Okay, that’s a lie by probably 25% since five or six of these are already airing, but don’t quote me on that; I’m no good at math. What I am good at is hiding from the Internet for a year and a half and drowning in dramas, so that’s what I’m going to talk about: more dramas to get lost in.
In the ceaseless stream that is Asian dramas, there is a stockpile to sort through from 2014. (But isn’t there every year? Yeah.) Between finding time to dedicate to my binge-a-thons and getting so far as to even choose which drama to watch, I feel like I missed out on too many: Bad Guys (on episode two!), Witch’s Romance, It’s Okay, That’s Love, and N no Tame Ni—to drop some names. From what I did manage to get through, not all were great
*cough*trotlovers*cough* but several managed to meet my entertainment needs, if not wiggle into my heart completely.
Plus Nine Boys comes from the fictitious superstition that anything “plus nine,” or ending in nine, brings misfortune. How unlucky for the Kang brothers and their uncle, Kwang-soo, whose ages all currently end in nine. Popular child actor Dong-goo, age nine, suffers when his acting becomes strained and robotic. He’s accused of undergoing a Macaulay Culkin, as in, he just isn’t cute anymore. But the final blow comes when girlfriend Baek-ji dumps him for the boy now outshining Dong-goo in the acting world. Meanwhile, Min-goo—nineteen—struggles to live down an embarrassing incident during his judo match while chasing after his dream girl. At twenty-nine, however, eldest brother Jin-goo seems to have his life in perfect order. Upon further inspection, we find he’s harboring a secret love for co-worker and friend Se-young. The two have an emotionally complex history, and should he confess, it could mean losing Se-young. And being with her—even if he’s not “with” her—is more bearable than not having her at all. But the brothers aren’t the only ones with love problems. Thirty-nine year old Kwang-soo hasn’t dated since his college sweetheart dumped him out of the blue and vanished. Since then, his primary motivation and focus has been his work as a PD, and even that disappears when a live show goes awry, and Kwang-soo is demoted.
As my favorite underrated gem, PNB keeps pace—never dragging or jumping, backed by solid acting and writing. When looking at the premise alone, it’s easy to see how the show could spin out of control. Add the superstition factor, I pegged this as silly-cute, but would it be believable? This is Dramaland, after all. The first episode proved itself to be much more than anything I’d imagined. It maintains appropriate balance between humor and drama, and it’s never short on wit. Despite the show’s basis of a “plus nine curse,” it blends into everyday occurrences that happen to very relatable characters. And, really, these are things that happen to us all. I walked in expecting a perky rom-com and couldn’t have been happier to find a sweet, introspective show about relationships instead. It’s rare—super rare (can I stress this enough?)—for me to feel wholly gratified by a show, least of all a rom-com. If I’m honest, I haven’t felt this satisfied with a rom-com since My Name is Kim Sam-soon: my Queen of Romantic Comedies, because for what others do wrong, Sam-soon does right. The writing is bullet-proof. (Never mind that it’s been years since I’ve seen it, but shh.) PNB marks the first time I’ve seen an equally sturdy and genuinely satisfying rom-com as Sam-soon, and for that alone I recommend checking this out.
Misaeng is a show I have unwittingly placed on an unreachable gold throne packaged in a state of perfection. I dare you to find something better! If given well-layered characters livened by good acting, it’s difficult for me not to invest—even when the script is duller than a butter knife. Once caught, I’m stuck until the end. (More often than not.) For better or worse, I form emotional ties with these characters that prove strong enough to make me cry even in in the silliest of rom-coms. Yet Misaeng is the sharpest show around, and it’s far from silly. Never have I bawled so much through a show as I have with Misaeng, and how could I not? This show earned it—deserved it—because every episode threw a direct punch at my chest. No way did I think I’d ever find a drama so meticulously put that it’d win every ounce of my love. Hardly, if at all, can I criticize this show. From the script, casting, acting, directing, editing… There remain a number of aspects that allow Misaeng to shine, and I only hope that others will see what makes it remarkably brilliant.
