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Crash Landing, Heaven’s Garden: Netflix; Winter Sonata: KBS World; Jewel in the Palace: Amazon Prime

(Crash Landing, Heaven’s Garden: Netflix; Winter Sonata: KBS World; Jewel in the Palace: Amazon Prime)

Media

Swooning for Korean dramas

Broadcasting clean, romantic fun, K-drama grows in popularity in the United States

While scrolling through Netflix last year, Wright Doyle and his wife Dori clicked on a show with an interesting premise: A South Korean heiress accidentally paraglides into North Korea and drops into the arms of an attractive North Korean soldier. Within minutes, the Texas couple in their 70s was hooked on the 2020 Korean drama series Crash Landing on You (see “Love Beyond Borders,” March 27). 

The Doyles are among millions of Americans who have added Korean dramas, also known as K-dramas, to their entertainment diet as pandemic restrictions have closed theaters and streaming platforms have released more international fare for American audiences. Even though the shows require non-Korean viewers to read subtitles, K-drama viewing on Netflix nearly tripled in the United States last year, according to Time magazine.

And while American shows often push the envelope in depicting sex, K-dramas remain a relatively tame affair featuring longing gazes and rumpled bedsheets. Some hark back to an earlier era of romance: lovers locking lips to schmaltzy theme songs or couples buying matching promise rings. 

One reason for K-dramas’ cleanliness: They air on South Korean TV networks subject to government decency regulations. (Korean movies aren’t held to the same standards.) Yet even these shows aren’t immune to the culture wars between traditional Korean culture and the liberalized younger generation.

The popularity of K-dramas began expanding in the late 1990s when viewers in China started tuning in. Chinese media dubbed the K-drama craze the Korean wave, which now encompasses Korean cuisine, clothing, beauty products, and of course the music known as K-pop. The Korean wave reached the rest of Asia with the popular 2002 romantic drama Winter Sonata and 2003 period piece Jewel in the Palace. The latter, which follows an orphaned kitchen cook who becomes the king’s physician, played in over 90 countries, earning $103 million.

Today, the Korean wave has entered the U.S. mainstream with Korean thriller Parasite winning the 2020 Oscar for best picture. Netflix recently announced it invested $700 million in Korean productions from 2015 to 2020 and is investing another $500 million this year. 

Viewers connect to K-drama emotionally even if they don’t understand it all, said Grace Jung, a Ph.D. student at UCLA who teaches a class on K-dramas. “I know plenty of people who watch K-dramas without subtitles and without knowing any Korean,” she said. 

Tiffany Nichols, a 38-year-old in Somerville, Mass., said listening to K-pop was her gateway to K-dramas. She found them refreshing because characters express affection in ways besides sex. In U.S. shows, she found that often “the whole series is really just about their sex life.”

Although K-dramas aren’t squeaky clean, in the 50-plus K-dramas we watched over several years, none showed any nudity and all contained significantly less explicit language and violence than a typical Netflix show. 

Still, some series are changing with the times: The 2012 romantic comedy Reply 1997 includes a gay teenager in a love triangle, while the 2020 series Itaewon Class featured a transgender character trying to run a restaurant in Seoul’s nightlife district. The 2020 rom-com Backstreet Rookie faced backlash from viewers and a warning from government regulators for using sexually explicit language and depicting a high-school girl kissing an older man.

K-drama viewing on Netflix nearly tripled in the United States last year.

Critics point to the negative effects of K-dramas, such as perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards that lead some impressionable fans—both male and female—to turn to plastic surgery to look like their idols. Others note the shows often depict their male lead character as an unrealistically perfect package of brains, brawn, and boyish charm.

But for some Korean Americans, the rising popularity of K-dramas in the United States has helped them better appreciate their cultural background. Growing up as a minority in Richmond, Va., Paul Kim, 42, remembers trying to blend in, knowing it wasn’t cool to be Asian. He even started looking down on his ethnicity. But after watching K-dramas during the pandemic, he said seeing Koreans in a positive light on the screen showed him “a lifestyle, value system, and heritage I can finally appreciate.”

