Archives

Kdrama review: The Devil Judge, Excellence on Every Level

Spoilers ahead.

Approaching this review has been difficult. I absolutely loved this show. It is one of the best dramas I’ve ever seen. Instead of just gushing or simply layering effusive adjectives one on top of the other, I wanted to have something of substance to actually say. So that’s why this is late, had to wait a few days for the awesomeness of the show to lessen a bit for me.

Thankfully, The Devil Judge isn’t about the actual devil, but it is certainly about how human beings don’t act much better, especially those who have power over others. Set in a dystopian alternate reality, this show is unique among Korean TV shows, and did a good job, especially by set design, in creating a fake Korea just close enough to the real one (or the dramaland one, anyway) to be unsettling.

This show has everything: Top notch set design, phenomenal costume design, a near perfect soundtrack, great acting, fantastic directing, and truly stellar writing. See, already I’m piling on the adjectives. Although there are a few stupidities to the writing and characters as there always are, it was really some of the best writing I’ve seen for a show. At times I felt I was watching a Greek tragedy, not a modern television show. Many of the characters were fleshed out archetypes, and it absolutely worked for the show’s and plot’s purposes.

Starring Ji Sung (Dr. John) as Kang Yo Han, and Jin Young (Yumi’s Cells 2) as Kim Ga On, the story revolves around reality TV. In this world the elite have lost the trust of the masses due to their corruption. Much like in too many countries today. As a consequence, law and order is falling apart and the elites need at least a skeleton of law and order to say in power. They need at least some trust of the populace to continue their plans. They decide to make justice into a reality television show. A star judge and two co-judges will hear cases live as will anyone who watches along, and before the judge makes his final decision, he will get the votes of the regular people first. American Idol justice. Sounds awful and is awful, except the star judge in question wants to bring actual justice about. The first case he picks is one in which one of the elites is a defendant. This displeases his bosses.

The first half of the show is just building the situation of Judge Yo Han wreaking havoc on those around him, whether it’s the evil, self-righteous elites or the perhaps the even more insufferably self-righteous Ga On, who believes in human good and law and order almost to a fault. The second half is largely about Ga On fully realizing just how corrupt his society is, and with that realizing that Yo Han may not be the bad guy at all. This is essentially the story of a man becoming a monster to defeat the monsters and also training an apprentice to do the same. Yo Han is happy to play the monster to some degree because he’s always been misunderstood by those around him. He is bringing some form of justice to society and a change of power, but his true aim is revenge. It just so happens that both of these things coincide. Ga On is the everyman, he is us. He is also stupid and infuriating, but, hey, ain’t that the Average Joe? He is also easily manipulated, something that grates on us as we watch, thinking, no way would I be so easily used. But by the end of the show, I think we realize differently: We wouldn’t have fared and don’t currently fare much better. Ga On is humbled by the end and it is unclear if he will take up the vigilante mantel that Yo Han hands to him.

This is the first show I’ve seen Ji Sung in, and he was outstanding. I have no doubt this was one of the best performances of his career and of course I plan to watch his other performances as I have the chance. His character is a fun one to play, someone that walks the tightrope between good and bad. Yo Han’s methods to bring justice are what ultimately gets him labeled a “devil,” and at times one wonders exactly what world he may be ushering in. As corrupt as the society is, he may be bringing something worse into play. This is essentially what Ga On fears, that Yo Han is nothing more than a Joker character, wanting to watch the world burn. The judge definitely believes in keeping one’s enemies close, too close for comfort at times. Ji Sung is wonderful as Ga On, so wonderful, that after a certain number of episodes we really start to grate against him for thwarting Yo Han’s plans. Good writing, good acting. Ji Sung really knows how to cry on camera, and, oh, does he bring the feels. Like his character, we too are shocked, shocked at the corruption, and shocked also by Yo Han, who is clearly manipulating his coworker.

The Devil Judge also has superb villains. The two best are: Kim Min Jung (Man to Man) as crazy lady Jung Sun A. She is almost an evil queen out of a fairy tale and definitely Kim’s best performance to date. She uses her voice to great effect, talking in a weird sort of whisper. As President Heo, Baek Hyun Jin (Happiness) also has a wonderful, if painful to hear, use of voice, and is rather hilarious as Heo is a former actor using dictator speech tropes to keep the masses on his side. Baek is no stranger to playing the villain and also did great in Happiness as a whining, would be murderer.

Although the sets are fantastic it is the costume design that really sells the show. All of the characters look impeccable, everything about them suited to their stations and also ambitions in life. There are no weird fashions just for the sake of it, everything fits the story and the strangest yet most beautiful designs are given to the evil queen that as a watcher one loves to hate. It is a testament to the excellence of the show that at the end of the day we have a certain amount of sympathy for Jung Sun A. She has a very unhealthy relationship with judge Jo Yan, but their story is really only the true romance in the show, except for, perhaps, the friendship between Jo Yan and Ga On. Ga On gets a romance, but it’s one realized too late, and more just a piece of his character than anything else. One more step on his path to waking up. And wake up he does.

