상류사회 (High Society)

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16 Episodes
An HB Entertainment Production
Timeslot: Monday and Tuesday Evening, 10:00 PM
Genre: Trendy Drama
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 60 Minutes
Ran from: 2015/Jun/08~Jul/28

WITH 유이 (UEE) as Jang Yoon-Ha; 성준 (Sung Joon) as Choi Joon-Gi; 박형식 (Park Hyung-Shik) as Yoo Chang-Soo; 임지연 (Im Ji-Yeon) as Lee Ji-Yi; 윤주상 (Yoon Joo-Sang) as Jang Won-Shik; 고두심 (Go Doo-Shim) as Min Hye-Soo; 이상우 (Lee Sang-Woo) as Jang Gyeong-Joon; 윤지혜 (Yoon Ji-Hye) as Jang Ye-Won; 방은희 (Bang Eun-Hee) as Kim Seo-Ra; 양희경 (Yang Hee-Kyung) as Lee Min-Sook;

CREW Production Director 최영훈 (Choi Young-Hoon) Main Writer 하명희 (Ha Myeong-Hee) Executive Producer 문보미 (Moon Bo-Mi) Planning 한정환 (Han Jung-Hwan) Producer 유현기 (Yoo Hyeon-Gi) Producer 김동호 (Kim Dong-Ho) 김시환 (Kim Si-Hwan) Director of Photography 서득원 (Seo Deuk-Won) 문지섭 (Moon Gi-Seop) Lighting 이주열 (Lee Ju-Yeol) Editor 박인철 (Park In-Cheol) 신숙 (Shin Sook) Art Director 김기정 (Kim Gi-Jeong) Costumes 최임영 (Choi Im-Young) Music 하근영 (Ha Geun-Young) Action Choreography 배재일 (Bae Jae-Il) 김철구 (Kim Cheol-Gu) Assistant Writer 정인영 (Jung In-Young) Assistant Producer 함준호 (Ham Joon-Ho) 길소진 (Gil So-Jin)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 10.1% (07/28 - E16)
LOWEST: 7.0% (06/09 - E02)
AVERAGE: 8.99%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Photo ⓒ HB Entertainment, SBS

SYNOPSIS

Jang Yoon-ha is the youngest daughter of a chaebol family. Despite her wealth, she works part-time at a food market and hides her true identity as an heiress because all she wants is to find a man who'll love her for herself and not her money. Choi Joon-ki grew up in extreme poverty, and has a huge chip on his shoulder about his poor parents being belittled. Now working as a middle manager for a conglomerate, Joon-ki is smart and talented but also jaded and calculating, believing that love is a luxury only for the wealthy. [Wikipedia]

FIRST LOOK

I'll probably be preaching to the choir saying this, but whenever class consciousness approaches K-drama narrative, you should be prepared to brave a veritable minefield. Or at the very least be very afraid.

It's not really surprising: most Korean dramas are written by and pander to viewers from a generation that was forcibly indoctrinated by an authoritarian regime to worship reckless individualism, wanton consumerism, superficial class consciousness and the pursuit of status symbols that would somewhat prove that some “chosen ones” of a once destitute nation were finally worthy of at least being christened nouveau riche – while everyone else not good enough to be chosen would obviously live a life of contempt and jealousy for nobility, in a severely detrimental social dichotomy. Evidently, whenever noblesse oblige is used as a plot device in Korean dramas you're inclined to think of a bastardization of the concept, because we're dealing with aristocracy that in most cases is an artificially inflated 800-pound gorilla made of empty clichés about wealth and class. The irony here is that by bastardizing nobility to this extent, nobility bastardizes the people who exploit it in return. We think we're anthropomorphizing the chimp, but instead it's the chimp that's “chimpomorphizing” us.

You look at the premise of this show and you can't help but shake your head: the daughter of a tycoon seeking “normalcy” by forcibly moving down the ladder and working part-time at a food market in an effort to find true love; an ambitious man of meager upbringing ready to do everything to (even forcibly) move up the ladder, even if it means faking his feelings for a rich lady; the angelic cinderella with a heart of gold and an even more precious smile, and the hungry 2nd gen chaebol flexing his muscles and mugging his way through the perilous waters of clan succession. It's like a big X with clichés of this canon at every extremity, with the possible caveat that the genders are exchanged – in itself an arguable improvement over traditional portrayals, but I fail to see how achieving “gender emancipation” through the use of caricatures helps female characters in any way.

