The Crown Prince in Love

I would have given this convoluted drama a lower rating if not for Im Si-wan who carried the whole story on his shoulders. He is such a great actor and gave a nuanced performance as Wang Won. Si-wan is the only reason to watch this drama, full stop.

A small praise should also go Im Yoona’s way. I thought she did well as Eun San, though her acting isn’t there yet. The rest of the main characters are a big let-down.

Former k-pop idol Im Si-wan as Crown Prince Wang Won

Wang Rin, the second lead, is just godawfully boring. He’s supposed to be this complex, clever and loyal man who falls for the girl with whom his best friend and prince is also in love. However, Hong Jhong Hyun just couldn’t give the portrayal needed for Wang Rin to be effective, convincing and ultimately likeable. Hong’s acting is plain and simple distractingly bad, I wonder whether the person responsible for casting him was drunk when they settled for this actor. Someone else would have done a better job as Rin, including any of the dozen or so actors who played the prince’s guards.

They’re not big names, but either would have played the second lead better

There are so many sub-plots and characters that didn’t live up to expectations too. For example, what happened to this morsel of an idea that one of the guards was in love with the Crown Princess, or that the assassin had a thing for the housemaid who stood in for Eun San? It’s as if the writer didn’t know what to do with them and there are a few of these ideas that just got waylaid, and they could’ve made the show more enjoyable.

Apart from Im Si-Wan’s Crown Prince, the only other thing I enjoyed about the drama was the queen mother. These two characters seem to be the only ones that are well developed, as whilst both have the capacity to love with all their hearts, each is still a flawed character who’s insecure about losing their power to enemies. In a way, they are outsiders even in their own court. And with all the powers accorded to their status, they will stop at nothing to protect it or seek revenge against those who wrong them and the ones they love. Spoiler: Won draws blood himself.

The queen mother loves and terrorises

I’m still on the fence about Won choosing Rin’s sister as his Crown Princess and marrying her only to set her aside to pursue Eun San. Maybe that’s how they rolled back in the day, when marriages more often than not were simply strategic alliances.

The worst are the last few minutes when you thought it couldn’t get more awful, it still leaves you with a sucker punch to the gut.

Notes from the semi-lockdowns: Goblin Part 1

Gong Yoo as the titular Goblin

Before Crash Landing on You, the most viewed drama on Korean cable was Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, or Goblin to non-Korean viewers. Broadcast in late 2016 to early 2017, the show reached as much as 19% viewership in South Korea, with +20% viewership in Seoul alone. I remember everyone was going about this show on social networks back then (mostly fangirling over Gong Yoo, obvs), but I was too distracted by the plethora of shows that were new to me, thanks to more access to US, UK and local content via Australian TV as well as streaming services. It was also a time when I had a k-drama funk: I just lost interest in the genre and instead switched to Anglo-centric productions that included Game of Thrones, Sherlock, and Doctor Who, to name a few.

The massively popular show stars Gong Yoo in the titular role of “Goblin”, a supernatural who has been roaming the earth for 900-odd years as punishment for crimes he committed as a general in the Korean army during the Goryeo dynasty. Lee Dong Wook (My Girl, Hotel King, Touch Your Heart), Yoo In-na (My Love From the Star, Touch Your Heart), Yook Sung Jae (BTOS), and Kim Go Eun (The King Eternal Monarch, The Cheese Trap) round up the main cast of this fantasy romance novela that captured much of the imagination of viewers across Asia and elsewhere five years ago.

Goblin’s origin story

gong yoo as goblin/kim shin
Before turning into Goblin, he is known as general Kim Sin in the Goryeo dynasty.

Goblin used to be a brave army general, Kim Shin, whose successful campaigns to defend the kingdom against invaders cost so many lives and eventually his own. With every victory in battle, he becomes more popular amongst the citizens, resulting in jealousy and insecurity on the part of the young king, Yeo (or Wang Yeo, as “wang” directly translates to king).