Much like The Hunger Games before it, The Devil Judge ends on a sad but poignant truth: Although it is possible to rid ourselves of corruption, it always comes back, because that’s human beings for you. We are sinners to the core. The difference with this story, however, is that the writers managed to end on a note of hope, if nothing else than the hope of true friendship and family. And really, if we have that in life, that is so, so much. As a Christian, of course I would have loved if they had employed more use of forgiveness and the gospel message, but few movies or shows, even so-called Christian ones, truly know how to do so, so I can’t really expect this one to, either. However, the Christian symbol of the cross is used to represent the justice being meeted out. It is clear, too, that Yo Han is just waiting for any of the bad people to simply show some true remorse, to repent and turn to good. He knows they won’t, but he gives them the chance, much like perhaps God gives us the chance in this life to repent and believe. One gets a glimmer, just a glimmer of how God must feel about our sinfulness in one powerful scene in which Yo Han reveals to Ga On just how corrupt their society is by using the case of his parents who were irreparably injured by a swindler. The kicker in the scene is that we still don’t know if Yo Han is good or what his goal is, but either way, it’s a powerful performance from Jin Young as Ga On experiences sorrow and almost a complete breakdown. In some ways, he has lost a true love. One of the best scenes in the show.

Almost an aside in the show, but certainly a part of it is the real life political trickery called COVID. This show came out in 2021 and I think the writers and producers of the The Devil Judge show great courage here in indicating that much of that whole thing was a lie, political theatre in the lust for power. Much of the world, too much, still believes the lies of COVID, many people, too many are dying and/or severely harmed by the vaccines the elites–the real world elites–foisted upon us. More people have awakened to the truth now, but in 2021 to have had this as a plot point, the gov’t making up a virus as an excuse to clear out a poor neighborhood and steal the land? Wow. Sadly, many watchers will probably take it as fantasy, but it seemed by the show comments that a few at least were awake to the truth.

The Devil Judge was so effective, because like Greek tragedy or like Shakespeare, it has a timeless quality. Change the technology and the wardrobe and this same story could take place in any country, any society, and in any time period. Most importantly, it showcases the reality of the real world and what we face on a continual basis. One stamps out corruption and the next tier, the next generation of elites, are hankering to go the same way, so powerful is the allure of money and power, so clear the pursuit of both into corrupting the heart and soul.

It is rare that a show without a happy ending gets such a thumbs up from me, but the writers latch onto the human element of true friendship and hope, the kind of friendship in which the parties are family to each other, if not biologically so. It also ends with a clear protection of family, even to the point of removing family to a place that has a chance of a better life. The ending message is that this dystopian Korea cannot be saved, yet Ga On is still there and we wonder, just what will his next steps be? Yo Han is clearly handing off the duty to him of striving to bring justice. An impossible task, but there it is. Much like God calls us to truly love our fellow sinners. Impossible, right? But God does the impossible every single day. It’s His stock in trade.

Last, but not least, this show would make a great book or book series.

A Story to Read When You First Fall in Love: The Age Gap Romance

Spoilers ahead.

Age Gap Romances are tricky. And, especially gaps where it’s the woman who is older. Depending on the story, they don’t always come across as believable, and then there’s just the Don’t-Even-Go-There! ones. A Story to Read When You First Fall in Love gets many, awesome story points, but as a romance, I wished they just didn’t even go there.

Maybe it’s because we now have so many lonely, aging, single women suddenly waking up to the fact that feminism has failed them. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason there are more and more age gap romance dramas where the women falls for a much younger man, or he falls for her, or whatever. It’s not totally unbelievable, certainly there are relationships like this in real life, however they are not the norm, and this sub-genre of romance is definitely also in the fantasy category. In this particular drama, a Japanese drama, it really only works for one reason: The female lead is extremely beautiful almost to the point of looking ageless. If she was an average looking woman, this relationship would be creepy. In fact, later on in the show, the show itself showcases the creepiness of such relationships using a woman of the same age who is slightly less beautiful, and more manipulative.

But I get ahead of myself. Harumi Junko is a cram school teacher who never really made it in life. She failed the test for Tokyo University and just settled into being sort of a nothing. She is thirty-two, still living with her parents, and at risk of losing her job because she’s not a popular teacher at the school. Through happenstance, Harumi comes in contact with a group of teenage boys and somewhat befriends them. Later on, one of the students, a boy with pink hair named Yuri comes to her cram school. He’s a slacker who decides he wants to pass the test for Tokyo University. This is a nearly impossible feat, for he’s barely up to junior high standards in scholastic activity. However, Harumi sees something in him, a bit of herself at the same age, and she strives to help him see this through despite difficult odds.

This in itself would have been a great story, no romance needed. But, because the writers decided to go the Don’t-Even-Go-There! route, it’s also a romance. Not just any romance, no. I am not sure what’s worse, the sixteen-year age gap, the fact that Yuri is a minor and only seventeen for most of the show, or the fact that they are very clearly teacher and student. I think the last fact is the stickler for me. Coming from an American perspective we have a lot–a lot–of thirty-something female teachers who end up in sexual relationships with their male students and have ended up charged with crimes, doing jail time, etc. Fortunately in this story the female lead is so utterly clueless about any romantic attention towards herself that it’s the farthest thing from her mind until about the last episode. That doesn’t really make it great, though.

A great platonic friendship between student and teacher would have made more sense. And this is because the largest portion of the show is all about Yuri studying and striving with blood, sweat, and tears to pass the test and make it to Tokyo university. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, on the show cheers him on. And so the romance is pushed to the side…yet it’s not.

Harumi actually has three possible love interests in the show, and all are Don’t-Even-Go-There! Besides Yuri, we have Masashi, Harumi’s successful cousin who works at a trading company and who incidentally went to Tokyo University. That’s right, he’s her cousin, her literal cousin who has been in love with her for twenty years and too scared to make an actual move. Then we have Kazuma who is not only Yuri’s teacher at school school, but the first person that Harumi ever taught. He’s a bad boy, who is awesome and flirty and…married. Yes, married. But he gets divorced. I wish I could say that made things better. It didn’t. Suffice to say, with three possibles and a very clueless heroine, the show actually has very little romance, so, so little that it could have been done away with altogether.

