Narrative structure of South Korean Chaebol Romantic Dramedies TV Serials

I love South Korean chaebol romantic dramedy TV serials.  My wife can’t stand watching them because the people are always yelling at each other.  I find them hilarious however.  A few classics of the genre:
This genre, almost like haiku, adheres to strict narrative rules, a few of which are:
  • The male lead is the spoiled narcissistic son of a Chaebol family, or the talented but marginalized illegitimate son of the founder
  • The female lead is a chipper young poor working-class woman with a heart of gold, generally rather flinty, with a sharp sense of humor, a strong work ethic, and the ability extract herself from a series of challenges
  • There is a female rival from the chaebol class who is rather nasty but eventually won over to the side of the female lead
  • There is another suitor generally of chaebol class who is initially a rival for the affections of the female lead but gradually cedes place to the male lead, sometimes ending up with the female rival.  They favor love quadrangles rather than love triangles
  • The male lead’s mother is generally rather toxic, but typically experiences a change of heart and character transformation and is reconciled at the end
  • Frequently male or female lead gets brain cancer and the plot is driven by their eventual demise and the lessons learned by the other character.
  • Frequently male lead suffers an injury or illness that causes amnesia that resets and prolongs the development or redevelopment of the relationship with the female lead
  • The go-to move for Korean women in financial trouble is to sew eyeballs on teddy bears for 20 won per bear, and then sell them out of cardboard boxes next to a stand that sells chicken on a stick.  The next go-to move is to sell energy drinks to passing cars on the highway.
  • The dramedies are 17 hours long in 1-hour installments
  • The drinking of cappuccino expresses the refinement and high standard of living of the principal characters, also drinking of coffee-related beverages involving red or blue liquids and lots of whipped cream
  • They always blur out the brand insignias on the cars with small fuzzy circles.  Compare this with what is typically blurred out in the United States, and one gets the impression that South Koreans really love cars, or at least corporate logos.
  • The South Korean equivalent of a Big Screen Kiss is when the male and female lead approach each other and awkwardly hug, with each person’s face staring past the other persons’s shoulder with a dazed expression, and one character (usually the man) patting the other character on the back in a slow rythmic fashion.  This is to say that this genre is rather prudish.  Not all of Korean cinema is prudish.  There is plenty of porny and more middle-class Korean cinema to draw on in the archives of Amazon Prime.  There are also poetic meditations on relationships that are narratively unstructured and tend to win Western film awards, such as Hahaha.  But both the porn and the sensitive relationship explorations tend to be rather harsh and dull and unengaging.  The chaebol dramadies carry a lot of light wit and beautiful design. The English equivalent would be Noël Coward plays.
  • Koreans like fried chicken, go figure.  But never with cappuccino, their other favorite import.
  • They go to bed with the lights on, lying flat and staring at the ceiling with the covers up to their neck.
  • They like king-size flat beds made out of stone.  Really.  Stone beds.
  • Arguments are resolved in restaurants with drinking contests where the contenders alternatively pour each other shots of rice wine until one or the other passes out.   The shot glasses are held to the side in a particular manner and the activity seems fairly well codified.   Food is eaten while drinking: dried beef, dried fish, dried cuttlefish/squid, nuts, or fruit. The surviving character brings the other one home on his or her back, at which point the reviving character vomits on the other character’s clothes.  Occasionally beer or whiskey or red wine is substituted but rice wine in a particular kind of inexpensive-looking pint bottle predominates.  The amount of drinking portrayed by relatively slight-framed women would kill me and I’m weighing in a 240 lbs these days.  Characters wake up without significant hangovers.  The modest damage that is portrayed is remedied with hangover soup (ox blood and cabbage), prepared by the victim’s mother.
  • There is almost always a scene 2/3rds of the way through the series where the male lead or rival male lead takes the female lead dress shopping, to transform her from frump to surprise princess.

There are also feature-length film equivalents and non-comedy romantic dramas that are similar in structure but much darker, the most famous of which is perhaps The Housemaid.

The character of the chaebol family, whose members may kidnap or drug people, destroy their homes or commit financial crimes, may seem exaggerated to Western viewers.  However if you consider the behavior of Kim Jong Un or a recent case where a youngish Chinese businessman was sued for $18MM for sexual harassment of an employee and then jailed for stock pumping, or of Arab sheiks raping female guests and staff in Los Angeles when not racing down the streets in their million-dollar sports cars, or the case of Dominick Strauss-Kahn…well, in fact, while the overall story structure is stereotypical, the situations described are not at all impossible.  Thus, especially for a South Korean audience (and these dramas are also popular in Japan, China and the Phillipines, with Seoul playing the role of “Hollywood East”), the “willing suspension of disbelief” necessary for enjoyment of drama is not difficult at all.  The rich/poor axis is more polarized in the Koreas, it would seem, though I wonder if America is not well headed in that direction.  The only thing stopping this evolution in the US is that the politicians of the rich have become so divided among themselves that right now they are shooting themselves in the foot.


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