Introduction to Korean Drama & Sageuk



INTRO TO KDRAMA & SAGEUK
KOREAN DRAMA AWARDS
WHERE TO WATCH KOREAN DRAMA
SUBTITLES & DUBBING
WHAT IS THE NAME OF THIS KOREAN DRAMA??
MORE NEWBIE RESOURCES
KDRAMA WEBSITES & BLOGS
KOREAN DRAMA RECOMMENDATIONS
JUMP TO COMMENTS

INTRO TO KDRAMA & SAGEUK ^

Korean drama differs from American TV series in several significant ways. First of all, most dramas are produced as a complete series with a fully developed storyline for a specific number of episodes (1-100+), after which the series ends and the actors move on to a new one. Occasionally, extra episodes or even an additional season is added to extend an extremely popular drama, but this is unusual. Dramas are typically aired at the rate of two episodes a week, on back-to-back nights, although there are also weekly and daily series.

If you hate characters whose personalities change depending on who wrote the episode this week, not to mention storylines forever unfinished due to abrupt cancellation, you’ll find a lot to like about this model. It also reduces the lag between production and air date, so that Korean dramas often reflect recent events that are still in the news in their storylines.

You will notice a lot of American music in Korean dramas, especially during restaurant scenes. A LOT of American music. And the selections may surprise you (70s pop songs seem to be particularly popular). Background music is almost always western in style as well. Kpop songs may also be featured, and OST (original sound track) releases are common for hit dramas.

KDrama episodes are longer than US TV programs, from 40 minutes to an hour of actual episode time, with limited commercial breaks. The bulk of the commercials may be played in one long session before or after the episode, depending on your viewing venue.

This allows you to fully engage with the magnificent acting. Even young actors (of which there are many) have a mastery of nuance and expression that is rarely seen in US TV. The depth and realism this brings to Korean drama (even with the most makjang storylines) is instantly recognizable to viewers all over the world, regardless of their culture, gender, age, or native tongue. If you visit some of the blogs listed below, you will read over and over “one episode and I was hooked.” If you haven’t tried Korean drama yet, remember, you were warned :)

There is plenty of genre variety within Korean drama, although you will also begin to recognize certain character types, plot twists, and familiar phrases after you have watched for awhile (see 5 signs that you are watching a Korean drama, 7 familiar characters in Korean drama, and 10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama). Sageuk refers specifically to Korean historical drama. Makjang refers to extreme and colorful plot developments (thanks to dramabeans for the definition).

Whatever the label, most dramas combine serious and comic elements, and the versatile actors manage whatever the script throws at them. There is a lot of crossover between entertainment genres in Korea – drama actors may also be KPop stars, fashion models (men, too, possibly even more often than women), film actors, and/or emcees.

Before I loaded my mp3 player with Korean lessons, I listened to books read aloud by volunteers, compliments of Librivox.org. Since these books have to be in the public domain, many are 100+ years old, which means I have listened to far more than my share of Victorian-era novels.

I don’t know if eastern and western literature influenced each other or if the elements of a good story transcend culture, but KDrama and Victorian popular novels have a lot in common. Both feature Dickensian storylines full of birth secrets, sudden changes of fortune, abductions, vengeance, barely missed connections, statistically impossible coincidences, labyrinthine subplots, myriads of colorful secondary characters, and episode-to-episode cliffhangers. If you enjoy Korean drama, you should also check out Librivox – makjang is by no means limited to Korean TV!

KOREAN DRAMA AWARDS ^

If you research Korean actors, you’ll often notice a list of the awards they’ve won at the end of the entry. You’ll also notice that these awards are network-specific. Yes, that’s right, each network makes its own awards, to the actors in its own series.

WHERE TO WATCH KOREAN DRAMA ^

If you have cable or satellite TV, check for Korean channels. The major Korean broadcast networks are KBS, MBS and SBS. There are also a number of cable networks. KBS America is specifically targeted to US viewers, and most programs (except, mysteriously, news) are English subtitled. KBS is government-owned, and in some ways resembles US public television, with documentaries about the lives of working-class Koreans, travel, music and other cultural programming, but with dramas, talk, comedy and game shows, it is more mainstream in its approach than its American counterpart.

Don’t forget to check your local broadcast stations, especially if you live in an area with a sizeable Asian population. I first encountered Korean drama on a Chinese station, and it is also occasionally aired on a local public TV station. If your TV was made after 2004, you can probably receive these channels over the airwaves just by adding a good antenna (if it’s older, you may also need to purchase a converter box).

Of course, many dramas can also be streamed online. There are official venues such as DramaFever, Viki, CrunchyRoll, and MVIBO. You can watch dramas with commercials for free, or pay a monthly subscription fee for ad-free viewing (typically about $10/month or less, depending on the subscription period). Amazon.com has a few Korean titles (mostly mediocre films), and you can stream some of DramaFever’s content through Hulu (which may work better for viewers with older computers. Downside: more commercials) and Netflix. Online viewing can be hazardous, as there is nothing to stop you from engaging in whole-series marathons!

