An annual tradition five or seven years strong is the Year End Review, in which, via podcast, I recount the ten best movies or TV shows I saw for the first time that year. Originally hosted on The Battle Beyond Planet X, it’s since migrated to Questions: We Don’t Have Answers. The three–part podcast with cohost Donovan Morgan Grant and special guest Stella Bowman is now up. The following is my individual top ten list, with Worst of the Year and Honorable Mentions thrown in for flavor. What were your picks of the year? Let me know in the comments! For once, I actually mean that.
So for my number ten, I’m starting off with K-pop just to space things out a little bit. Because this entry is going to be a musical act, it’s a bit difficult to compare to the rest anyway. But that musical act is Mamamoo, one of the shining stars of the third generation, and my group of the year. Now, I’ve known about Mamamoo for a long time because of their connection to Red Velvet. Specifically, that Red Velvet’s Seulgi was featured on one of Mamamoo’s member’s solo debut. It turns out, Seulgi and that member Moonbyul are good friends from back when both groups debuted in 2014. But it’s actually a different connection that finally had me sit down and listen to Mamamoo this year, a name I’ll be revisiting much later on, Lee Da-hee. The short version is that Lee Da-hee is a wonderful actress, best known for things like The Beauty Inside, Search: WWW, and this year’s LUCA: The Beginning, and Mamamoo is her favorite group. There’s this amazing photo of 5’9” Lee Da-hee on stage with Mamamoo presenting them an award and she’s just looming over these average-sized idols. It is very cute.
Lee Da-hee and Moobyul
And those members include: Moonbyul, the “handsome” idol who generally eschews traditional femininity and wears suits and accordingly is the fourth most popular idol among Korean lesbians. (Seulgi being number three, and number one is Irene). We also have Wheein, who’s an incredible vocalist. Hwasa, a totally killer talent who’s been outspoken about body positivity. I know that Sisi Stringer, who played Mileena in Mortal Kombat this year, is a big fan of Hwasa, as she’s the only name who comes up on Hwasa’s Instagram posts as “Sisi Stringer liked this.” Kind of like Donovan and Candice Patton. And finally, there’s Solar, who shot right up on my list of all-time favorite idols, at the number one spot with Bomi from Apink. Like all the members, Solar has an unbelievable voice, the kind where you feel like it could knock you over, and yet it seems to be summoned effortlessly.
That’s Mamamoo in a nutshell – incredibly talented and incredibly cool. They have the most distinct sound I’ve yet experienced in K-pop, being more like jazz and R&B as opposed to the bubblegum pop of pretty much everyone else, and it’s all done with this self-assured confidence. The style might be why they’re very popular among Latin-American countries, as you’ll always see Spanish comments on their YouTube videos. However, it isn’t just their sound that makes them unique, it’s also the discipline that creates it. Now, I sometimes contemplate how hardcore the training is for SM Agency idol groups like Girls’ Generation, Red Velvet, and now Aespa, and those girls are recruited very young and they train for a long time. Irene trained for seven years, and Yeri debuted when she was 14. That’s really scary – I mean, she’s only 20 now. Mamamoo presents a healthier approach. Solar debuted as an idol at the age of 24, already an adult, and as you can you see in the various behind-the-scenes material on YouTube, she exerts a lot of creative control over what she does and what she wears. Like, maybe she wants to be bald or have a unibrow. People are always like, “Please, Solar, don’t be weird,” and she’s like, “No.”
Solar has a YouTube channel called Solarsido, which translates to something like “Solar’s New Challenge,” wherein she attempts “challenges,” like “Get my wisdom tooth removed” or “Throw myself a surprise party.” Maybe the best challenge was when she goes to the Korean village, a tourist attraction that’s meant to be a recreation of a period village, and she’s so excited, she dressed up in period clothing to get a discount and she’s just talking about what she wants to do and how she stayed up late doing research, like Yomi in Azumanga Daioh. And she goes there, and first of all, she doesn’t ask for the discount – she has to be reminded – and then almost everything she wants to do is closed. So she’s just sitting there, looking sad, and it’s so funny. She reminds me of something I thought about James May, the British presenter, because when he was in Japan for a show, he introduced to me this idea of comics whose talent is putting themselves in situations where unintentional comedy is likely to happen, and essentially adapt to it like improv. Solar is so constantly enthusiastic about everything, and she has such a quick wit but zero sense of self. She doesn’t care about her image, so long as she can make you laugh or cry. To me, that’s the ultimate idol, especially since she actually enjoys doing it.
And this brings us to the final point, which is Solar’s relationship with Moonbyul. I have witnessed and enjoyed many ships in K-pop, like the legendary Taeyeon/Tiffany or the more contemporary Tiffany/Sooyoung, and of course Irene and Seulgi, who whirl about in a world of their own creation, but nothing feels more real than Solar and Moonbyul, or MoonSun. Whenever Solar’s doing a mukbang for Solarsido, or reading her negative comments, you better believe Moonbyul is just off-screen watching her. They are inseparable, they’re so comfortable with each other — the only difference between their relationship and dating is the actual physical intimacy. But what do you call it when Moonbyul says that Solar’s nostrils are too small, and to demonstrate she pokes her fingers into Solar’s nose, and Solar’s again just sitting there?
