FTCT Catches up with... recommendations for books/movies

#Issue1 – Catching up…

I want to, but I can’t write off 2020 yet. After all, August was the month when I found myself hobbling back to reading for fun and giving the concept of ‘binge watching’ another shot! This is something I may have mentioned before and perhaps will repeat in the near future. Because you’ll be the one taken for a ride when I’m delighted with something I’ve read/watched and want to write about!

In the past month (and a little before), I’ve been using Asian dramas and romance novels to escape the sameness and stress of these pandemic times. There’s something extremely endearing, familiar and fascinatingly different about Asian dramas. Korean dramas, Chinese soaps and Japanese series, each hold an allure for different reasons. Listing the allure is an activity for another day… but until then, there are a few recommendations to be shared today.

Why FTCT Catching up on…
FTCT stands for From The Corner Table (and my favourite place to sit at and watch the world go by). As for ‘catches up with’, well, in the bustle of life there are lot many books I never read, series I didn’t watch and movies I’ve missed out now. ‘Catches up with’ is the resolve to make my way through these misses. Sounds logical?

I blitzed through a fair share of dramas this past month (is 5 a lot?), ranging from the Japanese manga-based mini-series Million Yen Women and Coffee & Vanilla, to the more robust and fast-paced The Umbrella Academy (I’m yet to finish that!) and the Korean drama It’s Okay Not To Be Okay. I watched the very famous Descendants of the Sun again, this time on a TV screen and the experience was a different level altogether!

Three dramas make it to my list of ‘must watch Asian dramas’ – the Korean When the Camellia Blooms, Cinderella and Her Four Knights and the Japanese long-running series Midnight Diner. A trio if heart-warming series covering different genres, these three would be my top pick for recommended viewing if you are in the mood for something different. Why? Click on the drop down reviews below to know why.

The creativity of two of these dramas have inspired a (hopefully long lasting) collaboration with the amazing artist, Tanvi Joshi | @_sinv.upon.cosv_! A 12th grader from Mumbai, this teenager has created magic with her interpretations of the series I’ve written about so do give both of us some of your precious love and support!

Tanvi Joshi's interpretation of When The Camellia Blooms for From The Corner Table; copyright image
2020 | Korean | Romantic comedy, Thriller | Netflix

Each one of us has at least one person who has unflinching, unwavering faith in us – a faith that is undeterred at the worst of times, even when we have lost faith in our self. Because it is that faith that will help you find that lost self again and forge ahead. When you find such a person, hold on. Because we all deserve a Hwang Yong-sik. And When The Camellia Blooms is not as simple as that bit… that’s just me professing love for the dorkiest lead I’ve seen in recent times.

The story of single mother Oh Dong-baek (played by Gong Hyo-jin), When The Camellia Blooms is a heart-warming and quirky tale of the young, orphaned woman’s struggles as she opens up a bar in a prominent food district (fictional), raises her son Pil-gu, deals with her painful past, comes to terms with a killer out for her blood while dealing with the relentless (and adorable) suitor Hwang Yong-sik (Kang Ha-neul) with that face splitting grin. There’s also an annoying former boyfriend, his wife and a motley group of neighbours who make Dong-baek’s life in the fictional town of Ongsan complicated.

I have a thing against watching anything that is too hyped for fear that it will deflate my expectations. I had my reservations about this series because of its popularity – When The Camellia Blooms was critically acclaimed, was the highest rated mini-series drama in 2019 and won multiple awards. But I gave in after a strong recommendation. And I did not regret it one bit. When the Camellia Blooms is a feel-good drama that is charming, genuine, relatable, not overly dramatic and addresses real life issues without being condescending.

To be honest, the show did not hook me from episode 1 like some others have. It grew on me, gradually, and the credit lies with the makes who’ve written such endearing characters and used them to shine a light on each other. It is the ensemble cast (K-drama watchers will recognise several talented faces) led by Gong Hyo-jin and Kang Ha-neul and ably supported by Kim Ji-seok make this multiple award winner an addition to my ‘recommended’ list.

