Descendants of the Sun – Episode 1 Metacap

태양의 후예 (DESCENDANTS OF THE SUN)

Episode 1 Metacap

An image from KBS' Desccendants of the Sun featuring Song Hye-Gyo and Song Joong-Gi

Descendants of the Sun OST Vol. 1 (KBS TV Drama)

BACKGROUND

There is something really intriguing about the behind-the-scenes development and the long-term implications of KBS’ latest success 태양의 후예 (Descendants of the Sun), and it doesn’t necessarily have something to do with the presence of Korean Wave mainstays like Song Joong-Gi and Song Hye-Gyo, or star writer Kim Eun-Sook. At least not directly.

If 별에서 그대 (My Love from the Star) alerted the industry to the massive export potential the Chinese market had – particularly in light of the declining fortunes of Korean dramas’ former export stronghold, Japan – this show might in the long run indirectly solve one of the most lingering problems the industry was suffering from: the live-shoot syndrome.

Admittedly, it’s a bit disappointing to only see real progress when a business opportunity arises, instead of as a result of concerted efforts by the industry to improve its perennially dysfunctional funding system and working culture. That is because it wasn’t the dire working conditions that cast and crew face on a daily basis that moved Yeouido to finally give pre-produced dramas a shot, but a change in the Chinese government’s stipulations for imported dramas -- now mandating a pre-screening process that would make exporting dramas shot live problematic.

Data from both export sales and Chinese streaming portal views shows that submitting dramas after completion – which would allow the industry to further indulge in its live-shoot tendencies – has resulted in meager returns, because file-sharing and streaming address the need for Chinese viewers’ immediate gratification a lot more than waiting a few months for the censorship board’s approval does. So if in the last few months it was mostly a case of web dramas going the pre-production route – shows that are inherently more suited to that kind of shooting structure, and that target the Chinese market much more aggressively than most “regular” dramas – the trend is now moving towards productions of much higher caliber.

The biggest example is arguably Lee Young-Ae’s long-awaited return to the small screen in 사임당 (Saimdang: The Herstory). But Descendants of the Sun has a bigger chance to act as the blueprint for future trendy dramas to come, given the SBS blockbuster’s more eclectic nature.

The show was first announced on February 2014 as a partnership between Barunson Films and Hwa & Dam Pictures, bringing together hit-maker Kim Eun-Sook with Kim Won-Seok, one of the most interesting new talents to emerge in recent years – and, you could argue, her complete antithesis in terms of writing style.

Not to be confused with the other, perhaps more historically renowned Kim Won-Seok, Kim’s career as a writer has seen a very peculiar gestation period: he started working as assistant director to Kwak Kyung-Taek on 닥터K (Dr. K) and Ryu Seung-Wan in his stunning debut 죽거나 혹은 나쁘거나 (Die Bad) and the energetic actioner 짝패 (The City of Violence). It was through Kwak that he took his first steps in the TV industry as well, helping him write and direct the glorious 친구, 우리들의 전설 (Friend – Our Legend), to then make his solo writing debut in one of the rare successful Korean remakes of a Japanese drama, 여왕의 교실 (The Queen’s Classroom).

Kim Won-Seok is an incisive writer with a knack for social commentary that pleasantly creeps on you without becoming too explicit, something he might have picked up while working with Kwak -- who is definitely not subtle, but is great at capturing local flavor and the weight history and society subject upon characters. He’s never been the kind of writer who exerts showmanship through recurring one-liners, so you’ll probably be puzzled as to why he was paired with Kim Eun-Sook, who ever since 파리의 연인 (Lovers in Paris) has made a career out of her eagerly talkative, catchphrase-spitting machines, and the repartee-laden dialogue between prospective lovers that ensues. The answer is easy: it was actually the other way around.

