I loved this show so much. It’s not groundbreaking or original, but what it does, it does well. Don’t Dare to Dream, also known as Jealousy Incarnate (SBS 2016) is about TV news, family, love, jealousy and…cancer. It’s well acted, hits both light humour and real emotional moments in every episode and the credits feature cartoon aliens. It truly has everything.
Pyo Na-ri (played by Gong Hyo-jin) is a weather broadcaster who is frustrated by her TV station refusing to give her a permanent job and treating her as a general dogsbody, but can’t risk quitting as she needs to earn good money to support her younger brother Chi-yeol, who is still in high school. At work she is always professional, but at home she’s a bit of a mess, constantly behind on rent and shouting at Chi-yeol.
She jumps at an opportunity to work on a shoot with news reporter Lee Hwa-sin (Jo Jung-suk, who was the lead man in Oh My Ghost –another K-drama that I rate highly), who she used to have a crush on. She had hoped this was finally her chance with him, but instead meets another man who takes Hwa-sin’s place in her affections – businessman Go Jeung-won (played by Go Kyung-po, who I swear looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is Hwa-sin’s childhood best friend. Na-ri and Jeung-won begin dating, much to the despair of his mother, who is hoping to use his marriage as a business deal.
Mischievous Kiss – Love in Tokyo (Fuji TV 2013) seemed like it was almost a carbon copy of Good Morning Callto begin with. And I enjoyed Good Morning Call. But where that show stayed just the right side of irritating cliches, Mischievous Kiss rode those cliches all the way through two seasons. It’s really not great on the gender politics front, but so light and fluffy that I kept on watching, hoping for improvement. It is based on the Japanese manga Itazura Na Kiss written by Tada Kaoru.
This show depicted everything that annoys me about gender stereotypes in Japanese culture. The man is rich, intelligent, calm, collected, cold and cruel but apparently handsome enough for everyone to desire him. (Does that really happen with cold men in real life? In my experience the friendlier, chattier men get all the romantic attention, but then I don’t live in Japan.) The woman is poor, not at all clever, giggles and daydreams through her days, is popular and a good friend, pretty but not beautiful. And for some reason the woman is hopelessly in unrequited love with the man. Man treats woman with total contempt until another man expresses interest and then jealousy prompts realisation of actual feelings. But this doesn’t result in man actually treating woman well, no no no. It means he gives her just enough attention to string her along while continuing to be a total asshole.
The style of Mischievous Kiss is very camp, overwrought and comedic (which is perhaps why it took me most of season one to realise that those gender roles were not getting any better). The acting is laughably bad, as is the set-up.
Watermill Theatre Company Bristol Old Vic, 20 July 2019
I first watched the film Amélie (or Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain) fairly soon after it became available to rent in the UK – I think it was late-2002. I later bought the DVD and for a few years watched it often. I loved it, and its star Audrey Tautou, and its whimsical take on love and the responsibility we have to live our lives. And then I largely forgot about it.
Fast forward to this year when a friend invited me to see Amélie: the Musical. I knew nothing about this play’s Broadway background or how it would be staged, but I was pretty sure I wanted to see it. And I’m so glad I did.
This production is a joy from start to finish. The set is spectacular, the songs are beautiful (think Once but more upbeat), every member of the cast is an outstanding musician, and it all perfectly captures the tone and feel of the film without being an exact replica of the story.
At some point I will have to stop calling the set-ups of these Japanese and Korean dramas odd. I’m sure a lot of my preferred English-language TV sounds just as strange when you summarise the basics. Maybe that’s just my taste in TV generally. But I did find the tone of Kimi Wa Petto (Fuji TV 2017) quite strange to begin with.
This show is based on Yayoi Ogawa‘s Japanese manga Kimi wa Pet serialized from 2000 to 2005. The comic won the 2003 Kodanisha Manga Award. It’s a largely predictable, slightly cheesy romantic drama, but enjoyable all the same.
Our heroine Iwaya Sumire (Noriko Iriyama) seems very serious and capable, but she is struggling to maintain a professional front after being dumped by her boyfriend of five years and then demoted after rejecting advances from her boss. Drunkenly stumbling home, she finds a young man (Jun Shison) on her doorstep who reminds her of her childhood pet Momo and offers to adopt him. He is homeless and has just been beaten up, so he gladly accepts.
Their relationship is initially cringeworthy (Sumire gets “Momo” to beg for food and other dog-like tricks) but when she learns that he is in fact Goda Takeshi, a ballet dancer of some renown, their relationship changes to…roommates? Friends? Siblings? They quickly become very affectionate and comfortable together.
Like everyone else, I was devastated (in a good way) by the ending of Fleabag. Unlike (I’m guessing) everyone else, my reaction was to seek out the most cliched happy-ending romance I could find. And where better to find that than K-drama? This was one of the titles recommended to me early on as a K-drama classic, so I figured it would have the necessary ingredients.
Oh my. This was the most addictive K-drama for me since Boys Over Flowers. It’s from about the same time and covers much of the same territory, so that makes sense. In Secret Garden (SBS 2010) our leads are stuntwoman Gil Ra-im (played by Ha Ji-won) and CEO Kim Joo-won (Hyun Bin). As these tales always begin, she is poor but badass; he is rich and a total douche.
They cross paths when Joo-won steps in to help his cousin U-yeong (Yoon Sang-hyun) – who is a Hallyu star better known as Oska – escape a thorny romantic entanglement with an actress. When Joo-won tries to collect the actress from a film set, he accidentally ends up with her body double – Ra-im. The two immediately have a sparky, catty back-and-forth and it’s clear that hate will turn to love.
Yes, yes, I think I am addicted. I wanted to give Lee Min-ho another chance after the awfulness that was The Heirs, because it was his acting (and maybe also his looks) that got me hooked on K-drama in the first place. Legend of the Blue Sea (SBS 2016/17) had been recommended to me as a K-drama with an awesome female lead, and also happens to star Lee Min-ho.
This is a bit of a mix of genres. You could boil down the plot summary to: mermaid comes ashore for the first time, bumps into attractive man and much hilarity ensues. It’s a literal fish-out-water story. It’s Splash. But it’s also a historical drama (there are two timelines: one in Joseon era and one modern day), a crime drama, a family drama and of course a romance. And all of those genres appear in both comic and serious guises. Which could have been a hot mess, but it actually works pretty well.
The series opens with a crime caper: Heo Joon-jae (Lee Min-ho) is part of a team of conmen ripping off a rich woman. Joon-jae uses hypnosis and suggestion as his contribution to the team, while Jo Nam-doo (Lee Hee-joon) leads the team and Tae Oh (Shin Won-ho) handles the computer wizardry. After the con they need to lay low for a while, so Joon-jae goes to Spain.
Here we meet our mermaid Shi Cheong (Jun Ji-hyun) who comes ashore (her tail automatically turns into legs on shore) and is at first completely clueless – but she does have supernatural strength and the ability to erase memories. She takes a shine to Joon-jae and follows him around wordlessly until he caves and takes her under his wing.
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.
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.
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.
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.