Recently Seen, Part 39 (May 2020)


Member: Rank 4
I don't have any final report on anything I've "recently seen," but thought I could start a thread anyway by posting some mid-viewing thoughts on:

Queen Seondeok (2009) (Korean Drama Television Series) – In the early 7th century, this K-drama (62 episodes, 65 minutes each) revolves around the life of Queen Seon-deok of the Silla dynasty. Our protagonist is abandoned by the royal family as a baby and sent off to a distant foreign land, but eventually makes her way back to her home kingdom to find her father. The script does the following things very well: (1) the development of our leads; (2) creating memorable moments involving those leads; (3) contributing good exchanges of dialogue; and (4) crafting conflicts that are understandable from both sides. Casting is spot on, and there is dramatic impact. Sure, there is some expressionistic acting and a soap opera-ish feel at times, but this is good stuff. Bi-dam is one of my favorite characters in a K-drama ever. Strongly Recommended
I'm on episode 40 of 80. As @clayton-12 so helpfully clued me in:

I had a similar experience when I watched Jewel in the Palace many years ago - the series has something like 54 episodes, but the bootleg discs that were being passed around contained around 80 episodes. It turned out that the series had been recut to create shorter episodes to fit in with other countries' television programming schedules - so you get more episodes, albeit shorter ones. It did affect the flow somewhat - sometimes there would be a cliff-hanger moment half-way through an "episode" where it was obvious the episode break should be - but it didn't matter all that much. exactly the case for Queen Seondeok. Instead of the originally cut 62 1-hour episodes, I've got 80 45-minute episodes. No worries; it's all there.

But I must say, Mr. ebossert's assessment of Strongly Recommended is a bit off. I just can't agree. Rather, I'd call it "Maximum Strength Triple Super Recommended" LOL

I'm just loving the hell out of this. It pushes all the right buttons with me. I'm not sure where it can go from here, as it seems the main issues of who is who and who knows what and who is against whom (and why) have all been revealed and/or solved. And there's 40 episodes left! Hopefully it maintains a good course moving forward.

Regarding the character of Bi-dam--he didn't show up until about episode 28 or thereabouts, so I was kindof wondering if I had a mistranslated name for one of the characters. But nope! There he is. And I do enjoy his character so far.

At first I had a bit of trouble keeping the characters straight, especially the Lords and Council members. And to mix it up a bit, we get two main jumps in time in the first 25 or so episodes, where they have to use new actors/actresses for the older roles. Have to re-memorize who's who. Except for the evil schemer Mi-Shil. She was like 25 years old at the beginning of the show, and while other characters aged 20 years, she's still 25! At least she looks it. Same actress, no attempt to "age her up."

Now, this Mi-Shil is such a good baddie. For one thing, she gets a lot of close-ups and she's absolutely gorgeous. And her character is such an imposing schemer. The close-ups on her facial expressions are one of the highlights of the show. Her lips smile and her eyes brighten. Then she cocks one eyebrow up and her eyes sparkle. And all that subtle movement conveys "You have no chance against me, you miserable worm. I'm already 3 steps ahead of the likes of you. You've already entered my web and you are too naive to even realize it." All that in just one glance! It's amazing. Her frustrations with her sons and ministers, again conveyed with just a sigh and a slow blink. She must have the slowest blink in the history of evil characters, and it says so much!

I'll note some things below that in a lesser show would have me rolling my eyes a bit. But in a show this good, they just add to the endearing quality.

First off--the main character "girl dressed as guy." Ok, I get it; you can't have a butch uggo play the role, but not only is the actress quite feminine, the character doesn't even try to hide the fact in her mannerisms! Forget her looks--she acts just like a girl! She pouts. She flounces. She stamps her foot in petulant pique. She has that high-pitched girly scream. She sasses and preens. But she's a soldier in a militia!! It's one thing to be noticed as a "pretty boy," but it' SOOO obvious she's a girl! No upper body strength at all, no facial hair. Hello!!! She's a GIRL!!! Even after her identity has been revealed, and she's standing there with her hair down, and her fellow soldiers are staring right at her, they're all like "No way! A Girl? How is that possible? A Girl???" HAHAHAHAA! It's so funny.

The "two characters let's hide and eavesdrop on this other character" scenario. Ok, the two of you are following not only 10 feet behind, but at an angle where he can see you! And hear you talking to your buddy! Oh no, he's turning around! Quick, let's hide behind this sapling!" The sapling's only 3 feet high and with a 3-inch diameter trunk, but, nope! no one can see you! HAHAHAHAHA.

Yeah, I know why it has to be this way. You've got to have everyone in the same camera shot for filming purposes. No time to film separate coverages. Just put everyone in the same camera view and pretend no one can ever notice the others.

But like I said, such things in this show are endearing. I hope my final review after the second half is anywhere near this positive.


