Korean Culture in Media: TV

I forgot another Korean word I learned, sorry.  No, literally, I know how to say sorry, romanized mianhae.  Though at first I thought it was bianhae, because Korean consonant pronunciations are difficult.  Anyways, let’s talk about some K-dramas I liked.


Boys Over Flowers (2009)

This was the first Korean TV show I watched, and it’s a great one to start with because it’s a classic K-drama (and actually referenced by some others).  It’s based on a Japanese manga, Hana Yori Dango, and it really is basically like a live-action shoujo manga.  It follows a poor high school girl named Jan-di who ends up at a rich-kid high school ruled over by a group of 4 handsome boys known as the F4.  Naturally, troubles and romances follow.

Pretty much no soap-opera-style plot is off-limits, including blackmail, amnesia, hypothermia, arranged marriages, etc.  Just go with it.  The side characters are awesome; I was actually more invested in some of the other characters’ relationships than the main character’s.

Really my only issue with this show was that the male lead occasionally shows his love by being jealous and controlling in a Twilight-esque fashion (…yes, there’s even a love triangle).  Every time he grabbed Jan-di’s arm I got upset (to be fair, she does a pretty good job standing up for herself).  Also, he seriously needs some anger management help.

Coffee Prince (2007)

Go Eun-chan is a tomboy who poses as a boy to work at a coffee shop, but then starts to fall for her straight male boss.

I liked that this drama is about adults, rather than high school students, so it felt more relate-able to me.  I really liked Eun-chan’s character, and again, the side characters are awesome, especially the other boys working at the Coffee Prince.

While the gender-swap plot point does create some funny moments, it also creates some really serious scenes that touch on gender identity and sexual orientation issues, both personally for individual characters as well as how the issues are viewed in society.

Secret Garden (2010)

Don’t bother reading the blurb about this show on Netflix; it has absolutely nothing to do with the story, no idea where it came from.  This drama actually has some light fantasy—the main characters swap bodies when it rains, though this part of the story doesn’t even start until a few episodes in.  It’s also a bit of a Cinderella story because, like in Boys Over Flowers, the guy is from a higher socioeconomic class than the girl.

The main characters obviously learn a lot about each other from their periodic body swaps; both end up coming to terms with theirs pasts and growing into better people, and it leads them to make really touching sacrifices for each other.  I especially liked Gil Ra-Im, who is a badass stuntwoman.  Supporting character Oska, an aging Hallyu star, is also a favorite.

The K-pop group BIGBANG has actually done parodies of Boys Over Flowers, Coffee Prince, and Secret Garden that are quite funny.  The Secret Garden one is my favorite; once you watch the show you will get a huge kick out of the parody–check it out here.

Dream High (2011)

Another high school drama, this time about a group of students at an arts school trying to become K-pop stars.  It’s a musical show with a cast full of real-life idols, including Suzy from Miss A.

Though the premise seems like it might be shallow, there are a lot of really touching moments and the show really drives home the benefits of hard work and true friendship while at the same time being realistic that life isn’t always fair.  I watched the last episode recently and thought it ended on a note that was more bittersweet than syrupy.

The acting is better than I was expecting, and of course there’s lots of great singing and dancing.  I’m guessing you’ll like this show if you liked Glee.  Or if you like K-pop, because there’s some funny things you’ll appreciate, like Baek-hee singing “Bad Girl, Good Girl” by Miss A in front of her rival, whose actress is a real-life member of Miss A.

These first 3 shows (and many more!) can be found on Netflix; Dream High can be found on DramaFever.

Korean Culture in Media: Movies

You may have noticed from my Saturday music video series that I’m a fan of K-pop, or Korean pop music.  I’ve started getting into other Korean media as well, including movies and TV shows; it’s very easy now thanks to the Internet.  It’s been really fascinating, because in addition to being good entertainment, I’ve been learning a lot about Korean culture.  Some things obliquely touched on by these shows include:

  • societal views on marriage, homosexuality, and gender roles
  • Korean relations with and attitudes towards foreign countries (especially Japan, North Korea, the US, and Europe)
  • forms of address
  • social/economic classes
  • food! (types as well as meal customs)

I’ve also learned some basic Korean vocab (yes, no, what, okay, really; I already knew love, crazy, and everyone from K-pop songs).  This is already more than I learned watching LOST for 6 years.


Oldboy (2003) PosterOldboy (Park Chan-wook, 2003)

This may be the Korean movie best-known to Americans; it is highly acclaimed, having won the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Describing it in one word, I would say this movie is intense.  Based on a Japanese manga of the same name, it tells the story of Oh Dae-su, a man who is mysteriously imprisoned for 15 years and then just as mysteriously released.  There’s lots of revenge going on all over the place.  The twisted, bloody, violent kind.

Oldboy keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time, and the ending will make you want to watch it again right away.  One famous scene is particular is the “hallway fight scene” where Oh Dae-su takes on a group of thugs, and the action travels in one shot down the hallway for almost 3 min, with the men getting more and more exhausted.  You can see its influence in many other movies; many people thought of it when viewing the hallway fight scene in the recent Daredevil show.

Commitment (2013) PosterCommitment (Park Hong-soo, 2013)

I admit, I only watched this because it happened to be on Netflix and I saw that it starred Choi Seung-hyun, better know as rapper T.O.P from the K-pop group BIGBANG.

It turned out to be a very enjoyable action spy thriller, quite entertaining if a bit generic.  T.O.P’s character is the son of a failed North Korean operative who is then himself sent into the field to basically atone for his father’s failure, but gets caught between rival North Korean cabals as well as South Korean intelligence.

I was looking forward to listening to T.O.P’s beautiful low voice for several hours, but his character ironically turned out to be rather taciturn.  I thought he was pretty good in the role; I probably 90% believed his action scenes.

Tomorrow we’ll be talking Korean TV shows!