Notes for Korean TV Production:

UPDATE (31 Oct. 2013): 

The video linked in the original post is gone. I think this is mostly the same one:


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  • Brown-skinned people are either poor children with hearts of gold or scary witch-doctor/fortune-teller types, which is natural since brown-skinned people are all poor and have inborn magical abilities.
  • No other brown-skinned local people besides poor children and scary witch-doctor/fortune-teller types should be included in shots. If they absolutely must do so, have them appear for no more than one second at a time, and in the background.
  • Have your Korean characters talk to the few local brown-skinned people who appear onscreen in English only when they apparently cannot speak English; have the same characters speak primrily in long, fast Korean phrases when they meet a browqn-skinned local who can speak English. Don’t worry, since brown-skinned people are magical they can (somehow) understand much of what is being said in Korean.
  • Make sure to include some white chicks, and dress them in bikinis whenever possible, even if everyone else is fully dressed in long pants/skirts and long-sleeved flowery shirts.
  • Include some Korean boys, and dress them in outfits that look like a cross between Korean girls’ clothing, disco and early 80s singers’ outfits, and the clothing of Joey Jeremiah circa 1990 (pic here, but your eyes will bleed). Make sure they look bored on holiday in [unspecified warm country full of brown-skinned people], just as Joey did in school.
  • Include some Korean girls, and dress the most sympathetic character as a cross between Strawberry Shortcake and your average agashi (ie. single girl). (Contrary to popular expat belief, there are some differences between the two. Strawberry Shortcake never wore high heels, for example.)
  • Include plenty of stock footage of random islands and stuff because tourism is what the young people like these days.

Yes, I’m being harsh, but no, I’m not saying that similar criticisms couldn’t be made of most of what’s on North American TV. Many such criticisms could, I am sure, be made… and have been.

Television really bucks Sturgeon’s Law: something more like 98% of all TV everywhere is crap — not just crap, but slanted, weird, sexist, racist, insulting-your-intelligence crap. Or this is how I experience TV. The less I watch it, the more I feel like it’s a few drops of perfume dripped into a tank of sewage. You can isolate the perfume as it drips in, but there’s so little you can’t help but wander off.

Even if we’ve come a long way, the whole Magical Hot Asian Chick subplot in Jack’s past — the thing in Pattaya, in Thailand — jumps out at me as an example, even if Jin and Sun’s lives and characters are passable counter-examples to this generalization. (Jin isn’t simply an Asian gangster, and Sun isn’t simply a pretty Korean rich-girl.) Hell, even the good stuff on TV has a slant to it, and I wonder whether the nature of the medium is such that even the best shows can only play with it, the way Mad Men is relatively conscious of nonwhite characters and of giving us a glimpse of what they think and (justifiedly) feel even if they don’t really get to take center stage. Even TV shows that seek to deal with this kind of depend on a reverse slant, overstatement, or simplification.

As for Kkotboda Namja, the TV series from which the clip above is taken, I’m not sure whether, as a non-local, the stuff jumps out at me more, or whether this show made your average Korean guffaw in horror. Weirdly, I’d bet that the people with the reaction most similar to mine would be really old guys. But then, I dunno: have older men in Korea been bemoaning, of late, the girly clothing that young men are wearing? The lengthening hair, and the feminization of male fashion and iconography in the media? I’d be very curious to hear what grandpas and grandmas are saying, but having no Korean grandparents myself, I haven’t the foggiest idea. And I imagine maybe they aren’t, as a generation, as big consumers of recent media as it would take for them to care enough to complain.

Then again, I don’t have a TV in my house. So who knows?

7 thoughts on “Notes for Korean TV Production:

  1. Ggeotboda Namja may not be a great example ~ the producers are going for a very, very Japanese look in the fashions as a nod to the manga and Japanese tv origins of the series. That said, my Korean girlfriends are eating this stuff up . . .sigh.
    Some of the romantic tourism shots I think can be traced and blamed to 2002’s major hit, All In. Not that it was the only show to do this, but it garnered such popularity that soon everybody was putting sweeping touristy pans across island sunsets (It Happened in Bali, etc.) because hey! All In looked pretty darn cool doing in.

