You guys might remember that I ended up dropping Greasy Melo (despite my love for Jang Hyuk), back when it first aired (Dropped post is here). Show’s brand of whimsy just wasn’t working for me, and I found myself feeling more bemused than anything, the more I watched.
HOWEVER. I’ve learned that friend of the blog Dame Holly (also known around the interwebs as Lee Tennant) is much more attuned to – and gifted at understanding – the use of metaphors, symbolism and visual storytelling than I am, and she definitely has more appreciation for Greasy Melo than I could ever muster. So I asked her to share her insights on Greasy Melo with us, in the hope that
we I could absorb some of her conceptual prowess. I hope you guys enjoy!
PS: I loved her write-up on A Piece Of Your Mind, which you can check out here.
Of Nietzsche and Noodles: a review of a very greasy melodrama
By Lee Tennant (aka Dame Holly)
But there is something in me that I call courage; that has so far slain my every discouragement. This courage finally bade me stand still and speak: “Dwarf! It is I or you!”
For courage is the best slayer, courage which attacks; for in every attack there is playing and brass.
Man, however, is the most courageous animal: hence he overcame every animal. With playing and brass he has so far overcome every pain; but human pain is the deepest pain.
Courage also slays dizziness at the edge of abysses: and where does man not stand at the edge of abysses? Is not seeing always — seeing abysses?
Courage is the best slayer: courage slays even pity. But pity is the deepest abyss: as deeply as man sees into life, he also sees into suffering.
Courage, however, is the best slayer — courage which attacks: which slays even death itself, for it says, “Was that life? Well then! Once more!”
[Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, On the Vision and the Riddle]
I saw a movie once where a character said “You like somebody because of things but you love them despite things” and I think that applies to Greasy Melo.
Netflix has recently added Wok of Love (Greasy Melo). And it reminded me that I had promised kfangurl a piece on this messy, surreal show all the way back in mid-2018 but just… couldn’t write it.
Time and perspective are wonderful things since it has given me the space both to finish the promised piece but also to explain why this messy messy little show was just so hard to write about in the first place.
I loved Greasy Melo when it aired and yes, looking back over it, there is a point at which it loses sight of itself somehow. Originally overwhelming in its magical realism, it became less than the sum of its parts by the end. It’s not that it became underwhelming, I still loved it overall. But – despite not being in Europe – I became mostly whelmed.
Greasy Melo was a promise almost, but not quite, fulfilled. More than that, unlike it’s similarly-flawed big sister Jealousy Incarnate, the show has had no cultural staying power. It came and went like a flash in the dramatic pan.
Both shows were chaotic, heightened, sometimes-confused and semi-philosophical, and both were also victims of networks changing their minds about episode numbers and writers who compromised their vision.
Kfarngurl asked me to write this piece around the time she dropped it all the way back in May 2018. She found the metaphorical imagery and general surreal chaos a bit too much to keep watching. At the time, I loved it and my exuberant defence of it was why she asked me to write something on it.
But as the show went on, it got less and less – something. Maybe just less. And by the time the show had ended, the white-hot spark of love had faded into something more resigned, more comfortable and, it turns out, less easy to write about.
At its best, Greasy Melo was a kind of anti-melodrama that gleefully mixed up melo and Makjang elements to make a dish that was as delicious as it was completely new. At its worst, it was a giant mess. And at the end, it was a shadow of itself. And if you make it through to the section on the show’s Nietzsche references you’ll understand me when I say that that pun was not intended.
In many ways, Greasy Melo is a classic tale of two shows. The first is messy, surreal and in many ways iconoclastic. The second is a kdrama. And while I obviously like kdramas, it is refreshing when a show tries to blaze a new path. And equally disappointing when it veers back to the old, well-trodden road.
But, overall, I loved this show and wish I could be writing a glowing, unreserved review on its greatness. But here we are, nearly two years later, and it’s possible this review is as chaotic and as unfocused as the show itself. For that, in both cases, I guess you can blame hiatuses. They always mess up the pacing.
Greasy Melo is a messy, gleeful and heartwarming tale about a chef, a gangster and an heiress who lose everything but then come together to reclaim it. Chinese masterchef Poong (Junho), reformed gangster Chil-sung (Jang Hyuk) and lonely socialite Sae-woo (Jung Ryeo Won) have nothing in common but their shared calamities: all three hit rock bottom in the first few episodes.
They all meet up at the Hungry Wok, a small decrepit Chinese restaurant owned and run by gangsters and living in the shadow of the Michelin-starred Giant Hotel.
