What’s with K-Drama Angst? (Elements of K-Drama Style Series)

The weather is beautiful today on the American East Coast, just like it was 14 years ago today. I was living in Brooklyn, then, working on a graduate degree in Middle East studies. September 11, 2001, was a long day for all of us living in New York, a long day for many around the world, too. The weeks and months that followed were also a bad time for most of us studying or teaching Middle Eastern history. Popular newspapers were quick to attack as unpatriotic anyone guilty of providing nuanced analysis. And I had other things to worry about, too: my little brother the infantry sergeant was soon on his way to Iraq.

But perhaps because my life has included things like September 11, I have a soft spot for the K-drama obsession with suffering. It’s easy to make fun of K-drama narratives where horrible, horrible things happen to everyone. The characters have deep, dark secrets that no one must ever discover. If you’re in a K-drama,

chances are good that you were poor, abandoned, or suffered a devastating loss in childhood. Maybe all three….

Everyone is very sorry about that terrible car accident you were just in….

Bummer about your friend’s shocking cancer diagnosis, too.

—”How to Tell if You’re in a Korean Drama”

American commentators (including Korean-Americans like Sarah Jeong and Nicole S. Chung, quoted above) tend to scoff at the angst. Why do people in K-dramas have so many problems? Aren’t all the orphans, fatal car accidents, cancer scares and unrequited loves just lame clichés used by lazy writers?

K-dramas do rely on a set of stock elements to create conflict. And the repeated elements quickly feel like clichés if writers and producers handle them clumsily. (Like Yong Pal‘s ailing sister who exists chiefly as a plot device.) But American television also relies on repetitive conflicts. Would the characters on Walking Dead be as interesting if they weren’t being attacked by zombies every week? And would American crime shows survive without a long roster of psycho-killer stock characters?

American shows feature plenty of angst, though our critics tend to call it “grit.” So what is it about K-drama angst that’s so distinctive?

The agony in a K-drama may be deeply moving or it may be tedious, but it’s always distinctly Korean: it’s intense, undeserved, unrelenting. Suffering that causes heroes and heroines to reject God, suffering that almost destroys the soul.

And I love it. One of the first things that drew me into watching K-dramas was this unfamiliar—but compelling—vision of tragedy.

pride and prejudice episode 2 choi jin hyuk kdrama today

Something in American culture rejects the idea of undeserved suffering: we founded this nation on the pursuit of happiness, darn it, and if we’re not happy, we must be doing something wrong. The best essay ever written on this topic is still Robert Warshow’s 1948 famous essay about why Americans love gangster movies. (And continue to love them almost seventy years later.)

“America,” Warshow writes, “is committed to a cheerful view of life. It could not be otherwise. The sense of tragedy is a luxury of aristocratic societies…. Modern equalitarian societies, however, whether democratic or authoritarian in their political forms, always base themselves on the claim that they are making life happier…. Happiness thus becomes the chief political issue—in a sense, the only political issue—and for that reason it can never be treated as an issue at all. If an American… is unhappy, it implies a certain reprobation of his society, and therefore, by a logic of which we can all recognize the necessity, it becomes an obligation of citizenship to be cheerful.”

A lot has changed in 70 years—sometimes it feels like kvetching has become the national past-time in the world’s sole superpower—but a paradoxical optimism still lies at the heart of American popular entertainment. We believe that if people are morally deserving, they will be happy.

angst american style james gandolfini the sopranos 4web
Angst, American style: Tony Soprano.

Ironically, this might be why American television is full of mean, unpleasant characters, modern descendants of Warshow’s beloved gangsters. Our stories of meth-dealing high school teachers and power-hungry dragon breeders resemble modern retellings of Scarface and The Godfather. These immoral characters use brutal means to reach success—but lose their souls. If they’d been moral people, the story wouldn’t have been as interesting, because the American narrative says everything should go smoothly for good people, right?

