The Yeouido Observer #003: All in the Family


If Goethe is to be believed, contradiction is what makes us productive. I guess that explains how the K-drama industry can be so (pardon the pun) industrious while at the same time drowning in rivers of ethical and artistic antilogy.

Contradictions that permeate the industry’s every nook and cranny, one of the most daunting being its almost perfidious refusal to plan ahead for the future, and bank its all-too-vulnerable fortunes on a restricted number of aging, overpaid star writers and producers past their prime while at the same time limiting the potential of young up-and-coming talents. Take, for instance, three of this industry’s most promising young producers – and from three different stations, just to prove that the problem isn’t just affecting one channel. Hong Chang-Wook, Hong Seok-Gu and Kim Heung-Dong might be names that don’t resonate with your average viewer (in Korea or abroad), but these are (relatively) young talents who – if we’re lucky – will in the long run replace the Kim Jong-Hak and Lee Byung-Hoon of today. The young blood of K-dramas.

Hong Chang-Wook, one of the few producers worth their name a short-drama-less SBS has been able to groom since its post-IMF-crisis fall from grace, was the man behind three consecutive home-runs – and in three different genres at that, considering that 강남엄마 따라잡기 (Gangnam Mom) was a sardonic critique of the education system, 신의 저울 (The Scale of Providence) a tightly woven, gritty and engaging legal thriller, and 제중원 (Jejungwon) a human drama wearing fin-de- siècle sageuk garb. Hong, who can be stylish but is mostly a man of fundamentals, was rewarded for his fine work with a directing spot in Moon Young-Nam’s weekend home drama 폼나게 살거야 (Living in Style), your usual bizarre blending of makjang histrionics and sitcom-like fits of non sequitur hilarity. Something that is hardly dependent on a producer’s artistic flair, and could have easily been entrusted to your average veteran producer. But no, SBS wasted its young blood on such middling fare.

Hong Seok-Gu is (one of) the offspring of what’s perhaps the last bastion of sanity over at KBS, the short drama circuit, along with fellow “recruits” like Park Hyeon-Seok, Kim Yong-Soo, Kim Jin-Won, Kim Hyung-Seok and Song Hyeon-Wook. His were deliciously zany mini-dramas like 경숙이 경숙아버지 (My Dad Loves Trouble) and the underappreciated 아들을 위하여 (In the Name of the Son), shorts like Noh Hee-Kyung’s glorious 빨강사탕 (Red Candy), the moody and carefully constructed 블랙메일 (Blackmail) and the masterful 저수지 (Reservoir) – but also the deservedly maligned 매리는 외박중 (Marry Me, Mary), which admittedly wasn’t his finest hour, but production values were clearly the least of that drama’s problems. Well what do you know… Hong is now hard at work on his latest project, the next evening daily on KBS entitled 힘내요, 미스터김! (Cheer Up, Mr. Kim!).

The fact the writer of choice is not your usual 60 year old granny that generally populates dailies and instead is Jo Jeong-Joo of 파트너 (Partner) and 공주의 남자 (The Princess’ Man)’s fame is once again a bittersweet relief: it would certainly be nice to be treated to a daily with solid narrative and production values for once, but it’s still a daily. Changing the face of a format which has become nothing more than a necessary evil to sustain the broadcasters’ finances (since PPL mostly focuses on daily and weekend dramas, which can be more easily “invaded” by advertisers) will hardly make a mark. And if the show’s wonderfully dreamy teaser is anything to go by, we might actually get a decent show on our hands. But is this really how you want to use one of the most promising young producers KBS has discovered in the last ten years? And is this really a conscious effort to modernize the industry’s most perpetually conservative format, or just a way to put youngsters in their place, lest they might challenge the “senators’” position on top?

The same could be said for Kim Heung-Dong, the best kept secret in the industry. This young man was given a risible 50 million won per episode back in 2005, and created one of the most eclectic and creative dramas of the last decade – the short-lived mystery docudrama 추리다큐 별순검 (Chosun Police), which eventually led to three inferior series on cable. Back when cable TV was surrounded by glorified softcore porn (whereby “fusion horror” meant a few screechy violin riffs punctuated by the impending pathos of an erect nipple), Kim produced 과거를 묻지마세요 (Don’t Ask About the Past), a stylish medley of police procedural and romantic comedy tropes that would have embarrassed most of its network TV counterpart. And then in 2010 he created a little monster known as 기찰비록 (Joseon X-Files). Which is arguably the craziest, most eclectic Korean drama of all time. And it has grown ass men giving birth to… stuff.

