I am by no means an expert on Korean drams. I have however watched about 20 of them over the past few months and have come to some interesting conclusions about the archetypes and common themes. I am not afraid of subtitles and find cultural differences interesting and not threatening, so I do things like going on escapades of watching foreign TV and movies for no particular reason other than I am fed up with watching the over processed “reality” TV that dominates our culture at the moment.
So here is what I found while taking a break from American TV:
Of the shows that I watched there where four categories that most of them fell into: based on a Manga, about a boy and girl, magical and cop/news/conspiracy related. These are very…very general groupings as almost all of them resolve around a relationship between the to main characters.
Other things you will see again and again are the side kick who is a lot of ways more suitable for the main character but is just not going to get together with them ever…ever. Part of this seems to be a cultural reference that to be in love has conflict unlike the America obsession with the happy ending. I’m not saying that there are not happy endings but you will see it referenced again and again that conflict is a normal part of relationships (especially married ones) and that this is something to learn to navigate not run from.
There are a few things that I just had to shake my head at as a white 30 something American. There is a good deal of physical/body based humor that I life behind in middle school. I’m not say that a snarky biting humor (what I’m used to) is better or smarted. Also the one story arch that I just groaned every time it reared its head – amnesia. That is all that needs to be said there. There is a lot of loud crying and yelling that you need to be prepared for if you have not watched much of this before, its not bad just a little jolting at fist.
There are some very obvious sexist and class-est themes that are reinforced again and again but I think they are not outside the cultural norm. Women are dependent on a “good” marriage to achieve class and family status. Young men are expected for follow in the family business regardless of personal ambition or goals. I would also like to point out that there are many things that I admired: like a persons worth and integrity being more important than compromising themselves even for family. That a poor girl with spirit and hart can make a way for herself if she believes in who she is and what she can achieve.
Okay…Here are the shows I watched by group:
Hero is the story of Korea’s top reporters and ordinary citizens fighting against the society elite’s abuse of power. Working as a reporter for a racy tabloid called the Monday Seoul, Jin Do Hyuk uses any means necessary to get a scoop. One day, he goes to interview Jo Yong Deok, the boss of the Axe gang, who suggests that they start their own newspaper. Do Hyuk lies about the credentials of his former co-workers when he introduces them to Jo Yong Deok as potential hires for the newspaper venture. With his former co-workers on board, he is able to launch the Yongdeok Daily together with Yong Deok. But the newly hired reporters soon find themselves sucked into a huge conspiracy that could utterly ruin their lives.
**I found this show funny and sweet. I was glad that the “relationships” between the guys and girl though there were not the center of the story. There is a wonderful underlying plot about guilt and forgiveness that is nicely developed.
There is a top secret military mission that is covered up by the murder of all but one of the team. he kidnaps the son of his fallen comrade and swears to take revenge on the five government officials that ordered the death of his squad. The majority of the story takes place years later when the child is grown and used as the weapon of his adopted fathers revenge.
***This one was a little slow to start and I almost ave up on it but I’m glad I didn’t. The story has lots of complex twist and character development that I didn’t expect. Like the main girl being a bodyguard and okay with the fact that she is a human shield. This was definitely one of the best.
Midas The background of the drama is about life in the mergers & acquisitions, stock market and financial world, as well as the lives of chaebols. Kim Do Hyun is an intelligent man from a modest upbringing. He is the head of his class at one of the top tier law schools in the country. While looking for prospective jobs, he is recruited to be the attorney for an affluent family who’s true wealth may be more than anyone could imagine. His dreams of a peaceful life with his girlfriend Lee Jung Yun are changed when the future successor “makes him an offer he can’t refuse.”
***I was not sure what to make of this at first. Young naive lawyer gets sucked into big cooperate world. His girl is a little one dimensional in that she is always right about what he is doing wrong but not really strong enough to give him an ultimatum. I had some sympathy for the main character but liked him better after he was brought down a notch or two.
Secret garden:The drama tells the story of Gil Ra Im (Ha Ji-won), a poor and humble stuntwoman whose beauty and body are the object of envy amongst top actresses, and Kim Joo Won (Hyun Bin), an arrogant and eccentric CEO who maintains the image of seeming perfection. Their accidental meeting, when Joo Won mistakes Ra Im for actress Park Chae Rin, marks the beginning of a tense, bickering relationship, through which Joo Won tries to hide a growing attraction to Ra Im that both confuses and disturbs him. To complicate matters further, a strange sequence of events results in them swapping bodies.
***Where to begin with this one. I love, LOVE that she is a stunt woman and can kick everyone’s butt. It was such a nice change from the mousy/ sweet girl type. The whole mystical element to this show gave it unexpected hart as you sympathize for each character being out of their own body and realizing the weaknesses and strengths of the other.
My Girlfriend is a Gumiho: Cha Dae-woong (Lee Seung Gi) accidentally releases a troublesome gumiho, a legendary fox with nine tails, sealed inside a painting by Grandma Samshin (三神). When she had been free, she failed to find a human husband, a requirement for becoming fully human. From this a rumor started that claimed she liked to eat the livers of humans. Fleeing the scene, Dae-woong suffers a life-threatening fall and is only saved by the gumiho giving him her “fox marble” (여우 구슬). When Dae-woong awakes and meets a mysterious pretty girl, he initially treats her as eccentric or mentally ill, before fully understanding she is the gumiho in disguise. He agrees to stay with her and he tries to keep her happy, while hiding her true identity as a gumiho from all others by having her pose as his human girlfriend Mi ho.
