The Yeouido Observer #004: Missing the Point

THE YEOUIDO OBSERVER #004: MISSING THE POINT

And to think that all they wanted to do was just “becoming your cat, at least for a day.”

Back when they debuted in 2003, around the time the Korean Wave was beginning to mean something more than a mere few, rather delusional articles fueled with outrageous hyperbole motivated by cultural propaganda, few people imagined that DBSK and some of its members would end up becoming one of the most influential commercial factors in the survival of the TV drama industry. Few people would have even entertained the thought, considering that back then – despite the disarmingly increasing power of independent production companies and their slow disintegration of age-old production and funding practices – the “funding pie” was mostly a domestic affair, controlled more or less by the same forces (advertisers and the stations’ own drama departments and their bottom line) that launched TV drama’s first “industrial revolution” from 1991 onwards.

But the ad market crash of 2008 and the advent of an ultra-right wing government with a rather laissez-faire approach to business regulation made sure that the bloody remnants of our once placid fish tank could now be inhabited by a pack of hungry sharks. The industry did manage to find the money to survive, but it did so by almost completely submitting its artistic sovereignty (and creative control) to a “Troika” not unlike the fatal trio (ECB, IMF, European Commission) that is now scavenging for Greece’s last few surviving entrails. Yeouido sold its soul to a malefic triad made of Japanese investors, Big Management, and major advertisers (be they those simply buying ads, or providing funding in the form of sponsorships and/or PPL). Just like the financial threesome in charge of (sarcasm on) “solving the European crisis” (sarcasm off), the three entities are most definitely interconnected, in a dangerous spiral which has turned what was once a normal (if unabashedly populist) labor of love into a tragicomic, miserable and at times even dangerous race against the clock – as parodied half-jokingly (one hopes) by 드라마의 제왕 (The Lord of Drama)’s opener.

THE TROIKA

Ever wondered why the only time you see concrete figures mentioned in any “Drama X signs lucrative contract with foreign distributor! Rejoice!” glorified fluff piece, it’s when they talk about Japan? You’ll hear of shows selling distribution rights to “20 countries,” of the relentless expansion of the proud Hallyu craze and its ventures into hitherto unexplored domains – these last few years, K-Dramas have even channeled Christopher Columbus and discovered America! But there will be no figures mentioned whatsoever. Perhaps because Japan is still responsible for 90% of yearly drama exports, and those contracts with the likes of Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and Uzbekistan only amount to peanuts – including the money paid by the alleged saviors in gentleman’s costumes running a few legal streaming platforms in North America, money which just about covers catering for a daily drama or two, but is idolized by the industry out of mere nationalistic pride. We’re being paid by Yankees! We iz kewl liek dat, yo!

Not only is Japan responsible for most of the industry’s ancillary market revenue, they’re also an important source of funding via pre-sales contracts. And that money will inevitably need a quid pro quo: we give you our moolah (we’re talking, in certain cases, of figures that can cover a third to half the total budget of a miniseries), you cast someone we can promote in Japan in an important role. If this “someone” in the mid 2000’s meant anyone even tangentially connected to Bae Yong-Joon and Choi Ji-Woo, now we’re mostly talking about Jang Geun-Seok and a few major K-pop stars. For instance, you shouldn’t take the 9 billion won export figure reported for 사랑비 (Love Rain) as the unquestionable truth, but they got close enough to it to make it significant, and we’re talking about enough money to start the show in the black without even having aired a single second. You think the makers of one of this year’s worst dramas even care about its abysmal ratings? They’re still laughing their way to the bank.