It was the young writer who first approached Descendants of the Sun, as a human drama that dealt with doctors on the scene of a disaster. The hit-maker only came in later, first by monitoring some of the character interplay, and then joining in after she suggested that a stronger focus on melodrama was more advisable. An interesting collaboration then, if anything because it signals a few interesting firsts: this is the first TV drama that film distribution major NEW has invested in (we’re dealing with a total budget of 13 billion won for 16 episodes, so while they’re no record-breaking numbers, it’s still no small change). But also the first time Kim Eun-Sook works with KBS. Although that wasn’t her original intention.

The show was on SBS’s lineup until push came to shove, and the station decided to put its eggs in 육룡이 나르샤 (Six Flying Dragons)’s basket. Although the spin-doctored press back then tried to make it seem as if several factors played a part in their decision, the major reason pointed back at the dysfunctional structure of this industry’s funding system, and the real culprit behind the apparent lack of support for pre-produced dramas: if there is no live-shoot, PPL loses most of its edge, because advertisers can’t force suggest any script change.

With the law of diminishing returns at play in the export market, and PPL becoming the last cash cow the industry could fall back on, advertisers gained tremendous leverage. Instead of solving the problem at its root and thinking long-term (fixing the funding bubble), the broadcasters simply sought the maximum reward they could achieve with the least amount of effort. Namely, giving advertisers the reins, and letting them dominate storytelling. That is really why today you see Descendants of the Sun on KBS and not on SBS: as a 100% pre-produced project, it was deemed too risky an investment, for a variety of reasons.

- A good portion was shot overseas, making sponsorship contracts a lot more complicated (even for something as seemingly innocuous as providing designated cars and other equipment)

- The nature of Song Joong-Gi’s character would have meant that he would spend a significant amount of airtime in “non-billable” apparel, namely various uniforms

- PPL is a bit like Google AdWords, although at times you get the idea that it’s the drama that adapts to the ads and not the other way around; it needs to audit and adapt quickly to customer trends and analytics if it wants to succeed

Of course all these are concerns that might seem moot, knowing the history of trendy dramas, regardless of their budget: we’ll get a bombastic introduction, and then things will settle down into a much more target demographic-friendly collection of romantic escapades. Failure to comply with these clichés would mean we would be in the presence of quite the eclectic show, particularly considering who’s writing it.

But beyond all the controversy and the clamor this unique (at least for Korea) production history generated, and set aside all the export frenzy it has predictably launched ($350,000 per episode from China and Japan alone), there is something really positive about this show that has the potential to change this industry for the better: it’s amongst the most high-profile trendy dramas ever made, and yet it’s 100% pre-produced. Say what you will about Kim’s writing, but every single writer deserves the chance to have time to write, or to not have to worry about scribbling down inserts on the fly because an advertiser thought of a new way to publicize its product. And while Kim Eun-Sook will never be a Jung Ha-Yeon, a Noh Hee-Kyung or even a Kim Won-Seok, the only way she can give us the best rendition of her writing (assuming that she is indeed trying her best) is by giving her time.

This entire 16-episode drama has been in the can since December 2015. It has shot in six months, normally, without treating 90% of its cast and crew like cheap laborers to exploit; it has been in post-production for weeks, giving editors time to trim the fat and make every episode flow just a little better; it won’t need to artificially bloat episodes just to allow broadcasters to sneak in an extra ad or two, since it was completely funded before its first episode even aired. It is, in short, and whatever might result from the weird combination of two polar opposites in the field of writing, how a respectable and mature television industry should handle every single production. Good or bad, exceedingly mainstream or catering to a niche.

Then we can talk about this industry having a future.

But now on to the first episode.

Song Joong-Gi looks at the screen in combat gear

OF AUTEURS AND HITMAKERS

The show opens a bit on the auteur-wannabe side of things, as our duo of PDs Lee Eung-Bok and Baek Sang-Hoon open with a starry sky and a reverse shot that tracks back to a cracked helmet with bullet holes. As the tracking shot continues, we see more information: the helmet is still in use, it’s on top of a rifle, and a sign on the right alerts us to where we are, as a squad of soldiers pass by.

