Tuesday, July 16, 2013

A Rose by the Same Name

One of the things I learned early on in my obsession with Korean drama is that I can’t take anything for granted. Everything about the shows I watch—from their language to their characters to the pop-cultural seas that spawned them—is almost totally different from what I’m used.

Take The Secret Garden. I watched this 2011 Korean drama early on in my relationship with Kdrama, assuming it was related to the beloved children’s book written by Frances Hodgson Burnett. This belief was one of the reasons I hated the series—the book The Secret Garden was my constant childhood companion, and I’ve probably seen its lovely 1993 movie adaptation at least a hundred times. (Watching it is like taking a long, leisurely vacation without having to leave the couch.)

But the only thing the Korean series and its Western counterparts share is the occasional appearance of a plant or two. Maybe the book’s title was something the drama’s writers were aware of, but maybe not. There’s also a Korean precedent for the name: a garden in Changdeok Palace has been called Biwon—generally translated as Secret Garden—since the late nineteenth century. My Secret Garden actually came later: it wasn’t even published until 1911. So if I automatically believe that the drama took its name from the book, should I also believe that the book took its name from the Korean place?

There’s also the issue of translating titles, which is a notoriously difficult task and more of an art than a science. Words and ideas don’t always have exact correspondences from language to language, so there will always be a degree of interpretation involved in any translation. (This is why there are so many fabulous internet lists of word English is sadly lacking. Here’s one from the magazine Mental Floss.) As I know fewer Korean words than some elephants, I’m in no position to assess the true meaning of a drama’s title.

On the other hand, it can be pretty obvious that some Korean shows really do take their names from Western predecessors. Last summer’s boy/man body-swap drama Big is a perfect example: it borrowed the title and general theme of a 1988 Tom Hanks movie. (In contrast, titles rarely travel from Korea to the West. The only one I can think of is the Attack the Block, a movie released in the UK in 2011 that’s purportedly a homage to Korea’s 1999 Attack the Gas Station. I haven’t seen the later, but the former is a wonderful blend of black comedy, horror, and social commentary.)

As I can’t get enough of writing about things I don’t understand, here’s a quick rundown of some Korean shows that share similar titles with a Western doppelgänger.

The Master’s Sun
Korean drama airing in August 2013

The Orphan Master’s Son
American novel released January 2012

The Hong sisters are clearly no strangers to Western pop culture, having penned Korean remakes of the American movies Overboard and Big. But I can’t imagine that their upcoming drama will have much in common with its similarly titled American counterpart, Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son.

Based on early reports, the drama focuses on the relationship between a woman who sees ghosts and her boss, a shopping mall president described as “haughty,” that most Kdrama of adjectives. It’s being billed as a horror-comedy and seems likely to follow the standard Hong sisters template: broad comedy mixed with romantic shenanigans and genre silliness.

The novel, on the other hand, is a chilling journey through the brutal absurdity of life under the North Korean military dictatorship. It unflinchingly details the hunger and deprivation that drive its (antihero)  hero to work for the government, first patrolling the South Korean border and then traveling to Japan on kidnapping missions. After spending years in a government-run work camp, he eventually gains his freedom by killing and impersonating a political figure, only to end up falling in love with the dead man’s wife.

So are the similar titles intentional? I have no idea. The English translation Master’s Sun seems to be faithful to the drama’s name in Korean, so it’s not as if it was created specifically for English-speaking audiences and meant to play off the novel’s title.

People in Korea definitely know about the book, although it has yet to be published there; I’ve found a number of articles about it from Korean news sources. Then again, Javabeans recently pointed out that the drama’s title is a punny take on the names of its lead characters. Also worth consideration is the fact that son and sun don’t seem to be homophones in Korean—which means the Hong sisters are either punning in multiple languages now, or didn’t have the echo in mind when they named their show.

Relationship intended? Probably not

Full House
Korean drama that aired in 2004

Full House
American sitcom that aired from 1987 to 1995

These shows have exactly two things in common: their titles, and the fact that they feature unrelated characters who live together. The American series revolved around a widowed father of three girls who shared his family’s home with his brother-in-law and his best friend. The Korean version focuses on the love-hate relationship between a man and woman forced by improbable circumstances to cohabit in her house, a building named (wait for it) Full House.

I always assumed that these shared titles were intentional, but now I’m not so sure—based its Wikipedia entry, the American Full House never even aired in Korea.

Relationship intended? Maybe

The Great Catsy
A 2005 Korean webtoon that inspired a 2007 drama

The Great Gatsby
American novel published in 1925

This title caused some major groaning the first time I came across it: If you’re going to use the name of one of the greatest American novels, why not just use it instead of making some stupid pun? After a little research, though, I realized why the title had been changed: the original webtoon featured anthropomorphized cats in an ever-so-slightly Gatsby-esque love triangle. (I suspect the cats had a happier ending, at least.) The drama’s promotional materials are even up-front about aping the book’s title.

