Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) & Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.

The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.

But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.

The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).

Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall the Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.

Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in  Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?

Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.

But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.

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Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods. 

And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”

Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.

In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.

Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.” 

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korean drama, TV

Netflix is Getting a Better Handle on Korean Dramas with its Latest Acquisition MR. SUNSHINE (미스터션샤인, 2018): ep. 1, July 7, 2018

Netflix and Korean TV have gotten close. Although I’ve been seeing Korean dramas on the site for some years now, I always relied on other sources like DramaFever, Viki and OnDemandKorea to keep up with all the shows I wanted to see. This mostly had to do with exclusivity rights that some of the sites had.

For instance, in the US, DramaFever has exclusive rights (for the time being) to Goblin (2016-2017). I recall signing up for Viki for a couple of months last year to catch Chicago Typewriter (2017). I keep my subscription to OnDemandKorea because it’s pretty reliable for watching most Korean variety shows the fastest since they show everything an hour after the air time of the program in Korea (but because of this, OnDemandKorea does not always have subtitles for their programs and their quality assurance is subpar; their site has a lot of bugs, even though relative to Viki and DramaFever, their subscription rate is $2 more expensive).

TVN’s latest big program written by Kim Eunsook is Mr. Sunshine (2018). It started airing in Korea on Saturday, July 7th, and will air as a weekend drama every Saturday and Sunday. It hits Netflix (in the US) 24 hours later. Kim Eunsook is the writer of beloved K-dramas such as Lovers in Paris (2004), Secret Garden (2010), A Gentlemen’s Dignity (2012) and, of course, the two mega hits of the last couple of years Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Goblin (2016-2017). Mr. Sunshine is getting international release around the world via Netflix.

Netflix has been releasing “original” dramas on its platform for about a year now, but their curation has been quite shoddy. Shows like Man to Man (2017) and Black (2017)–despite their star power–are extremely tedious (if not flat out bad). Both shows, which aired on cable channels in Korea, have struggled to make waves locally. Even the highly anticipated show Prison Playbook written by Lee Woo-jung, writer of the hugely successful Reply series, is extremely slow. Prison Playbook failed to impress Korean audiences as well, and did not reach the level of popularity that her earlier work achieved.

Notably, the trend is that Netflix is pushing to acquire content that airs on Korean cable channels. This has to do with the fact that cable channels in Korean television tend to push boundaries a bit further to include more violence (action) and vice (sex, cigarettes, and alcohol). While public broadcasters like KBS and MBC, and even commercial broadcaster SBS, are under greater scrutiny by the KCC, cable channels enjoy more leniency since the audience is smaller. Netflix, which isn’t bound by censorship regulation given its online status, is thus likely to go for more sensational content. Korean cable content finding a home on Netflix, thus, makes a lot of sense. Given the rising trend in stars signing up to participate in more cable television programs, narrowcast shows are starting to compete (if not outcompete) broadcast shows.

This is not to say that KBS, MBC and SBS do not have content on Netflix. In fact, a lot of the content from 2016 or prior are from those channels (Descendants of the Sun being one of them). But as Korea’s cable content is getting more demand among audiences, Netflix is making moves to acquire exclusive rights for content like Mr. Sunshine.

While Mr. Black, Man-to-Man and even Prison Playbook failed to impress, Mr. Sunshine is being strategized differently. Rob Roy–VP of Content Acquisition, Asia–mentioned the “pedigree of a title like Mr. Sunshine.” The pedigree mentioned here in refers to whether or not a show like this may be palatable to American viewers. Mr. Sunshine features Lee Byung-hun–one of Korea’s first major stars to impress Hollywood, and appearing in films like The Magnificent Seven (2016, Antoine Fuqua) and presenting at the Academy Awards in 2016. He is also one of the few Korean actors to have his handprint on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although not by any means mainstream, Lee is, at the very least, a Korean actor who has recognition in Hollywood. Lee’s opposite in this K-drama is Kim Tae-ri, who impressed international audiences with her performance in The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook). The film reached international audiences easily through AmazonVideo. In addition to this, Descendants of the Sun is available on Netflix in the US. Despite Netflix being notoriously secretive of its data, anyone can guess the popularity this show has on the platform considering its international success due to the star power of Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki.

