This review may contain spoilersOH THE FEELS!!! And OH THE ORIGINALITY!!! And OH THE AWESOME LEADING MAN AND SUPPORTING CAST OF CHARACTERS!!! Those are the reasons Ho Gu’s Love (HGL) is getting this review from me. After I finished watching HGL I immediately gave it a 10, then I let it soak in a while and let my objective mind take over and bumped it down to 9.5, but really it’s more like a 9.9 with the only flaw being that so much of the plot had to depend on just simple misunderstandings (like 16 hours of Three’s Company). I felt that after a while it might have been better served for at least one of the misunderstandings to have been cleared up a little sooner, and they became so silly as to almost be a parody of themselves within the drama, as though it was self-aware as to what absurd lengths the misunderstandings had gone (which actually made it better for me). That said the feels and the cast and the characters and the originality were just so on point that they overcame this flaw and then bounded past it like a bullet train past a horse and buggy. So without further ado, here is why Ho Gu’s Love is one of my favorite Kdramas of all time.
1. Originality: Yes, I consider originality an essential element of a great Kdrama. HGL had many elements we don’t normally see in Kdramas including decent treatment of normally risqué themes (all of which I’m not going to name because spoilers). It also frequently upended my expectations of how the plot would play out, with a particular bit at the end that I was surprised by when I really thought it would go another direction to give a more pat Kdrama moment (once again, you have to see it to know what I mean). Also, there are amazing parental characters that behave in such refreshingly awesome ways.
2. Characters: Oh the characters. I am so in love with HO GU I just cannot stand it. He really is one of the best leading men characters of all time. The writer (and the actor, to be discussed next) took a character that could have been just a fool and just a sicky sweet guy and made him so real and warm that it truly is a feat of genius. I think what is most amazing about Ho Gu and the way he is written and acted is that he makes everyone else in the world look like the fool that they think he is. It’s like he has got it right and we are all wrong. Even when he shows flaws like being a little too clingy or nosy, it’s okay because sometimes in real life our emotions do override our rational and that can happen in the moment. And then at the end he even grows. There’s never been a character like him before.
a. Do Hee: She rubbed me a bit wrong at first, but by the end I was totally in love with her. She really is pretty awesome!
b. Byun Kang Chul: Speaking of rubbing me wrong at first. There are people that dropped this drama because they hated him so much. To them I say WAIT! Nothing is as it seems! He is wonderful and his growth in the drama is the greatest; don’t judge after just a few eps. You are totally wrong!
c. Ho Kyung: BAD ASS!
d. Do Hee’s Baby: The cutest baby in the history of Kdramas.
e. The Support(ive) Cast: The greatest parents ever (Ho Gu’s)! Parents that show a lot of growth. Funny and kind friends who also have lives of their own and aren’t just props. It all results in just the sweetest extended family you’ve ever seen!
3. Acting: Awesome across the board! Even Uee who I previously didn’t think much of was wonderful in her way. And Im Seulong, who I found almost mesmerizing in Mandate of Heaven as the king, was even better here. He really is good and I expect great things from him in the future. He can do drama or comedy with equal aplomb. And his physical comedy is just hilarious. The supporting actors and actresses are all good, especially the parents and the actress that plays Ho Kyung.
But Choi Woo Shik, for him I don’t know if there are words. He is a star. He is wonderful in every way. Without him the character of Ho Gu would have failed with a thud. CWS is PERFECT in this drama with no flaws. When he cries, I cry. When he laughs and smiles, I laugh and smile. When he is intense, I burn and when he does physical comedy, I laugh until my nose runs. He brings Ho Gu so much life and warmth and spirit and even gravitas for a character that on paper would have none. I love him in this. I love him so much it hurts!
4. Plot and Writing: As I said earlier, there is a little weakness here where the plot depends too much on misunderstandings, but the originality and the dialog and the twists more than make up for that weakness. I know this was based on a manhwa so it’s not an original story and I have not read the manhwa so I don’t know how much this deviates, but I think the writing was really top notch. Once again a cable channel brings home the bacon where so many network shows fail miserably.
5. THE FEELS! What puts this drama over the top for me in terms of love and awesomeness though is the feels. I laughed; I cried; I laughed; I cried. I did those things over and over again, episode after episode. I can watch whole dramas and never laugh out loud or cry like a baby; I did both every week with this show. Maybe it touched me more deeply because I have a 16 mo baby. I don’t know. But I will never forget the emotions this show made me feel for as long as I watch Kdramas.
So there you have it. Stop whatever you are doing now and go watch this drama. It is nearly perfect and where it isn’t perfect, the intangibles make up for it. And if you love great acting, you have to see Choi Woo Shik in this. You are really depriving yourself otherwise.
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First, I will say that if you like Kdramas, this one is absolutely unique in the entire genre. I've seen over 100 and nothing even seems to have been made on the same planet as this. So it definitely has the uniqueness factor - check.
Secondly, because it was a special rather than a full drama, it has a nice short run time of only 8 episodes, so it is great for those with ADHD or who like Kdramas but not the fact that they tend to be so long. Actually, my only real complaint about this drama is that there isn't more of it!
Of course, the first two positive things I've said about this drama are just shallow fluff and not really the reasons I called it a masterpiece. But they are good reasons that I think this is the ultimate drama for introducing noobs to Kdramas (particularly American noobs as those are the kind I know best).
