Monday, February 18, 2013

Incarnation of Money is Really Just an Incarnation of Stereotypes and Insipidity

  Seriously, what is WITH this show? The promotional material explained that it was going to be a drama about a man in a mental institution who is broken out by the daughter of a loan shark who needs him to help her take over her mother's operations. It's written and directed by the same people who brought us the awesome and unpredictable History of the Salaryman. It stars Kang Ji Hwan, who makes everything he's in sparkle and shine, even if it's not very good. It also stars Hwang Jung Eum, who easily won me over in Full House Take 2 despite my great reluctance to like anything about that show. There's also murder, intrigue, betrayal, and murder. This drama should be amazing, right?

  Yet somehow, it isn't anything close to amazing. Firstly, 6 episodes in, Incarnation of Money has majorly suffered from what I'll call TMTETS-itis. What is that, you ask? It's the phenomenon where an interesting setup raises all our expectations, and then we have incredible performances by child actors who raise the stakes even more. And yet, the adult actors don't come anywhere close to carrying on the upward impetus created by their talented juniors. Which in this case is even more depressing, because Kang Ji Hwan is usually so awesome. Yet, incredibly, and defying all past experience, he's just not very good in Incarnation of Money. (Also, his haircut is atrocious. A crime against humanity. And a hate-crime against his handsome face.)
  I felt that Park Ji Bin created such a fascinating character in Kang Suk/Cha Don to begin with—a charismatic young man who is betrayed by everyone around him except his mother, who is torn from her brutally by the man he admired most. A young man who loses his memory, yet still holds on to his love for his mother, despite not remembering her. A young man whose personality was drastically changed by the same accident that stole his past, and yet was still a dynamic and interesting person that I liked. Even when he told Jae In that she was fat and stupid and he could never like someone like her. He really carried this drama in the first three episodes.
  All Kang Ji Hwan had to do was take this over and continue with his characteristic ability to be silly and smart and charismatic. I mean, this role was practically written for him. And the first time we saw him again as an adult, I was convinced that that would be exactly how things would pan out. I loved the ridiculousness of him admiring himself in the shower and wondering where he'd gotten his good looks. Plus, there was the added bonus of it being a shower scene.
  So what happened? Where did he go so wrong? I don't know, but I can tell you that the new, matured version of Kang Suk/Cha Don is caddish instead of charmingly arrogant. He's selfish and single-minded in his pursuit of his dream, but he just comes across as obnoxious, instead of likable. Mostly, though—and worst of all—he's basically just boring.
  And it's not just him. Almost all the characters suffer from being uninteresting. (The most notable exception is Jae In's mom Bok Hwa Sool. Who isn't as mysterious as they'd like to make her seem, but she's definitely acting her heart out. Also, Kang Suk's mom may be interesting, but she's spent most of her time crying or driven to insanity. (Another side note—if Mom's in a padded room, how did she ever get some glass to cut people with?!?)) Ji Se Kwang is interesting on paper—the murdering, thieving, betrayer of Kang Suk's entire family who sees himself as a moral and righteous prosecutor trying to make the world better. But, aside from the scenes where he murdered Kang Suk's dad, played double agent in getting Kang Suk's mom convicted for the crime, and tried to orchestrate Kang Suk's own death, he's also proven himself to be boring. And not very effectual in accomplishing his nefarious deeds.
  His former lover and co-conspirator Eun Bi Ryung is screechy-boring. She does nothing but cry and whine and pout. She says she wants revenge, but it's pretty clear she doesn't have the brains to actually get anything accomplished. Meh. I can't even work up enough interest to hate her, or even be annoyed by her.
  All the rest of the secondary characters seem to be so one-sided—the plotting yet ineffectual baddies, the corrupt lawyers and politicians, the bumbling "good guys." None of them have done much to stand out. None of them seem to have depth to their personalities. None of them manage to be more than stock cliches—they're all more set dressing than actual characters. And so many of them have such similar features/characteristics, that they all blend together.
  Jeon Ji Hoo may yet prove to be interesting, but she's had so little screen time, it's hard to tell for sure. She's a tough girl who rides a bullet bike for starters. And I'm definitely intrigued by her cold, unflinching ability to analyze brutal murders, especially now that we've seen that she's not as unaffected as she pretends. But it's too early to tell if she has more to her than that. 
