We’re having guest posts from the lovely folks on Patreon, to help us take stock of our drama years, kinda-sorta like what we had last year, woot! 🥳
We’ll be seeing about 2 guest posts per week, and this will unfold into January 2023, and that’s perfectly ok. AND, my annual year-in-review, which usually comes out in December, will also come out in January (or thereabouts 😅), after all the guest posts have been published.
Today, I’m pleased to announce that Martina is sharing her drama year!
Martina is based in Italy, and while she often says that she’s not confident of her English, I think that she’s got a very interesting way with words; her sentiments are often delivered with a lovely sense of poetry about them, which I think is pretty darn awesome.
I also love that Martina’s a Junho-loving fangirl; I know that I can always count on her to swoon over Junho with me. 😁😍
I hope you guys enjoy!
Introducing myself requires a few words: I am an Italian psychotherapist and have been watching k-drama since 2017. By that I mean I have been watching only k drama and movies since then.
Before then I had my own personal dislike for Western series and movies that I had not watched for years.
I’m currently attracted to c-dramas and j-dramas but I’m held back by the language barrier, although I’ve been studying Korean for years and understand it well by now which makes my watching great, but probably in 2023 I’ll dare to watch some c-dramas and j-dramas mainly because KFG reviews many of them on Patreon and I always feel like I’m missing out on something.
By the way, I have been reading KFG’s blog, more or less since I started watching k-dramas and I read her wonderful reviews on Patreon every day, an experience per se, which I would recommend to everyone.
What do I like about k-dramas?
Their narrative richness (something that probably belongs to all oriental dramas), the ability to create original and emotionally wealthy character plots.
One of my favourite things is to see how certain types of characters are brought into tension by events that require them to undergo profound change in order to see them resolved and dealt with.
In this sense there are many healing, life-changing, underdog stories through which characters withstand their adversity and change as they do so that reminds me closely of my clients’ stories, their richness, and the poignant and original way in which they learn to navigate life.
These kinds of situations are the ones that create the storylines and they are very common in all plots (Star Wars (1977) is not the story of one reluctant hero, indeed two, who are caught up in a completely different situation that allows for their change?)
Actually, it is the way this transformation happens in k-dramas that each time seems so unexpected and interesting to me as I hope to explain later in this post.
My Top 5 Dramas
Here there is the list of my top five dramas of 2022 in reverse order of preference:
5) Through the darkness
It is a crime story inspired by an autobiography written by Korea’s first criminal profiler, Kwon Il Yong with the journalist Ko Na Mu. At the end of 1990s in Seoul one of Korea’s first serial killers appeared, dubbed “Red Cap”, who was killing women who lived alone.
His habit of randomly choosing victims made it impossible for detectives to predict his next move.
Aware of the success of the U.S. FBI and its use of criminal profilers to identify serial killers, the head of the Criminal Behavioral Analysis team, Gook Young Soo (actor Jin Seon Kyu), recruits Song Ha Young (Kim Nam Gil) a quiet, reserved and former detective, for his team.
He has a never -give-up-spirit, a fighting spirit and has an open mind, intuition, common sense, ability to analyze the situation logically and “gamsuseong”, a special gift for being in tune with the minds of victims and their loved ones or relatives but also for understanding criminal minds.
It is interesting to see how, in South Korea, a country particularly attached to its traditions, Song Ha Young’s very different way of investigating is initially opposed by fellow police officers and institutions.
In fact, the Criminal Behavioral Analysis team gets a room that is a dusty basement, very few resources, and only one young analyst to work alongside Kook Young Soo and Song Ha Young.
It takes years of success before this small, peripheral team’s importance is recognized by institutions and is put in the best working conditions, gaining the full esteem of their initially distrustful colleagues.
Kim Nam Gil plays the protagonist in a mesmerizing way, rendering Song Ha Young’s two sides.
The calm, systematic and rational one that makes him seem anodyne and disconnected at times and the “gamsuseong,” extremely sensitive one capable of connecting on a deep level with the victims but also with psychopathic minds.
