Monday, June 20, 2011

Musical Romance Without Vampires

Just finished watching the Korean drama I Am Legend yesterday, which not only has nothing to do with vampires, but turns out to be sort of the exception which proves the rule with Korean drama. I think I had mentioned before that the shows function mainly on strong writing that overshadows all the other elements.

I Am Legend was written well enough, but what really carried the show was the performance by lead actress Kim Jung Eun. She plays Jeon Seol Hee, a former wild child in high school who is currently trapped in a loveless marriage with a high-powered attorney from a rich family. They got married after she accidentally got pregnant, and after a miscarriage, her husband and mother-in-law never forgave her. They treat her with utter contempt, and she suspects her husband is having an affair with another attorney at work. Seol Hee spends most of her time feeling isolated and miserable.

There is only one bright spot in her life. She still rehearses with her high-school garage band, rocking out wherever they can manage to find a practice space. They don't perform in public--her husband's family would never allow it, for one thing--but she likes to imagine them playing for adoring crowds.

But when her sister is diagnosed with leukemia and her husband and mother-in-law forbid her from donating marrow to save her sister's life, it's the last straw. Seol Hee moves out and asks for a divorce. It seems at first as if this will be a drama mainly about Seol Hee finding a new life with her band and new love with another musician, but it doesn't quite work that way.

The divorce plot ends up eating about half the series before it's completely resolved, but instead of clearing the decks for the band's story to really take center stage (to mix some metaphors), it merely makes way for a completely unrelated legal case to start up, as Seol Hee takes a job with the lawyer who helped her with her divorce. The second half of the series splits time between the band and the legal case. Seol Hee is like a Korean Erin Brockovich, if she had also been Belinda Carlisle of the Go-Go's in her spare time.

So the writing ends up being pretty much all over the place, and though there are some really good moments, the story overall kind of disappoints. Two things really make the series memorable: the music (the women playing the band members are all musicians and have continued to play as the fictional band even after the series ended, sort of like The Monkees) and the performance by Kim Jung Eun.

What really sells her performance is her eyes. In scenes where she is confronted with a crisis, she gets the crazy eyes.

It's hard to describe or capture in a single frame, but it happens over and over again: she faces some kind of adversity and is ready to give up, go along just to get along, until someone decides to push her just a little too far. Then her eyes flash with this almost desperate energy, and the next thing you know, she's fighting back, hard, whether it's in the divorce against her husband, or in a bar fight against a couple of drunken thugs messing with one of her friends. She even gets much the same look when their first public gigs with the band don't go the way they'd hoped.

And then about two thirds of the way through, the band has one of their first major gigs at a music festival, where they debut their signature song, "Comeback Madonna." The lyrics in the bridge are about pushing forward in life and love, knowing that you are worth the effort. And the first time she sings it, she's singing to the man who helped her write the song, her new love interest who is serving as the band's unofficial mentor. Her eyes are full of affection, and it's a nice moment.

But then they hit the instrumental break, and she sees her evil mother-in-law standing in the audience. One of the big issues during the divorce was the husband's family trying to keep her from performing in public, to keep from being an embarrassment to her husband, who had political ambitions. So needless to say, Mom-in-Law has never shown up to a gig before, and isn't there to be loving and supportive.

As Seol Hee notices the evil old woman glaring at her from the audience, she falters and her hands fall away from the keyboard (although the piano on the soundtrack keeps playing--a sad technical glitch distracting from such a dramatic moment). But then she gets that flash in her eyes again, and when she resumes the bridge, she's singing to her former mother-in-law with defiant joy (which once again was hard to capture in a single frame, but I did my best).

It's a brilliant moment, and I almost wish the series had ended there, because it never quite got that good again afterward.

Another scene that I wish I had screencapped when I first saw it because I can't find again without practically watching the series over featured an incredibly subtle performance by Kim Seung Soo as her ex-husband. There's a scene where the attorney he's having the affair with proposes that they take their relationship public after the divorce (an impossible prospect, since she is divorced with a child, unsuitable for a man with ambitions for a political career).

Kim Seung Soo plays his role in the mold of other stone-faced Asian men, playing most of his scenes very cool and neutral. So as the other woman makes her proposal, his expression remains almost unchanged; I could screencap the first and last frames of the shot, and you would be hard-pressed to spot the difference. Yet you can see in a miniscule twitch around his eyes and mouth how the wall slams down emotionally between the two in the matter of a second. It's a really well-played scene.

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