For someone who spent her teens reading one Mills & Boon novel per day, I gave up on romantic fiction and rom-coms fairly easily about two decades ago. Now unless there is a minimum of one corpse per book I read or show I watch, I lose interest really fast.
But the lockdown has changed many things. When I was done with the tenth corpse being pulled out of an Icelandic floe, I began asking around for new shows. Some women friends – entrepreneurs, artists, teachers, filmmakers – strongly recommended Korean dramas. They gushed equally about the male leads and the riveting story-telling on the K-Dramas.
I’d give it a shot except that in our family, TV-watching is a communal activity. We watch shows that the teenager enjoys, and as a couple, we watch crime shows. How does one watch a low-brow, romantic series on the family TV? Do people not laugh out loud at one’s poor taste?
That’s why god made smartphones, laptops and headphones, I was told. And separate log-ins for Netflix.
When the spouse was busy with WFH one night during our designated TV slot, I idly turned on the K-Drama recommendation for entry-level folk like me: What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim?
Three enthralling hours in front of my laptop, and many blushes later, I wondered belatedly what my teenaged child was up to, now that her mom, enforcer of bedtimes and patron saint of “Less Screen Time!” was herself slack-jawed in front of the screen. I rushed around making guilty and appropriately angry maternal noises.
At breakfast the next morning, I reassured my family – even though no such reassurance was asked for – that I had not spent hours on my laptop just gawking at the male beauty on flagrant display. The cheekbones, the doe eyes, the smiles, the fabulous clothes, the chiseled abs, the broad shoulders – it was not just all of that.
If you’re a veteran of the Mills and Boon romance, K-Dramas are like these mass-market romances on steroids. All the things we loved about those books are here. Every toe-curl-inducing romantic motif: attractive, arrogant hero meets somewhat-flawed heroine in an impossible coming-together of different worlds; old friends hesitate at the brink of a changing relationship; older woman notices a younger man noticing her.
I tried to explain to the uncaring family that K-Dramas take the stock situations of romantic fiction and go further in terms of sensitive writing and unexpected narrative twists. They talk of real things like trauma, pain, fear, happiness and courage, without being self-conscious, or for that matter, maudlin.
For example, take the male lead of Secretary Kim, Chairman Lee, who dates top models but doesn’t touch them. Following the growing attraction between him and his secretary, Mi-so, each time they lean in to kiss (with all of us aunties palpitating in front of our light-emitting devices), he shudders in terror and pulls back. What exactly is going on here? The nation’s aunties need to know.
To cut a long story short, I was hooked. In these difficult times, sinking into a K-Drama feels like a pleasurable treat. Like an unending stack of potato chips, they left me flushed of face, happy and, strangely, in touch with some uncomfortable feelings too.
‘Hallyu’, or the Korean wave
The Chinese have a term for the spell that South Korean entertainment has cast on most of Southeast Asia since the 1990s. They call it “Hallyu” or the “Korean wave”.
Since the 1990s, the South Korean government has been aware of the soft power of its popular culture. Large filming subsidies were offered to the industry, and the government re-examined its strict censorship laws. Like Hollywood sold us jeans, burgers and colas, these cultural emissaries have helped popularise Korean products – everything from skincare to phones – made and marketed by its chaebols, or large conglomerates.
South Korea makes a smorgasbord of content, starting from pop music to romcoms, TV dramas and serious films (Parasite, the multiple-Oscar winner, among many others). They are probably a boon to streaming services, which track our watching habits and make tailored suggestions. Romance? Police-procedural romance? Hospital-based romance? Restaurant-based romance? Publishing-house-based romance? Alien romance? Vampire romance? Historical romance? Zombie romance? Historical romance with zombies? They have it all.
Over the past two years, and especially during the lockdown, the Hallyu wave has spread further. Series like Crash Landing on You and Something In the Rain have been consumed in great, fat gulps globally. Our world is broken, our relationships are being tested, and we have nowhere to go – but we do have the bandwidth to enjoy the slow-boil of these romances.
While the Woke may shudder at many of the K-Dramas tropes (the wrist grabs for one), these shows have become great equalisers. Everyone from millennials to their moms-with-Netflix now know that Saranghaye means “I love you” in Korean, and that if someone asks you to come home for Ramen, they probably have more on their minds than just instant noodles.
There is something intimate about the act of watching these shows via streaming on devices like laptops and smartphones. It feels more private, less cringey, and one can re-watch whole shows on fast-forward, focusing on the most toe-curl-inducing of moments. One can segue into research on the actors, the writers or the directors in tandem.