Viewer-shared episodes are also available on sites such as Drama Crazy and EPDrama. I have no idea what the legality of streaming shared Korean TV in another country is – inform yourself before partaking. The video and subtitling quality on shared sites are highly variable, and pop-up ads on these sites sometimes contain malicious bugs, so good antivirus software is a must for anyone who plans to explore them. Each episode is usually broken up into 4 to 6 short segments, which may or may not all be available, and the same episode may be divided up differently by different hosts. Links that claim to be English-subtitled often lead to videos that aren’t really subtitled. As you may gather, the use of these services can be frustrating and risky, so there is not much to recommend them if the same drama is available on a legit service. More about subtitles in the next section.

There is a large and organized community of drama fans who not only share “raw” (unsubtitled) video of dramas, but who create and provide subtitles for the drama-sharing community, a true labor of love. In an interesting evolution, networks that once regarded these communities as pirates have entered into license agreements with online providers such as Viki (and DramaFever in its startup phase), which utilize the fan subs to save the prohibitive expense of creating their own.

Here’s a 5-part interview with DramaFever’s co-founders from 2009 which describes their role in bringing Korean drama to the US. Their analysis of the market demand and the improvements they could offer over shared drama is right on, and their vision for DramaFever has largely come to pass. In the couple of years since I became aware of them, their selection has mushroomed, shall I say, dramatically :) Korean networks are also reducing the lagtime between broadcast in Korea and online licensing in the US, as international fans clamor for hit series like Vampire Prosecutor.

SUBTITLES & DUBBING ^

Bad subtitles can destroy the viewing experience, but home subtitles supplied by video sharers can also add dimension that was absent from “official,” squeaky clean subtitles. Once you learn a few Korean swearwords, you’ll laugh when they are translated as “darn.” Because nobody swears in the US, right?

Avoid dubbed dramas if you possibly can. Dubbing undermines the acting and Korean flavor of the drama. Drama can be both dubbed AND subtitled – the first sageuk I saw was dubbed in Chinese, and although the drama was set in the 9th century, the English subtitles were phrased in hilariously inappropriate urban American slang. Watching the same episodes with Korean audio was a completely different and vastly more satisfying experience, even before I understood a word of Korean.

WHAT IS THE NAME OF THIS KOREAN DRAMA?? ^

Small local TV stations may not have accurate listings, or may list timeslots by network rather than program title. It’s possible to watch a drama for days (or even weeks) without knowing what it is. Credits are rarely subtitled. Most of the time, neither is the name of the show. Even if you can read Hangul, the title of the program is often a handwritten scrawl that flashes on the screen far too briefly to decipher. Episodes may also be aired in partial segments to fit the local viewing schedule or make time for commercials, so the station’s episode numbers may not reflect the original numbering.

If you are trying to identify a drama, your best bet is to search on the name of one of the characters as it appears in the subtitles + Korean drama. Bear in mind that that there is no single “correct” way to romanize (phonetically represent using the western alphabet) a Korean word or name. If your search isn’t bringing up any clues, feel free to leave a comment below with the spelling of the character’s name as it appears in the subtitles. I’d be happy to provide some alternate spellings for you to search on.

MORE NEWBIE RESOURCES ^

Mihansa.net Korean Culture page – Korean drama raises many questions for the non-Korean viewer: What is up with all the incest and birth secrets? How come everyone in that family seems to have the same name? If my brother is dating your sister, why I can’t date you? Why do the subtitles use a different name than what the characters are actually calling each other? I’m no expert, but I looked a few things up so you wouldn’t have to, and compiled some links for further exploration.

Useful Stuff – This page on the ocdramadee blog lists essential resources for new Kdrama fans, including some streaming sites that may be more accessible to non-U.S. fans, especially in SE Asia (she is based in Malaysia). The fact that my Intro page is the first link has absolutely no bearing on the page being linked here :)

Glossary – The Fangirl Verdict’s glossary goes beyond the usual basics to include Korean slang used in dramas, and fan slang used about dramas. Very illuminating. Only drawback: no Hangeul.

KDRAMA WEBSITES & BLOGS ^

There are a LOT of English-language blogs and websites partially or completely devoted to Korean Drama. Every time I look up anything related to Korea, I stumble across more.

Outside Seoul – Offers a very organized reviewing and rating system. I like Amanda’s blog because she’s not afraid to use the “the other F word” (feminism). She also provides an extensive and regularly updated list of KDrama blogs and resources (including Mihansa, bless her 마음) that puts my scrawny list to shame.

