You can just tell from the title that this is going to be a ridiculous show, but it’s also a 2019 offering co-produced by Netflix, so I figured it might have some of the modernity of Hello, My Twenties (still my favourite K-drama). Romance is a Bonus Book is really enjoyable and fairly modern, but it does get cheesy and a little over-earnest at times.
The show is set in a small-ish literary publisher in Seoul, which had obvious appeal for me. There’s some fairly realistic stuff about how books are published – including a heartbreaking scene of lorry-loads of remaindered books getting pulped – and plenty of passionate speeches about the importance of books. I really liked most of the workplace stuff, but it’s still a K-drama so of course at heart this is a romance.
This was largely a random Netflix find, possibly loosely inspired by a recent conversation at work about how ghosts occupy a different place in East Asian culture to Western culture. Oh My Ghost (2015 tvN) also heavily features chefs and cooking, which I have recently realised I am a big fan of in my TV choices. And the trailer for it looked light and silly, which appealed to me.
Oh My Ghost is a combination of sweet romance, crime drama and supernatural comedy, and it handles all those elements really well. It discusses sex and passion reasonably openly, for a K-drama. And the leads are very beautiful. Which means this comes pretty high in my ranking of K-dramas, despite my low expectations.
I enjoyed this K-drama far more than I expected to. Pinocchio (SBS 2014–2015), as the title suggests, is a loose interpretation of the classic fairy tale, but grounded in reality. And it’s also an examination of TV news reporting, asking tough questions about truth and other values in journalism.
All the essential ingredients of the fairy tale are there: a person who displays a physical manifestation of lying (in this case hiccups); a person close to them who acts as a conscience; dead and absent parents; there’s even (in my interpretation) a fairy godparent role.
And yet for all that, the TV show this most resembles is Doctors – right down to its lead actor Park Shin-hye. Here she plays Choi In-ha, a woman who has Pinocchio syndrome – she hiccups when she lies (or, importantly, believes herself to be lying or supporting someone else’s lie). Just like in Doctors, the first two episodes are flashbacks setting up the dramatic and romantic storylines.
This is an epic family saga spanning two countries and most of the twentieth century. It took some time to lure me in, but once in I really loved it.
Pachinko starts in Korea in 1910 – the year when Japan invaded and occupied the country. Lee briefly sketches the family background of the woman who is to become the heart of the book: Sunja. She is the only surviving child of a couple who run a small boardinghouse in a fishing village near Busan. Their tenants are mostly fishermen and their income is small, but their reputation is strong enough that even as times get tough in Korea, they manage to get by.
Sunja is poor, uneducated and plain-looking, and as such she doesn’t expect to marry, but circumstances conspire to match her with an educated man who wants to take her with him to Japan to build a new life, so in 1933 they emigrate. But in Osaka she discovers that there is a form of poverty that is far worse than the way she was raised – because it is based on and maintained by racism. No Japanese company will hire Koreans except for the lowest of menial tasks.
I have just finished watching The Heirs (2013), and for the first time with a K-drama I don’t want to give it a proper review, even though there is a LOT that I could say about it. It just has so many problems and I fear a review would only encourage other people to watch it. Which has got me thinking more generally about my K-drama fixation.
It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that this past few months I have immersed myself in K-drama, and generally become super-interested in Korean life and culture. The Korean Wave (Hallyu) has most definitely found me. But why would a feminist like me swoon over these shows that are not only repetitive and cliched, but commonly outright misogynist and selling dangerous ideas to the Korean youth they are aimed at?
First, let me back up the second part of that question with some examples. K-dramas are all about romance, but that romance usually begins with a man who is in a position of power over the woman (in almost every case I’ve seen the man is super-rich while the woman is poor) repeatedly grabbing her wrist and dragging her around; claiming ownership of her when she has not expressed any interest; and forcibly backing her into kisses that she does not want or respond to. Even more worryingly, said woman then always falls for the man in question and looks back on those forced kisses as beautiful moments.
This was another random Netflix recommendation, and it was a really good one. Hello, My Twenties! (also known in English as Age of Youth) cuts through a lot of the tropes of Korean TV. The lead characters are all women and they’re not lame! Some of them have sex before marriage and it’s not a big deal! There’s not even one overarching storyline, but instead several intersecting ones!
This show is also unusual among K-dramas in that it’s had two seasons and is in discussions for a third, and that doesn’t spoil it at all. Both seasons one and two wrapped up some storylines while leaving others open-ended and each time this felt right as both an ending and a possible opener for more to come.
