[What Mary Thinks Pt. 1] Squid Game, Melancholia, Happiness

Ho ho ho, I am back (for now) after what was a few months K-drama slump and just life in general. There’s been a few rounds of K-dramas that have aired since my last post on here so I decided to keep up with some of the greatest and latest shows. It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these review posts so here we go!

This is my first out of two reviews for the dramas that I am currently watching. Stay tuned for my part two review on two additional dramas (hint: one of them stars an actress whose drama I recapped on this blog in 2020!).

Squid Game

When ‘Squid Game’ was first released, the amount of attention and success it got was surprising and unexpected in some way and drastically shot up as the days and weeks passed. I remembered hearing so much about it, seeing it trend on Twitter, seeing all the videos on my Youtube feed about it, seeing it stay at #1 on Netflix for what seemed like forever. ‘Squid Game’ was the talk of the town for quite a while and there was no competition for the survival reality show K-drama. Unlike many others, I decided to wait a bit to watch the drama. In the end, I don’t know if that waiting was a good thing or bad thing and how it might have impacted my opinions and thoughts on the drama. While thrilling, intense, and suspenseful, and I can see where all the hype about the show came from, I think I was also expecting something a bit more. Something a bit more mind-blowing.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun and exciting show. I enjoyed some of the games and missions a little bit more than the others (my favorite probably had to be the ‘Tug-of-War’ game. The camerawork and cinematography during that game was awesome!). Some of the characters were easy to root for or against. There was a sense of mystery and uncertainty and even fear, not knowing who was going to die next or when our characters were going to die (because you knew they eventually would, it just depended on when and how exactly). I thought the marble game was probably the most interesting one because it was less physical and more psychologically and mentally draining. My most favorite scene out of the entire drama actually came out of the marble game when Gi-hoon (Lee Jung-jae) and Il-nam (Oh Young-soo) were up against each other and Il-nam used his brain tumor to trick Gi-hoon into winning the game. I just remembered getting literal goosebumps and chills upon watching that scene and a huge part of that was due to just how good Lee Jung-jae and Oh Young-soo are as actors. The other survival games weren’t so bad either. They were intense to watch and combine that with the cool, straightforward, and direct directing and it elevated things even more.

With that being said, I think my biggest concern about the drama was less about the games and even the overall premise and more about the characters. A show centered around survival games where people have to compete against one another and risk their lives in order to win a huge sum of money sprinkled with some Korean historical and cultural background? You’ve got my interest there. However, where I think the drama fell short was trying to find this balance between focusing on the games/competition and then also trying to make us care about our characters. It felt as if the drama could never really do both at the same time. I appreciated that the drama gave us context and background information about our characters, but I felt like it never really got anywhere and you couldn’t be as invested because you knew they would die eventually anyways. Why invest in a character who you know won’t survive? But maybe that’s also the point of it all? I don’t know. Regardless, as much as I wanted to learn about the characters and who they are and what their stories were, I also was just so much more focused on watching the games and the competition and seeing who could outlive the other.

I also wished we could have gotten more out of Gi-hoon given that he was our main character and the “winner” of the competition. I felt like he was a bit too 2-dimensional for me. I felt like he didn’t really have an identity. I felt like he was too passive for me. I felt like even his childhood friend, Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), was more of an intriguing and interesting character than he was. Other than the fact that Gi-hoon was our main character, why should I have rooted for him? Why should I want him to survive until the very end and win? Why was he the “chosen one”? What about him allowed him to be the leader in the Tug-of-War game where he was the first person in line holding the rope? Other than the conscious fact of just knowing that he was our main character, I’m not sure what about him made him stand out.

Along with concerns regarding our characters, there was also the ending to the drama that I felt a bit iffy about. I felt like the drama was trying to be a bit too cute at the end. There was the whole plot twist about Il-nam being the mastermind behind the competition (which wasn’t too surprising given that he was the oldest contestant out of everyone there and he was often seen as the weakest link. He stood out way too much. However, I admit that I didn’t pay as much attention to the drama so I could have been missing hints that the drama was dropping throughout here and there). Or how about when Gi-hoon wanted to back out of the competition at the very end with his defeated and injured best friend, Sang-woo? That decision from Gi-hoon felt a bit too elementary for me and also a bit anti-climatic. You competed against hundreds of other people, witnessed hundreds of other people die, you risked your own life to survive, and then in the end decided that you didn’t want to play anymore? After all that you went through and saw? If Gi-hoon was a teenager or high school student who was still a bit more naive and innocent, it’d be easier to understand the decision he made in that moment. But Gi-hoon was a poor adult, had a daughter he wanted to take care of, owed tons of money in debt, and lived a tragic life. He was trying to be the hero in a moment or situation where nobody needed saving. Everyone had already died up until that point.