These three characters with different backgrounds and temperaments are the disparate ingredients this show promises to turn into jjajangmyeon – the signature Korean/Chinese fusion dish that Poong is an expert at and that Chil-sung and Sae-woo are perpetually hungry for.
As a fusion dish, jjajangmyeon is a marriage of contrasts. Yellow noodles, black sauce. Chinese dish, Korean twist. Apply heat to the bitter chunjang and it transforms into the sweetened jjajang. Jjajangmyeon is the centrepiece of most of this show’s metaphors, served as it so often is with sweet-and-sour pork – Poong’s other signature dish.
For the first half of its run at least, this was a show that was about jjajangmyeon but was also jjajangmyeon itself: televisual fusion cuisine. Jjangmyeon is a bowl of contrasts mixed together to create a fusion of countries, flavours and ingredients and is therefore a metaphor for life: start with your raw ingredients, apply heat and a bit of elbow grease and watch it fuse into something greater than the sum of its parts.
That’s why the show was originally so messy and it’s why I loved that the show was so messy. Because it seemed to be saying that people, relationships and life are a huge mashup of disparate things and it’s not about one being ‘good’ and the other ‘bad’ but about the proportions of each ingredient.
Throughout the first half, all our characters were floundering because their life recipes weren’t right yet. With a few new ingredients, a dash of kitchen heat, and a bit of experimentation, they would finally find the right mix. Even if it meant mixing things that you wouldn’t think would work together.
While the first few episodes are almost unhinged in the seeming-randomness of their elements, the show makes it clear that Poong is the cook that’s going to bring them together in one perfect dish.
Except he kind of doesn’t… but more on that later.
Junho as Poong
As a character Poong is the kind of man who divides audiences. Extremely kind and genuine but also an uncompromising perfectionist who can be a bit… shouty…. Poong is either the kind of man who makes you swoon for his sincerity and passion or whom you hate for perpetually yelling at people in his kitchen.
He’s also extremely demanding of our female lead in a way that a lot of viewers didn’t associate with traditional courtly male lead behaviour but that I personally preferred as a love interest. Poong wanted nothing less than a partner in his kitchen and in his life; he had no interest in someone who wasn’t as hard working and committed as he was.
Poong may be outwardly loud but his generosity is quiet; a quality that really worked for me. For all his irascible blustering and his perfectionism he makes not one, not two but three hiring decisions based on nothing but kindness through the first half of the drama.
Junho is better with characters who are loud, eccentric and slightly unhinged and he brought these qualities to a Poong who was as difficult as he was romantic and sincere.
Poong was raised in a humble Chinese restaurant and built his life and career up through hard work and ambition, only to see it all taken away by a combination of selfishness, greed and jealousy. He doesn’t want revenge so much as to reclaim his reputation, prove his worth and bring his love of food to everyone whether they have money and power or are ordinary people on the street.
Unlike his Michelin-star enemy, The Giant Hotel, Poong’s greatest aspiration is to serve through food, not rule. He’s a culinary democrat. And if that statement sounds a bit philosophical for your average Korean drama review, you’d be right. Because this show drew often on Nietzsche for its imagery and its ideas, in ways that were sometimes interesting but often a little blunt and crude. Is Poong a Nietzschian Superman? Well… no… although in my honest opinion that can only be a good thing.
Poong only succeeds by being surrounded and supported by people who care about him. He’s no lone wolf set on revenge but an orphan in deep longing for a family. It’s no surprise he only succeeds when he finds people who have his back unconditionally. And that is the opposite of a Nietzschian Superman.
In short, Poong’s a sweetheart and Junho brought out the best in the character.
Jung Ryeo-won as Sae-woo
An eccentric horse lover, this wealthy Chaebol doesn’t realise how bored and dissatisfied she is with her life until her family loses everything and she’s forced into the real world.
Sae-woo’s dissatisfaction is expressed in her perpetual hunger; a hunger that isn’t assuaged until she meets Poong. It’s the kind of metaphorical symbolism the show is famous for but a lot of people found confusing.
Like all the show’s characters, Sae-woo is a mess of contradictions: both extremely honest and a habitual liar; ditzy and clueless but extremely smart; passionate but often disengaged; and very lonely despite being outwardly social.
Sae-woo has created an entire fantasy world based around the idea that her horse – who is her only real friend – can talk. It was this kind of extreme loneliness and offbeat quirkiness that made the character appealing but sometimes inaccessible. Wealth has made Sae-woo oblivious but over the course of the show she finds a purpose in cooking and flourishes at being around somebody who demands things of her rather than handing them to her (even if he does shout sometimes).
