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Korean shows and the telling-retelling of stories

K-drama watching is a team sport. The writer watches shows she has heard detailed retellings of—sometimes from multiple people

Park Bo Gum in ‘Record of Youth’.
Park Bo Gum in ‘Record of Youth’. ( Instagram/recordofyouth_official)

So He Starts Singing. That’s the name of a short video that Berlin-based artist Bani Abidi made back in 2000. It’s the first of her work I ever saw and it made a permanent, heart-shaped impression on me. In this work, you watch a woman retelling the plot of a movie. Actually, the woman in the video narrated the plots of 26 different Hindi movies and Abidi spliced it into a narrative arc that has everything. Everything, in the way some Hindi movies had everything in the past and the 99 variety dosa carts of Bengaluru have in the present.

So He Starts Singing is the immortalisation of a once familiar experience of someone telling you the story of a movie or a TV show they had watched. Partly because there was no guarantee that you would get to watch a particular film. Even more so if it was obscure or eccentric or the kind that only appears in film festivals. But even if you knew you would get to watch the film, you still listened to the telling of the story with enjoyment.

For a long time, though, that telling of the story has been absent from my life. At most, occasionally, friends might ask about a must-watch film or show, “are you going to watch it?”, before discussing some theme or plot point or the ending. The ending has lately become somewhat important. It had not always been so. When author Khaled Hosseini made fun of the American addiction to being protected from knowledge of the ending, I had nodded my head. He wrote: “In Afghanistan, the ending was all that mattered. When Hassan and I came home after watching a Hindi film at Cinema Zainab, what Ali, Rahim Khan, Baba, or the myriad of Baba’s friends—second and third cousins milling in and out of the house—wanted to know was this: Did the Girl in the film find happiness? Did the bacheh film, the Guy in the film, become katnyab and fulfill his dreams, or was he nah-kam, doomed to wallow in failure? Was there happiness at the end, they wanted to know.” Completely familiar, right?

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I am happy to report, though, that I am back in the telling-retelling and the devil-may-care attitude towards spoilers. And that is mostly because of my falling into the delightful universe of Korean dramas. Unlike, say, my solo Grey’s Anatomy addiction, K-drama watching is a team sport. I watch episodes I have heard descriptions of, sometimes shot by shot. I watch shows I have heard detailed retellings of. Sometimes from multiple people. Recently, my friend G asked whether I had watched That Winter, The Wind Blows, a show she referred to as an absolute disaster. Tell, I demanded. She replied: “Not on message. It needs hands, face and a full-body exclamation.” We are hoping to meet for this purpose despite the three jobs and four children we have between us.

On another evening, I wrote to my friend A in Dibrugarh, “your husband is wonderful in Record Of Youth,” referring to the tall, ridiculously handsome elf Park Bo Gum whom A has claimed for herself. The only reality that is standing between me and A meeting for a K-drama retelling is the severe gap in the teleporting industry. In the absence of meetings and even the kind of long phone calls in which I heard the whole story of Secret Garden or half the story of Memories Of The Alhambra, we turn to recaps and screenshots.

I first started reading online recaps when the original Gossip Girl was airing. I have returned to them with great enthusiasm now while watching K-dramas. When eventually A in Dibrugarh watches Record Of Youth, I know the scene which will make her hoot and clap but while I wait for her to catch up, I know there are episode recaps and comment sections that I can join in full of people who would have enjoyed Bo Gum’s campy rendition of the evil chaebol. Yes, yes, I agree with you, fellow enjoyer of the scene, I want a whole show with that version of his perfection.  As an aside, I want to note that one commentator I read compared Bani Abidi’s film to an early prediction of the fan supercut—an online compilation of the “good bits”. The supercut, while fun, has none of my affection.

While the in-person or online recap is epic narrative, the Kathakali version of fan engagement, the screenshot, is a more modernist creature. The screenshots of shows I love are like a brief poem, a cross between E.E. Cummings and Kay Ryan. Unlike the fullness of the recap, the fragment of the screenshot is like looking into a kaleidoscope. I began screenshotting shows when (nearly a decade late) watching Zindagi Gulzar Hai. The play between the moment I loved and the subtitle I loved made screenshotting irresistible.

Here is where I disagree with Hosseini. If there is only the ending, then what is the film or show? Both listening to the story and watching the film was supposed to give you the feeling of being on a pool floatie, wearing sunglasses and holding a fruity drink, an aspiration I learnt from watching films. What, after all, was an ending to us, used as we were to whole industries making films with terrible second halves? Your friend at least knew which bits would give you the floatie feels, the Park Bo Gum is my husband feels. Yes, your friend’s version, her ending, is the better show. So we start singing.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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