Battle of the Bums (Kim Bum, plural)

A few months ago, I was struggling to condense my thoughts about Jung-Yi: Goddess of Fire into a coherent evaluation. After enduring all 32 episodes I felt like I owed it to myself to write something about it, but I was getting nowhere, and on impulse I started watching Padam Padam... The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats as avoidance. Padam Padam was in my queue because I had recently seen the film The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, and had been intrigued by Jung Woo-Sung (who played The Good), but I discovered immediately that his costar in Padam Padam was none other than Kim Bum, whom I had just seen in GoF. Not long after that I realized that another show in my queue, That Winter, the Wind Blows, was also a Kim Bum drama, and an idea was born to watch them all back-to-back and review them together, along with Boys Over Flowers, which I watched more than a year ago but never wrote about. In the interest of completeness, I even added The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry and Dream to my watch list, making this a review of Bummie's entire post-BoF television oeuvre, excepting a couple of cameos. I have chosen to review these dramas in the order I watched them rather than in the order they aired.

So, without further ado, let's get ready to Bum-ble! (Sorry, it couldn't be helped.)

Boys Over Flowers (2009)

Boys Over Flowers starts off our retrospective with a dubious honor: it was my first great KDrama disappointment. I saw it only a few months after I watched my first, fateful episode of Gaksital (Gaksitaaaaaaal!!) and shortly after I had finished devouring Rooftop Prince, Coffee Prince, Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Secret Garden, The Moon Embracing the Sun, and The Princess' Man in rapid succession. Straight-up high school romances weren't (and still aren't) really my thing, and the "chaebol + poor girl" trope was already wearing thin, even then, but I was running out of dramas that 1) were available on Hulu (yes, I was still watching all my dramas on Hulu back then), 2) looked really good, and 3) didn't look like they would kill all the characters I cared about at the end (not that I'm totally opposed to mass extinction in theory, it just wasn't what I was looking for at the time). More importantly, BoF came up again and again on blogs and wikis as such a popular series that I figured it must be pretty good, right?

Wrong. In retrospect I have come to believe that BoF epitomizes many of the worst flaws in KDramas: overused tropes; trite dialogue; obsession with wealth; a tendency to manufacture events that make no sense in the context of real life or previously established character traits just to be cute, move a relationship in a pre-determined direction, or even to fill time; eeeevil rich people who destroy lives right and left and everybody just accepts it as natural and inevitable instead of ludicrous and psychopathic; rehashing the exact same conflict and the exact same resolution episode after episode after episode (in this case, "I love you/believe in you/will fight for you" vs. "no I don't/don't/won't" of both the real and the pretend variety); and stories that really merit only a handful of episodes being stretched to fill many, many more (in BoF's case, a very bloated 25!!!).

Lee Min-Ho and Goo Hye-Sun trying their best not to die of embarrassment while enacting ridiculous plot gimmick #3,479.

On top of that, I had a serious, serious problem with the bullying in this drama. I'm no psychologist, but I cling to a belief that non-sociopaths have moral and ethical boundaries that they generally don't cross. Yes, herd mentality and power imbalances can shift those boundaries, and that can explain some of the bully culture in BoF, but it doesn't quite cover enough. My three biggest problems are:

  1. The eventual excuse that our first male lead, and leader of the alpha-male “F4” clique that rules BoF's exclusive Shinhwa High School, Gu Jun-Pyo (Lee Min-ho), isn't really a bad person, just a person who never got to be loved, is undermined by the affectionate relationships he has with his three besties since childhood. (And, eventually, we learn also his sister, and his housekeeper, and his mom's flunky, but who's counting? Oh yeah, I am.) Yes, he was wounded by the absence of his parents, but he still knew the love and compassion of friendship, and it seems like that ought to have tempered his sadistic side just a little.
Okay, they're both promo photos, but they're still supposed to reflect the "truth"
that the F4 share a genuine friendship since childhood.
Also, I'll take a break from my cranky rant to say that Mini-Bummie is too cute!!
  1. It's awesome that the F3 (a.k.a. the non-Jun-Pyo F4: Ji-Hoo, Yi-Jung, and Woo-Bin) are so understanding and unconditionally supportive of their buddy, but there is a difference between supporting unhealthy people and enabling unhealthy behavior, and the F3 are firmly in the latter camp. Actually, they're worse -- they don't just enable, they actively support the bullying. More than that, neither they nor anyone else in this drama made any serious efforts to put a stop to behavior that had clearly gone way, way too far (even if there were such a thing as an "acceptable" level of bullying, which there isn't). The point at which one of their victims attempted suicide as a result of their actions should have been a VERY serious wake-up call for everybody, even if nothing else was, but instead it seemed to merit only slightly more notice than usual, little to zero self reflection, and certainly no change in behavior. (Oh yeah, but it was an excuse to introduce our poor, hardworking heroine to their rarified world, natch.) Sick, sick, sick.

