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.