Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Kdrama Side-eyes

Jang Geun Suk’s Olympic-level side-eye in Love Rain says it all.

While working on the Soompi version of last Tuesday’s post, I realized two things: (1) it’s incredibly hard to come up with a 15-item list about anything, and (2) I’m always writing about why I like Korean dramas without ever considering why I don’t like Korean dramas. 

It’s pretty obvious that the positive far, far outweighs the negative for me. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have some complaints.

The women. When my list of reasons for watching Kdrama appeared on Soompi, one of the commenters pointed out that, while I’d raved about the men, I hadn’t mentioned the female characters. There’s a good reason for that: I was saving them for this list. I can never quite decide what to think about female characters in Kdramas. It’s great that so many shows revolve around them, but for every Eun Chan, Shi Won, and Dok Mi, there are scores of girls who are treated as passive and peripheral to their own life stories. Think about Yoon Eun Hye’s character in Missing You: she may have been the show’s female lead, but she spent most of her time being either victimized or handed back and forth between two guys. She was an object, not a person. The same is true of Lee Min Jung in Big, Shin Min Ah in Arang and the Magistrate, and Moon Chae Won in Nice Guy. (I could go on, but it would just depress me.) As much as I love Korean dramas, they tend to be so focused on creating a male lead with dimensionality and nuance that they forget their girls could use souls, too.

Yoon Eun Hye in Coffee Prince shows why I love Kdramas.

Yoon Eun Hye in I Miss You shows why I loathe Kdramas.

Unpredictable subtitles. As someone who speaks only English, I’m grateful that practically every drama I want to watch is subbed within days of its Korean broadcast. But it’s the shows that got away that kill me. Will I ever get to watch the purportedly wonderful sitcom I Live in Cheongdam-dong? Or the currently airing plague drama At the End of the World? A good chunk of Kdrama’s international fans prefer romantic comedies to more serious fare, so Korean networks seem to have decided it’s not worth their time to subtitle more obscure, genre shows. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see them, though.

Predictable plots. I have a love-hate relationship with how predictable Korean dramas are. They seem to be moving ever-so-slightly away from the standard love-triangle format that’s been dominant for years, but that doesn’t make the plots any less predictable. In nearly every Kdrama romance, for example, the female lead still ends up with whichever male character she meets first. The biggest question is whether the show’s ending will be happy or sad, which is also pretty easy to figure out. Dramas from before 2005 tend to have tragic finales, while shows filmed since then are usually more cheerful, with all the characters arriving at the finish line in one piece and eager to begin their lifelong happy ending.

On the one hand, it would make drama watching somewhat more exciting if the endgame wasn’t so painfully obvious. On the other hand, there’s a comfort-food appeal to knowing just where a show is going before you even hit the play button. Because their plots are so often derivative, Kdramas have become specialists at using little details to set themselves apart—the characters, the settings, the specific moments and conflicts. The real thrill of these stories isn’t necessarily how they end up; it’s how they get there. 

FYI, Mvibo: I liked this show just fine as Baker King Kim Tak Gu.

Inconsistent drama titles. Encourage your minions to pick one title and stick with it, Drama Overlords. It’s both confusing and counterproductive when shows go by a number of names: Is it Bread, Love, and Dreams? Or Baker King Kim Tak Gu? And how about King of Baking, Kim Tak Goo? There’s also Heartstrings, a drama that underwent several name changes while it was still airing, and Secret Investigation Record, which may have run into licensing problems with its original name—Joseon X-files. I shouldn’t have to check the cast list and air date to be sure I haven’t already watched something.

The other side of the cultural divide. In last week’s post I wrote about how fascinating Korea is and how glad I am that it’s holding onto its unique culture in the face of globalization. But some Korean things aren’t such a good fit with my worldview. Take City Hunter: after discovering that a pair of young children were abandoned in her building’s basement, the female lead helped them find a way to survive until their dad returned. That was great of her, but I was left feeling that she had utterly ignored their emotional needs even as she met their physical ones. Did she hug them? No. Did she say everything was going to be okay? No. Did she spend more than two minutes ensuring their future safety and happiness? No. You can attribute a lot of these problems to the fact that City Hunter isn’t as wedded to the real world as I might like, but I think there are also real cultural differences at play. It’s not that my touchy-feely culture with its easy physical affection is better than the less in-your-face approach to interpersonal relationships they seem to prefer in Korea—it’s just that there’s a disconnect between these perspectives that can sometimes be jarring.