"Hello, this is your wake-up call!  Oh, you're too busy being assholes?  Okay then.  Never mind."
  1. Where the frack were all the adults in this oh-so-fabulous school while the students repeatedly reenacted the worst parts of Lord of the Flies?!?!
No, it's not Sarajevo.  It's Shinhwa High School, bastion of wealth and privilege.  Duh!
Even worse, all evidence suggests that Jun-Pyo is a lot more dysfunctional than just a simple bully. In episode 5 we see that Jun-Pyo has been a cold little dick since kindergarten, which is much more indicative of a full-on sociopath than just a lonely little boy. Also, he tells Jan-Di (our heroine) in the same episode that he has never had a girlfriend before her, which strikes me as very, very concerning. If a normal kid went through his whole childhood and adolescence without "dating" I wouldn't be at all surprised, but Jun-Pyo is both more emotionally damaged than most "normal" kids (so the lack of romantic relationships takes on greater significance) and in almost every other way more superficially desirable to potential "dates" (i.e. tall, handsome, wealthy), as evidenced by the numerous offers he is shown to have had over the years. Yet there is a strong implication that he has never even been interested in another girl before Jan-Di, which is not normal at all, because seriously, unless he's completely incapable of human emotion, something about somebody must have interested him at least once in 17 YEARS!!! Instead, it is implied that all he needed was the right girl to come along, which is both specious and wildly simplistic.

Gu Jun-Pyo: Insulting the plebes since infancy.

Which brings me to his putative "right girl": Jan-Di (Goo Hye-Sun). What exactly does everybody - and I mean EVERYBODY - in this drama (except for Jun-Pyo's mom, which almost makes me like the crazy bitch) see in Jan-Di that renders them so quickly and totally devoted to her? From the very first time we see her, we're clearly supposed to believe that Jan-Di is brave, resourceful, hardworking, and not easily intimidated, but the succeeding 25 episodes are an endless series of laughably improbable scenarios in which Jan-Di is constantly in need of rescuing in ways that prove her to be cowardly, dense, and totally incapable of accomplishing even the simplest things on her own. From the water to the snow, kooky entrepreneurial schemes to vindictive friends, kidnappings to muggings, pervy soft-core photo shoots that she WALKED RIGHT INTO to ankles twisted while doing nothing more dangerous than walking down a perfectly good sidewalk, and from collapsing and passing out in exhaustion at one of her never-ending series of part-time jobs to fainting again while wandering the streets alone for no explicable reason, it seems like somebody (usually some combination of members of F4, but sometimes random other people chip in) swoops in to rescue her from something (okay, usually from herself) at least once every episode!

Oops!  Jan-Di needs rescuing again!

Two of the most egregious examples of this are her swimming and her forgetfulness. First Jun-Pyo's anklet, then Jun-Pyo's necklace, then Jun-Pyo's birthday present, then her own wallet, then the necklace again, ad infinitum... Jan-Di loses, or leaves behind, or allows to have stolen a truly dizzying quantity of possessions over the course of this interminable and numbingly repetitive series. Once or twice total is perfectly normal, but once or twice per episode is either very bad writing or else the foreboding signs of early-onset Alzheimer's! (And A Moment to Remember this ain't, folks.)

"Jan Di-tritus"
Like breadcrumbs in Hansel & Gretel's wake, but unintentional and much more expensive.

As for the swimming, even ignoring the facts that the actress clearly isn't a very good swimmer in real life and that no real serious swimmer would ever get excited about the short little pool with no lane markings and no starting blocks (not to mention no coach and no team!) that is supposed to have wooed her character to the otherwise-hated Shinhwa High School, the repeated gimmick of Jan-Di needing to be rescued from the water is just plain insulting. Ji-Hoo carrying her out of four feet of surf because of a leg cramp is bad enough, but aqua-phobe and non-swimmer Jun-Pyo rescuing her from a hotel pool a few episodes later just because Jan-Di had injured one of her shoulders was really the last straw for me. Capable swimmers do better with the use of all four limbs, obviously, but are hardly at risk of drowning if they suddenly can't use one of them when only a few feet from shore/walls! If the script hadn't called for multiple characters to refer to Jan-Di's swimming as something she didn't just enjoy, but was "good" at, or even "better than others," it wouldn't have been so bad. But they did. Several times. And it was awful.

Jan-Di: "good swimmer"
Drowning in less than 4 feet of water.

Which leaves us with...the acting? Lord knows the writing didn't give any of the actors much to work with, but Lee Min-Ho still managed to make Jun-Pyo fairly charismatic – horrific personality flaws and all. Sadly, Goo Hye-Sun's performance leaves quite a bit more to be desired as she lisps her way awkwardly from beginning to end, and Kim Hyun-Joong struggles to express even the slightest emotion as Ji-Hoo. Kim Joon's performance as Woo-Bin isn't bad when he isn't being forced to voice cringe-worthy Engrish gangster-isms, but it's hardly anything to write home about. And Bummie manages to make his Yi-Jung the most likable character in the entire drama, in my opinion, but that's not saying much. Plus, he is obviously younger than all of his co-stars, which is often jarring. Ironically, he is the only F4 playing a character his own age, but since they are all made to prance around in inappropriately mature scenarios (i.e. drinking, clubbing, traveling the world unsupervised, running companies, living alone, getting married [SPOILER ALERT] – almost – [END SPOILER], and in Bummie's case, romancing hordes of women, his youth really stands out. To round it all out, the supporting actors universally overact, and the production quality is mediocre, at best.

