Hatin’ on Hae Soo in Scarlet Heart: Ryeo

IU as Hae Soo in Scarlet Heart: Ryeo

There are many aspects of Scarlet Heart: Ryeo that make it a worthwhile K-drama to watch, but there is one that is quite annoying.  Hae Soo (IU) is the female lead that drags this K-drama down. This is not a criticism of IU, who is supercute and an expert in the wide-eye closeup. This is also not an indictment of any of the actors who play the princes (Oh, I see you Wang So (Lee Jun Ki); there’s another post coming with your name on it). I know this is a remake of a very popular Chinese drama, but the female lead character was pushing all of the wrong buttons!

I’m always willing to suspend my disbelief for a K-drama, but Hae Soo pushes this to the limit. I can understand that, like any character who gets sent back to the past, there is a period of adjustment. After all, you are in an unfamiliar environment. But at some point, you just have to suck it up. You are not going back to your time period any time soon. Very often, you have two choices: either lay low or get in the middle of things. Hae Soo’s problem is that she does a poor job of laying low, and her actions repeatedly put her in the middle of things. She acts like she doesn’t know how things are going down in the palace. Girl, this is Goryeo! Get it together!

Once in the past, Hae Soo takes no responsibility for the way her actions cause harm to other people. She blames others, mostly Wang So. For example, she admits early that her grasp of ancient Korean history is spotty, yet she does not question the glimpses of “the future” she gets. She immediately believes that Wang So is going to be a villain, despite the  character of the man who is actually before her. In the end, it is actually HER actions that cause a lot of the tragedy in the K-drama. It’s Hae Soo’s fault that So doesn’t just get rid of Wang Yo (Hong Jong-hyun) when he had the opportunity, which would have prevented later tragedy. She constantly tells Wang So not to kill his brothers. Guess what? Some of them gotta go. It’s Hae Soo’s fault that Wang Eun (Baekhyun) and Soon Deok (Z. Hera), aka. The Baby Couple, are killed. She just leaves all kinds of evidence out in the Damiwon for Yeon Hwa (Kang Han-na) to find.  It’s Hae Soo’s fault that the Crown Prince (Kim San-ho) also meets an untimely end as a result of Hae Soo being the world’s worst supervisor. For Hae Soo, everything that goes wrong is all Wang So’s fault. Wang So is literally the only person who pretty much doesn’t kill anyone for the wrong reasons, but gets all of Hae Soo negative judgement. He, may I remind her, never killed his brothers in the way she assumed he would.

What is worse, she lets other people off.  She never corrects Wang Jung (Ji Soo) for his ungrounded negative attitude towards Wang So.  They were all standing there when The Baby Couple met their end, but Jung decided not to focus on the fact that Yo’s men kill Soon Deok and Wang Yo himself shoots Wang Eun with two arrows. He also seems to repress Wang Eun’s death request. His takeaway is that So caused all the bloodshed, just by showing up way back at the beginning of the K-drama. Hae Soo never tells Jung that he’s wrong.  Wang Wook (Kang Ha-neul) is part of an attempted coup and is the mastermind behind the death of the Crown Prince, working in villainy with Wang Yo. Yet, Hae Soo never criticizes Wang Wook the way she criticizes Wang So.  When she leaves the palace, it’s a warm hug and smiles for Wook, like they are good buddies.

On the other hand, it’s always the side-eye for Wang So.  I’m not saying that he should have rolled ChaeRyung up in a rug, but I understand. And he outlines all the ways ChaeRyung has proven not to be a friend to Hae Soo, but she’s not trying to hear it. She seems to buy ChaeRyung’s “I did it for love” excuses and blames Wang So for ChaeRyung being used as a pawn by Wang Wook and Wang Won.

Others have suggested that the Korean version of this drama is pretty true to the Chinese original. There’s an online petition to get a second season. Nooooooooooo, not if the writers don’t tweak Hae Soo’s character. It’s not like Korean writers haven’t done it before when doing remakes (Boys Over Flowers, anyone?). I need Hae Soo to be “ride or die” with Wang So or Wang Wook or somebody other than herself. One true thing that Jung told her is that she needed to pick a side. She could have been an advisor to “the good brothers.” She could have been more like Ji Mong (Kim Sung-kyun). Instead of trying to be neutral (which never worked), she should have picked a side, or at least more actively tried to keep the brothers brotherly if she knew bloodshed was in their future. Instead, she’s too busy trying to kindle a romance with Wang Wook (as his wife is dying, REALLY?!!! Did we actually think that would end well?) and overlooking his opportunistic tendencies (he was shady from the start). While Wang Wook breaks promises, So is doing the heavily lifting, showing her that he likes her, being at her side and getting exiled for it.  In addition, she did nothing to help Soon Deok with her relationship with Wang Eun, because, sadly, Hae Soo is all about Hae Soo if you’re not a prince.

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Scarlet Heart: Ryeo, but Hae Soo has just hit number one on my Most Despised Female Character List!

