Winter Sonata: A-
Will It Snow at Christmas: B+
The Snow Queen: B+
I spent a good portion of my youth reading books by the notoriously trashy American author V.C. Andrews and watching As the World Turns. This means I understood makjang as a concept long before I realized such a handy word existed for the laughably over-the-top storylines these entertainments offered—often populated by evil amnesiac identical twins suffering from terminal diseases.
Most people talk about makjang as if it’s a bad thing. (For an actual definition of the word, see the ever-helpful Electric Ground.) But while burning through fifteen years worth of Korean dramas online, it has become clear that my background in the absurd has tainted me—the crazier and more makjangy a plotline is, the more I love it. Faux-cest? Spontaneous blindness? Vicious stepmothers and false friends who secretly work against the lead characters every chance they get? Bring it on! Well-executed moments of nutty impossibility can make a melodrama all the more fun, as far as I’m concerned.
The apparent granddaddy of makjang is Winter Sonata, a show so influential that it’s still being mocked (and copied) a decade after it first aired in Korea. Even a total Kdrama newbie like me understood the reference when the central love triangle of My Girlfriend is a Gumiho found themselves at the alter of a fancy church exclaiming, “But we’re all siblings?”
Many older Korean dramas don’t stand up to viewing today—their low budgets, questionable acting, and deeply traditional gender roles make them feel even older than they are. Winter Sonata isn’t totally without this sort of problem: a microphone is visible hanging above the actors’ heads at least once in every one of its twenty episodes. The male lead’s wardrobe seems to consist entirely of cast-offs from the set of Golden Girls. And the female lead allows herself to be dragged around by all and sundry, so passive she barely puts up a fight when the guy who tried to rape her three episodes earlier drags her away from her boyfriend and into his car. But to my eye the show’s swoony love story, beautiful scenery, and did-that-actually-just-happen? plotting more than make up for these shortcomings and its slower, old-school pacing.
Weirdly, when it comes to drama titles any reference to winter themes seems to be code for makjang madness. Witness The Snow Queen and Will It Snow at Christmas, two of the most wonderfully loony Kdramas I’ve had the pleasure of viewing.
The Snow Queen is a lovely, quiet drama focusing on the tortured Hyun Bin as he comes to terms with his (supposed) culpability for his best friend's suicide, while tastefully putting the moves on said best friend’s little sister—who, wouldn’t you know it, is terminally ill. It’s a combo platter heaped with one unlikely misery after another, and I happily ate every bite.
Will It Snow at Christmas takes things a step further: its breaks its 16-episode run into three distinct storylines featuring the same characters over the course of a decade, with each storyline more insane than the last. By the time the final segment roles around you practically need a scorecard to keep track of the characters' histories, full as they are with near-miss marriages, impersonation of tragically dead brothers, and brief episodes of intense rivalry that magically disappear from one storyline to the next.
America loves makjang, too—after all, what was the critically lauded show Lost but the world’s single most sprawling, out-of-control makjang drama? And yet, we haven’t adopted this handy term. More’s the pity, I say.