What Defines a Korean Drama?


( Lee Min-ho {이민호} in current number-one drama Boys Over Flowers {꽂보다 남자}. Source )

Even as late as 2009, Koreans’ relative unfamiliarity with foreigners produces many challenges in speaking with them that are rarely faced by students of other languages, and it can be trying for even the most earnest of Koreaphiles when their simply being Caucasian, say, somehow renders their spoken Korean incomprehensible to natives. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but while things have definitely been improving in recent years, it still happens often enough to be annoying, and never encountering the problem is arguably the real reason that East Asians tend to learn Korean much faster than Westerners. For no matter what you’ve heard, Korean is not a difficult language.

To compensate, long-suffering Korean partners and friends, with whom it’s extremely difficult to get out of the habit of speaking English with once started(!), will invariably recommend watching Korean dramas to get exposure to everyday language instead. And why not? It’s a logical idea, and it certainly seems to work for East Asians based overseas too. But the problem with that solution is that Korean dramas are…well, on the one hand having only ever seen one series in its entirety, and just bits and pieces of others here and there, then I must resist the urge to generalize them, but on the other there’s definitely some commonalities between that quickly put myself and the vast majority of Western viewers off ever watching them. But what exactly?


Just a few days ago, I would have said that one major problem was because of a lack of realistic dramas, but that isn’t really fair: while it’s true that there is nothing like the decades-old British EastEnders, Coronation Street or even the Australian Neighbours here for instance, and which is why “soap opera” is probably a bad translation of the Korean “드라마,” however opulent or rustic the settings there are many that deal with the trails and tribulations of living with in-laws and extended families for example, very common in this part of the world. But not realistic for me personally however, and it’s a very rare occasion when within ten minutes into such a drama, I’m not wanting to grab the poor daughter-in-law and try to shake some sense into her, and turn off in disgust when she merely wipes her tears and acquiesces in continuing to be the virtual family slave.

Most could not be described as at all realistic though, but my dislike of those is just a matter of taste: there’s nothing wrong with fantasy and escapism per se, and Koreans or even East Asians certainly don’t have a monopoly on those sorts of dramas either. But then Korean dramas really have to be seen to be believed, as they are invariably much cheesier, cornier, more formulaic and more music and star-orientated than their Western counterparts, and in their ready reliance on leukemia and/or memory loss to move plots along, love triangles between rich playboys and farming girls, and regular use of gangsters (for starters), almost gross parodies of the very genre itself. See here and here for the unofficial “rules” of Korean dramas, by no means exaggerations, and to which I would add the annoying frequent monologues of characters thinking out loud to themselves in order to explain the plot, which somehow writers of Western dramas manage to do quite well without.


( Source: unknown )

But why are Korean dramas like this? That I still can’t answer, and while the following excerpts from various authors on the subject are by no means a comprehensive look at the subject, they do provide good summations of the essential features of Korean dramas that I cannot. And some of which have interesting implications for gender relations in Korea, which I confess is what got me started on this admittedly unplanned post in the first place, but which I’ll now have to explore in a follow-up post for the sake of making both easier to read(!).

First then, take this from Recentering Globalization: Popular culture and Japanese transnationalism (2002) by Koichi Iwabuchi, which I first looked at in detail here when I discussed why Korean cartoon characters tend to look more Caucasian than East Asian. Note that technically he is talking about the appeal of Japanese dramas in Taiwan rather than Korean ones, and that the bulk of his research was conducted as long ago as the mid and late-1990s too, but in fact this just adds poignancy to more recent points made about Korean dramas as we shall see:

This sort of identification with the desirable is similar to what Richard Dyer calls utopianism: “Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realized” (Only Entertainment, 1992, p. 18). Dyer argues that entertainment does not offer “models of the utopian world” but provides its consumers with the possibility of experiencing “what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organized” (18). Referring, in particular, to the musical form, Dyer points out the importance of non-representational means such as music and colors, and the simplification and intensification of people’s relationships in entertainment’s articulation of utopianism. (pp. 144-45)

Yes, admittedly that particular paragraph was a bit “out there” sorry, but I include it for those fellow geeks amongst you interested in further study, and it provides some context for the excellent summation of Japanese dramas of ten years ago in the next paragraph:

Though Dyer’s argument is about musicals, these points well fit the structure of many Japanese idol dramas….Apart from the comparatively large budget and the sophistication of the production techniques, two structural factors make Japanese dramas attractive for their Taiwanese audiences. First, Japanese dramas are not soup operas; they always end within ten to twelve episodes (each episode being an hour long). By contrast, Taiwanese and American dramas seemingly never end. Most of my Taiwanese respondents commented that they felt such programs were unnecessarily protracted. Because Japanese dramas finish in a comparatively short time and their plots are usually less complicated than those of traditional soap operas, my respondents found it easier to focus on these dramas and enjoy the progress of their narratives. In addition, Japanese dramas, like movies, use orchestral music and theme songs repeatedly and effectively. The use of a theme song in a drama is particularly important. Each week, the theme functions not just as background music but as a constitutive part of the climatic scene. The theme song works in these instances to encourage the emotional involvement of the audience. It thus serves to evoke “romance,” helping the audience to enjoy a “romantic, beautiful love story,” as one of my interviewees put it.


