Pinocchio: First Impressions

Another crop of dramas have come and gone in what’s largely been a far more promising second half of the year, as far as high quality shows are concerned. Unfortunately I don’t have time to talk about them all (perhaps later, after I’ve dealt with this irritating business of life outside of dramas and completed the recaps of the final episodes of the rolicking-good-fun The Three Musketeers), but the two standouts for me have been tvN’s Liar Game and OCN’s Bad Guys.

What I thought I would weigh in on with my brief first impressions is SBS’s Pinocchio, the recently-premiered drama from the PD-writer team behind I Hear Your Voice. The drama hit two-digit ratings with Episode 4 nationwide (10.4%) last week, but worth noting are the insanely highly online viewership ratings (34.1% – its competitors Mr. Back and The King’s Face are coming in with 14.1% and 7.3% respectively on that front).

I Hear Your Voice is one of my favourite dramas, so it’s a given that I was hesitantly excited about Pinocchio – and Lee Jong Suk! Park Shin Hye! – despite the slightly underwhelming promo material. And thankfully the show has exceeded my expectations so far; this writer is a true master of taking what seems to be a fairly plain plot on paper, weaving in a fantasy element to emphasize an overarching theme and turning it into a thoughtful, earnest story. On top of that, the leads have great chemistry – Lee Jong Suk’s conflicted hero paired with a spunky, energetic Park Shin Hye who can’t keep her mouth shuts? Bring it on.

(Note: These are merely my first impressions based on Episodes 1-4! I won’t be recapping this – time, time, so little time – but Pinocchio is excellent and a request to post about it sealed the deal. Spoiler warning as well, of course).

PINOCCHIO

If you’ve watched the writer’s previous drama, then the basic elements and themes will feel a little familiar (and that’s not a bad thing) – a hero who’s been wronged through injury to his family, the resulting quest for justice, a mystery that ties all the characters together and a dash of fantasy to add emphasis to the central theme of the show. Whereas I Hear Your Voice focused on justice and the justice system, however, Pinocchio deals with truth, lies and the media’s twisting of both.

The story:

The destructive effect of lies and the twisting of small half-truths by the media is established right at the outset with our back story, where we watch as our hero Ki Ha Myung/Choi Dal Po (Lee Jong Suk)’s bright and happy family is crushed in one fell sweep by a series of lies.

The sequence of tragic events started with one lie being told, then another, with subsequent details twisted by the media and picking up speed as everyone jumps to the assumption that all they hear in the news is the truth: The lies of a factory manager to save his own skin after he accidentally misdirected Ha Myung’s firefighter dad and his crew to a doomed search for his employees in a burning factory (resulting in their tragic deaths) transformed Dad from a victim into the culprit responsible for killing his men. The assumption that Dad is alive and on the run based on an unreliable witness account by a young neighbour who has the Pinocchio syndrome (established in this fictional world as a condition that causes the sufferer to hiccup with every attempt to lie) is presented as fact by the media despite lack of verification. The selfish obsession of one particular reporter, Song Cha Ok (Jin Kyung – whom we later find out is the mother of heroine Choi In Ha) with personal career success saw her deliberately place a negative spin on Dad as her chosen culprit – all for a ratings-grabbing story. The resulting castigation by a society that had assumed what had been reported on the news as truth finally drove Ha Myung’s grieving mother to attempt suicide – with young Ha Myung in tow. Talk about spiralling out of control.

Since kdramas take place in a small, small world, Ha Myung survives and washes up on an island, where a grandpa with Alzheimer’s (Byun Hee Bong) adopts him as his son. The catch, of course, is that Grandpa actually thinks Ha Myung is his long-dead son Dal Po, and any attempt to force him to remember the truth shocks him into a collapse. So when little In Ha arrives with her dad, Dal Pyung (Shin Jung Geun), Dal Pyung finds that he has a much younger hyung and In Ha has an uncle her age. LOL.