Although Shin has constantly faced danger in the battlefield, life at the royal court is not safe either. When members of the royal family start to die one after the other, Kim Shin receives an order from the previous king to protect the young prince by arranging a marriage with his sister, Kim Seon (or Kim Sun, depending on where you’re watching). Fortunately, Wang Yeo and Kim Seon fall in love in spite of the increasing jealousy and suspicion on the part of Yeo, no thanks to the malicious advice he gets from his mentor, Park Joong Hyeon.

After winning yet another battle, Kim Shin returns to the capital in defiance of the Wang Yeo’s orders to remain in exile, prompting the young king to order the killing of everyone in the general’s company as well as members of his household. But worst of all, the killings also include Kim Seon, as the king fears that she has allied herself with her brother instead of him. When it is Kim Shin’s turn to die, his most loyal man volunteers to plunge the sword in his chest to give him an honourable death.

As he lays dying, Kim Shin taunts the gods for forsaking him and those he has fought for. The gods, insulted, punishes him by bringing him back from the dead to roam the earth as a goblin, an immortal who will never find peace, for even as he lives forever he also witnesses the passing of his loved ones.

Only the goblin’s wife can see the sword stuck in Kim Shin’s chest

In Korean folklore, goblins (or dokkaebi) have extraordinary powers and the ability to interact with humans. They are also often surnamed “Kim” and come into being when they possess objects or artefacts that are stained in human blood. In the series, the artefact is the magnificent sword that Kim Shin receives from the young king as a gift but is eventually stained with the blood of all the people that he killed in battle. It is the same sword that ends his mortal life and has remained stuck in his chest; no one else apart from the Goblin’s Wife can see and pull it out. Once the sword has been removed, Goblin will finally die.

The Goblin’s Wife

Kim Go Eun (left) as Ji Eun Tak, the Goblin’s Bride

It will be more than 900 years before Kim Shin meets Ji Eun Tak (Kim Go Eun) whose life he saves when her mother is hit by a car whilst pregnant with her. As a result of Kim Shin’s intervention, Eun Tak comes into the world with a unique gift that allows her to see ghosts who in turn inform her that she is the Goblin’s Wife. On the other hand, escaping death also means Grim Reapers are hot on her heels and the threat of death shall continue for the rest of her life.

On the night her mother dies, Eun Tak meets the Grim Reaper who is supposed to guide her mother to the afterlife but accidentally identifies her as the missing soul that he has been looking for. With a god who comes in the form of an old woman (and sometimes a beautiful woman in red) on her side, she manages to escape the Reaper and eventually lives with her cruel aunt and obnoxious cousins.

On her 19th birthday, she unknowingly summons Goblin/Kim Shin after blowing her birthday candle whilst celebrating on her own. Quick to pick up on the nature of the person who suddenly appears in front of her, she learns how to summon him at will and starts to build a relationship with the immortal to whom she introduces herself as his wife.

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Notes from the semi-lockdowns: Hell is other people

I am going through a Lee Dong Wook phase. It started with Goblin, which thankfully I finally had the chance to watch nearly five years after it aired, followed by Touch Your Heart, and now, his latest starrer: Strangers from Hell. The psychological drama has been around since 2019 but was recently picked up by Netflix for international audiences. I am very disappointed with Viki and the endless geo-blocking of more than half of the shows that I really want to see, but okay…

strangers from hell
Im Siwan (centre) as Jong Woo in “Strangers from Hell”/”Hell is Other People”

Strangers From Hell takes the viewer through the events that transpire in the days following Yoon Jong Woo’s (Im Si-wan) move to Seoul after accepting a job offer from his friend who owns an independent marketing content house. Having limited means, he decides to stay at the only place he can afford, the decrepit Eden Residences where he meets a cast of characters whom he instantly finds a bit too much for his comfort: there is the guy who spends his days watching porn if he’s not lurking the hallways and threatening to knife other residents; the stuttering guy and his twin brother; a seemingly normal guy who literally spits at people when they turn their back; the landlady who likes offering bad food to residents. And then, there’s Seo Moon Jo, dentist by day and peeping Tom by night.

