Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Mom's Dead Upset

I'm finding it's impossible to write about a show I really love. It's too hard to pin down in a couple of sentences something that affects the heart. Like trying to reason why I love someone, teasing love apart when love only exists as an entirety.

That's the dilemma with Mom's Dead Upset. It's a Korean comedy that's phenomenally popular in Korea. I catch it on KBS World where they do lovely subtitles for almost all their shows. Literally, it translates into "Mom's On Fire". And boy, is she.

At first Mom's just a slowly smoking pile of old embers. And who wouldn't be after serving her family for over forty years as cook, cleaner, miscellaneous-errands do-er? But when her children embark on one disastrous marriage after another, long-suffering Mom explodes into a roaring fireball of fiendish proportions.

See, you're Mom and this realization is seeping into your head: year by year your life has become more and more dreary, more and more cheap and the only dim light to all this misery is your children and your children look at you like you're stupid and forget your birthday and only call you up when they need a babysitter (and what's your son doing knocking up some old maid anyway) -- that's when you explode, high and bright like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. So what's left? Well, there's you. And that's the Zen moment of truth: Mom can't save her children but she can save herself.

On the face of it, this is a really simple comedy-drama. Unlike Desperate Housewives or Samantha Who? or Pushing Daisies, there are no clever turns of plots, no soft porn, no dramatic murders, no supernatural powers, no aliens. There isn't even any clever dialogue or witty repartees. It's just a simple family drama about simple people of no importance, no wealth, no extraordinary ambition. The only glamour in their lives is this vague hope that one day, a real estate developer will come in and swoop up the whole neighborhood, making them modestly rich. But otherwise, as long as they have a few bucks left at the end of the month, they're modestly content.

But saying this show is a simple comedy-drama is like saying War and Peace is a nice book-of-the-month selection. I'm simply in awe of the writer, Kim Su Hyeon. Her touch is sharp, compassionate, precise, touching: every life is a painful tragedy and a hilarious comedy, whether it's the life of a foolish son who knocks up his girlfriend and can't tell his family even though she's the love of his life, or the life of a dignified but poor patriarch who only finds love in his eighties, too late to marry and have children with his soul mate, but not too late to share a cup of tea every afternoon. Kim Su Hyeon gives children dignity and clarity. She gives women complexity. And she has this way of building and building, so quietly, you don't notice, until all she needs is that one word to convey a lifetime of hurt or longing.

The actors on Mom's Dead Upset are incredible, too. They look, dress and walk in total truth with Kim's words. Every detail is right, from the silly head band the son wears to the grand, quick gestures of the acerbic sister-in-law. I could probably do a thesis paper analyzing each actor, but I think my favorite is Jang Mi Hee. She plays the youngest daughter's brutal mother-in-law. Beautiful and elegant only in appearance, Jang Mi Hee's character has the maturity of a three-year old and terrorizes her family with compulsive mood swings and self-induced insomnia fits. She's even trained a bird to scream out orders so that the bird is a live manifestation of her id. And yet, like her victimized daughter-in-law, you can't help feeling sorry for her, finding compassion in all your outrage. That's how brilliant Jang Mi Hee is. Towards the end of the series, she does become a bit too clownish in her Taming of the Shrew act -- but that's really a small fault.

Did I say Mom's Dead Upset makes you appreciate your own life? Your own family? I suppose in so many words I did.


UnixChix said...

I really enjoy this show! I stumbled upon it by accident. I agree with you on all of the points you raised regarding the producer and the actors. It is a really enjoyable show. The last episode I watched when the little girl Sora was having a birthday and she treated her step mom awful and her dad let her. I enjoy the women characters in this show, they are so complex yet you can find something to relate to. Thank you for your comments on this show. I am not Korean and I am so glad I found the show, everyone can appreciate this show!
Thanks Again!

TV Kitty said...

Thanks so much for commenting, UnixChix! Wasn't the little actress who played Sora fantastic! It was a hugely demanding role -- the writer asked for so much nuance -- in many ways, I think Sora was the most complex character in the show. Usually, children and old people are caricatures, mere comic/pathos devices. But not little Sora. She was so true to life. Scarily worldly-wise, as so many only children are, and at the same time, very much a little girl who cries when left alone in hotels. I also like that her step-mother is neither saint nor villain, but a modern professional woman whose ambition and personal pride won't let her fail as a step-mom.

Anonymous said...

I adore this series. Don't speak Korean, didn't know anything about Korean culture til I started paying for KBS a yr ago, watch it daily, now. You gave the most eloquent review of this show that I've read, and it matches my feelings precisely. I just have to single out Kim Hye-ja for more praise, tho. (My favorite actress of 2008, easy) She frequently brought me to my knees. I loved the fact that the main cast was over 60, over 50, over 40, 35 - wouldn't see that here in the USA. Yes, and what a cast it is. WHY did the show end so abruptly? Any guesses? The economy? Or was it planned that way all along? I don't get it; and was sooo disappointed. (That was the ONLY disappointment tho.) Love Kang Buja in anything - (seen "Thank You"?) Look forward to seeing Jang Mihi do anything, she is delicious. Loved how the 3 women played off one another. Sora was great. Yeongsu & Sora & Hanja. Wow. EVERYONE was wonderful. Kim Naun. (The only possible cast weakness I spotted was Yeong-mi's hubby - I'm guessing he is maybe a singer or model turned actor? Yet he was just fine; it's just that next to all the rest, he was a little light. But I enjoyed him, too.) Can't say enough about this show. Will it come out on DVD? I'd like to buy it - my 1st series purchase since Farscape. Thank you TV Kitty.

