K-drama index and – my final word

So, what did you think of my Top 10 K-drama Romances? Agree? Disagree? The more I see the more I want to add to that list, or edit it.

If you’re looking for a good binge but are scared of the 16-20+ episode commitment and have a Netflix account, my best advice to you is to look at the three word descriptors beneath the series image and then the year of production. If the series has been online for a few years it’s because it’s popular and therefore probably really, really good. Many new series are premiered throughout the year, if they last on the Netflix menu for a couple of years they are a safe bet.

I have another 4 that was just wonderful but before I gush on about them, as this will be my final post on K-drama, I thought I’d include an index to all of my previous posts – in case you might be interested.

Here are 4 that I’ve seen since making my Top 10 list that are worth editing it for:

Flower of Evil (2020)

The brain child of writer Yoo Jung Hee, Flower of Evil blew me away. Described as a suspense melodrama, I would argue that it’s a grittier sort of romance. In a Edward Norton ala Primal Fear/ Fight Club style juxtaposition, Baek Hee-sung (Lee Joon-gi) is the perfect husband and father – loving, sensitive, aware and responsive to the needs of his wife and adoring daughter; no one would believe that he is actually the dutiful son of a long-dead serial killer.

To escape the stigma of being his father’s son he has assumed the identity of another person– and insinuated himself into that missing person’s family. His wife, Cha Ji-won (Moon Chae-Won) has no idea that he has been lying to her for their entire relationship. She is a detective – a role in which he has supported her to achieve.

Decades after his father’s death, copycat killings begin occurring and Cha Ji-won has been assigned the case. As evidence mounts to signal the existence of an accomplice serial killer, the seemingly perfect marriage is threatened. Just how much has been covered up? Is Baek Hee-sung the serial killer’s accomplice? How can the parents of a missing person play along with a stranger assuming their son’s identity? Does Baek Hee-sung really love his wife and daughter or is it all the perfect cover?

Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016)

With a young, sexy and talented, all-star cast Hwarang was expected to be a knock out hit in Korea when it was first broadcast – not so. Speculation on the internet has cast the blame on the story or the competition it was up against in its airing slot – The Legend of the Blue Sea with its megastars, Lee Min Ho and Jun Ji Hyun.

Its international success has earned it a sleeper hit status – think Eddie and the Cruisers – an 80’s video rental sensation that was missed at the box office.

This series is brilliant and a step away from the Confucian principles that underscore many, if not all historical k-dramas. Thematically, it’s the most Western of all historical K-dramas that I have watched.

Although criticism from Korea aimed at the plot focussing on the older generation’s feud underpinning the drama as well as its musical editing and perceived sudden plot development, these criticisms can be made of many K-drama series. For the K-Pop Herald these criticisms may reflect the feelings of its young readership. For its more mature audience I would hazard a guess that it’s actually the portrayal of the older generation behaving in a way that doesn’t deserve respect.

The plot revolves around a boy-king, Sammaekjong (Park Hyung-Sik) who isn’t allowed to show his face, ostensibly for his personal well-being. He is the unknown/absent/ invisible king. In his place, his mother controls the realm until he comes of age. He appears before her at this time as a weak-willed, philosophical individual who cannot wrest power away from her. We watch his spiritual growth from the sidelines as we follow the pursuit of a young peasant without a name, calling himself Dog-Bird (Park Seo-joon) who stays in the city to avenge the murder of his best friend, Seon-u. Seon-u was killed for accidentally seeing the boy-king’s face. Both Dog-Bird and Sammaekjong assume other identities and become inductees to a training academy to become unknown boy-king’s bodyguard. And, of course, there’s plenty of romance and sub-plots in the stories of some of the other trainees.

What makes this a very Western storytelling is that it is a coming of age story that’s actualised when the 2 main male leads learn to discern when to follow parental authority and when to flout it for their own well-being and that of the best interests of the kingdom – thereby keeping Confucius well in sight. When young characters blindly listen to authority of their elders and community leaders they suffer.

With comedy, romance, action, history and a wonderful ensemble cast this is one not to miss.

W – Two Worlds Apart (2016)

Ever seen Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo or that Charmed episode when Rose is sucked into the pages of someone’s unfinished noir detective novel and writes the ending by living it? Were you captivated in a vortex of reality that is a story within a story where the characters traverse each other’s universe and pose existential questions that you could ask of your own state of being alive?

Too deep? Well, this is K-drama so you can enjoy the ride without plunging beneath the surface and enjoy the beautiful scenery, or you can ponder the reason for existence and whether our world began in the imagination of a virally adored webtoon author/illustrator in another world.

Down-and-out webtoon artist/illustrator, Oh Sung-moo (Kim Eui-sung) creates a character Kang Chul (Lee Jong-Suk), who possesses heroic character traits that he lacks himself – foremost is a strong self-will but Kang Chul is also intelligent, athletic, altruistic, talented, handsome, and quickly amasses enormous personal wealth. He has so much appeal that fans of the webtoon are hooked on his plight- he is wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his family in the first episode.

He is, in fact (or our imagination) so head strong that when he doesn’t like the way his storyline is headed – he changes it. At first his creator, Oh Sung-moo, believes that he makes the changes himself in his oft drunken state – until he notices them when he is sober. The realisation terrifies him and he decides to end the series by killing off his main character. Then he disappears.

When Oh Sung-moo’s daughter, Oh Yeon-joo (Han Hyo-joo) comes to check on her missing father and sees a bleeding-out Kang Chul on the computer screen she is devastated until the desperate Kang Chul pulls her into the webtoon through the screen to save him. She, of course, is in love with the charismatic Kang Chul and so begins a romance and race for survival where Kang Chul and Oh Yeon-joo try to overwrite the destiny that Oh Sung-moo has set into motion at the outset of his webtoon by moving between both worlds using the rules and writing techniques of writers of serials and soap operas.

This is a very clever story that works on three levels – the surface plot – an investigation into genre and series writing – and a philosophical questioning of what is reality, who we are and why we are. Not all of the questions are clearly answers but the ride is fast paced, slick and addictive.

You are my Destiny (2014) or Fated to Love You

This series, like Boys Over Flowers has such strong universal appeal that its story has been retold several times across Asian TV. Unlike Boys Over Flowers, it doesn’t devolve into hyperbolic plot twists that prolong the ending. In fact, the version of You Are My Destiny I’m referring to is the 2014 Korean remake starring Jang Nara, Jang Hyuk and Choi Jin-hyuk. On Viki it’s called Fated to Love You.

If you like the comedy of Jim Carrey you will love the outrageous antics of Jang Hyuk as the CEO, Lee Gun. Lee Gun heads a chemical company that is closing down a factory on Kim Mi-young’s (Jang Nara’s) home-island. With negotiations falling apart and out of desperation, Kim Mi-young’s brother-in-law and his friend follow Lee Gun to Macau where he plans to propose to his long-time girlfriend. There they plot to drug him, and film him in a compromising position with a prostitute to give them leverage to force him to change his mind and keep the factory open.

Meanwhile, a mousy, accommodating and altruistic, Kim Mi-Young wins a holiday at the same resort in a work raffle and is duped by her co-worker, and love rat, to take him along as her date. Lee Gun’s girlfriend doesn’t show up and unknowingly both Lee Gun and Kim Mi-Young imbibe the drug. Mistaking the room number on Lee Gun’s door for her own, Kim Mi-Young spends the night with him where she is found by her brother-in-law in the morning. Soon after, Kim Mi-Young discovers she is pregnant.

The story then follows a marriage of convenience/enforced togetherness trope where the added pressures of this cross class relationship begin to shape the personalities of both characters. The journey is funny, the romantic elements at times hilarious, and we have the satisfaction of seeing Kim Mi-Young blossom into a self-determined, confident individual by the end of the series.

Since seeing this series it’s become my favourite contemporary romance.

2. WTFR- The General and the Showgirl

Antonina Speaks – a fiction

A dramatic monologue for an older actress. I meant to capture Antonina in a 10 minute performance but she is such a rich character that I kept going. There are a lot of beat changes and I hope to have written a vehicle to show off an actress’ range from high status to low as well as the breadth of experience of this fascinating woman’s life – burlesque dancer/wanton, patrician, mother, schemer, murderess, lover, indispensable wife and adulteress.

As a performance piece it can go over a minimum of 10, 15 or 20 minutes but stopping at these points. Of course, to realize this in live performance an actress adept at using silence together with the natural process of transferring the written word to the stage, may see the piece run longer. The time estimates are based on my own audio rendition of it which are placed in italics through the text at the closest natural finish.

Historical notes to follow in a separate blog post.

Enjoy.

