Drama Review: Capital Scandal (KBS, 2007)
Not Much Brain, But Plenty of S(e)oul
by Ender’s Girl
Kang Ji-hwan, Han Ji-min, Ryu Jin, Han Go-eun
In a Nutshell:
A thoughtless wager among friends pits the Capital’s most notorious dandy against its most infamous prude! A gisaeng concealing a deadly past and an even deadlier cause matches wits with a detective harboring (ta-daaa!) a secret identity! This being a K-drama, paths inevitably cross. Sparks inevitably fly. Hearts are won, and then broken. Oh, and yeah, all this is happening while an underground independence movement struggles to overthrow a cruel occupation force through blood, sweat, tears, and all that jazz.
(SpoilLert: Couple of big ‘uns down the bend!!!)
Well. Love and revolution during the Japanese annexation of Korea? The blurb was interesting enough, and oh boy was I psyched! It didn’t take me long to do the math: Kang Ji-hwan in normal clothes! (yep, paisley vests and satin bowties are NORMAL compared to those horrible Salvation Army cast-offs he wore on Hong Gil Dong) + the jivey dance routines! + the heady romanticism of a period drama! + the danger and suspense while resisting a powerful oppressor! + the general goodwill from fans the (Soompi) world over! = One vastly entertaining period rom-com!!!
I suppose the best way to enjoy Capital Scandal is to NOT take it too seriously. Despite the politically incendiary backdrop of the time (fraught with danger at every turn!!! NOT), it remains just that — a backdrop, a canvas against which Wannie (Kang Ji-hwan) and Yeo-kyung’s (Han Ji-min) love story unfolds… and soars. Forget the countless atrocities committed by the Japanese imperial government against the Joseon people from 1910-1945. Forget the indoctrination of Korean education and history using Japanese revisionist propaganda. Forget the relentless crackdown of the Japanese military on Korean freedom fighters. Forget the suppression of free speech and the rampant violation of human rights. Forget the debasement of an entire people straining under the yoke of a colonial master. None of these come to the fore in this drama.
Instead, what we have is a cartoon… with live actors! The only thing this show has in common with similar-themed movies and dramas is the Liberty!Equality!Fraternity!Death to (insert foreign power of choice)! springboard. Unlike other works touching on the same subject matter, Capital Scandal ditches the somber mood and inherent complexities of such a geopolitically sensitive setting — in favor of oversimplified, feel-good situations and a heavily bowdlerized approach to storytelling. The whole tenor of the drama is as two-dimensional as the cardboard facades and set pieces that serve as the Capital’s cityscape. The Japanese officials are portrayed as either cold-blooded automatons (well, helloooo, Choi Philip, aka The Second Coming of Yonsama!), or indulgent but impotent buffoons (well, helloooo, Dude Who Played Minister Seo on Hong Gil Dong!). Plus, the collaborator cop and subordinate of Ryu Jin (ahhh, Ryu Jin and that ratfink, what a fine pair they make! the Tool and the Stoolie! lol) is likewise shown as a sadistic weasel whose general idea of Being Badass is to perennially scrunch up his face, squint evilly, and snarl threats at his fellow Koreans — while his hair drips with cheap pomade. Puh-leeeze. This facile characterization of the “bad guys” only underscores the drama’s inability to transcend such lazy stereotypes. NOT a sign of good writing in any corner of the universe.
I also find it hard to believe that the Japanese officials assigned to Korea would deign to learn the language and speak it so fluently. And I must say something about Choi Philip as Ryu Jin’s odious boss. Don’t get me wrong: I was extremely fond of him in Soulmate, one of my favorite K-dramas EVER. It’s just that he seemed appallingly miscast as Detective Yamashita. All he ever did was bitch and sneer and vilify those “inferior” Joseon people he had the misfortune to work with. Gaaaah. Every time he and Ryu Jin had a *cough* somnolent *cough* scene together, I half-expected Choi Philip to break into his Soulmate character’s moony grin, point his index fingers at Ryu Jin’s chest, and whine, “Jjijibbong!!!! Jjijibbong!!!” Hahahahahahaha. (Er, sorry, Soulmate inside joke there.) Even till the very end (his poetic justice-y death scene at the hands of Weasel Stoolie), I was hoping he’d still DO that nipple-pointing thing as a shout-out to all the Soulmates who may have been watching, lol.