Totally age-appropriate in every way.
And the hair? Reliably, BoF disappoints impressively in this department as well. Granted, Jun-Pyo's ridiculous perm mellowed out over the course of the drama, to the point where it was actually kind of attractive by the end, but Jan-Di's steadfast child-like blunt cut is not at all flattering, nor does it do anything to make the actress look more like a teenager, as I suspect was the intention (Goo Hye-Sun was 24 when she filmed BoF, and it shows). Meanwhile, Kim Hyun-Joong's standard orange mull-met (a.k.a. a combination of helmet and mullet) transforms into a somehow-even-worse orange helmet mid-series. And Bummie? BoF's hair department probably does its least damage with him. His go-to style for the series isn't wildly flattering, but it isn't terrible either, and every once in a while we are even treated to an upsweep, though it never lasts long enough for my tastes.

Up, up, and...away?
Why do you tease me, BoF?

Story: 2/20
Kim Bum's Performance: 6/10
Kim Bum's Hair: 6/10
TOTAL = 14/40

Jung-Yi: Goddess of Fire (2013)

Kim Bum's first leading-man role! Or is it? Since Bummie is tucked near the back of the official poster, I'm guessing it's not, but the two male leads got about equal screen time, and the only way this drama could have had less romance is if they had cast robots instead of actors, so it's hard to tell. There were some pretty speeches along the way, but zero kissing, and in the end [SPOLER ALERT! Inasmuch as a drama with so little plot can be spoiled] neither male lead gets the girl. [END SPOLER...ish] This is especially ironic considering that Bummie and his co-star, Moon Geun-Young, announced their real-life relationship shortly after filming for GoF wrapped.

Apparently the romance was a lot more palpable behind the scenes.
In theory, I applaud the show's decision to focus instead on its strong, historically significant female protagonist, Yu Jung (played by Moon). But in practice, they clung to almost all the other tired old drama tropes (Prophecies! Birth secrets! First loves! Love squares! Revenge! Court intrigue and battling heirs! Rich man who loves a poor but hard-working woman with a heart of gold (sort of...more on that later)! Jealous, vindictive second female lead! Etcetera, etcetera...), so it was hard to tell if they were trying to be anti-establishment in that one respect. What is more, they failed to use the extra attention to build a cohesive character or compelling story arc for their heroine. Jung's transition from undisciplined teenaged tomboy whose years of training under her master-potter father have failed to nurture in her any interest or skill with ceramics outside of mending the vessels she continuously breaks, to preternaturally talented ceramic artisan who is devoted to her craft only a few years after her father's death, is treated more like a foregone conclusion than a transformation that needed to be seriously developed to make sense.

Yu Jung: Suddenly a super-potter!

Similarly, Jung's obsession with avenging her father at all costs gives her more in common with typical male anti-heroes than your average KDrama female lead, making it almost a refreshing change of pace...until she embraces full-on sociopathy with a revenge scheme that literally threatens the lives of everyone she cares about and at least two innocent victims. It is no more than dumb luck that nobody dies, but no one in the drama, Jung included, seems to notice that she has crossed a line, as they all continue to treat her like a noble Candy instead of Shitty Hunta's evil twin.

"Ethics can bite me!"

The one thing that might have redeemed some of these terrible plot choices is real life. Sadly, I'm unable to find any independent English-language sources on the internet about the real-life figure upon whom Jung is supposedly based, which might have provided evidence of a commendable - if excitement-killing - devotion to history. So, when it comes right down to it, I would have preferred a full-on embrace of the cliches, especially some romance. It can only become a cliche if it worked really well in the first place, so there are worse choices than rehashing them all over yet again, right? This drama is certainly a very strong argument for that.

"Let's talk about pottery some more, your highness."

And Bummie? What we can say about Bummie's role in GoF is that he plays very much to type, as the earnest, gentle-hearted, and steadfast Kim Tae-do, Jung's puppy dog devoted friend and protector since childhood. I know from his other work that he is capable of expressing a complete range of human emotions, but you'd never know it from this performance. His action scenes are nicely done, and bonus points for the mane of glory which isn't half bad, but his facial expressions were usually pretty vapid. Or maybe he was just bored half to death - I know I was!

"What?  Did somebody say something?  I'm afraid I zoned out like 16 episodes ago..."

Story: 6/20
Kim Bum's Performance: 5/10
Kim Bum's Hair: 8/10
TOTAL = 19/40

Padam Padam... The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats (2011-2012)

Going back at least a few generations, my forebears wouldn't recognize a healthy, supportive family dynamic if it hit them with a bagful of puppies. This legacy leaves me poorly equipped to evaluate the families in Padam Padam. I suspect that they were wildly oversimplified and schizophrenic, see-sawing between serious physical/emotional abuse and outpourings of love and devotion that would put the aforementioned bagful of puppies to shame, but due to my own shortcomings, I have decided to recuse myself from the final verdict. What I will say about them is that I admired their capacities for gratitude and forgiveness, even if they were probably pure fantasy.