With Yuri, he’s a minor, and of course you can’t show Harumi wanting or doing something illegal, so that’s out. There’s not a lot of “story” to their love story. Then there’s her cousin. Same deal. Then there’s the sometimes married, sometimes divorced one. Same thing again. The only way the romance kind of works in the end is that Harumi finally gets a clue already and actually does something for herself for a change. Thankfully, by this point our pink-haired hero is nineteen. Still with the pink hair, though. Yes, this man will never change, not even his hair, so you, beautiful woman, sixteen years older, have nothing to fear.

Yet there’s a lot to love about this show. Not the title, which has nothing to do with anything, but the characters. Almost every single one of them turns out to be really good people. These are people that genuinely love and care about others, and that’s pretty awesome. The cousin in love wins us over by the fact that he really does love Harumi and wants what’s best for her. He is true to her and helps Yuri for the test any way he can even though this boy is his rival. Masashi just tried so hard, yet fails so miserably, one just can’t help but root for him. But by the end, he gets the truth: cousin or no cousin, Harumi is just not into him like that. Sad, but true. He has a great line, asking her to give him a clear rejection, so he can move on. That’s a life lesson there. Often we want to let people down easy and it’s better just to give them the straightforward truth so that they can move on and find the one who will love them.

The bad boy teacher makes the biggest, selfless move, seemingly giving up everything so that Yuri can have a chance at succeeding on the test. But his move sacrifices any chance he and Harumi could be together. It’s all okay, though, because he still loves his wife, or ex-wife, or whatever she is. At the end he says he’s courting her, which is rather cute, and he becomes a politician, giving up his teaching career. He also has the best flirtations on the show and a sort of dry humor. He and Harumi drink together and fall asleep. He touches her boobs, but swears to her he didn’t do anything else because he doesn’t want to sleep with her when she’s drunk. He wants them to be coherent and in love, etc. Puzzled, she asks, then why did you touch my boobs? Because they’re there, is his answer. That got a laugh out of me. I don’t know, sometimes in these shows it’s just nice having men being, well, men. And it was just refreshing that he didn’t come up with any big excuse or falling over apology that really wouldn’t have been sincere. She obviously forgives him, for they continue to be friends.

In addition to the heroine and the three love interests, all of the minor characters on this show are also great. Some strange at first, but they all come around and are, fantastic, caring people. Interestingly, none of them are truly put out by a Harumi-Yuri romance, but then this is a bit of a fantasy. It is also a comment that people of all ages do fall in love, and sometimes with those deemed unlikely to be the object of one’s affection.

It is true that age gaps matter less the older one is, however, it was just unseemly that Yuri was a minor and also her student. It’s hard not to see a “grooming” aspect in the story, and the writers know full well it is there as they address it later on with another teacher the same age as Harumi who definitely preys on her students in a romantic way. This is then swept away as she just does it to motivate them to study. Really?!? In the last episode many other teachers at the cram school state that when the students pass their exams they will often give love confessions to their teachers. Maybe stuff like that does happen, and sure, students sometimes get crushes on their teachers, but it’s odd to make it seem so lighthearted and so commonplace mixing romance with teacher-student relationships. Maybe I am just too cynical, but what’s the real agenda of such plot lines?

Age gaps: Sixteen years. This is one of the biggest age gaps I’ve seen in an Asian drama. My favorite one, High School King of Savvy, was ten years and definitely and solidly more of a romantic comedy, with a clear emphasis on both. They took pains to show how the pair was a match for each other and also that the young man was ready to be a man. It still has a bit of a weird factor, though. Then there’s Secret Love Affair that is almost a work of art when it comes to the sound and cinematography, but has a twenty-year age gap with the man being younger. In that one at least he’s not a minor, but the woman is married. Don’t-Even-Go-There! but the writers do and somehow manage to tell compelling stories while doing so.

Yumi’s Cells 1&2: Final Opinion

Spoilers ahead.

This was a great show. It really goes through the ups and downs of how people are thinking and feeling, especially when it comes to dating and romantic relationships. It had great acting, great soundtrack, and great CGI for the cell characters. Often it was laugh-out-loud hilarious. That being said, the ending wasn’t great.

Sadly many stories fall or rise depending on their endings. The majority probably fall, which is why we never hear about them. A bad ending, however, doesn’t mean people will not still enjoy and read or watch the story. I found the ending to Tess of the D’Urbervilles absurd yet it was a treat to read, sad story that it was, so I will read it again someday. Also the show Lost. I didn’t care for the ending, but would absolutely watch the show again. It was exciting and trippy. It is the same with Yumi’s Cells. I did not like the ending of season 2, but I would definitely watch the show again.

Simply said, the ending doesn’t match the rest of the show. Perhaps the comic it is based on focuses more on Yumi’s personal growth and her writing career, but largely the show did not. It focused on what most watching Kdramas want: romance. And because so much focus was on the romances that Yumi had, the personal growth ending just didn’t fit. It was a disappointment. We as the viewers wanted her to end up with Wung or Babi, and if neither, then be properly introduced to the real Mr. Right at the end. There was an introduction of him, but it was hardly him, just a haze, a shadow. I also really wanted to see Yumi actually loving someone. All through her time with both Wung and Babi, it’s like she never really loved them, but they loved her a great deal, especially Babi. How satisfying it would have been to have her realize she was in love with either one, but especially with Babi because he clearly fought for her the whole time.

In the end Yumi is run by her Writing cell. I’m not sure that’s an improvement over being run by her Love cell. Careers are fleeting things. People are what matters. The writing of the show did not leave me with the impression that Yumi will really learn to love this new guy on the horizon, even though she did have some character growth. It is a triumph to be content in one’s life and content just being single, too, if that’s the state you are in.

