K-Drama Report: My Name (2021)

She’s got to find out who killed her dad

I’m three episodes into My Name and already desperate to continue. On paper, it’s tailor-made to my sensibilities, those which I’ve struggled to communicate on this blog. My only remotely successful With Eyes East YouTube video is a wild-eyed plea to Hollywood, or Indonesian Hollywood, or anyone with a camera and a gallon of fake blood, to cast Julie Estelle and contribute to her undoubtedly skyward journey. I hardly got this point across in the video, but Estelle represents, to me, a new kind of action star. Where the Hong Kong heroines from the ‘60s through the ‘90s were simply working with a different sort of market — less bloodsoaked and crazy, with notable exceptions — and modern actresses dip from time to time into action with mixed results, say Kim Ok-vin or Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the image Julie Estelle has built for herself so far has the potential to stay gory at the intersection of Indonesia’s auteurs and the international market’s appetite. It’s important to note that Indonesian film is far more diverse than kung fu carnage, and that’s actually captured well by Estelle’s filmography. She’s done horror and drama, but she turns in a damn good Operator. I realize now this introductory paragraph has gotten away from me, but I suppose we’ve arrived at the point anyway: show me an action heroine drenched in the blood of her enemies, and I’m in. The Netflix K-drama My Name caught my eye in the form of a thumbnail for the trailer on YouTube, telling a story like its official copy from Netflix: “Following her father’s murder, a revenge-driven woman puts her trust in a powerful crime boss — and enters the police force under his direction.” This is me — this is my moment!

Or is it?

I’ve learned to be cautious when it comes to these things that so catch my eye. I’ve been burned before, on promising titles like Ready or Not and The Rhythm Section, and even the good ones suffer a requisite violence against the heroine — at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Sometimes Schwarzenegger and Stallone march through the bullets from beginning to end, and even if James Bond is often captured and tortured, it’s different when it’s Rhona Mitra in Doomsday. I’m not necessarily saying “if a woman is tortured, it’s sexist,” but rather “if a woman is tortured, I don’t like it.” It’s hardly for me to determine the former, but I do well know the latter. The premise of My Name was darkened by the onset of a familiar set of paths: this could be great, or it could be La Femme Nikita. The character will be at the mercy of not one but two powerful entities, where even if she’s a police officer, in a position of authority like the Major, she’s undercover, making her far more vulnerable than the cyborg god-queen who anyway, let’s not forget, has a penchant for getting her head blown up by sniper rifles.

What does Major Kusanagi whisper to Batou at the end of episode 25 of GITS  SAC? - Anime & Manga Stack Exchange

To be honest, though, I’ve cooled over the years. I can handle some cinematic violence against women, so long as there’s an implicit safety net, the knowledge that, hey, she lost this fight, but she could win the next one. It isn’t that her entire being is restricted by the world itself, like Game of Thrones, only in a modern-day setting by a writer who believes that underneath the thin veneer, it’s Dark Ages all the way down. Get real: when it comes down to it, women are weaker than men — that, I cannot abide. It’s the line of thought demonstrated by comments on every YouTube video where a woman beats a man in a fight. There are people who really don’t like that, but I’m heartened to know that the tide is gradually turning on them.

Despite the shut-downs in production around the globe, 2021 was replete with female-fronted action movies, like The Protégé, Gunpowder Milkshake, and Kate. I’d intended to write up a preview on all three together, to reiterate my sensibilities, I guess, but never got around to it — or even seeing them. I’m still good for The Protégé, but the other two are further down on the priority list. Consistent with the change in cultural temperature, I was additionally heartened to witness the narrativizing of a point I belabor often, like on the post about Mulan, about how we address the “women are weaker than men” argument. Our young heroine Ji-woo (Han So-hee) is in those humbling throes of training, put down by the shirtless men ‘round the boxing gym, when her mentor, gang leader Choi Mu-jin (Park Hee-soon) tells her, “No matter how much you train, they’ll be stronger.” Remember my health teacher? He goes on to teach her about “vital points,” and in no time flat, she’s winning the intramural MMA tournament.

If it wasn’t for this integration of fighting philosophy into the actual choreography, even I might cry “Mary Sue!” at this 17 year old’s takedowns of much larger bodies. There’s only about two scenes of her sucking, picking early fights and predictably losing, but then she unlocks the secret like Link pilfering a chest, and that puts a swift end to the sucking. Mercifully, but it’s all very fast, and might not land without the insanely physical performance of Han So-hee, who sells what gives Ji-woo the final edge over her adversaries: grief-born determination — what we in the business call revenge. From the very start, Han is giving us a slow, lethal simmer, and when the explosion comes, I think, “This is a very talented actress.”