군사분계선

(Military Demarcation Line)

The usual segue might follow, but it’s handled differently: we’re alerted to the fact that three North Korean soldiers have crossed the border and are currently holding southern forces hostage, but you see how the pre-produced nature of the show begins to exert itself already. In live-shoot mode, editing is very matter-of-fact and minimalist, as there is no time for shooting inserts (unless mandated by advertisers) and at most you get cheap reaction shots. Here, as the military command’s briefing plays as our voiceover, we get a functional amount of visual information, showing us the actual hostage situation, the reactions at the military command and the debate that ensues, all interwoven into a cohesive whole. The key piece of dialogue is given to General Yoon Gil-Joon: 도발을 위한 도발입니다 (It’s provocation for provocation’s sake).

The general’s sentence continues as voiceover (expanding on his reasoning) while we’re already introduced to our team of “quiet rescuers,” led by our protagonist Yoo Shi-Jin, as they move in. In 90 short seconds, we are given all the information we need: it’s a provocation, they can’t resort to explicit use of force, and the matter needs to be settled as subtly as possible. No excessive frills, no bombastic escalation of spectacle for spectacle’s sake. The difference between outright exposition and proper visual storytelling is right there: you use video as a functional narrative device, nothing less and nothing more.

So now that we’ve dealt with the positives, a look at the negatives of this introduction: I’m obviously not privy to exactly which part of this scene was handled by Kim Eun-Sook and which by her colleague Kim Won-Seok, but a look at their past work and conjecture might turn into a relatively informed guess. Not two minutes have passed, and the hit-maker resorts to her penchant for snappy one-liners, as Shi-Jin utters an excessively cocky and character-qualifying 이제 그만하자, 집엔 보내줄께 (That’s enough, I’ll let you go back home).

Character-qualifying dialogue is important throughout the course of a show, and it can eventually become a crucial piece of characterization. But only when solid foundations are established. You throw something that defines your character out there without anything to back it up, and it only comes off as a desperate tentative to substitute proper, gradual characterization with cheap one-liners that try to achieve that on their own. It’s another form of exposition, one that makes your characterization immediately accessible to 100% of the audience (even the portion that couldn’t stand an incipit this serious). But at the expense of the narrative flow of this scene. It’s a tense stand-off between North and South that could easily escalate, but we get cocky alpha males strutting their stuff, and code names straight out of a comedy (Harry Potter? Big Boss?). I see this as writer insecurity: can’t Kim Eun-Sook give us five minutes devoid of levity without getting antsy? Or does she think her viewers’ attention span is that short?




One of the North Korean soldiers in Descendants of the Sun holds a gun

EXTRAS

그냥은 못 가디 (We’re not leaving like that)

Ji Seung-Hyeon. You didn’t know his name (not that I didn’t have to look him up myself), probably recall seeing him here and there, no recollection of anything qualifying him as anything more than a glorified extra. But I’m going to single him out to point out a simple, yet often underestimated detail: he’s playing a throwaway character who will be disposed of in about five minutes. But he gives believability to the scene. He’s not too smarmy, hits the right notes (in this case, character-qualifying dialogue and expression acting are paramount given the brevity of his screen time, and thankfully the scene delivers on both counts), and generally adheres to that cardinal rule of storytelling I call having a “life outside the drama.”

As with the previous scene, one positive is followed by a negative: I like how matter-of-fact the scene is handled – even in terms of action choreography, which is flashy but still mired in decent realism -- up to the point where the characters move to the outside, the North Korean soldier’s knife slices up Shi-Jin’s side, and our valiant hero starts sputtering sanctimonious platitudes about the divide, culminating in his proclamation of southern moral superiority. I’m not debating right or wrong; I’m questioning the need for such highfalutin pigeonholing of complex issues in a drama about lovebirds. Why even bother, when the complexity is beyond the scope of Kim’s writing?

