In Defense of K-drama

Why I continue to watch J & K Drama despite my seemingly obvious disdain for the genre:

As a continuation from my previous post, I wish to explain why, despite sounding like I’m someone who’s really disappointed with the genre as a whole I keep getting drawn back to it, whether it’s k-drama or j-drama, repeatedly. It seems to me that it offers something that’s very different from what I get when I watch an American TV series. There’s a unique quality to it and it provides a completely different kind of satisfaction despite it’s flaws and the leave of absences that realism tends to take, or perhaps, precisely because of it.

In order to legitimize some of the things I want to say, I will be drawing on Linda Williams’ defense of melodrama, “Melodrama Revised,” in which she talks about how melodrama is a much maligned, and assiduously ignored underlying mode of film that encompasses multiple genres because it is associated with an excess of emotions that is commonly associated with feminine behavior (43).

One of the stoutest lines of defense Williams offers for the value of melodrama stems from the unreality of this mode of film. Williams talks about how the excesses of melodrama that characterize it as unreal should not be seen as a weakness of this mode of filmic storytelling, as opposed to more realist genres that put stock in linear, logical and causal explanations for events because implicit in melodrama is the “recognition of the limitations of the conventions of representation” (Christine Gledhill qtd. in Williams, 48). This in turn forces into an aesthetic presence, within the diegetic world of the melodrama, attempts at representing a desire for the “fullness of signification beyond the powers of language to supply” in the search for things like identity, moral/ethical right, a sense of belonging, the greater good, purpose, calling and all that other ineffable stuff that exists on the upper tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that seem frivolous and non-essential but we actually can’t live without.

And we see this in dramatic high points in successful and well-received K-dramas like Personal Taste (2010). For instance in scenes like when Park Kae-In shows up at an architects’ exclusive meet-and-greet on the handsome Jeon Jin-ho’s arm, dressed to the nines to stick it to her ex who left her for another woman; or when she gets pulled into a passionate kiss with the same dude just as she’s about to be humiliated by her boyfriend-stealing, ex-bestfriend – these aren’t just moments of excess because of the romance, but what makes them profoundly romantic is that at the heart of these scenes are moments of self-actualization and self-worth for the character.

Furthermore, just to remove the anti-feminist taint that’s lingering at the back of my throat as I write this, I choose to see these scenes as female-empowering as well because it’s a rare instance where the male lead’s good looks are reduced to a prop to be used in subservience to the female character’s needs; and both character and actor are consumed as image by other characters within the diegesis of the drama and the viewing audience, whereas emotional investment and empathy in the scenes lie squarely with the female lead.

The other defense of melodrama that I found particularly rousing is the observed difference between tragedy and melodrama. Melodrama is typically dismissed because it is seen as manipulative and dealing with silly female emotions (43). However, if one were to assume that consumers of melodrama can also be critical, then “unlike tragedy, melodrama does not reconcile its audience to an inevitable suffering. Rather than raging against a fate that the audience has learned to accept, the female hero often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions” (47). This means that while tragedy encourages us to rail against a cruel fate we assume to be true, melodrama just rails against a fate we already mostly know to be false because its emotional excesses always and already indicate a break from reality and therefore a disruption of the suspension of disbelief in audiences.

To draw on some of the series I mentioned in my previous post, how can we possibly mistake the diegetic world for the real world when dramas like My Love from Another Star (2013-2014) feature an alien as a main character and a serial poisoner as the antagonist? And I Can Hear Your Voice (2013) whose main protagonist is a mind-reader? I just think that the force of magical realism is strong with this genre and while there are more realist melodramas in the market which make the distinction between diegetic world and real world a little harder to tell, I have not come into contact with them to be able to provide any sound analysis at this point.

This would suggest that in a melodrama, the audience has more agency than one that goes to see a tragedy and as such, may choose to identify with the character and take pleasure in the uniquely unreal circumstances they get put in, or s/he may choose to step out of his/her identification with the character and treat them as object subject to the audience’s gaze and interpretative whims.

er… this is actually the first part of a 3000++ word document I’m still writing so there’s more! (I’m breaking it up because I don’t think WordPress can handle the word count O_O) Anyway, Wait for it!

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