Notes from the lockdown: rediscovering k-drama

It has been four weeks since the federal government recommended that residents limit their movements as much as possible: visit the shops only to purchase necessary items, such as food or medicine; go to work or school if telework is not feasible; stay at least 1.5 metres away from other people when you’re in public; and do social distancing-friendly exercise only, such as running or walking. “Stay at home, save lives” has been the mantra that guided our actions in the hopes of slowing down the spread of this dreaded disease that so far has claimed over 100 thousand lives and has made its presence at an alarming rate by infecting over 1 million people in over 90 countries as of this writing.

And so while there is not much to do other than what is necessary to slow down the progress of the worst catastrophe that the world has faced since World War II, humanity–at least those who can–has turned to technology to pass the time. There are some who spent time on pursuits that are not necessarily reliant on modern technology, but for the most part, we’ve sought solace from social networks and streaming services. Netflix, YouTube, Stan, and Amazon Prime Video are just some of the services that our household has subscribed to, but thanks to the popularity of the Korean drama (“k-drama”) Crash Landing on You (CLOY to many fans), I have had to add Viki to my list of subscriptions.   

Son Ye Jin as Yoon Se Ri and Hyun Bin as North Korean soldier Capt. Lee/Ri Jeung Hyoek in the massive hit, “Crash Landing On You

Prior to CLOY, the last k-drama that I watched was Big and the only reason I stuck with it was because it starred Gong Yoo (of Coffee Prince fame and at the time, Train to Busan). However, I still ended up scratching my head with its weird conclusion, something that was common amongst the k-dramas I watched by that point.

It had also been years before that since I last watched another k-drama, which must have been Coffee Prince itself, as I had often found that the genre’s storylines were silly, the male characters were stuck up, and most annoyingly, the females were either hopelessly ditzy or straight up mean. I wasn’t particularly happy watching grown up women acting like they were still in kindergarten, the series makers’ idea of cute.   

A few things have changed since, it seems. For one, CLOY’s Yoon Se-Ri is a firebrand who has built a business empire of her own; other series show women pursuing careers and taking it to the man; single mothers who raise well-rounded children; breadwinners; women who have more to offer despite appearances. Maybe the timing of this pandemic means the release of western films and series had to be pushed to later dates, which in turn means there just aren’t many interesting shows available just when we need more things to keep us entertained. But with so much buzz happening around new Asian productions, including the success of South Korea’s Parasite at the Oscars, quite a few of us have since started to revisit k-drama as an alternative to the boring western fare on TV and streaming services, starting with CLOY, followed by other shows that had been lingering for years waiting to be rediscovered.

Over the past four weeks, I have so far added Kingdom (Netflix), Guardian: the Great and Lonely God (“Goblin” in other countries), Hyena, and Touch Your Heart to the list of shows that I have binge watched and re-binge watched because one could not enjoy a good thing just once, especially if you missed some key elements of a story or a scene while reading subtitles. 

Lee Dong Wook as lawyer Kwon Jung Rok and Yoo In-na as an actress down on her luck, Oh Yoon Seoh/Oh Jin Sim in the delightful and lighthearted “Touch Your Heart”

There is a good reason why k-drama has become so popular the world over. One of the effects of South Korea’s democratisation in the 1980s was increased investment in culture and the arts, which in turn became the vessel for selling the idea of a modern, prosperous, and trendy country. The result is an industry that churns polished and well written TV and movie productions, and with the current popularity of k-pop (think of BTS and Gangnam Style), hallyu or Korean wave is bigger and better than ever.

Call it formulaic, but there is also something about these productions that just keeps the audience glued to the screen: maybe it’s the “kilig” factor, the water works, actors who look like they follow the 10-step beauty routine, the fashion, the laugh-out-loud sketches, the excellent cinematography, or characters making the most out of awkward situations. Most often it’s just all of these rolled into one. A combination of comedy, melodrama, and action sequences in one act rarely happens in western series, but this mix is a staple of k-drama. 

This video explains the start of hallyu, though it focuses mainly on the films that started the Korean wave. I believe that to appreciate hallyu‘s power, you need to be more familiar with the TV series that made it across Asia and other parts of the world, starting in the early 2000s.

Working from home, having space to oneself, and decent Internet connection are just some of the privileges that brought into focus the luck that I have been enjoying since moving to Australia. Amidst news of tens/hundreds of thousands of people being infected by the coronavirus, Perth, Western Australia, is undeniably one of the safest places on the planet. And while I do worry about family and friends who have every chance of catching the virus back in the Philippines, thanks to the Duterte government’s incompetence and callous disregard for human life, there is no other place I would rather be than Perth, my new home, whilst waiting for the crisis to end and things get to normal…if there is such a thing as normal when we emerge on the other side of this tragedy.

In the meantime, there are years’ worth of pan-Asian drama on top of the usual American and British fare on streaming services to escape to.