My Week in Dramas 25 October: My Dearest (2023) Episodes 13-14; Ripe Town (2023) First Impressions
It’s such a disappointment that Gu Won-mu is such a contrastive caricature to Jang-hyeon . Yes, he is a man of his time. But why does he have to be so stodgy? Why was he so insistent about marrying Gil-chae knowing that she had feelings for another man, if he can’t take his vows seriously at the very moment she needs him the most? Perhaps that’s the point. Marrying her in and of itself was a mistake. He married her under false pretences to a certain degree. He could have backed off the moment Jang-hyeon returned to “claim her” but he didn’t. Why would an insecure man steeped in tradition be so eager to marry a clever woman who is unconventional to say the least? For her beauty? For her intelligence? To stoke his own ego? But it’s a double-edge sword for a vapid colourless suitor. Admiration without genuine affection can’t cement commitment.
This is where Yeon-jun got it right. He too was attracted to Gil-chae for her personality and wit but he knew that she wasn’t the right kind of wife for a man like him. No doubt he was tempted to succumb but for a stick-in-the-mud like him she was too hot to handle.
Taboos have a significant role in every society because they are a protective as well as stabilizing mechanism. They serve as fences. The recurring one in this story is the chastity of women especially with regards to the invading hordes. It’s understandable in that context that a man and his family would want to ensure that their bloodline remains “pure” — that the offsprings from their wives are indeed their offspring. No one begrudges them that. But like every relationship it goes both ways. Where are the men when the women need them? Why aren’t they protecting their women? Often when the men go off to war, they leave their women folk vulnerable to attacks from hostile invaders who aim to humiliate. The people at the top end of the food chain need to step up and ensure that their wives, mothers, sisters and neighbours don’t bear the brunt of social shame due to poor leadership. After all they have the burden of carrying and bringing life to the world. When the women of Joseon are raped or sold off as sex slaves, the shame falls on the entire nation for its failure to be a vanguard for its future.
Gu Won-mu symbolizes the taboo gone awry. Blame must be apportioned somewhere but interestingly he doesn’t put his hand up for the role. The irony of course is as a result of his initial inaction, his worst fears have come to pass. His legal wife Gil-chae has reunited with her former lover who has come to her timely rescue. A situation that he could have been prevented not just once but twice if the husband were the man that his wife needed him to be. There are parallels here with the nation’s passivity. The country abandons its most vulnerable particularly its women and the captives have no recourse but to make a new life with their new Qing masters. Hence the humiliation is complete.
Lee Chung-ah’s Manchu princess inadvertently becomes a student in Jang-hyeon’s classroom of practical wisdom. She’s the typical sort of spiteful so-called second female lead that can’t take “no” for an answer. The lesson she needs to learn is that even she can’t get whatever she wants. Regardless of her status in that world, she still has to suffer disappointment like the rest of humanity. No one gets what they want all of the time. Not even the king. This is the sort of lesson that every child needs to learn so that they don’t grow into tantrum throwing entitled adults needing a lot of hand holding.
After a series of harrowing ordeals, the leads are finally reunited. For how long is the question foremost in my mind. They certainly have Ryang-eum to thank but how long will the goodwill last? Perhaps he’s learnt his lesson and he is being positioned as a contrast to the Manchu princess. I love the scene where the leads are conversing on either side of a door — K drama land generally do a good job with those — but here especially because for the first time, Jang-hyeon was pouring his heart out, being honest about his mistakes, his regrets. Should’ve. Would’ve. Could’ve. Wish we had. All the things that people say when they know it’s too late. She’s still legally bound to Gu Won-mo even though Jang-hyeon does his best after plucking her from a fate worse than death to maintain some distance. But her family waits for her and Eun-ae is falling apart with worry. Some of the original obstacles are still in play so it’s clear that the path of true love continues to be a bumpy one.
For the first time possibly Gil-chae realises how far Jang-hyeon is willing to go for her. There would be many reasons why she adamantly refused to seek his help. Her pride wouldn’t allow it for one. But knowing that she chose not to leave with him then, she must feel that she no longer has any right to entangle him in her affairs. He should move on. Moreover she’s now married to another man and is duty-bound to wait for him to come rescue her. Does his unwillingness and inability to protect her now release her from her obligation to her husband? There are no easy answers. One man is husband in name and the other acts like a husband willing to lay down his life for his wife. Is it unrealistic for a man to be this devoted that he can’t move on after two years? I don’t think so if he believes her to be a rare gem that he let slip out of his hand. They are both older and hopefully wiser.
