While near the Alps they might be worrying about Higgs particles, and doomsday theory aficionados are busy drawing connections with old texts explaining why black holes might engulf populations of Swiss cattle and bring us to the end of the world (alas, starting from good chocolate and cute ungulates, aww), September 10 meant something slightly different for the Korean TV industry. A ridiculously bad first half of 2008 brought us so many turkeys you'd think Thanksgiving came twice a week; KBS is so drenched in red ink they might have to go black & white, and the assault of the Ajumma battalion to a once pretty solid fortress of quality reduced things to an appalling level -- unless you're an Ajumma, or someone making money off any of that crap, that is. But fear not, as the first flagbearers of the revolution (?) started today. KBS' sageuk extravaganza 바람의 나라 (Kingdom of the Wind) made the news even before starting, for securing fat broadcasting contracts to Japan, likely to be just the beginning for the 20 million dollar, 36 episode drama. And, next door, MBC started their 베토벤 바이러스 (Beethoven Virus), starring the great Kim Myung-Min in what marks the long awaited return of 다모 (Damo)'s producer Lee Jae-Gyu. We took a look at the first episode of both dramas, so get ready for coffers of assorted grumpiness to drop upon you.
First, a quick look at how the Wednesday/Thursday night ratings war progressed during the first eight months of 2008. KBS started in January with 快刀 홍길동 (Hong Gil Dong), written by the Hong sisters of 마이걸 (My Girl), and starring Kang Ji-Hwan, Sung Yoo-Ri and Jang Geun-Seok. The show was one of the first signs - along with that gargantuan pile of Swiss ungulate chocolate, with a different smell, called 못된 사랑 (Bad Love) -- KBS wanted to regain some footing in the ratings battle they completely lost in 2007, although the price to pay was quality and diversity flying out of the window. If anything, with ratings around the 15%, it was able to win over a decent percentage of younger viewers, some of whom even thought this was anything you could consider close to the idea of sageuk. But the real hit was on MBC with 뉴하트 (New Heart), one of those "it's a trendy drama wearing hospital gowns, pretending to be a medical drama" potboilers I so enjoyed back in, when was it? 1994? The show even touched the 30%, not too shocking considering how superficial and obvious it was. SBS' 불한당 (Robber) started half decently with the usual good acting by Lee Da-Hae and assorted macho posturing by Jang Hyuk, but then turned into just another trendy drama with a horrible script, and not particularly satisfying ratings.
March was more of the same, on all three sides. SBS' hit 온에어 (On Air) promised to unveil the behind the scenes brouhaha of the TV industry as a sort of meta-drama, a first for Korean TV. It had a big cast headlined by talented Song Yoon-Ah and Lee Beom-Soo along with starlet Kim Ha-Neul, and metric tons of cameos, including Lee Hyo-Ri and Jeon Do-Yeon. The result? Perhaps the most hypocritical Korean drama of the last five years, falling in the same exact traps it pretended to criticize, with completely unrealistic characters and situations. MBC's 누구세요 (Who Are You?) was much better, with the criminally misused Park Ji-Young of 장녹수 (Jang Nok-Soo) making her scenes with Gang Nam-Gil quite watchable. But below-par acting from the young leads and rather insipid production values made it an easily forgettable show. KBS' 아빠셋 엄마하나 (One Mom and Three Dads)? Let's just say for the safety of my TV, I decided to quit proceedings after 15 minutes. They don't work that well with a brick inside, I've heard. Although it could work as modern art. "Le brique dans ma télé", or something.
Thankfully, May picked up a little. KBS' 태양의 여자 (Women in the Sun) was cliched to death, madly convoluted and terribly forced, but it at least had the decency to paint mildly realistic characters going beyond good/evil dichotomies, going from 6% as it began to an impressive 27% on its last episode. MBC's 스포트라이트 (Spotlight) was quite a solid effort, hampered by a change of writers mid-flight, a PD who never should have touched this material, and the usual crazy on-the-fly shooting techniques Korean TV should instantly get rid of. Yet, Son Ye-Jin and Ji Jin-Hee's excellent acting, and the whole "we're not touching romance with a ten foot pole" bravado of sticking to genre tropes was most welcome, for once. And any drama using Lee Seung-Yeol's beautiful vocals earns half a point. SBS' 일지매 (Iljimae) certainly had its fans and it wasn't as excruciatingly bad as I expected, but it was deliriously uneven, and mostly wasted the quite decent production values and generally good acting (save a few young turds) thanks to a ridiculous script.