Japanese investors are not the only ones interfering with a drama production’s creative process. I mentioned more than once how advertising and PPL is impacting dramas these days, but there is no better example than 다섯 손가락 (Five Fingers) and its recent casting switcheroos: prospective lead Ham Eun-Jung is embroiled in a controversy with T-ara and ostracized member Ryu Hwa-Young, and suddenly their image in the country falls into the usual abyss of obsessive-compulsive netizen attention and equally damaging reporting. Traditional big name advertisers (read: conservative billionaire geezers whose idea of morality is going to 10% bars in Gangnam while pretending purity from the damsels who endorse their company), who don’t exactly think that “all publicity is good publicity,” pull the plug on their support and suddenly the producers find themselves trapped, forced to cast a replacement in quick order, unless they want to shoot the rest of the show on the cheap. This is only because of a little controversy which had nothing – nothing whatsoever – to do with the drama. Imagine if Ham had gone batty and pulled a Zsa Zsa Gabor on the set like Han Ye-Seul did in 스파이 명월 (Spy Myeongwol).

So yes, both Japanese investors and domestic advertisers have often more control than writers and producers do, simply because when you hold the key to a drama’s funding, no one is going to tell you “no.” But there’s a third constituent of this virtual axis of evil, entities which damage the industry in much subtler ways: big management.

Nobody would blame you if you believed that the commercial players who most benefited from the post 2008-crisis deregulation were the indies. But the evidence points at the opposite, actually: of the hundreds upon hundreds of new drama production shingles which popped up from 2004 onwards (I’ve seen articles mention something close to 900), the 23 remaining members of CODATV (Corean Drama Production Association) tell a different story. They’re mostly big names like Pan Entertainment, Chorokbaem Media, Dramahouse, Samhwa Networks and JS Pictures. People who – sure enough – were there before the bubble began expanding, and managed to survive its spectacular deflagration a few years later. Figures say that the ones who really hit the jackpot are instead a half dozen management agencies, whose profits skyrocketed in just half a decade. You want to know why the average cachet of a leading star went from a few million won per episode in the early 2000’s to ten to fifty times that amount today, look no further.

These are not just puny talent agencies, but nouveau chaebol (sans the family executive aspects) like Jung Hoon-Tak’s iHQ and Lee Soo-Man’s SM Entertainment, juggernauts engaging in rampant vertical integration that can involve anything from simple management to the production of music, films and even dramas. And of course Japan is still eerily connected to all this: if SM Entertainment managed to surpass the 100 billion won revenue mark, it’s thanks to the immense popularity achieved by some of its contracted talent in the world’s second most important music market. And you can bet that Lee’s reasoning for creating SM C&C (the drama production branch of the SM empire) has a lot more to do with Japan than Korea – 아름다운 그대에게 (To the Beautiful You) being a pretty damning piece of evidence.

Mentioning the Japan factor when discussing today’s K-drama industry tends to degenerate into long and fruitless tirades full of nationalistic kitsch. But let’s not lose sight of the only thing that matters: Yeouido sold its soul to Japan – just like it did to management agencies and domestic advertisers — simply because that’s where money comes from. And still does, judging by the recent controversy surrounding 보고싶다 (Missing You).

HEY, BOOBS!

I think what is most conspicuous about this whole Park Yu-Cheon/Jang Miin-Ae fiasco is how what risked becoming just another maudlin Made For Japan potboiler has now become the hottest game in town, just days before its premiere. And people are still fiercely taking sides, losing sight of what was likely a ploy partly engineered by the usual suspects. Perhaps without even letting the interested parties in on the joke.

Sure, Park is somewhat of a steady-seller in Korea considering the rating performance of his first three dramas (with all solid if unspectacular numbers), and Yoon Eun-Hye still does have some name value, despite her declining fortunes after 커피프린스 1호점 (Coffee Prince). But Missing You hardly had the kind of buzz that could translate into big ratings at home – because controversy can often be more compelling for the average Korean viewer than a show’s own storytelling. When you treat dramas as fodder for next-day-gossip at work or at the beauty parlor, the more shenanigans in front or behind the camera, the merrier.

