Thursday, July 14, 2016

My Secret Hotel - 2014

My Secret Hotel is a Korean drama in 16 episodes of an hour each starring Yoo In Ha, Jin Yi Han and Namgung Min.  It was aired from August to September 2014.

I finished watching Empress Ki some time ago.  It was a fabulous series, but quite serious and full of violence.  It was full of politics among the royalty in the 14th century.  After that I needed something fluffy and romantic to lighten my mood.  I had been quite impressed by Jin Yi Han who had an important side role in Empress Ki as Tal Tal. He looked very handsome in ceremonial robes and a long glossy ponytail.  I picked Jin Yi Han's series My Secret Hotel to get more eyefuls of the hunk.

I was NOT disappointed.  Right at the start, while the credits are rolling, Jin Yi Han bursts into a fabulous dance. Sigh. 

It was a typical K-romance.  Two guys vie for the affections of a girl. She is equally torn between the two.  Who will win?  This romance is embellished by a some mystery-thriller elements.  Here is how the initial story goes:

Nam Sang Hyo (Yoo In Ha) is a dedicated hotelier.  She has risen from a waitress to the Manager of a Banquet Hall.  She specializes in Wedding Planning.  The hotel she works at, called Secret Hotel, is one of the best in Seoul.  Her hotel has just got some bad press.  The Managing Director of her hotel, Jo Sung Gyeom (Namgung Min) asks her to deal with this crisis.  The PR Manager Yeo Eun Joo (Lee Young Eun) and Nam Sang Hyo plan a fancy celebrity wedding to bring back the Hotel's mojo.

The bride is the daughter of a cosmetic company owner. The groom is a well educated son of the richest man in Seoul.  This wedding represents the creme de la creme of the Seoul Society.  But Nam Sang Hyo gets a shock when she sees the Groom. It is Koo Hae Young (Jin Yi Han).  She was married to him for three months when she was in Las Vegas. It did not work out and they got a divorce.  She is cool as she greets him, causing him to do a double take.  He expected her to burst out in tears or at least, act shocked.

Nam Sang Hyo decides to act professional and carry on with her work despite feeling upset about Koo Hae Young. She murmurs a goodbye to him and walks away as the wedding commences. However, the grand wedding is rudely interrupted by a corpse falling at the Groom's feet as he walking down the aisle.

The murdered man is an Assistant Manager under Nam Sang Hyo. He was a nasty piece of work that no one liked much.  This brings in Kim Geum Bo (Ahn Kil Kang).  He is the best detective on the police force in Seoul. He is uncouth in appearance, but has a sharp mind.  He sets to work trying to solve the murder mystery.  He finds that Secret Hotel has many people with secrets.  There are several suspects and he must examine them all, and try to find the murderer.

The Managing Director is here to find out more about his father. His father used to work for The Secret Hotel in the past.  He died when he fell from the sixth floor of this hotel in an accident.  Jo Sung Gyeum has been getting cryptic messages from someone claiming to have information about the death of his father.  He has reason to suspect that it was not an accident, but murder.

 The Secret Hotel hides many secrets.

 Jo Sung Gyeum is interested in Nam Sang Hyo and wants date her.  She agrees, as she is also eager to move on from Koo Hae Young. She does not bargain with Hae Young reacting badly to her relationship with Jo Sung Gyeum and doing his utmost to wreck her new budding romance.  There are times when she finds she still has a soft spot for Koo Hae Young who had ditched her seven years ago and run away from her.

 She had followed him to New York and found this woman in his apartment.  It had broken her heart and she had fled back to Vegas and from there, back to Seoul.  How can she forgive him for running away with another woman just three months after being married to her?

Is Koo Hae Young really a player? Or was there a reason why he ditched Sang Hyo?  If he did not care for her, why does he chase her so relentlessly?

The PR Manager of The Secret Hotel, Lee Eun Joo is also sweet on Jo Sung Gyeum and is forever trying to drive Nam Sang Hyo away from him so she may have a chance to date him.  She even engineers a fix-up between Koo Hae Young and Nam Sang Hyo to get her out of the way.  Will her machinations be fruitful?

In the meantime, there is another murder at the hotel and detective Kim Geum Bo has to step up his game.

