Sunday, 18 September 2016

Frankenstein's Monster (An introduction to K Drama royalty)

I have created a monster! And it is glooooooorious!!!! 
Cled has been lured to the Dark Side!!  Mwuahahahahahahaha!!

Looking back, it seems as well orchestrated as a military campaign, but in actual fact, like all the best relationships it was purely organic. For starters, Cled has seen me maintain this drama addiction for over five years there had to be SOMETHING in it!
Then a few months ago, Cled was in Limerick for a visit and one morning, while we were having coffee, I got a message from Judd - my drama buddy who is still in Korea. I apologised to Cled for the rudeness of messaging while she was visiting, but begged her understanding, as a 9 hour time difference is a harsh task mistress.  In mitigation, I included Cled in the exchanges, explaining that Judd and I were all giddy and excited about this new drama which had just started, 'W'.  I quickly explained the premise and gave a bit of background on the production team's previous hits, which made me so confident about this drama. By then, it was bed time in Korea, so I bid 'Goodnight' to Judd, put the phone away, and resumed my non-drama conversation with Cled.

Then in August, Ms.Amused and I went to Edinburgh to stay with Cled and her family. For our last night, I arranged a Korean 'Girl's Night In' - we did a full on Korean skin care regime, weird masks and all. There were Korean snacks (which we forgot to eat!) and I streamed the first episode of 'W', for Ms. Amused and Cled to watch.
They loved it!
The next day, Ms.Amused and I returned home, and I figured that was that.

Until, two weeks ago, when I sent a random message to Cled, crowing that I had managed to do a decent workout, despite having a crazy day, and that I would be rewarding myself by watching the first two episodes of a new historical drama. I linked her the trailer, to show her exactly what I was excited about:
See it in all its glory here. 

A few days later, Cled asked me for the link to the first episode. Next thing I know, she's hooked!  Completely caught up on this drama AND 'W' and has moved onto 'Iljimae', to enjoy some more Lee Joon Gi in all his swashbuckling splendour! (and who could blame her!)

Lee Joon Gi in 'Moon Lovers'

This morning, I got a request for recommendations and I thought, "O.K, now it's time to break out the big guns!"  I suggested one of the best loved K Dramas of all time, the one I usually use to lure in new fans - 'Coffee Prince'.

Oh! The happy memories I have with this drama!!
It was the fourth drama I watched and it is firmly at the top of my 'All Time Favourites' list.
But that is only a tiny part of its importance for me.

This drama was a massive hit in Korea. HUGE!  I arrived in Korea four years after it had aired and it was still the drama that all Koreans recommended to me when they suggested dramas to watch.
And it therefore earned me tons of brownie points when I was able to say that I had already watched it and loved it.

I remember one lovely, golden moment, outside my kindergarten: I was talking with four of the Korean kindy teachers (slowly and haltingly in my fractured Korean and their broken English) - but when I mentioned that I was watching 'Coffee Prince' at the moment - ahh! a moment of pure connection.
In fact, all five of us stopped dead in the street for several seconds, just to contemplate the hunk of gorgeousness that is Gong Yoo!

Gong Yoo - He acts, sings, plays guitar and is kind to puppies. In the words of my friend Tonny, "It's too much!"

I also credit this drama with giving me a memorable introduction to a treasured friend - F.D.A.

I have referred to this person in several posts, but what is probably not remembered is that F.D.A stands for 'Fellow Drama Addict'.  Allow me to explain:

It was the spring of 2012 in Ulsan, and I was taking in the sights of the Ulsan Whale Festival, in Taehwa River Park.  Towards the end of the day, I met my Favourite Diva and she invited me to dinner with a friend of hers.  We went to a nearby (and amazing!) tofu stew restaurant.

Just as our food orders arrived, Diva mentioned that F.D.A was thinking of trying K Dramas and could I recommend any. Well, I naturally and immediately replied, "Coffee Prince!".
I gave them a quick summary, being as careful as possible not to give away any spoilers.

But that wasn't enough to satisfy them. They demanded more detail. So I grudgingly agreed to recap the first episode.
One entreaty led to another and an hour later there I was, sitting on the floor of a Soon Dubu restaurant, reciting the lines from the climactic scene to a captivated audience of two.
I was dehydrated, and I'd hardly had a bite to eat, but it was totally worth it!
Diva's friend went home and watched 'Coffee Prince', and then went on to watch many more dramas, lots of which we watched together, thus earning the moniker, 'Fellow Drama Addict'.
(Meanwhile, I re-watched it with Diva and Ms.Amused!)