Thus, the pedigree mentioned by Roy is not only in reference to Kim Eun-sook’s writing, which has consistently found success among K-drama lovers, but also the recognizable names of Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-ri among global audiences, and especially in the US.

[SPOILER ALERT] The first episode of Mr. Sunshine which dropped on Netflix today (July 7) was alright. It flaunted a lot of beautiful cinematography. Similar to the way Descendants and Goblin were shot, Mr. Sunshine attempts a level of camerawork that is comparable to an epic film, and it is successful particularly in the beauty shots taken in the mountains during sunset. Given this, the DPs on shows like this should be given name recognition. (In fact, K-drama DPs are probably the best ones to hire for any Hollywood film that features a lot of Asian faces like Crazy Rich Asians which is so poorly lit.)

The set designs and direction for scenes including American soldiers are interesting although not always convincing. I take issue with hallyu K-dramas and films that feature white actors as Americans; why do Americans they select always have a tinge of Australian or some unidentifiable accent? I understand that there are a lot of Aussies living in Korea that may be easy to hire, but they really should be given proper training to acquire an American accent to keep viewers convinced of the storyworld, especially viewers who have an ear for both languages and given the increasingly international player K-drama producers/distributors are becoming. This problem, of course, is rampant all over Hollywood, too. Whenever Hollywood films feature “Koreans” speaking “Korean” while butchering the language and so clearly cueing native ears that this person is not at all Korean (e.g. Black Panther [2018], Lost [2004-2010]), it becomes a major distraction (this phenomenon is applicable for all nationalities and languages in Hollywood films).

The part when American soldiers tell the Korean traitor to release the POWs because America is a “righteous country” made me laugh out loud. Anyone who’s read American war history would know why. Why does Kim’s writing make America appear so noble in this episode? Is this a form of political lip-service? Are Korean productions pledging some loyalty to American distributors?

Another thing I note in this show is the fetishization of violence; gunfire, knife wielding, explosions, death–all of these shots are given long takes and slowed down by FX and music. I don’t particularly care for these long shots romanticizing violent deaths. It’s a bit unsettling. The aesthetic is similar to what we get from Hollywood war movies like We Were Soldiers (2002) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). There’s nothing beautiful about war or death, and I take issue with this type of aestheticization over such images.

Lastly, the motif of dropping Korean bodies onto non-Korean soil in periods before the 21st century is consistent in Mr. Sunshine. As we’ve hilariously seen Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) buried in Canada in Goblin, we now see Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun) grow up as a Korean American soldier in New York ( DUMBO specifically) fighting in the American military. This is an example of “worlding” (eds. Roy and Ong, World Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global) as Korea aspires to situate itself in the global capitalist order as a worthy competitor, and a nation to be reckoned with. K-dramas are constructing Korea as an international player and rewriting history; no, it wasn’t Japanese colonization or the Korean War that began the nation’s international relations; in Goblin it’s centuries before that, and in Mr. Sunshine, assimilated Korean Americans existed long before boeings. Such is the trend. But it’s also a tendency of the writer. Kim Eun-sook’s first major hit is Lovers in Paris, and production did take place in Paris back in 2004 when this drama aired on SBS. It could simply be that Kim likes international travel.

With that said, we do note that her dramas aren’t exactly taking place with non-white nations. Considering the preferences of European or North American countries these dramas have, Kim Eun-sook’s dramas do play a political role in the nation’s first-worlding process through serialized television. The political move here is to associate Korea with first world nations through televisual display.

**As I’m sure fans have already noted, the intertext of Kim Ji-won and Jin Goo reappearing as a couple (parents to Ko Ae-shin [Kim Taeri]) and Ji Seung-hyun as a comrade to the couple is a wink to the audience/fans of Kim Eun-sook’s earlier drama Descendants of the Sun. Given this, can we expect a cameo appearance from Goblin? Perhaps Lee Dong-wook + Yoo In-na? 🤷🏻‍♀️

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Art, cinema and media studies, Film, korea, korean drama

The “Uncanny”: Na Hong-jin’s ‘The Wailing’

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[spoiler alert]

Na Hong-jin’s Definition of Evil: The Inexplicable 

The Wailing (2016) aka 곡성 is Na Hong-jin’s third feature film starring the excellent Kwak Do-won, who Na has collaborated with in The Yellow Sea (2010). Na is probably most well-known for his feature debut The Chaser (2008) with Ha Jung-woo playing the terrifying serial killer, and Kim Yoon-seok playing the corrupt detective-turned-pimp trying to solve these unexplainable crimes.