It is precisely this ability to open sensory and mental doors to criminals to understand and anticipate their moves, that will be what will create in the protagonist a post-traumatic stress disorder typical of those witnessing violent events (even through the narration or recollection of events).
This is something I know well as a psychotherapist who often witnesses the recollection of heinous stories and events.
It is precisely through this nonverbal communication channel that is created with the victims and criminals that a wave of evil creeps into him and that makes him sick.
Please watch the drama to see how he comes out of it….
Although this drama deserves a higher position than the fifth, I think I put it last because crime stories make me suffer too much. You see a lot of crime and criminals, so it’s not exactly a walk in the park watching this.
4) Reborn Rich
It is a kind of “makjang” fusion of sci-fi and the story of a dynasty of a rich Korean family dedicated to business through monopoly in vast commercial sectors (“chaebol”).
This kind of big business, ruled by one family and named “conglomerates” really exists in South Korea.
A makjang is a story which is too excessive to be taken as realistic.
Excess is meant in the emotional sense and in the quantity and quality of the twists and turns; its purpose, I believe, is to tell the emotional truth of the story without regard to verisimilitude.
I like it, when I find it well done because it frees writers or directors up from the conventions of plots and allows them to convey compelling meanings.
This drama is also a multi-star-drama that brings together some of the best actors on the Korean scene.
Yoon Hyun Woo (played by the star Song Joong Ki) is a dedicated, hard-working and faithful secretary to the Jin family, which runs the Sunyang Group business empire.
One day, however, he is ruthlessly betrayed by the family, who frame him for embezzlement and have him killed.
He is miraculously brought “back to life” when he awakens in the body of the youngest male member of the family, Jin Do Joo, the grandson of Jin Yang Chul (played by the star Lee Sung Min) the tycoon of the Sunyang Group.
While the death of the faithful secretary occurs in 2022, the return to life as the youngest grandson of Jin Yang Chul occurs in 1980.
After realizing what has happened, Yoon Hyun Woo decides to take revenge, by taking advantage of now belonging to the Jin family. He is planning to use his new identity to formulate a hostile takeover of the group and punish the people who killed him.
One of the things that kept me glued to the screen was the relationship between Jin Do Joon / Yoon Hyun Woo and the grandfather, as performed by actors Song Joong Ki and Lee Sung Min.
The grandfather is at first presented as a ruthless businessman whose favourite son is the Sunyang Group itself. His adherence to the rule of the primogeniture tends to make him favor his eldest son and his eldest grandson as possible candidates for succession.
Jin Do Joon, the main character through whose eyes we view the story, is the son of the son who created the greatest displeasure for Jin Yang Chul by marrying an actress and abandoning the family business to set up his own firm.
Because of this, at the beginning of the drama the grandfather ignores this grandson considering him an insignificant kid.
However, Jin Do Joon remembers all the major economic and financial events in South Korea from the 1980s to present and uses this knowledge to succeed in business and get noticed by his grandfather.
What I found really engaging was the relationship between the grandfather and grandson as it developed over the years that Yoon Hyun Woo was Jin Yang Chul’s grandson.
Although the motivation of the whole affair is revenge, Yoon Hyun Woo becomes attached to his grandfather.
Their relationship proceeds through mutual betrayals, disappointments, affection and love, and admiration in a portrayal that makes us see how complicated family bonds are at times; they are relationships that seem to be fueled by conflicting motivations (love and hate, admiration and disappointment, loyalty and betrayal) that make us act in contradictory ways.
Lee Sung Min as a grandfather is simply astonishing.
His talent serves a traditionalist Jin Yang Chul, an innovator, forerunner of the times, greedy, ruthless, softened by love for his grandson, unapproachable, loving, strong, weak and sick, haughty and pitiful.
I must admit that on screen I saw only him and that he overshadowed the star Song Joong Ki.
However, what I found exciting was seeing the major historical and economic events of the Republic of Korea (ROK) from 1985 onward and some have suggested that the economic history of “Sunyang Group” resembles that of the Samsung Group.
I reconstructed some of them:
- In September 1983, a Korean Air Lines Boeing 747 flying from New York to Seoul deviated from its course near Sakhalin and was shot down by a Soviet fighter jet. The 269 passengers on board all died (Jin Do Joon/ Yoon Hyun Woo manages to warn his grandfather who takes another plane).