'Coffee Prince' was filmed in an actual coffee shop in Hongdae, my favourite part of Seoul. Over the years, whenever Lush and I went to Seoul, we would usually make an effort to find this K Drama location mecca. But dodgy maps, wrong turns and simple lack of time stymied our efforts.
We gave it up as a bad job and forgot all about it.

Last August, I had packed up my life in Ulsan, and Kanga and I were spending a badly needed few days in Seoul, decompressing before the move home.  On our second last night, I was walking Kanga through the sleepy back streets of Hongdae, when, like a lovely gift from the Drama Gods, (in recognition of years of faithful worship) I practically tripped over it!
I couldn't believe it! I stood there in stupefied shock!  (Seriously, there were angelic choirs warbling over the fence!)

The pic quality is dodgy as feck, but I think the post captured my excitement pretty well!  (click to enlarge)

And yes, Dear Readers, I DID go back the next day without the dog.  I sat in the window table where Eun Chan had eaten her jam sandwiches, and took a moment to feel grateful.
'Coffee Prince' had seen in my earliest days in Korea, helped me to connect with Koreans and foreigners alike, my long running and steadfast devotion to Gong Yoo had become common knowledge with most of my friends, and even my dog, Kanga, came incredibly close to being called 'My Chan', Eun Chan's nickname in the show.
It felt so utterly appropriate that 'Coffee Prince' should also be there at the end of my Korean adventure.

Now that Judd is in Korea and F.D.A is in America, I am giddy with excitement at the prospect of having a another K Drama junky in my own timezone again!

And Cled, just so you know - you will be finishing 'Coffee Prince' just in time to join me in watching Gong Yoo's NEW drama!

(rubs hands gleefully)

Thanks for sticking it out to the end folks!  Now I'm off to watch me some 'Coffee Prince'!

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

You say "Earthquake", I say "Icebreaker"!

In my last post I waxed lyrical about being the world's worst correspondent.
This is not the most desirable trait for a girl who has many friends living Far, Far Away. And the longer I go without contacting someone, the guiltier I feel, and the harder it becomes to reach out.
I mean, mawkish apologies are just NOT a sexy way to start a conversation.

Happily, every now and then, the universe lends a hand!

Yesterday, in Gyeongju, South Korea, there were two earthquakes.
No, no! Stay with me! I'm not a total monster! For starters, no one was seriously injured.
The first  quake was a 5.1 and the second, less than an hour later, was a 5.8.
I can hardly stress enough how unusual this is. Korea is not in a traditional earthquake zone and in the five years that I lived there, there was nary a tremor.
Well, not strictly true. Three years ago there were two small quakes, but I missed those ones as well, as I was in Ireland at the time.

(Gasp!) Wait! Is that it?! - Is Korea having withdrawal symptoms whenever I leave the country?!

But I digress.
Gyeongju, the epicenter, is only an hour north of Ulsan, my old hometown, and two hours north of Busan, another city chock full of friends and acquaintances.
So when we got the news, Ms.Amused and I grabbed this golden opportunity with both hands and lit up Facebook Messenger and KakaoTalk with concerned enquiries.

Depending on our target audience, the messages ranged in sensitivity from:

"Honey are you ok? You're apartment is quite high up, I hope it wasn't too scary!"


"Hey bro, you still alive?"

Admittedly, we're not going to be nominated for a Booker Prize anytime soon, but we had been granted a conversational opening and we ran with it.

Contact initiated! All systems are go!

So the moral of today's story is: "Keep watching the news, kids! You never know when you'll be handed the perfect excuse to reach out and call someone!"

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Memento Vitae

A few days ago, Ms. Amused and I were talking about one of the hardest parts of being an ex-pat, returned or otherwise - missing our friends who are scattered all over the globe.  I also took the opportunity to admit to being the world's worst correspondent. Honestly, if it wasn't for Facebook, most of my friends would be forgiven for thinking me deceased! Ms. Amused also copped to being a less than exemplary pen pal. (I do so love not being alone in the error of my ways!) However, we also acknowledged that part of the reason why we are so bad at contacting our distant friends is that we miss them so damn much that it hurts.
When I am not messaging you, it's pretty much because this Cowardly Lion is desperately trying to deny how much I miss you. And God forbid that I should find out that you are going through a hard time and I can't be there to hug you and bake you brownies!!