But now on to the real meat of the matter -- why is this a masterpiece, and not just a Korean masterpiece, but possibly a masterpiece of television, period?
1. VISUALS! Did I say visuals? Oh, and visuals. This is one of the most singularly beautiful (and eerie) things I've ever watched. The PD is Kim Yong Soo and going foward I will watch anything he directs (he directed Equator Man, which while it has its plot flaws, no one can deny its cinematography is stunning). Every camera shot is perfectly framed for maximum visual and emotional impact. At times it felt more like watching a series of paintings or artistic photographs pass by rather than film. The visual harmony between the stark modern architecture, the snow, the shadows and even the physical characteristics of the actors themselves and how they are framed in each and every shot demonstrates tremendous forethought and superior aesthetic awareness. I could have watched this drama with the sound and subs off and still enjoyed it; that's how beautiful it is.
2. Acting. Considering the youth of this cast, the acting was quite good, and this drama could not have been pulled off without their sublime efforts because the claustrophobic, character-driven nature of this drama requires great acting. I read on Dramabeans that when the kids were cast that the writer cared more about physical type (because the visuals and theme were that important to her) than acting ability and that most of the actors were considered relatively inexperienced at the time; although, we know most of them very well now (Woo Bin and Sung Joon, for example). I found this revelation startling in light of the brilliance of their acting in White Christmas.
3. Music. Much like the visuals, the music was also all perfectly thought out at every moment to achieve maximum emotional effect. And for we English speakers, there is deft use of some popular tunes like AC/DC's Back in Black, Arcade Fire's Wake Up and Massive Attack's Teardrop (aka the theme song from House), just to name a few. This actually is my favorite soundtrack of any Kdrama I've seen because much of the music was recognizable and that just added to the overall impact of how well it was used to increase the emotional impact of the scenes and theme, rather than just as background music like so many soundtracks. The soundtrack in this drama practically takes on a life of its own and White Christmas would not be the same without it.
4. Theme & Writing. No bones about it, this is a DARK drama and not for the faint of heart. But once again, what makes it great is that it is not dark in the usual twisted crazy parent, birth secret, killing for money, insane makjang way of most dark Kdramas. This is dark because of the theme and the theme is a very simple and universal one relatable to anyone anywhere (that I am not going to go into here because I don't want to give anything away). Much like with the visuals and the music, the writing was also very focused in this drama, without any of the meandering, unfocused, repetitiveness that plagues the live shoot portion of so many Kdramas. Sure it was only 8 episodes, but every scene, every word, of those 8 episodes was perfectly thought out to elucidate the main theme with nothing extraneous and nothing left out either. EXCEPT....
There was one flaw in this otherwise perfect drama and it's a pretty major plot hole that occurs in the last episode that sent my bulls*** radar pinging. And despite my great love of this drama I refuse to let the writer off. If you've seen it, you probably know what I mean. However, I understand why the writer had to do what she did for the overall structure and theme of the drama, and, therefore, I forgive her. Because, in the wake of this glorious tour de force, I am willing to let a little final-hour-what-the-f**ckery slide.
In summation, watch this drama! You will NOT be disappointed. And if by same crazy miracle you are, there is a scene in episode 6 where all the guys take their shirts off, so hold on until there at least!
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This review may contain spoilersI. LOVE. THIS. DRAMA. SO. MUCH! Truth be told, I really debated and fought myself against giving this drama a 10. I mean the production values aren't great and it definitely has a high goofiness/quirky factor that some people might not get past, and for any other drama with those negatives, I wouldn't normally go above an 8. But no matter how much I tried to reason with myself, when it came down to it, I just think this drama is everything I ever wanted and everything I didn't even realize I wanted.
Every time I thought I'd only give it an 8 or at best a 9, I found myself cheering or laughing out loud or crying soulful tears (yes, you will need a tissue box, maybe not even a box, but at least a few in your pocket), and then I knew I just had to give it a 10. It gets a 10 not because it is perfect TV, but because it was perfect to me. And, yes, I am an unapologetic and rabid Lee Min Ki fan, but you can see in my ratings of his movies that just because I love him to pieces, doesn’t mean I will automatically rate everything he does as a 10 with a 100 hearts after it. I try to be objective, even when it comes to my Min Ki :).
[Note: I will not be using the annoyingly bad English name of Evasive Inquiry Agency when referring to this drama but rather the more apt Mixed Up Investigative Agency (MUIA).]
First things first, if you are planning to watch this drama, be forewarned that it doesn't get truly great until episode 8 (some people might even say 10). Sure, it's loads of fun and entertaining and even exciting and the mysteries are all good enough to keep you going, but it really doesn't enter into the realm of greatness until then when you really start to see the heart and some surprisingly good acting. Up until then it's like the difference between how your chest feels when you are taking an exhilarating ride on a rollercoaster vs. how your chest feels when you realize you are in love. Sure your heart pounds in both instances, and both are lots of fun, but only love is profound and has memories that will last a lifetime.
Ok, so that out of the way, here are 12 reasons why MUIA is so darn perfect:
1. It's unique. One of the things that always tickles me the most and is most likely to land a drama near the top of my faves list is uniqueness, which, as much as I love Kdramas, is not always one of their strong points. I've seen many Kdramas where I've got the whole thing figured out within about 3 to 4 eps and the rest is just seeing where the details differ from the other 15 dramas just like it. You cannot say that about MUIA.