The drama’s single pretense to story complexity is the cat-and-mouse maneuvering between the Ae Mul Dan resistance movement and the Japanese law enforcers, but you lose interest early on because both sides act so damn unconvincingly. The police engage in such shoddy investigative work: forensics and crime-solving techniques are chucked out the window, and the cops don’t seem to know the first thing about putting two and two together to solve a case. Stoooopid.
And the freedom fighters, oh my gosh have you ever encountered a more imbecilic bunch? So the Capital’s entire independence movement rests on the shoulders of this motley crue, er crew of amateurs. Except for Fatboy Slim (the bouncer/proprietor/pimp of the Gisaeng House of Hedonism) and Song-joo (Han Go-eun), who are the only adepts on their team, the rest are friggin’ greenhorns! I mean, they recruit Yeo-kyung (Han Ji-min) knowing sodding well she’d be an easy target for the Japanese Gestapo to sniff out, already being a known independence sympathizer… so much for staying under the radar. *ROLL EYES!!!* And they make her go on such a crucial assignment (the assassination at Psycho Sachiko’s fete) with zilch training and mental conditioning, and KNOWING damn well that she’d be the LAST person on earth cut out for such a job, what with her flirting ability rivaling that of a stuffed squid. *ROLL EYES!!!* Billy the Kid, er, In-ho, is instantly made a member of Song-joo and Fatboy Slim’s inner sanctum, and is given free rein over their cache of *cough* fake *cough* weapons and ammo. *ROLL EYES!!!* The Three Stooges from Chirashi are conscripted to the Cause, noisily blundering their way through each operation, and drawing enough attention to themselves to keep a hundred kids with ADHD occupied for a day. *ROLL EYES!!!* The Ae Mul Dan operatives discuss their plans on the streets of the Capital, or inside the Gisaeng House of Hedonism, or at the café — AT THE TOP OF THEIR VOICES. *ROLL EYES!!!* Soo-hyun (Ryu Jin) and Wannie (Kang Ji-hwan) charge headlong into an entire company of Japanese soldiers while under a hail of bullets — and miraculously escape unscathed, as we later learn in the final minutes of the last eppy. *ROLL EYES!!!* In the final scene, Wannie and Yeo-kyung meet at the very spot where their romance first took root — the train station, which happens to be the first thing the Japanese authorities would be combing, since both of them are only, like, ON THE LAM, and probably have an astronomical bounty on their heads. *ROLL EYES!!!*
Imagine if all the Korean freedom fighters living in such times were really this incompetent; it’d be little wonder, then, that the Japanese could handily subjugate them for 35 years. But this isn’t even about historical accuracy anymore (though admittedly, the more recent in history the setting, the greater the pressure to depict the events as faithfully as possible — unlike, say, events that happened a millennium ago). EVEN IF you take away the fact that it WAS the Japanese, it doesn’t change the fact that the setting is during AN occupation period (doesn’t really matter which one), under AN imperial power (doesn’t really matter who), and you therefore would expect the characters to behave the way people behave under such times. But in Capital Scandal, the characters DON’T behave as such (heck, they don’t even behave like real people), so the whole story loses its integrity straightaway.