Image: 1

I Run This: Women and The Inner Court in Empress Ki and Virtuous Queen of Han

Asian historical dramas are replete with queens, empresses and court ladies duking it out behind the scenes while kings rule the country. Some might think they are something akin to Disney princesses with no agency and little power, but the Korean drama Empress Ki and the Chinese drama Virtuous Queen of Han both show that women are running things.

Continue reading “I Run This: Women and The Inner Court in Empress Ki and Virtuous Queen of Han”

My Brother’s Keeper: Melodramatic Siblings in Baker King Kim Tak Goo and Five Fingers


Tak Goo and Ma Jun, Baker King Kim Tak Goo
Tak Goo and Ma Joon, Baker King Kim Tak Goo

The melodrama genre of K-drama has its share of improbable plots, shocking twists and selfish characters.  These things take on even greater significance when the person involved are siblings.  Sibling rivalry takes on new meaning  in  Baker King Kim Tak Goo and Five Fingers. Both of these Kdramas explore loyalty and love and question what it means to be “true” brothers.

Continue reading “My Brother’s Keeper: Melodramatic Siblings in Baker King Kim Tak Goo and Five Fingers”

The World Turned Upside Down: Social Change in Historical Kdrama

Chun Doong and Gwi Dong, The Duo
Chun Doong and Gwi Dong, The Duo

One of the most common plots in sageuk (historical Kdrama) pits those with power against those without power.  These tensions become even more complicated with friendships and romantic relationships.  Nothing makes the elite more nervous than when the “riff raff” start to question “the natural order of things.”  Historical Kdramas like The Duo and Hong Gil Dong begin with the possibility of social change, but end up reinforcing the status quo.  However, Tree with Deep Roots sustains the promise of social change to the end. Continue reading “The World Turned Upside Down: Social Change in Historical Kdrama”

Doing It For the People in Gyebaek/계백 (2011)


Generals may serve kings, but the hero in Gyebaek is doing it for the people. Given the shoddy leadership in the last days of Baekje in this Kdrama, somebody has to.


Our hero, Gyebaek (Lee Seo Jin), is first exposed to loyalty by his father, Moo Jin (Cha In Pyo). Not only does he fend off the unwanted advances of Sa Taek Bi (Oh Yun Soo), the future queen, he also stays loyal to King Moo (Choi Jung Hwan), even to the point of death.  However, this unquestioning loyalty to the crown is often undeserved. King Moo keeps putting Moo Jin in impossible situations, situations that he creates due to a combination of his fear of the nobles and desperation to keep the throne. It is for these reasons that he sends Moo Jin to help his Silla-born queen and their son escape (yeah, THAT ends well) at the risk of Moo Jin’s own pregnant wife’s life. When Moo Jin returns years later, he is once again subject to the bad decisions of King Mu and sacrifices himself right in front on Gyebaek.

Moo Jin

These events have a profound effect on Gyebaek, as he nurses the grudge of the ages for years. What helps him to break out of it is having to take care of people in his care, first as a Baekje slave in a Silla fortress and later with some peasants in a mountain hideout.  Unlike his father, he gets to know the people who are weak, defenseless and often put in peril by the powers-that-be. When his own loyalty to Prince (and later King) Uija (Jo Jae Hyun) becomes almost unbearable to keep, he reimagines himself as a guardian, not of a king, but of a people.

Sa Taek Bi

However, Gyebaek comes off as such a good leader and sacrificing servant of the people because selfishness resides at the highest levels in the Kdrama.  It wouldn’t be a Kdrama without some backstabbing and conniving by people who want to stop Gyebaek’s selfless acts. We have Sa Taek Bi who seeks to amass and keep power for herself.  Not quite as bad as the ultimate royal villain, Mishil (Queen Seondeok), but she does her share. She’s got the requisite hidden, secret, highly trained force that will whack people on her whims, access to nobles with money and power, and the will to wield both at anybody she deems an enemy. We’ve seen this before: she grew up in a political family, so you’re not surprised when she goes to great lengths to keep power.

Eun Go

Like Sa Taek Bi, other people who feel the backhand of power  just turn around and become worse than the people who oppressed them. Eun Go (Song Ji Hyo), the love interest of Gyebaek since childhood who also catches Uija’s eye, starts out doing it for the people. A merchant, she acts as a go-between, able to access the palace without being part of the political drama (at least at first).  She and Uija plot to kick out the bad guys because they are good guys who want to improve life for everyone in all classes.  However, something goes terribly wrong, and once she gets a taste of power she becomes just anotther Sa Taek Bi (just like she said she would!).  She’s willing to beat anyone down to make her son Crown Prince (just like Sa Taek Bi!), eliminate those threaten her plans (just like Sa Taek Bi!) and cut all ties in an effort to keep her position (just like, well, you know).


