Tamna: A Radical New Korean Drama?

Tamna, The Island

With thanks to reader Ezra de Leon for passing the news on, a new Korean drama called Tamna the Island (탐나는도다) appeared over the weekend, and for readers of this blog especially it is noteworthy in many important respects.

The most obvious is for having a foreigner in the lead role, a 24-year-old French model named Pierre Deporte, who has already appeared on Korean screens in the one-off male version of the Misuda (미녀들의 수다; Chatting With Beautiful Women) talk show. Here, he plays a 17th-Century Englishman who washes up on the shores of Jeju Island, and crucially he has some form of love relationship with the local female diver (haenyo/해녀) who finds him, played by teenager Jang Beo-jin (장버진). This is nothing short of revolutionary for Korean screens.

I haven’t found any confirmation of that relationship beyond this Korea Herald article unfortunately, but the first episode did feature an underwater kiss between them, albeit for the sake of giving him oxygen while hiding. But regardless of the ultimate form of their relationship though, Extra Korea! is correct in noting that it will probably be the first non-negative portrayal of a Western male on Korean television in a long time.* In addition, Javabeans, a rare non-tabloidish source on Korean dramas, also appreciates the drama’s reversal of gender roles:

…in Tamna, the women are hard-working and tough, at all ages from moms down to young girls. The men are painted a little more cartoonishly, but I think there’s potential for more than just comic relief in the setup that shows them as the weak ones in terms of the gender balance. They cower and defer to the ladies, who, while not quite Amazonian, have agency over their own lives and families. I hope the drama explores that dynamic a little more — they don’t have to make a big issue of it, but it’s a refreshing change.

Unfortunately I missed the first two episodes, which played on MBC at 7:55 on Saturday and Sunday night. But never fear, for in that above link a description of the first is provided that is so detailed it will surely take as long to read as it would have to have watched the episode itself!

Tamna The Island

Personally, I’ve been more than convinced to watch the 20-episode series in full, and I plan to download the first two episodes from the MBC website and watch them for myself before this Saturday. Admittedly, the descriptions of the “excruciating English” and “very silly, goofy” style of the drama would normally have put me off, but then I’ve recently learned that it’ s also true that “progressive” Korean directors have a habit of introducing radical social themes through comedy, and I’ve realized that I’ve probably been too dismissive of the genre previously. Certainly that may be reading too much into this particular drama though, so I’ll try to watch it with an open mind.

In the meantime, have any reader seen episodes 1 and 2 already? What did you think?

Update: My wife and I watched Episode 1, and we agreed that it was not without its charm: in particular Jang Beo-jin’s character was very cute, and difficult not to take an instant liking to. And I confess, it was difficult not to keep my eye off her lithe body also, which we got to see rather a lot of. Not to imply that the producers sexed her costume up by any means, but presumably a haenyo’s clothes would indeed have been more functional than modest, and so not without reason have generations of (male) Koreans grown up to images of scantily-clad Jeju divers!

Unfortunately though, the Jeju slang used in the drama was so thick and frequently used that explanations were given for mainland Korean speakers(!), and this rendered the drama very bad for studying Korean, which was my other main aim with watching it. I’ll still follow it via Javabeans then, but personally I’m going to switch to Brilliant Legacy (찬란한 유산) instead, which just finished with record ratings.

Update 2: Invariably a mere ploy to create interest in a drama, I usually never pay attention to rumors of its stars dating, but for what it’s worth Jang Beo-jin was rumored to be dating Im Joo-hwan (임주환) before Tamna aired. He’s the third member of its anticipated love-triangle with Pierre Deporte.

*See here for a positive portrayal of a Southeast Asian man on the big screen recently. Unfortunately those are equally rare, and ironically the movie also features the typical negative stereotypes of Western male English teachers.

(Image sources: Naver; Korea Herald)

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39 thoughts on “Tamna: A Radical New Korean Drama?

  1. Interestingly the one good portrayal of white guys in Korea is the dating show with Lee Pani, where she spends the day flirting with a Korean-speaking “Chris.”

    Not sure I’ll be able to catch much of Tamna, but it is an important step. But if the English used is dreadful, it might just be too cringeworthy to watch. This constant portrayal of goofy English and goofy English-speakers is someething I hope gets further attention in the future. I hope the man isn’t used as comic relief.

