cinema and media studies, korea, korean drama, TV

The King: Eternal Monarch sucked but fear not because there are better K-dramas out there

Since March 11th (the day I began lockdown), I’ve been revisiting all of my favorite Korean dramas. Not all of what I’m about to list here are available on Netflix, so be creative. Explore other streaming services like Viki and OnDemandKorea (doesn’t always have subtitles; this is better if you’re fluent in Korean). Another secret go-to for me is DramaCool (be sure to add an adblocker plugin). And follow my K-drama memes on TikTok. Below are my top K-dramas worth rewatching multiple times. I’ve also included a rating for how rough the tear-jerking is on each show.

  1. Beautiful Days (SBS, 2001)
    beautiful days
    This is a classic melodrama featuring some staple K-drama figures from the 1990s and early 2000s. You’ve got Choi Ji-woo just before her big launch into becoming a hallyu star with Winter Sonata in 2002. Her love interest is Lee Byung-hun (you’ve seen him in Mr. Sunshine), and his character is super toxic. Their attraction towards each other makes no sense at all. In fact, it’s extremely problematic. That doesn’t mean this show isn’t good. It’s actually amazing. Ryu Si-won plays Choi Ji-woo’s other love interest, and Lee Byung-hun’s brother/rival. Lee Jung-hyun plays Choi Ji-woo’s tough-as-nails little sister who is trying to become a K-pop singer, and Lee Byung-hun’s character is the director of a record company where Choi Ji-woo’s character is employed at. You dig? This show has all the typical tropes of K-drama that I love from the 1990s and early 2000s: love triangle, orphans, class warfare, a lot of crying, fatal illness, etc. It’s very well-written, well-directed and the actors are supreme in their commitment and delivery. The soundtrack is also very good. When I first saw this show as a teenager, I had a really hard time adjusting to Choi Ji-woo and Ryu Si-won sharing the small screen together again because just a year before this show, the two played lovers on a drama called Truth (MBC 2000). It really takes you out of the moment. Tear jerker level: 6/10.
  2. I’m Sorry, I Love You (KBS, 2004)
    미사
    This drama came out in the winter of 2004. Like Beautiful Days, it’s a gut-wrenching “melo” and has a really weepy (but nice) soundtrack. It’ll have you bawling your fucking eyes out, so watch it if you need to clear your sinuses. This is also the K-drama that made So Ji-sub the babe he is today. The poor thing did a bunch of dramas before this one but was never considered the hot protagonist. This one made him the firey stud that made all the girls cry after he got married to that who-gives-a-shit-announcer-half-his-age recently 💔.  Actress Im Soo-jung gives a really wonderful performance on this show. If you can’t stand this summer’s heat and want to cool off with some wintry romance story, this is an oldie but a very goodie. Tear jerker level: 10/10
  3.  Successful Story of a Bright Girl (SBS, 2002)
    succ
    If you think Jang Nara and Jang Hyuk’s chemistry in Fated to Love You (MBC, 2014) is a given, you don’t know K-dramas like I do. The Jangs had their first encounter as opposites on TV 12 years prior to that on Successful Story of a Bright Girl. It has the classic trope of a poor orphan girl versus rich arrogant asshole who annoy each other but eventually fall in love. This show solidified Jang Nara’s popularity, and the year 2002 was a busy year for her; she not only released a hit song “Sweet Dream” but filmed another drama that same year–My Love Patzzi opposite Kim Rae-won (but this show sucks; don’t waste your time on it). She mentions in her interview on Happy Together that she suffered panic attacks and mental breakdowns during this period in her career due to being overworked. Jang Nara’s hardwork really paid off. She’s a very accomplished actress, but you can tell from her work in Successful Story… that she’s a natural talent and performer. This is a feel-good drama with a very strong protagonist full of moxie. I love this show. Tear jerker level: 5/10 (this is a feel-good show but Jang Nara’s crying is so genuine; it’s hard not to get emotional while watching her. if you’ve seen Fated to Love You, you would know this already).
  4. The Greatest Love (MBC, 2011)
    The-Greatest-Love-korean-dramas-32447719-1280-720
    I’m a huge fan of Gong Hyo-jin. I think she’s an amazing actress, and she impresses me every time. I loved her in this drama but I mostly loved Cha Seung-won’s character. He plays an arrogant, stuck-up and immature actor; in fact, if you’ve seen the other show (also written by the Hong sisters) My Master’s Sun with Gong Hyo-jin and So Ji-sub, you’ll notice that So Ji-sub copied a lot of Cha Seung-won’s character acting mannerisms (manner of speech and action). I laughed a lot during this show because of Cha’s performance. If you want something light, funny and uplifting, The Greatest Love is a good one. Tear jerker level: 1/10 (when Gong Hyo-jin cries, it always makes me weepy; even though this show is a feel-good, she cries intermittently, and that always makes me tear up).
  5. It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)
    its ok that's love
    While we’re on Gong Hyo-jin, let me recommend another show I love. It’s Okay, That’s Love used to be on Netflix a few years ago but they took it down. This show, for some reason, isn’t very popular among non-Korean K-drama viewers but I love this show. It tackles topics that a lot of other shows ignore (mental illness, disability, and disorder), an extremely complicated mother-daughter relationship, and displays a really strong chemistry between Gong Hyo-jin and Jo In-sung. The supporting character actors Lee Kwang-soo and Sung Dong-il are also amazing on this show. The OST for this show is also really great featuring Davichi’s music. Yeah, it’s tear-jerker but the color palette on this show is really lovely. The writer of this show Noh Hee-kyung wrote some amazing shows including Worlds Within (2008), That Winter, the Wind Blows (2013), Dear My Friends (2016) and Live (2018). Luckily for you, both most of the shows I just mentioned here are currently on Netflix although I don’t know for how long. Tear jerker level: 10/10 (this show appropriately maxes out its tear jerker status; I cry every time I watch this show, and I think I saw this one like 4 or 5 times).
  6. Dear My Friends (tvN, 2016)
    220px-Dear_My_Friends_poster
