What I've been watching 29/12/2021
Sending all my cherished readers best wishes for the holidays and the new year. I appreciate you all and your continued support of the blog. I had three busy days in row prior and during Christmas that I had no time to do any writing although I have been watching new dramas and catching up with other ones I started a while back. Needless to say, I’m enjoying my break.
The bittersweet ending of Chimera was a relief quite frankly. Even while the “bad guys” got their just desserts, things didn’t end happily for those who were desperately trying to uncover the truth either. It was frankly impossible considering the web of corruption and the ramifications of past misdeeds on the present. The title from Greek mythology is a good one because it demonstrates how taking the law into one’s own hands leads to all kinds of unforeseen horrors. It’s a cautionary tale of revenge, injustice, and sweeping things under the carpet because one never knows when it all comes back to devour you. As a rabid fan of police procedurals, I enjoyed the incorporation of melodrama, chemistry and history into the larger narrative. It’s one of the better crime shows in the latter half of 2021. Maybe even the best. It’s likely to be the best OCN drama of the last couple of years surpassing Train for me because of the calibre of the acting. The script is well thought out and everything was nicely wrapped up although I did hope that Cha Jae-hyuk might try and persuade the attractive Agent Eugene to stay in Korea for his sake.
Before I go into my comments of Snowdrop, I’d like to first say that we need to have a far more sophisticated view of history, historiography and fiction. While I don’t want to be embroiled in the current controversy over the show’s depiction of the South Korean political landscape in the late 1980s, it has been lamentable that there was even a controversy even before any of us got to see the final cut in full. I’m fine with having debates about dramas but only when we actually have concrete evidence that the charges have some foundation. The entire brouhaha has coloured people’s ability to look at the show much more objectively as a result when the show itself allows for a range of interpretations. As much as I tried to maintain objectivity and neutrality, I still went in with certain preconceived notions.
Artistically, Snowdrop is a flawed project. It has taken me 5 episodes to come to the realisation that it’s political satire about the absurdity of North and South Cold War espionage when I went in thinking that this was a serious romance melodrama about the pro-democracy movement and its relationship to the regime and law enforcement. While the pro-democracy movement is referenced, it isn’t at the core of the storytelling. Much of the story (so far) takes place in a University women’s hostel/boarding house where one of the residents harbours a North Korean officer after he climbs into her room badly wounded after taking flight from law enforcement (ANSP) who are acolytes of the shoot-first-ask- questions-later school of thought. She and her roommates immediately assume that he’s an activist who has fallen prey to the ANSP and offer him refuge. It’s ridiculous right? Red flags should immediately go up. To trust a guy you barely know even if he looks like Jung Hae-in, nurse him back to health and fall in love with him while you both fold paper aeroplanes in a dusty attic. He, on the other hand, is a man with a mission and shouldn’t be encouraging her in this infatuation but he does. Sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right? You betcha.
The ANSP doesn’t have a good human rights track record but one of its agents (Jang Seung-jo) recently returned from overseas is on the trail of a North Korean spy. It’s become an obsession with him to the chagrin of his ex (Jung Yoo-jin) who joined the organization because of him. She’s also off her rocker, somewhat gun happy but her feelings for Lee Gang-moo seem to be true. They receive contradictory orders from the higher ups about whether or not to capture Lim Soo-ho but Gang-moo is a maverick and goes with his gut.
Unbeknownst to these pawns, the political masters of both the northern and southern agents are doing backroom deals with each other for large sums of cash and to win elections. These men are all married to some version of Lady Macbeth who are each pushing their husbands to be more ambitious. They sit around in flashy clothing, sipping tea and make backhanded catty comments about each other.
It is a farce in every sense of the word. The show trades a fair bit on gallows humour especially in Episode 5 when bullets are flying fast and furiously. Even so, I’m not sure that the parodic impulses of the show cohere all that well especially with the odd inclusion of melodrama for the benefit of keeping the romance brewing while north and south duke it out on the coalface despite best laid plans made behind the scenes. It’s rowdy and messy but there’s an element of fun. As I’m not a fan, I’ll say it’s more Tarantino than Malick.
