K-drama: my latest guilty pleasure

Hello, it’s been a while. There’s a very good reason for that: in February I started a full-time job. For the last five months I have been putting in forty-two and a half hours a week at a solicitors’ firm and earning an honest living (of sorts). That’s not to say I’ve had no time at all to blog. I just preferred to spend my drastically reduced leisure time variously relaxing with my good friend Netflix or numbing the trauma of becoming a “real adult” with copious volumes of alcohol. ’90s kids get it.

In any case, the other reason for my absence is that a new addiction has taken hold of me: Korean language TV dramas, a.k.a. “K-drama”. And addicting they are. Since I decided, in a fit of mixed boredom and curiosity, a little less than a year ago, to start watching something called Moorim School on Netflix about a K-pop idol who goes to a secret martial arts school, I’ve finished nine K-drama series and am set to soon finish my tenth. My after-work evenings, then, for the last five months, have mostly been spent curled up on my bed with Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo or What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? on my laptop.

I don’t know if watching K-drama is supposed to be a guilty pleasure or not. That’s coming from someone who has more guilty pleasures than is entirely decent. It seems like it should be–it’s lots of maudlin, tropey romance and not much else. I just don’t know if K-drama is sufficiently prominent on the radar of even the average pop culture savvy Western Millennial to warrant any embarrassment over watching it. Although, with the increased, not entirely favourable awareness of K-pop and in particular a certain K-pop idol group with a three-letter acronym for a name, K-drama’s reputation may be about to depreciate by association.

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I’m Not A Robot

No matter. Guilty pleasures are guilty pleasures for a reason. It’s not inaccurate to compare the guilty pleasure of K-drama to the guilty pleasure taken in watching trashy Hollywood chick flicks. The two genres are cut from the same stylistic cloth. There’s a fairytale, fantastical element in both that takes you out of the mundanity of ordinary life and transports you into a live-action fairytale. Not magic and witches (although K-drama is more comfortable with putting fantasy elements in love stories than Hollywood is), but not entirely realistic and over-dramatised love stories worthy of the screen. It’s trashy, sure, and most of it deserves the derision the Hollywood chick flick genre gets, but the best K-drama is well worth the 16-25 hours you’ll spend glued to your laptop screen.

Of the series I’ve watched, I’m Not A Robot and What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? fall into the trashier category—although I’ve been trying to watch better-rated series, and both of these are nonetheless worth the binge. I’m Not A Robot is about a reclusive, socially awkward young corporate director with a severe allergy to human contact, who falls in love with his “female” robot assistant (who is actually a real woman pretending to be a robot to save the blushes of the robot’s creator over the actual robot’s faultiness).

This one is a good example of K-drama’s willingness to entertain weirder, unrealistic story concepts that require you to suspend a lot of disbelief for the story to take you with it. It’s all part of the charm and appeal of K-drama. It’s all part of what makes K-drama the addicting, heartstring-tugging escapism it is. And as I said, a lot of K-drama, unlike its Hollywood stylistic cousin, traverses into actual fantasy. W is about the daughter of a comic book artist who travels into the world of her father’s comics and falls in love with the main character (who is being hunted down by a mysterious, faceless serial killer).

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Reply 1997

That said, my favourite K-drama, Hello! My Twenties (or Age of Youth) is perhaps the realest, least fairytale of the series I’ve watched. It sports all the usual stylistic and aesthetic trappings of K-drama (romance, comedy, coming-of-age themes featuring unreasonably attractive Korean youths), but unlike a lot of K-drama, it doesn’t shy away from grittier, more “real-life” themes. It’s less a fairytale than a K-dramatisation of the lives of real people, with their real problems and concerns. Unlike most K-drama, or even Hollywood, it isn’t afraid to confront the reality that a lot of people don’t get happy endings. Hello! My Twenties is a K-drama that wants to be something more than entertaining but ephemeral fluff—a K-drama that has something to say and lessons to teach, which makes it the best that K-drama can be.

K-drama recommendations:

Hello! My Twenties — the loves and lives of five very different young women in a share house in Seoul.

Reply 1997 — follows the lives of Korean high school students in 1997, set against the backdrop of the advent of the K-pop craze

Reply 1994 — follows the lives of the young residents of a boarding house in Seoul as they fall in love, adjust to a new environment and grow into adults.

Uncontrollably Fond — love story between two separated childhood lovers, now reunited as adults, one a wildly famous K-pop idol, the other a struggling documentary journalist.

My First First Love — the quintessential K-drama. College students, new friends, new love.

Pinocchio — a young boy is adopted by a rural family after unscrupulous journalists destroy his own family. Years later, he becomes an intern at a television studio to vindicate his family.

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo — coming-of-age story about young athletes at a sports university, featuring weightlifting “fairy” Kim Bok-joo, who looks far too slight and delicate to lift anything heavier than a shopping bag, but, hey, it’s K-drama.

I’m Not A Robot — top corporate director with severe allergy to human touch obtains a state-of-the-art robot assistant which looks suspiciously like a sexbot. Little does he know his actual robot malfunctioned and the creator’s ex-girlfriend has been posing as his robot assistant the whole time.

W: Two Worlds — love story between a comic book character and the daughter of the comic book’s creator, with serial killers.

What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim? — an egotistic, socially awkward young corporate CEO tries to stop his indispensable (and attractive) secretary (who resents him) from quitting, ends up falling in love with her.