"The family that sings together..."
Um, that is how that saying goes, right?

Speaking of which, there is also an element of fantasy in Padam Padam that isn't at all ambiguous, involving angels and miracles and literal second (or third or fourth) chances. Unfortunately, while it started out feeling natural and imbued with the promise of an insightful and emotionally rewarding payoff (even if it was totally unrealistic), about midway through the drama it started to unravel. By the end it felt like the writer had never had a plan for it at all and was hastily trying to dispose of a plot gimmick that had outlived it's usefulness.

Just go with it.

Whether or not they inhabited a cohesive or sensical reality, and regardless of if they were emotionally healthy or realistic, the two families at the core of this drama were unquestionably a dramatic goldmine, and their portrayers acted their little hearts out. For the less-talented among them, this occasionally devolved into caricaturish over-acting, but Jung Woo-Sung put in a tour-de-force performance as Yang Kang-Chil, a man newly released from prison after serving 16 years for two separate crimes he didn't even commit. Seriously, this guy deserved an award! His character, having spent his entire adulthood incarcerated, has a childlike joy for the world that occasionally comes off more like simplemindedness (a problem that was only exacerbated by his terrible Dumb & Dumber haircut). Yet even at his silliest he was kind of electrifying, and I'm convinced that it was working with Woo-Sung that elevated Bummie's performance (as Gook-Soo, Kang-Chil's best friend and former cell mate) to new heights. And where they failed with Woo-Sung, the hair department soared with Bummie, giving him his best hairdo of any drama in this post. While longish, it wasn't quite long enough to qualify as a mane of glory in my book. Instead it was enchantingly whimsical and flattering, even though the bangs were occasionally over-curled.

"Tweedle-Dum" and "Tweedle-Dee"

I also give Padam Padam high points for romance. Which is not to say the romances didn't suffer from the same narrative flaws as the rest of the drama (implausible circumstances, inconsistent development, etc.), because they did. But the show accumulated a lot of romance points through sheer quantity, if not always quality. It was produced by a cable network, so we got a lot more kissing than shows up in typical network fare (see Queen In-Hyun's Man for another delightfully kissy cable drama), including several kisses initiated by the girls - yay for sexual assertiveness, ladies!! Even better, the lead couple had sex, and they did it before the final, or even the penultimate, episode! I have a hard time believing that Koreans are really as chaste in real life as they are in the usual shows, plus, I'm convinced that modern reverence for chastity is in no small part a legacy of traditional values (read: property values) placed on female virginity, so I'm always happy to see something a little more realistic and less puritanical on my screen.

Of course, even when the characters got some, we, the audience, still didn't get to see anything more explicit than kissing and cuddles. But Padam Padam did its best to make up for that with multiple shower scenes (including one communal and unintentionally homo-erotic prison shower scene that was extended, repeated, and even flash-backed; and a jimjilbang scene inside the men's baths! Yay!!) and a delightful propensity by Gook-Soo to go shirtless.

"Hyung, I long for your glistening flesh against mine!"

What is more, both our male leads were beautifully sculpted when they shot this, and lovingly photographed by the camera. What a joy to watch! I fell a little bit in love with both of them, to be honest (although I did somehow get the unfortunate impression that Jung Woo-Sung might be a smoker in real life – Woo-Sung-ah, stop smoking!) but I had a full-blown love affair with Bummie's... eyebrows! Seriously, I kept forgetting to read the subtitles while I dreamed about nibbling on them, and no, this is not a usual fetish of mine! Points yet again to the hair department here for keeping Bummie's brows so beautifully unobstructed.

Why, hello there gorgeous!

Padam Padam's greatest weakness was its tendency to lay it on a little too thick. Poor Kang-Chil's whole life was Just. So. Tragic! Two wrongful convictions and sixteen years in prison weren't bad enough for this drama, so [SPOILER ALERT] Kang-Chil is also made to fall in love with the niece of the man whose murder sent him to prison in the first place. And since she recognizes the truth of his innocence and loves him right back after only a few episodes of hesitation, Kang-Chil is diagnosed with terminal cancer too. [END SPOILER] Cue the tears, and, of course, the noble idiocy. Several episodes in this drama feature extended scenes and/or multiple characters sobbing in wrenching agony, a pity-party that one can only watch for so long before becoming a little inured to it. On the flip side, sometimes instead of sobbing his or her guts out, one (or more) of the characters decides to embrace the beauty in life with abandon and joy. It is exactly this kind of moment that Padam Padam ends on, with Kang-Chil dancing naked in the snow in the arms of his lady love. He's wrapped loosely in a blanket that manages to keep the scene totally PG, much to my dismay, but their love and joy is both affecting and infectious. Just like life itself, Padam Padam proves both flawed and beautiful!

Awwww!  Perfect but for that blanket...

Today's words of wisdom from Yang Kang-Chil: “Real men are good to their women.”

On a side note, is it just me, or is this uncredited actress in Padam Padam totally Bummie's younger sister?!

Seriously.  They're practically twins, right?!

