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Frankly Speaking Is a Korean Comedy That Transcends Language

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Warning: This story includes light spoilers for the first six episodes of Frankly Speaking.

Frankly Speaking’s most juvenile moment is also, somehow, its most charming. Netflix’s South Korean comedy splits its first episode on either side of an egregiously long fart joke, when JBC announcer Song Ki-baek (Ko Kyoung-pyo) becomes trapped in an elevator with variety writer On Woo-joo (Kang Han-na) and his own unsettled stomach. The joke follows through, literally, as Ki-baek farts his way to evacuation both from, and in, the sealed elevator.

It’s a charming introduction to a series of mishaps that will trace the farcical downfall of Ki-baek’s career, as he is forced to downgrade from a well-spoken, respected announcer to a variety TV star over Frankly Speaking’s first six of 12 episodes. This unwelcome career change precipitated by a freak electrocution on the set of Woo-joo’s reality show—which features male celebrities playing indoor Sports, for some reason—on which an unwilling Ki-baek is starring. The accident leaves him, curiously, unable to lie.

This new trait is something that should be a boon for a news reader, yet Ki-baek quickly finds that neither the truth nor farts have any place at JBC. Already feeling alienated by the lack of support from his superiors and in a fit of absolute truth, he denounces the station as corrupt and, as a concerned Woo-joo (guilt-ridden for causing his accident) watches on, walks out.

You might think you know this new Ki-baek; that he’s now the kind of insufferable jerk who claims to just tell it how it is. But instead of making him unlikable, his new disinhibition makes him, in the words of one coworker, “thoughtfully rude.” He sets boundaries, communicates his feelings, and calls people on their B.S. His tendency toward blunt truth is less a way for him to become a typically unpleasant K-drama lead than a refreshing foil to the culture of passivity to superiors that pervades JBC.

Frankly Speaking
Kang Han-na in Frankly SpeakingCourtesy of Netflix

Things are less rosy for Woo-joo. Ki-baek’s newfound honesty gets her show canceled and a former mentee is parachuted into her team, insultingly, at a higher salary than her. Around JBC, whispers circulate that she’s lost her touch. When a jobless Ki-baek is forced to move back in with his family, he does so into a building owned by Woo-joo’s mother and in which she also lives, as her problems seem to be compounded by her ongoing guilt. Yet, as the two console each other on their collective professional woes, inspiration, and perhaps a hint of romance, blossoms.

It’s a typical K-drama setup. Two characters thrust together, destined to fall in love, with the only tangible divergence from past romances being a singular offbeat plotpoint—in this case, Ki-baek’s involuntary honesty. Writer Choi Kyung-sun (in her screenwriting debut) appears aware of Frankly Speaking’s preponderance of cliché, leaning into the tropes of K-romance—the side romances, characters magically knowing each other from the past, the stirring yet gentle K-pop that plays when anyone vaguely approaches expressing a human emotion—and gently, but knowingly, subverting them as Frankly Speaking steps out from the shadow of K-romance norms.

Ki-baek and Woo-joo are a rare example of a K-drama relationship that makes sense. K-romance is often marked by a fascination with absurd wealth, borderline abusive relationships based solely on looks and status, and CEOs. Ki-baek and Woo-joo provide a surprisingly piercing examination of two people brought together by the isolation of perceived failure and into a Healthy, realistic attraction.

Yes, it helps that they’re played by Ko Kyoung-pyo and Kang Han-na, two beautiful and charismatic actors. But it makes sense that Woo-joo, in an industry in which everyone is talking behind her back and never says what they mean, would find the unfailingly honest Ki-baek beguiling. Similarly, having spent so long pretending to be a better version of himself to chase success, of course Ki-baek would fall for someone who values him for who he is—brain lesion and all.

It’s not an entirely novel take on K-romance (last year’s Moving had a surprising number of realistic relationships and earnest male leads). Rather, it’s an incremental advance in a genre that has long languished in inert unoriginality. Choi chooses to embrace the genre’s inherent predictability to frame a, thus far, Healthy and realistic romance that feels removed from the usual K-romance fare.

Frankly Speaking
Ko Kyoung-pyo as Song Ki-baek Courtesy of Netflix

How deliberate this is becomes clear when Woo-joo’s new reality dating show begins (which, despite hating reality TV, I would totally watch—and not just because of how many cats are around the set). A show that also ushers in a maintained presence for Woo-joo’s ex, bankable variety star Kim Jeong-heon (Joo Jong-hyuk), who has been stalking her throughout the series and now stars alongside Ki-baek. He is a typical K-drama lead—handsome, successful, boring, and uncomfortably handsy—but as he and the other contestants play at love, Ki-baek and Woo-joo are the only convincing participants. Even if one of them is behind the camera—at least for now.

Frankly Speaking uses this coNFLict to invoke the specter of clichéd K-drama love triangles, but Jeong-heon remains mostly in the background of Ki-baek and Woo-joo’s chemistry. Seasoned K-drama campaigners will recognize the beats the relationship hits, as an initially unwilling Ki-baek befriends Woo-joo, becomes attracted, and then alienated by a perceived love triangle. But here, again, Choi adeptly navigates this familiar narrative, dialing the well-worn trope up to 11, making it part of the joke as she gives Woo-joo and Ki-baek’s relationship room to breathe.

That focus builds a foundation with Ko and Kang, who are utterly persuasive as people struggling with their feelings for one another amid a professional relationship. Ko—familiar from Reply 1988 and Decision to Leave—is elastic in a performance that springs from the physical as he contorts himself to keep his mouth shut and surprisingly emotionally tender as he wrestles with his growing affection for Woo-joo. Both demonstrate the comedic chops and the dedication to embrace Frankly Speaking’s often childish silliness, but so too do they create startling moments of vulnerability from small looks, touches, and asides that maintain an electric tension across the series’ first half.

Frankly Speaking is a dependable K-drama and a rare example of K-drama humor transcending translation. It’s familiar enough to feel comfortable and breezy, striking the right balance between farcicality and sincere romance. Yet, it dares to experiment with the familiar beats of K-romance just enough to feel fresh in the face of so many similar offerings. Frankly Speaking becomes instead an exceptional example of a Healthy and believable K-drama romance that builds something relatable, watchable, and almost new from the most familiar of building blocks.

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