Book, cinema and media studies, Essay, Fiction, Film, philosophy

When the Movie is Better Than the Book: Drive My Car and I’m Thinking of Ending Things

A week before my 35th birthday, I kept having a recurring dream involving cars and me losing something significant to me. I was sitting in the back seat of a boxy old red car, being driven by someone I did not know. I pulled out my keys, cellphone and wallet, and placed them on the seat of the car, which had stopped on the freeway. I stepped out of the car, then the car just drove away, joining the myriad of other cars. I started to panic because everything that was important to me was in that car and now lost. I knew where to go though. I went to the airport because, for some reason, I knew that the car would be at the airport. When I got there, however, the airport parking lot had hundreds if not thousands of other cars parked and I could not fathom ever locating this boxy old red car to recover my belongings. Nevertheless, I felt determined to find it, and I began my search. Then the dream ended. I dreamt a similar dream a few days later in a slightly different iteration.

Then one late Saturday night, I felt determined to go and see Drive My Car by Ryusuke Hamaguchi—a film based on a Haruki Murakami short story called “Drive My Car” found in a short story collection called Men Without Women. I stopped reading Murakami books shortly after graduating college over ten years ago. There are many authors whose works I’ve stopped reading after college and it’s generally because I exhausted myself of their works by reading almost everything they’d ever written while I was in school. I read pretty much everything that Murakami published up until 2009, and I did the same with Vonnegut and Bukowski by 2010. Today, when I try to read works by these authors, I find myself losing interest almost immediately from the first paragraph in. It’s because I’ve lost interest in these authors. Even if they write anything new, it wouldn’t feel all that different to me because I feel as though I know their voice at this point, and it wouldn’t matter that they had anything new to say. It would be said in the same way. It’s like watching a Hong Sang-soo film. It’s the same film pretty much every single time. Even if I don’t see it, I know what I’m getting. And the window to access their worlds is now completely shut for me. This is not a sad thing. It’s just a shut window. I have other opened windows where my reading attention is now fully dedicated to.

That Saturday—February 19th—I was quite determined to locate a lamp. I had been eyeing this multi-headed, brass floor lamp from Target for a year now. My floor lamp had stopped working the night before, and I threw it out without any attachment because my heart was now set on this new lamp that I finally had a reason to purchase. I went to my go-to Target on Sepulveda, but they were sold out. I went to another Target in North Hollywood. They were also sold out. A staff member told me that the Target in Van Nuys—a location I was not even aware of despite it being the closest to where I’ve lived these last three years—had just one left in stock. When I went to that location, the one that they had in stock was the floor sample, and it was too big for me to fit in my car, so I left it behind. Instead, I purchased a way smaller lamp to tide me over till I could locate a floor lamp that satisfies me. Then I drove to Burbank to catch the last showing of Drive My Car.

My decision to see this film at such a late hour was very last minute but it came with some culmination. I had been thinking about seeing the film for a couple of weeks but I knew nothing about it. I only knew that there was a lot of Oscar buzz around it, and that it was based on fiction written by Murakami. While I do not choose to read Murakami, I am interested in seeing a filmic interpretation of his works since he is not the one delivering it. Perhaps this is a new way for me to access the authors I’d loved reading many years ago when I was a completely different person.

At the opening scenes, I was a bit shocked because the old boxy red car I’d seen in my dream was exactly what was on the screen. There’s an old red Saab in the film which I guess you could say is partially the film’s protagonist. It’s the subject of the film and the short story. The car. And one of the places that the car drives to is the airport. These are familiar coincidences for me. I’ve had precognitive dreams before, but this is the first time I’ve consciously witnessed a fusion between a film I’ve never seen before melding with my subconscious.

I was incredibly moved by this film. It’s a daring movie. Runtime is almost 3 hours. That’s bold. Even though I’m a film scholar, I hardly have the patience to sit through films longer than 90 minutes. If it’s longer than 90 minutes, it had better be a work of art. Drive My Car is a work of art. It is masterful and full of complex feeling. After seeing this movie, I immediately put Murakami’s book on hold at the library, and I finished reading the short story “Drive My Car” this morning. The fiction is far less interesting than the film, and Hamaguchi’s adaptation of it for the screen is a completely different and massive animal.

