Commentary

So this is why K-Drama is so popular (or why Navillera is among Netflix’s finest)

From mafia-style thrillers to a senior citizen version of ‘Billy Elliot’—many of them created with style and substance

Song Kang and Park In Hawan in 'Navillera'

Law School

South Korean TV series and entertainers have for years been taking the Philippines by storm.  I wasn’t impervious to this invasion. I had a few glimpses of the K-Dramas on our local networks.  The story lines were intriguing and, more important, original. Because of the first-class production values, they were also beautiful to watch.

But they were less than beautiful to listen to. What made them unappealing for me was the dubbing in Tagalog. Much of the impact and even the wit of the teleplays were lost in translation.

The hammy voice talents made the shows sound like radio soap opera.  It was annoying whenever the female voice talents sighed loudly before reciting the next line. It was the same with the male talents. They tended to pause at mid-sentence to take a deep breath.  The nuanced acting of the Korean cast was somewhat diluted. We missed out on the character they created.

But these are just my own misgivings. The rest of the country would disagree with me, as the shows have consistently registered high ratings. They play an important part of the South Korean wave led by the boy bands. This is one foreign invasion Filipinos don’t mind experiencing.

And because of my disinclination towards dubbed shows, I’ve been late to joining the K party. Fortunately, streaming has made it possible for us to check out these K-Dramas in their original form. Here’s a short list of what’s in the streaming sites now.

VINCENZO

Vincenzo (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)


Credit: The Swoon/YouTube

The titular character was a South Korean orphan who was adopted by an Italian mafia family. Raised in Italy and groomed to be a lawyer, he eventually became the family’s consigliore, or the patriarch’s right-hand man.

Like James Bond, he’s impeccably dressed and groomed, and has an unofficial license to kill. He’s a martial arts expert and a connoisseur of custom-made Italian suits, Italian operas, and signature colognes.

 Played by the boyish Song Joong-Ki, Vincenzo is a cool guy who remains calm even in the most life-threatening situations. He has a quiet brooding presence reminiscent of the anti-heroes played by Lee Van Cleef in the old spaghetti westerns.

When his adopted father in Rome passes away, Vincenzo flies back to South Korea. His mission: to claim a roomful of gold bars hidden in a vault in the basement of a multi-story commercial building.

To retrieve the gold, he has to device a fool-proof plan to get around the building’s motley group of tenants, all of whom are quirky but amiable and funny. Since he is unaccustomed to the ways of the land of his birth, Vincenzo’s refined composure is in danger of falling apart. He has to deal with rampant corruption in government. He is also compelled to do battle with an evil conglomerate called Babel.

Like the Oscar-winning Parasite, Vincenzo makes a statement on society’s ills, and does so in a thoroughly entertaining package. It’s a drama very much in The Godfather tradition, spiced up with an equal mix of action, suspense and comedy.

The show’s resident’s bitch diva is not the Joan Collins type— she is as frumpy and congenial as the Aling Cora who drops by your office to sell fashion accessories payable in five ‘gives’

The entire cast is brilliant. It’s hard to pinpoint who stands out because each actor does so well, no matter how small or large his role is. The idol Ok-Taecyeon and actor Kwak Dong Yeon play the two villains, the two half-brothers who inherited Babel. They play their roles with relish.

The show’s resident’s bitch diva is not the Joan Collins type. As superbly played by Kim Yeo Jin, she is Babel’s malevolent lawyer and a Zumba aficionado. On the surface, she is as frumpy and congenial as the Aling Cora who drops by your office to sell fashion accessories payable in five “gives.” But she’s a lawyer who makes people hate lawyers. And if she hates you, her favorite hitman is just a phone call away.

The pretty leading lady (Jeon Yeo Been), the lawyer who takes on Babel, is the perfect foil to the villains. Spunky, smart and so appealing, she’s like the South Korean version of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Strangely, none of the primary protagonists are romantically attached. Vincenzo himself isn’t a ladies’ man. It’s as if he made a vow of chastity when he was named consigliere. Thus, for viewers who’ve had a dose of fluffy romantic K-dramas, Vincenzo is an ideal departure.

Instead, it enthralls us with jaw-dropping cliffhangers, intricate plot twists, and gratuitous violence. The story moves at a fast clip, though a few quiet, tender moments promise to tug at the heartstrings.

 In contrast,  when the show is funny, it’s darkly  hilarious. There are witty cultural references to Parasite, Train to Busan, and BTS.  Even Vincenzo lets his hair down in an uproarious scene when he’s forced to disguise himself as an effeminate fortune teller.