William Etty's, Candaules, King of Lydia shews his wife of as she goes to bed to Gyges, one of His Ministers, 1830, Public Domain.
William Etty’s, Candaules, King of Lydia shews his wife of as she goes to bed to Gyges, one of His Ministers, 1830, Public Domain.

Theodosius, you take my breath away. You know, you do. You know you are unique, don’t you? Unique and precious and indispensable. Dear, dear boy. Tell me again, how I drive you wild with the wanting of me, all of me, all of my luxurious, ample, self – how my breasts were made to be cupped in your palms and my round, ripe, bottom the soft, easy, handle of the stirrup for your ride. Ride and ride and ride. This is why I invite you to my bath. I can’t get enough of you – your energy, your boldness, your vitality, your desire to please me, pleasure me: come for me, relish in my experience. Let me teach you the fringe benefits I learnt in burlesque.

Theodosius, what a fitting name – God’s gift. Yes, you are. God’s gift to me. Come suckle at my breast once again.

Theodosius? Why do you shrink away? Who frightens you? Come back!

Hello. Hello. Who approaches? Who dares?

Lucia! I said we were not to be disturbed. Who? Soldiers? Flavio? Here? Now? He is supposed to be with his army in the East.

Perfume! Now. Strong perfume! Hurry! And Lucia, do not let him in here until I am ready to receive him. Go, quickly.

He mustn’t suspect.

The fool.

What is he doing back so early? I sent missives that I would be heading out at month’s end. Someone has been in his ear. It couldn’t be Constantine this time. Silencing him was a trifling afternoon well spent. The egotist, thinking he could besmirch me, to Flavio. If I could bring down the Pope with a little diplomatic entanglement what challenge was a boy masquerading as a Byzantine General?

Hmm. Perhaps it was one of the bond-slaves, but who? After the example I made of poor, timid, little Macedonia? May the snitch spend eternity searching for her tongue in Hell.

Breathe, Antonina, breathe. Flavio worships you. When have you failed at turning the head of that simpleton? I should have suspected the softness of what that armour enclosed. I thought I was marrying a god, a famous general, a champion of the people – victorious in the East – rich in the plunders of war – baron of his own making. And what did I get? The armour of a warrior hiding a simpering soul, abject, apologetic, forgiving, god-fearing servant of Christ ready to run back at my beck and call.

Sh! Listen. Can you hear it? Footsteps. A weighted tread. Still in armour?

Photi! Is your step-father here too?

 No? Flavio couldn’t get away?

Oh, what a shame.

But you did. Just look at you. Were you in such haste to see me that you left the battlefield fully armed? Photi? Is there a coup going on in the capital and no one’s told me?

Smile. I’m teasing you. Why so dour? Aren’t you pleased to see your Mama? Come here and take my hands. Put that spear down, you could poke an eye out with it.

My eye. I hope that’s not your point? My darling son, is it?

Of course, not. My boy, how I’ve missed you.

What? Where’s Theodosius? Why he’s here, in Constantinople. I’m not privy to his every movement. Why do you ask? You’ll see him soon I’m sure.

Now, I will not have you wearing armour in the house. Not in the capital

You need a bath. The water hasn’t gone cold. I’ll leave you to it and see you in the dining hall. We’ll have a suckling pig to celebrate your arrival. Ioannina will be so excited to see her big brother and hear all your news.

Now really, you must bathe. I’ll not have you… Photius where are you going?

I told you Theodosius isn’t here. Come back. Stop banging doors. What do you mean he has to answer to Flavio?

In what way, in God’s Name, has Theodosius offended Flavio? Don’t look at me with  accusing eyes. What have I done to offend? Well, speak up. Out with it. Tell me my sin. Blasphemy? In God’s Name… Really? Again? You’ve travelled a thousand stades to tell me to watch my tongue?

Oh, Flavio wills me to return with you to the East at the end of the week? First you have business with Theodosius?

Well, he’s not here. Whatever you are holding against him, resolve it before dinner. I’ll not have you ruining your welcoming feast.

On second thoughts, go. Go and wash in the Bath of Zeuxippus. I’ll not have you muddy my water. May the waters of Zeus cleanse your ungrateful, sanctimonious soul.

Mosaic of Justinian and court in the Church of San Vitale Ravenna
Mosaic of Justinian and court in the Church of San Vitale Ravenna. Belisarius stands to our left of Justinian with the eunuch Narses on between Justinian and the Bishop of Ravenna, Maximianus Public Domain.

Devil take them both – father and step-son – traitor son. He’s my boy. Flavio had no part in his making but he’s made the boy his creature. Treats him like his own. Favours and shields him on the battlefront. He’s making him soft in his own image. A true believer. The boy disdains his own mother in favour of Flavio the faithful, the warrior, the benevolent, the pious soft cock.

Flavio actually believes all that religious tripe he spouts, “The alliance of God follows those who put justice forward.” He doesn’t just pray before a battle, he fasts and he expects the men to follow his example.

What? No alcohol! Try telling that to his Huns! The fool did, and then had to kill a couple of them for insubordination. Ha!  How Christianly is that? Ok, so manslaughter amongst the ranks can’t go unpunished – but really, that’s what Huns do – get drunk and kill each other. If he doesn’t like it then hire different mercenaries – surely they aren’t the only warriors to handle a bow on the back of a horse?

Some …may blame me. But I’m not the cause of his officer’s insubordination. He knew what I was when he married me … and forgave me, as good Christians do.

He never asked if I wanted to be forgiven.

No, I’m not to blame for the paucity of his officers’ respect. I know the temperature of his men, personally. Have I not followed him into every theatre of war, thus far? He should look to his strictures over them. The fool prohibits his men their due – plunder should always follow victory. Emperor Justinian tarries with their salaries, and then Flavio reprimands their plundering. Hasn’t someone told him that that is what soldiers do after a siege – sack the city, take its riches, humble it!

He’ll need an act of God to prevent them raiding for their spoils in Persia. Persia’s no small theatre of war bounded by sea nor hemmed intro a strip by desert. Am I to be accused of sleeping with every Roman soldier that faces Khusro?

(c. 10 mins)

But Flavio is the Great Belisarius, the protector of the people – the shepherd who has brought Carthage and Italy back into the fold – resurrecting the Roman Empire of old, the Catholic West rejoining the Byzantine East. He could be more than a mere general but he denies his ambition.

Don’t think he hasn’t any. Why else did he sup on Vittigis’ table, sitting in Vittigis’ throne and wearing his barbarian crown? Vittigis saw it, as I did and as did the men. He sat there. The sceptre was on his table. His highly effective fighting militia flanked him at the feast – taking their places like noblemen, unable to claim a permanent seat. Those spoils were for Justinian to mete out. Where was the victory for them? Instead, the great and honourable Belisarius denied them and like a monk retreating from the world denied himself and denied me, my due.

Theodora and her court ladies and chaplain/eunuchs
Theodora and her court ladies and chaplain/eunuchs from the mosaic in San Vitale Ravenna. Antonina is said to be on our right of the Empress. Edisonblus / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

You see, I deserve to be Empress. I’d be a great Empress. A brave Empress. The crown would finish my coiffure just as well – no, better than hers! My eyes would twinkle like living jewels between the crown’s tresses of pearls that would frame my face? And my face – so more deserving of the honour than Theodora’s clumsy nose and owlish eyes. How can she do those gems justice when my face would draw a better picture ensconced in that crown?

A pity she hooked Justinian before I did -that whitewashed palace-boy, timid of his own shadow. Who would have thought he could survive as Emperor? He should have gone down in the riots. Who is he but the nephew of a usurping pig-farmer peasant-emperor? Poor Hypatius was the rightful heir.

He was relegated to the role of diplomat, couldn’t control an army in his dreams, shivers at the thought of combat – I should know – he talked in his sleep.

Justinian thanked God for his mercy during the riots – but really he should have lit a candle to Belisarius’ perversity – who wouldn’t take the crown when it’s there for the taking? His army in the capital raring to go – so close to the palace. The people were rising and the Emperor was preparing a ship to slink away in defeat.

No. My husband swore an oath of loyalty to his Emperor before his God.

What about his loyalty to me? He would save the people of the former empire but would massacre our own in the Hippodrome. My people – my city- my confederates – my family -in my Hippodrome. Were not my father and grandfather the best charioteers in the city? Did my brother not compete? Did I not learn to dance alongside Theodora there? Did the great Belisarius have to massacre all of the trapped rioters – all of my people whose life the Hippodrome defined? He wasn’t husband enough to save them.

He wasn’t husband enough to give me the crown I deserve. Theodora should be kissing the hem of my robes, yet here I am subject to her bidding. Theodora – too squeamish to carry out her own commands. She could never do what I have done.