I was delighted to discover, for example, that the actresses on these shows are formidable talents, with some serious acting chops, and resumes that are often longer and more impressive than many of the male leads. Like the male actors, they too genre-hop effortlessly, recording songs, featuring in music videos, indie films, big-budget films, and crime, horror or drama series.
With a lot of younger male leads around, the women actors seem to come into their own in their late thirties and forties, and some, like Kim Hye-Soo, lead shows even at 50 (Signal). Korean society prizes youth and good looks – rhinoplasties and eyelid surgeries are often coming-of-age gifts from parents to teenagers. So it is interesting that female leads have such a long shelf-life.
Endless eye candy
There is no delicate way to put this: K-Drama male leads are idealised eye candy, and everyone on screen – including the female leads – acknowledges this. A part of the popularity of these shows is because of these very beautiful male leads, and the camera-work that frames and objectifies them merrily for the female gaze.
Park Seo-Joon (32), the male lead on Secretary Kim, is truly gorgeous and so is Jung Hae-In (32), the lead of Something in the Rain. Hyun Bin (38), probably the most popular and talented of the K-Drama stars, took time to grow on me (and I’m a confirmed fan now). There are many more K-Drama male leads worth crushing on: Ji Chang-wook (33), Jo In-sung (39) and Kim Soo-hyun (32), to name just a few.
While most K-Dramas are known for their almost-aseptic kisses, a YouTube clip of the kiss between Secretary Kim Mi-So and her boss hit 200 million views during the lockdown. Google it. Once your pulse has stopped racing, it’s impossible not to notice how the scene is framed to allow you to celebrate this very attractive man.
All of the ways in which the camera has looked at women on screen before are re-assigned here to look at men. The women, extremely pretty no doubt, are all-too-human, almost bordering on the nice-looking-girl-next-door. At a pinch, and if we really suspended disbelief outside the window, that could be any of us 20 years ago. There is something liberating, reassuring and affirming in this.
In Crash Landing on You, Yoon Se-Ri, played by Son Ye-jin (38), is a successful businesswoman. She is also pretty and charming. But the longest and most lingering glances by the camera are saved for the male lead, Ri Jeong-hyeok, played by Hyun Bin.
In a Pretty Woman moment, the rich Se-Ri takes him to a store and dresses him up in expensive suits and changes his hair-do. The glow up transforms him into a total stunner. He has a moment of pure vanity – and we celebrate it with him – when someone uploads a video of him and the comments below it are a gush fest.
I like to think though that it’s about a little more than just their good looks – it’s about the characters they play and the fantasy of the relationships they represent. Male leads in K-Dramas are usually in search of a ‘one true love’. They gaze at the female leads with wonder, wistfulness and worship in their eyes. They seem to feel a strong, convention-defying sort of desire for the women, and that desire, which seems willing to risk all, is really the big draw.
How women imagine men would long for them is how we see men longing for women in these shows. We see them looking at ruffled bedsheets and remembering a lover who slept there but has now gone to perform surgery at the hospital. We see them looking at a sofa and remembering a stolen kiss while seated on it. We see them tear up with yearning for the woman. I’m sure men do long like this in real life, but I am not sure we see enough of this internal world of longing so normalised and nuanced on screen.
It probably resonates well with Korean and Asian sensibilities that the shows have hardly any on-screen sex. Instead, there is conversation, there are awkward pauses and uncomfortable feelings, and there are gestures: long comforting hugs, fond pats on the head, hand-holding, occasional deep kisses, devouring glances and a strong desire for the consummation of love, and sometimes, a suggestion of actual sex.
And the people seem familiar too – not in how they dress or how they live, but in the feudal moorings of the society they inhabit. There is a patriarchal, authoritarian feel to the worlds of work and family here too. Young people with careers often live with their parents; premarital sex is almost taboo. There’s very little public display of affection – K-Drama couples never seem to kiss on the streets, for instance.
Mothers are the emotional centre of the family and parental approval is craved for. But unlike in the equally-popular Pakistani shows (featuring the beauteous Fawad Khan) the presence of the family in K-Dramas feels far less oppressive and claustrophobic.
What amused me the most was how young women flirt with boyfriends or husbands by calling them Oppa or older brother (I thought this only happened in my Malayalee family). The older woman is often called Nuna or older sister.
As my young friend Koshy Brahmatmaj, a 28-year-old artist, informs me, there are “oppa crushes” and “nuna crushes” among fans. She’s been following Korean pop culture since she was 18, and got hooked on to K-Dramas after watching one on the TV in her hospital room some years back.