The show is still great and worth watching because at times it digs deep into both the feels and the humor and the opposite ways men and women often think. Both sexes are out of sync with each other, as Alison Armstrong of The Queen’s Code would say. A lot of the side characters are a hoot as are main ones like Wung. And the show does deliver romance, just not lasting romance and true love. If they were real people, I would hope that both Wung and Babi could quickly get over Yumi and move on to a woman who really loves them. And for Yumi that she would really fall in love with someone.

Yumi’s Cells 2: Hilarious!

Spoilers ahead.

This series is my current favorite. Not only is it hilarious, but it also has a lot of food for thought and fun, romantic suspense: Which guy will Yumi end up with? Based on the popular Webtoon, Yumi’s Cells was an instant hit, taking a lonely 30-something through one romantic possibility after another. In season one, we were introduced to Ku Woong (Ahn Bo Hyun – Kairos),got to watch as he and Yumi built a relationship, and subsequently got to watch it fall apart largely due to lack of communication.

Alternating between the real life scenes are cartoon scenes of the “cells” in each of their bodies, telling the audience what the character is thinking and feeling but as if each thought or desire was a separate cute, cartoon character interacting and arguing with the others. At first I didn’t like the back and forth, but more and more I enjoyed the very funny cells scenes that put a great X-factor on what is itself a rather humdrum story. It also makes one think, “hey, I sometimes do that!” or think that way, or feel that way. It makes one start to consider what “cell” is ruling at any given time. Am I ruled by logic primarily? Pride? Love? Hope? The depth of the show is often astounding.

It was sad to see Yumi and Ku Woong break up at the end of season one and I was pleasantly surprised there was a season 2, because with Kdramas there’s so often not. Yumi’s Cells 2 is even better. Kim Go Eun (Goblin) is Yumi. I can’t see the character being played by anyone else. And, although Yumi is frustratingly awkward in romance, she has good chemistry with this season’s love interest, Yoo BaBi, played by Jin Young of group GOT7. Jin is not only easy on the eyes, just like Ahn, but he has very expressive eyes himself, always a plus for an actor.

Babi was literally a paper doll in season one. Hey, it’s true, often when you’re dating or really into a certain person, all the other guys or girls could just be paper dolls, no matter how cute they are. It was pretty funny seeing that shown on screen that way. In season two it is Babi’s turn to date Yumi, and although he’s refreshingly straightforward as a person, it still takes them what seems like ages to get together. In contrast with Woong, Babi is more of a grownup and thus Yumi becomes more grownup as well. Some may think of this as boring, but it’s character growth and the two characters really seem like they have a real relationship. Refreshing also, is that Babi isn’t run by pride. His heart throws a party in welcome for Yumi. It’s a great thing and I sometimes wish that more people were like this: more straightforward and more ready just to dive into love. So, so much time is wasted on hesitation. Diving in is likely the best way to get to know the person, to know if they really are the right one. Over time, Yumi also has the courage to be straightforward as well, and sadly, a bit of her hesitancy and awkwardness rubs off on Babi. But, hey, he’s too perfect and needs flaws.

Speaking of those, Babi is quite possibly too nice in some ways and too open to love. If you have a damsel, you shouldn’t be out there helping every other damsel in distress you see. While that should be obvious, it isn’t to Babi, and he finds himself quite shocked one day to find that he has allowed a cute intern to worm her way into his affections. Sometimes it can be dangerous to care about others too much. If you have a significant other, there must be boundaries in place to protect yourself, that person, and the relationship. It seems Babi didn’t have those boundaries set well. Yumi ends up so hurt by this–even though he didn’t really, physically cheat on her–that she breaks up with him.

Although I am very team Babi, I get that Yumi can’t trust him. Still, he chases after her, while Woong most certainly did not. It shows Babi is willing to fight for her, and is something that remains with the viewers even after Woong shows up again, with better clothes, better hair, and loads of money as his computer game has now become a success.

Despite Woong being back in the picture and still head over heels for Yumi and egged on by the awesome “Control Z” illustrator (P.O of Block B), the show clearly still has plans for Babi. Both men face off in a hilarious showdown in which their cartoon cells do all the actual fighting. Both get significant barbs in, but it’s Babi who walks away with the girl.

The scene where Yumi and Babi get back together was done so well. The acting was amazing and we could see both knocking down each other’s walls. Afterward they are awkward together and walking on eggshells and it’s only at the end of episode 12 that we really find out why: Each one is sure the other one feels they made a mistake in getting back together. But that they are finally able to tell each other that is a great thing.

Not a great thing: Like Woong, Babi has now for the second time kept very important information from Yumi. It’s a lie of omission, it’s not ideal, and throws Yumi for a very big loop, as normally he is very straightforward. This seems to be his great flaw, that he is unable or unwilling to share either something he doesn’t understand about himself, or something he thinks will burden Yumi. Hopefully he got the message loud and clear from her that he shouldn’t do that, that not communicating is worse than the hurt that could be caused by communicating. Communication is so key in every relationship, but especially in romantic ones. Our basic instincts have us constantly misunderstanding each other, so even if a couple communicates well, it can still be a bit of a battle.

Four more episodes remain in the season. Although the Webtoon adds another guy, purportedly the one and Mr. Right, I do not know if there are plans for a season three of the drama. I think the writers will have Yumi end up with either Woong or Babi. The feminism doesn’t seem strong enough in this show to have her end up alone, but who knows? I am waiting in suspense for the next episodes.