With just 16 episodes, the pace of the series is fast.  We have the issue of Jo Sun Gyeum's father thrown in to spice up the story. Nam Sang Hyo was an international adoptee (this means that she was adopted by an American couple when she was a child).  Her foster mother was a Korean too which explains how she can speak good Korean.  The story of her parentage is also linked to one of the secrets of the hotel.

I enjoyed the series thoroughly.  My only grouse was with the character of Nam Sang Hyo.  Initially she is a very spunky character, full of beans.  The hotel workers are laying bets to see which young lady of the two - Nam Sang Hyo and Lee Eun Jo will bag the handsome Managing Director.  Nam Sang Hyo loves playing the game of one-up-man-ship with Lee Eun Jo.  But later, she plays a rag doll who is being pulled one way and another by the two men in her life. 

With Jin Hi Yan looking like this, fresh faced with his curly mop, I had no problem with this minor irritant.  The series concludes to the satisfaction of all.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Empress Ki 2013

Empress Ki, a popular Korean Series, was aired from October 2013 to April 2014 in 51 episodes. It is a historical series based loosely on the life of a real person, Empress Ki, a Korean concubine who rose among ranks to become the Empress of Toghon Temur, the last Mongol Emperor. She existed from 1315 to 1370 AD.

Nyang Ki, (Sungyang/Empress Ki) a little girl, is being dragged towards China as a human tribute along with her mother. Their life ahead threatens to be full of misery. The young Korean crown prince, Wang Yu is also a part of the people going towards Daidu in China. He takes pity on young Nyang Ki and opens the door at night to allow all the captive women and their children to flee. Tangqishi, a Chinese Warlord kills all the fleeing women, among them, Nyang's mother. She gives her wedding ring to Nyang before dying and asks her to find her father Ki, who has a similar ring.

Young Nyang tries to fend for herself in Inju, where she is stranded. She disguises herself as a boy, changes her name to Sungyang, and finds employment with Wang Ko, the King of Shenyang. In time, she becomes a trained warrior and an unerring archer. She grows up to help Wang Ko smuggle salt and becomes one his most trusted 'men'. On the side, trying to help her country she is also sending messages to Crown Prince Wang Yu who is trying to curb the salt smuggling.

After a successful stint with helping Wang Yu bust the salt racket of Wang Ko, she discovers Commander Ki posted in Inju. She joins his force to be close to her father. Her father's unit is deputed to take care of the deposed Prince of China, Toghon Temur and keep him safe. This is where Sungyang meets Toghon Temur and makes a lasting impression on him.

Toghon beats all odds to become the Emperor of China. Yet, he is under the thumb of his Regent El Temur, a fact that rankles with him. Sungyang is captured by Tangqishi and dragged to China to become a slave.  He gets some feminine vibes from her and strips her to discover that she is a woman. He now wants her to be his personal slave after they reach Daidu. Wang Yu is also on his way to Daidu as a vassal of the Chinese Emperor, Toghon.

Wang Yu and Sungyang meet each other again later on and fall in love. Circumstances drive a wedge between them and Sungyang (after many plot twists) returns to the Palace as a concubine. She comes close to Toghon once again and finds that she is fated to be with him.

How the three major players, Sungyang, Wang Yu and Toghon cope with the circumstances to achieve what they dream of is the story of Empress Ki. Sungyang wants to help the Korean people as well Toghon. Wang Yu wants his crown to be restored and also wants Korea to prosper. Toghon wants to become an independent Emperor and shed the yokel of his Regent.

Rather than give out plot points which are too numerous to be listed here, it is better to give a brief sketch of all the major characters in the series. There are plethora of strong characters in the series and the story is also full of energy. Till the end, the viewer is kept on the edge of the seat while Ki, Toghon and Wang Yu cope with one crisis after the other. It is not possible to sketch every character in the series, and believe me, there are many great ones. I will limit myself to listing some of the major ones.

I was captivated by all the cute men in ponytails. The Emperor, Wang Yu, Tal Tal and Talahai all sport a pony tail that would put any pony to shame. The women are all very pretty too. It is a splendidly mounted series with gorgeous locales, dresses, horses and silks.

Empress Ki, Nyang Ki, Sungyang. Played by Ha Ji Won.

Nyang is woman of superior intellect. Being orphaned early in life, Nyang discovers it is better to hone her skills as a warrior and hide her femininity to survive. She becomes Sungyang, a boy skilled in warfare.