In a recent Hankyoreh piece, film critic Hwang Jin-Mi accused the drama of adhering to the typical “conservative right wing agenda by betraying its inherent longing for sub-imperialism.” It’s a bit of a mouthful and a contextual conjecture at the time of her writing, but it in a larger context exemplifies the lack of depth in Kim Eun-Sook’s writing. Do you need to comment on the divide with the subtlety of a McCarthyist leaflet straight out of the immediate postwar? It adds nothing to Shi-Jin’s characterization, since he’s not speaking of himself but his nation, and the recipient of his tirade will exit the frame in about 30 seconds. Even worse, it puts the spotlight on the agenda instead of the matter at hand: Shi-Jin’s squad is swiftly dealing with a potential diplomatic incident thanks to his acumen and skills. Then Kim exacerbates the problems by throwing flurries of instant bromance at us, as the two opposing soldiers throw run-of-the-mill one-liners at each other to conclude the scene.

As we hit the nine-minute mark and the title makes its appearance, what have we really accomplished, in the grand scheme of things?

- We conveyed that Shi-Jin is a skilled leader of Alpha Team;

- That he can handle critical situations even when tension escalates;

- And that he’s got a solid sidekick in Dae-Young

My question is, did we really need nine minutes to accomplish all that? Most viewers will take away the aforementioned elements from this prolonged scene. But the skeptic in me thinks that all Kim Eun-Sook cared about were these three take-aways:

- We conveyed that Shi-Jin is a smarmy, sexy alpha male with a gift for banter;

- That he can handle critical situations by flexing his pecs, which shall be displayed ASAP;

- And that Second Lead Syndrome is about to hit Dae-Young in the rear end

That, and assorted one-liners, misguided political innuendo, and schmaltzy flair that I’m not sure is all that fitting in a drama of this kind. Because you know that the core of the show will be spent flexing pecs and in more-or-less restrained bouts of tongue scavenging. I’m not suggesting there is to be no levity in a trendy drama, it would be silly. It’s the notion that you need to punctuate the few tense scenes it has with it, lest the audience might find them a bit too dark. It’s the automatic dumbing down of your audience that is annoying.

An Example of Egregious PPL within Descendants of the Sun

COOL MEN

The next scene does a better job of setting up a transition of mood without necessarily shoving a tonal shift down our throat. Dae-Young and Shi-Jin are shooting arcade guns looking for prizes, but things are not going too well – I guess the owner was trying to rip them off. This happens right as music director Kang Dong-Yoon graces us with a famous military song, the hilariously corny 멋진 사나이 (Cool Men).

The situation inevitably asks them to employ their toy guns, as a thief steals a delivery motorcycle and they BB-gun him down in spectacular fashion, as if this was one of their operational drills. It might be a tad over the top, but it delivers without spelling out the comedy down to the crassest details (hello Hong Sisters), and even conveys an added bit of characterization: our “cool men” are soldiers even when away from the battlefield. The scene is effective down to the ill-tempered restaurant owner not wanting any headaches with the police, as he’d probably have a lot more explaining to do about the illegal coupons than an aptly averted theft. It’s added bits like these that are often absent from dramas of this kind, the extra paragraph of script that gives some sense of perspective to non-playing characters. It makes the world our characters inhabit a lot more dynamic, realistic and narratively fluid.

Mandatory stop at a coffee shop to add filler dialogue complete with explicit pimping of drama-related paraphernalia (I thought it was hard to get PPL for pre-produced dramas?), and then Kim Eun-Sook decides to throw some character background at us – namely, that Dae-Young had a similarly problematic childhood, although things are not likely to turn around for the youngster they just stopped. Or are they? The website’s character description seems to hint at our little thug growing into a budding soldier under Dae-Young’s tutelage, so we’ll see.

