With tourism opening up again throughout Asia, travel planning to that part of the world is booming. It’s more fun, I think, to have some sense and glimpse into a country’s culture before visiting, don’t you? Even if it’s a country you’ve visited before, there’s always more to learn. I’ve long been fascinated by the lens into Korea we get from an Asian media phenomenon that has swept the world: the Korean television drama. Are you familiar with K-dramas?
So many people I know watch Korean dramas. They aren’t necessarily Korean. They don’t live in Korea. Many have never even been to Korea. Many dream of one day visiting Korea, though. These K-dramas connect people to a country and culture and provide a unique cultural travel experience.
Maybe some of you are fans of the “soap opera” genre. We’ve had our share in American culture (“As the World Turns,”; “General Hospital,” etc.). While I’ve never been a follower of these shows, I’ve certainly enjoyed various dramatic serials over the years. Maybe you have a soap opera story as well.
I couldn’t begin to explain Korean culture. We would have to go into the country’s history, understand more about the language, and ways of the people. But as I like to remind myself, art reflects humanity. By experiencing a tiny microcosm of Korean art/culture, we learn and open ourselves to the uniqueness of being Korean. And perhaps we even discover similarities in our shared lives as humans on Earth.
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Introducing: The K-drama
Korean dramas, called “K-dramas,” may not be high art, but they are wildly popular across the globe. K-dramas are scripted TV shows that come from South Korea. While some are clearly soap operas, many represent a wide range of genres, from romance to horror to sci-fi and period pieces.Some have a limited number of episodes (16-24), but some may have 50+ episodes.
Quoting Elle Magazine writer Regina Kim:
K-dramas are generally known for having high production value, intense and often engrossing storylines, and quality acting that helps build an emotional connection between the characters and the audience. They also tend to consist of more PG-friendly fare than western TV shows (nudity and sex are practically nonexistent, for example), rendering K-dramas more palatable for a wider range of age groups and countries, especially those that are more socially conservative.
At the same time, the bold and skillful storytelling with which K-dramas tackle societal issues, personal struggles, and universal themes such as family, friendship, and love make for thoughtful content that resonates with audiences across geographical borders. To put it plainly, K-dramas make us feel less alone and often successfully tap into our shared human experiences and emotions.
The Spread of K-dramas to Latin America
Kim explains the international influence of the K-drama:
In Latin America, many viewers were drawn to K-dramas largely due to their emotionally charged scenes and intricate plots, which they found similar to their telenovelas. It also helped that South Korean broadcasters purportedly sold some of their best K-dramas to Latin American TV stations for as low as $1 per episode, making them much more affordable than telenovelas, which often cost thousands of dollars per episode.
Korean broadcasters’ deliberate approach to promote Korean content throughout Latin America paid off, as many K-dramas such as Stairway to Heaven, My Fair Lady, and All About Eve had higher viewer ratings than local telenovelas.
When former South Korean president Roh Moo-Hyun visited Mexico back in 2005, a group of local K-drama fans staged a rally outside his hotel begging him to send Korean actors Jang Dong-Gun and Ahn Jae-Wook on a visit.
Interestingly, the K-drama wave in Latin America has also been bolstered by Latino employees at Korean supermarkets across the U.S. As Korean immigrant communities sprang up around the U.S. in the ‘80s, Korean-owned supermarkets (such as the now ubiquitous grocery chain H Mart) copied K-dramas onto VHS tapes (and later, DVDs) and rented them out to their Korean customers, who sought familiar content from their native country.
“These Korean supermarkets hired many migrant workers from Latin America, especially Mexico,” according to NYU professor Jung-Bong Choi. They explain noting that the Mexican employees, who were tasked with copying the K-dramas onto VHS tapes, inevitably wound up watching them too. “Values of loyalty, devotion, and sacrifice have tugged at the heartstrings of non-westerners. That’s the power of Korean drama.”
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The Spread of K-dramas Around the World
K-dramas continue to spread due to the proliferation of streaming platforms. Netflix and Hulu, for example, entered the market just in time to sweep up a huge fan base.