    While we’re talking about Noh Hee-kyung let me mention Dear My Friends. This drama just recently got added to Netflix (it’s not a Netflix “original” though–FYI). I love this show. For long-time K-drama viewers you’d recognize all of the people on this poster. They’re titans–veteran actors whose careers date back to the 1960s. All of them were the leads back in their day but due to their age, they’ve been cast aside to play supporting roles over the last few decades but this show puts them smack right back in the center of the story, and you’ll be floored by their delivery. I will warn you though, this is a SUPER tearjerker. I’m talking like resuscitation level. You’ll need an oxygen tank. I cried SO much watching this show when it first came out 4 years ago, and bawled again when I was re-watching it this past week. You’ll need a towel to get through this show, but I promise you, it is worth it. It touches on so many important social aspects including aging, parenting, adoption, domestic abuse, elderly abuse, gender dynamics, dementia, and others. Tear jerker level: 40/10 (seriously… it’s a lot.)
  7. What Happened in Bali (SBS, 2004)
    bali
    This show is what I would call a low-grade show; it has a lot of montage sequences and flashbacks to fill time. It’s a love square–two guys and two gals are involved; two of the guys love one girl, and one of the girls love two guys. It’s a hot mess. But I love this show because Jo In-sung’s acting is so over the top (also his teeth are still imperfect giving him a stupid kind of likeable charm), and So Ji-sub is in it and he’s always a babe. Ha Ji-won–who I find insufferably boring in everything she does including that shitty Netflix show Chocolate (2019)–is the lead, but she’s kind of funny at times. The show is a heavy melo, and the ending is quite shocking. If you don’t like unhappy endings (why the hell are you watching K-dramas in the first place?) this isn’t for you. But the show has an interesting over-the-top/excessive flavor that even gives it a bit of a queer tone to it. It has all the makjang stuff I love about most K-dramas including violent ajummas who beat the shit out of girls they disapprove who come after their sons, and problematically-toxically masculine guys who push girls around to do their bidding whenever they want. This show was written by a husband and wife duo–Kim Ki-ho and Lee Sun-mi. These two have an appetite for absurdly cruel endings. If you’ve seen that terrible show (but entertainingly so) show Fashion King (SBS, 2012) starring Yoo Ah-in and Shin Se-kyung, you’d know what I’m talking about (but there’s a good chance you haven’t seen it; it’s awful. No one talks about it. But I loved this show, too because Yoo Ah-in acts like the most sadistic psycho on this show; also, parts of it were filmed in my hometown–New York). Tear jerker level: 5/10
  8. When a Man Loves (MBC, 2013)
    When_A_Man_Loves-Korean_Drama-0030
    This drama is FUCKED UP. If you like FUCKED UP K-dramas, go watch this. Nothing makes sense on this show. Everybody’s crazy. People’s motives for doing anything are ridiculous. The characters cross into territories they never ever should and it keeps happening over and over again. I found myself yelling, “NOOOOOOOOO,” at my screen so many times while watching this. It’s hilariously over the top. I felt bad for both Song Seung-hun and Shin Se-kyung. For such pretty actors, I felt like this show did them wrong so many times by making them say and do such ridiculous things. But that’s part of what makes this show so fun. It’s crazy. Enjoy some good ol’ makjang for teens. Tear jerker level: 0/10 (it’s too fucking funny to be sad).
  9. Stairway to Heaven (SBS, 2003)
    Stairway To Heaven
    If you’re a fan of Park Shin-hye from Heirs (a fandom I don’t particularly understand), you should know this drama because it’s the one that made all the guys my age fall in love with her. Park Shin-hye plays the child version of Choi Ji-woo, and Kim Tae-hee plays a super evil girl on this show. She’s really entertaining to watch playing a bitch role (I think this was the only time she played somebody this evil; I don’t know why though because she plays it so well). This isn’t my favorite drama but I think it’s worth mentioning just because it has all the elements of what pushes a story forward (conflict!) but there’s just too much of it. The way masculinity is portrayed on this show is especially interesting; from that angle, this show is worth seeing. It’s also a nice throwback K-drama that, again, has all the typical tropes: cancer, love triangle, class warfare, evil step mother, a son of a major conglomerate, amnesia, etc. Yeah, you might like this one. Kwon Sang-woo plays the “stud” on this show which I find so hilarious. Is he hot? I don’t find him attractive at all. I never understood his appeal. Yeah, he’s buff but he also has an annoying lisp. He can’t deliver his lines well because of it. Whatever. Maybe I’m being too judgmental. Anyway, check this out. The characters on this show are insane and super fun to watch. Tear jerker level: 7/10
  10. Goblin (tvN, 2016-2017).
    gob
    It’s probably not even worth mentioning this show only because pretty much all K-drama fans today have seen it but I’ll mention it just to pay it some recognition but also to mention how much the shows that came after this one failed so terribly to ever live up to itv. Kim Eun-sook wrote this show, and she’s also credited for Mr. Sunshine and The King: Eternal Monarch which you’ve probably seen on Netflix by now. Both of her efforts after Goblin are quite lousy compared to how good Goblin was. The King is a terrible mess and not even the kind of mess I want to keep watching; it just sucked ass and I found myself disliking Kim Go-eun again; and sorry-not-sorry I never liked Lee Min-ho (again, I don’t get it? What’s his appeal? He’s quite boring to me). But Goblin had a really handsome ensemble cast, beautiful clothes and accessories, and an awesome OST that I still listen to. I think Kim Eun-sook should take a break for a while and just not write. Or just avoid sci-fi stuff because she sucks at it. Goblin is more of a fantasy that doesn’t try to be scientifically heady whereas The King kept trying to force mathematical logic onto a fantasy genre. Like, why? Also, who cares? Literally nobody I spoke to gave a shit about the time travel/parallel universe logics; all we cared about was the awesome idea of a monarch that continues to remain in Korea; the ideas of a nation as a fantasy, or an imagined nation in an ideal situation is what kept me engaged in The King just enough to finish it (I literally did not give a shit after it ended; I’m usually quite sad to see a show end but this one, I literally got up and did other shit right after because I just did not care). Anyway, if you want to see some good fantasy K-drama, Goblin is the way to go. A bunch of people tried to recreate it or imitate it (Bride of Habaek [2017] and Black [2017]) but they are disasters in comparison; both of the imitation dramas suck ass. They’re not worth your time. Goblin is good. It’s a modern classic. Stick to that one. Tear jerker level: 6/10
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aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, comedy, Film, korea, korean drama, Korean-American, TV

