k-drama

Technically, K-dramas are television serials. They’re not high-concept, artistic experiments that are created solely to satisfy the muse. Rather, these shows have to woo audiences, attract sponsors and jump through all the hoops that regular, commercial entertainment has to in other cultures and economies. This is why, in the world of K-dramas, Subway has been a popular date spot and the candy Kopiko (which the corner shop gives you instead of small change) is treated like the Korean equivalent of the sanjeevani booti.

Yet tucked into this mass entertainment are cultural elements that are anything but mass. For example, can you imagine a 16-episode show set in the publishing industry? Romance is a Bonus Book is just that. In one episode, to establish the heroic qualities of the male lead, the show has him deliver a poignant monologue about pulping books. In the Yumi’s Cells, the story is apparently about a woman’s relationship history, but actually it’s the journey of how an office worker grew into her dreams of becoming a novelist.

Even in shows that ostensibly don’t have much to do with literature, K-drama writers will sneak in details that are nerdy in the best possible way because they make you see the characters and events in a new light. References to everything from classic children’s literature to existential philosophy show up at the oddest moments. Here are our favourite examples of K-drama writers being bookish.    

Love in the Time of Cholera in My Roommate is a Gumiho (간 떨어지는 동거)

 

My Roommate is a Gumiho, released in 2021, is a romance between a dashing 999-year-old mythical creature and a goofy, astoundingly pretty college student in the present. Would you expect their conversation to include Friedrich Nietzsche and Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Brace yourselves if you thought ‘no’. 

Shin Woo-yeo (Jang Ki-yong), a 999-year-old Gumiho needs to collect “human energy” in a bead (ok then) so that he can finally turn into a human being. Unfortunately for him, this bead is accidentally swallowed by Lee-dam (Hyeri). All this is to give our lead pair an excuse to live together and for us to get conversations like the following. 

At the end of episode 4, the couple are in a cafe, talking about the nature of love and affection. Lee-dam says she never really knows what it means when someone says they like her and about the expectations that come with such declarations. Woo-yeo responds by first quoting Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra — “There is always some madness in love” — then calling her Fermina Daza, the leading lady of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and quoting a chunk from the novel. And we mean a chunk. Here’s what he recites to Lee-dam: 

To him, she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, who no one else’s heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. 

Woo-yeo ends this monologue by adding a line of his own. Once you’ve collected yourself from the shock of a nine-tailed fox quoting Marquez, please discuss whether Woo-yeo’s line is better or worse than Florentino Ariza’s.

Being and Time in Hotel Del Luna (호텔 델루나)

Hotel Del Luna – arguably the top Korean drama of 2019 – is about many things. The titular hotel is an opulent halfway house for ghosts. The manager of Hotel del Luna, played by Yeo Jin-goo, is a regular, mortal man trying to make sense of this surreal world. His boss, played by the brilliant IU, is an unforgiving immortal who is in the mortal realm because she is serving out a punishment. She also has a thing for eating out, which means we’re constantly seeing her stuffing her face (mukbang, anyone?). Does any of this remind you of Martin Heidegger’s masterwork Being and Time (Sein und Zeit)? Well, it should. 

Heidegger’s Being and Time tries to answer the age-old philosophical question: What does it mean “to be”? He puts forward that “being” cannot be separated from “being in the world” — our existence is inherently linked to our world. In the book, Heidegger also wrote, “We reach out to the future, while taking up our past, thus yielding our present activities. Note how the future – and hence the aspect of possibility – has priority over the other two moments.”

hotel del luna

If you’ve watched Hotel del Luna, then you’ll recognise that Jang Man-wol (IU) is a living embodiment of Heidegger’s ideas in Being and Time (fortunately, the writers do not include Heidegger’s fondness for Nazi ideology into Man-wol’s character and just focus on this one book of his.) Hotel del Luna folds these complex ideas subtly into its fantasy plot and Being and Time is key to understanding the end, whose ambiguity had audiences tearing their hair out (did Man-wol die or did she reincarnate? Or was it something completely different?). Just to make sure no one misses the philosophical point, Being and Time makes an appearance towards the end as a physical book.

Hotel Del Luna is available to stream on Netflix.

Also Read: The Best K-Dramas Of 2022 (So Far)

The Velveteen Rabbit in I’m Not A Robot (로봇이 아니야)

What does the story of a stuffed rabbit who was loved dearly by his owner and wished to come to life have in common with a K-drama ostensibly about developing humanoid robots? It turns out that I’m Not A Robot is basically pivoted upon the same idea as Margery Williams’s children’s classic. 