But that’s ok, she’s just the almost/eventual queen. Uija is a whiny king whose crazy jealously and bad decisions bring down Baekje, despite Gyebaek’s best efforts. You might feel sorry for Uija.  Seeing his mother murdered and having to grow up with the woman who ordered her death, having to pretend that he’s an idiot to save his skin and dealing with a father who would gladly sacrifice his own son to keep the throne would make anyone a little….not right in the head.  Yeah, he has issues, but he makes a pact with Gyebaek, Heung Soo and Sung Choong (two very unorthodox yet very clever advisors) to create a new world where no one suffers. Of course this happens when Uija is down on his luck. What does he have to lose? These guys do all the heavy lifting to get Uija back in the palace and eventually on the throne.

However, there are two problems. One is Uija’s unrequited love for Eun Go. She’s trying to get revenge, and he’s trying to get her. So he does the unthinkable: lies and puts her in a position to be executed and “saves” her by marrying her. All so that he can have her, and presumably, Gyebaek can’t.

The other problem is Uija’s jealousy. Maybe if he did something on his own, he wouldn’t be jealous. But Gyebaek succeeds in protecting Baekje, even when put in harms way by Uija. It makes Uija crazy. Literally. I knew Uija had lost his mind when during a battle with Silla, he kills the daughter of Silla’s eventual king, Chunchu (that’s the wrong guy to mess with. I learned that from watching Queen Seondeok). With his own hands. Just to say he did something. This not only is against the rules of righteous soldiers, it also unnecessarily brings the ire of Chunchu on Baekje. We all know Chunchu isn’t going to rest until he grinds Uija’s bones into dust and burns Baekje down to the ground.

Sung Choong

It was interesting to see a man exhibit unbridled jealousy over someone who was once a sworn brother, but it didn’t have to be that way. Uija had more than enough people trying to tell him he was headed down the wrong path. My favorites are Heung Soo and Sung Choong, or as I like to think of them, Frick and Frack.  Heung Soo is mad genius who flouts authority but also has a strong sense of loyalty and feeling for the people. He even swaggers out of the palace after refusing to give the royal robes to Sa Taek Bi’s whiny son. Sung Choong, his more even-tempered counterpart, meets Gyebaek as a Silla captive and sees his potential. Together, they are the best advisers a king could have. They anticipate the enemy as well as the politics of the court.

While they all work to get Uija on the throne, it’s Sung Choong and Heung Soo who see first hand how Uija gets out of control. They try, but there is nothing they can do to stop him.  Sadly for Sung Choong, he grapples with Eun Go and loses. If that isn’t bad enough, what is worse is Heung Soo’s reaction. He is just broken when his best friend is murdered.  He goes all-out to show that Eun Go was behind it, but when Uija finds out, he does nothing to her. This woman not only breaks the sworn pact, she is also a traitor. In her desire to get her son on the throne, she spills Baekje troop movements to tells Yushin (yes, Queen Seondeok’s Yushin!) in Silla.  Heung Soo mourns Sung Choong’s death, but he never gets over his disillusionment over Uija’s failure to act. He writes a strategy book and withdraws from public life.

Ultimately, Uija becomes the last king of Baekje because of his failure to work out his personal issues, and Gyebaek goes down as a hero of Baekje. Given who he hangs out with, I’m not surprised.

Images: Gyebaek

Ambivalence, Romance and Finance in Cheongdamdong Alice/청담동 앨리스 (2012)


Ambivalence, romance and finance are anything but elements of a fairy tale in Cheongdamdong Alice (2012).  The Kdrama makes us think about non-romantic motives for relationships.

Cheongdamdong Alice (2012) follows the development of two characters.  On one hand, it tells the story of our “Alice,” Han Se Kyung (Moon Geun Young), a plucky, ever-optimistic fashion student who wants to be a designer.  Her economic circumstances prevent her from studying abroad, but she has made the best of her talents by working jobs and winning school awards. Se Kyung is soon hit with the realization that the fashion industry is clique-y, and after breaking up with her embezzling boyfriend, resolves to do whatever she has to in order to raise herself out of her dire straits and make it to Cheongdam.

Cheongdamdong Alice also tells the story of Cha Seung Jo (Park Shi Hoo), a man who responds to heartbreak by enacting a long-term plan for revenge-by-success, which also requires that he hardens his heart. That icy heart begins to thaw when he sees Se Kyung’s selfless acts on behalf of her shiftless boyfriend, and he begins to believe in love again, making Se Kyung the beneficiary of his new outlook life.

cdda2Ambivalence clouds the actions of both characters. We certainly don’t want Se Kyung to become like Seo Yoon Joo (So Yi Hyun), who literally wrote the book on golddigging. But the more misfortune she endures, the more likely she is to give in. While she manages to maintain her dignity and our allegiance for the most part, audiences must suffer with her when she opts not to tell Seung Jo about her plan to use him to get into Cheongdam society.  She never goes to the extent that Yoon Joo and Tommy Hong  (Kim Ji Suk) do, but viewers (and Seung Jo) have to reconcile Se Kyung’s sweet ways with her social-climbing desires. The ambivalence is not over whether or not she wanted to use Seung Jo. We, Se Kyung and Seung Jo constantly wonder where Se Kyung’s using stops and her actual emotions begin.

