K-drama review: Strong Woman Do Bong Soon

Strong Woman Do Bong Soon

I am very torn in my reactions to this K-drama. On the one hand, I love the lead character and the setting felt more like a realistic modern Seoul than any of the other dramas I’ve seen set there, except maybe Doctors (Strong Woman Do Bong Soon first aired in Korea in 2017 so it is the newest K-drama I have watched). On the other hand, the sense of humour can be not only juvenile, but also homophobic.

And it started so well! This show juggles a few different genres and to begin with I loved the switches from one to another, but they were less well balanced in the second half. Similarly, the storylines all started strongly, but got a bit lost around the halfway point. It’s almost as though different writers took it over. It’s certainly the first time with one of these K-dramas where it hasn’t felt carefully plotted from start to finish.

Genre one is superhero, and the superhero in question is Do Bong-soon (played by Park Bo-young). She is a petite 27-year-old who didn’t do well enough at school to go to university, has never held one job for long, but dreams of designing computer games. Oh, and she has supernatural strength, which she uses to save people from danger. She’s cute and girly but also a little bolshy, which probably comes from her experience of standing up to bullies.

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Everyone’s waitin’ for the fires to start

Peyton PlacePeyton Place
by Grace Metalious

I picked this off my Classics Club list (which I’m woefully behind on). The premise – revealing what’s behind the twitching lace curtains of small-town America in the 1930s and 1940s – definitely intrigued me, but I didn’t realise quite how much would be revealed.

This is the book equivalent of an ensemble drama – there isn’t really one lead character. Metalious beautifully establishes the setting, describing autumnal New England in its colourful glory before beginning to introduce the town’s inhabitants. There are the rich elite of Elm Street, the gossiping poker-playing old men, the class-boundary-defiant teenagers, the middle-class mothers fearful that their secrets will be discovered.

“Clayton Frazier set his coffee cup down with a little click, and then he looked hard at the stranger for a moment.
‘Go fast, mister,’ he said. ‘Get over that line of hills as fast as you can go. Mebbe they got rain up to Canada.’
The stranger laughed… ‘What does rain in Canada have to do with my getting there quickly?’
‘We ain’t got rain here,’ said Clayton Frazier, turning to look out the window. ‘Ain’t had none since June.’
‘Oh,’ said the stranger, feeling rather disappointed. ‘Is that what everyone is waiting for? Rain?’
Clayton Frazier did not look at him again. ‘Fire,’ he said. ‘Everyone’s waitin’ for the fires to start, mister. If you’re smart you’ll go fast. You’ll get past the hills before the fires start.’ ”

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I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box

convenience store womanConvenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata
translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori

This is a fascinating Japanese novella about an unusual person trying to understand the world. It’s funny and empathetic and the Tokyo setting really brought back moments from our Japan holiday.

Lead character and narrator Keiko is a convenience-store worker. She has worked there since her first year at university and is still there 18 years later because it’s the one place where she feels she belongs. But as the years pass she feels increasing social pressure to conform. And her attempts to conform are at once hilarious, heartbreaking and unsettling.

“I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexibility in response. My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire. Taking the utmost care not to cause the customer any discomfort by observing him or her too closely, I swiftly move my hands according to whatever signals I pick up.”

Keiko is not just socially awkward. We are never given a formal label but she struggles to empathise with any human emotions or actions. She is alienated by her inability to truly feel and experience what others do, but she has learned to fake it by copying others. She copies how others dress, speak and react, choosing new people to copy every so often who seem appropriate for her (in terms of age and station in life). This can lead to unintentionally comically or extreme moments.

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K-drama review: Love in the Moonlight

Love in the Moonlight poster

One of the major genres of Korean TV is historical epic, so I thought I should try one out. I sampled a few before settling on 2016’s Love in the Moonlight (also known as Moonlight Drawn by Clouds). I think I was drawn to the romance element (as well as the Shakespearean cross-dressing comedy) so I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised that this shared a lot in common with Boys Over Flowers. And I do mean a lot.

First thing they have in common: they were both phenomenally successful shows based on books – in this case the novel Moonlight Drawn by Clouds, which was serialized online in 2013 and then published as five separate books in 2015. (I would love to add who wrote the book but there is very limited info available in English and my Korean is non-existent.)

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I wish for this intrusion, I’ve hoped for it ever since I began

The story of the lost childThe Story of the Lost Child
Book 4, The Neapolitan Novels: Maturity, Old Age
by Elena Ferrante
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

Next week Tim and I are heading to Campania for our holiday, specifically to Pompeii and Ischia – the island that features prominently in the second volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, The Story of a New Name – so this seemed like a good time to read the final part of the series.