The funniest things this season: Ruby and Control Z! Wow, are they great. I loved Lee Yoo-Bi in Pinocchio and she’s hilarious here as well as a ridiculous, cute girl who always refers to herself in the third person. We get more of these two than is warranted, but I like it. Funniest cells scene, aside from the man face off, was when Yumi and Babi kiss for the first time. Their tongue cells meet! It was laugh-out-loud funny. Yumi’s editor, played by Jun Suk Ho (Kingdom Season 2) was also hysterical.

Other things I love about this season is the soundtrack–a lot of great, mellow love songs–and also the poster. It’s a great poster. See for yourself: https://asianwiki.com/images/e/e4/Yumis_Cells_S2-p2.jpg

Can’t wait to find out what happens!

Jirisan: Too Much?

Spoilers ahead.

First off, I loved the 2021 Kdrama Jirisan. It was epic, exciting, awesome, and somewhat exhausting to watch. The direction was great from Lee Eung Bok, who has directed many popular dramas like Sweet Home, Mr. Sunshine, Goblin, and Descendants of the Sun. The shots were amazing, using lots of natural mountain/forest footage incorporated with CGI, green screen, and drone footage. The rescue scenes are harrowing and thrilling.

That brings me to the plot. Starring Gianna Jun (The Legend of the Blue Sea) and Ju Ji Hoon (Kingdom series), the story follows mountains rangers and rescuers who work in the Jirisan mountain range and mostly help rescue illegal hikers. But it doesn’t stop there, no. Rookie ranger Kang Hyun Jo (Ju Ji Hoon) has inexplicable visions of death on the mountain. There’s a hunt for a serial killer who has been killing on the mountain for a long time. There’s a mountain ghost. There’s a head spinning amount of flashbacks and back and forth time jumps along with a very large cast. Writer Kim Sun Hee is used to plots like this, having written the awesome Signal and also the Kingdom series which I have heard many good things about. However, at times, and by the end of the show it felt like perhaps it was all too much.

Many wonderful TV shows have lame endings, and Jirisan is no exception. While giving us a nice, emotional ending for a minor character that went on far too long, it spent almost no time with our leads and their story. I have to wonder if another episode was planned or asked for and denied. Who knows? In any case, the ending was fitting, but didn’t totally make sense. For example: The bad guy gets his comeuppance in the end, but it’s the easiest way possible, as the “mountain” kills him in a landslide. It’s fitting because he believed the mountain was telling him to kill people. But contrast that with all of the supernatural stuff going on, visions, ghosts, weird lights, it was very, very odd to have the main character keep asserting in the last episode that “it’s only a mountain.” None of the supernatural things were explained. As the rescue scenes and the mountain life of the rangers was very engaging, it may have been better just to stick with that. Maybe the serial killer hunt, ok, but beyond that? The supernatural stuff really had no point and it wasn’t written as a debate between belief vs. science or something like that. The flashbacks really weren’t too bad, but often were egregious attempts to fill the time.

Gianna Jun did well here with a very cold character contrasted with Ju Ji Hoon’s character’s warmth. All of the actors in the show did outstanding jobs with all of the physical activities involved in the ranger job and working with special effects, etc. They all seemed very believable as rangers. The ranger team was headed up by a captain played by Sung Dong Il (Reply 1997) who is my favorite “dad” character in Kdramas. The outstanding actor in the show was easily Oh Jung Se (Touch Your Heart). His character is a ranger who finally gets the love of his life. It’s cute. Then we find in a flashback he has a tragic loss. Oh, the heartbreak of this man! I just wanted to give him a hug. It was the most emotionally impactful scene I’ve seen in a while. His grief seemed so, so real.

As far as the soundtrack, I found it adequate to the story, but the cinematic atmosphere was what really carried the show.

On the whole I loved the show, but I wouldn’t call it a must watch. The complicated plot is interesting for writers. It’s also great to get a slice of mountain life and the lives of rescuers and rangers. The acting is great throughout and the mystery is intriguing. It’s just that the plot and writing got away from itself a bit and justice was served, but in perhaps the easiest way possible for the killer. And also for the other characters. Maybe as they had all gone through so much, that was better than a long, drawn out court proceeding. With all that, Jirisan is worth watching and levels above many other shows out there.

Doctor Prisoner: The Best Villains

Spoilers ahead.

How glad I am that I didn’t give up on this show! Ok, let me back up a second, Doctor Prisoner, starring Namkoong Min is an excellent, over-the-top drama, but the plot quickly becomes repetitive. It is almost–almost–a fatal flaw. Thankfully the characters and incredible acting save it.

In South Korea they apparently have a law where a prisoner can get released for compassionate care. The prisoner has to have some awful disease that they are nearly dying of that the prison can’t treat, so they have to be moved to a hospital. In Doctor Prisoner this is the de facto way that rich and powerful people get out of prison. And doctor Na Yi Je (Namkoong Min) is the best at inventing diseases and helping the criminals get the compassionate release.

As I am still on a Namkoong Min binge, he is definitely why I wanted to watch this, but he is not why I stayed. Although this is a story about rooting out corruption, really it is about villains one upping each other. All of the “good” guys are villains in their own way. The few truly straight and narrow characters in the show are presented well, but blandly: This is not their show, not really. Sometimes it is just fun to watch villains be villains. We don’t have to try to understand why they are evil and give them sympathy. In fact, in this show they actually gain sympathy by their deviousness. Because they are outright evil, it is a joy to see them taken down. Not only that, but there’s an even greater joy as some are reformed.

