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Paul C. Harper Jr. Island


Paul C. Harper Jr. Island
Prison Playbook
9 people found this review helpful

by femmedesneiges

Mar 6, 2018
16 of 16 episodes seen
Completed 11
Overall 9.0
Story 8.5
Acting/Cast 10.0
Music 8.0
Rewatch Value 10.0
A character-driven human comedy, warmly written and bolstered by stellar acting performances.

I was initially put off from watching Prison Playbook because of the screenwriter and multiple comparisons to the Reply series. I’d seen it described as slice-of-life, a genre I find deathly boring, and had almost decided it wasn’t for me. I’m glad I gave it a go, because it turned into the most positive K-drama experience I’ve had so far.

In Prison Playbook we follow Kim Je Hyeok, a famous baseballer convicted of the assault of his sister’s attempted rapist, as he navigates the absurdities of the system and deals with the complexities of relationships both inside and outside the prison walls.
The character writing for Je Hyeok is somewhat double-sided, both a strength and a weakness of the drama. On one hand, through him we obtain an optimistic and humane glimpse into prison life and its inhabitants. Kim Je Hyeok has an innate ability to draw people to his side, acting as a calming influence and getting things done quietly and quickly. We see conflicts, in part, through Je Hyeok’s eyes, and as such our judgment always leans towards sympathy and acceptance.
However, Je Hyeok is almost relentlessly likeable. His dangerously fierce temper is brushed aside and excused. The reason he ended up in prison is addressed, I felt, only in passing. The “good” characters, those on Je Hyeok’s side, are pitted against bad guys who receive little or no development. This, in my experience, is a fairly common approach for K-drama writers to take, and it’s something I wish this drama could have surpassed with a little more subtlety in character relations and personalities.

Park Hae Soo, however, graces us with such a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a Je Hyeok, a man at a crossroads in his life, that he more than makes up for my complaints about the writing. He carefully balances some precariously thin lines between the various contradictions in Je Hyeok’s personality: patience vs impulsivity, gentleness vs rage. He made Je Hyeok into the loveliest human being, which was not necessarily a given from the material in the screenplay. Also, the burden of perseverance is a key theme for Je Hyeok’s story, and Park’s performance during a pivotal scene revealing Je Hyeok’s ups and downs utterly cemented my love for the drama. You'll know it when you see it.

While the character writing falls down slightly for Kim Je Hyeok, it absolutely shines for Yoo Han Yang (who has ended up a fan favourite for a reason). Han Yang is a one-in-a-million character for K-drama: a gay drug addict, sensitively (affectionately, even) written and with a prominent storyline of his own. There are plenty of quirky supporting characters in dramaland but they tend to be one-dimensional, existing in their own little worlds where nothing affects them and they don’t really feel. Han Yang lives in the same world as the rest of the characters. He feels its kicks and blows. Feels them keenly and thinks deeply, and develops and maintains this idiosyncratic persona as a coping method. The comedy that arises from him is ingenious (thanks to the attentively written development he receives throughout). We start the drama by laughing at him, but we end up laughing at him, with him, even through him (as, in his absurd way, he voices our observations into the absurd onscreen world). Huge credit goes to Lee Kyu Hyung for his tour de force performance. Through him we get to know the endearing Han Yang, the ridiculous and hilarious Looney. He brings to life Han Yang’s mischievousness, his ambiguity and edge, his fragility and vulnerability, all the while respecting the dignity of the character.

Of course I can’t discuss Han Yang without also discussing his foil, Yoo Jung Woo (definitely no relation :P). Jung Woo is a soldier; methodical, disciplined, pretty much everything Han Yang is not. He is unable to accept Han Yang’s basic nature (on various levels), and their relationship is more of a power struggle than a mere personality clash, as Jung Woo rebuffs and rejects Han Yang’s need to monopolise attention and affection. The “bad” parts of their respective personalities are directed towards each other, and at times it makes for fascinating interpretations and reinterpretations of each character. I’ll leave it up to the reader to find out why, but the exchanges between them are amongst the highlights of the drama for me.

The cast is an ensemble one, and, while I can't mention all of them, I can confidently say there will be a character for everyone to enjoy. Episodes have discernible uniting themes, explored through diverse and engaging character backstories. (My personal favourite, in addition to the three above, was Kang Chul Doo, source of much comic relief and the centre of an unexpectedly touching episode.) Characters come and characters go, including those to whom we form the strongest attachments. It creates an atmosphere of transience within the prison walls but also leaves a sense of incompleteness. I don’t quite feel that it’s a flaw, but I did find myself less satisfied with some departures than others.

Some characters exhibit the issues I have with the Kim Je Hyeok character, and I suppose it can be a general criticism of the writing. Many characters are “too” nice, and self-reflection is superficial (if present at all). Personally I was able to overlook those issues and focus on enjoying the comedy and otherwise good character development. That said, there were a couple of characters I found distinctly disappointing. One, to an extent, was Lee Joon Ho, Je Hyeok’s eternal friend and prison guard ally. Their relationship is heart-warming, many of their scenes comedy gold. I enjoyed their co-development from the beginning. However, as the plot progressed, Joon Ho’s lack of professionalism started to grate on me and I became less willing to suspend disbelief. At times he felt less than human, and more like a tool used by the writer to sort out any sticky situations.

The other disappointment was Ji Ho, Je Hyeok’s (ex-)girlfriend. She receives none of the rich development afforded the many male characters by default. During her significant amount of screentime we see her life revolving around Je Hyeok, Je Hyeok’s baseball and very little else. She exists as a love interest, nothing more. The relationship felt contrived and I rather dreaded her scenes. By contrast, Je Hee (Je Hyeok’s sister, the only other “main” female character), has a much more varied development. We see her through her guilt, her healing process, and into her romance. She felt much more “whole”, which only increases my disappointment in Ji Ho.

In the process of writing this review I’ve been tempted to lower my rating, but ultimately I decided to leave it as is. I’m a character-focused drama watcher, and Prison Playbook has character writing of a quality different to anything I’ve seen from K-drama before. I laughed, I cried, the hour and a half episodes went by in a flash while I sat there I wishing they would last forever. So here I am, proudly adding my voice to an already crowded room.
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