    • Thanks for passing that show on, and I definitely hear you about goofy foreigners on Korean television. But an important point about this drama is that the whole thing is goofy, so Pierre Deporte probably won’t stand out in that regard. And although I haven’t watched it myself yet obviously, Javabeans says that the excruciating English is only in the first 15 minutes of the first episode. Presumably from that point in the story on he learns some Korean: he did appear in the male Misuda episode after all, which back then at least did require some Korean language ability.

      Before I forget, a belated congratulations on your engagement!

  2. That should have read “the one good portrayal of white guys in Korea that sticks out,” because there are occassionally shows, magazine or newspaper articles on Caucasians doing well. These do get overshadowed, unfortunately, by teachers behaving badly or by ridiculous portrayals.

  3. Im sure that he will (and was) used as comic relief. Not soley because he was foreign, but because EVERYONE is used as such. Its a comedy afterall.

  4. I had posted about this four days ago, alluding to some of the things you write about here, and your post inspired me to do another one linking to yours that included something of a follow-up along the following lines.

    First, the depiction of men mentioned in the Javabeans post is in line with Cheju Islanders’ own narratives about their “matriarchal” society. Second, as I wrote in my earlier post, I’m trying to see if I have an accurate memory of how Korea’s most famous Austrian-Korean, Lee Cham, got his start in Korean media. I thought he had played a character (a foreigner) who was romantically involved with another character in that miniseries, portrayed in a positive way. This propelled him to fame in Korea, so it was no small thing. But it was over ten years ago, and I’m not sure if I’m remembering it right.

  5. Brian wrote:

    That should have read “the one good portrayal of white guys in Korea that sticks out,” because there are occassionally shows, magazine or newspaper articles on Caucasians doing well. These do get overshadowed, unfortunately, by teachers behaving badly or by ridiculous portrayals.

    You have inspired me to point out that, good or bad media portrayals aside, any White guy in Korea can themselves be a “good portrayal of White guys in Korea.” Media is a powerful tool, which is why things discussed at TGN and elsewhere carry considerable import, but all that AFKN-esque “good ambassadorship” stuff is probably the ultimate portrait maker.

  6. I started watching it yesterday. I was pretty sceptical at the beginning for many reasons. Didn’t find the blond guy attractive and the fear of the said excruciating english and bad acting (most of the time one gets the feeling they have no idea what they are saying and therefore emphasize the wrong words) kept me from being excited about this drama. But i was positively surprised. The underwater kiss was definitely something one doesn’t expect from a korean drama especially not in the first episode there no one of the leads screams at the other for stealing the first kiss. there was also a funny moment with the language barrier where willian misunderstands her name Beojin as Virgin.
    anyway, this drama is goofy and fun, but compared to other manga turned drama I actually can watch this one and really enjoy it (am traumatized by some japanese drama of such style)

  7. Wow…the male is the epitome of simultaneously pretty and scary looking Aryan male. The employment of such of a gimmick looks promising though.

  8. Hmm. I have to say, that is one weird-looking dude. Probably going to have to pass on this one; I watch K-dramas for hot Korean boys and no other purpose. If I wanted to see alien-faced model boys I’d go read Jak and Jil or something in that vein.

    • Sarah, e1leen0nt0fu, jiayue–I don’t consider Pierre Deporte at all attractive either, in this drama or otherwise (see him in real life here and here), but in his defense his hair is naturally light-brown. Why the peroxide blond hair or wig then? Extra!Korea attributes it to producers wanting him to fit many Koreans’ stereotypes of Westerners, but I think it’s more likely it was for the sake of him being as alien-looking as possible to black-haired 17th-Century Koreans. Still, I seriously doubt that there wasn’t another, naturally blond actor with some Korean skills available, so the choice is still strange.

      Kushibo–Sorry I missed your earlier post: I go through at least 150 posts on various blogs everyday getting materials for this one, so I don’t really “read” them per se, and easily overlook many I’m afraid! And you’re quite right about the comments by Javabeans being “in line with Cheju Islanders’ own narratives about their matriarchal society”: I don’t know much about Jeju, but I did know that, and should have mentioned it.

      I disagree with this comment in your second post on the drama though:

      I would again like to reiterate my earlier question about positive romantic portrayals of foreign males with Korean females in Korean media, specifically about Lee Cham, the Austria-born celebrity who became a naturalized Korean. If my memory is accurate, Lee Cham got his start in media back in the 1990s by portraying the foreign neighbor in a miniseries with whom one of the main characters falls in love.

