Just What I Needed: Secret Forest

 

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Secret Forest (2017); Source: AsianWiki

It’s been a while since I last posted. I have been job hunting and that consumed all of my brainpower. Now that things are falling into place I can get back to writing about all the things I actually love. During my time away from the blog, I did not have the chance to watch much drama. I have not completed a single drama in the past 2 months (not including re-watches). I was surprised that it was in the midst of all the stress and lack of interest that I found one of my new favorites.

Dramas have been a part of my life for many years now. It has provided me with entertainment, stress-relief, food for thought, comfort, and connections with new friends. A week ago I, once again, looked to dramas, to take a break from the job hunting process. I think there is a drama that fits every mood of mine and its just a matter of finding the right one for the right time. This time I decided to try Secret Forest aka Stranger. I had read good things about it and it was a detective, investigation drama so I was pretty sure it would not be terrible.

Secret Forest is everything I needed and more. It is K-Drama at its best. It reminded me that there are always great new dramas to discover. Secret Forest is just excellent television. I am not sure how well this show did in Korea but it seems to be pretty popular with the international audience. Some might say that Signal is the best drama ever made but, for me, Secret Forest is even better. But I cannot quite put a finger on what makes this show so remarkable.

Writing interesting reviews are not my thing but I wanted to mention the two best things about the drama, the acting and the pacing. The acting is brilliant. This was a great introduction to both the main leads. I had not heard of Bae Doo Na until this show.  We have definitely been missing out in dramaland. This is her first drama in 7 years. I think she picked an excellent show for her comeback. Her acting chops combined with her awesome character has quickly made her one of my favorite leading ladies in KDrama.

I was equally unfamiliar with Jo Seung Woo, the star of the show. He plays an emotionless prosecutor tackling corruption in the South Korean justice system. His ability to go through sixteen episodes with no emotions, save two smiles, was impressive indeed. I can only imagine how good the man would be when given a role where he actually had to emote.

If one were to go by plot alone, there is nothing particularly extraordinary about this show. As with many Korean detective/ law shows, the focus is corruption. But it is not an episodic procedural. What is worth mentioning is the flow. At no point did I feel like the show was dragging or that I was beginning to lose interest. It is very rare that I go through an entire drama without skipping at least bits and pieces of it. I watched every minute of this one.

Not only did the show maintain a constant pace, it also managed a great ending. It is an intelligent show. It required my full attention. But it didn’t leave me pondering the meaning of life. Neither did it leave me with that hollow feeling after having binge watched a great drama. I didn’t leave feeling unsatisfied and wishing that the show would keep going. The sixteen episode format was what drew me to Korean dramas and this was a perfect example. I was absolutely content. I don’t need a second season.

The problem with a drama like Secret Forest is that it completely changes my expectations for dramas. Last night, as I updated my drama list, I had to re-rate some of my other top dramas and re-organize my top shows as I had to make a spot for a new favorite. Now I have a drama that’s giving some serious competition to my all time favorite Cruel City. I do not expect or even want all my dramas to be this good but I keep wondering when I will next come across such a gem. What if I never get to it because it got buried in my long list of plan-to-watch?

After watching this show I realized that a lot of how much we enjoy a drama comes from what makes us feel good at that given moment. I like my fluffy romance when I am pretty stress-free myself. Nothing makes me feel uplifted like a good Japanese slice-of-life. On “normal” days, I do enjoy the messing-with-the-mind type shows. At this time in my life, Secret Forest was just what I needed. Now I am ready to start a new job and get back to enjoying my dramas.

Why I love K-Drama OSTs

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My favorite OST: On the Way to the Airport (2016)

I know that for many K-Pop fans, drama OST is considered a boring genre. Among the international K_Pop fandom, OST tracks often have a bad reputation and it is not uncommon to describe a song as “OST-like” to mean uninteresting.

