Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dramatis Korea

I lie awake on the carpeted floor. Eyes closed. Bathed in the dim, cloudy light streaming through a half-opened window. Breathing emotion in and out as the cool temperatures send chills down my arms. Thinking. Reflecting.

Who can think of their childhood without a tinge of sorrow? The dreams, curiosities, and hopes that have been forgotten.

I drink in a world tinged with sadness and nostalgia. I'm a sap. I know that. There's something about television drama that I love. I love the condensation of life into a dense emotional pill. The mood-invoking environment of a soundtrack. The angles. The lighting. Everything is staged. It makes me feel cold and lonely. It's heart-rending. But I soak it up, like a drug.

16 hours. That's the amount of time I spent on my latest dramatic adventure. It's an index of how fervently I have been avoiding my studies. Alone in Love was the fifth Asian drama that I had ever watched [watch it | learn more]. It was my first Korean drama.

Evey detests Korean drama. For the longest time, I thought this was strange. Evey grew up in Korea, and lived there for the first 14 years of her life. Why would she dislike the television series coming out of her homeland? Everybody seems to like Korean drama; I have Chinese friends who are addicted to it. Of course, I had never watched one before.

Alone in Love is a beautiful show, with beautiful filming, beautiful people, and beautiful acting. But I quickly began to see what the problem was. I'm easily addicted to television, so when I begin a show, I barrel through and never want to stop until it's over (that's why I try to keep up with shows as they are running, so I can't binge out at the end). Viewing marathons like this help to accentuate the emotional impact because for a day or two, that world is your world. So you can imagine my surprise to find that, by the 8th episode of Alone in Love, I was getting sick of the show.

The series follows Lee Dong Jin (Kam Woo Sung) and Yoo Eun Ho (Son Yeh Jin), a married couple who divorced following the stillbirth of their son, Dong. Despite their separation, the two still bump into each other frequently and share their best friends, Eun Ho's sister Yoo Ji Ho (Lee Ha Na) and Dong Jin's childhood friend Gong Joon Pyo (Gong Hyeong Jin). They still love each other, two years after the divorce, but they can't bring themselves to start over.

Instead they insult and frustrate one another, acting on the outside the opposite of what they feel inside. Dong Jin in particular spends the first half of the show deeply caring for Eun Ho in private reflection, but treating her like a real jerk in practice. Despite the fact that they clearly cannot live without each other, they refuse to admit it or move forward.

There is some kind of twisted sense of nobility here. They refuse to be together because they are afraid that being together will remind them of their son and make the other sad. Yet being apart puts them in a state of agony. It seems a common Asian conception of goodness to sacrifice (and be miserable) for someone else, even if that sacrifice doesn't actually make the other happy.

Days pass by like still water. But we miss the monotony whenever something happens... and struggle to survive.

But the major frustrations are the rivals. As Dong Jin and Eun Ho struggle with their feelings for each other, they begin relationships with other men and women. These relationships feel empty and drive the other into unadmitted fits of jealousy. When these filler obstacles are cleared and it seems that it's time for Dong Jin and Eun Ho to make up, another pair of love rivals comes along. All the while, it seems like no progress is being made. It's frustrating.

Apparently, this is such a popular plot device that there is a term in Korean to describe it: "shovelling." It's a metaphor that describes digging a hole in the ground instead of doing something useful (like telling your ex-wife that you love her and would like to start over). Much effort. Little result. That's how Alone in Love felt by the end of the eighth episode.

Evey described to me a famous manga artist, Miyuki Kitagawa, whose stories frustratingly continued on in this manner. Boy + girl. Rival boy attempts to break up boy + girl. Resolution. Rival girl attempts to break up boy + girl. Resolution. New rival girl tries to... and so on and so forth until it felt like a suitable time to end the series.

Luckily, Alone in Love managed to pick back up in the second half. The new rivals were more compelling. The characters fought less and thus were less exasperating. The softer side became more prominent. Still, I couldn't help but remain a bit frustrated by the end.

You irresponsible people, I thought to myself. Why did you waste three years of your life fighting. So, it might be hard together; but you're miserable apart. How many others did you have to drag down, hurt, and throw away in your quest to get back together.

Certainly the casualty count could have been lower if not for all the shovelling ("Now imagine," says Evey, "years and years of that").

The present will become tomorrow's memories. To live is to make memories.

