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 written 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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Art, cinema and media studies

“Answer Me 1988” (응답하라 1988, Reply 1988): A Transmedia Text & Manual to Navigate Another Era’s Fandom

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According to Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture, “the emerging convergence paradigm assumes that old and new media will interact in ever more complex ways” (6). Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in the show Answer Me 1988 where several forms of media converge in one medium—television. The show includes cinema, video games, music, style (fashion, hair, makeup), internet chat rooms, comic books—even food package designs (iconic brands that are recognizable at a glance)—all of which are set in the 1980s. The main vehicle that Answer Me 1988 utilizes for its transmedia reception is the spectators’ nostalgia: “Convergence occurs within the brains of individual consumers and through their social interactions with each other” (3). Similar to The Matrix example explored by Jenkins, by blending various forms of old school pop culture items into one program, Answer Me 1988 becomes a transmedia text containing the 80s memory belonging to generation x but also one that works to clue in the later generations on the fandom of the past. As Jenkins defines in “Interactive Audiences?”: “Transmedia promotion presumes a more active spectator who can and will follow these media flows” (165). Answer Me 1988 assumes the kind of audience that is willing and able to follow its media flows regardless of the viewer’s age or background. This is evident in the show’s casting choices, music and the show’s ability to function as a manual to guide contemporary viewers through the nostalgia of a different era and culture.

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Answer Me 1988 (2015-2016), written by Lee Woo-jung and directed by Shin Won-ho, is an hour long, twenty-episode Korean dramedy series that aired on the cable network tvN, owned by media conglomerates CJ Media and Fox International Channels. The show’s finale had an AGB Nielson rating of 18.8%, and a TNmS rating of 18.4%–both of which are considerably high numbers for a cable channel.[1] It is notable that although tvN is a pay cable channel, it does not contain any violence, nudity, sex or profanity, which encourages a family viewing experience. What this further suggests is that although viewers under the age of 30 may not recognize the tunes, films, commercial jingles and other media texts played on the show, the parents or older viewers who are watching alongside them might. The show creators bank on this type of audience interaction where convergence spreads across generations by reaching for a wider demographic: “…franchises depend on hypersociability, that is, they encourage various forms of participation and social interactions between consumers” (Convergence Culture, 112). This reach for a broader audience is apparent in the show’s casting.

Lee Hye-ri who plays the lead role—Deok-seon—is a K-pop star from the girl group Girl’s Day. She’s a recognizable face whose singing career spans 5 years with a budding acting career since 2014. The very act of crossing over one’s recognition as a singer to an actor is a form of transmediation; fans who are plugged into the pop world can be led into the drama world via Lee Hye-ri’s career transition. Furthermore, the show adds another dimension to Lee Hye-ri’s initial doll-like pop star image with her character image of Deok-seon, which is that of a normal neighborhood teenager with plain black cropped hair who doesn’t perform well in school but has a kind heart and a goofy personality thus humanizing her appearance. The manner in which a star’s image changes in the spectator’s mind is also a form of transmediation as it moves from singer to actor, but also from unreachable to accessible.

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The creators of Answer Me 1988 as well as the other Answer Me series (arguably a franchise), e.g. Answer Me 1997 (2012), Answer Me 1994 (2013), distance themselves from assumptions that the subsequent shows are sequels or prequels. However, the franchise does play with the series timeline as defined by Jenkins in Textual Poachers dropping in cameo appearances of actors from the earlier series to suggest a link or connection to one another (163). For instance, Sung Shi-won played by girl group K-pop star Jung Eun-ji in Answer Me 1997 appears in Answer Me 1994 alongside Jung Woo who plays Kim Jae-joon in Answer Me 1994. Kim Jae-joon then makes a cameo appearance in Answer Me 1988. This method of expanding the series timeline to keep Answer Me fans invested in the reality of the story world is a method of attracting viewers through a transmedia engagement (163). The creators’ strategy relies on casting and recasting. However, the recasting strategy also complicates the viewing experience as the protagonist’s parents played by Lee Il-hwa and Sung Dong-il are always the same throughout the series by retaining their dialects, persona, and names. This forces viewers to accept each series as its own text via “cross overs” of the protagonists’ parent figures; the protagonist’s character and actor changes whereas the parents do not (170). What may be comforting to viewers about this is knowing that there’s a through line connecting all three shows, and in that regard, the previous series’ storyline never really ended with the finale episode, thus indulging fans emotionally.