While all these thoughts were percolating through my brain, I re-read an old post by Starry Eyed Travels about her favourite travel souvenirs.
She has some lovely ones, which now decorate her home with memories of past adventures. After reading her post, I looked around my room with fresh eyes and realized that most of my mementos are not really of places themselves, but rather treasured keepsakes of the friends I made in those places.  I think this is a natural result of the fact that I was in Korea long term, rather than passing through. What I collected were the trappings of daily life, the more interesting ones were gifts from friends and students.
I have some pieces of jewelry which originally belonged to my favourite Diva and to Lush.
I find myself wearing them on the days when I am particularly missing them.
I have a pair of earrings that I bought at the Busan Foreigner Market from the talented Joshua Weaver.
I need to constantly remind myself of this fact, because whenever I catch sight of them, I think, "Aw! Those are the earrings that F.D.A bought me!"
Except that she didn't - but they are soooooo incredibly her style that I constantly and automatically give her the credit.
Hanging beside those earrings are a pair that African Queen actually did buy me, as a birthday present, for a birthday that we celebrated upstairs in the Golden Eagle Pub in Ulsan, followed, natch, by the obligatory and awesome noraebang session.  Good times.
(And just this morning I came across the birthday card too!)


 The silver ring in the photo is a thumb ring which I wear every single day, without fail. It is one of a pair of rings, the other is worn by the darling Ji Won, my Korean niece.  Every night when I take it off, it goes into this beautiful silver jewelry case, which was painted by Ji Won's mum, my Korean Unni (big sister).

Every few months in Korea, my Dinner Club crew would have a clothes swap night. (a necessary event when you are foreigners in a country with clothes shops for tiny people.)  The sweaters I have from those nights are like wearable hugs from my Dinner Club girls.

There is a photo collage which Doc Doolittle made for me, to wish me luck before O'GradyLady's first market.  And there is an incredibly adorable O'GradyLady poster which Cheong Soon also made for my markets.


On one of my bookshelves there sits a wooden framed, Japanese picture and a beautiful blue ceramic dish (where I stow my car keys), which Renee brought me back as a thank you for pet sitting her hamster. To the left of this hangs a ticket for a music festival that I went to with Judd.  The adorable squirrels are hand made felt creations from Cheong Soon, and the origami crab was given to me by the proprietor of a crab restaurant in Osaka, where Lush and I had an EPIC crab feast while on holiday there.  The yellow Domo Kun pencil case was a birthday present from Tonny, given while I was going through a short, yet intense, obsession with the Japanese cartoon character.

On the shelf above, the snake and the jolly pig are souvenirs of day trips with Lush and Ms.Amused, while the photo of Natalya and I is part of a photo album that Natalya made for me as my farewell gift.

I have come be deeply grateful to have such things strewn around my walls and shelves, but I also got to thinking about the marks that my friends have left, on me.

Every morning when I brush my teeth, I wait 15 minutes before eating my breakfast, because twenty odd years ago, my beloved Cled told me that was good for my enamel. I have had this habit for so long now that it has sunk into my bones.

When I indulge myself in a full on Korean skin care regime I remember learning this whole process at a slumber party with all the Dinner Club girls at Amanda's apartment - so now Amanda is with me whenever I apply three different kinds of moisturiser. (or drink craft beer - another of her many talents!)

When I make a cup of instant coffee, I splash cold water over the granules before adding the boiling water, to avoid burning the grounds and making the coffee taste bitter.  This was a tip that Goulash taught me, so now, every time I make a cup of instant coffee, I remember Goulash.

Whenever I drink Joheun Day Soju, (frankly, the best soju there is!) I remember eating samgyupsal at the best joint in Ulsan with Ellen and Alex.
[speaking of.... I'm down to my last bottle. Help! somebody send me some!!]

Last month I re-read the book 'Good Omens' and it brought Jessykat so strongly to mind, it was as if she was sitting and reading in the very next room.

