Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Once Upon a Time in Saengchori: Review

Ohh, Saengchori... Saengchori, Saengchori, Saengchori... It's been a while since a show left me unclear as to how I felt about it after the credits rolled, but this one seems to have done it. To say that I think it suffered from bad writing would probably be only partly true, because it was really problems in the plot that made it go wonky towards the end.

As usual, this review has many a spoiler attached, which is particularly important to note for this show, which revolved around a murder mystery. Just a heads up!

Last note: This post will debut my new review system. I've added a couple of sections, and each one now gets its own score, which I average at the bottom to give you my overall technical score for the show. I figure that's a better way to go than just giving out arbitrary numbers for ratings--this holds me accountable for the scores I'm giving with plenty of reasoning behind them to back them up.

Watch Once Upon a Time in Saengchori on DramaFever!

Plot Overview
An entire branch of the Samjin Securities firm comes under the wrong wheel (literally) of their new boss when they're all found loitering the streets drunk on the eve of their colleague's funeral. This is a further exacerbation of an incident that happened prior, and the entire office is packed off to the countryside as a way to get them out of the company's hair. Among those in the group are our leading lady YOO EUN-JOO (Lee Young-eun) who's just been dumped by her fiance, her (very hot) jokester sunbae HAN JI-MIN (Kim Dong-yoon), the branch's manager LEE MAN-SOO (KANG! NAM! GIL!), resident farter CHOI DAL-GOOK (Jo Sang-ki), cowardly lion BONG JIN-SOO (Kim Kyung-bum), and the girl with a sordid secret PARK MIN-YOUNG (Jung Ji-ah). None of them are too happy about the relocation, but eventually fall into a routine out in Saengchori, a town full of secrets of its own.

On the flip side is JO MIN-SUNG (Ha Suk-jin), Samjin's right hand man, a math whiz of the best kind, and cold to the point of cruelty. He's engaged to the company president's (Pali pali!) daughter, Bok-soon, whom I wanted to punch in the face more than a couple of times. Min-sung has the unfortunate fate of getting struck by lightning one night, which causes him to lose his ability to deal with numbers entirely. He can neither read clocks nor do simple addition and subtraction, let alone complicated stock forecasts. It's with a heavy heart and a determination not to let this get him down that Min-sung asks the president to send him to Saengchori so he can get the new branch in line and work on a secret side project. The president reluctantly allows him to do so, and that's how everyone ends up in Saengchori.

Only... that's where the real story begins. Murder, mystery, romance, oh my!

Personal Thoughts
I have mixed emotions about this show, as I said, and the further removed I get from the ending, the more I begin to see some of its flaws. Don't get me wrong--it's a good show. There are certainly much worse dramas out there, as most of you can probably attest to, and this was a solid enough watch that I got through it in one go (as in, without stopping for a few weeks before I finished it). That likely has to do with the mystery aspect of the plot and wanting to find out what was going to happen/who the killer was. But that's also where the problems start, because I had many an issue with the ending.

One thing I did not have a problem with were the characters themselves, for the most part. The character development was way off, but the characters as they were written (with the exception of crankybutt Min-sung) were quite likable, which holds a lot of weight in ensemble cast dramas. Another thing that was done well was the tone, until about the last two episodes. Everything stayed very consistent throughout the drama, allowing you to seamlessly transition from the light and funny to the weird and creepy.

Characters - 8/10
As an ensemble cast, this show had a lot of characters. Most were background or periphery, with a number of them getting their own storylines/plot threads. Because of the overabundance of people, there were a few storylines that were glossed over too quickly and which left me wanting more.

Jo Min-sung: Min-sung was really the assiest male lead I've seen in a drama for a while and, considering I just watched Thank You, that's saying something. He was a one trick pony--cold to everyone, even his family, and unbelievably stiff. Min-sung always reminded me of Yoon Kye-sang's Cha Seung-hyo from Who Are You? in his awkwardness and inability to deal with Feelings. Min-sung was a little less likable than Seung-hyo, though, because we saw in his interactions with his family too, that he wasn't any different, and didn't change for most of the series.