Se Kyung also redeems herself in other ways. She helps Seung Jo and his father to reconcile. That process also forces Seung Jo to face his own flaws, including his belief in his self-sufficiency and discounting of his father’s help.  Se Kyung does her share of heavy crying on the street, but she also delivers some of the best responses to those who try to smack her down. When Yoon Joo and Se Kyung get caught by Shin In Hwa (Kim Yoo Ri), Yoon Joo gets on her knees, acknowledging defeat.  Se Kyung, however, looks In Hwa in her eyes and dares her to do something.

cdda1While the Kdrama tells us to follow “Alice” down the rabbit hole, we get distracted by the silly rabbit that is Seung Jo.  Described by his intrepid friend Heo Dong Wook (Park Kwang Hyun) as having some kind of emotional disorder, Seung Jo is not the perfect, confident man he displays to the world. He swings from ridiculously giddy highs to heartbreaking melancholy lows.

Seung Jo provides ridiculous comic relief, but also has a more engaging personal journey.  While we cheer him on in his wooing of Se Kyung, we realize that he has his own unresolved issues. Seung Jo harbors unresolved feelings towards his father Cha Il Nam (Han Jin Hee) that impacts his relationships. Because he feels he was not loved by his father, he strives to maintain emotional distance from him. Seung Jo is that emotional male character in a Kdrama who pines after the love interest, but he also has to deal with his own faulty view of himself. He is overly concerned with having his actions validated, needs to hear “thank you” from Se Kyung, needs to be acknowledged.  While we may not like Yoon Joo for breaking his heart, she also gives him valuable insight into himself, trying to show him that relationships are not just about him and his feelings.

Here’s where the supporting characters really come into play, namely, Dong Wook. If this was a Greek play, he’d be the chorus, because he says what the audience would say.  He comforts and encourages Seung Jo when he’s trying to do the right thing. He also pushes him beyond his comfort zone and tells him when he’s being selfish and untrue.  Along with Secretary Moon (Choi Sung Joon) and Choi Ah Jung (Shin So Yool), he also participates in the matchmaking.

When Seung Jo and Se Kyung face and resolve the crisis of their relationship, we are left with the idea that they will be more upfront with their feelings and realistic about their circumstances. They seem to understand that romance is not a fairy tale because of real-world circumstances and the motives and desires of ordinary humans.  On the other hand, what do other characters learn?

cdda3If ambivalence rules the dynamic between Se Kyung and Seung Jo, finance definitely guides the romance aspirations of Yoon Joo, Tommy Hong and In Hwa.   Yoon Joo faces her worst nightmare when her calculated entry into her upper-class family is discovered. Her evil sister-in-law, In Hwa, pounces on this opportunity to shame her and kick her out of the family. But we reserve our disapproval for the members of the family rather than Yoon Joo who fools them. Their entitled behavior and belief that they can use her to salvage a business deal makes Yoon Joo look like a girl scout. Shin Min Hyuk (Park Young Ji), Yoon Joo’s husband, goes from assuring her that he loves her to using her as his last pawn to partner with a rival fashion house.

We may be hating on Yoon Joo for the condescending way she treats Se Kyung, but she is infinitely better than these folks who chastise her for playing the game they created. They revert to the language of exclusion really easily: “How dare you try to enter OUR society,” “Those kind of people are not like US,” etc. Characters like Yoon Joo and Tommy Hong, who may be talented in their own right, are forced to use manipulative measures to gain access to that world, but are barred by those already in that class. Their actions, while questionable, are in response to the exclusion of the upper class. The Shin family and those like them become the ultimate villains in this Kdrama.

In fact, for all the talk of how finance is most important, these characters are ultimately guided by their emotions. Despite acting like a lean, mean, business machine, In Hwa gives in to jealousy, envy and revenge, working harder to bring Yoon Joo and Se Kyung down than on any ad campaign. While it may be a little stereotypical to say that “being a woman” means giving in to emotions to hurt other people, In Hwa shows that it’s not always all about the money.

Images: Cheongdamdong Alice/청담동 앨리스


Cheongdamdong Alice 2012 Trailer Korean Drama. Uploaded by strongkinga1. YouTube. 30 Nov 2012. Web.

[SERIES REVIEW] Way Back In The Day: Faith/The Great Doctor/신의

SBS Official Poster, Faith/The Great Doctor
SBS Official Poster, Faith/The Great Doctor

While the name of this Kdrama suggests that you follow the exploits of a 21st century woman who gets transported back to the Goryeo era, I found myself distracted by other, more compelling characters and narratives, not the least of which was Lee Min Ho as Choi Young, the love interest.

Continue reading “[SERIES REVIEW] Way Back In The Day: Faith/The Great Doctor/신의”

People Over Money: Merchant Kim Man Deok (2010)

Merchant Kim Man Deok is an interesting blend of finance and romance. In both, it’s best to be on the up and up. The Kdrama gives a peek into Joseon-era business practices: the buying, the selling and the deals under the table.  Corruption is rampant, and the most successful merchants are those who pay government officials to keep the competition down.  On top of that, women are not viewed as savvy businesspeople, so they have an even harder time.

