Reading Between the Lines – Sexual Innuendo in K-Dramas

Much has been made of the extreme “chastity” in Korean Dramas. In a previous article, I’ve already covered the emphasis on female purity in dramas, where women’s storylines have more in common with June Cleaver than Detective Stella Gibson. Dehlia has also shown the connections between squeaky 60s Americana and contemporary Korean pop music. Korean mass media is like mid-century American media in another way – there’s more going on than can be seen on the surface.

During Hollywood’s “Code Era” (roughly 1934-1968) music & film used coded signals to the audience to indicate was going on that was too sexually explicit to be shown outright. Film directors used devices like smoking, sitting on beds, soft lighting, fireworks, and shadows to imply the sexual acts they were not allowed to show. Korean dramas have their own signals. Dramas often rely on the poignant use of scene cuts and specific plot devices to imply sexual conduct. The most common cut involves the main couple in a private place enjoying a moment of relative intimacy. The scene abruptly breaks, or the camera pans away to focus on a detail. Suddenly it is the next morning or several hours later. The shots imply a moment of deeper intimacy beyond what we see, but the level of intimacy is left for the viewer’s imagination. Often these “implication cuts” are set apart from regular cuts by a sense of awkwardness, tension, or relief that predicates them.

A good example happens in “Shut up Flower Boy Band” (also known as “Shut Up and Let’s Go”). In one scene Kwon Ji-Hyuk and Im Soo-Ah sit in Ji-Hyuk’s apartment, where he lives alone. After some conversation, he coughs awkwardly and stares at her in a mixture of hopefulness and bashfulness before an abrupt cut to the next day. What happens between the cut and the next morning is up to the viewer, but his look doesn’t say that they played Parcheesi and went to bed early.

A solitary kiss then fade to black. That's all you're gettin', folks!

A solitary kiss and then fade to black. That’s all you’re gettin’, folks!

What else is the audience to make of the abscond after the near-wedding in “Boys Over Flowers,” where Geum Jan-Di and Goo Joon-Pyo find themselves alone in a honeymoon cottage? There’s only one bed, and it’s covered in suggestive red rose petals. They look at the bed and then we cut to the next day, where they flirt while enjoying a footbath in rose petal infused water. Their friend set up the romantic place, laying out the rose petals and lying candles. The next day they purposefully arrive late in the day to visit the couple that’s been apart for so long. It’s hard to even call these “undertones.”

Look at the way so many dramas devise a wacky happenstance that allow the main couple to share a bed or live together temporarily. Look at the ambiguity in scenes where a couple kisses in a private place and we abruptly cut to a new scene or pan away to a romantic detail like gently falling snow or a flower bouquet. Shows are giving audiences more information through symbolism. This way directors gain artistic freedom without angering censors.

the big sleep carmen

Because nothing says debauchery quite like ‘oriental’-style clothing

The reason Western audiences often miss these hints is because such subtleties are no longer part of Western cinematic vocabulary. Without a need to hide what you’re doing, there’s no reason for audiences to look for clues of what’s being hidden. Audiences who saw the noir classic “The Big Sleep” when it came out in 1946 probably picked up on the sexual exploits of Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers) far easier than today’s audiences because they were used to reading innuendos. Due to censorship, the movie cannot come out and say Carmen Sternwood has been doing pornographic photo shoots, instead the audience must understand it through the coded statement that there are photographs of her “wearing a Chinese dress in a Chinese chair.” On a surface level, this merely refers to the fact she was at the house of a character who collects Chinese antiques. However, in Hollywood-talk of the time “Chinese” (in a startling example of Hollywood’s virulent racism) was code for “wrong, immoral, or devious.” Thus the use of the word “Chinese” twice in one line would have clued audiences in to Carmen’s sexual exploits.

Of course, not every such cut or plot device is supposed to be sexual. The whole point is plausible deniability. By merely implying physical conduct, shows allow audiences to see what they want to see and avoid angering censors. You can read all of these cuts and scenes innocently and still enjoy the show. It is likely too, that sometimes shows accidentally imply something more than they mean. An example of this in Western media is the song “Blue Velvet,” popularized by teeny bopper Bobby Vinton. The song became an underground classic due to its unintentional BDSM themes, eventually inspiring David Lynch’s sexually-charged psychodrama of the same name.

Nevertheless, when it comes to K Dramas sometimes the devil is truly in the details. K Dramas directors and writers find ways to tell stories the way they want to, no matter what heavy censorship is imposed upon them.

  • yuki kokoro

    I suppose you could be right and I could have missed all those hints… But it’s easy to miss discretion shots if the girl is trying to avoid the guy’s kisses for 10 episodes… I need more drama like Coffee Prince I think…

  • Orion

    The day the KCC is reformed into something less than a bunch of conservative, prudish and probably well-bribed bigots and the day they allow TV series and creators to be free and to enter the current century and offer audiences something more than heavily censored soap operas will be the day I might turn religious. For that kind of a change would surely mean the apocalypse is coming.

    Most of these are 15+ and even 19+ series, their movies seem fine with such topics and as conservative as their society might be, it is definitely not under the impression adults give pecks and then storks arrive with babies.

    Maybe cable television will slowly change that, although all the blade blurring shows they don’t escape irrational and heavy censorship either. But changes are always slow.

    • yuki kokoro

      Haha the blade blurring is so hilarious! I can’t wrap my mind around why they do that!

      • Orion

        Shhhh. If we don’t see the blade, we assume the blurriness going in and out of someone’s body is actually a feather which tickles them. And the red liquid coming out is just a punctured juice box they were carrying.

        It’s ridiculous, the things that get censored, especially if you look at all the truly twisted, vile and harmful things which are allowed and sometimes even glorified and/or romanticized in Korean drama.

        • maxq nz

          I’m increasingly of the opinion that the way Doctor Stranger lingers on the surgery scenes is at least to revel in the fact that it’s allowed to show people being cut and bleeding in that context, even while it has to blur non-surgical blades. Sublimation by surrogate.

  • Nic (MyKoreanHusband)

    Great article. I think the subtly is also missed in very very conservative cultures as well because there is absolutely no mention of anything that goes on in the bedroom. Korea, while conservative to western standards, can seem not so conservative compared to some other countries.
    So while people from Western countries may miss the signals because they are used to it being straight forward, there are some people who miss them because they can’t comprehend that a drama would even allude to something like that. Usually these people are from very religious and conservative countries and watching Korean dramas is often their first taste of entertainment outside their own country.

    I’ve received some a few questions from people from countries like that before who find it shocking what is shown. When they do watch a sex scene in a movie it must be really shocking. I did get a question one time from someone wanting to know how on earth these actors could have real sex? What about their wives or husbands? I had to gently explain it was acting and camera angles. Sex wasn’t really happening. It is interesting how different one’s viewing experience is depending on where we grew up.

  • lolasama

    I think ( or thought) it is changing slowly or does coffee prince, take care of my lady, personal taste and my lovely samsoon are part of subgenre that allows more and less subltly?

  • maxq nz

    Perhaps because of coming to K Dramas by way of Hindi cinema, I’ve never had any difficulty understanding the (often not very) oblique metaphors used to satisfy the censors’ prudery. It will be interesting to see what the Korean remake of Fated to Love You does with the sex scene that sets up the entire storyline of the Drama – in the Taiwanese original they clearly had great fun going way OTT with every conceivable combination of trains, tunnels, fireworks, fountains, you name it.