Story: 16/20
Kim Bum's Performance: 9/10
Kim Bum's Hair: 9/10
TOTAL = 34/40

That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013)

This drama was like crack. From Friday evening to Sunday afternoon I ate, slept, and breathed it... And when it was over I was left with a terrible empty feeling inside. It was in my queue because I had seen its male lead, Zo In-Sung, in the film A Frozen Flower. His performance in AFF was downright mesmerizing, and I saw enough flashes of that same intensity in TWTWB to get hooked. Unfortunately, the story failed to do justice to either his character or his charisma. And as a sort of Padam Padam mini-reunion – in addition to Bummie, TWTWB shared Padam Padam's screenwriter and director, plus actor Kim Kyu-Cheol (Prosecutor Joo in Padam Padam and Attorney Jang in TWTWB), and a cameo from Lee Jae-Woo (Kim Young-Cheol in Padam Padam) – TWTWB's flaws were particularly disappointing.

Zo In-Sung, Kim Kyu-Tae (director), Song Hye-Kyo, No Hee-Kyung (writer), Jung Eun-Ji, and Kim Bum
...I think.
In-Sung and the luminous Song Hye-Kyo play Oh Soo and Oh Young, two very lonely, very damaged individuals who find each other when Soo tries to con Young into believing he's her long-lost older brother in order to cash in on some of her substantial inheritance. The set-up is grand, but the execution is deeply flawed, with inconsistent character development (Is Young incredibly perceptive and intuitive or is she dumb as a rock? That depends on what's more convenient for that episode! Is she suicidal? Yes. No! Oh, wait, yes! Just kidding. Etc.), impossible obstacles that are overcome with laughable ease when the writer finally has to quit pretending she ever had a real plan for them, and an uncomfortable penchant for condoning abuse.

Where Padam Padam's families were given a spirit of forgiveness that was perhaps naively over-optimistic, TWTWB's families cross the line into accessories to criminal acts, perpetrated against both themselves and those they claim to love the most. And no, I am not exaggerating. What is more, to forgive may be divine, but [SPOILER ALERT] to appoint a self-confessed embezzler and intentional maimer as the guardian over her victim with full knowledge of her crimes is not forgiveness – it is a gross betrayal of the person in need of said guardianship and an active conspiracy to commit criminal acts, both by helping the criminal to evade justice for her past crimes and by all but begging her to commit more. Even worse, abuse is not just another word for love, writer-nim, and how dare you put nearly those exact words in your primary abuse victim's mouth?! TWTWB was so far gone in the abuse-as-love nightmare that even the romance fell victim to it. Not only did Soo jump onto the invite-back-the-abuser bandwagon instead of protecting the woman he was supposed to love, but all of the kisses except the very last one were non-consensual! It started off with Soo just thinking about kissing the woman who thought he was her brother while she slept (because she had such serious trust issues she couldn't even sleep without her "Oppa" by her side) but escalated step-by-step to the point where he was actively forcing kisses on her while she was awake. Ugh. [END SPOILER]

"I know you want it, sis!"
To be fair, not all the family dynamics were quite so far gone. While Soo did steal from a family (Bummie's character's family) that steadfastly continued to love him, at least he never intentionally put them in physical danger. Also, in terms of genuine character development, reasonable efforts were made to flesh out Soo's journey from his birth all the way through to where he fell in love with his fake sister. But after that he just got...boring. Zo In-Sung's portrayal of Soo had a lot of potential, but it mostly remained unrealized, making me strongly suspect that In-Sung got bored with Soo right about the same time I did and couldn't quite figure out how to pretend otherwise.

Zo In-Sung, phoning it in.
And if Soo's potential was unrealized, the rest of the characters had next to none to begin with. Several of them were almost interesting...but then they weren't. This includes Bummie's Park Jin-Sung, Soo's childhood friend and fellow wastrel-with-a-heart-of-gold. He had some good moments, especially with In-Sung, before being relegated to "stakeout-guy" instead of a real character. But once that happened (about halfway through the drama) he barely even got any screen time, much less meaty character moments. Even my increasingly elaborate fantasies involving Bummie's eyebrows didn't last long after that - they didn't have the chance!

"Better work this stakeout for all it's worth -- we're not going to get any other screen time this whole episode!"
So if it was all so boring, how was it so addicting? I think it really was a compelling setup, with possibilities for betrayal, redemption, love, revenge, adversity, triumph, and fauxcest all rolled into one. That made the first half pretty damn exciting. And nothing is more addictive than the possibility of greatness, especially when it seems perpetually just around the next narrative corner. But, like real crack, TWTWB never truly satisfied. To add insult to injury, the hair department dyed Bummie's hair a ridiculous shade of tomato red! And while they did keep it nicely up off his brows (thank you!), it turns out that the line between just high enough and way too high is finer than I previously imagined when it comes to hair, with Jin-Sung's 'do falling, sadly, on the wrong side of the divide.

"Don't be so cranky, hyung.  At least you got good hair!"

