Like most mothers, I think I know my children well. Like most mothers, I don’t. My parental self-esteem took another tumble when I realised that my young ones had already finished most of the Korean dramas I was about to explore as part of a special watchathon.
The Korean wave — or ‘hallyu’, as I would find out later — has engulfed most parts of the world, but it was a revelation that those in the house were caught in the whirl. Late to the party, I reeled off the names of the shows I was going to watch over a full month.
K-gyan started gushing out from unexpected corners. “Kimchi is their national dish,” announced my eight-year-old son. “And it is made of cabbage leaves.” It was safe to conclude that the cultural exports of the East Asian nation had sneaked in through my children’s Covid-era gadgets.
A new soft power
A Google search returns mind-boggling numbers about all things K — its soap industry alone has tripled in size since the early 2000s, and the ‘sasaeng taxi’ service allows fans to follow K-pop idols, a behaviour deemed controversial and a breach of privacy. From K-pop to K-drama to K-fashion, the South Korean soft power is pulling in audiences worldwide.
My friends watch those shows. My colleagues discuss them. Half the people I jostle with on Namma Metro
in Bengaluru are glued to them. But I had always counted myself out. Now, as a picky watcher, I was ready to prick the Korean bubble.
A starter list — curated on the basis of recommendations made by K-fans — had ‘Crash Landing on You’ on top. “It’s all romance, amma… you won’t like it,” said my newly minted teenager, convinced mum was too old for mush. She was also ready to bet her bottom dollar that I wouldn’t have the patience to watch all the 13 episodes on the list. My relationship with television is much like the North-South Korea relationship. We don’t see eye to eye. In fact, I dislike TV. And I judge all creatures slouched on the couch.
“Try ‘Reply 1988’. You might like it,” the daughter offered, helpfully.
Day 1: I plonked myself on the sofa, sharpening all my senses to dissect my first Korean series. It is about five teenagers who live on the same lane, go to the same school and come back to play and eat together. Their chatty mothers are either picking on their husbands or cooking.
The fights are familiar but the food is new. My gaze is fixed on the plates. Seaweed soup, rice rolls, fish cakes, ramyeon, bean sprouts, anchovies, sausages… I furiously scan the side dishes at the risk of missing the English subtitles.
It was easy to get immersed in the hustle and bustle of the friendly neighbourhood, as the families navigated middle-class troubles with a generous dose of humour. At the end of the first episode of about 90 minutes, I had the urge to click ‘next’ without taking a break.
I had the reputation of being one who could not tell a TV remote from a set-top box remote. Even with such a handicap, my children declared, I was hooked. I cringed. I didn’t like the fact that I liked what I watched. OTT was not my cup of tea. I was the ‘higher mortal’ who couldn’t binge-watch. Maybe I was plain curious!
Over the next two days, I squeezed in five more episodes between my chores and my work. And I became a fan of the series, rated 9.2 on IMDb.
Samgyeop, kimbap and bibimbap started sounding as familiar as kebabs. I discovered that each meal carried morsels of wisdom. For example, it’s better to ignore the eggshells found in rice than get roasted by mother for letting her know about them.
The biggest challenge was getting the names right. Deok-sun, Seok-jin and Dong-ryong were not easy on the tongue, but I was reassured by my children that I would get used to the characters, names and facial features as I progressed.
On to romance
I didn’t have the time to watch the entire slice of life, so I moved to a full-blown spread of romance — ‘Crash Landing on You’. Keeping my daughter’s advice in mind, I settled down for the love story of a South Korean heiress who paraglides into the heart of a North Korean army officer.
A remarkable aspect of Korean dramas is that they are well directed with high production values. The storyline may or may not be great, but they have a comfort factor alien to the hyper-violent American and Scandinavian formats.
Koreans use several tropes that Indian soaps are famous for — songs, foreign locations, and sudden bouts of amnesia. But there is no sexual content. All raging hormones must either stop at a kiss or a camp under the sheets. If they must absolutely manifest, a bare shoulder makes the necessary suggestion.
Beneath the thick layers of squeaky-clean romance, ‘Crash Landing on You’ has comedic overtones of the long-running border tension with North. My interest is piqued the moment Yoon Se-ri, the woman protagonist, dashes across the demilitarised zone, trying to return to the South.
I discover that a person from Seoul is as clueless (and curious) about Pyongyang as the rest of the world.
The 2019 show has been praised for a more or less accurate depiction of the authoritarian state that has kept everything under wraps. But there is no way to ‘see’ the real North. The series was shot in South Korea and Mongolia. Nevertheless, it offers fascinating insights into inter-Korean relations. Captain Ri’s men are shown as addicted to South Korean operas smuggled across the border on CDs.
Reel to real
I was hooked, again. I fell for the Korean kookiness and ended up disrupting my calendar by watching more episodes than I had planned to. I also read up on the cast and was pleasantly surprised to know that the lead pair was now married and expecting a child in real life.
In the meantime, a few requests I sent out to gauge the K-craze among friends and family got overwhelming feedback.
A friend from my college days gleefully confessed that she was stalking a BTS star by using a fake Instagram account. Another friend, a K-beginner like me, is planning to learn the language for a ‘direct connect’ with her icons. But the Korean language starter kit she had ordered online was of little help.
A cousin, in pursuit of flawless skin in his 40s, marched into a Korean beauty store and returned with a rice water face wash. Two months later, he has given his seal of approval to his first Korean cleanser and wouldn’t mind buying a second tube. I also know of a teenager in Dubai who refuses to visit her ‘dirty’ ancestral home in Kerala, which doesn’t conform to Korean standards of cleanliness.
