Hokshi, Messi joahaseyo?: An Outsider Observes the Allure of K-dramas for Western Audiences
By Kunyalala Ndlovu
Illustrations by Oscar Bolton Green
In series one, episode two, of the famous Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016), our protagonist Kim Bok-joo, a young, stylish university student, walks into Doctor Jung Jae-yi’s office one morning with an odd enquiry. She shuffles in sheepishly and takes a seat in front of the doctor. A pregnant pause ensues as she tries to peer directly into his soul and then blurts out what has become one of the most famous quotes from contemporary K-drama — and the ultimate dog-whistle to superfans — “Hokshi, Messi joahaseyo?”
To state it plainly, I have been a devoted Korean cinephile and K-dramaphile for more than 10 years. It began when I accidentally stumbled upon what I initially thought was a light-hearted movie but actually turned out to be a series — the aforementioned Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo. The famous quote, which roughly translated means “Do you like Messi?” became so popular in the global K-drama community that it was trending on Twitter in the Philippines, with countless forums and K-culture blogs across the globe abounding with articles and posts about it and reinterpretations. I had opened up the K-drama Pandora’s box and have never looked back.
In the western hemisphere, K-drama has gone from having a quasi-underground following to being a new mainstream alternative to our more local, clichéd options. Before Netflix jumped on the K-drama bandwagon, superfans such as this writer were forced into a world that revolved around Reddit forums, the controversial streaming platform KissAsian and questionable torrent links to try to catch the latest shows. Intentionally or not, the fact that these shows managed to gain a following in the West is testament to the unique quality of K-drama — there’s something in them for everyone. And when you consider the following narrative observations, you will begin to understand how K-drama has become the globally potent force that the genre now is.
Food used as an emotional device
In K-drama (and variety shows), food is key to dealing with the cacophony of life’s challenges. Important narrative arcs occur in mundane, food-based moments: differences are resolved over jokbal (pigs’ trotters cooked with soy sauce and spices), celebrations are held with fried chicken, people break up in dessert cafes, and even ghosts appear (and disappear) at family barbecues. Food, the great galvaniser of K-drama plotlines, is rarely abandoned mid-meal, and western heteronormative clichés are upended constantly. Consider how, in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo, young women eat greasy chicken and get drunk, and how, in Itaewon Class (2020), men sip tall cold lattes while quietly eating cake.
Meanwhile, the food that appears in variety TV shows has no need for glamorous chefs or heavy art direction, as the audience knows precisely how good it tastes. On a trip to South Korea, I was enamoured of the simplicity of the show Three Meals a Day (2014–20). The idea of three celebrities cooking three meals a day for each other while talking about life may sound flat, but the human dimensions revealed in the show are truly beautiful.
Each episode feels like a film
A good Korean drama normally hits the 60-minute mark comfortably, with some coming close to 90 minutes in total viewing time. And under the aegis of Netflix and other streaming services, these shows are watched without advertisements. While western equivalents in the genre are catching up, this structure has been allowing the stories to mature well without being rushed, giving each episode (on average, 12 to 16 in each series) the feeling of a film. Hello, My Twenties! (2016–2017), a coming-of-age drama series about a group of young women sharing a house while at university, achieves this well. Every episode starts with and resolves its own unique challenge, while a darker story arc is carried across each series.
If you were to share the storylines of the most popular Korean dramas with Hollywood production houses, they would, in all probability, struggle to get greenlit. Consider the following two: a poor female champion weightlifter, whose single father runs a fried-chicken shop, finds herself caught up in a love triangle involving a rich weight-loss doctor and his champion-swimmer younger brother; and a woman born to a long line of women with superhuman strength is hired by a video game company CEO to be his bodyguard. But these scenarios relate to two of the most popular series of the late 2010s, both in Korea and the western K-drama-sphere — Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo and Strong Girl Bong-soon (2017). And whether coming up with such unexpected plotlines is an intentional formula or not, western audiences’ hunger for the foreign and fantastical is not abating.