Despite the rocky start, In Ha and Dal Po develop an adorable bickering friendship, though finding out that In Ha’s mother is the very reporter who spearheaded the ruination of his family immediately put a bit of a Romeo and Juliet spin on their relationship. Dal Po knows enough to keep his developing feelings for In Ha to himself as they grow up – as teenagers he maintains a teasing, protective-older-brother approach to her, while she returns the teasing in kind. When push comes to shove, however, they have each other’s backs – a particularly notable incident in high school parallels the incident in the past with Dal Po’s dad when a vindictive classmate spreads the rumour that Dal Po had cheated on his test. The tide turns against Dal Po so swiftly that even the teachers jumped on the accusatory bandwagon – only In Ha stood up for him and tried to collect evidence to prove his innocence. For a boy who’s suffered so much because of other people’s lies, having In Ha around is the best sort of contrast; she’s a girl who cannot lie and her inner sense of justice assures that she, at least, won’t be pulling the same tricks as her mother any time soon.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re without some major conflict and angst ahead – Romeo and Juliet, remember? In Ha’s dream of becoming a reporter is already at odds with the TV-hating Dal Po, and when she’s tossed to the curb by her cold and uninterested mother, Dal Po is driven to go against what he’d vowed to do: Instead of avoiding anything to do with broadcasting, he’ll become a reporter and go head-to-head against Song Cha Ok. The problem is, placing himself at the heart of what brought him so much injury years ago has a way of picking at old wounds.

The characters:

Flawed but relatable characters are one of this writer’s fortes, and our leads are no different. Dal Po’s experiences aged him beyond his years and made him that much more aware of truth and lies, but the irony is that he himself has been living a lie as someone he isn’t (stupid, unattractive Dal Po). His greatest flaw, perhaps, is the amount of rage that he has bottled inside him – it’s understandable, but a flaw all the same. Dal Po has a lot of potential to go dark, in fact – I didn’t get the sense that he was driven by revenge when he spoke to Song Cha Ok, but the amount of hatred he has for her and the media in general has never had a true outlet. The flashes we’ve seen when Dal Po loses control of his emotions (at the end of Episode 4 when he argues over the news report with In Ha, for example) suggests that when if it is ever allowed to explode in a raw flash of rage one day… boy, will it be nasty. But a driven hero is an interesting hero, so I’m all for some ragey sleuthing – find out who’s responsible and set the situation right, Dal Po (and Hyung)!

In Ha is a real delight – like Dal Po she’s flawed, particularly in her naïve outlook on being a reporter and her blind mom worship, but her moral compass is firmly in the right place and she’s brave and unafraid to speak her own mind. It’s something she’ll need in a workplace where she’s not only going to find it difficult to stand up against pressure from domineering male colleagues and superiors, but also overcome her Pinocchio disadvantage and turn it into and advantage. In Ha’s spunky attitude and penchant for humour is particularly fun to watch, because she adds a dash of brightness to the comparatively serious Dal Po. Her optimism, idealistic self and generally pleasant personality also sets her apart from Jang Hye Sung in I Hear Your Voice, who was far more difficult to like with her jaded outlook and barbed tongue.

On the acting front, Lee Jong Suk is wonderful as usual, particularly in moments where his characters raw emotion bleeds through his tightly controlled façade. (Seriously, how many people managed to stay completely dry-eyed after watching the bus scene between Dal Po and Grandpa?)

This might be a much-needed career refresher for Park Shin Hye, who’s always brought a charming likeability to her characters, but has essentially been stuck in similar romcom roles since You’re Beautiful. So far she’s thrown herself into becoming the energetic and gutsy In Ha – right down to the unappealing personal habits at home and hilarious facial expressions – and it is frankly delightful. It’s a wonder how much difference being paired with a good writer and good character can make (I’m looking pointedly at you, Kim Eun Sook). With In Ha, I think Park Shin Hye has a very good chance of shaking off some of the (often surprisingly overblown and unreasonable) criticisms that had been lobbed her way after The Heirs.

General thoughts:

It’s not a drama without flaws certainly – Dal Po’s deep-set hatred for Song Cha Ok and what she represents (the very worst type of broadcast people, who can shrug off their morals and sense of responsibility) I can completely understand, but all-out hatred for media/TV in general? I mean, the news is one thing, but what about TV dramas and variety shows? And while I’m rooting for him to succeed in his new goal to show Song Cha Ok that she’s in the wrong, I’m not sure that becoming a reporter is the way to do it – or that it makes sense that it was the first conclusion he reached.

That aside, the drama shines most in the aspects that matter – in the heartwarming family bonds between Dal Po and In Ha’s family, the sweet and engaging romance between our two leads that is just starting to blossom and the messages about truth vs. lies that the writer wish to convey. As lovely as the romance is, it’s the family aspect that stands out most for me – as a boy who had lost his entire family in one brutal, tragic sweep (and worse, torn not only by grief but resentment and doubt over his father), it’s not hard to see why his adopted family means more to him than romance, finances or his career future. And it’s actually tear-inducing heartwarming to see that Grandpa returns that Dal Po’s love tenfold – how beautiful and heartbreaking was the bus scene where Grandpa reveals that he’d known for over a decade that Dal Po was pretending to be dumb/ugly for his sake and that he, in turn, kept up the pretense of confusion because he loved Dal Po as a son too much to let him go? I really hope that whatever may happen, Dal Po can at least keep one of his fathers, now that he’s conclusively lost his blood-related one.