So I just had to talk about Mamamoo at the end of this year, because they and especially Solar were a big part of my summer, especially around June when I was moving back home from Los Angeles. If I had to recommend one song for you to sample, it’ll be the beautiful “Wind Flower,” whose music video is a nice homage to the films of Wong Kar-wai. (Probably).
9) Dune (2021)
So for this one, I thought I’d actually start with your both two cents on the matter, as my number nine is Dune, and it’s included on both your Honorable Mentions.
For my part, I am a scifi guy at heart, and always will be, and despite my lack of a classical education, the mood sometimes strikes that I visit those staples of the genre. Ironically, we had two of the biggest works of scifi literature represented in mainstream American media this year, not only with the Dune movie but also the Foundation TV series, which I’ll watch the moment I’ve subscribed to AppleTV and not a moment sooner. Dune is the latest and perhaps most impressive expression of the normalization of geek culture. I mean, we’re two years out from Avengers: Endgame, but still, to have this level of reverence for the material by an A-list cast and director, to have actors say lines of dialogue that podcasters have been saying as jokes for years, it’s nothing short of remarkable. Fear is the mind killer? Roll for initiative, dork. The original Dune movie comes in at the year 1984, clearly post-Star Wars, when such things were acceptable but not trusted. Now Dune is one of the essential titles of 2021, and while it’s also a couple years out from the latest Star Wars trilogy, the market is completely different.
For the worst, it turns out, as we’ll discuss at the half with Godzilla vs. Kong, but as a preview, I had a little freakout moment with that one at the state of Hollywood. It felt so insincere, so desperately afraid to stay in one moment and be itself, instead rushing to the next sequel or the next franchise, and Dune is definitely a tonic to that sort of blockbuster filmmaking. This one may be a Hollywood blockbuster, but you can tell it’s the work of passionate players. I mean, nobody would say “Fear is the mind killer” unless they believed in some aspect of it. And although you find good acting across the spectrum, this cast really brings a lot, and you realize how much of Dune falls on the acting and the directing. You had William Hurt as Duke Lehto in the TV version, and he’s good, but he’s not working with the attendant gravity. I think Denis really sets everything up right, so that you feel like the spaces these characters inhabit are somehow sacred or dangerous, and you understand there’s so much culture and history behind every proper noun.
And speaking to the director specifically, I’m seeing a further development of his aesthetic, coming off of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 — it’s the kind of minimalism evinced by brutalist architecture, where you have these wide, blank spaces given the barest outline that still somehow makes a shape. It may not be the gonzo, LSD Western that Jodorowsky had in mind, but it’s dignified and just a tad dry, so to speak. I love the look of the still suits, and the Harkonnen appear really monstrous without being straight-up gross like in the original movie. I do miss the Guild Navigator, but that never really made sense, did it?
Anyway, Dune is good, and the last time I heard a big, prestige scifi movie was gonna be good, it was Prometheus. Or actually, it was Blade Runner 2049, but I like to be salty. The great big miracle is that somehow Dune in 2021 is a movie for everyone, not just grotesque nerds like me. It works as action-drama. It actually works. And that’s all I’m Dune.
8) Whisper of the Heart
So, the science of the top ten list is sort of complicated. Originally, number four on my list was gonna be the television series Narcos, which is very, very good but I watched it so long ago I don’t have much to say. So I swapped it out and in its place but now at number eight is none other than Whisper of the Heart, of course. From the Colombian drug trade to high school love triangles. Love tetrahedrons, more like it.
7) Nathan For You
It was around Halloween, and my hometown buddy Lester sends me an Instagram video of a prank, which was about the “scariest haunted house.” So, like, if you’ve ever gone to Halloween Horror Nights, you go into a linear maze and things pop out and scare you, that kind of thing. Only, the one in the video stops midway through with the actors playing zombies, and this guy Nathan Fielder hustles the purveyors out and into an office where he tells them that one of the actors was sick with an infectious disease. He rushes them off to a hospital in an ambulance where the situation gets more chaotic. At the hospital, the doctors are dressed up in hazmat suits, and Nathan’s yelling at them like “Why do you have those? Are we all infected?” The couple meanwhile is just standing there, like “What the fuck?” Then they’re moved around the corner to a sign which says “Haunted House Exit,” and Nathan Fielder, completely deadpan, turns to the couple and says, “So what did you think?”
