Yesterday I posted numbers 6–10, while in the meantime I agonized over which scenes from 2015 K-dramas would get the final places of honor. I was trying hard to choose only one scene from each show, but as you’ll see, I gave up in the end. Despite my disappointment with a few big-hype K-dramas this year, there was still plenty of K-drama goodness on hand.
A twists-and-turns show, Punch still delivered strong scenes along with its suspense. One of the best sequences in early episodes is this one, in which the prosecutor hero learns of his cancer diagnosis on the same morning he gets closer to the seat of power.
At the beginning of the scene, our hero (anti-hero, really) is arguing with his ex-wife over where to send their daughter to school. He repeats his threat to start a custody battle. He does not yet know the results of his recent medical tests.
His ex-wife does know about his cancer diagnosis, but she doesn’t intend to tell him. Yet by the end of the scene, she does. Why does she spill the beans? Is it because he’s so arrogant? Because she feels sorry for him? Because there’s no point fighting over custody if he only has months to live? Rewatching the scene gives different answers every time.
After this revelation, the hero returns to watching his mentor/boss’s inauguration as Prosecutor General. But now he looks slightly stunned. He follows his boss to the new office, where their ceremonial entrance tells us he’s on the fast track to career success. As hundreds of men in suits bow before him, the hero wears a mix of satisfaction and unsureness on his face. He rises into the sky in a glass elevator looking more blank than triumphal. What emotion would be right on this occasion?
Later in the series, Kim Rae-Won does excellent work showing his character struggling to hold back emotion. But here, he’s interesting because of how few emotions he shows. He reacts to his diagnosis in the stunned way that real people often do. And thanks to this restraint, the contrast between his success and his death sentence is exquisite rather than overly melodramatic.
The vampires in “Orange Marmalade” are both sweet and disturbing, and this scene in episode one captures that paradox so well that it served as the series’ poster image.
This weird little vampire epic surprised me to become my favorite teenage drama of the year. But on paper the story doesn’t make much sense. Is it a story about modern-day high schoolers starting a rock band? Or a supernatural martial arts costume drama?
Surprise: it’s both!
Strangely, the genre mash-up works, as long as you aren’t a fan of the original web-toon the show was based on. (In which case you probably hated the series for unexpectedly setting several episodes in the Joseon era.) The series works in large part because it’s anchored by solid acting, especially from Yeo Jin-Gu, who has more acting experience at 18 than most actors twice his age. (Lee Jong-Hyun also does a good job as second lead, allowing me to forget how unimpressive he was in Gentleman’s Dignity.)
But the show also works because it establishes an intriguing premise and sticks to it. The vampires here are good people who just happen to have a weird dietary restriction. They face discrimination and hatred from human society, but they aren’t evil. Nor does the show indulge in the campiness usually associated with vampire stories. The tone is relatively low-key—Sassy Go Go with canine teeth.
Orange Marmalade has a message about embracing people who are different than us. But it doesn’t let us forget that people who are different are different. Whereas another vampire show (like Vampire Prosecutor) might only show its vampire protagonist drinking blood once in awhile, these vampires guzzle synthetic blood the way other K-drama characters drink product-placement energy drinks.
It’s easy to sympathize with the vampire heroine as she worries her new classmates will find out she doesn’t eat human food. But the show doesn’t let us forget that when she does sit down with her parents at the dinner table, they’re drinking glasses of dark red blood. It’s sad when she eats lunch alone in the school bathroom, but she’s sucking blood through a straw, for Pete’s sake. I would find it a little creepy to eat at the same table with her, too.
I would do my best to get over it, of course, which is the point—real coexistence doesn’t mean ignoring our differences but learning to recognize and accept our differences. Coexistence for the long-abused vampires means more than just being “tolerated” by humans—it means everyone eating at the same table together.
The show makes this point by occasionally creeping us out. For instance, the episode one neck nuzzle reveals that our vampire heroine, as nice as she is, does kinda want to suck the human hero’s blood. (In a nice way, I’m sure.)