This does not mean that OST music is not popular. They seem to do extremely well in Korea. In fact Ailee’s OST track for Goblin, is the song that has held the number 1 spot on the charts for the most number of weeks in 2017. And if one were to go by YouTube views, Stay With Me by Chanyeol and Punch (Goblin OST) has close to 75 million views.

Although there is some variety among OST songs, there is a specific sound that is associated with K-Drama music. It is often slower, focused on the vocals, and often not in line with K-Pop trends. But rap is quickly becoming incorporated into many K-Pop songs as well. I wanted to take a moment to explain my personal love for this type of music.

For many who have gone from K-Dramas to K-Pop, like myself, OST is the gateway. The music will hold a place in my heart as my first exposure to K-Pop. I listen to the music while watching the drama, I decide I would like to download the music, I see the names of the artists and find that they are sometimes K-Pop idols. After this happened repeatedly, I just gave in and decided to listen to K-Pop. Some of my friends have had a similar experience by following the work of idol actors they might like in a drama.

OST music is nice when you listen to it while watching the drama but it is much better after the drama is over and the song comes up in your playlist. It is the nostalgia factor. Not all dramas are good so not all associations are positive but sometimes the music just reminds me of watching something you really enjoyed. For me, more often, the song reminds me of what my life was like when I watched that drama. Was it a good period in life? Was I happy? Was I busy? etc…

Not all K-Pop listeners look up the lyrics of the songs and understand the meanings. I didn’t either, at the beginning, but now I do it more often. And many of us international fans, do not understand the language so we have no idea what we are listening to. Drama OSTs kind of force you to pay attention to the lyrics just because they appear along with the drama subtitles. Those are much more difficult to ignore. There is something very enjoyable about understanding what songs are about.

I will admit that I do like OST style music. I do enjoy the ballads with the focus on vocals. But that’s just a personal preference that makes it easier to enjoy those songs. The tracks also highlights some of the best Korean vocalists like, ALi, Gummy, and Ailee. Even when you have idols, you get to see a different side of them when they perform individually as opposed to with their group. Individual performances by the Super Junior members are a good example.

I think one of the best part about OSTs are watching the sweet fan-made videos on YouTube. Individuals put in a lot of time and effort to make some really nice videos for the tracks. Watching these videos often feel like I am experiencing these dramas all over again.

And I wanted to share with you some of my favorite OST tracks in no particular order:

Here is a playlist if you are interested

  1. Ali- I’m Sorry I Love You (Angry Mom, 2015)
  2. Sandeul (B1A4)- One More Step (Introverted Boss, 2017)
  3. Changmo- My Ears are Open (Voice, 2017)
  4. Suho ft. Remi- Starlight (The Universe’s Star, 2017)
  5. Ann & Yoon Mi Rae- Goodbye (Queen of Mystery, 2017)
  6. Jang Jae In ft. NaShow- Auditory Hallucinations (Kill Me, Heal Me, 2015)
  7. ALi- Carry On (Faith, 2012)
  8. Navi ft. Kebee – Incurable Disease (Secret, 2013)
  9. Taeyeon- And One (That Winter, The Wind Blows, 2013)
  10. Elsa Kopf- Days and Moons (My Beautiful Bride, 2015)

Do you like Drama OSTs like I do? If so, what are some of your favorites?

Cruel City (2013): A Masterpiece

This review does not contain spoilers. 

Today, I wanted to go back and review one of my favorite dramas. If I look at, my list on My Drama List, I have Cruel City aka Heartless Cityas my highest rated drama of all time. I wonder, if I were to re-watch this drama, today, would it still be my favorite. My tastes have changed but more importantly, I have watched many great dramas (not exceptional) since then. Unfortunately I cannot test my love for Cruel City because there is no way I could re-watch this drama and go through the emotions all over again.

