What pulls you to K-drama: the actor or the storyline?

What pulls you to K-drama: the actor or the storyline?
You can't go wrong with a series about a goblin when it's played by Gong Yoo. —NETFLIX SCREENGRAB

It may sound unbelievable but there are still some Filipinos uninterested in K-drama, like my mother and two of my close friends. 

Of the latter, I conspired with Melie Cruz, a senior adviser for an international development organization, to get our high school buddy Joy Chadwick to watch a series. We got her started on “What’s wrong with Secretary Kim?” during our trip to Palawan last year. The series isn’t streamed in the United States, where the homemaker Joy lives, but, thankfully, “Crash Landing on You” (CLOY) is, which should keep her onboard the K-drama wagon.

My Batangas-based friend Harriet Limbo, on the other hand, is a tough nut to crack. A financial consultant, she has yet to watch even the globally acclaimed “Squid Game” or “Extraordinary Attorney Woo” despite my constant encouragement in our chats. And she wanted to know: “Which weighs more in watching K-drama—actor or storyline?”

Floyd Buenavente has enough K-drama wisdom to know that the story is king. After all, he’s been watching a myriad series, good and bad, since 2014. If the story is “boring, unrealistic, and irrational,” he’ll stop watching, like the series of Yoon Eun-hye, whom he admired in “Coffee Prince.” He felt not only sorry for her because of the terrible plot, but also guilty for having wasted his time.

Slice of life

The Manila-based digital marketer isn’t big on genre, yet he admits a bias towards slice-of-life dramas like “Reply 1988,” a favorite that has become his benchmark in gauging a series’ worth apart from its ratings and online reviews. Characters? They take a backseat in his selection. “[They] may not be particularly effective, but if the story is interesting and engaging, everything falls into place,” he tells me.

Alvin S Tismo, a teacher in Butuan City, shares Buenavente’s sentiment. Tismo has watched K-drama regularly since he was in college, not caring for the actors (unlike his friends). But he holds a deep appreciation for the directors.

“It was unique, the way the storyline was presented. It left you asking what would happen next [and] the best part was you never knew how it’d end,” he says.

My own introduction to K-drama more than a year ago was through the plot of “Undercover.” I binge-watched the BBC-adapted series, riveted by its storyline of Han Jeong-hyeon (Ji Jin-hee) keeping his marriage intact, his family safe, and his real identity as National Intelligence Service agent hidden. 

Han’s characterization was offbeat: a stay-at-home dad running a bike repair shop while his wife, a human rights lawyer, went to work. Gone were the stereotypical guilt-ridden woman juggling motherhood and career, and the resentful househusband. Truthfully, Han’s toned-down virility was a welcome respite from the usual macho or emasculated male roles—the gamut of cinematic male characters.

A bit of both

It’s generally actor and storyline for the Singaporean Fistri Abdul Rahim, who watched Cha Eun-woo in “Island” and Lee Jae-wook in “Alchemy of Souls” from start to finish. But she stops watching when the series is unbearable, like “Somebody,” which intrigued her with its storyline but ultimately repulsed her with its macabre killings. In the same vein, she left “Mouse” unfinished despite Lee Seung-gi, one of her favorite actors, starring in it and the series being a “psychopathic drama,” her preferred genre. Seung-gi’s character switching sides and the gruesome killings were too much to take.

Despite being panned by most viewers, “The King: Eternal Monarch” showed a different Lee Min-ho.–K-drama

Drawn by Lee Min-ho’s pulchritude but clueless about his celebrity stature, I watched “Legend of the Blue Sea” (LBS) and “The Heirs,” piqued by the mermaid plot in the former and the “Beverly Hills, 90210” TV show vibe in the latter. When later I grasped that Lee was the hallyu star the world had been gushing about, it seemed sacrilegious not to watch “The King: Eternal Monarch,” which, to its credit, was a cerebral show with its “scientific and mathematical extrapolations” on time travel.

Watching Gong Yoo as the cursed, almost-a-century-old dokkaebi—a goblin in Korean folktales—in “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (aka “Goblin”)—was inevitable after reading the series’ synopsis, given my inclination towards fantasy series alongside mystery and thriller. From there, it was a hop, skip, and jump to “Train to Busan” where Yoo, as fund manager with head-turning sartorial taste, was chased by a pack of fleet-footed zombies, reimagined from the classic slow-moving undead, inside a locomotive speeding through South Korea.

