Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Stars and Songs

This post is dedicated to Raja Swaminathan and Archana Sapkota. These are some of the actresses dear to their hearts.  I have often teased them that the girls on this list are too 'nice'. All of them, except Mumtaz who had loads of pizzaz.

The list is in order of the 'seniority' of the actress.  The song chosen by me is the one that I particularly like featuring the actress.  Do check out the songs if you want the best of the Stars to be showcased in a song.

A special thank you to Pamir Harvey for preparing this lovely poster for me.

1. Madhubala:
Career duration: (1942-1964)
Debut film as heroine: Neel Kamal
Song: Mohe Panghat pe Nandlal Chhed gayo re.

An American friend of mine once said, "Madhubala is the most beautiful woman that God put on earth" More than fifty years have passed since her last film in 1964, yet Madhubala lives on the hearts of people.  Posters of her are still being sold.  Most people agree that Mughal-e-Azam is the grandest Hindi film ever made.  She was beautiful and talented as well. Of her performance in Mughal-e-Azam, Dr. Philip Lutgendorf says "Anarkali ...whose incandescent portrayal by Madhubala upstages both of the bombastic male leads."

When I saw Madhubala perform in 'Mohe panghat pe Nandlal chhed gayo re', my jaw dropped to the ground at the sight her her beauty.

2. Shakila
Career Duration: (1949-1963)
Debut film: Duniya
Song: Baar Baar Dekho

Shakila of the impish face and dark eyes is best known for films like CID, Aar Paar, China Town and Ustadon ke Ustad.  The 50's and 60's were such a golden period for good music, that the songs of the era have become immortal.  With them, they bring us a visual of beautiful actors who sang them onscreen.  Most of Shakila's films had beautiful songs, but for me this great club song from China Town is special.  Shakila charms the dashing crooner, Shammi Kapoor, into serenading her with this catchy number.

3. Nutan
Career Duration: (1950-1994)
Debut film: Hamari Beti
Song: Kali Ghata Chhaye

When Gautam Rajadhyaksha (the famous photographer) was asked to name a face that was perfectly photogenic, he chose Nutan.  He said she looked perfect from every angle.  Her career spans more than 40 years as she segued effortlessly from a leading actress to playing roles of a mother. In 1988 Nutan acted in Muzrim Hazir, a TV series on Doordarshan based on Bimal Mitra's novel Asami Hazir.

Nutan has worked in many landmark films. Bandini and Sujata spring to the mind immediately. The song, Kaali ghata chhaye is from Sujata and brings out Nutan's effervescence, her beauty, her lovely eyes perfectly.

4. Bina Rai
Career Duration: (1951-1968)
Debut film: Kali Ghata
Song: Yeh zindagi usi ki hai

Bina Rai was a celebrated beauty. She was moon-faced with bright eyes. Her best known movies are Anarkali, Taj Mahal and Ghunghat. Anarkali was not produced on a grand scale like the later Mughal-e-Azam, but it captured the imagination of the viewers.  The musical score by C.Ramchandra has kept the movie alive in the hearts of music lovers. Anarkali's lament "Yeh zindagi usi ki hai jo kisi ka ho gaya" is irrevocably linked to Bina Rai.

In Taj Mahal she plays Mumtaz Mahal and made it easy for us see why a pining Shah Jahan built Taj Mahal for her.

5. Ameeta
Career Duration (1954-1971)
Debut film: Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
Song: Tere Sur aur mere geet

Ameeta personifies cuteness. She has a sweet round face, bright eyes and a pouty mouth that makes her look childlike and innocent. After a few forgettable films, she starred in Tumsa Nahi Dekha alongside Shammi Kapoor.  This movie was a turning point for Shammi Kapoor, catapulting him into boundless fame.  She worked in several films, but was never very successful. Munimji, Goonj Uthi Shehnai, Ham Sab Chor Hain, Ham Sab Ustaad Hain, Mere Mehboob were some of the movies which are still being watched.

In Goonj Uthi Shehnai she played a simple village girl who goes into a trance,Radha-like, when Rajendra Kumar plays his Shehnai.  Their love for each other perseveres though all odds. The song, Tere Sur Aur Mere Geet, was very popular in its time.  The Shehnai was played by none other than Ustaad Bismillah Khan.  It brings out playful innocence of Ameeta, I feel.

5. Waheeda Rehman
Career Duration (1955 -  )
Debut Film (Hindi): CID
Song: Jaane kya tune kahi

This ageless beauty has seen decades whizz past her without any seeming effect on her face.  She appears in movies, on television, looking stately with her white hair still set in a widow's peak.  As far as I know she has not hung up her shoes yet.

Guru Dutt discovered her on a visit to Hyderbad and brought her to Mumbai to work in CID in a supporting role. Her next film was Pyaasa where she shared credits with Mala Sinha. Then we had the deeply emotional Kagaaz Ke Phool, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, Ray's Abhijaan, Guide, Mujhe Jeene Do, Reshma aur Shera. One fabulous movie on top of the other.  I have not even counted all the fun and romantic movies she did like Kala Bazaar, Ek Phool Char Kaante, Chaudvin ka Chand.

In Pyaasa she is introduced to the screen with this song. As a prostitute Gulabo, Waheeda is out looking to entice a man, but unknowingly traps the man who has written the song she is singing.

6. Sadhana
Career Duration (1960-1977)
Debut film as heroine: Love in Simla
Song: Gal gulabi kiske hain.

Slim as a reed with a face like an angel, Sadhana had a bombastic debut. Right after the superhit Love in Simla came Parakh, Ham Dono, Prem Patra, Asli Naqli, Mere Mehboob.  It was like her career went from one high to another.

Love in Simla was a very enjoyable romantic comedy.  Sonia is a dumpy looking teenager in glasses who falls for her sister's boyfriend.  She gets a makeover at the hands of her grandmother and makes a grand entrance into the club where the boyfriend, Joy Mukherjee is instantly smitten and dances to this fun song with her - Gal gulabi kiske hain.  One look at the song will make you fall instantly in love with Sadhana.

