompetence into a whole new level. They were selfish and lack the necessary skills. If that was used to milk out the comedy aspect, they failed miserably. This drama was a complete waste of time. No one truly developed and everything kept going in circles. The mission and execution all failed. Even if there are trust issue sub-plots that can be tread on, it shouldn’t be dragged out as much as it did. It sucks that there was no redeeming factor since Joo-won and Choi Kang-hee took non-chemistry to new depths. Yeaaaah, that pretty much sums up the Level 7 Civil Servant experience.

 

That Winter, The Wind Blows

I was not exactly hooked into That Winter, The Wind Blows and could not pinpoint exactly the reason why. By all accounts this should have been the melodrama of the year. It had a good team at the helm with writer Noh Hee Kyung and PD Kim Kyu-tae of Padam Padam reuniting for this project. The plot had a certain appeal to it even though this was a remake. But to be honest, I never understood why Noh Hee Kyung is considered a prolific writer in Korea. Her stories do have a certain appeal but it lacks a lasting impact. As for PD Kim Kyu-tae, he manages to bring out gorgeous and lush winter cinematography had a wonderful dreamy feel to it. Although he has to use his close-up stills sparingly so as to have an actual effect on the viewer.  While this was first place throughout it’s run, I think it can be attributed to that two big stars from the Hallyu wave coming back to the small screen. Their performances were outstanding but the reasoning how each came to love each other I never will be able to comprehend. The drama depended on cryptic deception. I wish they painted it focused on each character’s motives and weave it together as a bigger picture. There’s really not much to say about That Winter, The Wind Blows. It manages to deliver a watchable drama yet it leaves you cold.

Incarnation of Money

Incarnation of Money‘s bumbling craziness and zany humor is sometimes hard to swallow. They can be rather forceful about their antics but in the end it strives makes a point. The drama calls for a great deal of patience with its storytelling from its viewers. In the beginning, it seemed like a randomly pieced plot. The Giant/History of a Salaryman production team really took their time to lay out everything and develop it. To the point once the big unravel began, there was no stopping the show. It’s wonderful how they don’t paint the characters in pure white and black. I love how they are interconnected in ways we cannot fathom. Everything was logical and well thought out. The constant tug-of-war with our hero was amazing. The baddies are just as smart as he is. It’s fun to see them try to outwit the other. Although the pacing simmered down towards the end, leaving a bitter aftertaste for the overall impact.

School 2013

School 2013 marked the revival of the ’90s franchise that was an engaging, realistic portrayal of contemporary day-to-day problems of high school students faced. I came in expecting a lighter fare but this drama isn’t exactly happy drama because of the darker tones and raw feelings that were used. It was just a simple story about growing up, making it through your day, and making choices to change the course of your life. These kids’ problems were often bleak, but it was always balanced with a dash of optimism. You can’t change the past but you can build a future. Nobody had quick fixes for all of life’s woes. The writing was a bit excessive at times but it had an earnestness that made it great. This drama kept peeling more and more layers. It was gritty and just hit all the right knobs in my opinion. The students weren’t the only ones who grew. I’m amazed at even the teacher’s journey. This feels real, more than nostalgia, it’s what students today truly face. The quality of the cinematography wasn’t that good, probably due to the amount of time it had before the premiere. Although it was lacking in some parts, this drama has so much heart that you shouldn’t miss out on.

The Best Lee Soon Shin

The Best Lee Soon-shin had all the makings of a decent family drama but it focused on all the wrong things. Nevertheless, the drama has such a happy-go-lucky vibe that immediately lifts your spirits after watching. The storyline is pretty predictable yet still really very satisfying. It’s the endearing characters that make the anticipation enjoyable, thus the payoff gratifies rather than disappoints. The earlier episodes were rather difficult to invest due to mom’s irritable stubbornness. But after getting through that phase, it’s very entertaining to see the denseness and growing feelings of the our leads. Although once the big birth secret is out, the moms’ overbearing attitudes kinda ruins the show. Seriously, the unlikeable character are put into the foreground instead of the cuter and fun ones. There are still some highlights worth watching but you’ll feel rather shortchanged with the time you invested in this show. Despite the disappointments, The Best Lee Soon-shin wasn’t a bad family drama.

