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[Escapism vs. Realism] When growing pains feel too real


Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju

By @janey

For a while, I stopped watching K-dramas. From watching three to four dramas at a time, there came a point when nothing could hold my attention for more than five episodes. There were months that I didn’t watch any, and I didn’t even try. The dramas I could have consumed in one weekend were abandoned. I’d been a fan for more than a decade, and I was starting to think that maybe I was just over drama-watching. I felt tired of chaebols and the formulaic rom-coms. But still, there were a couple of dramas that kept me watching until the final episode. And I soon realized that they all had one thing in common—they all had that slice-of-life feel.

While the godly romance of Eun-tak and Kim Shin in The Lonely Shining Goblin wasn’t doing it for me, and Heo Joon-jae and Shim Chung’s love story spanning centuries in Legend of the Blue Sea didn’t really pull me in, I was haplessly crying with Bok-ju about her first love and stupidly giggling over Joon-hyung’s childish teasing in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Ju. When Chilbongie decided to confess his feelings to Na-jung in Answer Me 1994, it reminded me of the sweet taste of young love and the innocent pitter-patter of my heart when I was falling in love in my teens.

I used to think that fantasy was my forever favorite genre. But in K-dramas, I’m suddenly being lured in by ordinary characters leading ordinary lives, dealing with ordinary problems. I’ll never forget the image of Misaeng’s Jang Geu-rae and his ill-fitted suit, making me wonder how many Jang Geu-raes are out there. Young professionals just trying to fit in, who can’t no matter what they do. But they try anyway.


Answer Me 1988

Nothing felt more embarrassing than seeing Answer Me 1988’s Deok-sun think that Sun-woo liked her as much as she liked him, only to find out that he was actually head over heels in love with her sister. Nothing felt more painful than Jung-hwan’s one-sided love never being known to anyone but his friends. It all felt so real to me. These characters still feel so real to me. And even if the gang would just hang out for 20 more episodes, I’m pretty sure I’d still watch it.

Then again, Age of Youth offers just that—it’s 12 episodes of college roommates’ daily shenanigans. It doesn’t sound so exciting, but the relationships built and the growth of each character got the drama inching its way onto my list of favorites.

Aside from making me cry every episode and think of my parents, Dear My Friends made me wish that I’ll have a close-knit group of girlfriends once I get older, too. These characters are nearing the end of their lives, but I have yet to see another drama with characters bursting with life as much as Jung-ah, Hee-ja, Nan-hee, Young-won, and the forever youthful Choong-nam.


Dear My Friends

It’s usually the character-driven plot that does it for me. Well-written character development will always trump a story that’s full of twists and turns but filled with 2-D characters. For a moment, nothing can convince me that these characters aren’t real. What do you mean they aren’t living, breathing individuals?

In School 2017, Hyun Tae-woon grappling with his feelings and Dae-hwi finally standing up to his bully were more exciting than the revelation of X’s identity. In Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, Ji-hyuk struggling with selling out and losing his friends was more critical than his band’s rise to fame.

And for dramas that are not normally categorized as a slice-of-life, it’s the characters’ way too normal struggles that usually get my attention. Oh Hae-young Again was a romance with a supernatural twist, but it was Seo Hyun-jin’s brazen and outrageous Oh Hae-young that made me stay. Her journey of healing and finding herself was worth all of the tears, and I was glad to be along for the ride.


Oh Hae-young Again

There’s nothing ordinary about Cheese in the Trap’s premise when you’re dealing with a sociopath boyfriend. But for such a messy drama, I only had good memories of it. There were no grand couple events, and it’s neither an epic nor a sweeping love story. I remember the tender moments between Hong Seol and Yoo Jung and the longing stares between the two.

I haven’t experienced even a fourth of the things ordinary K-drama leads go through. But every single time a drama makes me think that I can relate, I’m all in. I’ll watch it from start to finish. Let’s Eat felt way too real when I watched Lee Soo-kyung eat dinner by herself in front of the TV, while I ate dinner watching her. It’s disconcerting when dramas mirror real life, but it’s heartwarming when our heroes discover their light at the end of their tunnel. It makes you believe that someday you’ll find yours, too.

