Live in Style (2011) Korean Drama Review

Live in Style (2011): Korean Drama Review

A mix of the best and the worst of 50 episode K-drama medium 

Hello. This is a Korean in America. Today, I will be adding a new review to my long full 50 episode K-drama review series with the series “Live in Style”. It is a series that shows not only the reality of the Korean family in front of tragedy but is also shows the deficiency of the 50 episode K-drama medium itself.

Introduction to 50+ episode full K-drama series
In any culture, family is a complex issue with even the best families not always being as they are seen from the outside.
There are resentment.
There are abuses in large and small forms.
There is neglect.
There are rebellions.
There is just stupidity from being young.
And there is love.

In a more collectivist culture like Korea, the concept of a family is more complicated because it is associated with more one sided relationships, less equal power dynamics, and less serious conversation and respect within the family unit.

In K-drama miniseries, it is common that this dynamic is not portrayed in any detail. In contrast, longer full 50 episode K-dramas are at their best when covering this subject of family. So, longer full 50 episode K-dramas are usually synonymous with family dramas.

The basic plot format of a 50 episode K-drama centered on a family is to set it in a time frame where there are a lot of small and big events building up and have the separate family subplots play out. While these subplots are usually tied together by parental meddling and other family members’ shenanigans  the subplots are rather independent from each other. As the whole, there is no point to the overall story other than stating awkwardly that “family is good!”. For example, you have “Hundred Year Inheritance”. What was the point of that whole series? It just goes from one family member’s story to another. There was the inheritance plot line that tried to tie the subplots together. However, it failed to do so.

A reason for this is that 50 episode K-dramas tend to be a hybrid form of storytelling mixing episodic and serial storytelling methods. It uses the family setting as a backdrop to play out various short stories but over multiple episodes.

Another reason is that Koreans do not that think of family within the context of purposes. No one is willing to ask “what is the point of a family?”. Family is just a thing that you have because you were born into it and society demands you maintain. If you actually think about family as a Korean, the pros and cons list would be weighted to the cons in many cases. This is because Korean society and Korean families which are a microcosm of Korean society are set up so there a lot of abuse of power along the social hierarchy that rolls downhill.  And the consequences of the abuse is absorbed and enforced by the institutions and customs of the Korean society itself. This is the same within the Korean family.

While the basic conceptual structure of the Korean family is relatively the same, the changes of modern society have reduced the society’s reinforcing structure. No longer does devoting one’s live to family or more accurately controlling family members guarantee return in your old age. No longer do supporting distant and controlling parents bring any social benefits to the children. So, everyone is left adrift not knowing what to do.  This is the modern Korean family.   

As a result, the current Korean family is an unwieldy dinosaur that may go extinct but before that still seriously influence people’s lives.

So, when a K-drama series attempts to both portray the Korean family with some degree of realism and actually having a theme and sticking to it, it is something special.
Story description 
The 51 episode series “Live in Style” is that type of series.  The theme of the series is the destruction of the family caused by death and following rebirth of the family from the ashes. In other words, it is the modern Korean family and its changes seen through the Phoenix imagery.

“Live in Style” follows the Na family which is a lower lower middle class family. The now elderly mother is the single parent who devoted her life to educate her children through poverty and all marry them off. Now, the children are all grown up with varying degree of social and marital success. The children are good representation of the segments within the Korean society.
The eldest son is a high school teacher who thinks himself to be a serious educator with all the associated self-importance. He is the oldest male in the family and has always been given priority in the family. He is generally indecisive in his personal life while being chauvinistic Korean male at the same time.

The eldest daughter is the lost child who is basically is the parasite of the family who always running away and stealing money from the family. Even in her 30s, she is in a constant mode of rebellion.

The younger daughter works at a telemarketing cable show as a producer. She is more of a modern woman who is stuck between being a good daughter and being a career woman in the modern age.

The younger son is just a spoiled brat that does not even fit in anywhere and is adrift. He is always causing trouble and has no ambitions or passions. At the same time, he is entitled and chauvinistic. In other words, he is a typical young Korean male teenager.