Also titled “Hell is Other People” and based on a “webtoon“, the show sees the gradual mental breakdown of Jong Woo. As the story progresses, he discovers that his intuitions about the people at the dormitory are accurate after all when two other residents suddenly disappear and his room is broken into whilst he is away at work. Feeling apprehensive about the situation his girlfriend initially convinces him is only happening in his mind, he befriends Seo Moon Jo (Lee Dong-wook) to whom he shares his passion for thrillers and an ambition to be a published author in the same genre. In return, the dashing Moon Jo encourages him to pursue his dream and explains that everyone at the building is in fact okay.

Unbeknownst to Jong Woo, although his new acquaintance is a popular dentist by day, the guy actually moonlights at night by inflicting his own brand of dentistry on his victims and may or may not be into human meat.

lee dong woook, seo moon jo
Lee Dong Wook as Seo Moon Jo, a strange eye candy from hell

As Jong Woo copes with life in the big city and the creepy residence, Jong Woo also has to contend with his abusive and insecure manager, while at the same time fending off insinuations from the company’s CEO, a friend from university, about having bad attitude at work. It turns out that the CEO has only hired him for cheap labour and to make a move on his girlfriend. I feel that this observation is Moon Jo’s only redeeming quality, apart from the fact that he is so easy on the eyes.

As for his girlfriend, Ji-eun, it’s hard to totally like her when she fails to lend an ear each time Jong Woo tells her about his struggles, but at the same time it must be understood that she also has her own little battles to fight, top of which is her patronising manager. The power distance that both Ji-eun and Jong Woo must navigate at work is a recurring theme and perhaps is reflective of the larger society which has been known for its emphasis on respecting seniority and authority figures.

Without wanting to spoil the show for anyone, it’s fair to say that there is a Life of Pie-mixed-with-Kafka quality to the series, particularly when the epilogue shows how Moon Jo has successfully achieved his goal. There is also no satisfying end to the story other than knowing that those who deserve it at least get their comeuppance. Or did they?

The 10-episode series is the darkest that Lee Dong Wook has done to date and Seo Moon Jo is his first villain to play, as far as I know. He may or may not have been cast for the role on the back of his star power, but what is certain is he deftly played the psychopathic character so convincingly, making Moon Jo both magnetic and frightening at the same time. At Eden Residences Seo Moon Jo is the vilest of the lot, for sure, and I found myself mentally screaming at Jong Woo to run the hell away from his dentist pal who also calls him “babe” or whatever it is in Korean. Strangers implies that Moon Jo is gay, but it doesn’t explore the idea any further.

Strangers From Hell/Hell is Other People is 4.5/5 recommended viewing for blood and gore and a pretty villain if you are not disturbed enough by scenes of entitled #covidiots protesting lockdowns because they think their freedom is more important than the lives of others. The showdown between the two leads towards the end is especially thrilling.

And if you need to decompress after binge watching all 10 episodes, here’s a playlist of “Wookie” doing manny duties in a popular reality show about dads and samchons (uncles) taking care of the little ones for the day. The second video is pure gold, don’t miss it!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.
Just a little reminder that Lee Dong Wook is pretty much a regular guy before bursting into stardom, following his work as Grim Reaper in “Goblin”.

Notes from the lockdown: “Touch Your Heart” is delightfully lighthearted

Lee Dong Wook and Yoo In-na as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and his secretary Oh Jin Shim, respectively.

I have lost count of how many times I binged watched Touch Your Heart, which I discovered on Viki after watching Guardian: The Great and Lonely God (or Goblin for short). You know how it is when you’re searching for something else to watch whilst having withdrawals from the drama that you’ve just finished: either ask friends for recommendations or jump into the rabbit hole that is the list of all the works of the actors involved in the show.

While this will be an unpopular opinion amongst fans of Gong Yoo (he’s fabulous and will always be a favourite since Coffee Prince), I maintain that Lee Dong Wook whose portrayal of a Grim Reaper stole some of Yoo’s thunder from right under his feet. In the Goblin universe, there are quite a few of them, thus the indefinite article “a”. The guy strutted his way onto the screen as if straight from the pages of a fashion magazine (it turns out he endorses the Boy de Chanel line) as the hat-wearing Reaper, albeit one that’s compassionate and with a rather more interesting back story than Goblin’s main character.