Man Deok isn’t a queen or an outlaw, but she is awesome in her own way.  At first, you just think she’s a bratty urchin willing to pimp her fellow orphan-siblings just to make a buck, but gladly, she quickly realizes that being a merchant isn’t about the money: it’s about the people.  Man Deok’s way of being a merchant is really different from the ways that other men make money in the series.  One could say that it’s because Man Deok is a woman, who learns her craft from  a woman, that makes this story unique.  Man Deok’s adoptive grandmother, a successful merchant herself, teaches Man Deok to value people over money, to build relationships with her customers to ensure not just return business, but a sense of loyalty.

This way of doing business is very different from Kang Kye Man, a former protegé of Man Deok’s mentor and current troublemaker in the market.  Kye Man is not above using extortion and violence to get his way.  He doesn’t care about loyalty; he wants his benjamins now. While Man Deok learns her business acumen from a principled woman, Moon Seon, Deok Man’s childhood friend, learns her business sense from Kye Man.  And enter the villaness!  She’s mean, from a young age.  Although she and Man Deok are both orphans, Moon Seon is driven by a sense of jealousy and uses survival as an excuse to get rid of anyone who gets in her way.  She intends to get as much money as possible in order to be secure, but her pursuit of wealthy only makes her position more precarious.

The romantic entanglements revolve around the merchant world as well.  Kang Yoo Ji, Kye Man’s son, is the spoiled merchant that’s been banished to Jeju Island to look after his family’s interests there, and because of his connections, is the Big Man on the Island.  He is an instant mismatch for Man Deok’s righteous ways: the more he tries to force her to “be his woman,” the more she resists.  It takes a traumatic event to make Yoo Ji change his ways. Adding spice to the pot is the conflict between shady Yoo Ji and upstanding Hong Soo, Man Deok’s love interest and son of one of the biggest and most corrupt government officials.  Hong Soo is a law man whose pursuit of justice puts him at odds with his father.

The drama has some interesting twists and turns, along with the familiar “I can’t believe that happened” melodrama.  It shows how life on Jeju island is different from life on the mainland. It pays a lot of attention to the local people who make their living off of selling things on Jeju.  Everything from pearls to hats gets sold in this Kdrama.

The most compelling conflict is between Man Deok and Moon Seon.  Moon Seon is  gangster, let’s just be frank.  She condones murder, extortion, and torture. She lies, cheats and steals.  And while her shenanigans don’t rise to the level of Queen Seondeok’s Mishil (she is my gold standard for female villainy), she does make a strong showing. If she can’t have Hong Soo (and that ship sails WAY early, because what upstanding yangban would want Moon Seon after she’s manipulated Kye Man into making her his wife AND having his child), no one can. If she can’t sell the tribute to the court, no one will. If she can’t have a ship, no one can.  Even when she’s a mother, she’s a nasty piece of work.

Man Deok, on the other hand, is a saint. When she’s down, she always finds a way to pick herself up.  Although it gets a little annoying when she refuses to accept help from others, she always helps others, even when she ends up with nothing. And when she strikes it rich, she shares it with everyone.  For instance, when she takes advantage of a tip about the king’s health, she pays her craft workers before doing the work AND after getting the work done.

It’s great to see Man Deok, though, get a little spunky when she realizes that Moon Seon is not her friend.  Moon Seon’s comes off as pathetic when she insists on making decisions just to get back at Man Deok.  Man Deok wins because she never gives into the desire to retaliate (although sometimes the viewer would want her to).  Everyone who ever does Man Deok wrong, reaps what they sow.

Another great aspect of this Kdrama is the relationship between Man Deok and Hong Soo.  Separated by class, their relationship ends up the way so many do in the historical Kdrama, but before that, they do actually agree to have a relationship, and nothing that anyone does damages their feelings for each other.  It’s sweet!  As children, Man Deok is the more outgoing one, while Hong Soo is the reserved, sheltered noble who becomes enchanted by her courage and outspokenness.  Of course, Hong Soo’s father will not be having any of this, and constantly calls Man Deok names and accuses her of seducing his son.  What surprises me is that Hong Soo’s parents do not take the drastic step of forcing him to marry into some well-placed family, although Moon Seon has a little bit to do with that.

There are also several other narratives that go on: Japanese merchants and their illegal trade, government gisaengs, famine, loan sharks, quarantine, and lots of contract hits for hire.  I mean, you expect this type of thing in historical Kdramas that involve palace intrigue. But we are talking merchants, people!

Also, I have to say that there are some people who don’t get their due, and chief among them is MOON SEON! Why does she get to have self-reflection time? Not so much as a cut or scratch on her!  While her uncle gets his comeuppance, what about her other henchman?

Sources: Kim Man Deok 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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Put Your Own Hair Up!: Female Agency in the Historical Kdrama

Source: http://www.hancinema.net/korean_drama_Merchant_Kim_Man_Deok-picture_115408.html?sort=Most_Popular_Pictures
Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

For some, Kdramas may be the last place to look for empowered female characters, but I think they contain quite a lot of female agency.

