Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Can Korean Dramas Make an Impact in the US?

I was delighted to find out that the "Mom's Dead Upset" entry was recently mentioned in a book review at The Learned Fangirl blog. One of the books Fangirl reviewed was Mark James Russell's Pop Goes Korea and TV Kitty gets involved when Fangirl questions Russell's statement "Korean television also travels poorly to the West, coming across as histrionic soap operas. … But for people used to C.S.I. and The Sopranos, there are only so many stories of separated twins and dying lost loves that one can take."

Fangirl points out that more and more US audiences are being attracted to these "histrionic" shows. That got me thinking and I'd like to bring out some more points. Korean soaps and dramas do tend to strangle themselves with the same bag of tricks: orphans, incest issues (mainly the cultural ban on in-laws marrying in-laws), obsessive love, poor girls marrying rich boys, rich girls making poor girls miserable, the mother-in-law from hell, etc (did I mention orphans?). But US soaps and dramas have their own bag of tricks, so nothing new there. And, if you've been watching the latest wave of Korean shows, you'll see that even Koreans are getting sick of those cliches. One of the reasons I loved Mom's Dead Upset was precisely because it wasn't the usual Korean drama. And the same can be said of so many of the latest popular Korean dramas and comedies: Princess Diaries, a.k.a Goong (a wonderfully imaginative story that asks "what if the Korean royal family were still around?", adapted from a comic book), Women of the Sun, Couple or Trouble (a remake of the US movie Overboard, but so much better), Windy City, etc. There's even Worlds Within (a dramedy about the Korean TV drama factory) which basically pleads with all its heart for more innovative Korean dramas. The Korean TV industry is in the middle of a huge creative drive, probably inspired by the drive in the Korean film industry.

But going back to Mr. Russell's statement, I find there's something very basic that he's not getting. He mentions CSI and Sopranos and how that's changed the viewing tastes of Americans. I'd dispute that. I'm always surprised by how popular shows like Brothers and Sisters and Two and a Half Men are. Nothing innovative about these shows. Brothers and Sisters could have been made in the 70s — just replace the gay relationships with interfaith or something. And what about Privileged? Poor girl, abandoned when young by mom, gets job tutoring rich girls and falls in love with a rich guy. Gee, sounds like a Korean show. Her mom even defrauds the rich guy — a classic Korean plot device (what's a Korean show without someone running away with a chunk of cash). Also, aren't shows like CSI and Sopranos mostly watched by men? And as a man, isn't Russell completely dismissing the female demographic? Just like Hollywood has historically done to its detriment? Korean TV dramas and comedies attract women viewers. Winter Sonata was hugely popular with women all across Asia. And if you go into US message boards about Korean dramas, it'll be mostly women posting. Guns, blood, dead bodies and slick who-done-its are the kitsch of men. Long lost loves, torn families, Cinderella stories are the kitsch of women. Go figure.

And I'll tell you one thing I like about Korean shows versus American shows: there's this unabashed, uncynical love of sentimentality. These shows say there's nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve. And how wonderful is that?


R said...

This post really captured why I loved Mom's Dead Upset -- and I think that Korean dramas are taking an important step forward away from the cliches to create a new interesting genre.

TV Kitty said...

Thanks so much for commenting! There has been so many interesting things happening in Korean dramas and I'm hoping it'll continue. I think the same has been happening in Japanese dramas, too, although I can't really comment too authoritatively as I don't get the chance to see very many. I am enjoying Around 40.