Characteristics of Korean soap operas, from an overseas viewer's perspective

By Lyudmila Mikheesku 

I guess I naturally developed the new hobby of enjoying Korean soap operas ever since I began to learn the Korean language. I wasn't initially interested in Korean TV dramas, but I gradually watched Korean shows as I learned the language. I thought sensibly that, “Korean TV will be a good aid to studying the Korean language, as it will have dialogue that's easy for foreigners to understand.” The more I watched Korean soap operas, the more I fell in love with them. However, as I watched many shows, I found some strange sides to them. Today, I would like to talk about such features. 

Soap operas from the U.S. and Europe aren't aired until they're fully completed, like films. So the structure and flow of the story are logical and compelling. As it takes a long time to produce dramas, the producers, writers and actors can better prepare, which contributes to creativity and completion through to the final episodes. A few years ago, the quality and technical level of soap operas from the U.S. and Europe improved. Both viewers and film critics say the stories in soap operas has gotten more interesting with excellent performance from the actors and actresses. “Game of Thrones,” “House of Cards” and “Sherlock” are some such examples. Compared to these shows, Korean soap operas are in such a different environment. As two episodes are broadcast every week, writers have to write the screenplays for two episodes each week, and the staff and crews have to work under time pressure. They sometimes have to change the story in order to increase ratings. However, what creativity can you expect from them, as soap operas are produced in such hurried, stressed conditions? As a result, Korean dramas often have low-quality scenes and features, and some actors and actresses show inconsistent behavior. To increase the number of broadcasts, they frequently use flashback, which makes the story boring. 

Furthermore, I'm not sure whether the writers have enough time, but they frequently use clichés or stale techniques. Russian fans of the "Korean Wave," or Hallyu, have even made a list of humorous features or clichés they can often find in Korean soap operas online. Some of them are like, “If the leading actress opens her eyes wide when the couple kisses for the first time, it must be a Korean drama,” and “In Korean soap operas, you can more than once find the same scene where the leading actor and actress are close by somehow in public but they don't see or recognize each other.” 

In my view, the strangest thing that I continue to notice about Korean soap operas is when the characters put on a Band-Aid. They always put on a Band-Aid even if they only have a very tiny scratch. This always later becomes a romantic memory that the lead actors and actresses cherish and keep for a long time. In “Oh! My Venus,” the lead actor and actress even used the same Band-Aid for more than a year, reminding each other of the same romantic memory! (Flashback, flashback!) Don’t you find it strange? Why do Koreans consider such an unhygienic thing romantic? Is it because one of the main investors in the soap opera is the billionaire of a Band-Aid company? 

The other thing I can't get used to is the scenes of actors and actresses crying, which can be found all the time. In Korean dramas, women cry, men cry; not only children, but grownups cry, too. They cry when they're sad. They cry when they're happy. They certainly cry when they meet or separate. They shed tears when they're touched. This is really weird for Russians. Russians are also emotional people, but we don't cry that often. In Russia, shedding tears is considered shameful or weak, and in particular not manly at all. 

Another difference is in regard to men, as the sophisticated or even girly appearance of the actors is often found on Korean TV. In Russia, masculinity is highlighted in movies and in reality. When I watched the Korean drama “A Gentleman’s Dignity,” I took screenshots of the four male actors who are all handsome and nicely dressed. I put the pictures on my blog and explained that Korean men aged 40 look as young as these pictures. Many Russians who read my blog, however, wrote comments that, “They are not men.” 

If I begin to talk about the weird characteristics of Korean soap operas from a non-Korean's poitn of view, I can't stop myself. I find the habit of talking loudly to themselves very strange. I don’t think it's fun to see embarrassing toilet scenes which are often seen in many episodes. Commercials inside the soap operas are annoying and irritating. The final episode of many soap operas often sucks. 

Despite their many weaknesses, however, why do I love Korean dramas and why do I keep watching them? Why do I wait for the next episode of “Neighborhood Lawyer Jo Deul-ho” when my Russian friends are waiting for the next season of “Game of Thrones”? For me, the over-the-top romantic Korea soap operas are like pure and beautiful fairy tales for the modern world. Nonetheless, I will talk about the strengths of Korean soap operas in my next column. 

Lyudmila Mikheesku is a photo editor at the Russian media company Nezavisimaya Gazeta. 
Translated by Yoon Sojung, Korea.net Staff Writer 

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