A K-drama Primer

I lied. Let me explain.

Fangirl T-shirt

When I mentioned fangirls in my last post I claimed that I’ve never been a fangirl of even the most popular of fads. Well that isn’t strictly true, recently I’ve become obsessed with a form of television so unique it has its own name – Korean dramas or k-dramas for short.

The screaming, rabid, stalking fangirls who believe “I love you oppa, marry me” will make their dreams come true really disgusts me. No, I’m not that kind of fangirl, thank you very much – I don’t even think I could wear this t-shirt! In my defense I’m still pretty shell-shocked at my own culpability in falling for the Hallyu wave.

Three concrete facts prove to myself that I am indeed a fangirl (I try never to lie to myself – honesty is the best policy after all, especially with yourself).

#1 – I’d rather watch a k-drama that any American show (i.e. shows filmed in my native English language). In fact, I routinely stop halfway through a show in English to start-up an episode where I have to read subtitles.

#2 – I’ve downloaded all my favorite shows’ OST theme songs so I can rock out to them while I exercise. In fact, I’ve rocked out to them so often I have several of them memorized – in Korean! (Though I do admit any competent Korean speaker would laugh and while trying to catch their breathe, pant out that in no way am I speaking communicative Korean.)

#3 – Koreans are now my favorite actors. (Well, my second and third favorite actors as Toshiro Mifune, a dead Japanese actor has always been my #1 favorite actor [since I saw Seven Samurai anyway].) I’ve even gone so far as to like their facebook fan pages so I can keep up on news about their coming drama and movie roles.

So there you have it, I’m falling fast. And you will too if you keep reading. Buckle up, k-dramas are severely addicting and will cause hours of television hangovers as you try to make a living after gorging all night on series long binges. You still here? I warned you. In working out my own puzzling fangirldom, let me introduce all you need to know to fall in love with k-dramas yourself.

Availability

Ready access through internet and streaming services – you watch when you want and however much you want.

Dramafever Page

With the economy like it is its no surprise I’ve had to turn off my cable (and right before AT&T’s big sales push to keep subscribers – too slow you big behemoth). In looking for alternative access I found Netflix and later Huluplus as well as a score of television apps (like the totally free dramafever and viki) that give viewers an economical way to watch television (as long as you can stand the chunk of time added for the commercials). This is how I found k-dramas.

To give their subscribers more offerings these services buy other countries media and these shows are starting to become popular on an international basis. One such media is the Hallyu wave or the vast amount of South Korean culture that has become more and more popular, including the source of this wave, k-dramas. The complete seasons of the most popular k-dramas are all lined up and ready to stream.

The Format

Finite episodes and longer running times make story development more satisfying for viewers.

American television has been relegated to long running character studies and lawyer, doctor and police procedurals. While I love me some good cop drama, it peeves me that everything is cleanly resolved at the end of 45 minutes, while at the end of 13+ episodes very little in the characters lives have progressed so much as shifted slightly. We end up watching because we like an actor or a character or a cast’s chemistry, while having to live with the fact more than likely nothing will develop in as satisfying manner.

Koreans don’t put up with that cr–… well you get the picture. A finite number of episodes are developed with a well established beginning, middle and end. (On the fly if a show is very popular they will develop 3 or 4 more episodes for a more depthful ending.) The best part of this is there are no easy resolutions at the end of an episode, but like life every one doesn’t end in a cliffhanger.

This is due to the way they run their programs: every week they show two back to back episodes – Mon/Tues, Wed/Thurs, or Fri/Sat. The first episode of the week has a soft climax where they end with a developing complication. It’s minor in the scheme of the plot but wets the appetite for the episode playing the next day. The second episode of the week has a powerful cliffhanger with a serious character complication, typically with a shocking emotional edge.

This sounds really cliché but it works well because you are allowed to be caught up in the emotional journey of the characters. We know things will end. We know they are going through powerful journeys through the course of the episodes. Because each episodes runs 64 minutes to America’s 45 minutes there is approx 20 minutes that k-dramas use to good effect. This allows each episode more time to resolve the episodes’ complications, while developing the rising action as well as more of an opportunity to show things happening instead of just telling us. All this equals better stories for the viewer.

The Music

Like in movies, music is used to highlight how characters feel, dramatize powerful moments and characterize the show.

I talk about music in k-dramas extensively in this post here. I didn’t really notice the music in my very first k-drama. It wasn’t until my second foray into the wonderful world of South Korean culture that I found myself wowed by their theme music. I’m talking about Secret Garden. At some point I will have to write a post raving about the beauty to be found in this series, for now I will settle on raving at the wonderful way they used music to characterize how Kim Joo Won always came back to the sure knowledge he loved Gil Ra Im.

