If you didn’t already know, we’ve got a special series to kick off the new year! Guests posts, by patrons on Patreon, sharing their personal drama stories, mostly around the topic of “How did you get into dramas?” and “What does your first drama mean to you?” – with flexibility to go off on personal tangents, of course. 😁 Feel free to share your stories too, in the comments!
This is the last guest post in the series, and it’s brought to you by Trent, who, aside from Sean, is the other person whose time-bending skills I continue to marvel at. The number of dramas Trent manages to watch, while still leading a full life, continues to impress me – and he’s got lots of thoughtful observations on all of the dramas too, which also impresses me. Thanks, Trent, for making time to share your story with us!
You might also like to check out Trent’s blog, where he writes more drama thoughts!
I hope you guys enjoy!
~ KFG ❤️
My kdrama story thus far…
Hmmm. I’m worried that it’s really kind of a boring story, alas. But as I’m sure you’d all agree, a proper story requires context, a bit of table-setting, right? (Unless you’re one of those pros who can pull off an in media res cold open, and yeah…I am only an egg, you know?).
So, I was born…wait. That’s too much context.
Umm. How about this: my main introduction to the cultures of East Asia was via China and Chinese. I took a year of Mandarin my sophomore year of college, and then ended up going off to Taiwan to live for a couple of years between sophomore and junior year.
I came back to the U.S., majored in Chinese language and Asian Culture, and then headed off to grad school with dreams of a Chinese literature PhD and a career teaching snot-nosed undergrads about the delights of the Zhuangzi dancing in my head.
Fast forward a couple years, and my grad school sojourn was flaming out on the dawning realization, that perhaps academia just wasn’t where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
I headed off to my first full time job, in the localization department of a large software company. We had native speakers to translate the software into Chinese, but I was using my language skills to provide QA review of the final product for release to Chinese markets.
Now, I’d taken a couple of years of Japanese in grad school…but I’d largely managed to avoid much contact with Korean history, language, or culture, until that first job, when I had several Korean colleagues in the localization department.
I dated one them for a little while, and a couple others became pretty good friends. Did I start watching kdramas or learn Korean? Hah, hah, no (for one thing, this was mid-90s, so before Hallyu was really a big thing, I think, and also it was a bit different with them being Koreans in the U.S… where they were the ones really focused on fitting in and learning about American lifestyle).
I did learn Hangul and a few words, though (and surprisingly, found that I had remembered Hangul fairly well when I came back to it a couple years ago).
But that was it.
Now, one other snippet of context: I’ve never been a particularly dedicated watcher of television.
I grew up watching syndicated shows after school (OG Star Trek and M*A*S*H are two I particularly remember), and I had a few favorite shows that I followed through the 90s, post-college (ER, Buffy, Highlander, for example).
But then I got married and had a kid, and we just…never really watched TV; hardly saw any movies, even, for a number of years (to be honest, my leisure/hobby medium of choice had always been reading novels, mostly SFF novels – I read a lot growing up).
Long form visual story telling? Not so much; I think pre-kdrama, the only TV series that I really followed, beginning to end, in the last 15-20 years, has been Game of Thrones (at least in part because I was a huge fan of the books).
So. Why kdramas, and how?
I had heard the term kdrama before, but had only the vaguest notion what it referred to, and I am sad and ashamed to confess that I had somewhere, somehow, acquired the impression that they were akin to soap operas and therefore safe to condescend to. Bad past me! (I also shouldn’t condescend to soap operas, I know.)
But then…then. Covid-19 got serious in the U.S. in March 2019; that’s when the local and state government where I live (California) issued emergency orders to try to shut things down and put a halt to “non-essential” contact and activity.
I was designated to be the one to come in to the office daily and kind of hold down the fort, so to speak; everybody else stayed home and worked from home for the next three months or so.
I ended up having a lot of time on my hands; I was kind of bored; and I had fallen into a rut where I didn’t really feel like reading anything. I started idly browsing Netflix, even though I almost never watched anything there (our subscription was mostly used by my wife and daughter).
Netflix kept throwing up the trailer for this one drama: The King: Eternal Monarch. And after about the fifth or sixth time.. I was just bored enough and intrigued enough to hit play.
I think what intrigued me about it, enough to start the show at least, is the idea of a parallel world, which has always been an interesting narrative device to me (portal fantasies have a long and distinguished lineage in fantasy literature; think The Chronicles of Narnia, but also, say, The Fionavar Tapestry).
The initial setup was interesting enough, but it really got cooking for me when our young king in an alternate, present-day “Corean empire” went through the magical bamboo forest gate and emerged in Gwanghwamun Plaza in “our” world, only to come face-to-face with a plucky, no-nonsense police detective.
Now, at this point, I’d never heard of either Lee Min-ho or Kim Go-eun, but I was quickly captivated both by the “fish out of water” storylines of the king in our world and later, the police detective in his world, as well as the burgeoning attraction between the two.
I’ve since run across a number of more compelling romances in kdramaland, and I can understand those for whom the romance between the characters feels kind of forced, but for a complete newbie like me, man, that scene in episode 8 where she looks at him and says “I love you,” well. I felt my heart skip a little beat, not gonna lie.
As it happened, there were only eight episodes available at the time I started, and I binged through those quickly, and then it was really really hard waiting each week for a couple new episodes to arrive (a feeling that has since become all too familiar, argh!).
I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this, my gateway drama, and that feeling of strangers connecting through a doorway to a whole alternate universe, even though it has long since been supplanted on my list of top favorites.
