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Black & White [Taiwan]
Vic Zhou as Chen Zai Tian
Mark Chao as Wu Ying Xiong
Janine Chang as Lan Xi Ying
Ivy Chen as Chen Lin
genre: procedural, mystery, action

Pi Zi and Ying Xiong are two cops who are as different as day and night. One does nothing except for drinking coffee and living a luxurious lifestyle while waiting for information from dubious sources to crack his cases. Another believes law and justice are the pillars of society and is constantly on the street catching criminals… a little overzealously for his superior’s liking. When a case brought these two top crime solvers together, sparks fly...

The main protagonists may be male, but they only barely hold their own given they're surrounded by an awesome cast of powerful female characters. Lan Xi Ying is the forensic pathologist for the police department. She comes across, at first, as being soft-spoken and reticent, but she's also brilliant, incredibly knowledgeable, and unbelievably resilient. None of the "running, falling, and crawling away" for her; no one rescues her because she rescues herself first. She's absolutely awesome. Chen Lin is the mob boss' daughter; at first she seems like a spoiled brat, but she's also a confident, capable, and sharp woman, with plenty of agency tempered with a bit of vulnerability due to her (younger) age. Even the secondary female characters have motivation and agency, though you will have to watch the series twice -- it's the only way to realize that what a character did/said in the background had impact on, and how they impacted, later events. No simpering females in this drama.

Boss [Japan]
Amami Yuki as Osawa Eriko
Takenouchi Yutaka as Nodate Shinjiro
Tamayama Tetsuji as Katagiri Takuma
Toda Erika as Kimoto Mami
Mizobata Junpei as Hanagata Ippei
genre: procedural, mystery, action

This series revolves around a group of peculiar detectives in a new division created to fight against an increase in atrocious crimes. Osawa Eriko is a beautiful career woman who has just returned from training in the U.S. and is appointed as the "boss" of this division. [Though] the detectives are talented, they all have some kind of issue or flaw, and they are considered to be the "problem children" of the police force. In the end, the division's true purpose is just to isolate these problematic detectives.

I cut out some of the wiki.d-addict summary, because it implies that the series will be about this brilliant woman who's so capable that she's unable to catch herself a man... because that has absolutely nothing to do with the series. (I think it's just sexist crap on the part of the premise-writers, really.) Osawa is sharp, fair, and incredibly good at what she does, and convinced to take the job by an old academy friend (Nodate) who is now a rank of what I think is roughly "Assistant District Attorney", or about that level. Despite Nodate's support -- and it's very clear they're good friends who go way back, with no sexual tension at all, and very much equals! -- it's clear Osawa's being set up to fail. The upper-ranks figure it's good PR to have the first female Head Inspector, plus, when she fails, they can claim that this is proof women can't do the job. Unfortunately for them, Osawa can do the job. She can also do it blindfolded with one hand tied behind her back, and she can whip those hapless problem children into shape while she's at it... without even breaking a sweat.

However, because this is not a kdrama, she doesn't have to do it in heels. In fact, she's barely sexualized; she wears corporate dress and skirts that are actually professional knee-length. (This is a big deal if you've seen too many kdramas where even so-called corporate women are wearing hot pants and three-inch heels in the office.)

Dal Ja's Spring [Korea]
Chae Rim as Oh Dalja
Lee Min Ki as Kang Taebong
Lee Hyun Woo as Uhm Gijoong
Lee Hye Young as Wee Seonjoo
Gong Hyung Jin as Shin Saedo
genre: romance, comedy, drama

Dalja [is] a 33-year old single woman and a talented managing director at a home shopping channel, but she's at a crossroads, unsure whether to remain single or hurry up and marry before she gets any older. After being dumped by Gijoong, Dalja hires Taebong, a hunk six years her junior, as a substitute date and fake boyfriend. Meanwhile, a love-triangle develops with Saedo, versus Dalja's growing feelings for Taebong. The real focus is the life and work of women in their thirties trying to balance life, love, career, and self-respect.

This is marked as a "romantic comedy" genre but it's really more of a "coming-of-maturity" genre with sub-plots of romance, family, and what it means to grow up, to have a relationship, to be part of a team, and even to stand up for yourself when it comes to your career. The real reason to watch? Because it completely flips or subverts so many too-common kdrama tropes, the top-most being that women are always competition, never support; the show shoots that one down with a vengeance.

At first, the premise seems simple, even hackneyed: Dalja has long had a crush on a coworker, who's a playboy. When she's dumped for the sexy (and much more mature) Seonjoo, Dalja decides on revenge of the "I now have a new boyfriend who's sexier and more successful than you" mode (which is where Tae Bong comes in, as the fake boyfriend). Cue Gijoong dumping Seonjoo and the love triangle, right?

Wrong. Cue, instead, a major catastrophe at work and everyone needing to pitch together on Christmas Eve to broadcast live. Realizing that the success was in part because she has coworkers she respects and can count on -- Gijoong, the show producer, and Seonjoo, the show host -- Dalja ditches the revenge-plans. What develops is a solid friendship between all three, without the usual nonsense of "I can't like you because he likes you" revenge-crap. Seonjoo wouldn't lower herself to that, and Dalja's learning that she's worth more than that kind of immaturity. Add in Dalja's coworker-senior at the company, and you have three women and a man who talk about work, life, career, goals, dreams, and fears as equals.

