In the past 20 years, Hallyu (originally Hanliu) 2.0 and 3.0 and 4.0 have taken the world by storm. A Chinese term which, when translated means the ‘Korean Wave’ was coined by the Chinese Beijing Youth Report in the late 1990s when South Korea began exporting its local culture with K-dramas following hard on the heels of K-pop. Journalist Sam Lansky has labelled the sudden success of Hallyu as a “Hallyu Tsunami.”
Many scholars believe that until recently, the West called the shots in cultural exchanges between the East and the West, but the new Korean Wave marked the transition of global culture and digital technology from a transnational trough. It has proven to be something of a windfall for the Korean economy, with an estimated surge of USD 12.3 billion in the year 2019.
Categorised into 4 phases, Hallyu 1.0 focused on the mushrooming taste for K-drama, K-pop made headlines as a part of Hallyu 2.0, K-culture explored its prospects on a global level during the Hallyu 3.0 and finally 4.0 -the present phenomenon concerns itself with K-style.
From Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite carving a niche for the Korean cinema in the global filmdom, BTS producing record-breaking chartbusters one after the other, spicy Korean noodles finding their way into social media content of Instagram influencers, an earnest commitment to a ten-step Korean skincare regime, to immersing oneself in the Yonsama syndrome of Winter Sonata, the world seems enthralled with the Hallyu wave syndrome.
Korean cultural exports have undeniably charmed its worldwide consumers with K-drama lovers hooked onto their screens for hours on end, who initially came for the Korean melodies and plot twists but stayed for the emotionally charged storyline. Their soaring popularity is the reason why even prominent online streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and Viki Rakuten, are compelled to offer oodles of titles for the subscribers to choose from.
People worldwide have, beyond doubt, taken a fancy to K-dramas, firstly because there is something for everyone: romance, period dramas, action, horror, legal/medical, and police procedural and coming of age dramas, all with a hint of humour. Not only are these K-dramas easily digestible, but also packed with modest dose violent content. The visual appeal of the K-dramas is also what makes it worth a shot, the cinematic vision ready to take you to a faraway land, the sumptuous food, chic and sharp fashion which is mostly quite elaborate for period dramas, and the ultimate gwang of the Korean skin leaves us all bedazzled.
In addition to its gripping storylines, the Korean drama unfolds various aspects of Korean culture and way of life, explored alongside themes of love, family, and friendship which adds to its universal appeal. Even johnny-come-lately, after a few episodes of K-drama, can recognise that Korean people take off their shoes before entering the house or the role of Hoesik (work dinners) in enhancing the bond between colleagues and their seniors. Further, aspects such as the Confucian value system, Soft- masculinity, class identity, and prejudice, for that matter are also widely endorsed. Lastly, its popularity is swiftly driven by thriving true-blue fandom.
Role of Confucian Values
K-drama highlights “an old-East characteristic that featured romance in a Confucianist and conservative light”, as suggested by scholars Kyong Yoon and Jin Dal Yong, as opposed to the ‘overtly sexual’ American drama productions. Confucian philosophy as a mainstay of K-drama is effortlessly sewn into the storylines, never failing to champion the importance of family over the individual self, which also explains their squeaky clean plot lines.
K-dramas in the initial days, loaded with Confucian culture and tradition, successfully reeled in Taiwanese, Thai, Chinese as well as Indonesian viewers with similar experiences, giving a phenomenal boost to its viewership in South-East Asia. In India, the K-drama craze was spearheaded by the North-eastern states with ‘Boys over Flowers’ after the Revolutionary People’s Front (RPF) banned Hindi satellite channels in several states of the North East. Additionally, the positive reception among its female viewers over the years could be attributed to the Confucianist strand, for the most part, premised on soft-masculinity and narratives featuring family values.
Tearjerkers & Soft Masculinity
Shows like Winter Sonata, It’s Okay That’s Love, Stairway to Heaven, Hi Bye, Mama!, 49 Days are well-received as classic tear-jerkers. These fairytales are charged with an element that viewers regard as ‘innocent’ love spun around the common themes of high-octane Korean drama: amnesia, unrequited love, family, friendships, and betrayal make the viewer reach for a tissue every 5 minutes.
