Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mock-Heroic: Kdrama’s Hidden Antiheros

Boys over Flowers: Cake wreck in 3... 2...1...
With the American TV series Dexter and Breaking Bad ending, there has been a lot of talk in the entertainment press about antiheroes. Korean drama tends to shy away from the leads quite as unsavory as the ones in these two shows—one a “good” serial killer, the other a meth-cooking drug kingpin.

But Kdrama does traffic in antiheroes. There’s the recently wrapped Cruel City, which by all reports was peopled by drug dealers and prostitutes. Essentially every male lead written by Lee Kyung Hee obviously fits the bill, from tricksy former gigolo Ma Roo in Nice Guy to I’m Sorry I Love You’s dirty, mean Moo Hyuk. And you can also find a cache of antiheroes in an unexpected place: romantic comedies and melodramas.

What else can you call a character like Boys over Flowers’s Joon Pyo? He doesn’t eat orphans for breakfast or spend his spare time torturing kittens, but he’s certainly no hero. Instead of being morally upright and sympathetic, he’s self-centered and devoted to making people miserable. When a girl with a crush on him gives Joon Pyo a cake, he throws it in her face in front of their whole school. And when somebody offends him, they’re marked for destruction by Shin Hwa’s entire student body with the dreaded red card of the F4.

But the drama never really acknowledges that his behavior makes him something less than desirable. He goes about his business without remorse or repercussion, with girls falling at his feet wherever he goes. He’s rich and powerful and handsome, so naturally they want him. The fact that he would be happier to crush you than look at you is never really discussed—by the drama, or by us. Nobody writes about Joon Pyo as anti-hero, because we’re so wrapped up in Joon Pyo as babe.

This character does have some things going for him. He’s loyal, has keen fashion sense, and is willing to to follow his heart wherever it leads—even into the arms of the poorest, loneliest girl in his status-obsessed school. By the end of the show, his love for that girl also gives him something like redemption. He grows up some, and finds more constructive ways to spend his time. (Whether Joon Pyo’s redemption is more than skin deep, we never really know—he doesn’t apologize to any of the people he squashed and never repents for what he’s done. It’s all water under the bridge as soon as he decides he loves Jan Di, the show’s pseudo-spunky female lead.)

Playful Kiss: True heroes usually spend less time making “Bitch, please” faces.

To someone new to Asian dramas, Joon Pyo might seem like an anomaly, a jerk who gets the girl in spite of himself. But the rest of us know that the exact opposite is true; being a jerk can seem like a requirement for getting the girl. From My Lovely Sam Soon to Playful Kiss and Master’s Sun, the male leads of Korean romantic comedies are usually cut from the same cloth—they’re powerful, privileged, creeps with few personal charms.

I’ve been making my way through They Kiss Again, sequel to the 2005 Taiwanese drama It Started with a Kiss and predecessor to Korea’s Playful Kiss. The male leads in all the various incarnations of this series are also secret antiheroes. They’re mean and arrogant and like to laugh at the failings of their goofy, imperfect female lead. And yet they’re always treated as a trophy of inestimable value—they’re handsome, rich, and smart, and acquiring them is literally the only thing the show’s female lead ever cares about. The nasty temper and proclivity toward yelling that come with those things are just unquestioned parts of his personality, and are rarely shown in a negative light or used as a source of comedy. (In an American setting, this kind of character morphs into a Sheldon from Big Bang Theory—he’s fussy and fastidious and painfully out of step with the world around him.)

In contrast, the horrible behavior of the male lead in Master’s Sun is played for laughs. The Hong sisters, its writers, are notoriously fond of toying with Kdrama tropes, and they’ve built a number of funny moments around Joong Won’s kingly attitude. The best so far involved a rescue mission that was aborted midstream, lest it offend a potential investor in his company. Instead of freeing the female lead from captivity in the investor’s house, Joong Won backs off the instant money comes up. “Don’t open the door,” says the investor as the two of them stand outside of Gong Shil’s prison. After about two seconds of deliberation, he decides to comply—only to see the female lead come busting out under her own steam. “I didn’t open the door!” he proclaims several times over the course of the next scene, just to be sure that nobody believes he would actually put do-gooding before his personal interests.

Master’s Sun: “Just a reminder—I didn’t open the door.”

So why are antihero types at the heart of so many romances, when you probably wouldn’t want to actually spend time with them in real life? And why do they always win in the end? I’m sure part of the reason is that they’re interesting characters—nice guys make for boring leads. A male lead who starts off as a jerk is a great thing from a drama’s perspective: it allows for stories about him being a creep and about his redemption, and gives the actor who plays him lots of room to grow the character into something new. Jerkhood has its wish-fulfillment appeal for viewers. What could be better than  changing the very DNA of a cold, heartless man so much that he’ll love you forever, with bottomless passion and eternal fervor? (Which, of course, is almost always what happens by the end of the show.) Another added bonus is that winning him brings financial gain and almost godlike power—when you control the king of the world, it makes you empress of the universe.