In the end, it proved that it was all nothing for anyways. If Gi-hoon and Sang-woo came out of the competition alive, Gi-hoon would still be living a life of poverty. When Gi-hoon survived the competition and reigned as the “winner”, nothing much changed for him. Not even the amount of money he won could change his life. No amount of money can ever erase the amount of guilt and hurt he faces just knowing how many lives were lost in order to get that money. Gi-hoon thought money would solve all the issues in his life and while it might have improved some aspects of his life, it still wasn’t everything. With the very last scene of the drama, I believe Gi-hoon is going to participate in the next round of the competition again, but with intentions of destroying the operation from the inside out. He witnessed and experienced firsthand what it’s like to compete and survive the game. He doesn’t want anyone else to have to go through what he did; no amount of desperation will justify one’s participation in the game.

I do think the drama had potential to do even more with some of its side characters, especially Hwang Jun-ho (Wi Ha-joon). When he sneaked into the facility where the games were taking place and pretended to blend in as one of them, I was excited. Things got spicier and more eventful. I thought he was going to maybe – just maybe – be that hero that would help save all the contestants. I thought maybe he was going to unveil the hidden and dark secrets to everything that would shut the operation down. It was thrilling to follow Jun-ho and watch him pretend to be on the other side. The drama could have done something with that! Instead, the drama went another direction with Jun-ho’s character and had him chase after his missing brother. The drama could have done both, but instead chose to focus on only one. Jun-ho did eventually discover his brother and what his brother had been up to, but nothing much came out of it. It’s such a shame for there was so much potential with Jun-ho’s character and the things the drama could have done with him. Heck, I wished his ending could have been more impactful. Things were good for Jun-ho while he lasted.

All in all, ‘Squid Game’ had its perks as well as misses. All I knew going into the drama was Lee Jung-jae starring as the main character. Maybe that’s why I was a bit surprised and shocked to see cameos by other A-listers like Gong Yoo and Lee Byung-hun (which wasn’t as surprising anymore once I immediately checked to see who the director of the drama was). The drama also exposed viewers to newer actors such as Wi Ha-joon (who you might remember from ‘Matrimonial Chaos‘), Jung Ho-yeon who played Kang Sae-byeok, and Lee Yoo-mi who played Ji-yeong. That’s one encouraging aspect about hit dramas like ‘Squid Game.’ Even if it isn’t the most fascinating and impressive drama you might have ever seen, the success and fame it garners does wonders for the entire cast. That’s a reason to celebrate.

Happiness

Oh, Park Hyung-sik. I’m so glad you’re back.

However, what I’m not so sure about yet is how I feel about Park Hyung-sik’s post-military comeback drama, ‘Happiness’, also starring Han Hyo-joo and Jo Woo-jin. I’ve only finished the first two episodes so far and while they weren’t the greatest, it also was not not interesting. I’ve yet to determine what the meaning of the title to the drama means as it seems quite the opposite of what the drama showed in its first two episodes so it’s safe to say for now that the drama is a bit misleading. Regardless, ‘Happiness’ isn’t a drama that I haven’t seen before. A show focused on some infection or drug that causes human beings to react and behave like zombies. I was not expecting that at all. I was thrown off upon watching the first episode, but I also wanted to watch more to see what the deal was about.

Within the first 2 episodes, there was a debate between whether the root cause of the behavior stemmed from a pill or as an infectious disease. Then there’s also the special relationship between Han Hyo-joo’s character and Park Hyung-sik’s character who both move in together pretending to act as a married couple to reap in those housing benefits. Of course, there’s also the mysterious noises and actions going on from the neighbors which just adds to another level of suspense and intensity. Watching ‘Happiness’ did not make me happy, but that’s not to say that it won’t in the future. I’ll probably give episodes 3 and 4 a shot before deciding whether I want to continue with it or not. As long as my Park Hyung-sik survives and stays alive, that’s all that I care about. Please don’t hurt him or kill him off in this show.