Another thing is, how BIG is the Capital supposed to be, anyway? Because in THIS town, word SURE seems to travel at warp speed. And for the main characters to KEEP bumping into each other…? C’mawwwn, the entire city has got to be the size of a soccer field for the chances of THAT ever happening… Oh wait, it probably IS the size of a soccer field! LOL. Will you look at that tiny, tiny cardboard set, so flimsy and… phony. (Okay, maybe I’m being more than a little unfair to the production team. The building facades were built from scratch, but made of wood and cement instead of cardboard. It was a worthy effort, I’ll give them that. But it still has that ‘30s-movie-set vibe, where everything is just filmed inside one studio, and either Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly comes clicking his heels down Main Street, singin’ and dancin’ in the rain. But the whole place is still TINY TINY TINY!!!) And everyone seems to be so darn good at keeping abreast of the “scandalous” developments of the story. It doesn’t help, either, that the secondary characters (like the young gisaeng Young-ran) function no more than as the expositional mouthpieces of the writers, existing to tie in the between-scene narrative by *helpfully* providing the main characters with blow-by-blow updates.
There just are too many loopholes that go unaccounted for. For one, it never becomes clear later as to the extent of Yeo-kyung’s involvement in the freedom movement before she teams up with the Ae Mul Dan. Who is she working for initially when we see her on assignment in the first eppy — when she mistakes Wannie for the object of her rendezvous? Somehow, the writers conveniently forgot. Assuming each independence cell is working, well, independently, does that mean she no longer gets called on by the other movement to run jobs for them? Or was Soo-hyun (Ryu Jin) working in concert with them all along, and just requested them to “transfer” Yeo-kyung over to his domain, the Ae Mul Dan?
Another *ROLL EYES!!!* moment (which became clearer when I re-watched certain parts) is the night of the first assassination, when Song-joo excuses herself from the underground night club to ostensibly go to the powder room, when in reality she’s gearing up to morph into Ms. Dark Justice herself. Of course, the editing is designed to initially make you THINK it couldn’t possibly have been Song-joo riding that motorcycle/buggy/thing, but even then, it would have been impossible for her to sneak out of the night club, go off to some secluded shrubbery where her Batmobile was presumably hidden, change into her Batsuit, pop the baddie, save In-ho, change back into her evening ensemble, and be back at the night club — all BEFORE Wannie and Co. noticed she’d been gone for a WAY longer time than it takes to powder one’s nose. She shoulda woulda coulda just… told Wannie she was tired and going home, yadda yadda, instead of claiming she needed to go on potty break. Sure, it would have given her a weaker alibi, BUT STILL. I mean, what are we, STUPID? To readily believe it was physically possible for a person to do ALL THAT within a bathroom break? Even Herr Einstein himself would say, “Och, honey… time ain’t THAT relative, ja, ja?”
The whole stagy feel of Capital Scandal reminded me of its complete cinematic antithesis: Lust, Caution. Both have essentially the same historical context (“The Japanese have invaded our country! Do let’s drive them out via espionage and terrorism, before they cream us all!!!”), but the difference lies in the treatment of the subject matter. Capital Scandal feels less like an actual drama (or film) and more like the STAGE PLAYS in Lust, Caution that Tang Wei’s character and her fellow resistance fighters would mount at their university, repeatedly riffing the same fiercely patriotic and radical themes, with the hope of rousing the other students to rally behind their Cause. The tone of the stage plays was heartfelt and inspiring enough, but still too simplistic to remotely resemble anything in real life. Which is why they were STAGE PLAYS. So, there.
But what Capital Scandal lacks in logic and believability, it attempts to make up for in ardent patriotism. The pithy mantras and impassioned declarations are spouted by the characters with nationalistic verve. Metaphors of their oppressed nation are rife, and besprinkle the dialogue with maximum audacity and zero subtlety (e.g. “The Joseon people are like bamboo shoots: we can bend but we can never break!” or something like that, heh). I DO appreciate the efforts of the writers to inspire the flag-waving sentiments of the viewers, though; I can just imagine that the repercussions of the Occupation still leave a bitter taste in the collective mouth of Koreans. Though I’ll have to admit that all those slogans and platitudes are largely why the drama has such a theatrical, exaggerated feel.
