Just finished the last episode of another Korean TV drama. Yes! I’m still addicted to this amazing entertainment. Soon I’ll be joining a group to discuss Korean dramas, so it’s not only me that’s hooked. (The drama I just finished watching was “My Life’s Golden Age”–ahh yes, English translations of Korean titles lack something!)
What is it about these dramas that hooks people? This is a question being asked in many countries as more and more people ride the “hallyu” (Korean culture wave). The themes are pretty simple: girl with nothing meets young heir and rejects him; struggling family deals with problems of each member; cute kid spouts truth (out of the mouths of babes); and so on. Nothing new in themes from western programs except there is a different perspective on these universal themes that is refreshing. One thing I find particularly intriguing is the dynamics of the Korean family. Modern Korean life is far from the way of life depicted in the dramas, or so I gather from talking to Korean people and from reading blogs on the subect; however, there has to be some underlying truth to these themes or Korean audiences would simply switch off their own TVs. Perhaps there is some tension between the old ways and the new that the writers are presenting as a modern problem to be faced.
Briefly, in these dramas family members’ opinions about behaviour are considered, and those of mum and dad are primary. Grown kids are considered still too young to make life-changing decisions even in their late twenties and early thirties. This is particularly interesting to those of us who started out on our own in our early twenties and had kids to raise in our mid-twenties. In fact, the whole notion of responsibility for self and others seems to be completely different.
Other intriguing cultural differences are those in workplace culture, political life, medical care, education, the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the law. There also seems to be a culture of lying to manipulate events. Hiding the truth is a universal human trait, but the difference shown in these dramas is that there seems to be no guilt around it. The writers have characters lying blatantly to direct questions without blinking. Whether or not this an accurate depiction of Korean values is an interesting avenue to explore. Another difference is that loyalty seems to transcend everything. It seems to be an accepted given that loyalty to the company, the family, an individual, etc., is more important than anything else and shame is felt much more than guilt. In fact, the shame/guilt connection we have in western culture seems to be absent in Korean dramas, so I’m guessing that’s a well-known and accurate portrayal.
But just looking at the content of the shows is not the key to why these shows grab you. The writing is excellent: witty, and articulate. The lack of four-letter words, and other non-descriptive adjectives used in much of western TV writing is absent here. Korean writers actually use words to describe complicated feelings in a clear and eloquent language that is so lacking in western contemporary entertainment. One of the criticisms of modern western education is that it has been “dumbed down.” This is one reason that it’s so mentally refreshing to watch a Korean TV program where people can express a feeling so clearly and cleanly. There’s no sense that the viewer is being hit with “punch points” and must fill in the blanks herself. As a person with a life-long interest in human behaviour, I find the differences between Korean TV writing and western writing give an intriguing glimpse of how cultural differences develop and how biases can be supported by the arts.
The other thing that I like about Korean TV dramas is that they don’t try to get through the action as fast and economically as possible. The nuances of relationships are explored, the lives of all the characters are fleshed out–it’s not just about the main characters while making all others two dimensional. Although I know production companies in Korea are also on tight budgets, a viewer doesn’t get the feeling that she is being rushed through to the end and corners have been cut to get through the action as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Of course it’s not all about the positive side to Korean dramas, there’s a negative side too, from my English/Canadian perspective, that is. Mothers-in-law in particular seem to be able to be as rude and insulting to daughters-in-law as they wish. That is also the case for some other relationships as well. There are no holds barred in a disagreement, it seems. The characters are made to say the most awful things that in this culture would probably end in someone stomping out of the house never to return. What is only said under the effect of alchol here, is said quite openly and soberly there, according to the writers. The other surprising thing is the amount of screaming and hitting. Adults hit adults! That really surprised me. I haven’t checked whether this is actually representative of true Korean culture or just a feature of all dramas.
This mini-analysis is just scratching the surface of what could be the topic of a PhD thesis on culture, but I’m not writing one, so I’ll stop here!
An intriguing fact to take away though is that we are told that younger views in particular are turned off by lengthy discourse and like their entertainment to be in fast visual/sound bytes with rapid fire action. The popularity of Korean TV worldwide seems to refute this. It’s worth a discussion to find out why the younger generation loves these dramas too.
One of the side effects of watching these dramas depicting a different way of looking at the world is to make me want to visit Korea and just see it! Whether that will actually happen, though, is speculative. Thinking about it.
I finished watching the last episode of Dr. Romantic last night and was sorry to see it end. The actors were so good, and the script by Kang Eun-Kyung was one of her best, I thought. Her Baker King KimTak Go was good, but Dr. Romantic was better. The story was tighter with fewer unexplained behaviours from characters. I’ll be looking for more of her stuff in future.
