I’m back! And slowly emerging from a tumblr-fueled, Glee-induced hiatus during which I watched all three seasons in two weeks, fell in love with Ms. Mercedes Jones (and Amber Riley), became closely acquainted with the fandom…and then slowly backed away, the way you would from a dog you’d thought was friendly and wanted to pet, only to realize it was foaming at the mouth. Watching US American television reinforced the things I love about Asian dramas: the structure. US TV is like a Dickens or a Victor Hugo: rich, engaging, full of surprises, and rewarding once you’re done, but also prone to an unnecessary length that seems more a result of financial considerations than narrative cohesiveness. Now this is a problem that comes up with Asian dramas, too (writers changing things in the script at the last minute to please audiences so that viewership will remain high,) but the fact that I was watching Glee, which is a juggernaut of a show, and am an American, made it all the more apparent to me.
Asian dramas, in contrast, have an established form–a genre, a number of episodes, a beginning, middle and end–so that even if a drama were to fall spectacularly a part, like Spy Myung Wol, or never have started at all, like Playful Kiss, it retains a certain architecture, the rivets and beams and balusters that prop it up and invite you to stroll about, even if you aren’t paying very close attention. And there’s something to be said about investing in characters when you know what is going to become of them, which I suppose is the continuing allure of stories like Titanic and Romeo & Juliet, or my favorite, Moulin Rouge. I really enjoy the fact that I know my OTP will end up together, no matter the ridiculousness I’ll have to endure to see them get there. It gives me leave to enjoy who they are and how they end up together, and not spend time wondering if they will. Even in the midsts of a maelstrom of angst, noble self-sacrifice, and enraged future mother-in-laws, you know that when episode 16 comes along, even if it’s during the final credits of that episode, the main couple is going to get together and you’re going to get a kiss. I enjoy the finality of it all, the fairytale-like “The End.” Asian dramas are like novels in this way. They actually have an ending, and it’s always in sight. And they feed into my love of the miniature. They’re not a mountain of laundry that you’ve loaded in your arms, blocking your view so that you trip on something and it all comes tumbling down and you have to pick them up again. It’s like I can hold one in my hand and turn it this way and that and exhaust my knowledge of it, then perch in on my dresser to admire.
So I return to my Asian drama watching and writing by re-visiting one of my absolute favorites, What’s Up Fox? I’ve chosen it because I’m still not over Kim Do Woo’s Me Too, Flower (though suspect Yoon Shi Yoon’s perfect face has a lot to do with it,) and because the drama I’m looking most forward to is I Do, I Do. It will air after King 2 Hearts and has Kim Sun Ah playing the lead, a career woman who enjoys her job and single-dom and is knocked up by a younger man. Now I love noona romances (I could probably subsist on them in place of food,) and What’s Up, Fox? is the mother of all noona romances. Kim Sun Ah was in the noona romance that started the craze, Kim Sam Soon, also penned my Kim Do Woo, and so it’s only fitting that I re-visit her second drama.
Kim Do Woo cares about her heroine’s imaginations, about their creativity, about the worlds they make for themselves inside their heads. What’s Up, Fox? opens with a scene that Byung Hee is writing for the magazine. She’s playing out in her head as she types it up. Only she casts herself in the role of the sexy extra who decides to get it on while on set. We, the audience, don’t realize that this isn’t the real her until the camera turns to her, sitting in a drab, cluttered office with a fan chugging away as she types. This is the same way Kim Sam Soon opened, with Sam Soon trailing down her cheating boyfriend and kicking his ass with her stiletto. Only this is in her head. In each narrative we’re introduced to our heroine via a vision they have of themselves, via how they imagine they can be, or wish to be.
Even though we weren’t introduced to Me Too Flower’s Bong Sun through her imagination, it played a great role in her characterization. But, interestingly, in Jae Hee we meet our hero in a disguise that is not quite a disguise. Kim Do Woo is interested in persona, I think, in the way a person presents herself, the way a person can deceive herself or someone else. We have the obvious deception and malleability of persona in Jae Hee, but when I look at WUF? I see the same thing in the changing relationship between Byung Hee and Chul Soo. She changes from seeing Chul Soo as nothing but a little brother–though her fondling of him in the first episode belies this–to seeing him as the love of her life. And for most of the story Chul Soo is working on making her see him as a viable romantic partner. And then of course in KSS we have our heroine who wants to change her name so that people will perceive her differently. And perception is closely tied with imagination, too. Both deal with illusions, with things that are crafted in the mind.
