Korean Drama- Three Days (Spoiler Free Review)

I just finished watching the Korean action-thriller drama Three Days, which I have to say I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s a Korean series in the vein of the American drama 24, about the Personal Security Service (PSS) of the Korean President, and how they’re caught in a struggle between the President of Korea and a shadowy cabal of powerful men who are trying to kill him. The PSS are charged with protecting the President, but is the man they’re giving their lives for really worth that protection?

If I have to describe the series, I’d describe it like driving down a twisty mountain road at night at high speed with only a flashlight to guide your way. It’s incredibly twisty, with danger flying at the main characters at every turn, the odds stacked against them, and everything that can go wrong pretty much does. A true thriller, and while it does have its weaker points, it pretty much manages to keep you guessing right up until near the end.

It’s by the same team that did the drama SIGN and the more recently drama Ghost, so if you’ve seen either of those, you know what to expect. I’d actually say Ghost was the better series, as it had a much better villain, but Three Days does deliver the action and the production values are more like a 16 hour long movie!

One minor quibble is that the title is Three Days, but actually the story takes place over nine days. It’s broken down into three arcs, with each of the arcs being three days long, but the title of the show is a real misnomer. I guess “Nine Days” didn’t sound as cool or dramatic.


Ghost Ends

I just finished watching the final episode of the Korean Drama called Ghost that I previously reviewed on the blog. The ending was a week late because of the Olympics, but was totally worth the wait. It was a great roller-coaster of a series, and now that it’s finished I have to say it’s one of the best Korean dramas I’ve watched to date.

One thing that impressed me about the ending was that despite all the twists, turns and tricks the producers have used over the twenty episodes to keep the show unpredictable, they actually didn’t go for any gimmicks in the end. No twist ending, no double-fakes, just a solid little end with a proper epilogue that wasn’t crammed into the last five minutes of the show (or the end credits background!) like many shows do.

Bravo to the producers and writers of this fine show! Thanks for a great ride!


Korean Drama: Ghost (aka Phantom)

I’m now an addict, I admit it.

I’m addicted to sharp, well written, high quality television. It’s true.

In this case, it’s the currently running Korean drama called Ghost (also know as Phantom, which can be another translation of its name in Korean) which is an utterly unique and compelling TV series. I heard about it from my wife, who has friends in Korea, and decided to give it a watch.

What I found was a show which was at the same time both familiar and completely new.

Without giving too much away, the basic premise is basically about a man who comes out of a horrible accident with another man’s face, and now has to solve the mystery of who killed “him” without his true identity being discovered. The result is what could be called a mystery-espionage-thriller, and is really hard to pin down.

The tension and suspense in the show is nail-biting, and the twists and turns can only be compared to something like 24,  Death Note or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Yet at the same time, it’s like none of those.)  It’s one of the highest rated things on TV right now in South Korea, and totally deserves it. As a side note, it’s also a fairly realistic (though not totally) examination of how real computer hacking and cyber-espionage is done.

One of the things I also love about the show is how it takes your expectations and then twists them around. Much like Game of Thrones, the writers seem to look at each scene and say “what would happen here if this was a typical story” and then they completely do something else.

Is it perfect? No. It still has what I would called Korean Drama-isms, where characters think and do things that real people wouldn’t, but which happen in dramas all the time. There is also a lack of chemistry between the male and female leads, but since that’s not the focus of the show it doesn’t matter much. The real story is among the male leads anyways.

Right now they’re up to episode 11, with 9 more to go. One of the nice things about Korean dramas is that they’re complete stories. Each is only a season long, and in that season they tell a complete story from start to finish, with no plans or setup for more. I like that, and think they should experiment with that format over here as well.

So if you’re looking for something to watch during the hot lazy days of summer, give Ghost a shot. Each episode is better than the last, and I promise it will be anything but dull!


Korean Period Dramas I Love

As many people already know, I have an unusual marriage situation in that my wife and I don’t share a common first language- hers is Mandarin and mine of course is English. (Technically, we don’t share a common second language either, since her second language is Taiwanese, and English comes up a distant third!) One of the results of this has been that while we both enjoy watching TV together while eating our meals, during the early days of our relationship it was a little tricky to find shows that we could watch together and both get equal enjoyment out of.