“Land with who,” right? I’ve internalized the Perennial Mary Sue Accusation, and its occurrence here is occurrence on behalf of those YouTube commenters. “Oh, dear, how will they react to this?” It pings, but I find no fault in the accelerated pace; I’m thankful for it. Not only is Ji-woo’s time on the backheel (what is the actual idiom?) as economical as possible — in an environment where the air is thick with violence and the threat of sexual assault — but the first two episodes are paced like a sprint to the endgame. The very opening is a sequence of such efficient characterization it even ends with a climax. It’s one of those “short films as introductions,” a well-constructed microcosm topped off by an action “oner.” Finally, Ji-woo’s frustration boils over, and she gets back at the police and her classmates for harassing her. The one-shot fight scene doesn’t draw attention to its wizardry with narrow geography, though the setting is kept contained by a crowd. Her all-girl classmates provide the backing vocals with screams that punctuate each hit, that soundscape which unsettles always.

The opening also dramatizes how the failure of an institution can push someone further into a bad place, and indeed Ji-woo adopts her expulsion (“You can’t transfer me, I drop out!”) to instill some sort of animating emotion in an otherwise careless bureaucracy. Let’s flash back to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, where the clueless doctors and businessmen share physical proximity with impoverished people, but couldn’t be more distant. Nobody in the world cares about a lonely, sulky teen, and while she has no choice but to join up with gangsters for protection and guidance, those fierce eyes tell us she wouldn’t have it any other way. The music kicks back on as she starts kicking ass, and we’re in her headspace for these key set pieces — no one else’s.

We can call this a genre exercise, as the show hits the expected narrative beats on rhythm but plays them smartly. The father/daughter relationship reaches its emotional climax at the same time the revenge is catalyzed. Motivations remain clear, even as characters speak more with gestures than dialogue. It is a visual show, with storytelling even reflected in Ji-woo’s face, displaying far more injury than I’m used to seeing. I mean, that’s the most sacred space for an actress, but one of her round eyes is halved for, like, a whole episode (I’m sorry, she’s a dead ringer for Julie Estelle with those eyes).

I’ve been nursing a pet theory over the past few years, that South Korea approaches genre uniquely, by not approaching it whatsoever. There is no science-fiction tradition lending foundation to 2021’s Sisyphus: The Myth, not in the way scifi was central to Japanese pop culture in the last half of the 20th century. However, if modern Korean filmmakers are fully literate in any genre, it would be “revenge.” My Name director Kim Jin-min has likely seen A Bittersweet Life, The Villainess, and The Man from Nowhere. It’s just a flash, but I definitely saw someone stab a guy he’s holding hostage like sexy haircut man did once upon a time.

I swear to God, I read a negative review of Squid Game recently, but it got buried under Squid Game coverage. However, unlike that fabled negative Parasite review, this one does exist, according to my browser history: “Haven’t Watched ‘Squid Game’? Here’s What You’re Not Missing” in The New York Times. It’s what you’d expect, but the closing thought really struck me: “[Director Hwang Dong-hyuk] and his camera people keep the story legible and the images routinely well composed, and he stages the action with dull competence. But he doesn’t have a distinctive style, which is particularly noticeable because the series is clearly a throwback to a slightly earlier generation of South Korean movies by directors like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk…”

I remembered this, in a revengey sort of way, but certainly also while watching My Name, which has a gorgeous look but an admittedly unspecific camera. Again, to compare to Director Park, we’re lacking that fascination with shapes, the visual poetry, or the pure cinematic opulence of Bong Joon-ho. It’s a little weird to constantly reference back to those dinosaurs, but I agree that this is something of a throwback. Which is a frustrating term — or wait, this one is a throwback. My Name. I don’t know why Squid Game is a throwback to Park or Kim, so maybe it is weird. Regardless, while the homage is clear, you couldn’t pull a frame from these first three episodes and confuse it for those cinema forebears. The show remains beautiful and well shot, but may not have a style to call its own.

