Everything is at stake from the first episode of Secret of Three Kingdoms. The imperial family is on a mission and the odds are against them, meaning that all hands should be on deck. But are all hands really on deck? At any rate, I’m here for it!
This drama had me at Three Kingdoms. It could have been called Random Villager A in Province 2 and I would be on it. I love Three Kingdoms! Due to its length, complexity and sheer number of characters, it lends itself to multiple treatments. The team behind Secret of Three Kingdoms have taken some liberties, but I’m not mad. It still sets up the kind of power dynamics that drive all good dramas.
From the first episode, you can tell that times are perilous! What makes this drama a little different are secret motives and shaky alliances among a group of people who do not really have a lot of power. Back in the capital, the royal family is engaged in a polite war with Cao Cao, and many have already been sacrificed. No one is safe! Out in the countryside, villagers are having a hard time, subject to random attacks by bandits. Things are rough.
In the midst of the intrigue, the tension between Liu Xie (Ma Tiyuan) and Fu Shou (Regina Wan) draws your attention because they seem to want the same thing, but have two radically different ways of achieving it. On one hand, wide-eyed Liu Xie rolls in all high and mighty with his armchair tactics and compassion. Under normal circumstances, this works, but I don’t think he fully understands how the royal family has been living under Cao Cao. The imperial family is desperate, which is why Fu Shou is constantly giving Liu Xie the side-eye when he does not fully grasp the situation. It’s not like they haven’t tried other things. Liu Xie doesn’t fully recognize that Fu Shou, the former emperor and Tang Ying (Dong Jie), the princess consort have been dealing with this situation for a while. Where has Liu Xie been? Chillin’ with his homie Sima Yi (Elvis Han) in the country. I need him to show a little more respect! On the other hand, because they have been on the front lines of this domestic war with Cao Cao, the royal family has lost some of its compassion and humanity (some?). They do tend to go with the extreme plan and overkill. There are alternatives. I certainly hope that they will learn to trust each other and become closer.
Speaking of Sima Yi, Liu Xie needs to keep an eye on him. While Sima Yi likes to denigrate the royal family, he is just as guilty of trying to control Liu Xie. He will use all kinds of means to get what he wants as well. Hey, instead of criticizing the royal family, why don’t you come up with a plan, Sima Yi? Or better yet, why don’t you get ready for the return of Guo Jia, who never makes a mistake? Be of some use! Guo Jia deserves special mention, because Sunny Wang is doing this character justice. He seems to play the debauched, strategic expert well.
My initial foray into the drama had me binge-watch 5 episodes, so it is definitely worth your while if historical dramas are your thing.
The Fortress (2017) is a poignant look at the one place nobody wanted to be when the Qing decided to invade Joseon. Despite the fact that people make all the wrong choices, there are some people who maintain their dignity (hint: one of them is not the king).
The 2017 Korean movie depicts the final days of the Qing siege at Namhan Fortress, the mountain stronghold to which King Injo’s court retreats in an effort to maintain its (somewhat) autonomy in the face of the clash between the Ming and the Qing. A particularly brutal winter only makes matters worse, as food and supplies are running out as the Qing continue to chill and barbecue at the foot of the mountain.
On one hand, the film shows just how far the court has deteriorated as a ruling body. Rather than giving the king advice, the court officials excel at shouting each other down and calling for their colleagues to be beheaded. There is also some not-so-subtle class dynamics going on, as the officials don’t want to inconvenience the nobles but are more than willing to throw the poor soldiers defending the fort under the bus by denying them necessities. King Injo is no help, giving royal orders even through he probably knows they are wrong and unfair.
Moreover, the military is in shambles. When you gotta rely on a blacksmith (Go Soo) to save the day, things are bad. Orders have become optional. It is clear that the poor have been thrown into the army with little training or supplies. They are expendable as the court tries to preserve the “dignity” of the king. The military leaders needlessly sacrifice them in one ill-fated military strategy after another, and they are simply not even seen as part of the effort to defend the nation.