When the characters on American shows suffer, it’s often deserved. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Breaking Bad‘s “Heisenberg,”these darlings of the twenty-first century Emmy Awards all have character flaws that suggest we shouldn’t feel too sorry for them. They bring trouble on themselves. Orange is the New Black does go further than most American shows in allowing that sometimes bad things happen to good people—and on The Walking Dead no one’s immune from zombie attack. But suffering in American stories still feels fundamentally different than in Korean stories.

samsoon ep 1 small image

What strikes us in K-dramas is how profoundly unfair the suffering is, and how prolonged the agony. In the first episode of Coffee Prince, the heroine loses all her part-time jobs for reasons beyond her control and her boss runs away with her back pay and her mother suddenly owes someone thousands of dollars for a lost piece of jewelry. The heroines of Master’s Sun and Oh My Ghostess are exhausted insomniacs pursued by ghosts. The heroine of I Hear Your Voice witnessed a murder as a kid—and, oh, she was kicked out of high school for a crime she didn’t commit. It’s The Fugitive: High School Years!

And those are the comedies. If we turn to more melodramatic fare, almost every K-drama features at least one lead who was traumatically orphaned at a tender age. Preferably abandoned under a tree in the snow (That Winter, the Wind Blows), forever rejected by his grandmother who thinks he’s a child of rape (Swallow the Sun), rendered amnesiac by the horror of watching his mother’s murder (I Remember You), or rescued from an abusive childhood, rechristened with a new name, and raised with few memories of her dark past except those that return in nightmares (Kill Me, Heal Me).

boys over flowers suicide attempt episode 1 jung eui chul

Is it too much? Well, what constitutes “too much”? Surely we can believe many people have difficult lives. Over the years I’ve met plenty of people with painful stories—murdered siblings, friends who betray, parents who abuse, deadly illnesses striking the young. And I’ve met people who’ve lived through too many tragedies, just as I’ve met people with charmed lives, untouched so far by grief. So I find K-drama levels of angst plausible, if not necessarily likely.

In fact, I only find myself complaining “too much angst” if I don’t care about the characters. I can’t count the number of shows I’ve stopped watching because I wasn’t interested that the heroine accidentally murdered someone or that the hero had mean parents.

If I care about the characters, though, I care about their suffering. The best K-drama writers make me stick around by creating characters who are sympathetic, good people. It might be painful to watch good people losing their jobs, their children and their life-long loves, but the pain is mixed with admiration. If the characters are well-written, I’m impressed and inspired by how they endure the setbacks.

K-drama angst appears related to the untranslatable Korean idea of han, meaning a complicated kind of unjustified, inexpressible pain. The wikipedia entry on han gives a range of definitions, some of them slightly contradictory (told you it was complicated!):

a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own)…. Han is frequently translated as sorrow, spite, rancor, regret, resentment or grief, among many other attempts to explain a concept that has no English equivalent…. Han is imbued with resignation, bitter acceptance and a grim determination to wait until vengeance can at last be achieved…. Han is passive. It yearns for vengeance, but does not seek it. 

As hard as it is to define, the first time I saw a description of han, I recognized it. This is the emotion you glimpse when it’s dawn and you’ve just spent the previous twelve hours binge-watching a show about people falling blissfully in love only to realize that someone is going to die (probably of a brain ailment). The only choice left to the hero and heroine is how to meet their deeply unfair fate.

In a good K-drama, the characters will rail against this dark destiny. They’ll be realistically bitter. They’ll curse God and resent everyone around them. But before the credits roll, somehow they’ll find resilience and hope. They’ll make the decision to remain decent people despite the world’s indifference and cruelty. (And they’ll probably make the decision while standing strikingly alone on a rooftop somewhere.)

nice guy episode 1 song joong ki 4web

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Korean writers often tell this kind of narrative, given the bloody, violent history of the peninsula in the past century. And it’s not surprising that these stories of undeserved tragedy are popular around the world, in widely varying cultures. We don’t have to understand the details of Korean culture to relate to the idea that terrible things can happen to good people (even here in the optimistic United States).

