Fans, journalists, critics, and academia in multiple fields have studied this world phenomenon; have written blogs, articles, books; and presented in conferences, dissecting, and making predictions. Still, the magic and mystery of its success persists to be as thrilling as ever. This is the way I see it:
DELIGHTING THE SENSES
Korean historical drama is a feast for the senses, and I mean more than just five. In that regard it might even serve as a tool of self-discovery.
There is beauty everywhere – in costumes and accessories; in architecture, interior, and scenery; in actresses and actors. Color, makeup and hair, attention to detail, lighting, and camera – work in unison to achieve that stunning visual effect. Every frame stands as a piece of art on its own.
Sound, song, and music have been traditionally very important elements of Korean culture. They play as big of a role in Sageuk (historical drama), too. Original soundtracks are created and many times the theme songs are recorded by popular k-pop idols with well-known, alluring voices, able to express and provoke emotion. OSTs, as they are often called, are not just mere accompaniments or instruments for stirring the audience’s feelings. They stand on their own as enchanting musical compositions and poetry one can listen to over and over again. I am sure I am not the only one who owns a separate and extensive OST playlist.
Once the story, the visual, and the auditory draw your attention, the second layer of attraction comes with the texture of fabrics and embroidery, the delicate surface of carvings, the exquisite laces of tree branches, the intricate jewelry, the smoothness of ceramic glazed vases or the natural grain in the earthenware dishes and cups, the luster of precious stone – all those feel almost tangible. Thus tactile response is evoked.
The landscape and garden sites offer the delight of vibrant flowers – one can almost sense their aroma.
The kitchen scenes add to our perceived olfactory infatuation, a taste bud stimulation. Fragrant teas and dishes described, displayed, cooked, and served trigger salivation, but also have motivated me time and again to look for the recipes and give them a try. No wonder the interest in Korean cuisine has soared around the world in recent years. [i]
The breathtaking martial arts scenes and dances appeal to our kinesthetic sense. Admiration provokes inspiration and makes me want to try the moves. These desires mostly remain in my mind, but according to neuroscience, motor imaging is second best to actual practice.
Sageuk stirs our sense of empathy. In his expose of Korean TV drama, Hwang Seongbin talks about how central this theme is in the genre, “Some report that these dramas have little conflicts and are slow in plot development but show ‘the sense of empathy’ with a sense of beauty and a genuine and intrinsic value in life. Some have also suggested that these dramas portray very delicately the sense of beauty in everyday living; the turns in emotion and dreams hidden in the heart; along with the lavish show of the dilemmas in society, human weakness and other elements, to draw viewer interest.”[ii] One can relate and even identify with the characters. Feel their pain, and rejoice with them. Sometimes spontaneously and with surprising intensity .
The sense of unity and community, central in Magoist believes and practices, is thriving in the Korean historical drama and awakened in the viewer. In Sageuk success is measured not by the number of ‘enemies’ killed, but by the number of people’s hearts earned. Mass destruction is not what commands power, but virtuous ruling and taking into consideration the needs of all. Families are closely knit and so are communities. Thus my longing for all this, triggered by the disintegration, alienation, and lack of it in the 21st century Western world and culture, is satisfied. So is my reverence for the Earth, since there is so much appreciation in Korean historical drama for nature, its features, forces, and all her gifts she offers to us in abandon.
[i] KFF News Korean Cuisine: “Italian Meets Korean” in Milano, The Taste of orea, Hanshik, 2015.
Surico, John How Korean Cuisne Go Huge in America (And Why It Took So Long), Serious Eats blog, August, 2014.
Yun, Suh-young. “First Korean Food Fair Held in Dubai,” Korean Times, Culture, 11/30/2015.
[ii] Hwang, Seongbin. “The curent State of Korean TV Drama, 19th JAMCO Online International Symposium” 2/1-2/28/2010.
(Read Essay 1.)
Description of Korean Historical Dramas: This course offers a series of Korean Historical TV-dramas or Sageug (사극) and discusses the traits of female characters as well as general features of Korean history, culture, art, aesthetics, thought, customs, and people. What makes Korean drama so unique? What is the “secret recipe” that makes it so popular internationally? Why is it that, after a few episodes, one can‘t wait to see the next one or the next new drama? Those questions have made many wonder, from audiences to journalists and critics. Participants are invited to explore answers to these questions and more. Our emphasis is on woman’s place in history, as well as her role as creator, healer and leader; her strife to discover and reinvent herself, her inherent wisdom, her abilities to surrender, without giving up, and her potential to adapt, thrive, and ultimately transform the world she is in. Our selection of dramas qualifies high criteria in story content, character development, actor portrayal, multiplicity of ideas and values, and abilities to educate, while engaging and entertaining the viewer. Facilitators (Dr. Helen Hye-Sook Hwang and Ms. Anna Tzanova) will provide articles and audio-video materials concerning salient themes. (For more, see here)