Gu Family Book

Gu Family Book was able to create a visually interesting world full of magic, mythical creatures, and legends. The story opened with the backstory of the hero’s parents, which was beautifully tragic and romantic. Those two episodes were this show’s most excellent ones. It’s such a shame that the main story that didn’t live up to its prologue. The fantasy elements have some appeal but it falls short in context of some obvious pitfalls. The seams definitely show since the story logic is about conveniently placing one point to get to the other point.  There was a tendency to spend most of its time setting-up for the next arc that some of the storyline gets mishandled. The story’s most interesting questions and characters just got sidelined and then forgotten because it was trying to do everything but not quite getting there with any one thing. The thing that gripes me the most is how ludicrously fate and noble idiocy is injected into the plot. The drama should have spent more time transforming our hero with gumiho identity issues into a real hero of the people instead of waiting him to grow up from his mommy and daddy issues. The weakness can be overlooked most of the time but it manages to get really jarring at some point. It tends to falter when it tries to be too serious or too dark. But in spite of all the negative criticism, the show has a nice cheeky comedy and does well with the magic aspect. This show’s strength is in the emotional beats so that other stuff tends to fall away. Suzy‘s limitations as a leading actress really shown but good thing the rest of the cast managed to deliver heartfelt performances for characters that ultimately fell by the wayside.

Mandate of Heaven

Mandate of Heaven was quite consistent in its delivery. The problem with most historical dramas nowadays is they resort to a fantasy fusion. While it provides an interesting premise, the logic fall at the seams and execution falters. Mandate of Heaven had good historical accuracy and even though it didn’t focus on the royalty per say, this original story felt organic enough. It knew when to draw upon real historical facts to enhance the story it wanted to tell. The drama mixed humor with thrills and political intrigue in a skillful combination. But the driving force of story was always the father-daughter love story.

The characters were interesting and their motivations were fleshed out well. It’s good that the characters are smart and are able to put things together. They get to understand what the intent is immediately, thus pushing forward the plot. This show moves quickly so much happens and each beat is working multiple narrative levels and yet there are moments to breathe and relax and even laugh out loud. Although, there is a tendency to draw the good guys in extra-bright hues.

There are also moments when the acting veers toward the overly broad or comical. Lee Dong-wook ended up being the show’s weakest link, and it didn’t help that he lacked any sort of spark with Song Ji-hyo. The side actors often outshined them. But a deft director and a sharp editor can work wonders. The drama has gorgeous cinematography and epic music score that made an intense, heart-gripping hour.

Nine: Nine Times the Travel

The writers behind Queen In Hyun’s Man delivers another solid piece, which I personally liked better. Nine is dramaland’s best take on the time-travel premise with its intricate and intelligent handling. There were more stakes involved since the hero is attempting to unravel a big mystery from the past. This drama had a more serious and dark tone especially since the hero experiences severe repercussions of time traveling. It was good the mechanics of time travel were fairly simple and the details were laid in thoughtfully. Nine was engaging on a mental level since it never outsmart the audiences by withholding info but instead trusted us to put two together and keep the gears in our brains turning. It was a suspenseful and often unpredictable watch. The series left you clamoring for more especially with it’s unexpected twists and turns.

Shark

There were extremely high expectations for Shark that it just couldn’t meet. I stuck it out to the end because I always hoped to see it reach its full potential but it was deflating to know that it never did. It was good in building up the tension but once it reached the height, it couldn’t sustain it. Hearing that the production team were behind the classic revenge melodramas Resurrection and The Devil, I was hoping for something really dark and gritty instead we get vanilla. Yi-soo was an amorphous hero who had the potential to be engaging if only the production hadn’t been so afraid to let him be anything. They were more interested in making him a tragic character filled with too much internal angst. Shark made it clearly that Yi-soo’s singular purpose was revenge. He stopped himself from getting close with the rest of the world. You’d think that in exchange for stripping him of everything else, he’d get to go on one very satisfying vengeance tear instead he sort of moped about it. The plot strings you along hinting some deep mystery, so by the time they reveal the endgame you ask, “That’s it?” This finale did so many things wrong that isn’t even worth mentioning. In fairness to Shark though, what I love probably was the poetic touch amidst the beautiful soundtrack it had when the story was likened to Orpheus. Although the shark metaphor was overkill. It is a recurring motif that never mattered and instead turns off most of the audience. It seemed like this drama valued style over substance.