I worry that despite Dal Po promising that he would never do anything to jeopardize the family (and I do believe that he is 100% sincere), things will spin out of control anyway… as they often do. His developing romance with In Ha, for one, might throw the family into a bit of a tizzy, with Dad still having nightmares about a relationship between the two. LOL. I’m also itching for In Ha to find out the true extent of her mother’s horrible real self (and what she’d done to Dal Po’s family), but on the other hand… what this will do to Dal Po’s adopted family, I’m scared to find out.

There is also the drama’s underlying theme to consider: Truth vs. Lies. The writer’s greatest strength, I think, is taking a basic concept and making it relatable and thought-provoking, with a message that resounds with the audience. Although its execution on-screen may not always be perfect, it forces us to think – to look around us and consider its application to our own lives.

What separates truth from fiction, and how does one avoid being trapped by its distortion? The issue of truth and lies in media is a topic that has been well-studied and well-discussed – some of us have even had to study it (raise your hand if you’ve had to do a topic about “Telling the Truth” in media at school!). The bottom line is that one must always be aware that everything carries inherent bias in order to avoid being trapped by the distortion of the truth. That means every news report, news article, media coverage or even things outside of news media commonly seen as factual, like history books – because even there, bias is introduced by the author’s choice of sources or what constitutes events of importance. Constant vigilance on the part of the viewer is not the only factor, however – the writer raises a great point through Dal Po in Episode 4 that those who hold positions that command the trust of viewers (reporters, broadcasters, etc.) must also uphold the responsibilities that come with it. That responsibility is to do their best to avoid misleading the audience or misrepresenting the subject matter, and even those who do not hold such positions have a responsibility to be careful with their words.

The Pinocchio syndrome used in the drama really underlines how difficult it is to separate truth from fiction – what might be truth for someone can quite easily turn out to be a lie for someone else. Just look at the crucial “witness” account provided by the young man with Pinocchio syndrome; he was utterly convinced that he had seen Dal Po’s dad, and so it was true (to him). No hiccups. But the “real” truth, we know, is that Dad is dead – so what the young man had believed was true was actually a lie.

We saw the same conflict in reverse in Episode 2 with In Ha – her hiccups began because she believed deep down that Dal Po was innocent and by keeping silent, she was in effect telling a lie. In this case, In Ha’s truth actually was the truth – the audience knows this because they’re shown Chan Soo spreading the rumour that Dal Po had cheated and Dal Po’s genius had already been established at the outset. But consider how much more difficult it becomes to separate truth from fiction if: A) We were not privy to this knowledge or B) What we saw turned out to be only half of it – we never watched Dal Po complete his test devoid of cheat sheets, did we? It’s an interesting conundrum.

More concerning (and perhaps more directly relatable for most of us) is the problem of the general public’s perception of what is reported, whether in the media, by hearsay or otherwise – while Pinocchio focuses on the media, there’s also innate criticism of how easily the public swallowed up the rumours about Firefighter Dad and Dal Po’s cheating incident. In an era where reports by credible sources are mixed together with highly opinionated tabloid pieces on the internet and blogs, forum threads and gossip sites all rush to be the first to report on the latest juicy piece of “news,” it becomes virtually impossible to separate rumour from fact. It’s not hard to see the more widespread applications of one of Pinocchio‘s main concerns.

“Netizens” (internet citizens, so to speak) are at the forefront of this issue, with their alarming ability to gather in force behind what may originally have been a thoughtless rumour with just the click of a button. It’s often disturbing to see how much power these faceless masses wield; many a celebrity has half-jokingly cited a desire to avoid attracting the ire of netizens and there are plenty of cases with frighteningly destructive outcomes to prove that your average netizen has just as much responsibility as those in the media to be aware of how much weight their words carry. Just look at the case of Tablo vs. Tajinyo, where a perfectly innocent person was persecuted for years by netizens who claimed their malicious falsehoods as truth and, in the process, infected a shocking number of undiscerning people who believed and assumed without attempting to separate truth from lies. In real life, the drama is not as easily solved as Dal Po making an appearance on a quiz show to clear his name. Not only is it then crucial to avoid the trappings of the distortion of truth by staying aware of inherent or deliberate bias, but also to be just as careful of what you say – words, in the end, can be a dangerous weapon.

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