The profound influence of webtoons
A number of K-drama series are actually living a second life as a webtoon story adapted for TV. For the record, I haven’t read many webtoons and I was unaware of the size of the phenomenon before discovering the world of K-drama, yet these digital comics play a key part in indicating what might attract western audiences.
As with manga in Japan, webtoons have a significant role in Korean culture and are generally a safe, lower-cost way to produce unique narratives for an ever-growing audience base that can also be used for control testing. If a webtoon works, it heads straight to the mainstream, and if it doesn’t, it is championed by the underground, where it forms its own cult following. A noteworthy example is Cheese in the Trap (2016). In this, Hong Seol, a university student, played sensitively by Kim Go-eun, finds herself helplessly caught up in scenarios involving unrequited love, family revenge and manipulation with her senior (the term used for students who are older than you at school/university) Yoo Jung, played by Park Hae-jin. If one were to read webtoons while watching the series, it would seem like the pages had come to life. From the restrained dialogue to the well-framed cinematography used to match webtoons’ visual style, it’s clear that it takes hard work to ensure that the superfans’ beloved 2D stories successfully translate to screen. And always look out for the serious rooftop scene — there’s one in every good webtoon.
Elevated beauty standards
Viewed through western sensibility, characters in K-drama are often portrayed as “clinically beautiful”. Usually, the only part of the male protagonist to be seen is his head and neatly trimmed, perfectly side-parted hair. If he does have a nemesis, a younger opponent or love rival, the latter character’s hair is often surgically short. Bearded men are a rarity, and if they do appear, they are either old or poor. Observe through your tablet screen how Itaewon Class’s indomitable Jang Dae-hee, a guileful, ageing food-corporation CEO, sports five-o’clock shadow, while his fastidiously groomed younger rival, Park Sae-ro-yi, has a military-standard buzz cut that never changes. Meanwhile, female protagonists, unless very poor or, more intriguingly, meant to be overlooked, are always shown in a beyond-pristine state, even when decimating a plate of jokbal and drowning their sorrows in beer. For Oh My Venus (2015), Shin Min-a, who plays an “overweight” lawyer with hypothyroidism, had prosthetics applied to her face to make her appear fatter, and thus to be overlooked and dumped early on in the series by an arrogant boyfriend.
Korean fashion for the world
With every episode, the opportunity arises to showcase Korean fashion and style to a wider audience. I have often found myself pausing a series to go down the rabbit hole of K-drama fashion blogs. Here’s an impossible task: try to spend less than five minutes on the @kdrama_ fashion account on Instagram, or even @fashionchingu, run by a German couple who are K-culture superfans. See if you don’t come away with virtual baskets full of cardigans and turtlenecks in autumnal colours and loafers galore. K-drama is the perfect platform for communicating to outsiders the divergent spirit of modern Korean fashion. In Reunited Worlds (2017), Jung Jung-won walks away after an argument with her reincarnated (but still dead) older brother with a clothing label dangling from her bright blue oversized shirt — clearly to be returned to the fashion house after filming wrapped.
Let us consider a common device used in romance stories around the world — the coupling and the first kiss. It is not uncommon in western series for this to be the jumping-off point for revealing a greater storyline. Two people meet and the road to intimacy is taken at breakneck speed to form a relationship. However, in K-drama land, the relationship develops slowly, something that can charm, lure and frustrate many viewers at the same time. We, the faithful audience, expect long delays to any intimacy within the storyline and to have many red herrings thrown at us to try to make us believe something else will happen. When, or if, it does finally happen, it confirms what we had been hoping for all along. Unlike certain Korean films, there are no romping sex scenes, and any talk of such is reduced to a throwaway comment or silly joke. In episode nine of Wok of Love (2018), Dan Sae-woo convinces reformed gangster Doo Chil-sung not to be attracted to her simply by passing wind at the dinner table, and for a short time it seems to work.
