가면 (Mask)

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20 Episodes
A Golden Thumb Pictures/Sim Entertainment Production
Timeslot: Wednesday and Thursday Evening, 10:00 PM
Genre: Melodrama
Format: 1080i Dolby Digital 2.0 – 70 Minutes
Ran from: 2015/May/27~Jul/30

WITH 수애 (Soo Ae) as Byeon Ji-Sook/Seo Eun-Ha; 주지훈 (Joo Ji-Hoon) as Choi Min-Woo; 연정훈 (Yeon Jung-Hoon) as Min Seok-Hoon; 유인영 (Yoo In-Young) as Choi Mi-Yeon; 정동환 (Jung Dong-Hwan) as Byeon Dae-Seong; 양미경 (Yang Mi-Gyeong) as Kang Ok-Soon; 호야 (Hoya) as Byeon Ji-Hyeok; 전국환 (Jeon Guk-Hwan) as Chairman Choi; 박준금 (Park Joon-Geum) as Mrs. Song; 김병욱 (Kim Byung-Wook) as President Shim; 박연수 (Park Yeon-Soo) as Myeong-Hwa; 조한선 (Jo Han-Seon) as Kim Jung-Tae; 황석정 (Hwang Seok-Jeong) as Mal-Ja; 박준면 (Park Joon-Myeon) as Chief Yeo; 

CREW Production Director 부성철 (Bu Seong-Cheol) Main Writer 최호철 (Choi Ho-Cheol) Planning 이용석 (Lee Yong-Seok) Executive Producer 김용훈 (Kim Yong-Hoon) 심정운 (Shim Jung-Woon) Producer 김동호 (Kim Dong-Ho) Director of Photography 홍성길 (Hong Seong-Gil) Lighting 김근수 (Kim Geun-Soo) Editor 조인형 (Jo In-Hyung) 임호철 (Im Ho-Cheol) Art Director 이용탁 (Lee Yong-Tak) Music 김준석 (Kim Jun-Seok) 정세린 (Jung Se-Rin) Action Choreography 전유준 (Jeon Yoo-Joon) Assistant Writer 이애란 (Lee Ae-Ran) 김유진 (Kim Yoo-Jin) Assistant Producer 박보람 (Park Bo-Ram) 박기옥 (Park Gi-Ok)

RATINGS
AGB Nielsen Nationwide
HIGHEST: 13.6% (07/30 - E20)
LOWEST: 7.5% (05/27 - E01)
AVERAGE: 10.77%

OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Photo ⓒ SBS, Sim Entertainment, Golden Thumb Pictures

SYNOPSIS

Hounded by loan sharks into paying her father's crippling debt, Byun Ji-sook assumes the identity of her doppelgänger Seo Eun-ha, the fiancée of chaebol heir Min-woo. Despite his wealthy background, Choi Min-woo grew up without the love of friends and family; when he discovers Ji-sook's deception, he keeps her secret as he finds in her something he has never experienced before. [Wikipedia]

FIRST LOOK

You'd assume that whomever delves into the world of irony would first have a look in the mirror and ponder upon a simple question: am I in any position to dissimulate reality through the use of sarcasm, or am I prone to the very same pitfalls I'm trying to ironically point my fingers at? It might be a noble intent on paper, and sarcasm has infinitely more class and subtlety than ordinary slapstick or screwball comedy, particularly in the realm of the often wretched trendy drama canon. But it's not quite as easy to pull it off as people might think, for instance in Choi Ho-Cheol's case – who last graced us with 비밀 (Secret)'s madly overwrought shenanigans.

