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Features

2022 WINTER

Architects of K-Dramas

K-dramas are often the sole purview of the screenwriters. From conception and character creation to story composition, they are the architects, deciding the foundation, framework, texture, and emphasis of the series. Thus, in Korea, dramas are largely regarded a writer’s art.

(From left) “The Fiery Priest” (2019) written by Park Jae-beom, “Crash Landing on You” (2019-2020) by Park Ji-eun, “Vincenzo” (2021) by Park Jae-beom, “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (2016-2017) by Kim Eun-sook and “Our Blues” (2022) by Noh Hee-kyung.
Courtesy of Samhwa Networks / Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON / Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON / Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON, Hwa&Dam Pictures; Photography by Park Ji Sun / Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON

TV screenwriters in Korea naturally create settings and situations that are embedded in their native culture but they cloak their narratives in a universal panorama. This results in stories that reflect basic concerns and interests found around the world, making them relatable to all. In effect, they refract all corners of the world through a specifically Korean lens.
In the early years of the Korean Wave, TV series were simply deemed a segment of the budding cultural export. Over time, as production budgets ballooned, allowing more ambitious s, they evolved into today’s “K-dramas.” Where the early fare tended to be most popular with particular viewers of a certain gender, age group, or geographic region, K-dramas tend to have a reach that is both wider and deeper in scope.
Some screenwriters prefer to tackle a wide range of subjects. Others settle into a niche, such as romantic love, family love, life stories, and satire. Collectively, these “architects” strengthen and continuously energize and enrich the world of K-drama. Their position cannot be overstated. They have a prominent voice when a production company, broadcasting company, and director embark on a project, and some even have an input in casting. Who are a few of the best – and why?


Accomplished Women
Park Ji-eun began her career in 1997, writing for radio talk shows, variety shows and sitcoms. Her breakout came with “Queen of Housewives,” a 2009 comedy series about housewives devoted to bolstering their husbands’ careers. Park leans toward lively, pleasant romances garnished with social consciousness. In many K-dramas, a young woman is lifted into high society by the scion of a chaebol (conglomerate) chief. But Park’s romances deviate from this Cinderella formula. Her female leads reflect the generally improved social status of women. They are empowered and active and have personality and charm. But to inject some humor, they also have relatable flaws and challenges.

The two Park Ji-eun dramas that best illustrate this are “My Love from the Star” and “Crash Landing on You.” Both aired on tvN and became mega-hits at home and abroad. In “My Love from the Star,” Cheon Song-i (played by Jun Ji-hyun) is a top actor who falls in love with Do Min-joon (played by Kim Soo-hyun), an alien who has been living in Korea for some 400 years. Although she appears confident at every turn, Cheon is no stranger to gaffes that become fodder for gossip and ridicule. In “Crash Landing on You,” the protagonist, Yoon Seri (played by Son Ye-jin), is blown into North Korea while paragliding. As the youngest daughter of a rich business family, Yoon is known for her excellent management skills. But stranded in North Korea, she struggles and fumbles through humorous encounters with North Koreans, including army officer Ri Jeong-hyeok (played by Hyun Bin), who arrests Yoon after finding her hanging in a tree but ends up falling in love with her and helping her return to South Korea.

Through the eyes of Do Min-joon in “My Love from the Star,” a new perspective on the capitalist reality of Korean life is projected, and the relationship between Yoon and Ri in “Crash Landing on You” underscores the country’s ongoing division. The elements taken from actual Korean society help these works lend a bit of reality to their cheerful and pleasant but rather unrealistic romantic storylines.

Variation and Expansion of Romance
When it comes to romantic comedy, Kim Eun-sook has no rival. As a new writer, she scored a major hit with “Lovers in Paris,” which attracted high viewership when it aired in 2004 on SBS. After delivering another megahit with “Secret Garden” (2010-2011), she established herself as one of Korea’s leading drama screenwriters.
Both works depict a love story between a chaebol man and a woman from a humble background. Thus, Kim is often labelled a writer of Cinderella fantasies. However, her filmography shows pronounced insight into human anguish, social problems, the turbulence of the times and other issues. Moreover, her romances are different from most; she constantly varies the theme and stretches the imagination.

One of her strengths is the ability to create attractive characters. In most romantic fare, the plot is almost solely focused on the male and female leads. The other characters are inevitably rather flat. In many cases the narrative resorts to a love triangle to create conflict and resolution. Kim favors a different approach, especially evident in “Descendants of the Sun,” which aired on KBS in 2016. Aside from the protagonists – Yoo Sijin (played by Song Joong-ki), the captain of an elite Special Forces team, and Dr. Kang Mo-yeon (played by Song Hye-kyo) – there are several other couples, each with their own appealing storyline. The interplay of such distinctive characters in supporting roles enlivens the show. They do not disappear in the background. This is what distinguishes every Kim Eun-sook drama.

“Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (2016-17), aired on tvN, also deviates from the typical romance. The story centers around Kim Shin (played by Gong Yoo), a godlike being who wields supernatural powers. Killed by the king whom he served, he is resurrected in accordance with God’s will and lives with the blessing – or curse – of immortal life, helping women in their moments of crisis. When he meets and falls in love with Ji Eun-tak (played by Kim Go-eun), the goblin’s bride, he is torn between the desire to escape the pain of immortality and the desire to continue living. Expanding the romance formula to include fantasy, thriller, historical and other genres, Kim Eun-sook creates a brand of romance entirely her own.