2. It's a true ensemble. Even in other so-called ensemble dramas usually 1 couple stands just a little taller than the rest of the cast, but not in this case. All 4 main characters are equally important to the point where you truly cannot say that any 2 are the stars. It is a true ensemble.
3. There is romance, but it's not really important. What's important in MUIA is friendship and a sense of family that comes not from blood but from loyalty and love and being there for each other in their time of need.
4. Speaking of family -- no meddling parents! Yeah! Meddling parents suck and are a staple of Kdramas that make me sick. So a show always gets bonus points from me when they aren't there!
5. Without being spoilery, another awesome thing about this drama is that it doesn't fall prey to crazy makjang machinations or hand of god reversals even where the story has left the door wide open for them. It is organic and moves where it should rather than being totally contrived for some kind of shock effect. I'm not saying it's totally realistic (because there are some silly and decidedly unrealistic moments), but it doesn't feel manipulated.
6. Conversely, some things that would normally NOT get fixed or reversed quickly do so in a timely manner. And expectations are frequently subverted. If you think something is going a certain way based on your prior knowledge of Kdramas, well, you are probably wrong.
7. The characters are not stock types and therefore feel like living, breathing people that you WILL start to care about. And I’ll just say it right here – Jung Hee Kyung (played by Ye Ji Won) is PURE AWESOME! I often find Kdrama female characters annoying or downright insipid or if they are of the evil type, well, then, pure evil balls of hatred. Not so with Hee Kyung. Yes, she is flawed, very much so. And she definitely has her annoying moments. But she is such an amazingly nuanced and multi-faceted character. She is a fully 3-D person that fits no character type I’ve seen before, similar to several, maybe but definitely not with all of her layers. I love her to death. She is one of my all-time favorite Kdrama characters, not just women, but characters. I love her warts and all (for those non-native English speakers, I mean that I even love her bad qualities).
8. This show has some deeply philosophical dialogue beneath all the fun. So watch out or it might really get you thinking!
9. Even the peripheral characters are treated as real people and you actually find yourself caring about them. This is a fully-populated world of real human beings, not just a set for our main characters to prance around in. (On that note, make sure you watch the end skit after episode 14. It was just the BEST thing ever! For that matter, watch all the end skits. They are pure gold!)
10. Acting! The main actors in this drama, despite some of the over-the-top quirkiness (mostly reserved for Lee Min Ki, a man who has made over-the-top quirkiness an art form all its own, even in photos, and yet still manages to also be a killer actor in serious moments when he needs to be), have some really special moments of greatness. Especially, again, Ye Ji Won, but definitely also Ryu Seung Soo and Lee Min Ki and even in a couple rare instances Lee Eun Song, when she was allowed to break her intentionally robotic character.
11. The soundtrack was fantastic. I think that a soundtrack can do 3 things in a drama: it can just sit there and do nothing to add or detract to the drama to the point where you can’t even remember if there was music; it can be overbearing and annoying or totally inappropriate and ruin the mood like a poop in pool; or it can add to every moment of the drama making it that much better. And, of course, that’s what MUIA’s soundtrack did. When a moment was funny, the music added to the funny, like using the MacGyver theme song during one scene and practically making me fall out of my chair). When a moment was exciting, the music was exciting (which normally meant adding to the funny by using intentionally overly dramatic music). When a moment was melodramatic, the music perfectly fit that mood too, or in a couple of particularly perfect beats, the total lack of music was what moved me the most. They used a huge range of music (theme songs from shows, American, Korean, classical), and each to outstanding effect. Well done, music director!
12. And finally, the best thing about MUIA, PLOT….and details, details, details. I’d say my single biggest complaint about Kdramas (but clearly not a big enough one to make me stop watching since I’ve now seen 116 in less than 2 years) is how they often start off with nicely nuanced and seemingly thoughtful plots and then start dropping balls all over the place about half way through. My understanding is that this is normally due to the live shoot system that most dramas end up in towards the end of their run and because sometimes scripts are being written while shooting is going on (everything I ever needed to know about Kdramas I learned from King of Dramas, hee ;)).
However, MUIA doesn’t drop balls, threads, or any other bits. It is as tightly plotted as any Kdrama I’ve seen – actually, it might be the most tightly plotted one I’ve seen. Everything that happens has a purpose and there are neat clues and details EVERYWHERE. In fact, all the clues are what gives this such a high re-watch value because I can’t wait to go look for them again! I never felt like the show was looping around to the same old plot over and over again (see most Kdramas) or that it was dropping characters and threads like hot potatoes just to suit the main plot (see nearly every TV show ever). It never did either of these things, and even when you might think it did, it will prove you wrong – just you wait and see!
When I was looking into this drama, I saw that it had really poor ratings when it broadcast. It was on KBS2, not one of the 3 main channels, but the ratings were still really poor. And not many non-Korean Kdrama watchers have seen it either because it isn’t on Dfever or Viki. Therefore, I have officially dubbed MUIA: THE WORLD’S MOST UNDERRATED KDRAMA! I think of it as the Firefly of South Korean television, a truly great show unappreciated in its time. So, I have written this review with the hope that my fellow Mydramalist-ers will give this drama a shot and in time, like Firefly, MUIA will get at least a little of the love and appreciation it deserves!
