Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spring Cleaning Blues

A new season's approaching which means another batch of jdoramas will be gracing the small screen and yet I don't even remember catching any of the ones that came out earlier this year. Can't really say I'm excited about the upcoming dramas because blurbs tend to be misleading and as experience would show, watching a drama on the basis of who's in it doesn't always do the trick. So I've decided to lower my expectations and watch things at my own pace, let all the hype and hoopla die down, before attempting to review whatever I've seen in earnest. I can no longer afford to watch anything and everything like I used to, in fact, I find it increasingly hard to motivate myself to sit through any drama just for the sake of watching a drama.
Read More

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Foreign Perspective

An offshoot of watching Japanese dramas and movies is an increased awareness and/or curiosity over things that are Japanese. I suppose it's the same for anyone who's been exposed to a segment of Japanese culture or have fallen in love with an aspect thereof---be it art, literature, fashion, or  music; whether you're a manga or anime fan, or even a gaming enthusiast, it's not unusual to develop an interest in the country and the people from which your favorite pastime originated and flourished.  A good number of books have already been written about Japan, covering everything from the nation's history, the state of its economy, even going as far as to discuss pop cultural trends and social problems as identified by social scientists and journalists but out of everything that's available out there, I find reading blogs and informal works by those who've stayed in the country itself to be equally informative and entertaining. There's a lot that can be derived from reading personal accounts and observations unhampered by a need to prove a thesis or maintain a stance that isn't ethnocentric. They impart information that might not be readily available to those who are merely on the outside looking in. 

Of Rice and Yen is an ebook that I came upon last year after reading an article in Things Asian by a journalist who wrote about the Japanese herd mentality and how the same can be seen in their obsession over things like branded goods, pachinko and vending machines. It was a short and trite article, limited in scope and arguably faulty for making a sweeping generalization, but the things discussed and cited therein does not necessarily mean that they're wholly untrue or baseless. Keeping that in mind, I started reading up on gaijin accounts of their stay in Japan, no matter how subjective it may be, which led me to this compilation of notes by David Mosley.

Containing loads of trivia and anecdotes detailing his over a decade-long stay, I found this e-book an easy read, perfect for those averse to material that are too technical or scholarly. Best of all it's free. The author himself even encourages you to share it to others and welcomes any feedback on it.

Download Link [MF] :
 An Englishman's look at the best and worst of Japan: the pleasures and pains, the gems and the jaw-droppers by David Mosley 
Copyright © 2009
Read More

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.
*     *    *

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.   
Read More

Saturday, March 05, 2011

A Star's Lover in Pictures

No matter how maudlin, humdrum or disappointing a drama may turn out to be, people would often walk away from them remembering a specific thing that either struck their fancy or something that came off as somewhat odd or irritating. It might be a touching scene, a memorable line, an outrageous outfit or a striking motif; a person might eventually forget about the structure of the story or struggle to remember every detail of how things unfolded in the course of the series, but he will never forget something that captured his heart, more so, if that something rankled his nerves and even made him regret investing so much time on a drama that failed to deliver the goods contrary to expectations. Dramas viewed five or eight years ago might seem like a distant memory but key scenes and images do linger on. They remain vivid and strong, as do the emotions they invoked upon one's encounter of a memorable episode.

Who here can forget the quiet longing of Commander Hwangbo for his lowly servant, Chae-Ok in Damo? Or that kissing scene between Lee Byung Hun and Choi Ji Woo in Beautiful Days that signaled an OTP change? Who could forget Rain's colorful array of v-neck shirts that scandalously dipped down his chest in Full House? Or how some of the set pieces in Jumong shook every time a stuntman took a tumble, or how a whole army could be concealed behind sparse foliage without being discovered?

Love 'em or hate 'em, kdramas do have a way of leaving behind pretty pictures and sickening music tracks that go on and on in your head. No matter what the outcome, they leave quite an impression, so I decided that instead of dwelling on the long, exasperating and technically uneven journey that was  A Star's Lover, I'd rather focus on the parts of this series that piqued my interest and celebrate the creative touches that I would [or  rather should] remember in years to come.

  *     *     *     

When A Star's Lover came out in 2009, a part of me was curious to see it because it featured two actors you rarely see on television and yet a part of me was also apprehensive upon learning that the drama itself would be another adaptation of Notting Hill. Having seen Star no Koi a few years ago, I already could imagine how difficult it would be to stretch the material culled from a 2-hour movie to a full length series, and while true enough that the Japanese version was not without its own charm, the story staggered towards the finish line mid-season. I[t] barely made it.

So imagine my surprise when I learned that the Korean re-imagining would span 20 episodes instead of the usual 16 and that it would have the reigning queen of hallyu dramas in the pivotal role... well,  let me tell you, it didn't look very promising.

Not quite ready to miss out on Yoo Ji-Tae's return to television, I checked to see the writer in charge of the said series and found out that it was Oh Soo Yun, who's best known for Autumn in My Heart and Winter Sonata. Right then and there, I knew that A Star's Lover was a bad bet. Known for producing overly sentimental dramas dipped in angst and despair, this writer owed much of her success [abroad] to the gravitational pull of the stars featured in her works and her ability to engage audiences with simple, heartfelt scenarios. And though not the best when it comes to developing a story (anyone who's seen an Oh Soo Yun drama knows that the conflict in them often defy logic and are dragged on till kingdom come)---she can be credited  for  drumming in memorable sequences by craftily setting up scenes accentuated by a central theme, a design, even a product placement.