The work conflicts include an utterly kick-ass you-go moment when Dalja is called on the mat in front of the Big Suits (all older men, of course) who are going to penalize Dalja for what amounts to the perception that she's an Uppity Woman. Just as Dalja's about to crumble under their disapproving glares, Seonjoo steps in and takes the men down. She doesn't do it by resorting to emotion or whether she 'likes' anyone; no tears or hysterics here. No, she tells them quite coolly that she's been a successful show hostess for four years and a big part of that credit is Dalja's, thus Seonjoo will break her contract rather than watch her show fail for lack of an important supporting show-manager. Whammo! And then when Dalja thanks her, Seonjoo lambasts her for not defending herself: does she think her work and her career are nothing, that her value is nothing, that she has no reason to stand up for herself? Bzzzzzzing.

There are cultural parts that may make you back away -- the story is set in a far more conservative world than the West, and marriage (and the issue of living-in-sin) are treated with a great deal more weight. There are also arguments made by Dalja's mother that amount to the notion that living with a man before marriage will render Dalja unattractive to other men (the old "how will you explain to your husband what you were doing?" crap). If you can look past that, and hold on, Dalja does come through, by choosing her own path... but some of her choices getting there are more understandable if you keep in mind that although she may not agree, it's still hard to set aside the words of a parent who loves you.

Not quite Advanced, but a little above Basic:

Down with Love [Taiwan]
Jerry Yan as Xiang Yu Ping
Ella Chen as Yang Guo
Kelly Huang (小嫻) as Yang Duo
Michael Zhang as Qi Ke Zhong
Chen Zi Han as Ding Hui Fan
genre: romance, comedy, drama

Shiang Yu Ping, a divorce and inheritance lawyer, is seen by others as cold, selfish, and ruthless. He had taken in his brother's orphans and was in need of a nanny. But after he exhausted his supply of nannies, he still couldn't find one who doesn't fall in love with him or gets scared off by the kids. Fed up, Yu Ping asks his secretary, Yang Duo, to find a nanny that meets his requirements. She recommends her younger sister, Yang Guo, for the job; assuring Yu Ping that her tomboyish sister will not fall in love with him by lying that she does not like men at all.

Standard rom-com setup, excepting that it's possibly the first drama I've found where it's a woman pretending to be gay, instead of a straight guy pretending to be gay. Also, unlike the gay-pretense I've seen in kdramas and jdramas, the notion of 'pretending to be gay' here is taken with a bit more social awareness. Yu Ping takes on an unlawful termination suit on behalf of a gay man, and Yang Guo (and her fake girlfriend) are called in to bolster his argument that no one should accept being fired on grounds of sexuality, that a gay man has a right to be respected and treated as an equal under the law. (Note: Taiwanese law does protect on the basis of sexual orientation.) The result, though, is several serious conversations about the ruse and the ethics of that pretense, something I've not seen any other drama even consider (of whether it's okay to pretend to be gay, and the impact this might have on non-gay understandings, etc).

Beyond that, Yang Guo may be cheerfully optimistic, and somewhat naive, but she's not stupid. When her relationship falls apart, she accepts the guy's apology but offers one of her own, as well. After all, she explains, it takes two to have a relationship, and it's not only that he deceived her; she also deceived herself (and him) by not asking herself whether she actually wanted to be with him. That's a self-awareness and maturity I've yet to see from any other non-Taiwanese drama heroine. To top that off, when her boyfriend is being a controlling jerkhat, she calls him on it, in no uncertain terms, instead of doing the kdrama thing and seeing his jerkhatted machismo as a sign he weelly wuuuvs her.

What really made the drama for me, though, was Kelly Huang's portrayal of the older sister, Yang Duo. She's an accountant/book-keeper for Yu Ping's law office, and she rules that place with an iron fist. Having supported she and her sister from nearly childhood, all on her own, she's direly serious about the penny-pinching, but she's not a caricature. She has her own motivations and agency, and the one time I expected the drama to slip sideways into cliche -- suddenly flush with money, of course Yang Duo would go shopping -- they stick to character, instead. (She walks right past the shoe store and heads into the Italian furniture store.)

Ah, and one lesson in this rom-com is that if you want someone to like you, then you find out what they like and you learn to enjoy it, too. Except... the people learning this lesson, and trying to put it into practice? The guys. They're the ones trying to adapt to the women, not the other way around. The one female exception -- Hui Fan -- is textually treated as being both in the wrong and overboard by the ways she tries to manipulate the men in pursuit of having-a-relationship as her only end goal. If you're interested in book-ends, look to Yang Duo's resolution as textual representation of a mature and independent self-respecting woman.

Finally, there are actually women in this drama who are NOT size two. Glory be. For that matter, tw-dramas seem to like women with hourglass figures -- meaning a curve at hip and thigh is not a horrible thing. Kelly Huang is still slender, but she's much closer to a true hourglass than any of the rail-thin Korean actresses, so I consider that some minimal kind of progress. (Although I should probably specify that in kdramas, you can be larger than a size two if you are clearly over forty, as evidenced by Dal Ja's second boss. Under forty, though, you must be as sleek and tiny as possible.)
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kaigou: this is what I do, darling (Default)
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"When you make the finding yourself— even if you're the last person on Earth to see the light— you'll never forget it." —Carl Sagan

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