Totally impressed that Kim Hyung Joong was able to bounce back from the cancellation of City Conquest. Inspiring Generation (also called “Age of Feeling”) is his first k-drama since 2010’s Playful Kiss. It was exactly what I needed after a break from my k-drama viewing habits. Can you believe I didn’t watch a single k-drama for an ENTIRE month while I was filming??
I love history, and Inspiring Generation takes places in 1930’s Shanghai. A great time period for fashion, especially in Asia which melded the best of the Roaring 20s with traditional wear. Think pin stripe suits under a kung fu jacket.
The first episode is kind of confusing because you’re introduced to SEVERAL characters, but if you stick to it you’ll find that it gets easier to keep track of who everyone is since none of the personalities are boring, they all have interesting back stories that are slowly revealed throughout the drama.
So let’s start with Kim Hyun Joong’s character, Shin Jung-Tae, a poor kid who’s really good at beating people up, probably because of all the built up anger he has for his dad who abandoned the family. Eventually, he joins a local gang that transports contrabrand via the dangerous sport of train jumping. Also in this gang of smugglers is Gaya Teguchi, a bitter girl bent on revenge who eventually joins the Yakuza.
I kind of admired her spunk as a kid, but when Gaya gets older she’s pretty annoying. Doesn’t help that the actress who does all her fight sequences can’t pull of the deadly look at all. She just jumps around with knives and looks worried whenever she has to face an opponent.
Jung Tae is of course drawn to her, and they bond while they struggle to make their marks in the world of smuggling.
Meanwhile, Jung Tae’s childhood friend Kim Ok-Ryeon, vies for his affection.
Unfortunately, Kim Jae Wook dropped out of the series midway due to a change in the head writers. Rumor has it that he was also struggling to adapt to civilian life since he’d just recently completed his mandatory military service. He and Ok-Ryeon were fun to watch though, and his departure means there won’t be a love triangle subplot, something that Hyun Joong definitely needs.
Without the added tension, actress is Jin Se-Yeon has to carry all their romantic scenes. Which she does, quite magnificently, as her expressions are a delight to watch.
As for Jung Tae…I love Hyun Joong, I really do, but he’s the Keanu Reeves of Korean cinema and has the hardest time showing emotion. You’d think after years of acting he’d show some slight improvement, but I feel like with Inspiring Generation his acting has taken a backseat to his fight sequences which are definitely well choreographed. But when he opens his mouth it’s at times unbearable to watch him deliver lines. His eyes are completely blank. And his crying scenes are waaay tooo long.
Jung Tae has better romantic chemistry with Mo Il-Hwa (Song Jae-Rim) who is looking much better than his Paris Nail Salon days when he had a pervy moustache.
I mean seriously, anyone else notice the scene when Jung Tae practically reaches for Mo Il-Hwa’s crotch and they talk about what happened last night?
I was excited to see Kim Sung-Oh in the latter half of the series, when he shows up as the boss of Shanghai’s top Korean gang. He scared the shit out of me in The Man From Nowhere, and he was hilarious in When a Man Loves. I haven’t seen him a role yet where he’s NOT a gangster, he plays the role so well and conveys so much emotion with his eyes. No close-up is ever wasted on him. Watching him do scenes with Hyun Joong was like watching an opera singer politely do a duet with a karaoke star.
So, in a nutshell, this series is about love, friendship, martial arts, and gang alliances prior to WWII – with a focus on the Korean refugees who made Shanghai their home.
Pros: Beautiful costumes, great music, a rousing (revisionist) take on Korean life during the occupation. Notable scenes: a chilling performance of Chinese opera, a fun telephone rouse, fantastic fight scenes and Rocky-esque training sequences, Jung Tae walking in on Ok-Ryeon when she’s about to get an injection on her butt. Oh yeah, and all the quirky poop jokes from Old Man Fly. Come to think of it, I think every character has a line about shit … and they’re all cute, not disgusting, that’s Asian humor for you.
There’s great acting all around (with the exception of Hyun Joong and Lim Soo-Hyang). Much of the storyline is campy and doesn’t dwell too long in the pits of melodrama. Watch if for the breathtaking scenery and a chance to see how chic 1930’s Shanghai was before the Japanese burned it to the ground. (I have nothing against present-day Japanese people, but their ancestors certainly made some bad decisions.)
Cons: I really wanted to give this series an A, and I would’ve if not for the last two episodes. *spoiler alert* Killing off Ok-Ryeon’s character was rushed, made absolutely no sense, and certainly didn’t endear Jung Tae more to us since he was dense enough to stand by and watch it happen. Granted, they probably all die once the Japanese finally take over Shanghai and then burn a path to Nanking … but it would’ve been nice for her to live past her marriage ceremony. But, since Jung Tae (or rather Hyun Joong) clearly has more of an interest in men, it makes some sense that the writers decided to end the series with him reuniting with his sister.
Also … this was clearly a big budget k-drama, there was a lot of effort in production design and costuming. But they couldn’t spring for actual Chinese and Japanese actors? Would’ve been nice to hear authentic dialogue. Many of the background actors looked bored and staged. And finally, changing up the writers too often made for plot inconsistencies and weird twists in the story.
Kim Hyun Joong fans … party on.