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Review: Hwarang

Netflix, 2016

(20 episodes. 58 min each.)

It’s been a particularly busy month lately, with various things drawing upon my time and attention. I feel like I’ve been composing this review in my head for about a month, but it’s only been 18 days since I last blogged. (Bless me, Father.)

Anyway, the focus of this post is a review of yet another K-Drama, but this time we get out of the Joseon era and instead spend some time in a much earlier period of Korea’s history in the kingdom of Silla (which existed from 57 BC to 935 AD). At the time, Silla was the smallest of the three kingdoms (the other two being Baekje and Goguryeo/Goryeo; the name “Korea” comes from the latter). Furthermore, the influence of China is more pronounced during this period than in the Joseon era: you can see it in the clothes and the hair.

This gives Hwarang quite a distinct look: unlike the Joseon period when men wore their hair tied up and fastened in place with a manggeon/circular headband, the men of Hwarang mostly wear their hair long and out. Unlike the Joseon period when aristocratic men and women wore hanbok (blouse shirt/jacket with full skirt for women; shirt/jacket with loose-fitting trousers for men), the clothing in Hwarang was more influenced by hanfu (the traditional clothing of ancient China).

But I’m getting ahead of myself (and a word of warning: minor spoilers follow). Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth is a TV series about the formation of the Hwarang or flower knights, an elite group of male warriors who fought on behalf of the kingdom, during the reign of King Jinheung of Silla. (Some historians say they had a key role in the formation of a unified Korea, but others say that’s debatable.) But while the premise of the show is rooted in history, the execution is most decidedly modern in flavour.

Although Hwarang has quite an ensemble cast, much of the storyline focuses on a young man named Dog Bird. He’s called that because he’s a bit like a dog (i.e. scrappy mongrel-ish) and a bit like a bird (i.e. able to leap massive distances in a single bound; let’s not think too hard about that one). He also has no family and therefore no name. But he does have a best friend—another young man named Mak Moon, who he grew up with in a little village in Silla.

Unlike Dog Bird, Mak Moon remembers his family and knows that he was separated from them. He thinks they’re in the capital, so Dog Bird accompanies him on a trip to go look for them. The problem is, it’s dangerous: if you’re in the capital, you need to have the credentials to be there, and if you’re a peasant and you’re found to be without credentials, you will be executed.

This is all part of the bone-rank system that undergirds Sillan society. (I have no idea if “Sillan” is the right adjective, but I’m using it anyway.) At the top are the so-called “sacred” bones: the royal family, and at this time, Queen Jiso is regent in place of her son, King Jinheung, who has lived most of his life in exile and is almost of age. Jinheung, who returns to the capital in the dead of night, is keen to take the throne, but his mother doesn’t feel that he’s ready and wants him to wait. Unfortunately the relationship between mother and son is strained so it’s not clear whether the queen is just trying to hold onto whatever power she already has or whether she is trying to stabilise the kingdom for when he ascends.

Certainly Queen Jiso has plans: she wants to form the Hwarang/the flower knights—an elite fighting force of beautiful young men (though it is never explained why they need to be beautiful) drawn from the children of the court officials (who are the “true” bones and head ranks) who will serve the king, and fight on behalf of him and the kingdom. She elevates Lord Kim We Hwa (who was a real person) from his lowly status and enlists him to train the Hwarang. But he, having no love for the queen, bears his own agenda.

Dog Bird and Mak Moon, wandering around the city, conducting their investigation into Mak Moon’s family, run into trouble at Okta House, the local “nightclub” where they run afoul of the aristocratic youth—the sons of the court officials. There’s two gangs—one led by Kim Su Ho, whose family supports the queen, and one led by Park Ban Ryu, whose family is dominated by the Prime Minister Park Young Shil, who secretly wants to overthrow the queen. Mak Moon gets into trouble when he thinks he has spotted a girl who might be his sister, and Dog Bird fishes him out of it.

Unfortunately Mak Moon’s bad fortune doesn’t end there: he happens to glimpse King Jinheung’s face, and because the Queen has made a decree that anyone who sees the King’s face must be executed, Mak Moon is hunted down and killed, despite Dog Bird’s efforts to protect him. And of course, this happens right at the point when their search finally unearths Mak Moon’s family, and Mak Moon’s father, Kim Ahn Ji, finds both his dead son and an injured Dog Bird, and takes Dog Bird in.

Kim Ahn Ji used to be an aristocrat/true bone, but was driven into poverty and now spends his days treating peasants with his formidable medical skills. He has a daughter named A Ro—Mak Moon’s sister—but because his children are the offspring of a servant woman (i.e. they don’t even rank in the bone-rank system), they are regarded as being “half-breeds”. (I find it interesting that this designation is not about race, but about caste.)

Kim Ahn Ji asks Dog Bird to stay with him and live as his son, taking his son’s name (Seon U) and being a brother to A Ro. Dog Bird accepts out of guilt, but also because he is consumed with thoughts of avenging Mak Moon and wants to track down the king who got his friend killed. But his actions land his adopted family in hot water with the Queen, who basically blackmails him into joining the Hwarang.

This is also basically how the sons of the officials also end up in Hwarang—through some behind-the-scenes machinations by Lord Kim We Hwa that I thought were rather clever and amusing. Furthermore, King Jinheung, sick of waiting around, decides he’s going to do something and cajoles Lord Kim We Hwa (who doesn’t know that he’s king) into letting him join too, much to his mother’s displeasure. This brings all the key players together in Hwarang House, where they must live, learn and train together to become the fighting force the Queen desires. (It should be noted that it’s at this point—when most of the cast are dressed in uniform—that figuring out who is who becomes a little more difficult.)

So I’ve spent roughly 1,000 words setting up the premise of the series and I’ve recounted about five episodes worth of plot (with a lot that I haven’t mentioned, by the way). It takes that long to establish the different characters—which is fair enough, given its size, but it is completely worth it. The thing the show does well is pit the characters against each other, putting them into situations where you understand the conflict and the stakes in context, and you see the characters grow. There is a love triangle (which I’m not going to talk about because I found it a little frustrating and couldn’t understand what the guys saw in the girl as she cried a lot and pouted like a child, which therefore meant I was never rooting for the main couple and largely didn’t care whether or not they ended up together). There are themes to do with caste and class that I found interesting and that work themselves out around what happens to Dog Bird, as well as a B storyline involving the brothers Seok Han Sung and Seok Dan Se. There’s the politics—not just internally in Silla with the Queen, the scheming Prime Minister and the court officials, but also with the neighbouring kingdom of Baekje. And there’s the camaraderie that develops between these young men from very different backgrounds who end up really banding together and forming the Hwarang of Queen Jiso’s dreams.

Given that this is essentially a show about beautiful young men, the cast is definitely full of eye candy. (There is even a scene in which people flock to the playing fields because beautiful people are playing beautiful soccer, as well as another where the Hwarang perform a dance that could have been lifted straight out of its K-Pop soundtrack.) Park Seo Joon as Dog Bird walks that fine line of dumb-peasant-who-just-happens-to-become-really-good-at-everything-he-puts-his-mind-to quite well. Go A Ra as Ah Ro is competent, although occasionally annoying. (She is fantastic as a storyteller, working hard to hold onto her audience, but her medical skills are a bit odd: I don’t understand how blowing on bleeding wounds helps anyone.) Park Hyung Sik of the KPop group ZE:A Five is charmingly vulnerable as the young King Jinheung. Sea Yea-ji as Princess Suk Myung is essentially playing her character in It’s Okay Not to Be Okay, and Kim Ji Soo as Queen Jiso did a fabulous job at playing a woman who was both sympathetic and also utterly infuriating in the way she manipulates the people around her.