Nathan For You was a show on Comedy Central created and hosted by an H. Jon Benjamin alum Nathan Fielder, who goes around to real businesses in Southern California and pitches ideas on how to improve things. If you want to sell souvenirs on Hollywood Boulevard, just pretend to shoot a movie at the store and pull people off the street to play extras whose part involves buying souvenirs. If you want people to come to your car wash, get them to park under a tree with a ton of birds. These business solutions have a certain logic to them, but are always just off-key in some fundamental way. And the idea is that anybody who’d say yes to his suggestions is gonna be someone worth talking to, and Nathan manages to find the strangest people on Earth. And he cultivates that strangeness so beautifully, asking the perfect questions and getting the best reactions which are sometimes, honestly revelatory. In the end, I find myself laughing so hard I actually think I’m gonna have a medical emergency.
Nathan For You is in that genre with Reviews or Episodes or Inside Amy Schumer, the critically-acclaimed comedy shows I never would’ve watched unless someone put it in front of me. And as a result, this show is actually pretty old. You might not think 2013 is old, but it is almost ten years ago. The conversation has come and gone, and if anyone’s still talking about Nathan For You in 2021, you deserve a mother-effin’ beer. And I think what surprised me about it, discovering the show now in isolation, is how close it skews to a kind of comedy I shared with an old friend from middle and high school.
This was a sense of humor informed by a lot of that early modern Internet media like Homestar Runner and Newgrounds, specifically Knoxskorner. Incredibly deadpan, deeply ironic and detached, borderline cringe, and Nathan For You is maybe the cringiest show of all time. It’s difficult to imagine something more painful, because these are real people, and Nathan Fielder has no bones about making himself come off as so extremely awkward in every situation. There’s one scene that I had to restrain myself from fast-forwarding through because it was so goddamn uncomfortable. That episode is “Smokers Allowed,” for reference. But the “Man Zone” is another perfect example. In this one he tries to help a women’s clothing store by creating a backroom man cave, so that the guy won’t be putting pressure on the girl to leave because he’s bored, and this “man cave” has like an antique gun rack and sports paraphernalia, and he just hangs out with the guy. It’s unreal, because we have this ongoing narrative that all Nathan really wants to do is make human connections, and the satire inherent to the show is how the absurdity of capitalism is simply the wrong medium for any healthy expression of human nature whatsoever. In fact, in an interview, he says the idea for the show came from the 2008 economic recession, reconciling the aspect of human nature that will say yes and keep saying yes to objectively terrible ideas.
6) The Hidden Fortress
So, The Hidden Fortress may arrive at your door with two key facts: one, it was the story basis for the original Star Wars, and two, it’s not very good. I’m here to tell you today that both those “facts” are overstated. What George Lucas got from The Hidden Fortress was the idea of two lowly characters who witness something epic happening around them, and a princess, and The Hidden Fortress itself is a really good movie, and definitely my favorite Kurosawa film so far. I’m still holding out for Kagemusha and Ran, but I’ll say I liked this better than Seven Samurai and Rashomon.
One of the things that Kurosawa is known for is his cinematography, and he’s usually lensing these incredible landscapes. The Hidden Fortress is an adventure movie, so he has this opportunity to frame all these different, jaw-dropping scenes, from the impossible staircase of a town under siege to the great fields to the hidden fortress itself, carved out of a mountain. And because it’s an adventure, it has a lighter tone than something like Seven Samurai, which is necessarily bleak. The Hidden Fortress is buoyed by those two peasant characters, the witnesses who stumble through so much turmoil and chaos. And it really is stumbling. Whether they’re ascending hills or moving through forests, they’re on all fours as often as not, and there’s something very primal about the movie. The way characters interact with each other, wordlessly, it’s animalistic, and very compelling. Toshiro Mifune is the swordsman, of course, and he’s this unknowable force of nature. You can tell he’s thinking, but you never about what.
I don’t remember why I decided to watch The Hidden Fortress after all these years, but I’m so glad I did. It’s a distinct entry from one of history’s greatest filmmakers, one that deserves to be remembered for more than what it inspired. Shingi Higuchi, co-director of Shin Godzilla, directed a remake called The Hidden Fortress: The Last Princess, and I really want to see that, because I do love live-action Japanese genre movies, but I cannot find it anywhere. At the time of recording, you can find The Hidden Fortress on HBO Max, and as always, in the Criterion Collection. Double-edged sword — the big Kurosawa movies are always in print, but always very expensive.
Before we finish strong with the top five, let’s take a quick detour.
Worst of the Year
Rambo: Last Blood
It’s beyond me that the Rambo sequels don’t work. I love the idea that Stallone took First Blood and made it stupid four times. But each successive Rambo drives further up its own ass, with the self-righteous, revisionist politics and honestly less-than-compelling signature action. This is a guy who runs into a hall and stands stock upright, firing an M60 shirtless. That’s okay once or twice, but not in four diminishing sequels. Finally we have Rambo: Last Blood, which manages to spare two whole action scenes and a wallop of anti-Mexican racism. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Hollywood, who might consider the Sicario movies the healthier alternative.
