New Review: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019)

Shin Se Kyung and Cha Eun Wo in a scene from Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung.
2019 was a strange year for finding good romantic Korean dramas. I had high hopes for Yoo In Na’s new show, but while she was great, I thought the drama itself was a snooze. Anyway, here we are in October, and finally there’s a historical fantasy with an interesting romance that I can recommend. Below is a more detailed review. For the short version go here.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung
When the heroine not only entertains a crowd with a reading from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the first episode, but also gives her sensible interpretation of the suicidally heartbroken Werther as a negative romantic role model, you realize that this is not your typical historical K-drama. And it’s a good guess that the romance portrayed won’t be of the Werther-like existential life-and-death kind. Yes, our Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung likes romance as much as the next person but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life – or this drama.

The show is suffused with strong female characters, and genre-wise it is refreshingly multilayered: While there is the romance between the main character Goo Hae-ryung (played by Shin Se Kyung) and the young Joseon prince Dowon (Cha Eun Wo) and quite a bit of comedy, we also have the political intrigues typical of historicals (but thankfully only mild violence), birth-secret mysteries common in weekend family shows, and the power games we’re used to seeing in office dramas. Plus you learn about the role of historians in the Joseon era, which is actually really fascinating. These ingredients mix beautifully in this drama about four young women from an alternate Joseon era who break into the male work domain by becoming female historians.

Right from the start the drama undermines romantic tropes. In the first few episodes it makes fun of unrealistic romantic stories (and the largely female audience that adores them) by showing that the most popular author of romances in this Joseon town has absolutely no clue about real-life relationships. And then there’s Goo Hae-ryung: Even though she falls in love, her emotions don’t change her views on the practical aspects of relationships – atypical for romantic narratives. Her contemporary and rational attitude towards romance as well as the way she keeps crossing rigid social boundaries and following her own convictions mark her clearly as a real-life role model. And her unconventional actions provide plenty of suspense and comedy in a drama that’s supposed to take place in the Joseon era.

Shin Se Kyung and Cha Eun Wo in a scene from Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung.

But there’s a twist to the character of the oh so reasonable Goo Hae-ryung: The man she falls for (and with whom she enjoys a happy ending) is the passionate, idealistic and romantic Prince Dowon, who is the embodiment of the unrealistic romantic ideals she rejects. What does this mean for Goo Hae-ryung as a role model? Is a super-romantic partner a much better choice after all? And does this mean that many of the uber-romantic tropes shouldn’t be disregarded – because they fulfill a useful real-life framework, at least for men?

Apart from these interesting twists about the typical romantic narrative, the drama stands out by portraying Westerners and Western culture in an unusually positive light. (Typically, American or European characters function as villains in contemporary K-dramas – or have minor roles and no personality to speak of.) We’ve already mentioned Goethe, whose story about Werther Goo Hae-ryung reads as a sensible corrective to self-destructive romantic relationship fantasies. Here, something can be learned from European culture and the last episode clearly shows how this new attitude towards romance can be realized. This portrayal of Western culture as something positive is further displayed in the character of a French national in search of his brother, who taught Koreans advanced medical techniques.

But enough of this intellectualizing: Light but thoughtful, this historical fantasy with contemporary tweaks is simply a thoroughly enjoyable treat. Love the funny modern ending. Excellent minus.

PS: Goo Hae-ryung’s unusual interpretation of The Sorrows of Young Werther was certainly not how Goethe’s book was read by the majority of his contemporary audience. See, for example, here.

New Review: Pretty Proofreader (2016)

Pretty Proofreader promo
While I’ve been watching (and re-watching) 2019 dramas to decide which ones should be on our list, I came across a fun Japanese drama, Pretty Proofreader.

It’s about a spunky twentysomething who dreams of becoming an editor for a famous fashion magazine but ends up working as a proofreader.

Here is the review.

New Reviews: What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), Five Children (2016)

Park Seo Joon and Park Min Young fluffing it up in pink
After ploughing through quite a few dramas that were only so-so, I finally came across two more that I liked, even after watching them twice:

What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018) – A super fluffy, often hilarious office drama about an egocentric CEO (Park Seo Joon) who can’t understand why his trusted assistant (Park Min Young) wants to quit. Can there be a more pleasant form of existence than to work closely with him? Certainly not. So, what’s wrong with Secretary Kim?

Five Children (2016) – A well-done light family drama (54 episodes) focusing on the romance of two single parents who create a new big family with five kids. No melodramatic subplots!

Ahn Jae Wook and So Yoo Jin with their five drama children

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.