Melancholia

Oof, I don’t know how to feel about this drama. I really don’t. But really, I actually do and as much as I want to brush it aside and watch it on a surface level, I can’t help but feel icky at it all.

‘Melancholia’ stars Lim Soo-jung (Search:WWW) who plays Ji Yoon-su, a math teacher at the same school as high schooler Baek Seung-yoo (Lee Do-hyun). Through some circumstances, she ends up as his math teacher/tutor which allows him to rediscover his talents as a young math genius while she continues to share her passion and love for math. A drama about math has got to be exciting, eh?

Except that it’s not. Watching a drama centered around mathematics and formulas and words like ‘calculus’ is not the most exciting (at least for a non-math person like me, haha). But it helps (or does it?) that the drama is beautiful and visually pleasing with the way that it draws out all the formulas and angles for you. Instead of just hearing our characters talk about math, we also get to see the same thing that our characters see. We get to enter their minds and worlds to see what they love and enjoy about math so much. It doesn’t do much for me per se, but it is always helpful as someone who’s a visual learner.

With the drama starting off in a high school setting, the show also involves all the good stuff that comes along in that territory: the high school politics, the behind-the-door deals that are made between the powerful higher-ups, the cliquey, haughty, and wealthy parents who always gossip, and the competitive students who are groomed and taught from a young age to outdo one another. However, there’s an aspect in this drama which hasn’t been explored quite as often in K-dramaland (for a good reason) and that happens to be the teacher-student relationship between Yoon-su and Seung-yoo. I’ve watched three episodes of the drama so far and I just can’t help but feel iffy and icky about their relationship. I know absolutely nothing about the drama so I’m not completely sure if the drama’s going to stay in this timeline or if it’s going to do a time jump where Seung-yoo eventually graduates and grows older. Regardless, I don’t feel the greatest about Yoon-su and Seung-yoo’s teacher-student relationship. While it’s supposed to be just that and nothing more, it also feels like there’s more. Lines are drawn and boundaries are set, but can they be crossed? Will they be crossed?

I’m unsure if the drama is going to go the route of honing in on a romantic relationship between Yoon-su and high schooler Seung-yoo or if the drama is going to frame their relationship as sort of a mentor-mentee type of dynamic. Right now, the drama is focused on Yoon-su and Seung-yoo bonding over their love and passion for math, but how will their connection and relationship develop? Will Seung-yoo harbor a one-sided crush on Yoon-su that extends for many years as he gets older? What kind of dynamic between the two main characters does the drama want to portray? How does the drama want viewers to interpret and view the relationship between Seung-yoo and Yoon-su? These are all questions that I ponder about as I watch the two spend time together and interact in the drama. It seems as if Yoon-su is stern with her boundaries with Seung-yoo by the way she refers to herself in the third person as “teacher” when she speaks to him, but it seems as if Seung-yoo might feel a bit differently on his end.

I’m also not exactly sure if the beautiful directing and cinematography helps or does more damage to the drama and its storytelling. On one hand, it’s a beautiful drama and is aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. On the other hand, I feel as if the visuals and music can be seen as a distraction and maybe even as a cover-up to Yoon-su and Seung-yoo’s relationship. It’s as if the show is masking what’s really going on by providing you with beautiful shots and frames and colors instead. I could be overthinking it (and I most definitely am especially because Seung-yoo and Yoon-su are a student-teacher dynamic), but I also hope the drama gets to a point where I don’t overthink it. I want the drama to show me that Seung-yoo and Yoon-su will remain just as a student-teacher duo and nothing more. Nothing will come out of their relationship other than the fact that they will remain a good influence in each other’s chaotic and imbalanced lives. Of course, a few years time jump will also be greatly appreciated so we’re not stuck watching high schooler Seung-yoo continue to spend time with teacher Yoon-su, but even then, that has its limits. We’ll see which direction and angle ‘Melancholia’ takes and how far it wants to go. Just don’t be surprised if I end up dropping this one.

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