Kim was hand-picked by Kim Jin-Min to direct 무신 (God of War) while he joined the MBC strike against President Kim Jae-Cheol. This mostly happened because he’s not directly under contract with MBC, but works for its drama production shingle MBC C&I (formerly known as MBC Production), so he wasn’t part of the union. But one of the reasons why the sageuk managed to maintain a modicum of continuity in terms of production values despite having lost the industry’s most talented producer is because Kim – who stylistically speaking is pretty much the opposite of Kim Jin-Min – was actually able to put his artisan spirit to great use and made light of the financial and time constraints the show was facing. Perhaps more effectively than any other producer under contract with MBC would have been able to, with the possible exception of Kim Jin-Min himself.

Sure enough, Kim Heung-Dong is now directing a daily drama on MBC, 사랑했나봐 (Maybe Love). Need I say more?

Three examples that highlight a crippling problem afflicting the industry: the stations are mostly led by yes-men of the 2MB regime (be it on KBS or MBC, whose executive board is pretty much an ode to the man from Osaka, and SBS has been ultra-right wing from the get go), put there because of their affiliation with this and that politician. They don’t have, for the most part, the slightest idea of how to run a broadcasting empire, and tend to revert to the same industrial policies which have crippled creativity and quality in the film and music industry. This is why you see PPL almost literally write dramas, why Japanese investors and management agencies have more clout than producers and writers themselves when it comes to casting, and why mainstream shows that the public clearly doesn’t want to see – your 사랑비 (Love Rain) and 아름다운 그대에게 (To the Beautiful You) of the day – keep being shoved down people’s throats. When you treat culture as a normal industrial sector (like the automobile industry) that is only as good as its latest quarter report, it’s only inevitable that the pursuit of profit, no matter where it comes from and how it affects your core tenets, will be all you care about.

This can only funnel the industry towards a vicious cycle whereby drama departments within the same broadcasters aren’t made of people trying to bring the channel as a whole forward, but of over-entitled hyenas scheming to secure their own spot through competition and performance – since those who don’t perform are eventually ostracized. This is why you see uber-veterans limit the potential of young prospects and trap them under a glass ceiling, afraid their exploits might compromise the status of today’s drama department head honchos – who are mostly veteran producers. This is why someone with more talent than half the producers employed by MBC combined like Kim Heung-Dong gets unofficially demoted to daily drama producer, and why people like Hong Seok-Gu – who should be given leading producer credits in major dramas – are wasted on dailies.

Sure, KBS is the most forward-thinking of the bunch – or at least the lesser evil – considering that Kim Jin-Won just got the chance to debut with 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man), and that after this year’s 적도의 남자 (Man from the Equator) Kim Yong-Soo is helming a promising sageuk project entitled 칼과 꽃 (The Blade and Petal). Still, this is the same broadcaster which forced immense talents like Kwak Jung-Hwan to go freelance (and join CJ E&M) because of utter lack of upward mobility – the same guy who almost got fired for directing 한성별곡–正 (Conspiracy in the Court), and was constantly berated by the aforementioned “senators” for thinking out of the box a little too often. The same broadcaster which refuses to entrust its flagbearer drama format (the weekend sageuk) to anyone not part of the Kim Jong-Seon/Shin Chang-Seok/Yoon Chang-Beom troika of doom – with the painful results you’ve been witnessing from 2004 onwards.

And whereas KBS does at least have young talent to misuse, the situation over at MBC is desperate, particularly when it comes to sageuk. Don’t believe Lee Byung-Hoon is not retiring simply because he’s blinded by the wish to win back the massive popular appeal he used to enjoy – creating another 대장금 (Dae Jang Geum) or 허준 (Hur Joon)-like populist epiphany. MBC simply cannot afford to lose him, at least if they want to continue producing sageuk – which they are pretty much forced to, as despite declining ratings it’s one of the few financially sustainable genres left. There is Kim Jin-Min doing his thing, but he’s sort of like what David Simon represents for HBO, someone whose superior talent is so conspicuous, they kind of give him carte blanche. But you leave him out of the equation, and the situation is pretty gloomy.