A spokesperson at Netflix revealed that viewing of Korean content across Asia increased fourfold in 2020 compared to 2019. Notably, the blockbuster rom-com Crash Landing on You stayed in the top 10 in Japan for a whopping 229 days and was the sixth most-watched TV show on Netflix in the U.S. between March 21 and March 27, 2020.
Audiences fell in love with It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, which entered the Netflix top 10 last year in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Russia, as well as multiple countries in Latin America and Asia. The horror K-drama Sweet Home was watched by 22 million subscribers in its first four weeks on Netflix and was ranked #3 on the platform in the U.S. and globally shortly after its release.
Back in 2014, the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA) released a study estimating that approximately 18 million Americans watched K-dramas. One can only assume that figure is much, much higher now.
K-dramas on Netflix are dubbed and subbed in over 30 languages.
While there are many different factors that have contributed to the rise of Korean pop culture all over the world, a common thread that runs through all facets of the Korean Wave is South Korea’s openness to learning from other cultures, successfully combining elements of the East and West to create something new with mass appeal.
Even if the characters in a K-drama are conversing in a language you don’t understand, the production itself is often compelling enough to coax you into overcoming the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” as famously referenced by Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho. It also doesn’t hurt that each episode ends with a cliffhanger, leaving you wanting more. Happy bingeing!
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A Quick History of K-dramas and How They Started
The foundation of Korean drama started under the Japanese rule in 1927, in the format of Radio drama. Radio broadcasting of dramas was performed with 70% of them in Japanese and 30% in Korean. The whole setup composed of voice actors, narrators, background musicians, and followed a format similar to current podcasts.
During the 1950s-1960s, many Koreans were depressed due to the war and these dramas became their stress busters. The stories gave them a glimpse of hope for a better world, which was rare at that time.
The South Korean TV networks began airing dramas regularly in the early 1960’s. At that time, television was still a luxury for the majority of households and the content of the dramas was tightly controlled by the military government.
Most dramas were made to educate the public and support the military government. For example, the first TV drama series, “Backstreet of Seoul“, aired in 1962, was more like a lecture on the problems of urban life than family entertainment. Another drama, “Real Theatre“, aired for two decades between 1964 to 1985, was in fact a tool of the government’s anti-communism drive.
After the ban on gaining revenue from advertisers was uplifted in 1969, the TV networks started to invest more effort into producing and promoting the dramas. Moreover, TV dramas began to become a popular form of family entertainment as more households owned TV. The dramas’ storylines were influenced more by the everyday lives of the people than by political agendas.
For example, the dramas, “Assi” and “Yeoro“, were about characters enduring difficult lives against the backdrop of the history on Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War. The drama, “Susa Banjang” (Chief Detective), which ran from 1971 to 1989, mirrored the changes in the society during that period – in its early days, the drama was primarily about crimes related to poverty, but during the 1980’s, the drama portrayed serious and violent criminals like drug dealers, robbers, kidnappers, and murderers, reflecting the social problems at that time.
However, with the boom of the K-dramas, the military government began imposing tighter controls over the “poor taste” content and required the TV networks to allocate more broadcasting time to news and educational programs.
In the 1980’s, the variety of K-dramas increased. Being influenced by the Japanese TV dramas, the Korean TV networks began offering trendy dramas focusing on the lives and love stories of the younger generation to attract young viewers.
Historical dramas or “sageuk” depicting actual historical events or lives of great men like kings, princes, national heroes and generals were also introduced. For example 500 Years of the Joseon Dynasty aired between 1983 to 1990, depicted major events happening in the five centuries of the Joseon Dynasty.
The dramas, “Pastoral Diary” and “Hill of Rising Sun” were about the lives of people in small farming villages and these dramas might evoke affection and nostalgia from viewers witnessing the rapid urbanization process of the country.
During the 1990’s, the competition among the TV networks became more intense with the entry of more TV networks and the relaxation of governmental regulations and censorship, leading to more investment of money and efforts into the dramas.