The basis is a shared house in Seoul called Belle Epoque and the five women who share it (one of whom changes for the second season). Over the short seasons (12–14 episodes) we get to know the women – their friends, their love lives, their taste in food and clothes – and we watch them becoming friends with each other. As this is a typical flatshare, the women didn’t know each other before moving in and are very different. They probably wouldn’t have met, let alone become friends, without this house. In season one, each episode largely concentrates on one of the women, so their secrets are revealed gradually – and they all have secrets.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang translated from Korean by Deborah Smith
As you’ll have noticed, I have been watching a lot of South Korean TV shows this year. It all started with a random Netflix recommendation, and I enjoyed that first taste so much that I immediately asked for more suggestions on Twitter. Naturally, all that screen time has got me curious about life in modern Korea, so it seemed about time that I picked up a book or two by Korean writers.
This Korean novella was a huge deal when it was released in English, winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. It’s an odd book and provoked a strong reaction in me, but I’m still trying to pin down what that reaction is exactly.
Yeong-hye has always been a dutiful, if dull, wife – until the day she stops eating meat. This angers her husband and family far more than it seems to merit, and they question her mental health, while she blames it on a recurring dream. Where the story goes from there either means being vegetarian in Korea is a seriously radical act, or that Yeong-hye’s decision is a symptom of something else – whether it’s marriage problems, nightmares or indeed her mental health.
As all K-dramas, no matter the genre, seem to have a heavy dose of romance, I decided to check one out that is 100% romance. And oh man, I certainly got what I asked for. Uncontrollably Fond (2016) is overblown, overwrought, over-serious melodrama. But it looks beautiful. And it isn’t pretending to be anything it isn’t – the warning signs were there from the start.
The opening scene is peppered with shots of a blossom petal floating gently to the ground – a recurring motif so cliched I almost laughed out loud. But then this is a series full of cliches: secret relatives, arranged marriage, super-rich people using the poor to gain advantage, critical illness, blackmail and lots of lies. A surprising amount of this information is revealed in the first two episodes, meaning that a quick plot summary can’t be all that quick.
Sin Jun-young is a major star – actor, pop idol, model (much like Kim Woo-bin who plays him) – and we meet him refusing to film a death scene, which we shortly after learn is because he is dying of an inoperable brain tumour. He of course hasn’t told anyone this, but he has started searching for his ex-girlfriend No Eul (Bae Su-ji, better known as Suzy from K-pop group Miss A), who handily turns up on his doorstep trying to persuade him to take part in a documentary series. Directing this show will save her career, which is faltering thanks to a bribe she accepted to stop investigating a corrupt company – a bribe she desperately needed to keep loan sharks at bay.
I think this might be my favourite K-drama so far. It’s another one recommended to me as having a kickass female lead, and this time I actually agree. It’s not perfect, but it has a lot going for it.
The setting is Haneul Sports University in Seoul. Our lead characters are 21-year-old athletes from three of the university’s sports teams: swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and weightlifting. There’s swimmer Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk) who would be the best swimmer on the team but he keeps getting panic attacks at competitions. There’s his ex-girlfriend Song Shi-ho (Kyung Soo-jin) a rhythmic gymnast who has just come back from the national training centre after losing her place on the national team. And of course Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung), the star weightlifter in her year.
Bok-joo is quickly established as a good daughter, a good friend and a defender against bullies. She helps her father and uncle at the fried chicken restaurant they run and goes to as many of her father’s dialysis appointments as her training schedule allows. She spends her free time with besties and fellow weightlifters Jung Nan-hee, a very girly girl, and Lee Seon-ok, a straight shooter who tends to hide her emotions. Bok-joo herself is a tomboy, which is working well for her until her first big crush, when she becomes self-conscious about the fact that she weightlifts and doesn’t have a traditionally feminine appearance.
I am very torn in my reactions to this K-drama. On the one hand, I love the lead character and the setting felt more like a realistic modern Seoul than any of the other dramas I’ve seen set there, except maybe Doctors (Strong Woman Do Bong Soon first aired in Korea in 2017 so it is the newest K-drama I have watched). On the other hand, the sense of humour can be not only juvenile, but also homophobic.
And it started so well! This show juggles a few different genres and to begin with I loved the switches from one to another, but they were less well balanced in the second half. Similarly, the storylines all started strongly, but got a bit lost around the halfway point. It’s almost as though different writers took it over. It’s certainly the first time with one of these K-dramas where it hasn’t felt carefully plotted from start to finish.
Genre one is superhero, and the superhero in question is Do Bong-soon (played by Park Bo-young). She is a petite 27-year-old who didn’t do well enough at school to go to university, has never held one job for long, but dreams of designing computer games. Oh, and she has supernatural strength, which she uses to save people from danger. She’s cute and girly but also a little bolshy, which probably comes from her experience of standing up to bullies.