What immediately transpires from this typical KES-style repartee between Shi-Jin and Dae-Young is that Song Joong-Gi and Jin Goo already show considerable chemistry. Guess what that could be credited to:

- They’re above average to superior talents with optimal acting range, so establishing a convincing rapport is a lot easier

- They have clearly defined character trajectories and they’re aware of the process through which their characterization will develop

- The show was 100% pre-produced, so this scene might have been shot weeks after the shoot started (ideally it was still autumn, given the mise-en-scène outside the coffee shop)

You could certainly answer “all of the above,” although B is still up to debate. But regardless of whether that will come to fruition or not, I just want to point out how much of a difference a pre-produced show makes, even for good actors like these. How many times have you seen a couple or even a leading quartet take their time to find the necessary chemistry, to then display a marked improvement after a month or so? If the production is structured and scheduled intelligently – so you start with ancillary set pieces to get the cast accustomed to their new clothes, then move on to bigger fish to fry -- those problems can be almost completely erased, even in the case of a manipulative and simplistic writer like Kim Eun-Sook. Then even the cheap crowd-pleasers she writes can become slightly more compelling and presentable productions.

I’ll admit I’m not a huge fan of plot devices like what the writers use to connect our friendly soldiers to the thief, namely Dae-Young’s stolen mobile phone. It reeks of Creative Writing 102 to connect the dots that way, and to even spell it out by inserting a descriptive flashback. Forget that it’s an introduction that might be functional to the plot, because as previously mentioned Gi-Beom does end up becoming a soldier later on. Forget even the fact it’s perfectly normal for a thief to steal something, even in a moment of great suffering like what his injury entails. It’s the way the trajectories connect that always feels artificial, put together by design and never organic.

LIFE INSURANCE COMMERCIALS AND PEANUT BUTTER JARS

So Mo-Yeon is introduced, as the same K.will song plays again more or less five minutes after we were first introduced to it. Again, I’m not debating the merits or lack thereof of the song, although it does remind of the tailor-made-for-life-insurance-commercial jingles Noh Hee-Kyung’s characters were saddled with both in 빠담빠담 (Padam Padam) and 겨울, 바람이 분다 (That Winter, the Wind Blows). My main issue with the repetition is that this kind of redundancy was only understandable in 1992, when something like 질투 (Jealousy) had about enough money for OST rights to buy a jar of peanut butter, so playing the same two songs over and over was pretty much the only option they had.

Let’s be serious here. I understand digital sales of singles have become one of the few last stable sources of income for the industry. But do we really need to shove those tunes down our throat until the brain is almost forced to hum along?

On a more positive note, Song Hye-Gyo seems to have been legitimately re-energized by her Noh Hee-Kyung experience (John Woo and Wong Kar-Wai don’t hurt either), in her first trendy since 2004’s 풀하우스 (Full House). There is a lot more introspection to her entrance, which is an often underestimated aspect of characterization. Just like a first impression is crucial in any relationship, the way an actor conveys the information available to her upon her entrance can make the difference between an intriguing character and yet another quick tongue spitting marketable catchphrases. The old Song Hye-Gyo would have come in, punctuated every motion, spread her eyes wide, and reacted to everything surrounding her actions with great clamor. Today’s version comes in in media res, conscious of the fact that this is not Mo-Yeon’s first day on the job, but just another one of her many days at work. She interacts with what surrounds her organically, and does so without making too much of a fuss about the supposedly cute ways in which her patient was sent to her.

Ask yourselves why.

Because she has seen thousands of them. She has seen wailing drama queens, stoic gangsters bleeding from stab wounds, children maimed by violence, elders barely able to utter a word. And possibly even thieves with charts written on their forearms, why not? What is the big deal? It’s just another day at work.

That introspection would have not been there in, say, the kind of medical drama character Hwang Jung-Eum tends to play. Forget for a moment that the jargon is still desperately over-the-top. It’s the poise she shows that helps give us a solid introduction to the kind of person we will be dealing with.

