Are K-dramas creative?
Creativity is one of those magical things that evades description. We can sense when something is creative, but it’s not as easy to quantify or explain. Is it a skill, an act,
a mythical unicorn or a mindset? Creativity might be one of my favorite things to ponder, but it wasn’t until recently that I started thinking about it in relation to K-dramas. What does creativity mean for that special place called dramaland, anyway? Are K-dramas creative?
If I had to answer from a purely superficial position, and without a lot of knowledge of the medium, I would say that K-dramas don’t appear to be very creative. Sometimes, I can even understand the popular outside perception that dismisses them as soaps — which, let’s face it, are definitely not considered creative.
Poet and playwright T.S. Eliot once famously said you have to first know the rules before you can break them. He was talking about the rules around writing, but I think the same argument works for any creative act. The idea of using rules — rather than the absence of them — to be creative got stuck in my head, and I started to think about how this might apply to K-dramas. What if creating within a set of rules is even more powerful than creating where there are none?
The idea of an artistic or storytelling medium having rules around it has existed for a long time and dramaland is no exception. Just think of all the intrinsic and extrinsic rules that exist around how they tell their stories.
K-dramas are subject to a whole host of politics and industry inner workings — from the director, production team, and writers who are busy collaborating, clashing, and creating, to the pressure from networks and agencies around casting, advertising, ratings, broadcasting schedules, and budgets.
There are also rules around the actual filmmaking process, which K-dramas usually follow by the book. These commonly used filmmaking methods have been proven to work — so proven in fact, that we don’t even think about the sequence of shots unless something feels different.
For instance, you’ll always have an establishing shot before you have an interior shot, so you know exactly where the action is taking place. Flashbacks are another commonly used feature, and you’ll have just as many (if not more!) than you need to remind you of turning point moments or important past dialogue. Similarly, crucial reaction shots from characters will always be shown, so you know exactly what everyone is thinking.
One might even say there’s a recipe around how a “quintessential” K-drama works as a story too: rising action, climax, and conclusion. While there’s long been a classical structure for a dramatic narrative (like Freytag’s pyramid, which I just butchered in the previous sentence), and though there’s nothing bad about structure, K-dramas can often take this a bit too literally.
The first few episodes set the scene and tone, and introduce the characters and their obstacles. By the time we are a few episodes in, we have a pretty good idea of who our leads are, what their goals are, and what might get in the way. The first kiss between the OTP is generally at the end of a show’s eighth episode (unless they’re being daring and/or unconventional). But that’s only the halfway point in the drama, so if the OTP union is the goal, there will be another hitch or two — and a painful parting — before they are reunited in time for the denouement.
As if all these external factors controlling the story and the structure of the storytelling weren’t enough, K-dramas are also subject to more intrinsic rules as well. These rules, so to speak, are the methods and devices that are used to push the plot forward. K-dramas don’t have to use the same elements in their stories (i.e., amnesia, trucks of doom, returning first loves, corrupt chaebols, and so many more) but they often choose to. Why? Because these are story elements and dynamics that are proven to work and get the job done.
From the commercial aspect, to the set structure and pacing of the plot, to the mechanisms and themes used to tell the story — phew, K-dramas sure have a lot of things constricting them creatively. Whether these rules or structures are mandated or just defaulted to, it’s amazing that new drama creations are birthed as frequently as they are. Because if it’s just a recipe where you fill in the blanks and pop out a new drama, why does the industry continue to prosper, and why are there so many beautiful stories and so many fans?
The answer is in the recipe itself, I think. Why do we create recipes in the first place — for dinner or dessert or even Korean dramas? We create recipes because they are repeatable, dependable, and delicious. And they work, no matter how many times we make them.
But does working from a recipe or pattern necessarily have to mean that something is uncreative? Being imaginative within bounds might just be the greatest creative act of all. After all, taking a recipe and swapping an ingredient, substituting something you’re in the mood for, removing a flavor you don’t like, changing the side dish or the garnish — these are the creative acts of chefs and cooks…and maybe even the perfect analogy for the creators behind K-dramas.
In a way, it’s the difference between invention, and innovation. K-dramas are not inventing anything most of the time. But they are definitely innovating on a form, and continuously creating within a set of constraints that could either be seen as limiting, or as a creative challenge.
Granted, some dramas seem to just slap their elements together and not care about doing something new. Some make a valiant attempt, but fall flat by the end of their run (still, they deserve points for trying!). Others have told unique stories using familiar devices — or have reinvented old devices for a refreshing take on a familiar story.
It’s no easy task to play and reinvent within a set of established rules, boundaries, and expectations. The recipe is proven to work, and some might think that’s enough to create a commercially and critically successful story. But those dramas that have tried, and have woven stories that were heartfelt and authentic in spite of the boundaries that surrounded them? To them I tip my hat. Such a venture takes courage — and creativity.
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Tags: drama production