      And if I’m right about that, then I’m guessing there may have been others that the collective “we” has forgotten. Sort of like how in the narrative today about a lack (until recently) of positive masculine Asian-American male characters in American media it is forgotten that there were — in the somewhat distant past — a small handful of Asian-American actors that made mainstream American women swoon, such as James Shigeta.

      Well, I’d admit that I’m guilty of hyperbole on occasion…perhaps especially on this occasion…and I grant that you don’t accuse me personally of this by any means, but neither I nor I think any other commentators on the subject have ever said that there haven’t been any positive portrayals of Korean female-foreign male romantic relationships in the Korean media previously. But surely that they’re so few and far between suggests that there is nothing “supposed” about ” the tendency of the Korean media to eschew positive images of Korean women with foreign men,” as you wrote in your earlier post? Seriously, if the positive portrayals exist, and logically they would given the dramatically increased numbers of foreign men (and Korean women having relationships with them) since the 1990s example you gave, then I’m fully prepared to concede that no such tendency exists. I’m also not so self-centered as to believe that there is a huge demand for them by the Korean public either. But until I see sufficient further examples to counter it, then all evidence points to a bias against such relationships (and foreign men in general) in the Korea media, and this can’t be dismissed as expats’ mere collective imaginations.

      Now to watch Episode 1!

  9. A reference to Hamel and the Dutchmen who were shipwrecked on Jeju in the 17th century? I wonder why they made him an Englishman in the series when they had a ready-made historical precedent already there.

    Though I agree that the blond elf look does make him seem as alien and foreign as possible, which is probably the idea.

  10. James Turnbull wrote:

    But surely that they’re so few and far between suggests that there is nothing “supposed” about ” the tendency of the Korean media to eschew positive images of Korean women with foreign men,” as you wrote on your earlier post? Seriously, if the positive portrayals exist, and logically they would given the dramatically increased numbers of foreign men (and Korean women having relationships with them) since the 1990s example you gave, then I’m fully prepared to concede that no such tendency exists. I’m also not so self-centered as to believe that there is a huge demand for them by the Korean public either. But until I see sufficient further examples to counter it, then all evidence points to a bias against such relationships (and foreign men in general) in the Korea media, and this can’t be dismissed as expats’ mere collective imaginations.

    Unfortunately, I do not have enough time to give an answer that your thoughtful comment deserves, except to say a couple things. First, I think it’s an interesting view to take that the “public” demands this or that image, when I believe, largely through personal experience in media in Korea, that what’s more at work is what producers of media think that the public demands (and they are often wrong), mixed with a fear of losing their jobs for pushing the envelope too far and offending the vocal fringe that can make themselves seem like they have larger numbers than they actually do.

    Second, I’m at a disadvantage here, because I spent the 1990s and much of the 2000s collecting mental images of things that go both ways in this argument, but tracking them down would be a full-time job. Even in the case of Lee Cham, now a famous public figure whose television history is well-known, I wouldn’t know where to look for evidence supporting what I said about him.

    Anyway, and more to the point, it brings up narratives about narratives. If I’m right about Lee Cham’s breakthrough role in television, then we have on the one hand a positive portrayal versus, on the other hand, something like the Mongdori Comedy thing. One was widely viewed and highly popular, which led to a career being made for a person to launch into entertainment, entrepreneurship, and even politics, while the other was a one-off episode or two of a show not watched by some 98% or 99% of the public and which the rest of the country knows little or nothing about.

    Yet which one is prominent in the minds of K-blog readers? Which one is the dominant image in the Anglophone residents’ narrative?

    • Kushibo–It’s entirely my fault, and no reflection on you, but I didn’t mean for my comment “I’m also not so self-centered as to believe that there is a huge demand for them by the Korean public” to be interpreted so literally. So I agree with everything you say about that.

      Sorry that you’re at a disadvantage here, but I’m afraid that if you claim that such positive images exist, then the onus is indeed on you to provide them. This isn’t the first time that you’ve claimed knowledge of examples that counter an argument of mine but in the next sentence said it’s too difficult or time-consuming to provide them though, so I’d appreciate it you didn’t make it a habit. That might sound a bit rich just based on two examples sorry, and I don’t mean to cause offense by it, but hey: give me something to work with, you know? And regardless, for the sake of argument I’ll grant you that there are positive examples of Korean female – foreign male relationships in the 1990s, but times change.