As Gi-Beom tries to run away from the hospital for the first of many times, we get a glimpse of the inevitable: here’s yet another show using the medical setup to (I suppose) eventually highlight how upward mobility is not dictated by merit but by connections, as Mo-Yeon is told that a final interview is all that’s left for her to be promoted. This is supposed to be another quirky little moment of levity that punctuates future introductions (it leads to Mo-Yeon and Shi-Jin meeting for the first time), but Kim’s ham-fisted characterization tricks get in the way.

We assume this senior doctor that Mo-Yeon talks to will be a political player that might affect her chances of career mobility either positively or negatively. But Kim gives us an unnecessary amount of detail for someone we’ve only met for one minute:

- He asks Mo-Yeon whether he’s been treated and ran away without paying

- When she tells him that he hasn’t even been treated, he throws a monumentally forced cliché at her: 그래, 빨리 잡아와요. 치료를 해줘야지. 의술이기 전에 인술인데…

Now, that’s a bit tricky to convey because both 의술 and 인술 can be literally translated as “medicine,” and realistically you’re only going to get a “Right. Better catch him and give him treatment. It’s about healing people, after all.” But in Korean that kind of distinction is such sanctimonious – see how often that adjective is coming up? – and philosophical tripe, the likes of which you would only find in debates centering around the balance between the Hippocratic Oath and the need for a hospital to do business. And it paints him as nothing more than the usual politician-cum-businessman dressing up as a man of the people. Here we go again with unnecessary character-qualifying dialogue. We have barely met this man, and he already throws over-the-top hints signaling to us that he might be a villain (at least for what concerns Mo-Yeon’s career prospects) down the line. Subtlety, anyone?

Kim Jin-Won from Descendants of the Sun

THE ART OF MISUNDERSTANDING

By now you know that most fateful encounters between lovebirds in trendy dramas begin in the realm of misunderstanding. There must be some philosophical explanation as to why writers would continue to use this cheap device, something hopefully a little meatier than it being a reflection on how powerful true love can be – overcoming all odds, misunderstandings included!

So, yeah. Because of the supposedly clever phone switcheroo antics Kim Eun-Sook subjected us to ever since the first encounter between Dae-Young and Gi-Beom, Mo-Yeon mistakes Shi-Jin as “Big Boss,” something she assumes is a creatively-challenged nickname for some run-of-the-mill street thug trying to harm her customer patient. Evidently, she’s not too eager to be accommodating to him, launching familiar interplay and dynamics we’ve seen a thousand times before.

There is even a slow-motion shot of both their gazes meeting for a fateful second, while the song cements the fact they’ll soon experience the quality of reclining seats in Korean-made cars proudly brought to you by Hyundai.

But there are things the fateful mobile phone does that are a little more functional to the narrative, like indirectly continue building the blocks of Dae-Young’s mentorship of Gi-Beom: he needs to retrieve the phone because there is something in there he can’t lose (compromising videos? Photos of the long lost love of his life he’s about to meet again soon enough?), and chances upon the young thug as he’s being manhandled by other fellow problem youth. It’s a pretty short scene with decent, cheeky interplay between Shi-Jin and Dae-Young and works a lot better than the earlier misunderstanding shenanigans for a simple reason: it has a clear purpose, that of advancing the storytelling actively, whereas the misunderstanding is a passive way to further the narrative (since it’s the laziest way to build affinity between two characters).

Besides, it’s a very short-lived misunderstanding anyway, as Gi-Beom quickly clears his new-found “hyungnim” of any wrong-doings and qualifies him in the eyes of Mo-Yeon.

Are you beginning to see a trend? When the writing is organic and well structured, it has ramifications that carry through future scenes making actual sense, and enriching the characterization. But we’ve already seen a couple of examples where the writing seems to be only there to connect temporal dots whose sole purpose is artificially prolonging the story. It’s filler. And after a mere 30 minutes, you already feel like the storytelling is swelling up unnecessarily. This is with a pre-produced show, imagine what would have happened in a live-shoot setting.