Okay, so when I hit the end of the available episodes for TK:EM and started my sad panda wait for new episodes, I was already sufficiently awakened to the cool new potential of kdramas -hey, dude, this stuff is actually good! It’s pretty compelling! (so my subconscious was saying to itself) – that the very first thing I did was start poking around to see what other shows might be interesting to see.
And that is how I became aware of Viki and non-Netflix sources of Asian drama at quite an early point in the journey. I don’t remember precisely how I became aware of it – I think it was some combination of Kim Go-eun (FL of TK:EM) and Kim Eun-sook (writer of TK:EM) that naturally led me to Guardian: the Lonely and Great God, aka Goblin – and I started it right away as I waited to finish TK:EM.
I don’t remember the exact timeline, but I know I also binged Goblin fairly quickly, so there’s a fair-to-excellent chance that it’s the first kdrama I actually finished.
At this point it’s maybe useful to think for a minute about just what it is that makes a show compelling. And you know, I’ve been thinking about this for awhile and I’m not sure I have a really articulate answer.
An interesting story is certainly part of it; exciting or crisp or intelligent plotting definitely doesn’t hurt; great scenery, high production values, fun or charismatic or pulchritudinous cast all have a role.
But if there can be said to be a sine qua non of a truly compelling show, I think for me at least it comes down to the characters. How closely, deeply, truly, do I enter into their journey, and end up empathizing with their lives and their choices and their stories? How much do I feel for what happens with and to them?
As I cast my eye back over the 90+ shows that I’ve seen in the almost two years I’ve been at this (such a short time, I know! I’m still a newbie, what place do I have talking about my “kdrama journey” like it’s an actual thing?! Yet here we are…), the ones that are the most memorable are the ones that I became deeply absorbed, for whatever reason, with at least some aspect of the characters in the show.
Other elements might suffer; the show, subjected to the strictest of analytical lenses, may not be that objectively good, but if I care about one or more of the characters…well, much is forgiven.
Which brings me circling back to Goblin. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, it seems like in addition to its wide popularity, it’s also fairly polarizing.
A lot of people just don’t get into it or care for it. And the thing is, I can understand! It strikes me as the sort of show that if you don’t manage to enter into its premises and subject yourself to its particular spell, its flavor of magic will just pass you by. I get it; considered dispassionately, it has a number of flaws!
And yet, I fell captive to its spell.
The tale of the immortal goblin and his fated bride, the grim reaper and his entanglements from a past life, they sucked me in and started to matter to me. I think I ended up more or less crying through the last three or four episodes.
Parenthetically, I will just observe that this is one of the few instances where I think the amnesia trope actually works, where it appears organically as part of the story – if you accept the supernatural premises, that is (and if you don’t, you’re watching the wrong drama) – and furthers the narrative. A shame I ran into it done well, so early in my kdrama journey, otherwise I might have been inoculated against so many lazy uses of the trope later on.
If you are entangled with the characters and their story to that degree, it becomes almost all-consuming. It’s also emotionally exhausting, but hey, sometimes it feels good to just FEEL, you know? To let it all go, just have that ugly cry.
As the master put it, better than I ever could: “…he sang to them […] until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.” Yeah, sometimes it’s like that.
Well, after those first two shows, it’s safe to say I was kind of hooked, and I set out on an enthusiastic quest to find new gems to treasure.
In those early months, before stumbling across a network of wise old hands who could provide guidance and suggestions (I didn’t find this site until around November 2000), browsing Netflix and Viki, as well as using the Wikipedia listing of most popular kdramas by rating, as a springboard to finding new shows to watch were all invaluable.
Of course, as it turns out, not every show is going to plumb the depths of the human heart or leave you a quivering emotional wreck, but that’s probably for the best. And there have been enough gems out there to keep the quest for the next great show alive.
In the meantime, even shows that aren’t great or particularly emotionally compelling, often have something to recommend them, or provide a certain baseline level of entertainment.
When we strike gold, though, that’s when it’s really worthwhile. I’m thinking, for example, of the top three shows that I watched in my first year (2020): It’s Okay to Not Be Okay; Crash Landing on You; and Flower of Evil. What fantastically absorbing, interesting shows they were, each in their own way.
Or my top three from last year: My Mister, Chuno, and Secret Love Affair. Is that not an incredible line-up of shows? (Last year was harder to pick the top, both because I watched a lot more shows, and also because I had the benefit of a more sophisticated selection algorithm.)
And hey, this year is off to an excellent start already: the first two shows I finished this year are The Red Sleeve, a sageuk that set its sights high, made complicated choices, and really transcended what it could have been in order to reach for greatness; and Our Beloved Summer, an utterly delightful romantic comedy with great characters and a core couple so real and nuanced and happy-making that I just want to watch them being cute and adorable together forever and ever.
Of course, not everything is going to be that good; it can’t be. The law of averages always wins, right? But it gives us hope to know there are still great shows out there waiting for us, to suck us in, to demand we laugh and cry and empathize and FEEL.
One last note,
..and I think it’s an important one.
For me, at least, an essential part of fully digesting, enjoying, and processing a show is the ability to discuss it, to write about it, to set down on paper (or in person, but finding the venue where that’s possible is tough) all the thoughts and feelings stimulated and engendered by a scene, a theme, a character.. what happened, and what do I think about it?
That’s why a forum that has an open ability to comment and a sympathetic or like-minded group of participants, like here or on KFG’s Patreon, is such a valuable, nay essential, component of living the kdrama life in full.
So thank you, one and all (and especially our host KFG for enabling us and making the forum possible) for being part of the community that rounds out the kdrama story. It wouldn’t be the same without all of y’all’s voices, sharing your thoughts and reactions and recommendations.