Closer home, my neighbour’s college-going son graduated from saying ‘hello’ in different ways in Korean to eating with chopsticks. The Oxford English Dictionary has added hundreds of Korean words, he boasted to me. It was just 26 though. I checked.
Back to my watchlist, I chose ‘Search: WWW’ next. This one is more recent in the sense that it revolves around a generation raised online. No Google here, only ‘Unicon’ and ‘Barro’ — the Korean
equivalents of the search engine.
The drama is populated by strong career women who stand their ground and put their foot down when asked to manipulate search results. Amid all unethical practices, a love story sprouts in a gaming kiosk.
As the feminist theme winds its way through poaching games and legal battles, a casual one-night stand surfaces. Bare shoulders, told you. It’s a fast-moving tale, but I wasn’t moved. In fact, I stopped at three episodes.
The next was ‘Guardian: The Lonely and Great God’, highly recommended by another colleague. The synopsis tells me about ‘an immortal goblin who goes to find a human bride to remove an invisible sword from his chest’. Phew!
The main draw is Kim Shin, whose charm lifts the Korean folk story. As the near-perfect male lead, he plays the ‘water, fire, wind, light and dark’. This modern take on mythology, released in 2016, had ruffled quite a few conservative feathers with a romance between a minor and a 939-year-old human-turned-deity.
I swept the controversies under the rug to take in the steady flow of beautiful people and stylised sets. The female lead, a motherless schoolgirl ill-treated by relatives, summons Kim Shin by blowing out a flame. The initial episodes double up as Tourism Canada, with the plot conjuring up magical worlds and Cinderella stereotypes.
I know the format now. I know that a knight in shining designer armour is around the corner. I find the platter digestible, nevertheless.
Confession: By now, I’m tired of back-to-back shows. I’m just not wired to watch TV (or any screen) for long hours. I’m device-dependent at work, but back home, I keep my distance from all gadgets.
Next on the list is ‘Hospital Playlist’.
I’m worried I’m running out of steam. I am two weeks into the assignment, but will I complete the full month? In the series, I’m in good company — five doctor friends who pull all-nighters and burn themselves out at the operating table. It’s past midnight and I feel more emotionally vulnerable. I weep buckets as a little patient fails to make it.
Was the show that impactful? Duh, the next morning I wasn’t even sure I wanted to resume it. I vowed to stick to day schedules.
Next up: ‘Memories of the Alhambra’.
Those who watched it had asked me to skip the sappy sci-fi saga. But I was game for some adventure. The hero is Hyun Bin (Captain Ri from ‘Crash Landing on You’), who travels to Spain and gets drawn into an augmented reality game. The out-of-the-box theme and cool technology have me engrossed in the first hour itself. I’m intrigued by the fictional world.
A week passed. I had six more series on the K-list. But I’m trapped in the tech fantasies of Alhambra. It’s the 10th episode and there are six more to go. My hero is in a dingy dungeon in Granada. I don’t intend to budge.
At the end of the K-filled month, I won’t call myself a new convert. Some shows thrilled me, some barely worked for me, some tried my patience.
But on the Metro commute, I will no longer judge people with earphones on, catching up on their favourite shows, Korean or otherwise.
What is hallyu?
A Chinese word for Korean wave, it describes the popularity of Korean culture globally. It was first used in the 1990s after Korean content reached China and Japan. Psy’s 2012 song ‘Gangnam Style’, music band BTS and shows like ‘Squid Game’ have propelled the wave further.
K-dramas are popular among Gen Z and millennials but not limited to them, Tanaz Hoque of IndHangul, an Indian fan club for all things Korean, says.
Similarity with Bollywood tropes has pushed the adoption. ‘Boys over flowers’, where a rich brat falls in love with a poor girl and pursues her till she gives in, is a case in point, says Pallavi N B. “Lately, romance in K-dramas has become progressive. In ‘Extraordinary Attorney Woo’ and ‘Start-up’, men are more expressive about their feelings and respect women’s choices,” she adds.
To Kshama Basavanna, K-dramas offer a mix of Bollywood and Hollywood – “albeit silly and light-hearted, the storylines are good, and songs are meaningful and attractive”.
Their culture is also a draw. “I used to think moving out of home and staying away from parents was cool. This changed after I saw how Korean kids interact with their parents on these shows,” says the 21-year-old.
Even Sachin A G, 27, has found parallels. “The Koreans call their parents Oppa and Omma, similar to Appa and Amma in Tamil. Like us, they use incense sticks, fold the legs and sit, and eat from leaf plates.” He finds K-dramas “comforting and honest” because they depict local culture and aesthetics. “They are not trying to appeal to world audience like Bollywood,” he argues.
A filmmaker, Lakshmi Kshatriya has been watching K-dramas for the last seven months to decipher the craze. The stories are simple, often about sustaining a career and relationship, which appeal to youngsters, she has realised. However, these dramas are selling “a dream”, an escapism. “I was surprised to find so many middle-aged women watching these shows. I realised they wanted what they were seeing — to be treated respectfully like the female characters,” she explains.
Most fans can’t articulate their love for K-dramas in words but their actions speak louder. Like the Koreans, Kshama bows down to greet people, eats bibimbap, japchae and tteok-bokki, dresses up in shirts, cardigans and short flared skirts, and is decking her room with honeycomb mirror. Sachin carries a bento box to work and eats small portions. Neha Jha, 31, uses K-beauty products and chopsticks.
New to K-drama? Try these fan picks
Crash Landing On You, Sky Castle, Business Proposal, Start-up, Memories of the Alhambra, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, Strong Girl Bong-soon, and Moon Lovers. (*Available On streaming platforms)
(With inputs from Anoushka Metrani)
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