04 October 2013

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A Cathartic Review of Faith - Guest Post

Posted by Kakashi Sensei on October 04, 2013
Dear Readers, today, I present you with a special kind of Guest Post ... Not long ago, I was contacted on this blog's Facebook page by a person without a blog, lets call her Nabi (as in 나비), who is still suffering from the after-effects of Faith. And because Nabi wanted to have closure, Nabi wrote a long and detailed review. But what good is a review if nobody but the reviewers gets to see it, right?! I immediately agreed to help Nabi to get over the agony that some KDramas can inflict on us by posting the review on this blog. It's a total win-win situation for everyone. Enjoy.
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Faith, how did you disappoint me?  Let me count the ways...

I'm not savvy enough to pinpoint exactly where this series went awry -- whether it was the writing, the directing, the editing, the acting, or some lethal combination of the above – but it was, without a doubt, a series that I should have loved, but didn't.
So here is my effort to reconcile the potential I thought I saw in the beginning and the meh feeling I really got:

The Big Stuff:
1. Generally speaking, political plotting, be it in the boardroom or the throne room, is the quickest way to bore me in a kDrama, and Faith proved this rule yet again. Every time Ki Cheol or Doek Heung hatched yet another diabolical plot to undermine or overthrow the king or manipulate those around him my brain numbed just a little bit more. It was dizzying trying to keep track of which scheme they were pursuing in which episode, not to mention maintaining a consistent understanding of their underlying motivations. Which is not to say that antagonists aren't important – without them the rest of the story lacks urgency or a feeling of consequence. But if the writers can't manage a reasonably straightforward obstacle for their protagonists to overcome, they run the risk of making what's supposed to create tension feel more like a bad circus clown routine. Even worse, Faith just kept recycling the same basic threats over and over again (Who else besides me kind of wished one of the central protagonists would just die already after the 12th or 13th time it almost happened?) instead of at least trying to make the endless succession of evil schemes stay in any way fresh. Good writers know that just because the obstacle a character faces isn't complicated doesn't mean it has to be easy to overcome, and Faith already had a doozy embedded in its very identity with the two lovers coming together across the centuries that divided them. But instead of celebrating their story as the true heart of the series it was treated like so much window-dressing on a central plot of Goryeo court intrigues.
2. This risk of treachery devolving into clownery increases exponentially when the antagonists are made into caricatures, like the bizarrely-coiffed Ki Cheol who all but literally twirled his evil mustache with every line and became increasingly unhinged for no apparent reason as the series wore on, not to mention Fire Lady leering with glee at every opportunity to sexually harass Choi Young or exercise her penchant for sadism, and the inexplicably white-haired flautist.
3. Speaking of the bizarre antagonists, I really could have done without the X-Men angle. Not that it bothered me so much in and of itself, but that they made no effort at all to try to make it fit within the show's own internal logic. Every other piece of evidence they gave us suggested that Eun-Soo was abducted from the same world we, the audience, live in every day, and transported into our collective past. So are we supposed to believe that all of our historical records about the real Choi Young and King Gongmin, etc. somehow forgot to mention that some people in Goryeo had these flashy, super-deadly super-powers? Not even the existence of a magical time portal can overcome that glaring plot inconsistency, especially once they made it clear that the mystical “Hwa Ta” was really Eun-Soo – totally mortal 21st century physician – all along.
4. The whole X-men inconsistency could have been mitigated if they had not insisted on casting actual historical characters in several of the biggest roles. It still would have required a better explanation than it got (which was none at all), but at least it could have been explained somehow. Even worse, while the king and queen served a legitimate dramatic purpose – namely grounding Eun-Soo in a past that both she and the audience would recognize and be able to orient themselves within – I could never figure out why they felt the need to make Choi Young into the romantic lead. I'm unable to identify any major plot point that couldn't have been just as well served with Choi Young's unknown-to-history first lieutenant in the lead role, or even Choi Young's superior, seeing as how Choi Young wasn't even a General yet when the story commenced. As it was, the key details of Choi Young's real life and death are readily available in textbooks (or at least I assume they are, as I found quite a bit just on Wikipedia) which meant the writers were limited in the eventual path their male lead was able to take. Why close all those doors from the outset unless it was absolutely integral to the entire plot?