TV Kitty said...

Thanks, Anon! That's what's so great about "Mom" -- you don't need to know a single thing about Korea -- you just need to be human! I adore Kim Hye Je. The way she giggled uncontrollably at her first taste of freedom! BTW, she's fantastic in Goong, playing a very different kind of person. (I haven't seen Thank You, but I'll look out for it!)

There's a handful of older Korean actresses who are AMAZING. Two of my other favorites are Kim Ja Ok and Yoon Yeo Jung (both currently in Worlds Within).

OK. Here's the dirt on why things ended so abruptly. The writer discovered she had breast cancer during the shooting and had to go in for surgery. Also, several of the older actors complained of fatigue and begged the producers to end the show five episodes early. I have a feeling there would have been more of a development with the youngest uncle (the famous surgeon) and his nightmare wife. What a character that was!

Loved Farscape too! I didn't think the end movie was as bad as everyone said!

Anonymous said...

Ajumma Fan says: I hope you can view "Thank You" - about unwed mom Young-Shin, her 10 yr old daughter, and Grampa. You'll recognise 'Grampa' from many things. Grampa has alzheimers, precocious Spring is infected with HIV, about which the villagers are just horridly ignorant & therefore vicious to our little family. Kang Bu Ja is wicked in this 16 epi mini...or IS she?

I hope you caught Kim Ja Ok in Coffee Prince. And the wonderful Kim Young Ok as the grandma. Ja Ok is right up there with Kim Hye Ja as a favorite actress - Na Mun Hee is also great. Those older gals have really got something special. They relly shine in an industry that likes to use young pop singers, models, & sports figures in their TV dra-oma's.

I can't imagine that anyone on the planet missed 'Jewel In The Palace' or Kim Sun Ah in My Lovely Samsoon, but if you didn't catch them 1st time around; they are must see K-tv. Lee Young-ae was fab as Jang Geum. Yang Mi Kyung aka Lady Han, wow. Kyun Mi Ri, aka "Lady Choi" reminded me of Bette Davis at her most deliciously sinister & evil. I'm not sure, but I think Lady Jung might have been Yeo Ungwe (sp?) - I LOVE HER.

I guess I have to say that I'm hooked on K-dra-Oma's because of the fine older actors we see so much of in them. And of course because they are just so human. Sentiment is unabashed & hope eternal. Gotta love that.

TV Kitty said...

I'm always impressed by the depth of talent in Korean TV/Film, both old and new.

Anonymous said...

Ajumma Fan likes the young ones too, just have fondness for the elders. I think that Koreans really value education, have an amazing work-ethic; and that both attitudes promote/contribute greatly to the depth of the talent pool. Little Sora is actually an old timer.

Anonymous said...

I'm Korean born, raised, educated. Came to NY for my graduate school in late 1960's. Since graduate school, I've been living in NY City. I've not had much contact with Korean life as it's portrayed in this drama, "Mom's Dead Upset".
I find the drama fascinating & try to watch it when I can - fascinating to see family dynamics played out around traditional family roles. These family members seem to evolve to what they're not supposed to be, but, nonethless, evolve to what they want to become. Lots of trials in understanding and accecpting the changes, these characters remain stronly glued down with one thing, the family that's at the core of Korean tradition. They don't dare to get out of the family setting or relationship while tip toeing about the edge. At times, I felt like yelling to them, "hey, take a leave".
This is fascinating to me personally. Korea is changing a lot but is not out of the family mode or consciousness. They struggle because of the family, and yet, they ask for family, willingly or otherwise.

J.A. Pak said...

Thanks for commenting, Anonymous. Well, I blame it all on the Confucians and their fanatical need for an unchanging top-to-bottom societal order. While that's fine in combating anarchy, it doesn't leave much room for flexibility or growth. It's too bad Confucius was such a MAN—-after all, he could have left women a bit more breathing space. But then, both Western and Eastern societies have the same problems balancing individual needs and societal needs, the West erring on the individual, the East on the societal. Well, that's the crux of the human dilemma, isn't it? I hope, as Koreans travel more, they lose that closed small-town mentality, while still valuing family and friendships. Certainly, all the latest Korean dramas are trying to push these boundaries, much as US dramas used to do in the 70s. Remember all those endless made-for-TV movies about date rape, child abuse, single moms, etc?

Yoshikitty said...

Where can I watch this drama? I've been trying so hard to search from any video streaming sites since an early of a last year ,Until now I haven't found it yet...Could you please help me,please tell he where can I watch this great drama,I want it so bad,Thank you advance

J.A. Pak said...

Yoshikitty, try

majda said...

I've been trying to find this old series for a long time now. I keep giving up and then trying again. Is it possible to get it anywhere with English subs? I've tried Drama Fever, Kissasian, Viki, and even KBS, but it doesn't seem to be available.

I'd appreciate any leads.

J.A. Pak said...

Majda, I can't find any English subs either. A mystery as there were English subs at KBS once...