I watched this back in 2014. At the time, Cruel City was like a breath of fresh air having mostly watching only romance. This was my introduction to crime dramas and I had definitely not watched anything as dark as this. I did not expect to be able to finish this drama because I was told there was a lot of violence. But within the first few episodes, I was sucked in. I could not stop watching this terribly disturbing piece of work. I remember my heart being crushed when Cruel City ended. Partly because of how it ended but partly because I was not sure I would watch anything as good ever again.

I am confident it is still an amazing drama and would still make it to my top 10 but the fact that I cannot re-watch it reduces it’s appeal slightly. I am finding that there are some dramas I can multiple times and enjoy it every single time. Should re-watch value be reflected in my drama ratings? Oh, some pretty bad, comfort shows, would go up in their rankings… I am looking at you I Need Romance 3.

I would describe Cruel City as a wonderfully deep, dark, and twisted noir with slick and stylish directing. The plot is gripping, the acting is remarkable, the cinematography is unbelievable, and the OST is perfect. I cannot say these many positive things for very many K-Dramas.

Cruel City is about Seoul’s underground drug/ crime scene complete with drug lords and undercover cops. One is quickly absorbed trying to figure out who the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. However, do not expect any answers by the end of the show. And I think that’s the point, it’s never that easy.

Lets talk characters. I think most people who watched this show would agree that the best part about this show was the remarkable performance by Jung Kyung Ho as Jung Shi Hyun aka Doctor’s Son aka Paksa Idil. This is what many would consider to be his “breakthrough” role. With this one performance he went to the top of my favorite actors list. This is the Kyung-ho that many viewers, including myself, want to see more of. I think, his recent romantic comedy ventures seem to be a waste of his skills.

Doctor’s Son is often on viewers’ lists as one of the best K-Drama characters of all time. For me, he is THE best K-drama character ever. His character is dark, mysterious, messy, complicated and even gruesome. Oh, but his charisma and crazy knife skills make him a very attractive, magnetic man. Very often, we like characters that are relatable, and realistic. Doctor’s Son is neither. He is just a messed up guy that we cannot empathize with but can feel sympathy for. In fact I could write a whole review on what makes Paksa Idil so appealing.

Thankfully, romance was not a focus of the show because Nam Gyu Ri as Soo Min was the weakest link in terms of both acting and character. Doctor’s Son was good at keeping his work and personal life separate. That allowed for his character to make (mostly) rational decisions without acting like the “noble idiot.” But the best relationship was the friendship between Paksa and Soo (Yoon Hyun Min). Who needs romance when one can have K-Drama’s best bromance. The best friends have some close calls, as to be expected, in a world where one moment of weakness could mean death but their bond survives it all.

The writing was solid and stayed true to its theme. There were no filler episodes and the pacing was just right. I also loved the great action scenes. There were some very awesomely gruesome knife scenes, very well executed by Kyung-ho. This is why I like cable dramas, there is a lot more they can show without having to worry about the ‘family audience.’ But you cannot completely escape the censors. They still blurred the knives and tattoos(!?) for reasons I do not understand.

Then there is the outstanding OST. It was dark, painful music that fit the theme of the show. The entire album was worth listening on repeat with ‘Hurt by Kim Yong Jin being the highlight. I cannot say enough about the impeccable cinematography. They stayed true to the noir genre and did it well. The lighting, the props, and the ambience they created was perfect.

In my opinion, this is not a drama suited for a beginner drama watcher. Most of us get into dramas with shows like Boy’s Over Flowers and You’re Beautiful and continue there for a while and stay or decide to branch out. Part of the appeal of Cruel City is watching something this dark when that’s not what you expect from K-dramaland. Only watch this drama if you are prepared for something heavy and dark. Expect lots of violence and really cruel characters. There aren’t well defined heroes and villains. Be ready to cry because there is no happy ending.