Sexual imagery and double entendres is the bread and butter of these writers and when it comes to Sae-woo and Poong, the show threw them in in spades. Sae-woo is hungry for Poong’s noodles. Thankfully she’s satiated by them quite early in the drama. She then learns to be the ladle to Poong’s wok and, in a delightful dramatic inversion, becomes the wok herself. The scenes of the two cooking together are unabashedly sensual, up to the references to the overwhelming heat and the need for them to, ahem, get their rhythm right.
But aside from the double entendres, what Poong demands of Sae-woo ultimately is adulthood, responsibility and synergy: a true partnership that helps her grow as a person and aspire to something for the first time. It’s no surprise she thrives when previously she’d just survived.
Jung Ryeo-won brings a kind of ethereal detachment to her roles, as if her characters are not entirely in the same world as the rest of us. It’s a quality that’s perfect for Sae-woo: the kind of woman who would roam the streets in her fencing kit with a horse or wander into a restaurant and demand an inordinately-high pay because “that’s how much she needs”.
Jang Hyuk as Chil-sung
Do you think Nietzsche will be on our side?
Rounding out our core threesome is the Nietzsche-quoting reformed gangster, Chil-sung who entices Poong to train his former gang in exchange for letting him take over his failing Chinese restaurant.
As with our other characters, Chil-sung is a man of contrasts: the classic trope of the Loan Shark with a Heart of Gold. He is a fan of Nietzsche and embodies and symbolises the show’s Nietzchian use of light and shadow in its imagery. In fact, he literally runs Light and Shadow Loans, the company both Poong and Sae-woo turn to when they need money.
Following a bad accident where his men nearly die from a run-in with rival gangsters, Chil-sung is determined to run legitimate businesses. He stared down death but at the moment of it he chose life. He is thus a driving force against nihilism, of which he believes Nietzsche would approve.
Chil-sung is both violent criminal and loving older brother; someone who is motivated by a desire to make life better for those he cares about simply because he believes that life should be lived and lived courageously. When this gets extended to both Poong and Sae-woo, it is as heartwarming as you expect.
To go straight, Chil-sung buys a Chinese restaurant to retrain his dongsaengs. For this he rather literally needs Poong’s skills at cooking jjajangmyeon. But when I say that both he and Sae-woo need Poong’s noodles it is not just a double entendre nor a literal statement of fact.
Chil-sung needs Poong in his life to help bridge his passage into society following his criminal career. Chil-sung was abandoned by his mother when he was a child and he both longs for but is incapable of understanding his own maternal side. Poong allows him to be the loving, caring and empathetic man he can be when he’s not a criminal.
At one point Chil-sung and Sae-woo adopt a kitten together that they name Dim Sum. Sae-woo, they decide, is Dim Sum’s father and Chil-sung therefore embraces being its mother.. Chil-sung finally gives himself permission to be caring in a way that sits outside the hyung/dongsaeng dynamic of the gang.
His love is selfless in the way that motherhood is supposed to be but so often isn’t. Chil-sung spends most of the show in adoring unrequited romantic love with Sae-woo. But his brotherly love for Poong is seen as the equal of this love and so he is, in the end, simply happy that they are happy. Chil-sung is finally able to be the nurturing, positive force he was born to be. Whether he gets the girl then becomes irrelevant, even trite. Love is broader and bigger than romance.
The only thing he demands of Poong is that he also live and love as courageously as he possibly can.
“Are you man or Superman?” he asks him as he drives him to face head-on the behemoth that is the Giant Hotel, in whose shadow he is both literally and figuratively living.
Jang Hyuk brings to the role of Chil-sung a maturity, a presence and, of course, his trademark swagger. He’s brash and in control but can switch into a vibe that’s almost parental. His love for Sae-woo is almost paternal and frequently verges on paternalistic. So while it’s laudably selfless, we know why she would choose a man like Poong over him. She already has a father, she does not need another one.
The antagonists and minor characters
A show about light and shadow is, unsurprisingly, full of light and shadow. Duality, contrasts, dichotomies and doppelgängers abound in Greasy Melo. The light is not just a representation of ‘good’ and the shadow not just ‘bad’. The light could be seen as those who have achieved while others live always in their shadow.
Greasy Melo created a useless pampered entitled Beauty Queen in Sae-woo’s mother (played by the wonderful Lee Mi-sook) and then contrasted her with Gum Granny, a homeless impoverished woman also played by Lee Mi-sook.
“She’s no prettier than me,” a young Gum Granny says as she eats jjajangmyeon while watching the winners of the local Miss Onion contest. It is a statement that in this case is quite literally true.