What SAVED Capital Scandal for me was the Wannie-YeoKyung Rainbow Connection, wheee!!! I mean, The Inveterate Playboy + The Incorrigible Prig = Fireworks Baby Fireworks!!! is a goof-proof formula that has proven its mettle since time immemorial. Sure, the formula is certainly nowhere ORIGINAL, but the way the drama brings this tried-and-tested recipe across is fresh and engaging, and a helluva lot romantic. This dynamic around which the rest of the story is structured is what makes Capital Scandal so easy to watch; I breezed through all 16 eppies in four viewing installments, running high on diesel and gasoline and that undeniably piquant (and terribly addictive!) Wannie-YeoKyung chemistry. Man oh frigging man, they have GOT to be the cutest K-drama couple I’ve seen in a looong time (and I mean this as the highest compliment).
Individually, they’re already so endearing in their own right. But together, they sizzzzzle!!! She’s so prim ’n’ proper, and he’s so… debauched (LOL), so she (natch!) won’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. So this OBVIOUSLY presents some… complications. They can’t just GET IT ON! like other couples, and yet they keep getting thrown into these scandalous and compromising positions — scandalous with a capital “S”! (Situation #1: she *fortuitously* stumbles into his room at the Gisaeng House of Hedonism while a police search is conducted outside, and later, clothes are shed under pain of death. Situation #2: she *conveniently* gets drunk and snoozes in his arms while a thunderstorm rages outside, and later, pushups are accomplished under pain of… well, you know what I mean. oh those naughty writers, teehee!). Which makes their sexual tension just crrrayyyzeee!!! Ji-hwan and Ji-min are also not afraid to get touchy — which further enhances their characters’ believability as a couple.
The viewer, being privy to their respective thoughts and points of view, becomes a witness to the roller-coaster ride that is their romance — their silly bickering and fits of jealousy, their tentative overtures of love, their quiet moments of simply enjoying each other’s company, as well as the more earth-shattering encounters that test the bonds of their relationship. It is their falling in love that engages you so, and holds you enthralled as the rest of the story lurches clumsily around them.
And I love how LOVE changes Wannie and Yeo-kyung ever so subtly: he becomes more grounded, with a firmer grasp of the bigger picture around him, outside his own self-centered world; while she becomes softer, and learns to lighten up, take more risks, and allow herself to be more vulnerable to the very emotions she had kept walled off for so long.
I love Yeo-kyung to pieces, and boy am I glad she ain’t one of those insufferable dipsticks with the affected pseudo-cute mannerisms! Instead, our heroine is one bona fide Jo Ma Ja, Victorian to the core, and the poster girl for Feminism! Patriotism! Moral Rectitude! and Preserving The Old Ways! (E.G.’s inner prude goes, BOOYAH!!! *rocker hand sign*) What I love the most about her character is the earnestness with which she upholds her convictions and ethics — as the last living holdout against the Japanese hegemony, Western neo-colonialism, and the fraying moral fiber of their times, lol. And she’s spunky, too! And focused! For Yeo-kyung, love and romance are an idle waste of time, silly fantasies in the face of the loftier ideals of Liberty and Justice … (although Song-joo the All-Perceptive wryly tells Yeo-kyung at their first meeting, “Our nation is being crushed by oppression, but young men and young women will continue to fall in love.” so truuuuue. *nods sagely*)… until she meets her match in Wannie, wheee!!!! Shall we call this chapter… “Love in the Time of Choleric Schoolmarms?” (With apologies to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez!) Lol. On Han Ji-min: okay, after Capital Scandal I officially love her.
Next up: Kang Ji-hwan. Now this man has the nicest tush this side of Hallyudom. (Note how this is a statement of fact, not an opinion.) He also has the dramatic chops that will drive a more established actor to fits of envy. Hong Gil Dong was a pretty good preamble to his stockpile of talent, but it was while watching Capital Scandal that I was able to appreciate the extent of his powers. Kang Ji-hwan made me laugh like crazy at Wannie’s childish tantrums; snort at his popinjay image; grieve with him for his long-dead hyung; cast baleful glares at his most hated former friend, Ryu Jin (okay, so I had my more ignoble reasons, heh); feel all warm and fuzzy whenever he flashed that smug, lopsided grin — as crooked as that fedora perched on his head; sigh as he strutted jauntily down the streets of the Capital; clench my throw pillow whenever he turned the charm on Yeo-kyung full blast. He also made me feel, I mean REALLY FEEL for Wannie when he discovered the truth about Ryu Jin’s character, realizing his decade-long grudge was built on a lie–what do you do when the object of your all-consuming hatred turns out to be a completely different person from who you thought he was? I guess what I was most impressed with was Kang Ji-hwan’s RANGE: he can switch from insufferably cute to heartbreakingly vulnerable in a snap, and run the whole spectrum of emotions in between.