Now I’ve started watching Family’s Honour, written by Jung Ji-woo. This is such a good drama that I binged tonight and watched 5 episodes in a row (5 hours!). This drama gives a nostalgic insight into the old fashioned values of a family with a noble lineage. Rules to follow included behaviour of the whole family after a bereavement (no marriages for three years), respect shown to elders, and so on. Lovely traditions to watch but probably hell to live by! The tension of family rules is broken by a profligate grandma and a grown son who can’t control his emotions or his behaviour. This is made all the more poignant by knowing that the actor who plays this character died after an attempted suicide last year, on my birthday, in fact. He had a history of drug abuse, too, so perhaps his performance wasn’t all acting, or at least he’d be able to draw on his real life experiences.
I’m now so addicted to Korean TV dramas, that I’m watching three at once and studying Korean online. If it wasn’t for my loyalty to my dog, I’d be in Korea by now.
Just finished watching episode 14 of Doctor Romantic–an excellent series. The hard part is waiting for each episode as they are filming and releasing each episode in real time. Exciting though.
Earlier to day I finished watching Heaven’s Garden. The series was good but spoiled by the shooting site. The main action takes place in a small village in the mountains. The problem is weather. Although the story takes place over months–a baby is even conceived and born–so at least 9 months, the weather conditions hardly change and snow remains long past when the spring would have arrived and passed. At times running melt water is shown along with spring flowers, but long shots show bare trees and lots of snow still around. There seems to be much more subtlety to Korean romance than we have in the west. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
Korean drama themes always seem to revolve around family values, loyalty, and the tension between those who have money and those who don’t. The people who don’t have money always teach valuable lessons to those who have it. Lots of Cinderella stories, but seldom the other way around. It seems to be an important value that women are always reluctant lovers while men have to persuade them to even hold hands or admit to an attraction. Refreshing changes to this theme was Thrice Married Woman and My Husband’s Woman, both written by Kim Soo-hyun, one of the best script writers around, I think. One strong theme with the sexes is that women even in their thirties act girlish and affected, and sometimes downright silly. I’m sure Korea is full of independent minded women who run their own lives very efficiently, but there must be an audience there who enjoy watching women bounce up and down and shake their curls in girlish enthusiasm when something exciting is proposed. Interesting.
Glamour is also a big theme. Women, and men, are usually very slim and beautifully coiffed and rarely look their age! How do they do that?! Their clothes are very high fashion as well and must cost a fortune. Lovely to look at.
The recurrent themes of loyalty to an ideal, forgiveness for the folly of others, repentance and redemption may be because these qualities are disappearing in modern Korea?
Another recurrent feature of Korean drama is the precociousness of the children in each series. Kids are given the most grown-up and philosophical things to say. I’ve never heard children wax so lyrical and philosophical. They all seem to be mini Confuciuses!
Depending on the writer, there is also a theme of the stresses caused by having an acting career. The demanding public is often depicted as being live a ravening horde who would destroy the career of any actor who dares to have normal faults and desires. The false lives they are forced to lead often shows at least one character driven to the point of suicide by the pressures. I think these, then, must be the “message” movies that correspond to the message movies of the thirties, forties, and fifties in Hollywood. In that case, the movies didn’t change the populace, but supported the change that was already happening. Social mores change with each generation. The new generation embraces the change and the last generation makes movies about how bad the changes are in many cases. A “Let’s Get Back to the Old Values” theme then runs through the movies made.
One thing I don’t like is that if there are dogs in the program, most of the time they are shown chained up on a short chain in a yard and seem to be kept outside. Children in the show sometimes are shown petting the family dog, but adults never seem to notice the dog. Do Koreans not have strong relationships with their dogs?
Finished it! Finished watching Thrice Married Woman, by Kim Soo-hyun, and as expected, NOT a happy ending. One thing I like about Korean drama is that it doesn’t fall into the trap of the type of scenario where everyone “comes to their senses” and realized who they really love and/or how they should behave and/or get killed because they’re the designated baddy. No, most of these dramas, and especially Kim Soo-hyun’s dramas sometimes end kind of flat or disappointing, more like real life than art. If you are willing to watch 40 episodes of a show and then get a disappointing ending, then you’ll enjoy this.
Personally, I liked it. It’s real life, they’re real characters taken from real life (except for their super looks and body shapes, and the fact that the child actors are saying things real 9 year-olds, for example, would never say). Some of the plot lines seem forced. For example, it’s unlikely that Tae Won wouldn’t have known anything about his wife’s abuse from her father until the end. It was all a bit too pat and made me think the writer was getting fed up with the whole story and wanted to end it quickly.
I recommend it though. The acting was absolutely wonderful. A lot of talent in Korea.
October 30, 2016
Almost finished watching Thrice Married Woman after a marathon today (Sunday). I gave myself permission because the weather was grey and bleak, and I just can’t stop watching. Kim Soo-hyun draws the characters as real people. They are not stereotypical good guys and bad guys. The characterizations are so believable that it’s possible to think one knows these people. Actually we do know these people, but the ones we know are not as beautiful, of course. These Koreans are stunning! Another 3 episodes, and I’ll have finished it.