At the same time, virtue exists in the fortress. There are several impassioned exchanges between Choi Myung Kil (Lee Byung Hun) and Kim Sang Hun (Kim Yoon Seok), who represent two totally different points of view, each of which have their own merits. Quiet and kind of soft-spoken, Choi desperately wants all of them to survive, even if that means capitulating to the Qing. Ride or die, Kim would choose death over dishonor. Outside the council chamber, the two are friends, and inside the chamber they try to stem the wave of cray from the other officials. But it doesn’t seem to be enough.
The Fortress is a great film about difficult decisions and less-than-stellar options.
Nirvana in Fire 2: The Wind Blows Through Chang Lin brings all of the royal drama of its predecessor but also shows that family bonds transcend all.
I was very skeptical when word got out about the sequel to Nirvana in Fire. VERY. SKEPTICAL. Nirvana in Fire revolved around Hu Ge‘s Mei Changsu/Lin Shu, an unlikely hero trying to accomplish the impossible to redeem his family’s honor. So when I found out that its sequel would feature an entirely new cast AND and be set decades after the original, I was very “meh.” What were they going to do with this story? However, I watched the trailer and thought, “Hey, this could be good.”
It stars Huang Xiaoming, who I loved in the 2006 Return of the Condor Heroes, so I was intrigued. It also was done by the same production team as the original. As a result, I was pleasantly surprised that the series defied my low expectations with its focus on family bonds.
Ping Zhang and Ping Jing
The first relationship that shows itself is the dynamic between Ping Jing (Liu Haoran) and his older brother, Ping Zhang (Huang Xiaoming). Initially, Ping Zhang comes off as the stoic older brother loaded down with familial responsibilities, while his carefree brother is chilling in the cut at Langya Hall. Despite their different personalities, Ping Jing clearly loves his brother, even though he has zero desire to take on his position in the Chang Lin army. More importantly, Ping Jing shows his affection with his brother, eagerly embracing him when he visits Langya Hall. As the series goes on, we see that Ping Zhang also has similar affection for his brother. When Ping Jing is falsely imprisoned, Ping Zhang’s visit to his cell shows that he will stand for his brother no matter what. What is great is that they accept each other even though they have different temperaments. Because if Ping Jing was my brother, I definitely would have beat him down a couple of times.
Their brotherhood is tested when Ping Zhang tells Ping Jing (all nonchalantly, give a man time to prepare!) that they are not blood-related; Ping Zhang is adopted. Obviously, Ping Jing needs some time to process, but Ping Zhang is clearly concerned that his brother may not view him the same way. When Ping Jing returns, he clearly has not lost any love for his brother. Ping Zhang even jokes that Ping Jing feels he doesn’t have to listen to him as his older brother.
The Emperor and Prince of Chang Lin
The brotherly theme continues with the dynamic between the Emperor (Liu Jun) and the Prince of Chang Lin, Xiao Tingsheng (Sun Chun), the father of Ping Zhang and Ping Jing. While many historical dramas are built on the rivalry between brothers as they vie for the throne, it is refreshing to see how well these two get along as brothers. The Emperor is, well, the emperor, so even though he’s his brother, the Prince of Chang Lin is his subject, albeit a high-ranking one. They try not to let their relationship interfere with the Emperor’s rule, (but you know how haters are). At the same tie, the Prince of Chang Lin offers his advice and experience in military affairs to help his brother succeed in foreign affairs. This is a challenge, because everyone suspects that the Chang Lin manor has negative intentions (haters gonna hate). When the Emperor is sick, the Prince comes to visit comes to visit (awwww!). This is how the brotherhood between Ping Zhang and Ping Jing would be like in their old age.
Prince of Chang Lin and His Sons
Speaking of the Prince of Chang Lin, the bonds are equally strong between him and his sons, Ping Jing and Ping Zhang. Initially, it seems that Prince of Chang Lin favors Ping Zhang because he has taken on the mantle of leadership in the Chang Lin army and is keenly aware of the politics of the court. When Ping Zhang completes a particularly difficult task, Tingsheng takes both his hands in his to show is approval. However, nothing is more emotional than Tingsheng’s response to Ping Zhang’s death. He truly mourns his son, finding it difficult to let him go. The Emperor tells him poignantly, “The child is gone.”
