It’s fairly rare (but not unheard of) to find a male K-drama viewer and one willing to express his opinions. We managed to find one, a true K-drama connoisseur and we’re delighted he agreed to share his thoughts. Please welcome the first male guest-writer of Couch Kimchi: stuartjmz and join us in crossing our fingers that he’s willing to write more! -tessieroo.
First of all, I want to say a very big 감사합니다! to the delightful women of Couch Kimchi for making room to squeeze me on to their couch this one time – I just hope my wife doesn’t get jealous! 🙂
Male K Drama fans can seem rare, almost as mythical as unicorns, so I’m honoured to have been invited to share my perspective on K-Dramas, as an Anglophone male in my mid-40s. Obviously that influences my perceptions and reactions. Be warned, this is an embarrassingly long post so in all seriousness, if you think it’s TL;DR.
First, the things I dislike about K-Dramas, beginning with the things I actually hate:
The country I’ve lived my entire life in is toward the “least bad” end of the scale when it comes to social justice for women. It was the first country in the world to grant women the vote, also the first I know of to have had a female Head of State, Head of Government, Head of the Legislature and Head of the Judiciary at the same time. One of our two women Prime Ministers went on to be No. 3 at the UN and has a chance of becoming its first female Secretary-General. My perception of women’s place in society has been shaped by the attitudes of my homeland, and that perception is VERY different from the one found in K-Dramas. The toxically antiquated patriarchal mind-set of K-Drama mores is my single biggest hate factor. This mind-set is most obvious in two common tropes, both of which make me simultaneously mad as hell, and so very, very sad. The first of these is:
I simply cannot express adequately how intensely I hate these. A repugnant reminder of the attitude that women are property, not people, and that if a man “loves” a woman, her body is his to do with as he pleases. Let’s consider a few particularly vile examples:
THIS IS SEXUAL ASSAULT, NOT ROMANCE. This is easily the most egregious specimen from the Dramas I watched in 2014. So many swooned and sighed over this scene, but it made me want to hurl, and to hurl stuff at the screen. To deliberately render a woman unconscious in order to make sexual contact with her without her consent or even awareness is morally and ethically repugnant, and illegal. I enjoyed this Drama, but this scene was intolerable and indefensible.
I’ve been happily married to a truly wonderful woman for more than 20 years, but I would still hesitate to kiss her on the lips while she slept. The couple in this screen-cap had gone through a very bitter and acrimonious divorce after a violent and abusive meltdown of their marriage, and had not reconciled at all by this scene. Once again, the absence of any possibility for her to give or withhold consent makes this sexual assault. End of story.
This scene was so bizarre that even many fans of Choi Jin Hyuk muttered their disbelief: To “prove his innocence” a State Prosecutor forcibly kisses a subordinate?! Romance: 0%, sexual harassment 100%. He obviously skipped ethics classes.
Next on my hate list is:
The Wrist Grab
There are times when grabbing someone by the wrist is appropriate, such as to pull them to safety from a burning building, the edge of a cliff, the ocean, etc. It is NEVER appropriate to grab a woman by the wrist and drag/throw her around like property. I’ll start with a double play, a wrist grab followed by a forced kiss:
Looking past the hot Oppa, what this shows is a man forcibly restraining a woman by grabbing her wrist, then kissing her, overriding her very obvious resistance by sheer brute force. No means no!