An admittedly short but very telling scene in his latest show pokes fun at the quintessential ingredients of the Korean potboiler – secrets of birth, makjang histrionics et al. It would be quite amusing and irreverent, if only it wasn't part of a narrative whole that has no business poking fun at anything, in light of the inglorious array of old clichés that are thrown at us with reckless urgency, as if it was any ordinary daily drama: not even 30 seconds pass and we're already embroiled in a nearly fatal accident, where our protagonist conveniently averts death thanks to a fateful phone call that advises her to “die” (and I suppose assume the identity of the person she's replacing, symbolically wearing the titular mask); not only are we still dealing with 2nd generation chaebol (so we've got shallow female fantasies and enough posh potential to litter the show with PPL covered) and their myriad of convenient dysfunctions – lest the dishwashing horde might harbor the thought that rich people might be normal human beings just like them – we also have the dreaded contract marriage device thrown at us with such nonchalance, you could blink and miss it.

And what else is there? Doppelganger conventions (so Soo Ae can pull off insipid award-bait method acting), random hygienic urges (need to disrobe model alumni Joo Ji-Hoon every 20 minutes, I guess), sad-sack working class conventions (just in case the class consciousness displayed in this story wasn't obsolete and offensively complacent enough) and enough superficial status symbols to fill a book, not to mention the inordinate amount of tonal shifts that get us from zany fits of “cuteness” to madly passionate love… pecking on the lips, because babies are delivered by storks and you shouldn't even belabor such filth flarn filth in the context of Korean television, you perverted you!

Who are we trying to impress with such tragicomically misguided moments of meta-drama, that eventually will be forgotten and more likely than not become a sort of prophetic sign of things to come (secrets of birth, makjang happenings, and the like)? And more importantly, why do we still have to deal with plot devices that would have felt obsolete 15 years ago? Who would possibly lap up this kind of creatively bankrupt tripe, if not people who only watch television as an accessory to shirt ironing – and just because the radio keeps playing those “childish tunes and not the old classics we loved so much… that was music, dammit!” otherwise they'd find other entertainment venues to act as background noise.

There is not a single actor capable of carrying a drama on his shoulders here – from the 1970s-style method acting of Soo Ae, who is technically proficient but in desperate need of an injection of spontaneity, to the hysterical poseur escapades of Joo Ji-Hoon and especially Yeon Jung-Hoon; from the misplaced and often aimless physicality of Yoo In-Young to the usual moody fluff of the token K-pop starlet. It's a gigantic mess to the tune of old potboilers that populated the airwaves five, ten, fifteen years ago. Potboilers that save for slightly more accomplished CG haven't changed a single bit.

I'm not sure Choi and his colleagues comprehend the irony here. Because after one hour of this, it's not makjang dramas we're laughing at.

We're laughing at them.

HALFTIME REPORT

The difference between a quality show and something that only manages to intrigue on a superficial level can often be decided by seemingly ancillary details, subplots and characters: handle them with negligence and an interesting main thread could lose most if not all of its impact. This generally happens when writers bank too much on the strength of a synopsis, but then don't have the patience (or the acumen) to build the story from the ground up and give it a solid structure all the way to its finest building blocks, leaving us with an uneven tone that disrupts the flow of the story. It would be a little far-fetched to demand the kind of maniacal attention to detail Kim Ji-Woo would routinely grace us with in works like 부활 (Rebirth) and 마왕 (The Devil). But despite its winning premise, this show disappointingly oozes insecurity whenever it tries to stray off its titular gimmick, the mask itself.

Take the way the doppelganger switch was handled: having the parents identify “Ji-Sook's body” while “Eun-Ha” is simultaneously pretending to suffer from amnesia solves a lot of narrative problems dealing with plausibility and suspension of disbelief – in itself quite shaky from the get go. I know the premise was far-fetched to begin with, but possibly having actions and reactions that make sense in the grand scheme of things makes whatever ulterior dramatic machinations you throw at the viewer feel a little more compelling, because down the line you could possibly end up adding empathy to the usual dose of superficial sympathy. It also reinforces the strength of the main premise, the idea that wearing the “mask” that is Eun-Ha's life will not only mean inheriting her considerable “pedigree,” but also the challenges it subjected her to – not to mention having to somehow embody her set of values and personality once the novelty effect of the amnesia starts wearing off.