As viewers of k-dramas know, most series from this genre also feature a “second couple”, a pair that supplements the romantic highs and lows that the lead characters provide and for the most part, serve as a plot device. In Goblin, the Grim Reaper is half of the second couple with Yoo In-Na’s Kim Sun. Together, Grim Reaper and Kin Sun provided a supplemental love story that, although heartbreakingly tragic, was more compelling than that of the first couple’s. It’s the only reason I didn’t give up on Goblin halfway through and explains the hype surrounding the show. More about Goblin in another post.

With viewer’s ratings of 98% on Google and 9.7 on Viki which thankfully did not geo-block the series, I decided to give Touch Your Heart a go, thinking if I could manage my way through to at least a quarter of episode 1, it should be okay. It was all fun and kilig from this point onwards.

Speaking of geoblocking, about three quarters of the shows I want to see on Viki are unavailable in Australia—is there another service that owns the rights to these shows Down Under? How do I subscribe?

Fans of the “pichi couple” were delighted by the announcement that they would be working together again, this time in a much more upbeat series and playing not-at-all tragic characters. The reunion features a strait laced star lawyer Kwon Jung Rok (Lee) and an actress down on her luck, Oh Jin Shim (Yoo; stage name: Oh Yoon Seo), whose career has suffered almost irreparably after getting implicated in a drugs scandal involving a well-connected heir to a chaebol. Think of it as a case of #metoo, but one in which the victim more harshly was judged more harshly by the public instead of the perp.

Casting projects and endorsements dry up in the years that follow Oh Jin Shim’s career downfall until she stumbles on a script meant for someone else. To convince the project’s creators that she can act and play the part of a lawyer–or just to have a whiff of a chance at getting cast for the role–she must get an experience at a law firm. Jin Shim ends up working as a secretary for the “prickly” Kwon Jung Rok at Always (LOL, the name!), a boutique law firm where the managing partner is a cousin of her agent and is a big fan of hers.

Her introduction to the handsome lawyer is not exactly meet-cute: Jung Rok shows no interest in her as a former A-list celebrity nor approves of her fashion choice, which he thinks is inappropriate in a corporate environment. Nor is he impressed by her turning up an hour late on her first day, by her apparent lack of any useful skills beyond acting and product endorsements, and the fact that the rest of the staff are fawning over her just for being the so-called Korea’s goddess (“my goddess, your goddess, the universe’s goddess”).

To prove that Jung Rok’s assumptions about her are wrong, Oh Jin Shim steps up to the challenge and learns the job of a lawyer’s Secretary (something short of a paralegal in the show’s context): report to work before the boss arrives, wear office-appropriate attire, manage to forward calls and operate the printer/copier, prepare coffee, organise files. There are missteps that follow that are not entirely of her making, but to her credit, Oh Jin Shim knows how to answer back to her superior and explain that although she is not highly skilled, she is driven and willing to learn.

Taken aback and realising he needs to show a little compassion somehow, Jung Rok eventually assigns a task that is relevant to the drama role that, unbeknownst to him, his secretary is secretly preparing for. Thus by successfully researching a set of legal precedents and proving that she has exceptionally good recall (something the scene implies actors are known for), Jin Shim manages to convince him that she is worthy of the job after all.

What follows is one of the most touching scenes that demonstrates the strength of Oh Jin Shim’s character, thanks to her experience as a public figure (i.e. a target of nasty online comments), and a reminder to always be kind, for others are fighting battles one does not know about. It’s a piece of clever writing that’s acted brilliantly by the two leads.

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Notes from the lockdown: rediscovering k-drama

It has been four weeks since the federal government recommended that residents limit their movements as much as possible: visit the shops only to purchase necessary items, such as food or medicine; go to work or school if telework is not feasible; stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people when you’re in public; and do social distancing-friendly exercise only, such as running or walking. “Stay at home, save lives” has been the mantra that guided our actions in the hopes of slowing down the spread of this dreaded disease that so far has claimed over 100 thousand lives and has made its presence at an alarming rate by infecting over 1 million people in over 90 countries as of this writing.