But it was the other Hwarangs who stole the show for me: Do Ji Han as Park Ban Ryu; Choi Min Ho of K-Pop group Shinee as the adorable Kim Su Ho (who wears some very cool earrings as part of his costume, and one of the things I really enjoyed about the series was the bromance between him and Park Ban Ryu); Jo Yoon Woo as Kim Yeo Wool, who seems to enjoy challenging the sexuality of the other guys in his room; and Kim Tae Hyung of BTS as Seok Han Sung who has a half-breed brother in Kim Hyun Jun’s Seok Dan Se. Indeed, I thought, given the ensemble nature of the cast, it could have continued for several more seasons and I would have watched it, happily getting to know the other Hwarang and their complex relationships, familial and otherwise.

The other thing I really loved about the show was its production design—some of which you can view in the videos on the network’s show page. The costumes of the upperclass are gorgeous, of course, but some of the sets—the palace, Hwarang House, Okta House, the Dayiseo department store, even the Sutabaksu tea house—made the capital look like a beautiful, cosmopolitan place where I wouldn’t have minded living if I had been born as an aristocrat then. (Well, aside from the plumbing issues—though there are a couple of shower scenes where hot water is sent through bamboo pipes that had me questioning some of the show’s the historical accuracy).

Also, I found the ending satisfying-ish—as in I was about 80 per cent satisfied with it, and the other 20 per cent just had to do with a few plot threads and character arcs that don’t get resolved completely (which is why the show should have another season!) Things for the main trio—Dog Bird, A Ro and King Jinheung wrap up nicely in a way I wasn’t quite expecting (but was hoping for); it’s just some of the minor characters who are left hanging.

Two final things to finish this review: firstly, one of the reasons I really liked Hwarang is that some of its content and themes dovetail nicely with my novel. I’m writing about a residential magic school in an Asian-influenced fantasy world, and there were certain details that I made up because obviously there is no such thing in real life. But in this show, I got to see what a residential Sillan school might have been like—with combat training conducted in the court yard; bunk beds in the dormitories (did ancient Korea have bunk beds?!! It’s not that farfetched, is it?); students carrying little wooden trays with legs to their table in the dining room; students having to do their own chores—like washing their clothes in the river or mucking out the stables (so funny watching King Jinheung retching at the smell!); and students being given leave to visit their families every ten days (why ten?)

Furthermore, Dog Bird’s journey is similar to my protagonist: because he’s a half-breed, the other upperclass Hwarang don’t want him there. Plus he’s illiterate and bad at everything at first. The scenes were A Ro teaches Dog Bird to write were instructive as I have never been taught how to write with a brush. Also, it’s interesting how they sort of gloss over the fact that he only knows a very limited number of (Chinese) characters and has to master a lot more in order to master basic reading. (He thinks there are only 200 in the world and is quickly disabused of that notion.)

Second and final thing: around the time I was watching the show, I was also reading through 2 Samuel and some of the Psalms of David concurrently as part of the Robert Murray M’Cheyne Bible reading plan. Some of King Jinheung’s experiences—of having to hide his identity from others, and of being King only in name and not in authority—resonated with King David’s experience of having been anointed King of Israel by the prophet Samuel, but instead of ruling, he had to flee from King Saul, and live in hiding and in exile. That in turn led me to thinking of the David—King Jesus, who inherits King David’s throne, who was crowned with glory and honour at the cross (Heb 2:9), but who is not yet recognised and acknowledged by all as the true ruler of the world. Obviously the similarity ends there: King Jesus is very different to King Jinheung in that he experiences no doubts or insecurities about his role and his relationship to his subjects. But it was just interesting to think about the “now and not yet”-ness of the world and how the Son of God might be experiencing that now.

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Review: 100 Days My Prince

Netflix, 2018

(16 episodes. 67-85 min each.)

Life has been super crazy lately, but I haven’t forgotten my desire to review the third Joseon-era K-drama I’ve been watching lately (the first two being Moon Embracing the Sun and Love in the Moonlight, though perhaps I should also be counting The King’s Affection).

Like the dramas I’ve mentioned above, 100 Days My Prince (also known as Hundred-Day Husband) has a lot of the same roles. There is a King, but he is a shady character who stole the throne from his brother and whose first wife died as a result of the usurpation. There is a Queen—the King’s second wife—who has a son by the King and who is keen for that son to become Crown Prince, so she schemes behind the scenes. There is a Crown Prince (Lee Yul), but he is cold and resents his father for what he did, blaming him for the deaths of both his mother (the King’s first wife) and his first true love (more about her later). There is also a Crown Princess who is married to the Crown Prince (though he disdains her and refuses to consummate the marriage) and who also happens to be the daughter of the Prime Minister. And there is a Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim again), who orchestrated the King’s path to the throne and who holds the entire court in his iron grip.

(Oh, there’s also a bodyguard, childhood friend of the Crown Prince, but he doesn’t have a very significant role and isn’t on screen for that long.)

100 Days My Prince begins when the Crown Prince was a child and was not the Crown Prince: instead, he was just Lee Yul, nephew to the previous king, who preferred to play than study, and who liked to bully the peasant kids around him. But a girl named Yoon Yi Seo intervenes, sticking up for his victims and rebuking him for his behaviour. Struck by her wisdom and compassion, Lee Yul turns over a new leaf and applies himself to his studies, vowing to one day marry Yi Seo.

Unfortunately for the childhood sweethearts, tragedy strikes: in the upheaval that results from Lee Yul’s father seizing the throne, Yi Seo’s father, the general and right-hand man of the previous king, is killed at the hands of Kim Cha Eon (who becomes Prime Minister Kim). Yi Seo and her older brother, Seok Ha, flee and are pursued. Lee Yul’s father ascends as King, his mother is killed (presumably also at the hands of Kim Cha Eon), and Lee Yul himself becomes Crown Prince against his will.

Fast forward 16 years. Lee Yul is now married to Prime Minister Kim’s daughter, Kim So Hye, the Crown Princess. But he has never forgotten Yi Seo, even though he believes her to be dead. Furthermore, he resents Prime Minister Kim so much for what the Prime Minister did that he refuses to consummate his marriage with the Crown Princess. He also keeps getting sick, and his discreet investigations into the cause of his illness point to the Prime Minister for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

For her part, Yi Seo is now living as a peasant girl named Hong Shim in Songjoo village. She has been adopted by a kind commoner man named Yeon who is a widower, his wife and child having died a while ago. (If you’ve seen Love in the Moonlight, you’ll recognise him as Hong Ra On/Sam Nom’s father.) The night of the coup, Yi Seo was separated from her brother, but because they had promised to wait for each other at this particular bridge at the full moon, every month she makes the trek to the capital to search for him.

It is during one of these pilgrimages that she is spotted by the Crown Prince, who thinks he might be seeing a grown-up Yi Seo. She also comes to the attention of a lowly official and son of a concubine named Jung Jae Yoon, who, despite suffering from prosopagnosia or “face blindness” (which basically means he can’t recognise faces), seems to remember hers and therefore begins to fall for her. (Cue love triangle. You know there has to be one! Also, the prosopagnosia is an important plot point.)

Meanwhile, the Crown Prince is facing pressure from the royal court to consummate his marriage, with many officials suggesting that him doing so will break the terrible drought the country is facing. The Crown Prince is rightly sceptical and decrees that if that’s what it will take to bring rain, all the single people in the kingdom must get married within the month or face the consequences.

Unfortunately this has consequences for Yi Seo/Hong Shim, who is the oldest spinster in her village. The local lecherous nobleman makes her an offer to become his fifth wife, but she turns him down, hoping for another solution.

The King sends the Crown Prince to officiate a ritual for rain, but on the way, he is attacked by assassins and flees, accompanied only by his bodyguard. To keep the Crown Prince safe, the bodyguard switches clothes with him and leads their pursuers away. But the Crown Prince has an accident and ends up wounded and unconscious near Songjoo village.

He is found by Yeon, Yi Seo/Hong Shim’s adoptive father, and nursed back to consciousness. But as he is now suffering from amnesia, Yeon takes the advantage of the situation and tells him that he is actually a young man named Na Won Deuk, who is betrothed to marry Yi Seo/Hong Shim. Thus the two of them save Yi Seo/Hong Shim from getting flogged. Yi Seo/Hong Shim and the Crown Prince/Lee Yul/Na Won Deuk actually get married. But their relationship is far from harmonious, with the Crown Prince proving himself to be a rather useless peasant, landing himself in enormous debt (thanks to his upper class tastes!) with the local money lender not long after the wedding.