Member: Rank 4
But I must say, Mr. ebossert's assessment of Strongly Recommended is a bit off. I just can't agree. Rather, I'd call it "Maximum Strength Triple Super Recommended" LOL
In my youth, Queen Seondeok was always on my radar, but now that the ravages of age have taken hold I lack the patience to invest in lengthy dramas. Alas, what could have been ...


Member: Rank 4
The Seen and Unseen (Kamila Andini, 2017) delves into Balinese mythology and culture through the eyes of a child. 10-year-old Tantri had always been inseparable from her twin brother Tantra, but now an inoperable brain tumor has left him lying comatose in a hospital bed. Outwardly, Tantri is petrified and uncomprehending of what is happening - in order to make sense of the unfolding tragedy, she frequently dreams her way into the world between life and death that Tantra now occupies, and together they tell each other stories with shadow puppets, play with dressing up, and explore this world through dance. This is slow-moving and somewhat abstract at times, but it's always striking, and the performances from the two young leads are excellent - and kudos to Andini for filming this using Balinese language instead of Indonesian (it had kind of troubled me with Marlina the Murderer to hear everyone speaking Indonesian instead of Sundanese, similarly the use of Mandarin in Tuya’s Marriage).


Member: Rank 4
Montage (Jeong Geun-seop, 2013) begins with snippets of a flashback – a kidnapping has somehow ended in the death of a child. Skip forward to the present, and the detective assigned to the still unsolved case is telling the mother that the 15 year statute of limitations expires on the case in a week, after which the case will closed as a prosecution is longer possible. But as the police hierarchy prepares for closure, the killer visits the scene of the crime – apparently counting the days until he is free, and free to strike again. The detective firstly becomes engaged in a race against time to catch the unknown perpetrator before the expiry date, and after falling tantalizing short, the mother takes up the hunt.

For the type of thriller that Korea does really well, this really only scrapes in as a second-tier example, notwithstanding the high rating on IMDB. The principal twist was unexpected, and the way in which all the characters motivations were reconciled was handled well, and these aspects kind of compensated for some really poorly written secondary characters, gratuitous red herrings and glaring plot holes – in particular, there’s two action set pieces that, while being very executed, made absolutely no sense in terms of plot after everything is finally revealed. And at the end, I didn’t even know why the film was called Montage.

Sheep Without a Shepherd (Sam Quah, 2019) Comedian Xiao Yang plays a small-time internet service provider living with his family in provincial Thailand. He is a bit of a buffoon who thinks he’s an expert in everything because he’s watched so many movies, but he is also well liked in the local community because he’s such a softy - an early scene even shows him sobbing while watching the emotional end of Montage. However, his peaceful life is shattered when, while away for the night in a neighboring town, his daughter is attacked and his wife (Tan Zhuo) accidently kills the attacker – who happens to be the son of a ruthlessly efficient but corrupt police investigator, played with cartoonish malevolence by Joan Chen.

Yang springs into action to protect his family, drawing on many years’ worth of invaluable experience lying on a couch watching the TV screen – after hiding the body, he gets to work on creating alibis and coaching his family in how to handle the interrogations that they will inevitably face. The real success of the film is in just how ingenious Yang’s plan really is – we see him arranging a bunch a chess pieces without really being sure how he’s going to use them, and then when the cat-and-mouse game begins, we’re never quite sure just how he’s managing to pull everything off and stay one step ahead of the cops, but yet nothing that happens seems implausible. In the end, it turns out that his key inspiration was Montage – Yang even goes as far to explain the title of that film.

This apparently was an unexpected box-office hit in Mainland China at the end of last year, and is worth seeking out.


Member: Rank 3
Highly Recommended

37 Seconds (2019) (Japanese Drama) – A 23-year-old girl with cerebral palsy feels stifled by her controlling mother and shady manga partner. There are a few unusually sensual moments early on, but this is a surprisingly delicate and endearing coming-of-age story. It’s also rather intimate and shows that the physically handicapped can feel smothered by not being allowed to do things independently. Really good stuff.

Mad Detective (2007) (Chinese Drama/Suspense) (repeat viewing) – An officer (Andy On) enlists the help of a former detective (Lau Ching Wan) who claims to have the ability to see the “inner personality” of others. The uniqueness of this movie lies in its use of a different supporting actor as a metaphor for the attitude and demeanor of each character. This results in some very intriguing scenarios (e.g., the mirror scene) that keep the interest level high at all times. Johnnie To has made a thinking man’s film with a fun screenplay.

Nobody (1999) (Japanese Thriller) – Three businessmen (Masaya Kato, Riki Takeuchi, etc.) tangle with some scary, mysterious men at a bar one night, but their nightmare has only begun. This is a gritty, dark, deliberately-paced flick that has a lot of suspense and tension because our protagonists are normal dudes who are in a situation that spirals out of control. I like how the profession of the bad guys is revealed, which is a bit different. This film is shot atmospherically, with some nicely tinted color schemes at night (lots of blue). Kenichi Endo is one of the bad guys. Lesson learned from this movie: Just walk away.

