In 2009, a show called Boys over Flowers featuring a curly-haired Lee Min-ho, became a phenomenon. The series wasn’t profound, or laced with heavy messaging; and yet it was held responsible for spurring the Hallyu wave. It revolved around four rich pupils or ‘F4 as they called themselves, and they go up against a feisty girl of modest means.
Unlike the current day’s K-dramas that are mostly restricted from 16 to18 episodes, the thin tale of Boys over Flowers was spread over 25 episodes. Lee Min-ho took centre stage as the aggressive Jun-pyo - the typical ‘bad boy with a golden heart’- and his story overwhelmed everything else, including his own love interest, who, despite her rebellious character was just present to be pushed around.
Lee Min-ho adopted a similar character with Kim-Tan in The Heirs, another show that saw tremendous success in international waters.
It’s 2022. The Korean dramas have hurtled through a difficult journey but they’ve come a long way, since then.
Recently, we saw Park Eun-bin taking the lead as an attorney on the autistic spectrum in Extraordinary Attorney Woo, while her love interest Kang Tae-oh’s Lee Jun-ho is a soft-spoken, gentle, boy next door. Not once does he try to steal the limelight from Park Eun-bin; it’s her story all the way through. Kim Go-eun is leading a show called Little Women, a series that turns Louisa May Alcott’s novel of love and family on its head.
There have been many changes in the storytelling format, along with cinematography and the slightly reduced focus on the male leads, with more emphasis on women. It’s a work in progress of course; many shows still enjoy variations in the old format of the arrogant male CEO, or just any businessman, softening after meeting the feisty woman. K-dramas still enjoy their male saviour complex, and you might be hard-pressed to find one without at least one scene where the male lead doesn’t throw in a couple of punches at the baddies and turns to his love interest and says anxiously, “Qin-chana?” (Are you okay).
Yet, there’s something alluring and pervasive about K-dramas despite all the criticism about the male leads in a show. The Hallyu wave has been washing over international shores and the phenomenal success of Crash Landing on You and later the dystopian drama Squid Game in 2021, established their reach.
For the die-hard romantics, most Korean dramas are a feast for the mushy soul. Unlike many Western shows that experiment with various couples and ‘ships; that may or may not find favour, the Korean romances hold the promise of unconditional love and it’s intense chemistry between the leads that carries the show through even when the storytelling falters.
A show like What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim has a story spread over 16 episodes following the romance between a rich CEO and secretary, but it’s so comforting and soft that you’ll just watch 16 hours of two people being cute and fuzzy.
Johanna Moyano, an American talent agent from Rocketship Media Lab Dubai, says that Korean dramas are ‘kings’ of the slow-burn romances. “That electric touching of hands, the way a look lingers for too long - that’s exhilarating. When the kiss finally happens, you just clap with joy and cover your face with a pillow. In a time where intimacy is mistaken for just physical attraction, the romance is just heart-rending.”
In a time where intimacy is mistaken for just physical attraction, the romance is just heart-rending.
However, it’s not just the romantic bonds; the shows portray a bittersweet wholesomeness in all relationships, be it parental, sibling, friendships, or even between a grandmother and grandchild. They have a particularly feel-good manner of portraying interpersonal bond.
Thirty-year-old Anandi Bandhopadhyay, an Indian doctoral student in history from Seattle, USA, explains what about the shows attract her. “Korean dramas have something for everyone. I am drawn to the feel-good genre. They’re just so wonderfully peopled, and it’s not just the chemistry between the leads. Each interpersonal relationship is rendered beautifully, building a world we’d all find a little corner for ourselves in.”
Korean dramas have something for everyone. I am drawn to the feel-good genre. They’re just so wonderfully peopled, and it’s not just the chemistry between the leads. Each interpersonal relationship is rendered beautifully, building a world we’d all find a little corner for ourselves in.
Many find the societal structures in Korean dramas highly relatable - from panicky, rigid parents and suffocating childhoods to the scrutiny women are often subject to for their affairs in their personal lives.
Thirty-year-old Tannishtha Bhattacharjee, an Indian doctoral student in modern South Asian history in Santa Barbara California, USA, believes that K-dramas are astronomically popular owing to their depiction of relationships and Asian society.