a new video for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM)

in honor of the late Korean American comedian Johnny Yune, I made a “drunk history” video (an homage to Derek Waters’ Drunk History).

enjoy.

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aapi, asian american, cinema and media studies, TV

white liberals and white academics are a let down

I went and had lunch with some colleagues to just wrap up the end of the quarter yesterday and felt pretty annoyed with the whole experience. It’s been bothering me all day and still this morning so I’ll just blog about it. What else is the internet good for….

The course we all taught is an American television history course, and when the lecturer asked for feedback, mine was immediately that the course was too white, and while there were a couple of weeks dedicated to black history and media, not enough material to barely at all was dedicated to Asian, Latinx and indigenous American history/media. The lecturer immediately said, “Well, there was Ugly Betty.” And another colleague said, “There was Master of None.” Both of these shows were shown on the last week of the quarter, and without sufficient readings that offer historical contexts for Latinx and Indian American history vis a vis media and culture.

I was pretty annoyed by both of these remarks because they were reactionary and defensive in response to the feedback that was requested, which is that the course is too white, and there’s not enough effort put into diversity and inclusion in the syllabus. All of my colleagues in this course were white, and nobody else appeared to have sensed this but me, which is a huge problem since, again, here are white liberals making the job of complaint about the lack of diversity mine–a person of color. And in the moment when I brought up these things, there was only silence or excuses: “There’s not enough media content. There’s not enough readings. I don’t know of any related to that group.”

