HeartStrings (2011) Review: The Show must go on. ~Repost

HeartStrings (2011) Korean Drama Review

Want to put on a show?

Hello. This is a Korean in America. Taking a break from the Korean drama classics and oldies, I will go over what is essentially a teen romance set in college which just uses music as a gimmick, “Heart Strings” (2011).

When I write my reviews, I like to have an angle with a larger scope than the show itself. In doing so, I am able to move beyond the small box of storytelling the typical Korean dramas are delegated to. However, with “Heart Strings” (2011), it was rather difficult to nail a specific angle since, frankly, the show is not about anything significant nor does it have many interesting nuggets from which a reviewer like myself can weave an interesting review.

First thing, “Heart Strings” (2011) is not a great example of what a Korean drama can do even within its small niche of the medium. At the same time, it is not overtly terrible enough that the fact that it is a train wreck is worth writing about in itself. That would be shows such as “The musical” (2010) which does fall into the relative same category as “Heart Strings” (2011). They are both musical theme shows. More specifically, their subject matters are about the medium of the stage “musical” and the people who pursue that stage art.

This connection to musicals does provide a certain angle for me to write about. In a way, the period spanning the years 2010 and 2011 is interesting for the sudden interest in music based subjects. Considering that this interest came out of nowhere, this is an interesting angle. What is more interesting is that the shows from this period are essentially another example of Korean dramas’ attempt to remake 70s and 80s stories from the U.S. While the shows had various degrees of success individually, all of them seemed to fail to capture their subject matters.

In other words, Korean dramas seem to not really understand the subject matter of music in stories.

The Plot
While many would view this show as just a "high teen romance" show, the initial setup of the show has more loftier ambitions which could be inferred by the story structure and setup.  This is the problem with this show but I'll cover that a little bit later.

Also, is it just me or is it not somewhat weird for a "high teen romance" show to be situated in a college setting?In a lot of ways, Heart Strings” (2011) feels like a high school show.

The plot of “Heart Strings” (2011) falls into the story category of the “Let’s put on a show”. Stories that fall into this category are all about the journey the characters take as they try to put on the show. In the case of “Heart Strings” (2011), the show is the big anniversary festival’s “Musical” show at an arts college.

In accordance to the setting, all four lead characters are artists and represent different artistic disciplines.  You have the “guy” who is the lead guitarist/ singer in a popular college band. He lives with his mother with his folk guitarist father long out of the picture. The “guy” does not even know him. He represents modern pop or more accurately indie K-pop as he is in a band. 

You have the “girl” who plays a traditional Korean string instrument called “ga-ya geum”. She also comes from a broken home in which her mother had passed away and her father is exiled from her house by her stubborn traditionalist grandfather. The grandfather is a rigid and controlling figure who views his granddaughter as his only heir to his musical legacy.  She represents traditional Korean music.

Unlike their counterparts in the romantic rectangle, the other two characters are adults. The “director” is an alumni of the arts college who has, on his resume, a Broadway musical directing credit. He has been roped into directing the show at the anniversary festival in order to garner publicity. He represents the “Musical” genre.

The “teacher” is a female dance instructor at the college who was assigned to choreograph the dance portion of the show. She was in love with the “director” years ago but left him in order to pursue her career. However, that career never really took off and now she is back at her Alma mater teaching. At the beginning of the show, the two former lovers have their first contact since the breakup.

Heart Strings” (2011) is basically about these four characters and other students that play supporting roles as they go on journey of putting on a show. 

Or is it?

Let’s put on a show!
While they are similar, stories within the “Let’s put on a show” category and stories within the “Save the REC center” category are not exactly the same. Unlike the former, the latter actually has stakes and a motivational focus. Thus, “Save the REC center” stories are far easier to write compared to “Let’s put on a show” stories. You only need to provide a superficial emotional connection between the characters and the objective to be saved and, then, you are ready to go. The “Sister Act” movies are a good example of this type of stories.

In contrast, “Let’s put on a show” does not have this motivational focus since there is nothing to save. Each character has their own motivation for putting on a show. This is the case of “Heart Strings” (2011). While there are some mentions of the importance of the “big” anniversary show, in reality, the “show” is not that important. Even within the story, “Heart Strings” (2011) actually acknowledges that the “show” does not matter. This is the same for the main characters.  The “director” does not really care about the “show” beyond using it as an excuse to interact with the “teacher” and the emotional bonds he formed with the students. For the “teacher”, the “show” is just part of the job.

This is actually the same for the younger leads. The “guy” did not care about the “show” initially and never really got invested in the show. It was rather an excuse to interact with his love who first was the “teacher” and, after that train wreck of a stocking case ended, was the “girl”.  This is the same for the “girl”.

To conclude, the actual “stage show” in this genre is basically just a storytelling tool to set the characters on a journey in which we see their inner motivations and see how the characters develop.

Does Heart Strings(2011) do this well?