  Jae In, the love-starved binge-eater, was mildly interesting as an adolescent. It was understandable that she'd take an interest in Kang Suk, but it was creepy that her interest was a romantic one, considering the fact that everybody basically thought him so severely brain-damaged as to be practically a walking vegetable. Emotional scarring can be a great basis for developing an interesting character. Borderline predatory behavior is just frightening. 
  As an adult, Jae In showed some promise when she showed spunk and refused Kang Suk/Cha Don's early attempts to charm her into helping him out. But that quickly devolved into a slavish devotion to him, which culminated in her humiliation and determination to undergo a complete plastic makeover in order to get revenge. 
  And the worst part about her character is that she's such a horrible stereotype of a fat person. She's stupid, frivolous, desperately lonely, and she eats massive amounts of food all the time. She's never had a boyfriend. She's a bad, yet desperate kisser. She's portrayed as repulsive and unworthy of love or respect because she's overweight. I wish I could say that Hwang Jung Eum plays her with sensitivity and verve. She doesn't. She's written by someone who buys in to all those stereotypes, and it's made even more cringe-worthy by the fact that the same attitude seems to be shared by the entire cast, as well as the director. 
  This brings me to the writing and directing. After being so enchanted by the zippy, hilarious, and quirky History of the Salaryman, I felt that it was a given that Incarnation of Money would have a similar vibe. History of a Salaryman drew me in quickly. The plot is good, and the pacing suits the story for the most part. (The last third starts to drag, but that's the rule rather than the exception with kdramas, unfortunately.) The characters were interesting and unusual 3-dimensional people. The writing subverted expectations and cliches at every turn, and the plot was nicely twisty and took unexpected turns. I've heard good things about Giant, the other major project these two have helmed together.
  But those delightful things are sadly missing from Incarnation of Money. I keep waiting for things to be funny. There are very, very brief moments of humor, but they are so sparse. I was understanding in the first few episodes, since it's hard to find even dark humor in the destruction of a teenager's life at the hands of the adults closest to him (although, I don't doubt that this team could manage to make things darkly amusing if they tried). But things aren't really promising in the funny department still. (I do occasionally laugh for all the wrong reasons, though.)
  Aside from the lack of humorous moments in this drama, the plot has yet to take off. When Kang Suk was running for his life, things seemed to be moving along, but that has also stalled. The story seems to be spinning its wheels, thinking it's just stuck in the mud. But I'm afraid that this drama is high-centered, and is blissfully unaware. And I worry that it's content to stay that way, using up all its gas without bothering to get out and assess the situation, before correcting its problems and really taking off. 
  Another problem is that the mystery element is quite lackluster. They've built up certain things so much, with the obvious intention of having a Big Reveal later down the road, but then things aren't as complex or mysterious as they want us to think they are. For example, I'd pretty much figured out who the Gentleman of Jingogae is by the end of the episode in which he was first discussed. I just don't feel that there are unexpected plot twists on our horizon. 
  And we haven't even gotten anywhere close to the main conceit of this show, and I worry that the story will take off on a different path and bypass it. Which is so sad, because that conceit was one of the biggest selling points for me. The thought of Kang Ji Hwan's character being busted out of a mental institution is full of potential for hilarity and drama. Having to help his savior become a top-notch loan shark, despite being a straight-arrow prosecutor himself, is just more fuel for awesome. Please, Show, let's get back to that.
  Let's also get some funny up in here. Kang Ji Hwan and Hwang Jung Eum, you both have so much talent and potential. The same goes for you, Writer-nim and PD-nim. I know that this drama is slated for 24 episodes, so it has more room to gradually unfold. I also know that it's a weekend drama, which is a different beast from the weekday dramas. I also know that the actors who are rounding out the cast are capable of creating phenomenal characters who are interesting and well-developed. I know that this show can be awesome. Despite all my complaints, I'm going to admit that I want you to succeed. I want you to live up to your potential. I just want to love you. I'm cheering for you.
  I'm willing to give you another week. Fighting!