As a born-and-raised Vietnamese, Korean entertainment has always been a constant in my life, both as a teenager and a young adult. We Vietnamese are obsessed with any and everything Korean: Korean makeup, Korean songs, Korean dances, Korean food and of course Korean celebrities. Growing up, it's the Korean celebs that represent the actual standard of beauty to us Viet youngsters, and not the Hollywood stars, the Kardashians of the world.
Above: Son Ye Jin (Left) and Hyun Bin (right) representing typical Korean beauty: fair & clear skin, small face, & "natural" makeup.
So when I came to America for the first time in 2009, it was quite surprising to me that Korean Wave, or Hallyu, is still a pretty much just an Asian thing. Little did I know, the next decade would bring that wave to the US of A and sweeping pretty much everyone off their feet.
Above: a recent BTS concert in Newark, USA.
You might wonder: How in the world did we get here? Earlier this week, Bong Joon Ho's Parasite wins Best Picture alongside 3 other Oscars. It is the first ever non-English film to be nominated let alone win. Back in 2017, Korean boyband BTS won Best artist in the prestigious Billboard Music Award and their US and worldwide fandom has reached its all time high ever since. Earlier this decade, Gangnam Style became the first ever Youtube video to reach 1 billion views and remain in top 5 videos with the most view of all time since. And today, there are a ton of original Netflix content in Korean inundating the once American-centric streaming service. So - what exactly happened?
Above: A small selection of Korean content searchable on Netflix
The rise of Korean entertainment might seem random and sudden and to some people, a "snowflake" overreaction to the criticism against Hollywood/America's lack of inclusivity and pressure from "woke Twitter". But: let me tell you loud and clear, for the people in the back:
Korea's artistic creativity has been top tier for decades. And finally, the world is taking notice.
While Parasite is an amazing masterpiece that actually did totally live up to its hype and more (if you haven't watched it yet - lol what are you doing here? Go watch it then come back to this piece); and BTS is breaking barriers and records after records (apparently accounting for .4% of South Korea's GDP every year since 2018); in this piece, I'm gonna talk about one aspect of Hallyu in particular that is compelling to so many fans around the globe. If you would like to even begin to understand the sweeping obsession the world seem to have with Korean culture, start with Korean dramas, or K-Dramas. These, simplistically put, are the equivalence of American TV shows.
Me ranting on Facebook about my favorite "oppa": Hyun Bin
K-dramas, have always held a special spot in my heart. This is a place I reserve for very specific cultural artifacts, such as Disney Princesses, Japanese mangas, the Harry Potter universe, and of course, K-dramas.
Above: Actual footage of me and my mom watching Stairway to Heaven circa 2004.
The best way I can explain K-drama to someone, especially an American who has never been exposed to any, is this: imagine if Disney Princesses and Princes exist in the real world. You know the story is not real and the characters are too good/naive/idealistic/uncomplicated to be true and yet you can't help but believe. Now throw in phenomenal soundtracks and ambient music (kinda like that scene from Up sort of music) and superb visual effects. There you have it, K-drama in a bottle.
Bong Joon Ho explained it the best in his acceptance speech as winner of Best Director Academy Award:
The most personal is the most creative - paraphrased from Martin Scorsese
Movies/TV shows are, at the end of the day, an art of storytelling. And art is nothing but feelings. A movie's lasting impression on us depends almost entirely on how it makes us feel, not how it's directed, scripted or acted (though the latter definitely contribute to how it makes us feel). And how it makes us feel depend a lot on us as a person - who we are, what have we done in life that leads us to this point, the lens through which we seen the world, and more. In short, the best movies/TV shows to us are also oftentimes the most personal.
To me, K-dramas have always been the most powerful at creating a universe of feelings so visceral and beautiful that are oftentimes lackluster in its American counterpart. I say typical, because as with anything in the world, there are always exceptions. At the center of it, are the feelings of purity, innocence and joy. Think about what all of these concepts have in common:
And so on.
Watch this and pay attention to how the first kiss happened around 3:20. Masterful. This is from the 2002 classic "Winter Sonata".
Korean dramas are extraordinarily skilled at giving moments like these magnifying glasses and spotlight without inevitably infiltrating them with things that would typically sell more in American culture, such as sex, violence, or drugs. Admittedly, these are important and very "real" things. But to put it in a Korean show would be the equivalence of putting a revealing bikini on your beloved Disney Princess (lol except for Ariel I guess. But she's a mermaid so that's okay).
While in a typical American show, the characters will often have sex first before even getting to know one another, we rarely or never see any sex scene in a Korean drama. The main star-crossed lovers would spend literally the entire season (measured in days, months, sometimes years) getting to know each other, before even having as much as a first kiss half way through. It's Disney for adults. And it's comforting.
K-dramas are centered around precious moments that create "heart-fluttering" feelings, amplified by superb music and visuals. Tears are guaranteed. Swooning at a kind act/romantic gesture is expected. Justice is often reclaimed. Endings are complete and rarely warrant a second season. You leave the room with your heart full, a feeling that "maybe in the end, the world is alright after all." It's a good-natured kind of art form without any guilt. Ultimately, you are aware that the world that these characters live in is something that almost represents reality, but not quite, and that's okay.
Now, I won't pretend that K-dramas are just beautiful little snow globes that are so pure, innocent and joyful for their own sake. Absolutely not. At the end of the day, just like all Disney movies & byproducts, K-dramas are built upon a very strong capitalistic foundation of "what sells". Bong Joon Ho, yet again, said it best:
With that note, I would like to leave you with my top choice for 10 Korean dramas you should watch, if you would like to get over that "one inch barrier of subtitle and be introduced to the wonderful world of foreign cinema/shows":
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