For a  lower lower middle class family, things seem not bad. The mother is satisfied by creating this nice family which is the only accomplishment of her life.
Then, she gets cancer and the family that looked not bad from the outside crumbled and implodes subsequently in front of her eyes. Thus, the mother has to see that her life spent doing what Korean society told her to do in her time meant nothing. In other words, her life spent in hard work, pain, and sacrifice was a waste. For the audience, it is hearth breaking and tragic. The series is a crier!

In a modern society, death is a taboo subject. Rather than seeing death as a part of life, people try to avoid the subject. As a result, no one knows how to deal with death as a concept and as a reality that you will defiantly face. For “Live in Style”, it is the sense of realism surrounding death and cancer that is the best point of the series. You see how cancer affects all the family members.
You see how they struggle with it.
You see how they fight with the cancer.  You see how they deal with setbacks.
Through that, you see a Korean family in all its good and bad. In other words, you see really get to see and understand a Korean family.

However, while “Live in Style” encompasses the best that can be offered by a 50 episode K-drama, it also cannot avoid the pitfalls of the medium, the weak backend.

List of Cons

First, it fails nail the other half of the Phoenix theme. It does extremely well at the destruction but fails at the rebirth part. Simply stated, “Live in Style” does not have any new insights to provide the audience about where should a modern Korean family go. This in itself is not a problem. However, as a K-drama of this type, it is required to have a positive ending reinforcing the concept of the family. So, at the end, the family is mended and people end up better for no real reason.

This is easily noticeable from the character arcs  As with these types of series in which people are intended to change, you would expect character arcs and “Live in Style” gives you character arcs.

The younger daughter becomes less of a parasite and mending her relationship with her family. The eldest son is less of a jack ass chauvinist. The younger son is less of a spoiled brat.

However, it is not because they actually learn something. Rather, it is just awkward responses to painful events. In other words, there is a stage missing making the arcs seem forced. It is as if the writer knew how the characters would experience events but not sure what they would get out of. So, the writer fit the character arcs to a predetermined outcome.

The younger daughter, on the other hand, does not really have an arc. She basically ends up where she started. This is really odd since she is the break out character of the series with the most focus other than the mother and the most interesting plots. She is a lovely individual who is the most caring and most faultless character. However, she is stuck between what she wants and what society and family needs. This does not actually change at the end. Rather, the series uses her mate as the variable of change.

The younger daughter’s mate, Choi Shin-Hyung, is a Korean male who is a young 30s male who is indecisive and obviously inferior to the younger daughter in his career but always feel that he should be superior. He is a mama’s boy with several psychological complexes.
At the end of the series, he seems to have a character arc of being less of a mama’s boy and a chauvinist. However, if you look more closely, this is not really true. Rather than actually learning something, he is just adapting to his new surroundings. He just transfers his focus from his mother to the younger daughter.

As a result, the younger daughter, who is the best character of the show, is just transferred from one family confinement to another. It is just that she is forced by the writer to like it more because of love.

On a personal note, I actually liked the 3rd wheel male better than the younger daughter’s mate, Choi Shin-Hyung. This is actually odd since the 3rd wheel male is not well developed shifting characteristics to fit the plot. He is just a generic charming nice mate alternative.
But I soon realized that it was because the original younger daughter’s mate’s whining irritated me so much. As a character, the original mate is a far well-developed character.

The second problem with the series is the pacing. In the first half, the series is propelled by two subplots. They are the younger daughter’s love subplot and the mother’s journey of coping with the cancer. After 30 episodes or so, these subplots run their courses and still have 21 episodes to go. This is less of a problem for the younger daughter’s love subplot than the mother’s subplot. There is a serious problem when you are just tired of the mother’s subplot and wonder why she is not dead yet!
Afterwards, the series shifts towards the new younger daughter’s marriage subplot and the eldest son’s marriage subplot. The mother, who is still live, is pushed to the background. This creates an odd disconnect with the first half of the series which was so focused. It seems like the mother is just kept alive to extend the series for 20 more episodes.