And if all that isn’t enough – IT’S GOT LEE MIN KI IN IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!
(Please note that I added a little bit more to this on 3/8, the day after I originally posted it.)
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Not since Dalja’s Spring have I felt that characters other than the main couple received as much loving attention as they did in Miss Korea. And, Miss Korea surpasses Dalja’s Spring at that (Miss Korea now has my favorite secondary couple in the history of Kdrama). But Miss Korea has so much more going for it than the characters, even if they are the best feature. Acting, writing, directing, cinematography, costumes, soundtrack, attention to detail and research – Miss Korea excels in all of these areas. Miss Korea might be, nay, IS the first Kdrama that I can say has no flaws. I wouldn’t change a thing – not one thing – not even the ending, and, as all us Kdrama lovers know, endings are usually the pitfall of every Kdrama no matter how good it is. But Miss Korea’s last episode is as perfect as its first and all the episodes in between.
In fact, there is only one problem with Miss Korea (I know I said it has no flaws, but hear me out)…
…NOT ENOUGH PEOPLE WATCHED IT! It is a travesty that this drama has not been more viewed domestically and abroad. Sure it was going up against the juggernaut of You Who Came from the Stars (or whatever translation you want to use), and that is a good drama, a very entertaining drama, but it’s not perfect (although Jun Ji Hyun is). But in the age of Internet and DVR, that’s no excuse! I wish more people in SK had watched this drama because I want more dramas like it, many more!
I want more Kdramas that feel this organic, with real characters going about their real lives and no makjang craziness! I want a rich, full universe that feels lived in with characters I love who have simple and beautiful hopes and dreams and are capable of achieving them using their own minds and effort rather than ridiculous dues ex machina and unrealistic plot twists. I want soundtracks that rock my world and perfectly match every mood and moment of the drama. I want good actors acting great and previously bad actors going above and beyond our wildest expectations. I want empowered women who are business owners and scientists. I want heroines that blow my mind with their personal strength and honesty and courage. I want OTPs that are honest with each other and even when one tries noble idiocy the other calls b.s. and there are no misunderstandings – EVER! I want careful attention to details and good research into plot devices.
I WANT MORE DRAMAS LIKE MISS KOREA! Watch it and you will too!
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But then I saw episodes 19 and 20, and in those two episodes everything changed and became clear. The true heart of the show was revealed: FAMILY, specifically the Jang family, and what it is to be family and why we need them. The rest of the drama intimated at the theme, but never made it clear enough or important enough for me to care. The drama was billed as one about infidelity and I was viewing it through that lens. But the drama did itself no service being billed that way. By the end I remembered (and realized) that the main character was Jang Hee Tae (with the 2nd most important character possibly being Kim Joon) and not Il Ri. So hating her character wasn’t relevant – she was just a means to an end, someone to keep the plot going. I didn’t have to like her, to love what this drama did right.
And what it did right, it did beautifully. I should not be surprised by the quality of anything the cable channels do anymore because they really are where the best and most cutting edge Kdramas are broadcast. The networks are frequently all flash and no substance. But TvN and jTBC in particular bring us such wonderful and fresh dramas – often challenging too. Valid Love was challenging. If you think infidelity is inexcusable when you start watching this drama, it probably won’t change your mind. But if you can be open-minded, you will get so much more out of it.
The acting is absolutely superb – from top to bottom. The characters feel so real and flawed and the world feels gritty and lived in. It is a lovely slice of life drama. The directing and cinematography is absolutely fantastic and adds so much to the story that even when Il Ri was driving me nuts, I could have watched it with the sound off and been happy. But then I would have missed the soundtrack, which was perfect because it always set the mood but was so subtle you often missed it. Instead of over-bearing ballads or screeching pop music, they just used ambient background music to convey the mood and add to the rich, languid scenes.
I wasn’t going to give this drama a score as high as 8. I hated the Il Ri character most of the drama (although she did seem to grow a little at the end), and there were long stretches of the drama that just annoyed the crap out of me, or even bored me. But the ending is so good. The acting is so fantastic and the directing is just gorgeous that qualitatively I had to give this drama an 8. I give it an 8 in spite of an awful female lead character (not a knock on Lee Si Young, who was good and whom I like quite a lot) and some writing between the early episodes and end that really started to meander and make me go WTF. So many Kdramas start good and then end badly – most of them really. Valid Love did the opposite. It started meh. It got pretty crappy in the middle, and then it soared at the end. The writer, despite the WTF moments, clearly knew what she was doing.
I came for Lee Soo Hyuk (heh). I stayed for Lee Soo Huk. I took away so very much more.
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1. Romance: It has one of the best OTPs of all time, in terms of chemistry, character, story, hotness, AND did I say CHEMISTRY? I think Healer set some kind of record for skinship and hot kisses for a major network Kdrama.
2. Action: Sure not all Kdramas have action scenes - but really good ones do! And they are a common feature of Kdramas. And when they are done well, they add so much excitement and fun to the show. Healer has really good fight scenes.
3. Acting: I would put Korean actors up against Hollywood ones any day and this cast was fantastic from top to bottom.
4. Kdrama Trope Soup - Healer has it all: mysterious vigilante hero, childhood traumas, powerful evil organizations, birth secrets, conspiracies, corruption, twisty plans, murders, orphans, weirdly specific illnesses/psychological issues that act as plot devices, quirky co-workers, and an OTP that was destined to be since childhood. (I'm sure I've missed a bunch.)
