Somewhere in the second act of Queen of Reversals—the third K-drama I ever watched—I saw the most amazing, unbelievable thing. The second lead cries while sleeping. As he rests in the passenger seat of his car, with the heroine at the wheel, he appears to be sound asleep. But then, one lone tear slowly trickles across his resting face.
I had seen a few man tears in my first couple K-dramas, but now I felt like I was in the presence of true greatness. Who writes a scene like that? How do you make that scene?
More importantly, perhaps, what kind of entertainment industry keeps searching out more challenging and novel ways for men to cry?
One of the biggest things distinguishing Korean from Anglo-American drama is the man tears. Whatever show you’re watching, whether it’s action, comedy or romance, you’re almost guaranteed the hero will cry before the end. Maybe he’ll get a little choked up and wipe his cheek quickly. Or maybe artfully illuminated tears will roll down the hero’s cheek for several minutes. Sometimes he teeters on the edge of tears without ever allowing a single tear to fall.
But if you’re coming from contemporary Anglo-Saxon culture, the manly weeping might make you wonder, “What’s with all the crying?”
I love K-drama man tears. Even if they’re sometimes unconvincing, they point to the fact that Asian television isn’t trying to imitate American TV. Asian television is its own thing—and one of the key ingredients of K-drama style is that heroes cry.
K-dramas themselves acknowledge that “man tears” have become a cliche. In fact, the phrase “man tears” was first stuck in my head by Choi Si-Won’s character in King of Dramas. When he wants to prove he’s a good actor, he begs the writer to give him a crying scene.
“Man tears—how refreshing!” he says. It’s a joke, because men crying in K-dramas is hardly new. Yet the joke points to the fact that actors and audiences see crying as a crucial acting skill. (The writer in King of Dramas has to tell the lead he isn’t good enough to pull it off.)
Back in 2008, Last Scandal joked about this too, showing the hero—a well-known K-drama actor—practicing his crying with a stopwatch in hand. He’s such a pro, he can cry on cue in a mere seven seconds.
During Hollywood’s studio Golden Age, stars who needed tears in a hurry sometimes irritated their eyes on purpose to create fake tears—“glycerin tears.” But since the arrival of method acting, real tears are increasingly the mark of a true actor.
Is crying on cue important for the simple reason that there’s so much suffering in K-dramas? Certainly these shows put their characters into sad and desperate situations. The heroes can be excused for misting up from time to time. And if the heroes cry a lot, so do the heroines. Roughly the same amount of screen time goes to male and female crying.
But that doesn’t explain why man tears are such an important part of these narratives—or why they are typically absent from Anglo-American television.
Europeans and Americans didn’t always take such a dim view of crying. According to a historian I heard at the Library of Congress recently, eighteenth-century European men considered crying virtuous—a sign of emotional authenticity. (Supposedly so did Medieval European heroes and Japanese samurai.)
The male heroes in eighteenth-century novels often cried. Tears demonstrated morality. Meanwhile, in the real world outside of novels, even highly moral eighteenth-century men found it hard to live up to these expectations. They sometimes expressed envy for women because they could cry more easily.
You’re unlikely to hear that kind of remark today, even from male American politicians, who increasingly turn on the waterworks strategically during press conferences. In America, at least, commentators are quick to criticize a female politician if she mists up a little in public, even if men can get away with it.
I suspect the teary heroes of K-dramas, like those of eighteenth-century European novels, tell us as much about cultural values as about what men are really doing. Cultural attitudes about crying vary a lot, but across cultures men generally don’t cry as readily as women. (Even transgender men find they start crying less when they start taking testosterone. A friend of mine described this as “somehow the emotions are the same, but they seem muted.”)
So, like many things on television, K-drama tears aren’t necessarily there to show us how the world really is. Instead, like the tears in old Romantic novels, they tell us something more: that the hero is virtuous, that he’s sincere.
“Sincerity” is the central currency in K-dramas, comparable to “coolness” in American shows. Like coolness, sincerity is a big concept and hard to define. But just as American characters ideally project a “cool” self-confidence, the most memorable Korean characters possess a passionate earnestness that is “sincere.”
The world “sincere” is rarely used in America except to sign business letters. But “sincere” and “sincerity” are common words in K-dramas. Characters discuss sincerity directly, as in this revealing dialogue in Secret Love Affair: the young hero (who is like the human incarnation of sincerity) tells the heroine he’s sincere. She asks him what the hell his sincerity is worth.
“Everything!” he replies, “Because I love you.”
His sincerity is worth everything, because he’s in love. The logic is fuzzy, but the sentiment is pure Drama Land.
American entertainment used to produce sincere heroes—like Jimmy Stewart’s characters in the Frank Capra films It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But roughly half the films produced in America in the thirties, forties and fifties were Westerns, with heroes who tended to be stoic types—the essence of cool. Early television was mostly Westerns as well.
The smartest Westerns offer good commentary on gender roles and the variety of ways to be masculine (check out Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s movies, for instance). But Westerns and the detective shows that took their place are always about men with guns. The climactic moments are shoot outs, where sincerity isn’t as important as a fast draw. And though we don’t make Westerns any more, American television still emphasizes action.
But K-dramas revolve around emotional confrontations instead. Tears, rather than bullets, signal This is an Important Scene.
The scene when the hero tells the heroine about his dark past.
When the hero meets his birth mother for the first time (while she is, of course, in the hospital with cancer).
When the hero admits for the first time that he misses the heroine.
When the hero tells the heroine he doesn’t trust her any more (alternately, the scene when the hero tells the heroine he trusts her absolutely and he’s willing to go to prison for her).
Not to mention the scene when the hero realizes he’s going to be separated from the heroine by pursuing assassins, the heroine’s mistaken belief that he killed her brother, or—worst of all—time travel.
