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.

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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.

Themed Thursday: The Role of Food in Korean and Japanese dramas

Bibimbap, Kimchi, Jjigae, various Banchan

Food is one of my favorite drama genres. When you watch a lot of dramas, one after another, it is easy for all the languages and cultural nuances to fade into the background. Food is always a reminder that I am watching something unique about each of these cultures and there is always something new to learn from them.

Here in America food is not often a part of television shows. When I was new to Asian drama watching, I was absolutely thrilled that they had entire dramas that revolve around food. I wanted to spend some time to reflect on the role of food in Japanese and Korean dramas. Food has been used in many different ways in Asian dramas but here are 4 ways I like to categorize them.

Food as a comedic element

My Girlfriend is a Gumiho (2010)

Food and eating scenes have often been used in comedic settings. In Korean shows, it is not uncommon to see individuals devour large quantities of food. The most memorable one was in one of my first dramas, My Girlfriend is a Gumiho. The heroine is a fox and has an voracious appetite for meat, specifically “cow”, as she likes to call it. The comedy that ensues as the, broke hero, tries to keep up with her insatiable hunger was a significant part of plot and definitely the most humorous.

Another drama, where food played a major role, was the Japanese comedy 1 Pound no Fukin (2008) about a boxer whose greatest weakness is food. We learn that, despite being a good athlete, he often loses matches because he is unable to concentrate on the match when he sees food. A big part of the drama is about him trying to overcome this challenge.

Food as the backdrop or setting

Oh My Ghostess (2010)

Sometimes food becomes part of the background or setting of the show. In these cases, large parts of the show, takes place is restaurants or bakeries. Making food might not be the focus but there is always food around. Both Oh My Ghostess and Flower Boy Ramen Shop are set is restaurants where one lead teaches the other to cook.

Flower Boy Ramen Shop (2011)

 

 

 

Antique (2001)  is one of the most visually appealing food shows out there. A combination of good-looking guys, delicious looking pastries, with a hint of mystery. The recent popular Japanese drama, A Girl and 3 Sweethearts (2016), focused on the business aspects of food where all main characters were involved in different aspects of running the restaurant.

 

Food for Pleasure

Let’s Eat (2013)

This might be my favorite use of food in dramas. Sometimes eating scenes are used to show the pure pleasure of enjoying good food. Let’s Eat is the one of that first dramas that come to mind when a K-Drama fan thinks of the genre. This show is often called “food-porn”. Just as it sounds, you get to watch people eat delicious food for 16 episodes as they argue about how each meal is best enjoyed.

Splash Splash Love (2015)

This is one of my favorite dramas. Splash Splash Love isn’t about food but it has some of the most memorable scenes of individuals enjoying food. This is a time-travel love story about a high schooler who ends up in the Joseon Era. She spends time teaching the king mathematics. In two separate incidents, the girl introduces the king and the queen to modern, instant food. The looks of surprise and enjoyment on their faces as the king tries instant noodles and the queen tteokbokki (Spicy rice cakes) are absolutely precious.

As K-Drama fans might notice, both these dramas star my ultimate K-Pop bias, Yoon Doo Joon of Highlight, a real-life foodie. I find so much pleasure in enjoying a good meal so it makes me greatly happy when I see others feel the same way.

Food as the Heart of the Drama

Finally we have those shows where food is the heart and soul of the drama. These are dramas that really represent the food culture of these places. It provides the viewer with insight into the role of food in the lives of people. Here are three dramas that have taught me a lot about food.                                                                                                                              

Fermentation Family (2011)

Fermentation Family is 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.

Shinya Shukodo (2009) is one of the most well-known Japanese dramas and has spanned 4  seasons. It is about a diner that opens at midnight. The eatery has no menu and features only one dish per night. Every episode tells the story of one of the diner’s patrons as it relates to that night’s special dish.

Gochisousan (2013) 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.

The essence of the story is captured by a quote, “To crave for food is to have the will to live; the stronger the craving the greater the will.”

These are just some of the dramas that have watched. There are so many more to watch. I am always happy to get to at least know about some of these foods that I might never have a chance to experience in real-life.

Do you like food dramas? What makes them so enjoyable to you?