Then again, perhaps a closer look would be wise, given that this show is written by Ha Myeong-Hee and not your ordinary trendy drama scribe. Not that she's infallible, progressive about these themes in any way, or would have anything particularly topical to say – especially in light of the current social climate, which wouldn't excuse the same old sugarcoated answer to those touchy dilemmas, the tried and true formula of gunning for sincere and joyous petting over class divide. But both her previous works, 우리가 결혼할 수 있을까 (Can We Get Married) and 따뜻한 말 한마디 (One Warm Word), have shown the kind of depth that rarely makes its way to such conservative and mannerism-prone shores – and even if the answer to those dilemmas wasn't all that fresh, she at least concocted a compelling enough journey to that destination. It's that kind of intelligent introspection that you would like to see more often in this kind of setting, regardless of what you may think about her conclusions. And perhaps what will transpire from this show, her most explicitly mainstream to date – if we forget for a moment that she dealt with 부부클리닉 - 사랑과 전쟁 (Love & War) for nearly a decade.

It's hard to see how far Ha is willing to go in bending the usual stereotypes of the genre at this stage, as the introduction still lingers on the surface, rarely scraping its way beneath to show any depth. But I'd be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, at least in light of the way she dealt with stereotypes in the past – especially when it comes to class consciousness and family dynamics. To her merit, there is nothing glaringly over the top here, if you're willing to excuse characters that wear that characterization on their sleeves, to the point it feels like exposition.

Whether PD Choi Young-Hoon – a journeyman of meager repute, helming everything from fluffy sitcoms like 압구정 종갓집 (Big Apgujeong House) to makjang potboilers like 다섯 손가락 (Five Fingers) – can really do that kind of premise any justice, despite having worked with Ha on One Warm Word, is yet to be seen. And the cast so far looks pretty ill-equipped for this task as well: despite being a six year veteran (!), former K-pop starlet UEE still hasn't shown any significant improvement over her early, pupil-dilating efforts. She's easy on the eyes and at times even naturally charming, but her technique is still shockingly barebones, not to speak of her emoting; Sung Joon, who worked with Ha in Can We Get Married, has instead visibly improved and even suits the character to a degree, but expecting a virtuoso performance out of him would be quite far-fetched; and when it comes to yet another singer-turned-actor, Park Hyung-Shik has actually regressed since his 시리우스 (Sirius) days, mugging, pouting and posing his way through a role that couldn't be in shakier hands. That leaves us with relative newcomer Im Ji-Yeon, who did really well in the hormonally charged but mortally dull 인간중독 (Obsessed), but will have her work cut out if she wants to get anything out of this stereotypical a character. The predictably reliable Yoon Ji-Hye is the only real highlight of a competent yet rather insipid cast, so far.

But this show does have some untapped potential, if anything because of Ha's track record. You know that she won't go for the usual easy formula – that eventually would erase any introspection about the same class consciousness this story was built on. That at least warrants another look.

HALFTIME REPORT

Is redemption for the trendy drama canon necessary at this point? And, more importantly, is it even possible? And what would it take?

Take a look at the top 20 average ratings of the year, and you'll see that KBS' 프로듀사 (The Producers) is the only trendy able to crack the list, and one of the increasingly few to achieve at least a meager 10% – but also consider that it featured a huge cast led by two of the hottest young stars of the moment (Kim Soo-Hyun and IU), and that it was put in an unusual timeslot for network TV, on Fridays and Saturdays. Song Ji-Na and Ji Chang-Wook for 힐러 (Healer)? Only 8%. Hallyu superstar Park Yu-Cheon and Shin Se-Kyung with 냄새를 보는 소녀 (The Girl Who Sees Smells)? 7%. The Han Ji-Min/Hyun Bin duet in 하이드 지킬, 나 (Hyde Jekyll, Me)? Even worse, barely 5%. We've gotten to the point where people have just forsaken the genre, because it is simply unable to bring anything compelling and/or new to the table. Alongside home dramas (dailies in particular) and sageuk, trendy dramas are facing their greatest crisis in history – an empasse made of laziness on the writers' part, complacency by broadcasters in going for the instant gratification of a little Chinese cash from the usual streamers, and lack of foresight by its increasingly decimated audience, failing to see that by continuing to remain aboard this derelict ship they're only becoming an ulterior weight on its sinking shoulders.

