What I've been watching 6/6/2022
Lee Joon-gi is a favourite and so it was inevitable that Again, My Life would make a way to my watchlist. I’ve watched almost everything he’s done and certainly every drama since Moon Lovers. In this latest project, Lee Joon-gi dons the role of prosecutor Kim Hee-woo, a well-intentioned lad, full of righteous fervour, out to get big bad politician Cho Tae-sub played by Lee Kyoung-young who has made a career of playing villains that everyone loves to hate. Like all K drama baddies, Cho Tae-sub is a slippery eel with tentacles (apologies for the mixed metaphors) all over the country’s landscape and there’s nothing he won’t do to amass power in the name of the country. The maverick Hee-woo accumulates a pile of evidence and witnesses, only to lose everything, including his own life in one fell swoop. At the moment of his death, a grim reaper in the form of a woman appears and offers him a second chance to do some serious damage to the invincible Cho Tae-sub. In an instant, Hee-woo is transported to his younger past still eking out a living in a convenience store. Armed with foreknowledge and a providential chance to turn the Cho juggernaut around, Hee-woo is now driven to change history as he knew it one person at a time.
There’s little doubt that Koreans love their revenge fantasy stories. Doctor Prisoner, Taxi Driver, Money Flower are just a handful that spring to mind about patient protagonists who device elaborate schemes to deal with the Goliaths of their day. All recorded high ratings while airing. Money Flower even went over 20% in its finale. Although it didn’t soar to the same heights, Again, My Life didn’t too badly either, hitting double digit ratings with a high level of consistency all the way to the end.
Despite the cartoonish feel, it was thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. There were some murmurings about the last two episodes in particular but I don’t mind a bit of political theatre so it sat better with me than most. The ending evidently left the door open for a sequel… if indeed such plans are in the works. The highlight of the show was not so much the execution of the stratagems (which were fun) but the fact that Hee-woo built up a network of reliable allies and loyal friends who would be emboldened by his audacity to go to war with him. By setting his larger plan into motion much earlier, he managed to protect the lives of individuals who become pivotal parts of his scheme. That’s the underlying moral of the story here. People mattered most to Hee-woo. He used his foreknowledge to save lives and one good turn deserves another. He would never endanger anyone or let them take unnecessary risks. They would, on their own bat, return the favour. In stark contrast, Cho Tae-sub used people like chess pieces that he could sacrifice expediently. He treated them like rubbish and so inevitably the fostered a high fear but low trust environment. He was constantly weighing his options and pitting candidates against each other. When his pawns outlived their usefulness, he would jettison them at the first sign of trouble. Hee-woo understood this and what he did in effect was to gradually cut-off Cho Tae-sub’s arms and legs to the point where he had no more recourse. The secret sauce is trust, something Cho Tae-sub wasn’t inclined to foster in his “dogs”.
There’s been a continuous spate of really decent C dramas appearing in the last couple of weeks. The cream of the crop has got to be Ordinary Greatness, a slice-of-life police procedural featuring Zhang Ruoyun, Bai Lu, Xu Kaicheng and Cao Lu as new police recruits posted to a city station to complete their internship. Each is mentored by a senior officer with his own personal baggage. Rank and file, all are overseen by the chief Wang Shouyi, a sage-like figure who doubles up as a grumpy likeable uncle who must be ageing rapidly with every crisis that emerges. With him at the helm, the station has all the warm fuzzies of a harmonious family as well as collegiality.
Family, of course, is a key theme of the show. There’s plenty of family in this. They also happen to come imperfectly packaged. Moreover, not everyone who is an elder has the acquired wisdom of one. In this drama, every family featured has its own baggage, with its own set of blemishes. It isn’t the youngsters that need to be nagged into shape but parents who have their own shortcomings and are burdening their children with unresolved heart issues. Xia Jie’s (Bai Lu) mother is a case in point. She’s someone who has barely moved on from the past, still wallowing in the shadow of her husband’s death while forcing her daughter to participate in a victim narrative that she’s imprisoned herself in. Instead of ushering her daughter happily into the world of adults, she’s using her as an emotional crutch.
There’s no denying the talent behind this but special commendation should be made of the screenwriter for creating these flawed, all-too-human characters and the intersections of various arcs. The cast is fantastic but the writing enables the magic to happen. However, I am often left wondering if cops on the mainland are really that involved in their local communities, problem solving and mediating. On some level I can imagine where the police might have to be involved in areas of conflict but it feels to me that individuals are oddly keen to outsource such basic day to day responsibilities to already busy cops.