There’s a lot to learn from the neighbourhood ahjummas, the juxtaposition of the way suitor Yong-sik uplifts Dong-baek while and former boyfriend Kang Jong-ryul is self-centred till the last (or was it the second last) episode! And then there is little man Pil-gu who breaks your heart as he struggles with growing up, the men in his life and taking care of his mother. He makes you want to reach out and shield him from the world. Kudos to the makers for putting together one of the best ensembles in recent times and for having non-dramatic conversations to avoid misunderstandings that can lead to unnecessary drama. That’s authentic there and a lot easy on the viewer’s nerves!

The only annoying part of this series is the underplayed thriller element. Sticking out like a sore thumb, the killer track leaves you wondering ‘why’ and wish that the makers had added two more episodes and developed this subplot rather than leave it dangling! Binge watch? Not really. When The Camellia Blooms is more of a 1-episode-per-night in my books.

Cinderella with Four Knights
2016 | S Korea | Romantic Comedy | Netflix & Viki Rakuten

Guilty pleasures thy names are Korean romance dramas! And Cinderella with Four Knights is among the cream of this category! A stellar cast and sparkling chemistry make this girl-meets-3-boys-finds-true-love drama a great watch on days when you want a break from the dismal world.

Cinderella with Four Knights is the story of Eun Ha Won (Park So Dam), a school senior with an absentee father, a stepmother and stepsister. Forced to work several part-time jobs to pay for college, life as Ha Won knows it goes haywire when she moves into the Kang mansion having accepted a job offer from Kang Jong-du. Her fellow boarders are Jong-du’s grandsons – the broody Kang Ji-Woon (Jung Il-woo), playboy Kang Hyun-Min (Ahn Jae-hyun) and tender-hearted Kang Seo-Woo (Lee Jung-shin). Add to the mix hot bodyguard Lee Yoon-Sung (Choi Min) and gorgeous Park Hye-Ji (Son Na-eun) and you’ve got a popcorn-binge worthy series.

Hats off to the Parasite actress for pulling off Eun Ha Won with much sass! This is no wimpy weepy Cinderella who’ll make you want to shake some sense into her. Ha Won is a mix of sweet & strong, youth and maturity. She’ll have you laughing, empathising, cheering and occasionally feel misty-eyed but at no point does she allow you to feel sorry for her. And THAT is the crux of the series.

This was my first dekko at Jung Il-woo’s work and might I say that as Kang Ji-Woon, he does a fairly great job of increasing the length of my ‘oppas I dig’ list with that display of studied indifference, sneaked glimpses and making teenage romance cringeworthy moments hot! I’m not a huge fan of Ahn Jae-hyun but his portrayal of Kang Hyun-Min gives depth to the character – there’s a reason for that playboy act (obviously!) and he convinces. Lee Jung-shin as the 3rd cousin Kang Seo-Woo does a competent job as do Choi Min as bodyguard-cum-older brother figure Lee Yoon-Sung. Son Na-eun as Park Hye-Ji lifts the visual appeal of the series. The chemistry and the geometry! Kudos to our hero for the amazing chemistry she has with every actor she shares the screen. And the bromance of the four male leads shines through, as does the tension between Eun Ha Won and Park Hye-Ji. Also there’s a square and quadrangle romance too!

The soundtrack! Brownie points for an album that sounds fresh, peppy and young – just like the series. BTOB’s ‘For You’ is still on-loop in my playlist.

The uneven pacing, unanswered questions and unfinished stories. Some episodes seem to drag while some have too much happening. I can’t go into that without spoilers so watch and come back to me! We’ll talk. A romantic comedy based on a young adult novel, on the surface Cinderella with Four Knights is a romantic comedy that, if you dig a few inches, throws up some pearls of wisdom. But I’d recommend watching this Korean series for a giggle, a smile & a bit of that heart flutter (age no bar!)

