Tuesday, December 5, 2023

The Ballad of 박은빈: The King's Affection

*spoilers abound...

The heart of most Korean drama is a love story. To those trained on Hollywood or European cinema love, Korean romance will seem light -friendship, conversation, helping, hands touching, plucking an eyelash off a cheek, and catch on a fall does some heavy lifting. Too often there's a love triangle, among lead and supporting characters, sometimes driving the narrative tension and, other times, only background noise. 

A parallel story line is spiraled around this love story, like a rope that leads, as expected, to a knot. This parallel story may tackle contemporary social issues, engage fantasy or historical Joseon-period narratives. As with all shows, the writing, acting, and production value are the weak or strong fibers entwined in the making of this rope, but it is the love story that pulls us along (I know fellas, it's the sword fights). 

Yet, I am surprised how often the male leads lack personality. Cool, stoic, yes, and occasionally even tearful, but rarely interesting, rarely lively. I have watched Park Eun Bin as the love interest of a ghost, twice a coworker, a pianist, a faux-cousin/supervisor, a royal tutor, and now, in Castaway Diva, a reporter or TV producer (still in ♥ ▵). Although these male lead roles trend toward stiff, personality-less characters, they do support the lead woman's ambitions and remain "by her side." As in our own culture, overcoming generations of patriarchy and gender roles is represented and, one may reasonably guess, valued by the presumed demographic for these shows.

Fortunately for 연모aka Yeonmo (Revised Romanization) or, as on Netflix - The King's Affection, the male lead, Ji-un, was animated, smiled frequently, showed confusion, solemnity, doubt. Given the restrained portrayal of a woman concealed as the male Crown Prince, the romantic narrative would have suffered without Rowoon's, aka Kim Seok-woo, lively royal tutor. This reversal carries the show through several mid-series episodes, until, at last, the Crown Prince is revealed to Ji-un as the woman she is. Unwavering, the two navigate the challenges of concealing her identity and Ji-un's love for the Crown Prince. 

That she is also Ji-un's childhood first love -the princess cum maid-servant Da-mi, becomes largely irrelevant, and is passed off with a shrug in a later episode. I presume this plot line is necessary primarily because fate is always present among lead lovers in Korean dramas. The King's Affection appears to use fated love to drive the narrative -how else to explain such circumstances? But then, how can a woman Crown Prince sire off-spring with the unknowing Crown Princess? Fate, here, appears to lead toward tragedy, as in the scene below, where they cannot be together, or worse -that one, or both, will be executed for the treason of concealing the true identity of the Crown Prince.


The Crown Prince Lee Hwi and Royal Tutor Jung Ji-Un approach each other. He bows.

Prince Lee Hwi: "I was wondering why you did not come by today. You did not deliver the royal reports. Do you have any idea how worried I was? 

Tutor Jung Ji-Un:" I have something I have to tell you, Your Majesty. [pause] I am going to get married."

"Why, though? If it's because of the rumors going around; don't go through with it. We knew this was going to be difficult and ‒"

"This is the choice I have made."

"Then..if that's what you really want, how can you just lie to me like that? Why on earth are you going through with this? Please just tell me, why all of a sudden you have a complete change of heart? We've been able to stay strong through so much until right now. [pause] So, why? Is there a reason, then, why you cannot just tell me?"

"I do not want to lose you, Your Majesty. And this is the only way I can make sure that happens."

"So what are you saying, then? If you don't wish to lose me, why ‒"

"This is... [pause] I think this is where I should say goodbye, Majesty.

He bows and begins to walk away. 

"Stop! Don't you dare leave!"

He stops. 

"I did not say... [pause] that we were finished here. You can't leave."

Clenching his fist, he begins to walk away.

"Stop, now!" Music begins to play. "I order you!"

Holding back his emotions, "Forgive me... [pause] Your Majesty"

The scene ends with the Crown Prince, isolated, alone -as in the beginning.

If her use of Royal authority in a pitiful attempt to command him to stay by her side does not tug at you -perhaps you've no heart. Of course Prince Hwi isn't aware that Ji-un is loyal, acting only to save her life. Despite this well-worn, soap contrivance, the low-key lighting punctuated by cyan and orange, dewy eyes, and shallow depth of field beautifully package this culmination of twenty hours of nearly-suspended disbelief in two characters who have walked together and now cannot. Fate, it seems, is coming to its own conclusion.

Although the show is framed, largely, by royal palace courtyards and royal quarters, and sometimes landscapes or villages, it never feels suffocated by them. The cinematic wide-screen format, variety of compositional devices from perspective lines to boxing in, and closeups punctuated by catch lights and shallow depth of field provide room to breath; separating the feeling of The King's Affection from a swath of overly sharp, 4K productions. The wide screen format also offers an abundance of space to be filled with period details -stone walls, flowering trees, architecture, and even sharply differentiated topography. Color is grounded in muted tones punctuated by intense cyans, magentas, reds or white. The dark of night is produced with an eye for limited sight under low light instead of artificially brightened scenes (see above photos).