Yesterday, while driving my car I heard 'Kiss from a Rose' on the radio, and I flashed back to dancing around a dining room with my friend Nuala.

I bought this memo board intending to go all 'The Secret' and create a vision board, but instead it quickly evolved into a 'Who Loves Ya Baby!' board. Much more fun.
This post is incredibly long and rambling, I know, and I'm sorry. I have mentioned as many people as I can, but it would be impossible to get everyone, though like a good Oscar speech I am trying to cram in as many names as possible.

What I am trying, so desperately, to convey, is the heartfelt message that I am genuinely sorry for being such a crap correspondent, but please know that you are always in my thoughts. 
I bring you with me through all my days. You have shaped the very person that I am.

To steal a line from 'Wicked', "Your hand prints are on my heart. You have changed me for the good."

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Feel the Bowel Clenching Terror - And Do It Anyway!

I have that doohickey on my Facebook account that shows me my memories from days of yore and it has been working overtime recently to remind me that for the past several years, August has been a pretty eventful month for me - all quirky holidays, new jobs and fantastic festivals.

Which has prompted me to share one of my more significant memories:

Picture it! Ulsan, August, 2014.  The pavement is simmering gently in the blistering heat and the cicadas are so loud that I have to constantly remind myself that they are not, in fact, machines.
It's ten o'clock in the morning and every surface in my apartment is covered in baked goods in various stages of preparation, cooling and packaging. I had even McGyvered the laundry racks into a pretty ingenious cooling station. I was quite proud of that stroke of inspiration!
It's the scene of an incredibly tiny cottage industry at peak production.

And there was I, standing in the middle of the floor, positively frozen with terror.
This is not a catchy euphemism.
I was panicking so hard that I physically could not move. My feet were frozen to the floor.  In two hours time, I was due to travel across town to set up my stall at the inaugural 'Acoustic Lady Land' music festival.
The night before, on my nightly dog walk with Doc Doolittle, I had been quite optimistic. Pleased with the amount of stock I was able to prepare. Nervous but excited about the adventure ahead.

But crossing the floor of my apartment at 10am, I was hit by such a wave of doubt and insecurity:
"I don't have enough stock. I'm going to run out ridiculously early and be a complete laughing stock!"
"I don't speak enough Korean!  I won't be able to do the transactions with Korean customers! What if a scary Ahjumma starts asking me questions about the ingredients!!"
"It will be such a failure, that Dan will be disgusted that he even offered me a stall!"
"I wish to God that I had a car. I could pretend that I crashed it, and skip the whole festival."

"How," I asked myself, "did I get myself into this mess?"

Rewind to my return to Korean in the summer of 2013 - as far back as the previous February, I had been mulling over the idea of starting my own bakery business.  When I came back to Korea, I specifically took on a part-time job, so that I could really give my idea a proper chance.

I had a fistful of recipes, a killer name, thanks to the lovely Amanda Bell and thanks to Jen Lee, the world's most adorable logo!  (See for yourself!)
And so in October 2013, I was ready to launch the grand experiment.

Then, with the most serendipitous timing, the redoubtable Harry Bush launched The Ulsan Foreigner Market in November, and suddenly O'GradyLady Bakery had a regular monthly market stall where I could meet my customers in person!
Apart from the deep and thrilling satisfaction of watching them enjoy the goods, it was an invaluable resource for testing new products, as I provided samples of everything I sold.

Things were going swimmingly. I was having a ball at the Ulsan Foreigner Market and both my product line and my customer base were growing steadily.

So, I had taken a risk, a very little one, with low stakes and so far, so good.

Then, in July, a chance encounter while volunteering at the Ulsan Whale Festival brought me an opportunity to go waaaay outside of my comfort zone.  It was while I was serving beer at the Ulsan International Volunteer Center tent that I ran into Dan. Dan is one of Ulsan's most senior ex-pats, practically a Village Elder for us foreigners,  and I had met him when Ms.Amused and I had volunteered with T-Hope, a charity he had set up. We caught up with each other, and when he heard about my business and my regular spot at the Ulsan market, he offered me a stall at the Korean music festival. I was ecstatic! Positively giddy with excitement.  And barring a little sleep induced grouchiness as I baked up a storm, excited was pretty much how I stayed until Saturday morning.