5. Hotness: A beautiful lead actress and a smoking hot leading man.
6. Directing: Lots of Kdramas have subpar directing, but I've noticed that on average their directing is much better than most other foreign fare. Healer had very good directing!
So when I say that Healer is not the best Korean show I've ever seen but it is the best Kdrama I've seen, that's exactly what I mean. Healer takes all of the things that make a Kdrama a Kdrama and then puts them together better than anyone else. It does this without any of the failings that so many less stellar Kdramas have:
1. plots that start good and then become redundant to fill time or unravel towards the end,
2. noble idiocy / characters that don't tell each other the truth when that would solve all their problems just to keep the plot moving,
3. poorly thought out plots where the writer puts herself in a corner and cannot get out without the writing going to crap,
4. poor OTP chemistry,
5. annoying characters that make you want to strangle them (especially when they are the female lead),
6. mediocre acting,
7. sketchy directing, and
8. crappy endings (by that I mean endings that don't actually end anything!!!!!!!!!)
The best thing about Healer is the OTP and their to-die-for, smoking hot chemistry (and the fact that they are genuinely awesome characters both together AND on their own). But the second best (and rarer) thing that makes Healer so special is that the writer really thought it out from beginning to end. There are hints and clues all over and nothing is wasted (no guns are left unfired, for all you Chekhov fans). The writer is not lazy or gratuitous or wasteful or redundant. Everything that is there is needed. I am, of course, not the least bit surprised since she wrote one of the best Kdramas of all time, Story of a Man, and one that I have not seen that is also considered one of the best of all time, Sandglass. (She's written some crap too, but I think her good outweighs her bad.) So, props to the awesome Song Ji Na!
The only reason I gave it a 9.5 and not a 10 is that the ending, while satisfactory was a bit rushed. And I felt just a twinge betrayed since the writer had paced it out so well for 19 episodes and then got a bit rushy at the end. However, if I could give it a 9.8 I would.
Anyhow, I normally only write reviews of less popular dramas, and I know that Healer has a huge online following so it is definitely not in that category. But I still had to get my two cents in because it's just that great! And if you haven't seen it, and you still need convincing: didn't I mention the historic levels of skinship and hot kisses?!
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Aside from the plot being quite well put together, the last episode was extremely good by Kdrama standards (and if you watch a lot of Kdramas you know what I mean about their endings often being a trainwreck). And this also belies the plot being well-thought out.
I also liked the actors. I didn't see great chemistry between the leads but it was enough to find them a cute couple and individually I liked their characters a lot. In particular I liked (and was surprised by) a decision made by the female lead near the end that I really didn't expect, and how that decision bolstered the theme of the entire show. The theme and "lesson" of the show regarding the nature of marriage/romantic relationships. I'm not going to say what the theme was, but suffice it to say it was strung together throughout the whole drama in a nice way and they never deviated from it, which is why the plot feels so cohesive.
All in all, this was never "must watch" for me, but on the other hand, I really appreciate that it did some things right regarding theme and plot that so many dramas fail to do.
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This review may contain spoilersI had to sleep on this one before writing this review (as I'm sure anyone who's seen this has). I'll come right out and say that I don't love this drama. It's not a genre I particularly care for. It's not especially exciting. It's not very pretty to look at except of course for the 4 leads themselves, who are blindingly beautiful. Watching it made me feel kind of squicky and dirty. And by the end I don't care so much about the characters except in a "Hey, look at that horrible train wreck. I wonder how mangled the bodies are" kinda way.
BUT, and it's a BIG BUT, this was one of the most unique, compelling and batcrap crazy Kdrama joyrides I've ever been on, and I can't recommend it enough to those who aren't afraid to feel dirty, take a walk on the darkside, and see something they've never seen before in a Kdrama. Because this drama turns everything you know about Kdramas on its head and it did so 9 years ago, which makes me wonder why hasn't anyone else done it since? *(More on that at the bottom.)
Some of the common Kdrama tropes that get turned on their heads are the Cinderella story, the Candy/Mary Sue female lead, the spoiled chaebol son, and most notably the OTP concept.
Without trying to spoil anything, I will just say that even to the end I never really knew who loved whom, and how much and whether any of it was love at all. The truth behind all the lovelines in this drama was so well hidden behind the directing, the very good writing, and the fantastic acting, that even at the end the lovelines were still a confusing mess. And I loved that about this drama because it was so much more realistic. Contrary to Kdramaland, in real life, people can be conflicted about whom they truly love. A person really can love two people at the same time and love is icky and messy. That this drama embraced this fact was so refreshing.
In fact, not only was the romance totally unpredictable but the show itself was, which is why I say it is so compelling. Even someone like me who usually needs either action or humor to keep watching a drama, absolutely could not take my eyes off of this train wreck. This show is ultimate drama-crack, and I owe all of that to the writing and the acting. How many times have you watched a drama only to be pretty sure by about episode 4 how everything is going to play out? Well, not with WHIB. I had some guesses, but they were really just wild guesses and I wasn't confident about any of them. It was that uncertainty that kept me glued to the computer all day yesterday to marathon the last half of this drama.