The “facts” as reported by the press went something like this:

  • Jang Miin-Ae is cast in the role of Kim Eun-Joo, webtoon artist with a crush on protagonist Han Jung-Woo (Park Yu-Cheon).
  • The rudimentary version of the drama’s official site opens with a teaser and – more importantly – a board where fans can post their feelings about the show and interact. This being a site recording more than 100,000 hits a day, netizens are actually forced to register and post using their real names, a little factoid that should be noted when discussing simple trolling vs the ardent and somewhat blind fervor of certain stars’ most passionate fans.
  • A group of Park Yu-Cheon fans – likely not representative of his entire fandom at large, but still quite vocal – begins contesting the choice of Jang as a co-lead by flooding the site’s board with complaints, even going as far as requesting she be kicked off the show.
  • The complaints are obviously picked up by news portals, which turn what could have been a tiny spark into a huge bonfire (particularly as Jang and Park’s management tries to tame the flames with a little press play, only making things worse). The same issues are eventually mentioned at the show’s press conference: Park apologizes for his fans’ behavior, and defends Jang from the accusations. She seemingly brushes all the controversy off, saying she’ll just have to work harder to convince the skeptics. The frenzy reaches its apex, just days before the show’s premiere.

Now, why all the drama, before the drama even started?

Let me play Devil’s Advocate for a moment, and give voice to the ardent fans’ complaints.

They mostly lamented the fact that:

  • Jang only recently joined Park’s agency C-JeS, and her casting was nothing but a tie-in (끼워팔기) whereby she was packaged with Park. You want to get the big Hallyu star, you also get her. Take it or leave it. This was criticized on ethical grounds, noting that management agencies shouldn’t interfere with casting to this extent. That casting should be left to writers and producers.
  • Jang, they suggested, had built a sexy and provocative image over the last few years – first with the nude photobook The Secret Rose, then with her revealing role in lurid erotic thriller 90분 (90 Minutes) – something which didn’t fit the character as previewed in the synopsis which had leaked a few weeks prior. The abuse of position by management would have forced the writer to adapt the character to fit Jang’s image, they noted, in turn potentially damaging the show.
  • Jang was a conspicuously bad actress, as recently evidenced by her last role in popular TV Novel 복희누나 (My Dear Sister), part which they suggest was even curtailed because of her explicitly eyebrow-raising performance. Why subject her horrible acting upon people, when they could have made much better choices?

Seen through the eyes of a Park Yu-Cheon fan and not from a detached, more rational perspective, those accusations might actually make sense, at least in their eyes. Why accept the casting of someone just because she’s part of the lead’s agency? Why contribute to possibly damage the image of serious actor Park had built over the last few years, by being paired with someone who used to parade about exhibiting her family’s crown jewels for money; a promiscuous, scandalous “에로배우 (adult film star)” sullying the same purity that brought Park and his musical kin to fame particularly in Japan? Why pair him, by Golly, with someone whose perfidious thespian fallacies smelled like three-week-old socks? Wah wah wah!

I can understand the vehemence: their “ILU” is being exploited by a vamp, a wolf in sheep’s clothing who’s more trouble than she’s worth.

But once you actually begin to drop the cheerleading costumes and look at the situation with some objectivity, then you’ll see just how flimsy their complaints are. Let’s look at them one by one:

THE TIE-IN. Every single management agency does this, especially when they’re struggling start-ups trying to better position their up-and-coming stars. I guess mentioning 세상 어디에도 없는 착한남자 (The Innocent Man) and its arsenal of iHQ-contracted actors would suffice — although that being an iHQ production, it’s more a case of vertical integration (the drama production branch of iHQ using actors from its management agency, like Song Joong-Gi and Lee Yoo-Bi) than a simple tie-in. Still, this is a normal practice that has only increased in the last five years, thanks to the aforementioned deregulation. So thanks to the interference of Japanese investors (who’ll want their lead in exchange for pre-sales contracts), management agencies (who’ll want to add some of their contracted stars alongside the lead, who’s obviously one of their contracted stars) and advertisers (who can, like in Ham Eun-Jung’s case, pull the plug if they don’t like who you cast), the figure of the casting director in the TV industry has become nothing more than a figurehead doing a sort of matchmaking between producers and the money trail.