Detail of Empress Theodora and her Court ladies from the mosaics in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna
Detail of Empress Theodora and her Court ladies from the mosaics in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna. Antonina is directly next to the Empress and her Ioannina, the daughter of Antonina and Belisarius is next to her.
Edisonblus / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Did I not dispose of Silverius, the Vicar of Christ? Theodora charged us with this duty for the protection she offers Flavio. “Get rid of that priest, “she commanded, “He offers impediments to my Justinian’s vision.” Flavio was mortified. He could not believe that she would go so far.

Not Silverius. Not the Pope. Sacrilege.

Pope Silverius. Public Domain.https://picryl.com/media/silverius-papa-c4fa0b

Flavio would defend the Church to the point of stupidity, weakening his forces, fragmenting his army marching north, compromising his strength to answer the call for aid from every insignificant priest who appealed to him. There was no way that he could bring about the death of the Pontif. Not even to unite the Church.

No, the shirker, the weakling, false man. Even the eunuch Narses has more balls.

He left the Pope to me.

I had to keep us in Justinian’s good graces.

I had to order the men to find witnesses to accuse Silverius of betraying our forces to the Goths.

I manoeuvred Silverius to stand trial.

When the wind blew in Silverius’ favour, I was the one to poison his cup. So simple, so difficult for Flavio.

He couldn’t choose his emperor over his god. The coward. He couldn’t put his immortal soul on the line but he didn’t mind if his wife did.

 And I did.

I sacrificed my soul.

(15-16 mins)

Let me go to perdition, then how would he survive? He thanked me for it afterwards but what are a few clumsy kisses from a man positioned to be Emperor who can’t even seize the day when it’s handed to him? He took Sicily and Naples in his stride on the way to the Pincian Palace in Rome where he ran the campaign for a year and then he was handed Ravenna with the Gothic crown… and he grasped it with both hands… and gave it to Justinian.

Such an exasperating fool. And I pandered to him…

Shall I prepare for your triumph Flavio? Shall I make ready for a feast? Flavio? No? What? Chastised and sent to fight the Persians?

Don’t go Flavio. The atmosphere is torpid in the capital. It will only change when a fresh gust surges through the palace. A gust that will blow away the discontent and leave a new emperor on the throne. They are calling for you. Byzantium needs a strong military man on the throne. One who has seen the extent of the empire and knows its people and their needs. A hero who will be respected – who reunited the empire with his own sweat. My hero. My husband. My lover. My king.

No, No you’re not a simple soldier. Don’t make me laugh. You, are a great tactician. The way you sum up the enemy on the battlefield you can sum up the senate just the same.

No? Then let me tell you how it will go. We will have the support of the people – they worship you and despise Justinian and his taxes and his laws, and the support of the Patricians – John the Treasurer is preparing to fund a revolution – why let it be someone else when it could be you? You have the alliance of God.

Flavio? Where are you going? Sheath your sword. Justinian can wait. He’s no fool. He won’t think you are behind any of this, I will see to it. Go face Khusro’s army, far away from the city. When you are deep in battle I will take care of matters. No one will ever think you were involved in any coup. I will tell Theodora. We will set a trap for the treasurer. Justinian will never suspect you. Leave me in the capital to manage matters.

Come away East and don’t get involved? Really, Flavio, I think it better if I stayed. I could be of better use to you here.

The East is safe enough away from the capital? Yes, but…

Is there another reason why I don’t want to come with you?

Truth be told, I’m tired, Flavio.

I’m tired of sieges and living on horseback and eating dust – dragging my children from one end of the empire to the other. They are not all like my Photi to follow in your footsteps. Ioannina will need a husband. Your godson, Theodosius, is too fragile for life in the saddle, too sensitive for the rumours of your men – their innuendo. It’s hurtful – too dreadful to think about. The accusations, the jeering behind his back. It hurts me Flavio. Am I not a faithful wife? Have I not stood through all of your campaigns the sounding board of your most private thoughts? Have I not organised and ordered your water and supplies? Have I not spoken for you, of your concerns to Theodora?

And now you don’t trust me to stay in the Capital.

No, no, I’m not crying. You don’t understand me. Of course I am not as young as you are. You don’t understand. But you will never understand, never having children, how a woman’s body is ravaged by child birth. I haven’t the will to go east another time. I can’t do it right now. Please Flavio, take pity on my situation, my health

Yes, maybe I’ll feel better if I tarry in the Capital. Have therapeutic baths, wait on Theodora in the Palace. I’ll see about finding Ioannina a most suitable husband.

What did you say?

Find a bride for Theodosius?

He is old enough to form a marital alliance.

Release him from our household? Oh, but I couldn’t right now, he relieves my wilted spirit. He is such a comfort to me. Take Photius. Leave young Theodosius with me. We will follow in a few weeks when I am feeling rejuvenated.

Fool!

But why does he send me Photius, now? What’s Flavio’s envious little shadow up to? Why has he left his father’s side? Why does he seek Theodosius?

Has Flavio woken up?

Will I be reduced to begging his mercy?

No, I think not.

Perhaps… Procopius is right. Perhaps, I really am a witch.

(over 21 mins)

Top 10 Best K-drama Romances

So, there are many Top 10, Best-ever K-drama lists around but they never seem to tell you the criteria for making it on the list. Not so with mine.

To make it on this list a few criteria have to interplay. The story has to be dramatic – high highs and low lows; it has to give “aha” moments where something new is represented on TV or something latent about the human condition is presented in a fresh way; there has to be a happily-ever-after or a happily-for-now; it has to show social responsibility in what it represents; comedy and comic moments will rate it higher; and crucially, the acting performances have to approach flawless.

With so many really good series out there it was difficult to round off a top 10. My #6-10 kept changing. From left to right: Guardian Great and Lonely God, Rooftop Prince, Lie to Me, Secret Garden, My Sassy Girl, Lovers of the Red Sky

10. Lie to Me (2011)

Writer: Kim Ye-ri; starring Yoon Eun-hye and Kang Ji-hwan

Contemporary, Rom Com

A jilted civil servant from a working class background, tries to save face in front of her friends and former boyfriend by telling them that she is seeing a powerful CEO and chaebol (a member of Korea’s minority uber-rich, hereditary elite). Of course, cross-class relationships are taboo in K-drama, so when a reserved and overworked CEO’s prankster brother intervenes by convincing him to play the part of her boyfriend, comedy and complications arise. Drama ensues when ruse becomes reality and they fall in love but the said prankster-brother falls for her too – following a pattern he has with his brother’s love interests. The ending is wonderfully refreshing as attention is paid to how much of her identity Ah-jung may have to risk if she marries into the chaebol class.

9. Lovers of the Red Sky (2021)

Based on the novel, Hong Chun-gi by Jung Eun-gwol, adapted by Ha Eun; Starring Kim You-Jung, Ahn Hyo-Seop

Fantasy, Historical Romance

Hong Cheon-Ki, a young blind girl, and Ha Ram are children of civil servants under the reign of a cursed Joseon era monarch. The king was possessed by a demon god when he struck a Faustian deal to attain the throne. To lift the curse that is robbing the kingdom of rain, the demon god is exorcised and siphoned into a portrait of the king, painted by Hong Cheon-ki’s father, and trapped there seemingly for eternity – not so. In conjunction with the exorcism, Ha –ram is a proxy-sacrifice in a water ritual which he survives but loses his sight. Miraculously, Hong Cheon-ki gains her vision when Ha-ram loses his. Teaming up as adults, Hong Cheon-ki and Ha Ram with the onlooking guidance of a good mother-goddess, battle the evil demon spirit inside and his earthly disciples plotting to take the throne.

8. Secret Garden (2010)

Writer: Kim Eun-Sook; Starring Hyun Bin, Ha Ji-won, Yoon Sang Hyun and Kin Sa-rang

Contemporary, Fantasy, Rom-com

In all other spheres but her occupation, a demure stuntwoman, Gil Ra-im meets the geekiest, alpha-arrogant CEO, Kim Joo-won, on set when he mistakes her for the blackmailing former girlfriend of his K-POP celebrity cousin, Oskar. She endures becoming the object of his romantic pursuits until a magical encounter in a tea house, secreted away in a secluded garden. Here is where the fun ramps up. They magically switch souls. And switch back and forward every time it rains. Forced to live in each other’s shoes, she gains self-confidence and assertion while he learns empathy and of course, they fall in love.

 This story is all about facades and our expectations for behaviour and worth based on a person’s wealth – or lack thereof, and looks, career path, gender, sexual preferences. All kinds of facades are explored e.g., in Kim Joo-won’s self-motivated attempts to rehabilitate  Oskar’s career, we see a wonderful dynamic between the seeming at odds cousins – who have a bond that is deep and complicated as family bonds can be.