Furthermore, Byung Hee’s idealized memory of an afternoon she spent with her crush is incorrect. He didn’t recite a poem, someone else had. She deceived herself. So not only is she not healthy when she’d thought she was, her romance isn’t what she thought it was, either. These feelings she’s been harboring for so long are based on a fabrication, a fantasy. Her sunbae tells her she looks like her world’s cracked apart. It has. After the discovery of her tumor Byung Hee pulled herself back together by telling herself everything would be all right, even as she remembered all the times her mother and best friend told her horror stories of acquaintances getting cancer and having to have their wombs removed. Now, on her first venture in response to her bad news, he first attempt at proving that everything will be all right, she finds out that she is wrong, again. But she barrels ahead anyway, telling her sunbae she’s in love with him and wants to sleep with him. And even as he replies that his marriage fell apart because he’s gay, she’s thinking “Could it be me? Could it be that he’s been in love with me all this time?” Her imagination is getting in the way of what’s happening right in front of her. When she starts crying, you can tell it’s not because she’s heartbroken over the love of her life turning out to be gay, but because this dream she’s built up has been dealt it’s last blow. And I love, love that Byung Hee is not a homophobe. She doesn’t make any quips about her sunbae’s sexuality and instead reflects:
“At first I thought I was crying because of Sunbae. For all these years, how much hurt he’s been through. For these years, I had bottled up everything. But then, I finally understood. I was crying for myself. Compared to the pains Sunbae was suffering, I was even sadder for my own fruitless love. People are really selfish.”
On Byung Hee & Chul Soo
Byung Hee is a 30-year-old virgin who has never been to the gynecologist. She’s so adorable I just want to kiss her. A little awkward, she’s always smiling uncertainly and aware of all the ways in which she’s deficient, or can be seen as so. She dresses unassumingly and is easily amused. She’s childish in that she avoids uncomfortable things and is irreverent, laughing and making jokes when she shouldn’t. She’s silly and makes silly faces and can’t hide her emotions for her life. She’s cautious. She has plans for her future, plans she’s had for a long time, plans she’s never actually worked on turning into reality. She wants to please people and she’s easily scared. And even though she writes cheesy smut, she’s kind of a prude. The word that most characterizes her is avoidance: she avoids difficult conversations with her mother, avoids getting a new job, avoids going to see the doctor, avoids ever asking her crush out, avoids future–it’s ever approaching but never present. But when her gynecologist tells her she has a tumor her future comes crashing in on her and she finally has something she cannot avoid. She can ignore it all she wants, but it’s still there, inside of her, eating away at her possibility of having children. She literally cannot run away from it. Despite all this she’s a responsible adult and a sympathetic character: she’s the one who cooks for her family, she’s the emotional rock for her best friend, and she’s caring and compassionate. She also isn’t afraid to weep openly in a packed movie theater.
Chul Soo is 24. And he’s ridiculously adorable, too. When I see them together I just want to coo. Chul Soo is the cutest hustler on the face of the planet. He’s resourceful, self-reliant, and gets shit done. While Byung Hee hopes to go abroad some day, Chul Soo has already gone abroad. Byung Hee pays for her uterus in three month installments; he haggles with a bike shop owner until he gets a great price for a used scooter. Byung Hee hedges about her not-glamourous-enough-to-be-salacious, but grungy-enough-to-be-embarrassing job; Chul Soo gets a job as a mechanic, something he loves, despite his sister’s nagging that he do something more prestigious. Chul Soo is carefree. He just does not care about what others think. He wants what he wants, he knows what he wants, and he goes after what he wants. The only thing he’s ever held back on is Byung Hee. It’s the burden of his unrequited love, really, that has given him the impetus to live his life according to his own terms. He can’t have the one thing he really wants, so he’s going to have everything else, societal bonds be damned. He’s also charming and amiable. He’s that guy that everyone is friends with because he’s so easy going and non-judgmental. The thing is, Chul Soo is still only 24, so even with all his older-than-his-years persona, he still acts like a child sometimes. This comes out more later on in his relationship with Byung Hee, but we can already see it in the first episode in his relationship with his sister and how he never called her while he was away. It’s a move worthy of Holden Caulfield, that exemplar of singular, tortured adolescence. So we have a classic opposites attract situation, but with no chaebols or fiery tempers to bang you over the head with it.
On Byung Gak & Villainy
I’ve never liked Byung Gak. He’s manipulative, he’s a liar, he’s entitled, and he’s bossy. But the worst thing is just how creepy he is. To be honest, this is the first time since first watching this series two years ago that I’ve paid attention to his storyline. But now that I am, I’m noticing parallels between him and Hwa Young from MTF. Both have spouses that died. Both are influential people in the fashion industry. Both carry a creepy fixation with someone after their spouses deaths, relationships where there is an unequal balance of power, where they try to lord over the other person. Only in WUF? Byung Gak is treated as a sympathetic character and in MTF Hwa Young is the villain.
Why is this? Is it because of gender? From what I’ve seen of kdramaland there is more of the man-is-a-jerk-but-he-still-deserves-love trope than there is of the asshole woman who gets love. In fact, two currently airing shows, Marriage Plot, and King 2 Hearts, have that dynamic. The only ones with a gender reversal I can think of are Witch Yoo Hee and maybe the Snow Queen. And Witch Yoo Hee was a My Fair Lady scenario, with the heroine being taught by the hero how to be more ladylike. Her transformation was actually the explicit point of the show. Both the narrative and she realized she had to change in order to be allowed to have romance, but usually when it’s a man who’s awful he think’s he’s the cat’s pajamas and is oblivious to his jerkwadness, or worse, thinks his jerkwadness is attractive, or (a la Mr. Darcy) merited because of his socioeconomic status.
