New Review: Because this Life is our First (2017)

Here’s the detailed review (for a condensed version and more K-rom-com recommendations, go here):

Because this Life is our First
Just as with Hogu’s Love, writer Yoon Nan Joong creates a refreshingly different drama that addresses current problems in Korean society. Important gender-related topics like gender inequality, sexual harassment, and the unfair patriarchal structures show up. These are often discussed in connection with more general social problems like the lack of social mobility and the frustrating financial and professional situation that many of the younger generation face, epitomized by the crazy housing situation in Seoul.

Using these current social woes as a background, the drama circles around the meaning of marriage in contemporary Korean society. How to negotiate relationships with the heady mix of cultural traditions, social expectations, family pressure and lack of material success? One night stands, romantic cohabitation, and contractual marriage are the three alternatives that our characters (three couples in their late 20s / early 30s) choose in the beginning. But when emotions come into play, things get messy.

The drama portrays the changes in the relationships of the three couples. It is not quite an ensemble piece, though: We do spend more time with our first leads, a mortgage-poor IT engineer (Lee Min Ki) and an unemployed screenwriter (Jung So Min, who is also in Playful Kiss and Father is Strange), who move in together for financial reasons. Typical drama tropes (contractual marriage, love triangle, kissing at sunset) show up but they are often inverted and more than once the plot moves in a surprising direction. Characters are flawed in the way real people have flaws and not in some grandiose, unrelatable manner – and there’s no reformed handsome millionaire here who saves the day. Even though the topics weigh heavily, the tone is often surprisingly light and there are lots of funny details, some of them unusual for a TV show – like how annoyingly difficult it is to find a bra that actually fits.

A reasonable beginning

While the drama has generally been well received, two bones of contention are hotly debated. The first one is a love triangle that develops midway, with the alternative love interest turning into a stalker (or not?) Looking back I think it was an interesting mix of topics but while watching it the guy’s relentless pursuit of Jung So Min’s character and her wishy-washy response really got on my nerves.

The second issue relates to the last two episodes. Here, suddenly, a shift happens. The show slows down, turns talkative like some French movies – characters constantly have deep conversations and exchange philosophical observations. The female lead turns into a blathering oracle of Delphi. Or is the writer messing with us again? Because the main character’s mother completely undermines all the theorizing – after listening to her daughter’s meditations on love and marriage she simply says: “You’re talking crap” – and leaves. As if these conversational changes were not bewildering enough, there’s more: Both leads act totally out of character. This is done to show the transforming power of love but it comes so suddenly and out of nowhere that it doesn’t feel right, especially the bizarre behavior of the female lead.

But not to worry, there is a happy ending for everybody, and the coupling of our leads is really supposed to serve as a role model. They do what the feisty lawyer daughter in Father is Strange wanted to – namely, define the form of her relationship with her partner only, without considering social expectations or traditions. As Lee Min Ki’s character rebelliously states: “What’s so great about the Korean tradition?”

This drama clearly wants to make you think. And there is lot of obvious subtext here – so if you are a teacher or student who wants to discuss K-dramas academically, this is a good drama to choose. But because it is more brainy and almost an ensemble piece, it doesn’t carry quite the emotional punch of your typical K-drama.

Inventive and rebellious, relevant and cutting edge. But also uneven and sometimes exasperating how it tries so obviously to mess with the viewer’s expectations. I almost gave up twice, but in the end I was very glad I didn’t. Excellent (minus).

tvN. Written by Yoon Nan Joong, who also wrote Flower Boy Ramen Shop and Hogu’s Love.

New Review: Father is Strange (2017)

Confession time: Lee Joon and Jung So Min in Father is Strange.