Modern Kdramas sometimes draw feminist-inspired critiques for their representations of women.   On Outside Seoul, Amanda sets up a tension between feminist ideals and Kdrama:  “I’ve always considered myself to be a feminist, which can be a difficult thing to reconcile with a love of Korean drama. As much as fun as I have watching these shows, I often find myself cringing when it comes to their depictions of relationships between men and women.”

Theresa Celebran Jones tentatively approaches her critique of Kdramas because of her unfamiliarity with the cultural context, but defines herself as a “feminist since my early teens,” which causes her to give the genre of romantic comedies the side-eye:  “Even then I knew that romantic comedies had a tendency to reinforce traditional gender roles and set unrealistic expectations for relationships. Too often, I felt romcoms cosigned behavior that would come off creepy or be otherwise unacceptable in real life.”  Her assessment of A Gentleman’s Dignity was not without critique:  “A lot of wrist-grabbing, possessive boyfriends, and stalker-like behavior, and this was a show that completely favored the male perspective.”

While Amanda admits that “feminism is a weirdly fraught topic in America,” she does not elaborate. One of the reasons why feminism is complicated is because there are actually several brands of feminism, including black, postcolonial and third-world feminisms.  These brands of feminism recognize that race and nationality can impact what agency and equality mean to different women. One of the critiques these feminists express is the notion that early brands of feminism were defined by what white women wanted, which may be different from what women of color want.  For feminists of color, the issue may be more about choice rather than a predetermined equality.

With that said, one may be able to see feminist tendencies in Kdrama that are overlooked if we only view feminism through a white feminist lens.  Women have different opinions of what agency looks like. Kdramas may in fact promote agency by Korean women that may not look like agency to women measuring their behavior by Western mainstream feminist standards.  I’m an American woman looking at Kdrama, so like Amanda, I don’t have a full understanding of the cultural context either. But what I do see are women, even under patriarchy, making decisions for themselves.

Both Amanda and Jones focus on contemporary Kdramas, but I find a lot of female agency in a place one might least expect it: the historical Kdrama, or sageuk. I’m currently watching Merchant Kim Man Deok, and Kim Man Deok (also known as Hong as a young girl) may be subject to certain expectations of women in Joseon-era Korea, but there are significant instances where she exerts her agency.

Generally plucky,  Man Deok finds herself as a government gisaeng on Jeju Island. The time comes for her to have a man “put her hair up.”  The gisaeng headmistress explains that the man who “puts a woman’s hair up” becomes like a husband to her. Man Deok does everything she can to avoid the ceremony.  Even though she knows Kang Yoo Ji, the foreman of a local merchant company who is attracted to her, she does not want to have that kind of relationship with him. During the elaborate processional to the ceremony, Man Deok looks like she’s going to the gallows.

As is typical of a melodramatic Kdrama, circumstances occur that postpone the ceremony, and Yoo Ji never “puts her hair up.”  But what is interesting is that a few episodes later, Man Deok makes a point of telling her father that she “put her own hair up,” which seems to suggest that she does not belong to a man. This act seems to signify  not only a certain maturity, that she is a young woman rather than a teenager, but also that she is not dependent on a man.

Source: http://www.hancinema.net/korean_drama_Merchant_Kim_Man_Deok-picture_113134.html?sort=Most_Popular_Pictures
Kim Man Deok, Merchant Kim Man Deok

Man Deok continues to show independence when she rejects the aggressive courtship tactics of Yoo Ji. After failing to be the man to “put her hair up,” he continues to pursue her. Following the faulty advice of his scheming stepmother, he initially withholds evidence of Man Deok’s commoner status, which can allow her to be dropped from the government gisaeng rolls. At first, he intends to exchange it for her “being his woman.”

When that fails, he works with his stepmother to try to destroy East Gate, the merchant company for which that Man Deok works.  When they succeed in falsely accusing the East Gate head foreman of smuggling illegal goods and economically crippling the company, Yoo Ji offer to “save” Man Deok. When she refuses, he tells her that he will destroy any company she works for until she relents. Not only does she tell him she would rather jump in the ocean than be his woman, she asserts that she will not join another company but build East Gate back up with her own hands.

It’s easy to root for a character like Man Deok; she’s so likeable and plucky. It’s harder to root for a female who goes against societal expectations in a way that hurts others but exerts the same degree of independence.  I have to admit, Choi Song Yi is relentless in God of War.  She falls in love with Kim Jun, a slave, and after helping him advance through the military, she drops the bomb on her father that she wants to marry him. Because her father, Choi Woo, the supreme military commander, wants an heir to succeed him, he’s not going to let that happen.

You would think she would just let it drop. But no!  She engineers a plan to run away with Kim Jun, but he’s not having it.    When forced to marry another man to satisfy her father’s wishes, she continues to hold a torch for Kim Jun, right up to when she meets her demise.  While she doesn’t murder anyone with her own hands, her inaction contributes to the death of at least four people.  I have to admit, when she was alive, she was not my favorite character. In fact, I thought she was not right in the head.

