Snow White and the Phantom: Disappointing Dramas with Ambitious Themes

Back in 2014, Korea produced an insightful and powerful critique of toxic masculinity.

Blade Man.

(Those who watched Blade Man will be somewhat bemused by this statement. Not to step on my ending, but Blade Man is not a good drama).

Lee Dong-wook starred as the eponymous bladed man, Joo Hong-bin. A victim of childhood abuse from a domineering and controlling father, he eventually developed blades that shot out of his body. While the blades looked like a defence mechanism, they really only hurt himself and those closest to him.

He gets involved with a woman named Song Se-dong (Shin Se-kyung) but, as they grow closer, his blades hurt her more than they protect her. So as a metaphor for toxic masculinity, Blade Man was almost perfect. At least for the first half.

The second half of Blade Man was, to put it bluntly, a disaster. Instead of the female lead leaving a toxic and abusive relationship and the male lead coming to terms with the anger issues he’s inherited from his father, the show instead collapses into a morass of problematic romance tropes and poor messaging about abusive relationships.

Unfortunately Blade Man is not alone. Writers often spend months crafting exquisite metaphors and drawing intelligently on cultural references to scope out a show only to have the whole thing unravel in the back half.

So this post is devoted to those dramas with ambitious themes and well-crafted premises that instead ended up as some of the most disappointing dramas in Kdrama history. And even though these dramas ended up not fulfilling their early promise, they may still be worth checking out – at least for the first half.

Cafe Minamdang (2022)

Source: Scooby Doo

Theme(s): It’s never a ghost – Criminals using the supernatural to hide their criminal activities

An immensely fun and energetic romp when it first started, Cafe Minamdang was a Korean Scooby Doo with a twist.

Nam Han-joon (Seo In-guk) is a former criminal profiler who sets up shop as a Shaman to find a serial killer also using shamanism as a cover. He’s joined by his sister and former NIS hacker, Nam Hye-joon (Kang Mi-na) as well as best friend and former cop, Gong Soo-cheol (Kwak Shi-yang). These three are our Scooby, Shaggy and Velma, using science and deductive reasoning to sniff out those who use the supernatural to cover their criminal activities.

The twist comes from the fact that our little gang are also criminals who use hacking and illegal surveillance as well as psychology and profiling to con their clients and maintain their cover.

While some viewers were put off by the live-action cartoon aspect of the show’s production – there was a lot of screaming, cartoonish punching and jump scares – the drama was originally loads of fun and danced lightly around Scooby Doo’s themes of scientific scepticism.

At its height, the Minamdang Scooby gang conned and hacked their way to wealth and fame, while Ziggy gave one of this trademarked stellar performances. And all as a cover for his investigation into the mystery of the case of the shamanistic killer.

Where did it go wrong?

There are many theories and opinions about where and how Cafe Minamdang went wrong. A lot of people disliked the female lead and love interest, Han Jae-Hee (Oh Yeon-seo), who originally pursues but then joins the gang. Oh Yeon-seo is not a strong actor and her character came off as rude, unlikeable and often violent. The show often uses violence in a cartoonish way. But whereas watching someone get a beat down in animation might be funny, seeing the same thing with real actors rarely works.

Others found the overall plot and eventual “twist” to be predictable and poorly paced as well as having more holes than Swiss Cheese. Thematically, Cafe Minamdang fell down as well, swapping out its warring Shamans using superstition to cover their criminal acts for a crazy one-dimensional serial killer who made very little sense.

But ultimately what killed Cafe Minamdang was that it stopped being Scooby Doo and therefore stopped being fun. I’d say it became a ghost of itself but, as we all know and as Scooby Doo itself told us, ghosts aren’t real.

Introverted Boss

Source: Phantom of the Opera

Theme(s): Who is really the monster here?

