You’ve heard of the Mexican wave, right? This is nothing like that. This is a new wave, like modernism or French cinema. The Hallyu wave is sweeping out of South Korea and roaring across the world—and not only the Asian part of the world. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it yet: you will.
I once sat in the groomed gardens of Chatsworth with a Japanese woman. I drew her attention to a group of what I took to be her compatriots. Those are not Japanese, she told me with hauteur. Those are Koreans. I apologised and asked how she could tell; they were out of earshot and, to my ignorant eyes, there were no discernible ethnic differences. Clothes, she said impatiently. Style. A Japanese would never be so … so … flashy.
They were kind of flashy. And funky. And achingly cool, from their clothes to their asymmetrical haircuts. They were svelte and feline, boys and girls. Most of all, they were noticeably confident. Everything I knew about Korea I learned from MASH. This was not what I expected.
Gifts from a good friend
My ever-faithful friend, Michaela, is always chasing some fascination down the rabbit hole, and she’s the one that introduced me to Korean drama. Michaela is one of those woman whose kitchen smells of Good Things at all times. Day or night, when you visit there is a warm embrace, a pot of real coffee, and something yummy straight from the oven or fridge. Like a Russian grandmother (but younger, glamorous, and Czech/Canadian), she feeds your body and then she feeds your soul. Listen to this new song! Look at this film! Have you seen this video, read this book, heard this story?
Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Michaela in their life.
So one day we sat in her darkened living room and began to watch my first Korean drama. It was ‘You’re Beautiful’. Cue catchy pop music, unintelligible dialogue, clumsy sub-titles.
Cue a new obsession. In a very short time, I was dreaming in Korean. In my imagination, I’m fluent—hell, I am Korean.
Korean dramas have inspired an army of devotees not just in Korea but across Japan and the rest of Asia, into America and, increasingly, through Europe. So what is it about them that viewers love so much? Good old-fashioned storytelling. Everything else I’m about to tell you is my own understanding: there’s not yet much about Korean drama written in the English language, and I don’t read Korean, so it’s hard to do any research. But believe me when I say that storytelling is the key. Taken as a whole, these dramas have the breadth, depth, and occasional light-relief silliness of Shakespeare, delivered by way of the seventies US mini-series and the British soap opera.
Did I really just cross King Lear with Charlie’s Angels and Eastenders? Yup. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry. You’ll find yourself caring deeply for characters just like you, navigating the kinds of issues that face us all: how to be happy, find a partner, raise children, contribute to society. But it’s the context that makes it so fascinating for a western viewer. These characters, with their cool clothes and mobile phones glued to their ears, always take their shoes off and don slippers before entering a house. Youngsters use social terms of respect for their elders or those more senior in the social hierarchy—which appears to be stratified by profession, wealth and success, not birth. Many plots involve arranged marriages—arrangements made in the interests of family and, above all, business. Business moguls behave like the British 19th century aristocracy, plotting mergers and takeovers by using their children as assets in the marriage market. The youngsters themselves skip between McDonald’s and traditional chicken-feet restaurants. They drink Budweiser and Korean soju. They flirt and fall in love and find ways to stretch the social conventions that bind them.
The same but different
By western standards, it’s a startlingly disciplined society—and also a very physical one. Parents administer slaps and clipped ears at will; friends bash and bang each other. A thump is as good as a nudge or a wink. It looks brutal but it clearly isn’t intended, or considered to be that way.
And then there’s the piggy-back. When a boy likes a girl and the girl likes him back, he gives her a piggy-back ride. Seriously. The piggy-back ride is the indicator of barriers broken down, feelings acknowledged, even if not yet spoken aloud. Parents gaze fondly at their progeny engaged in this ungainly exercise, or they gnash and wail, according to the suitability of the match.
It’s … unusual. And interesting. If anyone reading this can explain to me the significance of the piggy-back, I’d be eternally grateful.