***This one was so magical that I thought it would go well into the campy range but the back story and other characters make you believe that it is possible for her to be trapped in a painting for a really long time. The Goblin was my favorite character, mean but good in his way.
Based on a Manga:
A high school girl named Oh Ha Ni (Jung So Min) who is in the bottom of her class has had a crush on popular and genius male student named Baek Seung Jo (Kim Hyun Joong) ever since she saw him on the first day of high school. Ha Ni decides to confess through a letter, but is rejected by Seung Jo, who tells her that he hates stupid girls.
Fate intervenes when a mild earthquake ruins Ha Ni’s family’s new house. While the house gets rebuilt, Ha Ni and her father stay at the home of her dad’s childhood friend, who happens to be Seung Jo’s father.
***I watched this solely because the actor was so good in “Boys over flowers” (further down)- and I wanted to see if he did anything else. Do not watch this if you have any Feminist bone in your body. The female character NEVER changes. She stays this dumb, boy obsessed creature the entire show. I hated it, it was offal. Perseverance does not a person make.
You are beautiful: Go Mi Nyu is a sister-in-training. Her twin brother, Go Mi Nam successfully auditions for the musical band A.N.JELL but is forced to leave for the United States to correct a botched plastic surgery. Mi Nyu is approached by Mi Nam’s manager to pose as Mi Nam while he recovers.
***Surprisingly I like this one. It was very sweet and the main male character has so many neuroses that it was fun to watch how that actor portrayed them. Also it was interesting to see the male lead be portrayed as such a mess of a human being. Not in the American- I’m drunk or on drugs all the time way- but that he is a germ phobe and has to sleep with the light on and is a control freak. This one is also prime example of how the side kick would be better for her. I was sad when they didn’t get together.
Boys Over Flowers:Shin Hwa School is a school for rich people, attended by Goo Jun Pyo, the heir of the global corporation Shin Hwa Group, Yoon Ji Hoo, So Ee Jung, and Song Woo Bin which form a gang called F4. Jun Pyo, the leader of F4, is the main ruffian.
Geum Jan Di, who is not from rich family, ends up attending Shin Hwa School when she saves a boy from jumping off the rooftop and is given a scholarship to quiet down all the publicity the incident has caused. The entire school worships the F4 except for Jan Di. However, she holds a certain soft spot for Yoon Ji Hoo, who appears to be different from the other three. Jan Di finally speaks up against F4 to defend her friend. From then on, she becomes Jun Pyo’s main rival.
***If you have never read a manga you won’t get this one. This dynamic of the one girl in a group of guys who are way out of her league is very common in manga and may be odd to viewers not familiar with the theme. There are the four typical archetypes: The business man’s son/playboy, the artist, the quietly reserved and the (harder to find t)hug. Two of the three fall for her while all of them protect her like a sister or more. I like this but it is definitely on the lighter side and not for everyone.
There are so many in this catagory that I am only going to add info on the ones I like the best.
Stars falling from the sky:The drama draws a love story between two co-workers at an insurance company, with Kim Ji Hoon playing the company’s whip-smart lawyer. Because he carries the hurt of having been abandoned by his birth mother, he doesn’t easily open his heart to others. Jin Pal Kang (Choi Jung Won) is a 25-year-old employee of the company who becomes responsible for her five younger adopted siblings after her parents meet with sudden deaths.
***Of all the shows that I watched this was my favorite. I think the fact that we see the female character go though such a dramatic change and really make very adult decisions even though she is given the “get married out” several times. Her dedication to keeping her family together is hart warming. This one has a good bit of the body humor in it but with five kids in the family its almost to be expected.
Scent of a Woman: As a single, unmarried woman in her mid-thirties, Lee Yeon Jae (Kim Sun Ah) is meek and timid, considered a spinster by society. After spending ten years working for the same travel company owned by Kang Chul Man, she is falsely accused of stealing from a client. In addition to enduring the accusations of her superiors, she is diagnosed with gallbladder cancer with approximately six months left to live. Mustering up her courage, Yeon Jae resigns and embraces her remaining six months of life.
***I watched this expecting it to be very heavy and was surprised at how positive it was. The female lead goes from doubty to self confident in her ideas about how she will live even when those close to her don’t understand what she is doing. This one also has a tragic side kick character. I really liked him in this. I wasn’t sure that I bought the love story between the two main characters but one can’t have it all.
Creating Destiny I thought this had possibilities. Girl raised in Australia come to Korea to meet her unknown betrothed. If you can get pasted the horrible American accent, it okay. sad to see a good story go to waste.
Lie to me This one is the basic odd couple set up- its funny and lighthearted.
Miss Ripley – I really wanted to like this one but in the end they made her and her relationships too simple and easy
Pasta– I like the culinary aspect of this one but the female lead is a push over- fun but not amazing
Shining inheritance-This one is wrought with deceit and twisted family relationships, good over all
Prosecutor Princess-ridiculously funny at times- clueless Deva trying to make something of her life
Birdie Buddy– about pro golf player/ first love- not bad simple