I think Species is just one of those series for me where I’ll have to limit myself to one installment a year. The first Species is a pretty disappointing one of these with exactly one good kill and a bunch of I don’t know what. The second one takes the objectively troubling but appealing-to-me premise of “alien lady killing people” and makes it an alien man killing people. Does that make any sense? If I can say one thing for this movie, it’s the performance of the always reliable Mykelti Williamson, who miraculously doesn’t die first (or at all)!
Earwig and the Witch / Tales from Earthsea
I don’t know what to do about Goro Miyazaki, man. I have so much to say about both of these movies, also viewed for Stella and I’s Ghibli marathon. Tales from Earthsea in particular is a textbook for bad screenwriting, for the black magic of sucking all the possible wonder out of a fantasy world. Earwig and the Witch is actually a surprising case for the director, being a near word-perfect adaptation of a story that simply doesn’t work in film — or at all.
The Glimmer Man / Out for Justice
For whatever reason, 2021 was also the Year of Seagal for the QNA crew, as we recorded a commentary for the late-pre-late-period Seagaler Glimmer Man. That’s a dumb movie that doesn’t even have the production values of the “good” run, from Above the Law to Under Siege. And I have to question that “good” run, because there isn’t a green apple in the bunch. Marked for Death may come closest, but less ambiguous to me is that Out for Justice is the worst (of the alleged best). It’s the same Seagal self-aggrandizement, but even meaner, nastier, and louder. Please have done the Mark Kermode voice in your head for that last bit.
Once Upon a Time in China
A long time coming, 2021 is the year I saw one of the staple martial arts movies, the Tsui Hark/Jet Li epic and one of our better Once Upon a Time movies (better than in Mexico), with certainly one of cinema’s best theme songs.
Look, I had issues with this one, chiefly the cross-cutting of action scenes into whirling montages, but it brought all my favorite people into one place and dumped a pot of blood on them. Instead of the Year of Seagal, this was more like the Year of Taslim, as we’ll revisit him later. But also superlative is Sisi Stringer as Mileena — hoping she returns for the sequel. And maybe Julie Estelle for Kitana? I know it’s gonna be Jamie Chung, but hope springs Edenia.
Coming right in under the wire and not even complete by the time of this writing, a show that brings together a bunch of actresses we all admire (Melanie Lynskey, for me Rekha Sharma) and directors like Karyn Kusama and Deepa Mehta. Full disclosure, the urgent discourse surrounding Yellowjackets isn’t lost on me — Jezebel might tell you “For the Love of God, Please Just Watch Yellowjackets,” for example. But it’s not one of those “You should watch this to participate,” it’s a compelling premise (nearly equal in construction to Stillwater, dramatizing a real-world story) troubled only by the mystery-box storytelling. Remember HBO’s Watchmen? When you get to the end of these things, it’s either “Good” or “Nothing I just saw had any purpose whatsoever.” Fingers crossed for the former! Christina Ricci’s performance makes it all worth it, anyway. She’s off the hook.
Now that it’s been some time since we recorded these podcasts and I spoke about Yellowjackets, I’ve had more time to think, and while the most recent episode (106: “Saints”) was great, I’m worried. Apparently, the show’s been renewed for season two, so don’t expect any big answers soon. Since this is a Showtime show, I imagine there are plans to go five to eight seasons, or some other totally unreasonable number that this premise can’t sustain. Like with Homeland, it’ll probably transform into something else. Maybe we’ll follow Taissa and Nat as they open a P.I. firm, or Shauna start a new life in Chicago. I’ll just try to enjoy the show while it remains what it is.
Yuri’s Winning Recipe Season 2
As this was one my entries on the Top Ten last year, I had to mention it here. Yuri fucking had Yoona on the show, and I almost didn’t even watch it because I didn’t want to get to the part where it’d be over. I just love them both so much. I wish I could officiate their wedding. And then die for them. Painfully.
5) Squid Game
So, number five is Squid Game, and what could I possibly say about it? Listeners, you’ve probably seen it already, so this would probably be the least personal entry on the top ten, except it did really help me with my writing this year. So, as I’ve mentioned before, often, I would not have watched Squid Game on my own. Way too popular, and I really have no stomach for this kind of story. The first episode is so disturbingly violent I might have stopped right there. It was actually my mom who pushed for Squid Game. Now, if you don’t know my mom, she’s not Korean, but she regularly wears shirts like “Stop Asian Hate” and “Seoul,” which I imagine she picked up two years ago in Seoul. We were watching a K-drama not too long ago and she turned to me and said, “Who would’ve thought?” And I think that’s kind of the story across the world. Parasite was in the movie theater, you know? We have such immediate access to all this foreign material, but more importantly, there’s been a cultural breakthrough that makes the foreign material not only acceptable but essential. If you don’t watch this Korean TV show, you won’t understand the next episode of Saturday Night Live.
