What's so awesome about Korean stuff?
March 12, 2013 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm interested in Korean pop culture: K-pop, K-drama, K-film. I've seen previous questions about specific recommendations if music and movies. I am checking those out. There is so much material, I'm trying to get a broader perspective.

If you are a fan of K-pop/drama/film in general or a specific K-song/group/drama/movie/director/etc.:

What makes it so awesome?
What distinguishes it from the American equivalent?

and, if you care to speculate,

Is that difference representative of something about Korean culture/history?
posted by gimletbiggles to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
One idea that is specific to Korean culture is the concept of han. You can see han in many of the K-dramas and films, all that self-suffering and longing for justice and revenge, and the idea of the "underdog". The dramas and films therefore tend to be more outwardly emotional and I think that's what some foreign audiences are finding so appealing or relatable about it.
posted by cazoo at 4:55 PM on March 12, 2013

I started watching Korean dramas in the past year (and I'm someone who basically NEVER watches TV - I don't have cable, only Netflix and DramaFever) and I've been pondering this a lot myself. I don't listen to K-pop at all and I don't have a particular preference for Korean movies over movies from any other countries.

To summarize Korean dramas, they tend to be well-produced miniseries with attractive actors and catchy songs, and the entire plot arc is contained within 20 or so one-hour episodes.

I started watching K-dramas when I had a job that was a stressful, mentally exhausting grind for 12 hours a day. At the end of the day I just wanted to go home and watch something entertaining and lighthearted that would keep me engaged enough to not fall asleep on the couch. That's what I like best about K-dramas - they're unabashedly entertaining, easy on the eyes, tend to be funny, and every episode ends on a dramatic cliffhanger. And the limited length means the plot has to keep moving along relatively quickly. The characters always run into each other in the most contrived, improbable, and deliciously awkward situations. And as horrible as things might seem in the most dramatic moments, there's ALWAYS a happy ending. The bad guys always get their come-uppance, and the humble, hardworking protagonist finally wins. Sure, it's not the most highbrow of entertainment, but sometimes you just want to be entertained. It's like comfort food in TV form.

I think compared to American shows, the limited length and contained plot arcs appeal to me over American shows which can go on running indefinitely until they get canceled. I'm also not particularly interested in crime which a lot of American shows revolve around (the Sopranos, the Wire, CSI, Law and Order, etc.) and in general I find most American shows too serious for my tastes.

Lastly, I suspect that all the actors being Asian might have something to do with it for me personally. I'm of Asian descent (though not Korean) and although born and raised in the US in a small town with basically zero Asian population, perhaps in my deep subconscious I just relate to Asian-looking characters better.

For me, the two best examples of K-drama are Secret Garden and City Hunter. Secret Garden has everything - rich man falling for poor woman, contrived plot device leading to entertainingly awkward situations (they magically switch bodies with each other), overly narcissistic male lead... City Hunter, for a show about a guy hunting down people and getting revenge, is still lighthearted and fun to watch with some great action scenes.

I only like watching the dramas set in the modern day and have absolutely no interest in the historical dramas. Can't get into them, mainly because they tend to be more serious and slower moving.
posted by pravit at 5:40 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

This may come out wrong but somehow it's the harshness, the directness and the creative surprise factor. I LOVE Korean food, the clean strong favors, spicy pork yum. Also it's so different from other types of food. AFA films go, Old Boy was insane, Our Lady of Vengeance, Spring, Summer Winter and Fall- I'd just never seen films this shocking and different before. So for me, it's the unusual factor, the memorableness, and the quality of the finished product in both food and film. k-pop- now that I don't really understand! On preview I see you didn't ask about food but its really amazing and worth trying if you haven't already.
posted by bquarters at 6:59 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

So I wouldn't say I'm a huge fan, but I wind up watching a lot of Korean movies and dramas because hey, it's late and I have Netflix and the wife is in bed and it seems pretty interesting.

Personally, I find a lot of the Korean shows to be pretty high-concept, so it's easy to understand what's going on (doubly important when watching something foreign in a different language!), but there's a twist to it or something that makes it interesting. For example, in a thread here about vampire things, someone suggested a show called Vampire Prosecutor and I checked it out. High concept: CSI/NCIS but the male lead is a vampire. So it's like your classic American detective show--baffling murder, lead who you just know will figure it out, but how?!--but with the twist that he's using his vampire powers and has to keep it secret from his team and so on.