K-drama has continued an ever growing celebration of the ‘soft masculinity’ or the ‘Kkonminam’ translated directly to mean beautiful man. A phenomenon cherished in history and popular culture throughout South-East Asia (especially Korea) took off during the Silla’s Flowering Knights or Hwarangs and is currently perpetuated by the Boyband BTS. This subtle expression of gentleness and vulnerability of the soft-masculinity adds to the dynamic male identity, often misconstrued as the emasculation of the dominant male self.
South Korea has successfully re-engineered universal metrosexuality to deliver a transcultural hybrid of soft masculinity possessing the traits of traditional Chinese wen masculinity and Japanese bishounen (otherwise called pretty boy) masculinity and global metrosexuality, allowing it to cut across nationalities. Dr Sun Jung in ‘Korean Masculinities and Transcultural Consumption’ says,
“I think the phenomenon should rather be explained through the notion of hybrid or versatile masculinity – soft yet manly at the same time – which is different from effeminised”
K- dramas portray masculinity in a similar light- completely embracing the East-Asian template, characterizing men as strong & brave, in addition, to unabashedly embodying some stereotyped attributes such as soft, and emotional and are confident enough to flaunt pink hair and garb and has added to the male desirability in the wider Asian context.
By the same token soft masculinity has also soundly de-radicalised the traditional gender roles by introducing varying expressions of male beauty ideals, posing a threat to the traditional masculine stereotypic roles in the K-drama plotlines. With female as well as male protagonists, now, far less concerned with the traditional division of labour and sidelining the male superego of being the providers.
Food and Fashion
K-dramas have had people drooling over Ramyeon, Tteokbokki, Jjajangmyun, Korean fried chicken, Gyeran Mari, and the king of banchan(side dish) Kimchi ever since their first series. The temptation to try the oh-so delectable Korean cuisine, from the rich and inviting dining tables to fried chicken in restaurants, is now the top priority of a K-drama aficionado. The brouhaha over the Korean food doesn’t end here as Korean restaurants and bbq are opening in various locations across the globe to assuage this hunger.
CLOY in 2020 had the world swooning over its ladies Yoon Se-Ri and Seo Dan for their sharp runaway pieces and dainty accessories. K-fashion has a lot to offer not only to women but also to men. Actors in K-dramas like Her Private Life, King – The Eternal Monarch, Itaewon Class, and It’s Okay To Not Be Okay flaunting slouchy knitwear, puffy sleeves, and unrivalled business looks, ornate jackets had us all itch for some shopping therapy. The love for neutrals and graphic prints is on the rise, all thanks to the ingenuity of K-drama-inspired fashion.
Second lead syndrome
Some heartwarming, Cinderella narratives of K-dramas also inject us with what is called the second lead syndrome. The ‘second lead’ is a well-known character pattern that occurs in numerous romances whose fate is to be second for the affections of the main lead by no fault of their own, and their fate is to either vie for the love of their life or watch them end up with someone else. Social media brimming with such heavy palaver on who should have ended up with whom increases the engagement of Kdramas.
The level of engagement of K-dramas is quite high owing to its unique and easily digestible storytelling, additionally, varying locations adds to the dreaminess. Equipped with an intense dose of content, comforting humour, and actors who look like barbie and ken dolls- its overall appeal is matchless, making it a perfect binge-watch item during the worldwide pandemic.
Although the unrealistic display of romantic elements of courtship and glamorisation of the Korean obsession with cosmetic surgery might be damaging to some extent. Otherwise, K-dramas are the ultimate visual comfort bunnies giving us that much-needed dose of transient amnesia –Escapism, from the disquieting realities of our work and personal lives.
The fantastical world of K-dramas, though unattainable, makes it addictive as well as helps us escape the unease of routine life even for a short period of time, often leaving us behind with a heartwarming hope. Its consumption snowballed on the OTT platforms during the tough time of the global pandemic pointing to its ability to comfort us against this unknown and distressing situation.
In addition to the factors mentioned before that aid the popularity of K-dramas, there are still many elements that come into play to enhance its marketability, such as subtitles in different languages, eccentric storylines, the production quality etc. South Korean soft power has indeed made a mark on a global level, and we can’t see us getting enough of it any time soon.
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