TV / Movies
Korean Dramas: 2012 Best of the Best, Part 2
As we continue with our second installment of hellokpop‘s “2012’s Best of the Best Korean Dramas” series, we delve into the realms of the supernatural, the futuristic, and the era of Japanese colonial rule in Korea. For you avid K-drama watchers, we’re sure you will pick up on that reference and know that we will be talking about none other than Arang and the Magistrate, King 2 Hearts, and Bridal Mask. These three dynamic dramas acquired a cult following among K-drama fans for their amazing sets and locations along with their superb acting and special effects.
Set in the Joseon era, Arang and the Magistrate is a supernatural historical whodunit starring Lee Joong-ki as Eun Oh, an illegitimate son of a concubine and a high ranking government official who was born with the ability to see ghosts, and Shin Min-ah as Arang, a runaway ghost with amnesia who is determined to find out the reason behind her death. Eun-oh, on a quest to find his mother who suddenly disappeared when he was young, travels to his childhood town of Miryang to look for her when he comes across Arang. Impatient and frustrated at his abilities to see ghosts he initially ignores her presence but finds it harder and harder to with stand her charms. Constantly trying to duck the Grim Reaper Moo-Young’s (Han Jeong Su) grasp, Arang is determined to recover her memory and through an intelligent bout of trickery, gets Eun-oh appointed as a local magistrate with the agreement that he will help investigate her death while still searching for his missing mother.
Frustrated by her inability to solve the mystery of her death, Arang gives up and goes to the underworld for judgement and is brought before the Jade Emperor of the Heavens (played by Yoon Seung Ho), where he tells her that he will help her. Through a spectacular display of special effects, the Jade Emperor turns Arang into an immortal human and tasks her with finding who was behind her death for his own reasons, giving her exactly ninety days in which to complete it. Completing the task will gain her entrance in to heaven, failing will banish her soul into oblivion for all eternity. Returning to the human world, Arang goes to see Eun-Oh, who is completely shocked by her new state and become more determined to help her as he slowly begins to realize that Arang’s death and his mother’s disappearance are somehow connected.
As the story progresses we find that the death of Arang and the disappearance of Eun-oh’s mother are indeed connected on a level that neither one of them could have imagined. While Arang and Eun-oh’s relationship deepens as each find themselves falling for one another, Eun-oh is hit with the bombshell about Arang’s agreement with the Jade Emperor. Fearing he will lose her forever, Eun-oh becomes distant in hopes that he will be able to let her go but finds himself falling even deeper for her.
Unlike most dramas where there is a single set villain, Arang and the Magistrate uses three. Lord Choi (played by Kim Yong-Geon), a be-all, end-all villain that torments and deprives the citizens of Miryang to revel in his own self-decadence, spends the entire time making trouble for Eun-oh in a self-determined quest to rid himself of such a pesky and overly-inquisitive magistrate. His adoptive son, Joo-wal (Yeon Woo-Jin), has been masterminding the brutal murders of pure women since a tender age in attempts to sustain the life force of the dramas major villain Mu-Yeon (Kang Mun-Yeong/Lim Ju-Eun), a fallen fairy with magic-like powers who is determined to become human and escape the immortal grasp of the realm of heaven.
Arang and the Magistrate incorporates not only beautiful sets and props, but gives the viewer very complicated and deep characters that leave you feeling sad for their predicament and even sympathetic to the villains. Lee Joon-gi and Shin Min-ah give an exemplary performance in this drama and give a palpable existence to the characters, making the viewer feel as if they were real people and this is a true story. Which is a feat rarely seen. Their on screen chemistry paired with their impressive acting skills bring to the characters a depth that causes the viewer to hope for them, fear for them, and let out a sigh of relief when things go right.
While we think that some of the scenes could have been better written, in total we were really impressed with this drama. Some episodes seemed drawn out with no actual story progression, but this is standard practice with K-dramas so we didn’t dock points for that. With that being said, this drama had some really great scenes. As we mentioned before, the scene where the Jade Emperor turns Arang into an immortal human was quite a feat of special effects and exemplified the ideal of what a King of Heaven’s magic powers would look like. It was quite stunning. The realm of heaven scenes were a feat in prop and set design, showing both the side of heaven with its majestic and magical garden – the home of the Jade Emperor – to the dark and dismal throne room of the King of Hell (played by Park Jun-gyu).