The first time we're ever shown his humane side was in his relationship with OH NA-YOUNG (Nam Bo-ra), with whom he seemed to empathize. Even so, all his good deeds were negated by his general ass-hattery, as when he embarrassed Man-soo in front of the whole office and his daughters. And it was much harder to get to like him (especially when we had the beautiful and perfect Han Ji-min around to distract us) because he remained an ass for most of the drama. There was very little character development for the first half, which goes back to the pacing problem, and that made it really difficult for him to grow on me.

Honestly, if it weren't Ha Suk-jin playing him, I'd have hated Saengchori just for having Min-sung as the lead instead of Ji-min sunbae. To be fair, though, Ha Suk-jin's acting was pretty good. He played the assy parts just as capably as the funny bits, which helped endear him to me early on. It's just too bad that Min-sung got the short end of the character development stick, but I think there was just too much other stuff going on that the writer didn't have time to squeeze it in. Which is no excuse at all.

Yoo Eun-joo: Eun-joo fared a great bit better than Min-sung in the character development and writing departments. She was likable from the start, and humanized by her crazy drunken antics, as well as by the empathy we were led to feel when she got dumped by her fiance. The only thing that really irritated me about her was that she more or less played Ji-min when she realized she had feelings for Min-sung. And, thinking about it, she didn't have much of a personality other than her drunkenness and overall being-nice-to-everyone-ness. She was neither terribly flawed, nor terribly perfect, with makes her just... average on the interesting scale. As a lead, she wasn't anything special, and neither was Lee Young-eun's acting.

Han Ji-min: I haven't felt this bad for a second lead since Joon-sae oppa in Brilliant Legacy. Really. Puppy was so sad when he lost the girl! I joke about Ji-min, but for the better part of the series, he's the one who had better chemistry with Eun-joo and was the better match for her, hands down. That's why it pissed me off so much when, at the end, he was implicated in the murder mystery. It feels like the writer just needed the most unlikely character to use as the scapegoat, but that ended up tainting Ji-min's character for me, and left a bad taste in my mouth. Dirty dealings do not bode well for a character who's been  more or less an angel throughout the show. As for acting, I really liked Kim Dong-yoon in this role. It made me wish he'd get cast in more roles, and not as the second lead next time.

I won't go into the rest of the cast because there were too many periphery characters who all had to do with the mystery and with the office plotlines. Overall, they were written quite well and quite consistently until the very end, which I think ruined much of the first 18 or so episodes for me. I was never bored watching the other storylines unfold, including those of the bumbling Dal-gook and Jin-soo, and the mystery kept me entertained as well. Each character, whether on-screen all the time or for five minutes per episode had their quirks and that made it all the more fun to watch.

Character Development - 4/10
Character development was by far the biggest problem for this drama and was what led to its ultimate demise. I watched the first half knowing not to expect too much until the plot started to heat up, but the second half brought with it more of the same and nothing really happened to the characters themselves. I think part of the problem was that the character development got sidelined in favor of plot, but when you have such caricatures/archetypal characters, it's important not to forget to... you know, write them. Min-sung suffered the most, by far, and Man-soo as well, at the end. It's too bad, because coupled with a well-written plot (which had its own problems) and good characters, this show would have been an awesome find.

Plot - 7/10
In a broad sense, the plot for Saengchori had the makings of a hit. It's too bad it didn't follow through properly on most of what it promised. The problem is that while the mystery was the show's "gimmick" and what it boasted in plot descriptions, that part of the drama seemed to get sidelined for other things after a while. If Saengchori were billed as a romantic comedy to begin with, I'd have been fine with that. But it was supposed to be a romance/comedy/mystery/thriller mash-up, the latter of it which it only took on as a part-time gig.

