A Year in Review: 2014’s Ups and Downs

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Happy new year! And here it is – finally my year end review. There were a lot of ups and downs for me this year, as I feel I watched some good formulaic dramas, some dramas gone horribly wrong, and very little good dramas. But it still made for an interesting year, and it’s hard to believe that a lot of these dramas just aired in 2014!

My Love From Another Star

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What a great drama; it really was an unexpected hit for me. I didn’t know what to expect because the title suggested a very melodramatic drama, but the first few episodes were quite a comedy. My Love From Another Star really succeeded in balancing so many genres – romantic comedy, melodrama, mystery, and dark thriller – all at once. It’s emotional and heart-wrenching, and also laugh out loud funny. I really loved the chemistry in the entire cast, but most especially Kim Soo Hyun and Jeon Ji Hyun, who believably built up their romance bit by bit so you were never surprised by where their love for each other came from. I loved watching Shin Sung Rok here as the antagonist, and it’s amazing how he’s been superb in all of his roles this year (including Liar Game and The King’s Face). This drama was a definite hit for me because it hit all the right notes of what a good Korean drama is: it sucks you in with its story and its characters, and will never let you go for as long as you live. If anyone is starting out with Korean dramas nowadays, besides the classic dramas of early 2000s I will now recommend this one. It’s so easy to get sucked into this drama, and it’s worth the 21 hours of your life.

The Prime Minister and I

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One of the formulaic dramas out there for this year – not outstanding, but not too terrible. I expected a lot more from this drama considering all the possible tensions and issues that could occur between Da Jung (Yoona) and Kwon Yool (Lee Beom Soo). The only “drama” that occurs is when the supposedly-dead wife reappears and “threatens” Da Jung’s position in a household she took herself out of. The two antagonists – played by Ryu Jin and Yoon Si Yoon – were relatively harmless because their only agenda against Kwon Yool was rooted in their connection to Kwon Yool’s wife, and the resentment they held towards Kwon Yool felt unfair because Kwon Yool was never really flawed to begin with. I never believed that their machinations against him would ever succeed because Kwon Yool always found himself getting out of the situation.

If this drama is about finding a family outside of your own family, well, other dramas have done it better. Or if it was about a forced living situation then this drama made the situation really contrived. While Lee Beom Soo and Yoona (shockingly enough) were decent in acting, I think their characters were boring, and none of the other actors really tried to make their own characters stand out. One has to blame the writing for this one.

Read the full review here

Miss Korea

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This is such an interesting drama. It is a simple underdog story where the unlikeliest group of people are trying to sell a product that has currently taken the world by storm (BB Cream), and an elevator girl with barely a future or a dream strives to become the next Miss Korea. There are a lot of strong female protagonists to look up to in this drama: Ji Young (Lee Yeon Hee) is one of the most realistic women I have met in K-dramas in that she has enough patience and knows when to bite down her tongue, but also knows when to stand up for herself. Hwa Jung (Song Sun Mi) is your typical smart woman who can be a bit abrasive, but she is very much a gentle person behind the tougher exterior. (Perhaps it comes with being around guys so much.) Director Ma Ae Ri (the awesome Lee Mi Sook) is a cutthroat businesswoman who isn’t completely an antagonist because she acknowledges the good in the competition; she has so much respect for the business that she doesn’t take things personally. Kim Jae Hee (Go Seung Hee) is a great adversary in that while she is a huge threat to Ji Young’s chances for success, she’s not someone who’s going to resort to trickery to take it away.

There’s so much glorification of the female body in this drama, and Miss Korea faces it head on and gives us a team (ViVi cosmetics) that respects the female body to root for. ViVi represents grit and hard work, and just wanting to stay clean in a dirty business world, and I like that I had a team to root for through everything. They may make mistakes and have flaws, but they own up to them and fix them without trying to hurt other people in the process.

What I really liked about this drama was how it was a character-driven drama and everyone had chemistry with each other. There seemed to be good, real bonds behind the scenes, and it made the couplings really cute. Ji Young and Hyung Joon (Lee Seon Kyun) were great, but Hwa Jung and Teacher Jung (Lee Sung Min) were more fun to watch and had me giggling at all the right moments. Even though I watched this drama over the course of the year, dropping it and then picking it up again, I never felt lost in the story because I was so connected to the characters. The plot didn’t matter as much to me because I knew I could pick up the thread easily. It was just seeing where the characters were going and what decisions they were going to make that kept me going.