7. The Legend of the Blue Sea (2016)

Writer: Park Ji-eun; Starring Jun Ji-hun and Lee Min-ho

Contemporary, Historical, Fantasy, Rom-Com

Across centuries and incarnations, a mermaid falls in love with a con-man and transforms his life. Based on a traditional Korean story the series weaves the tale of the couple’s first ill-fated life together in the Joseon era with the burgeoning relationship of their reincarnated selves, today. Along the way they must avoid and overcome threats from villains, reconcile family relationships, test loyalties and make new and quirky friendships. Ultimately, will they be able to stop history from repeating?

6. Guardian Great and Lonely God or Goblin (2016)

Writer: Kim Eun-sook; Starring Gong Yoo, Go-eun, Lee Dong-wook, You In-na

Contemporary, Fantasy, Historical, Drama, Quirky, Black-comedy, Art-house

A melancholic, centuries old warrior, Kim Shin, has been cursed to spend eternity as a goblin with the sword that slayed him back in the Goryeo era, jutting out of his chest. Although invisible to all when he meets his future bride she is expected not only to be able to see it but to remove it and thereby end his life. He lives vicariously in expectation of this event especially after a homeless and adoring, fresh-faced high-school girl announces that she is his bride and soon moves in with him and his flat mate, a grim reaper.

With reincarnation and unreconciled centuries–old drama, the story plays out between centuries.

5. 100 Days My Prince (2018)

Writer: No Ji-sul; Starring Doh Kung-soo and Nam Ji-hyun

Historical Rom-Com

On a royal hunt Crown Prince, Lee Yul, bravely survives an assassination attempt by swapping clothes with another hunter. Believed dead by the Court, he is found wounded and unidentified by peasant girl, Yeon Hong-shim’s stepfather. Together they nurse him back to health – almost. He is an amnesiac who they convince is Hong-shim’s long-lost fiancé, for her to avoid a royal decree that all single people in the realm must marry immediately. A seemingly useless fiancé, Lee Yul initially refuses to perform any household duties as he is convinced that he has never engaged with that kind of work. When he discovers that he can read and write he begins doing so and offering fair and favourable solutions to all the illiterate villages who have been bound with contracts and decrees that can’t read. Soon he comes into notice of the aristocracy and is returned to the palace and his estranged wife without having regained his memory in its entirety. Intrigue and romance intermingle with comedy before a happily ever after is reached.

From left to right: 100 Days My Prince, The Crowned Clown, The Legend of the Blue Sea, Crash Landing on You, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, What‘s Wrong With Secretary Kim

4. What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim (2018)

Writer: Jung Kyung-yoon; Starring Park Min-young and Park Seo-joon

Contemporary Rom-Com, Drama

When hard working P.A., Kim Mi-so hands in her resignation to her executive boss of 9 years, the narcissistic and rigid, Lee Young-joon he decides that he has to marry her to keep her by his side. Through his implacable insistence she capitulates and agrees to date him secretly. Traumatic childhood experiences for both leads are slowly unpacked that shed light on Lee Young-Joon’s initial motivation for hiring the then, grossly underqualified applicant, and the more-than-platonic motivation for his proposal in the present.

3. Hometown Cha-cha-cha (2021)

Writer: Shin Ha-eun; Starring Shin Min-a, Kim Sun-ho

Small town Rom Com, Drama

A Seoul dentist fired from her city job invests in a sea change and starts a practice in a provincial seaside town. Aiming to become a financial success she doesn’t anticipate the colour and character of her new community of nosey neighbours with quirky personalities and universal concerns e.g., loneliness, aging, failure to realise dreams and goals. Helping her to navigate is a handsome jack-of-all trades with a secret of his own.

2. The Crowned Clown

Writers: Kim Sun-deok and Shin Ha-Eun; Starring Yeo Jin-goo, Lee Se-Young, Kim Sang-Kyung

Drama, Dark Historical Romance

Joseon is being controlled by a powerful family of self-serving ministers and public servants. The opium addicted king, Lee Hun is paranoid and vulnerable to assassination – for he has murdered too. His chief ally, Haksun, plots to cure his illness – or negate it – by secretly sending him to a monastery and placing his doppelganger on the throne – a lowly, illiterate but altruistic travelling player. Haksun can control the proxy better than the ailing king and as he slowly recognises Ha-sun, the clown’s, idealistic principles and pure intensions he faces the temptation of installing Ha sun permanently on the throne. For Ha sun, his motivation for going through with the ruse is bolstered by an all-consuming attraction to the virtuous Queen.

1.Crash Landing On You (2019-2020)

Writer: Park Ji-eun; Starring Hyun Bin, Son Ye-jin, Kim Jung-hyun, Seo Ji-hye

Rom-Com, Drama, Action

Celebrity CEO and chaebol heiress, Yoon Se-ri is envied and reviled by her older siblings who plot her demise to secure succession to the family empire. Yoon Se-ri is more independent, having successfully branched out of the family enterprise with a business undertaking of her own and is indifferent to the succession. While “test-running” her latest line she paraglides into a whirly-whirly and becomes marooned just over the border in North Korea. She is found hanging out of a tree by a handsome man of few words and stoic captain of the North Korean border patrol. His quiet appreciation of her cutesy antics to convince him to hide her presence and then aid her way back to South Korea pose a dilemma for him. How does he hide her in the small, backward settlement in which he lives? Convince the villagers she is his fiancé until his real fiancé arrives and before her criminal ex-boyfriend arrives to claim the price on her head.

Confucius in K-Drama

Confucius says, “In K-drama Romance there is joy without wantonness and sorrow without self-injury.”

The Analects (III, 20… a sort of Confucius saying)

Ever wondered why K-drama romance is so popular? Confucius may be right but there are a few barriers to entry:

Imaginary Portrait of Confucius by Wu Daozi (685-758CE) Tang Dynasty in the Public Domain overlaid on an image of the Chinese Garden in the Hamilton Gardens, NZ.
Imaginary Portrait of Confucius by Wu Daozi (685-758CE) Tang Dynasty in the Public Domain overlaid on an image of the Chinese Garden in the Hamilton Gardens, NZ.
  • A foreign language with grammatically poor subtitles or voice overs that can’t do the original language justice
  • Too many tropes, clichés, if you like
  • Predictable endings, even if the journey is not
  • Generally 16 to 20, 1-1.5 hr episodes to tell the story
  • The mores of Korean society in regard to speaking formally or informally and the hierarchy of respect within relationships have to be understood to get the significance of behaviours and their outcomes
  • Strong Korean nationalism
  • And the biggest turn off of all, the latent rock-solid belief that wealth and good looks are the measure of a person’s worth.

Despite all of these the K-wave tsunami is riding high outside of Korea. I know why I like it but I wondered why others do, so I googled.

Wikipedia credits story-lines with an underpinning of Confucian thought.

Cool. An answer. But, it was stated and not explained. I had to find out how, so I picked up a copy of Confucius’ The Analects and had a quick squiz before diving into the introduction by translator, D.C. Lau, and fell back on DK’s The Philosophy Book.

Gyeonbokgung Palace in Seoul, Photo credit: (Johannes Barre, iGEL (talk)). Improved by de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz.This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

If you’ve watched the historical drama/romances then this list of themes in the Analects will be familiar to you:

  • The importance of practicing rites e.g., in relation to deceased forbears
  • The nobility of a gentleman should be an inherent virtue in people born to this class – so upper class characters who work as civil servants at the palace are treated as if they are honourable and virtuous because of the station to which they are born not based on their person merit or lack thereof
  • There is an awareness of the immensity of personal responsibility in those who wield power and influence, to promote the welfare of the common people and a singlemindedness and tenacity to carry this through e.g., as emphasised in the series The Crowned Clown, Love in the Moonlight and The Red Sleeve Cuff
  • Destiny cannot be altered. This is especially highlighted in fantasy series. Destiny has been ordained by the Heavens in childhood and can be upheld over the course of a single lifetime or across reincarnations e.g., The Secret Garden, Lovers of The Red Sky, Guardian – The Lonely and Great God, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim
  • Benevolence is granted after overcoming difficulties. Often the denouement of a romance is a Happily-For-Now with no commitment for the future: perhaps there hasn’t been enough obstacles thrown at the couple to warrant the benevolence of a Happily-Ever-After. Often when the benevolence of a Happily-Ever-After is achieved it happens after all external obstacles to the union have been overcome and after the couple endure a lengthy separation that tests their commitment in order to cultivate their personal career goals.
  • Learning is an ongoing process that can never be completed. Holding office and studying go hand-in-hand e.g., Love in the Moonlight, 100 Days My Prince, The Red Sleeve Cuff
  • Respectfulness has to be shown in comportment, behaviour and action e.g., bowing, averting one’s gaze in greeting social superiors and elders and modulation of one’s tone of voice
  • The sacredness of a spoken promise/oath/assent given
  • If the outcome of an action is good/benevolent then it was a good and moral act. However, if the outcome of an action is bad then even if the intention was for good the action is deemed bad e.g., the Queen in The Crowned Clown breaks her oath of fidelity to the King when she has relations with the imposter who has taken his place. She is driven to attempt suicide when she realises what she has done, regardless, of the fact that she was fooled by his disguise and wouldn’t have committed the infidelity had she known about the ruse
  • When seeking benevolence prevails in government, the gentleman should enjoin in service, it’s his duty. When seeking benevolence is disregarded in government, the gentleman should keep quiet and hold off, it’s his duty. This precept is beautifully made use of in Love in The Moonlight where the Crowned Prince prevails upon his old tutor to join the government in order to rid it of bad influences. The tutor holds off until the government is back on track
  • There is entrenched faith in a paternalistic government as the common people are believed to be incapable of advocating for themselves. This is contrasted with the fear of insurrection by the masses. The K-drama solution is to place on the throne a monarch who has been forced to live among the common people or has been forced to feel empathy for them by his love interest who is from their world e.g., 100 Days My Prince
  • In drawing the character of the nobility and in particular the Crowned Prince, K-drama has fallen back on the Confucian ideal of the perfect gentleman who was well-educated, proficient at archery, charioteering, calligraphy, maths, literature and music, and had “beautiful” personal conduct, the 6 Arts of Confucius. He listened to music that had, “joy without wantonness, and sorrow without self-injury” (yes, this is a correction of my openeing quote.) He read the Odes to inspire his imagination and provide him quotes for good speeches.
  • The Odes, as directed by Confucian thought, are quoted in situations that call for diplomacy. They were a font of aphorisms that were quixotic allowing room to deny a dangerous interpretation of the quote’s use e.g., if a foreign diplomat or the king was to be disagreed with, he was led to ponder a quote from the Odes to realise the meaning on his own frowned upon stance e.g., In  My Sassy Girl Confucius’ pupil, Mencius, is quoted as a pivotal plot device that incites the Queen to be dethroned and provides a crucial obstacle in the relationship of the main protagonists.

Confucius presence in historicals is really obvious and an easy fit. References to Confucian thought by scholars and ‘gentlemen’ abound. What isn’t so obvious but integral is the centrality of his morality in the contemporary dramas and romances.

My copy of Confucius' Analects on a park bench with a Chai Latte - perfect for contemplation!
My copy of Confucius’ Analects with an Introduction by D.C. Lau, on whom I leant heavily in compiling my points and lists for this post.

Confucius Key Relationships

There are many lists claiming to encapsulate the essence of Confucius teachings or a particular aspect of them – the 4 Beliefs of Confucianism, the 3 Major Teachings of Confucius, the Principles of Confucius, the 6 Arts of Confucius. These are later scholars’ attempts to contain a collection of often quixotic observations and thoughts used as aphorisms. The 5 Constant Relationships from The Philosophy Book can clearly be see in K-drama. They are a hierarchical list that reflects social order and the responsibilities of serving respect in order of importance. The challenges of upholding these relationships in the modern world form the basis of dramatic tension in K-drama.

  1. The imperative to respect one’s sovereign. Korea no longer has a monarchy with its branches of nobles, however she does have a stratified society that places powerful chaebol’s (powerful family-owned conglomerates) at the top of the pecking order. In the world of a K-drama romance/drama, the sovereign is the CEO, president of a corporation or chairman and a chaebol class is depicted.
  2. Obedience to one’s parents
  3. Respect between a husband and wife
  4. Respect for older siblings by younger siblings
  5. Respect between friends, where the older friend has seniority

In this hierarchy respect demands loyalty, obedience and affection. In exchange there is an expectation that the power holder in the relationships will be considerate, benevolent, loving and fair. When this system is bucked by the minor, “inferior” in K-drama the exchange falls apart.

In contemporary dramas/ romances the lead male protagonist is wealthy, handsome and charismatic. He comes into conflict with his chaebol patriarch-chairman whose directives he has to overcome to establish a lasting relationship with his partner, who often is from a working class background. The couple will have to battle entrenched ideas from both sides of the social divide as crossing that line is played out like a taboo e.g., Business Proposal.

A dating couple may have to overcome opposition from an older sibling and endure ill treatment simply because they are younger. This older/younger sibling tension extends to friend-to-friend relationships where the older friend’s wants are deferred to.

Tension is milked when all of these demands conflict with each other e.g., in Lie to Me, where the older and executive brother gives up his love interest when he realises his younger, artist brother is also smitten. The younger brother doesn’t pursue his brother’s jilted love but then is incapable of approaching the next girl his brother falls for, whom he also crushes on. Ultimately, the more powerful, older brother gets the girl.

The weaknesses in the rigidity of the social structure are milked for their pathos, questioning a transactional system that isn’t built on the whimsy of falling in love but hereditary tradition and the meritocracy of having and consolidating money and power.

Confucius espoused living life in a thoughtful way, always striving for a benevolent outcome for all, always striving to be virtuous. This sense of responsibility is present in K-drama romances. In depicting idealistic outcomes they always show a way to strive to achieve them – e.g., finding self-fulfilment first – gaining maturity by having achieved something for themselves, being autonomous and confident before engaging in marriage. Most often in a romance two couple’s stories are followed. The lead couple have a more fairytale-like existence and conclusion while the supporting actors depict a more messy relationship that often has greater pathos and more to relate to. They may face similar obstacles but the supporting couple may have a more realistic outcome – that isn’t ideal.

Ahn Hyo-seop/ Clark Gable and Kim Yoo-jung / Vivien Leigh in a hash up of Lovers of the Red Sky and Gone with the Wind

If Confucius is the reason why K-drama stories have appeal it’s probably got a lot to do with his influence on people’s morality in Asia. K-dramas are often remade by other Asian countries where Confucian thought has had a big influence. Confucian ideals are conservative and share ethics with agrarian societies world wide. Migrants to the West who have maintained their traditional values can relate to the conservatism of Confucius and so K-drama appeals to these often middle aged and senior aged audiences. For westerners, besides the novelty value, I’m guessing that there is a nostalgia element that harks back to when heroes were heroes and not anti-heroes, when morality was more black and white, when a strong didactic element and sense of moral responsibility to depict ideal outcomes was standard, when storylines didn’t rely on a lot of skin to sell themselves but offered drama and catharsis like classic Hollywood movies of the early-mid 20th Century.

K-drama is not just about historicals, romances and dramadies – there are zombies and crime, and dramas without the focus of romance. Romance has been one of its greatest successes. As K-drama grows beyond romance-dramedies and tells a wider range of stories I hope in their reach for International audiences they don’t lose their greatest appeal – their points of difference.

Bibliography

Jackson, Brianna, Confuciansim and Korean Dramas: How Cultural and Social Proximity, Hybridization of Modernity and Tradition, and Dissimilar Confucian Trajectories Affect Importation Rates of Korean Broadcasting Programs between Japan and China, Auctus: The Journal of Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship, Virginia Commonwealth University, 2017.

https://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1041&context=auctus

Confucius, The Analects (Lyn Yu) translated with an Introduction by D.C.Lau, Penguin Classics, 1979. Confucius’ The Analects

The Philosophy Book, DK, London, 2011, The Ancient World 700BC-250BCE, Hold Faithfulness and Sincerity as First Principles – Confucius, pp.34-39.

2.Classic Hollywood – Gone with the Wind? Or Left with the Seoul!

Elements of Historical K-drama Romances

Read 1. Classic Hollywood- Gone with the Wind? Or Left with the Seoul here.

To criticize the romance genre as being predictable is missing the point. Romance by its very nature has to be predictable – there must be a happily ever after, life and hope must be affirmed or it’s just not romance. The HEA is the reward for coming along on the ride: the journey is the point. Because we know the ending and the stations the plot will pull in at, the writer has to be very, very good to keep us along on the ride. These stories are replete with comedy, suspense, injustice, deception, hopes built and dashed, and at least one love story.

