“Why do you like Korean stuff?” That question is often said with a note of disdain and isn’t necessarily an easy one to answer. From childhood, I watched TV shows and movies from other countries, usually without the help of subtitles. In my teens, right after Video One or Request Video would end, I would flip to channel 18 to watch an Asian drama. It was usually a historical drama from China or Korea, depending on the day of the week. I didn’t know what was being said, but the stories were easy to follow, the acting was terrible and awesome at the same time and the costuming was peak.
Most (American) people I know don’t like watching subtitled thing media unless it’s from a European country. They give reasons I’ll never understand. I feel it’s a good way to learn culture and language. When I was around 15 years old, a friend from the mosque got a new sister-in-law. She came to America not knowing a lick of English. In the next few years, she was fluent in English AND Spanish. Why? As a Libyan in Southern California, people are quick to speak Spanish to her. As a hijabi in America, she needed to be able to confront the ignorant, “Speak English!” attacks. She watched telenovelas and day-time soaps. Granted, everything she said sounded like there was a plot twist coming up, but at least she could communicate.
From around 1993 until 2010, I mainly watched Bollywood movies. I’m a sucker for dance scenes and I really love the pretty clothes and movements. In the movie Tank Girl, there was an unexpected music number in the middle of the movie that just slayed me. I own a big collection of musical movies and Broadway soundtracks. I just love it, okay. Bollywood rom-coms are my general preference, but I can get down with a great action movie, too. In both, the bad guys are usually so over-the-top terrible that you can’t help but love them. During this time, I was also getting a bigger exposure to Korean entertainment.
I’ve always known of k-pop, but I didn’t really find it interesting, original or exciting. I had a Korean boss with three sons. My boss mostly listened to trot and gospel music. I liked that. One of the boys listened to k-pop and would introduce me to songs when he was back in town. Going to Koreatown and visiting noraebangs with friends also exposed me to some songs. I used to see k-pop videos at Korean restaurants and just roll my eyes at the appropriation, bad rapping and out of style fashions. Considering how Koreans look down on black people, they sure were quick to steal our culture.
At a Korean restaurant in late 2006, there was a TV show that was just so silly and bewildering that I had to find out more. The show was called X-Man and everyone’s eyes were glued to the TVs. The whole purpose of the show was to find the X-Man. The cast was split into 2 teams and the X-Man had to make it difficult to pass the missions without being found out before hand. It was so much fun to watch even when I didn’t know what was being said. I was hooked and watched the show on the local stations when I could.
I also first saw Infinity Challenge (무한도전) this year. It only registered because I noticed that one of the hosts of X-Man was also on this show. I really couldn’t understand the concept of this show. At first, I thought it was sketch comedy show like Mad-TV, but watching subsequent episodes revealed it to be much more. At its core, Infinity Challenge takes on projects for the cast members to do. “Dirty. Dangerous. Difficult.” is the motto the cast chose to prove their sincerity for the challenges presented, many which were just ridiculous. Their long-term projects like wrestling or bobsledding, were surprisingly emotional showing the cast members endurance and strength of their friendship. Infinity Challenge celebrates 10 years of broadcasting this year. There have been some additions and painful removals of cast members throughout the years (2 members left last year due to two separate drunk driving incidents). The members raised money through their calendar projects (2009 – 2011) and their biennial music festival. Variety shows like these were my introduction to k-pop songs either as background music, artist performances or cast parodies. Watching Korean variety shows was also my catalyst for learning Korean. The fact that these guys have so much fun with wordplay is utterly fascinating to me.
Let’s fast-forward to 2008 and I’m at the same Korean restaurant. I heard music that had me shoulder dancing. On the TV to see Big Bang was singing ‘La La La‘. The beats, the lyrics…the idea that this was a Korean group didn’t even register with me. The entire video production was so slick that I assumed it was an Asian-American rap group.