A former Baduk player, 26 year old Jang Geu-rae finds himself wandering without aim. After a period of part-time jobs, it is by luck (and through connections) that he finds himself as an intern at One International. With nothing more than his GED, Geu-rae is left to fend for himself in a pack of vicious trainees and survive office politics—a journey more difficult than he could have imagined. The webcomic by Yoon Tae-ho, which the show is based on, maintains a cult following, and its popularity stems from its ability to identify with its audience. The same can be said for the drama, only with a larger, vaster, assembly of die-hard fans. There is a reason this show speaks to such a variety of people, and that’s because Misaeng isn’t just about finding your footing—or even about the anguish of office politics and surviving it. At it’s core, Misaeng is about Jang Geu-rae hanging on the edge by a finger and desperately wishing to be part of society. More than anything else, he wants to belong. And if that doesn’t choke you up, I don’t know what will.
There are a couple reasons Misaeng can appear off-putting. Its first episode clocks in at an hour and a half, and you’ll scarcely find clips that offer settings outside of One International’s cubicles. Not to mention that most episodes run extra, ending between an hour and five minutes to an hour and twenty minutes. But if you think these are reasons to back away, I promise: those cubicles offer much more than typical mundaneness of office culture. Refreshingly, the show lacks elements that remind you this is Dramaland and kicks aside cliche tropes and plot twists. It gives a flavor so addicting that you’ll be thankful for those extra minutes, and when it’s over? You will miss it like crazy. (If you’d like to see more of my foaming-at-the-mouth praise, my thoughts on the first four episodes can be found here.)
Welcome to Liar Game: a reality show where contestants are expected (and encouraged) to lie and cheat their way toward the grand prize—a massive sum of money, which only grows as a narrowing batch of participants move on to new rounds. Based on the manga of the same name, Liar Game questions to what lengths people stoop when large sums of money are not only offered, but are at stake. The answer: pretty damn low. A few honest faces struggle to survive the high-stakes game, but how can they fare in a cesspool of two-faced cheats? Willing participant Nam Da-jung—naïve but honest and sympathetic—works with former psych prof and acquitted ex-con Ha Woo-jin, as the duo aim to come out victors.
The show struck me as mediocre at best when I handed my two cents on the first four episodes. The Korean adaption presents extreme changes to its central setting in comparison to the original, yet—at the time—still followed the manga’s timeline of events. (Or, it did to the best of my knowledge.) Granted, this offers up its own twists and tricks, and while Matsuda owns it in the J-drama adaptation, I find there’s much to like about the K-version’s cast. That said, Shin Sung-rok’s villainous Kang Do-young adds new dimensions. The questions is: will fans buy it? Speaking for myself, it took a while to warm up to, but I grew to accept it as an equally enjoyable but separate entity from the J-drama. It is by no means a personal favorite, but the show earns its worth in entertainment value.
My Love from the Stars / My Love from Another Star
Episode count: 21
>>Watch: DramaFever, SoompiTV, Viki
It’s easy to mistake Do Min-joon as human, for he looks no different. But his keen senses and special abilities to defy gravity and stop time are proof of his alien nature. Most of all are his longevity and youthful appearance, outlasting the average human by centuries. Arriving during the Joseon Dynasty, Min-joon becomes stranded, although he’s not alone. His first true human interaction is through a young girl named Yi-hwa, but her fate seems destined for tragedy. The event deeply affects Min-joon, as does her companionship, but with a long life of solitude ahead, he grows into a cynical being with no interest in forming relationships. Now in the present day, his life of quiet seclusion is flipped when the arrogant next door neighbor—favored actress Cheon Young-si—makes her intrusion.
You can consider this a 2013 drama, as it started in mid-December of last year, but the bulk finished during 2014. If you’re at all familiar with the drama scene, there’s no doubt that My Love from the Stars crossed your radar. The show shot to insane popularity levels where not only does every drama fan know about it, non-drama fans know as well. With six episodes under my belt, my current opinion might be insignificant yet it’d feel absurd not to name-drop this.
As a loving Kim Soo-hyun fan, he did serve as the hook (as did the AMAZING shots seen in episode one), but Jun Ji-hyun has me stunned—and I mean that in the best way possible. Although the script deserves credit, as it’s what leads every episode’s direction and shows us character depths, but what good is the writing if the actor doesn’t add dimension? Ji-hyun’s done well in capturing not just my sympathy, but my love, and the banter Young-si and Min-joon share easily become some of my favorite scenes in the show. That said, my belief that this was K-drama royalty crumbled upon watching it. Shin Sung-rok, my Villain King, you know I love him in Liar Game… but as much as I love this man, his role here disappoints me. It’s a reminder of both outrageous and typical ploys that dramas incorporate. If you want to impress me, stay fresh.
Be like Misaeng.