      I don’t know what you mean by “the Mongdori Comedy thing” sorry.

      Jospeh–Sorry also, but what allowances are we making for TV in this case? And I don’t understand the point to your statement “If I have to study a show, or make an effort, why bother watching?” either: are you talking about yourself personally, or in general? I don’t see how that makes the show “a sign of desperation” either, nor how that is related to the preceding sentences either I’m afraid.

      Sorry, but I really had difficulty making any sense at all of the second half of your comment.

      p.s. Man I’m polite…that’s five times I said “sorry”!

  11. actually he turns out to be not that bad. of course there might have been a few beeter choices, but the guy kinda has his own charm. there are many mentions of his hair being gold that she almost scalped him because she thought it was golden weed. it ads the comical effect of the drama that he is looking so alien

  12. He’s originally French, I didn’t really expect him to be perfectly fluent at French.
    It’s a very lovable, and fresh idea to the Korean drama society. I don’t remember any kind of drama like this. But I don’t think it’ll attract too much viewers on the actual broadcast, maybe a lot on the internet.
    This drama is just placed on such a horrible time. It’s placed on the weekend evenings, which is usually for family dramas.
    Tamna just has too many new aspects. It’s musics wonderful, it’s characters are unique, and the graphics are very good, but it’s not what people were used to at the time. If it was put on a better time, it could have done much better…but I’m just depressed on how horrible the time is set.

  13. I defer to your – and Kushibo’s – eye on this. My wife tried to get my attention the other night, but I was deep into pile of stats. In ’99, I watched dramas for the same reasons you blog about. Now, though, I’m very selective about TV, SK and otherwise, and downloads help me. It seems, though, that everyone here is making allowances for TV in this case, and I’m not sure why. If I have to study a show, or make an effort, why bother watching? Is TV still that important? Maybe this show is a sign of desperation – like a tabloid article. Perhaps you and Kushibo can tell me what the orthodox line is and just where this show sits on that scale. I definitely don’t think it’s even pop art.

  14. I’m not one to leave deep cerebral thoughts and this isn’t one of them. But that French model looks like a woman. He’s coming off very asexual to me and it’s a turn-off. Either that’s considered the height of “male” attractiveness in Korea or there was a reason your typical good-looking, relatively tall, brawny Western male specimen wasn’t chosen for the role… And can he even fake an English accent???

  15. “Sorry also, but what allowances are we making for TV in this case? And I don’t understand the point to your statement “If I have to study a show, or make an effort, why bother watching?” either: are you talking about yourself personally, or in general? I don’t see how that makes the show “a sign of desperation” either, nor how that is related to the preceding sentences either I’m afraid.”

    It takes a tough man to be polite these days in the blogosphere! No, I’m sorry I often write in such a stream of consciousness way. My immediate reaction to the TV show was “cartoon”. My wife recommended it because of the female diver angle. The guy’s appearance did not seem natural – indeed supernatural – what one other commenters termed “albino” or “feminine”. I also don’t think the way to handle a tough issue like interracial relationships with scenes full of kissing and other intimate acts, especially so quick in the plot. I find the diver angle compelling but the cartoonish guy makes me wonder if this is nothing more than a tease for a vicious rejoinder. Will the naive girl learn the value of deeper commitment to men and country when her flirtation with the beautiful foreigner goes bad? I just wonder again if corporate or state controlled TV can handle the complex issues involved and can match what any interracial couple has experienced? And, is mass-distributed TV, where every viewer gets the same product but can’t communicate with other viewers, just incapable of doing this? If not, then why even study the failure as if it’s just a step along the way to a future when TV lives up to the grandiose promises made decades ago? I think it’s best just to leave it in the vault as a well-meaning curio of a very troubled age.

  16. “I also don’t think the way to handle a tough issue like interracial relationships with scenes full of kissing and other intimate acts, especially so quick in the plot.”

    I also don’t think the way to handle a tough issue like interracial relationships with by tossing off salacious scenes full of kissing and other intimate acts, especially so quick in the plot.

  17. Has anyone read the comic book? I’m wondering how closely it hews to the source material.

    Apropos of nothing, but that chick’s face is weird, and the dude is freakishly pale. Also, I couldn’t understand some of the English in the first episode. They really have trouble finding decent white actors for Korean shows and movies, don’t they?