Which brings me back to 9-11. Life is unfair. Terrible things happen, and sometimes they happen out of the blue on a beautiful late summer day when the air is clear and crisp. We don’t have much control over the tragedies that befall us. But we do have control over our response to events. As Gandalf put it in the decidedly un-American, tragedy-tinged Fellowship of the Ring, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

Some might find it depressing that we don’t control our destinies. But I find it comforting to admit a lot of things are out of our hands—and to believe that human beings can handle tough times with grace. Bad K-drama angst is as unsatisfying as any bad television cliché. But the basic principle underlying K-drama angst is beautiful, and the principle is this: in this world good people suffer too much. Real heroes and heroines will continue trying to be good anyway.

kill me heal me episode 18 ji sung med opt

And if the writers are really creative, they’ll find a way for the hero to survive the brain surgery/abdominal stab wound/multiple personality disorder. He’ll be a better, less egotistical man than he was before. He’ll take pleasure now in things that used to seem petty: eating rice, washing the dishes, waiting at bus stops. He’ll meet his loved ones again. He’s glad to be alive. ♥

[Testing your K-drama knowledge on the images in this article? Answers here: 1) Jo In-Sung (aka, the King of K-Drama Suffering) in That’s Okay, It’s Love, 2) Ji Sung and Hwang Jung-Eum angst it up in Kill Me, Heal Me, 3) Choi Jin-Hyuk broods in Pride and Prejudice (and this is before things get bad!), 4) Kim Sun-Ah shows romantic comedies have suffering too in My Lovely Samsoon, 5) a bullied high school student attempts suicide in the opening of Boys over Flowers, 6) Princess Jeongmyeong of Hwajung (played here as a teenager by Jung Chan-Bi) begs for death after escaping murderous relatives, nearly being blown up in a fiery explosion, then being kidnapped by pirates and sold to slave traders, 7) Soong Joong-Ki gets ready to go to prison for a crime he didn’t commit in Innocent Man/Nice Guy, and 8) Ji Sung in Kill Me, Heal Me again, for the simple reason you can never have enough Ji Sung.]

10 thoughts on “What’s with K-Drama Angst? (Elements of K-Drama Style Series)

  1. nice but even Koreans think that this trend is great in terms of effect and entertainment value. A huge bulk of Koreans are just turned off by it and do not watch Korean dramas, Usually, those trends are associated with specific political views that many view as being negative which is objectively valid. Korea is experiencing the best times of its existence both in objective and relative terms.
    We are far freer than ever.
    but people think that things are bad because the cultural outputs tells them that things are bad.
    As a result, the political situations is just bad.

    • Thanks for your comment, akia! But I need some clarification to understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that life in Korea is better than ever economically and politically, but t.v. says things are bad, thus causing a bad political situation in Korea? By a bad situation, do you mean things like citizens getting angry about the Sewol disaster, and other criticisms of the current government? When a country embraces democracy–as SK successfully has, in an amazing, remarkable transition that must worry the folks here in Washington considerably–it also necessarily allows for dissent and protest. I’m inspired and impressed that South Korea has developed a relatively strong civil society in just a few decades. This doesn’t strike me as bad, though it inevitably means politics are less stable than under a dictatorship.

      Which K-dramas say things are bad? Watching from a distance, it seems like K-dramas present an image of a very prosperous country. The characters who experience terribly bad luck for the first 15 episodes of a series usually find a happy reversal in the 16th episode. Most K-dramas strike me as outrageously optimistic–more optimistic than American tv dramas. I’d love to hear your perception of how K-dramas present a negative image of Korea, since you know Korea so well.

      I do realize not all Koreans watch scripted television shows. Most Americans don’t watch American scripted television either–reality TV gets the bulk of viewers these days. But TV scripts are still an amazing window into the writers’ ideas about human nature and how the world works.

  2. Such a wonderful essay!

    The 9/11 attacks was a watershed moment in history. The world changed irrevocably after that. Only time can tell the sum total of the rights and wrongs, but one thing I do laud the Americans for, is for never forgetting this tragedy.

    My country has been the target of numerous terrorist attacks on civilians, each one worse than the last. So much so that I feel we have become inured to it. People get on with their daily lives because they don’t have the luxury of grieving collectively. The news media will do their regular bombast, only to be forgotten within a few months.

    Maybe it is Han on the part of common people. Its the frustration mixed with resignation when you realize that life a game of statistics. All attacks cannot be prevented, there will be one that gets though. So you just hope that its not you who is affected when that happens.

    That is why I’m slightly envious when Americans try for “never again” post 9/11, while my country goes “yet again”?

