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Why we love Korean weepies

Mar 23. 2016
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The melodrama in soaps from Seoul is a magnet for women with repressed melancholy, says a professor

YU YIJIE, a 25-year-old Chinese graduate student at Kookmin University in Seoul, has been a fan of Korean TV drama series even since she first watched “Full House”, starring Rain and Song Hye-kyo, in 2004.

She’s been a devoted fan of all the big Korean series ever since – to the extent that she delved into television production as part of her studies.

“I decided to come to Korea to study after seeing ‘My Girl’ in 2005, which was a huge hit in China, starring Lee Jun-ki and Lee Da-hae,” says Yu. She arrived in 2012 with public administration as her major and in the off-season worked as an intern at broadcasting companies in China.

Her graduate degree, she decided, would be in film and television, thus turning her love of the screen into a professional pursuit.

Yu’s case illustrates the positive influence Korean entertainment is having after more than a decade of popularity overseas. Since the early 2000s Korean TV dramas have been enormously popular, spearheading the Korean culture wave known as hallyu.

The first drama to really get the Korean Wave going was “Winter Sonata” in 2002, which was particularly popular among middle-aged women in Japan. The drama created an enormous fan base there and catapulted stars Bae Yong-joon and Choi Ji-woo to global fame. They even earned the honorific nicknames Yon-sama (Emperor Yon) and Jiwo Hime (Princess Jiwoo).

A year later the period drama “Jewel in the Palace”, became the first to attract widespread attention beyond East Asia. It was sold to more than 90 countries, as far away as Hungary. Seventy per cent of TV viewers in Tajikistan tuned in when it first aired in 2007 and five reruns followed.

In Kazakhstan its success guaranteed the popularity of the period dramas that followed – “Jumong” in 2006, “Queen Seodeok” in 2009 and “Dong Yi” in 2010, according to the report “Global Hallyu 2015”.

South Korean period dramas have had people of diverse nationalities take an interest in Korean traditional culture, costume, food and landscape, eventually attracting a growing number of tourists.

They’re especially popular in East Asia and Southeast Asia, where viewers easily relate to the traditional values and the hierarchical society depicted.

“Myanmar’s culture shares a great similarity with Korean culture,” the report says, “since it values family, respect for elders and hospitality toward guests. The similar culture and customs, thoughts and languages between two countries let Burmese people embrace Korean dramas readily.”

Oh In-gyu, a professor at Korea University who is director general of the World Association for Hallyu Studies, says there’s another factor that enables Korean dramas to transcend borders and ethnicity. “They present a feeling that women of all nationalities can share, the feeling of melancholia. The state of melancholia can translate into ‘han’, the distinct state of the Korean mind.” Han is a complicated psychological concept, but it refers to accumulated depression with no outlet. It’s been used to describe the psychological state of older Korean women raised in a patriarchal, hierarchical society.

Oh says female viewers around the world who share this mindset are the ones driving Korean-drama “fever”. “Whether it’s historical dramas, romantic melodramas or dramas with violence, the primary viewers of Korean dramas are women,” he notes.

The female protagonists in the TV series and movies tend to overcome a series of obstacles before finding their true love or achieving career success. In “Jewel in the Palace”, Jang-geum, who comes from a disgraced family, becomes an assistant to royalty, working her way up from assistant cook to court doctor.

“Women feel a sense of catharsis watching the female character grow,” says Oh, who between 2010 and 2013 tested his theory in Israel, France and Britain. He examined the differing reactions of male and female viewers watching five different Korean dramas.

“Men showed little interest in the stories, while women quickly became attached to the characters.”

Also attracting women around the globe are the “ideal” male figures portrayed, Oh says. “The Korean men in these shows are sensitive, kind and fashionable, the ideal type for most women.”

“Stairway to Heaven” has been a tremendous hit in Argentina, where an article published earlier this month in the newspaper Clarin called it one of the country’s most-watched television programmes. Kwon Sang-woo plays the male lead, devoted to his ailing childhood sweetheart. He protects her until her death with the promise of everlasting love.

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