Sunday, October 16, 2011

Food, That Glorious Metaphor

In Korean dramas, food is everywhere. Eating is just what Koreans do. Round-the-clock. Home after all-night clubbing, first thing a twentysomething does is make instant ramen and eat it right out of the pot, using the lid as a plate. Straight after school, kids hit the local dukkboki house. A guest makes a surprise visit and a plate of cut-up fruit instantly appears. In such a foodie culture, a heroine not being able to afford a roll of kimbap says everything. So what does it mean when someone eats with a fork and knife at every meal, preferring steak and pasta to kimchee and rice? This is a person who has lost their soul. This is a person who is no longer a real Korean.

I've seen food used symbolically like this over and over again. Food as a metaphor for cultural identity. In Korean dramas, real Korean families eat rice for breakfast, not bread. Real Korean families still eat sitting on the floor at low-lying tables, not at Western dining tables with chairs. If you're rich and a parasite, raping the economy with shady, underhanded deals, you go to fancy Western restaurants, drink French wines at home, have a designated dining room. All signs that you have lost your Korean identity. Which means you have lost your humanity.

In drama after drama, the first step in regaining your humanity is befriending someone poor (usually your future spouse). This poor person will eventually take you to a street market where they will make you eat fish cakes on a stick and dukkboki from a food stand. In Couple or Trouble, the Queen of Bitches loses her memory and regains her humanity by eating an insane amount of chajangmyon, the commoner's ultimate snack food.

Hollywood used to use food like this too. In movies from the 30s and 40s, the rich, depraved capitalists ate solemnly, silently, in exquisite dining rooms with chandeliers, napkins impeccably on their laps, hidden by French linen tablecloths, course after course of Frenchified food being served by a butler or maid. In contrast, true Americans ate noisily, at large tables surrounded by salt-of-the-earth kin, napkins tucked in their shirts, momma hollering, "Come and get it before it's all gone!" The food is stacked high on humongous platters: fried chicken and biscuits or roast beef and buttery rolls. No French wines—no alcohol at all. Just good, healthy American water and plenty of gravy. (Strangely, no vegetables either, except for tubfuls of mashed potatoes.) The message is clear: there's plenty of food—there's plenty of love—this is the life worth living.

Food isn't used like this anymore. Like in Korean dramas, U.S. dramas still share that fantasy of families eating together at a dining table. But the food is rarely the focus except on Thanksgiving shows. Even then you hardly see people eating at all. The dining table is just an excuse to sit and fight and show a family's inner demons. There's no joy in eating, no joy in food. I suppose it's the culture. These days, Americans are told food is evil—it makes you sick—it makes you fat. Not in Korea. Food is joy. Food is healing. At least if it's real Korean food.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Up All Night

The new fall shows are finally starting to roll out. Can't say that I'm thrilled. If the shows live up to the promises of their promos, they should all royally suck. One ad that really drove me crazy was the one for Up All Night—the promos made the show seem stupid and really old hat. So when it premiered last night, I watched purely out of a sense of duty. Well, well, well. It didn't suck. Not that it was great. But maybe in three or four shows? Because it has a lot of promise.

Up All Night is a lot like 30 Rock, which isn't surprising because it's written by Emily Spivey who wrote for SNL. It also stars Maya Rudolph, also a SNL alum. But while 30 Rock makes fun of corporate TV, Up All Night makes fun of parenthood, and that's harder. I'm sure that within two shows they'll have run out of diaper jokes and the kid will disappear in the same way the kid pretty much disappeared in Raising Hope. And before we know it, the show will be about all the zany people at work, which would turn the show into 30 Rock And A Baby.

Mom is played by Christina Applegate. Dad is played by Will Arnett. Christina was pretty predictable but Will was a surprise. It's nice to see him in a role where he isn't entirely stupid or venal.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Greatest Love

Finding a fresh and lovely piece of drama is as hard as finding a piece of fresh and lovely fruit. When I do, I'm startled—almost too startled to enjoy it. I'm really enjoying The Greatest Love. Watching it, I'll burst out laughing (rare for me). Watching it, I'll get all teary-eyed (not so rare). It's just a love story, but told with wit and reflection.

