The Kdramas of 2016: Q4 Roundup

Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo
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A 25 year-old woman in the modern time gets transported back to the Goryeo dynasty and finds herself in the body of Hae Soo, a young maiden from that era. As she tries to survive in the unfamiliar world, she gets entangled with the princes of the empire, who become rivals in politics and love.

The good:
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The exciting premise. Having no clue about what the original novel and the Chinese production was all about, my first impression about this drama’s synopsis is a cross between Game of Thrones and Fushigi Yuugi. It’s the biggest historical reverse harem of 2016 (by number of the male cast), with the hottest young actors surrounding the female lead. MLSHR also had the kind of historical politics that I personally am interested to watch, as the conflicts are dynamic and each episode is action-packed. You got the evil queen, the evil princess, the evil prince, and so on, so you don’t know where the next obstacle will spring up next.

Lee Joon-gi and Kang Ha-neul. These two didn’t exactly break from their usual mould in this drama – Lee Joon-gi is already a sageuk staple and Kang Ha-neul plays the scholarly, somewhat-uptight, goody-goody type once again – but their appearances were the most interesting to watch. Their acting stood out among the young cast, and Lee Joon-gi’s bone structure and mane of glory put the ladies to shame. As much as I hated the super tight close-ups (more of that later), I was able to appreciate the expressions and emotions of these two, especially on the heavier scenes.

The visual treat. On the occasions that the camera panned out to give us the view of Goryeo, I am completely mesmerized by the picturesque backdrop that this show used. Apart from the scenery, the good-looking cast were also a feast for the eyes, and it would have been a waste if the production didn’t leverage on it. That bath scene was totally unnecessary, but highly appreciated. *wink*

The bad:
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The messed up editing. Oh, where do I even begin? First, I thought some scenes could have been shot differently to heighten the emotional impact. The camera zoomed in too closely too often for it to have any purpose. Second, I am one of those who felt uncomfortable with the OSTs and how they’re used in certain scenes. Finally, it was also a letdown for me that two versions of the drama floated around, not only because it was an obvious act of desperation to save the show’s ratings (which is very understandable), but also since it seemed like the show was pre-produced for nothing. What have they been doing in between filming and actual airing? At first I thought what was off with the storytelling was solely because of the screenwriter. But after seeing version 2 having a smoother flow (though still not absolutely seamless), it was really about the director’s edit. The local audience may not have felt this as they only viewed the latter version, but as part of the international community I saw the shift in focus and narrative tone from the previous cut.

The loose central plot. One of my initial apprehensions about MLSHR was that it only had 20 episodes, which would not be enough for the show to feature all the subplots of the entire cast. It tried to allocate screentime to certain storylines that deviated from the main trio, which to me didn’t help build a plot where the show will anchor on. In addition, the multiple time skips had very little meaning in the narrative sense, as the characters really didn’t develop through all those years. Eventually I just treated each episode independently without fully appreciating the progression of the characters and their respective stories.

The weaker cast members. With the two lead actors knocking it out of the park, it became more apparent that some of the cast members are indeed acting rookies. It seemed that the overall feel of the drama shifted depending on who is onscreen. The actors playing the younger princes may be cute in contemporary dramas, but they weren’t as convincing in a historical drama setting. The two idols – IU and Baekhyun – took most of the criticisms throughout the show’s run, and while the negative comments were a bit excessive, they were not unfounded. IU was actually charming when Hae Soo was bright and spunky, but she eventually lost me when I didn’t understand her character anymore.

The verdict:
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In spite of all the criticisms, Moon Lovers was one of the first dramas I reached for every week. It had an intriguing premise and an interesting set of characters (shoutout to Empress Yoo). Was I completely satisfied with the ending? I think early on this drama lost me on what it really wanted to convey, so I really didn’t feel anything about it, positive or negative.

With all the hype months before its actual airing, the production met lukewarm response locally as evidenced by its mediocre ratings and negative feedback. Fortunately MLSHR had better reception from the international audience, sustaining the buzz. The jumpy first two episodes of the drama drew hasty conclusions from the audience, with the assumption that a pre-produced drama will not be able to fix what’s fundamentally wrong with it in the succeeding episodes. I think the biggest issue here was the burn of having insanely high expectations for this drama, which would obviously lead to some degree of disappointment. It’s just too bad that the audience dismissed the show too quickly.

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