With The Wailing, Na continues his theme of inexplicable evils committed by a being that appears to be fully human but from up close contains no sympathetic soul. In The Chaser, Ha Jung-woo’s character is just plainly a murderer without any rhyme or reason; in The Yellow Sea, Ha Jung-woo’s character is put on an assassination mission without knowing the reasons for why he must commit this crime, and when he finally learns the reason, he is left completely speechless by the superficiality of the incitement, thus portraying–again–evil actions without a justifiable cause. Na brings this concept into the realm of the superego by putting the face and body of the Devil himself onto our screen with The Wailing.

Freud (1919) defines the uncanny as something that is preferably concealed but is later revealed to our reaction of horror, fright, terror, disgust, etc.; the uncanny refers to what is familiar to us therefore familial; for instance, a daughter, who is completely knowable to the parents who produced and gave birth to her, love and care for her, belongs in the realm of uncanny because she is familiar (heimlich); the flipside to heimlich is unheimlich which is the stranger or the ugliness that is preferably concealed; this is when the daughter we know and love suddenly changes because she is possessed by the unknowable. The uncanny may also refer to a the “happy genius,” otherwise known as the guardian spirit of a dwelling–the possessor. Traces of heimlich and unheimlich which make up the constitution of the uncanny is found in Gokseong–the small village in Jeolla Province where the film is set (also the title of the film in hangeul).

At the crack of dawn on a rainy day, officer Jeon Jong-goo (Kwak Do-won) gets a phone call from the station alerting him of a murder case. When he arrives at the scene of the crime, he finds that a family’s been stabbed to death by a young man who sits on the edge of the maroo, skin covered in boils and the blood of his victims, with eyes glazed over as though in a trance.

Boils on the skin, mental derangement and subsequent serial killings of those around him/her are symptoms found among several murderers (victims) throughout the village. The noticeable pattern along with the rumors going about town that the suspect who is spreading this disease (or possession) is a strange Japanese fisherman (Jun Kunimura) who lives deep in the mountains, eats deer carcass raw, rapes women and curses people. These rumors start to pile up inside officer Jeon’s imaginary.

One day when Jeon and his partner break into the fisherman’s house, they find a small dwelling densely packed with photographs of the victims, candles, shaman ritual rope, and personal belongings of the villagers such as shoes and clothes. The last straw for Jeon is when he sees symptoms appear in his young daughter Hyo-jin–played by the very impressive Kim Hwan-hee–who appears to be about 10 or 11 years old. It begins with her erratic behavior; the young girl who was once so sweet to her old man suddenly throws fits; she screams and curses at her father leaving her entire family aghast but frozen in fear at the sight indicating everyone’s helplessness. Doctors have no answers. The police are useless. A spiritual intervention is the only answer for them.

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In part two of the film, the child’s grandmother invites a well-known shaman named Il-gwang (Hwang Jung-min, The Unjust (2010), Veteran (2015)) who is apparently quite expensive but rumored to be the best there is from Seoul. Jeon tells Il-gwang of the situation. Jeon explains all of this to his trusty Korean shaman who assures him that he will take care of the matter–put it to rest. Il-gwang tells Jeon that what’s plaguing the town is not a person but a ghost. Jeon asks how a person he’s seen in the flesh and blood can be a ghost, and this is the difficult question he struggles with for the rest of the film, along with the more obvious questions, “Why me? Why my daughter? Why my hometown?”

Freud’s uncanny is a duality–a yin and yang, for instance, which may coexist. Yin and yang are prevalent themes in throughout the film. For instance, during his rituals, Il-gwang offers up white chickens and goats to the spirits whereas the Japanese stranger kills black chickens and goats to cast his curse.

Another spiritual force haunts the town, representing yang, and it is played by the wonderful Chun Woo-hee ((Sunny (2011) and Han Gongju (2014)) who is referred to by the film’s credits simply as “mu-myeong,” which translates into “no name.” Mu-myeong is the first witness that officer Jeon encounters at the second murder scene where a deranged woman killed her entire family then burned the house down before hanging herself. At the crime scene, Mu-myeong tells officer Jeon that the old Japanese man is a ghost who is possessing these people and driving them to commit these murders.