7. Tanuja
Career Duration (1961-   )
Debut film as heroine: Hamari Yaad Aayegi
Song: Koi keh de zamane se jaake
Tanuja came from the renowned Samarth family and was the younger sister of Nutan.  Cute, perky and bubbly are the words that describe her best.  She has enjoyed a long career.  She may not have reached the heights that her sister did, but then there were very few actresses who could match up to Nutan. Tanuja had her own niche during her heydays and has been working steadily.

In this song, Koi keh de zamane se jaake, you can see Tanuja's playfulness.

8. Mumtaz
Career Duration (1961-1990)
Debut film as heroine: Faulad
Song 1: Tune jo samjha hai mujhko
Song 2: Zindagi Ittefaq hai
With her cute eyes and a little nose, Mumtaz had a perfect face for a chocolate box.  One of the cutest actresses to grace our films, she lit up the screen every time she appeared on it.  She was a wonderful dancer, mostly party or club dancing, nothing classical like Waheeda.  She had to work in many many B or even C grade movies before inching her way upwards to reach the top.  She started early in bit roles and worked in several Dara Singh films as a heroine.  After 7 years, she was cast alongside Dilip Kumar in Ram Aur Shyam as the second lead after Waheeda Rehman. She worked in several movies as the second lead or a supporting role.  Do Raste catapulted her into the big league.  It was a huge hit and after that there was no stopping her.

I have chosen two songs for Mumtaz.  I love Tune jo samjha hai mujhko from Boxer. Mumtaz dons a frilly dress and top boots and dances with abandon.

At one point in the song 'Zindagi Ittefaq hai' Mumtaz kicks off her shoes and dances while Dharmendra and Feroze Khan watch a little dazedly.  Mumtaz never lost her cool, you feel as you watch this song.  You have to admire her chutzpah as she dances and later responds so beautifully to Dharmendra's singing.

9. Leena Chandavarkar
Career Duration (1970 - 1985)
Debut film: Man ka Meet
Song: Is zamane me, is mohabbat ne
Leena has to be, after Mumtaz, the cutest actress to hit the Hindi film scene. She debuted in Man ka Meet and had three more releases in 1970. At the end of it, she was one of the top heroines and worked with all the major actors of her time.  Her career was short, but bright.

Mehboob Ki Mehendi was a muslim social, almost the last of its kind.  She was paired with the hottest actor of the time, Rajesh Khanna.  They make a lovely pair, Rajesh looked great in Achkans and was able to declaim Urdu very well.  Likewise Leena looks gorgeous in Shararas and fit her role as a damsel in distress to a T.  She looks lovely in this song, Is Zamane me, is mohabbat ne. It is easy to see why she shot right to the top.

10. Jaya Bachhan
Career Duration (1971 -    )
Debut film in Hindi: Guddi
Song: Gagan pe do taare takraye
Jaya Bhaduri debuted with no less than Satyajit Ray in Mahanagar.  She was the brightest star in FIIT, Pune.  She was all about talent.  She had a lovely face and refused to ever go glamourous. As a result, she was cast in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films, or was given a substantial role in mainstream films. She still works in films.

The song Gagan pe do taare takraye is from one of her early films, Shor.  She plays a young girl who is attracted to Manoj Kumar.  This is a song she sings after she overhears a plan to get her married to him.

11. Moushami Chatterji
Career Duration (1972 -    )
Debut film in Hindi: Anurag
Song: Mere Bachpan tu jaa
Moushmi had a fantastic debut in Bengali film Balika Badhu as a child bride who gradually learns what it is to be married. She was so successful that crossing over to Hindi was a cakewalk for her. She was beautiful and talented and was counted amongst the top actresses of her time.

Kachhe Dhage was an early film that Moushami starred it.  In the film, she catches the fancy of two rival dacoits who are smitten by her innocence and charm. In this song, she is seen as a young village girl on the brink of adulthood.

12. Vidya Sinha
Career Duration (1974-2011)
Debut film: Rajnigandha.
Song: Rajnigandha phool tumhare
Vidya Sinha was another girl-next-door type of an actress who escaped the Glamour Brigade like Jaya Bhaduri.  She starred mostly in small (but very effective) films by Basu Chatterjee, with whom she debuted in Rajnigandha.

The song is taken from Rajnigandha which she sings while she thinks about her boyfriend, Amol. He usually brings her a bunch of Rajnigandha flowers.  It is a beautiful song full of longing for love.

13. Swaroop Sampat
Career Duration (1989 -   )
Debut film: Doosra Kanoon
Song: Tumhari palkon ki chilmano me
Swaroop Sampat came to films after winning the Miss India crown - like Zeenat Aman before her. She was gorgeous and talented but did not work in many good films. Her best known films were Nakhuda and Naram Garam.  She became the small screen sweetheart of India with her immensely popular role in TV series "Yeh jo hai Zindagi".

I love this song a lot. It is written by Nida Fazli and set to music by Khayyan. Raj Kiran and Swaroop are like cherry on top of  the cake in this lovely song.

Here is a playlist of all the songs listed in this post.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Rooftop Prince - 2012

Director: Shin Yoon-Sub
Writer: Lee Hee-Myung

The series starts with a Joseon Crown Prince Lee Kak (Mickey Yoochun) waking up in the middle of the night to find his wife missing from beside him.  The palace is thrown into a turmoil when she is discovered floating in the Royal Pond, drowned.

The Prince is devastated and is sure this is murder, not suicide. The court produces evidence of suicide and the King is satisfied. The Prince decides to conduct an inquiry on his own. He hires three young men who are known to be best in the area of their expertise.