This visual appeal is met by Park Eun Bin's effort to inhabit the character as wholly as she did Woo Young Woo. Few of the actor's expressive mannerisms, often visible in her other work, including Extraordinary Attorney Woo, were seen in The King's Affection. In portraying a girl surviving as a boy, she chose restraint rather than masquerade, and as the episodes progress, stoicism becomes displaced by an un-constructed, un-gendered entity. As their relationship grows more comfortable, the repartee between the Crown Prince and tutor Ji-un is smile inducing. One episode is memorable for a scene in which the petite Crown Prince Hwi physically assaults a visiting, and intolerable, eunuch. One can hardly believe that Da-mi is playing the role, self-consciously, of a young man, but is motivated by something beyond gender -a rage fired up by unjust circumstances. 

Park Eun Bin as Crown Prince punching visiting eunuch

Moments like these run interference against the kit of scenes all too commonly drawn upon in Korean drama: romantic leads bantering about jealousy, fall and catch scenes, or unexpected rainfall met by a kind umbrella. It also adds a touch of humanity to the character, Da-mi, whose complexity is generated only by the concealment of her identity, not by any flaws such a life may have realized. When Da-mi/Crown Prince Hwi makes a poor choice, she knows it, owns it, and is forgiven by an audience that already understands that she is not truly at fault. Such writing caricatures good and bad behavior to a point beyond question. This becomes an oppressive construct that, in its modelling of ideal behavior, is rather conservative. Of course, none of this is restricted to Korean dramas, but is noticeably absent in several contemporary U.S. productions like You, Breaking Bad, Ozark, The Sopranos and more. 
The peasant or noble-born peasant with a heart of gold is a narrative trope common to Park Eun Bin's characters, whether in The King's Affection, Father I Will Take Care of You, Ghost Detective, Judge Vs Judge, and now, Castaway Diva. To be fair, The King's Affection manages to succeed despite this limitation -the Crown Prince, after all, was born a princess to be killed at birth, and purportedly so, but for the grief of a mother that whisked her unnamed daughter away in defiance of the King. Where the humble orphan meets her royal origin, there is nothing so kingly as kindness and truth. Where kindness and truth face ambition, we find sacrifice and tragedy.

The tearful, desperate end.

For a show which, from the very beginning, moves toward tragedy, I thought it would have finished more memorably if it had only followed its tragic logic to the end. Wouldn't a fitting, trope-bucking end sacrifice the twin sister of the real, but dead, Crown Prince Hwi to save the kingdom by perishing alongside her familial adversary? Early on, we were primed for the deadliness of this poison as the Crown Prince's father, the King, was also poisoned this way by her maternal grandfather, who she now sat before, tea cup in hand. Although the situation was desperate, it may have been hard to accept Crown Prince Hwi ingesting poisoned tea, if only to ensure that her grandfather also drank it. We did not know her plan, yet we understood the stakes, the risk, and were in a position to accept her self-sacrifice.
The Crown Prince after ingesting the poison
If the narrative had her die alongside her ruthless grandfather, all outcomes would have remained the same with one exception -this tragic love story would have remained a tragedy. The viewers may not have forgiven the writers and the writers may have struggled with modeling the hero's path toward sacrifice, but instead, they chose to take the audience to that precipice, dangle us, and then pull us, improbably, back to safety. Inevitably, we find that model characters require model endings and we are left untouched by the significance of tragedy.

Thursday, November 23, 2023

The Ballad of 박은빈

Character Dong Hui (Hee), in a bus station, foreshadowing Young Woo's obsession with whales

As June approached, under the long days of a northern solstice, nursery work kept me going until 8pm, sometimes later. At last light, I crashed, exhausted, in front of the TV -the first half-hour lost to a continuous scroll through endless Prime or Netflix possibilities. I had just re-watched Babylon Berlin, a show I savored, in preparation for the possibly never-airing 4th season. I watched the auto-trailers of top-left suggestions like Suits; I then scrolled across and decided to give You a go. I lasted two or three episodes before quitting. It's possible Netflix algorithms calculated that, based on watching a trailer for a lawyer program plus a foreign-language series plus turning off a serial killer romantic not-comedy, I might watch a Korean program about an autistic lawyer. I had seen a few Korean films over the years -The Host, Snowpiercer, Parasite, and most recently Train to Busan -all dark films, most dealing with class and moral attitudes, but I enjoyed Snowpiercer and Parasite, and Busan was a zombie flick, so it was okay, too. 

But Extraordinary Attorney Woo? It's auto-trailer presented like a comedy, a fish out of water story. Was it difficult for me to separate my experience of a brother-in-law's Asperger's from my imagination of this portrayal? Was this actor, herself, on the spectrum? If not, was this okay? The program's intentions could only be sussed with an investment -each episode over an hour long. So I watched that first episode and what I recalled the next day was a supporting character asking Attorney Woo "are you an idiot, are you stupid?" On the other hand, there were other characters in Young Woo's orbit that were endearingly supportive. So I gave it another shot the following evening. And then again.