As a performer, he’s actually very physical (could it be because he earned his stripes in musical theater?), using his body (and that rather high-pitched voice, teehee!) as instruments of his craft, as well as extensions of himself. His characters in Hong Gil Dong and Capital Scandal tend to gesticulate and yell a lot as they find themselves in all sorts of comical scrapes. His face is so elastic, easily able to express the right emotion at the exact moment it’s needed, and without coming off as maudlin at all. But above all, his eyes convey such volumes and depths of emotion, connecting with the viewer so powerfully and compellingly, that you get sucked into the character’s story, and find yourself caring like crazy for what he is going through. Kang Ji-hwan’s slapstick approach to Wannie belies the intelligence and spot-on dramatic instincts that give his performance that X-factor. You need these (intelligence and good instincts) to nail that impeccable comedic timing (check!); to show enough vulnerability of character without appearing pathetic (check!); and to keep your dramatic delivery in check before it gets schmaltzy (check!).
What I also appreciated about the drama was that Song-joo and Soo-hyun aren’t REAL second fiddles, but leads in their own story. I liked how their relevance to the story and purpose of the drama doesn’t hinge on their attachment to Wannie and Yeo-kyung, and isn’t defined by how the primary leads react to their existence. This is so different from majority of K-dramas, where the Token Second Fiddles exist solely to give the leads Something To Do, or Something To React To. Song-joo and Soo-hyun have their own back story and personal issues to complicate their relationship, but it’s clear from the start that they’re meant for each other, just as Wannie and Yeo-kyung are meant for each other. Never do the romantic lines really blur or decussate: Soo-hyun’s fondness for Yeo-kyung is later spelled out to be, um, of the more *fraternal* variety (mercifully!), while Wannie and Song-joo never cross over from harmless flirtation into actual romance. In fact, I love how Wannie and Song-joo are the BEST of friends, understanding each other in a way no one else can. Their friendly banter is both fun and playful, and yet they recognize each other as equals. They indulge each other’s mood swings, but they don’t mince any words when the other needs some shaking up. I particularly loved that moment when Wannie wonders aloud to the amusement of Song-joo, “I’m attractive, you’re attractive… So why don’t we have any chemistry?” LOL. Good question. But they’re just friends (something that is seldom ever explored in this make-believe world of K-dramas), and sometimes, we just have to accept that’s all there is to it.
And whatever may have been said of Han Go-eun in her past work, I think she did a darn good job here as the gisaeng Song-joo. Wow, compared to Yeo-kyung’s dowdy Jo Ma Ja fashion sense, what a glamazon Song-joo was — with the flapper outfits, the statuesque frame, the ultra-mod hairstyles! But beneath the glamour beat a heart that thrived on the sadness of a life lived without choices. Her path had been cut out for her long before she was old enough to make that decision herself; but it was this claustrophobic void she was plunged into at the cusp of her womanhood that actually steeled her for the double life she would eventually lead. Song-joo’s story was a tragedy from start to end: her rape at such a young age, then murder and exile, a life as a glorified sex worker, her self-denial of any form of happiness, and finally, the inevitable end outside the Ae Mul Dan safehouse. (Kinda reminded me of Sonny Corleone’s (James Caan) violent demise in The Godfather Part One, where his body gets riddled with bullets during the climactic ambush scene; my siblings and I call this “Sonny’s Swiss Cheese Spectacle.”) One of the most memorable scenes in Capital Scandal was the scattering of Song-joo’s ashes on a breathtaking mountaintop. When the others had gone, leaving an inconsolable Wannie with the empty ash box, and with Yeo-kyung beside him, he let out this almost inhuman howl of grief that made my hair stand on end. His pain ripped through the tranquil mountain air as he mourned the loss of his best friend and soulmate — just as it ripped ME to shreds. For it was Wannie, not Soo-hyun, who had lost the most from Song-joo’s death. Song-joo and Soo-hyun’s love was in may ways not so much realized as idealized, springing from a few, fleeting moments in their adolescence, and later held back by barriers of status and circumstance when they finally crossed paths as adults. Wannie and Song-joo’s relationship, though purely platonic, was at least a REAL one, making Wannie’s bereavement infinitely more tragic.