( Source: unknown )

And now read Kim Hyun Hee’s take on the popularity of Korean dramas in Taiwan in the early-2000s in turn in Korean TV Dramas in Taiwan: With an Emphasis on the Localization Process from the Winter 2005 edition of Korea Journal, which you can download and read for yourself by clicking on that link:

The people I met in Taiwan made some distinctions between Korean and Japanese dramas. Japanese dramas are usually composed of 12 parts, and the stories are complicated, compressed, and deliver abstract messages. In contrast, Korean dramas unravel a simple love story between men and women. Although the stories are sometimes unrealistic, such as with sudden deaths caused by car accidents or leukemia, Korean dramas do not demand from their audience a high level of complicated “thought.” (p. 196)

This was a little surprising to me, as I was under the impression that Korean dramas generally followed the Japanese lead in their styles and development, Winter Sonata (겨울연가) , for instance, being so popular in Japan primarily because it reminded its female devotees in their thirties and forties of Japanese dramas of a decade earlier. There are differences though, and not necessarily good ones, the rapid mass-production and export of them during the “Korean Wave” ensuring that there was a limit to how much they could:

…pull the audiences in as active participants. A major factor contributing to the general perception of Japanese dramas as “cultural text” is the [extensive] public forums in newspapers and on the internet, which analyze and rate Japanese dramas. (p. 196)

However, it was difficult in 2005 at least to find any equivalents for Korean dramas, all reactions to which were:

…centered on the stars, not the text. If Japanese dramas have connected the realities of young Taiwanese to the complicated human relationships portrayed therein and functioned as an interactive text, Korean dramas, with their simple love stories, are gaining mass popularity but lacking in lasting “reverb.”

Also, the simplistic quality of [them] reduces their ability to weave the effects of “fantasy” and “imitation” that cultural images are supposed to be able to produce. (p. 197)

And which in turn create and sustain entire industries based on supplying the fashions and styles of drama stars, but which then at least only existed for Japanese dramas in Taiwan, implying that “images of Japanese stars and culture [were] still perceived as high quality, unique, and more desirable” than Taiwanese and Korean ones. Kind of strange though, considering the latter’s fantastic settings:

Korean dramas are recognized for the dazzling capitalist materialism they portray. The environment in which the love stories of these dramas take place, with their breathtaking scenery, luxurious houses, chic outfits, and fabulous professions, operates to homogenize all class differences and social relationships in Korean society and create an unreal entity of urban spectacle. That what is shown on TV could not possible be “real” but is a momentary and “artificial” representation of Korean society is further evoked by the Taiwanese media, which repeatedly emphasizes the idea that the Korean actresses are “artificial beauties” and their appearances are not “true natural born.” (pp. 193-194)

And on that note I’d better stop, for however accurate (or not) Iwabuchi’s and Kim’s may above descriptions of a particular wave of Korean (and Japanese) dramas may have been, they both had a great deal more to say on the subject, and besides which five years is a long time in the media business. But there are a myriad of K-pop blogs out there to help you catch up with more recent trends if you’re interested, although if you want more than just extensive coverage of celebrities’ breasts then personally I highly recommend Dramabeans, and which the occasional analysis of the wider issues raised by dramas is done by people who actually watch them too *cough*. I do think though, that there are definitive links between certain aspects of gender relations in Korea and Korean women’s tastes in dramas that even a non-drama watcher like myself can make, and so which I’ll discuss in the follow-up post soon.

queen-of-housewives-eb82b4eca1b0ec9d98ec97acec9995( Source )

In the meantime, I’d be grateful for any recommendations for any dramas that, after reading that, you think that I’d like? This new one definitely looks like it has potential for instance, although “Queen of Housewives” seems to be a better English title for it than the “My Wife is a Superwoman” that that first article provides. Also, my apologies for the length of this promised “light post” in between those on domestic violence in Korea, for no matter what my original intentions, I really should know better by now!