It’s one of those scenes that makes you cry out, “What did I just watch?” The human hero (Yeo Jin-Gu) wants to meet the new girl in class, so he grabs a seat next to her on the commuter train. But she’s our secret vampire heroine (Kim Seol-Hyun). She nods off, smells his blood in her sleep, and slowly, as if hypnotized, leans over and starts mouthing his neck—as other commuters watch in disgust. She doesn’t actually bite him, but that simply makes the scene even more sexual.
The mix of horror and delight on his face makes this one of 2015’s great K-drama moments. Though the scene ends with the heroine running away in embarrassment, you get the feeling both young people have discovered sexual feelings they didn’t have a couple minutes before. Feelings that will cause both of them a lot of pain, given that the hero is an anti-vampire bigot. Now that’s a scene with a story to tell.
It’s hard to choose only one scene to highlight in this multiple personalities drama. It’s even hard to choose a genre to highlight—a tragic scene or a comic one? (I’m a sucker for scenes involving the goofball Perry Park, in particular.)
But this was the first scene in Kill Me, Heal Me to really capture my heart. After the disorganized, hurriedly produced opening episodes, which both intrigued and repelled me, episode 3 was a relief. The director settled on a tone (a mix of high camp and melodrama) and the show started to get good. In this scene, the hero Cha Do-Hyun (Ji Sung) runs into the heroine Oh Ri-Jin (Hwang Jung-Eum) outside the hospital where she works—and where he mistakenly thought she was a patient.
In fact, she’s a psychiatrist. And she has figured out he has multiple personalities.
The dialogue is simple, just hinting at Cha Do-Hyun’s fear of discovery and Oh Ri-Jin’s fascination and concern. (This is my own translation. Yes, I’m still using Kill Me, Heal Me to learn Korean.)
CDH: “So, you’re actually a doctor.”
ORJ: “And it turns out you’re not really Shin Seki.”
CDH: “You noticed?”
CDH: “The changes in my appearance.”
She sighs and nods.
CDH: “Aren’t I scary?”
But she’s curious, not scared. She almost flirts with him as she asks him what his name is now, if he’s not the guy with the homemade bombs or the leather jacket.
He hesitates before he answers. “With this face, this expression, my name is Cha Do-Hyun.”
Despite some odd editing (that medium shot in the middle), this simple conversation feels profound, thanks to the evocative silences and the actors’ sincerity. We can see that fierce Ji Sung/Hwang Jung-Eum chemistry from 2013’s Secret rekindling. And their micro-expressions show the actors have figured out the complexities that will make these characters so much fun to follow.
In particular, Ji Sung hints at the anger and toughness underneath Cha Do-Hyun’s self-effacing, almost obsequious politeness. He hopes for Oh Ri-Jin’s understanding but doesn’t really expect to get it. He’s challenging her to tell him he’s a freak. When he shares his name with her, he’s taking a small but important step out of his self-imposed isolation. (When they kiss at the end of episode 8, the scene will deliberately echo this one.)
In the early episodes of Kill Me, Heal Me, I worried that Cha Do-Hyun might not have much personality of his own when he wasn’t possessed by one of his alters. But moments like this in episode 3 establish him as a compelling character in his own right. Cha Do-Hyun didn’t inspire as many fan videos as Yoo-Na or Shin Seki. But he anchored Kill Me, Heal Me’s wackiness and made the show more than a weird novelty.
This show delivered a lot of unforgettable scenes. Unfortunately for a reviewer trying to avoid spoilers, the most amazing scenes are in the second half of the series, after the groundwork is laid for some really intense dramatic irony. Episode 14, in particular, gives us one indelible scene after another. If you haven’t seen I Remember You, it will be safe to read the next paragraphs, but be warned: if you watch the scene itself, it’s got some spoilers.
Without giving spoilers, I can say that this scene highlights the resemblance between a good Korean show and a BBC costume drama. Though the characters in I Remember You live in present-day Korea, they face difficulties with an emotional restraint and formality that’s almost Anglo-Saxon. Although this series is on the surface a police procedural, the hero and heroine don’t spend too much time fighting bad guys with guns. They spend more time in irony-laden dialogue.