- The 1987 presidential election, the first democratic election after Chon Tuwan’s seven-year soft military dictatorship in which No T’aeu, Chon Tuwan’s hated comrade general, unexpectedly won due to the fact that the oppositions did not agree and went separate in the election (on this information Jin Do Joon/ Yoon Hyun Woo plays to win grandfather’s esteem).
- The great success of organization and audience of the Olympics in Seoul in 1988.
- The 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis that started in Thailand severely hit South Korea.
- In December 1997 the IMF provided $57 billion in its bailout package demanding dramatic financial restructuring and recapitalization. The IMF’s demands included chaebol reforms, transparency of the financial sector, and an end to state-controlled financial system.
- 1998 Korean people mobilized by donating $970 million to the treasury to help the country plunged into economic crisis. The debt is repaid to the IMF in three years, ahead of schedule but many businesses in the meantime went bankrupt creating massive unemployment.
- In August 1998 Korea overcame the crisis and became free from the IMF’s management system, well in advance of the planned repayment terms.
- Severe impact on the Korean economy of 2008 US born global economic crisis
- Korea Discount: “is defined by Forbes Magazine as the amount by which investors undervalue Korean stocks.This discount rate can be seen in how Korean stocks have consistently maintained low price-earnings ratios and are predicted to maintain this low ratio in the future as well”.
The main causes are probably:
a) potential capital flight remains South Korea’s geographic proximity to the North Korean regime,
b) the significant debt load,
c) an overbearing labor union force;
d) financial instability of chaebol conglomerates;
e) perception of an unfair playing field in the market (corruption);
f) “underrated assets due to uncompetitive marketing in certain industries.
For example, Korea’s science and technology sector, which ranks fourth, has a global image that ranks ninth” (KoreaTimes. “Korea Discount.” Koreatimes, The Korea Times, 10 Jan. 2010, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2017/03/198_58738.html)
- 2002 FIFA World Cup organized in SOUTH Korea and Japan, First World Cup to be held in Asia: South Korean team qualifies for semi-finals.
- NY 2001-9-11 is also mentioned, particularly for its consequences in Asian financial markets.
Have I forgotten any events? I would like to know, please write it in the comments.
Pachinko is a totally new genre or non-genre drama, an American production based on the 2017 novel by Min Jin Lee. The series is directed by Kogonada and Justin Chon, two American-born South Korean filmmakers.
This saga narrates the hopes and dreams of a Korean immigrant family through four generations leaving their homeland in search of a better future.
Already from the opening theme song and credits, we can see how this drama is a cross-cultural fusion that does not fit into traditional k-drama genres.
It tells the Korean diaspora from a Korean-American (and Japanese) aesthetic point of view, and I must say that the whole is really amazing.
The main cast includes the Korean star Lee Min Ho and the US-born and South Korean actor Jin Ha who is perfectly bilingual American and Korean. His Korean is as good as his American English.
It is a choral story about the extreme misery of Koreans during the Japanese occupation/dictatorship, the status of Korean women in the 1920s/30s who were at risk of slavery in the absence of the man who was the head of the family, the collaborationism of some Koreans with the Japanese occupiers, the enclave of Koreans in Japan and racism toward Asians in Japan and US.
The themes make one’s head spin because of their seriousness and gravity, however, by a narrative point of view, there is a balance and smoothness in the telling, that makes it very enjoyable and fresh.
The narrative alternates between moments in the present (that in the drama is 1989) in which we follow the vicissitudes of Solomon, a smartly-dressed-young Korean-American businessman, and moments in the past (1920s-1930s) in which the protagonist is Solomon’s grandmother, Sunja, who is presented as an smart and strong young woman who manages to emigrate to Japan to survive.
It is a choral narrative in which it is difficult for me to focus on one character rather than another.
Although the stories of Sunja as a girl and then as an old woman, when she wants to see her homeland again before she dies, and Solomon, the grandson, are the most intriguing.
Of Sunja we sense that her adaptation to Japanese culture has been rather superficial, as if her true self, represented by the girl Sunja, has remained in Korea.