You would think that Ping Jing was not Tingsheng’s son, the way he treats him. Ping Jing never seems to measure up. Tingsheng seems to have unreachable standards for his younger son. As the series continues, though, we begin to see that Tingsheng really loves his son, and is trying to prepare him for the responsibilities of the family. And when Ping Jing accomplishes what neither he nor Ping Zhang could, he takes Ping Jing’s hands into his own. Still touching!
Meng Cheng Xue and the Xiao Family
While the family dynamics often revolve around male relatives, the drama also shows that loyalty is not confined to one gender and that family bonds involve women as well. Meng Cheng Xue (Tong Liya) comes from a military family (she’s the grandneice of Meng Zhi (Chen Long) from the original) and she is fully aware of the family into which she married. She knows what it means when Ping Zhang has to go to defend the frontier. She doesn’t whine when he has to go; she just sends him off. And she is there until the bitter end. As the mistress of the Chang Lin manor, she’s not having shenanigans at the house, even if the shenanigans come from the court. When the new young emperor, acting on bad advice, attempts to give a bad royal order, Cheng Xue dares the messengers to enter the manor. One (foolishly) thinks he’s going to force her to let them in. Uh-uh!
Cheng Xue’s relationship with Ping Zhang is simultaneously cute and touching. She is always supporting her husband. They gently tease each other, but Ping Zhang clearly respects his wife. He trusts her to save his brother when he cannot. Yet, he is also greatly concerned about her health and his reaction to her medical problem makes him husband of the year.
Nirvana in Fire 2: The Wind Blows in Chang Lin clearly has plenty of punks on TeamEvil, but the Chang Lin manor shows what familial relationships are all about.
“First Impressions: “Nirvana In Fire 2” Has All The Makings Of A Major Hit Like Season 1.” Kdrama Fandom. 10 Jan 2018. http://kdramafandom.com/2018/01/10/first-impressions-nirvana-in-fire-2-has-all-the-makings-of-a-major-hit-like-season-1/ (30 Apr 2018).
C-dramas can be uneven, given their length and complicated plots, but Princess Agents has achieved a paradox. Despite its absurdity, you are compelled to watch to the very crazy end.
First, let’s start with the wonderful.
The leads. While the romantic triangle is not new, the trio of Chu Qiao (Zhao Li Ying), Yuwen Yue (Lin Geng Xin) and Yan Xun (Dou Xiao) is entertaining, especially before the Big Tragedy. Chu Qiao is a great female lead. At first, you wonder about her indifferent attitude, but then revel in the way she is totally not impressed with Yue or Yan Xun’s elite position. And I love her interaction with the Xiuli Army. Yue and Yan Xun are completely different, yet they are friends and share concern for Chu Qiao. Even though I love a stoic, I was not feeling Yue at first. But throughout the series, he actually changes, even if his facial expression rarely does. That slow personality change is what makes him endearing. Yes, I’m #TeamYue. Yan Xun plays the leisurely, “I live in a manor and hang out with the elite but I’m a captive prince” really well. His happy-go-lucky demeanor brings levity to the politics of Chang’an. Because of their different personalities, Chu Qiao interacts with Yue and Yan Xun in different ways. The low-key banter and insults between Yue and Chu Qiao belie how much they care for each other. Chu Qiao does what no one else is able to do for Yan Xun after the Big Tragedy.
The villains. Any good melodrama needs villains and the more villainous the better. Yuwen Huai (Wang Yanlin) initially takes up the villain mantle out the gate: the human hunting ground, his repeated assassination attempts on Yue, his constant attempts to beat down Chu Xiao. He’s the type of villain that almost makes you sad to see him go. But Princess Agents got you! No sooner than he is off the scene, Cheng Chi (Hu Chunyoung) takes up the villain gauntlet thrown down by Huai. His scheme-y shenanigans are unrelenting and bold. In the last acts of the drama, Yuan Chun (Li Qin) represents the ladies. Who else would steal a army to get revenge?