Hamaguchi developed whole new characters with whole new lives and entirely new circumstances for his film. Murakami’s short story is a very lightly etched sketch where the graphite meets the paper with the least amount of force. Hamaguchi’s script is an oil pastel drawing that covers every blank space of the page. Then let that oil pastel drawing sit over a hot plate. Watch the movements of the colors blend, meld and animate on the page’s surface. Then watch the waxy liquid rise and become full bodies with full movements. That is Hamaguchi’s film. The film version of Drive My Car has far more life, thought, question, and feeling than Murakami’s short story. The characters who resonated quite deeply with me are Yoo-na and Misaki. Yoo-na is not in the short story but she is the tender heart of the film. Weirdly, Hamaguchi’s film feels very much like a Murakami short story. The concept of Oto narrating stories in a trance-like state while having sex with her husband and her lovers feels Murakami-esque. The scene with Yoo-na leaving an impression on Kafuku with her sign language delivery in the audition feels Murakami-esque. When Yoo-na is later revealed to be Yoon-soo’s wife who was once a dancer but suffered an abortion which subsequently caused her to quit dancing and find acting feels Murakami-esque. And yet none of these details are in Murakami’s short story. They are all from Hamaguchi’s mind. Perhaps this is what makes a masterful adaptation–to adapt one’s stories into the voice of the author whose work one’s work is based on.

Part of the reason why I stopped reading Murakami is precisely this preoccupation with female bodies and sexuality as oracles into a man’s deeper understanding or knowledge of himself. I see this time and time again in Murakami’s books and stories, and by the time I was 22, I had had quite enough of it. It felt, to me, elementary and a bit exploitative. I wrote a whole essay on the topic which Thought Catalog published. While this hang-up on a woman’s sexuality as being mysterious is present in Hamaguchi’s film, it did not feel abusive. I guess because the stories that Oto narrates felt so allegorical, and serve such a concrete purpose in the film—a concreteness that Murakami’s stories tend to lack. Hamaguchi also melded Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya into his script in such a nuanced and fine-tuned way, more deeply reflecting the souls of each of his own script’s characters, that I was left impressed by his craftsmanship as a screenwriter. Hamaguchi’s film showcases how humanity reveals itself with great might in scenarios where it is grossly absent like when Oto dies and Kafuku develops a relationship with Takatsuki. Or how Misaki’s driving is perfectly smooth because she chauffeured her physically abusive mother around since she was in middle school. How Takatsuki’s acting gains human understanding and substance only after taking away a man’s life. How the theater company remains softly and coldly resolved to replace Takatsuki and go on with the show mere minutes after Takatsuki’s arrest and confinement, which finally draws out a human response from Kafuku who’d remained deadened to human emotions after the death of his daughter and wife.

The scene when Kafuku embraces Misaki and delivers lines of support that reverberate from Chekov’s play is cinematically and theatrically moving. Seeing Misaki play with the Korean couple’s dog as a way to express joy at Kafuku’s compliment of her driving and later seeing her with a dog of her own in Korea while driving Kafuku’s car brings such subtle yet lasting joy, like a distinct flavor in a soup that I can conjure time and time again years after I’ve had the soup but never being able to name what ingredient it was and never wishing to know.

 In the mainstream, critics and audiences frequently say that movies are never as good as the books but Drive My Car is an instance where the film outshines the story. It’s like comparing a star to a candlelight.

I’ve recently had another experience where the film broke all expectations for me compared to the book it is based on and that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a 2020 movie written and directed by Charlie Kaufman that is on Netflix. It came out in 2020—the same year that the world came to a full stop and I had all the time and mental capacity to rewatch the same movie over and over again trying to gain footing in it. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a challenging film but not without brilliance. It’s like trying to read a difficult book. It’s comparable to reading Kaufman’s novel Antkind which came out the same year that his film was released. I’ve been reading Antkind for four months now, and I’ve only now past the midway section. It is a difficult book but also hilarious. It’s Kaufman-esque in the way that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a difficult film. But I love this film for so many reasons, and after I first saw it, I rewatched it again almost immediately and a couple times more thereafter. Each time I watch it, I can see it with new eyes.

