I originally started watching Korean television for the charming romantic comedies. But gradually I’ve grown fascinated with the melodramas as well. It’s harder to explain their appeal—vicarious suffering shouldn’t be as entertaining as vicarious laughter. Why do I find them so interesting?
The currently airing series Mask and High Society are great examples of how to construct a compelling melo. I’d recommend both, with a few cautions. We’re several episodes into each series, bringing us to the end of the first quarter (Q1). It’s too early to say if they will remain good. But both shows depict complex characters in tough situations.
Mask gives us straight-up melodrama of the most exaggerated kind, just as we’d expect from Choi Ho-Chul, the writer who brought us the 2013 Secret (the one with Ji Sung and Hwang Jang-Eum). The emotions are big. The plot is implausible (though constructed from plausible details). When working class heroine Ji-Sook (Soo Ae) confronts a desperate situation, she’s forced to choose between her own death and an outrageous crime of impersonation. She decides to take on the identity of injured heiress Eun-Ha, just before Eun-Ha’s marriage to the wealthy—and possibly insane—Min-Woo (Joo Ji-Hoon).
To add to the Gothic nature of the scenario, the mastermind behind the strange impersonation plot is Eun-Ha’s former lover Seok-Hoon (Yeon Jung-Hoon). Ji-Sook finds herself trapped when he takes over her parents’ large debt in order to blackmail her more effectively.
The first scene of the series is one of the best in medias res K-drama openings in awhile. Ji-Sook has a car accident, goes off the road and dangles from a high cliff over the ocean—and then we see that she’s hand-cuffed to the wheel. She starts recording a last message to her family, a message almost as angry as it is tearful. Just at this moment, a mysterious person calls her cell phone and offers her a chance at life.
It takes two episodes to learn how she got to that literal cliff-hanger, but like most K-drama heroines, money troubles and family responsibilities play a big part.
As in Secret, the characters in Mask are running on pure emotion. Rational thought doesn’t live here any more. At least Ji-Sook’s emotions are kindly meant. She acts out of concern for others, frustration with her life, and sometimes pure courage and compassion. By contrast, her tormenter Seok-Hoon is driven by envy and anger. He’s a smart, ambitious man from a humble background who married into wealth and wants more power in the family corporation.
Choi Min-Woo forms the third point in the toxic central triangle. His emotions are wildly unpredictable, as we might expect from the writer who brought us Min-Hyuk, the creepy anti-hero of Secret. Min-Woo is the out-of-wedlock son of a rich CEO who has never felt welcome in his father’s house. He also has strange hallucinations and spells of anxiety, which make it hard for him to succeed. He dreads his upcoming arranged marriage to heiress Eun-Ha, who he despises. And in an imaginative twist, it’s possible someone in his family is deliberately causing some of Min-Woo’s symptoms of mental illness, by adulterating his food and medications.
Doppelgangers are an old melodrama staple from A Tale of Two Cities to those nineteen-eighties mini-series starring Susan Lucci and her look-alikes. To make the conceit work once again, Mask occasionally winks at its own genre with scenes like the one where the heroine Ji-Sook jokes about having a wealthy identical twin. More importantly, perhaps, Mask embraces the over-the-top aspects of the plot without irony. Its good production values—particularly in that opening car crash—also help to keep the exaggeration grounded in reality.
Director Boo Seong-Chul (You’re Beautiful, My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox, Heirs) seems to understand that Choi Ho-Chul’s story-telling is influenced in part by Gothic horror. He delivers new variations on horror scenarios, like a scene in which Seok-Hoon’s henchman tries to get a corpse out of a hospital without anyone noticing. Nothing like a mysterious corpse to keep the tension wound tight! The director’s proven comic talent also gives us occasional, perfectly-executed moments of humor. But more importantly, Boo Seong-Chul depicts the characters’ emotions in all their overwrought extremes.
Mask also makes unabashed tugs at our heartstrings. Joo Ji-Hoon isn’t the most versatile or charismatic actor, but here as in 2007’s Princess Hours (Goong), he plays a cold, isolated hero, a part well-suited to his low-key style. Even when Min-Woo threatens to kill Ji-Sook, we can see how desperately he fears himself and the people around him. He believes he’s losing his mind and control of his actions.
Actress Soo Ae makes Ji-Sook sympathetic but not weak. Even when she grows depressed in episodes 5 and 6, you can sense the strength propping her up in despair. If she begins to help Min-Woo fight back against his family, she’ll make a formidable ally.
And for a real treat, second lead Yeon Jung-Hoon (the Vampire Prosecutor himself) plays the baddie Seok-Hoon as a sexy, scary psychopath. His character is a close cousin to Ji Sung’s vengeful Min-Hyuk in Secret. Seok-Hoon’s attempts to control Ji-Sook are particularly unsettling because her heiress double, Eun-Ha, was his secret lover. Like Min-Hyuk in Secret, he hates the heroine, but feels attracted to her in spite of himself.
With Joo Ji-Hoon’s Min-Woo as a potential hero, however, Mask may turn out ultimately less creepy than Secret (could anything be creepier than Secret?). It remains to be seen if Mask can tell as interesting a story as Secret, however. The characters’ intense emotions can be fascinating if the story can make us doubt our assumptions about love and hate, as certain moments in Secret did. Or the emotions can become exhausting.
Mask has clear villains and heroes early on. So far we’ve seen little in the way of internal conflicts, except in Min-Woo, who agonizes over his hallucinations and lost memories. Min-Woo’s struggle is drawing me along for now, but Mask may need to provide its characters with further internal conflicts down the road. Min-Woo and Ji-Sook both have some growing up to do and their inner stories will be important in balancing the makjang plot elements. ♥
Mask airs Wednesday and Thursday nights on SBS in South Korea, and Viki releases it for subtitling the same day.