The opening scene is hilarious as we watch Dr. Na Yi Je in action, meeting with a client in prison, and convincing her to practically kill herself to manifest evidence of an obscure, or even made up disease, to get released. Oh Jung Hee is a rich lady who has been imprisoned for hiring a contract killer on her husband’s mistress. Played by Kim Jung Nan (Tale of the Nine-Tailed), this character is the only woman on the show who’s a main player. She’s spicy, feisty, and awesome, and if one has to be an a woman of a certain age, hey, what a way to be! I absolutely love this actress and so want to be her. She also gets the best costumes here and in Tale of the Nine-Tailed–and her performance in that was great as well. A comparable American actress would probably be Meryl Streep. I can easily see Kim playing the “devil” in The Devil Wears Prada.

Oh Jung Hee also carries the romcom part of the story as she and prosecutor Jung Ui Sik fall for each other in hilarious fashion. Their story is way better than a serious romance with the lead character would have been. Jung Ui Sik is played by veteran drama actor Jang Hyun Sung (Leaves of the Red Sky), who plays a good villain.

But, back to Na Yi Je. Yes, he has a heartbreaking back story about how he turned out this way. By the end of the show, we don’t really care about that, we just want to see him take down more people and bend them to his will. In this cat and mouse game, this guy is always ten steps ahead, and boy, is it fun to watch. He enters into battle with the chief doctor of a famous prison (I can’t remember the name now), Sun Min Sik, played by Kim Byung Chul, who had a super creepy performance as the Wormtongue villain in Goblin.

Kim has so, so much fun here with this ladder climbing turd of a doctor, who wouldn’t recognize the Hippocratic Oath if it bashed him on the head. He uses “evil grin face” to full effect and is so ridiculous that after awhile one almost forgets he’s a villain. He’s an awful man who also has a great marriage: His wife is super supportive and it’s just great, great writing. Kim must have had so much fun playing this role. It’s just too bad he didn’t have a mustache to twirl.

After a few episodes with Na Yi Je and Sun Min Sik taking turns one upping each other, here’s where it gets repetitive, but if one can stick it out, it’s revealed that a different villain, an even worse one, is Na Yi Je’s real goal. It’s someone we’ve already met, the heir to a conglomerate, a chaebol character that frequently populates Kdramas: Lee Jae Joon played by Choi Won Young of Hello Monster (I Remember You) fame. Choi is awesome at playing a psycho, and although his character is necessarily scenery chomping, his physical acting is incredible to watch. An outstanding performance. By the end of the show, his character takes over almost everything. We, the viewers, are almost drawn in to his narcissism.

The best character, though, the best–and really this is a compliment to the writing–is Lee Jae Joon’s younger half-brother Lee Jae Huan, played by Park Sun Seok (Penthouse series). This is the first thing I’ve seen Park in and I hated his character. What an awful person! Jae Huan is essentially the first villain in the show, and for the first few episodes he seems like one of those characters that will get punished quickly and then the show will move on to someone else. It’s true that the show does move on, but Jae Huan stays, at first as a kind of comic relief as we get to see that prison life is hard for him. He’s so funny that we start to hate him less. Spoilers, spoilers! By the end of the show everyone is rooting for this guy! The writers do an amazing job of reforming this character and making him almost a good person. It’s awesome to watch and really makes the pay off with his brother at the end. It’s great writing because it was so unexpected.

Doctor Prisoner is Shakespearean in its scope and theatricality. The epic music almost never slows down, nor the pace. And yet fast pace continued can get dull. If you watch this and find yourself at that point, take a break and come back. The second half is worth it. Actor Namkoong Min holds the show being the solid, main character who is almost as villainous as the rest, but he’s just the ringmaster. Doctor Prisoner is a circus, a showcase of interlinked character pieces that I call: “The Best Villains!!”

A warning, if you ever want to go to the doctor again, this may not be the show for you, for the doctors in this are completely untrustworthy, especially and importantly our hero doctor Na Yi Je. They inject people with dangerous substances at an alarming rate and have an almost superhuman ability to manipulate the human body with drugs. Maybe the show is really just a commentary on our current medical industry? Literally the only tools they have are manmade drugs and surgery and in this show these things are the swords and spears of battle. It gives a patient real pause and concern.

The Undateables: More Matchmaking, Please

A sort of subset of Kdrama romcoms are those dealing with matchmaking agencies. The Undateables starring Namkoong Min (Awaken) and Hwang Jung Eum (She Was Pretty) is just such a one. For some reason Hwang’s characters always start over the top and then become normal. Not sure this makes the actress appealing, but it’s definitely a relief when the spastic humor stops. That being said, both leads are decent at comedy, though I prefer Namkoong in more serious fare.

Jung Eum, played by Hwang, is a former diving champion and now a matchmaker at a local dating agency. She’s not great at her job and through a serious of coincidences ends up getting Namkoong’s character, gallery owner and relationship expert, Hoon Nam to help her successfully breeze through a list of the agency’s most “undateable” clients. And of course the two fall in love in the process.

As a whole, the series was a fun watch and was very funny at times. The best parts were when the two leads were working on matchmaking other people. Sadly, this part of the plot was lost in other drama for awhile, but when it got back to that the show was more on track. Nearly all of the characters showed growth and change, which is always great to see, but some threads were dropped and never picked up again, like Jung Eum’s father’s ill health.

The minor characters were often hilarious, such as the prideful agency supervisor played by Baek Ji Won (Sell Your Haunted House), who to save face, bought a hideous pink jacket so expensive that she subsequently wore it every single day. The jacket itself almost became its own character, symbolizing both foolishness and stubbornness. The cutest couple was Oh Doo Ri (who had awesome style like Audrey Hepburn) and Kim So Wool (who has to be tracked via detective work), played respectively by Jung Young Joo (He Is Psychometric) and Kim Kwang Kyu (Pinocchio).

Another fun matchmaking drama is Dating Agency: Cyranro, although I didn’t care for the ending.