  2. Gomushin Girl,

    Hey, you can edit your comment if you like, after you’ve posted it. (Or does that only work when you’re logged in? Can you see the bar of options at the bottom of your comment?) If you like I can fix the typo and delete the second comment.

    Yeah, I remember my friend Ritu telling me about a similar thing that happened in Indian cinema: after one film used a lot of shots in, I think it was London, then suddenly Indian films were being set (in part) in other places all over the world.

    She told me this after we watched the film Kal Ho Naa Ho, which is set in New York City, if I remember right. Like in the Korean film, all the major (memorable) characters in that film were Indian, but you actually saw a lot more normal Americans in passing. They were integrated into dance routines, they worked the till at coffeeshops, and so on. And most important, they were not (and did not reinforce) stock stereotypes like the Poor Beggar Child or the Witchy Brown Lady in the Korean clip:

    While that film didn’t have shots that looked like they were shot by some local tourism bureau, they did show off the city in a number of ways. But they didn’t belabour it, for one thing; and the characters weren’t being dumb tourists, for another.

    (I should note that there were shots that to me felt like they maybe did belabour the scenery or “foreignness” of Europe and England, in that earlier film I mentioned that sparked the trend, they didn’t do it any more than the shots in films set strictly in India belabour the beauty and picturesqueness of the Indian countryside. And of course, a massively choreographed dance scene on a moving train (featuring a pretty girl who came out of nowhere) simply can’t avoid showing off the scenery, and if the dance is pretty freaking cool, you can shrug and go with it:

    But yeah, I don’t mean to be toooooo harsh. I think Western TV of equivalent “quality” is just beneath my notice, whereas when I see mediocre or bad Korean TV it simultaneously pushes so many “WTF?” and “yuck” buttons.

    The way I imagine some Koreans might feel seeing Jerry Springer for the first time. Or, though I don’t think it’s bad TV at all, the way I imagine some Koreans would find nothing to grapple onto in a show like “In Living Color”:

    … or, for that matter, the way a lot of my students reacted to a few clips from Monty Python’s Flying Circus that I showed them when we were discussing British culture, humor, media, and so on.

  3. LOL, Well, yeah, but it did seem odd when EVERYONE else isn’t in swimming/sunbathing clothes. (ie. Guys in long sleeves and pants, girls in long skirts and T-shirts.)

  4. I got a little hooked on Korean shows online (subtitled of course) and I’ve noticed a few things. lol.

    – Koreans get sick when wet (out in rain)

    – Single women are always getting drunk in public and someone gives them a piggy back ride. lol.

    – Korean women only like the most selfish and coldest guys.

    There are a lot of these funny tropes, I think thats a word, in Korean dramas.

    1. GeronL,

      Yeah, those are all pretty familiar. Of course, the piggyback ride is something I’ve seen with drunk college girls in the neighborhood (occasionally — more often the guys just squat beside them while they moan and try not to throw up) and I was always under the impression the piggyback ride was more dramatic when it was used to carry someone who is in grave danger to hospital. (I always wonder: why not hail a cab?)

      Another trope (yes, that’s the right word) is the oppressive mother-in-law freaking out on the daughter-in-law; the older woman screaming and getting into emotional fights with everyone around her (and being basically annoying). More recently, my students said there was a trend off glamorizing adultery and divorce — not “dealing with it” as in some TV shows (say, the Degrassi shows) but straight out making it look cool and desirable and positive, with little or not attention to the attendant problems.

      As for people getting sick in the rain, yes, it’s funny. Also, it’s one of the few ideas that never struck me as alien, but which was nevertheless so exaggerated it still felt alien to me. (I grew up thinking that people who go out in the rain get sick, but I also believed one didn’t necessarily have to get sick… especially if one took a hot shower when one got home, to warm up. We often see that in Anglophone movies — “Come in, come in, you’ll catch your death of cold, here’s a towel to dry off with by the fire,” bla bla bla.)

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