East Meets West
Goong offers fresh perspectives of the East and the West, unlike most dramas, which contributed substantially to its popularity among audiences.
As mentioned in ‘Popularity of Goong’, the show producers selected elements from the global cultural supermarket and embedded them in the drama. Most of these elements have been brought over from the West.
Goong invites its audience to witness a beautiful blend between the Western and the Oriental, which can clearly be seen from the fashion to the backdrop to the language used and things they do. Despite the many references made to things of the West, many traditional ideas of Korean society are still kept. I will now explore these areas.
Throughout the show, both Western and traditional Korean objects are displayed, sometimes simultaneously. For instance, Shin’s mother wore a traditional female Korean costume (or hanbok) while his father, the King, wore a western suit) as they sat next to each other. This gives the idea that the East and the West can come together peaceably. Besides, the show makes references to Western books like Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass and Lord of the Rings. Scenes alternate between the traditional Korean palace and the modern, Western-looking school too. There was also a scene where Chae Kyung and Shin visited Macau, which is a place where the East and West intersect.
Even as the Korean language was used mainly, there were occasions where actors spoke in English. For instance, Shin’s friends spoke several lines in advanced English in an attempt to mock Chae Kyung, who struggled to even speak it. She exclaimed “Oh my god,” however. This might be an attempt to enable international audiences to relate to the characters better and give the impression that the show is not restricted to Korean audiences, in the hope of increasing its overseas sales. Besides, To many Asians, English is cool and being able to use it enables one to be recognised as “more modern”. This might be the effect the producers were trying to create; to portray a modern imperial family.
“Asian” values, which comprise of Confucian values that have been deeply entrenched in Korean society, are very much adhered to in the drama. For instance, as Chae Kyung’s parents were preparing to marry her off, they told her to “honour [her in-laws]…from early morning to late at night”. This reflects the idea that Koreans still place filial piety on a pedestal. Modesty is also another value that is upheld in the show. Kissing scenes were not overly sexualised and, throughout the show, the actors appeared modest in their attire and behaviour. Themes of lineage, responsibility and predestination which are typically classified as “Asian” were also portrayed here. These are probably the reasons why Goong could even sell to Indonesia, a conservative Muslim country, as well as the Middle East, where the societies still cling tightly onto traditional values which are similar to the so-called “Asian” values portrayed in the show.
“I’ve learnt that the Koreans view respecting the elders very seriously as well, as is the case in Singapore,” 22-year-old Zi Xin, a Singaporean, pointed out.
Besides that, Goong incorporated an idea of the West through the reenactment of an extremely well-known scene from the fairytale made popular by the West, Cinderella. Asian audiences, more than that, would be able to more fully experience being Cinderella or the prince, as the characters are usually played by white characters.
However, in certain Asian countries like China, they also have their own versions of this fairytale in set in their local contexts. The Chinese version, Ye Xian (葉限), is similar to the Western one in that the king also presents a slipper to her and falls in love with her the moment her dirty rags transformed into a beautiful dress. Therefore, global audiences would be able to resonate with related scenes as they very likely already have foreknowledge of the tale.
As can be inferred from the above, the drama is an amalgamation of both Western and Asian elements, as the producers embed the West in the East, appropriating their imagination of the West. This had been done to cater to the Asian audiences, offering them a new type of show which demonstrates how the East encounters the West, thus making the West more familiar to them. Doing so allows the drama to have greater viewership in Western countries too.
Goong, among many other Korean dramas like Boys Over Flowers and The Heirs, realised what Chua (2004) hypothesised — that with the dense flow of East Asian products, a pan-East Asian identity will emerge.
The West as the yardstick
Orientalism represents the “distinction between the West and East” and gives the impression that the West is superior to the East (Said, 1978). As mentioned earlier, Shin’s friends taunted Chae Kyung by displaying their knowledge of English, such as asking her, “Are you having fun here, princess?” of which she could not understand, much less reply. As they were shaming her, a status boundary was drawn, so she could know her place. English is used as a tool for division here, and is portrayed to be something of the elite unlike Korean which is “for the masses”. The Asian show producers recognised this and portrayed it in the show, maintaining the boundary between the West and the East. Such representations promulgate the idea that the West is better than the West and uses the West as the standard. This has been the case since history past, not only in Hollywood shows but also in Asian ones which, due to habitus, are still influencing the perceptions of people in both the East and West to continue thinking that the East always pales in comparison to the West.
A Rising East
More than this, Goong actually presents the image of a rising East, countering the idea of orientalism.
Firstly, the East is portrayed to be powerful and proud of itself. When Prince William came to visit, the King said he “planned [his] stay focused on experiencing traditional Korean culture”, giving rise to the idea that Korea, or the East, is proud of herself. It also brings across the message that the East is so powerful now that it can even decide for the West what they should see or do, bringing the West to view the world through the lens of the East. From Prince William’s compliments of the Korean culture, viewers are given the impression that today, the West is very impressed by the East. Here, we witness an interesting change in power dynamics, as it is no longer that the West views the emerging East through colonial lens.
In addition, it is usually the case that Asians desiring Western entertainment products and not Westerners craving for Asian ones but now, we see a reversal. Princess Hours was aired in Panama during prime time in 2012. That an Asian drama could occupy a primetime slot on Western TV means that the West is opening up to letting the East display itself, showing that the East is gaining power. Such is the popularity of Goong too.
This new image of the East appeals to Asian audiences, building and reflecting their Asian pride.
A critique of the West?
The plot critiques the West in its knowledge of the East. The King mentioned that the British royal household has “profound knowledge of the Korean tradition and culture.” However, even after Chae Kyung performed with the sogeum, Prince William forgot what the flute was called and had to gesture instead. The scriptwriters might have wanted to convey the idea that the West does not know a lot about the East, even though they appear like they do.