Song Man-Bo (Lee Min-ho (junior)) has the sharpest brains in the Kingdom. Woo Yong-Sool (Jung Suk-Won) is a fighter. Do Chi-San (Choi Woo-Sik) is a cross-dresser who can wrest secrets from anywhere.

Along with these three men, Crown Prince attempts to solve the murder of his beloved wife Hwa-Yong (Jung Yoo-Mi). They get to work immediately.  Song Man-Bo deduces that the Princess was poisoned by using arsenic.  The four try to locate arsenic sellers in the Capital. They find that there is only one arsenic seller and he has been killed. On top of that, they are being chased with murderous intent. They are flung across a chasm and find themselves:

In a rooftop apartment in modern day Seoul.  The apartment belongs to Park Ha (Han Ji-Min). She is startled out of her wits at this sudden apparition and tries to shoo away the intruders. But she is stuck with them.

A few days later the Crown Prince spots Hong Se-Na (Jun Yoo-Mi again) who is the spitting image of his deceased wife.

The Prince feels he has been sent to the future for a reason. Maybe he is meant to unite with his wife one more time to discover why she died in her past life.  There was a modern version of him too, Yong Tae-Yong (Mickey Yoochun again) who is missing and presumed dead.

In the meantime he is having a very hard time with Park-Ha.  She does not understand that he is a royal personage and must be deferred to.  She treats him with disdain and is always ready to take him down a peg or two.  He does not recognize her as Boo-Yong (Han Ji-Min again) from the past, the girl who was his wife's sister.  Boo-Yong had a disfiguring scar on her face and always wore a veil.

Park Ha has to deal with the four interlopers from the past. Initially she thinks she is being conned. Eventually she realizes that the four young men are really from the past.  She can get along with the other three, but their Prince is a pain in the ass.  He is stuck up and keeps issuing orders.  She has to take this:

and turn them into this:

Most of the time the series are very funny, as the young men from the past try to adjust to modern age.  But the Prince is on a serious mission too, he has to find out why his wife was murdered.  He keeps pursuing Se-Na with an intent to woo her and marry her, but he also has deep feelings for his benefactress Park-Ha who has been mostly very kind to them.

He is sure that they landed up in the Rooftop apartment for a reason.  He wants to find out all the answers, but had to bide his time. In the meanwhile Yong Tae-Moo (Lee Tae-Sung) seems to thwart him at every chance he gets.

Slowly the pieces start falling together. Yet the Prince does not know for sure.  It is only when he sees a body floating in a lake, almost as if in a mirroring of the past, that realization dawns upon him.

The series are funny and poignant at the same time. The first and the last episodes are so action packed that you had better be prepared not to blink your eyes for the fear of missing anything.

Mickey Yoochun comes up trumps with his performance as the grief-stricken Prince at the start, to the puzzled and disoriented person trying to make sense of the future he is plonked in. Even after he masters the modern world, his insouciance when enjoying a sweet drink or eating instant noodles is touching.

Han Ji-Min is also wonderful as the girl who wants to help the Prince uncover the secrets of his past, but cannot help feeling jealous when he tries to woo Se-Na.

As the series progressed, I could not guess how it would all end.  Will the Prince go back or stay on in modern day Seoul? How can Park Ha go to the Joseon period when her counterpart - Boo-Young - is probably still alive? What will happen to Se-Na? Will SHE accompany the Prince to Joseon?

When the end did come, it was so well wrought that I was taken completely by surprise.  It was one the best endings I have seen in a drama.

Rooftop Prince was supposed to be the second Korean series that I watched.  My mother, who is a veteran of K-series sent this to me on a DVD.  It took a long time in getting to me, and when it did, the subtitles did not work.  I watched it online eventually, and was so captivated that I have almost seen it twice already.

After Faith, which will always be my first love, I liked this series the most.  It was fun and nice and had a very good script.  Mickey Yoochun is always a delight to watch, as is Han Ji Min.  I was thrilled to be able to recognize some of the character actors here.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

King and the Clown -2005

Yeonsan Gun (1476-1506) was the 10th King of Joseon Dynasty from 1494 to 1506.  He was said to be one of the most cruel kings ever.  He killed people without any compunction.  His mother was ordered to drink poison and commit suicide for the crime of killing other concubines out of jealousy.

Jang Sa Eng
During the rule of Yeonsan, there was a troupe of minstrels who put up acrobatic shows, tight rope walking along with ribald skits. The older one was Jang Saeng (Kam Woo Sung) and the other minstrel was Gong-gil (Lee Joon-Ki).  Gong gil has pretty looks and is able to portray a girl quite effortlessly.

Gong Gil

The headman of the village likes young boys and asks for Gong-gil to be sent to him.  The leader of the troupe agrees to that. Jang Saeng does not like it, we learn that this has been going on for a long time.  The leader often pimps Gong-gil for extra rations or money.  Gong-gil is used to it, but Jang Saeng fights for him.

In the ensuing fracas, the leader is killed and Gong-gil and Jang Saeng run off to Hanyang (present day Seoul).  There they meet up with another small troupe and start performing risque plays involving the King and his Concubine which are met with wholehearted audience approval.

The ribald Play

The King's Clerk Cheo Sin (Jang Hang-Seon) is not amused when he sees the play while passing by.  He gets the troupe arrested and flogged.  Captain - Jang Saeng - dares him to show their skit to the King.  If he laughs, they live, if he does not, they die.

Colorful dance

The King (Jung Jin-Young) is used to pretty cultural shows like this, not a nasty ribald comedy.  

The King and His Concubine

But despite the nervous performance by Captain's troupe, he laughs.  He is not just amused, he wants the troupe to stay and be the Royal Minstrels.  What the Captain's troupe don't know is that the King is unhinged and is quite likely to become violent.  Also, to Jang Saeng's consternation, he appears to like Gong Gil a bit too much.  The King's clerk seems to have an agenda as well.  He seems to want them to perform plays on controversial topics.

