The whole thing intersects sometimes with KPop or k-pop. K-pop can sometimes encompass kdrama and sometimes it’s used to refer exclusively to the South Korean music industry. Of course, there is huge cross over between the music industry and the drama industry in South Korea, far more than there is in America. In the States, most of us can name the Big Stars who’ve successfully crossed from music to acting or vice versa—Timberlake, J Lo, Will Smith—but in Korea these talents don’t hire their own agents who work for them; no, the talent works for an agency that shells out a lot of money to train and raise up the future star, ideally in as many entertainment fields as possible. Because if a member of Girls Generation is on a drama it guarantees a certain male audience, and if your favorite drama oppa sings you a song, you’re gonna buy his CD.
This may sound obscure to many Americans, but we’re not talking “cult classics” here. This is a finely honed money making machine that in under 15 years has come to rival Samsung* among South Korean exports. An utterly addictive, completely consuming, why-can’t-any-one-else-hit-on-this-formula, unique TV watching experience.
*(It so happens I’m watching kdrama on a Samsung TV. Totally coincidental.)
No, I don't speak Korean.
Yes, they’re subtitled. After five years of public school administered French lessons I could barely order at a French delicatessen, why anyone would think I suddenly had functioning foreign language skills was beyond me.
Most of the shows with US/worldwide licensing are subtitled in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The really popular ones are dubbed into Spanish. I’ve yet to see an English dubbing, and I don’t think I’d want to at this point.
Of course, I understand the tension here: “Subtitled” has come to be a code word for stuffy, pretentious, European art house films. And what I’m discussing is pure candy, fabulously low-brow, insanely addictive TV shows . . . but subtitled.
We call it what it is: an addiction.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard someone describe themselves as an “HBO addict” or say they have a “sitcom addiction.” They express some form of like. Dislike, mild like, really like. Occasionally (rarely) love. But really, the “love” status is usually reserved for one show--I love True Blood!—rather than applied to an entire channel or genre or country’s output of TV.
Most addicting is the kdrama storytelling. Namely the lightheartedness. Dire things may happen. Horrible things may happen. But the show always resolves in a lighthearted way. “Antiheroes” aren’t really a Thing in kdrama. All the better. American and British film will only show a character alone with their emotions (particularly if those emotions are happy in nature) if it can serve as juxtapositioning for what comes next. A character alone in a car smiling is not a happy situation, it is a situation of utter dread because the absolute worst is about to unfold and a smart audience knows it--Downton Abbey, I'm looking at you. In Korean drama, a character shown driving down the road smiling, is shown to the audience to convey that he is happy, not to make more notable his eminent death.
I watch kdramas for the same reason I read romance novels: I know I won’t be depressed when the story is over, which is something no other genera of novel promises in every book.
Further addicting is the format.
Note to self: Episode One often sucks.
The first is that one “season” of kdrama encompasses the entire story. Usually it’s 16-24 episodes, but sometimes it’s 10 and sometimes it’s 50+. But whatever the number, every drama gets “one season.” The story’s end is in sight from the first episode. With rare exception, kdramas don’t “get renewed” for the next season. They are finite productions. So the story arc is like that of a miniseries or elongated movie.
The absolutely fabulous part of this is that it’s impossible to become addicted to a kdrama and have it canceled at the end of season on a cliffhanger. When season one ends, there is nothing left to be resolved; the story is done. You can enter in wholeheartedly and you will never be dumped by station execs! Of course, the flip side is that there will be no Season Ten to look forward to . . . and as someone who is a kdrama addict and has spent (unwittingly) a decade watching Grey’s Anatomy, I have mixed feelings about the many-seasoned show vs the one-season kdrama.
The second thing to understand about kdramas is that two episodes air every week. Where US dramas air once a week—for example, every Monday for twenty weeks—Korean dramas air twice—every Monday and Tuesday for ten weeks. What this means is that the story-hook, the thing that really piques your interest and solidifies your future viewership, often does not come in the first 15 or 30 minutes of the initial episode. It often comes at the end of episode one—sometimes it doesn’t come until episode two!—because the writers and producers of kdrama know that the second shot comes the next day.