Finally, after several minutes of frozen freaking out, I managed to talk myself down and begin to function again. Was I back to excited? Hell no!
I was still utterly convinced that the entire day would be an unmitigated disaster and that there was no possible way that I would be going back for round two on Sunday.

But.  And this was the clincher - I believed that keeping my promise and showing up was more important than avoiding the immanent and inevitable embarrassment. I decided that I would rather be known as the girl who failed, than the girl who flaked out.

Goodness, but I was a regular beacon of positivity!

So, this event that I was approaching like it was my own execution - how did it turn out?
One of the most amazing and satisfying weekends of my life!

For starters, I got to see my name up in lights! (kinda)

 Doesn't it look pretty! I nearly burst with pride to see that.

Now, remember my panicked rambling that morning -

1) I won't be able to serve Korean customers - completely forgetting that I had ALREADY been doing that since October!

2) I'll run out of stock - completely discounting my genius plan to bring one of my ovens with me (yes, I did say 'one'. I had three.) and bake cookies fresh throughout the day.  This had three purposes:
i) I wanted the scent of freshly baked cookies wafting over the park and luring in customers.
ii) It ensured that I wouldn't run out of stock AND
iii) My mother had taught me that Rule #1 of working behind a counter is, "Always look busy."

My dearest Korean bro, SangJin, came to the Festival and brought some of his friends to my stall. One of them declared my Chocolate Chip Cookies to be, "the best I have had in my whole life!"

There is one personal highlight of the weekend, the credit for which goes ENTIRELY to Doc Doolittle, my Brownies.
About three weeks before the festival, Doc suggested that I should sell Brownies. I dismissed the idea, saying that I already had plenty of other goods and I wasn't going to start experimenting with a new recipe this late in the day.  Doc kept suggesting, relentlessly! And I kept refusing, snappishly!
Then, the day before the festival, I was in the Bakery Supply Store and lo and behold - brownie pans on half price sale.  I listened to what the universe was clearly shouting at me and went home and researched some recipes.

The result?  I sold some to an American customer, who wandered over to a music stage 30 yards away before taking a bite. I still treasure the memory of his shocked shout of "Oh my God this is good!!"
And the from the darling Dan, who is also a gourmet chef, 
"How long have you been making these?"
"Since yesterday."
"Fuck me!!"

heh heh

These delicious babies went on to become my signature product and best seller over the rest of my time in Korea.

What a change four hours can make!  At 10am I was nailed to the floor, flailing in panic.  By 2pm I was set up and selling, in English AND Korean, and getting fantastic feedback. That evening, I finally had some breathing space and I picked up a festival brochure.  I had been so busy the last two months, planning for O'GradyLady Bakery that I had not checked out the music line up.
Reading through the programme I got the best surprise!  On Sunday evening, one of my favourite Korean bands, Urban Zakapa, was going to play.

Listening to them live while sitting under the summer stars, what a perfect ending to an extraordinary weekend, what a memory to treasure forever.

And the whole experience was a powerful lesson in not allowing yourself to be held back by fear, or, to paraphrase a famous book title:
"Feel the bowel clenching terror and do it anyway!"

A lesson I am trying to keep in mind, now that I am back in Ireland, facing new challenges and searching for new adventures.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

"You Might As Well Face It, You're Addicted To .......Language Learning?!"

Last Friday I was ambushed by a stomach bug and spent most of the weekend in bed.  I was feeling too lethargic to do any reading or writing, so I was browsing around online, looking for some mental candy floss. On a whim, I chose a currently airing Taiwanese drama, called 'Refresh Man'.  It's been a few years since I watched any movies or dramas from Taiwan, but I remembered them as being light, sweet and wonderfully innocent.  Just the tonic for a girl who's feeling wretched.

Oh boy, did I land on a good 'un!  I marathoned the first eight episodes but sadly, now I'm all caught up and will have to wait for each weekly installment like everyone else. Le sigh.  In the meantime, I have the ending credits theme song firmly lodged in my brain.  Which is fine, because it's a gorgeous song........but it's also a Chinese song. And I don't speak Chinese.

The language I am actually trying to learn is Korean, and having mumbled Chinese running through my brain does not help. Though, I have noticed over the last few days that when I'm not paying attention, my subconscious plays the song and shoehorns random Korean phrases into it.
So there's that.