But they never bothered to ask. When I said that it always takes more work to find media and readings related to minorities (because minorities are marginal in society as bodies so how could they not be in the media and academic literature?!), I got back another defensive/aggressive remark: “Well, give me some examples then.”

When I named them, I heard back, “I don’t know what that is.”

Again, here’s an example of a white academic putting the job of diversity work onto an academic of color, telling me to name some examples. And in the moment, as I did name them, I felt fucking humiliated, like I was naming things I was a fan of and not a scholar of, and like I was just pushing for things that I identify with, and not a legitimate source of academic scholarship. It was a fucking nightmare, and I fucking regret answering him.

Such remarks, “I can’t find any media content on that. I can’t find any readings related to that content,”–these are excuses that white people give when they don’t want to do the extra work. No, not even that they don’t want to. They never had to bother to do that kind of work because that’s what privilege is, and they don’t want to move beyond their comfort zone and do the extra work.

But for someone like me, doing the extra task, seeking creative loopholes to find content, going way out of my way to request books from librarians that specialize in my field from other institutions, or article recommendations from scholars I meet at conferences is just business as usual since all my work is marginal.

Then the white colleagues moved on from their discomfort without fully addressing what transpired, and talked about inane things for the rest of lunch, so I mentally checked out until everyone left. And before I left, one of the white colleagues pulled me aside to tell me that she’d like to include more media and texts related to diversity and inclusion in the next course we taught together. This moment irritated me even further. Does she think she can be rescued from being considered an unhelpful white liberal by doing this right now? By pulling me aside and whispering her intentions? Why didn’t she declare them openly and confidently in the line of fire when she and the rest of the white academics sat there being unhelpful during the heat of the conversation? When a white male lecturer was reacting defensively and unwilling to accept constructive feedback–feedback he’d requested? Where were her good intentions when I was the one made out to be the person of color who had to speak up on the lack of diversity–right, roll your eyes now, yet again, for all the white people in the room to listen to, right, roll your eyes again now, yet again?

This action on her part was even more hostile in my opinion, because it is deviance wrapped up as kindness; it’s a continuation of the white defensiveness that I was met with earlier, and it’s a selfish means of covering one’s own ass so that her relationship to this person of color isn’t strained, or that she doesn’t appear to be an unhelpful white liberal. But in her very actions, she proved herself to be so.

What made this experience even worse is that the white cis-male professor sent an email to everyone who attended the lunch thanking me and apologizing to me for his defensiveness while copying in everyone else who attended that lunch. As someone who felt marginalized by his words and actions that day, along with everyone else’s silence, this email is just rubbing salt in the wounds.

“What is an apology?” Eve Ensler asks in The Apology. Then she answers, “It is a humbling. It is an admission of wrongdoings and a surrender. It is an act of intimacy and connection which requires great self-knowledge and insight” (9).

To me, this email from this professor is a form of posturing. It is a performance, and there to display good intentions and excuses for his actions. In his email, he even cited a fellow academic who works in Indigenous media and said they had put together a folder for other TAs regarding diversity and inclusion to, again, show that he is “woke,” and therefore not to be misconstrued as anything but.

And despite having my contact (email and phone number), I never heard from this person offering to talk this issue further, or offer a real person-to-person apology. He sent out a mass email to everyone in the group that was addressed primarily to me, but to show everyone who was there that he was, in fact, a good white guy after all. 

White liberals are a let down because they don’t even recognize what a let down they are. When they are confronted about how they let us down, they react defensively because they still lack the tools to listen and make note rather than tossing excuses out of white guilt and white defensiveness. Maybe the lecturer wanted only positive feedback–feedback that would say, “You did a great job as a white hetero cis-male academic.” Maybe he didn’t want to hear actual feedback that I want to see result in change, even though this is the hard work!–when a person takes on the extra task, and the punches, to actually produce change. I thought that the microaggressions I sensed throughout the course as the only person of color were just in my head–perhaps I was being overly sensitive, or having a bad day, or just overthinking it, but yesterday’s lunch proved to me that it wasn’t any of those things. White academics will only mirror one another, and feel comfort with one another. White academics are just still very inadequate, and they have miles to go before I can comfortably rely on them as fellow colleagues and allies. Until they realize that, and learn on their own what efforts they need to make to improve themselves so that people of color don’t sense these aggressions both micro and macro, I’ll just keep blogging about them because what the fuck else is the internet good for….

More reading:

“dear white academics” 

Ethnic minority academics earn less than white colleagues.