And the end (and Man-soo's character) was handled so poorly, that I almost reconsidered my opinion of the whole show. It made no sense, even after we were given his back story, for Man-soo to be the murderer. It completely deviated from his character to have him be so vengeful of one guy's (for all intents and purposes) TEASING to intentionally murder him. Anything would have done--even introducing a new character to the mix right at the end and making him the murder. It just didn't make sense, contextually, for it to be Man-soo. It wasn't even that I liked Man-soo's character too much, it was just that it was incredible and entirely unbelievable for him to be the murder. And the way it was written into the last two episodes made it seem like it was a last minute decision by the writer.

Which brings me to my next point--the Saengchori mystery. What the hell happened? Nothing was resolved at all by the end of the show. Sure, the village foreman was arrested and led away, but the man behind it all was neither revealed nor captured himself, which makes no sense either.

One thing that was kind of handled properly was the romance. And I say "kind of," because even in this respect, the writer seemed to switch gears about 2/3 of the way through the show. It was always apparent that Eun-joo and Ji-min weren't going to end up together, but it was so long before we started to see any hints of a romance between Eun-joo and Min-sung, that it made me less invested in them. This was one of the few times when I didn't buy into the lead couple until very late into the show, and that has to do partly with problems in pacing and character development, but also with mishandling of the relationships a little bit, too, I think. That's why the ending was so WTF for me, because it was way too hard for me to buy into, having spent 20 episodes with these characters.

Pacing - 4.5/10
Pacing was just as much of a problem as character development. The show remained mostly stagnant for the first half, which made it difficult to buy into the second half. It probably would have benefited from being cut down by a few episodes, despite only being 45-min long per each, because the show was slowed down quite a bit in spite of its premise. My problem with the pacing was really that the mystery aspect of it got crammed into the last couple of episodes as the denouement, while almost the entire drama before that was focused on the romance and just about anything else they could focus on. The mystery played in to about 5 minutes of each episode, and didn't really make sense with the context ever.

Tone - 9/10
If Saengchori did one thing right, it was the tone. That was almost the only aspect of the show that remained consistent throughout, until the last couple of episodes. It maintained its quirky and funny atmosphere for the duration, mixing light moments with heavier ones as appropriately as possible.

Soundtrack - 6/10
Nothing to write home about, but neither was it irritating, which is why it gets a slightly above-average rating.

Wardrobe - 8/10
Wardrobe is hard to put a number on in shows that don't have a requirement for special costumes, like sageuks or fantasies. Even so, as we all were taught in Spring Waltz, even a 20th century wardrobe can be taken to extremes when trying to incorporate a particular theme. Luckily for us, Saengchori had no such tonal requirements, and all the characters were dressed well in normal office and casual attire throughout. No one had horrible makeup or dressing issues, with the women in fashionable work outfits and the men in suits, vests, and ties for most of it. Thank goodness, because the last thing a beautiful cast needs is for their attractiveness to be masked by ugly clothes and makeup, especially when the premise doesn't require it.

Cinematography/Sets and Scenery - 6/10
If tone was the best thing about Saengchori, then cinematography was certainly the weirdest. I'm not sure what the production team was thinking, because the camera was the most inconsistent thing about the show. There were moments when the cinematography was absolutely gorgeous, as with most of the night scenes in Seoul. But just as often, it was drab and normal like every other drama on the planet. I'm not sure what the reason was behind the stark difference, but I wish they wouldn't have teased me with the pretty camerawork if they weren't going to use it all the time.

The sets, just like most everything else about the show, were fairly normal. Nothing special like in dramas like Goong and My Princess, and even the houses and office spaces were totally boring. The scenery fared better, showing off the pretty countrysides of Saengchori and using it to play up the tone.

Final Thoughts
Overall, Saengchori was worth the 20+ hours I spent watching it. There wasn't anything groundbreaking about it, but it did elicit a few laughs and horrified squeals from me, which is pretty much all I wanted. It's too bad it suffered from mediocre execution, because done right, this would have been a gem. It's also to the detriment of this drama that I watched it just after finishing Thank You. My expectations were much too high.

Watch it for...
Beautiful leads (HA! SUK! JIN!) and tons of sight gags, as well as preposterous situation comedy.

Out of 10
6.5/10. Certainly funny and fun to watch, but problems in plot and character development prevented me from loving it.

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