– A commentary on how the fictional fantasies of KDramas overlap with pressing, real world issues.
Written By: Lennon Chua, (20-E6)
Designed by: Jervis Ch’ng Yun Ping (21-U5)
I love KDramas, TV shows, Movies, or any fictional material for that matter. Fiction provides me with a form of escapism when I am constantly harassed by the harsh realities of life (especially in our current milieu… grades this, study that, career prospects etc, and how our society regularly harps on how to achieve loosely defined success, rather than how we can make our world a better place). I am no saint or enlightened being. I go about my day making pragmatic decisions, sometimes rationalising my selfish actions (because no one is 100% selfless, right?). At the end of the day, indulging in idealistic scenarios of a selfless protagonist going against the odds for a noble cause puts faith in me; a reminder that I could be better, a little less selfish, and a little more selfless tomorrow.
Apart from the personal sphere, I feel that there are also notable social themes interwoven in these works of fiction. One could also refer to them as works of art, where a larger message is being presented amidst the angst, kissing scenes, or the enemies to lovers plot I hold so dearly to my heart. And as the curtains close on a show, I begin to internalise the overarching social themes, points of contention, and even the intangible messages that were presented throughout its run time, boosting me with a sense of idealistic good to make this a world a better place. Of course, you might be wondering, how does watching 1 KDrama for that matter bring good to this world? Undoubtedly, it is a multi-stepped process, from educating yourself to changing your mindset on how you view certain social issues present in the real world. So join me as I relay some of my personal top picks of KDramas that personally inspired me and enlightened me on certain broader social themes.
On a side note, this article focuses on KDramas as I personally have more exposure to this realm. However, I have come to realise that the aforementioned message also applies to shows of different cultures or entirely different mediums!
- Remember: War of the Son
- Social Theme: Law and the Judiciary
This drama is one that I hold closely to my heart, and it is quite the catalyst for sparking my interest in venturing into the legal field as a plausible career. In sum, this drama follows the tragic life of a disgruntled son with hyperthymesia (a condition that leads people to be able to remember an abnormally large number of their life experiences in vivid detail) who vested his life to becoming a criminal defence lawyer to fight for the acquittal of his father who had been wrongfully convicted of murder. Tension arises as multiple illegal acts were interwoven into prosecutorial roles and judicial standards by a powerful business mogul in an attempt to protect the rich antagonist who actually committed the murder. Apart from the heart wrenching scenes of the father-son relationship and the headfastedness of the protagonist as he plays a legal game with the odds stacked against his favour, a bigger (and rather common) social theme is elucidated – corruption of the judiciary. In Korean society, corruption in its judicial system is quite a pertinent problem, with multiple presidents, top ministers and judges having been charged with corruption and bribery among other illicit activities. A 2015 OECD report also revealed that “almost 70 percent of South Koreans distrust their government, while less than 30 percent of them are confident in the nation’s judicial system.” Nonetheless, as the protagonist fails time and time again to fight against corrupt prosecutors and judges, it was definitely a rather stressful process. It got me reflecting on how many large-scale, illicit activities are occurring in today’s world, but are merely obscured from the general populace, and whether this world will ever see a day when illicit activities are eradicated.
- Suits (Korean TV Series)
- Social Theme: Law and Ethics
Does anyone see a common theme on what my interests are? (haha) Anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to bring in another rather thought-provoking legal drama, this time focusing more from the private practice perspective. The plot features a chance encounter with a top lawyer who brought our teenage protagonist on his path to becoming a top lawyer himself, and this drama depicts that arduous journey he undertakes to learn about the intricacies and nuances of what it means to be a lawyer. What stood out to me was not merely the various complex court cases our protagonist had to navigate through him finding his personal voice amidst all the legal jargon, but how every episode started with a rather insightful quote that beautifully wrapped up that particular episode, forcing me to adopt an inquirical mindset and to link the contents to various broader themes. Quotes like “To catch a hyena, you must use rotten meat as your bait” shed light on how the end justifies the means for some pragmatic people (in a legal context and possibly others); “They drink the same water, but cows make milk, whereas snakes make poison” made me reflect on how evil and good will always coexist in humanity (and manifested in different ways); while “Is a sheath truly unnecessary for a knife called justice?” uses a stark metaphor to shed light on how the notion of justice can be contested, and made me reflect on my own definition of justice. The larger social themes brought up are then more general in nature, such as “the moral thing to do” VS “the legal thing to do” (which is an age-old philosophical tension in itself), but the show also reflects the complexities of legal ethics through the protagonist finding his purpose as a lawyer while balancing pragmatism and idealism.
- Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung
- Social theme: Women’s Rights, Checks & Balances
“Learn the Past, Watch the Present, Create the future”. This quote aptly summarises how lessons gleaned from historical dramas like these can have applicability today. This show follows the life of our female protagonist as she navigates the challenges of being a woman in a governmental position (a historian in the Joseon Era). As one can expect, this show was quite contrarian to historical events as the traditional Joseon Era still held onto rather conservative beliefs where women were not expected to work, much less occupy governmental positions (which placed one on a rather high societal standing back then). Thus, it was quite an interesting experience to watch as our strong willed protagonist dealt with sexism in the palace and found her personal voice and idealism amidst people constantly trying to discredit her. While current Korean society may not have this Joseon era norm anymore, it is a rather relevant message amidst the many sex scandals that have plagued Korea, arising from a male-oreinted and (still) largely conservative milieu. Apart from women’s rights, another aspect I found interesting was how instead of focusing on the throne or mere politics (as with many historical dramas), this show touches on historians, something that is hardly even mentioned or let alone the star of historical dramas. In the show, historians are held to very high regard. By principle, any court matters should not be discussed without a historian present taking down important details, and historical records can only be accessed by historians ,without exceptions (even the king!). Thus, the noble historians depicted in the show sort of act like independent auditors that provide checks and balances in today’s world, where an objective record of factual events shed light on what is “true”. The power of the pen is also aptly illustrated in the show, where due to the immense power historians hold, individuals are encouraged to do good (or conversely, use corruptive tactics to force a distorted positive historical narrative of themselves). This tension is one of the main points of contention that is navigated, alongside touching on the importance of history (and how the pen and paper was the only means as to which history is tangibly recorded back then ).
Well, I’m sure that there are many other KDramas or shows that have inspired you, and I welcome you to go back and reflect on THAT heart-tingling moment. Why did you feel this way? Is there a subtle social theme that I could glean and learn from? Instead of mere sources of entertainment, I’m sure you will find some relevance of all fictional works in today’s world.
Lauzon-Gatmaytan, C. (2020, August 30). QUARANTINE diaries: The social relevance of k-dramas. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from https://www.mindanews.com/mindaviews/2020/08/quarantine-diaries-the-social-relevance-of-k-dramas/
Herald, T. (2015, August 09). Majority of Koreans DISTRUST government: OECD study. Retrieved April 05, 2021, from http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20150809000373