Have I ever tried weightlifting or spent all my savings just to see my crush? Definitely not. But for a couple of hours, I feel like a professional weightlifter on my way to reaching my Olympic dreams, sidetracked by these giddy new feelings of first love.

After entering the real world of taxes and responsibilities, these slice-of-life dramas are the ones that make me unbury or keep alive all the emotions I cherished growing up. It’s the passionate chasing of dreams, cherishing friendships, overcoming awkward stages, falling in love for the first time, and trying to find yourself every day that these dramas highlight. It all feels so real, and I can’t help but love it. Granted, I have missed a couple of great dramas the past few years. But if in return I get to know characters who feel lived in, then I certainly don’t mind.

 
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@janey Thank you for the write up and sharing your thoughts!! Yours has been the most relatable in all the "Theme Of the Month" posts I've read so far in October =) The struggle(s) are so real!! Now that I've read this over and had time to think upon it, I realized that I am in the exact spot you are in, in terms of drama-watching and drama preferences/taste. It wasn't so much that fantasy genre dramas were my go-to ones before, but more like the lovey-dovey first loves/I-love-that-person-to-the-point-I-can't-live-without-them type of genre and plots, but it's actually no surprise, because my first ever K-drama, that started it all and opened my eyes to K-Dramaland and forever changed my life, was "Winter Sonata" with Bae Yong Joon and Choi Ji Woo back in '02 LOL Nowadays, I find myself not even able to even watch the first episode, let alone survive and try to keep my attention at least up until episode 5, if I read the synopsis and find it too over-the-top XD I can't even remember the last K-drama I watched that had even a little bit of extraordinary in it... Oh wait, I DO remember lol It was "Strong Woman, Do Bong Soon" from this year, and I actually loved loved loved it and still love love love it, but a lot of my loving had to do with the cast, especially the OTP <3 Hehe

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I felt the same about let's eat too

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This article is so sweet (sweeter than slice of life genre actually), I probably feel this way because of how you've described everything in the last three paragraphs. And the concluding para is the best really. It reminded me of the final scene in reply '88, beautiful, sweet, nostalgic, painful and most importantly, very truthfully depicted.

"Let’s Eat felt way too real when I watched Lee Soo-kyung eat dinner by herself in front of the TV, while I ate dinner watching her. " so.real.

P.s. In reply '88 who knew of jung hwan's crush?? I thought nobody new....?

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Taek figured it out. I think he was the only one.

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I guess it took a lover to know one

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I see.....
I did guess it might be taek, but I can't remember when; time to rewatch some episodes :-D

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I'm pretty sure all of them figured it out when he jokingly confessed to Deoksun. They tried to salvage the situation, but it was clearly not a joke, more like closure said outloud.

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I think the reasons you touched on in this wonderfully written piece are exactly why I have been having a drama slump lately. I am starting to find that great characters are getting to be more important to me than a twisty story line...not to say I don't still love my fantasy or thrillers, but those, as you say, "characters who feel lived in," are such an important part of dramas for me. The plot or the twist might be the reason I tuned in, but those great characters are the reason I stay.

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This months' theme is making me miss my favorite shows, Misaeng, WFKBJ, DMF. There is a general lack of slice of life and coming of age shows in dramaland but I guess this year had them even less.

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@janey Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful, warm essay. Though I'm new to K-drama, you've echoed many of my sentiments towards television drama in general. Thanks to you, I just queued up Dear My Friends in my ever-growing watchlist.

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Slice of life really is great at making things I have never done feel relatable. I never threw my friend a breakup party like in Age of Youth 2, but I did help give advice on how to get rid of the memorabilia that relationships can generate. The best slice of life dramas, in my opinion, give you nostalgia for a life you never lived. Answer Me 1997 was set in a different era than I grew up, on the other side of the world, but still felt like my high school experience in a way.