Here's the story:

Ae Jung was once the leader of an all-girl Korean pop group that mysteriously broke up at the height of their popularity. Everyone, including the group's manager, blamed Ae Jung. Ten years goes by. Ae Jung has grown more and more unpopular, even reviled because of a love scandal. She's desperately trying to make a living appearing as a D-list celebrity in game shows that make her do horrible stuff like eat chajangmyun while on a rollercoaster ride. But she's game, smiling and eating. One day, at a gas station, she has a strange encounter with Dok Ko Jin, an A-list celebrity. Ko Jin is much loved by the public—he's a master of seeming angelic in public. But really, Ko Jin is an ass and treats Ae Jung like she's dirt. Of course, he begins slowly falling in love with Ae Jung's spunky goodness, because, after all, this is a love story.  But all the while, there's a real nice journey of contrasts: Ae Jung trying to regain her public footing, Ko Jin discovering his awakening heart (part of his heart is artificial—it's a long story). I'm only on episode 7 so I don't know if the show will have a satisfying ending, but I hope so. I'd like to continue laughing and crying and rooting.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Lala's Promotion

A while back, ICN started promoting a Chinese drama called Lala's Career Adventures. At the time I had no idea what a total phenomenon Lala's Career Adventures is in China.

The series was originally a trilogy of books written by career girl Li Ke (the series of books is called Du Lala's Promotion). No wonder the depiction of corporate life is so real in the series! The heroine of both the series and trilogy is a plucky, stubborn and very intelligent girl (Lala). She gets a job at a US corporation in Shanghai and finds the biz world full of nasty-tempered saboteurs (including a psycho who thinks Lala has stolen her ex-husband). Initially Lala is a disaster at work. She's undiplomatic, clueless, insubordinate. But through sheer will and tremendous balls, she rises to the top, even charming her US bosses.

The series is a lot of fun. And very honest about the kinds of women who you'll meet in the corporate world. Some will do everything they can to screw you over if you threaten them. One or two will become your mentor. A career girl's life is stressful and hard. But if you're Du Lala, you'll do okay, even meeting the man of your dreams (well...he does come with a psycho ex).

Wish I could read the book. It's full of advice for handling yourself in the biz world like “forget relaxing if you want to be a manager”. Ain't that the truth! There's a good article about the Du Lala phenomenon at China Today.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The World of Collecting

One of the most interesting game shows I've seen recently is a Chinese one called "The World of Collecting" (ICN). From what I can understand, you have these celebrities sitting on a panel, trying to judge whether an item is a real antique or not. These "antiques" are brought in by average joes. The joes talk up their antiques and try to get the celebrities to bid. Now comes the interesting part. After the bidding, the joes have a choice. It turns out that their "antiques" have been evaluated by experts. If their "antiques" have passed the test, they'll get a certificate of authentication. If the "antiques" have failed, the host will smash their "antiques" to pieces. The choice is this: do they want to go through this authentication process or do they want to walk away with no chance at earning money. Education and drama all in one!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Friday Night Lights, Last Season

Okay, how many of you thought Friday Night Lights had been cancelled for good? Yeah, me too. So I was really surprised to see a commercial two weeks ago announcing the final season! Of course, we fans know what "final season" only too often means: loose ends tied together in crappy ways that betray everything about the show (yes, Lost, I'm talking about you). But then, by the time the "final season" rolls around, most shows have already lost their way and "final season" just means one last round of paychecks.

Friday Night Lights has never lost its way though. So what would the "final season" mean? I was nervous and anxious and hopeful as the opening credits rolled for the premiere. And then I was surprised:  I'd never imagined last night's episode would be so poignant, so elegant.

It's late summer in Dillon, with school about to start. One of the first scenes is of Tim Riggins and his bumbling brother Billy. Tim's still in prison, his guilt-ridden brother rambling during a visit. Prison has made Tim depressed, bitter, simmering in anger. A heartbreaking contrast to the last time we saw him, Tim the valiant, willing martyr. He doesn't say much but he does ask his brother not to visit him so often. It's the last time we see him. The rest of the show focuses on Julie Taylor and Landry Clarke; they're preparing to leave for college, saying their farewells to Dillon and childhood. These scenes are so real, I found myself thinking about that time in my own life, personal remembrances riding along the fictional. Again, I marvel at the excellent direction the actors receive, lines delivered naturally, in full context to individual lives.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs 2010

I had misgivings when I heard they were doing a new Upstairs Downstairs series. In fact, I was fully prepared for disaster. Or at least boredom (I have to confess I was bored with Downton Abbey, which was so lifeless).  But I'm watching the first episode now and I'm glad to say that I had nothing to worry about. The script is subtle and witty, the cast marvelous. And, thank god, no endless expositions about the house's history or about European history in general. The cast is quite good too. The most marvelous Keeley Hawes is the lady of the house. Jean Marsh has returned as Rose. And one of the series creators, Eileen Atkins, is now in front of the screen as the formidable Lady Holland. And to my surprise, Art Malik and Anne Reid are part of the series too! So wonderful.

I found the initial opening very poignant. I even got goosebumps hearing the theme music as the credits rolled. And seeing all the misty memories in Rose's eyes—oh, my. Eileen Atkins broke my heart too, her Lady Holland a kind of Auntie Mame antithesis. My only criticism is that some of the incidental music is just too reminiscent of Midsommer Murders. Anyway, it's wonderful to have something to look forward to on Sunday nights.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Breaking In

I'm right in the middle of watching Breaking In and I am so excited because I finally have a TV show I can write about! I'd been watching promos on Fox for the last few weeks and I wasn't having high hopes, but wow! Great writing, great cast!