Source: http://www.hancinema.net/korean_drama_God_of_War-picture_219109.html?sort=Most_Popular_Pictures&typephoto=promotion
Song Yi, God of War

But during her last episodes, I realized that she defies her father and societal convention, up to the end. Her impassioned pleas to her father and mother about her love for Kim Jun suggests an unwavering desire to flout societal expectations.  She explains that she is willing to give up her wealth and position to be with him. While one could argue that she’s a stereotypical woman who does anything for love, Song Yi actually is little more savvy than that. Kim Jun is her man, so while he spurns her affections (every time!), she also looks out for his political future.  She even chastises her father for failing to free Kim Jun earlier and give him more responsibility.   She routinely tells her father than Kim Jun is the man he can depend on, unlike the flunkies that surround him. Finally,  she is so confident in her actions,  she never shows remorse, even when she knows it’s wrong, even at the end.

I may not like her choices, but Song Yi boldly makes them and she accepts the consequences of her actions.  In doing so, she consciously challenges societal convention, and while she does not make it to the end of the series, even the soldiers marvel at her will.

To me, agency is about women making their own choices, even in situations where they are limited, even when we don’t agree with them. They are still their choices, and isn’t that what feminism is about?


Merchant Kim Man Deok,1, 2,  Han Cinema.

God of War, Han Cinema.


Amanda.  “The Other F Word: Feminism versus Korean Drama.”  August 21, 2012.  Outside Seoul. Accessed September 30, 2012. <http://outsideseoul.blogspot.com/2012/08/the-other-f-word-feminism-versus-korean.html>.

Jones, Theresa Celebran.  “A Primer on K-Drama Feminism.” September 12, 2012.  Hyphen.  Accessed September 30, 2012. <http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/archive/2012/09/primer-k-drama-feminism>.

The Men Who Would Be Kings In Kdrama

The throne hall in Seoul’s Changdeokgung Palace. Source: http://blog.rhapsody.com/2009/03/soundtreks-the-soul-of-seoul-or-five-days-of-korean-music.html

More often than not, a sageuk (historical Kdrama) will center on the shenanigans of royalty.  And what is royalty without a king? Kdrama not only offers a wide array of historical kings, but also imbues them with personalities that enthrall modern audiences.

Continue reading “The Men Who Would Be Kings In Kdrama”

Things I’ve Learned From Watching Sageuk (Historical Kdramas)

I am an avid watcher of Korean sageuk (historical Korean television series). They have something for everyone: romance, adventure, political intrigue, mystery.  Little did I know that I was learning things along the way. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from watching sageuk!

Continue reading “Things I’ve Learned From Watching Sageuk (Historical Kdramas)”

CONFERENCE ABSTRACT: Challenging Gender Roles in Korean Dramas @ Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities

She Is Straight Gangster: Challenging Gender Roles in Korean Dramas

Dr. Crystal S. Anderson

Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities

January 8-13, 2012


Korean television dramas (Kdramas), particularly those that are historically based, represent sprawling stories that blend history with culture.  Often consisting of high production values and unfolding over 50+ episodes, these Kdramas reconstruct historical narratives and legendary stories.  They also infuse a contemporary sensibility by drawing on nontraditional notions of gender, heroism, cunning and valor.  While such Kdramas are broadcast to Korean audiences, non-Korean, English-speaking audiences from around the world also view these dramas via Internet sites such as Drama Fever and Crunchyroll.com.  These global audiences construct alternative femininities related to the female characters that challenge traditional notions of gender.  Using qualitative methods and discourse analysis, I argue that global audiences construct female characters in ways that challenge traditional notions of gender. In the 2009 critically-acclaimed and popular Kdrama, Queen Seondeok, Korean women are represented as aggressive major power brokers in national politics, rather than passive bystanders, even as they occupy more traditional historical roles for women.  They also exert power over men who are characterized as more powerful both politically and martially, using cunning rather than their feminine wiles. Finally, women also engage each other in ways that showcase their intellectual talents. Such constructions by global audiences allow for more diverse notions of gender in popular culture.

Boys Over Flowers: Episode 2

SUCH a good episode! I noticed that they played SHINee’s musical contribution to the soundtrack a lot during this one (which I thoroughly approve of!), so much so that I may have to go and get it. “Whether I’m making you smile…”

Alright, let’s get to business. There’s a LOT in this episode that I liked, and believe it or not I think that this was a very “good” episode for Jun Pyo! Here’s why: the first thing that needs to be addressed is the issue of whether or not he told the “Locker Room Punks” to rape Jan Di, because that’s definitely what they were going for. To me, and my interpretation of his reprimand to them, he did NOT tell them to rape her specifically, but he absolutely wanted them to scare her very, very badly. Um, so since I’ve called them the Locker Room Punks….which locker room are they in, exactly? If it’s a women’s locker room, then what the heck is Ji Hoo doing in there? If it’s a men’s locker room, what’s Jan Di doing there? And I definitely don’t think that “co-ed” locker rooms exist in this high school (or any high school, for that matter).