Part of the what kept my attention is the freshness of a culture's new-to-me media. Also new was the program's emotivity. In my forty-five plus years of watching television, how many shows, or movies for that matter, have brought on tears? I do not recall many, with the notable exception of Dancer in the Dark, Lars von Trier's film starring Bjork about an impossible murder conviction and death row sentence that brought an entire theater audience to tears thanks to the humanity of the corrections officer who escorts the prisoner to her execution. I think of the film Wit by Mike Nichols, with Emma Thompson -dreadfully sad, yes, but no tears. Ted Lasso had scripted emotive moments like those in Attorney Woo, and after watching several Korean dramas, I see how much Lasso borrowed.

But Attorney Woo pushed it to a new level. Once or twice per episode, tears streaming? A time or two, having watched the night before, I woke ready to sob. This can't be right. Is it that I am not okay? Is it this show or was it my life in that moment? Had I lacked access to my feelings, or suppressed them, and this program's earnest expressions became a channel for processing emotions for which my daily life was providing little opportunity? Had I been spending too much time alone? Possibly. My wife had recently landed a new job in another state and in a very short time I found myself suddenly alone. 

Woo Young Woo introducing herself to her new colleagues.

So, I watched Attorney Woo and then, sure that I had missed things, re-watched it. Charmed by the lead, Park Eun Bin, I decided to seek other shows on which she was cast. I also did a little research -I had known about the K-pop phenomena, but I was ignorant of two decades of addictive episodic programming coming out of Korean entertainment industry. I am not the intended demographic for this industry, but I suspect it captures some who consider it a guilty, maybe secret, pleasure. While visiting my wife, I spoke with a Korean woman who watches. She said her husband does not watch, but sitting beside her, she often looks over, only to find him tearing up. Does he not watch? 

Over the warm months this past summer, I've seen several series -sometimes multiple times (Do You Like Brahms) and one where I struggled to push through its 50 episodes (Father, I Will Take Care of You). Another (The Ghost Detective) I watched with a fair amount of indifference after what I imagined was an interesting premise became a pedestrian script. I was sure there would be nothing for me with Hello, My Twenties (aka Age of Youth) -a show about four women in their 20s who share an apt and grow, together. This program quickly revealed itself to be outside the common bounds of Korean drama (or anything in the young friends genre) and an inflection point for Park Eun Bin's career. 

As Netflix drops new episodes of Castaway Diva, starring, of course, Park Eun Bin, this November, I am watching. There's talk of a season 2 for Attorney Woo, but I don't think a second season is necessary or a good idea, as the first ended perfectly and second seasons often suffer under high expectations and low resolve. Meanwhile, at the risk of taking these dramas too seriously, I am sharing my thoughts about them -as a way to understand my investment and as a way to distance myself from them. Beware: spoilers lurk in each post, yet, if you would like to jump into Korean dramas, but are unsure where to begin, these posts may be useful anchors for your choice.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Don't Go Into The Light

It's been a very busy year, and the last three or four months didn't disappoint. After wrapping up a fairly busy nursery season at Shelterwood, managing or teaching 35 photography classes at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, teaching landscape painting for three weeks at Chautauqua Institute, photographing at several sites in far northern and southwestern Minnesota, yesterday I opened my exhibit, "Don't go Into the Light," at my Minneapolis gallery Rosalux

Reflection of artwork in the plate glass window.

The gallery is open 12-4pm Saturdays and Sundays through November and I will be on site for Sunday hours. We are also hosting a couple of special events on climate change and native plants:

Radical Resilience: Climate Change, Habitat & You

Saturday, November 19th, 1:00 PM - 4:00 PM


Native Plant Clinic

Sunday, November 20th, 12:30 PM – 4:30 PM

Has news of a changing climate left you feeling anxious? Has the current drought changed the way you feel about your home landscape? If you want to irrigate less, help pollinators, feed birds, and see thriving life, this free program was designed for you.

Rosalux Gallery and the artist and owner of Shelterwood Gardens, Frank Meuschke is hosting an event on Minnesota-specific climate changes and what you can do to build resilience into your home environment.

Radical Resilience: Event Schedule

Seats are limited. To help with a headcount, please register using this link.


1:00pm: Frank James Meuschke introduces the event, gallery, and artwork

1:15pm: Past, Present, & Future Climate in Minnesota -climate scientist Sam Potter, PHD

2:00pm: Q&A with Sam

15 minute break

2:30pm: Bird & Bat Habitat (in Your Yard) -Hennepin County wildlife biologist Nicole Witzel

3:15pm: Q&A with Nicole

3:30pm: Planting for a Changing Climate -Shelterwood Gardens’ Frank Meuschke

End of Program: Free Bird & Bat House Raffle!

To limit spread of the Omicron Covid in our community, we encourage masking at this group event and please stay home if you do not feel your best. Thank you.