I shall be telling this with a sigh
Two roads diverged, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Those famous words of Robert Frost sum up the theme of my look back at 2015. I really will be “telling this with a sigh”, because in the hustle and bustle of traffic on the K-drama superhighway, it’s a little sad that some stunning byways received few visitors. So we’re going to go on a trip, wandering back through some of those less travelled roads. I hope you will enjoy the ride, and I look forward to hearing your suggestions of secret paths worth exploring.
Starting in Seoul we make our way to a rundown apartment building, where we find The Lover. I can’t praise The Lover enough. Until I saw this drama, I had assumed that true romcoms in Korean drama died with Coffee Prince. Without a single exception, every alleged romcom made since Coffee Prince that I have seen may or may not have had the romance part, but definitely did not have the comedy part. Korean romcoms seem to operate on the assumption that bitterness, pain, separation and melodrama are in fact funny. The best/worst example of this was Prime Minister and I, which started off as a genuinely funny romcom, before descending into maudlin melodrama and misery. Hence my stunned surprise and delight to discover this web drama. Real romance, and real laughs. I laughed so much throughout this drama. I laughed more in this drama than in any of the more than 125 other K dramas I have finished. But it wasn’t just funny. The romance was real. My favourite couples were the 30 somethings, played by Oh Jeong Se and Ryu Hyeon Kyeong. Together for more than 10 years, well past the bloom of first love and adolescent passion, Oh Jeong Se and Ryu Hyeon Kyeong did a fantastic job of portraying the reality of a longtime couple. The insecurities, the squabbles, the frustrations and the comfort of just knowing that your partner is there, whatever happens. The situations that they experienced, the funny and the sad, all rang true.
Another highlight was the noona-dongsaeng romance, again featuring Choi Yeo Jin. This time she plays a woman in a relationship with a man several years younger than her. Not only is she older, she is supporting him financially and emotionally. Their relationship provided a lot of the laughs in the drama, but also some of the most poignant and touching scenes. It didn’t shy away from the difficulties of a noona-dongsaeng relationship, but showed that it could work if both wanted it to.
A third couple, featuring an actor I like, Ha Eun Seol, was more straightforwardly comic relief, and again genuinely funny. The fourth couple featured were two young men coming to terms with their feelings for each other. The humour in their story was the least appealing for me, too many crasssly juvenile “is he/are they” setups, but my editor rightly pointed out that they deserve a mention here because a gay romance is very definitely a road less travelled in Kdrama land. If like me, you thought grown-up laughs did not exist in K dramas, and especially if you like alpha females, scrape the bubblegum off your shoes and take a detour to check out The Lover.
We leave Seoul now, and head straight for Hell. It is often said that Hell is on Earth, and we learned this year that in drama land Hell is called Achiara. This remote little village is the last stop on our journey because we need to linger there.
One of my favourite TV series ever was Twin Peaks. Especially with the outstanding first series, Lynch defined the perfect illustration of an unsettling, off-kilter, maliciously weird village. Right from episode one, The Village: Achiara’s Secret gave me a very strong Twin Peaks vibe, and that is a real compliment. Like Lynch’s masterpiece, nothing in this village is as it seems, and especially no one is as they seem. Yet in one fundamental way, Achiara’s Secret does better than Twin Peaks. The Lynch series was at its best when its weirdness was vague, ill-defined and amorphous. The first series was superb, but the show lost its way in the second season when it tried to provide concrete tangible answers. Achiara’s Secret on the other hand does provide concrete, well plotted and sadly plausible structure and rationale to its miasma of malice. There really IS a monster in the village, and all the unsettling weird bad vibes turnout to have a tragically believable cause.
