My Week in Dramas and Films 2 August 2023
Revenant, Not Others, Shadow Detective 2, The Legend of Anle
Revenant finished up on the weekend with a better than decent finale. After all my complaints earlier in the year about a distinct pattern of missteps, it feels somewhat odd that I’m now able to compliment show endings. It’s true that Revenant didn’t bother filling in all the gaps but I think there’s enough in the narrative for us to be able to join some of the dots ourselves. Even then there are follow up questions that emerge. Though none are deal breakers. Part of the problem I think with these deliberate plot holes stems from this fear of being predictable. So the solution seems to be a competition to see how many plot twists or reveals can be achieved in one sitting. It’s becoming a double-edged sword. Red-herrings to set the stage for a plot twist in a detective story are par for the course but they also have to be a piece of the puzzle that fits in with all the other pieces. It’s a hard ask and not everyone can do it with flair. The challenge for the writer even with someone of Kim Eun-hee’s calibre is to strike the right balance between the competing forces of plot and messaging. More often than not in K dramas, it’s the messaging emerges triumphant.
The message rings out loud and clear. South Korea has a suicide problem despite improved living conditions post 1958. People are losing heart. They reach a point of despair and don’t see any way out. This apparently is the point of the juvenile ghost — formerly a lass who had dreams of being an artist but her village was destitute, in a grip of a famine so terrible that they would sacrifice one of their own in order to have food on the table. She was sacrificed involuntarily so that others could live. Yet her will to live was strong. So much so that she would steal someone else’s life to have a life she never could. She couldn’t understand why others would give up so easily. It was incomprehensible for anyone to take their own life while she was fighting madly to stay alive even to the point of betraying a family member. Life is a gift and saying that assumes that there is transcendent purpose and meaning to every life.
The reminder that materialism is the cause of much of the first world’s problems is certainly heavily emphasised all throughout. Grandma Yeom certainly epitomizes that spirit of greed that ran right through the story with her “it’s mine” tirades. She wasn’t the only one. The ghost was that way inclined when she was human so her partnership with Grandma made a lot of sense. Grandma lived in a big house by herself with all the luxuries of life at her fingertips, yet she continued grasping for more right to the end. The folkloric religious elements that is the basis of the plot is what breathes new life into the genre. It is also used to explore the reality of evil which arises from many sources. Science, although a useful investigative tool, can’t explain all occurrences. As a solution to humanity’s problems it has its limitations. At the core of this worldview is child sacrifice an ancient practice that even finds its way into the records of the Old Testament. A practice that was adopted by certain kings and utterly condemned by God. The practice also acts as an unofficial barometer of how a society perceives and treat its youngest and most vulnerable.
I am someone who never saw any romance between San-yeong and Hong-sae. Not even with the use of tropes. Partly because he was mostly on the fringes of the story as an observer, playing second fiddle to Detective Seo. Yes, he was intrigued by San-yeong in high school and her ghostly counterpart did flirt with him but the poor lass was losing her mind half the time trying to navigate the hazards of possession. Personally I thought she had more of a bond with Hae-sang. It’s hard to pin it down to one thing but it’s born of the crucible of sharing near death experiences together. Or perhaps it’s just my newfound affection for brooding Oh Jung-se. I loved the ending. I loved watching the two of them watching the fireworks together in the aftermath of all the insanity. Two people who share this common affliction — being able to see ghosts. It began with him. He was all alone in his “curse” but now he isn’t. However one interprets their unspoken companionship, it is a lovely touch. They’ve both arrived at a different place from when they started on this journey together.
Alas all good things must come to an end. It was one of those shows I looked forward to eagerly each week. I will miss it and there’s a part of me that’s tempted to go back and rewatch it to pick up on things I may have missed. A project perhaps for a rainy day.
I started Not Others last week mainly because I’ve become a fan of Park Sung-hoon lately. He was amazing but loathsome in The Glory but sweet and adorable in Into the Ring. It’s probably not the best reason to watch this show because much of the action revolves around Choi Soo-yeong and Jeon Hye-jin as a single mother and her adult daughter. My excuse however is that I am partial to his slowburn dynamic with Choi Soo-yeong. So what of this show? The first thing to know is that the mother-daughter duo don’t have conversations but yelling matches. Even after almost 30 years together they can’t communicate in a civilized fashion without something going off the rails. The second thing of note is that the daughter Jin-hee is the adult of that relationship. Although some of Mum’s bad habits have rubbed off on her over the years, Jin-hee is evincing some progress on her growth arc but Mother is largely still an overgrown combative teenager stunted in the past. The third thing to know is that this is a second chance romance story so the missing birth father somehow finds his way back into this overcrowded landscape that includes an underwear thief and an elusive street mugger who may be responsible for someone’s death. Jin-hee and Jae-won (Park Sung-hoon) are street cops. Both demoted from the lofty perch of HQ to the rough and tumble of community policing. They too are graduates of the police academy with a history of clashing. From time to time I wonder if Jae-won ever had feelings for Jin-hee prior to them meeting again. There are reasons, which I won’t go into here, to think so.
So what do I think of this? It’s okay. Watchable. The jokes land occasionally for me. Mother, Eun-mi’s antics on the other hand are very hard to watch. Considering her age and life experience, her combative nature elicits a combination of cringe and secondhand embarrassment as one is privy to each one. I wish she was written less hyperbolic. As far as rom coms go, it’s something I can stomach. At least it doesn’t feel overtly parodic. I think the writer/PD at least understands how to write/direct for tv. There’s a straightforward but palatable plot. At this point I’m just waiting for the Jin-hee Jae-won dynamic to take off.
