“There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” — Mark Twain
Ever since Nodame Cantabile live action set my standard in all-around entertaining drama —the “Nodame” experience: great music (classical music can never go wrong), quirky characters, simple and interesting story, and unique (lack of) romance. Despite the manga-ish comedy and execution, it manages to hammer home life lesson of not giving up nor letting go one’s dreams— I could hardly enjoy any other, Korean or Japanese.
Still, some good ones come along. Korean remake of Japanese White Tower and EIA are ones. But, should I pick one that is close, if not equals, to the Nodame-experience, Capital Scandal would be it. This also prompted me out of lurkdom at soompi as I was in dismay that it was so underrated and compared to other the more popular (I think so-so) dramas. Capital Scandal weaves comedy, drama, mystery-suspense, action, and tragedy into one tight story, with swing music and fashion of the 30s as nice extras.
It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got the swing, so let’s just swing it!………..
Seon Woo Wan (Kang Ji Hwan), Cha Song Joo (Han Go Eun), Na Yeo Gyeong (Han Ji Min), and Lee Soo Hyeon (Ryu Jin)
Seon Woo Wan is the Capital’s prince charming, son of a wealthy and powerful businessman and seasoned player. He brags that he can win any woman’s heart in ten minutes — it’s proven in merely first ten minutes except for one woman. After a round of drinking, he gets himself into a bet that will forever change his peaceful and playful life: he would change the most old-fashioned woman in the Capital into a modern one. If he loses the bet, he will join the independence movement that he looks down upon so much.
The object of the bet happens to be that one woman, the feisty and no-nonsense Jo Ma Ja (Last Woman of Joseon era) aka Na Yeo Gyeong, owner of Harmony Hall bookshop and an independence fighter. Out of love for her country, she refuses embracing foreign food, drinks, clothes, and life styles.
Cha Song Joo, a soul mate to Woo Wan, and sometimes a sister-figure as well, is the most famous courtesan in the Capital. A cool woman who personifies sophistication of the era, Cha Song Joo has lead a difficult life that makes her stronger than she looks.
Lee Soo Hyeon is a Joseon man who works as high-ranked Japanese police officer. His relationship with Seon Woo Wan and his brother, Woo Min, dates back to their childhood days. But that strong ties were severed when he was deemed responsible for Woo Min’s death in an independence movement which he and Soo Hyeon were part of.
Set in 1930s Korea under Japanese occupancy — late 30s I guess, since “Sing, Sing, Sing” that accompanied the illegal swing dance at the beginning was first introduced in 1936-1938 — the Capital of Joseon bears witness to these four lives as they cross each other’s paths.
The premise sounds cliché: bet that turns into true love that changes a man for the better. But, unlike those that start out trying to tell viewers that they are different but then go into same old territory, Capital Scandal goes to different direction where surprises await. Fine and careful details are also nothing new in Korean dramas. But here, not only they are visual treats, they speak of a whole new (old) world and atmosphere as if they are alive and living characters. Plot wise, this is a melting pot of suspense, drama, romance, and tragedy, wrapped in comedy. Unlike many dramas that take advantage of the actors/actresses “certified” poses or expressions in stretched moments, this one emphasizes on interactions and dynamics a lot, I feel like watching a stage play. The dynamics persist throughout, the drama doesn’t lose its energy as it moves into darker reality that surrounds revolution and resistance movement.
Simply put, Capital Scandal is brilliant!
Ma Ja and Woo Wan
In romance department, there is no entangled love triangle, quadrangle, or n-angle that usually marks Korean dramas. Two romantic relationships develop into each one’s unique story. And among K-dramas I’ve seen so far, Capital Scandal has:
the better first encounter: Woo Wan and Ma Ja’s at the train station.
