How K-dramas make G-rated storylines obsess-worthy.
When I first moved to Paris in 2008, there were moments when I missed Asia immensely. So I gave Korean Drama a try, Coffee Prince was my first attempt and I was instantly hooked. The unlikely love story between a handsome mogul and a tomboy dressed like a man in order to work at a coffee shop was funny, moving, addictive and a great insight into South Korean culture. I finished all 17 episodes in merely a few sittings, once I was done, I was frantically looking for the next K-dramas to obsess over.
You’d have to be living under a rock to ignore the fact that K-Pop has been dominating mainstream pop charts in recent years, while K-Drama is having a major moment right now thanks to Netflix and the award-winning/sweeping South Korean film: Parasite. Both easy access and quick English translations have catapulted K-dramas onto our must-watch lists. According to Korea Creative Content Agency, approximately 18 million Americans are K-drama fans made up of mostly women who are also shifting the spotlight over to K-Beauty skincare products and K-Pop music.
This is how it usually goes: an entire series runs between 16-20 episodes, longer than a movie but substantially shorter than Grey’s Anatomy or Days of Our Lives. K-dramas encompass the perfect length to narrate a whole story with a strong arc so viewers are emotionally invested knowing there’s a definite. Plot lines are never constructed to fill up time for more seasons. K-dramas are one-season, one-camera, one-writer shows that are never cancelled. Each episode lasts from 60 minutes to 90 minutes.
Predictable casting means that K-drama actors and actresses are glossy, surgically-beautiful beings. Exceedingly cookie-cutter. To further captivate the viewers’ attention, producers commonly collaborate with top designers. Oftentimes, watching K-drama is equivalent to admiring trendy looks on a fashion runway. The accessories are equally alluring as the clothes. In 2013’s My Love From Another Star – starring Gianna Jun, who played mega star Cheon Song Yi in the series – major luxury brands were already offering entire wardrobes straight from the runway before filming even began. Gucci, Dior, Jimmy Choo…you name it. In episode 5, Jun sported a Balmain double-breasted long coat paired with Giuseppe Zanottie suede boots, a Cartier Marcello de Cartier shoulder strap bag and a Gentle Monster “La Rouge GD1” sunglasses. By the time the episode aired, the entire look was featured in a plethora of Korean fashion blogs. Once the series ended, different versions of this outfit were trending throughout the streets of Seoul.
Forget about sex scenes, K-dramas’ G-rated storytelling is a reminder of earlier or wholesome times: minimal violence, clean language and love scenes that never advance past French kissing. In Sky Castle, the parents sleep in separate beds. In Romance Is A Bonus Book, the main couple Cha Eun-ho and Kang Dan-i (played by Lee Jong-suk and Lee Na-young) might sleep in the same room but viewers never witness sexual acts. They literally just sleep in the same bed. Somehow, there’s a sense of charm in chaste throwbacks when scenes aren’t saturated with sexuality.
K-dramas successfully invigorate poignant bonds with its core female demographic by ensuring main characters suffer through monstrous trials and tribulations, in a way that viewers deeply resonate with heroes and heroines. Generally, it’s not K-drama if a someone isn’t dying of cancer, brutally murdered, disabled, discovering a secret love child, plunging into forbidden love…etc. Each episode ends in dramatic cliff hangers, leaving the audience thirsty for more. The tension is built up so perfectly that viewers not only tumble through similar uproars of emotions but can appreciate the main couple’s triumph of reuniting by holding hands rather than exhibiting a provocative sex scene.
Instead of sitting in a classroom with textbooks, watching K-dramas is a cultural lesson on a different set of societal norms. After binging on several series, you’ll know that Koreans take off their shoes before entering anyone’s home and their last names come before first names which total up to three syllables. Forget Duolingo, you’ll certainly understand quite a few basic Korean words, including: sorry, thank you, me, what…and more. When it comes to “Oppa,” you probably won’t land on the perfect English translation but you’ll know exactly what it means and how to use it in a loving confession.
When it comes to Korean food, it’s practically the fifth character of the shows. Korean BBQ, bimbimbap, tteokbokki (spicy rice sticks), kimchi…are just a few starlets. But none compares to the ultimate champion: ramyeon (Korean instant noodles). There are noodles, then there are ramyeon eaten directly from a small pot. In addition to noodle-slurping sounds, these scenes can either make you angry or purely hangry. Ramyeon comes in various flavors: spicy mushroom, kimchi, beef, seafood…etc. Chopstick cravings, anyone?
There’s no denying that many K-dramas feature fantastical plot lines transporting us from our own reality, especially when an alien falls in love with a celebrity 400 years after landing on Earth during the Joseon dynasty. On the other hand, some of the most popular K-dramas of all time address societal issues embedded either within Korean culture or around the globe. In Coffee Prince, for example, the series addresses homoerotic implications and gender fluidity when the food industry mogul is subconsciously enraptured by his employee – a tomboy dressed like a man. Queerness has only been a recent narrative in K-dramas, since South Korea remains a highly conservative society but clearly attempting to open new dialogues.
In Crash Landing On You, the cultural and political disparity between North and South Korea was spotlighted in an impossible love story. Meanwhile, Romance Is A Bonus Book highlighted difficult challenges a woman faces while rebuilding her career path after a divorce. The heroine faces sexism in the workplace in addition to agism, forcing her to hide previous professional accolades in order to dumb herself down for an entry-level job. Both issues extend beyond South Korean society, making K-drama furthermore relative, international and splendidly addictive.
So grab a box of tissues, let’s get hooked. Oppa!