Hwarang Review: Oh, Those Flower Boys

For a number of years now I have put off watching the popular Kdrama Hwarang, because it just looked to girlie for me. And it is girlie, very girlie, but it’s also a pretty impressive coming-of-age story, too. Hwarang means “flowering knights” and is a story about an elite fighting force of young men back in the Three Kingdoms time period, specifically the Kingdom of Silla.

The drama bounces between being campy and not taking itself seriously to heart-wrenching, emotional scenes, and great fight scenes. The music also alternates between bubbly pop and more period appropriate movie music. Starring way too many pretty young men to mention, the main leads are Park Seo Joon (What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?), who plays a character nicknamed “Dog-Bird,” and Park Hyung Sik (Happiness), who plays the hidden king, Ji Dwi. The two have a love triangle with Ah Ro, played by the beautiful Go Ara (You Are All Surrounded).

Silla is a country like many in which there are rich and poor and not a lot in between. The monarchy rules by a “sacred bone” system, which means that if you’re related to the royals you are noble. Dog-Bird comes to the city with his friend, who (spoiler) tragically dies. During this time, Queen Jiso, who is holding the throne for her son, the King Ji Dwi, until she feels he is ready, decides to put together a fighting force of noble, young, beautiful men. Flower boys. Dog-Bird ends up in this elite force along with the Ji Dwi, who is tired of, well, not being king. Their bromance is great and really the focus of the show as Silla eventually has two possible kings vying for its future.

The acting overall was great, but I do have to agree with some that Go Ara was miscast here as the leading lady. In some scenes she was very good, in many others, she just didn’t fit the story or the time period or something. A lot of her acting mannerisms were just like her acting in You Are All Surrounded. Although I liked her in that, her acting just didn’t work for me here, and although she has amazing eyes, I think they actually were a distraction in this. Her character was also not written the greatest, so the fault certainly does not fall all on her shoulders. There was also more chemistry between her and the king than the lead, Dog-Bird. And the main romance was tainted for me because they kept pretending to be brother and sister. Talk about killing romance. The secondary romance in the show, however, is highly satisfactory, with an adorable opposites attract, very sweet couple.

Probably the most distracting thing in the show, however, was the queen. She had a lisp. I don’t know if the actress simply has a lisp or if this was intentional, but it started to drive me nuts. Kim Ji Soo, was otherwise very good in her role, though, a ruler one loves to hate and who in the end garnered much sympathy. It was a bit odd, but kind of funny how one of the Hwarang, Choi Min Ho’s (Yumi’s Cells) character, falls for her. He’s a flirt who’s had all the other girls, so in a way it makes sense, but it’s a pretty big age gap. Min Ho was actually quite good in this. His acting hasn’t impressed me much in other things. He also has very good stage presence, and hands down, I think was the best looking Hwarang. It’s interesting that even with the long hair, jewelry, and pastel outfits, these guys still manage to look manly somehow. You are what you are, no matter how you’re dressed.

This show probably wouldn’t be the first Kdrama I would recommend, but it’s not too bad, despite it’s length of 20 episodes. As usual, it could have been shorter. The “adults” in the cast were all very good, many of them veteran drama actors. Always like to see Sung Dong Il (Reply 1997), as he’s like everyone’s dad in whatever he’s in. He’s got a great, fatherly aura about him. The best was the evil nobleman Park Young Sil, played by Kim Chang Wan (It’s Okay to Not Br Okay). Kim is great at playing villians and sometimes I was actually rooting for him to take down the queen and the royal family. Yes, it ultimately is very girlie, but very manly in many ways as well.

My next drama watch will be Doctor Prisoner starring Namkoong (or Namgoong) Min of the awesome Awaken. I’ve got a couple of thrillers on my list with this guy and they are definitely his genre.

Happiness–Is a Power Couple: Kdrama review

It’s a good sign when one finishes a drama that one wants to watch it again right away. Happiness by TVN is an excellent 12 episode drama worthy of binge watching. It is short on the blood and gore of usual zombie stories, for which I’m grateful, but decently paced and has a great X-factor, an awesome power couple.

The leads, played by Han Hyo Joo (W: Two Worlds Apart), and Park Hyung Sik (Strong Woman Do Bong Soon) are great, both reckless and cool as cucumbers. Both actors really show their chops here and the writing displays a strong man and woman working together while not denigrating either sex. They have each other’s back, are best friends, and have sort of contract marriage that they realize at the end was born out of mutual affection. Sometimes it takes a number of years for one person to fully realize they love another, and sadly, it often is the prospect of losing said person that brings it out.

The short plot is that during a outbreak of an unusual virus, an apartment complex is quarantined from society and the residents have to deal with that, scared for their lives and bickering with each other. Yes, this is a zombie show, but I don’t think they mention zombies once. The way the characters act, one just has to suspend disbelief a bit and realize this is an alternate universe in which there may be no zombie movies for them to reference. The framework, or reference for this story, is roughly COVID and the writers deal well with that, making this another outbreak with which the authorities and regulate people have to deal. While it is clear that most of the characters are over COVID, there are subtle reference to the lifestyle changes we have all made throughout the show. The best aspect of this, though, is that no matter how great the two leads are at taking down zombies, they never lose their empathy and compassion. They almost always see them as people, just afflicted people.

Jo Woo Jin (Squad 38) is the definite standout actor here. I almost always looked forward to his scenes as he ended up being a bit of a scene stealer. I actually wanted more scenes with him and the two leads together. He plays a somewhat shady military colonel who is trying to find a cure for the virus. From the first time we see him, it is clear he knows way more than what he is telling. But isn’t that always the truth with government officials?