WHIB is best known, probably, for its ending, so if you want to watch this drama, whatever you do, don't spoil yourself. It was hard for me not to because I am a bit of a spoiler addict, but I avoided it and was the happier for it. Some people, I've read, hate the ending, and some people love it. I LOVE IT! The more I thought about it the more I realized that it was not only totally earned, it was also perfectly fitting. It made sense in every possible way, and that is a rare bird for Kdramas because if there is one major complaint I have about most Kdramas it's that the endings are usually dissatisfying at best and just plain crappy at worst.
Finally, I'll just say that if you do decide to watch this drama, be prepared for a wild and sick ride. Starting WHIB is like going down the rabbit hole. As I said before, this drama made me feel dirty. But it also was exhilarating, with each episode heaping tension upon tension and crazy upon crazy until I couldn't tell which way was up or right from wrong. There is no black and white here, only many shades of dirty gray. If you choose to watch WHIB, enter at your own risk, but I don't think you'll be disappointed.
*(In truth, I think that the abomination that was Fashion King was trying to achieve something like WHIB, but failed miserably on every level but shock value. I chock it up to terrible writing, awful characterization, and mostly to not having a clear idea of what kind of drama they really wanted to make. One of the best things about WHIB that I neglected to mention earlier is how unapologetic it is about being purely character driven. Every event occurs just to put the characters where they need to be, making the choices they need to make, in order to up the tension and tangle the lovelines a little bit more. Normally this kind of artificial maneuvering is a flaw, but because WHIB has no doubt about what kind of drama it is, it works. Characters and the decisions they make are all that matter in this drama. Everything else is irrelevant.)
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But just as I started it for LJK and stayed for LJK, LJK (with some help from Lee Soo Hyuk and even, gasp, Changmin) saved this one for me. If at any point LJK and LSH, and most of the other actors too, hadn't sold this to the hilt, it could have been the utterly crappy hot mess that Night Watchman was. But somehow their commitment to the roles, even when they got stupid, saved this drama.
But what also saved it was the last 4 episodes. The quality of those episodes clearly showed the writer DID have a plan. The writer just had trouble filling in the bits between A and B. The first 2 episodes were wonderful. The last 4 episodes were also very good. I could probably find 4 episodes in the middle that were not totally terrible. So if this drama had been 10 episodes it actually would have been pretty awesome. As it is, it's only okay, but brought to the level of better than okay because of the acting. If you love Lee Jun Ki as much as I do, you will still find something to love in this drama despite its MANY flaws.
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The acting in this drama is stellar across the board. I mean really, really amazing. I already new Kim Kang Woo was one of the best actors in Korea. (Ever seen The Railroad, no? Well then go find it, now!) But he takes it to another level in this playing the antagonist Chae Do Woo. This is such a unique and intricate character, not at all your cookie-cutter bad guy (for a perfect example of a cookie-cutter, 1-dimentional bad guy, see Jo Gwan Woong in currently airing Gu Family Book). For a drama to be truly great, the bad guy has to be as interesting as the good guy. This bad guy is way more interesting than the good guy. He is definitely right there with Lee Jin Pyo (City Hunter) as one of the most interesting bad guys ever. And over time you almost start to want to feel for him, almost.
I could go on all day about KKW, but the rest of the cast is just as good. From Park Ki Woong's autistic Mazinger Hunter (props to him because playing that roll had to be exhausting with all of his twitches and odd eye movements) to Jang Hang Sun, who absolutely kills it as Do Woo and Eun Soo's father -- everyone is great.
But I have to really express my love and sadness over Park Yong Ha's performance. I had never seen him act before this and never heard any of his music either, but I was just blown away with his acting and wanted to see more. So it was with a very heavy heart that I found out he had killed himself not all that long after this drama aired. I cried when I found this out because he was so talented and it was such a great loss to the world. But at least there is this amazing performance to remember him by.
The acting may be my favorite thing about this drama but even the best acting can be ruined by bad directing. The PD, Yoon Sung Sik also directed Gaksital and I'm not sure what else, but I'll be watching whatever he does from now on because the directing here is excellent. A great director doesn't get in the way of the story and the acting and let's the drama unfold organically, and in some cases should present us with some really beautiful cinematography, and that is what PD Yoon did. This drama has some truly beautiful shots and no glaring directorial errors or jarring transitions. One scene I particularly enjoy (without giving anything away) is when Seo Kyung Ah and Chairman Chae are entering a long dark hallway to go see some of his business associates. The way that brief scene is lit and directed is just soooooo cool!
Finally, what good is great acting and directing without a decent story to tell and witty dialogue? This drama has all that and a bag of dried squid. The story is so complex and compelling. I found myself always on the edge of my seat wondering when the next shoe would drop. This isn't just a revenge drama. It's a revenge drama that becomes a redemption story and is laced with philosophical themes that keep you thinking long after it's over.
As for the music, I don't pay much attention to OSTs so if the music doesn't annoy me and they know how to use silence properly, then I score the music high. I hate it when there is music playing (and loudly) at inappropriate times, and Story of a Man does a good job of tempering the soundtrack so it is not distracting.
I gave this an 8 rewatch value only because there are a lot of twists and surprises that won't be as fun the second time around. That said, there are also a lot of really neat details that I think one would only see on a second viewing so it would be worth it. This drama is intricate and pays so much attention to detail. The details are something that really set it apart from most dramas.