That was definitely a nice side dish to the show itself, to see the cast being interviewed on American talk shows, the Halloween costumes, and the endless articles counting down when Squid Game would in fact become Netflix’s most-watched program. But I’d say Squid Game as an experience earns all the acclaim. It is more than a gimmick, and it’s even more than the striking iconography that made it famous. At the end of the day, this is a very good show buttressed by very strong storytelling. And it came into my life at just the right time, when I’ve really struggling with dramatic moments. You know, how do you make the audience feel what the characters are feeling? Squid Game does that amazing thing, it generates such dread and suspense and surprise when all that’s happening on the screen is people throwing marbles into a hole in the dirt. You extrapolate that out to the emotional climaxes, say, in the now-legendary episode six, and the writing process suddenly becomes clear.
Without spoiling it, because this is a recommendation, something terrible happens between two characters – it was a betrayal – and it made me think about a twisting knife. How do you put the knife there, how do you twist it? How do you wring as much as you can out of that moment? And it’s all about building the foundation. In terms of this moment, Squid Game episode six joins the ranks of The Night Comes for Us and The Last of Us where I watch reaction videos for it. I mean, those things are pretty useless, but in aggregate they give you some sense for how people might react to something, and it’s surprisingly uniform. It’s storytelling that works on a literally universal level, but the appeal of Squid Game is as deep as it is wide.
4) Dopesick / The Crime of the Century
So this is another cheat, because it’s two things, but they are both 2021 releases and despite coming from competing streaming services, are absolutely companion pieces. I don’t know who decided that 2021 was the year to talk about the opioid crisis, but we got HBO’s docuseries The Crime of the Century and Hulu’s miniseries Dopesick, both telling the same story in different formats. Behind the opioid crisis, which killed half a million people over the course of 20 years, is a single company, Purdue Pharma. They invented this concept, “pain management,” which is where “rate your pain on a scale of one to ten” comes from, and far too often, the answer was a prescription to OxyContin, an addictive narcotic that was somehow marketed as nonaddictive. It’s a fascinating and bleak story, and though I have no aspirations myself, I do love knowing how vast criminal conspiracies work. It may have been the four years we spent with the Trump administration, but it’s also my love for things like The Wire — and both Dopesick and Crime of the Century allow us, for a moment, to feel like Lester Freamon standing before the corkboard.
But there’s a key difference between Dopesick and The Wire, isn’t there? I was listening to an NPR story where they interview Danny Strong, the showrunner of Dopesick, and they ask him the hardball question I imagine is characteristic of NPR: why has there been such a human lens on the opioid crisis, when there never was on the cocaine epidemic, or any drug that disproportionately affects people of color? I mean, still being broadcast on FX is Snowfall, which is about the beginnings of the crack epidemic, but it’s less Spotlight than it is Scarface. I think this also speaks to some of your misgivings, Donovan, about the hood genre, that it may reduce our perception of Black issues, because we want Black characters to be gangsters. But this is actually the reason why I personally am so interested in the opioid crisis. In recent years I’ve become more and more intrigued by stories about systems and bureaucracy — stories about the inner workings of government or corporations, especially when they’re functioning badly, and that’s where my interest in the drug war as subject matter comes in. It’s just so fascinating how much bad behavior by professionals in sometimes elected roles can accidentally fuel the crises they’re trying to stop. But with something like Pablo Escobar, you can still argue that even a kingpin born in poverty is still a kind of victim, like Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. Escobar was a bad guy, unambiguously, but he was also shot to death in the street, and that sort of violence — while interesting — should not have happened, and I can guarantee you it will never happen to the Sackler family. And these rich, white Sackler fucks are not victims. The generation that spawned the opioid crisis inherited the company from Arthur Sackler, so they were already rich, and they chose evil time and time again. It’s so black-and-white — it’s white-collar crime, and my feelings of anger and despair are less ambiguous than with those other similar situations. Fuck those people. If prison exists for anyone, it’s for them.
But in terms of Lester Freamon, there’s a scene in Dopesick where the executives at Purdue Pharma are reviewing a document, and they’re freaking out about it. What they’re looking at is a notice from the FDA that with a new review, they’re gonna have to put a black box warning on OxyContin, which would certainly curb sales, and at least eliminate the aggressive sales tactics we’ve seen throughout the show. We get to this point because Rosario Dawson at the DEA started a media frenzy by organizing a press conference to talk about how bad OxyContin is, putting enough pressure on the FDA to do that review. So both shows do a really good job of connecting dots. You come to understand what might actually stop all the misery, and then you see the stories behind why these things didn’t happen, the psychology of choosing the wrong choice.