I love how listening to the theme songs (or OSTs in official music language) calls to mind the emotions and experiences to be found in its associated drama. Specific scenes rise to the surface of your memory as the music reminds you of your favorite moments. Long after a show is over k-dramas linger with you. If you love music, then k-dramas are for you, they better utilize music during the course of an episode than any American show I’ve seen.

The Actors

Young, nuanced talent contrasted to older, experienced actors fill the k-drama ranks. No matter their age their facial expressions brings a depth of emotion not to be matched.

There is a myth that Asians can’t act because the range of emotion that can appear on their face is limited. I admit I bought into that stereotype. In America it’s hard not to as Asians raised in the good ol USA tend to register emotionally as more static and cold. Let’s just say your first k-drama will dispel that myth.

In reality, I’ve found Korean actors have a range of visual cues that astound me. American actors rely more on emotion and projecting the right emotion for the moment. And Koreans do this as well but they pair their emotions with very real and true facial expressions. This will quickly win you over as young or old the actors appear to live life more fully, as if because they can express themselves for us to see life must see them more fully as well.

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It’s not just their talent that is so wowing. The way they can take an actor and through their hair and clothing create a living breathing character is simply expert. It’s enchanting when you can see the same older actor in three different shows and yet he never grows old on you. It’s all done through the way they streak grey in his hair, to the way he dressed like a poor man or the suit uniform he wears in every episode. They focus on the character and showing the character through visual as well as emotional cues.

And they use a full range of ages. You can count on budding actresses, rising stars as well as the experienced veterans in every show. I love this most of all. Life is not about the young or the old. There is no exclusivity. We all live and love and age. This adds such depth to the story.

The Stories

A concentration on showing the viewer how to overcome their negative traits to become happy makes me happy.

You’ve heard me rave about this before but I love the showing they do in their stories. We are rarely told about a character. Their personality to their situation to their family and friends it’s all shown to us. Well, duh you say – it’s television. Yes, but the setup in American shows are swift and simple relying heavily on character stereotypes. In k-dramas there is a specificity to character that can only come through good showing verses swift telling. Sure the setup takes a little longer, it’s not done in one episode, in fact the premise takes both of the first episodes to be setup properly. It’s so worth the time and luckily we have it (all due to the extended format of the episode.)

The meat of k-dramas though are family. Every k-drama I’ve seen has a path that leads directly to family at the heart of it. These characters aren’t stand ins for the token family that a character must have to be a protagonist. No, they have their own character arcs and play a direct part in the plot. Many times at the heart of a protagonist is this struggle with Korean culture. Deep respect is given to elders and I admire that. While this struggle doesn’t always come into play it adds so much to my own perspective to see a different culture in action.

Now k-dramas do have stereotypes, but not character stereotypes so much as genre ones and repeating elements. There’s very little sex in a k-drama. This is one stereotype I love! I never have to worry a graphic scene of skin on skin will suddenly appear before my unfiltered eyes. I have no problem with a healthy sex life but it doesn’t add anything to a character for me to see it. And in fact, I respect characters who are in love who wait. To some Americans it will see like a sweeter, more pure, also aged way of telling a story. I say nay.

Instead of focusing on another persons moans and hip humping I can focus on a character’s selfishness, childishness or other biased and ‘particular to them’ vice. These are all things we as people struggle with and must overcome to be happy. We can see how some of “us” learn from life and move on to prioritize those things that will make one happy while others don’t, instead choosing those things they think they want.

I have to admit I laugh every time I see a character sleeping with a light on. This is one of those repeating elements that make up a k-dramas stereotypes. I happen to love when a couple kisses for the first time and we circle the couple like angels are singing from heaven. Don’t we all want our passions to be so highlighted? I look forward to episode 10 when for the most part the guy realizes, uh, I might very well love this girl. I adore that love is a focus for Koreans. While they don’t believe it smart to marry before age 30 (or thereabouts) I admire that they feel it not at all shameful that love is an ultimate necessity for happiness.

Really this all makes me happy. We are all on this journey called life and yet we aren’t all in the same place. K-dramas explore this journey in a believable way with all sorts of fun and campy premises. Take a premise and pair it up with a couple, throw in some friends and rivals, add a direct and specific villain and a k-drama is born. Through showing the drama as it arises we explore a little bit of life.

Have you ever seen a k-drama? What’s your favorite one? Is it an old-time favorite or a current offering? Are you a k-drama newbie? Are you intrigued now?
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