In conclusion, watch this drama, NOW! It is just so perfect. And it probably would be a good drama for a newbie who's used to American tv too because of the high quality production and acting.
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But the awful writing and the equally awful addition of one of the worst villains ever, Yeon Nam Saeng (No Min Woo), aside, I still couldn't go any lower than 8 because this drama was just that beautiful to look at, and because I owe it to the main cast who were stellar (Uhm Tae Woong, Kim Ok Bin, Choi Min Soo and Kim Young Cheol).
I've really never had such mixed emotions about a drama. Sword & Flower is just that gorgeous and well-acted. The directing always stayed strong even when the writing went to hell. The main actors acted the hell out of that terrible script when I'm sure even they knew it was garbage. This drama is just nuts.
So, I guess all I can say is that if you are a visual person like me and you love beautiful and unique (avant garde) directing and cinematography, and are impressed by directing that pushes the boundaries and tells a story more visually than through dialog, then give Sword & Flower a try. You will at least be pleased enough through the visual elements that you will be able to (mostly) overlook the plot. And if you are impressed by good acting, especially with minimal dialog where most of it has to be done through facial expressions, you should also enjoy the main performances. (Just ignore No Min Woo and Park Soo Jin with all your might.) Or, better yet, just watch it without subtitles (after ep 8) then you won't know how bad the writing is. But don't turn down the sound, because the soundtrack is great and better yet is the use of silence.
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This review may contain spoilersI remember telling my husband after I watched the very first episode of this drama that if there were a Kdrama I could get him to like, it would be this one. It felt that different and that well done. The directing, the acting, the music - all of it feels cohesive and unlike your usual Kdrama fare (which I love mind you, but it's refreshing to see something new). Well, not that new to American audiences, since this drama is the epitome of Noir. It is an homage to Noir right down to its smallest molecule.
Over at The Vault (http://vaultofdoom.wordpress.com/) there are several brilliant reviews of Cruel City including some very insightful information about the Noir genre, and he describes Noir and praises Cruel City much better than I ever could so I won't even try to approach his level of sophistication or detail here. However, I just wanted to post a review so more MDL'ers will give this show a go.
I'll start with the acting, which is what I loved the most. Bad acting will turn me off a drama very quickly, but great acting will just as quickly suck me in for the long run. Nam Gyu Ri (Soo Min) and Lee Jae Yoon (Hyung Min) are the weak links but they are serviceable. Jung Ji Soon (Chairman Jo) and Son Chang Min (Min Hong Ki) were really great. And, Kim Yoo Mi (as Jin Sook), Choi Moo Sung (Safari), and, of course, Jung Kyung Ho (Doctor's Son) are BRILLIANT! Past brilliant! Their performances were transcendental and I will be measuring so many future acting performances against them. Jung Kyung Ho was quite good in Time Between Dog and Wolf, but in this he is better than nearly any Kdrama actor I've ever seen. Even if you don't like Noir, come from Jung Kyung Ho and stay for Jung Kyung Ho, and you won't be disappointed.
Next the directing and cinematography. I couldn't see any flaws here. The drama stayed true to its grittiness from beginning to end. It has that kind of dark cool look to it that reminded me of Vampire Prosecutor, with the muted colors (except blood). The fight scenes were excellent and early on there is a fight scene homage to Old Boy that was just so very sweet!
The writing is quite good, although gets just a little sloppy and repeat-y towards the end, but less so than most dramas. What it does best is keep the romance to the sidelines to focus on the meat of the story, never falling into that Kdrama trap of pandering to the female audience. It never loses sight of it's Noir roots and for that I really applaud JTBC and the writer. They had a vision and they let no amount of audience pressure force them to romance it up or tone down the Noir. I have found that to be why cable channels in Korea often have the best shows, since they don't bow to the ratings god and maintain more integrity and uniqueness.
Finally, I'll cover the music, which is something I don't tend to get too excited about one way or another with dramas since it's just not really my thing. I am all about acting and directing. However, the music in Cruel City is really something to be praised. I noticed right away how the music was always the right volume and the right kind for the moment. They knew when to cut it out and what kind to use to ALWAYS add and never detract from the action. It was bloody brilliant. One of the best Kdrama soundtracks I've ever heard.
Overall, this is a drama not to be missed. It's unique. It has integrity. It is exciting and fast-paced. And the acting is stellar. I will be thinking about this drama for a long time, and using it as a measuring stick against which I will judge many other dramas that aspire to do the same. For example, Shark ended the same time and I watched the finale of Shark the same day I watched Cruel City's. They were both very dark melodramatic dramas. Shark had a bigger budget and a more star-studded cast and a writing team with a very good reputation. At the end of Shark I said "meh" and went about my day. I just really couldn't be made to care at that point because I the writers and actors never really made me care throughout the whole drama. At the end of Cruel City, well..............I can't really say because it might be considered a spoiler, but let's just say I really, REALLY cared about what happened to those characters, as if they were real people. A day later and I am experiencing Kdrama hangover from Cruel City and I know that means it was great.
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So, why do I love this drama and more importantly love it enough to review it, which I don't do that often?
Reasons 1, 2 and 3 FRESH PLOT / GREAT WRITING! Based on the original synopsis for this drama which was vague and sounded like a bit of mismash, this should have been a total trainwreck at worst and average at best. But this is one of the most original and well thought out dramas I've ever seen (and at this time I've watched 191 Kdramas to completion). This writer knew from the start exactly how every little detail would play out and NEVER deviated from it. It is so obvious in the small touches that are added throughout the show that if you blink you might miss. It all builds to something and every detail has a purpose.