And so while there is not much to do other than what is necessary to slow down the progress of the worst catastrophe that the world has faced since World War II, humanity–at least those who can–has turned to technology to pass the time. There are some who spent time on pursuits that are not necessarily reliant on modern technology, but for the most part, we’ve sought solace from social networks and streaming services. Netflix, YouTube, Stan, and Amazon Prime Video are just some of the services that our household has subscribed to, but thanks to the popularity of the Korean drama (“k-drama”) Crash Landing on You (CLOY to many fans), I have had to add Viki to my list of subscriptions.   

Son Ye Jin as Yoon Se Ri and Hyun Bin as North Korean soldier Capt. Lee/Ri Jeung Hyoek in the massive hit, “Crash Landing On You

Prior to CLOY, the last k-drama that I watched was Big and the only reason I stuck with it was because it starred Gong Yoo (of Coffee Prince fame and at the time, Train to Busan). However, I still ended up scratching my head with its weird conclusion, something that was common amongst the k-dramas I watched by that point.

It had also been years before that since I last watched another k-drama, which must have been Coffee Prince itself, as I had often found that the genre’s storylines were silly, the male characters were stuck up, and most annoyingly, the females were either hopelessly ditzy or straight up mean. I wasn’t particularly happy watching grown up women acting like they were still in kindergarten, the series makers’ idea of cute.   

A few things have changed since, it seems. For one, CLOY’s Yoon Se-Ri is a firebrand who has built a business empire of her own; other series show women pursuing careers and taking it to the man; single mothers who raise well-rounded children; breadwinners; women who have more to offer despite appearances. Maybe the timing of this pandemic means the release of western films and series had to be pushed to later dates, which in turn means there just aren’t many interesting shows available just when we need more things to keep us entertained. But with so much buzz happening around new Asian productions, including the success of South Korea’s Parasite at the Oscars, quite a few of us have since started to revisit k-drama as an alternative to the boring western fare on TV and streaming services, starting with CLOY, followed by other shows that had been lingering for years waiting to be rediscovered.

Over the past four weeks, I have so far added Kingdom (Netflix), Guardian: the Great and Lonely God (“Goblin” in other countries), Hyena, and Touch Your Heart to the list of shows that I have binge watched and re-binge watched because one could not enjoy a good thing just once, especially if you missed some key elements of a story or a scene while reading subtitles. 

Lee Dong Wook as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and Yoo In-na as an actress down on her luck, Oh Yoon Seoh/Oh Jin Sim in the delightful and lighthearted “Touch Your Heart”

There is a good reason why k-drama has become so popular the world over. One of the effects of South Korea’s democratisation in the 1980s was increased investment in culture and the arts, which in turn became the vessel for selling the idea of a modern, prosperous, and trendy country. The result is an industry that churns polished and well written TV and movie productions, and with the current popularity of k-pop (think of BTS and Gangnam Style), hallyu or Korean wave is bigger and better than ever.

Call it formulaic, but there is also something about these productions that just keeps the audience glued to the screen: maybe it’s the “kilig” factor, the water works, actors who look like they follow the 10-step beauty routine, the fashion, the laugh-out-loud sketches, the excellent cinematography, or characters making the most out of awkward situations. Most often it’s just all of these rolled into one. A combination of comedy, melodrama, and action sequences in one act rarely happens in western series, but this mix is a staple of k-drama. 

This video explains the start of hallyu, though it focuses mainly on the films that started the Korean wave. I believe that to appreciate hallyu‘s power, you need to be more familiar with the TV series that made it across Asia and other parts of the world, starting in the early 2000s.

Working from home, having space to oneself, and decent Internet connection are just some of the privileges that brought into focus the luck that I have been enjoying since moving to Australia. Amidst news of tens/hundreds of thousands of people being infected by the coronavirus, Perth, Western Australia, is undeniably one of the safest places on the planet. And while I do worry about family and friends who have every chance of catching the virus back in the Philippines, thanks to the Duterte government’s incompetence and callous disregard for human life, there is no other place I would rather be than Perth, my new home, whilst waiting for the crisis to end and things get to normal…if there is such a thing as normal when we emerge on the other side of this tragedy.

In the meantime, there are years’ worth of pan-Asian drama on top of the usual American and British fare on streaming services to escape to.