These opening episodes meander around, establishing backstory and premise without great urgency because they appear to operate under the notion that they have two hours, not one, of the audience’s attention with which to flourish.
The result is that there are a great many kdramas I love that have an Episode One of absolute suckage. Kimchi Family and That’s Okay It’s Love, I’m looking at you. The story doesn’t know where to go and so it meanders around in the “set up” phase of things. Kimchi Family shows Ho Tae the gangster, and Kang San the restaurant chef in their roles pre-story, but there are only hints at the traditional kimchi-making family-centric restaurant that will turn out to be the beating heart for so many characters. That’s Okay It’s Love Episode One is a hot freaking mess. You would think, from that first episode, that the story is going to be about a party-loving DJ who gets knifed by a psychotic jailbird and a woman/roommates who engage in gross admissions of bodily functions. Nope. Not what the story’s about at all. In fact, That’s Okay It’s Love turns into a fabulous exploration of mental illness and how we treat it, live with it, and accept and thrive with it. But again, the first episode’s a hot mess.
Oh, and they're long. Really long.
Where do you find these things?
Which is why I eventually got a subscription to Drama Fever—they have a substantial collection and once you pay to play in their sandbox, they stop the commercials, which when you consider that an episode averages 64 minutes, and I’m addicted to these things, adds up to a not insignificant portion of my life that I'm reclaiming. As I understand it, Viki also hosts videos and occasionally other sites do as well, but I can't speak to them from experience.
Drama Fever focuses on foreign language television for English and Spanish speaking audiences in North America. Their app features a Chromecast option that they continue to improve (the cast crashes a lot less in 2015 often than it did in 2014 and the subtitle formatting is vastly more readable in recent months) and the site can be rendered in either English or Spanish. I’ve not yet explored the selection of dramas and telenovelas in Spanish and Portuguese, but I know the site contains those shows as well as short films in Hebrew and French.
Not everything is available immediately. Many Korean shows are available the day after they first air. Some shows, particularly those coming out of mainland China, take months to release US licensing rights to online providers such as Hulu or Drama Fever. The hold up for any of these sites is acquisition of foreign licenses for the shows, which is controlled by the companies that own the show and is not not completely free of government entanglement. Although South Korea seems to have cleared that particular pipeline as many of the Korean dramas coming out right now are available in the US on Drama Fever within 24 hours of their original airing (give or take some for the translation teams working to subtitle them).
Where to start . . .
It’s a great set up: tomboy faced with ongoing male affection from an inappropriate source realizes things about herself, her situation, and her friends who may be more than friends . . . but it didn’t go where it would have gone if it were an American show and that’s what I loved about it. Although I won’t say more than that because spoilers.
If you’re coming to kdrama as someone who loves American romantic comedies, try The Last Cinderella.
Drama Fever describes the show as “One of our most popular dramas, this romantic comedy tells the story of Han Kyul, the handsome son of a wealthy hotelier family who is set in his bachelor ways and constantly deflects his family's attempts to make him commit. The constant pressure to get married drives him to hire a goofy young delivery boy Eun Chan to pretend to be his gay lover to scare away his family's set-ups. Trouble starts when Han Kyul begins to get to know the hardworking and lovable Eun Chan, and begins to develop real feelings for him—only to discover that "he" is actually a girl disguised as a boy. A rare drama that deals with homosexuality, this controversial series received multiple awards, such as the 2007 MBC Acting Awards for Yoon Eun Hye and Gong Yoo, as well as Best TV drama award at the 2008 Korean Producers' Awards.”
The delightful part of this for an American intrigued by gender identity drama is that Eun Chan never offers a deliberate portrayal of femininity or masculinity, Eun Chan is simply Eun Chan. Initially she is mistaken for male, not deliberately acting thus to deceive, but when she’s offered employment in a male-only position, she grabs at the chance to ease her family’s poverty. Perception of the character's is entirely based on the viewer’s lens not the character’s intentional switching of modes to suit gender norms. This grows intriguing when Eun Chan develops feelings for two men, one who has always assumed her to be a woman and one who has always assumed her to be another man.