A Play about the poisoning of the Queen

The movie is about very strong bonds of friendship (perhaps even intimacy) between Jang-Saeng and Gong-gil.  The King - Yeonsan- is attracted to Gong-gil too.  Gong Gil likes being with the King because he gets to see the King's vulnerable side.  The three leads, Kam Woo Sung, Jung Jin Young and Lee Jun Ki put in stupendous performances.  They are required to love and hate each other at times and they do it wonderfully.

But it is the director Lee Jun ik who is the ultimate winner for putting together this wonderful tale.  Each scene is tight and well directed.  The script and dialogues (alas, I had to depend on the subtitles) are flawless.

The director chooses the audience to use their own imagination to make out what is going on.  There are never any 'leading' dialogues to make the audience think anything.  Only in one instance in the beginning - where Jang Saeng speaks about Gong-gil being regularly pimped (which was integral to the story, if you think of it) - is the audience directly 'told' something.

You, as a viewer, can choose to believe that Jang Saeng was intimate with Gong Gil, or not.  You can choose to believe that the King slept with Gong Gil, or not.  Even the last scene is very open ended and you may, if you wish, believe what you will.

This is what I loved best about the movie.  This is what makes it stand out so much from the usual fare that is dished out.

The cinematography is very good.  As it is a historical film, there are a lot of costumes and montages of flag waving and grandeur. Even the countryside is pretty and virgin (as it must have been in those times).

A special word about the background score. Fabulous. We are given silences, traditional pipes and drums and a beautiful tune to accompany the opening credits.  It is soothing and apt for a great movie like this one.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Fatal Encounter - 2014

The Fatal Encounter is a South-Korean Film directed by Lee Jae Kyu and written by Choi Sung-Hyun.  The cinematograhy is by Go Nak Sun.

Background: King Jeongjo (1752-1800) was a ruler of Joseon dynasty who ruled from 1776-1800.  He was the son of Crown Prince Sado who died as a result of being enclosed in a rice chest for eight days. Sado was called a killer and a rapist and various ministers under the rule of his father Yeongjo asked for his elimination.  As a royal person could not be harmed, Sado was ordered to climb into a rice chest and was sealed inside till he died. Upon assuming the throne at the young age of 24, King Jeongjo tried to clear his father's name, he also survived several assassination attempts in the very first year of his rule.  This movie is an account of one of those attempts.

King Jeongjo (Hyun Bin) has a punishing schedule.  He wakes up very early and works out.  He also wears weights on his body to strengthen it.  He is a master archer and is good with a sword as well. He is a great scholar who spends most of his time reading.

His clerk, the eunuch, Gap Soo,(Jung Jye Young) is always with the king.  He was brought over to the palace as a young boy,  In fact, he is a trained assassin who was castrated and sent to the palace so he may one day aid in killing the king. Gap Soo becomes the young prince's playmate and is convinced that the king should not be killed.

There is a nasty Fagin like person Gwang Bae (Choe Jae-Hyun) who brings up little boys and girls and raises them among pits and caves.  He trains them to be assassins and hires them out for killing people for money.  He had trained Gap Soo.  Gap-Soo's brother in distress in those training pits was Eul-Soo (Cho Jung Seok).  He is now the best assassin that Gwang Bae has.  Gwang Bae wants him to go and assassinate the king.

Eul Soo is in love with the laundry maid in the palace, Wol Hye (Jung Eun-Chae).  All he wants is to go somewhere far away with his lady love and live a normal life.

Jeongjo's grandmother, Queen Jungsoon (Han Ji-Min) is a very young woman whom his grandfather married at the fag end of his career perhaps. She is one of Jeongjo's deadliest enemies.  She is always at loggerheads with the King's mother, the two women keep trying to diminish each other.

This movie covers one day in the life of the King Jeongjo.  It is very crucial for him as there is a huge conspiracy to kill him that he is not aware of.  Within 24 hours, we move back and forth in time, getting vital information about various characters.  There are several situations that crop up, there are threats of poisonings, killing contracts and palace coups planned.  How the King, along with his loyal retainers (few and far between), copes with them within a day's time is what the movie is all about.

The movie uses the 24-hour format for its story telling very intelligently. It forays into the past to expand upon the current scene now and then, when it has to explain why the character is behaving so, or why the character is feeling this way. It was particularly useful in establishing the relationship between the King and Gap Soo; between Gap Soo and Eul Soo; between Eul Soo and Wol Hye. It helps to flesh out a narrative which is otherwise very terse and focused.

It is beautifully filmed, full marks to the cinematographer and the director for composing lovely scenes.  The movie is full of wonderful action sequences, obviously as it is a near war like situation in the palace, It was no surprise to me, after having seen some great K-dramas, that the acting was so good all around.  All the actors put in great performances.

The cherry on top of the cake is Hyun Bin as the King Jeongjo.  The King is just 24 years old when he ascends the throne.  So a young Hyun Bin is the right age to depict the King.  Right at the start I drooled watching the toned body of Hyun Bin as he works out.  All through the movie, he maintains a grim (kingly?) visage which suits him so much.  He is the focal point of the movie and he delivers confidently.

I have just finished watching Sungkyunkwan Scandal, a Korean Drama.  Post completion I was reading up a bit on the Joseon King Jeonjo who was depicted in the series, when I ran into a reference to this movie and was piqued into watching it. I am mighty glad too, as it is a fabulous film that no movie lover should miss.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Sungkyunkwan Scandal - 2010

The Jal-Geum Quartet
Sungkynkwan Scandal aired from August 2010 to November 2010,  It was described as a fusion historical drama. It was directed by Kim Won Suk and Hwang In Hyuk.  It was written by Kim Tae-Hee and Jeong Eung Wol.

I have seen some K-Drama over the past two years, they came highly recommended by my mother and friends. Hence it is no surprise that most of them were such winners for me. I have not yet viewed a series that I have disliked.  I found some a little slow here and there, but on the whole the experience has always been good.