As we learn more about the relationship between the three villains and their backstories, the characters’ interaction scenes become more intense and filled with melodrama that makes you hate and love them at the same time. Personally, my favorite character from this drama is the Grim Reaper Moo-Young. A tormented soul with a tragic past, he must obey the will of heaven without exception even when he becomes morally conflicted. The duality in his personality, from what he has to do and what he knows is right, paired with the conflict of wanting to save his sister who is beyond saving in the eyes of heaven, makes Moo-Young one character that will make your heart ache.
Of all the dramas in our 2012 Best of the Best Korean Dramas, Arang and the Magistrate takes the cake for one of the most surprising and loved endings.
Our next drama, King 2 Hearts, is set in a futuristic Korea where the country is ruled by a constitutional monarchy that aspires to re-unify the peninsula at all costs. The king decides to accept a joint venture with North Korea to participate in a global competition among elite soldiers. He tricks his younger brother and prince, Lee Jae-ha (Lee Seung-gi), into participating in an event right before the end of his two-year mandatory military service. A childish, materialistic playboy with no desire to delve into the realm of politics, Prince Jae-ha is flabbergasted by the king’s plot, and after meeting his new teammates (made up of South and North Korean soldiers), he goes out of his way to cause trouble during their initial training.
One of the North Korean soldiers and the prince’s future love interest of the story, Captain Kim Hang-ah (Ha Ji-won), an upright and dedicated member of the Korean People’s Army (KPA), is instantly disgusted and appalled at the prince’s behavior to the point that she threatens his life after their first meeting. Even though the prince’s personality isn’t to her liking, she begins to find herself more and more impressed with his intellect and sense of justice.
After his older brother and King Lee Jae-kang (Lee Sung-min) is murdered by a mysterious global syndicate known only as M, ran by the sinister arms tycoon Kim Bong-gu (played by Yoon Je-moon), Prince Jae-Ha is thrust into the world of politics that he’s been avoiding his whole life. Dealing with foreign and domestic policies, while continuing to push forward his brother’s dreams of unification, the Prince is faced with a myriad of political and social disasters all orchestrated by Bong-gu – not to mention his ever-growing feelings for the North Korean soldier who stole his heart.
When talking about this drama we are immediately pulled to the internal struggle between perceived good and evil and the struggle between real good and evil. While the world is well aware of the real life situation between North and South Korea, and what could happen if diplomacy ever fails between the two countries, we’ve rarely seen a drama do anything else but vilify the North. While King 2 Hearts does touch base on these sentiments, the writers took the high road and tried to paint the situation in the best light. The earnest beliefs in peaceful unification from each side are felt throughout the drama even when the threat of war is imminent.
We were really impressed with not only the progression of the main characters Prince Jae-Ha and Hang-ah in terms of their relationship and love, but also with how in-depth the secondary characters were in terms of emotional presence, facial expressions and movement, and their uncanny abilities to deliver their performance with a passion that left us speechless. This drama includes a stellar secondary cast with well loved and veteran actors such as Lee Soon-jae as the prince’s adviser, Jeon Gook-hwan as the North Korean Defense Minister, and Lee Doo-kyeong as North Korean Ambassador Kim Nam-il.
King 2 Hearts is one of those dramas that isn’t bogged down by all the politics, even though its a big part of the general story. It’s serious when it needs to be, and lighthearted when it turns to the interpersonal relationship between the Prince and Hang-ah. The story progression, plot twists, and even the dialogue brings a refreshing twist to a drama that could seem on the outside as uninteresting and boring. This drama breaks the mold of a boring and mundane political melodrama and definitely makes this list as the most surprising drama of the year.
Set during the times of Japanese colonial rule, Bridal Mask is an action packed fight-the-system epic drama with the feel of a multi-million dollar motion picture. With jaw-dropping actions scenes, wondrous and beautiful locals, superb acting, and a complex story arcs, Bridal Mask may just be the most entertaining and interesting drama of 2012.
