Confessions of an Asian Media Junkie: Korean Drama Trends

Nee Hao Magazine’s Guest Contributor Tryn Quan gives us the Asian media low-down on Korean dramas…

Korean dramas… what’s the entire craze about them anyways? For me, it’s so that I can live vicariously. Due to my boring 9-5 office job, it’s an entertainment escape that adds a spark to my life. Yes, they can be a bit sarcastic. Yes, they can be very surreal. Yes, they can totally exaggerate issues and be on the verge of absurd. But all these are just basic characteristics of television media, and exactly the reasons why I love dramas even more. Who am I? Friends call me “Korean Wannabe”, whereas I prefer the term “Asian Media Junkie”. Even my Korean friends say that I know more about the Korean culture, media, and food than themselves!

Korean acting legend Song Hye Kyo

My very first Korean media interaction was the movie, “My Sassy Girl” and my first Korean drama was “Hotelier”. Pumped with legendary actors, they include names such as Bae Yong Jun and Song Hye Kyo. “Hotelier” is a romance drama that is intertwined with complex family politics. I would recommend it if you enjoy watching the family feud type of story line mixed with multiple romances, but it’s definitely not on my top drama list.

mysassygirl My Sassy Girl

There have always been various trends in Korean drama. Each year or two, a particular storyline would be championed. In 2002, dramas circled around the storyline of a boy and girl having an unhappy first encounter leading into a relationship filled with fighting and arguments. But in the end, the two would fall in love with each other. For instance, “Since We Met”, “Successful Story of a Bright Girl”, and “We Are Dating Now” follows such storylines. In the same year, there was a start of season-themed dramas. “Winter Sonata” and “Autumn Tale” were produced in 2002, followed by “Desert Spring” and “Summer Scent” in 2003.

2003 was the beginning of bringing back historical dramas with the huge success of “Dae Jang Geum” or “Jewel in the Palace”. Taking place in the Choson Dynasty, this drama focuses on the hierarchical and male dominated social structure of that period. What made this drama more attractive is the fact that it’s based on a true story. I originally watched it dubbed in Chinese as its popularity was unprecedented in many Asian countries such as Hong Kong and Taiwan. Other similar dramas aired in the same year include “Damo” and “King’s Woman”. They feature a historical and heroic sort of figure from a time period that stands out from the rest of society. At the same time, there was a strong trend of forbidden love with dramas airing such as “Stairway to Heaven”, “Snowman”. And “Scent of a Man”. These dramas follow the storyline of in-laws or step-siblings falling in love with each other.

sadlovestorySad Love Story

From 2005, for the next two years, there was a long-standing drama trend that really became its trademark: the romantic melodrama. Though this general genre and trend of dramas has been commonly known by many, they do vary into different kinds of romantic melodrama ranging from dying love stories, the protagonists having cancer leading to the separation of couples, fatal accidents and so on. Sad, but addictive. All in all, they fit into the bigger category of romantic melodrama, which mainly involves a lot of tearing and heart-wrenching scenes. When watching these, have a tissue box ready! A few notable dramas of this genre from 2005 -2006 are:  “Sad Love Story”, “A Love to Kill”, “Autumn Shower”, “Lovaholic”, and “The Snow Queen”.

Continuing from 2008 with “On Air”, “New Heart”, and “Beethoven Virus”, occupational-themed dramas continues its popularity.  “Cinderella Man” by MBC is a drama involving fashion proprietors in Dongdaemun and how their lives, love, and successes progress.  SBS’s “Style” was based on a novel and it depicts the fashion world through the life of a female reporter of a fashion magazine company. You can already see, there’s something for everybody!

2009 was a determined drama production year for Korea following their economic slump and shrinking of the drama market in the years before. In that year, there was a sudden rush of Sageuk dramas featuring strong women. Various broadcasting stations such as KBS, MBC, and SBS each produced a drama of this genre. KBS released “Empress Cheon Chu” which features a heroine empress who is the granddaughter of Emperor Taejo. What differentiates this drama is that it has a lot of emphasis on action, which was not seen in the past. MBC produced a considerably huge budget and long Sangeuk drama called “Queen Seon-deok”. Similarly, the emphasis is on a strong historical woman, and in this story, it’s a queen that ruled in the Shilin area.  It’s a progressive story of a young girl named Seon-deok who overcomes many obstacles and turbulences to become the queen. MBC aired “Return of Iljimae”, which is a bit different than the conventional Sangeuk drama as it’s based on a manhwa, (also known as manga/comic). Though the protagonist is a male figure, it still follows the heroic figure storyline.

2009 was also a year of sports-related dramas including figure skating, baseball, and golf. For instance, “Triple” is about a love story between an ad agency executive and figure skater where the skating rink serves as the drama’s stage.  MBC’s “2009 Alien Baseball Team” is based on a manhwa circling around a group of young men striving to become successful baseball players.