Bong Uri says: “Aren’t I cute?”
Amanda says: “No.”

Aeygo. I was more than a year into my obsession with Kdrama by the time I came across this Korean word, which is used to describe cutesy, childlike behavior. The minute I heard it everything snapepd into focus. It’s no accident that all those shows I disliked but everyone else loved included aeygo characters: Can You Hear My Heart’s soul-sucking, dead-eyed Bong Uri; Secret Garden’s vapid Gil Ra Im (not to mention practically every other character Ha Ji Won has ever played); and even wide-eyed Choi Hee Jin in the otherwise enjoyable Queen In-hyun’s Man. I like Hello Kitty cupcakes and rainbows as much as the next girl, but the instant eyelash-batting aeygo comes into a drama, I go out of it.

Sageuk clowns. Because they tend to be both very long and very boy-centric, I haven’t watched many sageuks. The ones I’ve seen, though, almost all include goofy characters that exist for no reason other than giving the show an excuse for slapstick comedy. They’ve infected everything from Jewel in the Palace (the female lead’s one-note adoptive parents) to Arang and the Magistrate (Lee Jun Ki’s poop-joke spouting servant), but rarely have anything of substance to add to the show’s story. Even the otherwise level-headed Joseon X-files fell victim to a sageuk clown: for the first few episodes, the sad-sack magistrate traveling with the male lead fit the bill perfectly. 

The only thing that got more air time in That Winter than Song Hye Kyo’s pillowy lips
was that stupid “De Chocolate Coffee” sign.
Product placement madness. Not so long ago, the makers of Korean dramas could be fined for featuring brand names in their shows. But laws have changed, and nowadays Kdramas are so chock full of product placement that they often forget to shoehorn in an actual plot. From cell phones to camping equipment to whatever chain restaurant is willing to shell out some money, dramas are increasingly prone to spend more time selling than they do storytelling.

Trend slavery. I once worked for a man whose motto was “Alike, but different.” We spent most of our time figuring out what other companies were doing and devising ways to spin their approaches to fit our own needs. The Drama Overlords also seem to subscribe to this mindset. Last year’s glut of time-travel shows was a perfect example: every network had at least one. I actually don’t mind the repetition at all. Thanks to the “but different” part of the equation, most of them were even quite watchable—each drama had its own time-slip device and logic, its own set of characters, and its own central conflict. But there’s a big world out there to look to for inspiration—must every show involve fashion designers and corporate shenanigans?

—Unreality. No television show reflects life as it’s lived in the real world, because that would be incredibly boring. But planet Kdrama often feels distressingly far from planet Earth—where are the people who work at everyday jobs? The ones who spend whole lifetimes without running into chaebol heirs? The struggles of day-to-day life can be just as gripping as the birth secrets and tragic ailments that propel so many Kdramas, but they rarely appear on air. It's perhaps telling that the most naturalistic of this spring's crop of dramas seems likely to be Nine--and Nine is about a guy who travels through time.

P.S.: Yet again, I have proven myself to be a failure at blogging (among other things). This entry was supposed to go up tomorrow but I messed up my calendar, which means an unproofread version appeared lived this morning. Eeek! 


  1. The ever changing Drama titles:
    The Korean name stays the same but it is the English translation that often changes. Baker King- the literal translation of the Korean (Baker King, Kim Takgu)was used when if first came out by bloggers and fan subbers. But when the show was played on KBS World and put onto sites like Drama Fever and Hulu the name changed to Bread, Love and Dreams to make it more accessible to an English speaking audience.
    The same happened to Shut Up Flower Boy Band. When it was put up on Hulu and Netflix the name changed to Shut Up and Lets Go. This is because most Americans are not going to know what a Flower Boy is.
    This is why Josen X-files was changed to Secret Investigation Record. Most American audiences are not going to know what Josen is as most people in America only study US and European History.