In a desperate bid to get the song out of my system, I decided to try and transcribe the lyrics, learn the damn thing, and try to move on.  Which led to this conversation last night:

Me:    Jeez! This romanised Chinese........almost every vowel has a flipping squiggle over it!

Ms.Amused:  Are you learning Chinese?!

Me:  (defensively) No!  It's just one song!

Ms.Amused: (laughs) It's just one song! I can quit anytime I like!


Heh. She has a point. The evidence against me is pretty damning. I rarely go on holiday without swallowing the phrase book first, my weekly Korean class is at 1am (because my teacher is in Korea) and I think it's totally worth it, and just a few days ago, I went into the Google Play Store to looking for a particular app for my mum and ended up downloading three Korean language learning apps for myself instead!

So yeah, Ms. Amused is probably right. It's only a matter of time before I properly tackle Chinese.
Especially if I keep watching these adorable Taiwanese dramas! ;)

And here is the song that started this whole train of thought, 'Think of You First', from 'Refresh Man':

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Sky Lanterns and Polo Biscuits

I've been thinking a lot about death rituals recently.
I promise you, this is not remotely as EMO or morbid as it sounds - merely further proof that I have inherited Dad's insatiable curiosity about EVERYTHING.

We have been enjoying a delightful spell of most un-Irish weather (i.e dry), so Mum, Ms. Amused and I have spent the last several days out in the garden, doing a major spring clean.  The hours of manual labour have given me plenty of time for reflection, and as this week is the third anniversary of Dad's death, it's only natural I suppose, that I have been looking back on the anniversaries that I marked in Korea and comparing them to this year's experience.

I have been repeating ad nauseum for the last five years that the Irish and Korean cultures are ridiculously alike, and one of these endless points of intersection is how both countries deal with death and funerals. Now, while Koreans don't get comfy round the corpse the way we do, (then again, who does?) they match us point for point when it comes to eating, drinking and telling stories, and also in the fact that if you knew the deceased at all, or any of the family members, you go to the funeral - no invitations needed.

As Dad's first anniversary approached, I was feeling nervous about how I would handle it, so far from my family and everyone who knew him.
Two things helped me through:
One - my amazing, fantastic and simply heaven sent ex-pat family. They didn't know Dad, but they knew and loved me and they way they gathered round and nurtured me just blew me away.

Two - The Korean tradition of 'Jaesa'.  On the anniversary of the person's death, the family set up a table of food for a memorial ceremony. (More about this in a later post) Of course, not being a Korean, I wasn't going to set up a Jaesa table, but it was such a comfort to have a short hand for talking about my Dad's  anniversary.  With my Korean friends I only needed to say that "Sunday will be my Dad's first Jaesa." and they immediately understood that this weekend would be tough for me and that I wanted to take some time out to do something to remember Dad.

In Ireland, the whole family would go to a Mass offered in Dad's name, then we would visit the grave and go back to the house for food.
In Korea, I had to get a little creative and I hit on the idea of sending up Sky Lanterns.  My darling friend Dr. Doolittle met a guy outside McDonnells and bought a pack of ten.  Then I started to fret whether or not I needed an official permit.  Happily, that was sorted out in no time. I reached out to an Elder Lemon in the ex-pat community, who put me in touch with the Foreign Liaison Officer with Ulsan police.  Who not only gave me the necessary permission, but even offered the roof of the police station as a venue.
Part of me regrets that I didn't accept the invitation, as I know that Dad would have gotten a huge kick out of it, but it was the first anniversary and I was feeling vulnerable, so I wanted to keep it private.

So instead, Dr. Doolittle and her boyfriend, with FDA and I, drove out to Jinha Beach just after sunset to startle some seagulls.



It was different and intimate and exactly what I needed.  AND, thanks to the magic of time zones, I was sending up the lanterns at the same time that the family were gathering back in Ireland.

This year, for the first time, I was marking the anniversary at home, with the whole family.... in fact, with the whole village.  It was wonderful to fall back into the utterly familiar process. It started with Maura in the Post Office, who remembered that it was Dad's anniversary, then it was the folk group at Mass, who gave me the space to sing Dad's favourite hymn. It was all the aunts and uncles and cousins, who gathered to mark the day with us.
It was going home afterwards to a feed which included Dad's favourite biscuits, Jacob's Chocolate Polos.