Story: 10/20
Kim Bum's Performance: 7 - 1 (point deducted for lack of quantity) = 6/10
Kim Bum's Hair: 7/10
TOTAL = 23/40

The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry (2010)
a.k.a. Still, Marry Me or Marry Me, Still

There was a lot to like about this drama. First, in spite of its title, only one of the four lead female characters really pursued marriage in any significant way. Of the other three, Kim Bu-Gi (Wang Bit-Na) starts the drama as a kick-ass 30-something single woman by choice, and she finishes it the same way. It wasn't much of a character journey for her, but that's because she had already reached her destination, and that destination was totally awesome! Plus, we did get to see some of her journey in flashbacks.

Kim Bu-Gi: Totally awesome.
The second of the three, Choi Sang-Mi (Park Ji-Young), starts out as the 40-something wife of a philanderer and mother of a 20-something son who is unhappy in her marriage and overly-invested in her son. But as the story progresses, Sang-Mi gradually claims her own happiness and independence. Unlike Bu-Gi, Sang-Mi falls in love again, but it's really more by accident than by desire. And while she and her new honey contemplate marriage as they struggle to define their relationship, [SPOILER ALERT] at the end they seem to have settled into a place where they are content to focus on each other and on finding their happiness together instead of on making their love meet anybody else's expectations. [END SPOILER] Sang-Mi isn't quite a main character, so her journey feels a little sketchy and rough around the edges at times, but what is there feels fairly satisfying.

Choi Sang-Mi: Unhappy, but full of potential.
The actual main character in TWWSWTM is Lee Shin-Young (played by Park Jin-Hee), a 34-year-old TV reporter. Of the three women who didn't significantly pursue marriage in this drama, Shin-Young wavers the most. For starters, we meet her shortly before her ex-boyfriend, Yoon Sang-Woo (Lee Pil-Mo), is scheduled to marry another woman. Shin-Young and Sang-Woo had dated for years before he dumped her in a fit of insecurity brought on by her desire to spend two years studying abroad, so his impending nuptials have an understandable impact on Shin-Young. Which may, in part, explain her eagerness to accept the proposal of her boyfriend of only a few months in the opening scenes of the drama. But when her brand-new fiancé is caught in a hotel room with another woman only a few hours later that same evening, she doesn't really waste much time pining for him. Nor is she moved when Sang-Woo leaves his bride at the altar and begs Shin-Young to take him back.

Yoon Sang-Woo: Insecure romantic.
There is one disappointing scene in Episode 4 that shows Shin-Young eating an entire box of chocolates in the hope of finding an engagement ring hidden inside one of the bon-bons even though she has never even been on a date with the man who gave them to her. Also, about halfway through the drama she decides to take Sang-Woo back after all. But she all but forgets bon-bon man as soon as the last chocolate dissolves in her mouth, and her renewed relationship with Sang-Woo is never more than perfunctory until it slides solidly into the Friend Zone a few episodes later.

The chocolates of shame.
Ultimately, we see Shin-Young face a fair amount of adversity and humiliation in both her professional and personal lives. But while she may hurt, and cry, and sometimes get drunk about it, she seems to maintain a core sense of dignity and self-respect that I really appreciated. And despite a constant refrain from nearly everybody else in this show except Bu-Gi about how marriage should be her priority – and the sooner, the better – she consistently puts her career first when it comes right down to it.

Lee Shin-Young: Dedicated and professional.
The truly marriage-minded woman in this drama is Jung Da-Jung (Uhm Ji-Won), an exceptionally talented and successful interpreter in her professional life who has an unfortunate obsession with marriage in her personal life. Also in her 30's, Da-Jung really comes off as two completely different people in these two contexts, and the poise and confidence of the professional Da-Jung only serves to make the desperation and increasingly bizarre behavior of the personal Da-Jung seem all the more pathetic and offensive (and, dare I hope, unrealistic?). After a dizzying succession of dignity-destroying machinations, she finally walks down the aisle with a man who is her match primarily in weirdness, lack of experience, and self-delusion. Which makes it a surprise to exactly no-one in the audience when Da-Jung is disappointed to discover that marriage isn't all that she had hoped it would be. While I appreciated the writer's attempt to show that real marriage is more complicated than the happily-ever-afters found in fairy tales, Da-Jung's marriage troubles actually felt a little contrived to me and not entirely consistent with the partners' previously-established personalities. Also, [SPOILER ALERT] their reconciliation at the end felt way too pat and rushed. [END SPOILER]

Jung Da-Jung:  Bat-shit crazy.
And so, with our four different lead female characters, we got four different perspectives on marriage. Between them they covered a lot of ground, both good and bad. It was hardly a deep philosophical exploration of the subject, but for a 16-episode drama, it wasn't half bad! And there was a lot of little stuff that I enjoyed as well. In particular, the comedy is pretty broad, and relies on some fairly ridiculous setups, but it's entertaining nonetheless. And I really loved how background players dressed as sageuk characters wandered through so many of the scenes at Shin-Young's television station. Even some of the stuff I found most insulting, like how the idea that men in their thirties never want to date women their own age is taken so very much for granted by all the characters in this drama, ended up subverted in the end. Da-Jung's groom is, in fact, a 30-something man who marries a 30-something woman, while Sang-Mi and Shin-Young's men are both significantly younger than they are, which is a very refreshing contravention of the usual May-December stereotype.