    1. I know that English translations are at the root of most of the varied show titles, but it still strikes me as silly that the same show is called something different on different legitimately licensed sites: Drama Fever (and Hulu, although they're actually the same) is Baker King Kim Tak Goo, but Amazon and Mvibo are Bread, Love, and Dreams. Of course the Drama Overlords can't control what bloggers call shows, but they should have the right to specify what their agents call them.

      It also makes me sad when drama titles are positioned for specific audiences. I had no idea what a flower boy was when I first stumbled across Boys over Flowers on Netflix, but I happily watched it anyway. Any English-speaker who's going to try a subtitled show is going to be able to look beyond a foreign title. And "Joseon" might be an unfamiliar word to most English speakers, but I bet "X-files" isn't. I've always suspected that they didn't have formal permission to use this trademarked term, which would be an excellent reason for dropping it where it might have actually done them some good—in the international market.

  2. Great post!! I agree with pretty much all your points, but most vehemently with the aegyo. It's turned me off more than a few kdrama leading ladies, and it's good to know that I'm not alone in this!

    I also feel your pain on the unpredictable nature of the availability of subs. There are some shows that I'd like to watch that just don't get subbed. I'm thankful for what I get though, and as someone who is able to read Chinese (not terribly well, but serviceably enough) I'm grateful that I get to watch I Live in Cheongdamdong with Chinese subs. Hopefully with enough kdrama miles under my belt, one day I'll actually be able to watch the dramas raw - how liberating that would be!

    1. I envy you your knowledge of Chinese. I guess I should dedicate myself to learning Korean instead of blogging, if I really want to watch the shows as they should be watched =X

      Now if only I could buy some additional brain cells...

  3. I actually find product placement quite funny. It always makes me chuckle, because it's just so obvious. And I don't mind it that much as long as it doesn't get in the way of the drama's actual storyline. I'd rather watch one random scene of the lead showing off their new camping equipment than be forced to sit through a 10-minute commercial break.
    I don't love aegyo, but I have gotten more used to it now. I do prefer my female leads not to use aegyo, but I have seen shows where the female lead is cute without making me cringe. Oh, and I don't remember Secret Garden that well, but did Ha Ji Won's character act aegyo there? I mean, wasn't she supposed to be a stuntwoman?

    1. I don't mind product placement when it's handled well. The litmus test would be the camping scenes in Big versus the camping scenes in To the Beautiful You. Big's felt random, but they sure did manage to cram in lots of branded products. In To the Beautiful You the camping setting and storylines both felt logical and well placed—they meant something instead of being a random vignette outside of the larger drama.

      I think Ha Ji Won is the go-to girl for roles that are nominally "tough" but actually require someone capable of acting like a makeup-loving, Oska sock-wearing cream puff—whether it's a stuntwoman or officer in the North Korean army. I know this is a unpopular opinion, but to me her nonthreatening, girlie affect is a way to give lip-service to having a strong female character while actually showcasing a woman who fills the same old subservient role.

      And I don't hate all aegyo, either. What is Enrique from Flower Boy Next Door but a male version of the little-girl female leads I usually hate? Yoon Eun Hye as Eun Chan in Coffee Prince is even a little aegyo, and I could not possibly love her more. So I guess the theme of this post really should have been that everything on the list is a double-edged sword—I hate it sometimes and love it other times. ;)

    2. err, you need to watch ha ji-won in other stuff. secret garden is an awful drama, period. if you're only judging her based on that and the king 2 hearts, then you're doing her a big disservice. i don't think she's the go-to girl for the type of roles you've described - other actresses have also taken on such roles. blame it on the writers, if you will, or the society for characterising "strong" women as such.

      ha ji-won is a very versatile actress and was awesome in damo, duelist and hwang jin-yi (first two are films). she also outshone her two co-stars in what happened in bali. i suggest you watch these before you pigeon-hole her as one of those aegyo actresses.

    3. sorry, damo is a drama. phone (2002) is her breakthrough film.

    4. I've also seen Ha Ji Won in both What Happened in Bali and Hwang jin-yi—and never really liked her work, although I agree that back in the day she did take more varied roles. I'll give these movies a try, though! Thanks for the recs.

    5. Duelist is a great recommendation showing Ha Ji Won's versatility as an actress. I saw the film after I watched the King 2 Hearts and Secret Garden, and was impressed how awesome she was. It certainly helps, that Duelist is an amazing masterpiece.

