Each time you think the Hallyu wave is about to peak, a new South Korean television series comes along and crests to another high.
In 2013, romance drama The Heirs, starring Lee Min Ho and Park Shin Hye, took South Korea and beyond by storm. Then sci-fi romance My Love From The Star, with Gianna Jun and Kim Soo Hyun, surged to new heights of popularity in 2014. Earlier this year, military romance Descendants of The Sun blazed a different path and turned Song Joong Ki into a megawatt star.
What these three shows have in common are beautiful actors and actresses, but that is only half of the reason K-dramas are flourishing.
The fact that they all have different actors points to the depth of talent in the industry. There is a seemingly inexhaustible supply of actors and actresses who not only look gorgeous but can act as well.
This becomes even clearer when you go beyond the blockbusters — a star is seemingly born every few months on the small screen.
Nostalgia drama Reply 1997 (2012) was a cable show that came in under the radar, but grew to make a big splash as word of mouth spread. Singer Seo In Guk had a star turn as the high school hotshot with a sensitive side and Jung Eun Ji from girl group Apink had an auspicious acting debut as a feisty superfan of male idol popsters Sechs Kies.
The drama Incomplete Life (2014) heralded the arrival of boy band ZE:A’s Yim Si Wan as a new acting talent as he played the part of workplace greenhorn Jang Geu Rae to perfection. He picked up several accolades, including a Baeksang Arts Award for Best New Actor.
Interestingly, individuals who get lost within the confines of a boyband or girl group shine in the spotlight when they make the leap to television. Apart from Apink’s Jung and ZE:A’s Yim, there is also Lee Hyeri from Girl’s Day, who made a great impression in Reply 1988 (2015) as the bubbly high-schooler Sung Deok Sun. The ratings for the show’s final episode are the highest in Korean cable TV history.
The depth of talent in the acting pool extends to the creative pool.
A second reason for the thriving K-drama scene is the industry’s ability to come up with new concepts and to put a fresh spin on familiar ones.
The recently concluded W, written by Song Jae Jung and starring actor-model Lee Jong Suk and actress Han Hyo Joo, played mind games with its characters and viewers as the story unfolded across two parallel worlds — our world and the world of a hit webtoon, a comics title that is published online.
With a fresh and exciting premise, it kept viewers guessing throughout what was going to happen next.
You could say that it was an update of the concept Norwegian pop band A-ha used for their seminal music video for Take On Me in 1984, in which a woman enters the world of a comic strip she is reading.
Similarly, the crime thriller Signal (2016) borrowed a key idea from the American sci-fi thriller flick Frequency (2000) — two characters communicate with each other across time, using walkie-talkies in the former and a radio in the latter. To this it added an elaborate labyrinth of unsolved cases and personal connections. The result was gripping.
The ongoing period romance Love In The Moonlight is more than just a replay of the old chestnut of gender-bending — see Hong Kong rom-com He’s A Woman, She’s A Man (1994) or even the previous hit Korean series Coffee Prince (2007).
It’s a gender-pretzel as Kim Yoo Jung plays not just a girl in man’s clothing, but one who has to pretend to be a eunuch.
Moonlight is based on the Korean Web novel of the same name (in Korean) and it is proving to be popular enough that there are reports asking whether it could reach or even eclipse the ratings for Descendants of The Sun.
Another reason shows from South Korea are thriving seems to boil down to a general tenet: no sequels.
Signal’s scriptwriter Kim Eun Hee has hinted at the possibility of a follow-up given the tantalisingly open-ended finale. But it would be an exception that proves the rule as none of the other titles mentioned above have yet had sequels.
Season 2 for Descendants of The Sun is reportedly in the works, but it has also been said that stars Song Joong Ki and Song Hye Kyo will not be returning and neither will director Lee Eung Bok and writer Kim Eun Sook. For fans of the show, that would be like getting a beautifully packaged gift, only to find that it does not contain what they want inside.
While the titling of Reply 1997, Reply 1994 (2013) and Reply 1988 suggests a continuity, they are best thought of as sibling series — recognisably part of the same family, but each with its own traits and quirks.
They share the same attention to period detail as well as a similar set-up —who will the female lead end up with among a large group of potential suitors. Yet each show is about different characters and stands alone on its own.
Keeping things contained to a single season forces a show to be compelling and complete in that timeframe.
And if a show fails to pique viewers’ interest, not to worry, the next one could well be the one to sweep you off your feet.