Monstar

I only decided to watch Monstar because of its unexpected popularity in the first few episodes. It had a fresh and dreamy mood that carries a sense of nostalgia and yearning. There were quirky and compelling characters and loads of potential for complex relationship developments. A band of misfits coming together to find themselves and unlikely friendships along the way. Each member was able to get their own shining moment as the series progressed as well. But I really wanted the efforts as a band to amount to something, but sadly there wasn’t any resolution.

Once the sing-off happened, there was nothing left in the plot I never quite understood the motivation or the significance behind events that the show kept insisting on doing after. The plot began to fizzle and continued without a destination, pausing in places to drop in musical numbers that were becoming increasingly irrelevant. Granted, the songs were appealing on their own merits, and in early episodes even provided some truly poignant moments. But in the end, I just wish we had gotten answers and a definitive ending.  The biggest problem of this drama that it got lost on the follow-through and I doubt we never will.

Good Doctor

I never liked Korean medical dramas but the premise was too interesting to just pass. Too bad, Good Doctor does not bother exploring the richness of that premise. It stuck to a heartwarming story structure with our autistic hero, Shi Won battling social discrimination. There was instant sympathy for him from the get-go which touches upon the stigma of mental health issues within Korea.

The drama had opportunities to delve into some interesting issues of medical ethics, things I actually wanted to discuss in depth such as patient care and doctor ranks. The drama would open the possibilities of these issues but be afraid to actually explore them. It always chose the easy way out, rewarding the rogue doctors for being correct. It made the hospital appear like happy rainbows, unicorns, and Tinkerbells. As a result, it threw away  any opportunities to nuance its story. What you see is what you get with Good Doctor, which painted its conflicts in black and white, with oversimplified villains and conflicts. It doesn’t help that they try to insert the boring hospital bureaucracy or unrealistic romance every chance they can get.

The acting was good but it was just really hard for me to root for their characters. I was tempted to drop this drama several times if only I wasn’t doing weekly impressions for it. This was a simple drama with no substance and just instant gratification.

Two Weeks

Two Weeks is one of the most consistent and solid dramas this year although it was disappointing to see that it wasn’t going to be exceptional. Nevertheless, it is a suspenseful framed-fugitive story. It took advantage of its condensed-time premise, speeding along with promises of payback, justice, and redemption, delivering on all counts. The writing deserves credit for maintaining a relentless pace that made us feel like we were on the run with the hero, frantically thinking up desperate schemes to save our skin along with his. It was grounded in the assurance that this condensed timeline was carefully thought-out and planned beforehand. The danger with setting your hero up to dodge danger for two weeks straight is that you do start to put a strain on realism. For a story with a strong momentum, it didn’t need to rely on coincidence as much as it did. I wanted our hero to rely on himself instead of getting by with just luck. We all know how it’s gonna end so the how we get there is really important. This drama lacks the twists that makes the drama engaging yet difficult to figure out. The villains were a letdown too, mostly because we went in expecting an intricate plan but it was far too simple to be impressive.

 Although you have to give it to Two Weeks for daring to make its hero, Tae-san genuinely unlikeable at the start because seeing him change and actively work to become the better man in the process. The emotional breakdowns were compelling and Tae-san earned every bit of his redemption. The show took care to explain his bad behavior, but to its credit the hero didn’t shy away from taking responsibility for his actions, regardless of whatever extenuating circumstances led him to them.

Cruel City

Cruel City broke my heart into pieces. Absolute perfection! I wanted to cry  at how brilliant it was. This was the first time a drama sustained my drama crack until the end. The vision the writer intended was definitely realized and more so. It was a slow burn and took me four episodes before I was sucked into an emotional vortex. It confident at what it was trying to get across and captured the essence magnificently. It stayed true to its form and sustained all the tension all the way. The mesmerizing performances of the actors especially Jung Kyung Ho really helped bring about this masterpiece. Each of their characters were so rich in conflict that you could see how their choices and betrayal affect the other. The cinematography and OST complemented well with this drama. I could go on with my praises but the bottomline is YOU. MUST. WATCH. IT. NOW.  You’re definitely be in for a great ride. I was on the edge the whole time and need to watch all the episodes at once. I hope people are more open to the ending because really it was plain beautiful. I’ll admit that the relationships in Cruel City can be confusing at times but I did it’s part of the overall appeal the drama had.