DramaBeans is the Queen of Korean Drama blogs – if not for their glossary, I might think all that makjang was for real! The Kdrama reviews and recaps go back for years. It can be a bit difficult to find things on such a large site (not their fault – blog platforms have notoriously lousy search engines). Sometimes it works better to do a Google search on “dramabeans – whatever you are looking for.”

Thundie’s Prattle – Another long-running, well-stocked and widely loved KDrama blog, which Thundie shares with several regular guest bloggers. As of January 2013, Thundie is fighting cancer. Stop by and wish her well.

Electric Ground – This blog by two Korean-Americans features cultural information along with drama reviews, and a great directory, with links to fansub and download sites as well as to other drama blogs. Also offers a fabulously in-depth discussion of honorific levels (with drama video examples!), which will clear up a lot of questions for students of Korean.

Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki (wiki-d-addicts) – are invaluable resources for looking up cast and credit information. I prefer Asian Wiki, as it includes cast pictures. WARNING: both of these sites can include spoilers in the plot synopsis (which, unfortunately, is at the top of the page), and sometimes even in the series photo, so blur your eyes and look away as you page down. Also, they are wikis (content comes from users), so the material is not always accurate. I have seen entries that had incorrect or even switched character names, or had errors in the plot description.

Modern Korean Cinema is a great Korean film website with reviews, box office figures, and film-related news, such as festivals, upcoming releases, etc.

HanCinema is a more commercial site, but it’s a good resource for finding particular actors or dramas (also films), and it shows titles and names in Hangul as well as romanized. There’s a community forum section, which I have not joined. If you know anything about it, please share a comment.

Dahee’s Plastic Castle – Korean drama (mostly) blog by a Korean (/American?) feminist. Covers music, film, entertainment news, and other related topics as well. As of February 2013, is posting translations of essays by a Korean drama writer which are a fascinating read.

Kaede + Jun – Another blog – he covers other Asian drama too, but it’s primarily about KDrama.

Lady Puddingpost is perhaps less of a deconstructionist about her drama than I am, but she also sees the Victorian connection, and her episode reviews of Honor Man|Glory Jane are a hoot (I contributed comments to the last few). The link is to her KDrama section, but she also has other interests – anime, film, manga, early 20th century children’s books, and Masterpiece Theater, to name a few. No posts since October 2012.

KoreanWiz.org – This Hawai’ian blogger offers an alphabetized list of Korean Dramas, and a list of US TV stations that air KDrama, as well as links to KDrama discussion forums and fan clubs for KDrama actors.

Koreanfilms.org – This page of their website features reviews for selected TV Dramas (dating from 1995-2007).

Leonard Norwitz’s KDrama reviews – Don’t forget to check out his “Introduction to Korean Drama” for another “How I fell in love with KDrama” story.

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40 comments to Introduction to Korean Drama & Sageuk

  • Gasenadi

    Thanks for the links! Tho a recent, 15-month-old convert to kdramas, may I recommend two more sageuks for you? The Princess’ Man had me glued to my screen right up til the holiday guests arrived at the door. When they slept, I stayed up ALL NIGHT to catch up! Then there’s my all-time favorite drama of them all: The Slave Hunters (Chuno). In this brief time, I’ve seen it four times already, focusing on a different aspect/character each time. Next, I’ll watch for the politics.

    • Mihansa

      Oh, that’s right, The Princess’ Man has been recommended on Mihansa.net before – I should’ve thought of that one. I don’t think I’ve heard of The Slave Hunters before, but I’ll check it out. I notice they are both a reasonable 24 episodes, not always the case with sageuk. Not that I have anything against longer dramas, but they can pose a health risk for drama fans with marathoner tendencies :) Thanks for posting some suggestions for Darling.

  • Cher

    Hello, I am as much in love with this site as my 12 year old and I with the Kpop we have started watching. *blush* Jang Geun Suk .. so much awesome to me!

    Thank you so much for your extraordinary desciptions and teaching. I appreciate your sharing your knowledge so we can more fully enjoy the exploration. I’m not a huge fan of most American dramas and shows – I don’t even have cable anymore because of it. We use Hulu, Netflix or the internet and am SO pleased that we can find so many excellent shows there.

    Please, keep this web-site up so that I can refer to it constantly. :)

    • Mihansa

      Many thanks for your kind words. I agree about Jang Geun Suk – he has a style all his own :)

      I also agree about American TV, although the offerings are a little better this season than I’ve seen in awhile. But the richness of Kdrama acting spoils a viewer for anything else.

      If you haven’t already discovered it, you might also want to check out Viki.com, another legal streaming venue based in the US.

      Don’t worry, I have no intention of giving up Kdrama or Mihansa.net anytime soon. In fact, Mihansa.net’s first birthday is coming up on Wednesday. It’s so annoying when the pesky demands of daily life intrude on my drama time, but I’m working on a plan to give up sleep so that won’t be a problem anymore!

      • Cher

        If you don’t get sleep then that means there is no hope for the rest of us, LOL!