The lineage of these characters is often traced back to Mr. Darcy, the dashing hero of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But it seems to me that Kdramas miss a key element of Darcy’s story: He sometimes misbehaved, but was ultimately revealed to have been a decent guy all along. (Darcy acted like a bastard because he was all torn up about the book’s true creep having taken advantage of his sister and left her with a ruined reputation.) For Kdrama leads, on the other hand, decency isn’t an inherent personality trait; instead, it’s usually inspired by the love of their everygirl female lead.

What Happened in Bali: So much pretty, so many antihero antics.
(So Ji Sub was way cuter before he got his eyes done, wasn't he?)

A Selection of Antiheroes
Woo Han, Shining Inheritance. Relatable every-guy Lee Seung Gi convincingly morphs from a spoiled slacker to a besotted workaholic. Redemption status: Full

Lee Shin, Heartstrings. Forcing girls to buy coffee for you is not courtship. And noble idiocy can’t save your character after you’ve manhandled your female lead—even if you thought it was for her own good. Redemption status: Epic fail

Jun Pyo, Boys over Flowers. If you cause someone to almost jump off a building in the first five minutes of your drama, you’re automatically an antihero. Redemption status: Questionable

Jee Ha, Spring Waltz. Perhaps the most Mr. Darcy of them all, Jee Ha’s bad behavior arises from the painful loss of his first love. Redemption status: Sublime

Joo Won, Secret Garden. In spite of what this drama might lead you to believe, belittling a girl’s purse is not the way to her heart. (The foam kiss, on the other hand, just might be.) Redemption status: This mean boy metamorphosed into a domesticated pussycat

Tae Joo, Que Sera, Sera. From aggressive gigolo to responsible husband material in 16 episodes. Well played, Kdrama. Redemption status: Ongoing

Kang Jae, Lovers. A gangster with a heart of steel brings turf warfare into the life of a shallow-as-a-teaspoon plastic surgeon. Sorrow and misery commence, along with some hot kissing. Redemption status: An all-around success

Moo Hyuk, I’m Sorry, I Love You. I just hope his dirty, callous, and mean personality isn’t contagious. On the bright side, he didn’t make out with his sister—much. Redemption status: If he was redeemed, it was by accident

Jae Min and In Wook, What Happened in Bali. This pair of true antiheroes breaks laws and hearts wherever they go. Redemption status: Not happening. Ever

P.S.—No Thursday review this week. I’m still in the middle of They Kiss Again. Next up, some more contemporary (and shorter!) dramas, I think.


  1. It IS hard to accept these antiheroes despite their good looks and bits of all-too-late sweet behavior. My first drama was Lie To Me. The male lead didn't start off by berrating and insulting the woman like most do. He helped the girl to the hospital and then became the subject of lying gossip. So, then he had a problem with her. Reasonable. After that, I saw Shinning Inheritance and (not yet clued in to the many wonders that are Li Seung-Gi) I was appalled to see this ignorant squirt abusing our heroine and painfully came to realize that the drama wanted me to root for him. Whaa!? I actually thought till almost the end that she'd go for the good guy when I looked up some images online and found the scene of the kiss on the bridge. I had to choke back a scream. I hadn't learned yet that the creep is usually the one to win in love. Sigh. I agree with you about Heartstrings. I tuned out mid-Ep 1 cause Lee Shin was insufferable. A year and half later I finished it and loved all the other characters. I don't think these guys actually get nicer, they just become boyfriends.

    1. P.S. Thank you for your mentions of In Time With You! I needed a completed drama to watch between episodes of Master's Sun and remembered what you'd written about the lead couple. I've been having so much fun with M.S. that the weeks were hard to wait through but now I'm glad to have the time to watch ITWY. The characters and story are so thoughtful and well written. I love it - Thank you!

  2. Moving and unpacking things made me find a lot of stuff previously thought lost - Including my "I <3 Mr Darcy" nightshirt, Lol. I do blame him for this trend of prickly rude antiheroes, however I like your point that he's ultimately thought a decent person, and that it's the majority of characters who find him this way, unlike the maybe 1 person or random side character who knows the true personality of our Kdrama lead.

    Shame that our love of these character types are still tied to the dream of women being able to change the man they love. They create highly entertaining and swoon-worthy plot points, but are still so unrealistic (like.. so many things about kdramas in general) Oh well. Fantasy is fantasy.