In that sense, there is almost an unwritten law in trendy dramas that mandates involvement by proxy for the second tier of leads, in the sense that their existence must be closely tied to the protagonists, and be unable to stand on its own feet. And, sure enough, the moment Myeong-Joo shows up, we don’t give her a normal introduction, she becomes a narrative player via proxy:

- She’s Mo-Yeon’s fellow intern, who “stole” the man she had a crush on thanks to her pretty face

- She also has a failed relationship (or the beginning stages of one) with Dae-Young, which is thrown at the viewer almost immediately in a fit of reckless exposition

- She becomes the key to unlocking Shi-Jin’s tentative to prove his identity as a soldier to Mo-Yeon

There is certainly a chance that throughout the course of the show the character will manage to find some kind of identity removed from her being useful to someone. But looking at the way Myeong-Joo is positioned at the moment, and the way her first meeting with Dae-Young is handled, a glorified catalyst for other character trajectories is all you’re led to think of. Not that at the moment Kim Jin-Won would be able to handle much more than ancillary romantic ramifications and a little bit of pouting. But for those who frequently find themselves gunning for the second tier of leads, there might be disappointment ahead.

Song Joong-Gi stares Song Hye-Gyo in Descendants of the Sun

DENOUEMENT

38 minutes, and we more or less settle everything we needed to achieve in this episode. Well, except one little detail we’ll tackle in just a few moments. But let’s take a look at our checklist.

- Qualifying Shi-Jin and Dae-Young as skilled, poised and polished soldiers (CHECK)

- Qualifying Mo-Yeon as a dispassionate professional (CHECK)

- Qualifying Myeong-Joo as an organic character able to have a life outside of her purpose in the show (FAIL)

- Establishing a connection and the seeds of a possible future mentorship between Dae-Young and Gi-Beom (CHECK)

- Managing to introduce all four major characters to each other, either through direct acquaintance or backstory (CHECK)

- Managing to plant the seeds of future romance between Mo-Yeon and Shi-Jin (CHECK)

If you looked at the surface, you’d think 5 out of 6 was an exceptional result. But I challenge you to look at the means through which the writers achieve this, and wonder whether there was a subtler, more intelligent way to achieve those key narrative parameters.

Because let’s be honest: oversaturation of clichés aside, there is nothing inherently wrong with using coincidence and misunderstanding as the most common devices to further your plot. But although it’s now virtually been accepted as one, this is not a convention of the genre, it’s just a way for the writer to achieve her goals with less work; of connecting those dots without thinking of more realistic, plausible and intelligent ways to introduce characters, build their interplay and develop their relationships. Romance, bromance, all the lovely moments you cherish watching trendy dramas are not the problem. All the lazy excuses leading to them that writers like Kim subject you to are.

With that being said, there are things capable directors can do to mitigate the obvious. And while I would never state that Lee and Baek are luminaries, they are still talent groomed by KBS’ short drama circuit, with all the technical and artistic benefits that can bring. One example of their ability to minimize Kim’s usual “flair,” example which is likely only possible because of the pre-produced setting, is a beautifully minimalist scene involving Shi-Jin and Mo-Yeon.

There is nothing much to it: they’re left alone in a hallway; their hands accidentally touch; a few awkward stares ensue; Mo-Yeon, smitten by him ever since that fateful gaze early on, goes straight to the point and asks him about Myeong-Joo. They trade a bit of cheeky (but not excessively childish) banter, and finally introduce themselves formally. On SBS, where Kim would have a lot more leeway to almost verbally direct the scene’s visual composition,  this would have likely resulted in an endless flurry of reaction shots, excessively invasive music and sound effects, manipulative editing and over-the-top camerawork. Here it’s all pretty simple, it does its job without overstaying its welcome, and delivers what it needs to do effectively.

Even the next scene, a rapport-building moment between Gi-Beom and Dae-Young, isn’t handed too badly. There is no music, which is often a key element when you’re trying to build a bond between characters. And you know what? Kim Min-Seok’s performance is not all that throwaway after all. He gives a decent amount of depth to his delivery, and seems to have decent chemistry with Jin Goo. This will only help later on when their interplay will escape the hospital and be more hands-on.

