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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Why Everybody Should Watch Korean Dramas (Even If You Can't Speak Korean and Hate Kim Chi)

The joy of the Korean Drama lies in the lingering look, the hand that almost touches, but never does, and the enjoyment of an experience through the repetition of flashbacks. Wallace Stevens once wrote, "I do not know which to prefer, /The beauty of inflections/Or the beauty of innuendoes." In Korean Drama, it is definitely the latter.  The heated anticipation of the moment that is the hallmark of American dramas is limited in our Korean counterparts. A couple may take an entire season to kiss even once. That single kiss which would signal the beginning of the relationship in an American romance more often signals the permanence of a well established relationship. If they kiss, you know it means something. It means something because the relationship was created over time.

 The montage of the relationship becomes paramount in the development of both character and relationships. While I suspect that Korean television producers are saving a bundle through their overuse of flashback, the reliance on this narrative technique reveals an essential component of Korean romantic mythology. The lunch made by her own two hands or the snowball fight between friends become symbols of devotion to create a romantic glow, but not a sensual one. The moment is significant, as it must be because the flashback is used during times of joy, but even more so in times of grief.  For there is always grief.

Korean society is traditionally bound by a complex system of rules of behavior and respect right down to the very bones of culture. Each conversation is grammatically bound by social hierarchy, with different forms for speaking to those of higher, equal, or lower social rank. These rules cause endless heartache. The family disapproves of the love or the family wants to arrange a marriage or two brothers love the same girl or an older woman loves a younger man. These situations are common to Western dramas as well, but the resolution differs. Happiness is found, most often, when parents are obeyed, the outcast returns to the fold, and when society allows passion to bloom within the greenhouse of marriage.

This is one of the reasons why I love Korean dramas. I love the tension of the kiss that never quite happens, but I also love the negotiation of the tradition through the very modern world. The values may be ancient, but the technology and fashion are very current. If Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters were to step through the looking glass to 2010, they would be much more comfortable in Korean soap operas than in the fleshpot of hedonism that passes for American media. Don't get me wrong; I like hedonism as much as the next girl, but that's not all I like. The emotionally passionate, but physically naive courtships in Korean dramas are the perfect palate cleanser after all the hot tub dates on any given reality show.

However, like Victorian England, Korean dramas retain societal elements that can leave a bitter aftertaste. A typical scene involves the female protagonist being dragged somewhere by her ardent suitor, jealous boyfriend, or angry father. The young agashi becomes voiceless and mute, unable to protest. She is not harmed, but her desires are hidden. If the female protagonist starts off spunky and unwilling to be dragged, by the end of the series she will be complaisant. The more beautiful she becomes, the more makeup she wears, the more delicate the heel, the more compliant she becomes. Cinderella is almost always silent when she is a princess.

And yet, I still appreciate Korean dramas. Sometimes life is easier when you follow the rules. One of the biggest problems in modern Western society is that without consistent social mores moral and behavioral compasses have no true North. Korea is a culture that is facing the contemporary world with its traditions intact. Korean culture has survived the Chinese, Japanese, and Americans. Korean culture also seems to be weathering postmodernity quite well. For if Cinderella today still listens to her parents, today her parents hear her as well. That's progress, Korean style.

Check out and for plenty of K-Drama fun.

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