Food is the other big draw on these shows. In moments of happiness or sorrow, there’s always some food being had. Cooking for a lover, stocking up their larder, comforting someone with a bowl of hot congee or ramen, cutting up and serving a piece of fish or meat to that special person, introducing a date to the joys of fried chicken feet, or just the act of eating and drinking together – food here is an intimate and strong metaphor for love and the comfort it brings.
Anyone who cooks or keeps house will tell you that this work is so often invisible to others. It’s interesting (and sad that we find it interesting, really) to see chores being given narrative significance on screen.
Though the lead characters’ chemistry is always crackling, the path of love, as explored over 16 to 20 episodes of an hour’s duration each, is never easy. While some series flow gently and slowly, with no huge hiccups, most often there is an apparently un-resolvable plot twist lying in wait. The characters always have interesting back-stories, and often a shared traumatic experience in the past that drives them apart and then brings them together. Destiny, misunderstandings, jealousy, split personalities, time travel, plotting cousins, resurfacing ex-lovers – it’s all there!
Crash Landing on You probably has the greatest scope for plot twists. Se-Ri, a South Korean, crash lands in the demilitarised zone of North Korea and is kept safe by Captain Ri, a North Korean soldier. Their attraction and friendship grow slowly even as dangers lurk around every corner. Things almost end with a Mexican stand-off and a near-military-style execution.
While Secretary Kim’s male lead battles a paralysing memory of a terrifying kidnap, the male lead of It’s Okay, That’s Love (played by the striking model-actor Jo In-sung) has a fragmented mind born from childhood abuse and schizophrenia. He must undergo psychiatric care and separation from his lover for a year before he can marry her. And in Jekyll, Hyde, Me, Hyun Bin has a split personality to deal with (all the better for fans though, who get to see two of him).
But there are smaller, more real struggles as well. Something In the Rain – called Bap Jal Sajuneun Yeppeun Nuna or Pretty Older Sister who Buys me Food in the original – examines taboos like the strict workplace hierarchies and sexism, sexual harassment, and the “worst” taboo of them all, dating an older woman.
The older woman, played by Son Ye-jin, falls in love with her best friend’s younger brother, played by Jung Hae-in. There is hell to pay when her mother finds out. The mother feels deep affection for the boyfriend and yet is absolutely disapproving of the relationship – which makes for an interesting and layered emotional canvas.
The smug-man-covets-feisty-oddball-girl formula is a good, fairly standard romantic trope. When handled intelligently, it manages to curl toes and sell books. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, and many mass-market romances in between, have succeeded – to varying degrees – in doing this with lightness and humour.
But K-Dramas push the envelope hard on the feisty-oddball girl character. My old friend Priya Srinivasan (48), who first told me about these shows, believes that female characters in K-Dramas have the space to be eccentric and even morally unsound (occasional kleptomania or blackmail are fine).
While male leads have to be paragons of virtue who are dapper dressers and also happen to look good in the shower, the female lead character is often a hot mess. She can complain about her unwashed, itchy scalp while on a date or be told that she needs to bathe as her clothes “smell of kimchi”.
Women probably feel more seen in this universe for the complicated, angry, disobedient, funny, ambitious, feisty, acerbic and normal people that we can be in real life. A part of the reason for this space afforded to women characters could that about 90% of Korean scriptwriters and series writers are women. Compare this to the barely 27% of women’s presence in American film and TV, and you will see why Joan MacDonald, an American writer, feels that these shows “pay tribute to the female gaze” and the “female perspective”.
This is probably also why the narratives focus on more than just romantic relationships. While the romantic relationships might be unrealistic, the relationships around the lead characters – the friends, the parents and colleagues – feel very real. As Koshy Brahmatmaj pointed out, friendships among women, especially, are rarely celebrated elsewhere on screen the way they are in K-Dramas. Warm, loyal and supportive, the K-Drama best friend feels rooted firmly in real life.
In the world of K-Dramas, scriptwriters are often as popular as actors. They genre hop too, writing novels, plays and web-comics as well. Among them are women writers like Noh Hee-kyung (54), Kim Eun-sook (47), Kim Do-woo (52) and Park Ji-Eun (44) who write dramas. Lee Soo-yeon (38) and Kim Eun-hee (48) write crime, medical thrillers and zombie historicals (such as Life, Stranger and Kingdom).
Their strong presence is reflected in the themes that run through the crime as well as the drama series: casual workplace harassment, social taboos, relationship anxiety, discrimination, bullying, and the political system that gets in the way of both women and men.
Perhaps re-calibrating some of the real-life rules of engagement between men and women – in fictional worlds across the realms of love and work – is one way of trying to make things fairer and more comfortable for women some day. Perhaps what we need is a new, non-male-centric lens to view the world with.