“They do a good mix of idealistic and rosy romance, and other very relatable everyday relationships. For me, as a woman from the gendered reality of India, it is very easy to relate to the social fabric that women navigate in the dramas.”
She also notes how the leads are moving away from the normative masculine characters, and the slow progression to women’s perspectives, such as Something in the Rain, One Spring Night, and Red Sleeve. She observes that the female leads are not a typical Western feminist character, where such a rejection of rigid structures might be inconceivable and unreal for many living in other parts of the world. “The women in K-dramas take centre stage in a meaningful way, with emphasis on navigation of subjugation rather than the grand scheme of feminism.”
The women in K-dramas take centre stage in a meaningful way, with emphasis on navigation of subjugation rather than the grand scheme of feminism.
Nevertheless, the male gaze continues to loom over narratives, as K-dramas tend to draw heavily on patriarchal tropes.
“Even more progressive shows have the need to see a male-lead narrative,” says Bandyopadhyay. For instance, Strong Girl Bong Soon - an affable show about a strong superwoman, sees her as being rather ineffectual as the male leads take the reins for most of the exciting action scenes, while she is relegated to being a damsel in distress.
Storytelling and themes
What’s fascinating about Korean dramas is their utilisation of their own mythical lore for their fantasy dramas. Moving away from commonplace werewolves and vampires, K-dramas have opened the doors for new powerful entities such as Goblins or Dokkabe (not to be confused with the English goblin), Grim Reapers, Gumihos (nine-tailed foxes in the form of humans).
In the memorable series Guardian, we saw Gong Yoo as a cursed ‘Goblin’, looking for his bride, who can terminate his existence. He shares a house with Lee Dong Wook’s Grim Reaper, where they both spar over food and house rents. This Grim Reaper isn’t the usual character we would expect, wearing a black cloak and carrying a scythe. He’s a regular corporate honcho, who goes for morbid duty, dressed in black and a hat. Unheard of otherwise, but Korean dramas enjoy building on such characters, to the extent that the series Tomorrow created an entire corporate bureaucracy for Grim Reapers, with specialised departments that suffer from normal problems such as being short-staffed and under-funded.
Twenty-nine-year-old Sravan Vavilala, a recruiter based in India, asserts that he particularly enjoyed Guardian. “I had many apprehensions about watching Korean dramas but the first K drama I watched smashed all of it out of the park,” he says. “I feel like most K dramas have a feel-good love theme between a couple of main characters that makes it easily relatable. It almost feels like true love. There are some mind-blowing sci-fi and action elements integrated into some of the dramas but it never feels unrealistic.”
I feel like most K dramas have a feel-good love theme between a couple of main characters that makes it easily relatable. It almost feels like true love. There are some mind-blowing sci-fi and action elements integrated into some of the dramas but it never feels unrealistic.
Speaking more about Guardian, he says, “It has fantasy elements like immortality, middle earth and wars but what's at the centre of the story is this beautiful love track that brings out the romance in you. The other one that's similarly interesting is The Tail Of The Nine Tailed. It starts a bit slow but builds up quickly and makes you so invested in the story. Again, there are fantasy elements like magic but the soul is still the love track.”
Apart from their unique fantasy choices, Korean dramas have also lately begun to experiment with different methods of storytelling and themes that resonate with people on a global level.
Referring to the success of Squid Game and It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, which dealt with repressed trauma and grief in a sensitive manner, Bhattacharjee explains, “There are some very innovative experiments with visual artistic representation. Colour schemes, architectural models as sets, fairy tale illustrations, and then the cross temporal emphasis on nostalgia as a mode of critique or satire, there are some genius ways of engaging a wider palate of audiences, and a mode to sell merch alongside.” What is even fresher in K-dramas is their realistic characters from ordinary life, with unusual professionals, she says. “Particularly, the range of professions they cover makes me feel like I’m accessing worlds of people I meet every day but don’t know enough about - weather forecasters, florists etc.”
There have been ripples of changes since the flamboyant Boys over Flowers days. Twenty-two-year-old Zainab A Jimoh, a Nigerian public relations account executive based in Dubai, notes that when she first started watching them in 2009, they didn’t have such an impact on her at the time.
“In fact, it was just a fun way to get out of my head and escape my reality for a while. As the dramas started to get more serious in tone and theme, I became more invested in stories and characters - the shows began to touch on topics that I found interesting, family dynamics, social class issues and gender roles.” She also explains how K-dramas drew her more into Korean history, language and culture. “They also gave me a strong understanding of how they greet, eat, the formal and informal way of speaking and made me open to other cultures.”
