overthinking the idiot box

June 27, 2005

World Peace via Korean Soap Operas
by Alison Veneto

Yesterday, I went to the Japanese Supermarket, Mitsuwa, in Downtown Los Angeles. As I was checking out, I noticed an unusual poster on the wall in front of me — an ad for a Japanese television station — on which I recognized Korean faces.

They were actresses from the historical drama Dae Jang Geum, a show that is breaking audience records in China and is also successful in several other Asian countries.

But this is nothing new. Korean dramas have been ruling the airwaves all over East Asia for a couple of years now. They are promoting understanding and cultural unity among previously hostile countries. And they are helping solidify the Pan-Asian market as one independent of Hollywood.

Now when you sit down on Sunday night to watch Desperate Housewives, you are probably just ready to relax. You would never assume that a soap opera could be anything more than entertaining fluff. But in Korea, they are making entertaining nighttime soap operas that have become so much more. Throughout East Asia this is known as the Korean Wave (or "Hallyu"). I recently came across a figure that claimed every day Korean dramas are watched by hundreds of millions of people in countries such as China, Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand, and even the U.S.

Winter Sonata: What Can One Show Do?
The undisputed beginning of the Korean wave can be traced to one show: Winter Sonata, a 20 episode romance following the relationship of Yoo-jin and Jun-sang and all the things that tear them apart. They meet and fall in love in high school, much to the chagrin of two high school friends, Sang-hyuk and Chae-lin, who have their own interests. But when Yoo-jin grows up, she meets someone who reminds her of her high school sweetheart, causing more problems among her group of friends.

Yoo-jin and Jun-Sang's tragic love story captured hearts everywhere, most particularly in Japan. And it's star, Bae Yong-joon, is now the hottest thing in Japan (so much so that I'll talk about him in his own section below).

According to The Financial Express, Winter Sonata's overseas sales to 16 countries allowed its network, KBS to rack up over $200 million dollars in two years. And wherever the main two actors go in East Asia, they are swarmed with fans.

Recently in USA Today Paul Wiseman wrote, "Hiroshi Saito holds one of the most perilous jobs in this city of 12 million people. He's the security guard responsible for keeping hundreds of middle-age Japanese women away from a sculpture displaying the toned torso of South Korean heartthrob Bae Yong Joon."

Bae Yong-joon is the male star of Winter Sonata. In Japan he is known as Yon-sama. The last time he appeared in Japan, hundreds of middle-aged housewives managed to start a stampede, sending 10 of them (who, of course, were between the ages of 43 and 65) to the hospital. To say he's a phenomenon is putting it lightly.

I do respect Bae for following up his great success with a risky and rather racy film called Untold Scandal, an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. And it's much racier than any of the American versions of the film, and quite against his perfect image. Nonetheless, he'll be returning to the image that brought him so much success in a romance called April Snow. The film, directed by a Korean master of romance films, will have an unprecedented release: it's being released in 10 East Asian countries simultaneously — a release pattern only seen previously for the biggest US releases.

The excitement for this film is tangible. The first day of shooting was greeted by 350 journalists. Also, in May, 20,000 tickets had already been sold in Japan over a period of two weeks -- for a movie that isn't released until September. The distribution rights in Japan were bought for an unprecedented amount of money for a non-American film.

What this release is facilitating is the new trend toward a Pan-Asian industry. Almost all countries in the world (except perhaps India) are dependent on Hollywood films. Since other countries don't have the returns on their films that Hollywood films do, they also cannot get a lot of money to make big budget films like Hollywood -- so how to compete? Well, the East Asian countries are beginning to market their films to a Pan-Asian market. Big budget films will star actors from Japan, China, and Korea to appeal to several regions and not be dependent on Hollywood. Bae's influence is only helping this region become autonomous in the entertainment field.

Korea and Japan
To say these two countries don't get along is an understatement. A perfect modern example is the island of Dokdo/Takeshima (Dokdo to the Koreans, Takeshima to the Japanese). A small rock in the ocean, hardly even an island, that the two countries fight over like it's the goose that laid golden eggs. It's a rock in the sea.

What could possibly bridge a cultural divide so wide? I turn to a recent Japan Time report: "On the Japanese respondents' sentiment toward [Korea]... 58 percent said they feel closeness to South Korea, up 5 percentage points. The increase in favorable feelings toward South Korea apparently stems from a boom of South Korean culture in Japan, especially TV dramas."