Now, here’s a set of wrist grabs from a Drama so regressive that cavemen would be embarrassed to watch it:
After being grabbed and thrown around at work by her subordinate, her reaction below nicely sums up how I feel about this repugnant trope:
Those are my two biggest hates. Now onto some of the things I merely dislike:
This worn-out cliché just won’t go away, which is really rather ironic. Sometimes, as in Birth of a Beauty, there is literally no attempt at all made to explain or justify it. One or other of the OTP simply says, “let’s break up” and we’re supposed to buy the idea that this is indeed noble and self-sacrificing rather than idiotic and senseless. One interesting feature of noble idiocy is that like beauty it’s often in the eye of the beholder. If someone LIKES a Drama, they’re more inclined to argue that any such separation is merely noble, not idiotic. Two recent examples are from Dramas that I enjoyed. In both Fated To Love You, and Pinocchio the trope was employed, with one part of the OTP deciding the noble thing to do was to separate from the other party. In both Dramas, some, like me, felt we were watching stock standard noble idiocy, while others argued vigorously that the separation wasn’t idiotic at all, just noble. A fascinating reminder of the ultimate subjectivity of art, and the very human tendency to see what we want to see. For me, the best approach to noble idiocy is that taken by Miss Korea in this scene:
ACTIONS WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES
Often K-Dramas someone will act in a truly evil manner for nearly the entire Drama, destroying lives and being both ethically and criminally wicked, and then suffer no consequences at all. Instead, the Drama will preach “forgiveness”, which entails the wrongdoer being given complete absolution for all their evil deeds, and will often include the victims apologising to their tormentor for having harboured ill-will toward them! This Karma-free card is practically guaranteed to be given to:
I won’t even pretend to be objective about K-Dramas’ fixation with mother-worship. I still froth every time a woman gets to be a thoroughly heartless destroyer of lives and happiness, then gets rewarded with tears, hugs and apologies, all because “she’s (a/my) Mum, therefore she did no wrong”.
One of the very worst examples of this from the almost 100 K-Dramas I’ve watched involved the utter destruction of Prime Minister and I. It started off as a really very good romcom, genuinely funny and romantic, with great chemistry between the leads of a very believable OTP. Then it was infested by a zombie:
The Prime Minister’s dead wife turned out to be not so very dead after all. Instead, she’d just abandoned her husband and three children (one just a baby) and left to do her own thing for seven years. Then she decides she wants to play Mum again, and walks right back in, like she’d simply taken a wrong turn on her way to the supermarket. All the romance and all the comedy were sucked out of the Drama, and the formerly fantastic OTP separated to end on a handshake and a smile, while I screamed and ranted and shouted “WHAT THE FLYING COPULATION?” “WHAT THE ACTUAL COPULATION JUST HAPPENED?” Or words to that effect.
PMAI was a very painful example, but it was not the first or only time I’ve seen K-Drama mothers get off scot-free. As I write this, it seems to be happening again. Pinocchio gave its viewers a callous, cold-hearted villain for its first thirteen episodes, a woman so determined to be the top reporter in the country that she sacrificed all personal ethics and her own family to get there. Not even once did she display any remorse or regret, or human affection for anyone, including her daughter. Despite this, an insightful Twitter friend kept insisting we’d see what she called an “Anakin” story for this character, and it seems she’s right. The cold-hearted destroyer of lives is now being painted as a stooge, a probably unwilling lackey of really bad people. This will pave the way for her “redemption” and I’m half expecting to see her daughter, whom she discarded, ignored and rejected, apologise to her before the end. Sadly, unlike Anakin, her redemption is most unlikely to involve sacrificing her life.
The inhumanity of working conditions in K-Dramas is barbaric and callous, and an affront to basic human rights. I will refrain from a socio-political rant though, and stick to talking about the very negative effect this practice has on the end product. Until I started watching K-Dramas some 20 months ago, I never thought I’d use the phrase “making it up as they go along” about a TV show. Now, of course, I use it All.The.Time.
Live shooting is always at the mercy of ratings-conscious marketing types, and so artistic integrity and plot coherence are repeatedly butchered on the altar of popularity. Like most such sanguinary sacrifices, they seldom work. Once-promising Dramas end up confused, contradictory and pointless messes, with characters having undergone total personality transplants, and events happening that defy belief or description. I salute the actors and crews who somehow manage to produce Dramas that move me when they are so tired they can barely move themselves. Producing believable emotional displays and operating the equipment needed to record and broadcast them must be incredibly difficult when daily sleep is measured in minutes.
Another consequence of the live shooting system is the evil of extensions. Many fans of a particular idol, actor or idol/actor will excitedly yelp for joy when a Drama starring their bias gets an extension, because all they care about is “Yay, more Oppa!” Sadly, “more Oppa!” always comes at the cost of pacing, characterisation and story, but the money men are happy, because they know that “More Oppa!” always sells, and that’s what the game is all about.
