Jo In-Sung Picks Up Daesang Award (Finally!)

Update: Episode 8 of “Pride and Prejudice” doesn’t air till Nov. 24. Torture! We’ll have to bide our time developing elaborate conspiracy theories about the murder fifteen years ago. Meanwhile, other stuff from Korean show business…

Jo In-Sung Edges out Kim Soo-Hyun for APAN’s Daesang Award of 2014

When the nominations for the 2014 APAN awards came out two weeks ago, I was excited but worried. Excited because Jo In-Sung was nominated for his performance in “It’s Okay, That’s Love.” Worried because he was competing against Kim Soo-Hyun from “My Love from Another Star.” (Slightly worried, too, about my sanity for caring about an awards show, but hang in there, I have reasons.)

Tough Breaks for “It’s Okay, That’s Love” in September Award Shows

Although the detached, brilliant alien Do Min-Joon might not be the kind of scene-stealing character that usually leads to big acting prizes, “My Love from Another Star” took home big honors at every awards festival this season. Kim Soo-Hyun got five awards this fall—in competition against actors from other networks, not at “vanity shows”—including the Daesang (grand prize) at the Korean Drama Awards. Three of his costars won major awards as well. After seeing those results, I had to accept that “It’s Okay, That’s Love” was looking like an underdog.

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DO, Jo In-Sung and Lee Kwang-Soo, “It’s Okay, That’s Love” Costars at Nov. 15, 2014 APAN awards. All three took home awards.

But Jo In-Sung took on an unusual role when he played Jang Jae-Yeol, a writer with a traumatic past and a complicated mental illness. K-drama heroes typically evolve over the course of a narrative. Actors can’t go exactly on auto-pilot. But “It’s Okay, That’s Love” presented a hero who changed more radically than any other I’ve seen. Jang Jae-Yeol’s transformation looks impossible if you simply compare episode one’s arrogant poser with episode sixteen’s sincere goofball. Yet Jo In-Sung made this guy not only plausible but resonant—a warning that even the smartest people don’t necessarily know their own brains. The power of his performance was such that I found myself identifying with his character more than Gong Hyo-Jin’s, although I’m a woman. Compared to Jo In-Sung’s performance last year in “That Winter, the Wind Blows”—a solid, enjoyable performance—this was in a different class. Jo In-Sung reined in his occasional tendency to overact. He gave the impression of knowing the character inside and out, despite Jae-Yeol’s mood swings, hallucinations and carefully constructed masks against the world. Jo In-Sung may be gifted with charisma and good looks, but for this part he had to put in some hard work too. And “It’s Okay, That’s Love” was fascinating largely because he did put in the hard work.

Why did he get overlooked at the Baeksangs? At the Korean Drama Awards? He and Kim Soo-Hyun starred in shows that were very different, but (let’s face it) both shows had flaws. Critics will happily say that “My Love from Another Star” was predictable and “It’s Okay, That’s Love” was irritating. But “My Love from Another Star” did significantly better with audiences. It was at the top of the ratings for most of its 20 episodes, even making it to the Holy Grail territory above 30% viewer share.

“It’s Okay, That’s Love” never climbed above fifth place in the ratings and spent much of its run stalled with 10% ratings. Those ratings aren’t bad, just average. But they look pretty disappointing compared to the much stronger ratings its stars earned in their late 2013 dramas. Back then, Jo In-Sung’s winter melodrama was making a steady climb towards third place while Gong Hyo-Jin’s spooky romantic comedy spent nine weeks firmly at number two or three. Sometimes you can lose simply by not winning enough—and sometimes commercial success matters. When “It’s Okay, That’s Love” was overlooked at the autumn award shows, I resigned myself to the injustice of the system. Size does matter when it’s the size of your audience.

But justice reigns in the universe again. (Or at least visits the universe for a quick cup of coffee.) Jo In-Sung beat out Kim Soo-Hyun in the APAN awards this weekend, taking home the Daesang (grand prize), the top acting honor. Kim Soo-Hyun still scored a Best Actor award, but the top prize slipped away from him.

DO jo in sung and lee kwang soo at apan awards 2014 compressedDo Awards Matter?

The APAN awards are a new phenomenon, only in their third year. They’re babies next to the Baeksangs, the most prestigious awards in Korean television, which have been around for fifty years. But like the Baeksangs and the Korean Drama Awards, the nominees come from all the major broadcasters, including cable channels, making them among the few real competitions in Korean drama. (Each network also hosts its own awards ceremonies each year, at which they liberally reward their own actors.) The APAN Daesang award may be new, but it’s an industry-wide acknowledgment.

I wish I didn’t care about who wins. From an artistic point-of-view, awards are hit and miss, sometimes going to talent and creativity, more often going to the season’s biggest hit. As the critics at Drama Beans point out, the Baeksangs don’t necessarily reward merit any more than the “vanity awards shows” at the networks. Unfortunately, awards do matter from a commercial point-of-view, because they give networks feedback on where to invest next. A prize doesn’t bring the network an instant pot of cash (wouldn’t they love that), but producers still like to see their shows win.

Prizes for non-blockbusters like “It’s Okay, That’s Love” encourage producers to take risks on unusual projects. It’s possible “It’s Okay, That’s Love” only made it out of the gate because the director, writer, and both leads had credibility and name recognition saved up already. If it had done really badly, the risk averse industry would be unlikely to approach such uncomfortable subject matter again. But now that it’s won a Daesang and two further awards (Jo In-Sung’s costars Lee Kwang-Soo and D.O. also won), I hope it’s a quiet signal to the money guys that sometimes it’s worth going for the unusual choice–even if it means ratings that are merely average. The world of Korean dramas would be pretty boring if the networks only went for sure things. “It’s Okay, That’s Love” stands out in my mind as the most interesting show in 2014 so far, even if “My Love from Another Star” was better at the technical details.

Here are some good English-language links for checking out the 2014 APAN awards: a list of the nominees for the acting categories and a list of the winners. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a list of the nominees for Best Writer. Since writers don’t get as much loud public praise as actors, I almost care more about the writing category. But it doesn’t show up as much in the English media. I’ll keep working on my Korean. I am able to report that the best writer APAN this year went to Jung Sung-Joo for “Secret Love Affair.”

For the pure pleasure of glamorous eye candy, an awards show can’t be beat. Here’s a fine collection of really, really, really ridiculously good-looking people on the red carpet. And here the winners are on stage. Jo In-Sung’s acceptance speech was gracious and humble. Even if I like to imagine he was secretly thinking, “Ha! Take that, aliens!”

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