Confessions of a Korean drama addict
A veteran of 25 Korean dramas breaks down the appeal of these shows
My introduction to South Korean dramas (K-dramas) was relatively uneventful. Earlier this year, when I was living in Singapore, I overheard a couple of Singaporean classmates discussing how to stream episodes of Secret Garden. What I thought would be a new American show turned out to be a 2010 K-drama where the main protagonists—a stuntwoman and a chaebol (heir to a business empire)—magically switch bodies. The concept sounded absurd but my classmates said this was top Hallyu, or Korean pop culture wave, material. Having given up on Hindi shows after the absurdity of K-soaps (read that as Ekta Kapoor and now Gul Khan soap operas) on Indian cable channels and frankly fed up of waiting for a year or more at a time for the next season of American series like Game Of Thrones, I was tempted to check out K-dramas.
Unfortunately, I only remembered the word “Secret", and ended up watching My Secret Romance instead of the acclaimed Secret Garden. The story of My Secret Romance revolved around a prickly chaebol whose new business venture centred on fancy underwear for men, and a nutritionist who dumped him after their first date.
I reported to my classmates that I was not quite on board with their enthusiasm. Try Goblin: The Lonely And Great God and Descendants Of The Sun (DOTS), came the response; if neither works, I was told, you can give up. Zee Zindagi was airing DOTS dubbed in Hindi at the time, but I chose to stream and watch it with English subtitles. Sound decision.
The character of the charismatic special forces captain, Yoo Si Jin, played by Song Joong Ki, brought back memories of another “Fauji" who had charmed Indian TV audiences three decades ago. And like Fauji, the Shah Rukh Khan-starring series on Doordarshan, it was not just the main character that was engaging. DOTS had a more stable Sergeant Major, Seo Dae Young, as a perfect foil to the rascal that Yoo Si Jin is. So lethal was the charm of DOTS that the ministry of public security in China issued a warning: “Watching Korean dramas could be dangerous, and may even lead to legal troubles."
Aside from the romantic relationships that the two men in DOTS have with two female doctors, one of whom is in the army, what truly held my attention was the bromance between the young captain and his sergeant. In Korean, the apt word to use would be aejeong, which loosely translates to love, but not of the romantic kind.
One show which exploited the concept of aejeong is Goblin: The Lonely And Great God, which belongs to the fantasy genre. Aside from the romance between a 19-year-old mortal girl who sees ghosts and wants to become a radio producer and the immortal Goblin or Dokkaebi (a legendary creature from Korean folklore caught between worlds), the show’s punchiest lines and most humorous moments come when Goblin and Grim Reaper share the screen. For the uninitiated, Grim Reaper is the collector of souls, the Korean version of Yamraj. The relationship between the two immortal men, each waiting to be liberated from their tiresome lives among humans, is stuff for memes.
Goblin, played by Gong Yoo, oscillates beautifully between being childlike, mature, comic and tragic. Though not exactly a vampire and certainly not as young as Edward Cullen from the Twilight series, Gong Yoo’s Goblin is way more charming than surly Edward. Besides, he has a superb wardrobe, especially the overcoats. The one stark difference between Bella and Ji Eun Tak, the 900-year-old Goblin’s bride, is that unlike the former, whose only aim in life is to romance a pale vampire and confuse a buff wolf-boy, the latter has ambition.
Women in K-dramas are seldom wallflowers—they are lawyers, drama writers, journalists, surgeons, nutritionists, even CEOs. Among the strongest female characters I have enjoyed watching is that of overweight lawyer Kang Joo Eun, in the 2015 drama Oh My Venus, who gets dumped by her boyfriend of 15 years, and Yoo Hye Jung, an ass-kicking martial arts expert and a neurosurgeon in the 2016 drama Doctor Crush. Instead of moping around, Kang Joo Eun sets her mind to getting back in shape with a little help from a third-generation chaebol who doubles up as a fitness trainer, while Yoo Hye Jung's opening scene has her demolishing eight gangsters in ER with some neat moves. Of course, one cannot forget the spunky tomboyish protagonist Go Eun Chan from the 2007 show The 1st Shop Of Coffee Prince, who masquerades as a boy just so that she can work in a coffee shop that hires only male staff and learn to be a barista.
The fantasy genre in K-drama does not restrict itself to ancient mythological characters. Time travel, aliens, mermaids, dreaming up the future, all loosely belong to this category, and Korean storytellers seem to love to weave unrealistic stories just as much as they like to use these narrative devices to comment on corruption, excesses of the rich, sexual harassment, and the patriarchy rampant in their society.
Two types of professionals that show up every now and then in K-dramas are idealistic journalists and prosecutors, who are expected to expose wrongdoing by fighting against all odds. Amongst the fieriest journos in K-drama land is Dal Po, who takes on corrupt TV stations, politicians, evil businesswomen, and even his own brother, in his quest for fair and free reportage, in the series Pinocchio. However, actor Lee Jong Suk’s version of fiery is not a patch on our Arnab Goswamis, so don’t go expecting shouting matches. If action is your thing, then opt for Healer, a 2015 drama which brings together the children of two slain pro-democracy broadcast journalists who set out to expose the nexus of corrupt businessmen behind the murder of their fathers.
Most stories in K-dramas end in 16 or 20 hours (episodes are usually an hour long), have parallel stories for second leads and are usually squeaky clean. Whether the genre is historical, fantasy, science fiction, action, some form of romance does creep in but the physical aspect is limited to kosher lip-on-lip presses, with skin show minimal and hardly any overt public display of affection.
Korean scriptwriters really love their food and soju. From scenes in fine-dining restaurants to meals in pojangmachas (small tented roadside eateries), you will see actors devouring fried chicken, jajangmyeon (a noodle dish made with a black bean sauce), kimbap (seaweed-rice) and more along with multiple swigs of soju.
K-dramas have introduced me to mermaids, kingdoms of Joseon and Goryeo, kimchi, ramyeon, Go-Stop, demilitarized zone, conscription, Manga adaptations and much more, but most of all I have had a chance to experience Asian-style storytelling at its most fluid on TV.
What to watch now
Temperature Of Love
A triangle between a drama writer, her much younger boyfriend, who is a chef, and their mutual benefactor. Will the writer choose trust in a relationship over love when she decides which of the two men she should be with?
While You Were Sleeping
An upright prosecutor, a journalist and a policeman with a mysterious past—the three share interconnected dreams about future incidents. While the prosecutor and policeman can change the future based on these dreams, the journalist who has seen her own death cannot. Will she die before the series ends?
After a scandal too many, a spoiled chaebol is thrown out of home without a won by his father. The boy falls in love with a temp worker whose struggles teach and inspire him to fight for the rights of the working class.