If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking, “why does he watch K-Dramas if he hates so much about them?” Since I’ve watched an average five complete Dramas a month for the last twenty months, and am currently watching six airing K-Dramas, that’s a fair question. Here’s the answer:
The reason I’m still a mildly obsessed K Drama watcher despite all my rants comes down to one word. Heart. K-Dramas, flawed as they are, grab me where it counts, in the heart. They make me cry, REALLY cry, they make me laugh out loud, they make me rant and hiss and boo at the villains, they make me sigh and swoon and cheer on the OTP. One of the young friends who introduced me to K-Dramas once told me a few months later, “I love that you love K-Dramas like a 14-year old girl” That inner romantic definitely gets her crack from great OTPs, while the non-14-year old male in me finds his sense of aesthetics gratified too. Here are some of the many things that keep me coming back for more
I’m enough of a tween at heart to gush over kisses with the best of them. Here are some of my favourites:
I like this scene for all the obvious reasons. Kim So Yeon is gorgeous and leopard print has seldom looked so good. BUT, it also shows a woman taking charge in a romantic/sexual situation and very explicitly not forcing anything, instead she specifically asks for consent to go on. A win-win.
No discussion of K-Drama kisses could be complete without a tip of the hat to my first K-Drama bias, Yoon Eun Hye. She’s famous for her kissing scenes, and not without cause:
Again, apart from the obvious appeal of these scenes, it’s worth noting that when it comes to kissing, Ms. Yoon’s characters very definitely give as good as they get, and don’t let themselves be bullied or coerced into it. No dead fish kisses here, just healthy expressions of mutual attraction and desire. It can be done!
Finally, one more classic, once again showing that two characters who are really into each other don’t need any compulsion or force to express how they feel, and watching that is indeed a beautiful thing:
K Drama feels go beyond just the obvious expressions like kiss scenes, though. One of the scenes I’ve replayed most often from my collection is one that depicts the sealing of an OTP, the moment at which the female lead gives in to her feelings. I love this scene to bits and never get tired of watching it:
No Neanderthal wrist-grabbing here, just a hand offered, and willingly taken. Now THAT’S romantic!
Sometimes K-Dramas touch my heart through very creative expressions of affection. A toilet bowl as a gift of love and a popcorn proposal are two of my favourite examples:
Great romantic Dramas need great OTPs, and here are three of my favourites: Miss Korea, Queen In Hyun’s Man, Coffee Prince. Strong, memorable second OTPs include those in The King 2 Hearts, Miss Korea and Reply 1994. Reply 1997 and Reply 1994 also both featured the same non-primary OTP, Lee Il Hwa and Sung Dong Il, using their own names. These Dramas are still the only ones I’ve seen that show very realistic and relatable long-time married couples around my age. In both Dramas, these fine actors totally nail it, and I salute the writers for showing what long-term marital happiness looks like.
LAUGHTER IN THE RAIN:
Humour is so dependent on context and timing that finding clips to illustrate it was difficult. Many Dramas have made great use of humour to season their melodrama or sadness, or to infuse a romantic OTP with an extra dimension. Standouts for me include Prime Minister and I before the zombie wife meltdown, and You Who Came From The Stars where Jeon Ji Hyeon parodied herself for the entire Drama, while Shin Seong Rok had a great time hamming it up as a comically OTT villain (unlike his genuinely malevolent role in Liar Game).
Some of the best K-Drama humour comes from subverting expectations by playing with tropes. This great example is from Yoona’s Street, which for 40 of its 50 episodes was leagues ahead of almost every other Drama I’ve seen. A clichéd romantic scene: After holding hands walking in the park, a couple hugs. We all know how this scene ends, right?
Incongruity is a great generator of humour. In the first image below, that beautiful smile and those cute ears raised a smile, in the second, a show of aegyo with props was a laugh out loud moment.
