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Photo: ‘Squid Game’
South Korean dramas, synonymously known as K-dramas, have become a huge staple in entertainment today. The immersive storytelling has continued to attract a global and domestic audience. South Korean popular culture has always been known throughout the world, but its recent popularity in music with K-Pop and Cinema has led K-dramas to become known amongst viewers and also Hollywood. With the phenomenon we witnessed in 2021 of the Netflix series ‘Squid Game’, its intriguing plot has appealed to the Western market and has further brought K-dramas to wider audiences. From the powerful and innocent narratives within these shows, Korean dramas continue to seek out innovative and new stories that capture a diverse audience..
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The Korean Wave
Before discussing how big K-dramas have become, it is important first to examine the rise of Korean entertainment and culture to understand the premise of the K-drama’s popularity. “Hallyu,” which means “Korean Wave,” is a Chinese term widely used to describe the spread of South Korean culture throughout the world. Hallyu was coined in 1997 because of the K-drama series, ‘What Is Love,’ which gained popularity globally in large parts of China and other Southeast Asian countries. In 1999, Hallyu began to truly transcend with the movie ‘Shiri’ (also known as ‘Swiri’), which was famous throughout Asia. Following the film, the 2000 drama ‘Autumn in My Heart’ brought further excitement to South Korean entertainment as it has maintained the fame from the success of ‘Shiri.’
From the earlier success of dramas and movies, it has continued to create an impact as the new generation of Hallyu has woven into the mainstream culture. With the popularity of South Korean icons such as the music group BTS and renowned director Bong Joon Ho, the globalization of Korean entertainment, celebrities, food, and even skincare, have reached new places and gained interest from a diversity of people. These cultural facets have been one of the major players in promoting South Korean tourism and are the driving forces that assisted in supporting their economy. We see the recent prominence of the Hallyu due to the pandemic as people have turned to K-pop and K-dramas.
The Uniqueness of K-Dramas
For those unfamiliar, K-dramas are essentially limited scripted series ranging from 16 to 24 episodes. Each episode is around 50 minutes to an hour, essentially the length of a full movie per episode. Viewers like K-dramas because they are long and have a high production value for each episode that never falters. The quality is enjoyable as they have a diversity of storylines and genres that are similar yet different from Western shows.
It is also the actors and actresses that make K-dramas so enjoyable. K-dramas feature casts that are not only appealing to the eye, but their acting brings to life the complexity of these stories. The celebrity culture is no different from Hollywood fame as the actors and actresses within K-dramas contain big names that are known across the globe. From Gong-Yoo, Lee Min-ho, and Park Seo-joon to Son Ye-jin, Park Min-young, and Jun Ji-hyun (to name a few), they have gained fame due to the widespread popularity of Korean dramas. In addition to the actors and actresses, we also see ‘idols’ (a term for celebrity singers in South Korea) take part in the dramas, which lead certain K-dramas to become further known. Certain dramas also have their own unique original soundtrack (OST) that sometimes consists of famous singers. These OSTs tend to capture the heart of the drama, which goes hand-in-hand with the overall storyline.
K-dramas have the premise of your everyday soap opera and telenovela, but South Korean dramas always entail something different. Some shows contain romance, comedy, horror, sci-fi, and historical themes; most of the time, they encompass a mix of those genres. Their storylines are oftentimes intricate while also engaging. Although each drama has different genres, they all obtain a sense of innocence and emotional depth, making it so enjoyable to watch. Audiences can connect with the characters and empathize with the raw emotions K-dramas are always exploring.
The stories also examine important cultural and societal issues, which make these shows so relatable to watch. They tend to tap into the human psyche’s vulnerability, allowing viewers to connect to the stories. That’s what makes K-dramas so popular because the themes of these dramas are universally understood. K-dramas explore sentiments unique to Korean culture while also overcoming cultural boundaries. You don’t necessarily have to be Korean to enjoy these stories, as the dramas engage in themes everyone can identify with. Even if you speak a different language than the characters in K-dramas, as long as you are able to take the advice of director Bong Joon Ho and “overcome the 1-inch tall barrier of subtitles,” you will be introduced to a world of exciting and compelling entertainment.
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Where To Watch K-Dramas
Korean dramas continue to take the world by storm, and with its recent rise in the American mainstream, we will see many more K-dramas make their way onto our TV screen. You can access a large range of shows on platforms such as Rakuten Viki, which mainly contains Korean dramas alongside Chinese and Japanese dramas. Moreover, Hulu has a great selection, and Netflix has taken part in creating original K-dramas under their platform. Recently, Apple TV+ has produced a Korean drama with their latest release of ‘Pachinko.’ We are also starting to see Disney+ come out with Korean drama originals such as ‘Snowdrop’, which features Blackpink’s Jisoo and ‘Rookie Cops.’
For those unsure of what K-dramas to watch, here are my five recommendations for those interested in venturing out: ‘Crash Landing on You’ (2019) on Netflix, ‘Boys Over Flowers’ (2009) on Viki and Hulu, ‘True Beauty’ (2020) on Viki, ‘Weightlifting Fairy, Kim Bok-joo’ (2016) on Viki, and ‘What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim’ on Viki and Hulu.
By Anica Muñoz
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Anica Muñoz is a writer and an aspiring film producer with a passion for media and entertainment. She strongly considers storytelling to be a powerful tool that bridges the divide between communities. Anica enjoys films that showcase a diversity of voices and brings forth empowerment for a wide group of individuals. From her writing, she believes in creating a positive impact with her analysis and reviews of films by exploring the power of human connection within these stories. Her perspective towards consuming entertainment is driven by compassion which aligns itself with the mission of The Hollywood Insider. Anica hopes to share her enthusiasm and love for cinema with others through her work.