This drama never failed to put a smile on my face in each episode.

I Need Romance 3

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Oh Kim So Yeon. Oh Sung Joon. If you want a noona-romance drama then this is the one to go with. Or just a drama with a huge age gap between the actors if you’re into that kind of thing. Much like its predecessors, I Need Romance 3 was fun and glamorous, but it also had its differences, giving the franchise a bit of a reboot. Instead of focusing on friendships and ex-lovers-still-by-your-side, this drama focused more on independent career women learning more about themselves. It emphasized the importance of knowing what they want first before they can completely fall in love with someone.

I liked that this drama gave the main female lead, Joo Yeon, two men whom she’s never dated before but are completely different. It kind of opened up the options because now Joo Yeon could go either way, and added a little bit of unpredictability until the end. In previous seasons it was pretty obvious that the female lead would end up with her ex-lover despite how perfect the second male lead guy is. In this drama, it was arguable who exactly was the perfect guy: Sung Joon or Nam Goong Min. It only clears up later in the series, and by then you kind of hope that she ends up with the right guy for her. I really appreciated this drama because it felt more relatable to me. I could connect to these ladies who are trying to learn more about themselves and their wants while trying to find love. It’s a story for the modern, twenty-something to thirty-something woman who want more than just a man in their life.

Big thumbs up here!

Read all the recaps here.

Three Days

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When an action drama puts me to sleep while I watch it, something’s wrong. I watched it with the expectation that it’d be fast paced and exciting, but it ended up being boring and tedious for me. For a sixteen-episode drama, it spanned over the course of three sets of three days: the first chunk is spent looking for a missing president; the second chunk reveals the scandal the president was involved in years ago; the third chunk involving a showdown between the president and his greatest adversary. I found myself checking out of this drama quite often because it was pretty predictable in how it was going to turn out. Yoochun did not particularly hold my attention in this show, which made it more difficult for me since I couldn’t connect to him. Park Ha Sun was not as interesting as she was in Two Weeks, and So Yi Hyun was pretty forgettable. I give a lot of credit to Choi Won Young instead, who had been such a loving and understanding father in Heirs and then became such a ruthless, cold-blooded businessman in Three Days. Watching a bad guy be completely bad is totally fun, even if he wasn’t as crazy as Yoon Je Moon in King 2 Hearts.

In any case, this was such a disappointing drama.

God’s Gift – 14 Days

Now this was a good action drama. The plot just got too convoluted with twists and turns, and it felt like the writer added them for the sake of having twists and turns. I really enjoyed this drama as I watched it, but when I had to think about what was going on, I ended up far more confused than I initially was. It was an ambitious plot that was very difficult to pull off smoothly, and I think it hurt the drama because it left the series with a few plot holes and many unanswered questions. But despite the unsatisfying results, I think the acting was great and Jo Seung Woo was such a star in this show. His relationship with Kim Yoo Bin, who played the missing daughter, was so amazing; I’m really a sucker for father-daughter relationships, even though he wasn’t really her father. If anything, I think Jo Seung Woo’s the main reason to watch this drama, and to see Lee Bo Young work wonders as a desperate mother who’ll do anything to get her daughter back.

Just don’t think too hard about what’s going on.

Read the full review here.

Triangle

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This is just a big pile of nope nope nope. Don’t care about JaejoongLee Beom Soo was wasted. Im Shi Wan was such a brat. Oh Yeon Soo barely did a thing in this drama. And Baek Jin Hee only taught me how to play baccarat. I don’t enjoy dramas that make things so easy for our protagonists. When Jaejoong has an obstacle in his way to success, he calls up some random person we’ll meet for one episode and BAM – problem solved. Because this formula repeated itself several times I never felt any tension in the conflict because I knew it’d get resolved. So many conflicts and plot points would get thrown at the viewers only to have such an unsatisfying pay-off.

The most hilarious part for me was when the show got extended and some of the main actors practically disappeared because they were just not available for shooting additional scenes. Im Shi Wan and Oh Yeon Soo, I’m looking at you.

