Welcome to the first installment of The List! This is a list of our favorite things in Korean Dramas and Music for 2011. As an awards fanatic, I love lists especially narrowing down my choices to a small number. It’s a weird quality but nonetheless it is addicting for me. First off, are the supporting ladies of Korean Dramas.
This year’s crop skew older than the rest of the field of actors. This is because most of the veteran actresses are in this section, taking with them experience and dramatic talent that most of the stars in the lead categories do not possess yet. That said, I cannot disregard the talents of some remarkable young actresses, whose performances are divisive only because they played such unlikeable characters.
Since I opted to choose only five, I thought I should at least name some semi-finalists whose works stood out as well:
Lee Mi Sook’s shrill and fearsome mother in A Thousand Days Promise remains one of the highlights of the show. Her presence and charisma bestow the necessary strength and bitchiness that this character needs.
Hwang Ji Hye surprisingly delivers the most absurd and hilarious supporting role of the year as Na Yoon in Protect the Boss. Her goofiness and neediness matched well with the story’s lightheartedness.
Choi Myung Gil‘s naturalism and slowly dawning realization of her friend’s machinations are moving in Miss Ripley. The best part of her performance though is her openhearted personality, and ability to be understanding despite the ease at which one can pass judgment.
The Top 5
5. Seong Ji Hye
“Shin In Jung”
49 Days is such a great experience because every part of it seems revelatory: the supernatural mixing with the realism is hard to pull off but this show somehow miraculously achieves this feat. This is thanks no less to the wonderful actors who brought such diverse and in-depth characterizations to their roles. Among the supporting actresses in this show, no one stood out as much as Seong Ji Hye who played Shin In Jung, the best friend turned enemy to the heroines.
Shin In Jung is a complex character defined by the ironies in her life. She partly resents Shin Ji Hyun for her enviable cushy life yet In Jung herself doesn’t struggle at all. She is jealous of Min Ho’s interactions with Ji Hyun even though she is the one who joined in to gang up on Ji Hyun’s fortune. It’s apparent throughout the show that In Jung struggles with these thoughts everyday: how can she play the good friend and bad friend, the confidence and the insecurity, the sadness and elation, and the guilt and innocence, often all of them, at once?
Thankfully, Seong Ji Hye captures all of these nuances in her performance. As much as one wants to hit In Jung for the bitch that she is, one can’t help but feel bad for the toll it took on her conscience as evident in her moment of reckoning on Ji Hyun’s bed. That scene is crushing mainly because it’s a culmination of all the conflicting emotions In Jung has built up over the course of the series. Ji Hye understands In Jung, that despite her arrogance and shameless conniving, she is deep down an insecure girl who, in spite of her jealousy, loves Ji Hyun. It only takes a good actress to nail Ji Hye’s jealousy and materialism but it takes a stronger actress to make her human, her guilt palpable, and her love for Ji Hyun real. Seong Ji Hye does just that; it’s a wonderful characterization of a lonely girl whose feelings are conflicted throughout the show.
4. Seo Hyo Rim
Scent of a Woman
“Im Se Kyung”
The inherent challenges of a woman as unlikable as Im Se Kyung are apparent: she’s rich, pretentious, irksomely meddlesome, and maddeningly cruel that interactions with her often results in her getting physically or verbally abusive. In short, she’s a bitch. Despite all of these, I found Seo Hyo Rim’s performance in Scent of a Woman fascinating. It’s a multifaceted turn because Im Se Kyung is not merely unlikable because she’s a bitch; she is so much deeper than that. Her bitchiness is a manifestation of the loneliness and shame she has experienced. Realizng that the love of her life was using her for her money, it’s interesting to note how pathetic and little she felt despite the enormous amount of cash she has. Surely, that must have caused some of the underlying insecurities.
Every glare, every slap, every pout suggest pent up rage. Her snooty professionalism suggests a desire for control of her life. The fancy clothes she wear are covers for the insecurities she hold. These aspects of her personality are rooted in her shame that becomes evident in a scene where she sees her ex-boyfriend and in another scene where she tearfully describes her past relationship to Ji Wook. Does this justify her cruelty? No. But it explains a lot of why she is the way she is.
It’s a credit to Seo Hyo Rim that as unlikable as Se Kyung is, she is still a romantic. Disillusioned by her past experience, her unexpected attraction to Ji Wook made her more caring and loving, something that, I think, was her actual personality all along. This romanticism explains a lot of Seo Hyo Rim’s cruelty; her territorial nature springs not only from the fact that her pride is damaged by Ji Wook’s attraction to Young Jae, but also from the fear of losing out on love. Most people miss this point because they only see the more obvious elements of Hyo Rim, mainly her stank attitude. Yet if one actually pays attention to her less aggressive scenes, like her office dates with Ji Wook, you can see a hopeless romantic just looking for a true and meaningful relationship.
3. Kim Mi Sook
“Lee Kyung Hee”
My top three favorite performances from a supporting actress this year portrays three different mothers. Kim Mi Sook may not have been as prominent in the series as the other two but her performance remains as vivid a portrayal of motherly devotion as the other two. Lee Kyung Hee doesn’t really get to perform as much motherly duties as the other two simply because her child has been stolen from her since the beginning of the show.
