Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Korean Soaps

Hotel Del Luna

Okay, this is a totally gushy post of unbridled delight.

I am besotted with Korean soaps. So much so that I can now read enough Korean to tell you the above is actually Spanish, and that Talk to me in Korean is an amazing site. I'm not entirely sure how I've almost managed to reach the age of forty without ever knowing any of this.

It all began, thanks to my friend Paul of Northern Antiquarian fame. We've always been off exploring standing stones and waffling mythology and folklore together. Last time we were on the phone, he told me he'd really been getting into Korean films on Netflix and recommended a few titles.

I decided to take a look at Along with the Gods - and that was it. It was visually stunning and so rich in mythology it just sucked me right in.

Then I watched a supernatural horror, which was quite good. Then Netflix kept recommending Memories of the Alhambra, so I thought I'd try that, only to discover it's a series.

It started off with one hell of a premise. Augmented reality gone horribly wrong. In Spain, for some reason. But anyway... it was engrossing, though completely unlike any other soap I've ever watched. I'll go into this more in a minute.

Next, I graduated onto Hotel Del Luna (I'm not entirely sure why the strong Korean/Spanish links?). 

I just about died with delight. 

I sobbed solidly through most of the episodes and through the entirety of the last two. It's all about a hotel where ghosts go to recover before crossing the bridge into their next life. It blew my little socks off. It appears deceptively light-hearted at times, but turned out to be horribly profound. There are some very silly moments in it, but like Master of the House in Les Mis, you need that, otherwise you'd open a vein. 

Having completed that and taken a couple of days to recover, I started Crash Landing on You yesterday. I didn't think I'd get on with this one because it's overtly a romantic comedy and I have a limited tolerance for those, but once again I'm absolutely absorbed. This time it's about a woman who accidentally crosses the border into North Korea, and the differences between the two countries. It's very well done, and again, the superficial nature of the lead character is entirely deceptive. It's got some proper depth to it.

I'm just completely intrigued now. What a story-telling culture. But it seems (to someone who knows nothing about the Korean film industry) that all of these series are made by the same company, as they follow a very specific format every time.

Some of the key things I've learned about Korean soaps that distinguish them from western soaps:

1. The length of the episodes

Usually, a western series runs to an hour per episode, often less and getting lesser due to binge culture. I think Better Call Saul is 60 minutes, Suits is about 40 minutes and Neighbours, a much-loved Australian soap when I was growing up, is only about 20 minutes. In comparison, Korean soaps are around an hour and a half and around 16 episodes. It's a bit of a time commitment, but when you reach the end it's like you've finished an epic novel rather than a TV show.

2. Genre Switching

Usually, with a western series, you kind of have a genre - like light entertainment, romance, horror, detective, family drama - and you stick to that. Something that took a moment to get used to with Korean series is that they can go from warm, fuzzy romance to graphic horror in the blink of an eye. I absolutely love it. One minute, this guy and this girl are making eyes at each other, the next, someone's jugular is spurting blood or someone's car gets pushed over a cliff as they scream for help. I love it, I love it, I love it. And I think it goes a long way to holding your attention. Everything's in context, but you're never quite sure what you're about to see. It makes everything feel a bit gritty and real. Having said that, it does work the other way. You can be in the middle of a murder scene when suddenly the script starts to read like a bad Mills & Boon. I felt it most in Memories of the Alhambra. I think they could have cut it a bit shorter and had greater impact. You were really getting into the action when suddenly it took a break for a couple of episodes to focus purely on romance. It kind of broke the flow. But, on the whole, they're a pick and mix of emotions.

3. Recurring Song

There's usually a recurring song or two that sees you through the whole thing. For the rest of my life, when I hear this, I'll burst into tears.

4. The Unknown

They employ a neat narrative technique whereby you think you know what's going on, you've got everything sussed, then they switch character perspective and you learn something you didn't know before. It's done quite regularly and to very good effect. As with genre mixing, it keeps you engaged, and on a deeper level it really confronts you with your own presumptions. You learn to be a bit less judgemental until you have all the facts (i.e. the series ends).

