Prior to watching Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016), I neither knew nor gave much thought to South Korean media, but, once I had my first peek into the world of Korean dramas, I was hooked. Given my long-standing interest in East Asian media and history, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised.
Due to my studies in filmmaking and screenwriting, my first lure into Korean dramas was the cinematography. Both as a viewer and a writer with more than a decade and a half of experience, I was captivated by the execution of sageuk such as Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, Goblin: The Shining Lonely God, and The King Loves. My exposure to these shows moved me to explore Korean history and how the Goryeo Dynasty—amongst other ancient periods—shaped Korea’s history and culture today.
Another element of Korean dramas that I find fascinating is the differences in writing styles between the Western world and Korea. Since the focus on character development differs from one end of the world to the other, Korean dramas emphasize a stronger range of human emotions. When the casting is done well, the writing style and structure of Korean media allows aspects of a character’s psyche to emerge that wouldn’t be fully conveyed by Western media.
Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo proved to be a prime example of incredible thematic storytelling, stunning visuals, and cast. Built on the foundation of history, the time-travel drama was by far one of the most thought-provoking pieces I’d seen in recent years. Through the simplest dialogue, it revealed a peek into the transcendence of one’s mind, heart, and soul, but also brought about other questions such as the consequences of pursuing power. For example, a character like Jeongjong/Wang Yo, portrayed by Hong Jong-hyun, brought up the nature of tyranny and whether it is rooted deeply in psychosis or forged by the hands of a nurturing figure like Emperor Taejo/Wang Geon’s Third Queen Consort Shinmyeongsunseong/Queen Yoo, who was portrayed by Park Ji-young. This concept also applies to the show’s controversial monarch, Gwangjong, and whether Emperor Gwangjong/Wang So, played by Lee Joon-ki, was merely a revolutionary figure who was viewed a tyrant in the eyes of nobles due to the decline of their political influence or if his legacy truly held the cruelty that granted him such a title.
Those moments we see the “bloody monarch” poses the question whether those actions are simply swift retribution to his abusers and opposing forces or cruelty and abuse of power. Perhaps two of the most memorable scenes to me are the death of Queen Yoo and the punishment of the 8th Prince, Wang Uk.
As Queen Yoo dies, she is unwillingly left in Wang So’s care. However, he upholds his original promise from the start —that he’d ensure he would be at her side as a memento of her discarding him.
He had promised that he’d brand their maternal love in history for all time as revenge for both disfiguring him as a child and sending him to be a Royal Hostage. It was that vow as his revenge that brought to light how ruthless he could be without lashing out in violence.
On the other hand, Wang Uk’s punishment was executed through Wang So framing him for “cursing” him. While Uk had committed numerous treasonous acts, including being responsible for King Hyejong’s death, he didn’t execute him outright. Instead, we see the raw malice that Gwangjong is capable of when he has Wang Uk placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life.
This punishment, as well as his order to execute anyone who questions his succession to the throne after Jeongjong’s death, begs the question where the line between justice and tyranny at the hands of a monarch lie. These kinds of questions are one of the many reasons I loved Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo, and am consistently drawn to Korean dramas.
Two other shows that I have loved, that also delved into these kinds of deep questions are The King Loves and Goblin.
Like Moon Lovers, it wasn’t the romance in The King Loves that drew me in, but rather the intricately interwoven political conflict that was blended into the rich and fascinating history of late-12th Century Goryeo and Yuan, China ruled by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan.
King Chungseon was the first mixed-race monarch in Korean history. The themes presented by the show’s antagonists are the implications of deep-rooted prejudice cloaked by a guise of a noble belief: independence from Yuan’s control and exploited by the few who only sought power for themselves.
However, even the most righteous ideologies can be poisoned by the hands of the wealthy and powerful few. The show presents these concepts elegantly and left me second-guessing whether the people that wanted freedom from Yuan’s dominance were, to some extent, justified to hold resentment toward King Chungnyeol and Chungseon.