Likewise, this series, Sungkyunkwan Scandal has been very satisfying.  There were times when I was laughing out loudly, or crying over the hurt being felt by the characters, or even going totally mushy over stolen kisses and sweet looks.

Kim Yun-Hee disguised as Kim Yun-Shik

Kim Yun-Hee (Park Min-Young) is a young girl of a poor family who disguises herself as a boy and uses the identity of her younger brother, Kim Yun-Shik to work and earn money.  This is the late 18th Century in Korea, under the ruler Jeonjo of Joseon Dynasty.  Women are not allowed to study (in schools) or work. The only way Yun-Hee can help her family is by working under disguise or getting married to a rich man who will provide help to her family.  The latter is not a feasible option for the feisty Yun-Hee.

Hence, she wears a man's garb and works for a bookshop copying books or writing work assignments for the students of the Sungkyunkwan School. In a bid to earn money to pay back a loan taken to buy medicines for her younger brother, she agrees to stand in for a candidate for an entrance exam to the prestigious Sungkyunkwan school. It is here that she runs into Lee Seon-Jun (Micky Yoo Chan).

Lee Seon-Jun

He is a very upright young man; he comes from a noble family and is slated for great things. His father is the Left State Minister. He is the head of the Noron faction and a very important aristocrat. His son has a very secluded life, he studies all the time and knows little of the real world.  He is didactic and, well, a complete prig, He pressurises Yun-Shik into taking the entrance exam, as he is so bright. He cannot imagine the havoc he has wrecked upon the girl, who is cornered into attending the school. Yun-Shik is finally convinced that attending school will be a good idea when she learns that her sibling will get free medicine and she will be able to avail of good food, lodgings and education. On the flip-side, she could be beheaded if it is discovered that she is masquerading as a boy.

At the school Yun-Shik is assigned to a dorm with two students.  One of them is Lee Seon-Jun and the other is Moon Jae-Shin.

Moon Jae-Shin
Moon Jae-Shin (Yoo Ah-In) has already had a run-in with Yun-Shik when he had saved her from some soldiers who were tormenting her.  He feigns to be a dull student, interested only in drinking and sleeping.  He has wild hair and wears rough clothes and a surly expression.  In fact, he is a vigilante plampheteer who sticks to the school to avoid scrutiny. Of late his pamphlets have been bringing up the matter of the lost Geumdeungjisa (a document that implicated some aristocrats in the killing of Prince Sado), and claiming that the thieves of this documents are the enemies of the nation. 

Because of this, many in the government are alarmed and want to hunt down the elusive Red Messenger.  He is beneath the facade of a bored senior, a very loyal person.  Once he warms up to his roommates he sticks with them and helps them.

Moon Jae-Shin's childhood friend, Ku Yong-Ha (Song Jung-Ki) is a busybody Puck like character. He has fastidious tastes and is well groomed.  He likes to do things that amuse him.  At the moment it amuses him to stick with the rag-tag group of Moon Jae-Shin, Kim Yoon-Shik and Lee Sun-Joon.  He guesses right away that Yoon-Shik is a girl, and often tries to trap her into revealing her secret.  He has a secret of his own which he guards just as jealously.  He happily becomes the fourth of the Jal-Geum Quartet that dares to defy the nasty and powerful Student President Ha In-Soo and later take on tasks for the King Jeong Jo.

Opposing the J4 is the nasty, mean, power hungry student president Ha In-Soo (Jeon Tae-Soo). He is the son of the War Minister Ha who is a corrupt and self-serving official.  In Soo is a bully and hates to be defied.  He has constant run-ins with the J4 and is constantly trying to undermine them.  He is in love with the beautiful Gisaeng Cho Sun.  She shows a marked preference for Yoon-Shik which makes him want to take down Yoon-shik even more.

Cho Sun

The main premise of the series is a comic look at the life of school-kids in the 18th Century.  The story contains several real historical facts.  The Joseon King Jeongjo really did rule over the second half of the 18th Century, and he really did implement many changes in the social structure.  The aristocracy was divided among the factions of  Sorons and Norons, who were always at loggerheads with each other. It was only the noblemen who had any say in the society, the common man was trodden upon. The King tried to make the society more equal.

The series takes on the issue of social inequality of those times.  The poor get poorer and have no choice but to indulge in crime to make the ends meet.  Yoon-Shik has lived among the poor and faced discrimination not only on the basis of gender, but also poverty.  She knows about the issues that dog the common people.  Jae-Shin belongs to the less powerful Soron faction and has seen his brother die because he tried to carry out a task that was detrimental to the Norons.  He is also trying to aim towards a more equal society.  Yong-Ha has money but has seen the life at close quarters and he is also sympathetic towards the under-dogs.  Sun-Jeon is an upright young man who will side with the right side no matter what.

There are a couple of episodes in the series when the homophobia practised in those times comes under a scanner.  The strong feminist tones are to be expected as the heroine is trying to make the best of her life despite being a woman in times when the woman had practically no rights.  The only way they could hope for a good life was to snag a good man.

These are weighty issues.  But do not think the series a dull and preachy watch.  Right from the start of the series, each episode is full of energy and draws you in.  There is a lot of comedy around the lead character - Sun Joon who is basically a prig. He has no social skills and seems a good candidate for Asperger's Syndrome.  He smiles seldom and utters only platitudes. He is so consistent in this, that it becomes a form of comedy.  Mickey Yoochan comes up trumps with this wonderful portrayal.

One can imagine all the kind of messes that the heroine Yoon-Shik keeps getting into, being a woman in disguise.  She has to initially sleep between two men and has a tough time taking a bath. The slaps on the back the other guys keep giving her and the casual arm around the shoulder, all add to her discomfort.  On top of that, the top Gisaeng falls for her.  Then there is the problem of love she cannot express her love for Sun-Joon without being taken for a homosexual.