        We’re on our 5th show now (Faith) and as a new Kdrama nerd I created a spreadsheet to add any I come across. Do you happen to know of any compilations and whether it would be rated? As in recommended or meh? So far in our order of 5 – best to meh’st (which we haven’t seen anything we haven’t liked to meh’st is really a 7 or 8).

        Boys Before Flowers
        Secret Garden
        You’re beautiful
        Faith
        Mary Stayed Out All Night

        I’d like to have a better idea for variety (as in Faith is more action/bloody than I expected) and am looking forward to beginning some of the historicals as well.

        Thank you in advance!

        • Mihansa

          Hi Cher – nice to see you again. Not quite sure what you mean by a compilation? I have noticed that taste in dramas is highly individual. Even people who mostly like the same dramas can find themselves on opposite ends of the love/hate spectrum about certain dramas. I don’t do ratings, partly because of this individuality of taste, and also because my own feelings about a drama can change over time as I learn more about Korean culture and see other dramas.

          Since there is a lot of interest in finding the next drama that will really hit the spot, I decided to create a new page called Finding Your Next Korean Drama. Visitors can post a comment about what dramas they liked and are looking for, and other visitors can post replies with recommendations.

          Over time, if there is good participation and patterns emerge, I may be able to put together a page with “drama fans who liked this also liked…” recommendations, so please visit the page to post your requests and recommendations.

      • Cher

        OOPSY! Happy Anniversary come late Mihandsa.net! I just realized you had responded to me .. now I know the importance of those lil ole check boxes. :)

    • Darling

      I just wanted to say that viki.com and dramacrazy are other good sources….dramacrazy uploads the dramas with subtitles the day the episode airs..im pretty pleased with their speed. :) I love adult k-drama fans :))

      • Cher

        We found a few full length movies in YouTube also but we haven’t watched anything newer than last year yet but will keep DramaCrazy in mind. Ack! And how’d you know I was an adult? I could be a kpop fan in disguise? :P (I actually do have a love for Team H .. but my music interests normally lie with metal (all countries), rap, country, etc ..)

  • Princess’ Man! I have been recommending that left and right. It nearly killed me but it was one of the best pieces of epic storytelling I have ever watched. I cannot recommend it enough. It’s such an absorbing character piece – the nuances and colour are brought out so well, and that is even aside from the tight plotting and lush cinematography. It’s that way of making the small things big.

    I’m not Korean (I’m still sad about that XD) and I haven’t been watching kdrama for very long, but there’s *something* about their storytelling that hits all my sweet spots. I come across things that I passionately like, and then the next few years are a search for that same feeling – I had it for Gilmore Girls, and then I found Merlin (so. much. love.)…and then I found kdrama, and I haven’t looked back.

    I do pick and choose what I’ll watch very carefully, so I’ve tried to avoid dramas of dubious quality, but I do that with anything. I feel that when I invest that much time and emotion into it, I want it to be worth it. I love character-driven stories, with the kind of direction that makes everything mean something, and the best part is getting the emotional payoff. And that is something most of the dramas I’ve watched did. so. well. (Not all – there were notable exceptions XD)

    I’ve been browsing your site today, and I’ve really enjoyed it! Bookmarked. I hope you’ll keep up the great work, and happy anniversary!

    • Mihansa

      Hi Saya – glad you found me, and thanks for the birthday wishes :)

      You should check out Damo, if you’re strong enough to weather a tough ending (that’s not a spoiler, since I haven’t finished it yet, but I have a bad feeling). It’s beautifully filmed, the storyline explores political and social issues in a first person, engaging way, and the acting is, of course, passionate!

      “Making the small things big” makes me think of Jane Austen. I see a lot of parallels between Kdrama storytelling, and English novels of the 18th and 19th century, though I’m not sure who influenced whom. The series format of Korean drama does allow meaningful detail, though in bad dramas, sometimes you get more without getting better.

      Even bad dramas usually have engaging elements, though. The plots can be absurd, and the characters far too mutable and/or predictable, but the actors play them with utter conviction, and that’s hard to turn away from even when the material is mediocre. American actors seem to be phoning it in by comparison, especially on long-running series.

      I’m curious what else you’ve watched, and also how you decide what to watch?

  • > Even bad dramas usually have engaging elements
    This is definitely true. Although sometimes it is a fine line between being engaged, and being cheated.

    > You should check out Damo, if you’re strong enough to weather a tough ending
    I’ve been meaning to, ever since I read what Joonni said about Queen In-Hyun’s Man (which I loved with passionate passion) – that until she watched QIHM, Damo had been her Great Love, with the difference that QIHM tears out your heart, then gives you it back, and Damo…doesn’t. Which makes me scared to watch it, especially after having my heart torn into shreds before.

