You can just tell from the title that this is going to be a ridiculous show, but it’s also a 2019 offering co-produced by Netflix, so I figured it might have some of the modernity of Hello, My Twenties (still my favourite K-drama). Romance is a Bonus Book is really enjoyable and fairly modern, but it does get cheesy and a little over-earnest at times.
The show is set in a small-ish literary publisher in Seoul, which had obvious appeal for me. There’s some fairly realistic stuff about how books are published – including a heartbreaking scene of lorry-loads of remaindered books getting pulped – and plenty of passionate speeches about the importance of books. I really liked most of the workplace stuff, but it’s still a K-drama so of course at heart this is a romance.
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This was largely a random Netflix find, possibly loosely inspired by a recent conversation at work about how ghosts occupy a different place in East Asian culture to Western culture. Oh My Ghost (2015 tvN) also heavily features chefs and cooking, which I have recently realised I am a big fan of in my TV choices. And the trailer for it looked light and silly, which appealed to me.
Oh My Ghost is a combination of sweet romance, crime drama and supernatural comedy, and it handles all those elements really well. It discusses sex and passion reasonably openly, for a K-drama. And the leads are very beautiful. Which means this comes pretty high in my ranking of K-dramas, despite my low expectations.
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I enjoyed this K-drama far more than I expected to. Pinocchio (SBS 2014–2015), as the title suggests, is a loose interpretation of the classic fairy tale, but grounded in reality. And it’s also an examination of TV news reporting, asking tough questions about truth and other values in journalism.
All the essential ingredients of the fairy tale are there: a person who displays a physical manifestation of lying (in this case hiccups); a person close to them who acts as a conscience; dead and absent parents; there’s even (in my interpretation) a fairy godparent role.
And yet for all that, the TV show this most resembles is Doctors – right down to its lead actor Park Shin-hye. Here she plays Choi In-ha, a woman who has Pinocchio syndrome – she hiccups when she lies (or, importantly, believes herself to be lying or supporting someone else’s lie). Just like in Doctors, the first two episodes are flashbacks setting up the dramatic and romantic storylines.
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As all K-dramas, no matter the genre, seem to have a heavy dose of romance, I decided to check one out that is 100% romance. And oh man, I certainly got what I asked for. Uncontrollably Fond (2016) is overblown, overwrought, over-serious melodrama. But it looks beautiful. And it isn’t pretending to be anything it isn’t – the warning signs were there from the start.
The opening scene is peppered with shots of a blossom petal floating gently to the ground – a recurring motif so cliched I almost laughed out loud. But then this is a series full of cliches: secret relatives, arranged marriage, super-rich people using the poor to gain advantage, critical illness, blackmail and lots of lies. A surprising amount of this information is revealed in the first two episodes, meaning that a quick plot summary can’t be all that quick.
Sin Jun-young is a major star – actor, pop idol, model (much like Kim Woo-bin who plays him) – and we meet him refusing to film a death scene, which we shortly after learn is because he is dying of an inoperable brain tumour. He of course hasn’t told anyone this, but he has started searching for his ex-girlfriend No Eul (Bae Su-ji, better known as Suzy from K-pop group Miss A), who handily turns up on his doorstep trying to persuade him to take part in a documentary series. Directing this show will save her career, which is faltering thanks to a bribe she accepted to stop investigating a corrupt company – a bribe she desperately needed to keep loan sharks at bay.
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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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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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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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The Sound of Waves
by Yukio Mishima
translated from Japanese by Meredith Weatherby
I picked this book up at the secondhand book market underneath Waterloo Bridge in London. I used to go there reasonably often and I swear it has shrunk since a decade ago. It’s really of more use if you’re looking for old maps or illustrations, but we always find something of interest.
This is a romance set on a small Japanese island where the main industry is fishing. The men go out on fishing boats while the women dive for molluscs. When one of the few rich locals brings his daughter Hatsue back to the island after she has lived on the mainland with an aunt and uncle for several years, local boy Shinji is instantly entranced. When he learns who she is he initially tries to keep his distance because he knows he will be judged as too poor and lowly to be a good match. But they keep bumping into each other and a romance quickly blossoms – one with many bumps in the road.
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by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier
Well what a contrast to my previous read. After lingering for two weeks over The Evenings, I raced through Castle Dor in 24 hours. Was it a case of the right book at the right time, or is it just a cracking good read? It is Daphne, after all.
Except that it’s only sort-of Daphne. This book was started by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (better known to many by his pen name Q), who Daphne knew a little as her near-neighbour in Fowey, but he was much older than her, so it was his daughter Foy (named for their beloved home town) who became a close friend of Daphne’s. When Q died in 1944 he left behind one final unpublished work of fiction: the first half of a novel retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult, set in 19th-century Cornwall. Some 15 years later, his daughter Foy persuaded Daphne that she was the perfect person to finish the book.
Knowing that in advance, it is certainly possible to spot the signs that different hands start and end the novel. But it is skilfully done, with no obvious seam. (Apparently Q’s manuscript was left mid-chapter, even.) I can tell you that the opening chapters felt more flowery and more scholarly than any Daphne du Maurier book I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them now). And the closing chapters had a touch of the supernatural, even spiritualism, that felt very Daphne and certainly hadn’t been so prominent in the book. But the join between the two felt entirely gradual and invisible.
Continue reading “Like a vision seen in a dream and scarce remembered”
by Jane Austen
So I’m still not sold on Jane Austen, having read four of her seven novels. I don’t think I will ever be a big fan, but I do increasingly appreciate her smart wit, her irony and sarcasm.
Fanny Price, however, is my least favourite Austen heroine so far. Her fate is predictable, telegraphed from the first few pages, but that’s not so bad if the journey is still enjoyable. However, Fanny is no fun at all. She’s delicate of health, oversensitive, prim, determined to believe that people can’t change, surprisingly impractical and generally a right goody-two-shoes.
Fanny is the oldest girl in a very large, not very well off family. When she is 10 she is adopted by her aunt Maria, who is married to the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram, so Fanny moves from her chaotic but happy home in Southampton to the grandeur of Mansfield Park in Northamptonshire. She is shy, scared of her uncle and badly misses her home and family.
“Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without further expense to anybody.”
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