The other element the show presented that was true to history was that Emperor Chungseon was among the few Kings to openly take and document having a same-sex consort. This was heavily implied throughout The King Loves between Wang Won (Emperor Chungseon) and Wang Rin (who some people believe was a character inspired by Chungseon’s real-life lover Won Chung), and his feelings for Wang Rin and the lead protagonist Eun San. It’s this beautifully interwoven mixture of history and storytelling that draws me to Korean dramas.
Cinematically, the shots, editing, music composition and video effects are often more beautiful and elegant compared to Western media. Goblin, in particular, was cinematically gorgeous. It fused a powerfully thematic story with breathtaking shots and VFX.
As a writer, I find the writing style of Korean dramas much more relatable. It is when I analyzed Korean media on a technical level that I realized my style of writing is not all that far off. If anything, it has made my desire to incorporate ancient Korean society into my stories even more powerful.
After delving into the world of Korean dramas, I began to write historical science fiction, incorporating ancient Korean society and, specifically the Goryeo Dynasty, into a delicately woven plot that allows its characters to shine. Not only have Korean dramas influenced the premise I want to work with, but between it and Japan’s Visual-Kei Industry, I am striving to develop a hybrid media where I can share my works on an entirely different platform. Were it not for Korean dramas and other East Asian works that have taken many foreign audiences by storm, I wouldn’t be where I am today: developing a breed of media known as Visual-Literature. Korean dramas have introduced me to a world that is still shrouded in mystery when compared to the Western world. My ambition now is to shine light on Korean history. Knowing that there are millions of people around the world that have a passion for this history drives me forward; it has given me the strength to further understand and research these ancient societies so that I may do justice to their rich history.
While Korean dramas have no doubt contributed to my recent career ambitions, on a personal level, they have enabled me to connect with my mother on history and historical fiction in which she holds a deep-rooted fascination as well. Korean dramas have given me a chance to share the shows I love with her and be able to discuss both my writing and the series’ we watch. Korean dramas have taught me many things—one is that time and memories are fleeting. It is that principle that I’ve ingrained in my way of life regarding my career, as well as my personal relationships with close family and friends.
With the ever-growing interest in Korean dramas, I look forward to seeing what the sageuk genre will bring in the days and years to come, and what aspects of history they will create their stories around. Despite the overtones of romantic love triangles, that Western Media has strayed away from these days, the political conflict and dynamic characters—along with phenomenal actors—make up for the pitfalls of these shows and hooks even some of the older generation of viewers.
In conclusion, I believe that my interest in Korean dramas will never wane but, rather, gradually evolve and expand outward into other aspects of Korean history. While I can’t fully attribute all my love for Korean society to Korean dramas or other Korean media, I do believe that if it weren’t for Korean dramas, I would never have realized the beauty and rich history of Korea, and neither would I be pursuing knowledge of the Korean language in order to better research the history that has laid the foundation for the modern society that we know today. Korean media has played a larger role in my life than I ever thought imaginable; it has shaped me into the person I am today and, I truly believe, will continue to do so in the years to come.
Comment from GDHunter
What a long essay Sam, but no worries, I did not doze off while reading because it is an interesting piece that is thoughtfully written and well-explained (I think really have to try watching Moon Lovers now). What struck me the most while reading your article is how the rich history of South Korea sparked your fascination with Korean dramas. This is the sort of thing that I want to hear from a fellow Kdrama fan—that other than being a feel-good activity, watching Kdramas has had a deeper meaning for you and has somehow changed your life in a positive way. In your case, it has driven you to do something different in your career—a hybrid media where the ancient Korean society is taking center stage. I am not so much interested in sageuk as you are but I am looking forward to your work.
I would like to share that one thing that drew me into Korean dramas is South Korea’s language and culture. I just find it amazing that a show meant (primarily) to entertain you would end up persuading you to learn a foreign language that had no significant value to you until you became a Kdrama fan. I have studied Korean, which I discovered to be an awesome language isolate, ever since I became a fan and learned a lot about Korea’s culture. And having done so has been by far rewarding and has also shaped me into the person I am today. I sincerely wish that we both continue to enjoy Kdramas and reap something meaningful out of it at the same time in the years to come.
Note: Blurred Lines: Enraptured by History & Fantasy is one of the entries to our Kdrama Writing Contest about what made you love watching Korean dramas.