HURTS SO GOOD
When K Dramas get it right, they cut like a knife and reduce me to a bawling, sobbing mess. Some of the Dramas that hurt so good I went back for repeat lashes from their sad scenes include My Spring Days, Reply 1997 (the cancer episode), and Fated To Love You . A special mention for Damo, whose opening scene was also its morbid climax, but which still made me weep throughout, even knowing what was coming.
SISTERS ARE DOIN’ IT FOR THEMSELVES
Almost all my favourite Dramas have strong, independent female leads. Kim Sam Soon, City Hall, The Woman Who Still Wants To Marry, History of the Salaryman, Dr. Champ, Yoona’s Street and Miss Korea all fit this mold to varying degrees. The female lead in Glowing She, makes a decision unique in the nearly 100 Dramas I’’ve completed. The Three Days lead pair was an example of two competent professionals working together as peers, where the female lead was not an appendage, dependent on the male for validation. King 2 Hearts has a rare example of the decisive heroine saving the helpless hero.
There have been some great second female leads too, including Seo Hye Joon from PMAI, who stayed awesome while that Drama imploded around her, Cha Song Joo from Capital Scandal and Oh Se Ryeong from I Need Romance 3 Sometimes it seems that not having to write a loveline for a second lead frees the writers to develop the character better.
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
K-Dramas make great use of child actors. Some, like the baby playing Min Gook in Emergency Couple, only had to be impossibly cute, which he totally aced. Others like Kang Ji Woo in The Suspicious Housekeeper have to be both imploringly adorable and capable of heart-wrenching emotional scenes. Who could be unmoved by faces like these?
Both these examples came from Dramas that were at best mediocre, and in which these children were real highlights. Many Dramas kept me by having kids put my heart in their tiny viselike hands and squeeze hard.
LISTEN TO THE MUSIC
The use of music to advance the story and enhance emotional impact is something many K-Dramas do exceptionally well. From the delicate fragility of Booranhan Sarang to the breezy blues of Trap, there’s a song for every mood and moment. Cable Dramas in particular are making eclectic and well-thought out music choices something of a trademark. Standouts for me include the Reply series, Marriage Without Dating, Plus Nine Boys, Yoona’s Street and from the big three, Miss Korea and Trot Lovers, not a great Drama but one which introduced me to that important musical genre.
FRIENDS WILL BE FRIENDS
In the twenty months I’ve been watching K Dramas, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have found a group of avid watchers whose sensibilities are similar to mine, even when their tastes in Dramas aren’t. With one notable exception they are extremely intelligent and articulate women, who discuss Dramas with insight, enthusiasm and perception. Some blog about K Dramas, at least one has written a thesis on them, and all have much to say, and worth listening to. Thanks to them, I’ve had my own viewing horizons broadened, and enjoyed stimulating discussions and debates, proving that even in the narrow confines of Twitter, it is possible to both have non-trivial discussions and to disagree agreeably. All of them, and my unforgettable Drama Hyeongdongsaeng, have enriched my watching by sharing their wisdom and opinions. Having people to laugh with, kvetch with and especially to learn from has made it all great fun. Mersi, merci, dank u wel, σας ευχαριστώ, dziękuję, gracias, thank you all very much.
DON’T WORRY, BE HAPPY
Finally, some suggestions. Personal taste is just that, so these recommendations may or may not appeal, but if you made it all the way here, you deserve something to take away. Miss Korea, City Hall, History of a Salaryman, Coffee Prince, Doctor Champ, Queen In Hyun’s Man, Yoona’s Street, I Hear Your Voice, Reply 1997 and Capital Scandal are all Dramas I’ve enjoyed enough to re-watch more than once, either several episodes or in full.
K-Drama is entertainment, and I hope that everyone who watches will do so for fun. It is possible to be honest about the serious flaws in both the content and delivery of K-Dramas while still enjoying their power to stir emotional responses. Old or young, male or female, human or unicorn, my wish is for all K-Drama fans to enjoy their Dramas of choice, while hoping for growth and improvement. To everyone who read all this, thank you very kamsa!
Be sure to follow stuartjmz on Twitter!