Kim Geun-Hong, who had been groomed by Lee himself for nearly a decade, has proven to be a major flop – 계백 (Gyebaek) being pretty indicting evidence. Park Hong-Gyun spends like a Russian oil czar while producing rather underwhelming results, is slow as molasses (wasting time on details that often don’t even end up making a mark in the final product) and almost literally tortures his actors (with his shoots and even emotionally, to an extent), so he’s often more trouble than he’s worth. There are no other producers MBC seems willing to entrust a major sageuk project to, with the possible exception of journeyman Im Tae-Woo of 짝패 (The Duo) and 제5공화국 (The Fifth Republic), so it’s pretty much inevitable we’ll continue to be subjected to Lee Byung-Hoon dramas until he decides to retire (which is something I doubt will happen, despite his claims that this will be the last one), or old age gets the better of him.

Perhaps even more problematic on those terms is the state of the last real domestic moneymaker for the industry, home dramas. It’s from these overly patterned shows that come a huge chunk of the big three’s annual profits. And while some young blood might be pushed to the top, like Park Ji-Eun of 넝쿨째 굴러온 당신 (My Husband got a Family) and Jo Jung-Seon of 솔약국집 아들들 (My Too Perfect Sons), no real change happens, given the fact they merely recycle age-long conventions of the genre without ever bringing anything new to the table. The issue here is clearly not that of biological age – as super veterans like Jung Ha-Yeon still write with the youthful spirit of a debutant — but of thematical consciousness and how topical and realistic the shows really are. Whereas an increasingly small number of sageuk still respect the historical foundations upon which the genre is based and other genres like sitcoms have fared much better as of late, home dramas are dying a slow, painful and inexorable death, perhaps because the industry refuses to look forward – shallowly concerned about the immediate bottom line as it is.

For a genre that’s approaching its 50 year anniversary – it was pioneered by writer Yu Ho with his first works on TBC in the mid-1960s – you kind of get the idea home dramas still refuse to grow up, that today they’re being exploited for what they bring to the table (plentiful ratings and lucrative ad revenue, not to mention being a perfect canvas for aggressive PPL) and not for what they represent thematically as a genre. I remarked earlier this year how much of a throwback to the glorious home dramas of yore Channel A’s 곰배령– 천상의 화원 (The Garden of Heaven) was, but even that only amounts to well-made nostalgia. It’s not topical, at least not for what concerns the greater public at large – although its escape from the city and pursuit of a simple, more meaningful life is certainly very appealing. You could mention Jung Ha-Yeon’s 욕망의 불꽃 (Flames of Desire), but as masterfully woven as his story was, the scheming and subterfuges of a chaebol clan are hardly representative of the average Korean family.

There’s a void, then. A void which the broadcasters refuse to fill, simply because they don’t feel the need to – since the public seems to accept the abject commodification the genre has gone through over the last few years. Take a look at what we’re getting instead. I’m purposely ignoring daily dramas, since they’re all more or less a pastiche of Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella/Candy Candy tropes. But KBS’s latest offering doesn’t differ all that much from that dreaded formula, considering the makjang exploits of 내딸 서영이 (Seoyeong, My Daughter). There isn’t a single hint of realism in SBS’ 내사랑 나비부인 (Madame Butterfly), either – the latest tour the force by Moon Eun-Ah. Set aside the outlandish histrionics of 메이퀸 (May Queen), MBC’s 아들 녀석들 (Rascal Sons) showed a little promise at the beginning, but it quickly reverted to a collection of skits loosely tied together by its one trick pony premise.

Paradoxically, it’s on cable that some of the thematic traits this genre should be built on have thrived. Think of the concept of surrogate family in that exquisite gem known as 청담동 살아요 (I Live in Cheongdam-Dong), or the brutally realistic rendition of upper-middle-class life in 아내의 자격 (A Wife’s Credentials). Hell, think of the emotional connection shared by the core characters of 응답하라 1997 (Reply 1997). Those narrative elements were treated with much more maturity and conveyed in a much more realistic way than any home drama of recent memory. And this makes you wonder: is there really a future for this genre, or is it destined to slowly disappear into the meanders of oblivion?