The film follows a woman played by the wonderful Jessie Buckley visiting her boyfriend’s parents’ house in a snowy wintery night, and that’s pretty much the whole movie. But it has so much strangeness and heavy beauty throughout. It’s hard to tell whose mental breakdown we are following because everybody appears to be having a mental breakdown. There is also a mysterious elderly male janitor spliced in there who we follow without being able to connect why we follow him. The film has a poetry recitation, a school musical, and a dance number. They all do the work of making the story more than what it is—a movie.

When I first saw Adaptation, I was 17. I didn’t know how the film was going to unfold but I was engrossed in it. My classmates started to yell in agony when they saw that Charlie Kaufman had a twin brother Donald Kaufman, and they said, “This had better not be a movie about a guy imagining his own twin brother.” The film is and is not about that very thing, and being that ambiguous is what makes Adaptation a brilliant film. Kaufman is an expert at using hackneyed concepts in his film yet skirting the hack part of it by making it completely and unpredictably new. That’s the service of the poem, the musical number and the dancing in I’m Thinking of Ending Things the film. I read the novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid which the film is based on and the book is far less luminous precisely because the ending reveals this lackluster hackneyed concept so brazenly. Yes. We’ve been reading a single man’s mental breakdown and ultimate suicide all this time. How jejune. But we never come to this conclusion or realization in Kaufman’s film version. No sure nail to the head is necessary. It is never ever necessary if it means the life of a far greater story and its characters. Kaufman’s film does hint at this conclusive possibility all throughout but it could be from anyone’s position—the boyfriend’s, the girlfriend’s, the old man’s, the father’s or the mother’s. Even the pig’s. Even the anxious teenaged employee at the ice cream shop. It doesn’t matter because the film is not about coming to a conclusive resolution. It’s an attempt at maintaining the film’s life, letting that resound and reverberate as questions, possibilities, frustration, sadness, joy, madness, or whatever else and holding it for as long as possible. That resonation continues to ring long after the film ends. It still rings. In that sense, Kaufman’s style is expertly Modern.

I think this is what makes a film so different from a written story. I’m both a writer and a filmmaker, and I sense their vast differences whenever I work on a new project. When I write, I write with such freedom, and the worlding that I produce feels like a privilege. When I make a film, it feels far more difficult to create the worlding because the pieces are so many and it takes an enormous amount of energy to maintain that world in the mind upon creation, but I enjoy it nonetheless because the end result is a true visual manifestation of what I held in my mind and so much more which everyone can see with their eyes and hear with their ears, grounding viewers into a singular collective experience which splinter off into various subjective opinions and emphases. When making a film, though, the writing is what takes place first. The script, yes, but also the artist’s statement, and the synopsis and the logline. The emails. The pitch. The convincing to get the capital. The words come first. The visuals last. Then after the visuals, the words return again, like it does here.

The difference is that the words can be transformed into the most unpredictable outcomes in a film whereas in a story, the words remain as those words, and the worlding that takes place in the reader’s mind is their own private ritual. This is also what makes reading a special activity. In the case with Drive My Car and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I felt that the worlds that these filmmakers created for me as the reader of these stories far surpasses anything I envisioned in my mind, and for that I feel a big chunk of gratitude this very moment.

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cinema and media studies, korea, korean drama, TV

The King: Eternal Monarch sucked but fear not because there are better K-dramas out there

Since March 11th (the day I began lockdown), I’ve been revisiting all of my favorite Korean dramas. Not all of what I’m about to list here are available on Netflix, so be creative. Explore other streaming services like Viki and OnDemandKorea (doesn’t always have subtitles; this is better if you’re fluent in Korean). Another secret go-to for me is DramaCool (be sure to add an adblocker plugin). And follow my K-drama memes on TikTok. Below are my top K-dramas worth rewatching multiple times. I’ve also included a rating for how rough the tear-jerking is on each show.