Overall, I will admit, I still liked the series quite a lot. However it sometimes feels like that Korea may be stuck somewhat in the creativity department. While I've watched many Korean movies that I thought were phenomenal (Il Mare, My Sassy Girl, 2009 Lost Memories), 16 hours seemed like it was too much to keep up, and hence Alone in Love started dragging its feet.

I look to the MMORPG market, which is huge in Korea. While there is a vast number of these games coming out of Korea (and they're gorgeous), they are relatively congruent with one another. None are original enough to make a big splash on the international stage. Similarly, you'd be hard pressed to find an animation team today that didn't have Koreans on it (Japanese, American - everyone employs them). They possess an extremely high level of technical proficiency, yet have not reached the creative point where their original content can displace the dominance of Japan or the United States in this market.

However, don't let this be taken the wrong way. I think that Korea is abundantly gifted in the arts. Their MMORPG's are beautiful. Their movies are fascinating. Their acting is well done.

I'm looking forward to my next Korean drama, and if you can suggest one with perhaps a bit less "shovelling", I'm sure I'll be quickly addicted.

Let the melancholy begin again...


Sarcastic Teddy said...

Yah I know, everything on asian dramas is usually beautiful - the people, the scene, their houses (common in HK dramas, even when they're supposed to be poor). Where are all those average Joes? I guess most people wouldn't make the beautiful-cut-off-line. And yeh I don't like HK dramas (not the chinese ones though).

And I looked up Miyuki Kitagawa, the manga artist you mentioned (thought I might have read some of her works)... Look what I discovered on wiki:

"Miyuki Kitagawa (北川みゆき, Kitagawa Miyuki?) is a Japanese mangaka. She was born on January 1, 1967 in Tokyo, Japan.

She is married to Satoru Akahori, who is her brother."

Last line: is there some tv-drama plot twist in her life?

a_ndy said...

Well why shouldn't it be beautiful? I can't imagine why I would want to watch ordinary people on TV when I can watch beautiful people. :)

Why don't you like HK drama? I haven't watched much because they usually don't carry English subtitles, but I think I'd like it just by virtue of the HK pop culture-ness. Maybe I could improve my shoddy Cantonese too.

And wow, married to her brother, eh? Is that legal?...

Hanna said...

would you like to watch a medical drama? I just finished watching a series hehe
it doesn't have that much beautiful people.. but it's kinda funny!
I am currently watching a new drama that started last last week, which is a remake of the Japanese drama.. with F4?
I dont' know what the drama is called in english.. i only know it in Korean...
but I can find it for you!
It is about a poor girl going to a rich school and there's like a rich group of guys who she hates but then two guys from the group start liking her and blah blah.
Anyways.. i am watching that because i really really liked the japanese one. plus.. the guys are beautiful indeed.

Or another one is called "Beethoven Virus" that my mom seems to be addicted to these days. This drama is finished so you can watch it all at once! hehe
and it's about a musician.... and that's all i know.
It is similar to another Japanese drama that was about a pianist.. but this Korean one is a lot mellower and serious than the Japanese one, which was hilarious.

sandlot said...

So.. nobody dies of a terminal disease in this drama?

a_ndy said...

I was kind of expecting that to happen too... but they found some other typical way to off the rival character without killing them.

Anonymous said...

"It seems a common Asian conception of goodness to sacrifice (and be miserable) for someone else, even if that sacrifice doesn't actually make the other happy."-Andy about Asian Dramas

-How accurate lol

Anonymous sandlot said...

"So.. nobody dies of a terminal disease in this drama?"


I think i have this Korean drama series at home called "A love to kill" with Rain in it.
Check it out:

There isn't too much 'shoveling' so you may be able to survive the first half of the drama without to much agony. It actually has a few very romantic moments. However, their world does become your world in that couple of days of sleepless of marathon. So in the end, it's dreadful. Their agonies become your agonies and the 'Asian notion of sacrifice' takes over.

By the end of it, I was drowning in depression. That was the last time I dared to do a Korean drama marathon.

I also have a Korean friend who confessed that he detests Korean dramas. In fact, his feelings are so strong that I probably have been infected somewhere along the way. Granted, I still think Korean dramas are really well made-beautiful actors and great cinematography, but now I fear my own disability to snap out of the very agony that they successfully create.

That probably didn't sound like an encouraging experience.

But that was only about the contemporary pop dramas in Korea. Sitcoms like 'Highkick!' are really funny--good for a light-hearted laugh. :)


you could just study.