Midnight Diner poster by Tanvi Joshi for From The Corner Table (copyright image)
Midnight Diner: Tokyo Series
2009-19 | Japanese | Food, Slice of life | Netflix

Tucked away in a lane, far from the bustling noise of Tokyo, lies Meshiya – an izakaya, a type of informal Japanese bar. The Master opens the doors at the stroke of midnight, every night, to a variety of people – some regulars, some not – all from different walks of life. He’ll serve alcohol, any item from the 5 on his menu OR something cooked up specially on request. Along with million-dollar advice like “As long as you judge yourself, using someone else’s measure, you’ll never find your real self, no matter where you look”.

Each episode is a peek into life, often addressing a subject relevant to modern society, and tied with the main ingredient – food! A Japanese anthology series based on (the/a) manga of the same name, the Midnight Diner boasts of five series and a total of 50 episodes. Starring veteran actor Kaoru Kobayashi as the Master – the lead and only character present in all seasons – every episode in the series follows a pattern. Every episode focuses on one character, their personal challenge(s) and its resolution. The Master and a motley set of characters nudge the character (and the audience) towards this resolution and a sample or two of the character’s favourite food. Along with a side of the Master’s advice, a raised eyebrow, a gentle push, a shoulder to cry on or simply, a place for life to unfold. And here lies the beauty of this heart-warming series that is both, an O’ Henry-ish peek at the life and a crash course on Japanese cuisine.

But the main reason to watch this series is the food! Consider this a crash course on Japanese food because through the five seasons, you are introduced to the simple beauty of Japanese cuisine – traditional and adopted foods – like tamagoyaki, katsudon, yakisoba, Japanese fried chicken, pickled plums, corn dogs, to name a few. The Master – or the main character of the episode – make it a point to give a quick demo of the dish and some pointers, largely at the end of the episode. The closeups will leave you drooling in anticipation and the reason why I would recommend you keep a healthy snack handy and not watch this series at night.

On a whole, the episodes that make Midnight Diner are varied, dramatic, not over-the-top, haunting, funny, heart wrenching and imparting a life lesson without being preachy. Some of the episodes deal with rather realistic and relatable topics while some enter the supernatural and surreal realm. Most of the characters appear in their particular episodes bar a set of the diner’s regular customers who often make frequent appearances and have stories of their own. While some characters may seem over the top and exaggerated, a majority of the characters are the kind you are bound to bump into at some point in life.

The Midnight Diner series is one that you want to pace yourself through – I started watching the series around three months ago and had my fill by the end of season 3. This series is definitely not for those who are looking for ‘engaging stories’ or ‘action-driven stories’. This series is for those who like an occasional short and sweet change between their binge watching.

And yes, I am well aware you scrunched up your nose at the mention of romance novels. But don’t write them off yet! It’s literally one of the best ways to de-stress! When you start reading, you know for a fact that said couple is going to be together because the story is about them but the route to the ‘and they lived happily’ can be thrilling – a well written romance is no less than a brilliant romantic film. And those steamy interactions! A lot goes on between the sheets (in this case, between the pages) that you could take tips from! I’ve read a handful this month and would strongly recommend Helen Hoang’s novels The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test.

Refreshing, heartening, steamy, The Kiss Quotient is the story of econometrician Stella who is a roaring success professionally but Asperger’s makes social interactions a task! Enter male escort Michael and a reverse Pretty Woman story ensues. The Bride Test is the story of Esme Tran, a mixed-race single mom brought to America from Vietnam to meet Khai Diep, a prospective husband who is successful but struggles with emotions due to autism. The backbone of any novel, however silly it may be, are the characters and in both these novels, Hoang builds characters that make you root for them. I’ve not read romance novels with lead characters who are on the spectrum so for me, Stella and Khai Diep give an insight into a different perspective. The tone of both novels may be light hearted but the content is not – there is a theme running through both novels, the theme of self-acceptance and overcoming obstacles. And yes, we know the leads will come together at the end but the journey matters – Hoang makes this journey interesting and entertaining. So read it…  


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