2009 can be said to be Korean drama’s booming year.  Why?  This is the year where the Korean drama market unleashed a new niche of audiences, the youths. To attract the group of viewers, they started producing dramas that casted young celebrities and pop starts of Korean girl and boy groups. The biggest hit of this year was “Boys Before Flowers” featuring some of Korea’s most good looking “princes” and a K-pop star, Kim Hyun Joong from SS501. This drama also follows the trend of turning mangas into dramas.  In the same year, there was “You’re Beautiful” which had Jung Yong Hwa from the rising Korean pop rock group, CNN Blue. Dramas of this genre do not cast purely K-pop stars but have one or two featured to grab audiences from loyal followings. However, there is an emphasis on good-looking protagonists, in other words, pretty boys.  “Cinderella Man” featured a member of a girl group which raised to popularity I 2009, Girls’ Generations’ Im Yoon Ah.  Following this trend, up until now, there have been an increased number of dramas that follows this genre type due to its continuous success every year.

Boys Before Flowers

To the more recent years of 2012, there was a hot trend for time-travelling dramas, and mostly for the quest of love. The storyline of this drama trend is typically the protagonist travelling back or forward in time, and in the end, find their true love. For example, “Rooftoop Prince” depicts a Choson king who got transferred to the future after his beloved queen was murdered. The entre story talks about the linkage between the pass and present and his mission to solve this mystery. In the process of doing so, he falls in love with a girl from the future whose past life is that she was the king’s sister in law.

Similarly, “Faith” is a drama that has a mixture of fantasy, history, and romance. The story talks about a modern plastic surgeon whose dream was to open up her own clinic in the region of Gangnam. However, she was abducted by a warrior from 700 years ago to cure an injured queen and becomes trapped in the past. Continuing this trend, there is “Dr. Jin”, which has a similar time-travelling concept but has more emphasis on the medical scenes and aspects. Dr. Jin is a gifted and arrogant neurosurgeon that was transported back to 1860 Korea. Just before his time slip, his girlfriend and fellow colleague was in a car accident and are near death’s door. In similarity to “Rooftop Prince”, he finds a girl in the past that looks just like his girlfriend. Interestingly, the drama brings out the deeper message that doctors are not God.

rooftopprinceRooftop Prince

Another drama is “Queen In Hyun’s Man”, which begins with a scholar from 1694 who is a supporter of the deposed Queen In Hyun. The scholar is transported to 2012 Seoul by a magical talisman when he was nearly killed, where he met an actress whose first big role is Queen In Hyun. The story progresses as the two continuously encounter each other unexpectedly. Finally, there was “Operation Proposal” which takes on a different approach from than the ones listed above. This drama is mainly about the protagonist who made a mistake in finding his love and happiness. His encounter with a mysterious man called the “Time Conductor”, gives him the ample opportunity to go back in time to fix his mistake. Similar to the Hollywood movie, “Source Code”, the protagonist is able to make several trips back in time to make his own history by tampering with the result each time he time slips.  Although all of the time travel dramas take on a different approach in this trend, they all have one common ground, that being, having a combination of comedy romance with fantasy.  This is what makes this drama trend especially popular and entertaining.

Of all the dramas mentioned here, there are a few of my personal favorites that I would absolutely recommend for starters:

  • If you are the kind who enjoys watching really sad movies and easily sucked into tragedies, old melodramas are a must!  I especially love “Sad Love Story” and it’s definitely one of the few that I would watch again. Every episode has a teary scene which would make your heart ache and tear. This is a typical Korean drama, which circles around a triangle relationship with many tragedies in between.  However, the story itself is pure and simple, which makes it easier to watch than other melodramas that have complex family lines and other sub stories in it.  A plus for this drama is the cast. The male lead, Kwon Sang-Woo and female lead, Kim Hee-Sun provided great passion and incredible chemistry in their roles. Her performance as the role of a blind person is very convincing and believable. It is mainly due to their top-notch acting skills and the simplicity of this drama that kept me wanting to watch more and more of it.
  • If you only watch dramas for the case and take the storyline and acting lightly, idol-filled dramas would be your go-to genre. My number-one favorite would be “Boys Over Flowers” was reproduced for the third time, where it was previously produced in Japan and Taiwan. Seeing the huge success in the other Asian countries, Korean producers casted some of the most handsome young boys to take on the roles of F4.  Especially entertaining are the humorous yet embarrassing scenes suffered by the female lead. The story is about the bullying of a poor and not so good-looking schoolgirl by four popular hot school boys known as F4. The overall message given off by this drama, like many other dramas of this trend, is that you don’t have to be drop dead gorgeous and beautiful to meet the prince of your dreams. For viewers, it gives them hope and fantasy that maybe this is possible; at least it makes me feel so!
  • Finally, a more recent drama I would recommend and mentioned above would be “Rooftop Prince”.  The fact that the male lead, Micky Yoochun, is an adorable and super popular singer of the legendary boy group, DBSK, already attracted my attention to watch the first episode. The producers were smart to cast him!  However, what made me continue watching this drama to the end are all the hilarious and comedic moments created due to the time difference. First, his Choson dynasty wardrobe and long hair contrasted immediately whilst he rode on the back of a modern day truck, really does catch your interest. Furthermore, his inability to read the alphabetized Korean language, understand the technology of cars, phones, and television, and his formal speech makes the drama hilarious. All combined together, this drama is super entertaining and certainly on my list of favorites.

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