At what cost a person lives with body and mind in one country and heart in another is well represented in this fiction. The cost is a dissociation, a kind of dislocation that makes one live in a country like a ghost.
The same thing is seen in Salomon, a Korean boy raised in Japan and soon sent to study in the United States.
He, too, seems to adhere to American (as well as Japanese) dream, he is concrete and business-oriented, with his mind and body (we can see this in the way he dresses like a yuppie and how he moves his body) but his heart is surprisingly in Korea, a homeland he inherited from his grandmother but never experienced firsthand.
This is how we realize, as viewers, that culture impregnates our basic essence, our bodies, and our feelings (probably through our mother tongue), whether we like it or not.
Indeed, we should ask ourselves what this Korean culture is, certainly not the culture of rapid economic development from the 1960s to the 1990s, inspired by the Anglo-Saxon business model, but the traditional culture, the one Sunja left behind in the late 1920s.
The narrative alternates between moments of the present (which in the drama is 1989) which follows the events of Solomon a young, sharply dressed Korean American businessman and moments of the past (1920-1930) in which the protagonist is Solomon’s grandmother, Sunja, who is a smart and strong young woman who manages to emigrate to Japan to survive.
When Solomon meets this culture through the elderly Korean woman who does not want to sell the land of her house in Tokyo despite a large financial offer because she wants to die on the grounds of her old home, the boy is changed in body and soul, symmetrically to how his grandmother is changed in contact with the land and sea of Busan where she lived as a child and teenager.
He finally becomes becomes fully alive and his heart palpitates.
Watching this drama is highly recommended.
2) Bloody Heart
It is a saeguk, a historical drama set in the period of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), a long period of monarchy splendor alternating with foreign invasions and wars. In this case it is a fictional historical drama, a rarity since most saeguk fictionalize actual historical events.
It begins when Lee Tae, the eldest legitimate son of King Sunjong who became king after the rebellion, ascends to the Joseon throne.
Lee Tae’s father has deposed the king with the help of Park Gye Won, and his father has become the king of a new dynasty.
Upon succeeding to the throne Lee Tae aspires to rule as an absolute monarch, but the first Vice Premier Park Gye Won opposes this idea.
In fact, Park Gye Won is even more powerful than the king.
When he was a teenager, Lee Tae had chosen, as his future wife, Yoo Jung, the daughter of a noble family.
Unfortunately, she and her family become involved in a power struggle in the royal court and her family was exterminated. Only she was fortunately saved by Lee Tae.
Now as adults, the two young people meet as lovers one night a month, Lee Tae knows that she is his disgraced betrothed, while she knows nothing about the young “nobleman” whom she meets chastely every month and with whom she is in love.
By a series of chance events Yoo Jung is brought to court by Prime Minister Park Gye Won who wants to use her as a pawn to dethrone the king.
At court Yoo Jung discovers that the young nobleman she is in love with is the ruler Lee Tae who having chosen her as his future wife in the past favored the extermination of her family.
From this point on we see the two young people struggle to untangle themselves from a potential political trap that puts their lives and their love at risk.
One of the things that struck me was that actor Lee Joon, who plays mostly negative and ambiguous characters, was chosen to play King Lee Tae; in k-dramas there is a kind of typecasting in force whereby many actors specialize in certain characters.
Lee Joon is particularly skilled at rendering the Shakespearean light and dark shades of the human mind (the term Shakespearean for Lee Joon’s performance I think I borrowed from KFG’s review).
So imagine a very weak young king at court at the expense of the prime minister, who tries hard to undermine his power and his life.
Then, there is this girl whom he loves and who has risked her life in the past, but who is now out of the dangers of the court and whom he sees blossoming and dating outside, in a kind of neutral and protected place.
Suddenly he finds her at court, at the center of a political machination that uses her as a weapon to destroy him, but at the same time puts her in danger.
Imagine the shock of this young woman falling in love with a kind but mysterious nobleman, whom she discovers is the king who, as a teenager, endangered her and contributed, however unwittingly, to the extermination of her family.
She is commissioned to marry him and, for this, endangers his life.