ilhwa dongil

K-pop star images aside, Answer Me 1988 has an original soundtrack album available on iTunes as well as in the form of a music video DVD produced and distributed by CJ Media. The soundtrack includes throwbacks like “Youth,” originally sung by the band Sanulrim in 1981 but covered by Kim Feel—a contemporary artist signed with the record label CJ E&M (a record company owned by CJ Media of tvN network). This is another example of the show’s function as a transmedia text, drawing a “common ground” between the old and new generations through a single song (Convergence Culture, 97). The song works as both a “cultural activator” and a “cultural attractor” through its ability to appeal to a younger crowd that recognizes Kim Feel the artist but also to the older generation that recognizes the tune that brings them back to 1981—the year that Sanulrim released the hit song “Youth” (97). The show transmediates through time, fame and fandom via a single song. While attracting and activating cultural significances for multiple groups, it operates through the older generation’s nostalgia while also creating a nostalgic sensation for the younger generation with songs that have a dated feel but are sung by recognizable artists today.

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As Jenkins states, “Our lives, relationships, memories, fantasies, desires also flow across media channels” (Convergence Culture, 17). In Answer Me 1988, the show’s creators allow viewers to have a transmedia experience through a visual flashback across media channels experiencing everything from old music via cassette tapes that get visibly inserted into a cassette player, followed by a long montage of the characters’ faces simply listening as the song plays out in its entirety, to live concert shows on TV that the characters watch excitedly as a group. What makes Answer Me 1988 a unique transmedia text is its ability to work also as a fandom instruction manual in the form of a show. The indulgent scenes illustrated earlier inform younger spectators on the fandom culture that existed before their time. In this particular story world, fandom itself converges across generations.[2] The enthusiastic reception of the characters watching these shows informs a younger spectator of the fan culture back when those shows, tunes, and films were at their peak. Fandom gets instructed to younger viewers via this transmedia text, where witnesses (characters) respond with joy to the movie, song or TV show playing inside the show. The show creators consciously designed a story world where multiple generations could learn to appreciate the various forms of transmediated texts throughout. Jenkins states that our society is “increasingly fragmented and multicultural,” however this show’s ability to draw a diverse viewership through a period piece that exploits a recent past and its nostalgic elements is striking (Convergence Culture, 125).[3]

There is a considerable number of articles and research indicating Korean dramas’ global fan base reaching beyond South Korea. K-drama streaming sites such as Viki and DramaFever report higher percentages of non-Korean viewers than Korean viewers tuning in. In the case with transnational fandom for Answer Me 1988, how does a nation’s specific cultural nostalgia translate, especially when “not all participants are created equal,” meaning, when not all participants share the same memory and cultural experience (3)? What makes Answer Me 1988 a transmediated text is that it is accessible beyond just generation X Koreans. There are multiple entry points for viewers to interact with the text: familiar voices, faces, products, and the creators’ signature. Fans who’ve seen the previous Answer Me shows presumably have an appreciation for this one as well, and notice patterns throughout. The show successfully establishes a sense of “common experience” or ground where audiences across generations and cultures can find ways to engage with the text. As Jenkins illustrates, the internet has made fan experience global, and fans on the margins may now partake in that collective “knowledge space” or realm (“Interactive Audience?,”158). Beyond space, transmedia also breaks boundaries across time (generation gaps) as evidenced by Answer Me 1988.

Grace Jung
May 13, 2016

Bibliography

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: NYU Press, 2008.

Jenkins, Henry. 2002. “Interactive Audiences?” The New Media Book, edited by Dan Harries. 157-170. London: BFI.

Jenkins, Henry. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 2013.

 

[1]Reply 1988: Episode Ratings,” All About Korean Drama, http://www.koreandrama.org/reply-1988/, May 5, 2016.

[2] See also “Analogue Nostalgia and the Aesthetics of Digital Remediation” by Dominik Schrey.

[3] The high reception of the Answer Me series that utilizes nostalgia (created or triggered) as its hallmark influenced MBC’s variety/reality show Infinite Challenge to take on similar tasks by reuniting old K-pop groups that disbanded in the 90s or early 2000s and putting on live concerts which then influenced the music charts around the time those shows aired; 90s hits became the most requested songs on radios or the most downloaded songs at those times. A K-drama’s approach influencing a variety/reality show’s unscripted production is also, arguably, a form of transmedia, where different genres of television share (borrow or steal) a similar concept that eventually impacts yet another industry’s variable—the music charts.

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