Welcome, First Time in Korea? How K-Dramas Crash Landed on Us During the Time of Isolation

Pop Culture

Welcome, First Time in Korea? How K-Dramas Crash Landed on Us During the Time of Isolation

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

A few weeks ago, a colleague texted me that they had a “confession” to make. I was part-baffled, part-anxious. After 10 seconds of suspense, came the shy admission “I watched Crash Landing on You 🙈”. Watching my senior skittering around the edges of the South Korean drama rabbit hole was the last thing I had been expecting, but when she asked me for more recommendations, I happily sent her off with a list for her K-binge and a virtual pat on the back. She was in for a wild ride, after all.

My colleague is one of the many to have succumbed to the lure of a world of Korean men and women with gorgeous skin and heart-fluttering on-screen chemistry this year. Thanks to the pandemic (and Netflix), being stuck at home with time to spare, has opened new doors to pop culture, this time from the East: the rising Korean soft power, K-dramas.

Crash Landing on You, one of the highest-rated dramas on Korean cable TV in 2020, had easily achieved a spot for itself on Netflix India’s Top 10 last year. And it wasn’t the only one. It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, during its run from June to August 2020, peaked as high as #3.

crash landing on you

Crash Landing on You tells the story of two star-crossed lovers, Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin) and Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin).

Netflix

Although K-dramas may have only found a strong foothold in the mainstream in recent months, they’re not entirely a foreign concept in India. K-dramas had already found a niche for themselves in the country, particularly in the North Eastern states. Before OTT platforms could kindle the rest of India’s obsession, K-dramas dubbed or subbed in native languages had been a staple in these regions for nearly a decade, if not more. Almost considered a rite of passage by K-fans, Boys Over Flowers that gave the K-drama universe the infamous group F4, is as popular now as it was when it first aired in 2009. Fast forward to 2020, the power of 4G, 24/7 streaming services, and the availability of a range of subtitles to choose from have been definite game-changers in getting K-drama beginners onboard.

Korean beauty products have been popular in India for a few years now. And now, with K-pop, Korean food, and K-drama on the rise it’s safe to say that Hallyu, the Korean cultural wave, has swept India.

“It is so mindless and weirdly sweet,” my senior described Crash Landing on You, her first K-drama. A story of an unlikely couple from either side of the Korean border, the star-crossed lovers trope is hardly a rarity in the K-drama universe. But the slow-burn pining, the selfless gestures, and the silly banter are quick to build up a will-they-won’t-they chemistry.

Something in the Rain, the love story between a 35-year-old woman who falls hopelessly in love with her best friend’s younger brother is a complete mush fest – it’ll make your heart flutter, it’ll make you blush and smile a lot to yourself.

Korean dramas, then, are in sharp contrast to how the hook-up generation perceives dating and romance – high on sex, low on emotional connect. But, at a time, when we have spent way too much time in isolation, K-dramas have proved to be oddly addictive.

In her round-up for Korean dramas to watch for Teen Vogue, journalist Kim Jae-ha credits “the K-drama trifecta” for getting viewers hooked. “The one-season-and-done concept, the second male lead who threatens to win the female lead’s heart, and the gorgeous actors and actresses who pretend that their 20- and 30-something characters have never been in relationships. Ever,” she points out, often seal the deal. Add to this high-production quality, breathtaking cinematography, and OSTs that stick with you from the first listen — before you know it you’re deep into K-dramaland. Congratulations!

K-dramas offer a dose of comfort you didn’t know you had been looking for.

But there’s more than romance and pretty people to look for in K-dramas. Itaewon Class offers yet another classic trope of the love triangle with the handsome Park Seo-joon as the lead. But the series holds your attention as it weaves in classism, racial discrimination, and transphobia into the storyline — sensitive subjects less spoken about both in the Korean society and back home.

Itaewon Class is no outlier. “Taboo” subjects that never find a mention in soaps back home are dealt with sensitively in Korean dramas.

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay and Sky Castle, both personal favourites, dive headfirst into mental health and a rigid education system respectively. They focus on the other kind of love, the familial one, something that is deeply rooted in our own Indian values.

Sky Castle strongly highlights how the academic pressure to ace does not just fall upon the shoulders of kids but also their parents. While students are pitted in a rat race against each other and berated for failing to be number 1, the adults are caught up in a tussle of their own,  with unforeseen and rather obsessive tricks up their sleeves to hire their child the best tutor in the country.

In comparison, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is peppered with funny and romantic moments, without compromising on the heartfelt revelations and personal struggles our characters face. Its female lead Seo Ye-ji embodies the icy and ruthless children’s book author to perfection. However, it is Oh Jung-se who, in his phenomenal portrayal of the autistic elder brother, shines bright.

it's okay to not be okay

It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is peppered with funny and romantic moments, without compromising on the heartfelt revelations and personal struggles our characters face.

Netflix

Even then, without the air of seriousness, Korean dramas in their lighter narratives still leave you with something to take away. As five strangers come to live together under one roof, Hello, My Twenties gives a sneak-peek into a sisterhood that is far from being perfect. Although a campus romance, My ID Is Gangnam Beauty ropes you in with a commentary on societal beauty standards enforced on women. Perhaps, the true beauty of these series lie in the fact that even as they talk of real things in unlikely scenarios, there is always room for laughter and clichés to carry on. Without being burdensome, K-drama still holds a mirror to reflect the real world in its 13-16-20 episodic series.

K-dramas offer a dose of comfort you didn’t know you had been looking for. They won’t make your worries disappear in an instant or bring you answers to all of life’s questions. But when you have a metaphorical shoulder to lean on, to provide you a momentary respite from the present, and lead you into a world that is not half as off its axis, why would you pass on it?

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