Asian Drama Saranghae
Guest post by Kelly Sparkles
For those of us who love (are obsessed with) Asian dramas, there is always that ONE drama that started it all. The ONE that spoke to our soul and set us on the path of Asian drama fandom. I refer to my own journey as ‘going down the rabbit hole.’ My ONE was not the first the drama I watched. My first drama was a quiet little Netflix show called Samurai Gourmet recommended by a couple of foodie friends (boy do they regret that, hahaha) about a retired man discovering a passion for food and overcoming some of his inhibitions with the help of his imaginary inner samurai. I’ve never been happier for someone to finally get a beer during the day than I was during the first episode, LOL. I was mildly intrigued by this show, but definitely not in love with Asian drama yet. However, what that show gave me was the impetus to overcome my aversion to subtitles. Admittedly, I was always a little lazy when it came to subtitles and not inclined to see foreign language media because of it. What a minor tragedy! I don’t want to think about what I missed out on all those years. I did have a long-time affinity for kung fu movies especially early Jackie Chan films despite this subtitle laziness. I will point out that dubbing is far worse than reading subtitles though. Shudder cringe. Yuck. It always does a disservice to the original actors and is a bit OCD irritating to watch mouths not in sync with the words. I could write a whole blog post about subtitles and dubbing, but that is not the point of today’s blog.
Before I divulge my ONE, I should explain Asian Drama for the uninitiated. It seems fairly self explanatory given the name “Asian drama,” but Asian Drama can defy clear cut definitions. In the simplest terms, it is any TV show that originates in an Asian country. For the most part, the actors and crew are all Asian and the dialogue is in the native language of course. But this is where the commonalities end. There are sub -genres and sub-sub-genres. The dramas are often categorized by country of origin with Korean (Kdrama), Chinese (Cdrama), Taiwanese, and Japanese dramas being the big four which dominate the asian drama fandoms. Korea and China are the most prolific in terms of output. Korean dramas tend to be shorter in number of episodes and Chinese dramas tend to be the longest by the same measure. There are very soap opera-y dramas with vile characters doing intensely terrible things to our beloved lead characters, there are historical dramas (Kdramas are especially good at this), there is rom com, dramatic romances, a few police dramas (though not as numerous as American shows), a few medical dramas, kung fu dramas (mostly Chinese), slice of life drama (every country), high school dramas, sci-fi/fantasy dramas, goofy dramas that cross anachronistic boundaries, and dramas that combine as many of these categories as they can. There is a wide range of diverse subject matter and genres that fall under the Asian drama umbrella. Some fandoms focus exclusive on one type or country and there are those, like me, who love Asian dramas across the board.
One of the reasons people love these dramas, among many reasons, is the duration- most only have one season. One and done. The story and character arcs are usually clearly organized and planned from the beginning, so there is a feeling of satisfaction when finishing a drama. None of this American style of going on for too many seasons, jumping the shark, then having a vague ending when it is finally cancelled, leaving viewers feeling like they need closure. You can binge watch some shows in a weekend (yes, I admit to having often done this, hahaha). The easiest are the Kdramas with 16 episodes in a season. Kdramas rarely go over 24 episodes. Consequently, stories are not dragged out forever and if you’ve ever watched a soap in frustration as a misunderstanding gets miserably prolonged in episode after episode, you’ll appreciate the immediacy of a Kdrama show. The caveat is that if a drama has more than 36 episodes, you can be guaranteed that some of the plot points will be continued for a long time. This is true of the family oriented dramas where the story is centered around conservative, very traditional upper class families (usually with a poor female lead who shakes them up) set in contemporary society, but feel old fashioned in their mores, and have a large number of episodes (think 64 – 72). If you have issues with the patriarchy, you might want to steer clear of these particular dramas or you’ll find yourself shaking your head (or fist) in frustration (who me? Hahaha, oh yes).
So, what was my ONE, The ONE that started my obsession? My ONE is going to be a lifelong favorite. My ONE was bright, colorful, full of eye candy and strong heroines. My ONE was Boys Over Flowers. It was the second drama I watched and the first full-fledged full-length drama. It was immediately engaging, bright and colorful, and oftentimes utterly ridiculous. In short, it was GREAT FUN! It introduced me to the Korean language, South Korean culture, KPOP (Kim Hyun Joong- saranghae), and Kdrama. I fell in love with it and Kdrama from the very first episode. It has been a couple of years since I first watched it and it is my go-to show when I need a pick me up because it always makes me smile. It was a lucky coincidence that I happened upon this show as my first full Asian drama. If I had watched a different drama, I may not have gone down this wonderous rabbit hole.
Boys Over Flowers is set in an incredibly exclusive high school for the ultra rich. Enter our plucky heroine who is middle class but considered dirt poor by the elite. An act of heroism lands her enrolled, albeit against her will, into this new and it turns out, hostile environment. There are the requisite mean girls, who seem like a very operatic witch trio, the very beautiful baby men who will of course be potential love interests, and the ‘ugly duckling’ female lead, thus affirming that some tropes cut across cultures and languages. There are fast cars and beautiful people. The cast includes one of the most popular and famous of all asian actors, in his break out role, Lee Min Ho. Note: in most Asian cultures, the family name comes first then the given name, so Lee is his ‘last’ or family name and Min Ho is what we would call his first name. He is brilliant as the very flawed but ultimately vulnerable poor little rich boy character. There is my personal favorite, Kim Hyun Joong, as the heart achingly beautiful and lovesick second male lead. KHJ came from a popular kpop band with this first foray into acting, which propelled his solo music career forward. He is recovering from a huge, nearly career ending scandal in which a former girlfriend falsely and maliciously accused him of numerous offenses. He has won a series of legal battles against her and is finally clearing his name but it has been a long road for him. The female lead is winningly played by Ku Hye Sun, who also had a break out role. In fact, all of the young principal actors had their careers take off due to this immensely popular drama. Sadly, there was a tragedy involving the suicide of one of the girls in the aforementioned trio. Her death shed light on abuses going on in the Korean entertainment industry.