Then what will I do? LOL
Favourite Korean TV series
Kim Soo-hyun is a wonderful Korean script writer! I love her scripts and am trying to work my way through all her dramas. I’ve put an asterisk next to the ones she wrote that I’ve listed below. Want to read her books, too, if they’re translated.
I’m presently watching her 2013 TV drama Thrice Married Woman and trying hard not to binge watch. Five episodes a night is my absolute limit! However, I have to conjure up my inner “mother” to actually turn off the computer. Yes, I get it through Drama Fever on the computer. A great site for watching Korean drama. The subtitles are generally good, although I know from some of the Korean I’ve now picked up, that the English subtitles are not word for word.
This list is based on star rating.
- Go, Mrs. Go!—————–5 stars Also known as Go Mrs. Go Bong-shil. Writer is Park Eun-Reyong. (A binge-worthy drama. Couldn’t stop watching!)
- Life is Beautiful*————5 stars–Absolutely outstanding series. I read that the writer, Kim Soo-hyun is a dragon on the set, it’s paid off! Her stuff is some of the best watching for adults.
- Secret Love Affair———5 stars Writer Jung Sung Joo. Absolutely fabulous! Will certainly be watching more of her stuff.
- Heard it Through the Grapevine———-5 stars-Another Jung Sung Joo
- A Wife’s Credentials——5 stars-Another Jung Sung Joo
- Beating Again————–5 stars Writer is Yoo Hee-kyung, but can’t find out much about him/her (Korean names not always clear as to gender).
- My Husband’s Woman*—5 stars (An interesting view of how Koreans view adultery and divorce. I found out that people can be expunged from the family register. That would be a nightmare for genealogists I think).
- Thrice Married Woman*–4.5 stars. (I take off a star for the slightly unrealistic child part. The child was given very perceptively adult things to say to move the plot along and help the adults understand things. Most unlikely).
- Doctor Romantic—-5 stars. Writer Kang Eun-kyung. Wonderfully written and great acting.
- Baker King Kim Tak Goo—–4 stars. Writer Kang Eun-kyung. Loses half a star for some contrived barriers to full communication between lovers, and another half a star for the awfully pathetic scenes written for the mother who suddenly becomes distraught over her son after not trying very hard to find him for 12 years.
- A Thousand Days Promise*———4.5 stars (loses half a star because it dragged a bit in parts, but that’s just my western impatience, I think)
- Syndrome——————-4 stars Writer Lee Sung-joo (loses a star because of intrusive music during ultra slow love scene closeups–being Korean, love scene means the eyes meet)
- Heartless City————–4 stars (Somewhat fantastic, in the true sense of the word, as the fight scenes would kill everyone involved normally).
- Last—————————-4 stars (Again, the fight scenes have an element of beautiful choreography about them rather than reality, but that’s why I can watch them, so can’t complain about it).
- Descendants of the Sun (not really very good because dialogue is stilted, sentimental, and unrealistic.)—————–3.5 stars
- Thank You——————-3.5 stars. (I took some stars away because the lead male was not very convincing as a man in love. The female lead and the child were both excellent though).
- Childless Comfort*————-4 stars (I took a star away for the slow start with too much hysteria on the part of the mother at the beginning). This was quite a disappointing role for the terrific actor, Kim Hae-sook. She had a much better role in Go Mrs. Go Bong-shil).
- My Love from Another Star——2.5 stars. (Enjoyable light watching but took some stars away because of the part written for the female lead. She is written as being a total ditz, which makes it unlikely that a super intelligent man more than 400 years old would be attracted. There are also some loose ends; for example, of what relevance was the young girl met in the first episode? Also some cheesy romantic scenes.
Korea still fascinates. I’ve watched several Korean TV dramas since my last postings and have just finished the 63 episode series called Life is Beautiful (Korean). The writing and the acting was excellent. I especially like Kim Hae soon.
End of April
Just finished another Korean TV series called Beating Again. There is something about these Korean programs and the glimpse into the culture that is extremely compelling. What is it, I wonder?
This series is about a young man with a congenital heart problem who gets a transplant. He’s an extremely unpleasant young business tycoon before the transplant, but has a character change afterwards. I thought it was very well done. Still bent on a Korean vacation, although I have a feeling I won’t like the food.
Just read something about our microbiome and genetics and it seems people who live in cultures where seaweed is eaten has a different microbiome to digest it. No wonder I don’t like sushi.
Beginning of April, 2016
Discovered Korea this week via the Netflix melodrama series Go! Mrs. Go. So thoroughly enjoyed this show that I’m literally haunted by it. This never happens to me so I don’t know what’s going on here. If anybody has any ideas about that, let me know.
I’m just waiting for a few weeks until it will be new again so that I can watch the whole series through once more.
Now I want to go to Korea! https://www.dramafever.com/drama/4125/Saving_Mrs._Go_Bong_Shil/