So often dramas start out with this kind of attention to detail just to start dropping balls all over the place in the second half, but not IRY. And this fact is made extra surprising and noteworthy because of the live shoot system that I know had them filming part of final episode the day of its airing and because this show had such low ratings. Too often with low rated shows in SK, the plot goes haywire as they make changes to try and get viewership back. This NEVER works, btw and the results are always TERRIBLE! But IRY was too cohesive, too well thought out. It just felt like such a nice whole beginning to end. The pace NEVER flagged. They never did the around the wheel mess so many dramas do to stretch it out (actually, I think this drama would not have been hurt by one more episode).
And then as if the plot itself didn't make it enjoyable enough, the writer throws in these deep philosophical themes that you have to peel back like an onion because you think you know what the theme is until the very last episode actually reveals the most important theme (and message) to be something else, which you then realize was hinted at all along if you weren't so caught up in all the other greatness.
Finally, I love how unpredictable the plot was. Just when you thought it would go one way it went another. It was seemingly predictable but then you realize that was a feint. There were big reveals to be had that really weren't and you could think the writer messed it up, but then you realize that was never the point and the writer was totally above the big reveal gimmick that so many dramas stake their plot on. So great not falling into that trope trap.
Reason 4 this drama is so great: CHARACTERS! So I guess that is actually 3b since really this is also great writing. Cha Ji An is one of the best female Kdrama characters of all time. Seriously. And by far the best female cop character ever. She is real; she is good, but not a supergenius. She is capable, but not unbelievably so, rather realistically so. She is honest with her feelings and her thoughts. She is emotional when it is appropriate but can rein it in when she needs to be logical. She makes decisions and behaves like a real human being. I never found myself yelling at her for being an overemotional idiot or a noble idiot or any other kind of idiot. I love her! I love her sooooo much!
My love for Ji An, though, doesn't mean I also didn't love our male lead because oh boy did I! It's just great male leads are a lot more common in Kdramas where great female leads are like emeralds in Minecraft. Everything I said about Ji An in a way also applies to Hyun. Even though we get the set up of Hyun being a geeeeeeeenius, he still feels very real. He is honest when he should be even though he does hide things from other characters, I always felt like there were good reasons (or at least good within the context of the character). His character was always true to himself, even when he was conflicted as heck and well should have been.
And all the other characters are wonderful too, especially Min!
#5: ACTING! I never thought much of Jang Nara before this drama. I thought was was a cute, perfectly serviceable although not even remotely interesting or charismatic actress. But, you know what, she freaking kills it in this! I guess that is what great writing will do for you! I have been a Seo In Guk fan since Reply and he certainly did not let me down here. He is his always awesome self! Park Bo Geom was incredible. He embodied his very difficult character perfectly. There wasn't a weak link in the bunch.
#6: THE ROMANCE. Or, more to the point, the lack thereof - sort of. And if you are confused, let me explain. Kdramas are all about the romance - right? Usually anyhow. It's what they do so well that keeps the ahjummas swooning and tuning in. But the problem with all of that focus on romance in Kdramas is that it usually becomes a caricature of itself. Case in point, the currently airing Scholar Who Walks the Night where they pushed the romance so hard and fast that it sucked all the life and logic out of it. Romance in Kdramas is fun, but it also is often ridiculous. The OTP will just die if they are not together. Everything in their lives becomes about their true love to the sacrifice of logic and story. Then you throw in forceful male leads that grab and pull their lady loves around and it all gets a bit ridiculous.
IRY does romance in a realistic way that never feels forced and where the leads never let romance get in the way of logic or the other aspects of their lives and jobs (thus the writer doesn't let it get in the way of plot). And best of all, they are always considerate of each others' space - physically and emotionally. And that makes it swoon-worthy to me. Screw wrist grabs and forced kisses, I'll take Lee Hyun and Cha Ji An!
#7 Soundtrack: I don't normally mention the soundtrack to a drama, but I really liked how this one set the mood and was never overbearing. The instrumentals were just right, especially the Erik Satie-like piece that was played during dark scenes. (Or maybe it was Erik Satie - I haven't checked yet.)
Well, that's it. This is a great drama and the most underrated of 2015.
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The music and cinematography are also excellent.
And since I need to fill 500 characters, let's just say that Lee Ji Eun is fabulous. I knew she had it in her because I saw Producers. But her performance in this is magical: one of the best, if not THE best, lead actress performances I've seen.
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This review may contain spoilersI don't have time to go into details, but also I cannot give spoilers anyhow. I can give this drama the best endorsement I am capable of as a person who has seen A LOT of Kdramas:
I have completed 244 dramas (nearly all Korean, a couple Chinese). I had but 1 that I rated a 10 - Signal....until I finished this one. I now have two dramas ranked 10. Yes, it's that good. There are no flaws. This drama is as good as Kdramas get: writing, directing, acting are all superb. There is never a facepalm moment. The lead male is perfection. The lead female is also, for a rare change, perfection! A truly competent and not in the least annoying female lead in a Kdrama, what a rare thing indeed! I had high expectations for this drama given the lead actors. I was not disappointed!
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