I ask because, right as we speak, a certain Kim Soo-Hyun is being paid 100 million won per episode to prove that suspicion wrong. 100 million won, more than what a single 드라마 스페셜 (Drama Special) short costs, on a channel which is set to lose around 200 billion won this year alone. A channel where even doubling the rating record set by A Wife’s Credentials (impressive as it was) wouldn’t justify spending what look like 350 to 400 million won per episode on a drama, ROI-wise. It feels almost as if jTBC bribed Kim to make the big jump just to prove a point, that they’re here to stay – and with all the money they’re losing, they better be convinced of it. And stay.

I approached Kim’s latest work 무자식 상팔자 (Childless Comfort) with a certain degree of curiosity. Not so much concerning how she’d approach it, but wondering which kind of patterns she would recycle for her first serious foray into the hybrids – she wrote a cable drama in the mid-1990s when the cable industry launched, and wrote a short for Chosun TV this year, but hardly anything of this scope. And more than the first two episodes, which echo the same vibes as pretty much any home drama she’s written since 1992, it’s actually the special which aired before the first episode that’s a lot more telling.

You see assistant and line producers, props people and even veterans like Kim Hae-Sook almost literally tremble in front of this cantankerous old tiger, almost as if pleasing her was more important than pleasing themselves and/or the public. She half-jokingly berates Kim, wondering whether “maybe she’ll actually show some acting skills when the cameras starts rolling, and get out of her 도둑들 (The Thieves)-induced stupor.” Mind you, this is not Lee Yong-Seok scolding sageuk newbie Yoo Ha-Joon in the 대풍수 (The Great Seer) special for his lackadaisical action skills. It’s a writer pretty much embarrassing a 37-year veteran in what’s nothing more than a rehearsal. And a few minutes earlier she subjects similar reproach to Im Ye-Jin, another veteran.

The problem this time is that she was using contractions (like 했음 instead of 했으면, hardly a mortal sin). Almost as if she committed treason, she stops her in her tracks with a confrontational tone, wondering why she doesn’t repeat the words she wrote verbatim. So an actor isn’t even free to interpret the character her own way – since Kim notoriously writes scripts well ahead of schedule, and you have all the time to gradually absorb your character’s personality and make it yours. Im and everyone else in this drama is trapped inside the world created by their writer, unable to get any true feelings out of it unless suggested by something the writer noted. This extends all the way to the props used in the show, the way actors use those props (such as Kim Hae-Sook boiling a few veggies before saying her line), or the kind of music used to surround scenes. She’s master and commander, to an intimidating extent.

Nobody dares to confront Kim over this, and no television critic or industry insider in Korea has actually had the balls to constructively criticize her, perhaps because her shows in the 80s and 90s were doing anything from 40% to (rather empirically collected) 75% back in the early days of color television – although I do recall an incensed chat with Kwak Jung-Hwan on DC Inside where he admitted Kim’s style is one of the reasons Korean dramas refuse to grow up. She’s become such a sacred cow, even questioning that such domineering and dominating attitude could only have worked in an era when TV dramas only amounted to a direct offshoot of radio dramas seems unacceptable. And I don’t say this out of defiance for her authority, but simply because listening to some well-meaning criticism would do her shows a world of good.

Yes, because like every other drama of hers, Childless Comfort suffers from one, fatal flaw: it never feels like a drama where real people discuss inside a fictional world, but rather like a bunch of puppets stiltedly repeating Kim Soo-Hyun’s overbearingly long monologues on the essence of life, punctuated by her annoyingly bourgeois existentialism.

Every single character she writes is exceedingly assertive, talkative, fastidiously punctilious even when dealing with the pettiest of arguments. This translates into the equivalent of a mother scolding her son for walking on a wet floor barefoot with the same fury she would chastise him from dropping out of school: you desensitize him to the point that the act of scolding itself vanishes into a blur of non-descript grumpiness. She’ll bitch about everything, so what’s the worst that can happen? Walking barefoot on a wet floor and dropping out of school? Same thing, really…

This made sense in 1972, when she debuted on TV after a successful run on radio. Although by the time the industry was experiencing a golden age thanks to the rivalry between TBC’s 아씨 (My Lady) and KBS’ 여도 (Journey), the medium was still nothing more than an extension of its radio drama roots: most of the early pioneers like Han Un-Sa and Lee Seo-Gu came from radio, often adapted their own works from that medium, and the producer didn’t really have the means to make a distinctive mark until the advent of ENG cameras a decade later. This meant that back then a writer on TV was pretty much the deus ex machina of the whole production, a rule which only changed with the advent of producers like Hwang In-Roi and Kim Jong-Hak in the mid-to-late 1980s.