Left with the Seoul - Ahn Hyo-seop and Kim Yoo-jung in the guise of Clark Gabke and Vivien Leigh
Ahn Hyo-seop/ Clark Gable and Kim Yoo-jung / Vivien Leigh in a hash up of Lovers of the Red Sky and Gone with the Wind

When setting a period piece in the palace district of the Joseon Era, there are added restraints prescribed by the historical realities of the period. It’s a much prescribed world. Setting it up and then defying it makes for great comedy and easy suspense. Imagine the scope for mischief when you have a sprawling palace complex inhabited by legions of court maids who are the exclusive property of the king; a myriad of neutered male servants to serve the royal inhabitants; a private palace for every royal concubine; an army of guards to maintain the peace; and oppressive rules – no resident is allowed to leave the complex without the consent of the king if at all. Rules were made to be broken, of course, and so much the better if one has a disguise handy!

Princess Hours (2006) is a good introduction to the Joseon Era. It places a modern day high school girl from a working class background in a situation where she is impelled by family obligation to marry the Crown Prince. As she adjusts to life in the palace walls in the 21st Century, the social mores of the bygone era are imposed upon her. As she learns palace etiquette, so do we. Princess Hours (2006) is an enemies-to-lovers, cross-class-barriers romance starring the always effervescent Yoon Eun-hye and fittingly, imperious Joo Ji Hoon. It’s a modern K-drama classic.

What else can you expect from A K-drama period romance?

  • Big acting – not ham acting
  • Soliloquies that can be overheard, and often are
  • Martial arts experts – where the one (or few) overcome the many
  • The kingly sport of archery
  • The royal hunt where the monarch becomes the prey
  • Evil government ministers controlling an impotent monarch
  • Loan sharks acting as tools or throwing a spanner into the works
  • Conspiring Queen or Dowager Queen
  • Or a benevolent Dowager Queen
  • An emasculated, figurehead king
  • Crown Prince seeking virtue and wisdom through the teachings of Confucius
  • A HEA can’t be achieved until the Crown Prince rises to the challenge of good leadership and steers the ship of state
  • Ambitious rival prince
  • Broken family relationships between father and son and sibling princes
  • Virtuous scholars and police commissioners/personal guards
  • Loyal eunuchs and court maids
  • Class clashes and peasant revolts
  • superstition
  • Cross dressing and disguise – often the Crown Prince
  • Crown Prince / Monarch is very lonely – cannot trust anyone
  • The truism that it’s better to live a simple life outside the splendour of the palace rather than survive within the walls of a palace riddled with greed, overreaching ambition and loneliness
  • The belief that until the kingdom is in equilibrium there can be no happily ever after for its ruler
  • The love of a good woman has the power to heal and transform her man – or in the case of The King’s Affection, it’s the love of a good man.

There is a lot that can be said about historical romances – from what they owe traditional theatre forms in terms of performance and character types to what they draw from Confucius and Christianity. If you haven’t seen one yet I can highly recommend these single season series:

100 Days My Prince – a classically well-made historic romance

The Red Sleeve Cuff – a historical fiction that engenders feminist rhetoric in a really fun way

The Crowned Clown – a brooding dark romance that is epic in scope, drama and presentation

Lovers of the Red Sky – a historical fairy tale blending fantasy, art and fiction. In a refreshing change, this one doesn’t centre around a Crown Prince but a female artist and a royal advisor hell-bent on revenge. Will love redeem him?

Love in the Moonlight – a cross dressing, artful ingenue catches the ire and attention of the Crown Prince who must navigate his coming of age and coming into his own as a worthy leader in the palace.

My Sassy Girlan incognito drunken princess encounters a loyal scholar during a moonlit escape from the palace. Lightweight fun.

Happy binging!

1.Classic Hollywood – Gone with the Wind? Or Left with the Seoul!

Errol Flynn. Burt Lancaster. Tyrone Power. Stewart Granger. All for one and one for all! Swashbuckling heroes and virtuous maids. Conniving villains and downtrodden citizens. Idealistic scholars and martyred beauties. Grand musical scores, gorgeous costumes, high drama and epic historical fables. Am I painting a picture for you? Robin Hood, Zorro, the Crimson Pirate, Scaramouche – the golden characters of the golden years of Hollywood, are they all gone with the wind? Or simply lost with the soul – er in Seoul.

What Seoul? Soul? What am I on about?Lost? Seriously? What of the high seas, you ask?

Ahn Hyo-seop/ Clark Gable and Kim Yoo-jung / Vivien Leigh in a hash up of Lovers of the Red Sky and Gone with the Wind

Yes, yes, yes, there is the Pirates of the Caribbean and all of those grand Star Wars space adventures that are swashbuckling and humorous, but do they shake us out of our complacency? Is their core craving idealism? Do any of them inspire us to take up the gauntlet and fight for equality, freedom and human rights? Do we want to model ourselves on the protagonist and endeavour to make our world – or our corner of it– a better place? Do we want to be better people for having watched them? Those early Star Wars movies, perhaps.

To be fair those swashbuckling masterpieces of old Hollywood were made when the Second World War was looming or in full swing. Good was good and bad was bad and the only thing that was muddy was the mire entrapping our heroes. These movies were made to subtly inspire the populace to support the good cause – to enlist, to qualify the enlisted as heroes and to justify the ethical high ground of being conscripted.

Today, they can be offensive to modern audiences in their depiction of minorities, their patriarchal social structures and the apparent glorification of war. Why the shift?

The 60s happened.

Greater scrutiny. Better reportage. It became harder to justify the carnage of war. A reported victory didn’t mean a better life for the survivors necessarily. Swashbuckling movies lost their integrity as a call to action. They came to be perceived as frothy pulp fiction adventure stories with cardboard characters that perpetuated the patriarchal status quo.

The antihero rose abandoning something that quietly underscored these fantastical stories – a belief that ultimately the world was good and will always return to the equilibrium of being good. Hope wasn’t glorified in the crescendo of an orchestrated musical score anymore but trudged out of the jungle with a determination to keep it alive as it was no longer a means to an end but the end itself – keep hope alive.

And now? Idealism is back. But it didn’t roll down the Hollywood Hills. No, it’s flickering out and across our small screens from Korea in a plethora of offerings on Netflix and Viki.

Gyeonbokgung Palace in Seoul, Photo credit: (Johannes Barre, iGEL (talk)). Improved by de:Benutzer:Rainer Zenz.This file is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

What?

Historical K-dramas romances where ideas of how to govern a healthy community are sub text to the romantic plot of the first half of the story – remembering that single season Kdramas offer two resolutions under an over arching storyline. After the romantic leads are united in the culmination of the first peak of the story the focus is on suspense and swashbuckling measures to steer the ship of state towards the sunset – an idealistic ride towards the 2nd peak resolution – democracy.

Yes, they have been patriarchal but with concessions. Within the leads of many, the female protagonist crossdresses and lives on an equal footing with her male peers – in the case of The King’s Affection she is the king. Strong female leads portray powerful queens and dowagers whose strength is the evil foil of the monarch or crown prince. In The Red Sleeve we see a powerful female armed force. Minorities don’t figure in these dramas set wholly in the Joseon or Goryeo periods.

Historical Kdrama romances are highly prescribed tv series where most characters have more depth than 2D figures without reaching the modelling of a sculpture-in-the-round. The most completely drawn character is usually the Crown Prince or a person of great authority whose character must be shaped with his every relationship: his love interest, parent, monarch, minister of government, scholar/tutor. This character can be arrogant, irascible, petulant, jealous, self serving, vindictive and seemingly devoid of empathy. The redemption of his character is tied to the ultimate health of the kingdom. When he gains insight and strength he is challenged to save the well being of the kingdom- often from the clutches of corrupt government ministers.

By presenting stories tied to a community that existed in and around a palace complex at a time in history when political hierarchy was being challenged by developing forms of democracy themes of actualising the individual vs the imperative of received authority are explored. The themes of Sophocles’ Antigone are brought to mind – the imperative of the State vs the sway of conscience of the individual.

With this intent Kdrama tells its historical fables with panoramic views, artful cinematography, sumptuous costumes, elaborate sets, sentimental side characters, good guys and bad guys, acrobatic martial arts, and a moral and inspirational plot. In a practice reminiscent of the Hollywood studio system, there is another similarity – a recognizable divide between lead and supporting actors. Supporting actors become cherished friends whose often comic antics endear them to us each time we see them again in a new supporting role.

In sentiment and grandeur historical Kdrama takes us back to the golden years of Hollywood.

Coming soon … 2.Classic Hollywood – Gone with the Wind? Or Lost with the Seoul! Elements of a Historical Kdrama Romance.

If, like me, you love K-drama R

2. Elements of a K-drama Romance – Characterization and Technique

This analysis began with storylines in Part One – Elements of a K-Drama and continued over another post and will conclude this overview. I hope to bring you more on historicals in detail soon.

