The web drama may not be a very recent form, but it has certainly gained traction in the last year or two. Many idol entertainment companies have jumped on the web drama bandwagon, using these lower-cost productions to let idol singers try their hands at acting.
Owing to its short episode format —which are typically no longer than half an hour—and the smaller number of episodes, the web drama is very popular with young Koreans and commuters. The brevity of the form, together with budget constraints, shape the content and viewer expectations: the plot is usually kept simple, and plot holes and awkward acting aren’t put under as much scrutiny as is the case with full-length dramas. Lower expectations notwithstanding, there is a sense that the current state of web dramas does not live up to the potential of the form, and could be pushed further.
MBC Every1 kick-started the web drama year with Imaginary Cat, an eight-episode-long series adapted from a webtoon of the same name. The story follows the life of Hyun Jong-hyun (Yoo Seung-ho) and his very chubby, aged cat, Bok-gil (voiced by Han Ye-ri, played by an extremely cooperative cat named Beetle). Side note: the title of the series doesn’t mean that Bok-gil is imaginary, but rather that her thoughts are being imagined and given voice to. Her human, Jong-hyun, is a webtoon artist who works part-time at a bookstore while struggling to be published. At work, he bumps into Oh Na-woo (Jo Hye-jung), a photography student who is on a break from her studies and is working part-time at her cousin’s cafe, down the road from Jong-hyun’s house. She is a cat lover as well, but is unable to keep one as a pet because of her cousin’s allergies. She eventually realises that Bok-gil, whom Jong-hyun found on the streets one night during a thunderstorm, is Haru, the kitten that she lost many years ago.
It isn’t very often that we chance upon a whole series that centres around cats and pet ownership and herein lies the charm of Imaginary Cat. The show takes us through a spectrum of emotions experienced by Jong-hyun as a pet owner: the simple joys of being under the same roof every day, the comfort Bok-gil provides when she snuggles close to him after a bad day, his frustration at coming home exhausted and seeing the house in chaos, his worry when Bok-gil falls ill, and finally, the sorrow of parting.
Most of the time, Jong-hyun’s and Bok-gil’s intentions bypass each other—when Bok-gil wants to play, Jong-hyun is busy drawing, and when he feels like playing with her, she is invariably not in the mood for it:
The human is excited. I don’t feel too good about it. I should run away.
Much of the comedy results from a discrepancy between what Jong-hyun thinks Bok-gil is feeling and what she is actually thinking, or from Bok-gil’s grumpy and self-contradictory thoughts. She complains of boredom when Jong-hyun is out late working, but when he is fired from the bookstore and stays home to draw, she huffs that although it’s nice to have company, she needs alone time.
Grouchy as Bok-gil seems on a daily basis, she and Jong-hyun share an unbreakable bond. They found their way to each other during a particularly bleak moment in their lives—Bok-gil was a stray kitten living in a rubbish dump, weak and unable to fend for herself because she was raised as a domestic pet, while Jong-hyun was reeling from the sudden suicide of a close high school friend and crush, Jung Soo-in (Mamamoo’s Solar). The depth of Bok-gil and Jong-hyun’s relationship is shown in simple but striking moments: a close-up on them looking at each other without a word, or a match cut from teenage Jong-hyun lifting baby Bok-gil out of the dump to the present Jong-hyun hugging Bok-gil after he left her alone at home on a stormy night.
Although Imaginary Cat hits the mark in the portrayal of Jong-hyun and Bok-gil’s relationship, it is unfortunately not without noticeable flaws. It forced in a superfluous love triangle between Jong-hyun, Na-woo, and Wan-lee (Choi Tae-hwan), Bok-gil’s veterinarian who happens to be Na-woo’s friend from middle or high school (it wasn’t made very clear). The love triangle was not important to the plot in any way, and on top of this, it was barely developed because Wan-lee only had a minor role.
In fact, Imaginary Cat could have even done without the budding romance between Jong-hyun and Na-woo. Their relationship is supposed to be a new beginning for Jong-hyun, a sign that with Bok-gil’s help, he has achieved closure regarding Soo-in’s abrupt death.
However, the weak characterisation of Na-woo makes this development feel unconvincing. Na-woo often comes across as immature and self-centred. She behaves in a way that infringes upon Jong-hyun’s privacy, physically and emotionally. Merely a few times after running into Jong-hyun, she invites herself into Jong-hyun’s house to play with Bok-gil. She schedules a health check-up for Bok-gil without consulting Jong-hyun, and even tries to pay for it. She even tries to take Bok-gil away, on the baseless assumption that since Jong-hyun lashed out at her for looking through his incomplete work (which he warned her against), he probably takes his anger out on Bok-gil when he is frustrated. She just crosses the lines too many times for the viewer to feel any empathy or liking for her.
Na-woo’s flaws as a character are compounded by awkward acting on the part of Jo Hye-jung. As a rookie actress in her first lead role—and one opposite Yoo Seung-ho at that—she must have been under great pressure, but it is difficult to close an eye to the stumbles in her acting, especially given the smaller scale of the project. In conversation scenes, she often pauses a beat too long before speaking, making it seem like she’s reciting the lines from memory instead of saying them in character. Some awkwardness is inevitable for rookies, but Jo Hye-jung’s awkwardness comes through so often that it distracts the viewer from her character. There really have been new actors who have held their own better in their first lead roles (for example, EXO’s Xiumin in Falling in Challenge). I’m not trying to attack Jo Hye-jung here; I just feel that she might not have been ready for a lead role yet.
Despite these faults, Imaginary Cat was still worth the watch. Aside from the charm of Jong-hyun and Bok-gil’s interactions, Jong-hyun’s camaraderie with his high school buddy Yook Hae-gong (Kim Min-Suk, who starred in Shut Up! Flower Boy Band) is also heartwarming. The depth of their friendship can be seen in the most mundane moments, like a chat over a bowl of ramyun, or the little speech that Hae-gong delivers to Jong-hyun’s prospective employer about how important Bok-gil is to Jong-hyun.
This, I believe, is where the web drama’s potential lies. Like how the short story relies more on allusions and patterns to hint at what it is unable to describe extensively, the web drama should capture little details that tell the viewer more about the characters and their relationships than it can show. The web drama trend is still on the rise, and I hope that in time, web dramas will go beyond a hastily-produced mini drama to become a more defined and mature form.