Santa Sangre (1989) (Mexican/Italian Drama/Horror) – A young circus artist works his craft with this mother – the leader of a strange religious cult. Everyone in this film is a nutcase, but the customs of these weirdos are bizarre and drive the movie’s interest. Lots of decrepit, ugly, poor neighborhoods to look at. It takes a while to get to the first violent scene, but it’s a good one. This gets very bloody at times. Alejandro Jodorowsky crafts a very different and oddly fascinating flick that has artistry and a lot of creativity to it.


The River Wild (1994) (American Thriller) (repeat viewing) – Rafting expert Gail (Meryl Streep) takes on a pair of armed killers while navigating a spectacularly violent river. This has a pretty loaded cast, with Kevin Bacon, David Strathairn, John C. Reilly, Benjamin Bratt, and the little boy from “Jurassic Park.” It has some nice slow-burn tension and a sense of psychological intimidation.

Escape Plan (2013) (American Thriller/Action) – When a structural-security authority (Sylvester Stallone) finds himself set up and incarcerated in the world's most secret and secure prison, he has to use his skills to escape with help from the inside (Arnold Schwarzenegger). This is a surprisingly good flick that has an interesting, detailed script to keep things moving. Arnold gives one of his more charming performances, actually.

Class of 1984 (1982) (American Thriller) – A new teacher at a troubled inner-city high school soon ends up clashing with the delinquent leader of a punk posse that runs the school. This starts off rather light but gets more intense as it progresses. The premise is cliché but the execution is good. There are some disturbing moments and plenty of violence. Michael J. Fox has a supporting role.

Not Recommended

The Allure of Tears (2011) (Chinese Drama Anthology) – Three tales of love and loss: a young cameraman with brain cancer, a team of musicians coming together to rescue their academy, and two young dreamers split apart by life. Zhou Dongyu has a supporting role. This lighter moments are pretty good, but the downer moments rely too much on cliche melodrama.

Jodorowski’s Dune (2013) (American/French Documentary) – The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel. Wanna see a pretentious documentary where a bunch of people jerk each other off about how great their movie is – and how it’s responsible for influencing every contemporary Sci Fi classic . . . despite the fact that it never got made? Well, this one is for you. Then Jodorowsky whines about the film being cancelled due to “filthy money”, even though he hired Salvador Dali at a rate of $100,000 per hour and agreed to hire a gourmet chef to prepare meals for Orson Welles during production. Piss off! They certainly attempted to recruit every nutcase in every industry to make it. My guess is that it would have been a disaster. In any case, this documentary feels padded for runtime and lacks detail/insight into aspects of the film that would actually be interesting (e.g., the story, the designs, etc.).


Member: Rank 4
Ok, so I finished all 80 episodes of Queen Seondeok. I was wondering where the story would go after the first major inflection point. I should not have been concerned. The next 20 or so episodes were some of the most engaging historical drama storyline I've seen in a Korean television series (admittedly, I haven't seen all that many). The plans and schemes, and counter-schemes. Subterfuge and counter-subterfuge. Baddies acting like baddies. Good guys/gals acting all heroic. This is really great stuff. Had me on the edge of my seat. It all culminates about episode 62 or 63 (of 80), at which time the second major inflection point takes place. And a new character was introduced that seemed very promising for drama and conflict within the kingdom, positioning and vying for power. Ok! Let's get on with the show!

But then...oh no. Then, we have the remaining 16 episodes or so, where people just start acting randomly and stupidly. I believe someone else must have taken over the production, because the characterization and the writing got so lame so quick. And even new camera styles, which were super annoying. Bring the first team back! Whoever is making these episodes--well, someone should have stopped him.

There are many examples of things that make no sense whatsoever, that are presented arbitrary and capricious just to manufacture plot points. For example, let's say you had a WWII film depicting the heroics of Audie Murphy and a team of comrades in arms. Great guy to have on your side, right? Hero of heroes. Then the film jumps 5 years and the next scene he's leading the Gestapo. What the ever-loving hell? And our former hero, now Gestapo, decides to show his true love and support for his new queen (who tells him she trusts him more than anyone in the world), by lying to her, hiding things from her, and leading the faction of dissidents against her! It would be one thing if her were secretly vying against her, but no. He keeps going out of his way to try to win her trust and love. Pssst. Dude. You're going about it all wrong. He even trumps up charges against one of the other heroes. His actions make no sense.

How about another example? Over the last 700 years of Silla rule there has been an ethnic minority constantly oppressed. One of the first things our new hero queen does is elevate their status, give them free land, reduce their taxes, and show them new farming technology that will vastly improve their lives. The leader of this faction is appointed second in command of her army. His reaction? "How dare she! I'll show her! I'll lead and increase our resistance! We're prepared to fight!"

During these last episodes, I was actually rooting for the dissident nobles. At least they were fun.

But enough of the negative. Overall, this is a great TV drama that I'm very glad to have watched. Tremendous show.

4.5 stars
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