In the curious six-part web series Choco Bank (2016) we follow the story of an accidental encounter between Kim Eun-haeng, played by Kim Jong-in — aka Kai of South Korean-Chinese boyband Exo — and Park Eun-bin as Ha Cho-co, which blossoms into a quasi-romantic entrepreneurial partnership. As it happens, the series was created for the Financial Services Commission, with the specific goal of sharing knowledge about start-up management. And K-drama proves to be an effective vessel for conveying entrepreneurial stories that could inspire someone to rise above their circumstances and achieve success. Our characters go through all manner of tribulation while trying to do this. For western audiences, the idea of a financial regulator producing an entertaining series may seem odd, but a show that presents the social challenges and stigma a single woman faces while trying to run her own business, and the shame a college graduate feels while unable to find work, is nonetheless fascinating. From the story of the orphaned single mother Oh Dong-baek running a bar-restaurant in When the Camellia Blooms (2019) to the overlooked daughter Kim Bom, played by Song Ha-yoon, running a laundrette in Sweden Laundry (2014–2015), entrepreneurship is generally used as a secondary narrative to that of the human triumphs and struggles portrayed in these stories of modern-day Korea.
The smartphone as a narrative linchpin
This writer is willing to make the bold claim that no Android phone works harder than one that appears in a K-drama. Not a single episode or crucial moment can progress without one. The K-drama smartphone (always an Android, rarely an iPhone) is a tool required for a number of key tasks. It is used to share good and bad news, as well as details of the newest food spot (and to trash the hottest food spot); it is how characters film evidence, stalk people, report stalkers, film fugitives, call parents, message lovers, crush lovers, message crushes; and it’s used to call, scare and physically beat rivals — yes, it can work as a weapon too. And remarkably, these devices always seem to have enough battery power and reception to carry the story forward and never fail at their task. Observe the night-time scene in My First Time (2015) where Han Song-yi, played by Parasite star Park So-dam, is drunkenly dancing while being filmed by two policemen on their Android smartphones. In the same vein, the teeth-grinding thriller Return (2018) could not have achieved any of its power without the use of smartphones throughout the story.
A slice of Korean life
With each series, episode and moment, K-drama presents a sweet escape for its hungry global audience across so many themes and stories, 60 minutes at a time. To illustrate the power of this, cogitate for a moment on one of the dominant cultural movements of the 21st century — hip-hop. Yes, hip-hop is great, but Korean hip-hop? Nothing short of phenomenal. While sitting in my room at the RYSE hotel in Hongdae on Chuseok Eve in 2019, with a glorious chimaek feast in front of me, I — once again, accidentally — discovered the addictive variety show that is Show Me the Money (2012–20), and sat glued to the screen for the next few nights as I witnessed rap battle after rap battle unfold. I understood nothing but could feel everything.
So while the scenarios that play out in the world of K-drama offer a feeling of fantasy to those who do not live below the 38th parallel, what we view on our phones, tablets and screens is not entirely untrue. After the last season of Show Me the Money came to an end, I sat down in a Sulbing late one evening in Busan to share a bowl of bingsu with my K-drama-loving family and saw people from all walks of life working out their romances, finances, entrepreneurial dreams, break-ups and breakdowns around us.
Much like in the dramas I have scrolled through and experienced, their tribulations were, and will always be, the business of life. While western narratives occasionally lack a certain reality, K-drama might actually be a closer observation of real life than we realise. We, the faithful audience, find authenticity at the genre’s core — something useful for everyone, regardless of where they are from in this world.
About the author
Kunyalala Ndlovu is a creative polymath whose expansive practice delves into the realms of film, art and writing. His focus encompasses experimental film-making, slice-of-life writing and working with brands to help them authentically connect to culture.
About MMBP & Associates
MMBP & Associates is a creative consultancy that imbues brands with cultural capital. We believe that having an awareness of, and sensitivity to, societal shifts is crucial if innovation is to happen. We are reshaping worldviews by connecting local culture with a global audience.
Based in London and Seoul, MMBP & Associates collaborates with an international network of partners who value immersive, real-world analysis as the foundation for creative ventures. Directed by Hank Park and Julien Beaupré Ste-Marie, the company takes a holistic approach to brand design, working to detect potential business challenges while developing creative solutions.