For the movies, they do violent action-type films really well, but because it's new to me and I don't know the rules/cliches, I really don't know what's going to happen. For example, The Man from Nowhere is basically Taken, but there's numerous scenes where the kid is in danger. Now I know in an American action movie the kid's going to be scared, but probably okay. When I'm watching a Korean movie, I have no idea what's going to happen, which makes it that much more engrossing and tense.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:42 PM on March 12, 2013

pravit touched on one of the big differences that come up when talking about Korean dramas--there are the contemporary ones, which are usually about improbably attractive 20-somethings falling in and out of love while dealing with family and work pressure. It's kind of like if Friends had been a 14-hour miniseries, with a slightly different ratio of serious-to-funny moments. A lot of the character and plot tropes are similar to the ones you'd know from American television, though they aren't always handled the same way. Most shows try to provide some kind of twist on the concept (going even finer-grained, one could separate the ones that are more action-oriented--the characters are spies or private detectives--from the ones that are more low-key tales of young people trying to make it in the city, but I'm not terribly familiar with the former), but expect to frequently see a character who's gunning from a promotion even though his (or, more and more often, her) boss treats him like shit, there's always a love triangle, there's usually at least one character with a wacky family that get a subplot or two of their own, pregnancy scares, besotted friends-since-childhood, lots and lots of food porn (that's less of an American trope, I guess, but there's often at least one contentious family meal, and the food always looks SO GOOD.) There's a movie called Singles that I sort of hesitate to recommend as an entry point, because it pokes fun at a lot of the tropes common to this kind of romantic dramedy genre, but it still mostly makes sense in terms of general, non-culture-specific romantic comedy tropes, and it does follow a plot trajectory similar to a lot of shows and movies, but with character reactions and resolutions that are (slightly) more realistic than usual. It's also very funny.

Then, there's the historical dramas (sageuk). Personally, I love these, but that may be partly from nostalgia from watching them as a kid with my mom and the student my parents hosted (who was sort of a big sister figure to me at the time.) They tend to be bombastic and a little bizarre. There's a lot of cameras zooming in on people staring as they dramatically intone "Joooooh-naaaaaah!" ("Your Majesty!"; in the campier shows, this can happen upwards of once per episode.) Everyone's running around in really elaborate traditional costumes. The women generally have elaborately braided hair, and the men wear a variety of hats that correspond to their social status. Most of these take place in a fictionalized version of the Joseon period, but you don't really have to know all that much about the actual history to follow the goings-on, just as you don't have to understand the intricacies of the Old West in order to "get" Westerns. Expect lots of scheming advisers, kindly-but-ineffective old kings who die under "mysterious" circumstances, honorable-but-world-weary heroes, hotblooded dashing naive young warriors, etc. (This comment, in a thread about Game of Thrones cracks me up because, yeah.)
posted by kagredon at 10:53 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, I should add--browsing on Hulu while writing that comment, there's at least two shows that seem to be attempting to bridge a gap between the two genres, both fish-out-of-water stories involving time travel, one about a dude from the 14th century who winds up modern Seoul and one about a modern-day woman who gets stuck in the 14th century.

Which is to say, I guess I know what I'm doing this weekend.
posted by kagredon at 11:00 PM on March 12, 2013

I watch a lot of kdramas because I like goofy romcoms, but there aren't a ton of American shows that do it well. I mean, I like crime procedurals well enough, but it feels like all the recent American TV shows are either DRAMA DRAMA DRAMA or sitcoms. So yeah, when I've had a rough day at work sometimes I just want to watch a show about a girl who joins a boy-band by masquerading as her twin brother. I think America is afraid of doing gender-bender storylines because if a guy kisses a girl who looks like a guy, then it might be gay. When I watch historical kdramas, I'm mostly in it for the costuming, the same way I like historical British dramas.

And for the music, I like it because it is catchy as hell and the music videos have awesome choreography. I also like the boyband/girlband sound better than most individual artists, and that's hard to come by in America.
posted by specialagentwebb at 6:13 AM on March 13, 2013

I don't really know anything about Korea, but there is a book "Korea: The Impossible Country" that I have seen recommendations for if you are looking for insight into Korean culture.
posted by tracer at 9:04 AM on March 13, 2013

My baby boomer father got me and my teen into one Korean show because it had slapstick comedy in the first episode, then it veered into being a romantic comedy. We all could watch it without cringing! There aren't any American romantic comedies we'd follow in the same manner. Also, some of us are part-Asian, so we're checking out the sort of familiar food and gawking at the landscapes of Seoul and other areas.

Also, I like that the shows end after sixteen or twenty episodes. I keep intending to start watching Lost and thinking it's easier to go find a shorter show to watch that won't suck up 60 to 1000 hours of my life.
posted by dragonplayer at 2:28 PM on March 13, 2013

I think when it comes to entertainment, Koreans like to do things over the top. For most westerners, it takes a little bit to get over the sense of dumbfounded-ness by the childish humor or overdone aesthetics. That was my initial reaction to k-pop, variety shows and dramas, anyway. The movies, however, are in a different class, I believe, and are recognized by the American film industry deservedly. I still can't stand korean dramas, but have crossed over with variety shows (infinity challenge, running man) and k-pop (bigbang and 2ne1). Once you get past the initial sense of confusion and overstimulation, it is so entertaining and has a danger of becoming addictive.
posted by blotchedpink at 8:45 PM on March 13, 2013

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