 It was just so good to be home for it all.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Crack K Drama Recommendations - Part 1: Saeguks - Historical Dramas: Swords, Silks and Subterfuge.

Saeguk dramas, (pronounced 'sahguk') are historical / period dramas. These are most commonly set during the Joseon Dynasty, 1392 - 1897, with a few exceptions being set in the earlier Goryeo and Silla Dynasties or later, during Japanese Occupation.

The Joseon Dynastic family was a royal hot mess of dysfunction, intrigue and treachery that made the Tudors look like the Brady Bunch, all set against a backdrop of trying to increase their own prestige, while simultaneously appeasing their Chinese overlords and fending off Japanese incursions.

What makes the Joseon Dynasty such a rich and unique source of drama is 'The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty'.  Now, bureaucracies the world over obsessively record the daily minutiae of government, but what separates the Annals is that they also obsessively recorded every utterance of the king. Crucially, the King was forbidden from editing, or even reading these annals, so they paint some 'warts and all' character portraits for us.  Consequently, we know that King Sejong wanted meat for every meal, against doctor's orders, and constantly teased his personal bodyguard and that Crown Prince SuYoung often wore robes that were too big for him!

For the sake of accuracy, I must point out that the following dramas are more properly know as 'Fusion Saeguks', because they stray somewhat from the path of historical accuracy to be more speculative, as well as sometimes adding elements of fantasy.
If it's pure history you're after, you need to head back to the saeguks of the 80's and 90's.

But that's another the meantime, buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Arang and the Magistrate  / Arang Sato  /  아랑사또

Where to begin with this wonderful gem?  I think that I will start with what struck me first - the stunning, sumptuous and imaginative visuals.
This drama is a pure fantasy, the titular Arang is a virgin ghost who enlists (ahem, blackmails) the aid of the magistrate to solve the mystery of her death and help her to move on to heaven.  The depictions of the her journey to the Underworld were so amazing that by the end of the second episode, I was emailing artist friends with strict instructions to check it out.

This is a fully realised world with a rock solid internal logic. There are no wishy-washy 'it's just magic' cop outs. There are rules and they are not only explained, but followed. It's really quite refreshing!

The writing is excellent, with a fully developed, complex cast of characters playing for the highest of stakes - more than life and death, it is Arang's very soul which is at risk. This is balanced by some fantastic moments of humour and top-notch chemistry between the leads.

And the bonus of watching any drama starring  Lee Joon Ki - as a 4th Dan Black Belt, he does hella good fight scenes!

Bridal Mask / Gaksital / 각시탈

Our next saeguk takes place in 1930's Seoul, at the height of Japanese Occupation.
This show was brave even before it started production! "How so?" I hear you ask. Korean pop culture; the pop music, the dramas and the movies, are big business across the rest of Asia. Incredibly big. HUGE. And their biggest market is Japan.  This drama, dealing as it does with all the dark and nasty corners of colonialism will never......EVER..... air in Japan. For this reason, several actors turned down the lead role, until it was offered to Joo Won, who considered the story too important to pass up.

This is a period of time which is still in living memory, and still quite raw, mostly due to Japan's unwillingness to deal with it's murky past. And much like France after WWII, there is still deep bitterness against the collaborators. Gaksital pulled no punches in depicting the depravity of both the Japanese occupiers and the Korean collaborators.  There were scenes which gave me goosebumps and one particular scene which froze me to the bone.

In a nutshell, Gaksital, the titular hero, works with the Japanese Government by day and as a masked freedom fighter by night.

It was great to be watching this in Korea as it aired - it became a runaway hit, EVERYBODY was watching this one.  I have a lovely memory of one of my seven year old students whispering in my ear to tell me 'Gaksital's' real identity.

Six Flying Dragons / Yook Rongi Nareusha / 육령이 나르샤

I give you fair warning - it's going to be difficult for me not to gush like a giddy fangirl for this one. This drama is utter perfection in every single aspect and in every single episode, from one to fifty.  Fifty episodes may sound like a daunting commitment, (most saeguks are 24 eps) but I promise you, I ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEE YOU that you will eat up every last bit and beg for more. ( I have the withdrawal symptoms to prove it!)

