Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Changing times

Answer Me 1997: Hey, look! it’s the good old days.

As of this month, I’ve been watching Korean drama for three years. I was among the first wave of Americans that Netflix streaming exposed to kdrama, and a few months later I was part of a group of English-language drama blogs that were all established at about the same time. Although it’s not that long in the grand scheme of things, it feels like the dramaweb has changed a lot since 2011.

When I first started watching, the go-to sites were Drama Crazy and My Soju, both of which have long since disappeared. They were never quite legal, but their offerings were incredibly encyclopedic—they made it easy to watch older, less popular shows that can be difficult to find today. Of course, you had to wade through never-ending pop-ups and watch slews of incredibly annoying commercials, but that always seemed like a small price to pay.

Legitimate sources of streaming drama have become increasingly available since 2011, although they often lead back to the same source: Dramafever, which struck up deals with both Hulu and Netflix to air programming it had subbed. Viki had been around for several years by the time I found it, but its limited availability in app format made it easier to overlook than the ever-present Dramafever. Another player in the streaming world was Crunchyroll, although it hadn’t updated its library of dramas for years. The fact that Crunchyroll is back today with a whole new service at Kdrama.com seems like proof that Korean drama is still a growth industry.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Navel gazing and sweeping generalizations: Watching drama as an American

Heirs: No hot guy has ever gazed adoringly at me from a convenience store’s eat-in counter,
because here convenience stores don’t have eat-in counters. (That’s why, right?) 

Someone I follow on Tumblr was recently asked an interesting question: “As a western person, how does it feel watching Kdramas? I’m Asian so I like them because they resemble my life more than western dramas.”

As a fairly average American, I can say the exact opposite is true. When I first started watching Korean dramas, it was like the moment in the Wizard of Oz when the world turns to technicolor. I’ve spent most of my life immersed in pop culture, but here was something totally new and different. As a form of entertainment, it was like nothing I’d ever seen before, or even imagined might exist. But what fascinated me most about it—and what eventually inspired me to start this blog—was how very different Kdrama life was from my own.

Of course, I know a country’s television shows aren’t necessarily representative of life within its borders. (My own lack of granite countertops, a vampire boyfriend, and a job in a glamour industry are exhibits A, B, and C.) But they do have something to say about how people in a particular place and time interact with the world around them, and how they expect that world to interact with them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What, no post?

For the first time in two and a half years, I wasn’t able to wrap up a post for this week. (Drat you, real life!) Outside Seoul will be back with a new post next Tuesday.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My favorite OTP moments: a brief catalog

There are lots of things I love about Asian dramas. 

Key among them is a willingness to tell stories about love. The American television I grew up with doesn’t really do this—instead, it’s full of serialized stories that follow characters living through years of their lives. The extreme length of these shows prevents them from focusing on something as ephemeral as falling in love, and the fabled American “mainstream” doesn’t seem so interested in romance, anyway. To succeed here, a television series needs to please the whole family, a feat TV executives don’t seem to think is possible for an unvarnished love story.

Asian dramas, on the other hand, are just the right length for love: In 16 or 24 episodes, a world is created, a love story told, and a happy ending found. And it seems there’s less prejudice against the topic of love in Asia. So when I read an Entertainment Weekly article about the best American television scenes of the past year, I got to thinking about my own version of their list. It wouldn’t be about the best scenes in general. (Who has the memory for that?) Instead, it would tally my favorite couple moments in Asian dramas.

Which is exactly what follows the cut.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lazy: An autobiography by me

Motivation has been even harder than usual for me to come by lately. So instead of an actual Tuesday post, I give you a short review of Witch’s Romance (below), and a new blog thingy (“Favorite Posts,” above).

I’ve been getting frustrated with Blogger’s popular post widget (right), because it tends to rank reviews really high. This isn’t because my reviews are particularly good—it’s because people who love a show Google it and wind up here, often to discover that I’m lukewarm about said show (below).