Some of the twists can get too outrageous. Even when it seems Vincenzo is in a horrific bind, he’s usually 10 steps ahead of his opponent. It’s  an unpleasant surprise for those who dare to fight him, and it’s a happy denouement for viewers.

LOVE: MARRIAGE AND DIVORCE

Love Marriage and Divorce


Credit: Netflix Asia/YouTube

This series ought to have been titled Marriage: South Korean Style. Penned by the prolific TV writer Phoebe, Love centers on three couples whose marriages are on the rocks.

The leads are three career women working in a radio station. One is a 40-ish producer (Park Joo Mi). She’s married to a successful psychiatrist (Shin Yu Shin), and they have a 10-year-old daughter.

Then we have the radio show’s 50-ish scriptwriter sensitively played by Jeon Soo kyeong. She’s been married for 20 years to a university professor (Jeon No Min).

The youngest of the trio is the sexy radio DJ (Lee Ga Ryung). She’s married to a handsome lawyer (Sung Hoon).

The first episode starts with a bang. During a taping of a show, a glamorous guest confronts the scriptwriter’s young assistant. As it happens, young assistant is having an affair with glamorous guest’s husband. This nearly erupts into a  catfight.

Young assistant is fired, and the career women are left to ponder their own marriages.  Each one declares that their respective marriages are strong and will always remain so.  Sadly, they later find out that they’ve been naïve all this time.

Succeeding episodes of ‘Love’ fail to live up to the first. By the time I reached the third, I was hoping for an alien invasion to happen

What we thought would be a catty satire on love and marriage turns out to be a plodding, dated soap. It’s hard to fathom what the creators were aiming for.  Love apparently aspires to be a sophisticated drama. Or perhaps it’s supposed to be a very adult take on marriage and infidelity.

But the show doesn’t offer new insights, and it doesn’t break new ground. There’s nothing sexy about it, too, though it tries to be. Frankly, its attempt to be provocative is—for lack of a better description—impotent.

Succeeding episodes fail to live up to the first. By the time I reached the third, I was hoping for an alien invasion to happen. In my own scenario, every married man in the Far East  gets possessed by philandering extra-terrestrials.

Like many Filipino movies, Love becomes talky and repetitious. One’s patience is put to the test when the 40-ish producer pays her estranged mother a visit. There, producer lays down her grievances against estranged mother. It’s a lengthy speech, but really, estranged mother’s sins aren’t deadly enough to merit such hatred from the producer. Astonishingly, when they meet again later in the same episode, producer goes on the same endless tirade!

As the young couple, Sung Hoon and Lee Ga Ryung are the show’s main attraction. They look great together, though their scenes lack sizzle and passion. They could just as well be modeling for a vapid fashion spread, or for a lifestyle infomercial for Mercedes Benz. (Almost everyone in this show drives one.)

 NAVILLERA

Song Kang in ‘Navillera’


Credit: The Swoon/YouTube

Think of it as the senior citizen’s version of Billy Elliot.

Navillera is the charming story of a 70-year-old man who wants to dance ballet.  The show’s unusual title originates from a word that was invented by the late Korean poet Cho Ji-hoon for his poem Dance the Monk. I had to Google this, and from what I’ve learned, navillera means “dance like a butterfly.”

Well, that’s what the show’s main protagonist wants to do. Retired postman Shim Deok-chul (played beautifully by Park In Hawan) has just turned 70. Nothing much happens in his life now. Friends his age, as one buddy puts it, “are relegated to either changing the diapers of our grandchildren, or changing our own diapers.”

His dissatisfaction is underscored when another friend mentions his regrets of not having realized his dreams of owning a boat and sailing the open sea.  When that friend dies, Deok remembers his dream of flying like the ballet students he watched in a dance school when he was a child. How he had wanted to study ballet and fly like those children, he recalled. His parents wouldn’t hear of it though.

While walking home, the 70-year-old chances upon a dance studio where a young man is practising ballet. Watching him “fly” inspires Deok to decide that it’s time he learned ballet before it’s too late.

Deok talks to the studio owner, a former ballet star (perhaps South Korea’s version of Nonoy Froilan).  At first the star is reluctant, since Deok is, after all, 70. But a deal is eventually struck: Deok is accepted as student and he will be taught by the protégé Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang). In return, Deok must serve as the protégée’s manager and  teach him to be more disciplined.

They start out on the wrong foot, since Chae-rok doesn’t believe a 70-year-old man can start dancing. The brooding protégé has his own personal problems: his ballerina mom had passed away suddenly, and his dad is serving a prison term.

But as the weeks go by, a real friendship between young mentor and older student develops.