Yoon Eun Hye is stunning in the role of Eun Chan, one that I think many kdrama actresses would hesitate to take because it challenges the pervasive hyper-femininity of the kdrama star actress.
If you’re coming to kdrama as someone who loves American drama about gender identity or realism that does not succumb to plotless artsy crap, try starting with The Coffee Prince.
Boys Over Flowers started as a Japanese manga/anime, became a live action Japanese TV show in the 90s, had a Taiwanese remake, then another Japanese remake, then finally in what is perhaps the most famous version, a 2008 Korean remake. If you’ve any familiarity with anime, you’ll see its influences in the way Boys Over Flowers is filmed, including Gum Jan Di’s three part reactions to the stupid things Goo Jun Pyo says: first her face is contorted in listening confusion, then beginnings of disbelief, followed by outright anger and outrage. It’s also apparent in how the two male leads, Goo Jun Pyo and Yoon Ji Hoo are dressed, all in black and all in white/light gray, respectively. Plaids and argyles are granted only to the secondary male characters.
If you can accept the “comic book” aspects of this show, then you’ve gone a long way toward embracing the light hearted spirit of kdrama.
The story follows Guem Jan Di, a poor high schooler who ends up a student at the most prestigious of fictional high schools. Her desire to stick up for the downtrodden both gets her into the school and makes her the target of the most influential clique on campus, the F4. The F4 consists of four “flower boys,” insanely beautiful young men of wealth, who run the school as far as the student body is concerned. Led by Goo Jun Pyo, they can make or break anyone on campus. Jun Pyo is cruel and capricious, and when Jan Di crosses his path, he expects her to break immediately, same as everyone else. When she doesn’t, he decides that Jan Di, the first girl to challenge him, will become his first love . . . regardless of her feelings on the subject. Or his vicious mother’s feelings on the subject of an impoverished girlfriend for her heir-to-the-family-fortune son. The story covers more than two years of Jun Pyo and Jan Di challenging each other as well as society. They grow and change, overcoming hurdles within as well as without. And there’s some great on-location shoots. You can tell from the opening episode through the last that this is anything but a low-budget production.
If you’re coming to kdrama as an anime fan or someone not afraid to engage in the corny, ridiculously over simplified aspects of high school romances, start with the new classic Boys Over Flowers.
"Melodrama" is not a dirty word in Korean entertainment.
There was this moment that would happen about once a semester in my MFA workshops: the instructor would pause, considering his or her words, then say, "But don't you think this is getting a bit melodramatic?" That was it. The stink had been stunk. "A bit melodramatic" was a demand to excise everything dramatic and melodramatic and vaguely plot-ish in the story like a surgeon removing tumors. Melodrama. It wasn't a story death sentence, not in workshop, because the story could be saved before attempting to publish it . . . but if it wasn't removed in time, then yes, melodrama meant creative death—this we had instilled in us.
Let’s face it, a critical review that says an American TV show is indulging in “melodrama” is a damning review. “Melodramatic” does not produce high ratings. The last bastion of melodrama on American TV is the soap opera, and honestly, I can’t take those any more. For one, it just goes on and on and freaking on without a realistic moment.
Kdrama can primarily be thought of as romantic comedy, although there are action stories and those that are more dramatic than romantic . . . but sooner or later they’re all melodrama.
And everyone’s okay with that.
There is no aspiration whatsoever to excise the melodramatic. And that lets the drama indulge in the near-melodramatic and excise the “gritty realism” that has come to permeate American TV.
Don't get me wrong: Grit has its place. Particularly if one is scrubbing out one’s sink. But one does not always need to scrub the saccharine residue of entertainment from one’s eyeballs. Sometimes it’s best to apply substance and saccharine together, without apology. Sometimes it's time for kdrama.