So the setup: college student Cameron (played by Bret Harrison) gets coerced into working for a shady security firm. He's surrounded by crazies, naturally. My favorite crazy is Cash. He's played by Alphonso McAuley and he's brilliant. Bonus point: Alphonso has great chemistry with Bret (Bret played Sam in Reaper—I loved that show). The best dialog of the night was between Cash and Cameron and it went something like this:

Cash: I'm going to have sex with this candy bar. Give me some sugar, baby.
Cameron (grimacing): That doesn't look consensual.

Wish I'd written that!

Bret also has great chemistry with Odette Annable, the girl who plays love interest Melanie. Surprising how many shows cast actors with no chemistry. Of course Melanie has a boyfriend, played by an outrageously funny Michael Rosenbaum (Lex in Smallville). I've always adored Michael Rosenbaum so I was surprised and thrilled to see him suddenly pop up.

Hope the show only gets better!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Clichés in Korean Dramas

Today is my rant day.  And today's victim is Korean dramas. So...

Must someone always throw themselves into a river to escape capture in every action/historical drama? And must royal babies always disappear only to reappear 20 years later?

Must the heel of a girl's shoe always break off at an important function in every modern romance?

Must each episode of a court drama act like a murder mystery?

Must a divorce couple always reconcile?

Must every ajumma with an adulterous husband become some kind of celebrity? (In My Rosy Life, the ajumma dies from cancer, which is just the other side of the coin since death by cancer turns an ajumma into a saint.)

Must Ryu Tae-Jun lose the girl every time? (He's totally hot. How can he lose the girl even once? OK. In Hwang Jin Yi he was a little evil, but...he's hot...and in period costume!)

Must Dong Chul get beaten up at the end of every episode of East of Eden? By episode 25, the guy should be suffering from some degenerative brain disease from all that trauma.

Must implausible coincidences always drive the plot?

Why are we always at the airport at the beginning of every last episode of a modern-day series?

And what's with the endings on these dramas? How come they suck so much? The only decent ending I can think of was in Couple or Trouble. Stars Falling From the Skies, too. Now that was a cute drama with a great beginning, middle and end. Of course there was that coincidence thing...

Monday, January 31, 2011

Masterpiece Theatre

Let me just begin by saying I grew up on Masterpiece Theatre. Some Americans think I speak with a slight British accent, and if I do, it might possibly be because I watched so much Masterpiece Theatre. And I still watch Masterpiece Theatre, but I really don't understand what's going on behind the scenes. I mean, it's not even called Masterpiece Theatre anymore. Instead it's either Masterpiece Classic or Masterpiece Contemporary or Masterpiece Mystery or some such nonsense, depending on what kind of show they're airing.  And while they still do intros, they now have actors delivering information in the most snarky voice possible. What's with that? Do the producers think snarky means hip?  More intelligent? More in keeping with British television? More modern? Or do they secretly despise the very shows they're airing? Personally, I just don't find contempt a very nice prelude to a show like Downton Abbey.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Look At Flower In Fog

Lately I've been watching Look At Flower In Fog on ICN. A Chinese drama, it takes place in modern China and it's all about the antique business.  That alone is fascinating, the drama going into depth about all the fakery and fraud that goes on, like taking ancient jade and machine cutting it into a "rare" object or using laborious ancient techniques to manufacture exquisite pottery that are as good as the ones from famous eras.  The plot itself is just as complex, no one knowing who's really who, who's conspiring with whom.  But what really keeps me coming back is the excellence of the script, the directing and the acting.  Every scene is filled with tension, even a simple breakfast scene where a father warns a daughter to eat slower.  There was this one amazing scene:  a man and a woman, co-workers, arguing in a corridor; she's in love with him; he's in trouble (a client has complained that he's conned her); the woman, in a fit of anger, declares that the client is a whore and she's going to slug her; for a moment, absolute silence as each absorbs the outburst; then the man smiles and says, "That's so nice of you." Absolutely wonderful.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Pioneers of Television

I just spent the nicest hour watching Pioneers of Television. The episode was about the birth of science fiction, interviewing past stars of Star Trek, Lost in Space, etc. and you got to find out what fascinating people Gene Roddenberry and Irwin Allen were. But what was really a surprise was the attitude of the show, relaxed, good-spirited, fun. There wasn't anything snarky or muckraking, no "so and so were doing drugs" and "so and so were sleeping together". Nothing juvenile. I felt a little like I'd gone back in time, watching a tribute show from the 70s.