This now 20-plus-year old genre needs a vital injection of new blood, and it needs it fast, before losing even the little relevance it has left – because if the average trendy now does in the 5 to 8% range, in a few years you can expect that to go down to 2 or 3%. How do you fix this continuing vicious cycle, then?

Credibility. Patiently, sincerely, painstakingly established credibility.

Credibility starts from the realization that it's not 1999 anymore, and it might be hard to take the frivolous, empty escapism this genre has degenerated into at face value. Remove from the same, aforementioned list the onslaught of copycat daily dramas that the dishwashing horde watches on autopilot and you'll see a curious trend: quality dramas like 펀치 (Punch) and 풍문으로 들었소 (Heard it Through the Grapevine) are doing much better than their trendy counterpart, despite risking more with their less accessible narrative dynamics. Did audience trends suddenly steer towards a more cerebral brand of entertainment? Not necessarily, but it's telling that the year's best two dramas so far have been able to carve a niche for themselves despite being as removed from the usual Hallyu tenets as possible. They've got credibility, though – the kind that comes with giving the public quality on a consistent basis like Park Gyeong-Soo and Ahn Pan-Seok have done.

And how can the trendy drama canon regain the credibility it has completely lost? Ha Myeong-Hee's keenly pungent deconstruction of the “chaebol drama” might have the answer: on the surface we get the same old setup, the same basic dynamics the genre has given us for now over a decade. You have your 2nd generation chaebol and your working class counterpart, complete with tangential company turmoil and succession diatribes. The two “castes” get romantically entangled, obstacles get in the way, but love triumphs above all. The end.

Err, not really.

Ha has always been a smart cat when dealing with dialogue and characterization, able to imbue her characters with a rather topical and matter-of-fact sense of social awareness which is galaxies removed from the facile dichotomies generally populating this genre. The discerning observer will be met by shock when witnessing the nature vs nurture argument applied to trendy drama dynamics: the rich, pampered girl facetiously going down the ladder to find real love believes in nature (“if by changing my environment I change along with it, then I wouldn't feel myself”), whereas the ambitious, self-made youngster from a working class upbringing believes that the environment plays a huge part in who you are and what you become (a fascinating point of view considering his current social position and the process that led to it.)

So now all of a sudden we're not just dealing with ciphers prancing about in make-believe shenanigans and then being forcibly led to blissful petting; these are compelling human beings that have a set of values that isn't born out of a crass generalization or the usual insultingly shallow dichotomy. By refraining from glamourizing the figure of the chaebol – both a crude female fantasy and an excuse to litter the show with PPL – and actually deconstructing this social caste's role in the evolutionary tree of K-drama, the show instantly gains credibility. Because it trusts us and our discernment enough to take us out of the same old fantasy and into a slightly more realistic domain where people aren't defined by the stereotypes of their social status, but by how they interact with it.

That credibility is immediately reflected by how you as a viewer can metabolize characterization. Take Im Ji-Yeon's Ji-Yi, for instance: she looks like an empty vessel on the surface, but then you pay attention to the tiny details surrounding the main, slightly bombastic and cheerful core, and you'll see depth. She's not the usual pushover Cinderella waiting for the rich beau to sweep her under his spell; this is someone who openly declares not to be interested in chaebol, after all – because she finds no resonance in their living style. You'll find that kind of depth throughout the show, even in sneakingly indirect ways – just like a thinly-veiled diss of the current regime's labour policies, which ultimately only favour corporations and those making up statistics just to look more successful (as you witness Yoon-Ha say that “as a temporary employee, [she receives] no benefits or tutelage from the company). Suddenly, the age old romantic entanglements that characterize this genre gain a lot more resonance, simply by feeling closer to home. Characters react how you'd expect people out there in the real world to react, not like a fictional empty vessel in a make-believe world would act (to elicit emotions in the most viscerally manipulative of ways).

There might be the same flaws generally associated with the trendy drama canon (a few tonal shifts here and there, the excessive reliance on music and big cliffhangers to shove sentiments down our throat, a few coincidences too many), but that air of relative realism makes the proceedings a lot more palatable to the eyes of people who are not joining in just for the same old “warm fuzzies.”

This is the most cerebral trendy drama in years, and the decent performance it is enjoying in the ratings can only be a good sign. “Trendy drama” need not become a dirty word, when associated with shows like this.