It is towards the fag end that the series lost a bit of their energy for me.  One reason for that could be the bad subtitling which I have to rely on understand what's going on.  The other could be the sudden slowing down of the story.

The lead actors deliver a standout performance. Micky Yoochan, I have already mentioned.  He makes you love a prig who pontificates all the time. Park Min Young is the cement of the story.  She is the one who binds the F4 together.  She is the catalyst who makes a robotic Sun Joon human.  And she lives up to the demands of the role.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Secret Hotel - 2014

My Secret Hotel is a Korean drama in 16 episodes of an hour each starring Yoo In Ha, Jin Yi Han and Namgung Min.  It was aired from August to September 2014.

I finished watching Empress Ki some time ago.  It was a fabulous series, but quite serious and full of violence.  It was full of politics among the royalty in the 14th century.  After that I needed something fluffy and romantic to lighten my mood.  I had been quite impressed by Jin Yi Han who had an important side role in Empress Ki as Tal Tal. He looked very handsome in ceremonial robes and a long glossy ponytail.  I picked Jin Yi Han's series My Secret Hotel to get more eyefuls of the hunk.

I was NOT disappointed.  Right at the start, while the credits are rolling, Jin Yi Han bursts into a fabulous dance. Sigh. 

It was a typical K-romance.  Two guys vie for the affections of a girl. She is equally torn between the two.  Who will win?  This romance is embellished by a some mystery-thriller elements.  Here is how the initial story goes:

Nam Sang Hyo (Yoo In Ha) is a dedicated hotelier.  She has risen from a waitress to the Manager of a Banquet Hall.  She specializes in Wedding Planning.  The hotel she works at, called Secret Hotel, is one of the best in Seoul.  Her hotel has just got some bad press.  The Managing Director of her hotel, Jo Sung Gyeom (Namgung Min) asks her to deal with this crisis.  The PR Manager Yeo Eun Joo (Lee Young Eun) and Nam Sang Hyo plan a fancy celebrity wedding to bring back the Hotel's mojo.

The bride is the daughter of a cosmetic company owner. The groom is a well educated son of the richest man in Seoul.  This wedding represents the creme de la creme of the Seoul Society.  But Nam Sang Hyo gets a shock when she sees the Groom. It is Koo Hae Young (Jin Yi Han).  She was married to him for three months when she was in Las Vegas. It did not work out and they got a divorce.  She is cool as she greets him, causing him to do a double take.  He expected her to burst out in tears or at least, act shocked.

Nam Sang Hyo decides to act professional and carry on with her work despite feeling upset about Koo Hae Young. She murmurs a goodbye to him and walks away as the wedding commences. However, the grand wedding is rudely interrupted by a corpse falling at the Groom's feet as he walking down the aisle.

The murdered man is an Assistant Manager under Nam Sang Hyo. He was a nasty piece of work that no one liked much.  This brings in Kim Geum Bo (Ahn Kil Kang).  He is the best detective on the police force in Seoul. He is uncouth in appearance, but has a sharp mind.  He sets to work trying to solve the murder mystery.  He finds that Secret Hotel has many people with secrets.  There are several suspects and he must examine them all, and try to find the murderer.

The Managing Director is here to find out more about his father. His father used to work for The Secret Hotel in the past.  He died when he fell from the sixth floor of this hotel in an accident.  Jo Sung Gyeum has been getting cryptic messages from someone claiming to have information about the death of his father.  He has reason to suspect that it was not an accident, but murder.

 The Secret Hotel hides many secrets.

 Jo Sung Gyeum is interested in Nam Sang Hyo and wants date her.  She agrees, as she is also eager to move on from Koo Hae Young. She does not bargain with Hae Young reacting badly to her relationship with Jo Sung Gyeum and doing his utmost to wreck her new budding romance.  There are times when she finds she still has a soft spot for Koo Hae Young who had ditched her seven years ago and run away from her.

 She had followed him to New York and found this woman in his apartment.  It had broken her heart and she had fled back to Vegas and from there, back to Seoul.  How can she forgive him for running away with another woman just three months after being married to her?

Is Koo Hae Young really a player? Or was there a reason why he ditched Sang Hyo?  If he did not care for her, why does he chase her so relentlessly?

The PR Manager of The Secret Hotel, Lee Eun Joo is also sweet on Jo Sung Gyeum and is forever trying to drive Nam Sang Hyo away from him so she may have a chance to date him.  She even engineers a fix-up between Koo Hae Young and Nam Sang Hyo to get her out of the way.  Will her machinations be fruitful?

In the meantime, there is another murder at the hotel and detective Kim Geum Bo has to step up his game.

With just 16 episodes, the pace of the series is fast.  We have the issue of Jo Sun Gyeum's father thrown in to spice up the story. Nam Sang Hyo was an international adoptee (this means that she was adopted by an American couple when she was a child).  Her foster mother was a Korean too which explains how she can speak good Korean.  The story of her parentage is also linked to one of the secrets of the hotel.

I enjoyed the series thoroughly.  My only grouse was with the character of Nam Sang Hyo.  Initially she is a very spunky character, full of beans.  The hotel workers are laying bets to see which young lady of the two - Nam Sang Hyo and Lee Eun Jo will bag the handsome Managing Director.  Nam Sang Hyo loves playing the game of one-up-man-ship with Lee Eun Jo.  But later, she plays a rag doll who is being pulled one way and another by the two men in her life. 

With Jin Hi Yan looking like this, fresh faced with his curly mop, I had no problem with this minor irritant.  The series concludes to the satisfaction of all.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Empress Ki 2013

Empress Ki, a popular Korean Series, was aired from October 2013 to April 2014 in 51 episodes. It is a historical series based loosely on the life of a real person, Empress Ki, a Korean concubine who rose among ranks to become the Empress of Toghon Temur, the last Mongol Emperor. She existed from 1315 to 1370 AD.

