About three weeks ago, the Vox’s article “Here Is Why Millions of Americans are binge-watching Korean Dramas”, which contains some revealing infographics, made my mouth drop open. Seriously, how has Hallyu become this popular?
Coined in the 1990s by Beijing journalists, Hallyu, meaning Korean cultural wave, is a term used to describe the growing popularity of Korean culture that has swept over South Korea’s neighboring countries in East Asia and recently around the globe. According to A Geek In Korea, an informative and wonderful book by the Korea-based writer Daniel Tudor, one of the reasons for this popularity is that after the economic crisis of 1997, the government started to invest in creative industries, regarding those as “a future growth driver”. As a result, studios can produce high-quality works with a cheap price (129). Hallyu has benefited the image of the country tremendously, sparking curiosity, interest and for the ‘90s generation, even madness. Prior to the booming popularity of Korean entertainment, people often linked South Korea with wars, instable government or poverty. Now, this country is known as the home of glamorous entertainers, big-budget movies, addictive dramas, rich history, culinary delights and some famous brands such as Samsung, Hyundai, LG, Caffé Bene, to name a few.
In the 2000s, Hallyu hit the East Asian markets in Japan, Taiwan, China and other Southeast Asian countries with “Winter Sonata” (2002), “Autumn in My Heart” (2000), “Daejanggeum” (2003), “Jumong” (2006). From then until now, despite the cultural gap, it has spread to other countries in the Middle East, the United States, Latin America and some European countries.
According to the Vox article, Dramafever, launched in 2009 as a video streaming website, provides Asian dramas with subtitles for twenty millions unique viewers monthly. 85 percent of the audience is, surprisingly, non-Asian. The audiences are mostly women, whose ages range from 18 to 24. A huge factor that contributes to the Korean Wave is dramas, which are, frankly, addictive to many people. What are the characteristics of Korean Dramas and why are they so popular? Embedded with Confucian values, K-dramas’ topics often revolve around modern issues related to love, family, friendship and workplace. A miniseries usually lasts for a number of episodes, which is different from Western series that prolong for a number of seasons. The narratives are fast-paced. A climax always occurs at the end of every episode to prompt viewers to continue watching.
In South Korea, dramas are often filmed and broadcast simultaneously as a preferable method of production, so that the scriptwriters and producers can tweak the storyline and add scenes that the audiences want. In other words, netizens exercise a lot of control over how dramas are made. For example, if unexpectedly, they swoon over a supporting actor or a side story in a drama, that actor or that small story will get more space. Since viewers may not be professional enough to dictate how dramas are made, how can this ridiculous fact happen? It all comes down to ratings and money. According to the book “Why do dramas do that?”, the creators of the popular website Dramabeans said, “More episodes means more days of high ratings, which translates into increased advertising revenues.” Quoted in the Vox article, the reason why Korean dramas hook foreign viewers is, according to Mr. Park, “All types of ethnicities … are seeking out foreign content…because [it] speaks to them more than…traditional television.” Maybe. But why do they choose dramas from South Korea but not from any other countries? Because, first, in my opinion, Korean dramas are constructed as a perfect escape from reality for audiences. Implausible plots dedicated to some banal and recurring themes such as Love Conquers All are the first step away from reality. In fact, to some extent, K-dramas’ themes are similar to those from Titanic, Romeo and Juliet or The Notebook. This kind of plot is simple and tempting. For every protagonist, there will be one antagonist. For every female character, there are two male pursuers (or vice versa). For every evil mother, there will be a son willing to stand up to her and protect his love. For every poor girl, there is a rich boy. And so on. “The plot is illogical and ridiculous,” you may say. But believe it or not, many people are willing to overlook plot holes and clichés to be emotionally invested by Korean dramas.
Furthermore, even though many can sense the theme of a drama, they don’t exactly know what will
happen in details and that is when the talent of a writer comes in. In a world where so many things can go wrong, K-dramas provide a comfort zone in which viewers can laugh, blush and believe that good things will happen. After all, as media outlets are booming, we find ourselves more informed and frequently heartbroken by tragedies. For many, the last thing they want from entertainment is the reality. Second, K-dramas always know how to extract emotions, especially from young females. According to A geek in Korea, in a Confucian society, one must follow “the humane treatment of others”, “the correct observance of important social rituals” and “filial piety”. K-dramas, even though dramatic, teach these obligations well by scripting related sentimental stories that inspire people to respect adults, treat others with love, care, empathy and work hard. They serve well as a tool to make people feel good about the world they live in. They satisfy humans’ sentimental needs.
The third reason is a superficial one, yet it is the biggest factor in my opinion. Frankly, people watch Korean dramas more because of the glossy production, beautiful cinematography, and fine-looking actors/ actresses than because of the plots. Some entertainers were previously singers, didn’t have any background in acting but get roles in dramas because they are good-looking and have a large fan base. That isn’t an obviously bad thing until we see that the acting from some is just plain horrible. Yet, in a judgmental society where appearance plays a huge factor like in South Korea (the country is famous for its obsession with plastic surgery and high rates of suicidal), the talent of an entertainer must come along with attractive appearance, or sometimes, talent isn’t needed at all. Furthermore, Korean dramas offer a pleasurable eye experience, showing modern technologies, luxurious houses, famous attractions and so on. Korean drama makers are investing to make irresistible products and the growing global popularity is the pay-off.