It’s a pretty standard assumption that the first is always the best, and that everything following afterward is a pale imitation. We think originators are motivated by the pure and noble spirit of creativity, while imitators are motivated by a failure of imagination or—even worse—money. As someone who has watched Jaws, Orca, and Piranha, I can say without reservation that this is sometimes true.
The more I watch Korean drama, though, the more I see an alternate interpretation: things can also start off as rough and unpolished, and repetition can be the thing that smoothes out the sharp edges and actually makes them good.
Take the recent spate of supernatural dramas. One of the leaders of the pack was 2012’s Operation Proposal, which was barely watchable. Its time travel device was ridiculous, its plot wafer thin, and its storyline frustratingly repetitive. Again and again, the main characters did the same stupid things and got the same stupid results. Since that show aired, many others have played with time, and each has had its own failures and successes. But it wasn’t until early 2013 that Kdrama finally created a truly great show on the theme of time travel—Nine. And Nine was so good not because it was some magical, pathbreaking innovation; it was so good because it learned the lessons of the shows that had failed before it. The mind-numbing back-and-forth of Operation Proposal was suddenly exciting in Nine. The underused murder mystery of Rooftop Prince became the star of the show.The bizarre baby-in-a-jar time travel device of Dr. Jin turned into suitably mystical (and portable) sticks of Tibetan incense. The impact-free relocation of Faith’s heroine became a dangerous game that changed both past and future. And the logic fail ending of Queen In Hyun’s Man became a set of internal rules for time travel that were almost flawlessly obeyed, guiding Nine’s story instead of falling victim to it.
And now there’s My Love from Another Star. (Or You Who Came from the Stars. Whatever you call it, I’m sure you agree its title is ridiculous.) Its central premise may not be as easily categorized as some Korean dramas, but it draws so heavily on other shows that its script almost qualifies as an act of remixing.
This might sound like less than a good thing. But Korean dramas are the magpies of the entertainment world—they borrow and reiterate and reconfigure and end up with something even better than their intact raw materials were. Scenes used again and again develop their own emotional resonance, building a giant, interlocking web of references that encompass a thousand dramas that came before them. From the fade-to-white death scene to the Dramatic U-Turn (tm), Korean dramas are full of what Tumblr user This Won’t Be Big on Dignity recently called “visual tropes and metaphors; universally understood coded content.” That code was developed over years of repetition, and it serves Kdrama—and us—well.
For the sake of appreciation, here are some of the borrowings I’ve noticed in My Love from Another Star.
|My Love from Another Star’s flying saucer|
|Joseon X-Files’s flying saucer (2010)|
Between MLFAS and this spring’s comet-themed Potato Star 2013QR, outer space is having a moment in Korean drama. (Is it all thanks to 2011’s deeply bizarre Vampire Idol, which featured a bevvy of hot young men playing alien vampires? Could be.) But MLFAS’s doesn’t just borrow the concept of extraterrestrial visitors from earlier shows—their appearance during the Joseon era is a retread, too.
Before My Love from Another Star chose a dreamy alien for its male lead, at least two other dramas featured historical visitations from E.T. types: The heroine of 2007’s Nine Ends, 2 Outs wrote a novel on the topic, while 2010’s Joseon X-files revolved around sightings of a mysterious flying saucer. What makes MLFAS different, though, is the Twilight spin it puts on its alien. Instead of being a little green man, he’s a glamorous, moody flower boy with a collection of dapper suits and a palatial apartment. How he ended up stuck here isn’t something the show has told us yet, but we do know that he’s the final remnant of a scouting party that spent time cataloging Korean plants. Were they doing it for purely scientific purposes? Or maybe in hopes of taking over the planet?