Not really!

Broken Potentials
In a lot of ways, the character stories which should be the focus of “Heart Strings” (2011) are broken. It is not that there is nothing there to work with in the setup of the stories. Is it just that they are not properly executed nor followed through.

Let’s talk about the stories about the “guy”. He has one nice story about his father and him bonding for a moment. However, none of the other stories are tied to that story. It is just there albeit it is a nice story. The “guy's” primary story for most of the show is the whole thing about him stalking the “teacher” for more than half of the show. However, there is no real payoff or even setup for this obsession. And, to be clear, it is an obsession and not a cute young love that the show seems to want to push on the audience.

Why did he develop that kind of obsession? Is it some kind of mommy issue that seems to dominate Korean dramas? 

But that would not quite fit in with what we see on-screen with his mother. Separately from how it started, the “guy’s” obsession just fizzles out somehow and he starts a new relationship with the “girl” for some reason. It is the case of Korean drama thinking that, if you keep a man and a woman together for some amount of time, they would get busy together.

What about the music?
What role does music play in his actual story?

The answer is not much. In his story, music is just a gimmick for his character and does not really have a serious impact on him. He has no philosophy regarding the music.  It is only a device to make him into a moody teenager. You could easily change him to a soccer player and the story would be the same. This is a problem as the setup of the show has him represent modern pop music in the opposition to the “girl” who represents traditional music. Since the “guy” has nothing really to say about the matter, the whole setup for this conflict is totally wasted. This makes the story elements about grandfather and the father pointless throughout the show.

The terrible execution of story elements is the same for the other two adult leads. The “director” comes into the show with the intentions of harassing the “teacher” but this quickly fizzles and he falls into a typical teacher archetype. The “teacher”, on the other hand, barely has any personality beyond the fact that she is not drawing a clear line for the “guy” about their relationship. Thus, the relationship between the “director” and the “teacher” is just there for most of the show and, then, somehow ends up mended at the end of the drama.

These are only a small sample of the many story elements that were wasted like this in the “Heart Strings” (2011). I am not even talking about the supporting characters.

Want to be in a Chorus Line?
This can be contributed, at least partially, to the skewed structure of the drama. While there are many characters who contribute to putting on the “stage show”, “Heart Strings” (2011) is essentially structured as a long audition process for just the female lead of the “stage show”. The other roles in the “stage show” are rather quickly cast. However, the fate of the female lead role is dragged on almost to the end of the show.

This means that the focus of the show is directed towards the competition of the audition process and not the “putting on the show” aspect of the story which is the core of this type of story. This is a common mistake Korean dramas make as they tend to be purely focused on struggle between characters above anything else. This is a cultural trait of Korea and Korean story telling. It is not in our cultural lexicon to look beyond the scope of petty personal conflicts. 

The “audition” stories are a different kind of story from “putting on the show” stories. The competition aspect of the story drives a lot of the plot. A recent U.S. TV show “Smash” falls into this category of shows. It does tend to focus on the petty rivalries between characters. However, not all examples of a “audition” story are like that. Another type of examples would be the musical “A Chorus Line”.  

That musical is all about the audition process for choosing members of the chorus line which, if you know musicals, are not important roles in the overall scheme of a musical. The musical, “A Chorus Line”, is not about the conflict created by the competition but is about the characters motivation for struggling to become musical actors. If you think about it, there are a lot of elements of the musical “A Chorus Line” in “Heart Strings” (2011). More accurately the 1985 movie adaptation directed Richard Attenborough. The actress who broke up with the director to further her career and the two meeting for a show plot line from “Heart Strings” (2011) is straight out of the movie. 

I’ll talk about this later.

The result of this skewed structure is that not only does the other characters get marginalized and thus reduces their story potentials but also the “stage show” itself gets obscured.  Even till the end of “Heart Strings” (2011), I never knew much about the show they were putting on stage. This is not helped by the fact that the montage of the actual show being put on stage is so broad and lacking in any identity that I still knew nothing about the show.

It even took me several episodes to find out that they were doing a musical since no one actually mentioned it up to that point. A stage show with a combination of musical instruments, singers, and dancers do not automatically equate to a musical. While people in the medium may contest this claim, musicals are not the pinnacle of stage art.  You could just have done a variety show which would have been a more obvious scenario. In other words, “Heart Strings” (2011) was never about the music or the musical.

As a side note, what was up with musicals in Korean dramas during the early 2010s?
While musicals have been growing in popularity in Korea, it is still very much an expensive niche.

In any case, this is a common approach by Koran dramas to just paste specific subject matters on to the typical Korean drama skeleton without making the subject matter the core of the story. This is the reason why the music was never really the core of the story. The result of this is that there is not much room for an ensemble cast storytelling approach which the drama tries early on but quickly abandons.  The show, thus, loses a lot of potentially interesting stories to tell.

