What happens when you are out of ideas for a post and have been sitting on some reviews? You
steal from get inspired by an article elsewhere and apply it to K-drama!
1. Start off on the right foot (Coffee Prince)
Opening strong counts for a great deal. But sometimes a drama conflates ‘strong’ with ‘a lot’, and in a desperate bid to hook audiences throws every thing it can at the screen–a car chase here, a shower scene there, a flashback or three. All this frenzy of activity can seem disorienting and muddled instead of clear and assuring. In this light, I’m struck by how lean and efficient Coffee Prince‘s opening is. The first 6 minutes contains everything you need to know about the show in a nutshell. In quick, fun succession, the show introduces the two leads, tells us who they are, and even has them meet! We see Eun Chan zipping around on her motorcycle, and getting thrown out of the sauna when she’s mistaken for a boy–there’s our Candy (with a slight twist). Han Kyul is all playboy charm, toothy, bare-chested and sweet-talking (our resident man-child male lead). And with his brief glance at a photo and slight hesitance on the phone, we see our second leads, Han Seong and Yoo Joo, and get hints of Han Kyul’s complicated relationship with them. Voila! Characters, conflict and set-up all in 6 minutes. It’s a fabulous reminder of that old adage less is more. (For a recent example of the exact opposite, see the first episode of Warm & Cozy.)
2. Give us a real kiss (Coffee Prince)
A kiss, a really great one, is not just another kiss in a K-drama. It’s a culmination of a journey and no where is this better illustrated than in Coffee Prince. There are many reasons why this kiss is a gold standard, not least because it is so hard-won–it is the pinnacle of Han Kyul’s journey of accepting his feelings for Eun Chan after so much emotional turmoil. The urgency of the moment, Han Kyul’s intense gaze, the sheer joy and the emotional release in its aftermath, the slight, sad little lullaby playing in the background, all these just bring me to my knees every time. It’s so smartly staged too, incorporating that familiar open-eyed WTF-is-happening face in a way that actually makes sense because it is the last thing Eun Chan expected, only to completely subvert this by having her kiss him back. As far as I’m concerned, this one can’t be beat. And I’m not just saying this because I love this show to death.
Okay, maybe I am. I dunno, you tell me.
3. Build anticipation (Healer)
Foreplay is everything, as you well know. In the realm of chaste K-dramas, rarely are we treated to an appetizer as delicious as the main course. How does Healer do it? Well, by withholding, and then teasing incrementally, and having the growing physical proximity signify character growth, just to make the skinship mean something more than just titillation. Embed that into a plot in which identities must be kept secret and you have sexual tension up the wazoo, which eventually brings you to a place where the slightest touch of palms is as electrifying as a lightning bolt from Mount Olympus.
4. Let the music serve the scene (A Wife’s Credentials)
We don’t need another ‘Almost Paradise’, or ‘Love Is the Moment’, songs so in-your-face that once repeated as is a must in K-drama, grow into monstrosities that suffocate everything in their path. A music director with good sense and some restraint will know what to do with a scene such as this one in A Wife’s Credentials, a meet-cute that’s full of surprise, gratitude, and the bittersweetness of an overcast winter’s day. The song’s lyrics (“To everything there is a season/And a time to every purpose, under heaven”) foreshadows what’s to come with gentle wistfulness. It’s also more age appropriate for this drama about middle-aged love. The song brilliantly amplifies the way PD genius Ahn Pan Seok shoots the sequence, in which as it draws to an end, we see the ‘hero’ as she sees him, gradually cycling towards her from a distance, entering into her life signalling that their time has indeed come. We see how much his kindness means to her, though he hasn’t a clue, but we know that this will be a season for something life-changing for both. It’s so simple, so beautiful! I weep!