The sidekicks. Given the powerhouse main cast, it takes a special character to catch the audience’s attention. Yue Qi (Xin Shao Lin) is the man! At first, you think he’s just one of Yue’s many underlings, but he’s the closest to Yue and he knows him the best. This means that he’s not only trustworthy and dependable, but can also get away with throwing shade of his own and live to tell the tale. Zhong Yu (Li Ruo Jia), Yan Xun’s martial artist aide, is always serious, which means she gets the job done. She also tries to tell Yan Xun what’s-what and keep his people in line.
The dilemma. The plot hinges on Emperor Wei’s (Tian Xiaojie) response to what he thinks is a potential rebellion by Yan Xun’s father, the Yan Sicheng (Li Haohan), Duke of Yan. The Emperor’s sworn brother, Yan Sicheng has been guarding the border for years, but because the Emperor is paranoid, suspicious and drunk on power, he plots to kill Yan Sicheng and his whole family for no good reason. It is this decision that alters the lives of all the characters, plunging them into a scenario that is difficult to resolve at best. It ruins all the relationships that Yan Xun has with Wei people, particularly Yue. You could kinda see why he’d want to get revenge. At the same time, his Wei friends know that the Emperor’s actions are wrong, but they are loyal subjects, and as loyal subjects they can’t do anything about it. What to do when your leader is crazy? Then again, Yan Xun’s revenge is all out of proportion, not directed at the right people and harms a lot of innocent people. How to resolve?
The wonderful is what keeps you invested in Princess Agents. The crazy makes you want to beat your head against a wall.
The ending. What are you doing, Princess Agents?!!! You leave people who have invested 58 episodes with a cliffhanger!!! You wait until the eleventh hour to reveal that Chu Qiao has feelings for Yue! You drown Yue in the icy lake! You kill off Yue Qi! You end with Chu Qiao accepting that she is the heir to the Fengyun Order and then fade to black!! That ain’t right.
The subplots. Speaking of the Fengyun Order, this is only one of several subplots that were irregularly weaved through the drama. Audiences really didn’t care that Chu Qiao was the daughter of Luo He by the time they find out. Hey, what about those Liang spies? They cause all of the trouble, yet are not brought to account. Why are they spared Yan Xun’s wrath? We really did not need another romantic subplot that is alluded to in the early episodes but only addressed in the last one. Who are these random people in Master Wu’s explanation of Chu Qiao’s background? Why does she only literally find him in the last episodes? SHE’S BEEN IN NORTHERN YAN FOR FOREVER!!!! If Chu Qiao is supposed to take up the mantle of her mother, who was killed by her own people because she wanted to free slaves, how is Chu Qiao going to succeed? Who is the guy with the green ring? What is the significance of the guy who served Yan Xun’s father, had a hand in the fall of Yan, then serves Prince Xiang? WHO IS HE?! It’s not that you can’t figure some of this stuff out, but rather that it doesn’t make sense to the overall story. Too much stuff going on.
The (unbelievable) character development. That’s right, I’m looking at you, Chu Qiao! Even if my disbelief got an out-of-school suspension, your behavior would not make sense. Who else wanted to shake Chu Qiao? She is supposed to be righteous and helping the oppressed. But, she’s chilling in the cut with Yan Xun after he’s killed all these innocent people, left her to defend the city and let his generals talk smack about her TO HER FACE!! Why are she still giving him benefit of the doubt after what happened to Yuan Chun AND the Xiuli Army? Where is the dilemma? Yue told her that man had changed. What is even more unbelievable is that she immediately severed ties with Yue when she heard SOMEBODY ELSE saying he was using her as a death pawn. She never asked him. And while Yue did prevent Yan Xun from escaping, he never killed innocent people. But Chu Qiao drops Yue like he stole something and proceeds to spend an inordinate amount of time with Yan Xun and his doomed plan.
The pacing. While many long dramas have slow episodes, they irk you even more in Princess Agents because there is no payoff in the end (see The Ending). Nirvana in Fire had 54 episodes, but moved the plot along at a much better pace. The Incarceration Arc in Princess Agents felt like the actual three years that Yan Xun was on house arrest. We get it!
There are many more flaws, but the thing is, you kinds don’t care. The plusses outweigh the minuses. There were lots of scenes with Yue! And besides, a drama that can raise your ire like this can’t be all bad, right?