Luoyang consistently proves to be a class act even as the drama enters its final straight. It leaves most of the current crop of K dramas for dead. As a police procedural, it’s good but as a character-driven story, it’s superb. It’s probably not as convoluted as it first appears and that’s the genius of the script. I like practically everything about it — even the romances and I don’t think they’re as unnecessary as I’ve heard it said. While I appreciate how the complex procedural elements unfold and play out, the brilliance of the script lies in how the overarching conspiracy becomes an inadvertent instrument of distrust and suspicion. The nuts and bolts of the conspiracy itself aren’t that difficult to work out but what the details of the conspiracy does to individual relationships is where the show works its most potent magic. Friends are pitted against friends although it also turns strangers into friends/lovers as well. The mole hunts and the subsequent revelations as to who the members of the Chunqiu Sect are is what drives the rapid character development. It isn't just the fact that hardly anyone can be trusted that puts everyone on edge but finding out that the people closest to you aren’t exactly who you thought has devastating, far-reaching consequences for one’s perspective of the world. The sudden realisation that your trust has been misplaced and the relationship has been a lie will shake even a heart of stone. A paradigm shift inevitably occurs.
I wait with baited breath for the final episodes to air.
The Red Sleeve: Lee Jun-ho has been very impressive these last two episodes particularly as Yi San takes the reigns and slides into the role that he was born to claim. His relationship with the now Royal Secretary, Hong Deok-ro is increasingly fraught with tension as both men have completely different starting points with regards to what governance looks like. Both are ambitious in their own right but the direction in which ambition takes for each end up somewhere different. As a lesser villain, Hong Deok-ro is a multifaceted creature whose insatiable appetite for power ensures that he loses everything in one fell swoop. He’s not a decent human being but he doesn’t care as long as he gets to ride on the coattails of the king whom he believes will forgive him of his transgressions because of their history.
Less impressive in my book, is the writing of the heroine of the story. She’s a product of fanfiction, imbued with modern sensibilities which sit uneasily in the context of the rest of the story. Sung Deok-im speaks with a sassy independent voice to resonate with contemporary audiences but much of that rings hollow. The king proposes once, she hesitates. He proposes again, she is struck dumb yet again. She has no answer for him at first but when she finally verbalizes what’s in her heart, it’s a serious of angry, harsh denunciations. It’s as if she thinks she’s Elizabeth Bennet spurning Mr Darcy when she’s momentarily forgotten she’s a palace maid. It’s not that palace maids can’t have their own ideas about marriage but it’s 18th century Joseon. At least that’s what the costumes are for. There are many reasons why a woman might not want to be a king’s consort but her reasons don’t make sense given her context. She doesn’t like sharing her man with anyone. She doesn’t want to lose herself. She enjoys a carefree existence with her friends and why would she give it up? Why would she indeed? Except that being a maid also means being at the mercy of other people’s favour. It’s not exactly women’s suffrage. I’m not convinced that Deok-im likes being carefree as much as she says because she’s quick to embroil herself in palace politics if it suits. As to sharing the king with other women, polygamy is accepted practice but more importantly the man in question is unusually devoted. He’s persistently tried to express his affection only to be stopped in his tracks by her. Other people can see that he favours her. In fact they labour under some kind of impression that the devotion is reciprocated. Should a woman who is afraid about losing herself be so committed to the welfare of the king that she’s not afraid of losing her life? It tends to give everyone the wrong idea. He loves her so much that he lets her go but his mother sends her back into his arms because she can see how in love he is with Deok-im.
The show wants its cake and eat it too. As a result, so does Deok-im. Hong Deok-ro is right. Like him, Deok-im does reckless things fully aware that she will be forgiven by the King no matter the result. She wants to save her friend in haste but she doesn’t trust Yi San to keep his promise so she goes over his head and sees the Queen Dowager. Sung Deok-im is not afraid of losing herself in the slightest judging from her actions or truly desirous of a carefree life. She is attracted to danger like a moth to a flame. She loves it and thrives in it. She can’t sit still. Maybe she’s unaware or maybe she’s just making excuses in order to prolong the inevitable. Just like the script writer.