Which... finally, brings us to August. You've heard good things from us regarding 전설의 고향 (Hometown of Legends) already, and the entire series certainly did beyond expectations. But save for the wonderful 구미호 (Fox with Nine Tails) and 귀서 (Ghost Letter), the rest was more of the same, in slightly flashier clothing. A very worthy revival though, one which will hopefully come back next summer. MBC's 대~한민국 변호사 (The Lawyers of Korea) is way too embarrassing to even mention, while SBS' 워킹맘 (Working Mom) has so far been a huge disappointment. Coming from the pungent, ironical pen of 강남엄마 따라잡기 (Gangnam Mom)'s Kim Hyun-Hee, you'd expect something better than a loud, annoying comedy with very little of note to say, despite Yeom Jung-Ah's predictably good acting. Since Working Mom, which is scoring surprisingly high in the ratings (high 10s), will air for another couple of weeks before the start of Moon Geun-Young's 바람의 화원 (Painter in the Wind), the real battle was between the two dramas starting today, Kingdom of the Wind and Beethoven Virus. The latter aired one hour later than usual, as MBC was broadcasting the national football team's game until 11 pm. And it's exactly with the "music" drama we will start.
Anyone familiar with the last 5 years of Korean TV dramas will know how much of an impact that little gem called 태릉 선수촌 (Taereung National Village) had on MBC. It was one of the few examples of short dramas from the channel which actually had something to show and/or say, in contrast with the mostly insipid offerings which eventually caused 베스트극장 (Best Theater)'s demise. Also, it finally highlighted young talent behind the camera, which is something MBC had been severely lacking for years. PD Lee Yoon-Jung and writers Hong Ja-Ram and Hong Jin-Ah (another set of "Hong sisters") crafted a love letter to the passion for sports, intersecting it with a coming of age story which, for once, didn't smell of wet dog from an August afternoon. It had vibe and energy, the kind of vitality even miniseries had a hard time showing, too busy prancing around with the usual menage a trois tomfoolery. It also brought to the table a few very impressive youngsters, particularly Kim Byeol and the underrated Choi Jung-Yoon, while confirming Lee Seon-Gyun was one of the kings of short dramas, as he had already shown on several 드라마시티 (Dramacity).
Lee Yoon-Jung went on to greener pastures and what will perhaps become a future as star producer, wasting her time with pap like 커피프린스 1호점 (Coffee Prince); but the real interesting find were the "minor" Hong sisters, finally showing MBC didn't just know how to produce, well, producers (Lee Jae-Gyu, Kim Jin-Min being the best examples), but also writers with talent. Their 오버 더 레인보우 (Over the Rainbow) had chocolate (that... other chocolate) stains all over, but it also had soul, with the always very watchable Seo Ji-Hye and the surprisingly bearable Hwan-Hee of pseudo-R&B duo Fly to the Sky highlighting quite a few charming moments. Their follow up would have been "long awaited" even if a certain someone didn't end up being attached to such project, but when that someone became Lee Jae-Gyu, one couldn't help but be excited.
Growing under Ahn Pan-Seok's wings, Lee's debut came with a little drama called Damo, one of the most revolutionary K-dramas of the last decade. In retrospect, acting could have been better, and the script needed some heavy "doctoring" particularly in the second half, but it still shines through thanks to cargo ships of flair and passion. Lee's follow up 패션 70s (Fashion Seventies) was certainly not as good, but it was well acted, with tremendous production values and a ridiculously good first act (shame about the script). Lee had been looking at several items for months, including adapting famous manhwa artist Kang Full's 타이밍 (Timing), but after a long hiatus, he finally decided to go for Beethoven Virus.