A boy who became a clump of weed and a girl who became a star in the heavens. Two persons, living at two ends of the world. Will they have the opportunity to be able to recognize each other?
So disregarding the agony that her "Season Dramas" brought me and keeping in mind fond memories of little Joon-suh and Eun-suh riding their bikes in the country, along with that scene wherein an overaged Bae Yong Joon tried to pass himself off as a high school student, playing First Time to Choi Ji Woo in an empty classroom, I checked out A Star's Lover thinking I'd at least have 3 to 6 decent episodes to work with before the whole thing  proceeded to torture its viewer (i.e. me) with recurring issues that would eventually be resolved through the simplest of means. As it turned out I wasn't far off the mark, seeing that all they needed to wrap up the story was to declare their love to each other before the paparazzi and they chose to accomplish this towards the end, around the 19th episode tsk tsk.

Thinking back, the series started out quite nicely. I've never seen Choi Ji Woo quite as luminous or Yoo Ji Tae so attractive. Heck, this was the first series wherein Choi Ji Woo actually looked confident and comfortable in her own skin, and perhaps the only series where she had leading men who towered above her and made her look more feminine. The scenes shot in Asuka, Japan were beautiful to say the least and it was obvious that attention was placed into making each encounter between regular joe Chul Soo and superstar Mari extra special to complement the fairytale finish. There was an undeniable chemistry between the leads, a sense of familiarity and comfort that would make you root for this OTP. It's quite unfortunate though that they tried to stretch and complicate such a simple story. The fluffy, dreamy appeal of this series soon disappeared as the whole business on ghostwriting kicked in and auxiliary characters figured their way into the story. Indeed, it was quite a journey. I would not have been able to make it through without my remote in hand.

  *     *     *     

And though I was wont to let this series go, without breathing so much as a word, I also felt it necessary to commemorate the fact that I finished watching it after stalling for two years.

Seeing that I have the tendency to remember stupid, frivolous things about kdramas like how Hyun Bin was sweating through his pink shirt at the last episode of My Name is Kim Sam Soon or how Jo Hyun Jae had a small band-aid stuck under his eye for the majority of One Mom and Three Dads, I figured, why not make a list of things that I would remember about A Star's Lover instead of straight out ranting about the disconsolate route it took to see its ending? I mean, people out there would probably do a better job at writing a review or discussing the finer points of this series, so why not revel in the bits and pieces that made me go "ooh", "ahh" and "grrrr"? 

 So here are 6 things that stuck out for me in this series:

1.) Chul Soo and Young Hee

Given its plot, I didn't expect A Star's Lover to begin the way it did. The series, in fact, opened with a vignette; a thoughtful commentary on how love was the most common and yet the greatest of all sentiments, and how the ever changing world made the notion of loving someone more complex as society progressed. Deriving inspiration from the movie Amélie and the defunct American series Pushing Daisies, the kdrama was able to establish a dreamlike atmosphere, albeit without the same touch of whimsy, in telling the backstory of Chul Soo and Young Hee.

The overall concept was to make the series out into an urban fairytale, unfortunately, the narration and visual styling of the first few episodes did not make its way to the end of the series. It got watered down and subsumed into the existential drama that devoured the characters that by the time I reached the last episode, I almost forgot about its unique opening sequence. 

2.) Learning to Cross that Line

Young Chul Soo, being the ever obedient son, did not dare cross that line that his mother drew on the ground. With tears in his eyes and a crumpled bill in his hand, he failed to chase after his mother because that line created an invisible barrier, one that no human being could cross...until the gorgeous Lee Mari, in her pretty black boots, stomped her way through and taught him how easy it was. So yeah, I reckon it was used to show how Chul Soo was a straight-laced individual and how he was the type to color within the lines, but the very idea of him drawing a line on the ground to prevent both Mari and Eun Young from getting close to him was just a load of crap.

3.) The Color of Sadness

If one were to  go by this series, the color of sadness and longing would be a mix of sepia, auburn, sienna, and burnt amber with touches of  indian yellow, set against a murky shade of cadmium red and vermilion. Yes, old memories came with a color scheme. No one's allowed to look into the past without a change of color.

4.) A Room Full of Books

Chul Soo must have been one lonely boy. There were books everywhere---they were on the shelves, on the floor, they lined his walls. Was there ever any reason to doubt how literate and well-read our humble hero was?

5.) Vanilla Ice Cream

Ah, the Yonsama look-alike that disappeared after going out to get vanilla ice cream...Who would have thought that a frozen dairy product could cause so much pain and torment? (Hm, serves her right for sending her lover out in the dead of winter for vanilla ice cream.) Believe it or not, this little story device had a very brief appearance. Aside from being mentioned like 4x, Mari's fixation with it melted when Chul Soo came around. It served its purpose the moment the man Mari was fated to be with appeared before her, carrying 32 flavors and then some.

6.) Pride and Prejudice

So Chul Soo reluctantly travels to Japan to ghostwrite Lee Mari's travel diary and what book does he bring with him? He brings the tv-movie tie-in paperback edition of Pride and Prejudice. Yep, the one with Keira Knightley's face on it. Ach, the horror! Major fantasy overload! Can anyone say overkill?

He was charming enough as the literature professor who thwarted his student's advances by correcting/editing the love letter given to him as if it were a test paper, but was it really necessary to depict him as someone engrossed in Jane Austen? And in public no less. I don't freakin care about what people say about the character being sensitive or romantic but (darn it!) grown men do not lug around Pride and Prejudice. He has a room full of books to choose from and he picks Pride and Prejudice?

So okay, maybe he was reading it in preparation for a class or something but considering the series went on and on about how cultured and well read he was, dropping random book titles from The Great Gatsby to Eugene Onegin, would it really have been too much to ask for him to read something safe and appropriate by say, Hemingway or Dostoevsky?

  *     *     *      

You know what's sad about all this is that I'll probably end up forgetting numbers 1-5 on this list but I'll always remember Yoo Ji Tae pretending to read Pride and Prejudice
Read More