Nyang Ki, (Sungyang/Empress Ki) a little girl, is being dragged towards China as a human tribute along with her mother. Their life ahead threatens to be full of misery. The young Korean crown prince, Wang Yu is also a part of the people going towards Daidu in China. He takes pity on young Nyang Ki and opens the door at night to allow all the captive women and their children to flee. Tangqishi, a Chinese Warlord kills all the fleeing women, among them, Nyang's mother. She gives her wedding ring to Nyang before dying and asks her to find her father Ki, who has a similar ring.

Young Nyang tries to fend for herself in Inju, where she is stranded. She disguises herself as a boy, changes her name to Sungyang, and finds employment with Wang Ko, the King of Shenyang. In time, she becomes a trained warrior and an unerring archer. She grows up to help Wang Ko smuggle salt and becomes one his most trusted 'men'. On the side, trying to help her country she is also sending messages to Crown Prince Wang Yu who is trying to curb the salt smuggling.

After a successful stint with helping Wang Yu bust the salt racket of Wang Ko, she discovers Commander Ki posted in Inju. She joins his force to be close to her father. Her father's unit is deputed to take care of the deposed Prince of China, Toghon Temur and keep him safe. This is where Sungyang meets Toghon Temur and makes a lasting impression on him.

Toghon beats all odds to become the Emperor of China. Yet, he is under the thumb of his Regent El Temur, a fact that rankles with him. Sungyang is captured by Tangqishi and dragged to China to become a slave.  He gets some feminine vibes from her and strips her to discover that she is a woman. He now wants her to be his personal slave after they reach Daidu. Wang Yu is also on his way to Daidu as a vassal of the Chinese Emperor, Toghon.

Wang Yu and Sungyang meet each other again later on and fall in love. Circumstances drive a wedge between them and Sungyang (after many plot twists) returns to the Palace as a concubine. She comes close to Toghon once again and finds that she is fated to be with him.

How the three major players, Sungyang, Wang Yu and Toghon cope with the circumstances to achieve what they dream of is the story of Empress Ki. Sungyang wants to help the Korean people as well Toghon. Wang Yu wants his crown to be restored and also wants Korea to prosper. Toghon wants to become an independent Emperor and shed the yokel of his Regent.

Rather than give out plot points which are too numerous to be listed here, it is better to give a brief sketch of all the major characters in the series. There are plethora of strong characters in the series and the story is also full of energy. Till the end, the viewer is kept on the edge of the seat while Ki, Toghon and Wang Yu cope with one crisis after the other. It is not possible to sketch every character in the series, and believe me, there are many great ones. I will limit myself to listing some of the major ones.

I was captivated by all the cute men in ponytails. The Emperor, Wang Yu, Tal Tal and Talahai all sport a pony tail that would put any pony to shame. The women are all very pretty too. It is a splendidly mounted series with gorgeous locales, dresses, horses and silks.

Empress Ki, Nyang Ki, Sungyang. Played by Ha Ji Won.

Nyang is woman of superior intellect. Being orphaned early in life, Nyang discovers it is better to hone her skills as a warrior and hide her femininity to survive. She becomes Sungyang, a boy skilled in warfare.

She loves Korea to distraction and will do anything to fell the people who hurt Korean interests. She helps Wang Yu, the crown prince of Korea, to uncover the Salt smuggling which is draining the Korean economy. She falls in love with him, but because of the constant strife in their life, they are not able stay together.

Tangqishi, the son of El Temur had killed her mother. The El Temur family also killed her father. Hence, she vows to take revenge. She could have returned to Korea and lived peacefully there, but she opted to join the Emperor's concubines to gain enough power to wreck vengeance upon El Temur. She helps Toghon overthrow them. In the process she also falls in love with him. Till the end, she is torn between her love for Wang Yu and her love for Toghon.

The role is played to perfection by Ha Ji Won. She has the requisite looks and talent for the role. Her face is the most perfect oval that I have ever seen. She has a beautiful eyes. Yet she looks perfect as a man with her swagger. It is not for nothing that she is one of major Hallayu stars of Korea.

Toghon Temur, Emperor of China, played by Ji Chang Wook.

When we first see Toghon in Empress Ki he is a mere boy. He is sent to Korea apparently under banishment, but El Temur's true intent is to kill him there. Thus, he would get rid of an Emperor Apparent and also be able to put the onus of his death on Korea.

Toghon knows this and is very scared. He tries to run away from the Korean Camp under Commander Ki but runs into Sungyang. She protects him and takes him under her wing. She teaches him how to use the sword and also how to shoot arrows. He becomes very attached to Sungyang but betrays her father to El Temur. Ki Nyang hates him for this for a long time.

Later, when he becomes an Emperor and learns that Sungyang is a woman, he falls deeply in love with her. He sticks by her through thick and thin and ultimately makes her his Empress. He grows from a frightened, unsure boy into an Emperor who rules on his own. Ji Chang Wook puts in such a natural performance that you are convinced absolutely by his act of a petulant boy who wants his way in everything. He looks ravishing in his ponytail as a fugitive Prince, and very handsome as the young emperor in his ceremonial robes.

Wang Yu, Crown Prince and later King-in-waiting of Korea., Played by Joo Jin Mo

Wang Yu is wise and sagacious. He has all the qualities needed to be the perfect King of Korea. Unfortunately, Korea is still the vassal state of China. He tries his best to do as much as he can for Korea from outside. He stays close to the Regent of China, El Temur in a bid to watch the Korean interests. He is also deeply in love with Sungyang. He tries to do all he can to help her, often putting his own life in danger in the process. He understands that a Korean Empress will be able to help Korea better and does all he can to ensure her success at investiture.

Most times the lead actors in Korean series are very cute looking. Joo Jin Mo, by contrast has rugged looks and a strong physique. He is one of the manliest actors that I have seen in K-series. In this drama, the Emperor is jealous of his good looks and feels he will lose Sungyang to his handsome looks.