Not much has changed in the three years between these studies. If anything, South Korea would be less palatable due to the Dokdo/Takeshima conflict and Korea's opinion on Japan joining the UN security council. The only change was a television show which has caused people to perhaps ignore these political situations and change their opinions on an entire nation.

Also there have been many articles written about how Korean-Japanese interracial marriages are more acceptable in Japan now -- with many Yon-sama fans even subscribing to services to find them Korean husbands. And the general Japanese prejudice toward Koreans is reportedly subsiding.

Although, it's worth noting that Korea, a country that once suffered under Japanese imperialism, does not like Japan any better. But I'm utterly convinced that if the two countries ever went to war again and Yon-sama joined up in Korea, Japanese women would riot, bringing any conflict to an immediate end.

Dae Jang Geum
Winter Sonata was pretty big in Hong Kong and China (where Bae Yong-joon is known as "Auntie Killer"). But what was even bigger was Dae Jang Geum. My personal viewing of Korean dramas is by no means extensive but as far as I can tell the dramas fall into two categories — historical and non-historical. I prefer the modern day romance-centered soap operas such as Winter Sonata, but gaining a powerful fan base everywhere are the historical dramas such as Dae Jang Geum.

Jang Geum is a historical figure only mentioned briefly in history. Supposedly she was a female physician who served the King. The creators of this show took this tiny tidbit and ran with it, creating 54 epic episodes of a woman who rises to the top despite Confucian patriarchy and cutthroat court politics.

Historical dramas such as these have caught on big in places like China where a lot of local historical dramas are also popular. Despite some differences in culture, the Chinese understand the Confucian setting and many of the story elements are universal.

As a result, the Chinese are having the same warm and fuzzy feelings towards the Koreans as the Japanese. Even the LA Times reported last month that the Korean dramas are strengthening the bond between China and South Korea.

Korean Drama and Other Asian Countries
The popularity of Korean drama has had both positive and negative Impact throughout East Asia. I will elucidate on two instances:

Mediacorp News reported that in Singapore, the number of students learning Korean at community colleges has doubled in the past two years, with middle aged women (the prime watchers of the dramas) flooding the classrooms. This is not only happening in Singapore; there is a fervor for all things Korean in many of these countries. But something about middle aged women getting out of the house and taking community college classes is very positive in my view.

But, oh, the downsides. Among South Korean actresses, plastic surgery has become an epidemic. Subsequently, South Korean plastic surgeons have been emigrating to China in large numbers and making bank helping Chinese women look like the Korean woman on TV. The surgeries include lessening the slant on the eyes to make them look more western. One hospital in Shanghai, China, reported a 40 percent increase in plastic surgeries with their waiting lists booked full. Another hospital, one that flies in Korean plastic surgeons, fields 100 requests a day. While these TV dramas seem to be doing a lot of good, they are also clearly doing some damage.

Tourism in Korea
Because of SARs and the constant threat of North Korea, South Korea's tourism industry had practically ground to a halt. But lately, it's become a booming industry, based on the TV dramas. The state run tourist association claims that the impact of the dramas has brought in almost one billion dollars (US) — in a country roughly the size of Indiana.

Many tour packages have been created, particularly for Japanese tourists but also for Malaysians and other nationalities, that take you to the sites of Winter Sonata. The Korea Times reported that the area Winter Sonata was shot in received a surge of 55.8% from the previous year of foreign tourists. Due to the new found interest, this previously underdeveloped area of Korea has even thrown in its hat for the 2014 Winter Olympics. The set of Dae Jang Geum has been turned into a museum for tourists due to interest in the show.

After watching Winter Sonata, I was about ready to run out and get a long wool jacket like the ones they wear in the show, until I realized I lived in Los Angeles.
The shows have also boosted many commercial industries whose products are featured in the dramas. One liquor distributor even gave out free DVDs of Winter Sonata because their sales had already risen so dramatically. I must admit, after watching Winter Sonata, I was about ready to run out and get a long wool jacket like the ones they wear in the show, until I realized I lived in Los Angeles.

Soap Opera
The great impact of these shows doesn't change the fact that they are soap operas. Most of the people watching them are middle-aged women/housewives.