If you think about it, Soo-hyun’s character had a lot of potential to be rich and complex. You sacrifice everything you hold dear (family, friendship, even the respect of your countrymen), and choose to go undercover, to endure the shame and debasement of becoming a collaborator, to grind your teeth while kowtowing to the very people you have sworn to overthrow. Man, if you ain’t strong enough, this kind of life will mess you up so bad, baby! (Think Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs, hello!) My best friend and I had a convo about this, and she musingly said that a more complex character than how Soo-hyun was originally written would have been a person who doesn’t go undercover, who doesn’t conceal a freedom-fighting bent. Rather, a person who is innately good and kind, yet truly, sincerely believes that siding with the Japanese is in the Korean people’s best interests. How to make a character like that both sympathetic and real would be one heckuva challenge.
I look at Soo-hyun and the potential his character had to be meaty and interesting… and then I look at Ryu Jin. Really — an infinitesimally more talented actor could have turned this role on its head. What a sodding waste of character and film reels (ahahaha). Ryu Jin never stood a chance against Kang Ji-hwan, who must have been frustrated as hell in their scenes together. Whenever Ryu Jin lumbered onscreen, the drama felt less like Capital Scandal, and more like Capital Punishment, lol.
Which brings me to the worst thing about Capital Scandal… Ryu Jin. (Ta-daaa!!!! Big surprise there!!! NOT.)
And the worst thing about Ryu Jin is… Ryu Jin himself, hahahahaha (oh, that IS sad indeed!). I remember his grimace, er, smile, and I shudder. The ffffugggliest smile in Hallyudom!!! I could write a whole book about him (yeah right, if I were, um, RETARDED), entitled “The Unbearable Dullness of Being Ryu Jin” (with apologies to Milan Kundera). I literally RECOILED in my seat when he first came out onscreen, stalking Wannie in the back alleys of the Capital. He’s just oozes… MEDIOCRITY. How does this man even find work in that country? It boggles the mind. This towering lummox comes galumphing into a drama (ANY drama), and just freakin’ MESSES UP EVERYTHING. I mean, if he REALLY REALLY REALLY loves this industry so much, please just give him roles that WON’T require his (non-existent) dramatic powers, and will capitalize on his SINGLE ASSET instead (his height…. DUH). Give him roles like… a hat rack. Or a shower head. Or a crane. Sheesh. I was LMAO all the way (and for all the wrong reasons!) whenever he graced the screen with his robotic presence…. It’s a ladder… It’s a crane! No — it’s, it’s… ROBO-JIN!!! (Whirrr… whirr… bleep bleep whirrr…) Ahahahahahahaha
Speaking of robots, Ryu Jin reminded of me of what HAS to be his brother from another mother (mother = manufacturer, haha): that animatronic giant from Hong Gil Dong!!! Oh, just look at them, don’t you SEE the resemblance?
Exhibit A: In which Hong Gil Dong battles two giants!!!
But enough about Robo-Jin. *gags* Excuse me while I ponder the many virtues of Kang Ji-hwan’s… tush. Er, talent! I meant TALENT!!!
Artistic & technical merit: B-
Entertainment value: A
Photo credits: soompi.com, d-addicts.com, koreanmovie.com, coolsmurf.wordpress.com, jaycee05.wordpress.com, tiffanykimchiland.blogspot.com