She loves Korea to distraction and will do anything to fell the people who hurt Korean interests. She helps Wang Yu, the crown prince of Korea, to uncover the Salt smuggling which is draining the Korean economy. She falls in love with him, but because of the constant strife in their life, they are not able stay together.

Tangqishi, the son of El Temur had killed her mother. The El Temur family also killed her father. Hence, she vows to take revenge. She could have returned to Korea and lived peacefully there, but she opted to join the Emperor's concubines to gain enough power to wreck vengeance upon El Temur. She helps Toghon overthrow them. In the process she also falls in love with him. Till the end, she is torn between her love for Wang Yu and her love for Toghon.

The role is played to perfection by Ha Ji Won. She has the requisite looks and talent for the role. Her face is the most perfect oval that I have ever seen. She has a beautiful eyes. Yet she looks perfect as a man with her swagger. It is not for nothing that she is one of major Hallayu stars of Korea.

Toghon Temur, Emperor of China, played by Ji Chang Wook.

When we first see Toghon in Empress Ki he is a mere boy. He is sent to Korea apparently under banishment, but El Temur's true intent is to kill him there. Thus, he would get rid of an Emperor Apparent and also be able to put the onus of his death on Korea.

Toghon knows this and is very scared. He tries to run away from the Korean Camp under Commander Ki but runs into Sungyang. She protects him and takes him under her wing. She teaches him how to use the sword and also how to shoot arrows. He becomes very attached to Sungyang but betrays her father to El Temur. Ki Nyang hates him for this for a long time.

Later, when he becomes an Emperor and learns that Sungyang is a woman, he falls deeply in love with her. He sticks by her through thick and thin and ultimately makes her his Empress. He grows from a frightened, unsure boy into an Emperor who rules on his own. Ji Chang Wook puts in such a natural performance that you are convinced absolutely by his act of a petulant boy who wants his way in everything. He looks ravishing in his ponytail as a fugitive Prince, and very handsome as the young emperor in his ceremonial robes.

Wang Yu, Crown Prince and later King-in-waiting of Korea., Played by Joo Jin Mo

Wang Yu is wise and sagacious. He has all the qualities needed to be the perfect King of Korea. Unfortunately, Korea is still the vassal state of China. He tries his best to do as much as he can for Korea from outside. He stays close to the Regent of China, El Temur in a bid to watch the Korean interests. He is also deeply in love with Sungyang. He tries to do all he can to help her, often putting his own life in danger in the process. He understands that a Korean Empress will be able to help Korea better and does all he can to ensure her success at investiture.

Most times the lead actors in Korean series are very cute looking. Joo Jin Mo, by contrast has rugged looks and a strong physique. He is one of the manliest actors that I have seen in K-series. In this drama, the Emperor is jealous of his good looks and feels he will lose Sungyang to his handsome looks.

Tanashiri, the first Empress of China, played by Baek Jin Hee

Tanashiri is the daughter of El Temur the Regent. Her father is the most powerful man in China. In an attempt to create a link with the Emperor, her father marries her to Toghon.

She is not keen on the marriage, but when she sees Toghon, she falls in love with him. Toghon is never able to warm up to her because he hates her father. This creates frustration in her. As it is, she is a spoiled, petulant young girl, fired by Emperor's rejection she turns into a hateful, vengeful young woman who does not think twice before getting people killed.

She creates such mayhem with her plotting and scheming, that she puts El Temur in the shade as the chief villain.  For a long time, she captures Ki's attention as she is constantly doing something vile.

Baek Jin Hee has put in an absolutely stupendous performance as the nasty Empress, Tanashiri. She steals every scene she is in.

Yeon Chul – El Temur – Regent to the Emperor, Played by Jeon Kuk Hwan

Another magnificent character, another great performance by Jeon Kuk Hwan. Yeon Chul was Regent to three Kings. Toghon's father, Khutughtu Khan, his younger brother and Toghon. He started off by being a very loyal and a trusted aid of the King.

After tasting power as the Regent, he becomes corrupt and power hungry. He kills Khutughtu Khan and tries to install his younger son on the throne. He thought that the young boy would be easy to manipulate. But the boy-emperor dies of illness soon. When El Temur meets Toghon who is under banishment in Korea, Toghon acts like a fool and a very submissive boy. He fools El Temur into thinking that he would make a good 'sleeping king'. As it is, Temur has ensured that Toghon does not even know how to read and write.

