When I first started watching Myung Wol the Spy, I liked the comedy and the potential in the romance, but had my doubts about the editing and direction. Eight episodes later, all of my doubts have been confirmed and then some.
I think I've only seen one other drama with such awkward transitions and poor editing – that would be 2010's Personal Taste, which had spectacularly bad editing and directing. Myung Wol the Spy joins Secret Garden and Best Love in the ranks of promising 2011 dramas which failed to quite deliver.
This drama has a lot going for it. High budget. Exotic foreign locations. Two very popular, good-looking leads. An offbeat premise that's almost inherently funny. Yet it's entirely failing to deliver on its potential. The end of the most recent episode, which took the bold move of revealing a truth about Myung Wol of a sort which is generally postponed as long as possible, to the detriment of plot, only highlighted how amazing this drama could have been, and what little use it's making of its elements.
(At least Eric's jealous! faces are amusing)
There's such inherent comedic and dramatic potential in this story. A North Korean spy assigned to seduce and marry a South Korean Hallyu star: the concept is ridiculous and rife with potential for absurd situations and funny one-liners. Here we have two very different realities colliding – the deadly-serious, mission-oriented spy one and the high-maintenance, fluffy one of the enteratainment industry. It's such opposites colliding that has led to comedy gold before. Yet, while the drama is often funny, it's extremely repetitive – watching episode eight, I coudln't help but feel that we haven't moved very far from episode one. Myung Wol repeatedly saves Kang Woo's life, is repeatedly fired, is repeatedly scolded by In Ah (who is frankly a very boring character only saved by Jang Hee Jin's screen presence). Kang Woo scolds her, gives in briefly to attraction, then scolds her again. The conflicts are all the same. Moreover, where the drama could give us incisive one-liners or dialogue, it gives us over-the-top situations.
The unabashed zaniness sometimes works very well – Kang Woo seeing Myung Wol everywhere is a recurring theme that's consistently hilarious, from his literally seeing her as she dons many different disguises to his imagining her in Vermeer and da Vinci paintings in the latest episode.
While the comedy is rather hit-or-miss, the real problem with the drama is the utter lack of depth and dramatic tension. There's a breezy veneer that keeps this drama moving along, but nothing beneath the surface. The leads' decent chemistry distracts us from the fact that there's very little plot movement. The drama, by this point, should have set up a wonderful tension between Myung Wol's mission to seduce Kang Woo and her burgeoning but very real feelings for him. But the drama has spent so much time focusing on the mission part of it – Myung Wol goes after the mission single-mindedly for the most part, letting her own feelings go wtih the flow and ignoring any possibiliy of hurting Kang Woo – that the love part of it, which should be dominant, is not. It doesn't help that Myung Wol hasn't had enough character development to make us fully and utterly sympathize with her. I've been wishing the entire drama that they'd shown us her relationship with her father in a more compelling and nuanced way, beyond the cliched "he was an agent and died therefore I want to become an agent to honor him." That works to explain why she became an agent. But it hasn't really provided a sufficient foundation to explain why she's such a driven, single-minded agent to the point of being a soldier who obeys without question.
She's asked to do something that is at best morally questionable – seduce someone in order to get him to defect – and once she begins to fall for him it becomes an even worse action, because she's using him despite her feelings for him. What needs to happen at this point is that there's a conflict between her love for her father – whch is driving her to do this – and her love for Kang Woo. That is how good drama conflicts are set up and how this should have naturally played out had the drama bothered to invest any time and depth into her relationship with her father. As it is, the extra edge of empathy and love that I would normally feel for Myung Wol is not there because she never seems to consider the consequences of what she'd doing. When Kang Woo ruthlessly rejects her at the end of the latest episode, I had difficutly feeling sympathy for Myung Wol because, well, she asked for it – blindly following her country with no consideration of the human price that might have to be paid.
There's such potential for delicious star-crossed romance and angst here – two people drawn together, yet both sundered by doubt and distrust of each other and of their own hearts. She loves him, but has been pursuing him for a purpose. He loves her, but finds out she was just using him. It's wonderful, and I'm angry that this drama is wasting it and that it can never be used in another drama.
And then there's our male lead. I don't quite understand Myung Wol's motivation, and she's a little too shallow for my taste, but I do feel as though I understand her on the whole – her personality, her background, where she comes from. Kang Woo? Is a blank slate. I'm not sure I've ever seen a trendy drama in which the male lead was given so little development. Over halfway through the drama and we know virtually nothing about his family, his past, his issues. What is it that drives him? How and why did he become a pop star? Has he experienced anything in the past that makes him more than what he appears to be on the surface: a demanding but ultimately kind-hearted celebrity? Kang Woo's impatient, a little childish, and not particularly in touch with his emotions. Beyond that, I feel that I know nothing about him. Eric has lots of charisma and screen presence and is very pretty, which has carried his character along for quite some time. But at some point, we need more than just a pretty face and an endearingly brusque manner.
Kang Woo is written just as Ki Joon in Lie to Me was – a walking stereotype of a character with no particular specification or development to round him out. Both characters we are expected to love simply because they're rich, good-looking, and ultimately kind. Kang Ji Hwan in Lie to Me was able to take that and add more and make Ki Joon convincing, quirky, and appealing. But Kang is practically a comedic and dramatic genius. Eric is a good actor, but he's not on that level, and he hasn't been able to inject Kang Woo with anything beyond the blandness his character has been written with.
Han Ye Seul isn't the greatest actress either – in fact she's been often criticized in the past. But this role fits her like a glove, and so ironically enough it's she who's bringing the emotion and some shade of depth to this pairing. She's not a gifted enough actress to be able to single-handedly carry the drama or inject emotional depth into a Myung Wol who has none, however, so occasionally, watching Kang Woo and Myung Wol feels like watching two very shallow people fall in love.
Myung Wol the Spy is undeniably enjoyable. It's shiny and sparkly and often funny, and Kang Woo and Myung Wol, while only half of what a decent romantic couple should be, have decent chemistry, enough to keep watching. But it is not a satisfying drama.