Lately the controversy is about the intrusion of Dad into their mundane lives. Personally I can’t say I’m surprised that Eun-mi’s leapt back into his arms with both arms wide open after a few minutes of hesitation. She’s lonely (rather over-reliant on two people in her life), desperate for male company and in search of true love. I don’t think the reunion is necessarily the problem for most people but the way Eun-mi is going about it Eun-mi’s way… she’s characteristically inconsiderate.
Shadow Detective S2 also did a good job wrapping the story up and considering the genre there was less of a blood bath than the previous season but still plenty of close calls. Like Imperfect Victim, the entire series is about power imbalance. The remedy certainly isn’t to use violence to rectify the problem. The answer to corruption isn’t to complicate matters with even more corruption. It only ends up being a vicious cycle. And of course, Lord Acton’s famous saying “Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the key to understanding the show’s themes. There’s a powerful moment when a character washes his blood-stained sleeve after gunning down a colleague. It’s partly an allusion to the account of Pontius Pilate in the New Testament washing his hands declaring himself innocent of Jesus’ impending crucifixion as he caves to the mob. It could also be a reference to Lady Macbeth after her involvement in the murder of Duncan.
What’s more important is that S2 is a character study of two very different men who are committed to their jobs. In the most fundamental ways, they both want the same thing. To protect their colleagues. One is a sensitive soul, constantly questioning his own motives, protective of his subordinates, always putting others ahead of himself. The other wants sweeping change for the benefit of the police organization. He too would say that he wants to protect his colleagues and considering what he’s witnessed first hand and been subjected to, it’s understandable. Their choices would lead them on very different paths, to an inevitable clash and to very different conclusions.
All in all the writing is stellar (I’m a big fan of the dialogue. The subtext in particular.) and of course the performances are just mesmerizing especially by the great Lee Seung-min.
The Legend of Anle is an exemplar of how to waste likeable charismatic actors on a misguided production. I’m not sure what went wrong first as I’m not privy to the behind the scenes happenings. I never read source materials beforehand so it’s not about misplaced expectations. Given her track record of late you’d think a show with Dilraba as the titular character would have much more professional polish. It is astonishing in that regard that this show feels like it’s written for children. Anyone who has watched any amount of C dramas for a substantial period of time will recognize not only the tired use of tropes but experience these cut and paste flashes of far superior revenge period dramas seen previously. Even the trial to address the primary grievance meant to be the pinnacle moment of the story falls flatter than a soggy piece of crepe.
Where do I start? There’s just far too much that could be said. It’s true I like my historical dramas serious although I can tolerate a bit of humour but the first five episodes made me die a little inside. A girl boss going by the name of Ren Anle enters the political stage. Or should I say hurls herself into the limelight. She offers the emperor 30 000 of her naval forces as dowry to marry the crown prince, Han Ye (Gong Jun). She flirts shamelessly with him and turns every conversation they have about their impending nuptials even though he insists he will only marry Di Ziyuan, the girl he was betrothed to by his grandfather. This gets quite repetitive and repetition becomes the modus operandi for the rest of the story. The show has even less respect for audience than usual. What’s worse is that just about everyone including the emperor seems to think that this undignified young woman is amusing and should be taken seriously. For me it breaks immersion. I can’t take the show seriously. Even when the show takes on a more serious tone, the writing is unconvincing.
A lot of C dramas don’t really understand television and many don’t even know that the principle of “show don’t tell” is a thing. This production in particular commits all the worst writing sins in spades. There are characters whose only job in the story is to stand around to tell the audience how other characters are feeling and how to think about a scene (just in case we’ve missed it after all aforementioned regurgitation of facts). There are crucial moments that take place off-screen and filled in by lengthy exposition dumps often in conversations between two characters. It’s scarcely surprising then that there’s so much on the nose dialogue.
At the end of the day, I’m doing this for love of Gong Jun. The guy is born to do historical dramas. Moreover I do like his character a lot because he’s a good lad. And not much gets past him. Furthermore the crown prince is a self-sacrificing and sensitive soul who is a worthy successor to the throne. It’s a fact practically bashed over the audience’s head as if we’re incapable of coming to the conclusion on our own. What’s more puzzling is all the talk about how awful the emperor is. Over and over again we’re told that he’s a terrible tyrant capable of unthinkable horrors. A despot who doesn’t deserve the throne. But I’m not sure he’s all that bad from what I see with my own eyes. He may be accused of impotence at times. However he’s certainly no worse than most drama emperors clinging on to power and surprisingly more reasonable than others. There’s certainly not enough of him to denounce him unequivocally as the personification of evil.
Dilraba does her best with what she’s been given. On paper she’s a good fit although the character is pretty much a Mary Sue. Unfortunately I don’t think her schemes are that amazing to warrant all the effusive praise that’s heaped on her by others. Her best buddy co-conspirator Luo Mingxi played by Liu Yuning is probably better fleshed out than the romantic leads. I actually like Liu Yuning more in this than in The Long Ballad. I also like his dynamic here with the courtesan Linglan although I can see it’s all one sided on her part.
The roles are well cast. On paper this could have been good. And while there is some semblance of a plot, it feels like a bunch of hacks hijacked and took over the steering of this ship.
Clearly the FF button exists for a show such as this.
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