What kdrama has taught me

“The only way to speak of a cliché is with a cliché.” Christopher Ricks

–How do I convince you that watching South Korean TV dramas of 16 to 21 episodes is good for you? Whenever I explain why a story about a 400-old space alien falling in love today or why it’s worth watching two actors obviously in their twenties play 17- or 18-year students—my friends look at me and wonder.

But, I’m telling you, this stuff is really, really good. The acting (Kim Soo Hyun, Jun Ji Hyun, Lee Min Ho, Park Shin Hye in the above); and the music (the entire OST from Cinderella and the Four Knights; “Love is the moment” from Heirs; “Eternal love” from Healer—with the amazing Ji Chang Wook btw)

…even if, granted, there are problems with things like endings, lips syncing into a kiss, and subtitles.

So under pressure to justify all this, I’ve come up with a more complex rationale justifying my—and your—watching kdrama.

Kdramas, like US soap operas and Spanish TV novellas, have tropes: boy/girl loves girl/boy, second-male lead falls in love with first female lead, poor girl makes good, and a closet-full of stock characters, ranging from revenge-seekers to fate itself.

For me, it’s not the tropes that make kdrama but their clichés and how they’re assembled together. Almost every kdrama I’ve watched combines a good number of the following clichés:

The real kiss between Episodes 8 and 12 followed by the interlude of sheer happiness that just can’t last, then the break-up and the last-episode time jump, say, five years ahead; the whole concept of confessing and dating; hiccups, nose-bleeds, pinky promises & thumb seals; back hugs, comfort pats, and amnesia; night-time fireflies and anytime car chases; carrying someone piggy-back, rushing the gurney down the hospital corridor, slicing vegetables in a kitchen, checking the cellphone, texting and more texting; banquet rooms, hunger groans, finger cuts and pinpricks below the thumbnail; fake rain, lens-less eyeglasses, airplane cabins that are obviously not, and drinking from empty paper cups; slow-motion turns and long-motion gazes; cars U-turning on major roads, the white truck of doom hitting the car mid-intersection; foot-to-the-peddle and the vehicle accelerating into the outer lane and off screen; one-sided love, funeral wakes and karaoke singing; the guy’s shower scene (what abs!); she accidentally falling into his arms, he grabbing her wrist, she drunk, he clenching his fist and knuckles whitening, she kicking her legs up and down on the bed, he searching his trays for watches and accessories, she kicking him in the shins, he bending across her and pulling her seatbelt tight, he/she following at a distance behind her/him, and both of them slurping down steaming rahmen; side-to-side, ear-to-ear whispers or the slow shuffle and stumble of having been shocked or her arms rigid and straight down the first time they hug; “hey!” pronounced “yah!”; did you ever know so many people who sleep with the bedroom lights on?; “fighting!,” and omigod, always the flashbacks!………..

–When it finally struck me that I’d just gotten started with the above list, I realized: There are so many clichés you could think of a kdrama as one cliché after another from beginning to end. 

And that proposition—itself an example of Ricks’ point?—has changed how I watch TV police procedurals from the US, Europe and Scandinavia. I suspect, most like everyone, I watched the procedurals as stories with plots to be followed and solutions to guess along the way.

Now I can’t watch them without first seeing their clothesline of clichés: the segmented sequencing of slamming the office telephone down, rushing out of the station, hurrying up the steps to a house or flat, the chase, the tense interchange in the interview room, and more. (In fact, TV dramas from different countries share the same clichés: For example, “if you haven’t identified the body, they’re not dead” is also a biggie in kdrama.)

Just as a good part of the craft in kdrama is how to freshen the clichés, so too the craft in police procedurals is in the twists to the sequencing the clichés. (Yes, the fish-eye kiss in most kdramas is so hackneyed—the woman’s eyes pop open and remain so as his lips suddenly touch hers—until, that is, you watch how Jun Ji Hyun does it in My Love from the Star.) To catch any freshening of clichés requires not only a new level of watching and thinking on the part of this viewer. The recurring clichés also drive intertextual resonance across different kdramas—connections and interconnections I hadn’t seen on first viewing. The clichés present an entirely new comfort zone to discover when watching.

So there: Watching kdrama is more complexly rewarding than my interlocutors think.

–Now on to equally important stuff. We’ve scheduled a layover in Taiwan so I can see tour some of the tdrama sites (my favorite song ever is Aaron Yan’s “That’s Not Me”(這不是我 on Spotify) and if you haven’t seen the tdrama, Before We Get Married, then don’t—JUST-DO-NOT—or else you’ll be addicted (you have to watch it twice, if only to get the significance to the last scene of the first scene’s “Let’s have coffee”)—and speaking of “Addicted,” that amazing cdrama is unlike any other subtitled cdrama out there (go on the web to find out the backstory)—but let me stop before I get started on how jdrama differs…

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