By Carmel Ilustrisimo
2016 has been a great year for Korean dramas thus far.
Korean dramas are often accused of being shallow and formulaic, and we do see some of these clichés (like hastily-written romance or exaggerated reactions), but it’s also important to note the vast scope of subgenres. It is, in itself, an umbrella term, of all television dramas produced within Korea, whether they’re heavy-drama or comedy, or targeted towards older women or teenagers, or set in the past or the present. There are historical Korean dramas, dramas about friendship, about revenge, about families, even about pets, basically anything you can think of. Go to any site that hosts Korean dramas (MyAsianTV for example), and you’ll see what I mean. Some Kdrama fans only watch sageuk dramas (historical dramas), while other are fond of more family-centric storylines. In other words, despite the predictability of many, they’re not as clichéd as you’d think.
But recent dramas are becoming more daring, more intricate, less predictable, although the presence of romance remains to keep the sense of familiarity and maintain their popularity. Kill Me, Heal Me (2014) deals with a man with different personalities, including a bad boy and a little girl. It’s one of the first to tackle the touchy issue of child abuse. Detectives of Seonam Girls’ High School (2015) is rather controversial in Korea for its girl-to-girl kissing scene. Reply 1994 (2013), Cheese in the Trap (2015), and The Lover (2015) also have LGBT characters and interesting plots.
Early on in the summer, Descendants of the Sun took the whole world by storm, making Song Joong Ki and Song Hye Kyo (who both are already established actors) household names, even among those who normally didn’t tune into Kdramas. Almost immediately after Descendants of the Sun ended, Doctors premiered, a refreshing Kdrama about a female doctor, played by the usually cutesy Park Shin Hye, whose character, in the first episode, infamously beats up a gang of sexists in a hospital before patching them up.
Doctors is a charming feminist story about a tough girl who had to come terms with her soft side. The characters, as well as their backstories and relationships, are so real that it’s hard not to root for them, especially the two main leads.
After Descendants of the Sun and Doctors, a dark horse appeared—W Two Worlds, which was romance, fantasy, and metaphysics altogether. The show recently had a much-awaited ending, with its average ratings rivaling that of Descendants of the Sun, although the latter still topped the popularity rankings in the end. Ratings-wise, W Two Worlds did not start out strong, but its unique storyline gripped more and more viewers per episode.
Blurring the lines between imagination and reality, W Two Worlds tells the love story between a comic book character and a young doctor who’s accidentally thrown into his world, and vice-versa. There’s a lot of murder, conspiracy, and fantasy in this mind-boggling drama, not to mention the incredibly romantic chemistry between the two leads.
Romance is a huge part in making a Kdrama successful, and it worked with Descendants of the Sun, which had two strong leads and two equally strong second leads, each pair with a distinct but intersecting storyline that enriches an already exciting plot that explores such themes as patriotism, hardships in war, and the volatility of human life. As with W Two Worlds, you’re hooked into the story as much as you’re hooked into the romance; the two play each other very well.
Speaking of which, Scarlet Heart: Goryeo (2016) deals with a girl who’s zapped back in the Joseon dynasty, where she gets romantically involved with a prince, a plot that harks back to an older K-drama called Queen In-Hyun’s Man (2012), which likewise deals with time-travelling. This drama, along with Jang Ok Jung: Living in Love (2013), Daebak (2016), and Dong Yi (2010), is set in the rule of King Sukjong, who had three wives, one of which he executed for treason, a real-life drama that would rival the Tudors of England. Korean dramas freely explore their history and culture with their dramas, embracing what makes them unique, keeping people from other cultures glued to their shows, curious and sometimes even envious.
To sum it up, there’s a lot Korean dramas have to do to improve their storylines, but they’re getting better, and their respect for their own culture is helping them a lot. They’re unafraid to push boundaries, knowing that as long as they keep certain aspects of their culture, like their love for cute yet meaningful romances, people will stay tuned in to watch.