What’s interesting to note is how in these scenarios one person gets possessed then murders their own family members. The killings aren’t random. They are specifically towards their own flesh and blood or clan members. What does that say about the ghost’s intentions? What does that say about the ghost himself who is a spirit but in flesh and blood?

This ghost also appears to have a hobby for photography. He takes photographs of his victims in 35mm with a Minolta camera, which he seems to develop on his own at his creepy house. It nudges against the superstition that existed or still exists in tribal countries that photographs steal a person’s soul. The haunting theme that emanates from the Japanese stranger is that he is not a living person but a ghost–a dead man walking.

At Jeon’s question as to how a ghost could possibly have a body, Il-gwang tells him that when a ghost captures enough bodies for his own, he can eventually become a person albeit not a living one. This image of a strange man staring who appears to be dead or a strange man trying to enter haunts at least several people’s dreams.

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Horror Genre Mashup

The epidemic throughout the town is most certainly an homage to the zombie genre. With that said, the film is not a zombie film necessarily. In fact, at one point in the movie, when a team of men who are out to hunt down and kill the Japanese man-ghost, they encounter a zombie, who was evidently brought back to life although he was initially dead just like the other victims, covered in boils and rotting away like a victim of leprosy.

At the scene of the zombie attack, the film reaches a point of satiric comedy. The men who’ve never seen a zombie before don’t know how to react to it, nor how to treat it. At first they try to help him and speak to him as if he’s a regular person, but when the zombie starts to attack the party by biting them, the men go around taking turns both beating the zombie and getting attacked himself. At least two men can’t bear the sight of another man whacking this apparently ill person with a stick and tries to stop the attack. Big mistake. The zombie then attacks the good Samaritan. It’s a likely metaphor for Korea’s clumsiness at the introduction to any Western concept. The zombie isn’t found in Korean folklore. (The closest to a zombie that Koreans might know from Chinese legends is the Jiangshi or gangshi in Korean which has its own set of cultural rules/references.)

In a way, there is perhaps almost every element of a horror film ever made in this movie; Edgar Allan Poe-inspired cats and crows, rabid black dogs, dead deer carcasses; the possession of a little girl has strong connotations of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973); institutions are critiqued for their inability to make sense or get control of the situation such as the police and the church.

The film, of course, contains a twist in the third act, but it’s a twist on a twist that baffles not only Jeon but also the audience. The manhunt for the strange Japanese man ends when he gets thrown off a mountain hitting Jeon’s windshield. Jeon and his friends toss him on the side of the road assuming he is dead. Jeon later finds his daughter at the hospital who appears to be fine; the symptoms seem to be gone and her normal state appears to have returned.

We come to understand that Mu-myeong is perhaps a spirit if not a shaman herself when we see Il-gwang lose a vast amount of blood from his nose and vomit uncontrollably when he encounters her. Mu-myeong drives him out of the village. Il-gwang, whose hex ritual went interrupted by Jeon who could no longer bear the sight of his daughter’s suffering, tells Jeon that it wasn’t the Japanese man who is the evil spirit; it is a young woman clad in white–Mu-myeong. Jeon’s faith in people’s stories gets tested here when Mu-myeong tells him to trust in her and Il-gwang tells him not to trust her but in his words.

Jeon ultimately doesn’t listen to Mu-myeong and enters the house thus breaking whatever spell she’d cast on the house to save his family. Jeon, of course, finds that his daughter did what he’d feared this whole time and slaughtered his wife and mother to death.

Mu-myeong had warned Jeon that Il-gwang and the Japanese stranger have been plotting together (they share the same loin cloth and similar rituals). This is confirmed when a case full of photographs from the Japanese stranger’s walls are found in his possession. Given Korea’s long history of religious scammers taking advantage of the nation’s superstitious/fatalist tendencies, Il-gwang’s appearance here is the yin within his overall film presence as the yang.