  1. Beautiful Days (SBS, 2001)
    beautiful days
    This is a classic melodrama featuring some staple K-drama figures from the 1990s and early 2000s. You’ve got Choi Ji-woo just before her big launch into becoming a hallyu star with Winter Sonata in 2002. Her love interest is Lee Byung-hun (you’ve seen him in Mr. Sunshine), and his character is super toxic. Their attraction towards each other makes no sense at all. In fact, it’s extremely problematic. That doesn’t mean this show isn’t good. It’s actually amazing. Ryu Si-won plays Choi Ji-woo’s other love interest, and Lee Byung-hun’s brother/rival. Lee Jung-hyun plays Choi Ji-woo’s tough-as-nails little sister who is trying to become a K-pop singer, and Lee Byung-hun’s character is the director of a record company where Choi Ji-woo’s character is employed at. You dig? This show has all the typical tropes of K-drama that I love from the 1990s and early 2000s: love triangle, orphans, class warfare, a lot of crying, fatal illness, etc. It’s very well-written, well-directed and the actors are supreme in their commitment and delivery. The soundtrack is also very good. When I first saw this show as a teenager, I had a really hard time adjusting to Choi Ji-woo and Ryu Si-won sharing the small screen together again because just a year before this show, the two played lovers on a drama called Truth (MBC 2000). It really takes you out of the moment. Tear jerker level: 6/10.
  2. I’m Sorry, I Love You (KBS, 2004)
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    This drama came out in the winter of 2004. Like Beautiful Days, it’s a gut-wrenching “melo” and has a really weepy (but nice) soundtrack. It’ll have you bawling your fucking eyes out, so watch it if you need to clear your sinuses. This is also the K-drama that made So Ji-sub the babe he is today. The poor thing did a bunch of dramas before this one but was never considered the hot protagonist. This one made him the firey stud that made all the girls cry after he got married to that who-gives-a-shit-announcer-half-his-age recently 💔.  Actress Im Soo-jung gives a really wonderful performance on this show. If you can’t stand this summer’s heat and want to cool off with some wintry romance story, this is an oldie but a very goodie. Tear jerker level: 10/10
  3.  Successful Story of a Bright Girl (SBS, 2002)
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    If you think Jang Nara and Jang Hyuk’s chemistry in Fated to Love You (MBC, 2014) is a given, you don’t know K-dramas like I do. The Jangs had their first encounter as opposites on TV 12 years prior to that on Successful Story of a Bright Girl. It has the classic trope of a poor orphan girl versus rich arrogant asshole who annoy each other but eventually fall in love. This show solidified Jang Nara’s popularity, and the year 2002 was a busy year for her; she not only released a hit song “Sweet Dream” but filmed another drama that same year–My Love Patzzi opposite Kim Rae-won (but this show sucks; don’t waste your time on it). She mentions in her interview on Happy Together that she suffered panic attacks and mental breakdowns during this period in her career due to being overworked. Jang Nara’s hardwork really paid off. She’s a very accomplished actress, but you can tell from her work in Successful Story… that she’s a natural talent and performer. This is a feel-good drama with a very strong protagonist full of moxie. I love this show. Tear jerker level: 5/10 (this is a feel-good show but Jang Nara’s crying is so genuine; it’s hard not to get emotional while watching her. if you’ve seen Fated to Love You, you would know this already).
  4. The Greatest Love (MBC, 2011)
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    I’m a huge fan of Gong Hyo-jin. I think she’s an amazing actress, and she impresses me every time. I loved her in this drama but I mostly loved Cha Seung-won’s character. He plays an arrogant, stuck-up and immature actor; in fact, if you’ve seen the other show (also written by the Hong sisters) My Master’s Sun with Gong Hyo-jin and So Ji-sub, you’ll notice that So Ji-sub copied a lot of Cha Seung-won’s character acting mannerisms (manner of speech and action). I laughed a lot during this show because of Cha’s performance. If you want something light, funny and uplifting, The Greatest Love is a good one. Tear jerker level: 1/10 (when Gong Hyo-jin cries, it always makes me weepy; even though this show is a feel-good, she cries intermittently, and that always makes me tear up).