I know right about now you're wondering what's so very great about them. They're really just well done shows. The shows have a finite number of episodes (they don't continue on ad infinitum until eventual cancellation) and generally are all written by one individual and directed by one individual showcasing a consistent vision. This form of serialization allows the shows to have definite beginnings, middles, and endings which appeal to many viewers. They are more like extended mini-series than the US definition of a series.

The shows are very clean — there is no sex shown, and only occasionally is there even implied sex. You'll be lucky to see a kiss. But this aspect is a draw for many of the older viewers who tire of their local soap operas, which focus on sex. The Korean dramas focus instead on love and emotion.

The characters are often very normal and easy to identify and sympathize with. Even the 'evil' characters are generally well rounded and you sympathize with them as well. Korean dramas are often very nostalgic. Nostalgia is very common in Korean art and entertainment since they yearn for a time when their country was one and things were simpler. The dramas also often address the theme of identity — something Korea has struggled with since the Korean War.

Themes like identity and feelings of nostalgia lend themselves well to the older generation of most countries. The strength of the stories, the characters, and sometimes the actors are a real draw for many viewers.

Can TV Do the Same for Iraq?
There has been much hubbub made in newspapers around the world that Winter Sonata is going to play in Iraq. Unfortunately, it will be playing in only Kurdish areas with Kurdish subtitles, so I don't think we'll be sitting around with Islamic extremists quite yet and crying over Yoo-jin and Jun-sang's traumas.

It's hard to believe anything would bridge a cultural divide as wide as the one between Americans and Arabs. Yet there is hope, for when Winter Sonata played in Egypt — a Muslim country — it lead "to thousands of fan letters to the Korean Embassy in Egypt and to KBS," according to The Korea Times -- clearly showing a warm reception.

Is it Coming to America?
As it turns out, if you live in a major city, there's a good chance you have access to subtitled Korean dramas. They are shown in eight states and in D.C. on local channels and on the AZN cable network, which is available in 12.5 million homes.

The most successful channel for showing Korean dramas is KBC 28 in Chicago. Their message board has over 4000 posts for Dae Jang Geum and over 8000 posts for another historical drama The Age of Warriors. They have shown about a dozen dramas so far and the fan base is getting larger and larger. And it's not just Korean people. It seems every day Americans are becoming obsessed with the Korean wave.

In particular, the shows seem to appeal to Christians, who turn away from the sexual frankness of American daytime and nighttime soap operas. Most testimonials of American fans begin by saying they merely were flipping channels and got hooked. These testimonials are easy to find in blogs and websites all over the internet started by regular Americans interested in the shows. There are also MSN groups, Yahoo groups, online bulletin boards, and LiveJournal communities dedicated to Korean dramas, groups that showcase a truly eclectic group of fans.

Further, less than a year ago, the University of Hawaii held an academic conference based solely on Korean dramas (SMRT-TV isn't the only one thinking there's something to talk about here!).

And if you are one of the 12.5 million homes that has AZN (formerly The International Channel), now is your chance. On July 27th, AZN will be premiering Dae Jang Geum. It's a lot different from Winter Sonata, being historical versus strictly a romance, but still may be a good place to start if you're willing to give Korean drama a chance.

Other dramas that have had some underground success in the US are Stairway to Heaven, Hotelier, The Age of Warriors, and Romance In Paris. AZN just finished a run of Rooftop Roomcat (Attic Cat) last week that had me hooked and desperate for the next episode.

It does beg the odd question — if we could just get Islamic extremists addicted to CSI or something, would the world be a more peaceful place?
In Conclusion
I don't think we really give TV shows much thought when it comes to their world impact. Yet Korean dramas are managing to have not only an unprecedented commercial impact on their entire region, but also a cultural one. Strangely enough, a couple of TV shows have managed to make East Asia a united front with cultural ties and greater understanding of their nearby countries. These shows are actually bringing together countries that have fought each other over the last hundred years. It does beg the odd question — if we could just get Islamic extremists addicted to CSI or something, would the world be a more peaceful place? What power can television hold? Clearly a good universal story can have more power than we might think.

For a bit more info:
A list of US Stations that carry Korean dramas.
AZN's Website.
A good essay about why Winter Sonata is so popular.

Email the author.

Return to Vol. 1, Episode 7.