At a time when K-pop is more easily found than ever, it seems like the K-pop fan is disappearing. Increasing division driven by single-fandom obsession is becoming the norm.
It seems strange to talk about back in the day, but not so long ago (2011), K-pop was hard to come by. So when K-pop fans found one another, they were just so happy to find someone else who knew about K-pop. It didn’t matter if their favorite groups weren’t your favorite groups. At least you had heard about their favorite groups, and that was good enough. A shared camaraderie formed as you exchanged stories of waiting for English subs and trying to figure out the members’ names.
There are at least two types of K-pop fans. There are people who are fans of particular K-pop groups, and that’s cool. Then there are people who are fans of K-pop, people who move beyond their first group and look for other groups. Sometimes they might be multi-fandom, but not necessarily. They like lots of different groups and the songs they make.
These days, there seems to be more emphasis on individual group loyalty. Fans are calling themselves things like “pure EXO-Ls” or “pure Carats.” They are excluding individuals who may be multi-fandom from activities like voting campaigns. They are insisting on not mentioning other K-pop groups in fan groups. They act like you aren’t even supposed to know about other groups, even as members of their groups are friends with, collaborate with and are seen with members of other groups.
Let’s be clear. We know that fan energy is indeed finite, so you can’t like or support all groups in the same way or at the same level. But it is unrealistic to act like other groups don’t exist and groove to their music. It is unreasonable to ask people not to be aware of other groups that are out there and possibly like them. K-pop is too small for this. And in the long run, it’s bad for K-pop, because K-pop is an industry. With people. And groups and artists. These groups do not exist in a bubble. they listen to each other, know the songs and can do the dances.
Even more sad, this also is causing some people to leave their fandoms or strenuously claim not to be associated with them, even though they like the group. People leave behind something they love because others create a toxic environment and spoil the fun. Unless your brand of fan activity involves illegal activity or other harmful acts, there is no need to police how other people practice their fanship. The base requirement for being a fan is having affection for something. Everything else after that is gravy. I’ve never seen a group come out and say, “Our fans are sucky because they like other groups.”
Misaeng (2014) is a quiet K-drama that perfectly captures how a job can be soul-sucking and emotionally rewarding at the same time.
Jang Geu-rae (Im Siwan) is our intrepid protagonist, just a guy who spend a whole chunk of his life training to be a baduk player, only to find himself looking for a job after a family tragedy. Geu-rae is very introspective (Siwan does a GREAT job staring into the camera!), so we get a lot of his internal dialogue. At first, it seems like he just isn’t the type to fight back or think that things should be better for himself. He just seems resigned to his fate. So, he looks….a long time, because he didn’t go to college (BADUK!), so he has missed out on an important credential. He takes a few part-time jobs before a family friend (why didn’t this happen earlier!), he gets a job at a company.
This is great! So you think. Sadly, Geu-rae has the worst co-workers on the planet. His fellow interns are back-stabby, and they take every opportunity to make him feel left out and inferior because he does not have a degree. Initially, they do not try to help him get acclimated. Chief Jerk is Jang Baek-ji (Kang Ha-neul), who seems to measure his self-worth by Geu-rae’s failures. But slowly, Geu-rae’s strong work ethic and persistence wins them over (ok, some of them). It turns out they have problems of their own. Not an excuse for them acting jerky, but at least it explains a lot. Together, Geu-rae and his colleagues show how corporate work dehumanizes individuals and forces them to make morally questionable decisions, all for the sake of profit.
Geu-rae’s supervisors make living in a cardboard box under the bridge look like a viable option. This workplace doesn’t seem to have any rules about emotional or physical abuse on the job. Intimidation is the preferred management style. Don’t get me started on the corruption. But just as Geu-rae is the exception among his junior colleagues, Oh Sang-sik (Lee Sung-min) is the ray of sunshine. A veteran worker, he has managed to retain his humanity in this cutthroat office, even if this has meant that he has not been promoted. He is often the voice of reason among the managers. He doesn’t do things that bother his conscience. He treats the workers on Team Three well.