How Free Speech Works for White Academics

White Men of Academia Have an Objectivity Problem

White Professors Can Help Uproot Racism

White academics should not shy away from the debate on race (locked)

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Fiction, Film, ideology, korea, korean drama, TV

MR SUNSHINE (tvN, Netflix 2018) & Product Placement of 21st Century Brands in late 19th Century Choson/Korea

All Korean dramas rely on product placement. The concept of product placement, or PPL as they abbreviate in Korea, isn’t new, and of course, it doesn’t originate in Korea. Embedded marketing in media can be traced back to as early as the late 19th century starting with novels. In terms of visual media, the US (surprise surprise) included cars (Ford, Plymouth, Chevy, Packard), beverages (Coca-Cola) and cigarettes (Marlboro) in early studio films–some as early as 1916.

The tradition of conspicuous brand placement continued into television, of course. Entire shows would be sponsored by brands.

But this all changed with Sylvester (Pat) Weaver at NBC in 1949 (fun fact: Pat Weaver is Sigourney Weaver’s dad!). Weaver shifted the operation of network television by ensuring that programs get controlled by the network and ad time get purchased by companies through commercial breaks. BOOM. This turned the table completely. Companies were now at the mercy of networks and popular programs. This relationship continues to this day.

The difference in Korea is that commercial interruptions do not pervade the show as frequently as they do in American TV. An entire program can run without an ad break in the middle. (The downside is a prolonged series of ads in between separate programs; but this is also changing with the growth of cable in Korea.) Thus, product placement still plays a major role in a series production. And it’s not just one brand that owns the entire show. Multiple companies sponsor the show (percentages of how much screen time each product gets and the frequency of the product varies).

Writer Kim Eun-sook’s earliest major hit is Lovers in Paris (SBS, 2004). I can still remember the characters going to Baskin Robbins to eat a ton of ice cream and I recall Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) telling the Tae-young (Kim Jung-eun) how many songs he has in his MP3 player. In Descendants of the Sun (KBS, 2016), they eat ton of Subway sandwiches and those ginseng squeeze packs; Song Hye-kyo wears a lot of Laneige lipstick and she keeps lighting that freaking 2S candle. We saw the same level of conspicuous product placement in Goblin. I watched that show multiple times already not so much because I think the storyline is the greatest thing since sliced bread but more so because the fashion, jewelry and makeup are such wonderful eye candy. Of course, Goblin had a lot of PPL from perfume to handbags, lipstick to Subway sandwiches to fried chicken to furniture to beverages. Both Descendants of the Sun and Goblin had a go-to meeting spot for emotionally draining meetings between lovers and it is Dal.komm Coffee.

Cafes become a natural PPL strategy because so many K-drama storylines include one-on-one meetings at cafes. It only makes sense that a cafe be included as part of the production so why not make it a sponsor? Makes sense in terms of business. All that is well and good but how do you cram in contemporary brands into a show that is set in  Choson the same year as the Gabo Reform?

Korean audiences are savvy, and they’re already talking about it. In fact, a number of them are saying that the PPL in Mr. Sunshine is non-disruptive. Viewers are expressing their appreciation for the slick embedded marketing that the show makers have worked into this period piece.

But product placement is never not noticeable. In fact, the beat that show takes when they are about to take a moment for their sponsors is very detectable. When Eugene Choi (Lee Byunghun) raises his Odense teacup in the middle of his quiet meditation looking out his window, he makes an observation that is out of character: “Is this style of teacup in fashion now?” Like, dude, you’re a former slave boy/orphan/Korean American military man. Since when do you give a shit about trending chinaware? Let’s be real.

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Paris Baguette is very obviously a sponsor. We know this because it is one of the first banner bumpers to appear when the end credits roll, but we also know this because in episode 2, its characteristic blue and white label appears where lady Ae-shin (Kim Tae-ri) makes a stop to enjoy some sweets. (The sign posts and lamps all read, “French Bakery.”) In fact, Paris Baguette is currently selling special Mr. Sunshine specialty goods. 

 

And what would a K-drama be without a cafe/coffee sponsor? Dal.komm makes, perhaps, the most obtrusive display in Mr. Sunshine. Not only do the characters really push this 가배/gabe (Choson lingo for “coffee”) stuff but the napkins and even background sign straight up reads “Dal.komm Coffee.”

 

Hey. It’s all good though. No need to get all worked up over how a show takes us “out of the moment.” That sort of thing is nonsense. The nature of TV is self-reflexivity. We as audiences couldn’t possibly believe that late 19th century Korea had a guy named Eugene Choi acting as a military representative of America. So eye-roll all you want. PPL in Korean dramas aren’t going anywhere. Not even in a period piece.