Complaining about such practices is pointless, simply because they’re by-products of the funding structure which allows them. The idea that it’s only the “producers and writers” who can choose their casts is dangerously naïve and ignores how powerless they often really are, with only a few, precious exceptions. What’s next, complaining about nepotism? Then I’m afraid I’d bring up names like… who knows, Park Yoo-Hwan?

THE BOOBS. I’d blame the lack of proper sexual education in Korea for this strange atmosphere enveloping the press and public whenever sex and nudity in cinema or on TV are mentioned, and perhaps even blame Jeon Du-Hwan’s 3S policies (sex, sports, screen) in the 1980s for it all. But no, Koreans are far from being a prudish people, and the nudity craze on the press is nothing but press propaganda (and intellectually dishonest spirit of conservation by stars who don’t want to lose their lucrative CF contracts just because of an all-too-expansive nipple). The issue has a lot more to do with the delusion of purity some boy band’s fans harbor for their beau of choice. Treating someone like a prostitute just because she shot a mildly explicit (there is no full frontal nudity, no genitals on display) photobook and took part in a film whose few voyeuristic sex scenes were the least of its problems smacks of a desperate need to trap the object of their platonic affection inside a glass ceiling from which he will never escape.

That’s the issue, really: it’s not that Park doesn’t want to become a serious actor, set aside his obvious shortcomings. He couldn’t do so even if he wished to, unless he completely severed the umbilical cord which ties him to the surrogate mothers some of his older fans like to envision themselves as. The image of the perfect and pure son, or the noble Prince Charming for his younger fans. That pristine, inviolable sense of décor seems more important to them than their beloved’s own progress as an actor — perhaps because they don’t see the person but only the idol. So instead of accepting any challenge coming his way, they’ll worry someone whose image comes a bit from left field will somehow desecrate this angel from another world. And crash the illusion of purity and innocence they built of him.

Sure, someone who like Jang made a career out of playing provocative roles – like in 소울메이트 (Soulmate) – might look a little bit out of place next to Park, considering the image he built. But I tend to think those fans overestimate the impact of her image. Despite being a breezy and energetic show with a rather vocal cult following, Soulmate was barely a blip on the radar (both commercially and critically speaking). The Secret Rose was allegedly quite successful, but the copies it sold at selected newsstands and via the online mobile platform 19 Plus were bought by adults who certainly didn’t happen to spot it out of nowhere.

And as for 90 Minutes, the scandalous film which shocked the nation? KOFIC stats note that it was seen by a staggering nationwide total of 42 people. Yes, forty two people, for an overwhelming total revenue of 248,000 won. Which was probably paid for by the cast and a couple of family members, who went home with the knowledge that they could at least fund their trip to the food stall outside the theater. Add a few digital downloads made of horny teenagers who wanted to see Jang’s boobs, closet ajumma who wanted to see Ju Sang-Wook’s derriere and insane collectors who watch too much crap for their own good, and you’ll maybe get a few thousand people tops. Man, that’s influence. Overwhelming.

THE ACTING. This is the most reasonable complaint, with a tiny problem.

Anyone who’s seen My Dear Sister – or any other role Jang has played, including Soulmate, 행복한 여자 (Happy Woman) or any of her earlier sitcom escapades – will agree that we’re not exactly dealing with an acting master. Her delivery is stilted and awkward, her screen presence non-existent and let us not even mention the emoting part. And yes, her role in My Dear Sister was pretty much consigned to also-ran status in the second part of the show. But to go from there to suggesting that the writer pulled a Go Ju-Won in 부활 (Rebirth) and tried to keep her out of the frame as often as possible, it takes a bit of a leap of faith.