So you think you are just watching an office drama, but Misaeng tricks you into being all in your feelings. In the midst of the corporate shenanigans is the beautiful relationship between Sang-sik and Geu-rae. Initially, Sang-sik sees Geu-rae like others, but he is won over by Geu-rae’s persistence. He sees a chance for redemption over a mistake he thinks he made in the past. Against all odds, Sang-sik tries his best to get Geu-rae a permanent position. Geu-rae comes to see Sang-sik as a father figure, a trajectory that starts over a drunk Sang-sik defending Geu-rae (awww). Even though people are awful at the job, Geu-rae draws close to his cubicle-mates in Team Three. So when you get to the last two episodes of Misaeng, you wonder how this little drama has you reaching for the tissues (I’m not crying, you’re crying!).
Misaeng is a delightful emotional rollercoaster that has become one of my favorite dramas of all time. Special shout-out to Geu-rae’s mom (Sung Byung Sook) and Sung-sik’s wife (Oh Yoon Hong).
I have often viewed increased visibility of K-pop in mainstream American media with ambivalence. On one hand, increased visibility may mean more opportunities for concerts and access to K-pop-related media. On the other hand, it may mean significant changes to K-pop and its fandom that take away the things that drew fans in the first place.
One phenomenon that falls into the latter category is the centrality that awards and breaking records have taken in fandom activity. There is no doubt that winning an award, especially one that doesn’t cater to Korean or Asian music, can be seen as an achievement. But at what cost? I don’t know if this is happening in your fandoms, but I’m seeing a significant increase in requests that border on harassment to vote for this award or that poll or watch a video to increase views. To be sure, some people politely ask. But more often, other fans are implying or directly coming out and saying that you aren’t a ‘real fan’ unless you watch this video on repeat all day or create an account to vote on that website. I know this means a lot to some fans, but it doesn’t mean as much to others….myself included. There are too many ways to be a fan and this shouldn’t be the measure of your identity as a fan.
These awards represent popularity. And yes, it says something if you can mobilize your fandom to achieve that for your group. But it says absolutely nothing about the quality of the music or group talent or whatever got you into the group in the first place. At the end of the day, what does all this activity even mean? Because when you view a video just to increase the views on it, it ceases to be a measure of how much a video is “liked.” It only says X number of people saw it.
This laser focus on popularity also has some negative effects. There is still a large number of non-fans who believe that K-pop artists have no talent at all, so awards for popularity only serves to reinforce that idea. I feel like the time fans now spend on voting used to be spent on reaction videos and blog posts where they talk about how they got into a group, or their favorite song, or even the logic behind their bias choice. These activities show what K-pop means to fans in ways that voting do not.
Both Strong Woman Do Bong Soon and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo place unconventional women in the center of K-drama in ways that do not diminish them for being strong.
Interestingly, both dramas have origins in the childhoods of the main characters, where the female leads disrupt the conventional narrative by being the saviors of the young versions of the male characters. In Weightlifting Fairy, Joon Hyun (Nam Joo Hyuk) falls out of a window at school, only to be caught (or land on?) Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung). Instead of being appalled by her chubbiness, he ends up laughing with Bok Joo. The incident stays with him, right up to the moment when he re-encounters Bok Joo, now a weightlifter, in college. And he has the same response: he is delighted. It’s a memory that he cherishes. Similarly, Min Hyuk (Park Hyung Sik) is saved by a mysterious stranger when the bus he is riding is prevented from swerving off the road. Min Hyuk also encounters his savior, Bong Soon (Park Bo Young), later in life, and also has fond memories of the encounter. It is also interesting to note that both male leads lack a mother figure. Min Hyuk’s mother died and Joon Hyun’s mother abandoned him to his aunt and uncle. The lack of a mother figure may factor into their tendency to accept the female leads in their unconventionality.
Throughout both dramas, the male leads appreciate the women because they are strong. Both develop into the lead couple. Joon Hyun likes the fact that Bok Joo is a weightlifter and that she’s good. He cheers her on at her competitions and takes an interest in her life, meeting her family and friends and understanding her struggles. While Min Hyuk likes to tease Bong Soon, he does not run away once he finds out about her powers. Instead, he is endlessly delighted at the things she can do, and also does all he can to try to teach her to control them (often to his own injury).