A slower pace
In western TV and cinema we’ve crossed so many lines that there’s no trace of where they ever were. Nudity, graphic sex and violence—they barely register on the public psyche. In Korean drama, a kiss on the lips is a Very Big Deal. Often doesn’t happen at all. So you have to – gasp – use your imagination. Love is conveyed in longing looks and studied gestures. It’s romantic and sweet. Not that sex isn’t mentioned. Single motherhood, love affairs, complicated relationships—they’re all there. But always within the context of the characters and society—never casual, never for their own sake.
If you’ve ever watched a Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli anime you’ll marvel, like me, at the time the camera sometimes spends on a single shot. The fallen leaf sending ripples out across a lake; someone pouring boiling water onto tea leaves; smoke rising into the sky. Korean drama does the same thing. The small details are lovingly captured. The result is that you, the viewer, are totally absorbed into the story. This is slow-build entertainment. This is for settling in with a Michaela, eating good things, sharing moments. You need time to appreciate these dramas.
Carrying the past in their hearts
The plots aren’t generally complicated. There’s a lot of Twelfth Night-style gender swapping: girl obliged by circumstance to pose as boy, straight boy falls in love with him/her and has to address his sexuality. Youngsters do what their parents ask, but they try to follow their own hearts, too, and the outcome is often a bittersweet compromise. I’m left with the impression of a society treading a delicate path between high-tech modern times and a powerful, all-invasive and much-respected past. And while people might tread cautiously, they also progress with quiet optimism. In the dramas, at least, the past is not being thrown away, or overcome; it is being lovingly transformed into the future.
Korea has a long and illustrious history, during most of which it has been an independent territory. Maybe that explains the confidence. Koreans know who they are, notwithstanding the tragic and lasting events and schisms of the 20th century. Historical dramas are unsurprisingly common. A popular approach is to jazz up the Joseon (technically a five-centuries-long period, although the term Joseon appears to be generically applied to the historical past, although I could be wrong; I’m utterly dependent on the subtitles) with wisecracks and funky music.
Hallyu actors are wildly revered. Success in Korea is quickly followed by success in Japan and outwards from there. Actors are expected to tour widely, to sing to their vast audience of fans at arena gatherings, and sometimes to dance, too. Some actors are multi-talented; others not so much, but the audience appreciates the effort. Actors are expected to be grateful to their fans; they promise to work hard, to become better at what they do, to fulfil their fans’ trust.
There are undercurrents, of course—rumours of devastating studio contracts, of the casting couch. Actors work unfeasibly long hours; the few that cross over from Hallyu to Hollywood express astonishment at the cushy conditions in the US. You don’t whine in Seoul; you’re grateful for success, and you pay for it with long working hours and gruelling public displays of devotion to the fans.
So how can I watch them?
There are various internet sites where you can access these dramas. Most of them are subbed (subtitled) by amateur enthusiasts. For any one drama, you usually have the choice over three or four subbed versions and, in time, you come to recognise which subber’s style you prefer—the fan-subbers sometimes have their own subset of fans.
If you’re a novice, I’d recommend starting where I started, with “You’re Beautiful”, which is a sweet and funny tale of girl takes her brother’s place in a boy-band and promptly falls for the lead singer, an OCD type who is horrified to find himself attracted to a ‘boy’. Silly, yes, but never small or mean, and hugely entertaining. The lead singer is played by Jang Geun Suk, a gamine young actor with a woman’s beauty and the cheeky dimples of a six-year-old. Rather surprisingly, he manages to be sexy, too. He also plays in my other great favourite, the historical drama “Hong Gil Dong”, about the eponymous, legendary Korean folk hero (think Robin Hood). “Hong Gil Dong” is, in my view, unmissable television. And if I tell you that there is a Norwegian song in the varied and wonderful soundtrack, you’ll see how far Hallyu plans to reach.
Both “You’re Beautiful” and “Hong Gil Dong” were written by the Hong sisters, about whom I know absolutely nothing except they are two modest, unstarry women that write hit drama after hit drama. Their sense of pacing is awesome. A W E S O M E.
So here’s my advice. Find a few spare hours, the company of a Michaela, and a cosy spot with internet. Then hunker down and be prepared to be a little bit educated and a great deal entertained. Hallyu’s going to get you, so you might as well go down in comfort.