All is Fair in Love, War and death

Cast of the show: in the middle hugging – Dong-baek (right) and her son, Pil-gu (left)

Can someone be your miracle?

This is what the Netflix original K-drama When the Camellia Blooms (2019) tries to answer. Dong-baek is a 30-something year old single mum who runs a bar in the small Korean town of Busan. Although she is super nice and meek, she’s an outcast in the town, stigmatised by her single motherhood and the fact her bar has become a popular hangout spot for all the local women’s husbands. Out of jealousy their assumption is that she must be selling much more than drinks to them to attract them there. Of course, the reality is much simpler than that – the men have looked all around for a viable refuge free from prying female eyes and Camellia – Dong-baek’s bar has slowly become just that.

Her son Pil-gu on the other hand, is anything but meek – he has a vicious bite and has become a very avid protector of his mum who is often not only teased by adults but sometimes gossiped about by his age mates at school. In one amusing scene he shouts at some kids for using his mum’s first name – an indicator that to them she isn’t worthy of respect. However, Pil-gu is slowly getting tired of being his mum’s defender, he’s aware the other kids don’t have to be as protective of their mothers and that he’s perhaps doing too much for what is expected of a child his age. He had his annoying moments (like being insistent on his mum not dating) but if I truly tried to see things from his perspective I could understand the fear behind his behaviour. His mum and him against the world is all he has ever known, so he was understandably worried about a disruption to this dynamic.

When it comes to miracles Dong-baek is very sceptical, after all life has been very hard to her. No matter how hard she works she can’t seem to catch a break or make enough to make ends meet. We learn that she suffers from abandonment and trust issues- these stem from the childhood trauma she has around her mum abandoning her. The drama digs more into this set of events later on towards the end, so the drama is worth a watch until the end.

To make matters worse, Dong-baek is being targeted by a serial killer, nicknamed in the town ‘The Joker’ who has stumped the local police force for several years. There is no common thread between the victims except for notes left at every scene with the same words –  ‘stop being a joke’. She has a few close run-ins with him which mess with her confidence and make her fear for her safety. I think the murder plot line helps to sustain the dramas pace and entertainment. We get to play a mental whodunnit as we try to figure out which character we knew had the most motive and means. All I knew was that it had to be someone local that we’ve been introduced to already as an audience. 

Dong-baek reconnecting with her estranged mum.

Overall, this is a heart-warming story of family, love, friendship and redemption. I cried and I laughed. Although Dong-baek seemed annoyingly coy at first, you do grow to love her; every time you put her in a box she defies expectation and surprises you which is something I really liked. Not only does she toughen up as the program progresses, she learns the true meaning of love and friendship through her relationships with Pil-gu, her mum and her boyfriend, Yong-sik. Dong-baek is played by the actress Kong Hyo-jin who starred in one of my favourite dramas, It’s Okay, That’s Love. To some extent the drama is self aware of k-drama romance cliches – at one point Yong-sik askes Dong-baek if they want travel to an island and she refuses, replying that its likely to lead to the cliche of them missing the last boat and having to share a room together at a random inn. And there is no doubt she is very right – that cliche is all too common.

Other dramas that may be of interest that look more at parenthood; Hi,bye mum, Love and Marriage, Was it Love? and One Spring Day. They’re all available on Netflix.

Trailer for When the Camellia Blooms.

For more Netflix reviews from me you can find some here and here.

Ambition and its many friends – a Netflix review of The Politician and Sky Castle

How far would you go to get what you want?

That seemed to be the main underlying theme in the two most recent shows I have been watching on Netflix. South Korean drama Sky Castle and the camp American drama The Politician, produced by the makers of Glee.