  18. From those 2 pics that guy could pass as a girl with little trouble. It is like they decided on the skinniest, most feminine looking foreigner they could get their hands on, and then dyed his hair white. Perhaps they didn’t want the foreigner to be too scary and threatening?

    • i think they might’ve chosen him for his uncanny semblance with the manhwa character. i think the casting was perfect, esp in relation to the characters they were portraying. this drama literally is manhwa-come-to-life. it really feels as if the characters rose up from the manhwa.

  19. Pingback: Tamna, the Island (MBC 2008)

  20. Wow some of you people are over cynical of this drama. This drama is 100% refreshing. I find the lead “White guy” every sexy and trust me Korean girls find him very sexy. I took in consider of the time period and where he was supposed to be from. SO the English to me isn’t so bad. I speak Korean and I am Korean, so I don’t need the sub titles.

    And I really don’t understand why Americans use dramas to learn Korean. There are so many regions in Korea that speaks different dialects, my mom is from the south so my Korean has a southern accent. If you plan on studying Korean you should go for the Korean used around Seoul/Itaewon area, it’s easily adaptable compared to learning other area Korean.

    Honestly this is so much better then the other dramas I been watching my whole life. Pretty sad they all goes: Boy loves girl, one side family is too rich, the other too poor. Family fight it at all costs, but at the end either letting love each other or never speaking to them again. Or women has child, struggles to find love. Same rewritten stuff over and over.

    As a Korean I guess I find this more refreshing then the others? I hate that you written this off. More people should watch. I’m excited to watch all episodes and I went out and got the manhwa.

    and @Zorg
    If you ever been to Korean. Alot of Russians live there. They are the ones mainly used in extras if you ever watched the little mysteries shows they had which featrured “Americans”.

    So I hope other people enjoy this and don’t take it too seriously. Many of my friends are enjoying this! So refreshing and the guy is super cute :)

  21. Great story, great characters, great acting. What else is there to say about “Tamna the Island”?

    FYI: The western male co-lead’s English is fine. He has a bit of a French accent, but it’s not a really heavy one. He speaks perfect French and fluent English. And–since he graduated from high school in Korea–hell yes, he does speak Korean! (If you look around a bit, you’ll find that he also blogs in Korean.) To top it off, he speaks great Japanese as well. So, has Pierre Deporte (a.k.a. Hwang Chan Bin) broken enough barriers/stereotypes for some of the people in here yet? (Maybe he should take up juggling if he hasn’t already?)

  22. I won’t care for him until he makes an indie movie, a music CD, runs for elected office, and becomes a UN ambassador. National TV just doesn’t have this kind of value.

  23. If one isn’t going to commit to an active lifestyle instead of a passive one in front of a TV, yes, there should be fewer bloggers. The world would be more interesting if people lived it instead of sucking it through a power o0utlet.

  24. Ohhh-Kaaay… Yeah, well… Good luck with that then.

    (Warning: Sucking the life out of power outlets should only be attempted by experienced professionals.)

  25. hmm… started watching this today. the accents they’re using when speaking English is totally off for the period it is meant to be set in.

  26. I really loved watching Tamna! If I had to compare it to dessert, it would be piping hot apple pie with vanilla ice cream on top with fresh whipped cream and a sprinkle of toasted coconut. I savored each episode. I cannot wait until the DVD is released so I can watch and rewatch the episodes, especially the 4 that have not aired. Pierre Deporte’s acting was moving (it’s his first time acting, so give the kid a break!), his Korean was excellent and I cannot stress enough how extremely handsome he was/is. For the people who think he wasn’t attractive, what level of attractiveness are you comparing him to?! Geez. And I noticed that no one has mentioned Im Ju Hwan. Sigh…what a lovely young man and his acting moved me to tears. The girl was ok (I guess I should mention her just to be fair). The storyline was so much fun!! I can’t think of another Korean drama that was more enjoyable (except maybe “geu dae geu li go nah”). I watched every episode on youtube which was quite unbearable at times because of my slow internet service, but so well worth it. I’m 35 years old and I realize I sound like a total loon but I don’t care. :P But I have to agree that the beginning of the first episode was quite terrible but once William left home and sailed away, the rest of the episode was quite fun to watch.

  27. I totally went to school with this kid. I haven’t spoken to him since I was like 15 or something. I remember that he used to have his pet lizard cling onto the inside of his jacket sometimes. Dude got hot.

  28. Isn’t the more accurate translation of the title “It is desirable” if you read it with a more ancient Korean feel?

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