That same year, Brown Eyed Girls had just released their song ‘L.O.V.E.‘ which I loved for Miryo’s rap. There was a 12-member boy group Super Junior and a 9-member girl group Girl’s Generation (both are on the same label). This was also when I found out about that most idol groups in Korea had TV shows like mini-documentaries about their upcoming début or just doing random things. I was hooked. There were parodies of songs and movies/TV shows I had never seen, which meant I had to watch the reference material to get the jokes.
I’d say that 2009 was The Year for Hallyu. Brown Eyed Girls released the much-parodied steamy video for Abracadabra, YG girl group 2NE1 had a soft debut with label-mates Big Bang with Lollipop, a song for an LG ad. 2PM, a k-pop group that debuted with 3 American-raised members, stepped up to keep their beast-idol image (with stupid hairstyles) in the video for Heartbeat. Girl’s Generation gave us the most insidious earworm in Gee and Super Junior’s Sorry, Sorry took off. Korean variety shows Family Outing and Happy Together (Season 3), both hosted by Yoo Jae Suk of X-Man and Infinity Challenge, expanded my worldview into k-pop and kdramas. Big Bang’s T.O.P. portrayed a creepy assassin in the action drama Iris, a show that raised the profiles of everyone in the show. The Great Queen Seon Deok, a 62 episode saguek (historical drama) and ratings blockbuster, based on real people, introduced me to some of the biggest acting stars in Korean TV and cinema. And most importantly–the one drama that is seemingly the gateway drama to kdrama fanatics–Boys Over Flowers, a remake of the Japanese show based on the manga, aired at the beginning of the year.
Korean dramas, especially those in the rom-com genre, are often formulaic, but there’s just something about them that makes you keep watching. The storylines are even very similar, but the acting and dialogue are what sets one apart from another. The male leads are most often swoon-worthy jerks and the female lead who starts off spunky and independent will be a simpleton pushover by ep. 12. Let’s not forget the parent (usually, the mom) who wants the relationship over, nefarious misdeeds happening in the company and, of course, the love triangle/square.
Where American TV shows go on for years after they’ve stopped being interesting, evening kdramas are usually 16 – 24 episodes long, with 20 episodes being the average. Historical dramas are generally 28 to 56 episodes long, as are the daytime dramas. Daytime dramas run Monday – Friday, while the others are generally shown twice a week. For example, Boys Over Flowers was a 25 episode-long drama that ran on Mondays and Tuesdays. Instead of being episodic like American sitcoms, kdramas are closer to miniseries. The story carries over throughout the entire show and the endings are almost always guaranteed to generate angry comments among viewers.
While there are some tropes in kdramas that–from an American standpoint–are frustrating to watch, it provides a little peek into Korean culture. The caveat being that we can not presume it’s a mirror of Korean culture just as American entertainment never reflects the reality of this country. I’d like to believe that some of the things we see in kdramas would actually get someone slapped or yelled at for doing them in real life. But the ultimate beauty of kdramas is the general innocence when it comes to relationships. Cable shows are often more open, but on the big 3 channels (KBS, SBS, MBC), there is a build-up of sexual tension between our main characters. When or if they finally kiss, it’s so exciting and beautiful that you wind up crying for joy. That’s quite different from American comedies where one-night stands are fodder for puerile jokes.
People often ask me what are some good dramas to start watching. That’s a post for another day. While there are some really terrible dramas (the recent My Lovely Girl) and really excellent dramas (Coffee Shop Prince), most are just time-fillers. The same with some variety shows. There’s everything from idol TV to sports challenge to people just living together. Yesterday, I stumbled across a show from MBC called Hello Stranger (헬로 이방인). For Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) they put 11 foreigners in a house with a Korean celebrity as the host. It’s always interesting to see Koreans react to foreigners and foreigners working their language skills to communicate.
There are other things within this hallyu wave that are more interesting to me. Korean fascination with and ignorance of black American culture is such a baffling thing. The fact that it’s a hierarchical society dumbfounds me with its nuances. The technology the country offers alongside it’s natural beauty are just 2 things I get to see while consuming Korean entertainment. So, until some other country makes more interesting TV shows or I get bored, I’ll continue watching my kdramas.