Choi does surprisingly well when it comes to that, even going as far as dialogue is concerned. The best line of the entire four episodes comes from Yeon Jung-Hoon's mouth, telling our doppelganger that “ultimately the choice is [hers]; will [she] give up on [her] feelings to save [her] family (and therefore stay away from them, allowing him to keep his promise)?” Or will she jeopardize everything and bring them harm simply because she was overwhelmed by her emotions? The villain putting the knife in the victim's hands is a tried and true convention of the canon, but it's always a successful one, because it turns the protagonist into an active player who can supposedly decide her fate – as opposed to a passive victim who really can't do much other than hope that fortuity will spare her. Dealing with her conflicting emotions this way is a clever way of giving weight to the central gimmick's implications, in turn creating dramatic tension that's well grounded.

So yes, the core mostly works. You could argue that Soo Ae is not exactly the best kind of thespian to manifest that inner struggle (because generally she loses herself in the same method acting that feels competent but a little too detached on most occasions), and that Joo Ji-Hoon is visibly out of his element when it comes to depicting the erratic nature of his character (by overacting when he should limit himself and never truly letting loose when the situation requires it), but as long as the narrative helps them flex out those character trajectories, the drama remains intriguing.

On the surface, that is. Because whenever you venture out of the main thread, only murky waters await you. If you're wondering what makes a compelling, well written ancillary character, simply ask yourself a question: would he have enough substance to stand on his feet if removed from his involvement with the main characters? Perhaps the best example of the last decade is Park Yeon-Seon's use of bit roles in 얼렁뚱땅 흥신소 (Evasive Inquiry Agency), where you get the idea that we're only privy to a small portion of those seemingly insignificant characters' lives, but they would have enough tales to tell to fill an entire drama. You certainly don't expect that degree of depth in a show of this kind, but at least the basics should be covered. Reality says otherwise.

Characters like Director Shim, the “boss” of the private lending firm following Ji-Sook's family like a shadow from the very beginning, are only functional to the protagonist's struggle, but never to their own trajectory as individuals – in the sense that witnessing Ji-Sook's funeral and possibly seeing Eun-Ha down the line gives Shim and his minions a reason to continue existing, but only for the sake of playing a minor villain. They have no existence outside of the frame. The same goes for Ji-Sook's former colleagues, who only play mild distractions that eventually could play stumbling blocks for her ambitious make-believe operations. It would be fine if this was only limited to characters like them, people who in the grand scheme of things are only tangential. But this extends all the way to anyone outside of the main quartet– although at times even Seok-Hoon and Mi-Yeon feel underdeveloped, even though it's only the beginning. Instead of wasting time with comic relief that never goes anywhere (because it feels so far removed from the main thread and only tacked on to give the audience a breather), why not invest such moments in giving those characters some vibe that defines them outside of their relationship with the protagonists?

That is to say that most of this show's real issues come down to the script's lack of depth. Production is a tad on the garish side (going for a stylish ambiance when instead it should deliver metric tons of controlled decadence) but it's so far serviceable, and although there is no real spontaneity and impact in any of the performances, the cast is doing a somewhat decent job in highlighting the charm of the main narrative core.

So I'm going to throw Choi's best line of dialogue so far directly back at him: he holds the key to this show's salvation. If he decides to give some depth to a salad dressing that shouldn't be just there to fill time whenever the main course is preparing in the background, we might have a surprisingly overachieving show on our hands, particularly if he manages to stay the course for what concerns the mask's dilemma – because he could just easily revert to yet another love triangle between our doppelganger and the two predators surrounding her. Otherwise, well… close, but no cigars.

Quality means a lot more than just a good premise.

FINALE

Over the years, I've grown to dislike the word “guilty pleasure.”