  5. It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)
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    While we’re on Gong Hyo-jin, let me recommend another show I love. It’s Okay, That’s Love used to be on Netflix a few years ago but they took it down. This show, for some reason, isn’t very popular among non-Korean K-drama viewers but I love this show. It tackles topics that a lot of other shows ignore (mental illness, disability, and disorder), an extremely complicated mother-daughter relationship, and displays a really strong chemistry between Gong Hyo-jin and Jo In-sung. The supporting character actors Lee Kwang-soo and Sung Dong-il are also amazing on this show. The OST for this show is also really great featuring Davichi’s music. Yeah, it’s tear-jerker but the color palette on this show is really lovely. The writer of this show Noh Hee-kyung wrote some amazing shows including Worlds Within (2008), That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013), Dear My Friends (2016) and Live (2018). Luckily for you, both most of the shows I just mentioned here are currently on Netflix although I don’t know for how long. Tear jerker level: 10/10 (this show appropriately maxes out its tear jerker status; I cry every time I watch this show, and I think I saw this one like 4 or 5 times).
  6. Dear My Friends (tvN, 2016)
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    While we’re talking about Noh Hee-kyung let me mention Dear My Friends. This drama just recently got added to Netflix (it’s not a Netflix “original” though–FYI). I love this show. For long-time K-drama viewers you’d recognize all of the people on this poster. They’re titans–veteran actors whose careers date back to the 1960s. All of them were the leads back in their day but due to their age, they’ve been cast aside to play supporting roles over the last few decades but this show puts them smack right back in the center of the story, and you’ll be floored by their delivery. I will warn you though, this is a SUPER tearjerker. I’m talking like resuscitation level. You’ll need an oxygen tank. I cried SO much watching this show when it first came out 4 years ago, and bawled again when I was re-watching it this past week. You’ll need a towel to get through this show, but I promise you, it is worth it. It touches on so many important social aspects including aging, parenting, adoption, domestic abuse, elderly abuse, gender dynamics, dementia, and others. Tear jerker level: 40/10 (seriously… it’s a lot.)
  7. What Happened in Bali (SBS, 2004)
    bali
    This show is what I would call a low-grade show; it has a lot of montage sequences and flashbacks to fill time. It’s a love square–two guys and two gals are involved; two of the guys love one girl, and one of the girls love two guys. It’s a hot mess. But I love this show because Jo In-sung’s acting is so over the top (also his teeth are still imperfect giving him a stupid kind of likeable charm), and So Ji-sub is in it and he’s always a babe. Ha Ji-won–who I find insufferably boring in everything she does including that shitty Netflix show Chocolate (2019)–is the lead, but she’s kind of funny at times. The show is a heavy melo, and the ending is quite shocking. If you don’t like unhappy endings (why the hell are you watching K-dramas in the first place?) this isn’t for you. But the show has an interesting over-the-top/excessive flavor that even gives it a bit of a queer tone to it. It has all the makjang stuff I love about most K-dramas including violent ajummas who beat the shit out of girls they disapprove who come after their sons, and problematically-toxically masculine guys who push girls around to do their bidding whenever they want. This show was written by a husband and wife duo–Kim Ki-ho and Lee Sun-mi. These two have an appetite for absurdly cruel endings. If you’ve seen that terrible show (but entertainingly so) show Fashion King (SBS, 2012) starring Yoo Ah-in and Shin Se-kyung, you’d know what I’m talking about (but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it; it’s awful. No one talks about it. But I loved this show, too because Yoo Ah-in acts like the most sadistic psycho on this show; also, parts of it were filmed in my hometown–New York). Tear jerker level: 5/10
  8. When a Man Loves (MBC, 2013)
