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What I've been watching 5/03/2022
There’s a deeply poignant scene in the most recent episode of Through the Darkness where the male lead Song Ha-young (Kim Nam-gil) poses the question after a harrowing interview with a recently captured serial killer: “Why does it have to be me?” This simple (perhaps not so rhetorical) question coming out of a man using Christian vocabulary wrestling with the all too real forces of evil is especially resonant of a conversation between two key characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
On hearing the question, Ha-young’s colleague and supervisor, Kook Young-soo thinks that this is about him choosing Ha-young prior to setting up the Behavioural Analysis Unit. However, Ha-young who was raised Catholic by his devout mother is thinking far more existentially and metaphysically. For Ha-young, the pioneering work of criminal profiling is more than a job or a crusade to save lives; it’s a calling from on high that makes demands on his soul. He is confronted with these human manifestations of unrepentant evil while practically acknowledging the spiritual importance of the task at hand. Nonetheless his soul is waging a war and he shoots a prayer, questioning why it has to be him who does this unpleasant task of listening to the devil’s representatives boast about their wickedness unconscionably. The unassuming Song Ha-young isn’t just in doubt over his qualifications but over the weight that’s been laid on his shoulders. Like Frodo Baggins, the once carefree hobbit, who struggled with his own destiny to be the bearer of the One Ring, Ha-young struggles with his own place in the universe to be at the coal face of criminal investigation.
I imagine this is why I have a greater appreciation for what Through the Darkness does in apparently similar territory over Mindhunter, its US counterpart. While behavioural psychology is useful to getting the job done, it is only a weapon in the arsenal to grapple with the remorseless bloodthirsty killer. The visceral reality of evil cannot be so easily explained or dismissed by convenient labels. For him the battle is less psychological and more spiritual.
It’s not hard to see why Song Ha-young is made for this task. Or why his supervisor picked him. Aside from being fair-minded ethical human being, he is dogged, meticulous and can maintain his composure when others can’t. However, the job brings with it an emotional toll that he keeps largely to himself. On a normal day Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a reliable textbook to making sense of this predicament but what does a man do when he sits face to face with someone who presents no guilt or shame for their sins.
A Business Proposal has got to be the silliest thing I’ve seen in a while and the over reliance on slapstick has me squirming in my seat in second-hand embarrassment. Clearly they threw everything at this one including the kitchen sink… on steroids. From mistaken identity to a fall ending in an accidental lip encounter, it’s a case of ticking off the o’l rom com checklist. They have even managed to find the time to insert a Cinderella reference in there somewhere. I can’t say I’m impressed with the material at this point… even the fun factor is lacking for me… but as I said in the podcast, I’m persevering for at least another 2 episodes just because contract marriages are an abiding guilty pleasure and so far I haven’t found one that I don’t like. Besides, I am quite impressed with Lee Se-jeong whom I last saw in The Uncanny Counter. I wouldn’t have thought she had this kind of knack for the comedic but she pulls it off with a certain amount of flair. Ahn Hyo-seop on the other hand struggles with the tsundere shtick. Half the time I’m not sure if he’s amused or bemused.
Although this is based on a webtoon, it reminds me of an equally nutty C drama that I caught last year. She is the One, also a contract marriage story with a mistaken identity trope, stars Tim Pei and Li Nuo and admittedly I did take the plunge for young Tim. I loved how it started but like all C dramas it goes unnecessarily melodramatic somewhere in the middle. There’s also a far more overbearing grandfather in the mix. When it doesn’t dabble in melodrama, it’s actually quite funny. More importantly Tim Pei is a hoot and can raise the temperature in the room with a look or a smirk. The chemistry needless to say was great but there’s a draggy section to contend with.
Still, I’m somewhat optimistic that A Business Proposal will find its groove now that it’s over the awkward phase. Judging from the Episode 3 preview, one can say at least that Kang Tae-mu doesn’t waste any time.
Also silly but a little less cliche is The Pirates: The Last Royal Treasure a recent movie addition to the Netflix catalogue which features the always delightful Kang Ha-neul in another comedic outing and Han Hyo-joo that I last saw in W. Other notable names include Kwang Soo and Kwon Sang-woo. The plot is really nothing to write home about and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it takes a page or two out of the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure franchises. A group of pirates and a group of erstwhile soldiers sick to the teeth of eating seafood and craving for land animals chance upon news from impoverished Japanese pirates that there’s hidden treasure left behind by the conspirators that brought down the Goryeo dynasty and ushered in the Joseon era. The historical backdrop has some significance to what follows but if you’ve watched Six Flying Dragons, you won’t have trouble following the name drops. Frankly it’s not exactly a deal breaker even if you haven’t either. Kang Ha-neul’s character Wu Mu-ci calls himself Goryeo Greatest Swordsman and it turns out not to be an entirely empty boast until he meets his match in Kwon Sang-woo’s Boo Heung-soo another former general. Both have crossed swords before on the battleground on the same side of the war. Han Hyo-joo is the captain of the ship with a heart of gold.
The CGI is passable although probably not on par with what Hollywood has on offer these days but there’s a wow moment close to the end of the pirates’ getaway ship riding on a tsunami-like wave. For some reason my mind immediately went to one of those Star Trek near-death escapes and imagined Kirk barking orders to Scotty over the comm.
The show is pure inoffensive entertainment. It does what one expects from a pirate movie. All the tropes are present and accounted for — a band of seafaring marauders sabre rattling, line up for ship battles, a bit of harmless backstabbing, jostling for leadership, toying with the prospect of untold riches and even a little romance on the side. It doesn’t take itself seriously so I don’t feel obligated to do so. Occasionally funny, it’s 2 hours plus of light-hearted fare for the entire household.
The best part of the show it seems to me is that Kang Ha-neul looks like he’s having a ball… but then he always seems to.
I don’t think some of the negative reaction to Royal Feast is warranted. My feeling is that the poor subs are partly responsible for this because there are many instances of nuances going on here completely lost in bad translation. Part of the blame can also be laid at the feet of the early trailers giving the somewhat false impression that this is a historical romance when it is in actual fact a palace drama with political machinations in and out of the imperial kitchen. The show with all its mouthwatering food porn is about food politics and by that I don’t just mean women squabbling over who’s going to be the next masterchef. The drama is about food as the lifeblood of a nation; a weapon of subjugation and conquest; and replenishment for the human body. I’ve heard the charge that it’s little more than fan fiction and I beg to differ. The Red Sleeve was definitely fanfiction with its lady ninjas and I-wanna-be-free plot but this is far more rooted in history with references to classic works. From what I’ve also read, the show is largely historically accurate and I believe it because of how some of the more recent events play out in far more sophisticated (and realistic) ways than The Red Sleeve ever did. Not only that, but the place of women upstairs and downstairs in this show has a strong sense of authenticity to it.
There's no doubt that Zijin (the central female character) is an anachronistic figure and sometimes depicted as being a little too capable. Even then there’s a reason for that. However, having said that, the reason why Zijin is a likeable character is because she is someone who sees the bigger picture beyond her own interests and the selfish agendas of individuals interacting in that space. She is very much a strategist in her own way. The people around her are engaged in what seems to her to be petty disputes while she is concerned about what is of the greatest benefit to the nation starting with the palace. For her, food is the starting point. I think that's obvious from her conversation with the young tantrum-throwing prince. For me that's her real agenda -- to go beyond factional politics and work for the stability of the country top down. What's really fascinating to me about her arc are the fights she picks, how she picks them and why she does.
It’s not a perfect show but it’s a decent watch.