Chil-sung’s restaurant, the Hungry Wok is Gum Granny to the local Giant Hotel and lives in its shadow as much as Gum Granny lives in the shadow of the Onion Queen. But as Greasy Melo unfolded, its writers seemed uncertain what to do with all these characters. Instead of Gum Granny and the Onion Queen giving impetus to each other’s arcs, Sae-woo’s mother became little more than a screeching romance roadblock, like this was some kind of old-school Makjang from 2005.
The same is true for the rest of Chil-sung’s gangsters, the staff of the Giant Hotel and even the disloyal staff of the Hungry Wok. The minor characters often detracted rather than added to the show in the end.
Any show about duality will obviously have antagonists and these started off suitably hateful and conniving: Master Wang, the chef of the Giant Hotel who was jealous of Poong’s talent; his ex-wife who wanted to leave her past behind her even if it meant cruelty to a man she loved; and her lover, the owner of the Giant Hotel who simply enjoyed winning.
Watching Poong bring his disparate ragtag group into a cohesive block to defeat the Giant Hotel was a story I was interested in seeing. But all of these villains either disappeared or became one-dimensional and of little import. The Giant Hotel may have loomed over the Hungry Wok like a corporate Goliath but David didn’t defeat it so much as replace it and the little restaurant seemed more beset by disloyalty and ingratitude from its employees than by external threats.
Promised fusion, the show did not deliver and even seemed to forget what it was supposed to be about. In some ways, this may be because it was conceptually flawed. Nietzsche was an elitist who believed that a Superman was someone who achieved alone and above the herd. It’s a philosophy that ignores the multiple ways in which all success is ultimately communal.
The representation of Poong as courageous, hard-working, artistic and embracing of life and how this drove him (and the Hungry Wok) to step out of the Shadow of Master Wang (and the Giant Hotel) and into The Light was somewhat at odds with Nietzche’s writings on the herd mentality, especially when Poong cannot do it alone.
I doubt that Nietzsche would have believed that a Man is only propelled forward with support from a supportive team and it’s possible it contradicts the theme of fusion in a fundamental way. This may be why fusion as a metaphor got lost in the show somewhere.
By the end, the show seemed more determined for Poong to conquer the Giant Hotel – whether Poong was that person or not. I liked the idea that everybody in the Hungry Wok was going to achieve greatness through cooperation and hard work and was somewhat bemused when they didn’t.
My verdict: love, resigned to reality
It’s probably not surprising that the writers of Jealousy Incarnate came up with a show this clever.
Deeply metaphorical with a barrage of imagery from the very first scene, it was almost surreal in its use of symbolism. Its brilliant use of metaphors and imagery is a device I personally love but others were alienated by. And as much as I love this kind of visual storytelling, even I thought it was a bit overdone in the beginning.
There were episodes where I was so busy tracking its use of hot and cold and black and white that I missed plot. Nietzsche was thrown in there, first to intrigue us and then to confuse us. Poong was either a Nietzscheism superman or its antithesis; the writers never seemed to be sure. I know a lot of viewers simply couldn’t cope with the chaos and dropped out. I stayed in, loving every minute and waiting for the writers to bring it all together in one glorious dish of fusion cuisine.
Except it kind of doesn’t. Which is its main issue.
Originally slated for 20 episodes (40) and then cut to 19 (38), maybe the show suffered from losing an episode, maybe it was three episodes too long. The show went on hiatus for two weeks and when it came back it was seemingly a shell of its former self. Characters disappeared, plots were dropped, major plot points were resolved quickly and anti-climactically, and others were dragged down with standard, almost pedestrian, kdrama plotlines. It was almost as though the writer had been instructed to play it more safe and the quirky, surreal magical realism was replaced with the plotline of a standard romcom.
Poong and Sae-woo remained adorable and sexy and wonderful and Chil-sung held a kitten every episode so the show is worth watching till the end. No matter how many plots got dropped or how many characters disappeared, the relationship between the three leads was the show’s saving grace. The romance between Poong and Sae-woo is passionate and sweet – just the like sweet-and-sour pork that is his other signature dish. The bromance between the two men is loving and supportive. And while there is technically a love triangle here, it’s handled with maturity and without unnecessary angst. These three people love each other and watching them come together is the show’s best element.
In fact, show ends well. It’s just not the affordable gourmet meal we were promised but more like a rushed lunchtime bowl of noodles while we’re trying to get back to work.
In the end, I love Greasy Melo despite its flaws and I guess that means my Love Is True. I can dream of a more perfect version of this show where the writers were able to use all the ingredients they prepared to make the perfect meal instead of leaving half of them on the chopping board. But if lasting love is based on acceptance, then I accept. This is the show it is.