Train or train station seem to be the popular spots for first or “fate” encounter for they are featured in many films and books: Amelie, Densha Otoko (of course), Passenger to Frankfurt, The Man in Brown Suit, Harry Potter, etc. The set-up, context, and execution in Capital Scandal, however, are refreshing.
most hilarious proposing scene: that whole five minutes at the beginning of episode 14 packs a lot of things and is brilliantly amusing.
one of its kind in the development in between 1 and 2, which includes “reinvention” of typical scenes: playing by the beach, bike riding, etc. And that chess game at the picnic is witty…
Character-wise, although sometimes they appear larger than life, I like all characters in Capital Scandal. The four leads have their own distinctive personae. And the supporting characters, it’s going to be tedious mentioning everyone, so just to name a few….
Jirashi Publishing squad. Their antics —looking out for news such as the teacher’s affair and covering the boxing match, or speculating and tailoring scenarios as Woo Wan and Ma Ja went out on a drive and were unable to return home— reminded me of an interesting column in Koran Tempo, “Tempo Doeloe,” featuring news and stories of the by-gone era, which is sometimes hilarious in substance and style.
Even with the cruel Lee Kang Gu, I ended up paying attention to (and agreeing with some of) his words carefully.
Lee Kang Gu, “Do you think that Joseon cares about a poor, useless boy like you? What’s the point of protecting a country that does nothing for you? Why would you spill blood to protect it?”
Woo Wan, “[Lee Kang Gu] said that the county turns out like this because of people like me, who were born into high rank and privileged life, and do nothing. I can’t die until I can show I’m different. You have to keep me alive.”
Lee Kang Gu, “How will the history books ever mention us? They only record the rich, the powerful and the knowledgeable ones.”
Even though his cruelty shouldn’t be excused, but one wondered as Yeo Gyeong did, what had you experienced that you turned out that way, Lee Kang Gu?
I keep feeling that the second half of Capital Scandal roughly mirrors its first half. For example, the sequence in episode 5 goes:
Woo Wan confronted Soo Hyeon at his brother’s memorial and demanded the truth about his brother’s death. Enraged and disappointed by Soo Hyeon’s words, Woo Wan beat him.
Woo Wan met Pil Seong and ended up playing football with the night class children. When the ball he kicked “accidentally” hit Ma Ja’s head, he lined up the children to shield him from Ma Ja. She dismissed them and walked away when Woo Wan shouted, “Let’s play together! Come on Ma Ja! Let’s just play.”
Ma Ja told him off for drinking too much the previous night and told him to face his problem as drinking wouldn’t solve it for him.
Ma Ja, “Anyway, in future, don’t come to me when you’re drunk.”
Woo Wan, “So, it’s all right to come and see you if I don’t then!”
Ma Ja, “No! Whether you’re drunk or not, you never act like a sane person.”
Woo Wan, “You’ll be worried if you don’t see me after I’ve been around you so much.”
In episode 12-13, the sequence is reversed:
Ma Ja was worried as Woo Wan was behind schedule and there hadn’t been news of his whereabouts.
Ma Ja saw her students playing baseball with Woo Wan. “Let’s play together Teacher Na!”
Woo Wan, afraid of her anger, lined the kids once again for protection. She dismissed the children and charged forwards. “I miss you!”
Woo Wan, finally knowing the truth about his brother’s death, came to Soo Hyeon and once again, in anger and disappointment, confronted him and beat him up.
Football and Baseball Fiasco
There are more reversed and repeated scenes in different set-ups. Not exactly a “palindrome” (!) but, whether I just made this up or it is by design, I found it cool as things were coming full circle. The writer clearly had fun in her craft. By the end of the drama, the parting words Woo Wan said to Mi Ja at the beginning, now rings true:
“As a son of Joseon, I can no longer ignore the moans of the land under the heel of Japanese imperialism.
“It’s because I want to rescue the country you live in, to guard the country in which you were born and grew up! I will fight for your sake to the very end of my life.”
Though now, he’s not going alone. He’s going to Manchu with Ma Ja. “Ma Ja” and “Mi Ja”……….. play on words?
One more thing, or two!
Either they are product placement, serving some sort of symbolism or part of the narrative, many dramas have come up with things that make strong presence and, sometimes, hold significance: Nodame’s piano bag and Puri Gorota memorabilia, necklaces in many dramas, chocopie and teddy bear in Thank You, Hong Gil Dong’s spectacles, etc.