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    This drama is FUCKED UP. If you like FUCKED UP K-dramas, go watch this. Nothing makes sense on this show. Everybody’s crazy. People’s motives for doing anything are ridiculous. The characters cross into territories they never ever should and it keeps happening over and over again. I found myself yelling, “NOOOOOOOOO,” at my screen so many times while watching this. It’s hilariously over the top. I felt bad for both Song Seung-hun and Shin Se-kyung. For such pretty actors, I felt like this show did them wrong so many times by making them say and do such ridiculous things. But that’s part of what makes this show so fun. It’s crazy. Enjoy some good ol’ makjang for teens. Tear jerker level: 0/10 (it’s too fucking funny to be sad).
  9. Stairway to Heaven (SBS, 2003)
    Stairway To Heaven
    If you’re a fan of Park Shin-hye from Heirs (a fandom I don’t particularly understand), you should know this drama because it’s the one that made all the guys my age fall in love with her. Park Shin-hye plays the child version of Choi Ji-woo, and Kim Tae-hee plays a super evil girl on this show. She’s really entertaining to watch playing a bitch role (I think this was the only time she played somebody this evil; I don’t know why though because she plays it so well). This isn’t my favorite drama but I think it’s worth mentioning just because it has all the elements of what pushes a story forward (conflict!) but there’s just too much of it. The way masculinity is portrayed on this show is especially interesting; from that angle, this show is worth seeing. It’s also a nice throwback K-drama that, again, has all the typical tropes: cancer, love triangle, class warfare, evil step mother, a son of a major conglomerate, amnesia, etc. Yeah, you might like this one. Kwon Sang-woo plays the “stud” on this show which I find so hilarious. Is he hot? I don’t find him attractive at all. I never understood his appeal. Yeah, he’s buff but he also has an annoying lisp. He can’t deliver his lines well because of it. Whatever. Maybe I’m being too judgmental. Anyway, check this out. The characters on this show are insane and super fun to watch. Tear jerker level: 7/10
  10. Goblin (tvN, 2016-2017).
    gob
    It’s probably not even worth mentioning this show only because pretty much all K-drama fans today have seen it but I’ll mention it just to pay it some recognition but also to mention how much the shows that came after this one failed so terribly to ever live up to itv. Kim Eun-sook wrote this show, and she’s also credited for Mr. Sunshine and The King: Eternal Monarch which you’ve probably seen on Netflix by now. Both of her efforts after Goblin are quite lousy compared to how good Goblin was. The King is a terrible mess and not even the kind of mess I want to keep watching; it just sucked ass and I found myself disliking Kim Go-eun again; and sorry-not-sorry I never liked Lee Min-ho (again, I don’t get it? What’s his appeal? He’s quite boring to me). But Goblin had a really handsome ensemble cast, beautiful clothes and accessories, and an awesome OST that I still listen to. I think Kim Eun-sook should take a break for a while and just not write. Or just avoid sci-fi stuff because she sucks at it. Goblin is more of a fantasy that doesn’t try to be scientifically heady whereas The King kept trying to force mathematical logic onto a fantasy genre. Like, why? Also, who cares? Literally nobody I spoke to gave a shit about the time travel/parallel universe logics; all we cared about was the awesome idea of a monarch that continues to remain in Korea; the ideas of a nation as a fantasy, or an imagined nation in an ideal situation is what kept me engaged in The King just enough to finish it (I literally did not give a shit after it ended; I’m usually quite sad to see a show end but this one, I literally got up and did other shit right after because I just did not care). Anyway, if you want to see some good fantasy K-drama, Goblin is the way to go. A bunch of people tried to recreate it or imitate it (Bride of Habaek [2017] and Black [2017]) but they are disasters in comparison; both of the imitation dramas suck ass. They’re not worth your time. Goblin is good. It’s a modern classic. Stick to that one. Tear jerker level: 6/10
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Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) and Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