Meanwhile, the palace is in an uproar, trying to locate the missing Crown Prince, even though some factions within wish him dead. Jung Jae Yoon is pining for Yi Seo, even as he secretly investigates the Crown Prince’s disappearance and is unexpectedly made governor of Soongjoo Village. And Yi Seo’s older brother, Seok Ha, comes back on the scene—only now he seems to be at the beck and call of Prime Minister Kim …

There’s a lot of things I enjoyed about this drama. I liked the way the plot combines a number of Joseon drama/romance tropes into one coherent storyline: there’s the Prime Minister controlling the court, trying to undermine the king; there’s a romantic lead with amnesia; there are hidden identities; long-lost/childhood lovers are reunited without them realising (also a feature of Moon Embracing the Sun); there’s a marriage of convenience; and there are enemies who become lovers (watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo bicker is very entertaining, as well as instructive about how marriages were supposed to work under Confucianism). I liked that this drama focused on the lives of the peasants and how hard things were for them under the heel of the nobility. (I really felt for Yi Seo, anxious over the financial stress the Crown Prince’s bad decisions cause her family.) The minor characters are delightful and humourous, and do well to portray village and community life where everyone is so reliant on one another. And I liked watching Lee Yul and Yi Seo gradually fall for one another and discover the truth about each other, even as they try to deny their feelings. (There’s also a sly dig at romance novels, with the Crown Prince taking a job copying out works of popular fiction—including a volume titled Fifty Shades of Mr Gray.) Although there are aspects of the main story and the subplots involving some of the minor characters that are grim and tragic, these are balanced by the lighter fare in both the romance storyline and the villagers. Furthermore, justice comes to those who deserve it, the love triangle does not end badly, and the ruse the King pulls that finally brings about the Happily Ever After was, I thought, rather satisfying as it brought aspects of the story full circle.

The one quibble I had with the drama was the final scene: although it hints at the Happily Ever After and tries to tie up everything in a neat bow, I still wanted a little bit more. Unlike Moon Embracing the Sun where we’re given a glimpse of life several years later, 100 Days My Prince just ends. There were a couple of plot arcs and character threads that I felt were unresolved—such that the final episode left me unsatisfied and full of questions. It reminded me a bit of how Eternal Love ends: the lovers are reunited and get their Happily Ever After, but their union is not quite established in community the way it should be—which wouldn’t matter if Lee Yul and Yi Seo were just commoners, but he is the Crown Prince, for goodness’ sake.

I realise this sort of thing might only bother me. But if you happen to watch this one, let me know what you think and whether this annoys you too.

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Review: Love in the Moonlight

Netflix, 2016

(18 episodes; 59 min each)

So following on from my review of Moon Embracing the Sun, I wanted to talk about Love in the Moonlight, which is a much lighter, happier show. I’m not a big fan of the title and don’t see why the translators couldn’t have just stuck to the original title of the book from which the series is derived: Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (by Yoon Yi Soo and Kim Hee Kyung). The image is a metaphor: in this case, the moon is the King and the clouds are the people, and the idea is that of a King “drawn with the will of the people”.

This is important to remember, because at first glance, Love in the Moonlight seems like another Joseon-era romance. Oh, it certainly has the trappings of a palace drama much like Moon Embracing the Sun. But it’s not just that. There is a King on the throne, but he’s a bit unstable, having been very affected by the peasant uprising 10 years ago that left thousands dead. There’s a Queen, but she’s a second wife, daughter of the Prime Minister; the first Queen, mother of the Crown Prince, passed away under suspicious circumstances. There’s the villain of the piece—the Prime Minister (Prime Minister Kim, this time), who pretty much controls the court and prevents the King from doing any good. There’s a Princess, sister to the Crown Prince—Princess Myeong Eun, who is portrayed by one of the few plus-size actresses to appear in a K-Drama (though—spoiler: she undergoes a makeover). And of course, there’s the male lead: the Crown Prince—Lee Yeong—who is based on a real person: Crown Prince Hyomyeong, who lived 1809-1830, who was famous for being a very talented writer, composer and choreographer, and who died very tragically at the age of 20. (His death is not part of this drama though. I wonder why the authors decided to use a real historical figure instead of just making one up.)

In addition, the Crown Prince has a handsome bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who grew up with the prince, as well as with Kim Yoon Sung, the only male heir of Prime Minister Kim’s family (the third side of the love triangle). When they were children, Yoon Sung was once the Crown Prince’s best friend. But now that they are older, they are estranged because of Prime Minister Kim and the Prime Minister’s suspected involvement in the death of the former Queen.

“But what of our female lead?” I hear you ask. Good question! In this drama, she’s a young lady named Hong Ra On who has spent most of her life disguised as a boy named Hong Sam Nom. It’s for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, but her mother said it had to do with her safety. Now at 18 years old, she has lost her mother and is living with a travelling performer who found her just after the peasant uprising 10 years ago and took her in. But he’s sick and feels guilty for being such a burden on her. She makes money by writing novels, giving out relationship advice (for which she has a particular talent) and even writing love letters for people. However, she’s also in debt with some very bad people.

The series opens on the Crown Prince, who isn’t really taking his role as the monarch’s heir seriously. But when he finds out that his sister, Princess Myeong Eun, has been receiving love letters from a stranger, he resolves to put an end to what he sees as an unsuitable relationship. The thing is, Hong Sam Nom has been writing those letters, and her patron begs her to go meet with the Princess (who she doesn’t know is the object of his affection) to call it off and to apologise for falling for her in the first place. Even though Hong Sam Nom is a commoner, she dresses up as an aristocrat to attend the meeting and runs into the Crown Prince, who is in disguise. This confuses her initially as she thought she was going to meet a woman. For his part, the Crown Prince is suspicious of Hong Sam Nom and wants to find out what noble house she belongs to. To extricate herself from the situation, Hong Sam Nom causes them both to fall into a deep hole, and the only way out is for the Crown Prince to hoist her up on his shoulders so she can climb out and go for help. She doesn’t, though: she leaves him in the pit, promising that if they should ever meet again (and you can tell she doesn’t think they will), she will do whatever he says.

Unfortunately Hong Sam Nom’s matchmaking activities have gotten her in trouble and there are people after her. While on the run, she encounters Kim Yoon Sung, grandson of Prime Minister Kim, who works out pretty quickly that Hong Sam Nom is a girl and not a boy, and who helps her. (He also falls for her later, though he pretends not to know her secret.) This respite is short-lived; her debt collectors catch up with her and she is sold to the palace as a eunuch. (The scene where she manages to avoid castration is both hilarious and mildly horrifying in that this is what they used to do to people.) And then when she is forced to enter the palace, she runs into the Crown Prince again (not knowing he is the Crown Prince). He, remembering her promise to him, makes it his mission to help her pass all the eunuch examinations so that she has to stay. And then over time, she and the Crown Prince begin to fall for one another …

Of course, no love story is easy, and there is plenty of drama and heartbreak as their relationship unfolds against the backdrop of palace intrigue/Prime Minister Kim’s machinations, the return of the peasant uprising from 10 years ago, and the truth about Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s identity, which threatens to split the two lovers apart.

There is a lot I love about this show. The leads are absolutely adorable: Kim Yoo Jung (who plays the younger version of Heo Yeon Woo, the female lead in Moon Embracing the Sun) is gorgeously expressive, regardless of whether she’s doing a comedic scene or a dramatic one. She doesn’t quite pass for a boy (everyone keeps going on about how she’s too pretty), but she does a decent job at playing one, and clearly seems to relish some of the freedoms that passing as a male gives her.