Here’s the detailed review (for a condensed version and more K-rom-com recommendations, go here):

Father is Strange
A warm-hearted family drama about an actor who thinks he found his biological father and moves in with his family. The father runs a snack bar, so food and family meals play an important role but we also spend time at other locations, for example, an entertainment company and a lawyer’s office. We soon discover that the father is not the actor’s dad – but the actor and his four new-found “siblings” believe he is. We follow the turns and twists of their romantic entanglements and the obstacles they face – among them, unwanted pregnancy and social inequality with their chosen partner. The smartest daughter even questions the institution of marriage: “Was I born in Korea with some kind of historical duty to get married?” (Ep. 21)

For us romantically inclined, the couple stories are of course the most interesting part of the show. Two couples stand out. One is the feisty lawyer daughter (played by Lee Yoo Ri) and her TV producer ex-boyfriend (Ryu Soo Young), whose story highlights the craziness of dealing with the partners’ families. Then, there’s the actor (Lee Joon) and his manager, the clumsy second daughter (Jung So Min, also in Playful Kiss and Because this Life is our First), whose volatile interactions and mixed-up confusion make for quite the emotional roller coaster. Which of the two couples are more popular? Hard to say. The Best Couple Award at the 2017 KBS Drama Awards went to Ryu Soo Young and Lee Yoo Ri but the drama crew at the after party selected Lee Joon and Jung So Min as the best couple (who later ended up dating in real life). I side with the drama crew here, as I thought their romance was more gripping and emotionally engaging.

Family dramas are extraordinarily long, this one has 52 episodes. This means there are lots of tangents – like all the stories involving the extended family – that I didn’t find very interesting. I wish they’d release a shorter “romance edition” but, as that is unlikely to happen, I skipped over the dry parts and made my own “director’s cut.”

A really nice show with a lot of likable characters, no evil machinations or unpleasant figures. A crowd pleaser, hugely successful in Korea with some episodes reaching ratings over 35 percent and also popular internationally. Romance parts are excellent.
You can watch the drama for free via our YouTube channel.
KBS. Written by Park Kyung Soo.

New Reviews: I’m not a Robot (2018), Jugglers (2018)

Yoo Seung Ho and Chae Soo Bin in I’m not a Robot.

What a great start for 2018! We already have two excellent dramas ready to binge-watch:

I’m not a Robot – A lonely CEO (Yoo Seung Ho) suffering from an allergy to human touch meets a quirky inventor (Chae Soo Bin) who pretends to be a robot.

Jugglers – An office romance with Choi Daniel playing a traumatized director who is brought out of his shell by his dedicated secretary/assistant (Baek Jin Hee).

Choi Daniel kisses Baek Jin Hee in Jugglers.

New Reviews: The Best Hit (2017), All About My Romance (2013), One Percent of Anything (2003)

Autumn has arrived and it’s time to cuddle up in front of the screen. Here’s a new bunch of dramas I recommend:
The Best Hit (2017) – a great comedy about a 1990s teen idol who time travels to our present.
All About My Romance (2013) – a fun rom-com about two members of parliament from different parties who fall for each other. Scandal!
One Percent of Anything (2003) – a slow but sweet rom-com that avoids many of the current drama tropes.

New Reviews: The Legend of the Blue Sea (2016-17), Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo (2016) and Boss & Me (2014)

A young man and woman kiss on a path through golden grain.
The stars of Boss & Me, Zhao Li Ying and Zhang Han.

Here are the links for three new reviews:

Have fun!

New Review: Far Away Love (2016)

Far Away Love, Blog above textI’m always on the lookout for a good new drama in the tradition of the classic K-rom-coms – you know, with the traditional trope of a chaebol’s son falling for a poor, spunky heroine and lots of fun and screwball scenes amid the emotional drama. But these days they are hard to find. A lot of current K-rom-coms seem to prefer the weird and heavy. Nothing against weird, which can be intriguing and innovative, but it would be nice once in a while to watch a well-plotted K-rom-com with lead characters who are simply normal – and not heavily traumatized, socially disabled, schizophrenic or with multiple personalities.
Anyway, I just found a Chinese show that clearly harks back to the classics. Far Away Love is about a rich family’s son who finds himself intrigued by a 28-year-old who’s devoting her life to raising her nephew. Usually super non-confrontational, she’s feisty in her dealings with our hero – a dynamic that really reminded me of the interactions of the lead couple in Secret Garden. The drama hits all the right spots and thankfully the plot doesn’t go astray. It’s a fun watch.
The show was a huge hit in China. According to marketing research company VLinkage, the last episode, on March 18, 2016, was viewed by 130 million people and was more popular than that day’s episode of Descendants of the Sun (which was also a blockbuster in China). And the male lead, Park Hae Jin, just won the Actor of the Year award at the LETV Entertainment Awards in Beijing for his role.