I must say that writing this review made me realize why this is one of my top dramas. The problem with a drama like Cruel City is that it raised my expectations for Korean dramas and I haven’t found very many as good . As I mentioned, I will not re-watch this one because it is emotionally exhausting. It stayed with me for a few months after completing it and, even today, 3 years later, it is gives me the “feels.” This is a 1 in a 100 sort of a drama and I am very glad I went out of my comfort zone and tried it.

Top 10 Korean & Japanese Food Dramas

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By jqn (a flickr user) (http://flickr.com/photos/jqn/290210441/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I must admit that I have not watched as many food dramas as I would like. There is never enough time to watch the all the dramas one wants to. As a follow up to a previous postI wanted to share some of food dramas I think are worth watching. Whether you are new to drama-land or a longtime viewer and looking for something to watch, I hope you find some ideas here.

1. LIQUID – Oni no Sake, Kiseki no Kura (2015)

This is a short Japanese drama special that focuses on sake, the alcoholic beverage. It is one of my all time favorite shows. If you are interested in learning about Japanese  food culture and traditions, this is a great show. LIQUID tells the story of a banker who inherits a failing sake brewery and decides to use traditional methods and ingredients in order to produce a high quality product. (Japanese)

2. Fermentation Family (2011)

This is an underrated drama about a restaurant that specializes in kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage). Every episode begins with the story of a different type of kimchi and the parallels between the dish and the lives of the characters. (Korean)

3. Shinya Shokudo Series (2009)

Shinya Shukodo is one of the most well-known Japanese dramas and has spanned 4 seasons. It is about a diner that opens at midnight. Every episode tells the story of one of the diner’s patrons as it relates to that night’s special dish.This is a wonderful drama with plenty of heartwarming stories. (Japanese)

4. Gochisousan (2013)

Gochisousan translates to “thank you for the meal.” It tells the heart-warming story of one’s woman’s love and passion for food. The drama follows her life from childhood to old-age as she moves from one region of Japan to another and tries to incorporate both cultures into her cooking. If you love learning about food and cooking this might be the best one for me. (Japanese)

5. Let’s Eat (2013)

There is not much of a plot to this show that can be rightfully called “food-porn.” This is a noona romance (older woman- younger man) show about 4 people eating delicious food. Beware, this show will make you hungry. If you are a fan of Korean food at all, you will learn about a lot of new dishes. (Korean)

6. King of Baking, Kim Tak Goo (2010)

This one is an older drama set in the backdrop of a large bakery business. From a young age, the hero is drawn to bread baking and after going through many episodes of birth secrets, the family business is settled. The only food that is comes up in the show is bread so if you are looking for variety or Korean food, this is not the drama for you. (Korean)

 

7. Antique (2001)

This  is one of the most visually appealing food shows out there. It is a combination of comedy and mystery set in a bakery.  The best parts of this show are the delicious looking pastries and  the amazing Misu-Chiru (Mr. Children) OST. If you are not interested in watching an older Japanese drama, there is a Korean movie remake called Antique Bakery(Japanese/ Korean)

8. A Girl & Three Sweethearts (2016)

This was one of the most popular J-dramas of 2016. The cast included some of the most popular young Japanese actors. It focused on the business aspects of food where all main characters were involved in different aspects of running the restaurant. It is not my favorite on the list, most people enjoyed it. (Japanese)

9. Oh My Ghostess (2015)

This show is set in a restaurant owned by the main lead where the female lead joins as an apprentice chef. It is more of a romantic comedy than a food drama. I really enjoyed this drama. It does have a some fantasy and mystery but at its heart it is a simple romance. A good watch if you are looking for a drama with a restaurant setting. (Korean)

10. Flower Boy Ramen Shop (2011)

A very popular drama from the Flower Boy series. The story is nothing unique and even the challenges faced by the leads are very predictable. A large part of the drama takes place in a ramen shop where the female and male leads are teacher and student respectively. Not my top recommendation on the list but it is a pretty popular drama that many would consider a K-Drama essential.

 

Have you watched any of these dramas? Are there any others you think should be on this list?