    I never think I’m strong enough, and I never go into something expecting heartbreak! But then it happens anyway, and I am astonished that I survive. It’s kind of like life XD You don’t seek out crucibilous (that is now a word) experiences, but you weather it out because…the only way out is through.

    I’m fascinated by the connection between 18th/19th century storytelling and kdrama: I think that is always what has appealed to me most in the latter, that there was such a craftmanship in the story that modern works often miss. It’s that tradeoff between telling a story, and storytelling – does that distinction make sense? The former is the ordinary, everyday narration everyone and their dog can do, while the latter is a deliberate stylistic work, and the better it is, the more layers you find, the more intricacy and design there is. I just love style in storytelling – I’m a huge reader as well, and I’ve studied Latin and Arabic literature to an extent, so I’ve always been very aware of technique. To see devices I normally encounter in literature used in drama, and to such effect…sends me to my happy place.

    > the actors play them with utter conviction, and that’s hard to turn away from even when the material is mediocre
    This. Totally agree – that’s how I felt about Rooftop Prince and Secret Garden.

    I hope you don’t mind this comment getting too long! So much to pick out from your reply!

    My list of dramas watched isn’t huge, but it’s more than I expected when I counted! The recomender is in brackets. In order of watching:
    - You’re Beautiful (sister1)
    - Queen In-Hyun’s Man (sister1)
    - Rooftop Prince (sister2′s favourite)
    - Coffee Prince (sister2′s friend)
    - Hong Gil Dong
    - Secret Garden (Korean missionary I met)
    - My Name is Kim Sam Soon
    - School 2013
    - My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
    - Flower Boy Next Door
    - Answer Me 1997 (sister2′s friend)
    - Princess’ Man (sister1)
    - Sungkyunkwan Scandal (currently watching)

    I didn’t love everything I watched, but all of them were worth the time (except perhaps Rooftop Prince – that one just…made no sense and drove me mad, even if it had hilarious moments BUT IT STILL MADE NO SENSE). My to-watch list is also pretty long. Well. Really long.

    My sister (sister1, lul) is the person who introduced me to kdrama, and I watched the first two with her, while she recommended a few more – but she has the interesting trait of not being a finisher: she gets to the 2/3 mark and loses interest, or she watches 1 ep of something, and then leaves me to finish (because I *am* a finisher, unless it is One Tree Hill, ugh Chad Michael Murray). I take recommendations from people who know what I like or who have similar tastes to me (i.e. sisters and some friends), but I still research before I watch – I’ll read reviews and ratings, and note the writers.

    My #1 watering hole is Dramabeans – Javabeans and girlfriday are complete kindred spirits to me, so their ratings page is a good indicator. And then it’s just diving in. I also love the added experience of reading recaps alongside – especially as a newbie to Korean culture and language, not only does it give depth to the storytelling experience, it also helps me to understand things I couldn’t have known.

    I agree about American dramas – this is why something like Gilmore girls is so…unconventional, considering the current TV landscape. It says something about our conditioning as viewers that it took me such a long time to accept with GG that nothing awful was imminent – we get so used to the crazy unexpected makjang that we *expect* it. Amy Sherman Palladino (Gilmore girls writer) once talked about how every episode of a TV drama is meant to have 3 or 5 ‘!’ moments, for each commercial break – it’s practically formula. But it’s not how she tells the story.

    I think British period dramas come closest to matching the kdrama feel – relating back to Jane Austen and literature from that period (like watch the 2004 BBC adaptation of Sense and Sensibility – it was delicious). My other great TV love is Merlin, which plot-wise isn’t always spectacular (and S5 is practically an abomination), but the characters climb into your heart and stay there.

    This comment is too long so I will stop writing now XD

    • Mihansa

      Please don’t censor yourself for the sake of brevity. I never do :)

      I was watching something-or-other the other night with really marvelous special effects, and reflecting on how much things have changed since 1960s TV, when the NBC peacock (and later, a rather psychedelic 7-Up commercial) were the height of video artistry. But I can’t remember what it was that I was watching. I think it’s because it makes the viewer too passive. You just sit there and wait for the stimulation to come at you, telling you everything you need to know with no effort on your part whatsoever, instead of participating within your own imagination. That’s where the loss of storytelling has taken us.

      Another favorite storytelling venue of mine is Old Time Radio, which encompasses radio drama from about the 1930s into the 1960s. Since the medium originated before TV, it was necessary to access the imagination of viewers in order to engage them. There are some really great series, such as Lux Radio Theater, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and Broadway is My Beat. They’re all in the public domain now, so you can download them to an mp3 player, which makes mundane housework and long commutes a lot more fun.

      You are lucky to have been introduced to Kdrama by other fans. I stumbled across it on a Chinese TV station, and didn’t even know it was Korean for weeks (it turned out it was dubbed in Chinese). It was a year before I met other Kdrama fans, during which I felt as if I was living a double life. I told my friends and relations about it, but they looked at me as if they weren’t quite sure whether I was pulling their leg, and changed the subject.