The cast of Sky Castle

Sky Castle revolves around a neighbourhood of rich families based in Seoul who are obsessed with their children’s academic success – often resorting to immoral means to ensure it. The drama’s main focus revolves around mother and housewife Han Seo-jin. She has an incredibly bright older daughter- Yeo-seo, who she is determined to get into medical school at all costs. The other mums are an extension of this cross generational desire to live their greed and ambitions through their children; often at the expense of the children’s own dreams and ambitions. For example, take lecturer of law, Professor Cha who puts his teenage sons through misery in order to make sure they climb the political ladder – a dream of his he himself never got to fulfil. His is the typical case of a parent living their unachieved ambitions through their children, and unapologetically so. But we also see, as with all the families, that their children’s good grades not only increase their personal fulfilment, its also a social currency; something they can brag about to friends and increase their social status with. And in a neighbourhood like Sky Castle, where appearances are important, this is everything.

Fancy celebration dinner at the start of the drama

The drama starts of with a suicide of one of the housewives in the neighboured which reveals to the other families that the pristine nature of her family was not all it appeared to be. However, it takes another tragedy and a case of injustice later on in the series for characters to properly re-evaluate their ways and change.

The stand out character for me by far was Kim Seo Hyung. A college tutor who works with students to get them into Korea’s top medical school. Seo Hyung sometimes resorts to questionable means, something foreshadowed in the scene when she is hired by Seo-jin and asks her if she’s willing for bad events to befall upon her family at the expense of her dream of her daughter getting into medical school being achieved. She proved to be a character I wasn’t initially sure how to place – was she good or bad? You originally only get your main information about her through hearsay but as more is revealed later, a more complex character is painted. Although the truth wasn’t pretty it definitely made her more of an intriguing character; I’m happy she was a fully fleshed character as opposed to a shallow supporting character as I first expected.

Overall, this drama is a straight 10/10 – I am often hesitant to give such a high rating but the outstanding acting, plot twists and complex characters easily make this one of the most striking K-dramas I have watched in a while.

Payton standing where he shines best – on stage

Ambition takes centre stage in season two of The Politician too. Cue Payton Hobart, a charismatic and driven individual who in the first season invests his all into trying to win the election for president of the student body in his high school. In season 2 that desire has now transferred to running a campaign for the New York state senate seat. He is running against current senator, 60 something year old Dede Standish who for her entire time in the seat has run unopposed. Lots of questions are raised during the course of the season; the genuinity of politicians for the causes they support is a massive one. Payton is running a campaign focused on climate change and making a difference. However, does he passionately care about it or is he just using the topic because he knows it will win him the audience of young voters?

There is evidence that he has matured in this season but when he faces a moral dilemma with legal consequences near the end of the season he wonders; should I listen to my ambition (which says win at all costs) or my principles (which say follow the rules and don’t play dirty.) For most people principles would eventually win but, and as you’ll find out if you watch the show, Payton is not most people so its interesting to watch the moral struggle. It’s also worth adding that Dede Standish and her political advisor, Hadassah Gold (Judith Light and Bette Midler) are refreshing portrayals of independent, ambition older women – something you rarely see in modern dramas (minus Grace and Frankie) since most women in this age category are sadly designated to be cast as mothers and grandmas.

Payton’s campaign team; James, Alice (also his girlfriend) and McAfee

I would give this season 8/10 it was juicy and satisfying – especially the ending. However, the show doesn’t offer anyone for you to love to root for – pretty much all the characters are various degrees of unlikable. Luckily, this doesn’t stop the show itself being likeable so I would still recommend it.

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My other recent watches:

Films – Booksmart, I am Not Your Negro, Room and Fruitvale Station

Shows – Medical Police (Netflix), Parks & Recreation (which I am falling in love with) and Married to Medicine (Prime).

Have you watched any of the shows mentioned or do you have any recommendations of your own? Comment below and let me know 🙂

Monthly Netflix Overview: May

Control Z

Trailer

Sofia Control z
Sofia in a favourite place to be alone – the school’s glass roof.

