Discovering the Joy of K-dramas

A couple have just spent several episodes of a television series working up a load of romantic chemistry, hating each other at first, eventually winning each other over, then realising they have passionate feelings for one another and then, around the eleventh episode, they finally kiss, possibly while standing in the middle of what can only be best described as a torrential downpour, before the episode freeze frames on that moment, a cliffhanger that guarantees you’ll want to watch the next episode.

There’s also a good chance that there will be a trip to Subway amongst all this drama and if there is one thing that is virtually guaranteed in so much scripted television from Korea, you’re going to be in the mood for a trip to Subway.

It’s somewhat hard to escape the fact that Korean culture is having something of a moment. If it’s not BTS and Blackpink becoming the most popular musicians in the world, then it’s Parasite winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards, a well-deserved winner that miraculously everyone (bar one notable exception) seemed to agree it deserved.

If one were to go on to Netflix right at this very moment, then you shouldn’t be surprised to see that there is an influx of television product from the country just waiting to be binged, and binged it will be if you allow it to win you over, and truthfully resistance is futile when it comes to the plethora of television that the country has produced.

K-dramas have quietly made their move on the likes of Netflix, and even have their own US based streaming service in the shape of Rakuten’s Viki (sadly not available in the UK). It’s become such a thing that Netflix has inevitably made the move into making their own Korean productions, the giveaway being that it’s a Netflix production and not stemming from a Korean powerhouse like TVN being that Netflix’s branch of the K-drama stable tends to run for eight episodes while Korean television likes to throw out epic sixteen-episode limited series that run for one season but which generally feel like you’ve just downloaded about five years’ worth of plot into your brain once the end credits roll on the finale.

This wasn’t necessarily a rabbit hole I was intending to fall down, but lockdown due to Covid-19 as well as the influence of my wife sent me spiralling down into the realm of some of Korea’s finest when I first got my taste of a K-drama in the shape of the smash hit Itaewon Class, which proved a massive hit upon its premiere in South Korea.

Perhaps the best show to watch if one wants to get a taste of just how expansive the writing and structure Korean script writers bring to the table when it comes to television, the series effectively goes through a process whereby it feels like it’s three different shows before settling into the rags to riches/David and Goliath plot line that it’s sold to you as via the Netflix plot synopsis.

Starring Park Seo-joon, who you might remember as the rock wielding best friend who kickstarts the plot to Parasite, watching the first episode puts you through a range of emotions that makes you think that you’re initially watching a teen drama, before it becomes a father and son drama about opening a bar, before becoming a tragedy where the lead character’s father dies in a road accident (K-dramas sometimes have the most intense depictions of road accidents outside of a Northern Irish road safety commercial and as such even the image of a character using a crosswalk comes with a Hitchcock level of suspense), before becoming a prison drama for a bit in episode two, before finally introducing the core cast in the third episode and settling in to its main story, the one you think you were going to be watching right from the beginning.

A combination of rags to riches and revenge drama, Itaewon Class makes for a mightily addictive drama.

Instead of being frustrating or messy, the writing is so assured of what it’s doing, switching from narrative trajectories, tones and even genres in a way that you realise that is reflective of how Korean writers approach storytelling and is not merely just the sensibilities of someone like Bong Joon-ho and Parasite.

If you don’t pay enough attention to the timeline, then you might miss that the series has opted to play a long game across a timeframe of several years and it’s not until the last third that it catches up to the present day and with it another shift in the storytelling that almost feels more like a legitimate five years later sequel that still connects perfectly to everything that has gone before.

Much more linear but no less effective is Crash Landing On You, which arrived as a guaranteed hit on Korean television given that its central cast of Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin are massive superstars in the country and whose chemistry is near undeniable in a romantic comedy that is so specifically Korean that it’s refreshing to note that there is zero chance that an American network or studio could ever try to remake it.