The Phantom of the Opera tells the story of a ghostly figure haunting the Paris Opera House who is revealed to be a disfigured musical genius in hiding. He falls obsessively in love with a young soprano, Christine, who nonetheless loves her childhood sweetheart, Raoul. The novel, and its musical version by Andrew Lloyd Webber, provided the inspiration for the 2017 drama, Introverted Boss.

In true gothic novel style, the original story is a tale of an antagonist who is physically ugly and emotionally stunted and a beautiful and wealthy man as his heroic counter point. One lives in darkness, the other in the light. One is loved by Christine, the other can only try to control her through violence.

Introverted Boss turns this on its head by setting up a Phantom of the Opera type story where the ghost-like genius hiding in the shadows is more awkward than evil and the popular, good looking and wealthy man might be more of a villain.

Eun Hwan-ki (Yeon Woo-jin) is a socially-awkward man, severely introverted to the point of having a social phobia. (He’s also played by Yeon Woo-jin so he’s less ‘disfigured’ and more ‘gorgeous’). Nonetheless he skulks around his father’s PR company in a black hoodie, icing out everyone around him and being generally misunderstood as a useless monster while a variation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber theme for the Phantom plays over his scenes. He is, however, a marketing genius and so he generates all the good ideas but leaves the public-facing work to his friend and colleague: the attractive and charming, Kang Yoo-ill (Yoon Park).

Hwan-ki also lurks around opera singer, Chae Ro-woon (Park Hye-soo), whose sister was his secretary, sending her flowers anonymously. Ro-woon blames him for the suicide death of her sister and eventually goes to work for him hoping to expose his true terrible face to the world. Instead she finds herself questioning whether he is a monster or just misunderstood.

Where did it go wrong?

The first four episodes of Introverted Boss were a kind of gleeful gothic mess. Surprisingly dark for a Kdrama, especially one promoted as a romcom (it starts with a suicide), a lot of viewers missed the Phantom of the Opera references and felt the characters weren’t likeable enough. It’s true that turning the Phantom into an office romcom took a bit of torture, especially when the female lead was an aspiring opera singer, but the show’s greatest misstep was not in her original profession but in her personality. Originally conceived as extroverted and social, she instead came off as aggressive and rude.

Audience feedback was overwhelmingly negative and so the show took a hiatus to retool the script and came back with something they hoped would be better received. What came out was diluted and almost generic; an opposites attract office drama with little to distinguish it from others before it and even inferior to them. Also washed out were the characters themselves, leading to the show’s biggest flaw: its loss of theme.

The show begins with the shocking suicide of the sister of Chae Ro-woon. She originally blames Eun Hwan-ki’s Phantom character; associating his dark and disagreeable public image with true ill intent and not recognising the true villain in the charismatic and handsome Yoon Park. Unfortunately, this subverted Phantom theme is completely lost in the retool and many of the plot points from the first two weeks stop making sense because of it.

While Introverted Boss’ first few episodes weren’t the best, the show was nonetheless attempting to do something different and innovative. But in the end, it became a shadow of its former self. The only scarred and damaged thing was the show itself.

The K2

Source: Snow White

Theme(s): The Evil Queen was Snow White once upon a time

Part political thriller, part re-interpreted fairytale, part awful.

This is how I once described the 2016 Ji Chang-wook action drama, The K2.

A modern re-interpretation of Snow White, The K2 translated the fairy tale kingdom to modern Korea. The King became a weak and corrupt Presidential candidate, the Evil Queen and stepmother his brilliant and ruthless wife, and the Huntsmen a soldier turned bodyguard who is secretly working for the Queen behind the King’s back.

Serving in Iraq, Kim Je-ha (Ji Chang-wook) takes the fall for the murder of his girlfriend and comes back to Korea in secret to find her murderer and exact revenge. He ends up clashing with Choi Yoo-jin (Song Yoon-ah), the scheming wife of a Presidential candidate who manipulates people and events from a secret bunker called Cloud Nine, housing an AI called Mirror.