Kim Min-kyu (played by Yoo Seung-ho) is a successful yet lonesome CEO who suffers from a life-threatening, mostly psychological allergy to – wait for it – human contact. Fortunately for him, one part of his enormous company makes humanoid robots, so Min-kyu is sent a robot named Ji-ah. Except the robot is actually a human because there was an epic tech fail and no one wants to risk the consequences of revealing this to Min-kyu. (There’s also the fear of being taken over by evil, foreign competitors.)

When K-dramas Surprised Us with Their Smarts, Film Companion

As Min-kyu and Ji-ah (Chae Soo-bin) slowly and inevitably fall in love, the hapless man wonders if the robot could somehow turn into a real human being. Enter The Velveteen Rabbit. As the two are tormented by their inability to be with each other, the following lines from the story are read out:

This is what the Velvet Rabbit asked, “Mr. Horse, do I need a spring to become real?”
“No, that’s not how you become real. You can become real if someone loves you for a long time.”
“Does it hurt to become real?”
“Sometimes.” 

Keep tissues handy.  

I’m Not A Robot is available to stream on Netflix.

The Blue Bird in When the Weather is Fine (날씨가 좋으면 찾아가겠어요)

Most of When the Weather is Fine takes place in a cosy bookstore called ‘Goodnight Bookstore’. Our leads are Mok Hae-won, who has quit her job as a cellist in Seoul to move to a distant, snowy town, and her former schoolmate, Im Eun-seob, who runs Goodnight Bookstore. Both Hae-won and Eun-seob struggle with trauma from their formative years, which is often articulated using references to Korean fables, Japanese novels to English children’s stories.

 

Take, for example, the K-drama’s use of The Blue Bird by Maurice Maeterlinck, who was known as the Belgian Shakespeare. Originally a five-act play in French, The Blue Bird tells the story of a brother and sister who set out to find the bird of the title, which symbolises happiness. An excerpt from this story, translated into Korean, is juxtaposed with a particularly heartbreaking moment when Hae-won confesses her feelings to Eun-seob, who responds awkwardly. This deliciously torturous segment culminates with the two walking silently towards Hae-won’s home while a voiceover reads out The Blue Bird

Once upon a time, a brother and sister set off because they wanted to become happy. They had heard that somewhere on Earth was a blue bird that gives happiness. Climbing the mountain and crossing the river, at last, the brother and sister arrived at the village where the blue bird was said to be. But there was nothing like a blue bird who brought happiness there

The twist? In the original story, the siblings do find the bird – in their own home – but this is left out in the drama, indicating that the story’s ending is perhaps not relevant to our unfortunate lovers. 

If you can ignore the detail of how the series seems to believe siblings looking for happiness are the same as lovers hoping for a happy ending, it’s all quite poignant.  

The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology in Her Private Life (그녀의 사생활)

There’s a lot to love in Her Private Life, which is about a curator who has a secret life as a fangirl, and an artist who is unable to create art. While the K-drama criminally underuses its art museum segments, filling them up with pieces that can only be called uninspiring (despite being shot in an actual museum in Seoul), it does get points for including the most arty pillow talk ever. 

When K-dramas Surprised Us with Their Smarts, Film Companion

In the last episode, while tucked in bed, the couple casually throw in a reference to Slavoj Žižek’s The Ticklish Subject. When Sung Deok-mi (Park Min-young) tells Ryan Gold (Kim Jae-wook) that while she isn’t an artist, at least she can hang paintings in a gallery, Ryan tells her, “A curator is also an artist.” And in case you were wondering, Deok-mi catches it as a reference to Žižek.  

In The Ticklish Subject, Žižek writes: 

Is not the ultimate example of reflexivity in today’s art the crucial role of the curator? His role is not limited to mere selection – through his selection, he (re)defines what art is today. That is to say: today’s art exhibitions display objects which, at least for the traditional approach, have nothing to do with art, up to human excrement and dead animals – so why is this to be perceived as art? Because what we see is the curator’s choice. When we visit an exhibition today, we are thus not directly observing works of art – what we are observing is the curator’s notion of what art is; in short, the ultimate artist is not the producer but the curator, his activity of selection.

Take notes, my friends. 

Did we miss your favourite literary references from a K-drama? Let us know in the comments below.

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