I think it introduces useful approaches into the viewer’s language. Specifically, “Whose job is it to prevent these problems, and why wasn’t the job done?” The Rosario Dawson character helps us arrive there, because she presents data on autopsies to the FDA indicating that OxyContin can be fatal even with proper use, but it’s all rejected. The FDA expert has to agree with the Purdue executives who were in the room for some reason: the evidence appears baseless. Rosario storms out into the hall and tells her little buddy that of course this is how it went down. That FDA expert was trying to appear friendly to a future potential employer. We already know that the guy who wrote the label saying OxyContin was nonaddictive was shortly thereafter hired by Purdue. And we also know that Rosario’s storyline takes place years before the state’s attorney investigation which ultimately led to hearings and fines. In the meantime, thousands more lives would be lost.
We know there isn’t gonna be a happy ending, because we know that Richard and Kathe Sackler are, like, totally fine. Both shows instead highlight the individual stories of recovery and redemption, because there’s something unique at the heart of the opioid crisis, which is that the pushers were local doctors and pharmacists. These were people who were told to push OxyContin as a miracle drug, and if they didn’t share Purdue’s enthusiasm, well, they could be sued by patients suffering chronic pain. You wouldn’t want that, would you? It’s another facet of the tragedy, that it wasn’t automated entirely by evil — so many of those complicit were good people trying to help, and they’re victims, too, sometimes even victims of OxyContin addiction itself. So I can’t necessarily promise you catharsis with these two shows, but it’s always good to feel like you can wear the Roddy “Rowdy” Piper sunglasses and see the formaldehyde faces dressed up in suits for the next time they try to tell you anything to separate you from your money.
Kingdom was probably Squid Game before Squid Game in terms of the K-drama that captures the global imagination. It was a really big deal when it came out, and it’s gotten a second season, a spin-off movie, and plans for a third season. For my part, it’s this year’s Shin Godzilla. It’s about the breakdown of society and the politicians who let it happen, but instead of a Godzilla coming ashore, the catalyst for social satire this time is zombies. I got to say, man, Korean people love zombies, and this is where we differ. However, Kingdom has a really good twist on zombies that I don’t know if I’ve seen before, because basically it’s zombies in a period setting, specifically in the Joseon dynasty three years after a Japanese invasion. You’re gonna see the robes and the wooden architecture and swords and stuff, and the conical hats, and now you add zombies to that mix. It fundamentally alters the nature of the action, and the show really pops off.
And rather than alters it also marries beautifully to palace drama. The first undead character you see is the king, and so the conniving elements of the palace chain him up and hide him, essentially play Weekend at Bernie’s until the Queen Consort can produce an heir. In this, they hope to oust the crown prince, who’s our main character. This Joseon is full of dicks, and we see how it’s human nature that provides the accelerant for infection. Sounds familiar. And like in Train to Busan, we see that the zombies have new rules; in this case, they’re only active at night, so you can both strategize around them and it doesn’t become the post-apocalypse immediately. I feel like the original Resident Evil live-action movies took a wrong turn by ending the world in the beginning of movie two of six. Where do you go from there? By contrast, Kingdom is a really handsome, well-produced drama with a dynamite setup and satisfying execution.
I like to think I frustrate people, because unlike Donovan, when somebody recommends something to me, I do not watch it. Donovan stresses himself out trying to watch and read things, and honestly, I’ve been thinking a lot about recommendations this year because of that. When you have someone as in-demand as Donovan Morgan Grant, I feel like you have to be careful to make the recommendation something really special or really of the moment. People, do not overload this man — he still has to see The Lighthouse. But anyway, people do recommend things to me. I think the number one was The Good Place, because of my Crazy Ex-Girlfriend YouTube channel, and then number two was Community. The thing that people should understand when it comes to recommending things to me is that I watch things if I think they’ll help me in my storytelling — and nobody knows, quite, what “my storytelling” is.
This is where a lot of the interest in bureaucracy drama comes from, because that “genre” runs parallel to a lot of what I’ve been writing the last few years. I’m sure it’s just as exciting as that sounds. I tend to gravitate to military-related things, and as a result, I don’t enjoy a lot of movies and TV shows. My take on that sort of subject matter tends to be different than what exists, more Ghost in the Shell than Tom Clancy, but I’ll do a Tom Clancy because it’s aesthetically similar. That’s just one example of my masochism. The key example comes from back in 2013, when I really wanted to play the new Tomb Raider, but I kept buying games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier instead because it was more relevant to my storytelling. I never finished Future Soldier, but I’ve now played Tomb Raider 2013 twice as well as its two sequels. Why couldn’t I just let myself enjoy something?