I am a brony through and through, my favourite dramas tend to be soppy and sweet, full of kisses and candy. Which is why the love I have for Achiara’s Secret is a surprise. This is one village where you would definitely want to accept neither kisses nor candy. Everything about this village is different, starting with the police. One of the first signs we get that this village exists in some alternate K-drama universe is the fact that its Chief cop actually HAS A BRAIN. Kim Min Jae did a fantastic job of showing a policeman unlike any I’ve seen in K-drama. He thought like a policeman, his focus was on solving crime, he clearly had more than two functioning neurons, and he also had the weary, jaded cynical realism of a career cop stuck in a dead-end posting. I also liked his rookie assistant, played by Yook Seong Jae. Very much a Watson, he was good-natured and eager to learn, and had a really solid relationship with his very patient boss.
As bizarrely unusual as the competent police were, the real stars of Achiara’s Secret were the women. Moon Geun Young was the titular lead, but in reality her character was simply the catalyst. Her presence stirred the antagonists to action. The real lead, the undisputed star, was Shin Eun Kyeong. The PD apparently said that the crew applauded Shin Eun Kyeong after every scene, and she deserved it. Her character was fascinating. Evil through and through, unlikable, self-centred and scary. But also, complex, layered and very, very scarred. Shin Eun Kyeong’s performance was in fact the trigger that made me want to write this entire piece. Achiara’s Secret sat at around 5% in the ratings for its entire run, which means that Shin Eun Kyeong’s performance in what some have described as the role of her career has not received the attention it deserved. She was magnificent – bitter, twisted, tragic.
As was her dongsaeng, very competently played by Jang So Yeon. Another very layered character. For three-quarters of the drama I simply hated her, thinking she was nothing more than a grasping con artist with an eye to the main chance. Until her scar was revealed, and it took my breath away. Not as horrific as that of Shin Eun Kyeong’s character, but still something that explained why she was the way she was. I called them the Wyrd sisters, after Shakespeare’s witches, because they really were the sisters from hell. And yet the drama explained them both. It didn’t make them lovable or even forgivable, but it did make them understandable. It made it possible to feel sympathy for them at the same time as fearing and loathing them. Unlike two of the just plain nasty characters, both of whom were mothers. It was a very refreshing from K Dramas’ usual fixation on sainted motherhood to see two women portrayed as callous, cold and cruel without any explanation other than innate meanness.
The other lead character was the one who wasn’t even there, well-played by Jang Hee Jin. A role that consists entirely of flashbacks is not easy. Generally speaking I find it hard to connect with a character who only exist in flashbacks, but by the end Jang Hee Jin had made her character seem very real, and drew an emotional response from me. Before Achiara’s Secret I had only seen Jang Hee Jin in My Daughter Seo Young, now I hope to see her again soon.
The two clips I’ve chosen highlight several of the points I mentioned above: SEK’s acting, and JHJ’s too. Also, featured is the mother-in-law of SEK’s character, one of the two unredeemed, outright nasty mothers I mentioned. The first clip also illustrates the strength of the writing, as it turned out later that the very real fight was definitely not what it seemed.
An So Hyeon also did well as the young “I see dead people” girl, while Lee Yeol Eum really impressed. I’ve now seen Lee Yeol Eum in three different dramas playing three very different roles – a lovestruck high schooler in King of High School Savvy, an office maknae in Divorce Lawyer in Love and now a would-be Lolita in Achiara’s Secret. She comes across as a young actor who is serious about improving her skills by taking on different roles and learning from working with veterans in the industry. And how DELIGHTED I am that in the interval between starting this piece and finishing it, I learned that Ms Lee has secured her first lead role, opposite Nam Goong Ming. It’s truly a joy to see a working actor work her way to a lead, and I’m sure her very solid performance in Achiara’s Secret played a big part in helping her get the new role.
Taking the road less travelled which ended in the village of Achiara really did make all the difference. I entered that village with a severe allergy to Moon Geun Young. By the time it ended I could tolerate her. More importantly I saw a young actress continue her progress, a veteran deliver a tour de force, and an actor in between those points deliver a performance which may revive her career. I also saw a psychological thriller done right, the evil in that village is the evil within, and it’s all too real. Even if like me, you prefer yellow brick roads leading to rainbows, I strongly urge you to check out the dark alleyway of Achiara.