FINALE

There comes a time when the implications of what you perceive as success have to be weighed in, measured against the consequences they bring. At this point, for the genre of trendy dramas as a whole, that might imply a complete re-framing of existing paradigms, something that would involve sitting down with the big 3's top brass (you know that CJ wouldn't bother participating, they live in their own world), major writers and investors (the companies that pay for product placement, essentially). The issue is this, more or less.

This is not working anymore. It's not just run-of-the-mill, inconsequiential fluff. It's become downright nauseating.

“Anymore” implies that there was a time when all this actually worked, but the endearing trendy dramas of ten to twelve years ago I'm talking about are so much different than today's output that I hesitate to put them in the same category. But when an eclectic writer with a proven track record like Ha Myeong-Hee manages to falter so spectacularly in the third act of a show that never lived up to its initial genre-reshaping potential, you know there's a bigger problem at the core of it all, something that would likely influence most if not all writers. The rules have to be changed, or maybe everyone needs to go back to the genre's early days and start from scratch. Because the downward spiral looks like a neverending avalanche by now, and just as it does not work for bottom-of-the-barrel variety star vehicles thrown ut as on a monthly basis, it doesn't for supposedly higher caliber fare like this.

It's particularly grating to see how shallow this show turned out to be when confronted with something that was as far from the trendy drama world as you could be, but that tangentially dealt with similar problems (a 2nd generation upper class “maverick” trying to crack the invisible social caste system so ingrained into Korean society), Ahn Pan-Seok's 풍문으로 들었소 (Heard it Through the Grapevine). It remained realistic, pragmatic, coherent and topical without ever abandoning its genre (black comedy) trappings. You never saw Ahn and his writer Jung Sung-Joo take a melodramatic turn that broke the flow, or fall for easy, safe manipulation. But for all the lofty aspirations about class consciousness and how it applies to trendy dramas this show had, what we're left with is something that possibly annoys even more than the embarrassingly ditzy pap that generally populates this world – because it's as if it put on a dress of complexity to cajole discerning viewers into having faith in it, to then disrobe and reveal the same old vacuum of superficial emptiness and forced romantic "warm fuzzies" they've grown to loathe. Worse yet, despite theoretically setting itself apart from common genre offerings (where the message seems to universally be “uhh… what was it we were talking about, again? Whatever. Let's just kiss. Is the ballad ready? Cue!”), the message it seems to convey is even a little off-putting.

Everything Yoon-Ha does seems to contradict her noble, paradigm-shifting ideals, in the end suggesting that perhaps we should accept a “reality” that only entrusts the benefit of ambition or decisional power upon those who already wield it to begin with – the sort of thinly-veiled conciliatory pep talk a pragmatic “Gangnam liberal” would make, from the height of his all-too-convenient status quo which dictates that ideals end where your bottom line begins. Then again, can you really take any character in this show seriously? You know you're in trouble when the most reasonable and realistic of them all, Ye-Won (a predictably wonderful Yoon Ji-Hye), is turned into a semi-villainous annoyance on the way to eternal and blissful petting. Because why be sensible, when you can just pretend as if a dramatic kiss can end all your quandaries?

Spending your entire first act promising ruminations on class divide and how it applies to the prototypical family dynamics that animate Korean society to then hurry your way through a maelstrom of forced romantic epiphanies just to satisfy the all-you-can-eat palates of an audience that no longer cares to demand anything from their dramas seems like an insulting cop-out to me. It seems like further proof of the desperation of a genre that has been on its last legs for far too long, but that no one is willing or able to kill it for its own good. It's a 9%, after all. And as long as we keep featuring what we perceive to be the life of the 1%, product placement will continue to fuel the illusion that anything we're doing is working.

It's like driving down the highway with your car on fire, believing that going faster will quell it – and who cares if the explosion engulfs the entire road and destroys everything around it, right? As for me, I'd stop the car and run away before it's too late. But why miss the opportunity to once again experience those “warm fuzzies”... They're to die for.

ACTING GRADES

72 윤지혜 (Yoon Ji-Hye)
65 고두심 (Go Doo-Shim)
65 임지연 (Im Ji-Yeon)
65 윤주상 (Yoon Joo-Sang)
60 성준 (Sung Joon)
60 양희경 (Yang Hee-Kyung)
52 유이 (UEE)
50 박형식 (Park Hyung-Shik)
50 이상우 (Lee Sang-Woo)
47 방은희 (Bang Eun-Hee)

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