There's nothing wrong with it per se if restraint is part of the equation, mind you. From time to time I still check clips of 연개소문 (Yeon Gaesomun) and marvel at how Lee Hwan-Kyung managed to get one hundred episodes (!) of this hilariously trashy maelstrom of unintentionally Shakespearean overacting out of SBS – dubious legacy of being famous for horrible CG, cardboard palaces and having a finale where Yoo Dong-Geun rides a three-legged raven into the horizon notwithstanding. It's, after all, a very colourful way of reminding you how certain intangibles (like camp value) can sometime mean more than actual quality, at least in ever so small doses.

But what used to be the admission that once in a while it's not too bad to bask in what essentially is ludicrous crap has now become a sort of cop-out excuse to justify bad taste. In that case, the word itself loses any meaning it previously had, because its “perpetrators” don't feel any guilt anymore, having abandoned any serious pursuit of pleasure that derives from seeking quality fare and instead constantly going for empty, unabashedly visceral, low-brow escapism all the time. It's the same thing that happens when you subject yourself to a diet of cheap, all-you-can-eat buffets and junk food instead of eating healthy. In cinematic terms, it's waking up one day and thinking Sharknado! might be cooler than “them artsy-fartsy Truffaut flicks with all those Frenchies speaking weird language that isn't American.” On the Korean TV side of things, it's like treating something as deliriously garish as this show as if it were a compelling doppelganger thriller.

It's easy to blame the writers for not being able to go beyond threadbare genre conventions and narrative patterns, for offering us characterization that is so flimsy and so dependent on cheap thrills, for resorting to the same old manipulative tricks to elicit a reaction from the public – who, in this neck of the woods, starts the tail-wagging at the mere mention of the dreaded L word. (No, I don't mean lesbians.) We are the ones who, with our choices, have contributed to the miserable dumbing down of this industry's output – and as meager a direct influence the International audience has had on the industry over the years, I'm adding us all for the indirect damage we have caused by essentially choosing the same “guilty pleasures” over and over. And not really feeling all that guilty about it.

The issue here is always the same: Choi Ho-Cheol's core premise is decently compelling, but he never gets anything out of it. Ever. Every opportunity to make something out of the trigger-happy denouement tendencies of the writer's central gimmick (Ji-Sook being Eun-Ha) always ends up going back to the pursuit of cheap, daily drama-like thrills that instead of creating more questions and making you wonder about the characters' motives only manage to titillate your need for visceral escapism for a few minutes, or in the best case scenario an episode. It's hard to take any of this seriously with so many logical holes, so much suspension of disbelief required, and so little verisimilitude helping curb the nonsense. Couple that with Yeon Jung-Hoon and Joo Ji-Hoon violently overacting (did Yeon's vampire fangs get stuck during his previous dramatic endeavours?), Soo Ae underacting as she's wont to do, and ancillary characters only used for the sake of grating dramatic non-sequitur straight out of a sitcom, and you've got little pleasure to be guilty about here.

Here's an idea. For both us and the industry people who keep suffering from creative dysentery.

Go back to the classics of the genre, and see how they worked. See how they challenged your synapses to think, and not just passively witness narrative fuff like what this is. Then you'll probably feel a little guilty for having the pleasure of enjoying this lurid, portentous trifle. And perhaps seek something that will please you without any guilt...

ACTING GRADES

67 전국환 (Jeon Guk-Hwan)
63 정동환 (Jung Dong-Hwan)
63 양미경 (Yang Mi-Gyeong)
62 수애 (Soo Ae)
59 박준금 (Park Joon-Geum)
57 유인영 (Yoo In-Young)
56 김병욱 (Kim Byung-Wook)
56 박연수 (Park Yeon-Soo)
54 연정훈 (Yeon Jung-Hoon)
53 주지훈 (Joo Ji-Hoon)
53 황석정 (Hwang Seok-Jung)
52 조한선 (Jo Han-Seon)
50 호야 (Hoya)
50 박준면 (Park Joon-Myeon)

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