Crash Landing on You, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, The Red Sleeve Cuff, 100 Days My Prince, Guardian-The Great and Lonely God, Coffee Prince, Princess Hours, The Legend of the Blue Sea, Lie to Me, Secret Garden, Secret Romance, King’s Affection, Lovers of the Red Sky, Empress Ki, Full House, Boys Over Flowers, The King – Eternal Monarch, Sassy Girl, The Crowned Clown, Lovers in the Moonlight, Tale of the Nine-Tailed, Rooftop Prince

Characters

  1. The Naïve/Altruistic and Idealistic Heroine

The main, female protagonist is pure of heart. She sees the good in people and doesn’t suspect their motives. On the occasion where she sees the weaknesses of those she loves she is forgiving and rarely, if ever, vengeful. In this way she draws us to her and our empathy is offended when she is treated unfairly, is misunderstood, or is abused.

It’s no wonder that the Cinderella trope blankets K-drama storytelling.

Virginity may be tied to ideas of purity in the West, however, it isn’t set in stone in K-drama. There is a much stronger connection between ideas of purity and altruism, and the working classes than anything else.

  • The Sexually Naïve and Overworked Hero – CEO /Celebrity/Prince

Particularly with contemporary romances, the usually, male protagonist is an overworked CEO or aspiring CEO who has no time for romance. He is socially inept with women and gets away with impolite behaviour due to his high social standing in Korea’s class/wealth focused world. Often he receives dodgy advice from an almost as inept PA/flunky. E.g., Lie to Me, Secret Romance

  • The Worthy/ More-than-Worthy Opponent vs the Flawed Hero

As mentioned in part one – this pertains to the love triangle especially, where rivals are equally worthy in looks and personality. Often the love rival who loses out is a more considerate person, treating the heroine with greater care. He isn’t the one that goes on the transformational journey and so he isn’t rewarded with the girl in the end.

The arrogant protagonist is assailed by his uncontrollable passion for the altruistic working class girl, as she is equally smitten by him and he has to transform to be worthy of her .The measure of her passion for him is the difference in the way she is treated by the worthy rival, e.g., Princess Hours, Secret Garden

  • The Evil Adversary

The innocence and altruism of the heroine (usually) is contrasted with the selfish, greedy, nefarious intent of a grasping relative. In between is the hero/prince who does battle with one and seeks refuge with the other.

The evil adversary provides the exterior crisis that gains momentum as the second peak resolution for the series (see Part One for two peak resolutions). The couple must overcome the threat this adversary poses to maintain the happily-ever-after state and for the hero it is a test of his new found character, e.g., The Red Sleeve Cuff

  • The Crown Prince Chasing Virtue

If there is a Crown Prince he is always reading Confucian principles that he has to attain to prove his worthiness of the crown. In seeking to become benevolent he is aided by a relationship with a member of the underclasses e.g., a court maid, a scholar, a court painter etc. e.g., The Lovers of the Red Sky, The King’s Affection

  • The Evil Rich Aunt/Uncle

This grasping relative will do anything to elevate their progeny over the main protagonists. They overstep their station in life and will be put down or at least put in their place.

In historicals this is often the supposedly sage adviser in the guise of the Left State Minister or Dowager Queen. E.g., The Crowned Clown

  • The Benevolent Grandmother and/or the Austere and Powerful Patriarch

If Shakespeare were to be interpreted as a K-drama then the Duke would he rendered as an altruistic but austere and powerful matriarch or patriarch. These figures can issue a challenge and also be referred to as a kind of referee figure in extreme circumstances. They may be tough nuts to crack but their seeming indifference is a calculated stoicism to aid the hero in his transformation. E.g., Coffee Prince, One Percent of Something

  • The Loyal Second in Command/PA

Often comic characters who are loyal supporters of their monarch, boss, leader. They balance the levity of the drama. E.g., Rooftop Prince, Secret Romance

2. Acting and Presentation

Symbolic motifs

Pivotal moments in the plot that are highlighted by a close up, repeated presentation from different angles and a dramatic overlay of the musical score

  • The falling embrace – when she missteps and is caught by the hero- the main protagonists fall in love
  • Holding hands as a deep and honest expression of burgeoning love
  • The eyes – a mutual understanding
  • The tear – a moment of sentimentality that is indicative of a highly charged emotional experience in a very reserved culture
  • The clinched fist – with or without fabric – to indicate anger or agitation when restraint is required
  • The mechanical back pat – an expression of comfort
  • The mouth to mouth kiss – often a euphemism for sex.
  • Critical Moment Flashback

At a crisis point e.g., when the brave soldier is about to slay his rival and former comrade in arms or when the main protagonists have to part we see a montage of their life to this point – especially the good times. This increases the pathos of the crisis point.

  • Critical Moment Replay

This could be the repeat of a symbolic motif but it could be from another character’s point of view and within the spectating character’s own story arc. What is of benefit to one character could be detrimental to another and the important to all vested interested parties is explored.

Missed Part One of Elements of a K-drama? Then click here! Or how ’bout where I ran outta space and into the next post, here?

1- cont – Elements of a K-drama Romance

Just a few more points to round off Part One of Elements of a K-Drama

Collage featuring: one Percent of SomethingCrash Landing on You; Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, The Red Sleeve Cuff, 100 Days My Prince, Guardian-The Good and Lonely God, Coffee Prince, Princess Hours, The Legend of the Blue Sea,Lie to Me, Secret Garden Secret Romance, King’s Affection, Lovers of the Red Sky, Empress Ki, Full House, Boys Over Flowers, The King - Eternal Monarch, Sassy Girl, The Crowned Clown, Lovers in the Moonlight, Tale of the Nine-Tailed, Rooftop Prince
K-drama collage, Collage featuring: One Percent of Something, Crash Landing on You, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, The Red Sleeve Cuff, 100 Days My Prince, Guardian-The Great and Lonely God, Coffee Prince, Princess Hours, The Legend of the Blue Sea, Lie to Me, Secret Garden, Secret Romance, King’s Affection, Lovers of the Red Sky, Empress Ki, Full House, Boys Over Flowers, The King – Eternal Monarch, Sassy Girl, The Crowned Clown, Lovers in the Moonlight, Tale of the Nine-Tailed, Rooftop Prince

Storyline cont…

  • Class Conflict / Knowing One’s Station

So many CEOs, celebrities and Crowned Princes vs waged earners and court maids! Today’s CEO is yesterday’s Crown Prince. It’s the upper classes who have a lesson to learn about modesty and empathy and it’s taught to them through their uncontrollable passion for a member of the working class.

Connected to this is the idea of knowing your place in society and behaving with respect for your station in life – whether it’s determined between classes or within them via the cadetship of different branches of a family e.g., the family of the eldest son can expect more from the family inheritance than those of a step-brother, half-brother, sister, or younger brother.

e.g., the chaos that ensues when the daughter of the household is handed the CEO’s reigns over her brothers in Crash Landing on You; or the expectation that the disinterested grandson of a CEO should succeed over the committed company man, who is the grandson from an illegitimate affair in Rooftop Prince.

  • Arranged Marriage

K-drama champions the idea of falling in love without the transactional imperatives of calculating relatives – parents, grandparents, step-parents, aunts, uncles.

The arranged marriage is an impediment that is often used as a crisis in the story where the hero/heroine is on the point of overcoming his/her prejudice regarding his/her love-interest’s social standing. It’s an emotional cliff hanger moment and may have to be suffered through under the observing eyes of his/her true love.

There is also the championing of the virtue of perseverance in marriage and the idea that love can blossom from enforced togetherness, e.g., the arranged marriage of the supercool, teen prince with the super-dorky misfit in Princess Hours or the arranged marriage of the arrogant, chaebol heir with the virtuous, school teacher in One Percent of Something. Both of these marriages are to repay debts of honour/gratitude and are enforced by the greatest power holders in the social hierarchy.

  • Serendipity

These are the big coincidences, full of dramatic irony and pathos that are a staple of melodrama across the world e.g., in Secret Garden where the wimpy CEO unwittingly falls in love with the stuntwoman who just happens to be the daughter of the man who lost his life rescuing him as a child.

  • Balance

Generally K-drama doesn’t get too dark without balancing the sad moments with comedy or an uplifting message. If the main protagonist dies early, we may see them living a happily-ever-after in the after-life with their earthly love interest. e.g., The Red Sleeve, or in the case of the immortal Goblin, he waits for his love to reincarnate so that they can be together in Guardian, the Lonely and Great God.

Another form of balance is seen particularly in the historicals where action/drama/suspense balances the romance/drama/suspense presumably to appeal to both male and female audiences.

Missed Part One of Elements of a K-drama? Then click here!