Park Bo Gum, who I had never seen before in a K-Drama, makes a wonderfully handsome Crown Prince, and the way he brings out the prince’s emotions throughout the course of their turbulent love affair makes him very deserving of the awards he won for that role.

The chemistry between those two are part of what make the series so very addictive, and I could watch the scenes where they come to know the truth about each other over and over again, and not get sick of them. (The scene when Hong Sam Nom learns that Lee Yeong is the Crown Prince is absolutely hilarious!) Also, unlike Jung Ji Woon, the male lead in The King’s Affection, the Crown Prince, in the midst of falling for Hong Sam Nom/Ra On does actually seem conflicted about the idea that he might be gay, instead of glossing over the issue (though that doesn’t last very long).

The leads aside, my favourite cast member is Kwak Dong Yeon (who makes a brief appearance in very memorable episode of It’s Okay Not to Be Okay as the son of an assemblyman who has been diagnosed with mania). Dong Yeon plays the bodyguard, Kim Byung Yeon, who is trusted and valued by the Crown Prince but who is also secretly working for the resistance. Although he doesn’t say much, he does a lot of acting with his eyes and his body, and you can really see how conflicted he is, torn between his loyalty to the cause, and his friendship with both the Crown Prince and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On. (There’s a lovely scene at the end of the second episode when the three of them are enjoying a chicken dinner outside, sitting on a pyung sang—that is, one of those square wooden benches found in the yards of Korean houses—and Hong Sam Nom/Ra On is waxing lyrical about how unpopular the Crown Prince is among the palace staff while Byung Yeon is trying not to laugh and failing, much to the Crown Prince’s disgust.) Also, the way Byung Yeon puts out candlelight—and the way Hong Sam Nom/Ra On complains about it—had me in stitches.

The other minor characters are also terrific and well-rounded. I particularly liked Cho Ha Yeon, daughter of Minister Cho, who becomes Hong Sam Nom’s/Ra On’s rival, but not in a way that reduced her to a two-dimensional stereotype like the Queen in Moon Embracing the Sun. In addition, if you’ve seen Moon Embracing the Sun, you’ll notice some of those actors popping up in this—for example, the actor who played the King and the actress who played the Chief Shaman.

Secondly, I appreciated seeing palace life from the perspective of the eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting—something that was not really present in Moon Embracing the Sun. These are the people who work closely with the royal family, tending to their needs and carrying out their wishes. But I’d be willing to bet very little is known about them and their inner lives. I liked learning small historical details about them—for example, I did not know that women who serve in the palace are considered property of the King and are not allowed to have relationships with other men. There were little shots of what the palace kitchens were like (I find it interesting that the food is usually cooked outdoors). Also, there’s a couple of attempted poisonings, and you can see why Korean royalty were paranoid and ate off metal tableware using metal chopsticks in the hopes of detecting dangerous substances.

Thirdly, I liked how the romance plot tied in so well with the larger story about the kingdom and the different factions wrestling for control of it. The lovers’ suffering always feels organic instead of forced, and at times, I did wonder how on earth things were going to result in a Happily Ever After.

That said, there were two things that made me unhappy. Firstly, as usual, the love triangle doesn’t end well. I don’t know if that’s a spoiler, but it never seems to end well for the extraneous side—which is a shame, because I really liked Kim Yoon Sung, and he could have had a happy ending. Secondly—and this is my main critique of the series—I liked the way the whole thing unfolded up until the very last 20 minutes when everything felt really rushed. Apparently the network wanted the creators to make 20 episodes, but the actors had only been booked for 18, so they only made 18. I think they could have used at least one more to tie up all the loose ends. This is why the ending feels less like a Happily Ever After and more like a Happily For Now, and I found it less satisfying than Moon Embracing the Sun. That said, perhaps my expectations were wrong: this is not solely about the core romantic relationship, but also about the King being drawn by the will of the people. In that respect, at least, I guess it sort of lived up to its title, and perhaps I am just being greedy in wanting a little more.

Final thing: apparently this drama is leaving Netflix on 15 May, which is sad. You can also find it on Viki Rakuten, but not if you’re in Australia (or at least not yet. Perhaps that will change once it leaves Netflix). If you do check it out, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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Review: Everything Everywhere All at Once

I don’t think I have ever seen a movie as absolutely insane as Everything Everywhere All At Once.

If you were to go to a producer and say, “I want to make a movie with dialogue mostly in Mandarin and broken English about a middle age Chinese woman named Evelyn who gave up everything—including her parents’ acceptance—to migrate to the US with her husband Waymond and run a coin laundry, where they raise their daughter Joy, who is clearly struggling with living as a child of two worlds and who seeks wider acceptance for her relationship with her girlfriend—particularly during the family Chinese New Year celebration, when Evelyn’s super traditional and rather frail father has come to stay, but of course, this is happening at the same time as Evelyn and Waymond are being audited by the IRS, plus Waymond is filing for divorce and trying to talk to Evelyn about it, and then Evelyn gets drawn into a crusade by the Alpha universe to save the multiverse from the evil schemes of a shadowy figure named Jobu Tupaki, who looks suspiciously like Joy and who wants to destroy it all—and by the way, there’s a universe where everyone has sausages for fingers, as well as a universe where no life evolved, though there are a couple of talking rocks, and also, could we get some googly eyes?”, I reckon no movie producer in their right mind would ever have wanted to make this film.

And yet somehow, the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) got it made and it is BRILLIANT.

First of all, the cast is phenomenal. Michelle Yeoh makes the seamless transition from down-on-her-luck so-very-Chinese-in-only-the-way-Chinese-mums-can-be Evelyn to absolutely awesome take-the-room-apart kung fu master of the multiverse. Stephanie Hsu matches her as Joy, undergoing more over-the-top costumes changes than a Lady Gaga concert. The one who blew me away the most, though, was Ke Huy Quan as Waymond, making the leap from mild-mannered/painfully submissive and pathetic Waymond to take-charge/swoon-worthy Alpha Waymond sometimes multiple times within the one scene. (Special mention should be made of Harry Shum Jr, whose scenes could have easily ended up on the cutting room floor but were among the most enjoyable, even as they were crazy. SO CRAZY!)

Second of all, although the film is a high-concept save-the-multiverse science fiction action adventure, it is also a rumination on the roads less travelled and the choices that make us who we are AS WELL AS being a smaller drama about one particular family struggling with their own very particular problems that span generations, encompass cultural issues and are characteristic of the Chinese American migrant experience, where east clashes with west. If that sounds like a lot, it is. And yet the script never loses the details, it never simplifies the issues, and it never lets go of the tension, even in the midst of the more ridiculous scenes that had me in absolute stitches, gasping for air. In the hands of other directors, things could have easily spun out of control, leaving the audience lost. Not here: you know exactly what’s going on at all times, even during scenes that cut rapidly back and forth with other scenes—other universes.

Thirdly and finally, although there is a lot of violence and some amazing martial arts on display, the way the plot is resolved is as unexpected as it is beautiful, tying together everything I’ve just talked about—the science fiction elements to do with saving the multiverse, Evelyn’s feelings about her life and where she has come to be at this point in it, and even the conflicts in the core relationships between the principle characters. “Everything Everywhere All at Once” comes together in a neat bow that is both emotionally satisfying and hugely poignant. I couldn’t have asked for more.

5 stars.

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Review: Moon Embracing the Sun

Netflix, 2012

(20 episodes; 63-72 min each)

I’ve been escaping reality lately by watching a whole slew of Korean Joseon-era dramas. Sometimes I think watching period dramas is a lot like watching fantasy: everything is different enough to seem like a completely different world—from the clothing to the social structures to the food to the customs and so on. (Certainly Bridgerton is pure fantasy that seems to completely ignore Britain’s colonial history.)

