COVER: THE UNPARALLELED COMFORT OF K-DRAMAS

Published October 24, 2021
A scene from Goblin on location at Jumunjin Beach
A scene from Goblin on location at Jumunjin Beach

My name is Haneen and I’m a K-drama addict.

This narrative in no way tries to represent the millions of men and women who are far more knowledgeable in the K-drama arena. But it is a humble attempt to deconstruct how this phenomenon, in very meaningful ways, has helped me survive the last few years of grief.

My foray started on a sleepless night, one of many, when the Netflix rabbit hole I found myself in just wouldn’t behave. Trailer after trailer, synopsis after synopsis, all a bust. After a painfully exhausting time, I found myself in the curiously obscure world of K-dramas. With nothing to lose, I clicked.

Today, my homepage only yields K-drama suggestions, throwing an English recommendation my way once in a while to spice things up (which I am oblivious to). In fact, as I write this article, I have multiple websites open, hosting a more well-rounded K-drama selection to whet a growing appetite. I am aware I can bookmark these websites. But I promise you, there’s a method to the madness.

The first few days of binge-watching K-dramas were a classic summation of shock and denial. Seated in an empty room, be it midday, or in the wee hours of the night, I would pause a scene, and loudly proclaim, “Are you serious?” I was probably speaking to the dying embers of my former television preferences, while simultaneously being blown away that a scene had made me laugh more than I had in months, or tugged at me in a way previously never experienced. I was becoming increasingly aware that this was not a passing fancy, that the characters and the faces, the spaces and the phrases all were here to stay, each imprinting me with a sense of belonging I had always longed for.

Dramatic? Not quite.

Something in the Rain
Something in the Rain

The Korean wave is transnational. The popularity of K-dramas and K-pop around the world has burgeoned beyond imagination. Korea today boasts a considerable soft power and is importing a dream many, like me, have bought into to the extent that we’ve re-evaluated travel plans. Seoul seems to be the top destination for all, with a brief interlude at Jeju Island. And who can forget a photo-op at Jumunjin Beach, where the breathtaking scene from the drama Guardian: The Lonely and Great God is based? The list of iconic spots is never ending, and fans from all over the world are carefully planning their ‘K-drama pilgrimage.’

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I argue that the Korean model is carefully curated to seduce; imagine a sinister tune playing, and a group of men and women huddled together in a dimly lit room, coming up with strategies to further lure us in. Unless your defence is similar to the Swiss Cheese Model, chances are you will succumb to their plan.

And their first line of attack involves food.

Koreans take their food seriously, and it shows. Though, it does take some getting used to characters abandoning home-cooked meals just to get some kimchi, be it from a neighbour’s or the closest store. A beloved sidekick to every meal, the importance this fermented condiment demands rivals the love interest of the main character. Kimchi, however, is just the beginning of the epic culinary journey any K-drama will take you on — from hangover stew and silken jjajangmyeon, to seaweed soup, which is considered a traditional birthday dish in Korea (and hopefully in my household if somebody volunteers to cook it). Not to forget their love for tteokbokki and fish cakes! For a hardcore dive into the tantalising world of Korean food, my sincere recommendation is the 2013 series Let’s Eat, which brings together four singles with an intense love for food. Watching actress Lee Soo-kyung devour a spicy seafood stew in the first episode was a cathartic moment, and a scene I have since revisited many a times.

While navigating my grief, I realised my introverted self was not aiding the healing process. I had quietened down more than ever, and slowly started to lose those very dear to me. Even the slightest touch, a concerned message or a few seconds of silence on a call were enough to push me over the edge. However, conversations about K-dramas were the ones that were being sustained; soon they had become my more reliable connection to the outside world.

Prison Playbook
Prison Playbook

I needed a plan; one that needed me to cajole, bribe, blackmail and downright beg others to venture into the world of K-dramas. Today, I pride myself on the success of my endeavours. After managing to convert many around me, frankly I am spoiled for choice.

The multitude of emotions registered whenever asked, “What should I watch next?”, is something I cannot articulate. Is it happiness? Or may be a sense of validation. However, what I am aware of with complete clarity is that my insomnia seems to have finally paid off; because I have a K-drama recommendation for every mood.

Craving a good comedy? Try Strong Girl Bong-soon and the ludicrous situations the young Do Bong-soon finds herself in, while trying to hide her superhuman strength. If you fancy watching political intrigue with a horror element, the 2019 series Kingdom will keep you hooked to the end. Want to watch toxic relationships combust on screen? The World of the Married warrants a watch. Interested to root for the underdog? Prison Playbook will make you laugh and cry at the same time. And of course, Something in the Rain — a necessary recommendation to ruin one’s expectation of romance as you measure up every love interest with Seo Joon-hee’s thoughtful advances.

“There’s something for everybody,” a friend once said; this is why you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to the range of genres and the different moods they cater to. And regardless of why you watch a K-drama, you’ll always find a message, a character, a storyline or a theme that resonates deeply. But beneath all that is the sense of comfort that will have you coming back.

This comfort can also stem from the parallels that exist between Korean and Pakistani societies. You will be introduced to mothers who are hyper aware of getting their children married; witness young adults go to extreme lengths to become financially stable; realise that wide-spread corruption exists at all tiers of society despite a strong legal system; and grieve the end of romantic relationships that were doomed to fail due to familial interferences.

Many found Jin-ah’s battle against workplace harassment and sexism in Something in the Rain a familiar reality. At one end she must work in a hostile workspace and, on the other, return home to an overbearing mother who bullies her to settle down with her boyfriend of questionable character. In Sky Castle, rich and anxious parents hire the best teams to get their children admitted to top universities. The competition is ruthless and the rat race the children are forced into, does not bode well. The similarities do not end here and it is heartening to relate to the same issues we also face as Pakistanis.

Then there are shows such as Squid Game, where a fantastical storyline is enough for one to get hooked. A show where children’s games turn deadly, the highly addictive Squid Game has attracted even those who had sworn to never watch a K-drama in their life. Netflix revealed it to be its most watched original series and the show has become a gateway drug for many.

Is the world finally catching up to superior Korean storytelling? Possibly.

But in my experience, the greatest gift of any Korean production is its powerful characterisation. A particularly cathartic character for me was the protagonist of the dark comedy, Prison Playbook. Baseball player, Kim Je-hyuk injures the man who tries to sexually assault his sister. In an ironic turn of events, the perpetrator sues the superstar, whose life is overturned overnight when he is jailed for a year.

In one of the episodes, as Kim Je-hyuk is patiently serving out his sentence, he is advised time and again by fellow inmates that he needs to let out steam and go to church, an offer he politely declines. It is only after a particularly frustrating day, that he finds himself at church. Once the choir begins, he realises what the inmates meant — it is the only safe space where he can scream and vent without being punished by the guards. It is a heartbreaking scene, watching Kim Je-hyuk holler out his frustration, cursing and breaking down, as his voice is completely drowned out by the sound of the inmates singing a hymn.

It was after I had watched this scene that I realised grief is a funny thing. It shifts and mutates, especially when you least expect it to. You sit with it for a while and are lulled into assuming there is a pattern to it; that you have nailed its trajectory, its quirks and eccentricities. Finally, you seem to have made progress. But it rears its ugly head at extremely inopportune moments. Even though I have made my peace with this constant heaviness, it is only when I am fully immersed in the world of K-dramas that I forget this weight for a while. And this is why my multiple K-drama tabs, Korea travel plans and daydreams of gimbap are here to stay.

The writer is a senior content writer at LUMS

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 24th, 2021

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