K-dramas are not just mushy rom-coms!
There’s a common misunderstood belief that K-dramas are just mushy rom-coms, ‘written for women’.
Thirt-three-year-old Zarah Fiaz, an Indian project manager based in Dubai, elucidates this point and cites the numerous shows that portray a variety of themes. “Recently, a lot of shows have highlighted shows within society, such as Sky Castle, which portrays the stress and pressure that students experience from their parents, the social commentary on class disparities (Squid Game), importance of mental health (My Mister) and the stories about underdogs (Fight For My Way), and slice-of-life series (Reply series) - these are topics that are not just exclusive to South Korea, and that’s why they pull in a global audience.”
Recently, a lot of shows have highlighted shows within society, such as Sky Castle, which portrays the stress and pressure that students experience from their parents, the social commentary on class disparities (Squid Game), importance of mental health (My Mister) and the stories about underdogs (Fight For My Way), and slice-of-life series (Reply series) - these are topics that are not just exclusive to South Korea, and that’s why they pull in a global audience.
These issues of inter-generational trauma and mental health are crucial, as they reflect concerns that ail Korean society, according to Bandyopadhyay, and opens doors for further sustained discussion on such issues.
Twenty-eight-year-old Nihara Hareesh, an Indian author, and CEO of Hyperlinks Media based in Dubai echoes similar thoughts. She says frankly, “I often find the storytelling aspect of films and soap operas a bit dragged out and only prefer ones that give justice to quality scripts… till I discovered K-dramas and their manner of keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. K-dramas until 2015 were rather dragged out, but 2016 changed the scene with shows like Descendants of the Sun and Guardian - they reclaimed the art of storytelling in just 16 episodes, leaving the audience emotional.”
I often find the storytelling aspect of films and soap operas a bit dragged out and only prefer ones that give justice to quality scripts… till I discovered K-dramas and their manner of keeping the audience engaged and intrigued. K-dramas until 2015 were rather dragged out, but 2016 changed the scene with shows like Descendants of the Sun and Guardian - they reclaimed the art of storytelling in just 16 episodes, leaving the audience emotional.
Korean crime thrillers cannot be left out of the discussion, and have been often praised for their taut and impactful storytelling. For instance, Lee Joon-gi’s Flower of Evil blended elements of a crime thriller, an anguished romance as well as crippling mental health.
Helping many cope
Thirty-six-year-old Sri Lankan national Madhavi Liyanage, based in Dubai, says that K-dramas helped her cope with anxiety and explains that she began to binge on Korean crime thrillers during the COVID-19 pandemic and was inexplicably drawn to them. “I was surrounded by a few uncertainties in life, reduced working hours, pay cuts and unable to support my family for months. Those were the kind of thoughts running through my head. Thankfully, through K-dramas, I was able to control a lot of my unstable emotions and mental state.” She recalled how her mind felt calm when watching K-dramas for hours.”
Liyanage adds that the experience has had a positive impact on her mental state, overall. “It’s a great ice-breaker with people during awkward situations,” she says.
Explaining what she enjoyed most about the dramas, she said, “It was the storytelling, level of realism that they managed to capture and the level of detail. Eventually, I found myself watching a variety of shows and genres.”
Compared to exploring much simpler stories, K-dramas have over the past four to five years started to explore more complex, women-centric stories.
Many seemed to have found refuge in K-dramas during the Covid-induced lockdowns, including 31-year-old tech journalist Sushant Talwar from Delhi. “It was during the first Covid-induced lockdown. Initially it was about trying something new. Later it turned in the case of finding an escape from the grim realities around me.”
Talwar observes the changes in the newer shows. “Compared to exploring much simpler stories, K-dramas have over the past four to five years started to explore more complex, women-centric stories,” he says, adding that his favourite story is My ID is Gangnam Beauty.
Korean dramas have had global impact, and the Hallyu wave is just getting bigger. The shows mean many things for different people - for some it means comfort, an escape from reality - for others, it’s a deep insight into Korean culture and society. It’s real and unreal at the same time, and perhaps that’s what pulls in the viewers.
Please note: This article was first published on October 10, 2022