Especially because while the show’s final portion focuses on Geum-Joo’s (Kim Yoo-Ri) love story in Bok-Hee’s place, it’s the importance of her role that changed, not always the amount of time she was given. That has one explanation that has little to do with actual acting, if you know a thing or two about how dailies in this industry work: it’s more likely that veteran writer Lee Geum-Rim and the producers took a look at the minute-by-minute ratings, and realized that Geum-Joo’s arc was doing much better – to the point of hijacking the whole show. Yes, of course, it might have been because people couldn’t stand Jang’s acting to the point of changing the channel whenever she was on. But that’s just conjecture.

The little problem I mentioned is the fact that those fans are like a pot calling the kettle black. Who in their right mind would dare to criticize anyone’s performance, when they almost blindly support Park Yu-Cheon? This is someone who only has an acting career because his musical exploits made him a franchise in Japan – and the K-drama industry needs their money to survive. So why even embarrass yourself?

Sure, he’s trying hard, the effort is visible and shows he does at least understand his limitations – to a certain extent, as if he was fully conscious of them, he wouldn’t even bother starring in a sageuk. The issue, as with just about every other singer-turned-actor, is that to really make a mark he’d have to go back and learn acting from scratch, and not just pick up technique as he goes along. The emoting you do for a singing performance or a music video and a role on TV is completely different, as the former forces you to punctuate every single feeling, exactly because you have to convey it with your body language. That doesn’t work on the big screen and especially on TV, making every scene of his painfully manufactured, elaborated, filled with emotions that aren’t really needed. Even the breathing in between sentences is completely off.

Were he really in this for the acting alone, he’d do like Shim Eun-Jin – that is, completely abandon his musical ventures and start from the bottom, re-learning the tricks of the trade from scratch, often through bit roles in almost insignificant dramas. But as the big Hallyu star getting one major role after another because the industry needs the money your image brings, good luck trying to improve that way.

And is Park Yu-Cheon the only issue here? Take a look at the cast and be honest. Of course you have fine veterans like Song Ok-Sook, Han Jin-Hee, Jeon Gwang-Ryeol and Kim Seon-Gyeong (all prone to overacting when mishandled, though). But with a leading quartet which includes Park, Yoo Seung-Ho and Yoon Eun-Hye, it takes some balls to single out Jang for being a sort of weakest link. All four of them are poor actors to various degrees, potentially turning this drama into a tragicomic maelstrom of horrible acting punctuated by the occasional virtuoso pillow shot by the usual veteran – although the presence of talented youngsters like Yeo Jin-Gu and Kim So-Hyun in the childhood portion will surely fool the viewers into being positive.

And yet that is not even the point.

With this little controversy, certain powers-that-be have managed to erase or at least deflate clouds of chaos which were raging even before Jang Miin-Ae was cast. And the people responsible for it are without question the most controversial independent production company in all of Korean television: LeeKim Production.

MUSIC FOR HER EARS

Jo Yoon-Jung was not only one of the few notable music directors – alongside super-veteran Im Hyo-Taek and at the time young up-and-comer Song Byung-Joon (who would later launch Group Eight) – who could make a mark in the 1990s, when the production side of things was often seen as a bit of an afterthought. She was also the first woman to executive produce a drama and later go on to found her own production company. The LeeKim of the title is taken from couple Lee Seon-Mi and Kim Gi-Ho, the popular writer-producer duo responsible for hits like 발리에서 생긴 일 (What Happened in Bali) who often collaborated with her – drama which was actually LeeKim’s first foray into the industry.

