Friday, July 03, 2015

Kdrama: a Primer

Kdrama or k-drama is the abbreviated form of “Korean Drama,” by which we mean mostly those TV shows produced in South Korea since the early 2000s, but it also can encompass TV shows (and movies) produced in Japan, Taiwan, and mainland China.

The whole thing intersects sometimes with KPop or k-pop.  K-pop can sometimes encompass kdrama and sometimes it’s used to refer exclusively to the South Korean music industry. Of course, there is huge cross over between the music industry and the drama industry in South Korea, far more than there is in America. In the States, most of us can name the Big Stars who’ve successfully crossed from music to acting or vice versa—Timberlake, J Lo, Will Smith—but in Korea these talents don’t hire their own agents who work for them; no, the talent works for an agency that shells out a lot of money to train and raise up the future star, ideally in as many entertainment fields as possible. Because if a member of Girls Generation is on a drama it guarantees a certain male audience, and if your favorite drama oppa sings you a song, you’re gonna buy his CD.

This may sound obscure to many Americans, but we’re not talking “cult classics” here. This is a finely honed money making machine that in under 15 years has come to rival Samsung* among South Korean exports. An utterly addictive, completely consuming, why-can’t-any-one-else-hit-on-this-formula, unique TV watching experience.

*(It so happens I’m watching kdrama on a Samsung TV. Totally coincidental.)

No, I don't speak Korean.

Whenever I explain to people what it is I’ve been watching lately, their first question is, “Is it subtitled?” This is uttered with confusion, perhaps concern, not inquisitiveness.

Yes, they’re subtitled. After five years of public school administered French lessons I could barely order at a French delicatessen, why anyone would think I suddenly had functioning foreign language skills was beyond me.

Most of the shows with US/worldwide licensing are subtitled in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. The reallypopular ones are dubbed into Spanish. I’ve yet to see an English dubbing, and I don’t think I’d want to at this point.

Of course, I understand the tension here: “Subtitled” has come to be a code word for stuffy, pretentious, European art house films. And what I’m discussing is pure candy, fabulously low-brow, insanely addictive TV shows . . . but subtitled.

We call it what it is: an addiction.

What I’ve found striking is that when people (online, English speakers) refer to their kdrama viewing habits, they call it “my kdrama addiction” or “I’m a kdrama addict.” And that is the long and short of it: Something about this type of entertainment breeds rabid fandom.

I can’t say I’ve ever heard someone describe themselves as an “HBO addict” or say they have a “sitcom addiction.” They express some form of like.  Dislike, mild like, really like. Occasionally (rarely) love. But really, the “love” status is usually reserved for one show—I love True Blood!—rather than applied to an entire channel or genre or country’s output of TV.

Most addicting is the kdrama storytelling. Namely the lightheartedness. Dire things may happen. Horrible things may happen. But the show always resolves in a lighthearted way. “Antiheroes” aren’t really a Thing in kdrama. All the better. American and British film will only show a character alone with their emotions (particularly if those emotions are happy in nature) if it can serve as juxtapositioning for what comes next. A character alone in a car smiling is not a happy situation, it is a situation of utter dread because the absolute worst is about to unfold and a smart audience knows it--Downton Abbey, I'm looking at you. In Korean drama, a character shown driving down the road smiling, is shown to the audience to convey that he is happy, not to make more notable his eminent death.

I watch kdramas for the same reason I read romance novels: I know I won’t be depressed when the story is over, which is something no other genera of novel promises in every book.

Further addicting is the format... Read the rest of this post...

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