What is it that makes a K-Drama so gripping? You can't leave it mid-way. The plotlines keep you awake and crushes on characters feel very, very real. Mithun Mukherjee from Kinnect decodes the technical aspects of K-Drama content, explaining why it works.
Let’s face it. Dramas have always enjoyed social currency when it came to entertaining the masses. While the late nineties in India saw a fresh wave of storytelling with the advent of cable TV, the 2000s were primarily dedicated to extraordinarily long and complicated (and sometimes tedious) dramas of a different K - the ones that the Ekta Kapoor factory churned out like clockwork. Fast forward to the current day and age, and the country seems to be in the grips of a whole new wave of K-dramas once again - Korean Dramas.
Thanks to Netflix, Indian consumers now have managed to lay their hands on an almost endless supply of highly engaging South Korean content. If BTS and BLACKPINK had people swooning over beautiful pop starlets, the dramas ensured the complete immersion of Indians into Korean culture.
While the K-Dramas gathered steam with series like Crash Landing Into You, Something in the Rain, and Goblin, the conversations were still held in closed circles. Different fan groups, almost like Otakus of Korean culture, mushroomed across the country and created a buzz like never before.
It was only with the arrival of Squid Game that the declaration could be heard loud and clear - Korean Dramas were indeed here to stay.
I consume a variety of global content, thanks to Netflix. Be it popular Spanish franchises like Narcos or Money Heist, or the German How to Sell Drugs Online (Fast); my OTT diet is a healthy mix of international content. While I had only sampled bits and pieces of K-Dramas, my curiosity was piqued with Squid Game. And boy, was I hooked!
And why wouldn't I be hooked?
With its razor-sharp storytelling, visually arresting costumes and set designs, and an incredibly immersive soundtrack, Squid Game makes for what can only be termed as a quintessential Netflix-bingeing experience.
But I would not go into the details of the show because my assumption here is that almost all the readers of this piece must have given in to the hype and watched it by now. While I did not end up binge-watching all of it in one go (adulting much?), I did finish it in two straight sittings. This is when I am not someone who watches more than a single episode of anything in one go.
So, what was it that pushed me to watch it all the way through?
Let us break it down. For the purposes of this discussion, I have chosen Squid Game and Goblin as two examples of K-Drama and analyzed them:
Detailed Character Building
The tightrope that a good series always has to walk on, is to either put in too much detail into a character or show him against the backdrop of the story canvas. K-Dramas have successfully managed to create a fine balance between the two, with enough focus put on the protagonist, without going into an overkill.
Cho Sang-Woo, a side character in Squid Game, gets his story arc, with a snapshot of the life he left behind, his devious schemes and so much more. So does Ji-yeong, who drops out way too early. Creating empathy for multiple characters and not just rooting for the protagonist is something K-Dramas have had a good hold on for a while.
Controlling Viewer Sentiments Through Storytelling
The stories that resonate the most, are brought about usually through slice-of-life narratives. It is where the viewer will usually find a personal story to relate to and start rooting for the character, even when it is not the protagonist sometimes. Great stories usually create shock value by either eliminating these characters or putting a whole different spin on them. Thrillers tend to create red herrings or false leads, just to reel in the viewer a little more. The spectrum of K-Dramas usually has all of this and much for the viewer.
Incredible Music Scores
Korean dramas continue to deliver some of the most memorable music scores. Not only do they drive extreme recall for the show itself, but the stickiness of it also creates an incredible atmosphere for the show itself. Goblin’s soundtrack has its own fan base, as do other Korean Dramas, and quite rightly so. Interestingly, K-Drama soundtracks are also proving to be great entry points into Korean music, and sometimes, the culture of K-Pop itself. The haunting notes of Squid Game’s OST continue to echo in one’s mind, long after the show is over.
While this particular point might clash with a previous one, it is also true. While Goblin straddles between the real and the fantasy, Squid Game elevates what would constitute to be the ‘child’s play’, into something completely different. Both are set in the real world, with a hint of the surreal. It is this magic realism that seems to work for an audience that has probably gotten tired of copy-paste narratives being served endlessly on popular media. Korean Dramas serve that breath of fresh air that popular entertainment has for long, looked for.
The Korean content raging across OTT platforms often showcases socio-cultural belief systems that mirror, to a large extent, the ones that govern much of our lives too.
The same middle-class sensibilities, the same struggles to rise above one’s social standing, the same desire to beat the system, or find love that continues to exist as narrative tropes functioning beyond the limitations of language and geography.
When Gi-hun, a protagonist that you root for throughout the length of Squid Game, is forced to fall from grace due to his circumstances, you are okay to look away. When Cho-sang Woo, his best friend, betrays him, there are light bulbs that switch on inside your head as you look for the same archetypes in your personal life. All of this, packaged with an endless quest for money, seals the deal for the viewer. So much, that even with all the graphic violence on display, Squid Game topped the charts in nearly 70 countries across the globe.
With Indians grappling through the third wave of the pandemic, the love for K-dramas will only grow more as consumption patterns indicate an upward curve. Strong production values, coupled with a great sense of contemporary storytelling, will ensure more and more people find their way into the cult of K-Dramas. And considering K-content is currently being produced in almost every conceivable genre, it is only a matter of time before it extends beyond just Netflix and people start prioritizing it over even vernacular content.
That is, if it has not happened, already.
This article is authored by Mithun Mukherjee, Executive Creative Director, Kinnect