For much of her performance, there’s a sense of longing in Kim Mi Sook’s performance that resonates with the theme of loss in the show. Just as how Lee Jin Pyo endured years of grueling training in Thailand in preparation of his revenge, Lee Kyung Hee endured an empty life as a street vendor with the hope of being reunited with her son the only thing that keeps her going. You can see how lonely she is by the interactions she have with Kim Nana or the president. She’s losing grip, her hope seems fading, but she’s still chugging along.
That’s what I find fascinating about her performance. Kim Mi Sook is an expert at showing motherly devotion. See Shining Inheritance as primary example of her expertise. There’s an abundant amount of things to love about this portrayal. She’s lived-in, her memories seem to be elsewhere, and her smiles are often plastered on to hide the pain. The joy she experiences in seeing her son is so heartwarming because one cannot help but root for her and Yoon Sung to finally reunite. Every glance she exchanges with him alternates between remorse for not being able to take care of him all these years and pride for how well he has grown up and elation in finally being able to see him. It’s these tiny shifts mixed with the motherly devotion and love that makes Kim Mi Sook’s performance enthralling.
2. Kim Hae Sook
A Thousand Days’ Promise
“Kang Soo Jung”
A Thousand Days Promise is probably the single most depressing thing I’ve seen this year apart from 49 Days. It’s premise naturally makes the story bleak and even the cinematography works to highlight the story’s bleakness. The performances are captivating all around, especially among the supporting players. Although Lee Mi Sook was the standout in earlier episodes due to her pitch black soul and brutal abusiveness, its Kim Hae Sook’s long gestating performance that eventually took over.
Kang Soo Jung is a dutiful wife and mother who, like most Korean drama parents, expect their children to obey their parents, marry someone that will help better the family’s standing, and will not take no for an answer. In spite of this cliche, it’s a miracle that writers decide to give dimension to Soo Jung. I think they did this to contrast sharply with Lee Mi Sook’s hot-tempered, irrational, and materialistic mother. Soo Jung is more calm, thoughtful, and understanding. Those early scenes where both mothers talk highlight the difference between the two and I love how Soo Jung stands her ground while Hyun Ah chews scenery.
But as she realizes her son’s deep affection for Seo Yeon, Soo Jung gives in and in the process, she shines brightly. The walls tear down as she pleads her child to think about what he’s doing but her voice falters as she herself realizes how hypocritical it is for her to hold back her child from marrying someone he loves when she herself had to face objections to her marriage. Hae Sook imbues strength and motherly devotion to her child even when she knows the terrible consequences of his action. Even her affection for Seo Yeon is captivating–she’s proud of her daughter-in-law’s beauty and intelligence and becomes a surrogate mother to her when she learns of her illness. But Kim Hae Sook is at her best when she’s protective; the scene where she humiliates Hyun Ah in retaliation to her abuse towards Seo Yeon as well as the scene where she finally stands up to her husband’s childish pride and makes her cutting criticism. Kim Hae Sook is a revelation: she’s understanding and thoughtful, slightly romantic, and most of all, she’s fiercely protective.
1. Kim Young Ae
“Gong Soon Ho”
Royal Family is still a sentimental favorite for me because of how much backstabbing there is and how scary some of these people can be. The amount of wealth these people own lead them to scheme for bigger things, shamelessly stir trouble, and unflinchingly attack anyone who is in their way. These are the ways that the Gong family have adopted to maintain their power and stability. Indeed, they seem more like a cult than a family; women can’t nurse their kids because their bodies are for their sons to play with; men have free pass to whore themselves around; kids grow up not feeling any sort of attachment to parents; kids in constant battle for mom’s affection.
Kim Young Ae plays the matriarch of the Gong family. Madam Gong is a monster in human form. Nothing about her is histrionic or blatantly exaggerated, which makes her even more frightening. Her judgmental stares, her cold, uncaring voice, and her imperious presence make her terrifying. She has a sickening hold on her family who all are dying to please her and it’s easy to understand why they respect her. The nasty way she dismisses people who displease her reflects on this woman’s barren soul. “Take it away,” she says to her daughters-in-law as if they are not human enough to deserve the pronoun “she.” Young Ae plays Madam Gong’s villainy with small expressions instead of going for exaggerated expressions. The result is tectonic: Madam Gong is a monster with a cold stare.
Despite the chauvinistic way Kim Young Ae plays Madam Gong, we see so much more personality to her. She’s not entirely without a soul; her quiet conversations with her right hand man reveal a history of battles fought that have hardened her but the tenderness in her voice also shows some vulnerability. Her nerves unraveling towards the end as she realizes her downfall is imminent is magnificent simply because she’s built up so much resilience in her only to finally tear it down. Still, what we have here is an acting achievement unlike anything I’ve seen this year. Madam Gong is a fearsome manipulator, whose glares and words come from a black and malevolent heart.