The third problem with the series is that many of the subplots do not work well or over stay their welcome. The eldest daughter’ is just basically comic relief. Considering the nature of the subject matter, this is needed and first was a nice addition. However, it becomes old quite fast and repetitive. It also becomes very unrealistic and thus clashing with the other parts of the series. The younger son’s subplots, which kicks in the latter part of the series, are just simply filler and nothing more. There is no real reason for those plots to exist other than fill in the extended time of the latter part of the series and add some more comic relief. However, they were never funny.

Even the eldest son’s marriage subplot which composes a lot of the latter half of the series had serious problems. The eldest son is such a tool that you just want to beat him with a shovel and bury him someplace. And this is the writer’s intention. The writer is criticizing the traditional Korean male. However, it drags too long and you do not see any redeeming characteristics to the character. So it feels like eternity and you are left frustrated.

The word “frustration” is a good description of the characters. It is not like the characters are not interesting. The characters are well developed and have many issues that make them feel real. It is not like they are not likable  The characters are well acted and have their own lovable qualities. However, the problem is that we see who they are too up close and for too long as the plots drag on. You want them to just learn and change! But you need to sit through the latter half to get to it.  

Live in Style is a special K-drama
For the last several paragraphs, I've been criticizing the series. While these criticisms are valid, it does not change the fact that “Live in Style” is a special K-drama. Even with the problems, you come out really feeling something heart breaking and at the same time cathartic. It is rare for a K-drama to bring out that kind of emotion in its audience. 

It is also funny in moments with some very funny characters. The elder daughter's boy friend is one of those stupid but lovable idiots that play well in the back drop of heavy shows. 
There is a decent degree of romance through out the series and the usual romance tropes. 

After thoughts
“Live in Style” is a brave drama that deals cancer in not a cliché manner and provides insights into the Korean family. The relationships and emotions displayed in this series are as close to real as the 50 episode K-drama medium allows. 

Just with those facts, “Live in Style” is a ground breaking K-drama which sadly has a weak back end but is far better than the 50 episode K-dramas we have gotten recently.
E.G. “I Summon You Gold” and “Hundred Year Inheritance”.
Go see it! But prepare yourself for the weight of the subject matter. While there is a lot of humor in the series, it get sad… really sad sometimes… Need a box of facial tissues.

And check out Yoon Se-In, the youngest daughter, is the break out start of the series!

Score: B+ in the 50 episode K-drama category.

Score: B+ or 6.75/10

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  1. I just saw this over the weekend. The humor in there was tongue in cheek. I agree that it was 20 eps too long. So many things could be tightened to make it a polished drama. The actors played their parts well, but the script and direction was lacking towards the middle and end. It should be on the list for "when a good drama goes terribly wrong".

  2. A Korean in AmericaOctober 22, 2013 at 1:36 AM

    hope you didn't marathon the whole thing! that would be painful.
    Don't you want to put a blanket over the eldest son and beat him?

    And I didn't like the mother in law plot line after the marriage.

    do you think A- was too high? The first half was so impactful that it started our with a A+ than get deducted because of the latter parts.

  3. Haha. Yeah I did. But skipped so many episodes since I could deduce what happened next from just looking at the previews. I wish the eldest couple weren't so passive aggressive and they really did a poor job showing the effect of the behavior on their kids. I mean the dying mom/ family spent more time worrying about getting the youngest daughter married than trying to help salvage the marriage of the eldest.
    The cancer story line was hackneyed. They wanted to bring in points about right to die, DNR etc but did it in a very off-handed way. And way too much time spent on the romance between youngest daughter and the doctor, IMO...Could you recommend a good historical drama? I have been hesistant about those because I don't really know much about Korean history and keep getting distracted by the costumes.

  4. Yeah A- is being too generous. I would give it a solid C+, lol.....
    Have you been watching American/ European shows? Netflix has some really good ones.

  5. A Korean in AmericaOctober 22, 2013 at 2:01 AM

    yep! have a massive range from comedy to procedural!
    Person of Interest
    The Big Bang Theory
    New Girl
    Law and Order

    like some BBC stuff including Dr. who

  6. A Korean in AmericaOctober 22, 2013 at 2:03 AM

    I'll get back to you. Been as long time since
    i've seen one.
    Todays historical drama are so typical K-drama.
    As scifi/historical drama mashup Jin wasn't bad although I liked the J-drama original more