If you put Lee Dong Wook on top of a skyscraper and plant blasted blades poking out of his back, arm, and chest, then of course you’re going to get a reaction that equals a snort and a snicker and possibly an urge to ask the sane question: WHY?
When I de-hibernated this autumn and roamed the K-drama web, Blade Man’s poster made me promise myself I wouldn’t touch this drama (just like I didn’t touch Hotel King), you know, just to keep the better version of LDW as an actor in my mind. Chicken-y and highly self-preservatory of me? Well. You may be right, but one does not enjoy seeing people you like being mocked. Or maybe it’s the other way around? One does not enjoy liking people whom others mock? But then I ignored the promise to myself (predictably), and started this drama. And, wouldn’t you know, I love this show, blades and all. So much for not liking uncool things. Weirdness, let me embrace you.
Did I mention that the show is directed by the PD of the notorious Sword and Flower (another brand of weirdness I’ve liked till half-time but the final verdict on that is still on hold). And that the actress starring opposite Wookmeister is Shin Se Kyung. I’ve had no problems with her, but then again, all I’ve watched her in is TWDR (where she was good – she was a mute – all she did was EMOTE – and she’s frickin good at that in my not so humble opinion) and the early episodes of When a Man Loves (where I shipped her with Young Master aka Yeon Woo Jin). So, yeah, you take an actor I like and stick blades out of him, and you pair him up with netizen’s hate target Ms Se Kyung, and then you get S&F PD to direct?! If that isn’t a recipe for disaster and derision then I don’t know what is. But as the cruel drama gods would have it, I love this show. Yes, that sentence is without irony. I really love this show.
Initially, I’d assumed this was a superhero journey. You don’t just stick blades out of a person and decide he’s all normal now, do you? But then what could a superhero do with freaking blades on his back unless he wanted to be a living specimen in the House of Freakshow. Not that that could qualify for superhero-dom. Jutting blades probably would help him destroy things, and wouldn’t that make him a Monster? Now why would we want to see the journey of the super monster?
So there I landed in episode one and weird things begin to happen. There’s a strange house and the people in it are kooky and the supposed Hero is busy beating people up and throwing tantrums worthy of a Superbrat. But what really surprised me was that the man himself seemed unaware that he was abnormal. Only the bodyguard seemed to be clued in and this made me very curious. Just what kind of supernaturality was this drama selling? Why doesn’t the monster know he is a monster? When will he know?
And, of COURSE, there were no rules to the freakiness. Rules? Pooh. It’s K-drama supernatural-dom we’re talking about here. This guy could change the weather (unfortunately always for the worse, Rain Rain Go Away), cut trees vertically, fly, and just become a crazy strong bastard in general. Not that any of those ‘gifts’ seemed very useful.
Because of this bizarreness of the premise (which even by the end some may say never gets fully explored, though I disagree), no one could deny that this show was off its medicine hence funny and weird and sometimes funnily weird. The character interactions ranged from bizarre to WTF to fun to sometimes bizarrely WTF-ly fun. But it made me more and more curious about all the players. I constantly kept questioning myself about each character: Was Daddy really that evil? Was the dead girlfriend really dead?
What I soon realised was that despite the fancy fantasy trappings, essentially this was a quintessential Korean drama. By that I mean this was a show that reveled in character dynamics and cared about questions of family and ties that bind – whether those ties were blood or not so blood related. This show was all about glorious complicated relationships that could give Shakespeare the run for his money what with there being dead people coming back to life, birth secrets and terminal illness looming large, children with major, major parental issues, and parents with demons of their own. In short, this show was a monster of a melodrama with a dash of the weird and a pinch of the fantastical.
But what prevents the web of intricate relationships from becoming hammy and this close to makjang-y is because of how the story gets told. I love, love, love this PD. He gives me eye-gasms and makes me laugh and cry all with visual cues. Did I say I love this PD? I do.
So I accepted the show to be a weirdly fantastical melodrama but what I wasn’t prepared for was it to be a frickin cute romance. Wookietookie and little Ms Se-kyung have chemistry! Halle-lu-jah! Until their romance becomes a sobfest which I eagerly lapped up as well. Yes, I heart this love triangle, you see? You heard that right. Tae Hee, the Woman Who Returns, made me CRY. And this is probably where I take the less beaten path because I hear people say her introduction into the plot ruined the drama. From where I stand, she was integral to the plot and formed a huge part of who Hong Bin was. She was the calm centre of this emotional storm, and what a fantastic centre she proved to be.
The main romance has a touch of weirdness (he falls for her firstly through his nose – though he has science on his side – pheromones, ya’ll); it also has a touch of creepiness (he sees his dead girlfriend in the poor girl); a boatload of cuteness that makes you blush for them (even the moon blushes for them!); a touch of sadness (even when he loves her for her, something happens that prevents him from loving her for her – worst romance pitch from me, ever?); and a truckload of Angst and bitter-sweetness that rocked my world so much I cried a river for all involved which is the best kind of Angst, period.
