|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 I Miss You shows why I loathe Kdramas.|
—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!