K-drama reviews in brief

Reply 1994
In Reply 1994, Sung Na-jung (centre) winds up marrying one of the five men in her life – but which one?

I have been trying to learn a little Korean on Duolingo. I enjoy learning new languages and I figured this was one I might actually make use of semi-regularly – to understand more of the K-dramas I watch. Not that I expect to be able to do away with using the subtitles, but I had already learned enough to notice some differences between original and translation. (That isn’t necessarily a failure of the translation – a literal translation is often not the best solution.)

Which is to say, no I have not stopped watched K-dramas, I just haven’t been reviewing all of them because I have less to say about some than others. I’m not going to stop reviewing them altogether, but I thought this might be a good time to reflect on some more briefly.

Toward the end of last year I watched Reply 1994 (tvN 2013),which is the second of three series with the same basic set-up. In modern-day Seoul, a group of friends are gathered together and reminiscing about the year when they all met: 1994. The action switches between 1994 and 2013 and the concept is that the female lead Sung Na-jung (Go Ara) has ended up marrying one of the five men who co-star – but which one? They all shared the same house during university and have stayed in touch, but the husband is not revealed until the final episode.

It’s a really cheesy concept and I found the contrivance immensely annoying, but other than that this was an enjoyable show. Most of the annoying K-drama tropes were mercifully absent, the relationships felt more realistic than many I’ve seen, and there were details of the recent-historical setting that added interest for me. The other two Reply series are also on Netflix so I might check them out.

A show that did not avoid all those tropes and cliches was Pasta. This stars the wonderful Gong Hyo-jin (Don’t Dare to Dream, When the Camellia Blooms) and the irritating Lee Sun-kyun (yes, he’s good in Parasite but I found him wooden in Coffee Prince). After I had loved all the restaurant stuff in Oh! My Ghost I sought out another restaurant-set romance but this is just unending arrogant man (Lee) treating all women like dirt and then somehow getting the nicest one (Gong) to fall in love with him. He does nothing to deserve this. But I did really like the cooking bits and genuinely learned some stuff about how professional kitchens work.

Beautiful Gong Shim
Gong Shim worries about her looks and her intelligence, but no-one reassures her.

Another show that failed to avoid bad tropes was Beautiful Gong Shim.Like so many K-dramas, this starts out promising, with feisty heroine Gong Shim (Bang Min-ah) working several jobs to pay for Italian lessons in the first step of her plan to go to Europe to study art. She sub-lets the studio flat above her family’s house to handsome but annoying Ahn Dan-tae (Namkoong Min) but is more interested romantically in rich, sweet Seok Joon-soo (On Joo-wan). Shim is meant to be a little plain-looking, and has a complex about not being pretty (her mother was a beauty queen and her older sister is classically beautiful), not helped by Joon-soo teasing her about her wig (she has stress-related hair loss). Despite starting out as a typical love triangle the romance is quite sweet, there are some fun action sequences where we learn that Joon-soo can fight, and there’s an intriguing historical crime being unravelled.

But I did have two big problems with this show. First, Shim keeps calling herself stupid and no-one contradicts her. Urgh. And second, there is yet another storyline about mysterious parentage where a character who is initially depicted as poor turns out to be mega rich. And of course that means being shipped off abroad to learn the ropes in the family business. I am a bit fed up of this trope. Must every Korean romance include spending a year (or three) apart and then taking all of five minutes to get back together?

Oh My Venus
Oh My Venus breaks some stereotypes but seriously fails in other areas.

Most recently I watched Oh My Venus. Hmm. This was on one of the lists I found of K-dramas with strong female leads, and I guess she isn’t a wallflower, but this show still had its problems. Kang Joo-eun (Shin Min-a) is a lawyer in her early 30s who in the first episode is dumped by her boyfriend of 15 years. She was a teenage beauty but has become overweight through years of working long hours and not looking after herself. On a flight she bumps into personal trainer (and qualified doctor) Kim Young-ho (So Ji-sub), who has been hiding from his mega-rich family in America but has come home to Korea fleeing from press rumours of romantic scandal. Joo-eun decides to hire Young-ho to help her get in shape and romance ensues.

While the show does for the most part try to be reasonable and responsible in what it says about healthy weight loss, I still felt that the prosthetics worn by Shin Min-a – not to mention some lines in the script – were mocking the character and larger people in general. It also completely fluffs an attempt at a storyline about unhealthy weight loss, where another character almost certainly has an eating disorder but this is never properly addressed.

There were the usual big corporation family machinations and some mysteries that were not fully explained. The romance was well handled. And one detail I did like is that in the final episode a voiceover mentions that Kim Young-ho is a very common name – it’s basically the Korean “John Smith”. This is key to the plot and made some of the earlier episodes make much more sense in hindsight. But I still spent the last few episodes more annoyed than entertained.

So…which K-dramas should I be watching that won’t wind me up?