All of the minor character actors were also excellent, many of them, so, so infuriating that I think they must have really enjoyed playing these flawed people, some who just want to survive, some who go out of their minds, and some who end up surprising those around them by their kindness and strength. Intense circumstances will bring out our true characters. The leads are just cool and because they both work in the police force are completely accommodated, but the others are all just regular people caught up in the chaos.

The writing of the show was great overall, but, again, only if one assumes this is an alternate world where zombie and/or scary movies don’t exist. The characters are excessively stupid when it comes to keeping the virus in check, even the leads. Fortunately, the zombies don’t have particular super strength or speed. They also don’t eat brains and are sort of zombie vampires. The female lead is the most reckless of them all, but her recklessness is likable, cutting through all the crap and getting to the point, and one can see why her longtime friend has fallen for her. The loyalty of the couple to each other is amazing and is showcased with little romantic scenes in sight. Their love for each other shines through so well, that by the end, a kiss scene wasn’t really necessary. The writing also was made better by having only 12 episodes. Whoever made that decision chose wisely. The show doesn’t feel dragged along like many other ones can. The other big thing I like about the writing and this story concept in general: It gets the watchers to question whether their government really has their best interests in mind, something everyone needs to consider and weigh these days.

Other great things about the show: The music was very fitting, although off-putting and unsettling at times, which was the goal. I loved the theme song and beginning credits. Everything about the production was modern and slick. This is a show that would also make a great book series.

The only, very minor, flaw I saw was that many cuts were edited horribly. These were clearly cuts before a commercial break, and because I watched it on Viki, I am not sure if these were bad cuts made by Viki to insert their commercials or if the editor was just that bad. The former makes the most sense.

Come for the zombies, stay for the power couple. They are very cool and just the sort of people one would want to be with if civilization would crumble.

Kairos: When You Have Time

Spoilers ahead, matey.

Writing involving time travel, even if the characters are not actually traveling through time, can be tricky. I admire any writer who makes the effort. Kairos is a very strong second to the more superior drama Signal from 2016, but I enjoyed and found it brought its own uniqueness to the genre.

Speaking of the genre, I’m not certain it has a name and have seen it primarily with Korean film and TV, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t used elsewhere. For my purposes, I will call it Time Interchange, a genre that involves time travel without the characters actually traveling through time. The “traveling” part is usually done by some medium or device of communication, as in a mailbox or cell phone or walkie-talkie. The characters on either end are separated by time, weeks, years, or months, one ahead, one behind. I first encountered this genre with The Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves. Later in a random book thrift in Tallahasee, I came across the original movie, a Korean one call Il Mare. I quite liked the original and found the acting much better than The Lake House. Although the plots can get confusing due to the time differences, time interchange is a perfect genre for suspense and mystery.

Kairos begins with an extremely heart-wrenching episode. I had to grab a tissue several times as the plot was just brutal. Kim Seo Jin, an executive for a powerful construction company, loses everything precious to him in quick succession. Actor Shin Sung Rok (The Last Empress) is an impressive lead here, and his acting is off the charts. He is well matched by Lee Se Young (Memorist), who plays convenience store worker Han Ae Ri who has a cell phone with very unique capabilities: At 10:33pm each night, she is able to call Kim’s phone for exactly one minute. Not so remarkable in itself, until the two figure out that Han Ae Re is in the past, a month behind when Kim Seo Jin is living!

Although, as always, a little slow for my tastes, Kairos delivers. The word kairos means opportunity and is fitting as the characters are given a fantastical opportunity to change their destinies and that of those around them. A shout out to Park Seung Woo and whoever he hired to be cinematographer, as the cinematography and the shote are unique and top notch. So many episodes have the feel of a movie, not a show. And the camera shots and angles clearly are an effort to move the story along. The music was also spot on and there was almost an 80s, early 90s feel to the show at times.

One of the biggest themes in the show is loyalty. Han Ae Ri has probably the most loyal pair of friends in the world, aside from stolen money, but, hey, it’s just money. Kim Seo Jin quickly finds that no one is loyal to him and soon relies heavily on the loyalty of these strangers from the past. The minor villains played by Ahn Bo Hyun from Yumi’s Cells, and Nam Gyu-Ri from Heartless City end up being a perfect pair for each other and it’s infuriating how the writers especially give Ahn’s character so many chances to continue messing things up for our leads. Both actors had great, great moments, but there is something about them that is missing that star quality, that X factor of most leading actors. I think it is screen presence. Both are very good looking, but in a generic, Abercrombie and Fitch kind of way, if that makes sense.

What Kairos brings to time interchange, is a butterfly effect. When things change in the past, the future–or present, depending on how one looks at it–Kim Seo Jin starts to remember those events, and even events that get redrawn or rewritten due to Han Ae Ri’s efforts. It’s trippy and fun. In the latter efforts, the writing gets very intense as they scenes start constantly flipping back and forth between to the two time periods. It’s all stamped on the screen for the viewing audience, so in that way is easy to keep track, but because we are dealing with two Kim Seo Jins at that point, it’s tricky to keep track of what’s going on. As a whole, the show uses the time difference to great suspense, but never really found a solid groove with that. Many episodes had a lot of boringness with some excitement. Pacing in any show is difficult and even more so with this type of genre. Signal has better pacing and overall suspense than Kairos, but, like I said, Kairos is a very close second. An easy pacing fix would have been to make the show only twelve episodes instead of sixteen. I look forward to what both leads do in the future, Shin Sung Rok, especially. He was definitely the standout performance and carried the show well.

Another show that involves actual time travel that is outstanding is Tunnel starring Choi Jin Hyuk (Zombie Detective) and Yoon Hyun Min (Witch’s Court).