Back in Texas, Wright Doyle said he’s found redemptive arcs in some of the K-dramas he’s watched. For instance, in 2011’s Heaven’s Garden, a broken marriage brings a hurting woman to the countryside where she must repair her relationship with her father. But her father isn’t the only one experiencing restoration—the entire village transforms too.

“It’s a great example of how God uses broken things and broken people to bring healing,” Wright said. 

The Doyles say the 30-hour series was so good they’re watching it all over again.

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Crash Landing, Heaven’s Garden: Netflix; Winter Sonata: KBS World; Jewel in the Palace: Amazon Prime

(Crash Landing, Heaven’s Garden: Netflix; Winter Sonata: KBS World; Jewel in the Palace: Amazon Prime)

Media

Swooning for Korean dramas

Broadcasting clean, romantic fun, K-drama grows in popularity in the United States

While scrolling through Netflix last year, Wright Doyle and his wife Dori clicked on a show with an interesting premise: A South Korean heiress accidentally paraglides into North Korea and drops into the arms of an attractive North Korean soldier. Within minutes, the Texas couple in their 70s was hooked on the 2020 Korean drama series Crash Landing on You (see “Love Beyond Borders,” March 27). 

The Doyles are among millions of Americans who have added Korean dramas, also known as K-dramas, to their entertainment diet as pandemic restrictions have closed theaters and streaming platforms have released more international fare for American audiences. Even though the shows require non-Korean viewers to read subtitles, K-drama viewing on Netflix nearly tripled in the United States last year, according to Time magazine.

And while American shows often push the envelope in depicting sex, K-dramas remain a relatively tame affair featuring longing gazes and rumpled bedsheets. Some hark back to an earlier era of romance: lovers locking lips to schmaltzy theme songs or couples buying matching promise rings. 

One reason for K-dramas’ cleanliness: They air on South Korean TV networks subject to government decency regulations. (Korean movies aren’t held to the same standards.) Yet even these shows aren’t immune to the culture wars between traditional Korean culture and the liberalized younger generation.

The popularity of K-dramas began expanding in the late 1990s when viewers in China started tuning in. Chinese media dubbed the K-drama craze the Korean wave, which now encompasses Korean cuisine, clothing, beauty products, and of course the music known as K-pop. The Korean wave reached the rest of Asia with the popular 2002 romantic drama Winter Sonata and 2003 period piece Jewel in the Palace. The latter, which follows an orphaned kitchen cook who becomes the king’s physician, played in over 90 countries, earning $103 million.

Today, the Korean wave has entered the U.S. mainstream with Korean thriller Parasite winning the 2020 Oscar for best picture. Netflix recently announced it invested $700 million in Korean productions from 2015 to 2020 and is investing another $500 million this year. 

Viewers connect to K-drama emotionally even if they don’t understand it all, said Grace Jung, a Ph.D. student at UCLA who teaches a class on K-dramas. “I know plenty of people who watch K-dramas without subtitles and without knowing any Korean,” she said. 

Tiffany Nichols, a 38-year-old in Somerville, Mass., said listening to K-pop was her gateway to K-dramas. She found them refreshing because characters express affection in ways besides sex. In U.S. shows, she found that often “the whole series is really just about their sex life.”

Although K-dramas aren’t squeaky clean, in the 50-plus K-dramas we watched over several years, none showed any nudity and all contained significantly less explicit language and violence than a typical Netflix show. 

Still, some series are changing with the times: The 2012 romantic comedy Reply 1997 includes a gay teenager in a love triangle, while the 2020 series Itaewon Class featured a transgender character trying to run a restaurant in Seoul’s nightlife district. The 2020 rom-com Backstreet Rookie faced backlash from viewers and a warning from government regulators for using sexually explicit language and depicting a high-school girl kissing an older man.

K-drama viewing on Netflix nearly tripled in the United States last year.

