Foreign beginnings, familiar faces
Though most Korean dramas are set in Seoul and its environs, there are some dramas that take place in a foreign setting. Often these foreign locations start the drama, sometimes they bookend it, and occasionally, they remain as the main location. But regardless of how long the story’s action takes place outside of South Korea, these foreign settings add an interesting element to the storytelling.
The most common way dramas use a foreign setting is in the beginning of the story. With 95% of dramas set in Seoul, a drama that opens elsewhere is immediately given a sort of breath of fresh air. There’s a sense of a “once upon a time…” storybook opening, of a world outside what we expect, and a story with an important starting point.
A recent drama that handled a foreign beginning adeptly was Memories of the Alhambra. This drama used its beginning to build a sense of mystery and magic. When the hero of the story (played by Hyun Bin) travelled to Spain, he not only discovered a whole new set of circumstances and people, but the AR video game that would alter the course of his life. A good part of the intrigue built by the concept of the show was rooted in the Spanish setting. Imagine the beginning and rising action of this drama set in a Seoul suburb instead, and it’s a very different kind of story.
Dramas like Shopping King Louie and City Hunter have used a foreign setting (France and Thailand, respectively) to give context to the main character as we’re being introduced. It’s always nice when a drama has the intention (and budget) to build a strong foundation for its hero or heroine — after all, seeing Lee Min-ho running around a Thai village or Seo In-gook parading around his chateau with staff to grant his every wish, is completely different from merely being told about it in the script.
That’s not to say the off-screen mention of a foreign beginning can’t be powerful as well, because what about stories that start with the return home? While more classically, the return of the hero symbolizes the completion of the story, there are many that open up with that return as the beginning.
Whether the hero was returning from America to solve some deep-seated mysteries (like Seo In-gook in I Remember You), or returning from Spain to play Puck in random neighbors’ lives (like Yoon Shi-yoon in Flower Boy Next Door), both dramas gained something by having a hero that was returning home at the start of the story.
Though the dramas are different, the way the beginnings work are the same: these heroes are immediately set apart as “other.” Whether it’s the sense of being different, of having a fresh perspective on life from living abroad, or the aloofness of being an outsider, these heroes’ foreign beginnings play an important part in their characterization.
To have a drama’s foreign setting acting as a prologue isn’t a new idea — many classic dramas started off in the same way. One good example of this is the 2004 classic I’m Sorry, I Love You, where the hero (played by So Ji-sub) is introduced in Australia, where he grew up as an adopted child. In this foreign beginning he not only meets the story’s heroine, but a heck of a lot of drama, before he returns to South Korea to seek his birth mother.
But are all these foreign beginnings really just prologue, or are they a deeper part of the story? In I’m Sorry, I Love You, and many other dramas like it, the story relies on its beginning for depth, dimension, and drama. In many cases, it’s as if the story wants us to meet the characters and see them outside their normal circumstances, before we see them inside. Two dramas that exemplify this are Heirs and Boyfriend. Interestingly, both stories featured main characters that had temporarily escaped the suffocation of their lives in Seoul when we first meet them on foreign soil.
Boyfriend’s story opened with the heroine (played by Song Hye-gyo) going on a business trip to Cuba. The drama used every last bit of its foreign setting to set the stage for the drama that was to come. Like the majority of dramas with foreign beginnings, it served as the meeting place for the hero and heroine, who would later reconnect back home.
But Boyfriend also used its foreign beginning to tell us a lot about the heroine — we meet the woman who’s been stifled, controlled, and constrained all her life. In Cuba, she gets a glimpse of life outside of those confines, and it’s the contrast between how she lives, and the freedom she yearns for that gets the plot moving. Seeing our heroine experience this firsthand (via the foreign setting of episode 1) makes the tension all the more compelling.
Heirs took a slightly different approach to its famous (or perhaps infamous?) foreign beginning, which featured a hero (played by Lee Min-ho) exiled in California. Similar to Boyfriend, it’s on foreign soil that he meets the heroine, and just as the trope orders, they meet again later when the action returns to Seoul. But Heirs’ foreign beginning is as important to understanding our hero as Boyfriend’s is to understanding our heroine.
But how foreign is foreign? In so many of the dramas mentioned here, though OTP meets in a foreign place, it’s their sameness that connects them. The foreign setting of their meeting can not only add the sparkle of a storybook beginning — but more importantly, it’s often a neutral territory for them to meet. When the hero and heroine meet as comrades on foreign soil, it not only unites them, but erases the many complications that their relationship would have faced immediately if they had first met at home. Later, when the two characters cross paths, their first meeting on foreign soil provides an important basis and context for their relationship.
Sometimes dramas depend on their foreign beginnings so much that they circle back to them as they end. Whether this means closure (Boyfriend), disaster (Memories of the Alhambra), or even more disaster (I’m Sorry, I Love You), closing the circuit of the plot by returning to the starting point is always satisfying for the audience. And for dramas that don’t return to their geographical starting point, there’s always the argument that they are still an important part of the conclusion, since the couple first met there. The location might be missing, but it’s a part of their story, and still holds its storytelling power.
It’s interesting to watch K-dramas play with this idea of foreignness versus sameness. After all, opening with a foreign setting is just one shape that this dynamic can take, as there are many more dramas that have used a foreign setting at a different point in the plot. While place and setting have always been an important part of storytelling, they stand out in K-dramas, where Seoul is so often the center of gravity for these stories.
Whether the drama uses its foreign setting as the catalyst for two strangers to meet, or to provide a rich background for our protagonists (or both!), each story’s foreign beginning sparks the plot into existence, and sets a rich and colorful foundation for the story that’s about to unfold.
Aside: I’ve kept this article focused on how these foreign beginningS work within the world of the story, but foreign settings in Korean dramas also open up a lot of interesting cultural discussions, particularly for an entertainment medium that has such a strong international viewership. Cultural perspectives are always at play, and that adds yet another level of complexity to the wonderful world of dramas.
- Memories of the Alhambra: Episode 1
- Boyfriend: Episode 1
- I’m Sorry, I Love You gets a Japanese makeover
- Shopping King Louis: Episode 1
- Dramabeans exclusive: Interview with City Hunter, Doctor Stranger PD Jin Hyuk
- I Remember You: Episode 1
- Heirs: Episode 1
- Flower Boy Next Door: Episode 1
- City Hunter: Episode 1