This book details the final few decades of the friendship of Elena and Lila, from their early 30s to the moment that opens the series: when 60-something-year-old Elena hears that her oldest friend has gone missing. The backdrop to their friendship is the changing society and politics of Naples, and in particular their own neighbourhood, a rough place filled with corruption.
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K-drama review: Doctors

Doctors

No, I’m not reviewing the soap opera set in Birmingham that’s been running since 2000. This Doctors is another K-drama, which might be my new favourite thing. This time it’s a 2016 series starring an actress everyone recommended I look out for: Park Shin-hye.

This is pretty much Grey’s Anatomy transplanted from Seattle to Seoul, but with what I am starting to recognise as K-drama characteristics. The thing that possibly attracts me the most is that they all appear to be a single season. They’re long seasons – in this case 20 episodes that are an hour apiece – but they are complete stories where everything gets wrapped up, unlike the usual pattern in TV where storylines get changed, delayed or sped up each time a show gets renewed.

The reason I picked Doctors for my second K-drama was that my main problem with Boys Over Flowers (aside from its addictive quality meaning I stayed up far too late watching it) was the lameness of the main female character, so I looked up lists of K-dramas with kick-ass female leads. This show quite literally opens with its female lead kicking ass, which seemed promising.

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A bubbling call that might have come from underwater

I know I have been light on the reviews this past month or two. That pesky heatwave kept me in a mild lupus flare and that means difficulty concentrating, which in turns means that whatever I am reading suffers. Books that have slow-moving plots are harder to follow, and even when I do still thoroughly enjoy a book, I find it hard to formulate my response. But in my up moments I cobbled together a brief book review.

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry

I had been looking forward to this novel, and reading a story set during a heatwave while experiencing an actual heatwave seemed like an excellent idea to me. Unfortunately, this is a fairly slow, quiet book, so my lupus flare meant I struggled a bit with it.

It’s also an odd book. John Cole, tired of London mid-heatwave, decides to go and visit his brother in the countryside. But en route his car breaks down and, looking for a phone to call for help, he knocks on the door of a house in the woods. A case of mistaken identity leads him to stay there, wearing another man’s clothes and getting to know the house’s motley crew of occupants.

“He came down from the raised shingle track onto a broad stretch of cracked mud on which white salt stains glittered. Above him the sky was bright and the small hard sun pricked at his scalp. From away to his left, deep in a channel he couldn’t see, a curlew began to sing with a bubbling call that might have come from underwater…The sun raged at him – he felt it burning through the thin weave of his shirt and sending the blood to his head, where it beat implacably behind his eyes.”

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K-drama review: Boys Over Flowers

Boys Over Flowers

Yes, after almost a month of no book reviews because, well, brain mush, I bring you an extra-long review – of a TV show. Because why not?

This review is of the Korean version of Boys Over Flowers from 2009. It’s based on a long-running Japanese manga called Hana Yori Dango and there have also been Japanese, Taiwanese and Chinese TV series, but this is the one that popped up on Netflix earlier this year and caught my eye, and it’s the one I watched obsessively for the last few weeks – all 25 hours of it.

I should open with the fact that this is a ridiculous, OTT, not-to-be-taken-seriously show. It has a hyper-real quality and is more about glamour than any of the issues it covers. But I was hooked and thoroughly entertained. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it is that it is easy on the brain. And the subtitles meant that I couldn’t multi-task, which is just as well when you have mush for brain.

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Our complicated feelings about the privileged status of white women

Dead GirlsDead Girls
by Alice Bolin

When I read the description of this essay collection, I got pretty excited. The blurb describes it as an analysis of America’s cultural obsession with dead girls, which promised to be very fertile ground. Really my main criticism of this book is that it doesn’t just stick to this topic.

Alice Bolin starts out strong, with a piece on “dead girl” TV shows, from Twin Peaks to Pretty Little Liars and many others in between (it was inspired by her watching True Detective). I have watched a lot of these dramas and I agree with Bolin that the mere fact of their popularity, not to mention some of the specific tropes they all repeat, is a worrying facet of our culture. In these shows the victim is rarely given much of a character, and the leads are usually men who project their own ideas onto the dead girl. It’s an excellent essay.

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There was a thesaurus of vagueness about remembering

Martin JohnMartin John
by Anakana Schofield

This is a strange novel about a strange man. Schofield uses a fractured structure to inhabit a fractured mind. It’s a disturbing read, as it should be considering the topics it covers. It’s also occasionally funny, in a very very dark way.

Martin John is an Irishman living in London. He’s obsessive compulsive, fixated on certain people and he knows his coping mechanisms can only help him for so long. The degree to which this is a disturbing tale is at first obscured by the odd experimental narrative. It is written in the plural first person. It jumps in time. It questions itself and lists rules. It rarely uses full sentences. It is a lot like a Greek chorus in a play.

“He does not believe that people who go off bridges can be saved. He believes it’s reasonable to want to go over the side of a bridge. He does not believe people fundamentally change. He has struggled with this himself. Has he tried? We do not know. There are some things we aren’t going to know about Martin John.”

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