Scriptwriters Hong Mi-ran, Hong Jung-eun
With SBS’s You’re Beautiful ending this week, I thought I’d like to take a look at the brains behind its wonderfully addicting appeal. I’ve compiled the information below from various interviews over the past few years and highlighted some of their statements about their past dramas.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the Hong Sisters are a team of two sisters who have made a name for themselves in recent years in the kdrama world, notably in the romantic-comedy genre. In five years, they have penned five hit drama series — and while the last two did not break 20% ratings, they did succeed in stirring passionate fan response and creating buzz commensurate with the others. The dramas are:
- Delightful Girl Chun-hyang, KBS 2005
- My Girl, SBS 2005-06
- Fantasy Couple, MBC 2006
- Hong Gil Dong, KBS 2008
- You’re Beautiful, SBS 2009
I’ve been a fan of writers Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran since their first series and have followed them faithfully, and they never disappoint. Let’s keep fingers crossed that You’re Beautiful does the same as it concludes its run.
Older sister is Hong Jung-eun, 35 years old, while younger sibling Hong Mi-ran is 32. This means that at the time their first drama series (Delightful Girl Chun-hyang) was causing a stir with its fresh comic feel (it ended with a 32% rating), the sisters were only 31 and 28 years old.
The Hongs are certainly not the only famous screenwriters around — others like Kim Soo-hyun and Noh Hee-kyung command much respect for their body of work — but the sisters are perhaps the most famous writers in the romantic-comedy sphere, and possibly the youngest to have achieved such a high level of recognition. Most dramas are marketed on the strength of its actors, and then directors. But the Hongs’ dramas gain notice on the strength of their names, and after five series, they’ve established something of a brand.
Hong Jung-eun explained how she began working with her younger sister, saying, “We were both working in the entertainment industry when we decided to work together on a drama. If our first project had failed, we probably wouldn’t have been able to continue.”
Hong Mi-ran responded to a question of whether they were likely to break up, saying, “We write just with the two of us. You could call it a family operation. If we were to split up, our family would split up. [Working separately] won’t happen.”
After all, they say, “Our total IQ is 200. My sister’s is 100, and mine is 100. What other writer has an IQ of 200?”
They credit their father as the person they respect most, and live by the motto, “Let’s not disgrace Father.” He’d instilled a strong work ethic into the girls at a young age: “We grew up hearing that we had to study in order to earn a living. That’s why the people in our dramas also work hard to earn their livings.”
With the three child actors of Fantasy Couple
Around the time that their third drama, Fantasy Couple, was wrapping in December 2006, they discussed in an interview how they felt about their teamwork:
The two of you have written three dramas together. Do you want to write separately?
“No. While writing a 16-episode miniseries, the hardest part is the middle. Because you have to maintain tension through the end, you can’t use up all your ideas, but you can’t slow down, either. At those times, I think, ‘How do I write this difficult thing all on my own?’ [Laughs] That’s why we never fight when writing scripts. We fight over who does the dishes or when we eat or things like that. [Laughs]”
Fantasy Couple was loved by a lot of viewers, and there were a lot of requests for an extension or Season 2. Do you have plans for a continuation?
“Sorry to say, Fantasy Couple isn’t a story that can have a Season 2. Chul-soo and Anna have already won their love, so it has reached a good ending.”
Lee Dong-wook and Lee Da-hae of My Girl
They have also managed to reinvent the careers of several of their leading ladies. Han Chae-young was a sexy “Barbie doll” known for her figure more than her acting when her role as Chun-hyang turned her sultry image on its head and transformed her into a plucky, optimistic, hard-working model student. Lee Da-hae had a somewhat heavy, sad image from Lotus Flower Fairy, and surprised viewers by going sassy and cute in My Girl. Han Ye-seul was dogged in her early career by criticism for her poor acting until her privileged, rude Anna character won viewers over with her notable catchphrases in Fantasy Couple. The sisters were so impressed with Sung Yuri in Hong Gil Dong that they posted up strong praise and defense of her acting on the drama’s webpage.
They explained, “If we use star actors, we’d attract attention at first, but we choose to put more importance on characters with individuality and personality.”
Fun fact: The sisters had considered calling My Girl by other names like False Siblings or Lying Girl before settling on My Lie, which then became My Girl.
Sung Yuri and Kang Ji-hwan in Hong Gil Dong
Naturally, ratings are something that can’t be ignored, and are a necessary evil in the industry. Their first two dramas (Chun-hyang, My Girl) were quite successful, but the third (Fantasy Couple) struggled a bit in the beginning. It started with a 11.1%, and they explain that they were able to rest their minds when the numbers started to climb, ending with a series high of 22.7%.
Fantasy Couple is the most talked-about drama in the second half of 2006, but it didn’t have the highest ratings.
“Ultimately, the ratings are the unit of measure that matter so it would be a lie to say that we didn’t think of them. Having a drama on a broadcast network means that it is available to the whole country, so if possible we would like for a lot of people to watch, but the dramas airing in the same hour had high ratings. There were a lot of fun parts in Episodes 1 through 4 that I’m disappointed that people didn’t see.”