Eventually, one day while we were out buying DVDs to watch I picked up a set of a show I’d heard of called Dae Jang Geum, a Korean period drama that I’d heard good things about through the grapevine. I was even happier when I noticed that not only did the DVD have English subtitles, it had a Mandarin audio track as well as it’s original Korean one. What this meant was that while my wife could enjoy the show normally, I could just read the subtitles and we’d both be able to enjoy it in our respective first languages at the same time!

Well, once we got around to watching the DVD, I’d have to say it hooked me pretty fast. While I’d always enjoyed stories set in historical periods because I could both learn about history and be entertained at the same time, there was something special about this one. It was the story of the first female doctor to attend to the King in Korean history, a near legendary figure named Jang Geum who was an expert at not only herbal medicine, but cooking as well. The TV series is the story of her life, and it’s filled with gripping drama, palace intrigue, sumptuous displays of Korean cooking, and not a little romance as well. (Although being set in a strictly conservative setting the romance element is very subdued, especially since being a palace serving girl meant that if she consorted with a man she and her lover would be sentenced to death if discovered.) There are so many things to like about Dae Jang Geum, it was hard not to fall in love with it, and I’m not alone. Technically, it’s one of the most popular dramas in TV history, watched and adored by over a billion and a half people (including Iran, oddly enough)  but because they’re not white, and it’s not in English, it’s never gotten much attention in the English speaking world. I have to admit, while it had it’s ups and downs, it stole my heart as well.


After we finished with Dae Jang Geum, we naturally hungered for more Korean period dramas like it to continue the enjoyment we got from this gem. A little digging turned up a series called Ju-Mong: Prince of Legend, which we decided to give a go. Unlike Dae Jang Geum which is set about 400 years ago, Ju-Mong is set in 60 BC (or BCE for you politically correct types), and is the epic story of a young man who goes from being a cowardly minor prince of a city-state to uniting the disparate Korean tribes of the time into a single powerful kingdom. To do this, he must go against the man who raised him, and his own adopted brothers- all of whom he loves as a loyal member of the family. It’s one of the most epic stories I’ve ever watched in my life, and despite being 81 episodes long, I was sad when it finished because I grew to love all the characters so much. A testament to both the writers and actors.

Following a break from Korean dramas for a bit (we watched an excellent HK Drama called A Step into the Past for a while, which I’ll talk about another time) we returned to Korean drama with what could be called a spiritual sequel to Dae Jang Geum called Yi-San. It is a different story about different people, but was produced by the same writers and producers, and starred many of the same actors. I felt this was a hinderance, actually, since they spent too much time trying to recreate elements of Dae Jang Geum and recapture it’s popularity instead of just letting this particular story tell itself. However, that said, it’s also an extremely good show.

The premise of Yi-San is similar to Ju-Mong in some ways, an uncertain prince finds himself thrust forward into becoming a King while being surrounded by forces working against him. However, unlike Ju-Mong he’s not trying to build a new kingdom, but simply reclaim from within the one that should be his to begin with. Yi-San takes the political intrigue elements of Dae Jang Geum and dials them up to 10! For the first part of the series, the Prince is literally living in fear of being assassinated by unknown elements almost every minute of his life, and we’re carried along with him as he tries to survive in this deathtrap called an Imperial Palace. The opposition has also covered their tracks so well that everyone around him thinks the prince is insane while he works to outwit them at ever turn. The only people he can trust are two loyal childhood friends, a royal guardsman and an imperial painter, and when the story is about the prince Yi-San it’s a rollicking good tale. The areas the story falls down (for me), are when the story is about the artist, a young girl who is basically set up to be Jang-Geum 2.0 and the romantic lead. Still, when it’s about Prince Yi-San, it really really rocks.

And, most recently my wife and I have started to watch what is effectively the sequel to Ju-Mong called Kingdom of the Winds, which is the story of Ju-Mong’s grandson. So far, it’s pretty good, with much higher production values than Ju-Mong, and the same lead actor portraying the grandson as played Ju-Mong in the original series. It feels a little like home to hear all these characters and places referred to again, and already there’s been some seriously badass fighting and court intrigues. I think that’s one of the things I love most about the good Korean period dramas, the chance to see Machievellian politics practiced by skilled characters who know what their goals are and vye with each other to reach them. There’s little fantasy elements in the good ones like the ones I’ve been talking about, and they’re great examples of how interesting characters and stories can make universally appealing dramas.