Actor-centric choices

Gorgeous as the actors are, talent is important for Rahim, who works as associate director for programs and client success in a Singapore firm. She expects them to showcase nuances of the personalities they’re portraying. It’s this creative versatility that makes her look forward to watching Ji Sung, Kim Nam-gil, Lee Dong-wook, Song Jong-ki, and Cho Seung-woo. She’s stoked to see Kim Nam-gil in his upcoming “Song of the Bandits” as Lee Yoon, a slave, because “[it’s] a character I haven’t seen him in. [Am] glad he’s moving towards more serious roles although I miss his comedic chaotic characters,” she tells me in our virtual chat. 

Rahim gets royally peeved when actors deliver a mediocre performance, like her favorite, Ji Sung, and minces no words in her critique: “I used to think that he could do no wrong, but his latest show, ‘Adamas,’ was a pain to watch. He was versatile in ‘Kill Me, Heal Me,’ playing seven different personalities of one person, but his role as twins in ‘Adamas’ was irritating. There wasn’t much depth.”

Contrarily, Buenavente is less demanding of actors, arguing that “[they’re] only as good as the script or story. There’s no redeeming value if the story is awful.” He may not have a preferred K-drama actor, but he applauded the chemistry between Kim Soo-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun in “My Love from the Stars.” Having said that, he completely disliked Kim Soo-hyun in “The Producers” and Jun Ji-hyun in “LBS.”

Hyun Bin, a recommendation from friends, was a revelation for me as he transformed like a chameleon into several believable characters. Playing a CEO who body-swapped with a stunt woman in “Secret Garden,” his performance never turned camp. In “Hyde, Jekyll, Me,” he distinguished someone with a dissociative identity disorder in his vivid portrayal of the cold, cynical Gu Seo-jin, and his other self, the carefree Robin. In “CLOY,” he mixed humor with gravitas in bringing Captain Ri Jeung-hyuk to life. Just when I thought he couldn’t possibly transform anymore, he showed his mettle in “Confidential Assignment” as a frosty, brooding North Korean soldier on a mission in South Korea.

Hits and misses

An actor’s recurring portrayal of an intense character, like Namkoong Min in “Awaken,” can put off some viewers.–K-drama

That actors are not infallible is an often overlooked thought. They can disappoint, like when Namkoong Min impressed Rahim in “Dr. Prisoner,” but disenchanted her in “Awaken” and “The Veil” with being typecast as an “intense, no-nonsense character.” With that, she gave “One Dollar Lawyer” a miss. It was the same with Nam Joo Hyu whose performance after “Start Up” fell short of her expectations, with his inability to change from his perpetual role as “the pathetic supporter.”

I was dismayed with Ji Chang-wook who’d shown range in “The K2” and “Healer,” where he was a lone wolf with heart, breaking away from the action hero role and transforming into a case-hardened prosecutor in “Suspicious Partners.” His drab performance as a struggling convenience store owner in “Backstreet Rookie” was frustrating to watch.

Lee Dong-wook was another letdown. “Bad and Crazy” had all the twists and turns, including a misplaced fuddy-duddy prone to screaming and shuffling like an old man as his character of a corrupt detective. His past series were a cornucopia of finespun portrayals of diverse characters. His grim reaper in “Goblin” simmered with hilarity underneath that somber facade. He elevated a lawyer’s goofy cluelessness to adorable cuteness in “Touch Your Heart.” He gave a gumiho—a nine-tailed fox in Korean myths—an elegant, commanding presence in “Tale of the Nine Tailed.”

Admittedly, sifting by actor or storyline, or both, through the library of excellent and mediocre series can be tedious. To overcome the weariness, I’ve become exploratory, taking a chance with, say, the slice-of-life series “Behind every Star.” My discoveries: The episodic storyline was hilarious; guest Daniel Henney was good in comedy; and Steve Sang-hyun Noh was an engrossing actor.

From a dull performance in an older series, Song Kye-ho was a revelation in her new one, “The Glory.”–K-drama

I’m more forgiving of actors like Song Hye-Kyo whose bland performance in “Descendants of the Sun” made me strike her off my watch list. She regained my attention with her nuanced portrayal of Moon Dong-eun in “The Glory,” stoking my interest in seeing how she’ll avenge herself in the series’ continuation, on top of my bias for Lee Do Hyun. Pushing my skepticism aside, I’m expecting Lee Dong Wook to deliver a stellar performance in his reprisal of his role as a 1,000-year-old gumiho.

At this point, Gong Yoo is on my mind. I’m wishing that he’d come out of hibernation, and expanded his cameo in “Squid Game.” Fingers crossed!

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