There are three that I’ve completed recently and I thought I’d review them over subsequent blog posts. (Sorry Facebook friends: I’m posting these reviews to my blog because my blog is way easier to search than my Facebook page.) I did consider putting all three reviews into one post, but that would make it waaaay too long. Nevertheless, I’m hoping I can still compare and contrast them, because I find the commonalities between them quite interesting. I don’t know if the Joseon K-Drama is an actual genre the way that wuxia and xanxia novels/films/TV shows are in Chinese culture—it probably is and I’m just ignorant—but it’s interesting identifying some of the tropes and how each series uses them.

The Joseon era of Korean history (from my very meagre knowledge of the subject) lasted for about five hundred years—1392 to 1897. From what I can gather, it was a pretty turbulent time, with Korea existing as a vassal state to China, on the one hand, and being invaded by Japan on the other.

Moon Embracing the Sun was adapted from the novel by Jung Eun Gwol and contains many of the trappings of a Joseon K-Drama: a King is on the throne, but his rule is unstable due to various factions within his court—the largest one led by one particular court official with a lust for power, who often is/becomes the Prime Minister; the King’s successor, the Crown Prince, is usually the romantic male lead in the A plot, who often clashes with his father because their desires and goals do not align; there is a Queen, who may or may not be the Crown Prince’s mother (though in this particular drama she is); there’s a Crown Princess, who is not necessarily the romantic female lead (more about her later; it’s complicated); there’s a Princess, the Crown Prince’s sister, who carries the B plot; and there’s the third side of the love triangle involving the romantic leads (though depending on the drama, there can be multiple triangles involving various characters).

Moon Embracing the Sun begins with a bit of a prologue: the Queen, concerned about her son’s succession to the throne, orders the assassination of her stepson, the King’s son by a concubine, and enlists Lord Yoon Dae Hyung to help bring it about. Unfortunately the hit is witnessed by A-ri, a shaman of the Royal Astrology House who grew up with the stepson and knew that the bastard prince had no interest in becoming King.

A-ri is discovered and pursued, and in her flight, she runs into the pregnant wife of the Chief Scholar, who helps her and hides her. In return, A-ri vows to protect the unborn child and prophesies about the child, who she claims will have a noble, but tragic fate. Here’s where the imagery of the series title comes into play: the “sun” is the King; the “moon” is the Queen. But there can only be one sun and one moon. Two suns spells instability for the kingdom; two moons spell instability for the King. She predicts a bloodbath in the palace, and the rest of the series plays out in the shadow of this prophecy.

Unfortunately A-ri is captured, tortured and sentenced to be executed. Before her death by dismemberment (definitely not a nice way to go!), A-ri enlists her best friend and fellow trainee at the Royal Astrology House Jang Nok Yeong to look after the Chief Scholar’s child in her stead.

Fast forward 13 years. The Chief Scholar’s child is born: Heo Yeon Woo, a girl of great beauty and singular intelligence and wisdom. (As a 13-year-old, she’s played by the absolutely adorable Kim Yoo Jung, who goes on to do Love in the Moonlight, which I will review next.) Jang Nok Yeong ascends to become the Chief Shaman of the Royal Astrology House and therefore at the beck and call of the former Queen, who is now the Queen Dowager. In the absence of any competition, the Queen Dowager’s son has become King and has sired three children: a son by a concubine (Prince Yang Myung), the Crown Prince (Prince Lee Hwon) who is two years younger than Prince Yang Myung, and Princess Min Hwa. In addition, the Queen Dowager’s murderous accomplice, Lord Yoon Dae Hyung, has become Prime Minister (Prime Minister Yoon).

(Hopefully you’re still with me after all those names! For the purposes of the A plot, the most important ones you need to remember are Heo Yeon Woo, the Chief Scholar’s Daughter, and the Crown Prince.)

One fine day, Heo Yeon Woo goes to visit the palace with her mother because her older brother, Heo Yeom, who came first in the academic exam, is being honoured, along with the other graduates of the civil service examination. (This includes Kim Jae Woon, who came first in martial arts and who was childhood friends with Heo Yeom and Prince Yang Myung. I only mention him because he eventually fills the role of the Crown Prince’s bodyguard. Strangely enough in these dramas, the bodyguard is the only male at court who doesn’t wear a manggeon/circular headband, and his wild hair usually makes him appear more attractive. See Kim Ga On, the bodyguard in The King’s Affection.)

During the ceremony, Heo Yeon Woo becomes distracted by a butterfly and decides to chase it, which takes her into another part of the palace grounds. There she runs in the 15-year-old Crown Prince, Lee Hwon. (The younger version of him is played by Yeo Jin Goo, who was the hotel manager in Hotel Del Luna.)

At first, Heo Yeon Woo thinks that Crown Prince is a thief, because he’s carrying a bag full of stuff and is trying to escape the palace by climbing over its walls. He seeks to defend himself, saying that he just wants to go visit his brother, Prince Yang Myung, who has been sent to live outside of the palace—perhaps by the Queen Dowager, who is concerned, again, about the line of succession. But the Crown Prince does not reveal his identity to Heo Yeon Woo—at least, not at first, fearing that if he does, she would change the way she is treating him. Instead, he begins to fall for her, thanks to her intelligence and wisdom, and very strong sense of what is right and wrong. Nevertheless, before she leaves the palace grounds that day, he finds a way to send her a note with a riddle that causes her to work out who he is.

Now for the love triangles—of which there are two: not only does the Crown Prince fall for Heo Yeon Woo, but his older brother Prince Yang Myung is also in love with her, having been acquainted with her through his friendship with her older brother, Heo Yeom. For her part, Heo Yeon Woo has no interest in Prince Yang Myung, but instead develops an affection for the Crown Prince—so much so that when the time comes for the Crown Prince’s marriage to be arranged, she willingly becomes a candidate, even though she knows that if she fails to become the Crown Princess, she can never marry.

Of course, Heo Yeon Woo isn’t the only candidate, and there are forces at work behind the scenes, trying to make sure that the future Queen is someone who can be controlled—who can influence the future King in the “right” direction. The Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon put forward Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, Yoon Bo Kyung, who takes one look at the palace and decides she wants to live there. She and Heo Yeon Woo are placed in the company of Princess Min Hwa to befriend there, but there’s a rivalry between them from the start—particularly as Princess Min Hwa favours Heo Yeon Woo because she is in love with Yeon Woo’s older brother, Heo Yeom. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong sees immediately that the two girls are the two moons who will bring instability to the King.

The Crown Prince is desperate to marry Heo Yeon Woo, but unfortunately he has no say in the matter as royal marriages are usually decided by the Queen Dowager. The way he gets around this is quite inventive, though, and fortunately for the two young lovers, Heo Yeon Woo passes all the tests and becomes the Crown Princess.

This does not please the Queen Dowager and Prime Minister Yoon, though, and they enlist Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to curse her with magic. The Royal Astrology House is dependent on the patronage of the Queen Dowager for its survival in an age of Confucianism, you see, and so this places Shaman Jang Nok Yeong in a very difficult position. On the one hand, she needs to appease the Queen Dowager or risk the destruction of her order; on the other hand, she made a promise to A-ri to watch over and protect Heo Yeon Woo. Her solution is to pull something of a Romeo and Juliet: she casts evil spells on Heo Yeon Woo that make her seriously ill—so ill that she is forced to leave the palace, much to the Crown Prince’s distress—and then she gives her a potion that makes her seem dead. Shaman Jang Nok Yeong hopes to give her a fresh start, and at first, things certainly seem that way—particularly as, after Heo Yeon Woo is revived, she loses all memory of her former life and is taken away by Shaman Jang Nok Yeong to become her apprentice.

Fast forward eight years to episode 7 (and I promise I’ll stop recounting the plot in a moment). The entire cast changes and that’s quite disconcerting as you then have to get used to who the new actors are playing. The Crown Prince has now ascended to the throne as King. He has been married against his will to Prime Minister Yoon’s daughter, but he disdains his Queen and refuses to sleep with her, despite of the pressure his court places on him, because he still mourns for Heo Yeon Woo. Prime Minister Yoon controls his court and works against him, on the one hand; the Queen Dowager, who is still alive, also tries to manipulate things behind the scenes from her end. Prince Yang Myung still isn’t that welcome in the palace, and the relationship between him and the King is strained. (The Prince also still mourns Heo Yeon Woo and has also not moved on.) The King’s only friends are his chief body guard, Kim Jae Woon, and his chief eunuch. (His interactions with his chief eunuch are one of the few moments where the series feels more lighthearted; otherwise, it’s all very serious and tense, much like The King’s Affection.) Princess Min Hwa, however, has been given her wish and has married Heo Yeom.