Joseon Gunman

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A remarkably solid historical drama. I love myself some Lee Jun Ki, and he was so wonderful in this show. He’s one of those actors that can clearly display the emotion of his character through his eyes and subtle facial changes, and playing a man who completely reinvents himself for revenge is the perfect role for his skills. It had a very strong start in developing the relationships between him and Nam Sang Mi, and in coloring in the lives of our antagonist Choi Won Shin (Yoo Oh Sung) and his daughter Hye Won (Jeon Hye Bin). (Another great father-daughter relationship there.) I think the drama really helped build up the tension between Won Shin and Yoon Kang (Lee Jun Ki) to the point that when it exploded at episode 14, it was a complete relief. My heart stopped pounding and I could rest easy instead of being anxious for the next episode.

The one partial fault I think this drama had was going too deep into history and spending the last eight episodes or so grounding the drama in history. I didn’t think it was necessary to tie Yoon Kang to greater events recorded in history, like the Gapsin Coup. It simply overloaded the drama with too many historical facts and added an arbitrary obstacle to the romance. We could have simplified Yoon Kang’s story as a man who seeks revenge in late 19th-century Joseon, instead of making him an instigator to one of the big changes in Korean history.

But all in all, the remarkable acting and the beautiful visuals really made this drama worth it and fun to watch every week.

Read the recaps here.

It’s Okay That’s Love

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I. Love. This. Drama.

It had a mix of wonderful directing and cinematography, superb actors, and an actually good drama written by Noh Hee Kyung, who’s a bit of a hit or miss for me. (Padam Padam = yay! That Winter = boo!) I was so pleasantly surprised at the way this drama unfolded, which rooted itself in real emotions whether or not the psychology was correct. It’s quite obvious that because of the success of It’s Okay That’s Love we now have an influx of dramas about mental disorders coming in 2015.

It’s a relatively simple drama about a man who’s got issues (Jo In Sung) and a woman who’s also got issues but will fix him up (Gong Hyo Jin). What romantic drama doesn’t have these kinds of protagonists? But what’s great is the supporting cast that surrounds them (major props to Sung Dong Il and Lee Kwang Soo) and helps lighten or darken the mood in the scene. It’s really an ensemble piece because everyone plays a pivotal part to each other’s personal growth, and everyone adds to the mood of the scene. I truly enjoyed Gong Hyo Jin here, probably the first time I’ve enjoyed her in anything since Thank You. Her chemistry with Jo In Sung because there was something so real about it; I see couples do what they do all the time. It’s just great, and really made this drama unique compared to other romantic comedies. I also appreciated that this drama faced mental disorders head on, something that is pretty taboo in most Asian countries to talk about. If this drama has helped promote frank discussion about mental disorders, then I think it has succeeded.

It left a really nice after taste, so this was such a wonderful drama to escape to while I was watching terrible ones like Triangle and The Night Watchman’s Journal.

The Night Watchman’s Journal

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Have you ever felt like you got a synopsis to a drama, and then that’s not what happens in the drama at all? That’s what The Night Watchman’s Journal was for me. I was under the impression that there was a group of night watchmen who caught ghosts every night, and that it would be an episodic case-by-case kind of show. That’s not what it turned out to be.

Jung Il Woo plays Lee Rin, a spoiled prince who ends up not being the king because his younger brother ruined his reputation and ousted him from the line of succession. He takes quite a while before he actually becomes part of the Night Watchmen, and from there he starts catching ghosts that lead him to one adversary: Sadam (Kim Sung Oh). I thought he was going to catch a whole bunch of ghosts in every episode! Instead, he’s just finding ways to prove that Sadam is the big bad to the crazy king. I never quite knew what was going on in the show, and I really hated the female characters here. Soo Ryun (Seo Ye Ji), who loves Lee Rin with all her heart even though he’s told her he’s not interested, became a complete annoyance because she acted like her title means she can get everything she wants. Do Ha (Go Seung Hee) was so useless. What a disappointment after seeing her in Miss Korea.

It’s a laughable show where I have no idea what is going on.

Read the full review here.