So what is our reward for sitting through 3/4 of an episode almost completely dedicated to the unraveling of a misunderstanding that had no business being there to begin with?

Our lovebirds get together and learn about each other through exposition that could have been factored in a lot earlier; Shi-Jin gets smarmy again, and Mo-Yeon plays a valiant chatterbox companion. Then they stare at each other and the music goes “Oh… Every time I see you 그대 눈을 볼 때면 자꾸 가슴이 또 설레요 (Every time I see you my heart keeps throbbing) 내 운명이죠 세상 끝이라도 (You’re my destiny no matter what) 지켜주고 싶은 단 한 사람 (The only person I wish to protect).”

Yeah, well. You can have the immense benefits of shooting your entire show before broadcast:

- Cast and crew work humane hours, get decent sleep, are not working under the stress and fear of possibly having to cope with sudden inserts because an advertiser called in for some extra PPL

- A modicum of post-production is allowed, so that at least the editing is competent, there are no haphazardly pieced sequences, and your episode doesn’t bloat up artificially because the final tape hasn’t arrived and the editor decided to extend footage from a few hours earlier an extra twenty minutes

- Everything generally looks more polished from a visual standpoint

- The actors have time to read the entire script, familiarize with their characters, and give more convincing performances because they know what their arc's conclusion will be

But at the end of the day, we’re still dealing with a rather flimsy script. The cast is doing as good a job as you could possibly hope, but when you strip their characterization and relational structure of all these coincidences, misunderstandings and sudden epiphanies, there is precious little meat that makes a convincing argument for anything that happens here. It’s affinity at first sight between Shi-Jin and Mo-Yeon, but despite two very charming leads it feels forced. Jin Goo adds some depth to Dae-Young, and his rapport with Gi-Beom is so far showing some potential, but he and Myeong-Joo are positioned as “second leads” more than organic human beings able to get their own drama, if the need arises.

At the end of the day, this is nothing more than a more polished and acceptable rendition of the usual Kim Eun-Sook fare. $1.50 soda in a slightly fancier wine bottle.

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  • Jo

    Welcome back! We’ve debated calling this The Pretty Stupid Show, for all the reasons you’ve outlined above.

  • langdon813

    Brilliant. I loved this: “…there is something really positive about this show that has the potential to change this industry for the better: it’s amongst the most high-profile trendy dramas ever made, and yet it’s 100% pre-produced. Say what you will about Kim’s writing, but every single writer deserves the chance to have time to write, to not have to worry about scribbling down inserts on the fly because an advertiser thought of a new way to publicize its product. And while Kim Eun-Sook will never be a Jung Ha-Yeon, a Noh Hee-Kyung or even a Kim Won-Seok, the only way she can give us the best version of her writing (or at least the best she wants to give us) is by giving her time.” Amen and amen. Welcome back.

  • Pranx

    Always nice to read your insights!

  • This is a great post—I especially love reading your take on how the drama came to be and the context for the players behind the scenes. (Any urge to cover the Cheese in the Trap fiasco? I’m sure your insights would tremendously deepen the English-language discussion of the issue.)

  • Julia

    Interesting article, I haven’t watched the 1st episode yet, so I only read the Background paragraph. It’s exciting to see such a big change in the Korean Drama industry!

  • Grumpy

    I think the real question to emerge from all this is, which one plays MGS–Kim Won-seok or Kim Eun-sook? (or am I being stupid and is “Big Boss” not a pop culture reference…? In a KES drama? Perish the thought lol)

    On a more serious note, I’m very glad you’re back! I couldn’t bring myself to watch this, SJK or no, and the takeaway seems to be that it was just as well to avoid it and observe the good it’s doing for the industry at a safe distance…but it didn’t stop me from having a blast reading your thoughts. This is exactly what recaps should like imo–this is what I call deconstruction.