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Two Reviews: Cafe Minamdang (2022) and Love Like the Galaxy (2022)
Cafe Minamdang (2022)
Cafe Minamdang is a silly but good-natured romp that positions itself within the tradition of slapstick buddy cop procedurals while conducting an uneasy dalliance with the serious side of criminal profiling. It’s no a marriage made in heaven as the ensemble hunt down an elusive serial killer who seems to be connected with the upper echelons of South Korean society. Indeed how does one successfully reconcile the comedic with the more serious elements? Not easily and the mixed results speak for themselves. Seo In-guk who plays former forensic profiler Nam Han-jun turned consulting shaman gets to display his comedic talents with shameless glee as he robs from the rich while trying to solve crimes with his partners-in-crime, Kong Su-cheol (Kwak Shi-yang) and sister Nam Hye-ju using their individual skill sets. Han-ju is reduced to grifting as a shaman in his popular cafe using his mentalist abilities because he was wrongly convicted for fabricating evidence in the aftermath of the murder of his bestie the late Prosecutor Han Jae-jeong. After serving time, Han-jun is determined to track down the killer while amassing resources earned through the cafe. It doesn’t take long before he starts to cross swords with Jae-jeong’s younger sister, Jae-hui (Oh Yeon-seo) who despite her rank is really a third-rate detective who investigates using her unreliable gut and is prone to emotional outbursts. In fact her entire team comprises of a rag tag of ne’er do wells that often have their rear ends handed to them by the unofficial sleuths from Cafe Minamdang (the front for Han-jun and Co.’s real agenda). Jae-hui misunderstands the flamboyant Han-jun but he prefers it that way especially when he doesn’t know who she is.
Like many South Korean dramas of its type, the show mercilessly mocks the wealthy and the powerful not just for their avarice and flagrant disregard for the rules which are only for the plebs. It even manages to poke fun of wealthy parents with more dollars than sense in an unexpected foray into nature vs nurture territory on top of everything else the show crams in. Furthermore materialism is a scourge of society that afflicts the religious as represented in a character like Auntie Im and the irreligious for whom religion is a tool to gain power. Han-jun maybe an egotistical religious huckster to the more discerning but his razor sharp observation skills and ability to think on his feet sees him often in service with the angels until he is strapped for cash.
The 18 episode format is an overkill. This is a story that could have easily been told in 12 episodes but for the unnecessary insertion of romance which frankly adds nothing to the storytelling or character development. That said Seo In-guk is adorable even in his more pubescent outbursts. It is his onscreen charm that carries the romance as much as it is possible. The drama however is not enhanced by it or by Jae-hui’s presence. Her antics are particularly hard to watch in the first half as she’s bumbling around at playing detective, getting in his way and basically being a hinderance to actual investigative work done by the unofficial sleuths who have inserted themselves into an investigation illegally. It is something of a running gag that the police are so incompetent at the start, a situation made worse by Jae-hui’s lack of professionalism as she stubbornly sets her sights on a single line of inquiry in the early episodes. Her tendency to be overly emotional (there are good reasons why cops aren’t allowed to investigate cases involving family members) and freakishly violent is undoubtedly written to be a point of humour but comes across much more as annoyance for at least half the show. She’s in it to put the breaks on the real investigation and her violent spurts directed towards Han-jun don’t reflect particularly well on her.
18 episodes is also rather too long for a show primarily concerned with uncovering the identity of a mysterious serial killer especially when it is fairly obvious to the audience who that individual is quite early on. While there are no lack of red-herrings and false trails to lead the show’s investigators off the beaten track for the show’s most scary bad guy, there is no lack of real villany on offer whether they be chaebol heirs, corrupt politicians and supposedly real shamans who abuse their power.
It also takes far too long time for the two sides to start working together even though it’s always fun to have a giggle at official detectives’ expense. But when they finally do collaborate, things move far more smoothly for all concerned, expediting proper detective work.
