My Korean Television Addiction

Lee Min Ho is the star of City Hunter.

Lee Min Ho is the star of City Hunter.

My addiction began innocently, when my brother recommended a show on Netflix. We often discuss movies — mainly Asian films focusing on martial arts. He has recommended some great films: Ong Bak, Oldboy, The Twilight Samurai and others. This was a little different. He was recommending a series from Korea after watching only two episodes. I should have been polite and said thank you, and gone on with my life. Instead, I went directly to Netflix and searched for the fateful words, City Hunter.

It is now one year later. A year ago, I knew nothing about Korean television. I didn’t even know what kimchi was. I didn’t know how much Koreans love ramen, the rules of using honorifics, or the serious business of blind dates. I didn’t know the allure of tall boys with small faces. I had never heard of Korean stars Lee Min Ho or Kim Hjun-Joong, K-pop or flower boys.

City Hunter has a little of everything. It is a revenge tale. It is a love story. It is an examination of how power corrupts. The hero, Yoon Sung (played by Lee Min Ho), makes me think of Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood and MacGyver, with a touch of Thomas Crown. The supporting players are just as fascinating. The young people in the series are idealistic, honorable and always try to do the right thing. There are some heart-wrenching moments including one scene which I will never be able to watch again, ever. As with most Korean dramas, there is no profanity, no explicit sex, almost no graphic violence beyond beautifully choreographed fight scenes. The story and the emotional connection between characters drives the drama. I haven’t even mentioned Lee Min Ho’s perfect hair.

I was hooked. I discovered a treasure-trove of Korean series on Netflix. But that wasn’t enough. I found the ultimate Korean-television-junkie site: Dramafever. It features virtually every popular Korean series from the last decade or so, even some that are currently running. Note: as with Netflix, there is a fee ($80 a year). With my Roku, my computer and my Kindle Fire, I can watch Korean television 24/7. Well, only at lunchtime during work hours, so I guess 16/7. Dramafever also features some Chinese and Latin television, but they don’t have the same allure for me. I love the sound of the Korean language, so I never watch dubbed shows. I once tried to watch the wonderful Oldboy in a dubbed version, and it was horrible. I don’t mind subtitles, which are easy to read on both Dramafever and Netflix.

Korean series run for only one season. Some have sequels, but most are complete story arcs, covered in 16 to 20 episodes. This is true for thrillers, mysteries, melodramas, comedies, historical dramas and romantic comedies. There are some shows that have up to 100 episodes. I think these are similar to our soap operas. I haven’t dared to peek at any.

While City Hunter was an action/adventure series, I do love Korean comedies. My next series also starred Lee Min Ho (I did a search after I finished City Hunter). The weirdly-titled Boys Over Flowers was my first Korean romantic comedy. As with all the comedies I have seen so far, there is no laugh track. I am unable to watch most American comedies with their annoying/insulting laugh tracks. These Korean comedies all feature some level of serious topics, including class struggles, poverty, bullying, etc. I learned a lot from Boys Over Flowers. It followed the standard formula: really handsome rich boy meets ordinary-looking, feisty poor girl and he insults her, then falls for her. Meanwhile, another really handsome rich boy also notices her, treats her nicely, and falls for her. She, of course, loves the one who used to treat her badly. That’s about it. That’s pretty much the plot of many other romantic comedies.

Korean melodramas are mostly tearjerkers. Topics include abandonment, illness, poverty, betrayal, revenge, fate and war. I found it interesting that in Dramafever, when browsing the different categories, a number of shows fall under both melodrama and romantic comedy. I don’t think that would happen with American television. Sometimes I’ll cry throughout an entire hour episode, especially if children are involved. When melodramas are sad, they’re really, really sad. Koreans on television are very emotional and crying on command must be a requirement for anyone hoping to be an actor.

I just watched a “comedy,” Her Legend, and the main character regularly sobbed out loud. And she was the perky one. The melodramas I liked the best (i.e., made me cry the most) included: Bad Guy, 49 Days, East of Eden, Ghost, I Miss You, I’m Sorry I Love You, Queen of Ambition, Scent of a Woman and Story of a Man.

Big budget historical dramas are a small, but important, feature of Korean television. Subjects include the Korean War (Road #1), the establishment of Korea (Faith) and even the creation of the Korean alphabet (Tree With Deep Roots).

Korean television is permeated with the supernatural: mostly involving time travelers (Faith), body-switching (Secret Garden), ghosts or people who can see ghosts (Who Are You, 49 Days, Ghost, The Master’s Sun) and Gumihos — some kind of a nine-tailed fox creature (My Girlfriend Is a Nine-Tailed Fox, Gumiho: Tale of the Fox Child).

That brings us back to action/adventures and crime dramas and City Hunter. Addicts search for that feeling they got from their first experience with their obsession. Nothing yet has matched the perfection of City Hunter (and Lee Min Ho’s hair). Other series I enjoyed were: Athena, Goddess of War; Heartless City; I Hear Your Voice; Iris; Vampire Prosecutor; Level 7 Civil Servant, and Who Are You.

I must be a horrible person. I have tried my hardest to addict other people. I have recommended City Hunter to everyone I meet, everyone I work with, all my family and friends. So far, only one person that I know of has taken the bait. My sister finally, reluctantly, watched City Hunter. She wasn’t excited about having to read subtitles (it makes it hard to multitask). That was a month ago. So far, she has watched the entire City Hunter, Boys Over Flowers, Playful Kiss, King 2 Hearts, Secret Garden, Faith and Iljimae, and is starting a show named Heirs. She has watched a couple of feature films: Paradise and Heaven’s Postman. She does fast-forward more than I do, so she can watch 16 one-hour episodes in just under 10 hours. Since she’s retired and can watch Korean television 24/7, she may pass me in nine months or so. She curses me every time she sees me.

Linda Moore is assistant prepress manager at the Valley News.