In fact, given how SVOD streaming companies such as Netflix and Amazon don’t have commercial breaks as part of their distribution operation, product placement is now an integral part of their original episodes. In this way they are taking influence from K-drama productions and their business strategy.

Seeing as we TV lovers don’t simply rely on broadcast and cable television to receive our shows but also subscription to digital streaming, our lives will now be dictated by both commercial interruptions and embedded marketing in the programs. And that’s what I realized while working out at the gym yesterday. The absurdity of capitalism and our addiction to TV has turned us all into a bunch of suckers. Wait, I mean, “consumers.” 

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korean drama, TV

Netflix is Getting a Better Handle on Korean Dramas with its Latest Acquisition MR. SUNSHINE (미스터션샤인, 2018): ep. 1, July 7, 2018

Netflix and Korean TV have gotten close. Although I’ve been seeing Korean dramas on the site for some years now, I always relied on other sources like DramaFever, Viki and OnDemandKorea to keep up with all the shows I wanted to see. This mostly had to do with exclusivity rights that some of the sites had.

For instance, in the US, DramaFever has exclusive rights (for the time being) to Goblin (2016-2017). I recall signing up for Viki for a couple of months last year to catch Chicago Typewriter (2017). I keep my subscription to OnDemandKorea because it’s pretty reliable for watching most Korean variety shows the fastest since they show everything an hour after the air time of the program in Korea (but because of this, OnDemandKorea does not always have subtitles for their programs and their quality assurance is subpar; their site has a lot of bugs, even though relative to Viki and DramaFever, their subscription rate is $2 more expensive).

TVN’s latest big program written by Kim Eunsook is Mr. Sunshine (2018). It started airing in Korea on Saturday, July 7th, and will air as a weekend drama every Saturday and Sunday. It hits Netflix (in the US) 24 hours later. Kim Eunsook is the writer of beloved K-dramas such as Lovers in Paris (2004), Secret Garden (2010), A Gentlemen’s Dignity (2012) and, of course, the two mega hits of the last couple of years Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Goblin (2016-2017). Mr. Sunshine is getting international release around the world via Netflix.

Netflix has been releasing “original” dramas on its platform for about a year now, but their curation has been quite shoddy. Shows like Man to Man (2017) and Black (2017)–despite their star power–are extremely tedious (if not flat out bad). Both shows, which aired on cable channels in Korea, have struggled to make waves locally. Even the highly anticipated show Prison Playbook created by Lee Woo-jung, writer of the hugely successful Reply series, is extremely slow. Prison Playbook failed to impress Korean audiences as well, and did not reach the level of popularity that her earlier work achieved.

Notably, the trend is that Netflix is pushing to acquire content that airs on Korean cable channels. This has to do with the fact that cable channels in Korean television tend to push boundaries a bit further to include more violence (action) and vice (sex, cigarettes, and alcohol). While public broadcasters like KBS and MBC, and even commercial broadcaster SBS, are under greater scrutiny by the KCC, cable channels enjoy more leniency since the audience is smaller. Netflix, which isn’t bound by censorship regulation given its online status, is thus likely to go for more sensational content. Korean cable content finding a home on Netflix, thus, makes a lot of sense. Given the rising trend in stars signing up to participate in more cable television programs, narrowcast shows are starting to compete (if not outcompete) broadcast shows.

This is not to say that KBS, MBC and SBS do not have content on Netflix. In fact, a lot of the content from 2016 or prior are from those channels (Descendants of the Sun being one of them). But as Korea’s cable content is getting more demand among audiences, Netflix is making moves to acquire exclusive rights for content like Mr. Sunshine.

While Mr. Black, Man-to-Man and even Prison Playbook failed to impress, Mr. Sunshine is being strategized differently. Rob Roy–VP of Content Acquisition, Asia–mentioned the “pedigree of a title like Mr. Sunshine.” The pedigree mentioned here in refers to whether or not a show like this may be palatable to American viewers. Mr. Sunshine features Lee Byung-hun–one of Korea’s first major stars to impress Hollywood, and appearing in films like The Magnificent Seven (2016, Antoine Fuqua) and presenting at the Academy Awards in 2016. He is also one of the few Korean actors to have his handprint on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although not by any means mainstream, Lee is, at the very least, a Korean actor who has recognition in Hollywood. Lee’s opposite in this K-drama is Kim Tae-ri, who impressed international audiences with her performance in The Handmaiden (2016, Park Chan-wook). The film reached international audiences easily through AmazonVideo. In addition to this, Descendants of the Sun is available on Netflix in the US. Despite Netflix being notoriously secretive of its data, anyone can guess the popularity this show has on the platform considering its international success due to the star power of Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki.