Last but not least, the humour, which is perhaps the most important consideration of all, is an acquired taste. It’s over-the-top, slapstick and unabashedly wacky but it still manages to get laughs out of an old stodgy type like myself. Seo In-guk and Kwak Shi-yang are particularly ridiculously hilarious especially when one considers what they they are willing to do to create these larger-than-life caricatures. Even in my more doubtful moments I laboured under the belief that since I survived Vincenzo I could survive this which I did… and even enjoyed much of it.
It’s not a great show by any stretch of the imagination (although it could have been if it had been leaner and tighter) and the flaws are plain to see from the start. As far as the whodunit side of things are concerned, it does nothing spectacular or novel. But when Nam Han-jun flicks his folding fan and turns on his crazy shaman shtick, it’s almost a guarantee that we’re in for a wild and raucous ride.
Love Like the Galaxy (2022)
How do you solve a problem like Cheng Shaoshang? How do you make her stay and listen to all you say? How do you take an immature neglected child with a penchant for retaliation and turn her into a young lady that men will line up to marry? How do you evaluate her exploits, discipline her and yet not break her spirit? How do you keep a gust of wind contained and harness it for good?
These are the kind of questions every parent must wrestle with and they are the catalyst for the show’s overarching preoccupations with family dynamics, the systemic flaws of social hierarchies and marriage as a civilizing impulse. Within the scope of 56 episodes, the biography of Cheng Shaoshang (Zhao Lusi), a 15-year-old discovering the world beyond the four walls of her family home for the first time, serves as a jumping off point for scrutinizing the underlying social decay at a microcosmic scale to begin with. At the level of its facade Ruyang gives the favourable impression of peaceful cohesion because the hierarchical structure which undergirds it cloaks or whitewashes the rumblings of discontent within the ranks.
Within the narrative, Cheng Shaoshang an abandoned child by all accounts, is largely a product of circumstances while serving as an unreliable outsider’s gaze as the audience is given access into the world of emperors, nobles and soldiers. The world she inhabits is a contradictory one, struggling to live up to its own ideals because of the spectre of uncurbed self-interest, egregious materialism and competing agendas. The message is this: Family which is at the core of every society is in strife and is in dire need of reformation across the board. The raising of adults is a challenging task made more difficult because responsible adults are in short supply while children go hungry for lack of discipline and love. Individuals must take responsibility for their own failures in this respect but one is also left with the sense that there’s something within the structure itself that needs overhauling.
All manner of families are featured including Shaoshang’s. As Tolstoy once wrote in Anna Karenina, “Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, the writers painstakingly details that thesis with examples from the royals to newly gentrified military households. It’s true that good people don’t always make good parents but parents who don’t exercise discipline will inevitably reap a harvest of hurt in time to come. The theme is unmistakably clear: When families are divided, it puts the nation in jeopardy opening itself to attacks from external threats. For a country to be strong, its families have to be as well. And for families to be strong, marriages have to be built on strong foundations.
More of this is explored in Shaoshang’s relationships with three suitors. In a real enough way love for Shaoshang matters less than maturity. As in many C dramas, romance is almost always the vehicle for something else. In this case it’s Shaoshang’s initiation into adulthood even if she’s dragged along in kicking and screaming. She might be a clever resourceful youngster with a penchant for STEM subjects but she is still unacquainted with the brutal complexities of the world as she clamours to be free. It’s a catch cry calculated to endear modern audiences to her cause but it more often than not comes across as an odd affectation in a world where not only are gender roles well-defined but social status is currency. Quite often it rings hollow when the consequences of her actions come back to bite. Of course Shaoshang’s relationship with her second suitor (although I would argue he’s always been her first) Ling Buyi (Wu Lei) is the most fully fleshed because a) he is by far the most “suited” to her temperament and b) he somehow manages to live up to the grandiose English title in his seemingly contradictory actions.