    Thinking of taking up Sopranos, I missed it all growing up. It is in Top 10 lists everywhere. Walter White never appealed to me and the violence in GOT became too graphic for me to swallow.

    PS: I loved this line
    “In this world good people suffer too much. Real heroes and heroines will continue trying to be good anyway.”

    • Thanks for your comment, pranx! The attacks–that’s often how we still talk about them, simply “the attacks,” which shows you how sheltered life is in the US–had a philosophical impact we’re only just starting to see. I started teaching high school a couple years after 9/11, and I’ve seen a huge shift in student beliefs, at least among the wealthy kids I teach. My students today–who were babes in arms when 9/11 happened–have no difficulty believing that “life is a game of statistics.” They expect bad things to happen to good people. Ten years ago, my students were far more optimistic. But it’s not necessarily bad. This pessimism in the generation born after 2000 ironically means my students are better at sympathizing with people outside the US, better at appreciating something like Han. They are an earnest, serious generation, and make me hopeful.

      I wish governments everywhere valued the safety of all their citizens. We have problems in that regard here, too, because as good as we are at stopping terrorists visiting from overseas, we don’t do anything to stop domestic terrorists–the white guys who shoot up black churches, movie theater audiences, etc. Every nation has its own terrible blind spots, especially when the enemy is already inside our borders.

      The Sopranos is good. It’s much more thoughtful than recent, cynical stuff like BB and GOT.

  3. I think many K-Drama tends to emphasize “Hope” as the main theme,
    despite many things that would set you back and stop you, if you have hope then you work with it you can overcome your trouble.
    It just Kdrama is particular choose a theme to explore for the entire show rather than make episodic theme like many western show. Kdrama like the full version of anything with some cute unnecessary scene.
    It maybe just my opinion (so forgive me if I am wrong) but as I see Korean people eat a full course meal, from main dish to various side dish since Joseon era and compare it pack up meal by westerners ( as example burger or pizza), the comparison for me is like that. Western show know that it is the most effective to make the meal like that and you can add many things if you like but Korean meal need to have all of it, from the introduction of complete family member, some silly move and piece of romance in each episode. There have to be climax and filler in every episode so you can enjoy all the things as complete pleasure, it’s the feel that they wanted to created (at least that what I think they tried to) while western show choose to put as much as logic to make the audience thinks (not that it’s a bad things).

    About a culture that rejects the idea of undeserved suffering: for me also applied in Asian culture as many Asian culture strongly believe in Karma, we get what we deserve, but I think it’s need to be remember that we can’t judge people’s life (in term of what they deserve to feel or did) because we don’t live their life.

    Anyway thanks for writing this beautiful essay, sorry if my comment is kinda out of place, have a nice day ^^

    • I like your metaphor of the Korean meal with lots of side dishes! That definitely describes the structure and style of a typical K-drama.

      I think I see what you’re getting at regarding karma. Karma says that your pain actually IS deserved in some sense, because you earned it through your actions in a previous life. If your actions were good, you get to be rich and happy in this life. The flip side is that if you’re poor and miserable in this life, it must be “because you betrayed your country in your last life.” And I see what you’re saying that karma can be an oppressive idea, when people use it to judge other people for their own suffering, saying “they deserve it.”

      But the difference between the Western/Christian and Asian philosophies is that Asians have multiple lifetimes in which to try to get it right. And in this lifetime you don’t remember previous lifetimes. You have a clean slate in terms of personality. So your suffering appears undeserved in the sense that you may be currently acting like a good person who deserves better. Which is why we can have K-drama heroes and heroines who are loving, hard-working people in this lifetime, yet still encounter difficulties. Western philosophy has had a tough time explaining why loving, hard-working people don’t always prosper in our one short lifetime on earth. (Obviously I’m simplifying these differences enormously. Christians usually find some way to make sense of these contradictions. Or they give up on Christianity, like so many of us Christians do!) Maybe I should say that K-dramas present suffering that is “apparently undeserved.”

      I don’t know if this makes any sense. Everything I know about karma comes from books and graduate school classes, which isn’t the same as living in Asia. Thanks for giving me an excuse to talk about it, because I think it’s fascinating. 🙂

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