The controversy mostly deals with the way they approach production ethics, always raising a stir via the press and through their casting methods, and almost inevitably taking a rather superficial approach to the actual work. A look at their history will bring back memories of some of the biggest controversies of the last ten years, building a track record which makes you wonder how they managed to survive for all those years. Just to mention a few:

  • 달콤한 스파이 (Sweet Spy, 2005 MBC). Hwang Shin-Hye was originally cast in the leading role, the only problem being that with three weeks before airtime, what the synopsis which convinced her to star in the show turned into was a script which didn’t exactly meet her approval. Result was in her dropping out of the show, and being replaced at the last minute with Nam Sang-Mi – whose casting pretty much meant the writers had to begin from scratch and redraw her part entirely. In live-shoot mode from day one, the show ended up being plagued by one accident after another, including the infamous shot of an elder citizen’s penis in the background of a scene at a public bath house, and former softcore porn star Sung Eun allegedly showing some of the goodies which made her famous. All thanks to the magic of same-day editing.
  • 쩐의 전쟁 (War of Money, 2007 SBS). Very, very loosely adapted from Park In-Kwon’s popular manhwa of the same title, this time the object of contention – other than the show plunging into makjang in the second half – was Park Shin-Yang’s cachet for the extra four episodes of the show’s bonus round – a pathetic patchwork of clichés that made the original look like a masterpiece. The price? A meager 150 million per episode, figure over which LeeKim and Park eventually went to court, and which ended with the production company being forbidden from producing dramas for any of the big three for over a year. Or at least they said so.
  • 대물 (Daemul, 2010 SBS). PD Oh Jong-Rok is not exactly new to controversies, but this probably takes the cake. The show, again loosely adapted from a manhwa by Park In-Kwon, saw a change of writers after five episodes (from Hwang Eun-Gyeong to Yoo Dong-Yoon), probably because she dared to disagree with the notoriously inflexible veteran producer, who in turn fixed her script on the fly – without even asking her, as it’s often his style. Good! Yoo would do better, right? Not really. Oh would continue this back and forth with LeeKim for a while, until he pretty much took off and left the production not long after. Here you have it, the first modern K-drama to actually change writer AND producer in mid-shoot.

Need I mention the chaos surrounding Spy Myeongwol? Yes, that’s a LeeKim Production, too. And I failed to mention all the almost pathological use of press propaganda to direct the public’s attention towards their projects and eventual casting.

Missing You was no different, with only Park Yu-Cheon’s casting set in stone when the drama was given a broadcast slot by MBC – for obvious reasons I mentioned above, namely Park’s influence in the all-important Japanese market. For the next several weeks, LeeKim would continue a campaign of press play trying to garner attention, without actually doing anything tangible to prepare for the actual shooting of the show. Just like back in the Sweet Spy days, LeeKim found itself with a complete cast only a few weeks before airtime, and the only thing that will separate them from the plague of the live shoot from the very beginning is the fact that the characters will have a childhood portion which thankfully began shooting already.

And yet there is hardly any mention of all this now, as people are much too busy discussing about someone’s breasts to notice that while all this happens, they have once again fallen into LeeKim’s trap – creating buzz via elements that have actually very little to do with the drama. And while each party continues to blame each other (with the Jang apologists and Park’s fans still engaged in conflict like warring states), Jo Yoon-Jung and her motley crew can once again laugh to the bank, producing dramas in the most irresponsible of ways and yet still surviving in this business, thanks to their majestic ability to capture people’s attention, like in a car wreck.

Missing You faces an uphill struggle only in theory, considering that we’re nearing the end of the increasingly popular The Innocent Man, that 대풍수 (The Great Seer) is a non-issue, and that by the time 전우치 (Jeon Woo-Chi) debuts, the show will have already begun its adult portions with Park, Yoon and the rest of the cast. You’ll have your hordes of Park Yu-Cheon fans, Yoon Eun-Hye’s degrading but sizeable fanbase, a few additional percentile points thanks to Yoo Seung-Ho, and then all of those caught in this maelstrom of hypocrisy at the center of which is Jang Miin-Ae.

For a show that forced MBC to broadcast a short drama in between because they hadn’t fully cast their leads, and for something that only a few weeks ago was only the butt of people’s jokes, that’s quite the impressive subterfuge. And when people stop fighting each other and finally realize that they’re being played by someone who might have even envisioned something like this would happen, then they’ll understand what they were truly missing.

The point…

~ Last Update: 2015/04/08