(Please visit K-Drama School podcast for all my hot-takes on K-dramas.)

All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.

The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.

But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.

The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).

Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.

Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in  Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?

Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.

But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.

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Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods. 

And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”

Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.

In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.

Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.” 

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korean drama, TV

Netflix is Getting a Better Handle on Korean Dramas with its Latest Acquisition MR. SUNSHINE (미스터션샤인, 2018): ep. 1, July 7, 2018

Netflix and Korean TV have gotten close. Although I’ve been seeing Korean dramas on the site for some years now, I always relied on other sources like DramaFever, Viki and OnDemandKorea to keep up with all the shows I wanted to see. This mostly had to do with exclusivity rights that some of the sites had.

For instance, in the US, DramaFever has exclusive rights (for the time being) to Goblin (2016-2017). I recall signing up for Viki for a couple of months last year to catch Chicago Typewriter (2017). I keep my subscription to OnDemandKorea because it’s pretty reliable for watching most Korean variety shows the fastest since they show everything an hour after the air time of the program in Korea (but because of this, OnDemandKorea does not always have subtitles for their programs and their quality assurance is subpar; their site has a lot of bugs, even though relative to Viki and DramaFever, their subscription rate is $2 more expensive).

TVN’s latest big program written by Kim Eunsook is Mr. Sunshine (2018). It started airing in Korea on Saturday, July 7th, and will air as a weekend drama every Saturday and Sunday. It hits Netflix (in the US) 24 hours later. Kim Eunsook is the writer of beloved K-dramas such as Lovers in Paris (2004), Secret Garden (2010), A Gentlemen’s Dignity (2012) and, of course, the two mega hits of the last couple of years Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Goblin (2016-2017). Mr. Sunshine is getting international release around the world via Netflix.

Netflix has been releasing “original” dramas on its platform for about a year now, but their curation has been quite shoddy. Shows like Man to Man (2017) and Black (2017)–despite their star power–are extremely tedious (if not flat out bad). Both shows, which aired on cable channels in Korea, have struggled to make waves locally. Even the highly anticipated show Prison Playbook created by Lee Woo-jung, writer of the hugely successful Reply series, is extremely slow. Prison Playbook failed to impress Korean audiences as well, and did not reach the level of popularity that her earlier work achieved.

Notably, the trend is that Netflix is pushing to acquire content that airs on Korean cable channels. This has to do with the fact that cable channels in Korean television tend to push boundaries a bit further to include more violence (action) and vice (sex, cigarettes, and alcohol). While public broadcasters like KBS and MBC, and even commercial broadcaster SBS, are under greater scrutiny by the KCC, cable channels enjoy more leniency since the audience is smaller. Netflix, which isn’t bound by censorship regulation given its online status, is thus likely to go for more sensational content. Korean cable content finding a home on Netflix, thus, makes a lot of sense. Given the rising trend in stars signing up to participate in more cable television programs, narrowcast shows are starting to compete (if not outcompete) broadcast shows.

This is not to say that KBS, MBC and SBS do not have content on Netflix. In fact, a lot of the content from 2016 or prior are from those channels (Descendants of the Sun being one of them). But as Korea’s cable content is getting more demand among audiences, Netflix is making moves to acquire exclusive rights for content like Mr. Sunshine.

While Mr. Black, Man-to-Man and even Prison Playbook failed to impress, Mr. Sunshine is being strategized differently. Rob Roy–VP of Content Acquisition, Asia–mentioned the “pedigree of a title like Mr. Sunshine.” The pedigree mentioned here in refers to whether or not a show like this may be palatable to American viewers. Mr. Sunshine features Lee Byung-hun–one of Korea’s first major stars to impress Hollywood, and appearing in films like The Magnificent Seven (2016, Antoine Fuqua) and presenting at the Academy Awards in 2016. He is also one of the few Korean actors to have his handprint on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although not by any means mainstream, Lee is, at the very least, a Korean actor who has recognition in Hollywood. Lee’s opposite in this K-drama is Kim Tae-ri, who impressed international audiences with her performance in The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook). The film reached international audiences easily through AmazonVideo. In addition to this, Descendants of the Sun is available on Netflix in the US. Despite Netflix being notoriously secretive of its data, anyone can guess the popularity this show has on the platform considering its international success due to the star power of Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki.