Navillera’ won’t start a trend of grandfathers taking up ballet, but it will motivate anyone of any age to follow his or her dreams

As written by Lee Eun-mi and directed by Han Dong-hwa, Navillera is filled with gratifying scenes.  It also has its comedic moments, especially when Deok’s family finds out at about his secret life in the ballet studio. The way his wife and oldest son handle the situation is both funny but also heartbreaking.

As Deok, the late blooming dancer, Park In hwan is both moving and amusing.  His performance is so authentic, whether he is a doting grandfather, a husband trying to hide a secret from his spouse, or a real buddy to a new and unlikely friend.

Playing his wife is the highly acclaimed actress Na Moon Hae. A recipient of the prestigious Order of Cultural Merit bestowed by no less than the president of South Korea, Na Moon Hae doesn’t perform or do a star turn. It’s the simplicity of her acting that makes her character resonate with viewers. She is your own mother, patient wife, or endearing grandmother who belatedly gets addicted to taking selfies.  She and Park In-hwan make a droll and memorable screen couple.

No to be outdone is Song Kang, who plays the protégé-turned-mentor. The 6’1’’ heartthrob took a six-month course in ballet for the role, and he does fly in this series. He also gives quite a nuanced performance. He plays a 23-year-old with a lot of personal baggage, and it shows in the way he walks and gazes at anyone he speaks to. As is the case with his older co-star, his emotions are best displayed through such expressive eyes.

Navillera won’t start a trend of grandfathers taking up ballet, but it will motivate anyone of any age to follow his or her dreams. So inspiring is this drama, it ranks as not just one of the best K-shows; it’s one of the finest series currently on Netflix.

WELCOME TO WAIKIKI

Welcome to Waikiki


Credit: iflix Malaysia/YouTube

Don’t be misled by the title of this sitcom. It isn’t set in Hawaii. It’s set in South Korea, in a transient home called Welcome to Waikiki. Apparently, the tropical theme of the interiors inspired the name of the transient house. It’s cheerful, warm, and colorful.

The house is owned and managed by five friends in their early 20s, three of them aspiring filmmakers. While they hope this business can help them finance their dream movie project, a shortage of guests has forced them to languish in day jobs to help pay the bills.

Frankly, I can’t believe this show has lasted two seasons. It’s amusing at best. The cast struggles to make the show funny through over-the-top mugging. Edgy camera work and over-editing can’t hide the fact that the material is less than inspired.

It plays like a fusion of Friends and Three Men and a Baby. One of the five friends is a single mother (Jung In Sun), and it’s her adorable infant who makes this series worth a short peek. As for the mother and her housemates, they’re arguably the most irritating persons ever created for a show.

Welcome to Waikiki may be better off as a 30-minute sitcom. Watching an hour-long episode made us feel like we’ve wasted three hours of our time. But if you’re an avid fan of the youthful cast, an hour will probably feel too short.  After all, the show’s leading star is the award-winning Kim Jung hyun. He’s big in South Korea, and perhaps even bigger here in the Philippines.

LAW SCHOOL


Credit: Netflix Asia/YouTube

This riveting series puts a new twist to K-dramas designed primarily to showcase South Korea’s matinee idols.  This time, the young stars are smart law students, and not stupid aspiring filmmakers. But Law School is not just about the students; it’s about the mentors, too.

What makes Law School so unique is that it’s actually a whodunit. One of the professors is murdered in the teacher’s lounge. And in the tradition of Agatha Christie’s books, the police detectives have a very long list of suspects who all have a motive.

Number one suspect is the university’s most feared teacher, Kim Myun-ing (Yang Jong Hoon). Numerous flashbacks reveal how the victim was connected to several members of both the school’s faculty and the student body. More motives are revealed and the list gets longer.

The murder case kept us glued to the screen, but the scenes in the classroom are equally interesting. They’re expertly staged and dominated by the terror teacher played by Yang Jung-hoon. He is aptly intimidating, and reeking of self confidence.

Likewise, the attractive young cast is convincing as law students. The script is riddled with laws and by-laws, precedents and what-have-you, but the actors are talented enough to show that they do know what they’re talking about.

When the students start doing their own sleuthing, Law School almost veers treacherously to Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys territory. But that can be forgiven since the show’s target audience are the fans of these heartthrobs.  It’s a well-researched show that effectively serves as an introduction to law for the youth. At the same time, it serves as first-rate entertainment for fans of the likes of Lost and CSI.

A drama like Law School can perhaps encourage younger viewers to choose a career in law. It also can discourage them. This series has much to say about the evils that certain lawyers do. So depending on one’s point of view, young audiences will either be put off—or seduced.

But that’s what I’ve learned to like about K-dramas. Most of them have both style and substance.

About author

Articles

He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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