The Prime Minister, sensing the Queen Dowager’s influence is waning, is seeking more power for himself. The Queen Dowager, for her part, is keen to establish her dominance, and summons Shaman Jang Nok Yeong back to court. This brings Heo Yeon Woo (now known as Shaman Weol) back into the palace—and back into the orbit of the King, who has never forgotten her. But it’s been eight years and she still has amnesia …

Moon Embracing the Sun, much like The King’s Affection is a very tense drama. There’s not a lot of lightheartedness to it, aside from a few of the interactions between the characters. (The King, for example, likes to tease his chief eunuch by implying that he and his chief bodyguard are romantically involved.) That said, I thought the cast was excellent: the younger actors in the lead roles were particularly charming, and I could see why both the Crown Prince and Prince Yang Myung fell for Heo Yeon Woo in the first place, and why they mourned her for so long. Their older counterparts do a good job, and I did like Kim Soo Hyun who plays the older Crown Prince/King, even if he does get a bit shouty and impatient at times. (Kim Soo Hyun was the male lead in It’s Okay Not to be Okay, which, unfortunately, I have never reviewed on this blog, but it is excellent. Also, not a Joseon K-drama. I think Moon Embracing the Sun was his breakout role.) Ha Ga In is lovely as Heo Yeon Woo/Shaman Weol (though, in my opinion, overshadowed by her younger counterpart), and while the amnesia plot is somewhat frustrating, it’s also very satisfying in the third act when the truth finally comes to light and the suffering of the leads is vindicated. The more minor characters I have not mentioned here are also terrific because they are fully fleshed out with their own smaller arcs, and at times, they are even given more to do than just aid the leads.

The court politics were not that interesting to me, though they did spur a lot of the tension that plays out in the backdrop of the A plot love story. I did like that much was made of the morality of characters’ decisions, with those decisions determining whether they will walk the path of righteousness or no, and therefore whether justice will be eventually be served (even K-dramas can’t escape fate!) Princess Min Hwa’s arc in particular was very well done, though devastating.

The part that disappointed me was what happened with the extraneous sides of the two love triangles: the Prime Minister’s daughter/Queen Yoon Bo Kyung never really stands a chance, and Prince Yang Myung never finds happiness (though his actions are very heroic).

But I did like that the series tied things up well at the very end, particularly as not all K-Dramas do that: after all that tragedy, you do actually find out what happens to all the characters. There is a reckoning, there is forgiveness and there is even redemption. But there is also peace and the re-establishment of order. Things are made right in the end, and while not everyone gets a happy ending, there is still a happily ever after.

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Review: Hotel Del Luna

Netflix

(16 episodes; 70-94 min each)

I’m distracting myself from the current COVID mess and the associated anxiety it’s causing me by writing another review of a recently completed K-drama.

Hotel Del Luna kept coming up in my Netflix recommendations, but it wasn’t until a friend recommended it that I decided to start watching. One thing that continues to impress me about K-dramas is the way they’re able to mix genres almost seamlessly, and this one somehow manages to have a bit of everything. The main story arc revolves around a girl named Jang Man Wol who, I think (with my very poor knowledge of Korean history) was born during the North-South states/later Three Kingdoms period when China’s influence on the country was a lot stronger. In the opening scenes, we see her leading a horse and cart bearing a coffin-like box through the wilderness, fending off bandits that dare to attack her. She says she’s looking for the “Guest House of the Moon”—an inn for ghosts before they pass on to the afterlife—and it’s hinted that she’s done some things in her past that she’s not proud of. She meets an old woman called Mago who isn’t quite who she seems, and when Mago points her in the direction of the guest house, she finds herself bound to an ancient tree and in the role of  the new proprieter of the Guest House of the Moon.

Fast forward almost 1300 years. The Guest House of the Moon is now called Hotel Del Luna, and it can’t be seen by ordinary mortals. A little boy named Goo Chan Seong lives with his father, a single dad who’s down on his luck and who strives to make ends meet by engaging in shady activities. It’s Chan Seong’s birthday and his dad wants to get him something nice. But Chan Seong, knowing his father’s situation, just tells him to get him flowers because he likes flowers. “You can even pick flowers for free,” he says. The father bears that in mind. But later that evening, he tries to steal something and ends up on the run, and then somehow ends up at Hotel Del Luna, where he decides to hide out until the coast is clear. While exploring the amazing hotel (which has its own private beach plus a fancy rooftop bar with a spectacular view of Seoul), he stumbles into the garden, finds Man Wol’s tree and plucks some of its flowers. In a Beauty and the Beast-type occurrence, Man Wol appears at that moment and says she will have to kill him. Falling to his knees, the father begs her to spare his life because of his son, Chan Seong. Man Wol agrees—on the condition that he give her Chan Seong. But not now; later, when he’s older. Faced with little choice, the father agrees, and Man Wol, wanting to make sure her investment turns out well, transfers money into the father’s bank account to pay for Chan Seong’s needs.

Fast forward another 20 years. Chan Seong, who has been studying and living in America, returns to Korea with a degree in hospitality and an MBA from Harvard. He was warned by his father to stay out of Korea for 20 years, and now that that period is over, he’s back and keen to work for one of Seoul’s most prestigious hotel chains. But on his birthday, as with previous birthdays, he receives flowers from Man Wol—this time, with a card congratulating him on his employment with Hotel Del Luna. Chan Seong isn’t happy about this as he’s already obtained a job elsewhere. But Man Wol shows up to persuade him. When he continues to refuse her, she gives him the gift of being able to see ghosts—a gift which, unlike flowers, he is unable to give back. And then over time, Chan Seong finds himself starting to care very much for the prickly Man Wol.

Unlike most of the K-dramas I’ve watched in the past, this one operates more like procedural drama: there’s the overarching series arc (Man Wol’s story: gradually we learn more and more about what happened to her); there are smaller stories contained within each episode that involve various ghosts—some of whom become guests at the hotel; and there are slightly longer storylines that span multiple episodes that involve secondary members of the cast—like the three primary employees of Hotel Del Luna, a teenage girl named Yu Na (who has her own complicated story), and Chan Seong’s housemates and college friends. The series contains elements of mystery/crime, horror (because, you know, dead people. Also, I think The Ring is referenced at one point), fairy tale, fantasy and, of course, romance.

Ji Eun Lee (also known, in the K-pop industry, as IU) is fantastic as Man Wol, bringing out the various nuances of her character—particularly in the flash back scenes where she’s playing a much younger and more vulnerable version of Man Wol. I’m not sure if the spiky, difficult female lead is a trope in K-dramas (I haven’t watched enough of them), but aspects of her character reminded me very strongly of Go Moon Young in It’s Okay Not to be Okay. (Her wardrobe is also just as fantastic.) In contrast, Yeo Jin Gu is super sweet as the soft-hearted Goo Chan Seong, and I will never tire of watching leading men being nice to their leading ladies, even when said leading lady is being a total bitch. I also liked that Chan Seong’s character is not afraid to be vulnerable (from my limited viewing, it seems more normal for the male characters Asian dramas to cry on screen; I can’t recall that many scenes in western dramas where that happens)—and he even embraces situations that have the potential to hurt him simply because it’s the right thing to do. Together, they are arguably among the best-looking couples on screen.