5. The Mythology

I'm not sure whether to say the culture or the mythology or both? For example, if you watched a western series set in a church, I'd call it mythology but others might call it culture? Either way, the worldview is stunning. I think everything I've watched so far except Crash Landing (and I'm only two episodes in, so give it time) has dealt with spirits, ghosts and reincarnation. I'm all about that. Some scenes, like the Spirit of the Well in Hotel Del Luna just bring fond memories of Ghibli and Spirited Away. Needless to say, Along with the Gods was a real journey through the afterlife. Definitely my cup of tea.

6. Talking to Yourself

One of the things I still haven't got entirely used to is that characters have a real habit of talking to themselves and explaining what they're thinking. It's kind of in context, so it's not bad, it's just something that you never see in western series. For example, one character might be watching another across the room and say, 'I wonder what she thinks of me?' It's subtle, but sort of like a stage whisper. Usually, in western dramas we'd do it with a look or a gesture. We'd kind of trust the audience to be following the story closely enough to guess what the character is thinking without explicitly saying it. On the other hand, it's not used to excess, and I've sort of got used to it now. It's just a different way of doing things.

7. Diversity

So far, all three series have been very heteronormative. It's one guy and one girl falling in love (which kind of perpetuates the Mills & Boon thing). Nowadays, many western series, especially those on Netflix, such as Umbrella Academy, Russian Dolls, Last Tango in Halifax, tend to be more inclusive. One of the main things I knew about South Korea was that in 2013 they granted asylum to an LGBT Ugandan woman. But, having read a bit more about LGBT rights in Korea, it's not as open as I assumed. I wondered for a moment about Secretary Seo Jung Hoon. That was just heart-wrenching, turning up when Yoo Jin Woo most needed him. But I think shows can be a bit conspicuous nowadays if there's no diversity even in the side characters. Which brings me to the next point...

8. Specific Format

These series feel incredibly satisfying when you get to the end, but I'm starting to see a pattern. Each episode ends with a cliff hanger the height of the grand canyon, ends with freeze frames of the show, contains a recurring song, usually the main characters don't get on at all before realising they're madly in love, there's no nudity or explicit sex scenes, but a lot of silent and meaningful eye contact and appropriate touching, then somewhere around the fourth episode from the end they finally kiss. Each episode ends with freeze frames from the instalment, looking like paintings. It's predictable in the way it unfolds, but the story telling is top-notch and the premises are just fabulous: augmented reality trying to kill you, a hotel for ghosts, crossing into North Korea... they're all really well thought through with some very entertaining twists and turns.

9. Room for a Sequel

So far, both Memories of the Alhambra and Hotel Del Luna have set themselves up for a sequel... but neither has made one or have a second season slated on IMDB. It sort of feels like a choose-your-own-ending. Everything's wrapped up and you can either choose to accept that or go with the dangled possibility of another story to come. I think Hotel Del Luna should have just stopped. It was a one-off story and the characters can't come back. So, it was a bit wishy-washy to hint at another series. Whereas Memories of the Alhambra could definitely have run a second series, but didn't.


Anyway, that's my assessment, and I'm loving it all. Hyun Bin's hair should have won an award when he was sitting in the rain outside the hospital. You could see every single strand, it was beautiful. Seeing him in Memories of the Alhambra and then in Crash Landing on You - it was like looking at two completely different people. Extremely diverse actor. 

But I've just loved all of this. I think we can get so used to the format of our own cultural programming, that it's really refreshing to see something different. I'm not sure if it'll wear off, though I don't think I'll ever recover from Hotel Del Luna. That would have made a superb novel. And so many good lines.

Love can be one's remedy and poison.


Cranes make sure their feathers stay as white as snow even when they're standing in mud.


Whether this place is a fence or a prison for me, what I have is hell. It's not that wonderful to be in hell together.


We should soundproof the hotel rooms.

All of this has seriously made me want to know more about Korea. Out of curiosity, I started learning a bit about the language. The alphabet is completely phonetic and incredibly logical. Surprisingly easy to get the very basics. Because of this, they've got one of the highest literacy rates in the world. They also have a very nice national motto: Benefit broadly the human world, devotion to the welfare of humanity. Sounds like a place worth visiting.

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