This drama is off-beat, and hilarious, and there’s some jaw-dropping Drama, yet there’s a part of it that’s almost … fragile and oh so touching. Just like the little kid in the show who’s so fragile. Just like the two protagonists and their sad childhood scars are raw and fragile. Which makes me think that LDW and his physicality was a good casting choice for this because his Hong Bin is not a typical Superhero. He’s hardly heroic. He’s this mixture of Willy Wonka, the Mad Hatter, Edward Scissorhands, a skinny non-green Hulk, and a Superman with no control over his powers. With a bit of John Mayer cheesiness thrown in. (Yes, that brand of cheese is just my thing. Emo bros, I love you.) PS I want all his jumpers and his Lincolns.
Initially, I’d feared if the “beast-girl” pairing would herald uncomfortable levels of ManPain and lots of uncomfortable stupid self sacrifice from the heroine; strangely, I love how the show deals with the monster’s self loathing in that he almost never becomes Nobly Idiotic though they could have milked that vein till kingdom come. He’s got his pain and anger and frustrations projecting out of him as literal Blades, for crying out loud. He’s got every reason to be idiotic, but he never is. And I love him for it.
So while the story plays out a reformative arc for the Blade Man, I was worried that the Perfect, joyful, kind girl he falls for would be just that – so perfect, angelic, kind, loving, self-sacrificing, and so stinkingly forgiving that you might want to shake her a bit and ask, “Se Dong-ah, please be a bit selfish! Please.” Yet the story develops her so well that I could see why she does whatever she does. Well, she should really think twice about being the human shield, but I’ll let her get away with it because she’d never forgive herself otherwise.
If selfless chicks make you want to poke them just to see how much you could try their patience before their facades drop, Se Dong will sadly disappoint you in that this girl is really selfless. I felt humbled just watching her do stuff I never could. She is at once a lesson and a precautionary tale on empathy for me. So it really pleased me that, by the end, this reformative tale was not solely for the Blade Man alone, but for his sweet partner in non-crime as well. Because this girl really needed to know that it’s okay to be selfish once in a while. It’s liberating! Join the club!
What this drama did was it took some of the elements of the Kdrama narrative I usually loathe and made me like them. I usually don’t like reformative hero arcs where the love of a woman pure and good balms his soul. Yes, the romance does kinda play out that way, but the romance is so complex and the story is generous enough to give its heroine her own reformation as well, which is sweetly gentle and moving. I usually ditch dramas that shoehorn in a love triangle (in the 3rd leg, no less), but here I was totally with each of the three legs of this motherfather of a triangle.
It usually sets my teeth on edge when every tom, Dick, and harry falls for the heroine like she’s the last female on Earth. It just feels orgy-like, ok? But somehow each of the offenders (Hong Bin’s little brother, Se Dong’s bestie and long term bud, and even the little kid) made me love them. When each character gets his say and feels what he feels, all I can do is nod and cheer him on.
Populated with a great cast, this show boasts of great acting chops all around. While LDW may not be a very good actor, I don’t think he’s a bad one. He always manages to get me as the romantic hero, and here he also amused me non-stop as Wonka-Hatter-Hulk-SuperBlademan. While I agree that by now no one has any doubts as to what he looks like when he has a severe bout of constipation (he really does overact in the rage bits), but it kinda fits because his character was all about the Rage and pent up Frustration.
Shin Se Kyung, bless her young soul, really chooses melo projects and she is so subtle with her emoting that one could say she’s expressionless. But, no, she’s pretty good. Girl had to cry so much here, and I think she did well. I love the sound of her voice and its cadence, too. I also loved Han Eun Jung who played Tae Hee. It was good to see her back in action as the Other Woman, but what a fantastic role for her. Bravo!
Could this review be complete without mentioning Han Jung Soo as Secretary Go? I loved him and his awesome bromance with the Blade Man. These two made me hoot and snort and maybe even shed a few tears.
I have so much respect for Lee Mi Sook as an actor. She’s excellent here as the Head of Staff who considers herself the Mistress of the house instead. Her character is like the dark Witch of the tale, and I could see people grumbling that she got away without her comeuppance, but this was also a redemption tale and I’m okay with that untied end. There were other drama veterans like Kim Gap Soo who played the stern Dad to a tee. Most of the cast was good, buoyed by good direction as they were.
While I admit that the show is not perfect and may even have reneged on its promise of a superhero tale (though I disagree that it didn’t deliver, and I’m kinda glad it wasn’t about the Superhero journey), what it lacked in clear, concise, one point to the next type of storytelling that most K-dramas do, it made up in hitting all the right emotions at the right time and by giving its characters fantastic depths that made me root for one and all. That rarely happens. Even the house had a character of its own!
This story plays out like a gothic tale in a bright, airy setting where the occasional lightheartedness makes you so giddy you gasp in surprise as the dark, primal drama that lurks deep in the tale’s heart pounces on you. It makes me want to watch Cinderella’s Sister because I feel the writer really understands people and families in particular. I wonder about the PD’s fascination with monsters (White Christmas) and Daddy Issues (Sword & Flower) which he has combined into a whopping tale of monstrous daddy issues here.
In my K-drama journey, I’ve liked enough weird things to realise that my choices are odd and may not be universal, hence I hesitate to inflict this drama on one and all. But this is surely entering my list of odd Valentines because it made me laugh and cry and sometimes laugh-cry, as only the best dramas can.
PS I’ll follow up with a more spoilery reaction post where I’ll talk about all the things that worked, and all those that didn’t, yet did.