The minor characters were also delightful. Their role was often to provide comic relief, but I liked that each of them had very weighty character arcs that caused them grapple with the big themes of the drama. (I just wish the bartender’s—Kim Seon Bi—had been foreshadowed and drawn out a little better; it pretty much gets crammed in at the end and it didn’t make as much sense as some of the others.) Indeed, one of the things I really liked about Hotel Del Luna was watching characters having to confront the anger, resentment and grudges they’d been holding onto for so long (for centuries, for some) and learning to let them go—and then in letting go, finding peace. That’s not a topic I’ve seen tackled very often on television.

All of this was made all the more poignant because of the shadow of death, which stretches long over the entire series. The worldview of Hotel Del Luna is one of reincarnation—to something better if you have lived a worthy life, or something worse if you have not—and reincarnation is something of a plot point involving some of the secondary characters. But even though reincarnation is this world’s reality and death is not really the end, the characters still struggle with the awfulness and finality of death, and have trouble letting go of life, even if they have not truly lived in hundreds of years. There were points where I empathised so strongly with them, I found myself in tears.

Even though the ending hints at a second series (and there’s a definite link to It’s Okay Not to be Okay that I won’t spoil), nothing has been confirmed. If there was a second season, it would be interesting to see the writers take the stories in new directions. But so much terrain has been covered in this one, it’s hard for me to see where they would go with it. Still, I think I’d still watch it—if only for the lead actor.

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Review: The King’s Affection

Netflix

(20 eps/60-70 min ea).

The thing with K-dramas is you have to count the cost before you start: episodes are usually around 60 minutes long, but can also extend to 70 or even (as in the case of the finale of Crash Landing on You) 84 minutes. A 10 or even a 12-episode K-drama is pretty manageable—if there aren’t too many sentimental flashback montages; a 16-episode K-drama can really drag.

The King’s Affection is a whopping TWENTY episodes. Which had me worried. But I am pleased to report that, apart from a few overly sentimental flashback montages set to verrrrry slow K-pop ballads by Lyn and Baek Z Young (ballads being my least favourite musical genre in K-pop), The King’s Affection does not disappoint.

The story is set during the Joseon era: boy/girl twins are born into the royal family, and because it’s considered shameful for a king to have shared a womb with a girl, the royal order is given for the girl to be executed, with Jung Seok-jo, Royal Chief Investigator and right-hand man of the twins’ scheming grandfather on standby, ready to do the deed.

But somehow the twins’ mother saves the girl (Dam-i) and sends her far far away. Then the royal college of midwives is slaughtered to cover up the fact that twins were born at all.

12 years later, Dam-i comes to the capital to serve as a maid in the palace. Because she looks just like the Crown Prince (her brother), she is brought to his attention. The Crown Prince’s beloved tutor has been arrested for treason, and desperate to find out what has happened to him, the prince makes Dam-i swap clothes with him so he can sneak out of the palace and investigate.

Around this time, Dam-i also meets Jung Ji-woon, son of Jung Seok-jo, the Royal Chief Investigator. After she saves Ji-woon from drowning in a pond in the palace grounds, the two become close and start spending time together, and a shy romance begins to blossom between them.

Unfortunately Jung Seok-jo gets wind of the news that the girl twin did not die that night 12 years ago and starts to suspect Dam-i. During one of the instances when the Crown Prince swaps clothes with her, Jung Seok-jo pursues who he thinks is Dam-i and ends up killing the wrong twin. (Trigger warning for those who can’t watch violence against kids: there are a couple of instances of this in the first episode.)

Because of the fact that everyone who had a part in sparing Dam-i’s life when she was a baby would be executed if the truth were ever to come out, Dam-i is forced to step into her brother’s shoes and live her brother’s life as a man, even though she is a woman—and even though she still has feelings for Jung Ji-woon, who ends up coming back into her life years later.

I liked Park Eun-bin (who plays Dam-i) a lot: she does an amazing job in that role, bringing out all the nuances of what it would have been like to be a woman in that era pretending to be a man—and a prince at that. Sometimes I get annoyed with the girls-cross-dressing-as-men trope in Asian dramas, because not all girls can pull it off. (See, for example, Handsome Siblings, where the twin who calls himself “the smartest man in the world” utterly fails to recognise that Tie Xinlan is obviously a woman.) Ni Ni in Rise of the Phoenixes is the most successful, in my humble opinion. Park Eun-bin is still a little too pretty to pass (or maybe the make-up artist gives her a little too much lipstick). But she does well in both her body language and her speech, and I like that the role gives her a lot of freedom not afforded to the other female characters, even as her character is still something of a prisoner. Also, she does a good job of balancing the dramatic moments with the more comedic ones.

I also really liked Rowoon (Jung Ji-woon): he’s given far more to do here than in Extraordinary You, where he functions more as eye candy. (That was a 16-episode K-drama which I also enjoyed, but which really suffered under the weight of far too many sentimental flashback montages, and also could have done with some trimming to make it 12 episodes, not 16.) Also, Rowoon is adorably funny.

I know nothing about attitudes to homosexuality in the Joseon era, but in the world of this K-drama, it seems to have been frowned upon in broader society. So it seemed a little weird to me that Jung Ji-woon experiences little to no conflict within himself about his feelings for the Crown Prince/Dam-i. Indeed, there were elements of the story that made me wonder if the scriptwriters were playing with BL (Boy Love) tropes.

But if they were, that was overshadowed by the main plot concerning Dam-i, the throne, palace politics and her identity as a woman. I liked that, aside from the sentimental flashback montages, the scripts sustained the dramatic tension right up until the very end, making it hard to see how everything could ever come out right in the end. There isn’t a lot of room for the minor characters to have arcs, but the ones who did had some very satisfying ones. (I really liked Kim Ga-on’s, who becomes Dam-i’s body guard.)

You might think that almost 1,400 minutes on one K-drama is not worth it, and I can understand where you’re coming from. But this one I do highly recommend.

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Review: Séance Tea Party (Reimena Yee)

Seance Tea Party (2020)

Reimena Yee

Random House Graphic

(NB: I tried to post a quick review to Instagram a couple of weeks ago, but it exceeded the character limit, so I will post it here.)

Oh man, I seem to be reading all the sad and painful middle grade comics at the moment!

A recent read: The Séance Tea Party by Reimena Yee: 12-year-old Lora Xi is right on that cusp between childhood and adulthood. She still loves to play pretend and make up stories, but she feels like her friends are moving on without her—getting older and turning their attention to more “adult” concerns, like makeup and boys, memes and politics. Lora doesn’t feel ready, so when her close friend Bobby remains out of contact for a while, around the time of Halloween, Lora amuses herself by having a séance tea party and trying to communicate with ghosts.

But then an actual ghost turns up—a ghost named Alexa who is just as lonely as Lora. The two pledge to be BFFs forever, with Alexa showing herself to be a true best friend in helping Lora through some of the parts about growing up that scare her most.

The thing is, helping Lora has stirred up things for Alexa. She can’t remember her past, but over time, it all starts coming back to her …

This book started off a little shakily with a bunch of silent pages: they’re beautiful (and indeed the whole book is in an art style that I quite love—all colour and little to no outlines), but I find it difficult when it’s not always clear who the characters are, what their main relationships are and what’s going on. For a good chunk of the beginning, I thought Lora was a lot older than she is—that she was a high school or possibly a college student.

Once the story hits its stride, however, it’s a poignant depiction of adolescence and the grief tweens can feel over not fitting in, growing up, changing and losing the person they once were. There are some wonderful scenes in the story that I loved—for example, Lora connecting with some older girls and discovering that some of her weird interests align with theirs, or Bobby engaging in some self-reflection on how he’d treated Lora. I liked the ending—particularly what one character says about adulthood—and the final scene seemed like a very fitting conclusion to Lora’s arc.

One thing that surprised me, especially given that Yee is from Kuala Lumpur and now lives in Melbourne, is that the story seems very American: Lora is in junior high (I think) and her school holds a prom. Having read a number of middle grade books recently with that sort of setting, it made me wonder if that’s what the market is demanding. It also made me wonder if non-American middle grade books will fare in that market just as well. The concerns are a little different as, say, the Australian education system is only divided into primary school, high school and university, as opposed to elementary, middle and high school. But hopefully there’s an audience for that sort of thing …?