The key to understanding these scenes is that the hero doesn’t cry because of a mere hangnail or a bad day at work. K-drama heroines may sometimes weep because they lose their jobs or the rent gets raised, but the heroes rarely cry for such quotidian reasons. Rather, they cry at moments of maximum emotional truth.
For best effect, the hero is alone in these scenes, or alone except for the heroine. Like the K-drama kiss, man tears are something that’s usually intimate and private—now produced for viewer consumption.
Tears don’t preclude K-drama heroes from being cool. (Nor does being cool stop American TV heroes from being sincere. Fox Mulder, I still miss you.) But K-dramas make a clear distinction between public and private behavior. The heroes act cool and tough in public, and save the aegyo and emotional stuff for private.
In fact, even when they don’t have multiple personalities, K-drama characters often have more than one face they show to others. American culture values a kind of “what you see is what you get” consistency, which is why sometimes you have to look to our superhero stories for a discussion of identity. Clark Kent and Superman, Bruce Wayne and Batman—these are our most iconic stories of conflicting public and private identities.
But the world of Asian drama is populated with people who don’t need a superhero alter-ego to feel conflicted. Is Jang Jae-Yeol in It’s Okay, That’s Love a cool DJ and writer, or a guy with a seriously dysfunctional family and a psychiatric illness? Is Oh Hye-Won in Secret Love Affair the slick woman of business she plays in the office, or the impetuous musician she becomes when she’s with her young boyfriend? The idea that people don’t show their true selves in public is a recurring theme throughout K-dramas.
Sincerity is thus something elusive. We can hide our sincerity from others for so long we forget how to be sincere. We can lose our sincerity as we grow old and make compromises with the world. K-drama sincerity isn’t just a state of being truthful. It’s also a kind of optimism, a lack of cynicism that allows us to be generous to others.
In K-dramas, sincerity is associated with youth. Young K-drama characters don’t want to become burnt-out, cynical adults. No wonder generational conflict is as big a theme as romance, whether it’s conflict between young and old prosecutors (Choi Jin-Hyuk and Choi Min-Soo’s characters in Pride and Prejudice), between lovers (the sincere young man and cynical older woman in Secret Love Affair), or between parents and children (every chaebol drama ever).
As elusive as sincerity is, tears do a great job convincing us sincerity is there. Tears are a K-drama writer’s shortcut to convey changes in a character. When Boys over Flower’s Gu Jun-Pyo breaks down in tears because he misses the heroine, he suddenly looks like less a jerk and more like a decent guy. He’s learning to be sincere, right?
Tears are like kisses, that other K-drama staple, in that even when they’re fake, they’re real. Unless they’re glycerin tears (that old Hollywood trick), an actor has to come up with those tears from somewhere.
It’s a paradox that K-dramas prize sincerity, while asking actors and actresses to fake the deepest emotions. This uncomfortable paradox could be one reason the Korean industry wants celebrities to have squeaky clean personal lives. Sincerity is one of the main commodities they’re selling, so it helps for stars to have a reputation for sincerity in real life.
Which brings me back to that scene in Queen of Reversals, where the second lead is played by the now-disgraced Park Shi-Hoo. I was impressed by the high-profile actor’s ability to cry in his sleep, but that made it all the more disturbing when I came across the news of his infamous date rape case. Though the actor escaped criminal charges, the details revealed him to be a cad, at best. But the K-drama commodification of sincerity relies on convincing us the stars are good people. If they aren’t good people, those fake tears and kisses are creepy and deceptive.
Man tears are not just an engaging narrative element, but a reason that K-drama fan culture is so intense. Though I never before took much interest in the lives of actors, when I watch K-dramas I find myself wondering whether I can trust these guys or not. How much of that sincerity is mass-produced product for the screen, and how much is real?
Yet even as I ask myself that, I’m taken in by those tears. How can I resist the show Kill Me, Heal Me after learning that many of Ji Sung’s tears weren’t originally in the script? That show was strange and uneven in early episodes, but I was hooked in episode five—by one particular teardrop that Ji Sung added on his own.
Shin Seki is dragging the heroine around in cavalier fashion, but then grows melancholy. He leans towards her to kiss her. One perfect tear swells in the corner of his eye and rolls down his cheek. In real life, I’d be appalled and creeped out if a guy cried while kissing me. But in the poetic, Expressionist world of K-dramas, it’s a beautiful, complicated scene about mixed emotions and the pain of the past.
Kudos to the actors, directors and set crew who have the experience to pull off such scenes. That teardrop seduced me into staying on board for the full 20 episodes. It told me the hero would suffer, but that the show’s actors and creators cared about his suffering. It told me that here, at least, in this story, it was okay for people to have emotions, okay to be angry and upset at the world. In the kimchi Gothic world of Cha Do-Hyun and Shin Seki, it’s okay to care.
It’s even okay for men to care. ♥
[Illustration credits: 1) Kim Myung-Min permits himself one manly tear in King of Dramas, 2) Hwang Jung-Eum in Kill Me, Heal Me shows that heroines cry too, 3) Song Joong-Ki grows teary-eyed in this eloquent, prolonged shot in episode 1 of Nice Guy/Innocent Man, 4) Yoo Ah-In gives us a rare scene of a man getting choked up in front of another man, in Secret Love Affair, 5) Choi Jin-Hyuk suffers strong emotions in Pride and Prejudice, 6) costume drama man-tears from Gong Myung, bidding his love farewell in Hwajung, 7) Seo In-Gook demonstrates how to play an entire scene on the verge of breaking down, in I Remember You, 8) Lee Min-Ho uses tears to give his comic-book character some depth in Boys over Flowers, and 9) Ji Sung’s virtuosic teardrop kiss in Kill Me, Heal Me.]