5. As for Eun-Soo, for a woman who decided to abandon everyone and everything she knew in the 21st century for the sake of a man in a relatively short span of time (though admittedly the inconsistent progression of time in this drama leaves exactly how long she had to make this decision in no small part up the viewer's imagination), she spent precious little time trying to adapt to everyday real life in her new home, or having any real conversations with Choi Young about their future. Granted, they made a solid effort to address the monumental shift that had to occur in Eun-Soo, as both a citizen and physician of the 21st century, to accept a world in which killing and death were all around her. Also, by the end of the series Choi Young seemed genuinely to accept and embrace that Eun-Soo's values and expectations were different from those of any woman, and indeed any person, he had ever known before. But while real life-long commitments may be rooted in mutual understanding, admiration, and acceptance, they have to endure through the mundane – the very aspect of the lovers' future the drama most ignored. For starters, even if we overlook the fact that, in yet another breach of internal logic, an inch or more of dark roots should have grown out in her dyed-red hair during her time in Goryeo but magically did not, and that her long, wavy hairstyle was obviously impossible without modern styling implements, having Eun-Soo make more of an effort to conform her anachronistic hairstyle and wardrobe to the conventions of her newly-chosen home would have been a subtle but meaningful way to convey a genuine acceptance and understanding of the life she was choosing. Better yet would have been even a cursory attempt for Eun-Soo and Choi Young to reach an understanding of the practical realities of the life Eun-Soo had left and those she would be facing if she stayed in the past, particularly if and how she would continue to practice medicine while, presumably, also becoming Choi Young's wife and the mother of his children. Or am I making a grossly ignorant assumption here that there were no other women in upper-class Goryeo society who had both families and careers? That alone makes Eun-Soo's choice to stay with Choi Young a more-than-typical big deal and one that the drama really should have addressed, even if most romances do tend to gloss over it.
6. The way the story was constructed, Eun-Soo's actions – namely, traveling to Goryeo to save the queen and Choi Young (on multiple occasions), then traveling even further into the past to leave herself warning notes – were necessary all along to create the history that Eun-Soo (and the audience) knew in the modern world. Yet with all the effort she put into saving their lives in the story's “present,” she seems blithely unconcerned about the deaths they will both face in their respective futures. And it's not because she doesn't know what will happen – her recognition early in the series that she had just saved the life of the man who would eventually kill Choi Young proves that she is fully aware of the circumstances of his death, and her oblique references to the king's historical grief over the death of his queen in childbirth make it obvious that she knows plenty about that fate as well – so why wasn't she able to prevent either of them? Of course, it is a time-travel paradox that their deaths had to happen in the past in order for her to be aware of them in the future, and if she's not aware of them in the future she couldn't have known to prevent them in the past, but genuinely good writing will find a clever solution for exactly this kind of sticky problem – or at least address it – while Faith basically just ignored it.
7. Even if we're willing to overlook the glaring plot hole of Choi Young's eventual historical death, it was sloppy to have Eun-Soo leave him dying in a field in the last episode! In real life we can't always tie up every problem in a neat little bow, but forcing a main character to walk away from her central priority of the whole series (ie. keeping Choi Young alive) at a climactic moment with no better plan than to hope he will be okay is just plain lazy storytelling when we're talking about fiction. If all his previous escapes from death turned out to have needed her intervention all along, why not that one? Same goes for the dismissal of Choi Young's hand problem, both by the writers and by Eun-Soo. I'm no doctor, but she seemed awfully quick to assume the weakness and tremors were psychological and not neurological. What is more, even if she were reasonably confident of that diagnosis, if she were really as madly in love with him as she was supposed to be, wouldn't she want to make sure? I think if it were me I would have immediately switched from debating between returning to the 21st century by myself or staying permanently in Goryeo to applying every ounce of my energy and determination toward getting Choi Young into an MRI machine, stat!
8. Not to beat a dead horse, but in yet another inconsistency to Eun-Soo's determination to keep Choi Young alive, why was she so unconcerned about her own (2nd) poisoning?! She obviously knew as soon as she found the film canister under the rock that she herself had to have placed it there and that in order to do that she would have to live long enough to travel even further into the past. How was she supposed to do that if she were dead from the poison everyone kept telling her had no cure, especially once she started to show symptoms? Wouldn't the most obvious and certain solution have been for her to go Back To The Future and get herself treated, even if it meant living a sad life without Choi Young in the end? She can't help anyone anymore if she's dead, after all, and the whole curing-one-poison-with-another-poison-at-the-last-possible-moment schtick was nothing more than dumb luck in her universe and more lazy storytelling in ours!

