[Changing Tastes] My dad always said I’d learn to appreciate history someday
Moonlight Drawn By Clouds
When I first started picking my own dramas to watch, I naturally went for the youthful trendies that featured twentysomethings in the big city, and I used to groan whenever my dad hogged the remote to watch his sageuks. To me, historical dramas were synonymous with Dad’s taste—a bit stodgy, and categorized with other things that were unpleasant but supposedly good for me, like brussels sprouts and homework. I remember he had to twist my arm to watch Sandglass with him, which was as modern as period dramas got at the time, and I only half paid attention to his explanations of what was happening, finding reason enough to watch in Lee Jung-jae’s one-sided love (what can I say, my catnip has always been my catnip).
I would say that on the whole my tastes haven’t changed a great deal, given that I still get teased about having the emotional reactions of a sixteen-year-old when I watch dramas, except for one significant difference—I genuinely began to like historical dramas in adulthood. This was new to me, since history was always my least favorite subject in school, and I can’t remember a single time I was made to watch a costume historical drama in my youth and wasn’t bored to tears. History, whether ten years ago or a thousand, was just not a thing I cared about.
Return of Iljimae
But a few things coalesced to change my tastes, both in my own life and in dramaland. This is perhaps the most obvious thing ever, except to those who haven’t lived through it yet: Getting older gave me perspective and fostered a natural interest in history. As it turns out, having a past in your own life suddenly shifts your point of view in all things, and I began to take a real interest in the most basic aspects of history, like how a series of decisions can shape a life or a country, and who the hell writes this stuff down, because how you choose to write a thing is just as important as what you write about.
At the same time, there was an increasing shift in dramaland toward fusion sageuks, which were the sexier, cooler descendants of the dramas my dad liked. They were glossy and romantic and set to modern music, and I didn’t have to strain to understand the historical backdrop. Everything changed when I got a taste of this new drug. My gateway fusion sageuk was Return of Iljimae, which I realize now was just plain luck, because I could have formed a very different relationship with historical dramas if I’d chosen a different one to try. As it so happens, Return of Iljimae was everything I didn’t even know I wanted—a hero’s tale that was gloriously beautiful and epic in scope, and there was even a meta framework of the drama itself as a historical record complete with a cheeky narrator. I was stunned by how much I loved it, and realized I had been missing out on an entire genre because I had written it off as ye olde tales of ye olde people.
It was a whole new world when historical dramas established a pretty consistent subset of shows that were trendy and young like Sungkyunkwan Scandal and Warrior Baek Dong-soo, and soon after there was an explosion of supernatural fusion sageuks like The Moon That Embraces the Sun, Faith, Arang and the Magistrate, and Queen In-hyun’s Man all in the same year, and I began to consume them voraciously. I loved that the life-and-death stakes weren’t manufactured, and that they were filled with progressive heroines who flouted the social rules of the day.
The more I watched, the more engrossed I became in the history behind these stories, at which point I uncovered a whole new layer of enjoyment—that when you do know the historical context for a drama, you experience it with a heightened sense of narrative tension. Knowing how the story ended in history immediately makes you anticipate how the drama will deal with facts, especially tragedy, and how it will write itself into and out of crucial story turns; sometimes it can lead to wailing and gnashing of teeth (Secret Door), but it can also leave a profound impression on you that you will never forget (Gaksital).
Seven Day Queen
The entire premise of my current drama crack, Seven Day Queen, builds on this narrative tension, setting us up for a tragic end from the very start. Knowing that there is no happily ever after for our lovers in history serves to make us nervous for our characters’ fates, and tinges every fleeting moment of happiness with bittersweet pathos. I don’t think I would feel that same enjoyment while knowingly walking into melodramatic waters if the story weren’t couched in historical events, because there is something powerful about immovable historical facts—tragedy in a purely fictional tale might make me mad at the writer for choosing to make her characters suffer, while tragedy that comes from true events cannot be argued. It’s up to the drama to make that emotion land, but the writer doesn’t have to jump through hoops to justify tragedy, because we’re already onboard.
And then to bring it full circle, a crazy thing happened… the time of my youth started being depicted in dramas as a bygone era. For the nostalgia! It took multiple instances of seeing the ‘90s show up in dramaland as ye olden times for me to finally understand why my parents liked Sandglass and East of Eden and Giant in a way that I couldn’t appreciate. They had lived through it and it was part of their personal history, in the way that the Answer Me series is mine. These days I’m watching The Best Hit and I’m weirded out by how much I identify with a character who time-slipped twenty years ahead to the present, and finds himself stuck in a world where he doesn’t feel like an adult, but he’s now old-fashioned and uncool and supposed to be peers with the parents in the drama, a fact I still cannot get behind.
Now I see why people cling to the past, no matter how embarrassing the fashions were—because it’s comforting, and where you came from informs who you are. So I guess my dad was right about some things, because I did come to appreciate history all on my own, just like he said I would. You’d think I would have listened to the man who passed down his drama addiction to me in the first place. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t put it past him to have instilled a love of dramas in me for that very purpose. Great, now I feel tricked into eating my vegetables and doing my homework.
The Best Hit
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