So in response I put together a list of the Outside Seoul posts that I think are the most interesting. If you’re new to these parts, check it out—you might have missed something good.

Drama Review: Witch’s Romance (2014)

Grade: B-

Workplace noona romance

What it’s about
Years after being left at the alter by her globe-trotting photographer boyfriend, Ji Yeon is a hard-charging career woman and dedicated journalist. But it isn’t until she meets a much younger part-time worker that her heart begins to heal—which is exactly when her ex-fiance returns to Korea and decides he wants Ji Yeon back. (Surprise!)

First impression
I was a little reluctant to start this drama, having watched only the first episode of its Taiwanese predecessor before dropping it. But it was silly of me to worry. TVN’s crack team of creative professionals took an awkwardly staged, cartoony farce and turned it into a funny, sophisticated little gem. The acting has been toned down, the story significantly tightened to focus on the lead couple, and the production values astronomically increased. I was worried about how anything could follow in the footsteps of my beloved Secret Love Affair, but I’m starting to think that a change of pace with this spritely rom-com is just the thing I need.

Final verdict
Witch’s Romance was a fairly popular and well-liked show during its run, but it just didn’t work for me. Like so many of its TVN station-mates, it felt too bland and machine-extruded to really engage either my heart or mind. This show bears no relation to the gritty, flesh-bound world of old-school Korean dramas, where poverty existed and danger was believably real. Its characters and their plastic, new-car smelling world are one-dimensional and hollow, utterly divorced from anything approaching real, physical life.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Opening numbers

My Lovely Sam Soon was the first Kdrama I ever watched, back before Korean dramas were easily accessible on legal streaming sites. Thanks to a borrowed set of DVDs, a friend and I were able to marathon all sixteen episodes over the course of a single summer weekend, breaking only for absolute necessities like trips to the fridge and an occasional nap.

Whenever I think back to that weekend, one thing always stands out in my memory: how incredibly bizarre it was to watch the show’s zippy opening sequence, which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. From the bubblegum pink color scheme to the chirpy techno theme song—complete with garbled English—those forty seconds seemed to perfectly embody My Lovely Sam Soon’s gonzo charm and exotic appeal.

It only recently occurred to me, though, that most streaming sites now dispense with these opening sequences altogether. I can see why they do it—if you were watching a bunch of episodes in a row, the exuberant intros would probably get old pretty quickly. Also, I’m semi-convinced that streaming sites are designed on the same principles as Vegas casinos: they’re set up to lure you in and keep you there as long as possible. When one episode wraps up, they briskly whisk you away to another, making it easy to overlook just how much time has passed. A long opening sequence at the beginning of each episode would rat them out, making it impossible to ignore the fact that you’ve just committed to another hour watching.

I made this realization while watching Boys over Flowers with the same friend who first introduced me to My Lovely Sam Soon all those years ago. BoF is another drama with an incredibly great opening sequence, but my friend didn’t get to see it until she watched episode 5 on Dramafever at my house. “What’s this?” she gasped when confronted with the opening’s eight-bit glory, all computer-generated firework flowers and floating diamonds decorated with the heads of cast members.The Netflix episodes she’d watched to that point hadn’t included this segment, so it was like some fabulous archeological discovery in the valley of the drama kings.

If you don’t immediately fall in love with the cheesy excess of the Boys over Flowers title sequence, you should just stop watching—you’ll definitely hate the show. Questionable fashion sense, bellows of “Alllmooossst Paradise,” and hokey “rich stuff” abound. But to the right viewer (i.e., me), this segment, like the drama itself, is nothing short of a masterpiece of tacky delights.

It actually makes me a little sad that it’s so easy for viewers to miss Kdrama intros. They’re great calling cards for the shows they represent, and any completist deserves to know they exist. This is why I thought I’d dig up some possibly lost opening sequences to share here. (“Possibly lost” in this case meaning easily available on YouTube or Vimeo, if only you know to look for them.)