Or is it because of genre? WUF? is more of a comedy, while MTF had darker themes which it dealt with more dramatically. There isn’t really a villain in WUF? Everyone is just grappling with their desires versus society’s expectations and limitations. But even though MTF had a clear, villain, Kim Do Woo still chose to end her story sympathetically.
Malta and I have spoken about Kim Do Woo’s interest in the older man-younger woman relationship before. Both this and MTF have them, and we’ve entertained the idea that maybe she’s actually more interested in this relationship than her main one. I wouldn’t be surprised if her next drama had that as the main couple. Hopefully her heroine will be more palatable than Joon Hee and Kim Dal, even though I liked the latter.
On Melancholy & Self Reflection
In MTF Bong Sun asks herself, “Why do people leave each other?” She’s wracked with doubts about why everyone in her life–her mother, her father, her ex–has left her. She thinks there must be something wrong with her. In KSS Sam Soon asks her cheating boyfriend, “Was there a time you ever loved me?” She has to gather herself up again and believe that she is desirable and worthy of open, honest love, even in the face of a horrid ex and the man she’s fallen for possibly being in love with another woman who society deems “better” and “more appropriate.” She has to love not only like she’s never been hurt before, but as if she believes she won’t be hurt again. And here Byung Hee is confronted with these massive changes in her life, making her realize how her youth has slipped away and how her future is bearing down on her. It makes her ask questions about how she’s lived her life, about how she wants to live her life from now on; it forces her acknowledge regrets that she has.
These heroines of Kim Do Woo’s, these women who ponder while stumbling through their lives, who are connected to themselves and have these emotional oases within them where they reside in themselves—this way of trying to find answers by talking to yourself— and in communication with themselves, I just love them. And all of them are somehow haunted by death. Bong Sun has the metaphorical death of her family, Sam Soon has the death of her father, Byung Hee’s dad is also presumably dead, but more importantly, she is carrying potential death in her, with her tumor. They each have this sadness that they carry around with them, a simple sorrow that informs the way the operate in the world and serves as a contrast to their respective public personalities. Their internal musings remind me of the ending monologue of one of my favorite films, 2 Days in Paris, where the heroine Marion is contemplating the possible end of yet another relationship:
“It always fascinates me how people go from loving you madly to nothing at all, nothing. It hurts so much. …Here it is. One more, one less. Another wasted love story. I really love this one. When I think that it’s over, that I’ll never see him again like this, well yes, I’ll bump into him, we’ll meet our new boyfriend and girlfriend, act as if we had never been together, then we’ll slowly think of each other less and less until we forget each other completely. Almost. Always the same for me. Break up, break down. Drink up, fool around. Meet one guy, then another, fuck around. Forget the one and only.
Then after a few months of total emptiness start again to look for true love, desperately look everywhere. And after two years of loneliness, meet a new love and swear it is the one, until that one is gone as well.
There’s a moment in life where you can’t recover anymore from another break-up. And even if this person bugs you 60 percent of the time, well, you still can’t live without him. And even if he wakes you up every day by sneezing right in your face, well, you love his sneezes more than anyone else’s kisses.”
• The first image in this post illustrates one of this show’s themes so well: they are in bed, under the covers, peering out at a world looking in on them. All either of them wants is to lay about like any other couple, but they can’t because of society’s expectations.
• Ko Gun’s Men’s Magazine is called C’est Si Bon, which is ironic, because it’s not very good at all.
• Byung Hee insists that in the office she’s “Reporter Ko,” not “Miss Ko.” She’s not actually a reporter, but she is trying to find her place in the professional world.
• Chul Soo’s very first words in the drama are “Noona, open the door.” He’s speaking to his actual sister, but I think this works on two levels, considering the plot of the show involves him falling hard for his non-sibling noona and trying to convince her to give him a chance.
• Chul Soo eats food that Byung Hee’s probably cooked, and asks of her article, “Isn’t this from last year?” meaning he’s been keeping up with her work.
• While Song Hye is busy screaming bloody murder (literally) and launching DVD cases at her brother, Byung Hee finds bracelets in Chul Soo’s bag and tries them on. Later on, when she asks him why he bought so many, he off handedly responds, “Because the hawkers wouldn’t leave me alone. They were cheap anyway.” And she contradicts him and says, “They’re pretty and special.” I mean, how can he not love her?
• Byung Hee is wearing one of Chul Soo’s bracelets at the gynecologist’s. I find it interesting that during this scene of extreme anxiety and disappointing revelation for her, she’s carrying a token from Chul Soo that she’s invested with meaning while he has not. She took it from him, he did not give it to her.
• The cashier blows dust off of the uterus Byung Hee buys. Talk about adding insult to injury.