For example, Eyes of Dawn, the first blockbuster series in Korean drama history aired from 1991 to 1992, cost about 200 million won per episode. The drama depicted the Korean history from the colonial period (1910-1945) to the Korean War (1950-1953) and tried innovations such as pre-production and filming in overseas locations.
Trendy dramas also reached a new peak during this period. For example, “Jealousy“, a romantic drama aired in 1994, attracted a younger generation with their young characters and stylish and realistic description of the urban life, and the drama’s soundtrack was also a massive hit on the record charts, motivating the TV networks to link the popularity of the dramas with merchandise sales.
The growth of on-line video services and the social networking on the internet provided the opportunity for K-dramas to reach a much larger audience over the world. More money and efforts were being spent on the production of dramas to attract the audience.
For example, more and more contemporary dramas were filmed in different overseas locations such as Paris, Tahiti, Budapest, Shanghai, Greece, etc. with beautiful people and fashionable clothes. Hollywood-style explosions, gun fights and car chases were injected into action-adventure dramas – many K-drama fans should remember dramas like Iris and Athena: Goddess of War.
It’s interesting to note that with the widespread use of smartphones, web dramas (i.e., mini-dramas consisting of 6 to 10 episodes with each episode being 5 to 20 minutes long distributed through the internet) were on the rise.
9 Things to Look For in K-dramas
Candace Bacon of ReelRundown, broke down her thoughts in bullet points on K-Drama’s popularity. As you watch K-dramas, see if you agree.
Eye candy! – The stars of dramas are very attractive. There is a reason there are lots of “broody shower scenes” and “princess for a day makeovers” to be found in Korean shows.
Cultural appeal – It’s educational (really!). Watching foreign dramas lets you absorb information about a different culture without the hassle of dreary studying. You learn about different societal norms by watching the day to day life of the characters. Watch even one Korean drama and you will understand that shoes are taken off at the door without anyone needing to tell you.
Vocabulary Stretch – By the time you become a K-drama veteran, all of the drama marathons you finished will have toned your lingual dexterity. You will know several key Korean words and phrases. You will be able to say “sorry” and “thanks” with ease and most importantly, you will be able to confess your love to your dearest Oppa. And you will also know what Oppa means.
Fresh factor – Many people from the Western world watch Korean dramas just because they are different from the programming they are used to. It’s not the same old stale, predictable plots that have been recycled for seasons. The plots, types of characters, and even the settings in K-dramas feel new and different and, therefore, more exciting.
Cool clothes – The fashion in dramas has definite trend appeal. Many outfits are straight from the runway. The accessories are just as amazing as the clothes. Drama stars dress the way most of us would in our daydreams.
Mouthwatering food – It’s hard to watch a drama and not get cravings for ramen. Nearly every episode features delicious-looking dishes like rolled up eggs, hearty soups, and grilled steak. And your hand dexterity will improve with dramas because you are sure to have simultaneous chopstick cravings as well.
Smorgasbord of choices – There is a drama to suit every taste. Light romantic comedies are a popular fare. There are also meatier melodramas for people who want to cry a lot. Genre can even be seasoned to taste with historical, fantasy, science fiction, action, romance, and many other drama ingredients.
The format – A typical Korean drama is 16-20 episodes and then it is done. The length is perfect to tell a whole, connected story that has a strong buildup and conclusion. The season is longer than a movie, so viewers become more emotionally invested. And it has a definitive end so the plot isn’t about filling time to last for multiple seasons.
Addictive properties – Korean dramas successfully create emotional connections with viewers. Characters are developed and brought through trials and tribulations in such a way that the audience relates to the characters and feels the same emotions. The cliff hanger endings of nearly every episode leave viewers squirming till the next episode can resolve the conflict. The tension is built up so expertly that it is more emotionally resonant when the main couple finally holds hands halfway through the series than when a full-blown bedroom scene happens in an American series.
If you’ve read this far, you’re either a Korean drama fan or maybe wondering what all the fuss is about K-dramas and now know a whole lot more about the genre. Let me know your favorite ones so I can add them to my list!
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