The Little Stuff:

1. Did the queen ever tell the king that she loved him? I remember her telling him repeatedly that she would teach him the word eventually, but I can't recall her ever actually doing so.
2. Choi Young's hair went from hunky to lopsided to blah! If Eun-Soo's stringy scarlet coif could exist in a time-warp, why couldn't Choi Young's mane of glory? And speaking of Choi Young's physical appearance, what was up with the leather bathrobe toward the end? Ugh!
Damn! Another bad hair day!!
3. If the X-Men were really so easy to kill – with Fire Lady dispatched by two characters who we hadn't previously killed even a single person that we know of (right?), and the white-haired flautist run through with nothing more than Choi Young's sword – why did it take them so long to die? And conversely, if they were really as deadly as they were portrayed earlier in the series, why was there anyone still left alive to kill them at the end?
4. Speaking of being easy to kill, why did the “elite” Woodalchi troops left behind to cover the king's flight back to the palace suddenly start to die like flies when faced by Ki Cheol's private soldiers? Fire Lady and Flautist barely even bothered to fight in that battle, so it was the peons that slaughtered 20 Woodalchi but suffered barely any casualties themselves. This wasn't the only instance when Woodalchi's legendary prowess seemed inconsistent, but I do think it may have been the most egregious.
5. And speaking of the X-Men, what was up with Ki Cheol's cold sickness? Did I just miss the thorough, logical explanation for why his super-powers were malfunctioning when no one else's were ever shown to falter? Somehow I doubt it.
6. Eun-Soo constantly claimed not to know how to use herbs for medicine, but then ran around making and selling soap and brewing tea. Ignoring how idiotic it is to have an extensively-educated and highly-trained surgeon trying to kill time with inane hobbies and entrepreneurial schemes when she's surrounded by death, it makes absolutely no sense that she would be totally ignorant of medical herbology but easily able to use those same herbs for teas and cosmetics.
7. I loved that they paired an actress several months my senior in a romance with Lee Min-ho, whom I consider so young as to be a slightly embarrassing object of attraction, and that her age was actually appropriate for the level of professional education and experience she needed to have in order to be a logical choice for Choi Young to kidnap her from the future (although the decision to make her a plastic surgeon was totally nonsensical), but I wasn't crazy about the way she portrayed Eun-Soo. As I mentioned in my introduction, I certainly don't lay all the blame at Kim Hee-Seon's door for this, but whatever the reasons, the end result was a character I found generally pretty annoying.
8. Similarly, as much as I really do have a weakness for Lee Min-ho, and loved the way he wore his costumes in this drama (except for that robe), he really was too young for Young. They actually stated his age pretty explicitly at one point, and it was several years older than Lee Min-ho, a difference that was, sadly, only magnified by his decade-older costar and the fact that his character was supposed to have lived those extra years in a state of near-constant warfare, without the help of modern medical care or beauty products. I realize that compulsory military requirements in South Korea may mean that there is a relative dearth of age-appropriate actors to play the role as written, but I cannot see how making Choi Young's character a little older (and the actor who played him a little older to go along with it) could have hurt the story in any way. Or, for that matter, how casting him a little on the old side instead of a little on the young side would have been anything but an improvement. Especially since there's a fine line between understated and wooden when it comes to acting, and from what I've seen in Boys Over Flowers, City Hunter, and Personal Taste, Lee Min-ho needs a lot of support to avoid the latter...support he clearly wasn't getting in Faith. Then again, who really cares about anachronistic casting and awkward acting? With so much else going wrong in this drama, why am I not just enjoying the fact that at least I got to watch 24 hours of Lee Min-ho?

The Stuff I Liked:

1. I had mini-crushes on Deok-Man and Oh Dae-Man, so I was happy that they both survived all the bloodshed at the end. Yay!
not like him ...
2. The king and queen were so adorable! I liked that they took the known history of these characters – namely King Gongmin's paralyzing grief at his wife's death in childbirth years later – to extrapolate a sweet, strong, loving marriage. I even liked how the actors portrayed their romance. The one thing I would have liked to see a little bit more of from the king and queen was the same thing that Eun-Soo and Choi Young needed so badly: communication. I was never really satisfied with the sketchy references to the origins of their initial strife, nor with the subtlety of their eventual reconciliation. With 24 episodes in the drama, couldn't they have spared 5-10 minutes for these conversations? Especially considering how irritating and schizophrenic this show made Eun-Soo and Choi Young and their relationship, the king and queen were such a relaxing breath of fresh air, and they deserved more attention
3. With the exceptions noted above, I loved the hair and wardrobe of this series. I cannot extend these accolades to the makeup department, with which I have some complaints, but generally speaking I really loved the way the characters were dressed and coifed from beginning to end. And the sets were pretty awesome, too.
4. Court Lady Choi: strong, smart, loyal, generous, insightful, tactful, and a bit of a bad-ass!
5. The music!!! Loved, loved, LOVED the music. The main title sequence never ceases to give me the shivers, even now, and I think Bad Guy is my favorite kPop song of all time. Also, you know that wonderfully dramatic, operatic theme song of Choi Young's? It's official title is “I am Woodalchi (Great Big Choi Young).” Awesome. Seriously. Ravage me now. ;-)
On a purely self-indulgent note, I also think Faith needed way more sex. The beauty of a time-travel romance is that it frees the time-traveller from her “real” life, giving her the perfect excuse to indulge desires to which she would never consider giving in under normal circumstances. If I were Eun-Soo, I would have jumped Choi Young as soon as he healed from the whole sword-through-the-belly incident! I'm willing to concede that this sex-for-sex-and-not-for-romance scenario was never going to play out in a kDrama, at least not this year, but they could have given us a little more than they did...especially during the window when Eun-Soo knew she was in love with Choi Young but still planned to return to the 21st century. I know kDramas have different values than I do when it comes to premarital sex, but even in kDramaland there are some women who know better than to waste what little time they have left acting all coy and chaste, and I found it particularly unbecoming in a 35-year-old surgeon. By the time they moved Eun-Soo into Choi Young's room for the world's least sexy extended sleepover, I was actually starting to feel a little bit insulted. Alone together all night every night, and for frack's sake, they never even kissed (no, Choi Young feeding Eun-Soo crushed aspirin like a baby bird doesn't count)!! Argh!!!

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