The guy and the girl
Once you the initial ambitions of the drama is forgotten, the only thing really left is the love story between the “guy” and the “girl”. 

If you remove all the glitter from Korean dramas, is it not all what they are about? 

As a high teen romance, if this part of the story was good enough to support the whole show, “Heart Strings” (2011) would have been a decent drama for Korean drama standards. However, the thing is that it does not.

There are two main problems with the “guy” and the “girl” romance story. First, there is simply not enough there. Because “Heart Strings” (2011) toys with idea of telling a story beyond the romance and fails, there is simply too much broken story elements taking up space for the romance to properly develop even for Korean drama standards. I mean they even do not use the “our parents once dated and, thus, we can’t” plot twist that was in initial setup of the show. 

The second thing is that, other than being cute, the “guy” and the “girl” are not that interesting characters in their own right as they are drawn so broadly. They are just generic Korean drama archetypes for the most part. It does not help that the actors, while not terrible, are not strong enough in their craft to do much with less. I did not really care about whether they got together at the end. I was far more interesting with the fate of the “director” and “teacher” relationship but gave up on that seeing how the show treated that relationship. Since I am not a 14 year old girl, not trying to insult them, just having a cute couple is not enough to sustain my interest in a drama.

If the show was to be just a high teen romance, just making a stream lined high teen romance would have been a better direction for the show. 

Sex, drugs, and rock & roll
So, let’s talk about the brief interest in music based shows in 2010 and 2011. At the tail end of 2009, we had “You're Beautiful” (2009) but that was more of a gender bender show with music as a back ground. So, I’m going to ignore it for this discussion.

In 2010, we had “Gloria” and “I am legend”.  “Gloria” (2010) was about jazz club singers. “I am legend” (2010) was about a female band with actual musical instruments. 

In 2011, we had “Dream high” and “The musical” in addition to “Heart Strings”. “Dream high” (2011) was similar to the movie “Fame” (1980) and was about student in a performing arts school, “The musical” (2011) was about the process of professional musical actors trying to put on a musical.

What does all these show have in common other than their music focus?

They are heavily influenced by U.S. entertainment properties from the last 3 decades of the 20th century. If you see a lot Korean entertainment in recent years, you would have noticed this trend. As people who grew up watching those American movies and TV enter the industry, there are more and more properties that are trying to recreate properties from their past but are not of their culture.

The problem seems to be that, in many cases, the people who are doing this do not really understand the genres they are trying to recreate. This is a common thing for people who are not within the culture they are trying to imitate. As they are only looking from the outside, they do not really get the cultural background and motivations that make up the genres. A clear example of this can be seen in horror movies from various countries.

Going back to the music, for the second half of the 20th century, American culture has been rather obsessed with musicians and performers. I mean the first talkie movie was the “Jazz singer” (1927). The whole artist aspect of this type of story seems to mesh well with the individualistic aspect of the culture.

Go! Sex, drugs, and rock & roll!

For Korea, it is rather different. As in real life, individual passions other than either making money or climbing the social ladder tend to be ignored in entertainment properties.  

Well… Revenge is an exception…

Thus, Koreans seems to not really get what the music show genre is about. “Heart Strings” (2011) and “The musical” (2011) are good examples of this as these Korean dramas try to fit the music show genre into a typical Korean drama character dynamic and fail at it. However, unlike “The musical” (2011), “Heart Strings” (2011) is less serious and more fluffy which makes this failure less destructive.

At the end
Heart Strings” (2011) is basically a high teen romance that was way too ambitious for its own good without the guts or talents to pull it off. In any case, for a high teen romance show… “Heart Strings” (2011) is not terrible. However, the show is overall messy as majority of the stories within the drama is rather broken and even the main romance between the “guy” and the “girl” is woefully underdeveloped.

The musical theme of the show is just pasted on to the traditional Korean drama petty character dynamics and, thus, the show does not rise above a generic Korean drama. In this area, the train wreck, “The musical” (2011), is better as it at least tried.

In regard to the actual music performed by the actors themselves, the back ground music in the drama is far better. It is rather evident that most of the cast cannot sing even to the level of a typical K-pop star who has a limited range. In addition, none of the songs performed by the actors in the show actually have any meaning or functions within the story. This is extremely weird for a show about staging a musical since a musical is a genre that deliver story via musical lyrics.

So, how do I judge this show?

Heart Strings” (2011) is one of the shows that I think divide the Korean drama fandom. The fangirls who constitute the majority of the fandom like this show a lot as they only really need a cute couple and that enough for them. The minority who demand more from their shows do not really like this show as it does not deliver any of these demands although the show is not seriously hated like “The musical” (2011). If you have read up to this point, you will get an idea on where I stand.

Heart Strings” (2011) is a clunky mess of the show although not a train wreck. It is an example of the fact that one should either fully chase one’s ambitions or stream line the story to focus on what the show is about.

I give “Heart Strings” (2011)  a C.
Score: C or 4.5/10


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