Thus, the pedigree mentioned by Roy is not only in reference to Kim Eun-sook’s writing, which has consistently found success among K-drama lovers, but also the recognizable names of Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-ri among global audiences, and especially in the US.

[SPOILER ALERT] The first episode of Mr. Sunshine which dropped on Netflix today (July 7) was alright. It flaunted a lot of beautiful cinematography. Similar to the way Descendants and Goblin were shot, Mr. Sunshine attempts a level of camerawork that is comparable to an epic film, and it is successful particularly in the beauty shots taken in the mountains during sunset. Given this, the DPs on shows like this should be given name recognition. (In fact, K-drama DPs are probably the best ones to hire for any Hollywood film that features a lot of Asian faces like Crazy Rich Asians which is so poorly lit.)

The set designs and direction for scenes including American soldiers are interesting although not always convincing. I take issue with hallyu K-dramas and films that feature white actors as Americans; why do Americans they select always have a tinge of Australian or some unidentifiable accent? I understand that there are a lot of Aussies living in Korea that may be easy to hire, but they really should be given proper training to acquire an American accent to keep viewers convinced of the storyworld, especially viewers who have an ear for both languages and given the increasingly international player K-drama producers/distributors are becoming. This problem, of course, is rampant all over Hollywood, too. Whenever Hollywood films feature “Koreans” speaking “Korean” while butchering the language and so clearly cueing native ears that this person is not at all Korean (e.g. Black Panther [2018], Lost [2004-2010]), it becomes a major distraction (this phenomenon is applicable for all nationalities and languages in Hollywood films).

The part when American soldiers tell the Korean traitor to release the POWs because America is a “righteous country” made me laugh out loud. Anyone who’s read American war history would know why. Why does Kim’s writing make America appear so noble in this episode? Is this a form of political lip-service? Are Korean productions pledging some loyalty to American distributors?

Another thing I note in this show is the fetishization of violence; gunfire, knife wielding, explosions, death–all of these shots are given long takes and slowed down by FX and music. I don’t particularly care for these long shots romanticizing violent deaths. It’s a bit unsettling. The aesthetic is similar to what we get from Hollywood war movies like We Were Soldiers (2002) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). There’s nothing beautiful about war or death, and I take issue with this type of aestheticization over such images.

Lastly, the motif of dropping Korean bodies onto non-Korean soil in periods before the 21st century is consistent in Mr. Sunshine. As we’ve hilariously seen Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) buried in Canada in Goblin, we now see Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun) grow up as a Korean American soldier in New York ( DUMBO specifically) fighting in the American military. This is an example of “worlding” (eds. Roy and Ong, World Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global) as Korea aspires to situate itself in the global capitalist order as a worthy competitor, and a nation to be reckoned with. K-dramas are constructing Korea as an international player and rewriting history; no, it wasn’t Japanese colonization or the Korean War that began the nation’s international relations; in Goblin it’s centuries before that, and in Mr. Sunshine, assimilated Korean Americans existed long before boeings. Such is the trend. But it’s also a tendency of the writer. Kim Eun-sook’s first major hit is Lovers in Paris, and production did take place in Paris back in 2004 when this drama aired on SBS. It could simply be that Kim likes international travel.

With that said, we do note that her dramas aren’t exactly taking place with non-white nations. Considering the preferences of European or North American countries these dramas have, Kim Eun-sook’s dramas do play a political role in the nation’s first-worlding process through serialized television. The political move here is to associate Korea with first world nations through televisual display.

**As I’m sure fans have already noted, the intertext of Kim Ji-won and Jin Goo reappearing as a couple (parents to Ko Ae-shin [Kim Taeri]) and Ji Seung-hyun as a comrade to the couple is a wink to the audience/fans of Kim Eun-sook’s earlier drama Descendants of the Sun. Given this, can we expect a cameo appearance from Goblin? Perhaps Lee Dong-wook + Yoo In-na? 🤷🏻‍♀️

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