It’s also fascinating that the plague of materialism and prosperity leaves the same kinds of destruction everywhere in its wake. With all the benefits it brings, human beings (with rare exceptions) are not particularly adept at handling wealth. Then there are those whose over inflated view of wealth leads them misplaced priorities.
Policing is a profession where experience matters much more than anything. Seniority does matter and the mentoring chain of command exists for good reason. While the senior officers have their own personal idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, years of policing can give them an edge over a quick-witted, well-educated recruit with great ideas. Experience can be the difference between saving lives and picking up the pieces after the fact. It is true also that policing is ultimately about people from go to woe.
Ordinary Greatness is quickly shaping up to be my favourite C drama of the year and that’s no mean feat considering the recent output. Aside from the great performances, the production values are top-notch. While watching this, I am reminded much more of Hospital Playlist than Live. The slice-of-life flavour is strong in this one and while it is unquestionably a police drama, it also very much stories about the men and women in uniform and the never ending burdens that they shoulder for the common good.
Day Breaker, which stars Li Yifei as an undercover narcotics officer who has a complex array of relationships with the people around him, is an exemplar of the old adage that “there’s no honour among thieves”. To make things even more complicated for him, the show gives him a daughter for an unknown reason. It makes for rich storytelling but it does mean that few can be trusted to do what’s right. Corruption is rife in fictional Hua City (the drama was obviously filmed in Thailand) because there are various parties trying to gain supremacy over the social landscape by trafficking in illegal substances. It isn’t about money per se as money is really much more a means to an end. Furthermore, just because someone carries a police badge, it doesn’t mean that they have a squeaky clean slate. Police officers here cross all kinds of ethical and moral lines with or without official sanction. Life is cheap in Drug City so it follows that the body count rises with ignominious regularity in the crossfire. There are all kinds of twists and turns in this especially as revelations about the past surface through flashbacks and confessions. Truth is the first casualty and then more. There’s nothing Stephen Fung’s Liao Yongjia won’t do to take down all the drug gangs even if he has to turn into the show’s biggest villain to do it. At this point, it’s hard to say who deserves that title because there are plenty of contenders.
I’ve heard the show described as cinematic and certainly the production quality here is high with well-executed action sequences. It is however a show that has a lot going on with a cast of a thousand so paying attention is needed for the details to become meaningful. I’ve enjoyed it so far and there’s a rumour going around that there might be a second season. My only complaint about this show is the underutilization of Song Yi even though she gets top billing in this. She plays Su Qingzhi, fellow undercover cop and possible love interest.
I’m not sure if I’m going to persist with the latest offering of the Medical Examiner Dr Qin franchise which seems to be deteriorating with every new installment. A good detective show needs a good script rather than a tropey romance, shoehorned to make up for the deficiencies of the story. The best ones this year are the ones that know this but it’s disappointing that the Dr Qin franchise which has had plenty of practice just can’t get it especially when the first one (still the best one) starring Zhang Ruoyun, Jiao Junyan and Li Xian was actually fairly romance free. There were hints of some tension between Qin Ming and Da Bao but it was never front and centre nor was it allowed to hijack the trio’s sparkling interactions. While the hackneyed romance isn’t a deal breaker, it’s the insipid script with prosaic characters that frustrates the most.
Another crime drama from the mainland that I finished a few weeks back was Be Reborn which stars Zhang Yi and Karry Wang. This is one that I would recommend highly for its clever plotting and storytelling. Zhang Yi is great of course and young Karry is adequate although not particularly outstanding in the acting stakes. Karry Wang plays an intelligent young law undergraduate who finds himself at the centre of an art theft of his favourite painting and is consequently manipulated into helping a group of highly organized thieves. His father and grandfather were both legendary thieves in their own right but he’s trying hard to stay on the straight and narrow, only to feel the pull to reinvestigate his parents’ mysterious deaths many years before. Not long afterwards he finds himself embroiled in series of cases involving a mysterious mastermind in the background pulling all the strings.
For the love of Lee Jin-uk, I caught the first episode of Wedding from Hell last week which was hilarious. It’s highly relatable although probably a little bit too obviously satirical. I haven’t decided if I will keep going with it at this point but it doesn’t look like a heavy watch so it might be a nice distraction on a rainy day.