Thus, the pedigree mentioned by Roy is not only in reference to Kim Eun-sook’s writing, which has consistently found success among K-drama lovers, but also the recognizable names of Lee Byung-hun and Kim Tae-ri among global audiences, and especially in the US.

[SPOILER ALERT] The first episode of Mr. Sunshine which dropped on Netflix today (July 7) was alright. It flaunted a lot of beautiful cinematography. Similar to the way Descendants and Goblin were shot, Mr. Sunshine attempts a level of camerawork that is comparable to an epic film, and it is successful particularly in the beauty shots taken in the mountains during sunset. Given this, the DPs on shows like this should be given name recognition. (In fact, K-drama DPs are probably the best ones to hire for any Hollywood film that features a lot of Asian faces like Crazy Rich Asians which is so poorly lit.)

The set designs and direction for scenes including American soldiers are interesting although not always convincing. I take issue with hallyu K-dramas and films that feature white actors as Americans; why do Americans they select always have a tinge of Australian or some unidentifiable accent? I understand that there are a lot of Aussies living in Korea that may be easy to hire, but they really should be given proper training to acquire an American accent to keep viewers convinced of the storyworld, especially viewers who have an ear for both languages and given the increasingly international player K-drama producers/distributors are becoming. This problem, of course, is rampant all over Hollywood, too. Whenever Hollywood films feature “Koreans” speaking “Korean” while butchering the language and so clearly cueing native ears that this person is not at all Korean (e.g. Black Panther [2018], Lost [2004-2010]), it becomes a major distraction (this phenomenon is applicable for all nationalities and languages in Hollywood films).

The part when American soldiers tell the Korean traitor to release the POWs because America is a “righteous country” made me laugh out loud. Anyone who’s read American war history would know why. Why does Kim’s writing make America appear so noble in this episode? Is this a form of political lip-service? Are Korean productions pledging some loyalty to American distributors?

Another thing I note in this show is the fetishization of violence; gunfire, knife wielding, explosions, death–all of these shots are given long takes and slowed down by FX and music. I don’t particularly care for these long shots romanticizing violent deaths. It’s a bit unsettling. The aesthetic is similar to what we get from Hollywood war movies like We Were Soldiers (2002) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). There’s nothing beautiful about war or death, and I take issue with this type of aestheticization over such images.

Lastly, the motif of dropping Korean bodies onto non-Korean soil in periods before the 21st century is consistent in Mr. Sunshine. As we’ve hilariously seen Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) buried in Canada in Goblin, we now see Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun) grow up as a Korean American soldier in New York ( DUMBO specifically) fighting in the American military. This is an example of “worlding” (eds. Roy and Ong, World Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global) as Korea aspires to situate itself in the global capitalist order as a worthy competitor, and a nation to be reckoned with. K-dramas are constructing Korea as an international player and rewriting history; no, it wasn’t Japanese colonization or the Korean War that began the nation’s international relations; in Goblin it’s centuries before that, and in Mr. Sunshine, assimilated Korean Americans existed long before boeings. Such is the trend. But it’s also a tendency of the writer. Kim Eun-sook’s first major hit is Lovers in Paris, and production did take place in Paris back in 2004 when this drama aired on SBS. It could simply be that Kim likes international travel.

With that said, we do note that her dramas aren’t exactly taking place with non-white nations. Considering the preferences of European or North American countries these dramas have, Kim Eun-sook’s dramas do play a political role in the nation’s first-worlding process through serialized television. The political move here is to associate Korea with first world nations through televisual display.

**As I’m sure fans have already noted, the intertext of Kim Ji-won and Jin Goo reappearing as a couple (parents to Ko Ae-shin [Kim Taeri]) and Ji Seung-hyun as a comrade to the couple is a wink to the audience/fans of Kim Eun-sook’s earlier drama Descendants of the Sun. Given this, can we expect a cameo appearance from Goblin? Perhaps Lee Dong-wook + Yoo In-na? 🤷🏻‍♀️

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cinema and media studies, Gender Studies, korea, korean drama, TV

rewriting a woman’s history with JANG OK-JUNG (2013): (Yoo Ah-in just like Leonardo DiCaprio in my heart)

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I haven’t felt this kind of depression after watching a Korean drama series since Autumn in My Heart (2000)/가을동화.

Jang Ok-Jung, Living by Love  (2013) is a period piece from SBS. It is based on the historical novel work of the same title written by Choi Jung-mi, and is directed by Boo Sung-chul. The series is set during the Joseon Dynasty in the late 1600s.

The show centers on a young, aspiring fashion designer Jang Ok-jung (Kim Tae-hee) who is born of a middle-class rank (중인) but falls in love with King Suk-jong/Yi Soo (Yoo Ah-in) and becomes his favorite concubine. It starts off as a lovey-dovey tale simply about a young woman and man whose affections for each other seem pure and eternal, then of course shit hits the fan when every single person around each character has a political problem with their getting together. Drama ensues.