Well, that’s what Warrior is. It is Tomb Raider, not Future Soldier. I have no designs on writing a kung-fu movie, though I have done so a couple of times, and so the experience of watching this show is comparable to a guilty pleasure. It’s just for me, and it’s just for fun. And to my surprise, it’s a very good show. Originally airing on Cinemax, to debut its third season sometime on HBO Max, this is a period drama set during the 1800s in San Francisco, where an influx of immigrant labor from China incites all sorts of racism and martial arts. We follow Ah Sahm, played by Andrew Koji, who plays Storm Shadow in the new GI Joe movie, and he becomes a tong, the Chinese-American gangster archetype which is essentially the axe gang from old kung fu movies, and he gets into those kinds of situations where you think, “How is he gonna get out of this?” This show is a reclamation of the show Kung Fu, which was pitched to studios by Bruce Lee and then taken away from him. Warrior is more faithful, to where Ah Sahm was supposed to be played by Bruce Lee, not David Carradine. The show is co-produced by Shannon Lee, in fact, who also we might thank for the very respectable female characters. That was part of the surprise, that one of the kingpins is a woman, as is maybe the biggest badass in Chinatown.
Warrior also stars our favorite guy Joe Taslim, and he gets the “And Joe Taslim” credit. He is the reason I started watching this show, which initially I couldn’t tell apart from the other Asian-American dramas like Into the Badlands and Wu Assassins. In practice, it’s a lot more like Peaky Blinders or Boardwalk Empire, a gangster show first with kung fu instead of guns. But also guns, because it’s kind of a Western, too. There’s a great bottle episode in season one that plays out like one of those “disparate characters in a single space,” like Dragon Inn or The Hateful Eight. So it’s a big, impassioned love letter to all kinds of cinematic traditions, and the cast is clearly having the time of their lives. I think that the evident enthusiasm smooths over some of the shortcomings, namely the lighting, which is going for a Godfather, paint with shadows sort of look, and ends up more AVPR: Aliens versus Predator: Requiem, and the writing, which is far more anachronistic than any period show I’ve seen. Someone says loyalty to the tong isn’t “a two-way street,” but the first known usage of that phrase is 1948, when two-way roads had existed for some time. It’s almost like that’s part of it — we’re not going for historical immersion but rather pulp. Your mileage may vary.
Warrior is a gangster/western/kung fu show, and maybe the combination of all those things suggests the fourth genre, but it also certainly a fantasy – in multiple connotations. In some instances, non-fictional people are adapted into more fanciful characters, like the historical madam Ah Toy, who moonlights in Warrior as a high-flying vigilante. And overall, history has a malleability that actually feels like a safety net. It’s never go over the line, because the people making the show are us, essentially. At the same time, I need to be careful when I recommend this show, because the pulpy style sometimes distracts from the fact that it’s very disturbing subject matter. Racial slurs and hate crimes are so common, culminating in massacres and imagery that could strike too close to home for some viewers. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but I think that Warrior is covered by that implicit principle, that it’s okay to talk about real-world events if they’re foreign or old. And in this case, it’s a process of discovery that a lot of the political circumstances leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act were similar to what we witness today.
Like with Berserk a few years ago, I came into Warrior at the funniest time, because it would only be months or even weeks later that the show was revived for season three, and I couldn’t be happier. It was one of those things that really felt like a win in the year 2021. The Asian actors are just so happy to play main characters, and all the white actors who play the bad guys seem really supportive. I follow Joe Taslim and Olivia Cheng on Instagram, and you always see in the comments, those white actors being like “fire emoji” or what have you. Especially great is Jason Tobin, who you saw in Better Luck Tomorrow, Donovan. He’s such a perfect fit here, and you get the sense that over his long career in Hollywood, he’s probably had to struggle to find roles. So in addition to being a great show, it’s also just a really great story. Long-delayed justice for Bruce Lee, and so timely in the age of Me Too and Stop Asian Hate. This is an easy recommendation — which ironically, was the basis of my hesitation. Maybe I can learn something from this.
1) Search: WWW
It’s always a good feeling when I can come on here and talk about, for my number one, the thing that made me feel the most this year, and that’s a K-drama called Search: WWW. I’ll listen back to the soundtrack and even now, six months later, it still makes me teary-eyed. This is a K-drama from 2019, about three professional women who grapple with the ethics of technology, with complicated love lives, and most compellingly, with each other.
So, this where we round back to my number ten, Mamamoo, my framing narrative. I had known about Lee Da-hee, just like I know about Lee Sung-kyung, because they’re both Korean actresses who are taller than me, and indeed I was strongly considering watching Sung-kyung’s Weightlifting Fairy show this year. But I happened to see Lee Da-hee post photos from a shoot on her Instagram and I was like, “Oh, right. Lee Da-hee, who looks so much like Irene, what’s she been in?” And this brought me to The Beauty Inside, a drama from 2016 which really affected me. That was the first K-drama I’d seen since Cheer Up that I really, really liked. Da-hee plays a supporting character, a domineering businesswoman with a surprisingly sweet romance. She was very good, but I had no idea what she had in store. And overall, where The Beauty Inside has a preposterous story about a woman whose face and body changes into another person for one week every month, based on a movie with the same premise, Search: WWW is a little less fanciful, but a lot more complex, and even intimidating.