These responses differ from the way other men react to the strength of Bok Joo and Bong Soon. Joon Hyun’s impossibly talented cousin, Jae Yi (Lee Jae Yoon), may be a good doctor, but he’s clueless about relationships, ignoring the girl who likes him and not realizing the crush that Bok Joo has on him. More importantly, as a weight loss doctor, he embodies all of Bok Joo’s insecurities and is of absolutely no help when it comes to understanding her plight. He does not understand why she is so upset when he comes to her competition, and has no clue about how she feels about her appearance and the way society views her. He’s no help at all! Gook Doo (Ji Soo) is worse in Strong Woman. While he is equally clueless about her powers as well as her crush on him (even though they grew up together) he only sees her as helpless, and yells at her! Once he finds out about her powers, he does not respond as positively as Min Hyuk.
What I really like about the relationships in both dramas is that the women are strong, but not invincible and the men are also keenly aware of their emotions. Both Bok Joo and Bong Soon need connection to other people, despite their strength. Bok Joo undergoes the trials of being a young woman in a difficult sport for women. She also has zero experience with dating, so she struggles with her relationship with Joon Hyun. At the same time, Joon Hyun has anxiety that holds him back from succeeding in his swimming career. In Strong Woman, Bong Soon has anxiety about using her powers, thinking they will forever separate her from other people. And Min Hyuk is never more vulnerable when he pleads with Bong Soon: “Please love me.” (I’m not crying, YOU’RE CRYING!).
K-drama is almost always about emotional men, but these dramas show that K-dramas can also complicate the narrative of the strong woman as well.
Unless you have been under a rock, you are surely aware of the win by BTS for Top Social Artist at the Billboard Music Awards. While the win shows the way K-pop fans can mobilize in the moment, the celebration of group anniversaries demonstrates the longevity of K-pop fandom.
Many have pondered what the win means. The BTS win comes in the wake of other instances where K-pop fans mobilize. In 2011, 2NE1 won the Best New Band award at the MTV Iggy Awards as a result of fan votes. In 2013, SNSD garnered the Video of the Year Award for “I Got A Boy.” These wins for BTS, 2NE1 and SNSD reflect the work that fans put in for the groups. It shows what K-pop fans already knew: K-pop fans are a force. Mainstream media outlets marvel at the win. However, some have also questioned the BTS win. Theo Howe argues that the win really reveals a “fetishisation” for Korean artists: “K-pop is a deeply visual genre, and the artists are made to look pretty, but there’s a danger among international K-pop fans that this can create an echo chamber for saying how BTS or Twice are that much more attractive than people of any other ethnicity.” Helen chalks up the win to marketing: “K-pop being recognised by big mainstream Western media sites doesn’t mean it’s somehow ‘made it’, and BTS winning an award at a music awards show that has nothing to do with music isn’t K-pop making it either. It means that mainstream Western sites have figure out that K-Pop is marketable, which of course it is.”
I argue that the win tells us something about K-pop fandom, but only half of the story. On one hand, it demonstrates, once again, that K-pop fans will mobilize for the opportunity to promote a K-pop group to the world. Such events work because for a brief, shining, moment, fans come together to achieve a task recognized by non-K-pop fans. But there are other measures of the global impact of K-pop on fans.
While many were fixated on BTS, Shawols were celebrating the 9th anniversary of SHINee, whose popularity points to the longevity of K-pop. J.K. of soompichronicled the way fans celebrated the anniversary, including a trending hashtag and Twitter posts. SHINee is not the only K-pop group celebrating multiple years of grouplife. 2PM also celebrates its 9-year anniversary this year, and F.T. Island celebrates its 10th. Shinhwa celebrated its 19th-year anniversary in March and Sechs Kies is currently promoting their 20th year (despite several years of inactivity). Even without the same level of fanfare and public recognition, these fans ensure that their groups can continue to have an audience and make music. This fanwork is more constant.
People have been declaring the death of K-pop for years. K-pop fans are both of the moment and here for the long haul. Even as newer fandoms groups like ARMYs break barriers, older fandoms like Shawols show the lasting power of K-pop.