Yeon-jun is lost and leaderless. His sentiments are perhaps representative of the nation at large. His elders have gone and he is directionless. He has always been a follower in need of a cause. He’s been rejected by the highest in the land so where can he go? After witnessing the horrors firsthand and feeling helpless, he is keen to hitch his wagon to Jang Cheol and his pupils who at least is offering something of a roadmap of a future for Joseon.
Ripe Town (2023) after Fake It Till You Make It, demonstrates once again why C dramas don’t have to be overindulgent overlong productions to tell a good story. This 12-episode whodunit set in the waning days of the Ming Dynasty (probably a similar time period to My Dearest) is so far a fascinating piece of storytelling. Through flashbacks and from the point of view of its protagonist, Qu Sangeng (Bai Yufan), a bailiff of his county’s constabulary, it’s not hard to see why Ming eventually fell to the Manchurians. The country’s foundations are rotting and the cracks are becoming increasingly problematic as seen in the smaller scale corruption at the local level. The story begins when Sangeng discovers the body of his beloved mentor, Capt Leng, strung up in an open field like a scarecrow. From then on the lad embarks on an extensive inquiry into his mentor’s death which doubles up as an exploration of the deceased’s life — his relationships and the way he carried out his role as chief of the Hunters Squad. Was he a good man? That’s the question that haunts Sangeng all throughout while he struggles to maintain some measure of objectivity. Well, his shifu did indulge the local gang lords in exchange for their cooperation and was a regular visitor at the local brothel while being married with two children.
Heading up law enforcement is Song Chen (Ning Li) the county’s judge (edited) and chief interrogator. He has a fetish for teeth and has a collection to show for it. He too is an enigmatic creature who may or may not have some direct connection with the murders. Yes, it’s murders in the plural because it doesn’t take long before another body shows up in macabre fashion. To help piece the puzzle Sangeng has colleague Shicong and childhood friend Feng Kezhui (Zhang Haowei), a scholar and calligrapher to lend a helping hand. Since Reborn, it’s always a joy to see Zhang Haowei in anything remotely watchable.
5 episodes later, the drama shows promise even if the palette is on the dreary side. But it has a grounded realistic feel as the investigation reveals the secrets of the victims and their connection with a horrific fire 20 years earlier that killed an entire family.
Although the second season of The Uncanny Counter is clearly not as fresh or as tightly written as the first, I don’t think it’s as terrible as some of the commentary might have us believe. It certainly could have done with a trim of 2-4 episodes but tries its best (although not entirely successfully) to make a case for why two powerful evil spirits with abilities not previously seen can be the challenge of a lifetime. The show should get some credit for exploring the possibility that So Mun’s (the titular character) ethos to save lives and protect them can become not only a hindrance to the capture of the evil spirits but is weaponized by them against him. His innate goodness and kindness may or may not be the very thing that prevents him from doing what’s necessary to stop the carnage. His relationship with Ma Ju-seok, a former kind-hearted firefighter is given the microscope treatment in confrontation after confrontation and the two often play out a Luke Skywalker-Darth Vader dynamic.
The second installment could justifiably be accused of slathering the characters with a heavier dose of cheese but the family vibe is still strong in this. The new recruit Jeong-beok even with his unique olfactory ability doesn’t really add much the team. He is more a running gag than an actual character to my mind. In fact his screechy antics are hard to listen to at first but thankfully gets toned down as the show progresses. I also question the heavier involvement of Jang Meul in this season although he does have his occasional use apart from being the team’s financial backer. Mo-tak dons his cop cap more than his counter hat as the older members of the team don’t evolve as much as the rest. There are crucial changes to characters and part of whether this season works depends largely on whether audience expectations are met.
Overall the series ended much better than it started.
I watched two episodes of Mr and Mr Chen (2023) on the recommendation of absoluteM and on the strength that Elvis Han plays one of the show’s main characters. I can’t say that I’m especially wowed by it because the action sequences are ridiculous to the point of cartoony. For a show that’s about espionage, there’s far too much gunfire in public places with large crowds of civilians. Furthermore the show feels less about various sides spying on each other than it is about rival gangs trying to gain dominance in a politically charged landscape during the Republican era. The best part of the two episodes was the interrogation scenes because it was playing out more like a police procedural cat and mouse game. I’m not confident about this one going the distance especially if it relies heavily on coincidences to drive the plot forward.
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