  4. Some of the aegyo does make me cringe, not just in dramas but in videos I've seen made and put on You Tube. I am noticing the product placement more and more but so far it doesn't bother me. As long as it doesn't interfere with the plot it is ok. Actually that's how I knew what accessories I wanted to go with my latest Samsung smartphone!

    Another side effect of watching these dramas is making me want to go to a jimibang! I had the opportunity this weekend in Duluth, GA. The Jeju Sauna. My daughter and I went and it was marvelous. It only took her 2 seconds to get over her anxiety about being naked, since it was women only in the hot tub/massage area. We had the body scrub and a massage. The body scrub was something else. Not a spot was missed! The massage was just painful enough. They had 3 hot tubs (hot, warm, cold) and 7 sauna rooms (red clay, charcoal, crystal, jade, amethyst, low temperature and ice, in addition to traditional hot and steam saunas). They also had a fitness room and restaurant. I got to wear the "gym outfit" in the communal area and should have tried to make the towel into sheep's ears but I didn't. We could have spent the night lying on a mat with a square block as our pillow but didn't. It was wonderful! I have to go to Boston soon and I'm driving my Mini Cooper (Ji Cheol) so I can stop by Flushing, NY to visit the one there. I can't recommend it more highly!!!

    1. Ooh, I'm so jealous of you right now! I live in Athens, Ga. I knew there was a large Korean community because of the Korean television station I'm lucky enough to get and, because of the large population of Korean-American students at my high school. One girl even started a Korean Culture Club where we learned the Korean Alphabet and the basics of the Korean language and chatted about K-Pop and K-Dramas. It was awesome. Until she graduated :(

      I didn't know there was a jimjilbang though! And so close to where I live! *fangirl squeaks* How much did it cost, in total, though? The price could be a deciding factor in whether I could go or not, unfortunately. I hope you enjoy the one in New York as much as you liked the one here!

    2. Admission is $25! That includes access to all areas. It does not include body scrubs or massages, those are extra. The body scrub and massage I had was $70. And you can stay there for 24 hours if you want to, even sleep there. It is a family oriented place, plenty of children and very multi-cultural. There were as many non-Asians there as there were Asians. Go to their website: www.jejusauna.net. You really owe it to yourself to go!

    3. That sounds awesome! I could never be naked in front of strangers, though =X

    4. My daughter thought so too but realized very quickly that it didn't matter. All the other ladies were naked as well and didn't even glance your way. On my trip to Boston I have decided to visit the one in Palisades Park, NJ, King Sauna, with another one of my daughters. It has better reviews and since I had already been to Palisades Park to visit the Coffee Prince coffeehouse I would already be familiar with the area. I am just sad the Coffee Prince is no longer in business!

  5. Do you mind if I write a blog response to this post? I started writing a comment and lets just say 40minutes later it's a good 600 words and I've only responded about aeygo! haha. Seriously, though, this is fascinating...

    1. Bring it on! I always look forward to your posts, so I'm happy to do anything I can to spur one on. Of course, it might inspire a response to the response, but I guess that's okay, too ;)

  6. on aegyo --- I thought being Asian was the reason aegyo doesn't bother me. Culture-wise the idea of aegyo would be beyond comprehension for many, the giggling, the shy eyes, the itty-bitty whining...then I realized aegyo doesn't bother me as much because I readily accepted it as a Korean trait. It was new to me so I easily accepted it as what makes them charming, so to speak. The concept of it could differ in other countries/cultures. So I guess if you don't believe in using your feminine wiles, aegyo would be a bit of a bother to understand.

  7. whoaa,, I agreed with you on TWTWB things

    overall the drama was good but there's something that caught my eyes was the cafe signs,, it shows up everywhere *unless the last episode I think*
    I truly believed that the original cafe was the place where SHG friend, Mira's working place, rite??
    But for some episodes, I noticed that every cafe they entered have the same name,, I remembered the episodes when SHG & JIS argued then she fainted on the stairs, I just questioned, since when the cafe have stairs??

    well, enough for my comments, then :))
    thx for sharing

  8. Something I still have to understand is why feminists like you watch kdramas or basically any other asian tv show. They're obviously not made for women like you...

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