After a dark ride on the Achiara ghost train, we are going to end our journey on an upbeat note, in bright, beautiful Bukcheon, by bicycle or rickshaw. Riders:Catch Tomorrow is a currently airing web drama. Most web dramas are vehicles to promote idols. Very short and insubstantial, forgettable to all but fans of the idol they’re built around. Riders though, like The Lover is part of a nascent trend toward providing adult dramas on the web. By adult I don’t necessarily mean risqué or explicit. I simply mean dramas aimed at grown-ups. In this case, the focus is on a group of 30-ish men and women trying to make their way in the big city. With six episodes out of twelve aired, Riders is shaping up as one of the better romcoms of recent times, low-key sweet and fun. It’s not the plot which is remarkable or noteworthy, it’s the low-key realism of the characters. Especially the women. Choi Yeo Jin is an actress whose career has possibly suffered because of her appearance. She really is extremely attractive in what some might describe as an overt way, the image of the sort of woman men are considered to find extremely attractive. She really is all that, but so much more. She does deserve better than to be dismissed as a vamp. Her character in Riders is on a very interesting journey, bouncing back from professional and personal humiliation, and going after what she wants. I can’t describe her character in much more detail except to say that she seems like a real person, which is rare in a drama. The screen caps below show the arc of her relationship with one of the male characters so far, which started with her literally giving him the finger:
The other female lead, played by Lee Cheong Ah, started out seeming to be a little more in the traditional drama Candy mode but with more steel. She’s not poor and good-hearted, expending herself in the service of others, she simply a socially awkward young woman too busy trying to survive the perils of being a part timer in Seoul. Like Choi Yeo Jin, Lee Cheong Ah character while shy and a little socially inept, doesn’t hesitate to stand her ground and speak up for what she knows is right.
As good as that was, though, her performance in episode six left me practically weeping with joy. So candid, and so ready to refuse to take any male , er, “nonsense”. The first time the good ladies of the Couch invited me to have my say, I ranted at some length against wrist grabs. Imagine my sheer delight, then, at seeing this:
I wouldn’t DARE call her “Candy” now, that’s for sure! Be assured though, that Riders is a romcom, the focus is on romance and laughs, lots of laughs. Its triumph is in showing how these can be delivered in a realistic setting and in a way that doesn’t pander to chauvinist tropes.
To end our brief trip through some less travelled drama roads, I’m going to take a quick detour down Second Avenue. Specifically female second leads. It seems that when liberated from the constraints of the first lead formula, K drama writers often deliver their most complete characters in the second leads, and it is great to see skilled hard-working female actors getting the chance to do what they do best. Shin Eun Kyeong in Achiara’s Secret was technically a second lead, yet her character was the most complex interesting and pivotal. Yong Pal was by no means a road less travelled. It was the drama equivalent of a crowded expressway, albeit one that moved at a pedestrian pace. I called it Yawn Pal, but the shining exception in that sea of sleepiness was the second lead played by Chae Jeong An. For 80% of the drama her character was easily the most interesting and complex, and Chae Jeong An nailed it. She delivered a character who was not a stereotype, but a realistic mix of human emotions and motivations. Her character’s mask of ditzy prettiness over a steely resolve can be summed up in these screen caps
In the currently airing Oh My Venus, Yu In Yeong has a similar role. Her character is not the stereotypical bitter jealous second but a person whose mix of fragility and strength, drive and desire, needs and nastiness is again believable. The few genuinely touching emotional scenes in the drama to date for me have been hers. Like this one:
And now it’s your turn. What did you think of our detour down some of drama-land’s smaller streets? What alleys and byways of 2015’s drama schedule did you most enjoy spending time in? I look forward to your suggestions for new destinations and different drama journeys thanks for coming along for the ride, do come again. Also, whatever you celebrate (or don’t) at this time of year, and whether you’re looking forward to walking in a winter wonderland or (like me) barbecues at the beach, may the holiday season bring you good food, good friends, good will and good cheer. As a thank you for your patience enjoy some gratuitous cuteness, from someone else I “discovered” on my Drama journeys this year, the delightfully cute and promisingly talented Lee Ja In.