Breathing new life into Korean dramas

The majority of us have seen them, loved them, cried over them and envisioned ourselves being the lead in one many times before. Korean dramas have a way, just like dramas from all over the world, of drawing viewers in. But it seems many of us are starting to become tired of watching the same storylines play out again and again. Boy and girl meet, fall in love and some dramatic twist of fate rips them apart only for them to be thrown back together at some point in the future. What if the characters were to act like normal functioning human beings? Drama fans are hitting that critical breaking point when it comes to their viewing needs, reaching out for newer and more memorable plots with bolder characters that not only grasp a more realistic set of emotions, but are also able to capture the flaws that come alongside them. Or at least they were hitting that breaking point. That was until last year when international increase for Korean dramas, which had always maintained an above average momentum over the years, began to steadily rise and change. People once again became much more open to freely admitting to watching and enjoying the tales of love, betrayal, revenge and lust.

20120310_seoulbeats_dae_jang_geum_lee_young_aeBut what is the reason for this sudden change and increased open international interest? It is not like this is the first time that the level of interest in Korean dramas has risen in a wider international demographic. Released in 2003 Dae Jang Geum reaped international success with its powerful story of an young orphaned kitchen cook who went on to become the king’s first female physician. So successful was the drama that screening rights were bought worldwide from Japan and Malaysia to New Zealand and Ghana. It even became recognised as the most watched show ever recorded in Hong Kong television history when its final episode in 2005 reached a 40% viewing rating.

Then you have 2009 dramas You’re Beautiful and Boys Over Flowers. So highly rated and popular were both the shows that each was subtitled in more than 20 languages by fans and international streaming services just days after airing in Korea. Even the 2010 drama Playful Kiss enjoyed international success despite mediocre ratings and reviews at home. But then international success began to waver – particularly in Japan.

Whilst many critics and directors hinted that the decline could be more based on the long time problems between Japan and Korea, Japanese fans shot back with remarks of the lack of believable storylines and in-depth characters and they had a point. Yes, between early 2011 and late 2012 there were plenty of successful dramas (Rooftop Prince, Innocent Man, Secret Garden, Dream High…) but the majority of dramas being released seemed to lack any real spark. Then came the drop in viewing figures across the board. Despite the increase of blogs, sites and streaming services dedicated to subbing and bringing dramas to fans, they were opting to switch off and focus more on variety shows. Perhaps in part down to the inclusion of idol turned actors, who quite frankly were not so good at actually acting.

reply-1997-cameo-reply-1994Last year however that all changed when viewers were treated to a number of wonderful dramas; from the summers must watch drama I Can Hear Your Voice to, the follow up to 2012’s hit drama Reply 1997, Reply 1994 and this year has shown itself to be no different. Dramas such as The Prime Minister and I and Heirs (which both started late last year and ended this year) kept viewing figures steady and were loved by fans but it was My Love From Another Star which ruled the competition becoming popular not just within Eastern Asia but internationally and automatically becoming one of the most talked about Korea dramas in recent years. It’s so popular (even months after finishing) that there was recently a plagiarised reworking of the drama in Indonesia and talks of a remake in Japan.

sp-3(15)But out of all the countries to be hit by the alien wave produced by ‘My Love From A Star’, it was China who were the most swept away. It became so popular that when the viewing rights were sold it was watched on the Chinese video streaming platform iQiyi over 14 billion times and fans became so obsessed with the heroine Cheon Song-Yi’s (played by Jun Ji-Hyun) favourite food combination Chicken and Beer that many of them ended up severely ill! It has caused such a resurgence in the popularity of Korean dramas in fact that SM recently signed a deal with China’s biggest search engine that involved not just their music but also their dramas and TV shows. And with Dramafever moving into Europe and Netflix increasing the amount of Korean dramas they have available to viewers, the popularity and strength of Korean dramas appears to be reaching record breaking heights.

Perhaps this could be marked down to the fact that many dramas are beginning to break the mould, with directors working to establish and develop characters personalities in a much more human, and therefore more relatable, way. They have now begun to say goodbye to ‘set’ characters who have pinpointed goals and usage; the bitch, the poor broken beauty, the manipulative millionaire, and have been left with a much wider demographic of flawed and sometimes fucked up characters. Characters that are now so human that viewers are able to connect with them. It was even announced at a press conference for SBS’s new weekend drama Feel-Good Day by their director of drama department Kim Young-sub, that the station would be putting into place a rule to eliminate makjang from their dramas.

Whatever the reasons, it is plain for anyone to see that despite the occasional underwhelming kidnappings, conspiracies and near fatal hit and runs ever present within the format of some Korean dramas, there is defiantly new life being breathed into them day by day.

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Co-founder and Editor at Beyond Hallyu
Lover of Korean hip-hop and indie music...and Unicorns.
  • Seti Tesefay

    2013 and 2014 has had some really great dramas. Its sad that I can’t watch them all. I really hope though Gap Dong gets the recognition from international fans that it deserves. The show is so intriguing and it pushes beyond a one dimensional view of a character and also the ideas that society has on these characters.

  • ananda

    I started to notice the change in k-dramas since Gentleman’s Dignity and Innocent Man, around 2012. I really enjoyed ones with its different style of storyline and characters. And of course Reply 1997 is a superb drama. I think originality isn’t something to be expected to in k-dramas. The main themes are there and we all the dramawatchers has already familiar with the plot. What we need is how well these components brought to the screen. I’m looking forward to more different style of k-dramas.

  • whateverwha

    Hm, none of these dramas impressed me (didn’t finish I Can Hear Your Voice & Reply 1994, for example) but what about A Wife’s Credentials? The End of the World? Bridal Mask? You mainly stayed in the rom-com genre but I’m interested in the “popularity” (or lack there of maybe) of the others. What do the rest of Asia think of them?

    As for rom-coms, I agree that the characters are less stereotypical than before.