After impressing Yoo-jin with his skills, he is recruited to work for her in exchange for helping him find who killed his girlfriend. He then becomes the bodyguard, K2.

K2 is given the job of guarding the imprisoned illegitimate daughter of the President but quickly sympathises with her. How will he reconcile his desire to protect her with his need for revenge?

Where did it go wrong?

Unfortunately, the story of Snow White requires a Snow White. And while we can speculate that the original script called for the secret illegitimate daughter of the future President that Choi Yoo-jin loathes to be an innocent child, what we got instead was a child-like adult played by the wooden and unconvincing pop idol, Im Yoon-ah.

The show’s contention was that women in this political and corporate culture need to become the Evil Queen to survive and this was supported by a strong and well-developed backstory to the Evil Queen’s character. She used to be Snow White with her own Evil Queen to deal with. Becoming this person was a matter of survival.

Could Snow White survive in this world without also being similarly corrupted?

Unfortunately, Kdramas tend to portray innocence and virtue as being childlike so The K2’s Snow White was less unsullied by a cruel world and more a backward five year old with a tendency to juvenile melodrama. She was, in a word, insufferable.

Framed as some kind of gothic heroine in a white nightdress, imprisoned in a tower and permanently infantilised, the show insisted on a romance between her and K2. One that was boring at best and extremely skeevy at worst.

The drama originally set up a strong dynamic between Yoo-jin and K2; one that was awash with chemistry, mutual distrust and a growing, grudging understanding and respect. In comparison, his dynamic with Snow White was more paternal due to her childishness. The idea he was romantically interested in her reflected poorly on him as a person.

The K2 had other flaws as well. K2 himself had little to do other than hit people and, since he was ostensibly the main character, that meant we got a lot of (admittedly well-choreographed) fight scenes that nonetheless got too pervasive. Episode after episode in the back half had him lurching from fight scene to fight scene till we couldn’t remember who he was punching and why.

Basically, when this show was channelling its fairy tale source material it was borderline genius. The rest of the time it was just terrible – nothing borderline about it.


7 thoughts on “Snow White and the Phantom: Disappointing Dramas with Ambitious Themes

  1. Very entertaining post!!! How deep into the archives did you have to dig for this though 😂 If a drama is terrible, I usually shelve it in the ‘forgotten forever’ corner.

    1. I wish! Unfortunately, if a show starts off interesting and different but then goes off the rails I remember it well. I might be saner if I could forget 😂

  2. Lol, Lee. You satisfied my curiosity re Cafe Minamdang. I will certainly steer clear of Blademan 😂 As for Introverted Boss, the ending was abyssal. In terms of The K2, I know I’m in the minority, but I loved it! And, yes, it was pure genius at times – loved the AI, I could do with an “artificial conscience” like that in my life.

  3. This is SO INTERESTING, I would never have looked at the beginning of Introverted Boss that way! While I also found the heroine insufferable, I was definitely dissappointed when it abandoned everything it was going for because I wanted to witness her growth, not just have it bulldozed over! I didn’t watch long enough after the rewrite to see how the Yeon Woo-jin/ Yoon Park conflict played out, but it sounds like it could have been far more interesting than what we got.

    1. Ah, Introverted Boss. The terrible drama with a brilliant drama trying to get out! (Which I guess these all are in a way).

      I can’t work out if the following is a spoiler, since it’s technically about things that *didn’t* happen in this drama. But…

      The first few episodes heavily implied that the female lead’s sister had been raped or at least sexually assaulted by Yoon Park who had used his position, wealth and social skills to manipulate her. A kind of #Metoo scenario that had ended with her suicide. It also showed him deliberately and systematically trying to whiteant Eun Hwan-ki, stoking his poor image and undermining him so he could steal his company.

      After the retool he just became this mildly disgruntled frenemy and the explanation for the suicide didn’t work as a result.

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