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First Impressions (2022-23): Island, Trolley and Unchained Love
I enjoy the sight of Kim Nam-gil the superhero as much as the next K drama watcher but the first two episodes of Island didn’t particularly impress. Sure, there’s plenty of flash and bang to gawk at (decent action set pieces and cinematography) but to its detriment. the script lacks discipline. The set-up for how the three leads end up in Jeju is clunky. Clearly there are elements of a good horror-fantasy embedded in the story but they don’t come together in any compelling manner. The eye candy is on full display but sadly the early episodes don’t do much to garner further interest. Frankly it’s a case of “take it or leave it” with this one. In the middle of all the threads Van’s (Kim Nam-gil) superhero flashback story and his connection with Lee Da-hee’s Won Mi-ho is given spotlight in the first two episodes. The word “fate” gets thrown around far more than is necessary and by the end of Episode 2, I’m tempted to shout “Enough already. We get it”. On top of that Cha Eun-soo’s priestly exorcist character gets to strut his stuff.
There’s a sense that the show is setting the stage for an epic showdown/resolution with its impending “doomsday” prophecies and “chosen one” storyline but the uneven pacing is such that there’s no genuine sense of urgency about anything here. Considering that there’s only 6 episodes in Part 1, you’d think that fillers would be anathema here. I haven’t read the webtoon but it doesn’t make sense for a show to waste tv oxygen on chaebol infighting when an end-of-the-world scenario in on the cards. There must be a far more efficient way to get a rich girl onto the island without having to resort to using conglomerate succession issues which are a dime a dozen.
Trolley, on the other hand, is shaping up to be a tightly-written, well-acted morality tale about the law of intended/unintended consequences. As the title suggests, the story gets its inspiration from the “trolley problem” — a thought experiment posited by Philippa Foot about a hypothetical situation in which an observer has the opportunity to save 5 people in a trolley/tram by diverting the tracks which will kill 1 person. The expression has come to be used to describe trade-offs and the degree of acceptable sacrifices in the decision-making process.
The show stars Kim Hyun-joo and Park Hee-soo as a political couple who eschew the stereotype by living as an ordinary middle class family with the usual problems that beset families. The leads are excellent as one might expect of actors with their experience and they are convincing as a loving couple — book restorer Kim Hye-ju and Assemblyman Nam Joong-dong. They don’t make a fanfare about his position to their acquaintances and Joong-dong takes his responsibilities as an assemblyman seriously. They both come from a background of volunteering and it’s quickly established that Joong-dong’s political career is merely an extension of a life of service to the community. I also like Joong-dong’s chief aide, Jang Woo-jae played by Kim Mu-yeol (last seen in Juvenile Justice) who is depicted as a sharp political operator.
Things start to go wobbly for them when their oldest, the prodigal son, is found dead in the river with drugs in his pocket. It’s the beginning of a series of crises events that sees them questioning their own motives and moral integrity. If they had known then what they know now, would they have made the decisions that they ended up making.? To complicate matters further, a lass purporting to be their son’s girlfriend shows up at their doorstep and declares that she’s with child.
If you’re after something sobering for adults, featuring adults thinking like adults, this is the one to look at. There are no easy answers on offer and it does a stellar job of highlighting the frailty of the human condition.
Unchained Love starring Dylan Wang and Chen Yuqi is a blast. It is unadulterated entertainment at its best. It was vaguely on my radar because I saw the trailer a month or so ago. I binged the first 9 episodes yesterday in earnest and let’s hope that streak of drama goodness endures right to the end. This show is absolutely hilarious. Unabashedly so. But without the over-reliance on silly high jinks and slapstick. For a C drama there’s surprisingly very little filler especially in these early episodes. Much of the early phase of the drama relies on misunderstanding between the leads in particular and those moments are set up and executed wonderfully well.
Chen Yuqi is Bu Yinlou, a spunky, shrewd imperial consort who is destined to die with the late emperor. It is her duty as well as that of other consorts to accompany him into the afterlife only to be rescued at the 11th hour by the powerful eunuch Xiao Duo (Dylan Wang) head of the country’s largest law enforcement agency, Zhao Ding Division. He saves her on the behest of the late emperor’s none-too-bright brother, Prince Fu (Peter Ho) who passes away his time making lanterns to avoid the critical gaze of the ambitious Empress Rong An. The immensely clever Xiao Duo is out for revenge against a certain Prince Nanyuan and has been working his way towards eliminating his greatest enemy for some time. At first he misunderstands the nature of Yinlou’s relationship with Prince Fu and she misunderstands his intentions towards (although not entirely) her. They spar a little and banter a lot. Yinlou has the gift of the gab and has missed her calling as a grifter. She somehow manages to talk her way out of one crisis after another and eventually thaws the icy demeanour of the stoic Xiao Duo with her winning ways.
As such stories go, he soon falls for her. Why not? She catches on quick, can read a room and is likeable. And thus begins a love triangle involving Yinlou, Xiao Duo and Prince Fu who becomes the next emperor as a result of an accident. It’s up to Xiao Duo to come up with ways and means to keep the new sovereign at bay while he romances Yinlou on the sly. And yes, all of Xiao Duo’s man parts are intact.
As with all C dramas there are side romances to fill the gaps. Here, they’re actually tolerable and amusing. They’re well integrated with the leads’ romance. Xiao Dou’s sidekick and godson (go figure) Cao Chun’an has his eye on Yinlou’s maid. Prince Yuwen Liangxu is smitten by the emperor’s half sister, Murong Wanwan. These relationships so far are played for good-natured laughs.
Like many C historical dramas of late, this one highlights the plight of women in the palace. Concubines do it tough and like we’ve seen in many palace dramas, they must bear a son or pray that the emperor outlives them. It seems to me too that male or female, everyone who enters the gilded cage will have to play the game well. Those who don’t almost always end up paying for it with their lives. This is the reality of a world where everyone’s a cog in the machine including the man in the top job.
The leads are well cast in their respective roles and their chemistry is fantastic. I loved Chen Yuqi (aka Yukee) in Heavenly Sword Dragon Slaying Sabre (2019) and she’s delightful in this as the garrulous Bu Yinlou. This is my first experience with Dylan Wang and I’m impressed with what he brings to the table. He plays a similar sort of role to Chen Xiao’s character from The Dream of Splendour but I think Dylan Wang, who could be mistaken as Wu Lei’s brother, does a much better job fleshing out his character despite his limited experience.