While the landscape of Korean entertainment can be vast and wondrous, it’s often the little things that make us fall in love, inspire awe, evoke secondhand embarrassment, or sometimes… break our hearts.
In this segment, we ask our writers: Among the many things vying for your attention this month, what won and made your heart beat?
Lim Young-woong in Space
Over the past couple of years, it’s become an accepted fact among the K-pop community that if Lim Young-woong makes a comeback, his army of ahjumma fans will go above and beyond to make sure it is a successful one. Having casually watched Mister Trot, I understand the appeal: he’s a very talented singer, he’s seemingly polite, and comes from humble beginnings in a way that was never too played up on the show, but did create a strong emotional arc that his fans connected to–particularly mothers and grandmothers who swooned at him singing their favorite hits from yesteryear. I love the way middle aged women fangirl so hard for him. It comes from a very pure place, but their passion is not to be underestimated, There’s a reason he won Best Male Artist at the MAMAs last year. His fans give me hope, reminding me that my fangirl life is far from over, and finding joy in a singer is nothing to be ashamed of.
When Lim’s October comeback was announced, I was prepared to watch him sweep the charts yet again and give IVE a run for their money on the Melon 100. However, nothing could have prepared me for “Do or Die.” While Lim is known to try on different genres and has a versatile voice, I never in my wildest dreams expected a TVXQ/Imagine Dragons mashup set on a spaceship. Everything about the second gen vibe is matched perfectly, from the mixing of the track to the choreography and his fashion. It has a rap breakdown in the second verse! It’s an MV so out of left field that even after having watched it a handful of times, I struggle to believe it’s real. This is a man who believes he can do anything, and he is succeeding–the song is charting well.
I don’t know if I actually like the track in a nostalgic way, or if I’m just so impressed with the audacity of it as a concept when Lim knows his fanbase and what is actually trendy, but I do know I can’t stop watching.
Silver Linings to Disappointing Comebacks
The last month or so has been interesting for me in that several of my favorite K-pop artists have had comebacks… and they’ve all been a letdown for me. I literally have nothing positive to say about NCT 127‘s “Fact Check,” quite possibly my least favorite title track they’ve ever had (and in a world where “Firetruck” and Taeyong‘s “Limitless” hair exist, that’s really saying something).
Both Sunmi and TXT‘s comebacks, on the other hand, fall short because of missed potential. I love the idea of them pursuing gothic camp and 80s synth-pop camp respectively, but in both cases the camp isn’t turned up high enough, plus musical missteps make the songs oddly flat.
With all that said, there are still silver linings to these comebacks that remind me why these artists remain favorites. For one, the performance quality never flags. I’ve watched multiple stages of all three songs, and the charisma on display easily powers me past my dislike of the tracks themselves. While the title tracks are not doing it for me, each single, EP, or album has some b-side gems, with TXT’s “Dreamer” and Sunmi’s “Call My Name” especially standing out. Sunmi’s styling for “Stranger”, always a strong suit of hers, is providing all sorts of seasonally spooky inspiration. And NCT 127’s dance prowess also can’t be kept down by their travesty of a song, with the dance for “Fact Check” being cheekily impressive.
TXT, in particular, have things to balance the low impact of “Chasing That Feeling.” Their recent string of English-language releases has been shockingly strong (and both “Do It Like That” and “Back for More” are included in their EP), and their performance of “Back for More” at the VMAs has been one of my absolute top K-pop performance moments of 2023. I’ve watched that dance break dozens of times, and seeing them gear up before they (literally) throw themselves into the choreographic highlight gets me every time. So, all things considered, even a few lackluster comebacks can’t truly damper my enthusiasm for these exceptional artists. Plus: there’s always Taemin to come save my October (comeback D-9 as of writing this!).
Mellow, Thoughtful Dramas That Make for Rewarding Viewing
This month, I’ve been catching up on dramas on my backlist. After a wild ride at work in September, the mellow, thoughtful A Piece of Your Mind (starring Chae Soo-bin and Jung Hae-in) was just what I needed to feel grounded again. The story explores the invisible things that keep humans going, like the search for healing amidst grief.
The cast of characters struggle with loss in various permutations: the passing of a recent friend, beloved parents lost to natural disasters, and the death of a daughter after a long-drawn battle with illness. But their grief ebbs and flows, never consuming the show whole: it recedes into the background at times, while quietly permeating the room at others. We see just as much of the characters’ dreams as they work steadily, day by day, and their propensity to connect with others despite–or because–of their vulnerability.
I’ve also been very taken by More Than Friends (helmed by Shin Ye-eun and Ong Seung-woo). With simple but poetic dialogue, and great care for nuance in characterisation, it turns its familiar friends-to-lovers premise into a quiet, profoundly moving story of growth. The characters cross each other’s boundaries and fail to protect their own; they lock themselves into patterns of thought and behaviour that ironically take them further away from what they desire the most.
