By Marion KDL & Mich KDL
So, here we are at the final roundup for 2019. This is usually where we’d share our fave scenes and sites (like in 2017 and 2018), but after sharing our predictions for the new year ahead, we thought it would be apt for us to also reflect — at a personal level — on the K-Drama year that will soon be passing us by. Because what a year it was indeed!
Without further ado, presenting our reflections on K-Dramaland 2019:
This year for me was also about the web-dramas — A-Teen 2, In Seoul, Miss Independent Jieun 2 — which I turned to for a quicker fix when I wanted something shorter and more snappy. They were a joy to follow in many ways, but what saddened me was hearing about the recent passing of Cha In-ha, who starred in Miss Independent Jieun 2 and the currently-airing Love With Flaws. In a year marred with various scandals and tragedies alike within the Korean entertainment industry, it’s heartbreaking to see such a bright light dimmed even before its glow could spread far and wide. May he rest in peace.
What will 2020 bring for K-Dramaland? Our predictions aside, your guess is really as good as mine. I hope great stories will continue to be told, through strong storylines and even stronger acting. But on a personal front, I’m SUPER excited to welcome back Go Kyung-pyo (Reply 1988, Jealousy Incarnate, Chicago Typewriter) as he’s finally discharged from the army! Hurrah! Bring on the new year already 🙂
For me, 2019 was a K-Drama year of contrasts.
For one, there was its dark side. The very dark side. Over the years, I have followed reports about actors and actresses fainting during filming, unpaid staff and missing labor unions in the K-Drama production circuit. But this year –the year of #metoo– an unprecedented number of accounts of sexual abuse, drug-raping, suicides, mental distress and heavy drug abuse were reported on a regular basis — culminating in the Burning Sun Scandal, but staying a depressing constant thereafter. K-Entertainment thus had its own Weinstein moment and it became clear that these were, and are not single incidents, but an institutionalized part of the production side of our so-cherished K-Dramaland.
Mich and I started to wonder if, and how we should address this on KDL. Were there any counter-measures to be taken, especially concerning the actors in question that we also showcase here on KDL? And which ones? Meta questions came up: How much should we associate a text with its author, or a character with its actor?
We were also rather surprised how little this was discussed at all among K-Drama fans and how everyone concentrated on the fluff and the good stuff. Because at the end of the day, we play an indirect part in celebrating and reifying even such underlying aspects, by passively feeding off its products instead of actively speaking up against them.
Some dramas have addressed these current issues too. In 2018, Something in the Rain already depicted –from a woman’s perspective– what sexual harassment means, feels like, and how it works (with a rather negative conclusion, though, telling us viewers that it will persist and not cease as a social and cultural phenomenon). This year, The Fiery Priest ran in parallel with the uncovering of the real-life scandals, and it was sometimes scary to acknowledge how much the reel was reflecting the real. On the other hand, it felt good that somebody was cleaning up the mess — at least in our fictive K-Dramaland.
But for me, the fictional treatment of sexual harassment, abuse and rape is one big question mark that I will be carrying over to 2020. This is as other dramas have also incorporated drugged rape as a narrative trope — for example, the currently-airing Love With Flaws. Even if it was meant as a critique, the short scene left an unpleasant impression on me. This is definitely not something I want to see K-Dramas normalizing as an act, albeit an act one should not commit in reel or real life.
But there were also very good things that happened in K-Dramaland and K-Entertainment this year; things that made me smile, and things that made me like some dramas to pieces.
Search: WWW, in particular, took Mich and me by storm (as she had already mentioned). This drama is clearly a landmark for me in terms of portrayals of women in K-Dramas. Screen writer Kwon Eun-sol –a disciple of Kim Eun-sook who mostly brought patriarchal gender portrayals to our screens — made a very clean cut from her mentor’s work through this drama.
I had wondered for a long time (and still do) if women really need to be childless and family-less (or have a dysfunctional family) to be able to have a successful professional life (in the footsteps of Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, so to speak). But Search:WWW — though not perfect — is a still fantastic start to something very new and a wonderful celebration of strong-minded and self-aligned women.
Another 2019 drama that was a highlight for me in terms of gender portrayals is The Tale of Nokdu (not only for this, of course). I was very impressed by Jang Dong-yoon’s portrayal of Lady Kim (as, let’s be honest, Hyun Bin just didn’t nail it in Secret Garden). Reading this interview with him about his acting, translated by Mimi from The Talking Cupboard, made me appreciate Jang Dong-yoon even more when he said: “I didn’t want to do the exaggerated or unnatural acting. There’s also the matter of meeting the social value, so when I received the direction to ‘walk like a lady’, I got to express my opinion: ‘there is no such thing as a ladylike stride’.”
Another character that was very refreshing to me was Yeon Geun (played by Ko Gun-han) in the same drama. What I especially liked about him is how his love and desire transcended a bodily outer. His (sexual) attractions to Lady Kim didn’t budge when he found out that he was not a woman, but the young man Yeon Soo.
And all of this was set within a beautiful storyline, against equally beautiful scenery.
Even though this year’s Hip Hop King will probably not leave any mark on K-Drama history, I also appreciated how it fostered a shift in representing people of color in K-Dramaland so far. For example, Han Hyun-min just played a normal teenager and his color of skin didn’t matter.
We may also remember that actor Kim Jung-hyun pulled out of Time last year, when he knew it was time for some self-care. This, at the risk of a major drop in his career, which had just started to take off (and made me drop that drama in the end). Kudos to him, though — and kudos to the recruiting team of this year’s Crash Landing on You for taking him onboard to allow him a (major) comeback project.
It was also a pleasure to discover the 2019 work of female PD Lee Kwang-young: The Secret Life of My Secretary. Aside from it being a very nice watch, it was simply great, for one, to know that a woman was behind this work; something that is still quite rare in K-Dramas’ production, reigned by a clear gender division between PDs (usually men) and screenwriters (usually women).
It is these writers, actors and PDs that made 2019 a special K-Drama year for me and make me look forward to what 2020 brings to our screens.
As always: thank you for following our round-up series for 2019, and your support for KDL — it always means so much to us. Here’s to seeing more great K-dramas in 2020! Till then, wishing you and your loved ones joy and warmth this festive season, and good health and much happiness in the new year 🙂
Love, Marion & Mich KDL ♥