Although his elders fuss about marriage and producing a new heir to the family-run company, president Lee Gun is in no rush. He’s in a committed relationship with long-time girlfriend Se-ra, and now that she’s returned from an overseas life as a ballerina, he believes now is the perfect opportunity to propose. Meanwhile, the humble Kim Mi-young goes about her days as a secretary for a law firm. Known as “Post-It” among her co-workers, Mi-young claims it’s no bother, although the nick-name is an insult labeling her a pushover—and her colleagues are glad to take advantage without apology. But for ordinary Mi-young, the extraordinary happens when she wins a resort vacation through her work. As it happens, it’s the same location Gun intends to make Se-ra his fiance. When their special days don’t go as planned, the two cross paths in the most unexpected of ways. After having a one-night stand, Gun and Mi-young part on cordial terms, but their lives entwine once more as Mi-young’s pregnancy steers them down an unforeseen path.
FTLY fans spread faster than wildfire, but perhaps not in the same way My Love from the Stars did. I hesitated in starting this one, but even so, I was quick to jump in. The high ratings and gushing weren’t for nothing—FTLY kicks off with a lot of laughs and a great serving of tender moments. I laughed—I laughed a lot—but I cried even harder, and it’s largely due to the actors. If it hadn’t been Jang Hyuk and Jang Na-ra or their chemistry, this show wouldn’t have pulled on my heartstrings the way it did. It’s too bad that even the leads couldn’t keep me past episode 15, which is where I chose to drop FTLY. I wouldn’t say that my dropping of the show implies anything terribly wrong, but rather: my patience ran dry. It’s a drama worth checking out, and it did well in pacifying my needs as a viewer and exceeded my expectations. Unfortunately for the show (or for me), Gun’s and Mi-young’s relationship was weighed down with SO MUCH DRAMA and dragged out BECAUSE OF SO MUCH DRAMA that I called it quits.
Do yourself a favor and keep tissues on standby, because this one’s a tear-jerker ready to punch you in the chest every ten minutes. Ah, no. More like every five minutes. Or am I the only one with a mountain of Kleenex at her side? For just one episode, it’s an emotional overload but so good. (I promise.) Old Goodbye tells the fated love story of boxer Soo-hyuk and Chae-hee with a time-travelling twist. It’s present day, and when Soo-hyuk discovers that ex-wife Chae-hee is dying from a terminal illness, he struggles in grief to save her. Just as Soo-hyuk submissively resigns to his and Chae-hee’s misfortune, he discovers a way to travel back in time… Can he save Chae-hee, or is fate set in stone?
Part of MBC’s drama festival, Old Goodbye reunites Fated to Love You leading costars Jang Na-ra and Jang Hyuk—so if the premise sounds stale, you can can count on their chemistry to charm your pants off. I’m a huge Jang Na-ra fan, as I find that I can enjoy her in almost anything, but after seeing her share screen time with Jang Hyuk twice, I’m convinced they can make anything sell with their pizzazz. This isn’t a display for fresh storylines or unique plot twists, but it shouldn’t be dismissed for those reasons. The general layout is an antique, but the script moves the story forward by relying on the characters’ pure emotions, and—ultimately—allowing that to resonate with the audience.
- Genre: psychological thriller
- Episodes: 11
- Runtime: aprox. 36 – 45 minutes per episode
- Watch: Crunchyroll & SoompiTV
“Kanzaki-san, there’s no way to make everyone in the world happy! People have no problem lying for massive amounts of money.”
So the motif goes. Adapted from Shinobu Kaitani’s manga, Liar Game follows impossibly naïve Nao Kanzaki (Erika Toda) as she becomes wrapped up in a high-stakes underground competition—a game where players lie in part of stratagems to cheat each other out great sums of money. Should they lose, an unpayable debt awaits that the Liar Game Tournament (LGT) Office promises to collect “by any means necessary.” Betrayal and deceit are not only encouraged by LGT employees, but expected among participants. As in real life, people cheat and double-cross for self-gain, so when 100 million yen goes up for grabs—versus drowning in a 100 million yen debt—expect people to behave at their most cunning. …Or not.
Nao challenges this belief and remains unchanged in her pure-heartedness, choosing to see the best in everyone. In a high-risk game where people jump at opportunities to crush their opponents, no one could ask for a more unfit contestant than Nao. True to her character, she is duped out her 100 million within the show’s first ten minutes. When psych-grad-turned-swindler ex-con Shinichi Akiyama (Shota Matsuda) comes to her aid, their involvement with Liar Game begins.