Love is a curious thing and Ling Buyi is a man torn by many loves. Indeed all his loves (inevitably) come into conflict at some point and he has to make the choice. His role in relation to Shaoshang is to awaken eros in a similar fashion that Romeo does to Juliet. Physically he is an imposing figure and his status as a man of action or an action hero is reinforced in many scenes which feature him. Nevertheless he has a gentler softer side which is reserved for the woman who has awakened his desire to couple, have his own family and to be a part of one. Once these desires awaken it sets off of a chain of events that seem them both navigating events in the palace becoming entangled with the country’s First Family. Their relationship is sorely tested on several fronts but these trials are purportedly opportunities for growth. To become a family, they must walk in unison. To walk as one, they must talk and find a way to agree and work together. Love is just the starting point of a journey rife with obstacles. It is the fuel for the engine but not the engine — which is commitment.
At first glance Ling Buyi appears to be an unlikely romantic hero. A man who has seen much bloodshed and shed blood himself doesn’t immediately seem to qualify for that role. He is stoic and lacks the social graces to woo the lady who has stirred his heart. Belying that cold exterior is heart and a mind who will do anything for love. Even if it means giving it up. Hence the great paradox of C dramas — textbook noble idiocy — much to the chagrin of many an audience. This isn’t lost on his biggest rival Yuan Shanjian (Liu Yunrui) who is only too aware of what he has to live up to.
This coming of age story has been called a slow burn romance and it’s a convenient way to pigeonhole what transpires between Ling Buyi and Cheng Shaoshang. In that vein the romance begins from the day Ling Buyi sees Cheng Shaoshang’s finger pointing in the direction of the culprit that he seeks.
Zhao Lusi and Wu Lei who play the romantic leads here are brimming with both wholesome and sizzling chemistry. They make an attractive couple even when they’re at odds. Zhao Lusi gets better with every outing and she’s capable of natural comedic delivery that’s quite rare among C drama actresses. Wu Lei is, to my mind, spectacularly good as Ling Buyi running a whole gamut of emotions and the subtle yet unmistakable changes in him after the 5-year separation are heartrendingly nuanced. If there’s one good thing that comes out of that so-called separation trope it is the fact that we the audience are treated to a wonderful portrayal of a tormented, contrite Ling Buyi who loves much, is sorry about much and still cares far too much.
The last 5 episodes notwithstanding, Love Like the Galaxy is undoubtedly one of the best C dramas I’ve seen. In a year of good C dramas, it somehow manages to stand out brilliantly. It is not without flaws and it’s not easy to say where the blame should lie due to claims made about missing episodes. There are certainly gaps in the narrative that I’m not sure can entirely be fixed by a director’s cut or an extended edition, if one is actually forthcoming. I’m for one am not holding my breath. The uneven pacing of the last 5 episodes riddled with overused tropes (including the resolution and finale) is one of the production’s more glaring shortcomings. Moreover there’s also far more contrived theatre and speechifying in the last 2 episodes than is warranted so late in the game. It is equally unfortunate that the Cheng family that were so much of the story in Part 1, takes a back seat to narcissistic female villains in the show’s final act.
The drama also boasts a cast of competent actors from the very young to seasoned campaigners. The veterans are especially a joy to watch as their experience in the industry really shows — the emperor (Bao Jianfeng), Cheng Shi (Guo Tao), Consort Yue (Cao Xiwen) are the highlights in terms of versatility and memorability. Speaking of the emperor and his beloved consort, this show clearly has one of the most interesting television imperial harems I’ve seen. It not only goes against the norm but it humanizes the father and mothers of the nation to such an extent that they feel less like rulers and more like your run-of-the-mill tv heads of a family-run corporation.
While 56 episodes may seem off-putting, it is one of those shows in which time seems to fly by. The highest compliment I can pay is this: With some C dramas I’m looking at the time wondering when an episode will be done but in this one, I’m always dismayed when an episode comes to an end.