Other than Woo Wan and Song Joo’s fancy wardrobes that stand out, Capital Scandal has two things (that so far I found) that are repeatedly shown or mentioned: books and shoes. Those serve as symbolism, I think.
Well, one can add “blanket” that seems to have permanently occupied Woo Wan’s thought, but that should wait until after the independence, ay Woo Wan-ah?
Lee Kang Gu, “Is it possible that I’m judging a book by its cover?”
Lee Soo Hyeon, “Everyone is different on the outside, including you.”
Lim Hwa’s Smart Little Bird
Book comes out many times: Na Yeo Gyeong is a bookshop owner; young Soo Hyeon and Woo Wan talked about books on ideologies; Jirashi’s “rubbish book” line of business; Woo Wan’s dictionary of love; Woo Wan criticizes a book recommended to Ma Ja, for the author claims another’s thought as his own; Lee Soo Hyeon buys a book for Pil Song; Woo Wan takes Ma Ja out to a bookstore; Ueda Sachiko wants to write and publish her autobiography; Young Ran’s dismay as she is illiterate; Lee Kang Gu’s comment on history books; etc.
Na Yeo Gyeong, “Shoes can be a whole world to [children like Pil Seong].”
In visual, there is shoes references: Pil Song wishes to get rubber shoes as his mother’s birthday present; Ma Ja barges into Woo Wan’s room while clutching her shoes to hide her presence; Woo Wan enters the boxing ring for rubber shoes; the seaside picnic; shoes put side by side; shoes to step on others; etc.
Capital Scandal may not be everyone’s cup of tea… or coffee… whatever. The grim background, Korean under Japanese occupancy, and the comedy may turn people off. It apparently has, considering the low rating.
…. It’s just that…… it clicked on personal level. It reminds me of my grandparents who were front line independence fighters and survived that era. It reminds me that there are countless nameless people who, as Lee Kang Gu put it, were not recorded in history books but still gave their lives for what they believed in. Their struggle in that period and ours today may not be so different after all. As grandma once said, “it was difficult time, but which time isn’t? Life’s a struggle after another. But still, there are things we should be grateful for, regardless the time you live in.”
Coffee, Tea, and……….. Fruit Punch in between?
Hmmm, something just popped into my head: if all the dramas offered to you were branded “different from the typical k-dramas” then what makes one a typical k-drama?
Capital Scandal has often been compared to Coffee Prince for both are written by Lee Seon Mi. It is also pitted against Hong Gil Dong for both have Kang Ji Hwan playing the lead. These prove advantageous as there are people, like me, who are interested in watching Capital Scandal after bumping into Coffee Prince or Kang Ji Hwan’s performance in Hong Gil Dong.
As I’ve mentioned (heh! I feel bad quoting myself!), “[many k-dramas] start out (trying to tell viewers that they are) different but then go into same old territory.” This includes both Coffee Prince and Hong Gil Dong. Both suffered from “high-rating syndrome,” prolonged broadcast to satisfy the mass that hurt the bigger thematic picture. Both rely on the romance factor too much.
I would’ve liked it more if Coffee Prince had focused on coffee-making more.
In Hong Gil Dong, Kang Ji Hwan carried the whole show. Of course, he played the titular character, but the other main casts weren’t up to his level yet. I kept thinking had those characters been interpreted and played differently……… hmm, I enjoyed the scenes with the mad King though. The exchanges between The King and Hong Gil Dong is one of the show’s highlight for me. And that scenes when The King meets his end, reaching out for the cherry blossom, was surprisingly moving.
Anyway, objectivity is a myth. I’ll take my pick and just go on with Capital Scandal……….. the fruit punch. Though not without flaws, Capital Scandal captivates me in all aspects: acting, directing, narrative, setting, pacing, the swing, etc.
credits: quotations are taken from WITHS2‘s Capital Scandal english subtitle.