Jang Ok-Jung is not only an intense political drama, but also an interesting critique on Joseon’s classism stemming from a caste system that damns a person’s life according to who s/he is born from and what the parents’ ranking is according to Joseon’s societal standards. This is the show’s primary critique–the rigidity of a society that make class mobility near impossible. But the protagonist Ok-jung makes it up the ranks (4 to 1) as a consort, eventually even taking over the dethroned Queen In-hyeon’s place as Queen herself for a short term reign. But In-hyeon returns and Ok-jung is demoted back to the place of consort Hui Bin. She eventually is framed for having placed a curse on the queen and is forced to kill herself, ordered by her beloved King.

Ok-jung in her early appearances takes a fascination to Joseon days’ erotic illustrated novels, which are essentially just some softcore sketches of men and women caressing. Ok-jung takes a liking to the way the women’s dresses flow depending on their sensual positions. The drawings inspire her vision. Sexuality is where Ok-jung sees beauty, and the show has plenty of coded sex talk throughout that compares women to flowers and men to bees.

The drama relies heavily on the female characters’ catty tension throughout, mostly rooted in jealousy over things like beauty and male attention. There’s really just one man who all the women desire, and that is the King. Around Ok-jung, however, there are men galore. She has three different pursuers but the King is the one she wants and eventually gets.

The women on this show all must rely on their only agent of power and that is their body. The women must be beautiful. Her face is the main selling point. After that, she must know how to dress well.  If the King desires her, then she has found “favor” by him, meaning that he sleeps with her. Her vagina is the access to bringing her status and power–it is her only agency towards class mobility. From there, she can move up by becoming pregnant but her status upgrade is only a possibility if she births a son–a potential heir to the throne. Ok-jung accomplishes all of this. She even maintains her favor with the King until the end of her days.

Throughout the series, Ok-jung and Lee Soo’s romantic theme is their little promise to each other that they would never let go of each other’s hands. (Ring a Titanic bell much? Yoo Ah-in is the Korean doppelgänger of Leonardo DiCaprio. They remind me of each other so much that I can hardly contain myself; they have the same nose, the same voice, the same trembling mannerisms that have a danger of appearing trite/overused at times; a tendency towards frequent explosions in their performance that oozes thick passion.)

What depressed me at the end of the series is that ultimately the King does not overcome the political powers that be and allows his beloved consort to be put to death by poison. Her crime is breaking the palace rules of having no shamans make an offering on site; at the desperate situation of possibly losing her son to smallpox, she brings the shaman in, gets caught and is blamed for the death of Queen In-hyeon by placing a curse or some bullshit…

What then added to my depression is how after Ok-jung dies, the King mourns her at Chwi Seon Dang (Ok-jung’s place of residence and the King’s gift), and the drama immediately cuts to King Sukjong’s grave site,  calling him one of the greatest reformers of Joseon history. Be that as it may, the namesake of the show seems almost completely forgotten at this point. Later, another title card appears, explaining that Ok-jung’s damnation was lifted in 1965 and that her grave was moved to be placed beside Sukjong’s.

Anyway, what made me so sad was how awful, limited, and impossible a woman’s life was back then. What the hell’s even the point of rewriting the history of Hui Bin this way? Even if there’s the mediated, dramatized effort to make her appear a little less evil, and make the relationship with her and the King more meaningful, it doesn’t change the fact that she was a victim of rigid circumstances and was ultimately killed by the man who was supposedly in love with her.

The rules back then were insane. Truly, truly insane.

Now, I have to refer to the Wikipedia page because it’s just so fascinating how it writes about her (FYI, Wikipedia’s citations link back to website descriptions written by museums, government sites, cultural sites, etc.), and the general consensus is simply that she was an awful woman. Historical references even blame her son King Gyeongjong’s illness and infertility on her (Gyeongjong’s illness, according to these records, made him an unsuited King, and he was replaced by his half-brother Yeongjo, who held a very long tenure on the throne). This type of blatant misogyny on a lower status historical figure is just more evidence of patriarchal sexism and bias. In a lot of ways, the drama rationalizes some of those accusations of evil that is frequently placed on her while also moving against the grain of patriarchal injustice. Some of the best dialogues are the ones shared by Queen Inhyeon and Ok-jung when they discuss the King’s flaw which is being male.

Anyway, what a great show. The costumes were utterly beautiful. Color coordination, head pieces, lipstick shades–all of it–utterly beautiful. (Think Marie Antoinette (2006) level of costume beauty.)

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