And this scene, in which the heroine shares her birthday cake with the man who killed her father, exhibits everything that makes this series so amazing. Every line of dialogue has veiled meaning, every expression crossing the four characters’ faces tells a story. This awkward tea party tests everyone’s ability to show a civilized veneer. But still they try.
What the characters learn from each other during this scene doesn’t change the direction of the narrative. Yet the whole series exists to make this scene possible. Jang Nara’s tough, vulnerable police officer is arguably 2015’s best K-drama heroine, and the three men in this scene match her for spooky intensity. This is character-driven story-telling at its finest.
If you haven’t watched I Remember You, give it a shot. It’s the best show that came out of Korea in 2015. Not quite a police show, not quite a mystery, not quite a melodrama or a romance, it’s a unique exploration of the relationship between trauma, memory and love.
Tied for First Place: Your Own Worst Enemy, Healer, ep. 10, 27:40–37:20 & Kill Me, Heal Me, ep. 8, 56:10–1:02:00.
Of course, foreign K-drama fans come for the romance more than anything else, so the number one spot has to go to a romantic scene. But I was having a tough time choosing between these two, my favorite romantic scenes of the year. Then I had a brain flash: these two scenes are actually the same scene.
Whether the hero in question is Ji Chang-Wook’s dorky “Bong-Sook” or Ji Sung’s distant, aristocratic Cha Do-Hyun, this is a scene about being in an awkward love triangle with your own alter-ego.
The Healer version gives us a confession without a kiss, while Kill Me, Heal Me gives us a kiss without a confession. But both scenes capture the scariness of romantic love’s early stages.
These heroes have already kissed the girl—but as someone else. Bong-Sook has kissed Young-Shin as the karate-chopping rooftop-lurking Healer, while Cha Do-Hyun’s alternate personality Shin Seki kissed Doctor Oh way back in episode 5. These guys’ toughest rivals are their own sexier, cooler alternative versions of themselves.
Even though few of us will ever be our own love rivals, we don’t need to have a secret alter-ego or multiple personality disorder to understand feeling insecure about the person we like. The heroes are asking a question everyone in love wants to ask: do you like the real me? Or some imaginary version of me? Is it possible someone could really like me with all my flaws?
Despite having the same theme, there are differences between the scenes. The heroine in Healer doesn’t know her colleague, alias Bong-Sook, is also the masked man she’s crushing on—whereas the heroine in Kill Me, Heal Me knows well that Cha Do-Hyun has multiple personalities, including the absurdly attractive Shin Seki.
And though Bong-Sook makes a bold confession, his scene ends with rejection. Cha Do-Hyun doesn’t say much, but his scene ends with one of those hypnotically filmed kiss scenes that will leave viewers a little dizzy. (Unless the viewers are cynics who accidentally wandered in from the other room at the wrong moment, in which case they will throw up a little and vow never to watch another K-drama.)
But both scenes give us strong heroes who are nevertheless afraid of rejection. They give us smart heroines who move the relationship forward in their own ways. In Healer, Young-Shin may be afraid of the elevator (for good reason), but she doesn’t hesitate to pick a lock when the hero hesitates and loses his nerve. She invites the hero to sit down next to her and share a blanket, and she answers his confession without evasion or embarrassment.
And in Kill Me, Heal Me, Doctor Oh reassures Cha Do-Hyun that he isn’t scary, instead making her own confession of sorts. She thinks he’s cool. He’ll be even cooler if he’s one, united personality, but she cares about all his personalities. She wants to help him, but that doesn’t mean she sees him as fatally flawed.
These scenes are all about dialogue—they rely on the drama inherent in two people in a room talking. Or rather, two people outdoors in a cold Seoul winter talking. (Seoul, as always, is virtually a character in its own right here.) Though love stories don’t get much critical respect, at least here in the States, these scenes demonstrate something Jane Austen knew two centuries ago: that sometimes a love story can be the perfect structure for exploring human nature. ♥