Quick guide helps viewers understand K-drama quirks
By Jeff Chung
By Jeff Chung
Elements of South Korean dramas sometimes baffle local viewers. While the reasons behind them are universal soap-opera tactics, other K-drama features are related to real Korean life. Here are cultural contexts to help solve the riddles.
Q. Why do characters keep their illness a secret from everyone?
A. As with any American soap opera, such as "All My Children," illness —usually terminal — is an integral part of Korean-drama story lines. In addition, the person dying, such as the main character in "Rosy Life," usually doesn't tell anyone about the condition. People keep illness a secret because they don't want to burden family and friends. So the sick struggle on their own and suffer quietly until one day, someone finds medication around the house or the character collapses. And when taken to the hospital, all is revealed.
Q. Why is there a humidifier in every hospital scene?
A. The air in Korea can really get dry at certain times of the year, that's why humidifiers are common props in hospital scenes. Also, in the U.S., we usually take flowers to patients in hospitals but in Korea, you will often see family or friends bringing a case of fruit juice. The drinks aren't for the patient, but for other visitors.
Q. Why do characters go to bed in their day or work clothes?
A. This is not a common Korean practice. It's the directors' heavy-handed way of emphasizing the long, hard days of the working class. Going to bed still dressed implies the characters are so fatigued they don't have the energy to change or shower.
Q. Why are there so many scenes that involve eating or are set in cafes?
A. Korea is a cafe society — cafes are the popular meeting places for business and pleasure. Hundreds of great restaurants and chic cafes line the streets in Seoul's Kang Nam area. People are busy, so mealtimes are often the only times families get together. Also, with a need for controlled lighting environments combined with limited production budgets, eating scenes are ideal. The networks have full kitchens to prepare meals in the dramas — I hear that the quality of the food is really good. I am sure the crews and actors eat together after a successful take.
Q. When characters have a hard time, why do they always end up in a bar?
A. While distressed characters in American programs often seek solace in bars, in Korean dramas, characters drink to get drunk. Overwrought men wind up in bars alone, swigging soju and eventually passing out. (Wouldn't it be nice to see a character find another release — like working out at the gym?) Then the drunk character goes home only to talk back to his elders, telling them what's really on his mind, as if the alcohol gives him courage. While studying in South Korea in 1989, I witnessed a head-on car collision. All seven passengers were unconscious. Fearing the car might explode, I helped other witnesses pull the bodies from the cars. Without going into gory details, I couldn't fall asleep and was in shock. My Korean friend at the time thought it only natural to take me to a tent bar for soju, but it didn't help at all.
Q. Why doesn't KBFD subtitle comedy shows?
A. It's a common request. The South Korean networks see the value of translating their shows into English and adding subtitles. Dramas, documentaries, news, educational programs and talk shows can be translated, but comedies remain a challenge. That's because the dialogue is often filled with puns and word plays that would be ... lost in translation.
'TEARS' RELATIONSHIPS CONFUSE JUNG-WOO
'A FAREWELL TO TEARS'
EPISODES 39 AND 40
Tonight at 7: Jung-woo is thrown into confusion when Seo-young tells him he could be Hae-sun's biological son. Do-jin brings Min-joo home to introduce her to the family. Seon-ok tells Hae-sun it's time to tell Jung-woo the truth.
Tonight at 8: Tae-bok confirms Hae-sun used to run a bar. Il-ho tells Jung-woo that Hae-sun is using Jung-woo's family to seek revenge on him. Jung-woo confronts Hae-sun for the truth, but Hae-sun denies that Jung-woo is her son.
'TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE'
EPISODES 5 AND 6
Tomorrow at 7:50 p.m.: The reality show "To Marry a Millionaire" is a hit. Eun-young is taken aback by gifts from Young-hoon. Jin-ha gives Young-hoon an unlimited expense account and tells him he can do anything for Eun-young. Desperate for Young-hoon's attention, Yuri tries to seduce Young-hoon in his room, but Eun-young and Jin-ha walk in on them.
Tuesday at 7:50 p.m.: Eun-young gets lost after a shoot, but Young-hoon finds her. Eun-young is touched by Young-hoon's thoughtfulness. On his last date with Eun-young, Young-hoon insists he wants to spend his own money. Jin-ha shows Eun-young the "edited" show that was aired back home, and tells her Young-hoon is a phony millionaire.
EPISODES 13 AND 14
Wednesday at 7:50 p.m.: Ji-soo and Ji-suk leave the party, and they don't get to see that Dong-joo's adoptive father is actually their father. Ki-tae resorts to unfair tactics in trying to ruin Dong-joo's company, Kube. He goes on a blind date set up by his mom and insults his date. After realizing that he can't be with Ji-soo, he becomes sick. His mom asks Ji-soo to come to the house to look after him.
Thursday at 7:50 p.m.: Ji-soo realizes that Dong-joo's adoptive father is actually her father, who is thought to have died in Japan. She tells Dong-joo to go to Japan alone and tells her father to keep the secret. Thinking his father doesn't approve of Ji-soo because she lacks proper background, Dong-joo tells him that he won't leave without Ji-soo.
EPISODES 7 AND 8
Friday at 7:50 p.m.: Yoo-il and his assistant suspect that something is going on at Bum-koo and Big Bowl's gym. He goes there himself, only to be annoyed at the sight of Joon and Soon-ae training together. Yoo-il decides to join the gym as well, and Bum-koo and his gang are further confused by all the intrigue. Joon tells Soon-ae that Yoo-il may be a spy with an ulterior agenda, and she follows Yoo-il to get more answers.
Saturday at 7:50 p.m.:
Much to Joon's dismay, Yoo-il starts treating Soon-ae as his girlfriend in Joon's presence at the gym. The two men finally decide to go at it in the ring, fighting to a spirited stalemate. As Soon-ae gets into Yoo-il's car, Joon tells her that she is welcome to spend the night at his place again if she still does not have the keys to her place.
Jeff Chung is general manager of KBFD, which televises all of the K-dramas. If you have a K-drama question or comment, call KBFD at 521-8066 or reach him at email@example.com.