Critics point to the negative effects of K-dramas, such as perpetuating unrealistic beauty standards that lead some impressionable fans—both male and female—to turn to plastic surgery to look like their idols. Others note the shows often depict their male lead character as an unrealistically perfect package of brains, brawn, and boyish charm.

But for some Korean Americans, the rising popularity of K-dramas in the United States has helped them better appreciate their cultural background. Growing up as a minority in Richmond, Va., Paul Kim, 42, remembers trying to blend in, knowing it wasn’t cool to be Asian. He even started looking down on his ethnicity. But after watching K-dramas during the pandemic, he said seeing Koreans in a positive light on the screen showed him “a lifestyle, value system, and heritage I can finally appreciate.”

Back in Texas, Wright Doyle said he’s found redemptive arcs in some of the K-dramas he’s watched. For instance, in 2011’s Heaven’s Garden, a broken marriage brings a hurting woman to the countryside where she must repair her relationship with her father. But her father isn’t the only one experiencing restoration—the entire village transforms too.

“It’s a great example of how God uses broken things and broken people to bring healing,” Wright said. 

The Doyles say the 30-hour series was so good they’re watching it all over again.

Share this article with friends.

Sharon Dierberger

(Sharon Dierberger)

Media

Inmates for the press

For 133 years, The Prison Mirror has provided Minnesota prisoners a place for creativity, learning, and inspiration

Inside an office room in Bayport, three men in jeans and casual shirts swivel on rolling orange chairs, conferring with each other, answering questions, and occasionally turning back toward large computer screens. Books and periodicals surround them. Upbeat music plays softly in the background.

Outside the office, barred doors, massive exterior walls, and guard towers reveal its surprising location: the inside of a maximum security prison. 

The three men are inmates. Still, they love their work: Once a month, they churn out The Prison Mirror, begun in 1887. It is the oldest continually running newspaper in the United States written, edited, and published by inmates, for inmates.

Here in the Minnesota Correctional Facility, aka Stillwater State Prison, the paper’s senior editor, L. Maurice Martin, and co-editors Jeffery Young and Ronald Greer are each 42 years old and serving life sentences for murder. They say writing the newspaper provides them an outlet for creativity, learning, and inspiring others.

Martin calls the paper “a source of light” for the prison’s approximately 1,500 inmates, whose average sentence is almost 10 years. “Prison can be overwhelming and discouraging,” he says. The editors want to “help others see opportunities [for improvement] … and deal with real issues.”

Editions of The Prison Mirror feature headlines like “Character First!” and “Angry Man Says … ” (a column about controlling temper). “The Laws of Attraction” is a monthly column giving relationship advice. 

Investigative stories cover topics like prison food and water quality. Editors critique prison policies and cover prison events, classes, graduations, and sports. They insert inspirational quotes such as “You don’t have to leave the same way you came in” or “Education is the key to success.”

Prison officials do not allow Martin, Young, and Greer unfettered internet access. To do research, the editors must search the prison library card catalog to locate shelved books or use encyclopedias. Writing snail mail to request an interview or other information may never bring a reply. The men just shrug. Getting anything done here is slow.

A recent issue explored the problem of prisoner assaults on staff members. The editors interviewed inmates willing to say why they’d attacked corrections officers in the past, and the resulting article described what might provoke a prisoner to violence. It’s an especially relevant topic: In July 2018 an inmate attacked and killed a corrections officer with a hammer in the prison’s workroom. Young says both staff and inmates gave surprisingly positive feedback on the Mirror story.

Associate warden Victor Wanchena says such stories encourage understanding and empathy between staff and inmates. He notes the writer-editors carry the burden of trying to handle difficult topics judiciously: “We try to give them lots of leeway but want them to be fair and use named sources.”

The paper is also a platform for lighter topics, such as personal writing and artwork. One issue’s back page shows a charcoal portrait with haunting eyes, a recent inmate submission. Occasionally a chaplain contributes, though the paper takes a neutral stand on religion.

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