This Mexican eight-episode long drama was pure Netflix gold for me. It is set in a high school and follows quirky student Sofia as she tries to track down a mysterious hacker who is revealing student secrets. Sofia is in a perfect position to this since she is a loner – although comfortably so. Contributing to this loner status is the fact she had a stint in a psych ward after having a mental breakdown following the passing of her dad, but she has recovered by at the time the drama starts. One thing you notice about her is that she is very observant – in a Sherlock Holmes type way – able to make deductions from small clues often not noticed by the average person.

No person in this drama is as they seem – even Sofia is a complex character with a fair share of secrets, so it was really interesting to see these secrets explored and unpacked with each episode. The last episode was explosive, to say the least, and spared no punches. Control Z has some predictable moments but overall I finished it feeling satisfied and am now in deep anticipation for the next season.

Blood and Water

Trailer

Blood and water poster

I was excited to watch this since when it comes to Netflix originals the continent of Africa is noticeably underrepresented. Surprisingly, this South African drama is only six episodes long though so given the short amount of time in which to tell a story and develop characters, this drama did pretty well!

Puleng is a sibling of two; well technically two; although her second, older sibling and mother’s first child was kidnapped at birth from the hospital. Every year afterwards her family has celebrated her birthday in remembrance. Puleng moves schools and decides to launch an amateur investigation into someone – a fellow student- she thinks could be her sister.

Puleng was a here and there character; I’m not too sure I felt any type of attachment to her but I was intrigued about the growing conspiracy that was emerging towards the end of the drama.  I loved the interweaving of native languages such as Shona and Xhosa into the script. A 3.5/5 would be my final rating although I would say it’s worth watching and judging for yourself.

Trial by Media

trial by media poster

Trailer

This Netflix docuseries follows six unique crimes and how the court cases that followed were influenced by the media. In the first episode, for instance, we see how in the case of the ‘Jenny Jones killer’ in 1995 cameras were introduced into the courtroom for the first time.

Not all episodes interested me equally but I would highly recommend this overall if you’re into true crime and current affairs. One thing I would give props to this series for is that they involved the commentary of many people that were actually involved with these cases; from lawyers who worked the case to actual perpetrators and relatives of victims. This made is more raw and interesting; because of the time we’re in I would recommend in particular episode 3 – ’41 shots’ which chronicles the case of Amadou Diallo; a black man shot to death on his doorstep in New York by the NYPD. It’s a heartbreaking but necessary watch.

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If you would like to read more about what I’m reading currently or have done so far this year; you can read my previous post here .

You can also read my newly published review for the novel An American Marriage here; would love your comments, thoughts and feedback!

Mid-read Reviews: April 2020

One of my resolutions going into the New Year was to read a lot more which I think I am definitely doing; although I don’t have many books to show for it since I seem to, unfortunately, read at a snail’s pace. Of course, I try not to get bogged down in hitting arbitrary goals because that does tend to suck the fun out of leisurely activities like reading.

I thought I would talk a bit about the books I am reading and my thoughts on them – although they are yet to be completed (so no spoilers, please.)

So my current reads are:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Blurb: racial tensions rise in a small community when Atticus – the father of the To_Kill_a_Mockingbird.jpgprotagonist Scout- takes on a rape case, defending Tom Robinson – the black man falsely accused of the crime.

I started to read this a few years ago but never completed it because the copy wasn’t mine and I had to give it back. This read is, therefore, technically my chance at redemption. The part I am currently at is the trial; which I believe the whole book is technically meant to build up towards. It goes without saying that this book is considered a classic, although I am probably reading it more critically and with higher expectations because of that.

It’s hard not to view the protagonist Scout really fondly; I love her curiosity and brave spirit. She also seems to be amazingly intelligent for her age and in many scenes holds her own in conversations with her adult counterparts. Part of me does suspect this is due to the fact she is looking back on childhood events using language natural to her as an adult, as opposed to how she truly spoke as a child.