But these are not the 1970s. There are virtuoso producers on TV who would make a great impact in the film industry if given a chance; people whose eye for cinematography, for telling a story with a simple combination of editing and camerawork can at times surpass the emotions conveyed by a masterful script. Pretending this degree of control in an era where advances in visual storytelling have made it possible to convey motives, characterization and plot developments with minimal dialogue means that Kim’s style will inevitably feel like excessive exposition. And terribly obsolete.

Mind you, I’m not simply singling out the verbosity of Kim’s dialogues. Noh Hee-Kyung’s dramas are similarly verbose. The difference is that while Noh’s words embody character development, Kim is simply in love with the verbosity of her characters itself. The fact that they all talk a little too much, that they infuse a dubiously effective English loanword here, a topical hint of social commentary there, a long-winded tirade which seems like coming straight out of the writer’s mouth as icing on the cake. Noh Hee-Kyung’s characters launching into gloriously long tirades feel like letters of love and hate, while the constant bickering in Kim’s dramas only feels like one puppeteer writing down lines that a varied collection of puppets will have to repeat verbatim, or else. So whereas on the surface they all might seem like completely different characters (Gyeon Mi-Ri and Im Ye-Jin are polar opposites in this case), the end result is they all feel the same. You’d just hope someone could, for once, well… shut the fuck up? Please?

This is a tragedy for Kim because she’s actually a good writer, a very good one. At least in the old sense. Her characters are a great read, and I can understand how anyone approaching them on the pages of her scripts will be charmed and compelled to play them. The trajectories are believable, just like their conflicts are. The struggles by Hee-Myung (a Song Seung-Hwan in vintage Kim Soo-Hyun luster) to enjoy life after retirement clashing with the reality of not having much to show for – as his petulant wife keeps reminding him, to the point of taking “their share” from their son’s marriage gifts. Ho-Shik’s (Lee Soon-Jae) realization that his significant other might leave him long before he wishes it, despite their constant bickering. So-Young’s (the always radiant Eom Ji-Won) fear to disclose her pregnancy to her family.

It’s all very realistic and compelling, at least on paper.

On paper.

But this is a drama, not a novel. Not a radio drama, whereby exposition is necessary, and the sound of someone’s words is your cinematography, your editing, your soundtrack.

This is a visual story in need of a third dimension, which is something generally taken care of by an actor’s personal feelings erupting with all their vehemence – or their method acting, if that’s their style. Even if there are moments where you see great actors like Lee Soon-Jae and Kim Hae-Sook let the warmth burning inside them transpire a little, those sentiments always feel castrated, unable to fully envelop the whole show, because of a granny’s stubborn refusal to realize things around her have changed.

I fear it’s not even a matter of semantics anymore, either. As tightly-woven and plausible as Kim’s stories might be, hers is a realism that is hardly topical. The idea of a the huge family living all more or less under the same roof, of the “working class with Ivy League education” she imbued all her prototypically chatty characters with over the decades only feels like an ulterior construct of a drama that’s already way too manufactured for its own good. It’s ironic that it took a sitcom to put the spotlight on the 880,000 won generation (although it took the posh Cheongdam-Dong district to make them shine), and that home dramas still treat the working class (which in Korea increasingly coincides with the middle class, given the monstrous disparity between rich and poor) as persona non grata – since poor people can’t buy flashy fridges, gas-guzzling SUVs and smartphones as big as a pair of slippers, right? Ironic that with the money given to Kim Soo-Hyun for one episode of Childless Comfort, they shot three episodes of that glorious little gem. On the same channel.

And yet Kim Soo-Hyun is all we’ve got when it comes to this genre. Jung Ha-Yeon has never enjoyed writing home dramas all that much (perhaps because they remind him of his “mercenary” days in the early 80s), Kim Woon-Kyung is slowly heading towards retirement, and Kim Jung-Soo has long lost her mojo. The youngsters are either complacently going for the easy buck (like Park Ji-Eun) or getting ostracized because they don’t. So all we’re left with is a stubborn, intimidating old matron who still writes dramas as if we were stuck in the 1970s.

It’s a contradiction, all right. And this being Korea, even that has to be productive…

~ Last Update: 2015/04/08