      Once I did start meeting other drama fans, it quickly became obvious that tastes can differ extremely. I was amused by your comments on Rooftop Prince, since another Mihansa visitor posted about it awhile back, obviously in the throes of withdrawal, wishing for another drama just like it. I haven’t seen it, so I’m not taking sides on Rooftop Prince in particular. However, generally speaking, I enjoy the feeling of traveling to another era that sageuk offers. Anachronisms like visits to the future or shiny 21st century drones annoy me. Which is funny, since I’m a lifelong sci fi fan. Everything in its place, I guess.

      • > I think it’s because it makes the viewer too passive. You just sit there and wait for the stimulation to come at you

        You know there’s actually a huge cognitive difference in how we process what we read via a book, and what we view via TV/screen, which is essentially exactly what you describe: the brain goes into a passive receptive state (I’m messing with my science here, sorry science), nothing like the cognitive activity during reading. Wait, I know you know this. Everyone does XD

        What is worst about passive acceptance is that people fail to be critical of the media they consume, and this is increasingly true even for books. There’s a difference between suspension of disbelief, and accepting the unacceptable which is often ignored when people begin this conversation: it implies that if you are critical, then you can’t enjoy it. There’s a baseline of discernment that I wish people would show when it comes to their media consumption. (i.e. the problematic aspects of Secret Garden and Rooftop Prince, and my sister told me Boys Over Flowers basically opens with an assault, which gets glossed over – she refused to watch it on principle, and I agree. And yet, it’s a huge favourite among viewers…I want someone to explain this! Is it like Twilight?)

        I guess this is why I find it difficult to find my place in the kdrama-viewing community at large – when it becomes about icons and idols and following the pretty, it loses me because that isn’t why I’m there. BUT as I’m making more adventurous forays into the community, I’m finding a richness of the things I do love, like right here.

        I grew up on audiobooks, and I find them a distinctly different flavour to both books and TV – as their own medium, they’re brilliant. I’ve already bookmarked your recs, thank you! How different are audiobooks to radio plays, do you know?

        > It was a year before I met other Kdrama fans, during which I felt as if I was living a double life. I told my friends and relations about it, but they looked at me as if they weren’t quite sure whether I was pulling their leg, and changed the subject.

        I feel you, sister! I am lucky that at least my niche interests are in common with my sisters. Having obscure interests is both liberating and constricting, isn’t it? On the one hand, there is all of this unexplored territory, but on the other, you may spend large parts of it alone. God bless the internet!

        I’ve brought kdrama up a few times in conversations with some RL friends since it has become such a staple in my life, but with mostly negative responses – one was downright derogatory. Kdrama seems to have been maligned for no reason at all. I’ve made my peace with it, and it feels like a happy secret. The less the waters are muddied, the better? I don’t know if this is just what I tell myself to lessen the sting, though XD

        I have a lot of thoughts on Rooftop Prince, but I don’t like to influence what people think before they watch something. So when you’ve watched it, I’d be happy to lay it all out! People should like what they like without reference to other people’s opinions. Their squee should not be harshed! Also I finished Sungkyunkwan Scandal – I’m thinking City Hunter next (I tend to alternate sageuk with non-sageuk, to whet my anticipation for each one, and also to make sure my brain keeps them distinct from each other), and then Arang and the Magistrate. In an unplanned coincidence (lol), Park Min-Young is also in City Hunter, and yay, things connect, and I like things connecting.

        You know what I always wonder about sageuk? I know it sounds inane, but…clothes. Is it like a BBC period drama, where there is a central repository of costumes reused over and over? I feel like I recognise clothes in different dramas (not to mention the Joseon royal wardrobe) – I watched the opening couple of minutes of Arang and the Magistrate, and I could swear the hanbok the guy was wearing was one of Yoochun’s from SKKS. It’s a mystery! Do you know anything about it?

        • Mihansa

          > the brain goes into a passive receptive state , nothing like the cognitive activity during reading. Wait, I know you know this. Everyone does XD

          I think we do know this intuitively, which is why we turn to TV and video when we feel tired. We want our brains to be active enough to distract us from thoughts we need a break from, whether work-related, or other life issues that aren’t going to be solved right this minute. The distraction can be stimulating, but not too thought-provoking. We don’t want anything that will add to the burden of serious thoughts we are trying to take a rest from.

          This made me ask myself if I am less inclined to read when I’m in that space. The thing is, I hardly ever read books anymore. I mostly listen to them (bless you, Librivox), and because of the format change from visual to auditory, I’m much more likely to “read” while I’m physically active (with rote physical tasks, shopping or walking). Conversely, the lack of a physical component to audio reading (i.e., holding the book, engaging the eyes) makes me less likely to turn to it when I’m feeling tired – I feel as if I’m not doing enough physically.