It would have been interesting to read this at a younger age and compare it to what I know now. Lots of people I speak to about the book mention fondly that they studied it at school; so it appears I must have attended schools that were statistical anomalies in that regard.

One profound part I recently read involves Scout’s friend Dill who runs out crying after witnessing how Tom is questioned on the stand. As Jean consoles him one of the adults observes them and says Dill shouldn’t worry – he may cry now but when he gets older he won’t get as emotional when he witnesses any racial injustice. That scene really does make you realise how desnsitised we easily become overtime to the struggles of others. Most of the time it’s a protection mechanism but it’s rather the fact it happens without us noticing which makes it more insidious.

My Dark Vanessa cover

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell.

Blurb: The book centres on Vanessa who at 15 years old was abused by her English teacher Jacob Strane. Vanessa, – adamant Jacob was her first love – now in her 30s struggles to come to term with past events in the light of the #Metoo movement.

This book is a recent release from HarperCollins but even before then, it has been making the rounds on social media; for some good reasons, and some less so. I was no doubt excited to delve in – the cover alone looks fantastic. From the blurb it goes without saying that this is not an easy or light read; it also does mean I have to take it small doses.

One thing it does make you realise is that victims of trauma come on a spectrum and the road to recognition and peace is not an easy one. Vanessa was ultimately deprived of normal teenage years – instead of giggling with friends at corner shops or gossiping about crushes – she was weighed down with the responsibility of keeping her ‘relationship’ with Jacob a secret. He’s honestly a despicable character; frequently using emotional blackmail to maintain the secrecy of the abuse. The book switches between past and present quite seamlessly; so we are able to witness how the abuse started and its present effects on Vanessa as an adult.

Vanessa as a protagonist isn’t the most likable of people but I don’t think that’s the important thing about this book.  As pointed out skillfully in this article; a lot of well known narratives on abuse revolve around the  perpetrator –  most notably, Lolita; which is referred to often in this novel. Narratives like these then are about women taking ownership of the narrative and finally having the space to share their story.

So there you go – a nice mix of modern and class I like to think.

If you’re looking for more detailed thoughts/ exploration of themes of My Dark Vanessa I would recommend this fantastic round table discussion on The Book Slut – a site I also write for.

Please do feel free to comment & share any thoughts you have about either book!

An Honest Review: American Son

Hey Guys,

I decided to mix it up a bit and write a film review today.

American Son poster
Image source: https://uk.newonnetflix.info/info/81024100

Quick Synopsis: At the start of the film we meet a concerned mother (Kerry Washington, best known from the show Scandal) who is waiting at the police station to enquire about her child. Later on, the father (Steven Pasquale) joins the picture and together they wait to find out the mystery of where their child is. It’s worth noting before I start my review that race matters in this film. Kerry’s character is a black psychology lecturer married to a white FBI officer, and together they have a mixed-race child.

My Thoughts:

A lot of ground is covered- but beautifully so in this film. It’s easy at first to think of it as a 3D case study of police brutality. But more lurks beneath the surface; through the husband and wife interactions more is explored regarding the intricacies of interracial relationships, being mixed race/ black in America, discrimination and parenthood.

What makes this film quite unique is that it doesn’t have a big cast (only around 4 actors) and the location is the same throughout. So from a distance, it would be easy to assume not much is going on. However, we learn an awful lot about the characters as time goes on and it’s those revelations that shape the film and (fairly slow-moving) plotline. Ultimately, whilst distracting us from the hanging question ‘what happened to the son?!’.

I was in awe of the acting, you could feel Kerry’s character’s pain which helped to amplify the tension. It might sound dramatic but your heart does hurt several times throughout the film for her. Also, the push- and pull nature displayed between the spouses throughout the film, made an intriguing watch.

Overall, I would give this film an 8.5/10. A tense watch (not sure I would handle seeing it on the big screen) so perfect for Netflix, which it is available to watch on.