The female gaze
The writers seem truly to be in love with the male characters they create. How could they not? The male leads in K-Dramas are nerdy-but-cool, they long for constancy and babies, and want to cook for, cherish and protect their women.
Like the original prototype of this man, Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy, these are somewhat mythical beasts, based loosely on reality and lovingly crafted for women – mostly by women. Considering that Austen probably based Darcy on a man she had a very brief, if disappointing, love affair with, these characters probably stand for the desire, courage and kindness all of us want but probably lack in life.
The words the men speak, the foibles, flaws, courage and the sweetness they have are all things that the writers write into them. But, as my friend Hansa Thapliyal (48), filmmaker, pointed out, “We can’t discount the fact that these are intelligent male actors, who are responding so well to female writerly instructions.”
So many of these talented male actors seem to be willing to play compliant and vulnerable men who are also subject to the female gaze. Is it strange that this should surprise us in 2020?
I wonder at the psychological probity of the Korean scriptwriters – the Writer Nim or Respected Writer (nim is a honorific in Korean) as they are referred to on the online fan groups. Whether it’s multiple personality disorder, schizophrenia or PTSD from childhood trauma, no subject is taboo.
As in life, in K-Dramas too everyone is equally capable of causing hurt. There is an especially honest and gentle beam of light thrown on parenting – and the effects it has on the adult children. A dead parent, a narcissistic one, or one who is benignly neglectful, all leave deep scars.
While real-life problems are never resolved as easily as they are on TV, these emotional issues make for sensitive, involving watching. I often find myself wondering, do the scriptwriters have a panel of therapists on call? Or are they just bottomless pits of emotional intelligence?
Of course there are the standard soap opera weakness – occasional loud acting and gaping plot holes – but when it’s time to really talk, the characters speak in ways that women probably wish men spoke to them; and in ways that women wish they could speak to men as well. Love here becomes a healing practice, and lovers are each other’s healers. What therapy does in real life – re-parent fragile people – love and lovers do here through honest, gentle conversations.
Scriptwriters like Noh often plumb their own emotional pain to write these dramas. Noh’s popular series, The Most Beautiful Flower (1996), was based on her relationship with her mother who had passed away. Noh is known for her rather bleak drama verites. In the 1990s, she wrote Sad Temptation, the first ever gay K-Drama, a love story between an older married man and his young employee.
My favourites among the shows I’ve watched so far are Secret Garden by Kim Eun-sook (47) and My Lovely Kim Sam-Soon, written by Kim Do-woo (52). While Secret Garden is riotous, campy and extraordinary (it has everything from sacrifice, to the rich-poor divide, to soul-swapping), Sam-Soon is an example of how tender, vulnerable, searingly honest and funny romantic writing can be. Based loosely on Bridget Jones’s Diary, it takes us to places of amusement and emotional pain that are usually glossed over in rom-coms.
High art or low art?
I find myself wondering where K-Dramas fall on the spectrum of what we recognise as art. Are they high art or low art? Can art qualify for the label of “good” only if romance exists on the fringes of the narrative? Like in the heavily-trolled Tanishq advertisement, can the fantasy of an ideal world be considered any less “real” just because it frames our desires in a certain way? Or is it time to recognise the many shades of love and desire that need a more wholesome exploration in art?
I’d like to think that this is good, solid art – unapologetic in its decision to take chances, to engage, to explore emotions, to have fun, to be rich and entertaining, and to stay faithful to its storytelling. This is drama that looks with curiosity and kindness at some of the beauty and disturbance in the society that it inhabits.
In her book of essays Everyone Not In Love Now Are Guilty, Noh Hee-kyung explores the themes of the inability to love deeply and the fear of being hurt in love. Characters in good K-Dramas are often trapped by these fears, and they hesitate and bargain at the threshold of love, waiting, it seems, for the door of certainty to open.
My time watching K-Dramas brought to mind a scene from Friends, in which an elderly couple discuss a list of celebrities the spouse will allow them to date, should the chance present itself. I considered a list of hypothetical dates. It began with a few K-Drama male leads, but the more shows I watched, the more I found myself replacing their names with those of the screenwriters – and their imaginary characters.
My dream evening, with drinks and dinner, would probably cost me a vital organ, but I can just see that scene in my mind: a lot of happily drunk women, lots of rice and side dishes and soju on the table, and hopefully each of the Writer Nims sharing stories of happiness and disappointment; about which male character was inspired by a man in their lives – a friend, a boyfriend, a brother or even a dad.
As for the real beauties, the real men? I think I might just pass – they won’t be able to hold a candle to their fictional counterparts anyway!