Chaebol heiress Yoon Se-ri is testing out some new paragliding equipment when she is swept up in a tornado and crash lands on the other side of the DMZ, eventually being discovered by Ri Jeong-sook, a Captain in the North Korean army who hides her while trying to find a way to sneak her back over the border before his superiors find out. Before you can say Richard Curtis, the two find love with each other and the second half of the series, complete with a threat from the villainous Jo Cheol Gang, sees the series switch gears and head to the otherside of the DMZ where the roles and fish out of water comedy are reversed to brilliant effect.

It’s a truly irresistible blend of comedy, romance and even action thriller. Jo Cheol Gang poses a genuine threat throughout, while the fish out of water comedy that comes from both sides of the border, complete with the charming chemistry of its two leads means that it runs for a brisk sixteen episodes, throwing in slapstick, poignancy, action and even satire.

A massive smash hit in Korea, the series was like so many productions from the country and had its international distribution rights snapped up by Netflix who put the series up weekly, usually a day after its Korean premiere.

It’s from here that one finds themselves going into the realm of My Holo Love, Love Alarm, Memories of the Alhambra and Extra Curricular and before you know it your Netflix algorithm is recommending a vast amount of ‘South Korean Comedies and Dramas’, and a literal whole world is being made available to you that you didn’t realise was there in a sea of English language television shows series that are more or less going to be cancelled after two seasons due to the streaming service’s pesky business model.

There is something wonderfully comforting about so many of these shows, the way they combine romance, comedy and drama with theme songs you better get used to because they get cranked out a lot during the most poignant and romantic moments. The central couple at the heart of so much of the drama will spend a large chunk of the time avoiding their feelings so as to prolong the inevitable when they get together and it’s always angsty in the most wonderful way. (If there is major drawback with which to be critical, it’s that so many of the shows do fall into heteronormative romances).

Love Alarm’s central theme on the dangers of technology is something of a recurring theme in other K-dramas.

It’s not all breezy fun, and if there is a recurring element to be noted it’s that nobody writes antagonists, particularly bullies, like South Korean screenwriters. Love Alarm is a cautionary tale about technology run amok (a more recurring theme than you might realise, and which makes for an interesting thematic double bill with the more action heavier Memories of the Alhambra starring Crash Landing’s Hyun Bin) but the treatment of its central character by her aunt and cousin who have adopted her after the death of her parents is amongst some of the most intense bullying put to the screen.

Hell, even Itaewon Class’ central antagonists, the corrupt owners of rival business Jangga Group, constantly make life hell for Park Sae-ro-yi and his friends to the extent that it gets the blood boiling. Bullying, belittlement and frequent vocal abuse are doled out to so many of the heroes of these shows that even the characters of a US show like the bitter Succession would probably tell them to calm down the rhetoric a little (although Korean television never slips into the realm of extreme profanity in the manner of US cable television).

In many respects, K-dramas are perfect for the Netflix model of television; they’re glossily filmed with digital cameras, the casts are amongst the most gorgeous on screen (but also believable in their roles) and they’re mostly one and done after a single season.

The glossy streak of them also hides the darker aspects of so many of the series. It’s easy to be critical of how much they do appear to enjoy the rich and affluent lifestyles of their characters (a large part of the stories do involve chaebols or heirs or heiresses to the fortunes) and yet Love Alarm and Itaewon Class almost function as morality tales of elitism or technology gone amok, almost as if they’re calling out for some sort of responsibility when it comes to the devices that are now part and parcel of our world, or the big businesses that are defining the ways in which our lives our lived.

The owners of rival business Jangga get what’s coming to them come the final episode of Itaewon Class, but only after sixteen episodes of some of the most vile behaviour and we’re left with the safe knowledge that its heroic central character will never fall into the realm of the corrupt in the manner of his nemesis, and that good triumphs over the corrupt.

That the methods of his enemies involve revealing that his chef and close friend Ma Hyeon-yi (Lee Joo-young) is transgender, something that is sadly still looked upon with bigotry in some corners of the country, while another of our heroes who is a person of colour is at the receiving end of vindictive racist abuse, is perhaps amongst some of the most upsetting and powerful stuff in the show.