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Thank you so much for this post. I really felt like you at most times. I have to admit that I'm not a fan for a decade like you, but I have been a fan for a while. The longest I haven't watched a K-drama in a long time is a month. That's all I can do for now since I'm still a college student. But I really relate to this well!!!!!

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"Have I ever tried weightlifting or spent all my savings just to see my crush? Definitely not." True, so true. Watching these dramas, however, they seem so real and realistic. I still feel second-hand embarrassment for some of the scenes in these dramas.

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"It’s usually the character-driven plot that does it for me."
^Me too!

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I love this piece of yours, @janey.
Especially the last three paragraphs. My thoughts exactly.
On how these dramas wakes up all the emotions you have inside.
When the theme of the month was presented, the first drama I thought of was Dear My Friends. And I was waiting for all the features to mention this drama and finally you mentioned it. I totally love that drama even though I cried for like every episodes. Way too many realizations. Clap Clap for this piece! 👏👏👏

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The Lonely Shining Goblin wasn’t doing it for me, and Heo Joon-jae and Shim Chung’s love story spanning centuries in Legend of the Blue Sea didn’t really pull me in either ,Tks god Iam not the only one. :) ordinary characters leading ordinary lives, dealing with ordinary problems it´s the most.fantasy dramas for me is tooooooo much.I love the warm,sweet,romantic and optimistic way to show things because in the real world things already are thought.More love please <3

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You nailed everything I've been feeling when it comes to kdramas recently. It truly is the character development that does it for me and not the over the top romances/scenarios.

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Okay...I teared up reading this. This is such a good post, exactly what I've been feeling these days. I'm currently in a drama slump and been searching for that THE SHOW that would pull me back to the K-Dramaland again. #pleaseprayforstrangerpal

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"It’s usually the character-driven plot that does it for me." This!
I easily drop dramas, especially lately but when a drama makes me invested in a character, that's when I stay until the end.
A lot of the time it's the small (relatable) moments that are the most powerful.

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When I think back on my favorite Kdramas almost all are slice-of-life, usually with ensemble casts full of wonderful characters and neighborhoods that become so familiar I feel like I used to live there: Coffee Prince, High School King of Savvy, Heart to Heart, Protect the Boss, Temperature of Love (ongoing right now ~ I reserve judgment on whether it's going to be a favorite but I'm liking it a lot so far) ... even Healer, which blended slice-of-life with a thriller.

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Oh God... just the mention of Dear My Friends made me want to curl up in a ball of tears. The drama killed me, and still is. I relate so much with it, because of 2 reasons. My relationship with my mother & father, and having been raised by my mother & grandparents. I cried every single episode cos it hurts so bad, it's good.

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I love the Escapism vs. realism thread. One of my favorite so far. I go through drama slumps, and decide to just take a break. The one thing that does draw me in is character development, and great scriptwriting :) I can't wait for more of these posts.

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@janey ... beautiful piece! The examples you gave also resonate with me and were the ones that saved me from a huge drama slump.

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju was amazing ... and it's one drama that delivered from start to finish, without the awkward, often what-the-heck turns that kdramas take ... where the storyline is either forced, non-consistent or completely illogical ...

Through Oh Hae-young Again, I discovered Seo Hyun-jin, an acting gem, and I remember thinking ... "Wow, I have to check out everything she's been in," which made me watch Let's Eat 2 right after.

And then I watched King of High School and Seo In Guk's story and his grandpa just made me fall, once again, for the "the passionate chasing of dreams, cherishing friendships, overcoming awkward stages, falling in love for the first time, and trying to find yourself every day" ... hands down!

Thank you for sharing, janey :)

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Great article! Now I'm married with kids, but when I was single I probably also experienced that moment where I'm eating dinner alone in front of the television while watching a character on screen eating dinner alone in front of a television... touche!

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