The story begins with a congressional hearing, where our protagonist Bae Ta-mi is being questioned for the manipulation of online information. During the presidential election, all negative articles about one candidate disappeared off Korea’s number one web portal, which would massively influence the voting populace. It turns out, the CEO of Bae Ta-mi’s web portal Unicon is the daughter-in-law of the chairwoman of the KU Group, a conglomerate with political ties. That chairwoman wanted to tip the scales, and now that it’s been exposed, Bae Ta-mi, a director of the search engine department, is being sent out to fall on the sword. Instead, she steals the show by exposing the assemblyman questioning her as a possible pedophile, and then she walks out the door of Unicon to its direct competitor Barro, swearing – as all Koreans do – vengeance on her former employers. This catalyst is pretty interesting on its own, but I what I especially like about it is how it sets all the characters on the board. Bae Ta-mi’s direct superior Song Ga-kyeong, the chairwoman’s daughter-in-law, was once her best friend, and now they’re enemies. But Song Ga-kyeong in high school was friends with Cha-hyeon, who’s now working under Bae Ta-mi at Barro. So let me tell you, it gets pretty spicy.
There’s a quality to this show that comes from a combination of its super-soft focus, warm lighting, and the philosophical bent to its dialogue. The remarkable cohesion of the image’s texture with the soundscape, it feels like a really pleasant dream. At the same time, it has the epic scope of a palace drama, only set in cutting-edge modern day. We have so many characters across multiple organizations, and they’re vying for power within and without. These two elements, the style commitment to grandeur and delicate intimacy combine to optimize individual moments.
Of which romance is certainly a key focus, as is characteristic of the genre, but this show is also one of the signature feminist K-dramas. By that, I mean, if you go asking around for something about empowered women, Search: WWW inevitably comes up, and accordingly, you have all the hallmarks. A man gropes a woman in an elevator and she stomps the shit out of him, you have the two women who smash up a car with baseball bats after a guy tries to buy of their silence, and the romance is secondary to these ladies’ career ambitions. Even in the romance itself, like in the central arc between Bae Ta-mi and Park Morgan, there’s an intriguing philosophical dialogue. Park Morgan is ten years her junior and has these lofty ideas about getting married and starting a family, and Bae Ta-mi decided a long time ago that she would never get married, and says to him, “I’m telling you this not to upset you, but because I’ve lived longer.”
In addition, the characters engage in these battles over how best to proceed when, for example, a man comes into Barro saying that the company’s facial recognition software exposed his infidelity – who’s ultimately responsible for the dissolution of his marriage? Protect all private data, but what if the web portal is an opportunity to do good in society? Ultimately, our heroes and even our villains turn both inward and outward in collaboration with others to find these answers. The show actually adapts a real-world trope, the blurred line between government and corporations. In real life, South Korea’s first female prime minister was convicted and jailed for corruption, as she had these sorts of connections to conglomerates. Who really runs this country? It’s a question that may well be answered in the end, and I think the thematic conclusion provides a nice parallel to the journey of these characters, who break out from their prescribed roles and discover surprising things about themselves.
Now, for all of its strengths as a show, Search: WWW also does something to directly appeal to my sensibilities, and since it isn’t science-fiction, longtime listeners probably know where I’m going with this. Cha-hyeon, who is the Lee Da-hee character, instantly became one of my favorite characters of all time. She just really likes to beat people up. She beats up the guy on the elevator, she beats up the guy who crossed Bae Ta-mi, and she even threatens to beat up Bae Ta-mi. Her reputation leads to a great scene where she and Ta-mi get drunk, and since they’re already competitive with each other, Bae Ta-mi accuses her of not having a boyfriend, and then she says, “Do you even beat up your boyfriends?” And the answer, coincidentally is yes (sort of). Her romance arc starts in episode seven, so she’s been well-established by this point, making it impossible that she’s at all defined by the relationship or her feelings about men. And as a result, what we get is a really, really sweet romance between a tough, confident woman and the sensitive young man she really admires.
Back when it was Cheer Up and Caution, Hazardous Wife, I was devastated by the length of these shows – one season. Search: WWW is also one season, but it’s 16 episodes which are each nearly feature-length. Definitely daunting, and I’ll warn you, it is not paced like American television. We’ve internalized that scenes are about two to three minutes, maxing out at four. You look at the scripts to even something like The West Wing, and our main man Sorkin doesn’t broach four. Scenes in Search: WWW seem to go on for hours. But I came to really appreciate that sort of luxuriation, the relaxed pace and the sense of immersion in a world. It’s that sort of comfort people report with their favorite sitcoms, where it’s a weekly hangout with your favorite characters. Search: WWW balances that aspect with a number of serial plotlines, some of them silly, some of them startling, some of them heartwrenching. And I think it comes down to that marriage of the casual comfort and then the narrative build toward emotional climax. If you just have the second, you may feel something, but it might not linger. It might not get under your skin.