Although Erika Toda is one of my small-smaller biases, her acting displays little range—a flaw of Nao’s character design. She is gullible to a fault, and her refusal to place the slightest doubts in people land her in pitiable situations. Kindness, although a desirable trait, becomes her downfall in a world affluent in treachery. Others see her trusting nature and use it to their advantage, kicking her down in the process (over and over, again and again). (I wish I was kidding.) These learning experiences should be the seed from which childish innocence grows into prudence. And yet! She remains obstinate, and after the first, second, and even third time being fooled in Liar Game (I’m really not kidding), any hope of character development crumbles. Not to my surprise, Nao’s rigidly incorruptible purity serves as hope:
“She is innocent. She trusts everyone and doubts no one. Many may think her stupid, but they all realize eventually. They believe she is stupid because they have grown too used to doubting and hurting others.”
Regardless of wrongdoings within Liar Game, Nao proves that goodness endures. Contestants lie and cheat her repeatedly, but most ultimately feel indebted by her kindness. Even so: a line exists between innocence and stupidity, and Nao’s folly has no limit. I prayed for Nao to adapt without losing virtue, but she’s helplessly dependent on Akiyama through every episode. Her intentions are pure, but if not for Akiyama’s strategies and influence, she could never make it to the point where her ideals reach people—let alone win. To consider that Liar Game initially takes off as Nao’s story, this aspect attests detriment to the show. But rather than filling in as a main character, Nao acts as a catalyst and sees no development of her own. Boo! Instead, it’s Shinichi Akiyama who steals the spotlight.
Thanks to Akiyama’s analytic and observational skills, Liar Game scoots viewers to the edges of their seats in almost nail-biting suspense. It’s not that the audience should question if our characters make it to the top, but how. It was the racing heart, the anxious finger-tapping, and that bated breath—just waiting for Akiyama’s manipulations to surface—that makes this show marathon-worthy. All the more enjoyable is
my new crush the actor himself. Shota Matsuda pegs his role as calculating and silent with absolute calm, but he’s not emotionally distanced. He starts off cold though not uncaring, and his emotive growth progresses in deft subtlety. In comparison to Erika, whose depth is limited to an agonizing extreme, Akiyama’s character provides wider range for Shota to command—and he nails it. He is a predominant reason to watch, yet Akiyama’s best asset—in little ways—works against the show. Where’s the fun when Akiyama’s wizardry continuously spares our boat of characters from sinking? Whoosh. Deflation!
Yes, the hook fizzles halfway, but the show has Shinobu Kaitani’s masterminded rounds to up the ante. Thrill is drawn from the game itself, each round evolving into something more complex as stakes rise with risk and tension. The elaboration of each round make me feel awfully simple and a lot like Nao: clueless, distressed, and dependent on another’s smarts. If I ever become caught up in an event as terrifying as Liar Game, my artifice wouldn’t get me far. Between logic, craft, some common sense and guesswork, Shinobu’s chance and probability alone put me through a mindspin.
Entertainment-wise, Liar Game does well as a psychological thriller. It’s sure to make hearts race with the dynamic combo of Shota Matsuda’s performance and the game’s conduct. It’s the way these two features complement each other that induces suspense in the first place. …But oddly, it has a surprising shortage of unease for such nerve-wracking conditions. As I said: it’s not if our characters make it, but how. By what methods the cast chooses to survive each round—and each other—provide addicting quality. Dread and concern, however, for anyone’s unknowable future doesn’t exist. The characters’ mental and emotional states flip-flop under high-stress situations, but the threat isn’t valid. Or rather, Liar Game lacks any sense of risk that jeopardizes characters. If done right, a vulnerable environment could benefit the show in several ways, but I admit that the lack of present danger doesn’t fatally wound it either.
It goes without saying that Liar Game’s concepts need finer execution, but no one can deem it an unwatchable show. It is strange, though. Notions of human nature and greed are overstressed to a point where the show becomes excessively moralistic. People deceive for self-gain all the time, and whether it’s in Liar Game or real life: is there a difference? The show dances around this question and the answer is yes! Liar Game takes ordinary people and places them in a game of survival where, if they lose, they may as well be dead. The stress is extreme, and it wouldn’t dawn on many to split winnings when LGT pits one player against the other. But it is what it is, and despite its shortcomings, I’m swept into the franchise—cheese factor included. Just don’t expect me to dive in for seconds.