Thursday, March 24, 2011

Jungle Fish


Most if not all the Korean dramas that land on foreign shores are sageuks, makjangs, or trendy dramas,  and while they're indeed quite popular, and very entertaining at that, seldom will one encounter a production that would speak of an ongoing issue or make an effort to address something that has some social relevance. Breaking away from the usual kdrama offerings is KBS2's Jungle Fish, a youth drama which came out in 2008. Winner of a Peabody Award for excellence, this drama special provides a prudent look at the issue of cheating, depicting the stiflingly competitive climate in high schools suffered by today's Korean teens.

I don't really intend to write reviews of kdramas, except maybe for the occasional blurb or rant, but seeing how this drama special's existence might have been overlooked by some or overshadowed by its more controversial sequel, I couldn't help but devote some space for it in my blog. A friend of mine would always point me in the direction of what's worth viewing and I remember her mentioning something about how this television special should be on our watch list. I haven't gotten around to watching her other recommendations,  among which include the likes of Shin Don and Sanada Taiheiki  but I did, however, manage to take this baby out for a spin.
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We are like fish in a jungle that adults created.
Jungle Fish follows the lives of four teens embroiled in a cheating incident. High school students Eun Soo (Park Bo Young), Dong Hee (Jang Ki Bum) and Mi Rae (Seo Hye Jin) find themselves in a bind after taking a midterm exam wherein the majority of the test questions were a repeat of the ones found in the test questionnaires given to them by their hagwon. Shocked and afraid of what their classmates might say, the three decide to keep their mouths shut and remain ever complicit with the apparently shady arrangement entered into by their parents and tutors. Another student, Jae Ta (Kim Soo Hyun) accidentally learns about their dilemma, but he's equally lost as to what to do in order to help them get through such an ordeal.

When news of the exam leakage begin to surface, the whole school is set in a tizzy, with teachers being called in for questioning and students being on the lookout for the culprit(s).  Tension fills the air as members of the whole student body cast a suspicious eye on each other, and the three students involved in the cheating scandal try to act like everything's normal despite being bothered by their guilty conscience.

Jae Ta wants to offer his support to Dong Hee but he doesn't know how to approach his friend without directly confronting him about cheating. Meanwhile Eun Soo wants to desperately confide in someone but her fear of disappointing her mother and being ostracized by others prevent her from coming out in the open.

Based on a cheating scandal involving a hagwon that graced the news in 2007, Jungle Fish examines the issue of cheating by inevitably drawing attention to the highly competitive yet arbitrary standards by which today's society measures someone's worth and defines personal success. The subject is handled with a certain level of delicacy, as one can see it told through the eyes of the aggrieved, which in this case are the four  cornered teens. It's not exactly a hard-hitting documentary, neither does it provide easy answers to the problem at hand, but its simple, non-judgmental approach in telling the story delivers a strong, loud message that the kids aren't all right. In effect, it goes beyond portraying the scheme as a mere question of ethics, indirectly reminding adults of their social responsibility towards the next generation.

What should a child do when something that he knows to be wrong is condoned, if not instigated, by an authority figure? Who can he run to for support when the person he should rely on the most can not be prevailed upon to listen? Who can he turn to when he's taught to treat his peers as his enemies? What is the true measure of one's worth? Without sounding sanctimonious, this one hour feature gets to effectively raise the following concerns, not through heavy dialogue or an obvious display of emotion but through the solitary moments endured by each character or the times when they appear to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, forced to abide by the rules that the adults have set. It's at these times that the viewer gets to truly understand the severity of the problem, it's at these times that one realizes how trapped and alone they are, just like jungle fish in search of the ocean.

Watching Jungle Fish, one easily gets a sense of unease---not because the characters in this special are young, insecure and awkward teenagers, but because they're in their own way crying for help, balking under pressure. The overall presentation of the special is simple yet somber, it carries with it the sad realization of the kind of environment that the youth are being raised in, as well as the cruel manner in which they're taught to survive and "get ahead" in life. In some ways it's like a stripped down, diminutive version of Shunji Iwai's All About Lily Chou Chou in terms of showing the characters' isolation and inability to make an outright personal connection, only with less visual style and musical pizazz, and of course, without the shocking display of violence.

Headlined by a young, talented cast of relative newcomers providing believable performances,  Jungle Fish is not only a welcome respite from the usual kdrama staple but also a good example of how television can be utilized to cover more serious and relevant matters. Furthermore, what's great about it is that it doesn't take too much of your time to get its point across.   


  1. Cool review zooey! ;-) Short but meaty -- which is, I gather, how Jungle Fish must feel. (Ah brevity, I wish I knew you. lol)

    This hits hard close to home (we seem to have board exam leakage scandals every few years or so, lol) but then you realize it's a serious problem everywhere, period.

    One of my frustrations with many Asian dramas that I've seen is the simplistic treatment of mores and conflicts, and the tendency of the main characters to pontificate when their big Moment comes -- thus causing the bad guys, now duly chastened, to mend their ways. @__@ So you really gotta admire these productions that raise more questions down the line, proving that many social issues are actually more complex and complicated than a simple case of who's right and who's wrong.

    By the wayyyy... so who's the boy with the long hair and the hipster glasses? Does he have a big role in the SP? =P

  2. Very nicely written, zooey! Might check this one out based on your review.
    Re: Drama specials in general
    Dramacity made a comeback to Korean TV last year, I believe, and some of them are quite good, further illustrating that sometimes it doesn't matter how much time a show is allotted to tell its story but how that time is utilized by the production team.
    One of my favorites from last year is The Scary One: The Ghost and I. Highly recommended!

  3. @ E.G.

    Thanks for the positive feedback, girl. But I must admit that the length of the review has more to do with me being too lazy to expound on the subject matter than anything else. LOL x) All I can offer in my defense is that Jungle Fish really is a short SP (at least compared to the Japanese ones that usually run anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes).

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    The issue does hit close to home what with the exam leakages in our country. Just a few years ago we had problems with the nursing board and also the bar exams. Can't help but feel bad for the ones that didn't cheat but had to suffer the consequences of the said incident. I'd be pissed if I had to retake the exam or have my exam scores for a subject canceled because of a select group that made use of their connections.

    I understand your frustration as well when it comes to Asian dramas where they do have a tendency to categorize everything as black or white.

    As for the guy with the glasses, I believe he's a member of a Kpop band called 2pm. Don't know his name but he plays the student body president. He has a minor role but you get to see him throughout the SP.

    @ doozy

    ...illustrating that sometimes it doesn't matter how much time a show is allotted to tell its story but how that time is utilized by the production team.

    That is so true, it is all about managing the time that they're given. One of the things that I don't like about kdramas is that they never really seem to be able to get everything done with the right number of episodes. Some series would drag on for ages even when there's really nothing substantial going on while others get wrapped up too quickly even when there's so much more to the story. I particularly hate it when they railroad a series and cram everything in the last episode making you go, "uh, is that it?"

    I guess part of the reason why I like checking out SPs is that they don't take as long to finish and I don't have high expectations of them compared to big productions that often promise stuff when they're promoting it and then deliver something else entirely. That being said, will make sure to check out The Ghost and I since you recommended it. :)