Here we see the whole contrast between Lee Tae’s desire to marry her, the sexual attraction and love that drives him to her, and the realization that this potentially means his demise and annihilation.
This is one of the plot lines that intrigued me the most and is beautifully rendered by the cinematography through the colors of nature and clothing, a kind of pathetic fallacy wonderfully drawn.
Let’s see what choices the main characters will make, especially Yoo Jung who manifests herself as a real and fascinating strategist.
This k-drama is set in the village of Sanpo, where the three Yeom brothers, Chang Hee (played by Lee Min Ki), Mi Jung (played by Kim Ji Won), and Ki Jung (played by Lee El) wish to escape from a life in the countryside.
A mysterious man, Mr. Gu, moves into their neighborhood.
He is a hard drinker with the air of someone who has many burdens and secrets. His reserved personality makes him an object of gossip. Mi Jung, the youngest and shyest of the Yeom siblings, decides to approach him.
I watched this drama twice, the first time, like most viewers, curiously drawn to the quirky relationship between Mr. Gu and Mi Jung, the second time focusing only on Chang Hee’s story, because Lee Min Ki is one of my favorite actors, as I really love his performance, voice and diction.
So I will therefore only tell you about this second watching and how it sweetly conquered me.
First, I imagined Lee Min Ki’s happiness (a total fiction in my head) in order to get out of the rom-com with its tropes and standards.
In particular, he always plays the handsome, genial, obsessive, and unfriendly but soft-hearted boy (hidden under an armor of rudeness) who falls in love with the beautiful, naive and kind girl.
In this drama, Lee Min Ki, who no longer has to perform the good-looking, tough young man, suddenly becomes really handsome even though he is sweaty, poorly dressed and in awkward poses, precisely because he can move his body freely and perform in a less stereotypical way, releasing his potential.
The character Chang Hee allows him a wide range of expressive possibilities.
Therefore, we meet Chang Hee, the chatty, pusillanimous boy of the Yeom family.
He clearly suffers from a paternal complex, because in the presence of his diligent working father, who is so silent that he seems mute, he always starts talking a series of nonsense and pusillanimously complaining about his poverty and lack of opportunities, blaming this on the family of lowly origins.
He breaks up with his Seoul girlfriend because of his inferiority complex over the fact that he lives far from Seoul and does not have a car to visit her.
Moreover, he foolishly states that it is in the car that a man’s love life usually begins with the first kisses, so if his love life is a disaster, it is because he does not own a car. As he speaks, his father looks at him in bewilderment and his mother rolls her eyes.
He thinks that everything that happens to him is due to his lack of assets and opportunities.
BUT, unexpectedly, when we see him at work as a franchisee’s assistant for a large company, we can see a kind, responsible, empathetic, efficient and intelligent young man serving clients stores.
What comes to my mind about Chang Hee is that he is basically a good boy, very sensitive and diligent, who becomes neurotically pusillanimous and childish in front of his father.
Chang Hee clearly does not feel validated and loved by this very silent father, who expresses his love only indirectly through hard work and literally putting bread on the table for his children.
It is so refreshing to see his transformation into a man who lives his life to the fullest, albeit with all his flaws and insecurities (a promising romance fails perhaps because of his excessive sense of fragility and responsibility).
The pivotal element in his change is his relationship with Mr. Gu, who, even if reluctant, gives him an example of what it means to accept being himself, even if that self is not the perfection with a glossy charm.
As he stops being pusillanimous, he deepens his empathic sensibility to such an extent that he chooses to be a funeral organizer, the one who assists the family in organizing the tribute and remembrance of the deceased, which is highly felt in Korean culture (where a funeral lasts three days).
If anyone is not familiar with the world of Korean fiction, I would suggest starting with “My liberation note,” which can be found on Netflix.
For the plots, I used the site https://mydramalist.com and for the Korean History I consulted Maurizio Riotto, Storia della Corea dalle origini ai giorni nostri, 2018, Giunti-Bompiani and Baek,Cho, Ham, Jung, Lee, Sohn, Understanding Korean History, Ewha Womans University and Korean Cultural Research Institute, 2011.