  3. Like you said, antiheroes are way more interesting than nice guys (though I have lot of love for sincerely nice guys like Da Ren in In Time With You). Jun Pyo is actually one of my most favourite characters, Ji Hoo, compared to Jun Pyo, is just plain boring. And that goes for most second male leads, even though they are reliable and kind, they are almost never interesting enough to root for them to get the girl.

    I'd pick a nice stable guy in real life, but it's just no fun seeing that happen in a drama. So I think this might be one of the reasons why male leads are sterotypical jerks with weird habits and bad-temper. Also, having an antihero clash with the spunky heroine in a romcom ensures a lot of comedic situations and those are always fun to watch.

    I do agree that the redemption part may sometimes be too-little-too-late, but I'm generally fine with the jerk getting the girl in the end because it's way more exciting (unless of course, the guy has done something really horrible to the girl that I can never forget, like the torture scene in Gaksital). After all, a true drama series needs *drama*, and you can get that when everybody's all nice and friendly.

    1. edit: and you CAN'T get that when everybody's all nice and friendly :D :D

  4. As much as I would like to think I am above it, the jerk who can only be brought down to earth by the woman he loves appeal gets me every time. You're exactly right, it's the thought that this one girl in the whole world can make a heartless selfish man care about something. But if you step back and look at the big picture like you just did in your post, it does seem kind of idiotic and sick, but yet it still appeals to many of our girly natures.

    There was this one Korean movie I watched a while back, Bad Guy, that took it to a whole different level of sick and disturbing. This pimp gets embarrassed publicly by this chaste and slightly stuck up college girl that he just randomly grabbed and kissed against her will. Her boyfriend makes a big stink about it and makes him look bad. The pimp's revenge is kidnapping the girl and making her one of his prostitutes (bearing in mind this girl was a virgin before) and he even has one of those one sided mirrors that he watches her with customers through. He's a total pervy creeper, but he falls in love with her and then the girl gets like Stockholm Syndrome and falls in love with him too and they run away together. How f*kd up is that? It was definitely one of the more disturbing movies I've seen.

  5. The attraction to the "bad boy" for women is unfortunately the need to redeem them, to change them, which is why women are totally screwed up. My personal take is either a person as they are or move on, because what you don't like about someone is probably going to linger, at best. Regarding dramas, my personal favorites are when the antihero does not change. Cha Chi-soo, still a total egocentric at the core, and Eun-bi loved him anyway. Or when the trope is subverted a bit, such as in Me Too Flower. The female lead was the cranky, mean, neurotic one.

    People forget that Mr. Darcy did not change in so much as Elizabeth just got to know him. She became one of his people, and he took care of his people.

    Gu Jun-pyo AND F4-it was not just Jun-pyo: My take on the mean boy behavior was tied to who they were. They treated people, in regards to their school mates, like poop for a reason. To keep them at arms length, because these people always wanted something from them. Was it right, no. That the sheep in the school decided to escalate matters was the most disturbing part to me. Jun-pyo was just the worst of the bunch, but the F4 did not change- they just grew up. They always took care of each other, and outsiders were outsiders. That did not change. What happened is that Jan-di and Ga-eul and Jan-di's family became their people, so they were no longer outsiders. Kind of like Mr. Darcy.

    Would one like to spend time with these characters in real life? Not the Bali Boys. But the others, yeah, sure, if I get to be one of their peeps, because that's the key to these characters.

  6. Get out of my brain, Amanda! Every time I've been pondering something in kdrama-dom, you write an excellent post all about it. When we asked people at KCON which drama villain they would like to be, I was amazed at how many people said Jun Pyo. I was also amazed (and a little disturbed) at how many people said they would date Jun Pyo in real life BECAUSE he was mean, not in spite of it.

    I love the distinction you make between Darcy and kdrama leads. Kdrama writers often try to go for a less-subtle version of Darcy by claiming that the man is only cruel because of some traumatic event in his past. In drama logic, if you have a dead parent or your first love betrayed you (or BOTH), you're allowed to be a massive jerk on the outside because it's just a shield for your soft, squishy inside.

  7. Is that picture of So Ji Sub? I thought it was Park Shi Hoo, lol.

    Anyway, to the topic on hand... the character of Domyouji/Jun Pyo has been one of my favourites ever since I read Hana Yori Dango, although I never particularly liked the fact that I liked him. But I think it was mostly due to his loyalty. He can be incredibly misguided sometimes but when he loves someone, like his friends or his sister or his girlfriend, he will defend them to the death. That's a really endearing quality. And it's not something that he learnt from Makino/Jan Di, it's something he already had. So despite all of the genuinely criminal things he did at the beginning, he at least already had something we could grab onto, something that showed us he wasn't all bad.

    Plus, you know going into a drama that the bad guy is going to change for the better. So even if he doesn't, you think he does. It's a type of brainwashing.

    Also, "has keen fashion sense", lol!


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