5. Plot matters… (Thank You)
A drama about an HIV-stricken child and her devoted mother coping with societal ignorance doesn’t sound like it would be potentially riveting viewing in the plot stakes, but this drama manages to consider weighty social issues through an emotionally rich and rewarding plot. Like, stuff happens, pretty nail-biting stuff too. Stuff that doesn’t consist of people having intense conversations and crying about it later, which forms the bulk of what usually happens in a melodrama like this.
6. …But characters matter more (Beloved)
Those melodramas I was just talking about, the ones that consist mostly of people having intense conversations and crying about it later? Well, Beloved is one of those dramas. This is one of those shows where the plot could easily be summed up in one sentence, but what it’s really about could fill up the pages of a novel. The meat of the matter lies in what’s going on inside the hearts of five characters caught up in an emotional maelstrom that none of them can fathom. Plot here serves character, or rather, the characters drive the plot, because the best drama is found in how people struggle to relate to each other. No where is this more on display in this tremendous, criminally underrated show.
7. Create a world (Flower Boy Next Door)
Bringing a story to life requires attention to detail and Flower Boy Next Door’s production design–everything from the sets to the wardrobe to hair and make-up–is a masterclass on this front. A story in which space tells us so much about who their characters are and what they mean to each other, the apartments in FBND are rightly, all-encompassing living breathing environments that don’t require a human being to feel inhabited. Just look at the post-it notes, the stacks of books, the postcards and pictures, in Dok Mi’s apartment–all of it points to a place of refuge (and a place of work) for our lonely writer heroine. And those windows! As the story progresses, pay close attention to them.
8. Give actors a script that’s worthy of their talent (Misaeng)
Assemble a good story and a good creative team and then unleash your actors to do the rest. Ensemble casting at it’s finest, Misaeng is what happens when a script gives its cast something to sink their teeth into–careers get launched! (See Byun Yo Han).
9. It’s okay to get a little weird (Evasive Enquiry Agency)
Any show that dares let Lee Min Ki look like this:
…is doing something right. An oddball comedy about friendship that isn’t adapted from a Japanese novel or drama, or a popular webtoon, EEA stands completely outside and apart from most, but still feels resolutely like K-drama. This drama isn’t self-consciously quirky or try-hard, it is just completely comfortable in it’s own unique skin. It’s gags are broad and even surreal, but it’s so confident in its story and sticks to its vision in a way that is sadly missing in too many dramas.
10. Give us a pair worth rooting for (Queen In Hyun’s Man)
Kim Boong Do and Choi Hee Jin! They put the capital ‘R’ in Romance! I love a couple that fights to be with each other tooth and nail, and when it’s an epic fight across time and space, well, SIGN ME UP. They were so adorable, and swoony, and so resolute, and the show didn’t insult your intelligence so that you cared about their fight and wanted them to triumph. And when Boong Do, Mr Joseon Swordsman Scholar, shows up in a beanie, I like, legit died.
11. Make us laugh (My Name is Kim Sam Soon)
Sam Soon’s and Sam Shik’s toilet wars. ‘Nuff said.
12. Recycle and refresh (I Hear Your Voice)
Tropes and clichés are there for a reason, and their familiarity makes for generic, comforting pleasures. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play around with them. I think at this point, it should be an obligation. IHYV was a show that had a truckload of tropes but its best one was its twist on amnesia, which instead of separating a pair as one would expect, actually brought them closer together. Quite ingenious.
13. Be brutal (Que Sera Sera)
Not as in bloody, but as in treat the audience like the adults we are. Not every drama has to be a wish-fulfilment fantasy and QSS is about as far away as you can get from a rosy romance. It’s raw and frequently appalling. Love here is hurtful, twisted, violent and caustic. It’s characters don’t exist to be liked. And it helps to have a PD who knows that and shoots accordingly. There’s some fine visual treatment here, from steadi-cam shots gliding around drab apartment corridors, to an oddly sinister flickering light in an elevator during a kiss scene. Right from the opening sequence (I’m a fan of strong openings, if you can tell) along a dark highway set to a smoky jazz tune, QSS announces itself as an agent of the dark, grimy underbelly of adult relationships.