Tanashiri, the first Empress of China, played by Baek Jin Hee

Tanashiri is the daughter of El Temur the Regent. Her father is the most powerful man in China. In an attempt to create a link with the Emperor, her father marries her to Toghon.

She is not keen on the marriage, but when she sees Toghon, she falls in love with him. Toghon is never able to warm up to her because he hates her father. This creates frustration in her. As it is, she is a spoiled, petulant young girl, fired by Emperor's rejection she turns into a hateful, vengeful young woman who does not think twice before getting people killed.

She creates such mayhem with her plotting and scheming, that she puts El Temur in the shade as the chief villain.  For a long time, she captures Ki's attention as she is constantly doing something vile.

Baek Jin Hee has put in an absolutely stupendous performance as the nasty Empress, Tanashiri. She steals every scene she is in.

Yeon Chul – El Temur – Regent to the Emperor, Played by Jeon Kuk Hwan

Another magnificent character, another great performance by Jeon Kuk Hwan. Yeon Chul was Regent to three Kings. Toghon's father, Khutughtu Khan, his younger brother and Toghon. He started off by being a very loyal and a trusted aid of the King.

After tasting power as the Regent, he becomes corrupt and power hungry. He kills Khutughtu Khan and tries to install his younger son on the throne. He thought that the young boy would be easy to manipulate. But the boy-emperor dies of illness soon. When El Temur meets Toghon who is under banishment in Korea, Toghon acts like a fool and a very submissive boy. He fools El Temur into thinking that he would make a good 'sleeping king'. As it is, Temur has ensured that Toghon does not even know how to read and write.

Along with his two sons, Tanqishi and Talahai, he is on the road to absolute power. His daughter is married to Toghon and he wants to make her son the emperor which will ensure that power remains in his blood line. His plans are foiled by Ki Nyang who wants vengeance for her mother and father.

Empress Dowager - Budashiri – Played by Kim Seo Hyung

The Dowager Empress, Budashiri is the former Empress of Khutughtu Khan. After his death she tries to nurture Toghon's younger brother who is named emperor.

On Toghon's return, she attaches herself as his mentor. He treats her like his mother and gives her all respect. After the fall of the Temur clan, Budashiri tries to get more power attached to herself and works against Nyang Ki, who had supported her to get rid of the Temurs.

Budashiri does not want a Korean woman to be given any importance. In a bid to protect her own child, Empress Ki hit back and a power struggle ensues between the two women. She is another strong woman character on this series.

Tangqishi - Dank Ke Se – Played by Kim Jung Hyun

He is the older son of El Temur and is being groomed to take up the Regent's role. He is extremely cruel and mean like the rest of the people in his family. He loses his temper when the tribute women in his entourage, that he is escorting to China from Korea, are set free by the boy prince Wang Yu. He kills all the escaping women, among them Ki Nyang's mother.

Ki has several run-in's with him and always gets the better of him. Yet he manages to survive and come back to haunt Nyang. At one point he even falls in love with Nyang in a perverse fashion and wants to possess and destroy her. His younger brother Talahai is seen more as his shadow in the series, usually following him as Tangqishi goes around creating mayhem.

General Baek An- Bayan – Played by Kim Young Ho

Another fabulous character full of many shades of grey. When we are introduced to Bayan, he is with Toghon, escorting him to his exile in Korea. We soon learn that El Temur has ordered, on behalf of the boy emperor, that Toghon be murdered cleverly to make it seem like the Koreans failed to protect him.

Bayan is not very happy with the decision. He is more of a warrior, he does not like these cloak and dagger politics. He is happy to swear allegiance to his Emperor and fight for him. He was a true follower of Khutugtu Khan and does not think too highly of El Temur.

After almost killing Toghon, he decides to help him retain the throne. He also helps Ki Nyang initially. She is all set to return to Korea at one point when something happens that makes her decide to return to Daidu and help Toghon become the Emperor he wants to. At this point, Bayan steps in and nominates Ki Nyang as his candidate for a concubine, as his foster daughter. Later, his character becomes darker and darker as he gains power. He also becomes very anti-Korea.

Yeon Bi Soo – Batoru – Played by Yu in Young

Batoru was another fabulous female character that started out with a big bang. General Batoru is the faceless terror of the Silk Road, who vanquishes enemies wearing a mask.. He (people perceive him as a man) is a master of guerrilla warfare.

Tangqishi despatches Wang Yu to this area to bear the brunt of Batoru's attacks. He means to annihilate the Korean troops by putting them in the front and then sweeping in with General Bayan to finish Batoru and secure the Silk Road. Wang Yu uses his superior war tactics to defeat Batoru. He is surprised to find that the face behind the mask is a young girl.

After this encounter, Batoru helps Wang Yu and Ki Nyang actively. However, Yeon Bi Soo loses her edge as a character and becomes sidelined. It was sad to see such a promising character lose steam.

Tal Tal – Toqto'a - Played by Jin Yi Han

I have saved one of the best characters in the series for the last. He was, in fact, a real person. He was a respected scholar who became a Grand Chancellor under Toghon.

In the series, he is, as he was in real life, a nephew of General Bayan. He was extremely well-read and wise. In the series, he stays in the background to begin with. He just observes the actions of all around him. From his observations, he realises that Ki Nyang has the true interests of the people at her heart. Initially he opposes Bayan's decision to sponsor Ki Nyang as a candidate for a concubine. He feels she would not do justice to interests of his clan, being an outsider. To some extent, his fears are justified until Nyang tells him that she would always keep the interests of the common people above feelings of clan or class.

This resonates with him and they become thick associates. In fact, there are times when I feel the chemistry between them was much better than the one she shares with Wang Yu or Toghon – her romantic partners. Jin Yi Han is very impressive as Tal Tal.