          However, there was a period in my life when I lived off the electrical grid, and I’m sure I read then as I watch TV now.

          >Boys Over Flowers basically opens with an assault, which gets glossed over – she refused to watch it on principle, and I agree. And yet, it’s a huge favourite among viewers…I want someone to explain this!

          I’ve come across this before in Kdrama (in Can Love Become Money, there is an implied gang rape of the heroine by loan sharks near the beginning. The lead loan shark later becomes her best friend’s love interest!). I think it’s partly exactly what you said about suspending critical faculties instead of just suspending disbelief. I also think there’s a good dollop of sexist trivialization of rape involved. And finally, there’s the Korean tendency to give most villains a backstory, so we understand their behavior in context. Generally, this is something I really like about Kdrama, but there are times where they go too far (especially with the reformation of loan sharks, for some reason), and make a transformation suffice where a westerner feels a need of punishment.

          This is part of a larger issue that Koreans seem to be working out in their popular culture all over the place, which is how to constructively alleviate rage over having been victimized. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, vengeance is an extremely popular theme in drama, film, and even in Kpop. The Korean criminal justice system is still in development, and has been riddled with scandals, not to mention a general neglect of crimes against women and children, especially sex crimes.

          I get the impression there’s a long cultural history of right, and even obligation, to take personal vengeance, yet there’s also a recognition that this creates as many problems as it solves (if it solves any). I just don’t think they’ve figured out what to do instead yet. Confucianism and Buddhism can seem be diametrically opposed over this issue. Both the right to vengeance, and karma (for the avenger as well as the perpetrator) appear in most dramas with vengeance themes (which is pretty much all of them, in one way or another), often in opposition to each other (i.e., the victim gets vengeance by becoming a perpetrator, so has to face his/her own karma).

          Watching all of this has made me aware that my own politics around criminal justice are not what I thought they were. I DO feel a need for perpetrators to be punished. Rehabilitation alone isn’t enough – it feels unfair to the victim. So I’m right there with Koreans in thinking all of this through.

          >How different are audiobooks to radio plays, do you know?

          Radio plays are dramatizations. Audio books are straight readings of published works. In commercial versions, they are sometimes abridged for maximum engagement, or to streamline non-fiction material, pushing them a little closer to the line between the two. The 19th and early 20th century novels I listen to from Librivox are the complete original text. Readers do sometimes throw in a little bit of characterization when they read dialogue, with varying degrees of success (they are all volunteer readers, so there’s a wide range of skills and styles).

          I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but I do not listen to non-fiction books, only fiction. I sometimes listen to podcasts of informative radio programs (or word game programs), but generally, I prefer to absorb non-fiction materially visually, whether online or on paper. I’m a pretty auditory person, so I also hear the words in my head as I read them. Maybe engaging two senses helps me remember, something I don’t really need to do when I’m reading fiction?

          >Having obscure interests is both liberating and constricting, isn’t it?

          You’re right about this. I missed being able to share my enthusiasms with other enthusiasts, but on the other hand, I was entirely free to explore in the directions that most appealed to me, and process my experiences without being influenced by anyone else’s opinion.

          > Kdrama seems to have been maligned for no reason at all.

          Until just a few months ago, the Wikipedia page on Korean drama defined it as “soap operas,” and I run into that stereotype a lot. I also think Americans who consider themselves to be liberal and/or intellectual feel that they should look down on mainstream TV, and not watch (or admit to watching) much of it. Since I lived for 10 years without a television at one point in my life, and discovered how socially marginalizing that can be, I’m unashamed to be a discriminating TV enthusiast. There are many problems associated with TV, but every one of them is the result of how the medium is used. There is nothing inherently evil about television, IMO. We are all empowered to choose how we use it.

          >I have a lot of thoughts on Rooftop Prince, but I don’t like to influence what people think before they watch something

          I’m unlikely to watch Rooftop Prince, as I’m not a fan of time-travel sageuk. I have nothing against time travel, in fact I’ve been a fan in some contexts (when NBC axed the 2007 series Journeyman, I was quite miffed). However, when I enter another era, I like to stay there. Jumping back and forth really undermines the credibility of the historical side of things. So opine away, but please note that you are posting spoilers, and leave a couple of paragraphs of blank space (you will need to put a down arrow on each line, or the bank lines will automatically be deleted) so people can avoid seeing them. Also bear in mind that the series IS a favorite of other Mihansa viewers, so be gentle :)

          >things connect, and I like things connecting.

          I often watch a drama because I’ve seen the main actor(s) in something else and am curious to see them in a different role. The excellent expression of feelings through modes other than speech is one of the main attractions of Kdrama. Also, there’s a conspiracy to ignore non-verbal cues that contradict verbal ones in American culture. Somehow, I never got the memo about that, and had to learn the hard way to interact as if that other stuff wasn’t going on, even when it was an elephant in the living room. There’s less of that filter in Korean culture. People will come right out and name what they see in others. I might find that harrowing in real life, but in Kdrama, it’s expected that viewers will see and be conscious of the unspoken just as much as the spoken, which is something of a relief.