Does it need one? The other K-Drama Report I could be writing is for Hotel Del Luna, which goes for style but comes up short on production design and editing and almost every other fundamental. That’s the first bad show I enjoy watching, which I’d hoped would never happen — the delights of the genre are greater than that — but here we are. In contrast, My Name does everything right, which may be part of the problem. It’s almost like a flattening effect, what many critics identify in the MCU’s visuals, for example. This is a Netflix show, a production company that seems to fancy a house style. Part of the fun with the 2000s era of cinematic hallyu was how wild and different all the movies were, so it’s more of an existential concern than an actual criticism — because it’s completely unfair. In another context, I’d be whining about the show having too much style. It’s a non-issue.

Besides, even if the cinematic technique trades raw inventiveness for studied confidence, the thematic elements are the exact evolution I begged for after The Villainess. That was a movie with an action lead who was clearly down, but the story was less and less down as it went on. This is my chief worry for My Name, but we’re doing very well so far. With the sexual assault in episode two, I’m getting the best possible vibe from the show: “Yes, these are the unfortunate circumstances of the genre,” and the violence is chaotic and bloody, but not exploitative and gross. I don’t know how you wake up from a roofie in time to stay dressed and stab a guy in the leg, but I’m again thankful.

Unremarked upon in the show, it’s quite something to see Ji-woo return to those neon streets on which she was earlier so desperate, or on her back for a roll-about, now confident and even taking the lead in a police action. Now, with this Departed-esque plot — Infernal Affairs, if you like, or better yet, Face/Off — I don’t expect My Name to channel any American anger against police into its ultimate conclusion. If the father’s killer turns out to be a police officer, he’ll be an outlier as a baseline and part of some absurd conspiracy most likely. Granted, the Korean people have their own struggle with authority, but it’s different. The police don’t really carry guns, nor does anyone. The big raid in episode three commences with slight tac vests and six-shot revolvers. Understandably, those guns become a major plot device, but wow. Does that work? I’m so not used to it I almost don’t like it.

I did learn that “drug-free” South Korea has something of a problem with meth, like what’s depicted, though I wonder if the local kingpins all dress like Alain Delon. Thank you, show, for pointing out the absurdity of the well-coiffed gangster. By that token, I also appreciate the subdued depiction of the police so far. It isn’t that lame “satire” of Na Hong-jin, and Kim Sang-ho’s character seems like a reserved, regular guy. I’m sure he’ll turn out to be a mega-villain, because it took me a while to realize where I recognized him from, but he’s the best guy in Kingdom. I know he’s got some wild in him.

Conclusion

As soon as Choi Mu-jin was introduced, this intense fellow with the thousand-yard stare and enough trembling, dormant energy you think he’s gonna break down in tears or out into song, I put it together that he’d have some sort of spiritual loyalty to Ji-woo’s father, enough to justify the plot. And then, at that moment, I was struck by the fragments of a lost memory. What, goddamn it, is the movie or TV show where the gangster or whoever is motivated to do things on behalf of someone who seemed insignificant, even unworthy? Like, avenge some loser? I swear that happened, and my mind is hovering in the territory of a Heat or a Drive, but it’s not those. I have to settle on the second season of True Detective, where they keep talking about Caspere, and you’re like “Why did Caspere know this?” It isn’t until the second episode that we see Ji-woo’s father is more than a dopey dad whose foremost action is getting shot.

More importantly, it’s a bad time for me or anyone to do marketing for Netflix, embroiled in a scandal of their own making which only gets worse by the day. Dave Chappelle is a funny guy (was), but he’s wreaking havoc on the trans community, and Netflix decided to stand behind him in a bit of a policy shift from that Hasan Minhaj debacle — as someone pointed out on Twitter.

And finally, the title “My Name” was the punchline to an old Anime World Order joke. Reporting on Hayao Miyazaki’s return to filmmaking after his most recent retirement, they speculate it’s in reaction to Makoto Shinkai’s success with Your Name. While we’d learn that the new Miyazaki movie was to be called How Do You Live?, their suggestions were “Bettar Than Your Name,” and “My Name.” I believe the latter was Mike Toole’s. And that’s what I keep thinking about.

The alternative title for this show is apparently “Undercover Nemesis,” which is beautiful, some sort of happy trigger for a memory amalgam of Undercover Brother and Baby Mentalist. Also, the director of My Name is apparently married to the actress Kim Yeo-jin, who played Eunji’s mother in Cheer Up! and Chae Soo-bin’s mother in Where Stars Land. Among other things, certainly, but what a strange coincidence.

Eight episodes later, did My Name live up to my bloodsoaked dreams? Find out on the Follow-Up Report


One thought on “K-Drama Report: My Name (2021)

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