Interestingly, K-dramas have an interesting relationship to how they view big business. Crash Landing on You’s Yoon Se-Ri might be an heiress and her affluent lifestyle might threaten to fall into the realm of consumerist porn, but she’s also a women striving for a position that is mostly doled out to the male heirs in her country and who also has to put up with a brother and sister-in-law that aren’t above breaking the law and putting her life in danger in order to get her out of the way to gain power and wealth for themselves.

This sense of love/hate also applies to how K-dramas explore technology. Love Alarm is colourful and filtered through a quirky portrayal of the app at the heart of the show, but it’s causing a plethora of broken hearts, more intense bullying and even death during the course of its eight episode run (it’s been renewed for a second season). It’s the app that kickstarts the series’ central love triangle and which ends up leaving the characters and the audience in the middle of a cliffhanger that we’re still waiting to have resolved. Once again, a key character in the love triangle comes from considerable wealth, while the other two don’t.

A Netflix original, Extracurricular combines teen drama with anti-heroic characters along with a brilliant exploration of the imbalance of the social class system reminiscent of Parasite with some very intense violence thrown into the mix.

Responsible capitalism and uses of technology are very dominant themes, and given how important big business and technology are in the country, even going together so much of the time, it’s no surprise that so many of the bigger hits that have been produced there have put these themes front and centre.

On the one hand they are amongst the glossiest, expensive looking soap operas you’ve ever seen (that’s not a criticism, the same goes for anything put together by David E. Kelley for HBO these days), and yet they are filtered through stories and characters replete with moral themes.

It’s easy to be judgmental about the rich and the elite, and Korean pop culture isn’t above doling out criticisms towards that way of life (as seen in the films of Bong Joon-ho), but so many of these series do propose the idea of responsible capitalism, and more often than not give us central characters who use their positions to do the right thing even if they are the quintessential ‘other half’ that lives well.

One of Netflix’s most recent K-drama originals, Extracurricular goes down a dark path, presenting teen characters who are thrown into increasingly dark and violent stories where the class system is boiled down to the school corridor and classroom.

In some respects, it feels like it’s combining two of television’s most popular genres; teen drama and the anti-hero tale. The central character is played by Kim Dong-hee who has the face of an angel but who on the basis of this and Itaewon Class seems to be superb at playing cute characters who aren’t above being tied up in moral knots. His Extracurricular character is sympathetic for the most part and is caught up in an imbalanced social hierarchy at his school, where attendance doesn’t come cheap.

Before you can say Breaking Bad, we’re presented right away with his money making side job in the first episode which is basically running a prostitution ring, where one of his employees is a fellow student. The series expertly takes many of the anti-heroic tropes of something like the story of Walter White and throws them into a K-drama that might prove a bit of a shock for anyone used to the more glossy fantasies of Crash Landing or My Holo Love.

Characters make terrible choices that hurt others, the bullying element is dialled up considerably compared to other shows, and while the series runs for ten episodes, it peaks in the penultimate chapter with an elongated hallway fight sequence straight out of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy complete with a high level of bone crunching violence where the blood flows from the screen and the body count piles up considerably.

In other words, it’s brilliantly addictive stuff which ends on somewhat of a cliffhanger that will hopefully be resolved.

Bong Joon-ho in his Golden Globe acceptance speech famously said that if you could get over the one-inch barrier that is the subtitle, then a whole world of films is available to you. Honestly, the same could be applied to television. As the world has gotten smaller and streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime makes everything available at the push of a remote control or click of a mouse, there is a world of television available to audiences beyond the latest English language HBO or Netflix production.

It also just adds to the growing roster of content that is taking over the world and the streaming sphere, and as a result leaves us with even more choice than ever, and yet how can one complain when it’s another way of life, another culture and another batch of great, entertaining television just waiting to be binged and enjoyed.

Crashing Landing on You, Itaewon Class, Extracurricular, My Holo Love, Love Alarm and Memories of the Alhambra are all available to stream on Netflix.

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