Riding the Korean Wave: How K-dramas Became an International Sensation
In the midst of our world suffering from a life-altering pandemic crisis, many are navigating through this uncertainty and finding comfort and solace in books, art, music, films, and TV shows now more than ever. As I scrolled through my social media feed, I can’t help but notice the latest craze for a Korean drama (K-drama) currently streaming on Netflix called Crash Landing on You (2019). As someone who has never developed an interest in K-dramas, I was eager to find out how and why this Korean wave of culture from music, pop bands, games, movies, and TV series has stolen hearts, sparked movements, and influenced thousands of people from every corner of the globe.
The Road to World Domination
K-dramas’ roots can be traced back to the ’60s when Korean Broadcasting System (KBS) aired the first historical TV series known as Gukto Manri. As its popularity grew in the ’70s, storylines evolved into portrayals of national heroes such as Sejong the Great and Lee Sun-shin as well as intimate familial dramas as depicted in Saeeomma. Premature technology, limited funding, and inadequate film sets hindered filmmakers from producing elaborate stories that fall under genres such as action and sci-fi, as it requires intricate set pieces and special effects that are costly. Therefore, the most practical solution was to acquire foreign content.
…a new commercial channel known as Seoul Broadcasting System produced successful avant-garde dramas like Sandglass…
When color television was implemented in Korea in the ’80s, it revolutionized the country’s TV industry and produced its first commercially high-rated show, Love and Ambition (1987), which was aired by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation. Because of this progress, watching shows and staying at home ultimately became a favorite pastime for most Koreans. As technology became more sophisticated in the ’90s, a new commercial channel known as Seoul Broadcasting System produced successful avant-garde dramas like Sandglass (1995). This groundbreaking series introduced the miniseries format and set the standard for the K-dramas that we love today. As these K-dramas were exported internationally and K-pop bands rose to fame, it built an impressive audience over the years, paving the way for people to develop a deep attraction and attachment to the Korean culture. Thus, Hallyu or popularly known as the Korean Wave began dominating the world.
As of last year, there were at least eighteen million viewers that watch K-dramas in the US alone. Unlike Hollywood-produced series, the story structure of K-dramas usually spans from sixteen to twenty episodes, and each lasting for about an hour and a half. This format makes it binge-worthy, easy to digest, and memorable for its viewers.
Oftentimes, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about K-dramas is its over-the-top, tear-jerking, and excessively dramatic and romantic storylines. While it’s true, K-dramas also sheds light on important social classes, political systems, social customs, and familial issues. It heavily focuses on stories that give justice to their society, values, and traditions, the portrayal of strong female characters and vulnerable men, pursuing your dreams, and innocence of relationships that prove love conquers all. It also uses minimal violence, foul language, and vulgar physical intimacy that we don’t get from Western series nowadays. These are the unique characteristics and elements that keep Western audiences glued to their couches and lose sleep over K-dramas.
Needless to say, it is no surprise that Netflix prioritized investing in the production of their own original K-dramas, as it has become one of the most in-demand and booming TV markets today.
Overcoming the Barriers
If there’s anything that Academy-Award winning South Korean filmmaker, Bong Joon-Ho, taught us is that Korean filmmakers have indisputably perfected the art of storytelling. His impressive feat of making history at the 92nd Academy Awards not only opened doors for international filmmakers, but also exposed audiences to a goldmine of significant, intellectual, and unparalleled global stories from the East that deserve to be told and recognized.
Even before finishing my first K-drama, Netflix’s Crash Landing on You (2019), I found myself already craving the next binge-worthy series to add to my list. If you’re new to the fandom like me, it’s best to start with popular K-dramas such as Boys Over Flowers (2009), Secret Garden (2010), My Love from the Star (2013), Descendants of the Sun (2016), Crash Landing on You (2019), and Abyss (2019) to name a few. It was an enriching learning experience that allows you to have a profound understanding and knowledge about the world, a country’s rich history, culture, societal norms, and the people who shape it. The layers of verbal and non-verbal emotions, escalating tension, cinematic sceneries, and unexpected twists and turns all lead to a cathartic resolution that will surely knock you off your feet.
As of last year, there were at least eighteen million viewers that watch K-dramas in the US alone.
As audiences, if we only open our minds to foreign films and TV series, we would be more discerning, well-rounded, and grounded individuals. There’s a cornucopia of life that exists beyond our own, we just need to let art, cinema, or whichever form it manifests to inspire, challenge, and change us; so, we could make well-informed decisions as to how we could target particular circumstances and positively impact our society the best way we can. As Bong Joon Ho eloquently said, “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”