Coming up: 2. Elements of a K-drama Romance …. techniques and characterizations

If, like me, you love K-drama Romances, you might like reading:

Cover for ebook Losing Everything Finding Love
Not quite K-drama, but …Contemporary Romance – travel- feel good – New Adult – coming of age – college student

Available for Kindle

In Australia

On Amazon

1- Elements of a K-drama Romance

Ideas about a well-made play, tropes, stereotypes, structural rules and expectations all contribute to the success of a K-drama. These tried and true techniques are most easily recognized in the one-season, generally 16 episode, epic stories told in K-drama romances – both historical and contemporary. A lot can be said of the choice of trope, the political/philosophical moral espoused, the blend of traditional eastern theatrical techniques and modern cinematography that make up the production values of a K-drama.

What are some of these elements and how do they contribute to the storytelling?

Collage featuring: one Percent of SomethingCrash Landing on You; Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, The Red Sleeve Cuff, 100 Days My Prince, Guardian-The Good and Lonely God, Coffee Prince, Princess Hours, The Legend of the Blue Sea,Lie to Me, Secret Garden Secret Romance, King’s Affection, Lovers of the Red Sky, Empress Ki, Full House, Boys Over Flowers, The King - Eternal Monarch, Sassy Girl, The Crowned Clown, Lovers in the Moonlight, Tale of the Nine-Tailed, Rooftop Prince
K-drama collage, Collage featuring: One Percent of Something, Crash Landing on You, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, The Red Sleeve Cuff, 100 Days My Prince, Guardian-The Great and Lonely God, Coffee Prince, Princess Hours, The Legend of the Blue Sea, Lie to Me, Secret Garden, Secret Romance, King’s Affection, Lovers of the Red Sky, Empress Ki, Full House, Boys Over Flowers, The King – Eternal Monarch, Sassy Girl, The Crowned Clown, Lovers in the Moonlight, Tale of the Nine-Tailed, Rooftop Prince

Storyline

  1. Two Peak Resolution

slow-burn internalization and fast pace external conflict

The story has an overarching aim – to reach a Happily Ever After (HEA) and deliver a moral lesson or reinforce the quest for virtuous behaviour or a set of values that will ensure a happy end-state beyond the credits.

The shape of this journey is not a skewed bell curve but a two peak progression. The first episode will set up the parameters of the drama in the form of a past history, establish the pecking order and the dynamic between characters. We are not dropped into the crisis of the first half of the drama in the first episode and so it can seem to be a little slower than a western audience is used to. However, by the end of the first episode the main problem to be resolved is established e.g., we are told that the two protagonists who despise each other will be forced to be together to pacify an authority figure e.g., parent, grandparent, boss, manager to achieve their personal aim which may be career related.

Their interactions and emotional journey leading to their joyful acceptance of each other occupy the concerns of just over the first half of the series, so boy meets girl, girl and boy clash, couple come together for the first peak resolution. This is a tentative resolution which is then tested in the remaining episodes. Will the union hold and establish permanence despite external influences assailing them from their personal goals e.g., career goals, family or civic responsibilities.

By overcoming the challenge of conflicts they face as a team they reach a HEA state, and we are assured that they are worthy and able to make the relationship succeed indefinitely.

E.g., Secret Garden, Lie to Me, Coffee Prince, Full House, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha

  • The Making of Character

The main protagonist, usually an alpha-male, feels himself entitled due to his wealth and social standing and behaves accordingly when he comes up against the resistance of his family and his own prejudices towards his lower class love interest who also resists him. By dealing with conflict in his personal life he gains character and becomes worthy of his love interest whose personal virtue had outstripped his. By the time the two protagonists engage in a relationship, he is worthy of her. She benefits not only from a rise in social standing and wealth but in the love-bond with a virtuous partner.

E.g., Secret Garden, Lie to Me, Princess Hours, Full House, Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha-Cha

  • Secondary couple/storyline/comic relief

There is often a second romance that is given almost as much weight as the primary couple. These characters are often, but not always, comic characters and reduce the weightiness that may creep into the story.

Often the look of these characters is ostentatious – the clothes are colourful and the acting is big. In a western rom-com, the character played would be the gay side-kick but here he is not. The presentation is calling on older theatrical conventions of how a comic character/clown should appear. He is a clown of sorts and dresses and acts accordingly.

K-drama does feature LGBTQ characters and stories but LGBTQ characters are not so type cast as in the West.

E.g., Secret Romance, Park Shin-woon as Jang Woo-jin, Jin-wook’s secretary, steals the show on his own and aided by his ladylove.

  • Love Triangle

The love triangle is used to increase the desirability and worthiness of one of the protagonists. E.g., in the case of one woman with two love interests, each love interest will be a tough rival in terms of looks, empathy, class, wealth and emotional connection to the heroine. When she chooses between them, she is making a tough decision because they are both worthy. If one of the competitors was a bit of a dud, the winner would look like the escape option, not the best option and a prize.

We are made to feel empathy for both competitors. We celebrate the winner but cry with the loser also. The drama is heightened while the concept of seeing matters from different perspectives is driven home.

  • Class Conflict

So many CEOs, celebrities, Crown Princes vs waged earners and court maids. Today’s CEO is yesterday’s Crown Prince.

  • Intergenerational Conflict – the evil elder – the strict disciplinarian

Many retiring CEO’s, matriarchal, demanding grandmothers and Dowager Empresses pressing their progeny to do their will.

e.g., One Percent of Something; Coffee Prince

  • The moral

The attaining of virtue is taught around cultivating: perseverance, empathy, tolerance, honouring of family and society, emotional equanimity, hard work, affection and modesty. Confucian thought is said to be a big influence here.

A concept

By contrasting the relationships between the main couple and the secondary couple ideas about relationships have been discussed.

e.g., in the farcical comedy, Full House the idea of loving someone vs wanting someone is discussed, where romantic love is an entity of its own . In Coffee Prince ideas of gender are explored. With the main couple the attraction is between an androgynous woman and a man who has to come to terms with the erroneous belief that his love interest is another man. The idea is that inside we are not determined by our gender. However, in the triangle challenging the secondary couple that same concept is turned on its head when the question posed is whether a man and a woman can truly be friends without sex getting involved.

Mistaken Identity

Cross dressing and masking identity is used regularly, particularly in historicals. When a woman in the Joseon dynasty crossdresses she is given equal freedoms as her male counterparts and is easier to relate to by modern female audiences. Crossdressing is also used to explore gay relationships in a form that may be more comfortable for some viewers.

Masking identity can also be used for comedy.

Eg., The King’s Affection, Coffee Prince, Personal Taste, The Crowned Clown, 100 Days My Prince, Sassy Girl

  • Sentimentality

So many single tears well up and trickle down cheeks in perfectly curated streams. Sentimentality and pathos are heightened wherever possible.

  • Fated relationship

Often slated in childhood or at birth, these individuals are fated to be together. Their love is an entity of its own and sacred. Fate may have been given a hand by a deceased fore-parent.

e.g., Lovers of the Red Sky, The Red Sleeve, The Secret Garden, Guardian the Great and Lonely God

  • Supernatural

This can take the form of a timeslip; fortune tellers; the appearance/interference of the gods, spirit animals, ghosts, sprites/goblins; the benevolence of deceased family members.

E.g., Guardian the Great and Lonely God (Goblin),The King Eternal Monarch, Legend of the Blue Sea, Rooftop Prince, Tale of the Nine-Tailed

  • An appropriation of fairy tales

Fairy Tales are often appropriated but their source is often mentioned in the story

eg Crash Landing on You/ Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Legend of the Blue Sea / The Little Mermaid

Secret Garden/ The Little Mermaid, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland

Princess Hours; Secret Romance/ Cinderella

One Percent of Something / Beauty and the Beast

Cliffhangers

Being a series broadcast over several months, each episode ends with an emotional hook.

A ploy that’s delighted in is showing an incomplete scene or visually alluding to a crucial circumstance or tool that will be needed to overcome the cliffhanger much earlier than the moment of crisis without following its significance or revealing exactly what it is.When the protagonist is driven to the edge of the cliff and there is no way forward (or back) something or someone arrives to save the day. For what we have been shown thus far, the sudden appearance of the saving grace is illogical but then the story harks back to the incomplete scene and follows the consequences of what was put in place earlier to give our hero the hand up and out of the crisis.

This technique builds suspense and dramatic tension where they wouldn’t have existed but not for the omitted element. It’s handy when you have 16 or more episodes to yoke the audience to,

E.g, Crash Landing on You, Legend of the Blue Sea, 100 Days My Prince

All of these elements may not feature in all K-drama romances at once but many will be noticed per series.

This post is continued at 1-Cont- Elements of a K-drama

Coming up: 2. Elements of a K-drama Romance …. techniques and characterizations