That, more than anything else, was the biggest reason people couldn't help but expect good things from this show. Way too many dramas offer disappointing combos when it comes to writers and PDs, and sometimes that causes the entire project to go down the drain - in that sense, things like 달콤한 인생 (La Dolce Vita) and 달콤한 나의 도시 (My Sweet Seoul) are the lucky exception. This was one of those rare cases when both producer and writers promised really good things, but for the last three months one disappointment after another cut those expectations from really high to dangerously low. Sure, it had cast Kim Myung-Min of 불멸의 이순신 (The Immortal Lee Soon-Shin) and 하얀거탑 (The White Tower) already, which was enough to warrant at least mild interest. It also had a very solid supporting cast, from Lee Soon-Jae to Song Ok-Sook. But the casting of Lee Ji-Ah from 태왕사신기 (The Legend) and young star Jang Geun-Seok already started smelling of trendy drama, more than a sort of The White Tower about the world of orchestras. Then, there was that little detail, telling of how 90 of the 130 million won per episode were spent on the cast alone. It was likely just a rumor when it comes to the finer details, but the idea was clear: how are you going to make a music-intensive drama, something which should put the spotlight on music first, when the cast eats up two thirds of the budget?
After watching the first episode, that is perhaps the biggest concern. Nowhere during those 73 minutes you'll feel this drama concerns itself about music first and foremost, that it plans to put the spotlight on that world above all the trendy chicanery. From beginning to end, you're catapulted into manhwa-like situations, with every dot and comma exaggerating or punctuating the situation to ridiculous levels, simplifying things to a mere laughing matter. I could actually deal with all the salad dressing, which - despite being a Lee Jae-Gyu production - is almost painfully overwrought and over the top, but it's the utter and complete lack of interest in the music part that enrages. What's the point of it all, if you get to see a bunch of alleged amateurs knock a performance worthy of La Scala the first time they get together (there's people who haven't played any instrument for years in there)? It just feels like a bunch of people sitting there, trying to match the CD that is playing as background with their fingers, looking painfully fake. I'm not expecting perfection, but there's a big difference between this and learning the basics of the instrument and playing for real, such as Choi Min-Shik in 꽃 피는 봄이 오면 (When Spring Comes), Eom Ji-Won in 주홍글씨 (The Scarlet Letter) or Bae Soo-Bin in the theater play 다리퐁 모단걸 (Telephone Modern Girl). They're just pretending to play here, with Jang Geun-Seok's trumpet playing looking either like a fish out of breath slowly dying outside its tank, or an hippopotamus doing kissing practice. It's like a steering wheel completely disconnected from the tires. No matter where you turn, you don't feel any change.
Even Kim Myung-Min, as great as he is, needs the right direction to highlight his strong points. The speech he makes in front of a distinguished crowd, more or less going "what you've just heard is crap, go get a refund and buy a Brahms CD instead. I'm out," feels so overbearingly fake I even felt sorry for the man. He's probably the best actor in Korea along with Kim Yoon-Seok and Song Kang-Ho when it comes to delivering with facial expression alone, but you can never feel even a gram of realism in his delivery, just because everything is so over the top. But the biggest disappointment are the Hong sisters. It's just the beginning, so one could forgive the unrealistic music performance, the over-the-top production values and sentiment of the show, but the script is almost hopeless right from the start. There's no flow whatsoever here, with the drama sailing from comedy to drama as if it had encountered The Perfect Storm, its attempt at painting the characters' different personalities so painfully obvious, pedestrian and superficial it's hard to believe these people wrote Taereung National Village. It's just the beginning, and it certainly could get better, but just like Im Sang-Soo said recently, you can smell quality right from the beginning. And this quality is definitely not. And I smell something else already.
Quality is usually something that you'd find truckloads of when it comes to sageuk, but the industry has turned this once great genre into what's merely become a cash cow. Making any distinction between fusion and authentic sageuk silly to begin with, the issue concerning something like 바람의 나라 (Kingdom of the Wind) wasn't really whether it would stick to history or not, but if it could at least smell of sageuk, while telling a decent story. The premise was promising enough, with producers of 해신 (Emperor of the Sea) -- which didn't exactly get history right, but it was at least fun - and 한성별곡-正 (Conspiracy in the Court)'s Park Jin-Woo on board, sharing writing rights with Jung Jin-Ok. Then again, the looming shadow of Choi Wan-Gyu's A-story and his acting as "creator" (that is, the one who makes sure this will make mountains of money) turned all this into worry, because the man is all about superficial and easy to follow stories, dragging along until a battle scene or two wakes you up.