The story was a little different with Hong Gil Dong, which was a modest success at best, with ratings averaging in the teens.
Hong Gil Dong is longer than a general miniseries at 24 episodes.
We began really fearlessly. [Laughs] A 24-episode drama isn’t merely a matter of making 8 more episodes of a 16-episode drama. It felt like it was twice as long. I think the crew had a rough time, too.”
Ratings weren’t bad, but they weren’t high.
“Although we lost some viewers in the beginning who didn’t get drawn in, but there were a set group of viewers who avidly followed the drama. Truthfully, as writers we don’t feel disappointment as much as we feel sorry to the actors. They should be more popular and be shooting more CFs now.”
But it seems like the actors have benefited.
“Kang Ji-hwan shouldered the responsibility for this drama and didn’t show that he felt inferior because of it. With Sung Yuri, she acted the part of Enok so well that we were startled. The reason I wrote a post on the drama’s forum is because I felt bad that she had been criticized in the past and hadn’t received as much notice when she had acted so well. Jang Geun-seok is a handsome, cool actor and despite his young age, he erased his childlike looks and showed a different kind of charisma than Gil Dong as the king.”
Han Ye-seul and Oh Ji-ho of Fantasy Couple
The Hong Sisters have created a trademark style with their fast, fun narratives and memorable characters, whether it’s a breakout lead actor (Jae Hee, Kang Ji-hwan) or a standout supporting character (Kang-ja of Fantasy Couple).
The “Hong Sisters drama” has already become a brand. You have several things that have become core characteristics, but which must also come with preconceptions. That must give rise to dilemmas as you write.
“First of all, I think a Hong Sisters drama is expected to make you laugh. When Delightful Girl Chun-hyang first aired, it was best when people watched without preconceptions. However, now we feel pressure to meet expectations and satisfy people. I even briefly thought about making our next drama without putting our names on it. [Laughs] I think there’s also the preconception that we’ll use a manhwa-like sensibility and childish, unrealistic developments. A little while ago, I went to the filming location [of Hong Gil Dong] and met with the lighting director. I was a little afraid of how to light the first episode, but he said that he had gone for bold, psychedelic lighting. It was director Lee Jung-sub‘s decision to use belly dancers. In the script, we had just written that the gisaeng house feels like a modern-style nightclub, but because it was touted as a Hong Sisters drama, people thought that everything had been our idea. [Laughs] Of course, there are aspects that are comfortable, because there are things that people just accept because it’s the Hong Sisters.”
One of your trademarks is your imagination and liveliness. What is the source of that? Also, how do you work together?
“The television and manhwa books we read as kids? Actually, we don’t have a division of labor system. Our two brains think as one. Writing together is only possible if it’s based on doing everything together, 24 hours a day. We don’t set aside separate time to work, so our entire lifestyle becomes work. That’s why, when we begin working on a drama, we can’t do anything else. [Jung-eun says] I can’t meet a husband and [Mi-ran says] I can’t date.”
Is there a difference in your personal tastes?
“Our personalities are extremely different, but the things we hate are really the same. Our brains don’t work with those things. That’s why we can make progress. We cut off the things we dislike and talk with each other about the things we like, and out of that we come up with even better ideas. Also, because we’re sisters, we don’t feel embarrassed with each other. We start by talking about things other people would consider absurd or shocking. And we just boldly insert things in our dramas that could appear light or immature to others.”
Do you have interest in doing genre dramas?
“We do think of doing this and that. We could do one with slightly less emphasis on comedy, or a different style of comedy, or a cult comedy type. A lot of people see our dramas as light and immature, and some people misconstrue that we’re deliberately trying to shed that image. However, what’s clear is that no matter what the drama, we have no intention of getting rid of our individuality. We tell each other jokingly that we won’t emphasize profundity. [Laughs] Gil Dong’s story has some difficult aspects, but we treated it somewhat easily. In the same vein, inasmuch as we made a Hong Sisters style sageuk drama this time, even if we do an action noir or an adultery melodrama, I think our personality will come out in it.”
Jang Geun-seok two ways: In Hong Gil Dong and You’re Beautiful
You’re Beautiful has a lot of the Hongs’ trademark characteristics, from the hilarious situations, quirky side characters, fast developments, and yes, some toilet humor. I think this has both its strengths and drawbacks, because as much as I enjoy their work, I don’t think they’re perfect, not by a long shot. They do have flaws, but I think their strengths far outnumber them.
When all is said and done, they’ve accomplished a remarkable feat — all five of their dramas, completed within the first five years of their careers, have achieved some measure of success. While You’re Beautiful has had the lowest ratings of them all, one can’t call it a failure after all the fervor it has sparked among fans and the buzz it’s created. If that’s their worst-performing show to date, then they’ve got a pretty solid resume, no?
On November 21, with the drama nearing its last week, the writers posted a message on the drama’s forum, expressing their thanks to director and the stars, in particular their leading man Jang Geun-seok, to whom they awarded “100 points out of a possible 10.”
Without them all, “the drama known as You’re Beautiful may have existed only as a file in my computer. Thank you to everyone.”