          >You know what I always wonder about sageuk? I know it sounds inane, but… clothes. Is it like a BBC period drama, where there is a central repository of costumes reused over and over? … Do you know anything about it?

          I don’t know anything about that, but you made me curious. SKKS and Arang were on different networks. It looks like Arang was produced for KBS by a production company, while SKKS was produced in-house by MBC. As far as I can tell there are no correspondences between the two dramas (producer, director, etc.) that might imply shared resources. Hanbok in Joseon Korea were essentially uniforms, connoting all sorts of details about the wearer’s profession, social status, and even marital status according to government regulations, so they would look pretty similar if the characters are from the same period and have the same role.

          I didn’t know that about BBC costumes – interesting! I don’t notice clothes that much (except the embroidered rank badges on shoulders and hats, which are often beautiful), but I do notice sets that seem awfully familiar.

  • Ah! Am I ever so glad I stumbled upon this blog, Mihansa. I’ve been following you and Saya’s conversation about storytelling and it all resonates quite deeply with me, too. I really like the parallel you draw with Regency and Victorian literature — I see it, too, and now you have me thinking about some of my favorite Jane Austen TV adaptations and how much they have in common with K-Drama! Thank you for that.

    I also found this particularly delightful to read:

    I felt as if I was living a double life. I told my friends and relations about it, but they looked at me as if they weren’t quite sure whether I was pulling their leg, and changed the subject.

    Can I just say, “uh-huh!” I don’t remember when I last saw so many kindly amused expressions, as I did in response to my excited desire to share this new discovery!

    Curiously, it did not phase me. And I recently realized — after I started writing about my K-Drama experience and noticed that I always found something new to say about it — that K-Drama was actually the catalyst to my getting through that most insidious of maladies, the writer’s block.

    And with that, I resolved two problems in one fell swoop: online I can talk about K-Drama as much as it inspires me to and without restraint [I hear you about the self-censorship, too], and hear about the experience of other K-Drama fans. At the same time i can also spare my kin and friends the tedium of listening to me go on about an experience that means nothing to them.

    Oh, but I do love the interwebs!

    • Mihansa

      >Oh, but I do love the interwebs!

      Truly – in some contexts (namely, this one) distance has become irrelevant. I, too, am constantly inspired by Kdrama, and the larger context of Korean culture. Amanda, over at OutsideSeoul, has said that as well. It’s just so interesting.

      Tangential linguistic note: “It’s fun” in Korean is 재미 있어요 (che me issawyo), literally “fun exists.” “It’s interesting” in Korean is, you guessed it, 재미 있어요, the same phrase.

      When I first learned that, I thought, “ohhh, that’s why.” It seemed, somehow, to explain a lot.

  • [...] I am happy with this drama for what it is: it is not a traditional saeguk. It’s more of a modern story that has been thrown back in time. They have taken a lot of artistic [...]

  • ita

    can download korean drama here http://kdwes.org/

  • Hi! Thanks for the info! It was a daily drama (much like an American “Soap”) that first got me hooked on Korean dramas. The English title translation was “You’re My Favorite”, but when I finally found it, using your advice about searching for the actor(s), it was titled “I Love You”. So, as you can imagine, I went nuts trying to look for it online. It must have run about 100+ episodes, and just ended its run on SBS this past June. Unfortunately, I missed the first 4 to 5 months of it’s airing, and can’t seem to find it online. Do you know of any sites that may be airing all the episodes so, hopefully, I can catch those episodes I missed in the beginning? Thanks!

    • Mihansa

      Wow, that’s a tough one. First of all, as you’ve no doubt discovered, there are gajillion Kdramas with a very similar title. Secondly, I have the impression dailies don’t usually make it to the English-speaking market unless they are major hits, possibly because of the sheer volume of subtitling required. But perhaps if you were watching it on SBS you can speak Korean and don’t need subtitles?

      I can only think of a couple of suggestions, which may not be very helpful. One is to explore the possibility that there are other alternative titles. It’s not at all unusual for a drama to have multiple English titles, some owing to variations in translation from Korean, and some that have nothing to do with the Korean title, but are just what someone in the distribution chain decided to call it for an English-speaking market. You might also try searching on the hangeul version of the title, if you haven’t.

      The other is to search for it by actor, which it sounds like you already did, but bearing in mind that there can be multiple romanizations of an actor’s name, too.

      If you want to post a couple more details, such as the year it originally aired, the exact number of episodes if you know it, and the star’s names, maybe another reader will know where to find it.

  • […] only TV dramas I do watch now are Chinese (though I plan to get into Korean as well). They avoid the sewers without damaging the drama, and I leave them feeling cleaner. One […]

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