I Hear Your Voice

I Hear Your Voice is one of the best noona romance there is because it is driven by strong character developments and takes its time to lay out its very hopeful and earnest message about love and trust and the good in people. It was so great to watch an entire series loving a heroine from beginning to end, from the way she was played to the way she was written with realistic flaws and realistic fears. She was sassy, smart, petty, immature, full of herself in every way, but so beautifully vulnerable and hilariously outspoken. She got to be delightfully bitchy and jaded and wasn’t painted as a terrible person for it.

What I love so much about this noona romance is the reversals in their set-up. Sometimes he’s a boy and sometimes he’s a man, but she’s just as much a woman and a girl. It was nice to see how she could grow young just as much as he could grow up. Another thing I’ll never grow tired of is how this couple will always find each other and fall in love and start all over again.

The weakness of the drama is the weight placed on courtroom scenes that went on endlessly, and the stretching of Min Joon-gook’s arc without giving him anything villainous to do but send mail. He was outrageous but the weight of his threat was not felt. If the drama can make him more convincing, we can enjoy the payoff all the more.

But all in all, this drama was such a feel-good show. It was uplifting and winning especially with how the ending assured us about the people and who they had become over the course of the show.

Mi Rae’s Choice (aka Marry Him If You Dare

I love the time travel genre even if it doesn’t always deliver simply because the rules are never predictable, thus each drama can have a unique take. While Mi-rae’s Choice was a late entry, the premise of having the heroine’s future self convince her younger self against a marriage that would make her unhappy was refreshing. It had a promising start and won me over with the nuanced characters. The main conflict was how Mi-rae struggled with her desires versus her knowledge of what was supposed to be best for her, reminding us how our choices are what create our futures. Sadly, the biggest fault this drama had was its frustrating insistence for Mi-rae to marry the other guy in her life. It was unable to move forward with its story, and let an unresolved love triangle stagnate. Future Mi-rae left me unsympathetic especially since the consequences of her meddling appeared only whenever convenient for the plot.

The show failed to tap into the talents of Yoon Eun-hye and Lee Dong-gun, and took the wind out of Jung Yong-hwa’s much-improved performance. It’s a pity the show got lost in its own storytelling as the writing flaws became more apparent as the series progressed. Where this drama really started to lose its sense of fun and purpose was when it started bailing on its own rules. The flawed explanation somehow contradicted itself and failed to keep to its own logic. The worst part was how the final choice was withheld from us until the very end.

Answer Me 1994

This drama is still airing so it’s difficult to write an overall review since the conclusion will affect my current perspective. Whilst watching Answer Me 1994 there is that constant comparison with its predecessor Answer Me 1997,which was a massive sleeper success. There is much to love about 1997 show that is why 1994 had much pressure and anticipation in how it would retain the witty writing and heartfelt moments and how it would set itself apart. The set-up has lots of reminiscent things in 1997 but 1994 did succeed in creating its own distinct characters and world.

Answer Me 1994  has a better storyline although I have significant dissatisfactions with it. The execution is meandering since it takes forever to get to the point and it lacks follow-through. There are ample filler scenes where I’m disengaged as a viewer because I don’t care about them. It is also fixated on the idea that everything had to be a mystery. The whole structure of the who’s-the-husband guessing game takes precedence in exchange for narrative development that are pretty vital. The mystery has this unfortunate effect of making everything else recede to the background, completely making us forget the other character in the love triangle.

The thing is this show does so much other stuff so well that it doesn’t kill my love completely. This franchise has always been good with family, palpable warmth, and the sudden ambush of emotion that comes from an unexpectedly small, mundane moment.

Potato Star 2013QR13

The makers behind the High Kick franchise are back with another sitcom. There’s not much to say about Potato Star yet since we’re literally 1/6 of its run. The potential it has for now is endless. The plot is finally settling into a nicer pace since the set-up has been established already. The comedy was not up to par with what I was expecting though. Sure, there were some memorable moments but I feel that we’re getting more heart than comedy. There are several character issues that have been laid out and just waiting to get fleshed over the course of this sitcom.

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So that wraps up 2013! Thank you for all those who continuously visit my blog. Unfortunately, I doubt I can have another year-end review as long as this since I’ll be going to cut drama out of my life as I’ll be preparing for med school. I’ll probably still write when a good drama comes my way. Right now, my long hiatus is something definite.

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