The reasons this particular drama became my ONE was due to a variety of lovely criteria credited mostly to the brilliant writers. Firstly, the female protagonist is a strong, capable person in her own right. She does the saving at the beginning and stands up to bullies. Secondly, the cast are talented and let’s be honest, very easy on the eyes. Thirdly, the pace of the show keeps moving without ever hitting boring doldrum moments. Fourthly, the writing hooks you immediately with a heart racing situation and establishing the badassery of the female lead. Fifthly, there are a few incredibly creative and immensely fun situations that happen throughout the series (think horse races and car races, tropical beaches, casinos, etc). Sixthly, the villain is a formidable woman who made me fear Korean chaebol moms and girl bullies (yikes)! LOL. Lastly, the opening theme song is… well, terrible to be honest, hahaha, it reminds me of late 70s/early 80s American show theme songs, a la The Love Boat. So, it gave me a bit of childhood nostalgia. NOTE: Chaebol is a korean term roughly referring to a corporate heir. These chaebols will often inherit control of the corporation much like a monarchy and are treated like royalty with all the frivolity and entitlement that goes with it.
Of course, the show has several moments where it devolves into the “damsel-in-distress-needing-rescued” moments, but honestly, I found these moments to be incredibly entertaining. With one exception, the situation involving a competitive female swimmer in shallow water needing rescued by boys who aren’t as strong of swimmers as her, was stretching the suspension of disbelief too far. I forgave the writers for this bit of hyperbole though because it was obviously a plot point to move forward the idea of the love rivalry heating up. There is an onscreen kiss eventually, but like many Asian dramas, it is tame by American standards. I believe this is due to the age of the characters and the close censorship by the government which promotes youthful chastity. I’ve been told by native Koreans that this notion of absolute chastity before marriage is a media generated myth. I don’t know first hand myself, obviously, so I can only report hearsay.
I will always have a special place in my heart for Boys Over Flowers for opening the door to another world for me. A door to the other half of the world that so many of us Americans are oblivious to, including in part myself, I’m ashamed to admit. I dove head first into the rabbit hole of Asian drama love and broadened my horizons. For instance, I am learning Korean and Mandarin. I am also teaching my young daughter, who is now obsessed with Kpop (BTS forever) and wants to be an engineer so Mandarin will be very beneficial to her. I have discovered new musical interests and opened my mind to new genres. I traveled to Japan by myself and saw Kim Hyun Joong in concert, which was a magical experience. I’ve also made many new friends from all over the world.
*Quick note on where to find Asian Dramas- I don’t recommend YouTube because more than likely, the episodes and/or the subbing has been pirated. Also, the picture and sound quality are usually lacking, as well as it being a huge bummer to get hooked into a show only to discover that you can’t find all the episodes. My go-to site is a streaming one called Viki Rakuten (Viki for short). I pay the low monthly subscription (discounted if you pay a year in advance) to avoid the ads because the ads are annoying. NOTE: the subtitling is done ENTIRELY by volunteers who are usually students so sometimes patience is needed to wait for the subs to be completed if you are watching a show that is “On Air” meaning that the whole series is being currently aired. Sometimes I don’t want to wait for subs or episodes to load so I will wait until a series has been completely uploaded and subbed before starting it- this way I can binge it if I really fall in love with it. There are plenty of finished shows to choose from. There are also full length movies and variety shows (which are insanely popular in Korea). I also used to subscribe to a streaming service called DramaFever, but it is currently defunct. The site was bought by Turner Broadcasting and rumor has it that it is going to be added as a channel to the Turner station package due to roll out possibly later this year. This a bummer because I don’t want to pay something like $50 for a bunch of channels (mostly sports) that I don’t want. We’ll see. It was a great site that often had shows not on Viki, so they were complimentary sites. I find some dramas on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but to be honest, they don’t usually have the high quality shows. They often have B or D list shows, but there are some gems if you search. You can find Thai and Indian shows as well. The plus side is that the episodes are always uploaded with the subs finished and usually the shows are not currently airing so all episodes are available. There are some other sites, but I don’t use them often due to the pernicious ads and glitchy streams. I also occasionally find subbed shows on blogs by other Asian drama enthusiasts, but these are usually one-offs and waiting for subbing is glacially slow since these are not commercial sites.
Asian drama Saranghae for life! 😊
Kelly is a biology teacher and lover of Asian Dramas. Since discovering Asian dramas a few years ago while recovering from cancer, they have become a passion and inspiration. Don’t worry, she kicked cancer’s butt. Her love of travel has now expanded to dreams of traveling to Asia to see the beautiful settings shown in the shows she loves and to experience the rich history and culture of each unique country. So far, she has started to make her dream come true with a trip to Japan last year to see Korean artist Kim Hyun Joong in concert as well as touring the beautiful cultural sites in areas like Kyoto and Osaka. She has a variety of hobbies because boredom stinks, such as making stained glass art, baking for friends and family, participating in a whimsical performance art group, dancing like a lunatic, and having as much fun as possible. She lives in Ohio, which is pretty ok, with her daughter Lillian, cat Birdie, and dog Sir Viktor Humpsalot.
*The above post is owned by Kelly Sparkles and may not be republished or copied without consent from the writer.