Six Flying Dragons is the prequel to Tree With Deep Roots, another drama on this list.  Tree With Deep Roots tells the story of King Sejong the Great and the political and ideological ramifications of the creation of the Korean alphabet, hangul.
When if finished, I wondered to myself, "How could this exquisite drama possibly be improved upon?" The answer?
Take the same production team, set the story a generation earlier, at the foundation of the dynasty, given them a larger ensemble cast and twice the time to tell the story.

It is a trademark of both dramas that the ideological conversations are every bit as gripping and exciting as the breathtaking fight scenes.
And if amazing dialogue and mind blowing martial arts aren't enough to float your boat, (you weirdo!), well then, just sit back and enjoy the pretty!!

Here are three of the six dragons:

And trust me, it does not hurt that the top guy, Byun Yo Han, is channeling the young Errol Flynn for the early days of his character!

Middle Main Man, Yoo Ah In, in an actor of such incredible intensity that I look forward to watching him for many years to come.

Lastly, Yoon Kyun Sang manages the delicate task of playing a character of humbling innocence and strength.

Just watch it, m'kay?!

Sungkyunkwan Scandal / 성균관 스캔들


This drama is listed under 'Saeguk' but could just as comfortably be filed under 'Gender Bendy Shenanigans', as the heroine is a girl who dresses as a young man in order to work as a book seller and support her family.  Through mischief and misfortune, she ends up attending the epynonymous Sungkyunkwan University. (Not only an actual university, but one of the oldest in Asia, founded in 1398)  Cue hijinks galore!

This drama not only has the fun of gender bendy shenanigans, but the bromance is off the charts!!  You'll be squeeing for days! And the romance is just adorable. Feck it. I'm just going to have to watch it again!

Take this drama as a gift wrapped tonic from me, and stream it the next time you need a pick me up.

The Princess' Man / Gongjooui Namja / 공주의 남자

Hand's up who loves 'Romeo and Juliet'?

Now imagine if our darling Romeo and Juliet were a few years older, intelligent and had a strength of conviction so rock solid that you could build a house on it - sounds pretty good, huh?  You're in for a treat then, cos that's this drama.

I discovered this drama while a friend and I were having Sunday lunch at a restaurant, and this was playing on the telly.  My friend and I were busy chatting and eating, not paying it any mind, when we suddenly realised that every other diner in the place was riveted to the screen as the episode's cliffhanger played out. And damn! As soon as we looked, we were hooked!

This drama is based on the bloody and vicious coup of Prince Su-Yang in his bid to become the seventh king of Joseon in 1453. The stakes are high and the scope is epic. The show has a tightly constructed plot which will keep you guessing until the end.  This is a drama you can really sink your teeth into.

The Return of Iljimae / Doraohn Iljimae / 돌아온 일지매

This drama is such a sumptuous feast for the senses!  Lush cinematography, thoughtful editing, beautiful music which enhances the scenes without ever overwhelming them, and all in support of a thoughtful and complex character arc of our hero, Iljimae. And the swordfights are pure art!

And would someone please explain to me how the hell Jung Il Woo can emote such much just with his eyes!!!!

This is a drama which I will be happily rewatching for years to come.

Tree With Deep Roots / Puri Gippeun Namu / 뿌리 깊은 나무

Oh, Show, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways?

Based on the best selling novel of the same name, words fail me in trying to praise the excellence of the script. It's exploration of the dictum, 'Knowledge is Power' is thought provoking to a degree which is deeply satisfying.  It showcases the colossal talent of Han Seok Kyu in his tour de force role of King Sejong the Great.

How epic was this show? The actor Song Joon Ki, currently taking Asia by storm in the hit drama Descendents of the Sun, turned down the chance to play the lead in a drama, so that he could play the young King Sejong for only four episodes and one Oscar worthy scene further down the line. And that decision transformed his career. This show is just that damn good and if I ever win the lottery, I'll be buying a desert island so that I can kidnap my friends and make them watch it!!

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Well my lovelies, I hope that some of these luscious offerings will lure you over to the dark side! heh heh.

These dramas can be streamed on subscription sites like Dramafever or Viki, and can be streamed for free on

To get the full historical context, as well as references to Korean legends and customs, go to and read the recaps after each episode.

Coming up in Part Two: Crime and Punishment in the Land of the Morning Calm.