The awesome background players getting into the action.
I will admit, however, that I wasn't entirely pleased with Bummie's character, Ha Min-Jae. To start with, his hair was atrocious. It was so long in back that it bunched up unattractively every time he wore a collar, and it was so long in front that I never got to see his beautiful eyebrows! (He also dyes it grey for several episodes – don't ask – which isn't doing it any favors.) More importantly, his character came off as seriously arrogant in the first few episodes. I never could quite decide if he was supposed to have changed after falling in love with Shin-Young, or if he was just very badly written at first. I suspect it's the latter, mostly because I also never figured out exactly why Min-Jae and Shin-Young fell in love with each other in the first place, aside from the fact that they are both smart and pretty, and that the script called for Shin-Young to fall for a younger man.

Ha Min-Jae:
Badly-coiffed douche in the first few episodes.  But at least his personality improves.
Also, as is so often the case in KDramas, I found their relationship to be ludicrously chaste. It was occasionally implied by other characters in the drama that it was a little pathetic for a woman in her thirties to be dating a man ten years her junior, but the only time I really believed it was when the two of them sat around in her apartment just holding hands and watching DVDs or listening to music, etc. Ugh! Even worse, at one point Min-Jae's mother extracts a promise from Shin-Young that she won't do anything that he'll have to “take responsibility for” before Min-Jae graduates from college (i.e. no pregnancies), which everybody in the drama clearly interprets to mean no sex, as if there is no such thing as birth control in dramaland. (I'm going to let the other implication in that promise – that pregnancy prevention is Shin-Young's responsibility and not Min-Jae's – slide just this once, because at ten years his senior she really can be understandably expected to be the more responsible one in their relationship, sexist assumptions about women as the sexual gate-keepers aside.)

World's second-least-sexy sleepover (after Faith).
Lastly, I'm not sure how I feel about the ending. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The resolution we got, with Shin-Young and Min-Jae breaking up for eight or nine months before getting back together again, was seriously under-developed and it resolved none of the problems that precipitated their breakup in the first place. Worst of all, while it was vague enough to allow for multiple interpretations, it strongly implied that Shin-Young may have decided at that point to give up her career in Finland (yes, Finland – don't ask) and come back to Korea for a life of staring adoringly up at her 20-something rock-star boyfriend after all, thus robbing her of her most consistent source of strength and self-confidence throughout the whole drama: her determination to be the best journalist she could be. I realize that no ending would have pleased everybody, but this one felt like it was too scared of being disliked to risk being real, which ironically may have subverted one of the most positive messages in the rest of the show.

Story: 15/20
Kim Bum's Performance: 7/10
Kim Bum's Hair: 3/10
TOTAL = 25/40

Dream (2009)

Dream starts off very obviously derivative of Jerry Maguire. Our hero, Nam Je-il (Joo Jin-Mo) is a Sports Agent extraordinaire who also goes by the name “Jerry” Nam, a moniker he admits unironically to choosing for himself because he admires Jerry Maguire. Also like Jerry (but for different reasons), Je-il goes from super-agent to jobless, friendless, and even homeless (because he had been living in a company-owned apartment — don’t we all?) in the blink of an eye and has to rebuild his whole life from the ground up.

Yes, super-Jerry keeps a portrait of himself in his closet.
He tries to start his own management company, hitting up old clients and scrounging for new talent in unlikely places (my favorite is the 9-year-old figure skater), but he is spiraling quickly to the bottom when he gets a call from a boxer in Busan who claims he doesn’t watch TV (so he doesn’t know about Je-il’s disgrace). Once Je-il arrives in Busan, Dream transitions from Korean Jerry Maguire to fairly standard KDrama: revenge, corporate plotting, love triangles, and all. First, the boxer soon learns the truth about Je-il, but signs with him anyway (due in no small part to some very underhanded shenanigans on Je-il’s part). More importantly, Je-il finds himself once again in the orbit of Park So-Yeon (Son Dam-Bi) and Bummie’s Lee Jang-Seok, two characters he met coincidentally (and antagonistically) during a day-trip to Busan in the previous episode (when he was still super-Jerry). Finally, in an impressive series of only-in-dramaland coincidences and acrobatic leaps of logic, the boxer ends up in the hospital with a broken jaw, Je-il becomes Jang-Seok’s manager, and both Je-il and Jang-Seok move into So-Yeon’s home so her father can train Jang-Seok as a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter at his private gym (a.k.a. “Dream” gym, of course).

"I have a Dream!"
Once that initial setup is complete, Dream hops on a merry-go-round of fights and business-deal plots that almost bring Jang-Seok into the “big leagues,” but not quite; diabolical machinations by Je-il’s evil former boss that nearly destroy all our heroes, but then don't; cutesy couple moments between the two sides of our love triangle that flirt with actual romance, but fall short; and emotionally angsty family dramas for Jang-Seok that threaten to completely ruin his career, but never do, until the very end when [SPOLER ALERT] our heroes triumph, the bad guy is exposed and prosecuted, and everybody lives happily ever after. (Except Jang-Seok's ne'er-do-well father, who dies of lung cancer ringside during the climactic fight. Cringe.) [END SPOLERS]

"Do you think we can sell a love triangle without actually touching?"
"Seriously.  I don't like being touched."
Somewhere along the way, our heroes join forces with the Flower Fighters, a group of MMA fighters assembled by their glamorous and laughably ineffectual manager based solely on the appeal of their faces. Plot-wise, the FF-boys don’t add much, but Dream earns extra points for putting its pretty men in several extended shirtless training sequences, plus one shirtless water-fight — yum! There’s also a group shower scene, but since it features full-body shots of all the fighters wearing swim shorts in the shower and flexing their muscles while staring blankly into space, it’s really more of a comedy moment than a sexy one.

