I’m not sure where to begin in giving an overview of my newly found TV appreciation / obsession. When I began watching Korean drama, I had favorites, but over time the shows have fallen into more complex categories.
The last show I loved, Kill Me Heal Me, was not on that first list of favorites, but is a good start to write about, since it is one I would recommend to a friend who doesn’t take themselves too seriously. It has the addictive and fun quality of Coffee Prince, which was my very first k-drama, and largely responsible for the rabbit hole I don’t wish to find my way out of just yet.
KMHM manages to be sweet and surprisingly poignant nearly all the way through, while introducing 7 distinct character dimensions under the umbrella personality of “Cha Do Hyun”. Each character becomes quite real and deeply loveable over time, which to me seemed a writing/acting collaboration miracle.
It couldn’t have worked without an equally strong counterpart who was able to react and respond quickly to all the lead’s antics, as well as creating her own. Everything is big: the impossible to pull off concept, the tight rope poignancy, the deeply cathartic revelations and emotions.
And so many wonderful lines, even in the music.
I’ve been surprised to find that K-drama watchers are not necessarily women who like romance novels. The closest I myself get to reading a romance novel is Jane Austen, which is also more about intricate character details, subtle kindnesses and cruelties, and class distinctions. Even Outlander, which so many of my friends adore, I have not yet been able to finish. It just never took me sufficiently away from myself.
My hugest peeve is for a romance string to be tacked onto a project obviously after the fact, like I found to be the case with the film Interstellar. Others parsed apart the science, but I took no issue with that. It was the “moral of the story” that didn’t seem necessary nor appropriate.
So it is fair to say I’ve spent a good deal of time analyzing my interest in shows that can be cheesy, materialistic, and way outdated with regard to gender dynamics. Perhaps they get a pass for their unique-to-me cultural context, but it is more than that, because admitting these qualities, they still ring as more genuine than what I’ve come across in western media in a very long time.
I especially like the family dynamics in the less formal Korean drama households, seen in shows like Answer Me 1994/97. I like the small houses and taking good care of just a few things, because that is what I’ve aspired to more and more. I like the enthusiastic collective meals, where loved ones feed and tend to one another. I like that siblings take so much responsibility for each other, and that elders are expected to be cared for. I’m careful not to fetishize, or to forget that I am immersing in fictional universes, but I think we from the west have a lot we might learn.
While also examining things I have trouble with, such as:
- The wrist grab, which in theory, I should hate, but often don’t. It is a way of push and pull, the beginning of defining of boundaries. K-dramas almost never get physical quickly – it takes an average of 7 episodes before a kiss, if it happens at all, and even then it might be a kiss on the cheek or forehead. Holding hands can be erotic.
Wrist grabs may come in episode one or two., and the main thing is how it unfolds between the couple – it matters that she allows it or not, that she or he lets someone reach into personal space for skinship. It is classic Pride and Prejudice, which a lot of the dramas have at core.
- Sleep watching can be the sweetest or creepiest thing, depending on various factors. Most of the time it is used as a device to allow someone to share their heart without embarrassment, and the other may not actually be sleeping.
But here is an important one:
- Class based bullying
How I wish to have seen these shows before I was married quite young, and had to contend with what I previously thought of as antiquated class dynamics. Growing up casually, in a small family, it never seemed all-important to me, where one came from or how many generations of family had kept well to script. What I quickly learned is that the dynamics were just invisible.
My own background was not exactly bohemian, and I would certainly never have been chosen as a good candidate for an arranged marriage. Still, even in the US I needed better preparation for large family politics and the unique weaponry, such as ridicule, that others were well-versed in. “Fake obliviousness” was not a good strategy.
This is something I write with a smile, but to be honest I have far more understanding and appreciation for lineage now, thanks in part to K-dramas. Confucian and unapologetically hierarchical society was largely mysterious, so I’ve been ravenously hungry for every detail thrown my way.
I also find myself reading about military strategists and heroes, even down to equipment, with great fascination.Regarding societal expectations in k-drama, it isn’t uncommon for one character to remind another not to be too bold with their lately acquired American sensibilities. There is progression, but thoughtful regard for previous generations’ social architecture, placing high value on filial duties and marriage values.
To do well in one’s place is as much an honor as to chart a new course, sometimes more so. “Remember that this is Korea” someone will say. The integration of times and classes isn’t easy for those experiencing it. When a wealthy family tries to buy off the poor-but-heart-of-gold love interest, as in Secret Garden, I rightly cringe and root for the underdog, but more and more, I also try to understand, because it isn’t easy to change beliefs once we are older, even when we can accept progress logically.
We step forward, but maybe there remain contradictory or uncomfortable feelings, generation to generation.
This was something I experienced strongly when in Japan. Although we in the US can look with amazement upon so many people falling into strict order for schooling and career paths, and both admire/regard with horror the strictness of dress codes and personality homogeneity when it comes to assigned work roles, there is something grand about the dignity with which even simplest tasks are regarded.
High creativity can emerge from strict constraints. Visitors may remark on the absence of litter in Japan, but it is far more than that. Ritual hasn’t been abandoned each time it has been questioned, so there remains a time stream to tap into … an unbroken transmission. No garbage, in a society aware of its surroundings in equal measure to self, is a given. I
found it very restful.
It interested me to learn recently that with patients suffering from some kinds of epileptic seizures who have elected to have their hemispheres decoupled, there can be an entirely different response to the question, “Do you believe in God?” The left hemisphere might answer a sure “NO” while the right gives an equally enthusiastic “YES.”
WHICH brings my rambles back once again, to Kill Me Heal Me. The central character is suffering from Dissociated Identity Disorder, but is healthier than some who live in smaller compartments of themselves, trapped into prejudices that may be the natural effect of intellectual and psychological inflexibility.
Many of us break down to break free, and benefit from meeting persons who share like capacity. In KMHM there are several free-range characters, healthy, multi-dimensional, and kind.
So this is that kind of story.