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Review: Nightbooks

Netflix, 2021. 1hr 43 min

The creep factor is present from the very beginning of this movie: it is, of course, a dark and stormy night, and 10? 12?-year-old Alex is upset and raging, tearing down posters of shlocky horror films from the 1980s and screaming about how he wants to burn it all. His parents are having an argument about him and some trauma that he’s recently endured. Clearly, they’re worried about him. He runs out of their apartment and into the lift, intending to set his books alight in the building’s boiler room. But instead, with a slice of pumpkin pie and an unattended television screening The Lost Boys, he is ensnared by a beautiful witch named Natacha (played by Krysten Ritter, who looks like she’s having way too much fun) and forced to prove his usefulness to her by reading her a new scary story every night.

Alex is not the only child that Natacha has ensnared: her creepy granny kitsch apartment also houses Yasmin, a girl about Alex’s age who cooks and cleans for Natacha, and a hairless spiteful cat named Lenore, who acts like a spy for the witch and who likes to turn invisible. At first, both Yasmin and Lenore are hostile to Alex. But shared adversity forges powerful bonds, and soon Alex and Yasmin are plotting together to find ways to escape.

I haven’t watched or read that much middle grade horror (Stranger Things and Monster House is about the extent of it), and horror really isn’t my genre. Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed this one—perhaps because it was consciously steeped in fairy tales (Hansel and Gretel references abound) and 80s horror tropes. It was fun seeing Alex read his stories (which were dramatised in a heavily stylised way that I thought befit the tale-within-a-tale thing they were going for) and having to endure the world’s worst writing critique group in the form of an impatient, nitpicky and exacting Natacha. (“Writers. Always so insecure.” *Cue snarky giggles from me.*) The way his writers block was depicted made me laugh while, at the same time, I kept yelling at the screen for him to go take a walk or read some of the many tomes that comprised the library he was forced to work in. (Indeed, give it’s Week #15 of lockdown, I rather envied the fact that he had TIME and SPACE to write—time and space UNINTERRUPTED, at that!) It was also very emotionally satisfying seeing him and Yasmin slowly begin to connect, and I enjoyed the spark of cleverness Alex displayed in trying to trick the witch into revealing some key piece of information. The jump scares were a little cheesy, bordering on predictable. But this is a kids movie, and perhaps some leniency is in order.

Indeed, I wondered how much my viewing the film as an adult was colouring my perceptions of the film. There were points at which I felt that the kids were being a bit slow or a bit stupid—that they should have acted and done certain things to help themselves, or done certain things sooner. I wondered how a kid would have found it and whether they would have empathised with the main characters’ paralysis and indecision. In particular, I wonder how they would have responded to the big reveal, when Alex finally answers Natacha’s question about why he was so keen to burn his writing (which he has scribbled in journals he calls his “Nightbooks”). For me, I felt like this could have been seeded better and earlier so that the emotional weight of Alex’s trauma could have hit harder.

Indeed, in spite of some pretty decent pacing, some of the plot twists and character arcs felt a bit predictable (even though I liked some of them), and if you think too hard about the story and its world building, you’ll come across some curious holes. (That said, and given that the movie is based on a book of the same name by JA White [which I have not read], I wondered if the movie would have worked better as a miniseries, with more time and space to allow the stories—and back stories—to breathe a little more.)

Final thing: the production design on this movie is gorgeously nightmarish—from the William Morris wallpaper to the antique porcelain dolls to the cobwebbed spiral staircased library, and even a gingerbread house that looks both mouthwatering, yet sweetly and sickly gross. Natacha’s wardrobe is also fabulously retro and over-the-top, with iridescent fabrics, sequins for days and eye-wateringly high platforms galore. The score was comprised of some rather over-used high strings. But I really like the CHVRCHES cover of “Cry Little Sister” (which comes from The Lost Boys): not only are they one of my most favourite bands, I felt that fit really well with CHVRCHES’ aesthetic.

If you and/or your kids like creepy stories, this one’s for you—and just in time for Halloween.

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Review: Unrest

Netflix, 2017. 1 hr 37 min.

This wasn’t the thing I thought I’d be blogging about today, but nevertheless, the thing I started writing isn’t quite working, so let’s go with another review.

Unrest is a 2017 documentary about chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) by Harvard PhD candidate Jennifer Brea, who also gave a TED talk about her condition in 2016 from her wheelchair (16:32 min).

She made the documentary for several reasons: it records her story and her struggle with the disease—the medical appointments; the good days when she is able to walk—when she appears “normal”; the bad days when she can’t do anything except lie there; the days when she has to drag herself along the floor, crying in pain, in order to get herself into bed; the things that she grieves, because the disease has robbed her of so much; the impact of her condition on her relationships (particular her relationship with her husband, Omar Wasow, a politics professor at Princeton); and her own journey in trying to understand the disease.

But it’s also partly a chronicle of the stories and the range of experience of other CFS-sufferers and their carers around the world, whom Brea connects with via video chat. There’s Jessica in England who has been severely unwell for eight years; Leeray, a middle age mother, whose husband did not believe there was anything wrong with her and who left her because of it; Casie, Leeray’s daughter, who was diagnosed with the same condition; Ketty and Per in Denmark, parents of CFS patient Karina, who was taken from them because Denmark does not acknowledge CFS as a medical disease; and Ron Davis, Professor of Biochemistry and Genetics, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Centre at Stanford University, and father of CFS-sufferer Whitney, who has not talked in over a year and who lives in almost complete darkness in his room. Their stories amplify and highlight Brea’s, giving voice to the many who suffer from this disease, who have all but disappeared from view in everyday society.

In addition, through their stories, the documentary touches on different issues affecting CFS sufferers, such as not being believed; the social stigma of people thinking you’re just making up your symptoms; the blindness of the medical community, most of whom have little idea of what the disease is, let alone how to treat it; historical misconceptions of CFS/ME, and how it is often dismissed because the majority of those affected are women; different treatments that patients try in order to try to alleviate their symptoms (with varying results); and the struggle of those in the field of medical research to attract support and funding for their work. As Ron Davis explains,

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is the lowest funded of any major disease by a lot. Many of the people that are at the NIH [National Institute of Health] and have in the past not believed it’s real. So why would you fund something that’s not real?

This sort of gaslighting highlights the need for Brea’s documentary—as an engine of activism, raising awareness among the general public (see also the Millions Missing global campaign). CFS/ME is bad enough on its own, but compounded with the judgement and prejudice of an ableist society, it can be devastating for those affected. You can see Brea herself struggling with the hopes and expectations that society has placed on her: in one heartbreaking scene, she confesses,

It was like I had died, but was forced to watch as the world moved on … If I completely disappear and I’m in this bed, then it’s like I don’t even exist or that I never existed. And then what was the point of it all—of being born in the first place? You know and honestly there are a lot of days when I just feel like I’m doing a good job by just holding it together and not killing myself. And it’s not—I really don’t want to die—like, I really don’t want to die—but at a certain point, it’s hard to call this living, and I think the grief of all those things I might not do or see or have … yeah, so it’s sad.

I couldn’t help thinking that if the world was less focused on markers of life success and achievement and more understanding and compassionate about the circumstances of those who don’t fit a certain mould, Brea and others like her would be having a slightly easier time of things. It is tragic—and also, I think, a damning judgement on a society that has failed to listen to them—that so many CFS patients end their suffering by taking their own lives. There is so much more that we ought to be doing to relieve their burdens.

If you, like me, know someone or multiple someones with CFS/ME-type symptoms (and there are so many more now in the wake of COVID, which leads me to hope that the disease will receiving proper funding and attention soon), please watch this documentary. If you don’t know anyone with this disease and understand nothing about it, then you should definitely watch it. It’s upsetting and distressing at places, and it contains no easy answers, which many will find frustrating. But it is very much worth it if only to help you understand the suffering of many and the miracle of their resilience in the face of such crushing odds.