Why, yes!  This scene makes total sense!
Also, I especially enjoyed Julien Kang’s appearance in this drama as one of the Flower Fighters. I’ve always been a little bit charmed by Julien, since his North-American accent is so pronounced that even I can hear it when he speaks Korean (according to Wikipedia, Julien is half Korean and half French-Canadian, but he grew up in Canada where he clearly spoke very little Korean at home), yet he pops up with reasonable regularity in decent-sized (i.e. bigger than cameo, but smaller than main series cast) KDrama roles. I think he’s not doing himself any favors in terms of his “craft" by focusing on a market where either he (when he’s speaking Korean) or his directors (when he’s speaking English) are being forced to work in a non-native language, but I find his attempts somehow enjoyable anyway, especially when he takes off his shirt. And even at his worst he is still one of the better actors regularly playing North Americans in dramaland as far as I have seen, (most of the others seem to be Eastern Europeans with accent and acting skills that are equally awful), though ironically (and inexplicably) he is supposed to be playing a Dutchman in Dream. A Dutchman who speaks only Korean, English, and French, that is.

"Quoi?  Qu'est-ce que tu veux que je te donne?"
As for uri-Bummie, Dream was his first major post-BoF TV Drama, and I strongly suspect it was chosen in no small part due to the contrast it presented. Jang-Seok is in many ways the anti-Yi-Jung. Instead of a wealthy, gentle, artistic playboy, Seok-ah is dirt poor, hot-headed, physical, and a little bit dopey. But both characters share Bummie’s trademark sensitivity. Hair-wise I consider Jang-Seok’s shaggy mop-head no better than Yi-Jung’s over-styled coif, especially considering that both styles obscure his beautiful brows, but it does manage to beat the hair-saster of TWWSWTM. Also, we are treated an interesting cornrow-like style for a few minutes of the final episode that exposes his brows beautifully, although it isn't nearly enough to improve the overall hair score by much.

"Shhh...  I'm braiding my hair with the power of my mind!"
Final verdict: Dream wins the dubious distinction of being the first Kim Bum project to bore me so much that I actually struggled to finish it since Jung-Yi: Goddess of Fire, making it an unfortunate bookend to this project, but at least it’s only 20 episodes compared to Jung-Yi’s 32 (However, 20 was still at least 4 episodes too many). It also “boasts" the first KDrama soundtrack ever that I have actively disliked, with an unfortunate combination of simultaneously catchy and irritating. And the production values were noticeably sub-par. (I especially “enjoyed” a CF-filming sequence that showed a storyboard calling Julien’s character “Julian” (줄리안) instead of David, which was his character’s name.) In the greater context of Bummie’s complete oeuvre, however, it is certainly an improvement in every other way over its immediate predecessor, BoF, and for Bummie, that’s really the main point, right?

Yes, it really does say "Julian" inside those circles.  I checked.
The same cannot be said for Joo Jin-Mo, for whom Dream was a follow-up to A Frozen Flower. As with his AFF co-star, Zo In-Sung, in TWTWB, Dream was a significant step down for Jin-Mo in both dramatic quality and performance, which is a disappointment, even if it wasn’t his fault (and to be fair, AFF was an erotic feast that will probably never be matched on Korean TV). But while far from inspiring, his performance wasn’t terrible either, nor were any of the other actors’ (with the possible exception of the ridiculously vindictive, soulless, leering, wine-sipping villain). And on what I consider a positive note, one could seriously use Dream as a key exhibit in a thesis on neo-Confucian values of loyalty and filial piety in modern Korean life and entertainment. All of which means that while not wildly exciting, Dream does offer some good laughs, some great eye candy, lots of fight scenes (if you're into that sort of thing, which I am not, unfortunately), some not-terrible acting from the entire ensemble (though not outstanding), some cute moments, and even some deep thoughts. Could be worse! (But could have been much, much better.)

"Don't be such a Debbie Downer, dude.  At least it's over!"

Story: 8/20
Kim Bum's Performance: 6/10
Kim Bum's Hair: 6/10
TOTAL = 20/40

And the gold goes to: Padam Padam... The Sound of His and Her Heartbeats, with a clean sweep in all categories!

These results were totally unaffected by my ever-deepening lust for Jung Woo-Sung.

But it bears mentioning that due to the nature of this post, my judging system gave a lot more weight to Bummie and his hair than either would otherwise merit. With that in mind, I think I also owe a special shout-out to silver medalist The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, which would have been a much stronger contender with a different barber.