Along with his two sons, Tanqishi and Talahai, he is on the road to absolute power. His daughter is married to Toghon and he wants to make her son the emperor which will ensure that power remains in his blood line. His plans are foiled by Ki Nyang who wants vengeance for her mother and father.

Empress Dowager - Budashiri – Played by Kim Seo Hyung

The Dowager Empress, Budashiri is the former Empress of Khutughtu Khan. After his death she tries to nurture Toghon's younger brother who is named emperor.

On Toghon's return, she attaches herself as his mentor. He treats her like his mother and gives her all respect. After the fall of the Temur clan, Budashiri tries to get more power attached to herself and works against Nyang Ki, who had supported her to get rid of the Temurs.

Budashiri does not want a Korean woman to be given any importance. In a bid to protect her own child, Empress Ki hit back and a power struggle ensues between the two women. She is another strong woman character on this series.

Tangqishi - Dank Ke Se – Played by Kim Jung Hyun

He is the older son of El Temur and is being groomed to take up the Regent's role. He is extremely cruel and mean like the rest of the people in his family. He loses his temper when the tribute women in his entourage, that he is escorting to China from Korea, are set free by the boy prince Wang Yu. He kills all the escaping women, among them Ki Nyang's mother.

Ki has several run-in's with him and always gets the better of him. Yet he manages to survive and come back to haunt Nyang. At one point he even falls in love with Nyang in a perverse fashion and wants to possess and destroy her. His younger brother Talahai is seen more as his shadow in the series, usually following him as Tangqishi goes around creating mayhem.

General Baek An- Bayan – Played by Kim Young Ho

Another fabulous character full of many shades of grey. When we are introduced to Bayan, he is with Toghon, escorting him to his exile in Korea. We soon learn that El Temur has ordered, on behalf of the boy emperor, that Toghon be murdered cleverly to make it seem like the Koreans failed to protect him.

Bayan is not very happy with the decision. He is more of a warrior, he does not like these cloak and dagger politics. He is happy to swear allegiance to his Emperor and fight for him. He was a true follower of Khutugtu Khan and does not think too highly of El Temur.

After almost killing Toghon, he decides to help him retain the throne. He also helps Ki Nyang initially. She is all set to return to Korea at one point when something happens that makes her decide to return to Daidu and help Toghon become the Emperor he wants to. At this point, Bayan steps in and nominates Ki Nyang as his candidate for a concubine, as his foster daughter. Later, his character becomes darker and darker as he gains power. He also becomes very anti-Korea.

Yeon Bi Soo – Batoru – Played by Yu in Young

Batoru was another fabulous female character that started out with a big bang. General Batoru is the faceless terror of the Silk Road, who vanquishes enemies wearing a mask.. He (people perceive him as a man) is a master of guerrilla warfare.

Tangqishi despatches Wang Yu to this area to bear the brunt of Batoru's attacks. He means to annihilate the Korean troops by putting them in the front and then sweeping in with General Bayan to finish Batoru and secure the Silk Road. Wang Yu uses his superior war tactics to defeat Batoru. He is surprised to find that the face behind the mask is a young girl.

After this encounter, Batoru helps Wang Yu and Ki Nyang actively. However, Yeon Bi Soo loses her edge as a character and becomes sidelined. It was sad to see such a promising character lose steam.

Tal Tal – Toqto'a - Played by Jin Yi Han

I have saved one of the best characters in the series for the last. He was, in fact, a real person. He was a respected scholar who became a Grand Chancellor under Toghon.

In the series, he is, as he was in real life, a nephew of General Bayan. He was extremely well-read and wise. In the series, he stays in the background to begin with. He just observes the actions of all around him. From his observations, he realises that Ki Nyang has the true interests of the people at her heart. Initially he opposes Bayan's decision to sponsor Ki Nyang as a candidate for a concubine. He feels she would not do justice to interests of his clan, being an outsider. To some extent, his fears are justified until Nyang tells him that she would always keep the interests of the common people above feelings of clan or class.

This resonates with him and they become thick associates. In fact, there are times when I feel the chemistry between them was much better than the one she shares with Wang Yu or Toghon – her romantic partners. Jin Yi Han is very impressive as Tal Tal.