Blade Man

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This was another weird show where I felt like I didn’t know what was going on. It made no sense for a while because we didn’t fully understand Lee Dong Wook’s powers and how he becomes a Wolverine-Bowser every time he got angry. And I don’t think the reasoning ever was fully clarified even though Lee Dong Wook’s character Hong Bin learned how to control his powers. Crazy plot aside, it was kind of entertaining to watch not-so-great actors give their all in this drama. Lee Dong Wook wasn’t spectacular, and Shin Se Kyung was actually tolerable. Together, they made an okay pair, and I think that was the point of the series. It’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ without the Stockholm Syndrome.

My Secret Hotel

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With echoes of I Need Romance and Harvest Villa, this was an incredibly fun dark comedy. It had the elements that I loved from a tvN drama – awesome soundtrack, petty rivalries, and a good balance of genres (murder mystery and romantic comedy). Yoo In Na and Jin Yi Han were great in this drama, along with the hilarious Lee Young Eun. However Nam Goong Min was a bit disappointing because he kind of repeated his character from I Need Romance 3, so that was a little boring. I liked watching the romance unfold alongside the murder mystery, but I did not enjoy how the leads finally got together. I thought the drama wouldn’t rely so much on unnecessary misunderstandings to drive the leads apart, but it did. So many issues and conflicts could have been resolved if Hae Young (Jin Yi Han) just told Sang Hyo (Yoo In Na) the truth. It would have been so easy! But instead the drama kept stringing us along so that we’d keep guessing on who Sang Hyo would finally end up with.

A few frustrations aside, I definitely enjoyed this series for the romantic comedy that it was. It was lighthearted – despite the gruesome deaths – and just kept me giggling for more. But Sang Hyo definitely needs a few lessons from the ladies of I Need Romance on what it means to know oneself and be happy without a man in her life.

Read the recaps here.

Tomorrow’s Cantabile

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What an absolutely fluffy drama. It’s a drama that I could have acted out with all my stuffed animals if I were Nae Il. I don’t think this drama really strived to be taken seriously as it took all the elements of a comic book and turned it into real-life. Joo Won and Shim Eun Kyung were okay as the leads, but the supporting cast was more enjoyable to watch. The story was quite predictable, and sometimes it was predictable to a fault because it would skip over key emotional scenes that I think could have made the drama better towards the end of the series. I don’t think it tried to be a great drama, but it tried to be more of a zany and fun drama.

How well it stands up to the anime, manga, and live-action Japanese drama is another story, but I think this show was fun despite Shim Eun Kyung’s relatively annoying portrayal of Nae Il.

Read the full review here.

And now for something a little different…

The Time in Between

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I also spent this year watching my first Spanish drama. This is not the same as your typical telenovelas, but an actual miniseries in Spanish, from Spain. The Time in Between is based on the New York Times Bestseller “El Tiempo Entre Costuras” by Maria Dueñas. It follows one humble seamstress’s journey as a series of decisions lead her to become a very popular dressmaker for the wealthy, and a spy for the Allies in the years leading to World War II. It’s got intrigue, fashion, romance, melodrama, and historical fiction all rolled into one. It’s got a captivating female lead in Adriana Ugarte and handsome male leads in Rubén Cortada and Peter Vives. It’s got amazing locations in Morocco, Madrid, and Lisbon. And it has a lot of heart.

It definitely took a little adjusting in my brain to watch this drama after watching so many Korean dramas. This drama was so sensual and passionate, but not always because of romance or lust. There are so many characters here who just love and live passionately, and it might just be a difference between Spanish, Korean, and American cultures. But the passion does not lead to overacting, which is a relief. No one is going to dramatically faint in front of an audience just because a woman’s shoes doesn’t match with her dress. Romance is a big part of this series though, as most of the decisions by the lead, Sira, is fueled by love. But there is a good balance of intrigue as well as we see her sending coded messages to the British spies through her dress patterns, and fishing for more information from the rich Nazi wives who visit her studio.

I thought this was a great introductory drama for me to get into Spanish dramas, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to watch something different.

Read the full review here.

Coming soon: I will finish reviewing Liar’s Game (tvN) and Boarding House No. 24 as soon as I finish these series! I’ve been quite dilatory in finishing these series. As for Pride and Prejudice and The King’s Face, I hope to review them once they’re done airing.

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