Second thing to address is Jan Di’s Super Totally Awesome Roundhouse Kick TO THE FACE! Yes, I LOVED this part, both because it’s a definite wake-up call to Jun Pyo but it also means that Jan Di has some fire in her blood! I love that she PHYSICALLY fought back this time! Of course, this is in the beginning stages with the whole discourse of Jun Pyo thinking that, since women say the opposite of what they mean, she is totally in love with him. What that means, in Jun Pyo-speak, is that he’s finally realized that he likes her in some way, shape, or form, but since he can’t consciously realize this he’s letting his “affections” out in other ways. Like kidnapping her and dressing her up. Honestly, that’d really freak me out, too, as soon as I was awake from my chloroform-sleep I’d be running, fancy house be damned!

At first, I was unsure about the “bee attack” that followed Jan Di leaving his house, but I think I have it figured out: I think that little scene is showing what his actions and speech are like after he’s been embarrassed – he both hides his embarrassment behind arrogance and takes it out on the people around him who have “embarrassed” him. I think this is supposed to explain his more violent tendencies, and it’s echoed by Min (I can’t remember the rest of her name!!) at the end of this episode when she says it’s also because he’s lonely. Moving on, another moment of his that I loved was just before the bee attack, when he’s upset and throwing the clothes and shoes on the ground. As Almighty Key has shown us in SHINee’s Hello Baby, bribing people for love with gifts does. not. work. But Jun Pyo is SO UPSET that it didn’t work, that he decides to take his anger out on Jan Di’s shoes. It’s such a beautiful, awkward love moment – you show that shirt who’s boss! The last moment that really caught me for him was his attempt to comfort Jan Di after she gets smacked in the face with the volleyball. Really, I loved that entire scene, but specifically when he says “Don’t cry, it doesn’t suit you.” He LIKES her fiery attitude! He wants her to keep being feisty and spirited! Then she says “I would rather die in blood than be indebted to you” and the look on his face just about killed me. That’s really all I could hear in my thoughts during that moment: “Awwww, BUT LOOK AT THAT FACE! Jan Di, why are you so mean?!” I know why she’s so “mean” at this point, but, as you can tell, Jun Pyo is my man in this show.

Which brings us to Ji Hoo. Of course Ji Hoo would ride around on a cool motorbike and give Jan Di his HUMONGOUS sports shoes to wear, which she would then thoroughly scrub down. Of course. Um, remember back in episode 1 how I was saying that I couldn’t forget what Ji Hoo is like in the manga? I would like to quote, since it happens in this episode, emphasis added: “THEN HE RETREATED INTO AUTISM.” Yes, Ji Hoo is autistic. Or, since he’s so high functioning, has Asperger’s Sydrome. Which I think he still exhibits. Which is why he drives me CRAZY. But apparently he went even deeper into a more extreme autism when his parents died, and somehow Min was able to pull him out of it. Which I don’t think works, because autism definitely is NOT temporary, but then again who’s really taking the time to look into the medical details of Ji Hoo’s past? “She’s his first love, girlfriend, and mother.” Weird.

The last thing I’ll put on here is my Random Question/Observation of the Day: Why……..why is there a mirror directly beneath the showerhead while Jun Pyo is taking a shower after Rugby Practice (a.k.a. Anger Releasing Time)? It’s so weird, I think that’s the third time I’ve seen some show have a mirror in the shower, underneath the showerhead. Is this common in East Asia? Note that I’m totally not mad that it showed him showering. I can appreciate that.

Okay CeeFu, how’s that for my first official post?

Boys Over Flowers: Episode 1

You know, some things never get old. Like pimptastic, overindulged Korean privileged boys entering their high school backlight with a halo of light, as they stroll in in suits and ascots.  Oh, yeah, I guess I should say something about Jan Di first.

Yes, she’s plucky (kinda), I know as the audience we are supposed to side with her and her “positive” attitude.  But her habit of being ambivalent isn’t attractive.  F4 treats her badly, like they treat everyone badly in the beginning, but somehow that doesn’t make me like  her more. She’s all for the underdog, but do you see the way she screams at her parents? You know THAT ain’t going down in the average Korean household.

One thing I forgot is that Jan Di also declares war on F4, this is after she finds out they are affluent, and before the real abuse from Jun Pyo really starts. She’s no innocent. And I also forgot how the rest of F4 laughs at Jun Pyo. I think they know he’s got issues, and secretly want Jan Di to beat him down. I also remember thinking, “Jan Di is too trusting of people she shouldn’t trust, and can’t bring herself to trust the people she should.” She calls herself a loner, and so this must explain her utter inability to deal with people in a sane way.  Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Nolan Nabi, what you got?


Boys Over Flowers: The Prologue

I know, I know, I talked about Boys Over Flowers before, but it warrants a revisit, and what better way to do it than with a friend! I have enlisted Nolan Nabi to rewatch the whole pimptastic kdrama again with me, and we will be discussing our thoughts on the good (the pretty boys), the bad (Jun Pyo’s psychotic mother) and the ugly (the completely unsympathetic Jan Di).  Stay tuned!