Biblical themes are prominent throughout. There’s the bilingual theologian working his way towards becoming a priest working as a liaison between Jeon and the Japanese stranger. There’s the Father of the church who appears useless at the face of the epidemic and demon that is haunting the town–another indication of institutional incompetence. There’s an attack of moths on a car’s windshield that brings to mind the plague of locusts in the Old Testament. The opening shot of the film begins with a verse from the book of Luke when Jesus reappears before his disciples and asks them why they are afraid of the sight of his body, and challenging their doubtful minds. When Mu-myeong tells Jeon to wait for the rooster’s crow three times before entering his house in order to save his family, it is a clear reference to Christ’s warning to Peter that he will deny knowing Christ three times before the rooster’s crow. When Jeon finally realizes that the Mu-myeong is always clad in the victims’ clothes, he loses faith in her words and goes into the house.

Time is always unfriendly to Jeon in this film. He is temperamental and impatient when patience is of utmost necessity, and frozen stiff, speechless or bumblingly incompetent at times when his actions are completely called for. The film satirizes Jeon’s lack of faith and impatience. Doubt and faith are like yin and yang throughout the film, and they are the forces that maintain the momentum of the film.

The film ultimately confronts the audience with the same question that Jeon is faced with: which story are you going to believe? Depending on who is talking to you–a shaman, a priest, a ghost, the devil, or your daughter–your faith will be tested against the story you’ve lived your life believing in. Religion, according to Na’s film, is no different from a folk tale, a spooky town rumor, or the horror movies you grew up knowing and loving. When what occurs externally doesn’t match with what exists internally, that moment becomes the precarious point between doubt and faith. Na’s film plays with genre, religion and spirituality freely throughout but without ever letting us bring down our guard.

The first act has strong notes of Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003)–everything from the misty, rain-filled blue hues, the frightening image of nature, and the slapsticky black comedy–a new quality to Na’s filmmaking which are not present in his earlier two films. The film was shot by Bong’s frequent collaborator–cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (although he did not film Memories). The music is perhaps the film’s strongest quality, scored by Jang Young-gyu.

Reception so far has been decent. Trade reviews remark that Na’s film lacks logic. This may be true but I say that such an assessment is a cop out (we’ve all seen Magnolia)The Wailing is certainly packed with a whole lot to deconstruct but it is not inscrutable. There are plenty of signals and clues. It’s just a matter of interpreting the narrative, and it takes awhile, and that interpretation is likely to evolve. The film’s positioned to be a cult hit that’ll produce a great deal of wholesome dialogue among cinephiles but only among those who’ll bother to take the time to do it.

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cinema and media studies, Film, Gender Studies, ideology, korea, korean drama

quick thoughts on 사도/The Throne (2015)

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I needed another fix of Yoo Ah-in starring in yet another dramatic period piece, and this time by filmmaker Yi Joon-ik with Sado (2015). It stars Song Kang-ho who plays King Yeongjo, a father with mountain high expectations of his second son, Jang-jo (posthumously named Crown Prince Sado) who history writes as an insane and troubled soul that went around raping and killing people randomly throughout the palace due to his mental illness largely attributed to the deep anxiety caused by his strict father. Yeongjo’s constant disapproval and disdain for his son’s actions drove Jang-jo mad with rage.

One day, after an attempted murder of the King, Sado is captured and forced into a wooden rice crate and left inside of it for eight days straight until he dies of dehydration and starvation. It’s a dramatic epic, and pretty awesome one at that. Just listen to this music. Beautifully crafted imagery, and truly idiosyncratic performance given by Song Kang-ho. I’ve never seen an actor play a period epic blending cool and casual wit with cruelty, sorrow and passion in such balanced synchrony.

The film is ultimately a family drama. The women in the film, again, don’t have it easy. There’s tension between concubines, and among the queens, although in general, the women seem to look after one another a little better than in the Hui Bin drama…

Yoo Ah-in, in Sado, plays the grandson of King Sukjong, which he himself played in Jang Ok-Jung (2013). Yoo’s performance is excellent as well albeit I feel like I’ve seen his range already in Jang Ok-Jung. Also, great cameo appearance by heartthrob So Ji-sub.

For more info on the film, please refer to this great review on The Hollywood Reporter. 

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cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, korea, korean drama, TV

rewriting a woman’s history with JANG OK-JUNG (2013): (Yoo Ah-in just like Leonardo DiCaprio in my heart)

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I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.

Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love  (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.

The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.

Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.

Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.

The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.

The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well.  If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.

Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)

What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…

What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site,  calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.

Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.

The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.

Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.

Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)

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