|My Love from Another Star’s elevator|
|Flower Boy Next Door’s elevator (January 2013)|
The flower alien next door
The writers of Korean dramas use a lot of excuses to keep the same few characters running into each other. One of the most common is real-estate based: when you live next door to each other and share an elevator, lots of awkward meetings are practically guaranteed. Although it has been done a million times before, the most recent example of this neighborly strain of love is probably Flower Boy Next Door, which showcased the ties between a group of characters who lived in adjacent apartments. In My Love from Another Star, the female lead finds herself regularly embarrassing herself in front of her next door neighbor. He can even hear what’s happening in her apartment through the shared wall, a problem of urban living that FBND also touched on, sometimes showing the second male lead with his ear pressed up against the wall, hoping to hear his neighbor.
|My Love from Another Star’s diplomas|
|Twilight’s graduation caps (2008)|
The perils of long life
It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to live for 400 years. In that time, at least eight generations of human beings have lived and died. When Do Min Joon first arrived on planet Earth, fifteen-year-old girls were considered prime marriage material. When they left home, they were carried around in little boxes lest they be ruined by exposure to the wider world. Nowadays, fifteen-year-olds are obsessed with cell phones and name brand handbags, and worried about ruining their lives by messing up on the college entrance exams. Back then, Korea was essentially closed to Westerners. In 2013, Koreans have Christmas trees and eat at Dunkin’ Donuts. Through all those massive, unimaginable changes—from walking to driving to flying, from candles to electric light to LED TVs—Do Min Joon was the only thing in the entire world world that remained fundamentally unchanged.
Another recent character experienced something similar: Twilight’s Edward Cullen, although he at least had his family and a community of vampires for support. When faced a hundred years of free time, Edward entertained himself by playing the piano and going to high school over and over again. According to the shelf of diplomas in his amazing library, Do Min Joon has been doing similar things, although he skipped right to college.
|My Love from Another Star’s jailbait love|
|Nine’s love interest, young and old(er) (March 2013)|
Meeting your beloved’s younger self
When you fall in love with someone new, it’s human nature to wonder what the object of your affection was like when they were young. In both Nine and MLFAS, their characters don’t need to wonder: They met their female leads as children. Unexpected results made Nine’s take on this trope especially wrenching, but MLFAS is adding another layer of complexity: its male lead may have also known his beloved in earlier incarnation during the Joseon era. (And, of course, shared a tragic history with her that seems likely to have wound up with her dead and him trapped on Earth.)
|My Love from Another Star’s evolving city|
|The evolving city in Queen In Hyun's Man (2012)|
The evolving cityscape
I think it’s safe to say that the makers of MLFAS are big fans of the 2012 drama Queen In Hyun’s Man. Both shows feature female leads who are actresses that fall in love with men from the Joseon era, and both include nifty special effects that show Seoul evolving into a modern city. Magically building city blocks in a heartbeat, these scenes are both startlingly similar and startlingly lovely.
|Low-budget heroics, My Love from Another Star|
|Big-budget heroics, Twilight (2008)|
The truck accident
Korean dramas are stuffed to the gills with near (or actual) death experiences involving cars. If a character is to survive the run-in, it’s always thanks to the intervention of someone else—in this case, a smoking hot alien with superhuman powers. Ring any bells? How about Twilight’s Edward Cullen, a smoking hot vampire who first exposes his superhuman powers to his female lead when he saves her from a runaway truck.
|Clockstoppers’ frozen world (2002)|
The time freeze
How exactly Do Min Joon saves his female lead isn’t clear. Does he really have the ability to freeze time? Or is he simply so fast that his perspective of the speed of objects around him is different from ours? Like a hummingbird, he could be moving so fast that everything seems stuck in place. I lean toward this being the actual explanation—in episode two, a fellow alien was shown doing an effortless, midair somersault. It was as if he wasn’t used to gravity that was so weak, which might partially account for Do Min Joon’s super speed. His body evolved to work in a different environment, so for him walking around on earth might be as strangely weightless as it would be for a human astronaut to walk on the moon.
If this is the case, MLFAS would be in good company. True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are full of supernatural creatures moving so fast they’re just blurs to regular people, while the movie Clockstoppers revolved around a watch that made its wearer move so quickly everything else seemed still.