But it’s hard not to root for them: the way the female lead gently but firmly draws the line as she learns to prioritise herself; the male lead’s willingness to look hard at his wrongdoings and have courageous conversations about how he is changing himself. It’s a slow burn, but the complex friendships and redemption arcs are so worth the journey.
The Stylish Noir of The Worst of Evil
I’ve been binging the The Worst of Evil this month. It’s a feast for the eyes if you appreciate action noir set pieces and iconic menswear fashion. The first episode opens with a corridor fight scene that immediately sets the tone for this layered portrait of toxic masculinity. Ji Chang-wook‘s performance as an undercover, morally compromised cop is fascinating, and the chemistry between him and Wi Ha-joon is palpable.
The acting plays an admirable second fiddle to the spectacle of production. The series’ fight scenes feel like a love letter to contemporary action movies. I can’t wait to read more about the cinematography and stunt coordination. One element I can’t talk enough about is the costuming: the hand-to-hand combat is incredible, but the sharp mobster suits are what stick in my mind. I shouted “Point Break!” at my television when Ji Chang-wook and Wi Ha-joon appeared in dueling aviator and motocross jackets.
While the wardrobe subtly pays homage to 90s trends, the obvious visual references are tributes to iconic crime films. Fitted brown pinstripe suits with paisley ties are more common than floral shirts and baggy jeans, time period be damned. These crooks are kitted out in the most refined criminal couture. Only men in a crisis of ego could pay this much attention to posturing. It’s a really fun watch, and I’d recommend it highly to fans of the action thriller genre.
The Ups and Downs of The Devil’s Plan
For the first half of this month, I was pretty engrossed in the competitive reality show The Devil’s Plan, though I’d say it was good rather than great. There are a few ways to enjoy a show like this: for the intellect required to win missions, for the strategising, and for the personalities and their interaction. The show definitely delivers with the first point; after binging a few of the final episodes, I realised I had just spent three hours being thoroughly entertained by people doing math. Attorney Seo Dong-joo had a thrilling round in a memorization game, and Problematic Men’s Ha Seok-jin consistently impressed me with his abilities to think through each game.
Unfortunately, after a power move by one alliance during the fourth episode eliminated some players who initially stood out, the strategic gameplay became less interesting. What makes sense for contestants to survive (downplaying individual abilities, flying under the radar, voting with an alliance) does not always make compelling television. Some of the contestants were frustratingly passive, particularly Seventeen’s Boo Seungkwan, who was one of the draws of the show for me as a Carat. I think the games did not suit the strengths of several contestants, which affected their confidence and their ability to shine in these games.
Still, The Devil’s Plan has the ingredients for a top-notch competitive reality show, with a blend of competitive rounds that can result in player eliminations, cooperative rounds to add to the grand prize pot, and some hidden secrets outside of the main games. It was satisfying to see contestants figure out their moves in a variety of settings. Unlike its predecessor The Genius, The Devil’s Plan had the players live together for the week, which made the game discussion intense and never-ending, while also fostering affection among everyone. Chemistry and cleverness ultimately make a show like this an engaging watch.
Street Woman Fighter Showcases Well-Known Icons and Sheds Light on New Talent
After a long hiatus from K-pop, I’m glad to say that I am slowly coming back. I would like to thank Seventeen and Red Velvet for waiting.
As a long time dance lover and ex-dancer, plus being a reality show enthusiast, I’ve always been a fan of Mnet’s Street Woman/Man Fighter series. By now, I know the shenanigans and evil editing Mnet pulls, so truly I’m there to watch street dancers and some of the best choreographers of Korea compete against each other. Even prior to the first season, I was already a fan of La Chica through their work with Chungha, but it was through the show that I fell in love with them—but also with Prowdmon, Honey J, and so much more.
This season has been amazing in terms of getting to know new dancers. As a Kaba Modern fan (yes, hello America’s Best Dance Crew), waacking has been one of my favorite dance styles, so of course I was hyper about Mannequeen. And of course, there are the choreo-based crews, the most known being Korea’s own 1Million, led by Lia Kim. She is perhaps one of the most famous choreographers in K-pop, responsible for Sunmi‘s “Gashina,” “24 Hours,” “Siren,” and more, Twice‘s “Like Ohh-Ahh” and “TT,” Everglow‘s “Bon Bon Chocolat” and “La Di Da,” Hwasa‘s “Maria,” Itzy‘s “Wannabe,” and so much more. Is it any surprise that 1Million’s Megacrew, set to selections from Lim Kim’s GenerAnother group with well-known dancers, is the international team Jam Republic? And Kirsten Dodgen (of Royal Family fame) in MY Korean dance show? Swoon.
As of writing, the finale is upon us. I can’t wait to see who joins Holy Bang and JustJerk as the next winner.