Kim Eun-sook’s “Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” shows off the writer’s abilities as the characters traverse past and present lives in a story that encompasses Eastern and Western myths and legends, tragedy and comedy. The “bromance” between the goblin Kim Shin and the grim reaper Wang Yeo, which is intertwined with their past-life enmity, drew as much attention as the romance between the male and female characters.
Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON, Hwa&Dam Pictures; Photography by Park Ji Sun

“Mr. Sunshine,” aired on tvN in 2018, is what many viewers call their “life drama,” or in other words, the best television series they’ve seen in their lives. Set in the final days of the Korean Empire, the story of Koreans struggling to regain national sovereignty was reinforced by outstanding visual beauty and solid production. All the actors, whether in leading or supporting roles, were praised for performances that brought the characters to life.
Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON, Hwa&Dam Pictures; Photography by Park Ji Sun



 

Social Commentary
Since making his debut with the 2000 horror film “Theater,” writer Park Jae-beom has deployed a sharp, satirical eye in the service of stories and worlds in which justice prevails over the problematic realities of contemporary Korean society. His works are typically populated by judges, prosecutors, and police officers – figures who wield a certain official authority and power, embodying a sense of social justice. However, in his more recent works, known as the “justice trilogy,” law enforcement is bestowed upon figures wholly unaffiliated with any authority – an ordinary office worker, a clergyman, and even a member of a crime syndicate.

In “Good Manager,” shady accountant Kim Seong-ryong (played by Namkoong Min) becomes a department head at a company. He initially plans to embezzle funds but winds up fighting against corporate corruption. In “The Fiery Priest,” former National Intelligence Service special agent and current Catholic priest Kim Hae-il (played by Kim Nam-gil), an eccentric personality with an anger management disorder, wipes out a violent organized crime syndicate. In the last part of Park’s trilogy, “Vincenzo,” the titular character (played by Song Joong-ki) is a lawyer for the Italian mafia who exacts an elaborate revenge, confronting the evil he is up against in the manner of a villain himself. Park Jae-beom combines a sharp critical gaze with satirical humor to complete a black comedy about the threats against justice writ large.

Park Jae-beom’s “The Fiery Priest” (2019) is a brilliant and subversive black comedy. The writer made good use of a double-track storyline that kept viewers curious, and parodied scenes from famous domestic and foreign films, which made viewers laugh.
Courtesy of Samhwa Networks



 

Reflections on Life
Noh Hee-kyung (also spelled Noh Hee-gyoung) debuted in 1996 with “Mom’s Gardenias,” about a mother and daughter dealing with terminal illness. The one-episode drama was celebrated for its warmth and insight as it captured the importance of human relationships and family ties.
Throughout her career, Noh has focused on characters outside the mainstream, reflecting on the lives of socially disadvantaged people. Although her works swing between romance and family drama, they are unchanging in their sincere approach to the nature of human relationships and the meaning of family. “Dear My Friends” depicts a group of mothers and their lives of sacrifice, as told by their own daughters, and “Our Blues” emphasizes the value of small but irreplaceable everyday moments. Both have touched the hearts of people across the world.

“Dear My Friends,” advocating praise for the “twilight years of our lives,” delves into the inevitable fate of all humans – old age and sickness – and reflects on life and death through the lives of women who have held onto secrets and stories for so long, unable to share them even with their oldest friends. Having always considered these elderly women to be fierce warriors, Park Wan (played by Ko Hyun-jung), one of the daughters, is taken aback as she encounters their heartbreaking inner worlds: “We children have no right to shed tears of our own – to cry would be shameless…” Delivered in a steady, calm tone, this line moved viewers to tears.

“Our Blues,” which aired on tvN last June, is set on Jeju Island rather than in Seoul, thereby differentiating itself from most modern-day K-dramas. It closely observed the little ins and outs of daily life, rendering them as beautifully as the natural scenery. “Our Blues” packs a myriad of stories and anecdotes across the full spectrum of human experiences, from people facing the end of their lives to those restarting empty-handed, all told in a manner that is both lyrical and realistic. In the epigraph of the final episode, viewers catch a glimpse into Noh’s own worldview: “We were born simply to be happy.”

Many other outstanding mid-career TV writers are unfurling singular worlds entirely their own. At the same time, we are also seeing a new cohort captivate the hearts of viewers around the world. Among the budding screenwriters who immediately come to mind are Kwon Do-eun, whose “Twenty Five Twenty One” turns a warm, encouraging gaze upon the dedicated dreams and love stories of the younger generation; Shin Ha-eun, whose Netflix smash hit “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha” so clearly and refreshingly captured the daily life of a coastal village; and Moon Ji-won, whose “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” another Netflix blockbuster, explores questions of stereotype and prejudice through a character with autism spectrum disorder. Representing the next generation of architects, these newcomers are generating high anticipation for the K-dramas to come.

“Dear My Friends,” written by Noh Hee-kyung, depicts the stories of people entering the twilight of their lives. The main characters were all played by elderly actors, and the series recorded high ratings for its artistic merit and clear perspective.
Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON

Noh Hee-kyung’s “Our Blues,” a slice-of-life drama which aired on tvN this year, made headlines for its venture into the omnibus format and casting of a disabled actor, and for its line-up including many of Korea’s top actors.
Courtesy of STUDIO DRAGON

 

Yun Suk-jinProfessor of Korean Language & Literature, Chungnam University

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