Here’s the detailed review (for a condensed version and more K-rom-com recommendations, go here):

Far Away Love
Do you particularly love the classics when it comes to K-rom-coms? Then I’ll bet you’ll like this drama. It’s a Chinese production, released in 2016, but has the feel of favorite shows like Secret Garden (2010) or Lie to Me (2011). Maybe it’s because it was produced not long after, in 2013, when these K-dramas might have functioned as role models.
Right away, we have a similar set-up – a son of a wealthy family fighting with his mother about a woman not to her liking. In Far Away Love, it goes like this: Straight-laced and emotionally numb rich guy Shen An, a CEO of a food conglomerate, keeps having run-ins (and later gets entangled) with Meng Chu Xia (played by Li Fei Er), a clumsy, soft-hearted but stubborn 28-year-old who’s raising her nephew by herself. Then, in addition to this familiar K-drama premise, there’s the choice of a Korean actor – popular heartthrob Park Hae Jin from My Love from the Star and Cheese in the Trap – as the male lead, which enhances even more the Korean rom-com-feeling. But, most important, this drama has the same tone and similar structure as those archetypal K-rom-coms: Lots of funny, cute and screwball-ish parts in the first half of the series, while later episodes add emotional depth and drama. Plus an excellent ending.
Nitpicking: As I’ve noticed with other Chinese dramas, the beginning of each episode previews too much of the plot (to remedy, just skip the first minute and 40 seconds). The side stories about Chu Xia’s friend Fei Fei, who keeps dating different men, are a little boring and not really relevant for the main story, so in case you don’t like those, you can skip them and not miss out on the main plot. The OST is so-so. While the main song is fine, even if played a little too often, there’s also a truly cringeworthy song in Italian. And, in the second half, the drama drifts a few times into too-obvious soap opera territory (bad acting, super contrived set-ups, over-the-top-melo).
Otherwise, an excellent show. With 36 episodes (each 45 minutes), it’s longer than your usual K-drama but the storyline is great and it was so much fun hanging out with the characters that I didn’t mind the length at all. In fact, I could hardly wait for the next episode to start.
Excellent (minus)
Southeast and Guangdong TV (China). Written by Mi Tian Hui.

Photo (above): Park Hae Jin and Li Fei Er aiming for the cutest selfie
Photo (below): Poster for Far Away Love

Far away love, blog below text


New Review: My Amazing Boyfriend (2016)

My Amazing Boyfriend, wide for blogWho would have thought that the first entry for 2016 in my best rom-com list would be a Chinese drama – albeit one with a Korean male lead. Yes, I’m talking about My Amazing Boyfriend. It’s a fun rom-com action fantasy about an actress who gets mixed up with a handsome 400-year-old man with superpowers.

Here’s the detailed review (for a condensed version and more K-rom-com recommendations, go here):

My Amazing Boyfriend
A hilarious rom-com action fantasy about an unlucky actress, Tian Jing Zhi (played by Wu Qian), who awakens a mysterious 400-year old man with superpowers. Bound by blood ties to her, he moves in with the initially unwilling, rather volatile and very expressive Jing Zhi, looking for his mortal enemy.
Wait a moment … an actress and a mysterious handsome man with superpowers who appears to be in his 20s but is actually hundreds of years old? Doesn’t this sound familiar? Yes, this is the Chinese drama “inspired” by My Love from the Star. But no worries: Even though there are some similarities, this is clearly not a remake. In fact, it is fun to see how the writer comes up with a different story given the similar premise. The drama is also different in tone – more crazy over-the-top comedy chunks (balanced by some serious action/thriller aspects) and less heart-wrenching melo parts.
There are 28 episodes but each episode is only 45 minutes long. So in the end, timewise it’s more like a 21-episode K-drama. The episodes’ intro section (about one and a half minutes long) gives away too much, so I highly recommend skipping it. Other drawbacks: Sometimes the show feels a little heavy-handed (e.g. there’s an episode consisting almost only of flashbacks) and the ending is disappointing. And the intentional over-acting comes with a price – we are more amused but we are also less emotionally engaged. Plus, there is a change of tone and focus two-thirds of the way in from a mix of rom-com and thriller with a touch of melo vibe to mostly thriller. Some people might like that. Me – not so much. Good.
MGTV (China). Written by Shui Qian-Mo.