Then, there was the issue of the historical period this drama was going to focus on. First focusing on the rule of King Yuri, and later King Daemushin, the show is only a few decades removed from the events seen in 주몽 (Jumong), or that pastiche Choi and Jung Hyung-Soo put together anyway. The players are more or less the same, with Goguryeo, Buyeo on the North East, the Chinese Han empire on the western front and the remaining commanderies post-Goguryeo founding. In the middle you could find plenty of micro-states, and Goguryeo itself was still developing from a federation of tribes to a proper kingdom with centralized rule. But we'll focus on historical details when we review this properly. What's important is that we're dealing more or less with familiar names and faces, in a sort of "unofficial" follow up to the 2006 drama. When authentic sageuk were the rage, you'd get consecutive historical periods treated on consecutive dramas - think of 용의 눈물 (Tears of the Dragon) bridging into 왕과 비 (The King and the Queen) in the mid-to-late nineties. But now, the kiddos who have grown up without watching dramas from the golden age, and think "sageuk" means something like 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) -- that is, superficial success stories with a few historical details thrown in the middle - might find themselves a little perturbed by this show.
Take a serious look at this first episode, and the list of historical distortions would fill a book. For starters, the "ethnopolitics" at play are a bit silly, especially if you look at that battle scene with the Gi San tribe. The 삼국사기 (The History of the Three Kingdoms) does list the Gi San around the same time where the drama starts (4th year AD), but a look at them in this show and you'd think they'd be "barbarians" from so far up-North that they'd have very little to do with the ethnic fabric that populated such area (Yemaek stock like Goguryeo and Buyeo). They don't even look like Xiongnu or anything approaching Turkish stock. Just... random barbarians. And don't get me started on armor and weapons. The relationship between Goguryeo nobility and the tribal chiefs is also very superficial, which all reminds of Jumong. This, so to speak, smells of Choi Wan-Gyu. But a deeper look at the show, and you'll also find the hand of Park Jin-Woo, particularly when it comes to flow and the serious aura of the show. Be it because KBS knows how scale is important to recreate verisimilitude in this genre (unlike most MBC sageuk), or because despite the lack of details and accuracy you always feel a certain realism; but this is the first historical drama on Korean TV in a long time which actually smells of history, and I'm not necessarily speaking just of historical authenticity.
Fans of the original manhwa this was based on, Kim Jin's classic of the same title, will certainly be disappointed right off the bat, as the show is going in a completely different direction. Then again, despite not getting details and background right, this feels a lot more real than Jumong, The Legend, or even things like 대조영 (Dae Jo Young) and 대왕세종 (Sejong the Great). There's a sense of pathos and weight that was sorely missed, and the approach to characters is not the usual black and white, hero and villain mess that we've come to expect. Getting obsessive over historical details would certainly hurt the proceedings, but this is a pretty obscure period anyway, with conflicting records which require a significant amount of reading between the lines before you can get past symbolism and cultural barriers (such as the totemism which guided those times). Surely that's not the writers' concern. What you're getting here are names and dates right (more or less), and everything in between just aiming for relative realism.
It's hard to pinpoint what's the key is after just one episode, but just about everything feels right. There are no superb performances, but the acting is of very high caliber, particularly Jung Jin-Young's metric tons of charisma. Production values are high, but they don't try to throw everything at the screen right from the start, like that sensory overload which was the start of The Legend. If feels as if the writers did want to pack a punch from the beginning, but really didn't need to rush, as they trust the material. There's a relentless flow to the proceedings, which makes the 70 minute runtime go fast and sweet. I'm sure there'll be plenty to complain about in the coming weeks, but this is actually one of the few shows this year which has the potential to get significantly better, not just the vague hope it will maintain the current quality. It's not the great sageuk it could be if these were other times, and more than making money with "project dramas" like this the legacy of this genre was more important. But in this atmosphere, with the current state the industry is in, this is probably the best we can expect. Not exactly smart, but at least fun...
BEETHOVEN VIRUS - Episode 1 Rating: 3
KINGDOM OF THE WIND - Episode 1 Rating: 7