While Officer Lee Kangto (Joo Won) looks like your average Japanese policeman, his story is as deep and complicated like a true epic tragedy. Son of a deceased imperial guard-turned-revolutionary, Kangto, after witnessing the physical aftermath of a failed coup administered to his older brother by Japanese police, chooses to turn his sights on advancing his career rather than taking up the mantle of independence and revolution his father left behind. Only focused on gaining wealth, he forgoes his Korean origins and sets his sights on climbing the social latter within the ranks of the Japanese police. Life seems to be a bed of roses for Kangto, until a mysterious stranger appears wearing a traditional white bridal garment and threatens the peace and power of Korea’s Japanese overseers.
Bridal Mask (Shin Hyun Jun), a freedom fighter for the people, goes out of his way to fight the Japanese at every turn with a Robin Hood-like quality that quickly endears him to the citizenry. When Kangto is ordered by his superiors to catch Bridal Mask at all costs, he could have never known what a dangerous and life-changing order that would be. In his pursuit to catch the elusive hero, Kango meets Mok Dan (Jin Se-yeon) – daughter of a known criminal and freedom fighter Mok Dam Sa Ri (Jeon No-nim) – and suspects her of collaborating with Bridal Mask.
Through a twist of fate, Kangto finds out that Bridal Mask is actually his older brother Kang-san, and after his death, he decides to take up the mantle of Bridal Mask. Playing both the obedient policeman and the revolutionary, Kangto uses his position with the police to foil the plans of corrupt government officials and protect the people. During this time, he realizes that Mok Dan is the girl he met when he was a young. Thinking she had died when their caravan was attack by bandits, he would have never thought that the girl he had suspected to be a rebel was the woman that he had loved his whole life.
When we talk about Bridal Mask the sentiment that sticks out the most is the action. Full of gun play, assassinations, captures, escapes, and martial arts; this drama has some of the most dramatic, exciting, and graceful fight scenes seen in a drama in recent years without being overly graphic. As if they were continually trying to out-do the last fight scene, the battles between Bridal Mask and the Japanese got better and better as the show the progressed, and we found ourselves screaming “Get Him!” at our screens. With the use of the set, from rooftops and alleyways to trees and horses, the fight scenes were spectacular and perfectly choreographed.
The cinematography, scenery, sets, and wardrobe stand out as our second favorite part of this drama. From the town market and internal structures of government buildings to the Angel Club, rebel camp, and even Bridal Mask’s mountain hideout, the look and feel of this drama-paired with it impeccably impressive wardrobe, is true-to-period and gives off an err of authenticity that make this drama seem even more realistic. The whole look of the drama makes the viewer believe that they are actually standing on that street corner watching this fight between Bridal Mask and the policemen in real life or that your really standing on that hilltop watching Bridal Mask and Mok Dan hold each other with a love that will stand the test of time.
As with most K-dramas, you can’t have a great story without a great romance, and Bridal Mask is no exception. While many fans find the use of the love triangle – a K-drama staple – to be overdone and monotonous, we have to admit that this one was very well done. The ever-growing feelings between Kangto and Mok Dan bring an emotional depth to the story, while the desperation and love felt for Mok Dan by Shunji, creates an inevitable conflict that they can not avoid. No matter what Shunji tries to make her love him, nothing can break the bond between Mok Dan and Kangto. His plight leaves the viewer empathetic and wishing that he could be happy too. Bridal Mask delivers a exciting and heartbreaking love story that is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet but with a rebel twist.
With a stellar extended cast that includes actors like Park Kiwoong as Kamura Shunji and the iconic Cheon Hu-jin as Kimura Taro, Bridal Mask gives the viewer an insight on what the time of Japanese colonial rule was like and touches base on social and political issues that still remain to this day. Full of cliffhangers, a K-drama staple, this drama is definitely one for the ages.
Did you watch these dramas? What did you think about their stories? Did your favorite drama make our top ten list? Stay tuned to hellokpop for our next installment of Korean Dramas: 2012 Best of the Best pt. 3, coming soon.
Collages created by author.