Relationship intended? Yes

The Thorn Birds
Korean drama that aired in 2011

The Thorn Birds
Australian novel published in 1979 and turned into an American miniseries in 1983

If Colleen McCullough’s epic novel about three generations of Australian sheep ranchers is to be believed, its title comes from a Celtic myth. And the writers of this Kdrama certainly believed: Although the series seems to be a traditional urban melodrama that has nothing at all in common with the novel, its dramawiki entry outlines the same myth that’s described in the book:
“A thorn bird is a mythical bird who searches for a thorn tree from the day it is born. When it finds it, the bird impales itself upon the sharpest thorn, and rises above the agony to sing the most beautiful song ever heard.”

Relationship intended? Probably

Lie to Me
Kdrama that aired in 2011

Lie to Me
American series that aired from 2009 to 2011

One is an American thriller about a genius psychologist who solves crimes with his understanding of body language, and the other is a Korean rom-com about a girl who lies to her friends about being married, eventually falling in love with the handsome young cheabol she ropes into her story. The only similarity between these shows is that they both include characters prone to telling whoppers.

According to Wikipedia, the American Lie to Me aired in Korea before the drama was made. Was the Korean show’s title intended to correspond with something audiences already knew? Maybe. And it might have done the trick, at least in the West: when I first started watching Kdramas I saw a number of Netflix reviews from people who had been shocked to discover it wasn’t the American show they were expecting—but watched it anyway.

Relationship intended? Probably

The Marriage Plot
Korean drama that aired in 2012

The Marriage Plot
American novel published in 2011

I have to suspect that Nobel Prize–winning novelist Jeffrey Eugenides would be amused that a Korean drama immediately borrowed the title of his book, which is a notoriously smarty-pants look at a love triangle between recent Brown graduates. I’m not sure that’s actually the case, though. The Kdrama showcases a mother who plots to marry off her daughters by forcing them to cohabit with eligible bachelors, but Google translates its original title Korean into Tricks of Marriage.

Relationship intended? Probably


  1. What kills me how sometimes the English title will have no relationship to what the drama is about. Secret Garden? What in the heck has that got to do with body-swapping?

    So when I saw a blurb about a new Jdrama called Starman Kono Hoshi no Koi, I figured "Starman" was a reference to the amnesiac hero. I was happily surprised to discover when I watched ep 1 that he literally IS a starman! Woot! And I totally got Jeff Bridges-Starman vibes from the awkward and innocent way the guy behaved :D That may not last, but I'm loving it so far.

    1. I assumed the Secret Garden was the magical place the two characters went when they first drank the body swapping potion.

  2. I've often thought about looking at comparisons like that but I've never done it. Thanks for doing that!

    I had a hard time with the English titles when I was a newbie. I learned quickly to never really go by the titles or the promos, or even by the summaries sometimes. Because that is how ended up watching melos that looked like comedies. I mean I'm thinking oh that looks like it might be funny, I'm happy happy watching a drama and then it's omg someone just DIED wtf, oh eek there goes a limb.... Totally traumatized. I learned to do my research lol.

    Then again I SHOULD have paid attention to the title I Saw The Devil when a friend of mine recommended it as a ACTION movie. So I'm thinking, you know, martial arts, and well, I had two friends watch it with me, and well, after our screaming died down, I'm lucky they are still friends, but they will never watch another Korean movie ever.

    RE-Secret Garden I THINK MAYBE refers to the middle of the woods place where they got those potions. That drama was a lot of fun but the supernatural element made absolutely no sense. I gave up on that part and just immersed myself in Hyun Bin because he was just awesome.

  3. Secret Garden is the only one I've seen of the ones you list here. I had no idea what it was about but had to watch it for Hyun Bin. I had not read the English Secret Garden so I can't compare. I know a lot of the titles are similar to English ones. On the flip side though is Couple or Trouble, which is almost exact remake of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell's movie Overboard. I loved Overboard and have watched it many times but I have to say I liked the Korean drama better!

  4. I just lied! I have seen the Korean drama Lie to Me... Anything with Yoon Eun Hye I would watch even though this one wasn't as good as Coffee Prince or Goong (Princess Hours).

  5. I don't know if this helps...but for the drama "Secret Garden" the Hangeul is really just the Hanguelization of the English - "sikeuris gadeun" so it's not actually Korean...and I am sure that the name comes from the fourth dimension secret garden of the painting where the flower potion was made...

  6. In Full House I kept waiting for the house to, you know, become FULL or something as the title would lead you think. Full of love? No thanks. I want sheninegans! Then getting none of those, really, I just waited until anything except yelling and cleaning the Full House happened. I still love Rain's confession at the end though.

  7. I have gotten used to it that just because the English title sounds like it takes its name after some Western show, film or a book doesn't mean the drama is going to have any relation to the original story whatsoever. I didn't even realize that Full House was also an American TV-show until later on (because I never watched the American Full House). But when I did realize, I wondered if there was an intentional connection between the two.

  8. Scent of a Woman is one, although I guess that was a movie rather than a drama. But the drama has nothing to do with the movie, except that I think they danced the tango in both versions, lol.

    And oh, the poor people who ended up watching Lie to Me when they thought they were going to be watching the American show. Not a good drama to start with; if that was the first one I watched, it would put me off k-dramas forever!


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