The “death” of the K-drama hero
The threat of death to a story’s hero is a common storytelling device that adds dramatic tension. It exists in everything from Greek myths to Victorian novels to Hollywood superhero movies — sometimes we’re so accustomed to it that we don’t even notice it anymore. But K-dramas? They often take this device one step further by actually killing off the hero. But not really — they were just kidding. He’s fine in the drama’s epilogue. Sometimes this is effective and compelling, sometimes it kills the dramatic tension that’s been so carefully built up, and sometimes it’s just flat-out infuriating.
The death of the K-drama hero can be divided into two courts: first, stories where the hero dies (for keeps!) at the conclusion of the drama; and second, stories where the hero dies in the last minutes of the final episode, only to magically return in an epilogue. I have no bone to pick with stories that kill their hero intentionally and finally. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but tragic stories require tragedy, and you might be crying in your living room for a while, but at least you got a solid story.
The second kind of hero death — the kind that frequently deploys last-minute shenanigans to “kill” and then resurrect the hero — that’s where we have a problem. As someone whose choice dramas frequently deploy this technique, I had to give it some serious analysis, lest it ruin the story that I’ve been deeply (perhaps too deeply?) invested in. If you have seen shows like That Winter, The Wind Blows, W – Two Worlds, and Nice Guy, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
In the 2013 melodrama That Winter, The Wind Blows, Jo In-sung plays a con man named Oh Soo opposite Song Hye-gyo. She is a blind heiress, and he masquerades as her long-lost chaebol brother, with the aim of taking advantage of her for nefarious and revenge-filled reasons. The story grows more complex, of course, when he falls for her. Jo In-sung becomes a wonderful mess of guilt and love, caught somewhere between trying to protect her, protect himself, take advantage of her, and save himself (it is a melodrama after all).
That Winter, The Wind Blows drama did some crazy things, but I loved it. Right up until the ending, anyway. Jo In-sung’s character is stabbed to death by his best friend, played by Kim Bum, and left to die on a rooftop. It’s dramatic, shocking, impactful, wonderfully over-the-top, and seals up the whole drama with a gasp.
But wait — it’s not actually over yet. We have an epilogue set one year later, where Jo In-sung is reunited with Song Hye-gyo. It’s a dreamy sequence full of cherry blossoms of happiness; they’ve found each other again and live happily ever after. Talk about a rollercoaster. The audience has barely processed his violent death and what it means for the story when the drama quickly snatches it back and gives us our happy ending instead.
The 2012 melodrama Nice Guy starring Song Joong-ki and Moon Chae-won, pulls similar stunts. In this drama, Song Joong-ki’s character sets out to seduce Moon Chae-won’s character as revenge against her stepmother, who betrayed him. A complicated tale of love, betrayal, car wrecks, and inheritance ensues.
Like Jo In-sung’s character in That Winter, The Wind Blows, Song Joong-ki’s antihero Kang Ma-roo is stabbed at the end of the final episode. Similarly, he’s shown dying when our drama closes, and it’s positively galling because the heroine is right there, but totally clueless. The stabbing elicits gasps, disbelief, and possible jaw-dropping. But — as you might have guessed — Ma-roo somehow survives this brutal stabbing. In an epilogue set seven years later, our lovers meet again. Though there’s a bit of a reversal in their circumstances (and some memory loss thrown in for good measure), they are together, and we are left pretty darn certain they will fall in love again.
Why do That Winter, The Wind Blows and Nice Guy end like this? Is it because they think we need a happy ending that badly? Was the assumption that the only happy ending we’ll approve of is one where our romantic leads are united — or even better: reunited? The answer, for these dramas, lies in the genre and how its themes function.
Melodramas are often revenge stories, usually complicated by history and circumstance, but generally concerned with wrongs done, retribution, and redemption. Class A themes, if I do say so myself. But what does the hero’s “death” contribute to the playing out of these themes? In the dramas discussed above, the wrongs done comprise the bulk of the drama (one protagonist cruelly cons a blind woman; another seduces a girl for revenge and puts her heart through the ringer). Then, when all the chips have fallen and the reveals have been revealed, it’s time for the retribution — and getting stabbed to death, or stabbed to almost-death, definitely covers that.
Dramaland is usually a just place: baddies are punished, and good people are rewarded. But, unluckily for them, wonderful antiheroes like Soo and Ma-roo blur the distinction between good and evil, creating a gray space that dramaland doesn’t often tolerate. So, their “deaths” exist as a way to take our antiheroes to the concluding theme: redemption. Whether it’s a shocking stabbing by your best friend, or an act of self-sacrifice to save the woman you love — our antiheroes need to suffer (sorry, guys) before they can earn their redemption.
But don’t worry, that’s where the epilogue comes in. Dramaland justice may be blind, but it’s also merciful. Our heroes have gone through the harrowing process of paying for their wrongs, and they’re rewarded with life. Suddenly, the fake-out death isn’t so cheap: it’s the linchpin of the entire story. Wrongs can be mended. Forgiveness is always possible. If you’re lucky, you might even get to spend the rest of your life with the woman you love.
So is the “death” scenario of the K-drama hero only a function of the melo genre? K-drama evidence suggests otherwise. We’ve looked at how it operates in melodramas, but it turns out there are more of these fake-out deaths in other genres as well.
Let’s take 2016’s W – Two Worlds as our next example — it’s a genre-bending fantasy and action drama. Lee Jong-seok plays the fictional manhwa hero Kang Chul, and Han Hyo-joo plays the real-world heroine reading the manhwa. This drama took the rules of storytelling and bent them to the breaking point: Han Hyo-joo’s character enters the world of the manhwa, and throughout the story there is this amazing (and mind-boggling) overlap between the manhwa world and real world.
The drama works itself up to a peak where the “rules” of the real versus manhwa worlds basically disappear. As we watch the show, anything becomes possible. Then our hero Kang Chul battles his maker and nemesis… and is defeated. He’s bleeding out on the street, and Han Hyo-joo’s character is rushing to find him. Just as she’s running across the street towards him, she is zapped from the manhwa world and back to the real world. Kang Chul dies. Unreal, right? Our hero was beaten by the bad guy. It was shocking, yes, but it ties up the rhetoric of the drama beautifully.
And then we have our epilogue. Rather than having died in the manhwa world (or perhaps because he did?), Kang Chul re-appears in the real world. He and Han Hyo-joo’s character are reunited, and again, we get our happy ending.
We’ve got a similar set-up in another awesome drama, City Hunter. In this story, Lee Min-ho plays Lee Yoon-sung, the eponymous City Hunter and taker-down of government corruption, sometimes with a spoon as his only weapon.
In the final scene of the drama where birth secrets, subterfuge, and treason are all converging, Yoon-sung takes a bullet for his father and presumably dies. It was another epic scene to wreck your heart, and possibly have you jump up from the couch breathing fire. (Don’t worry, as in our other examples, Yoon-sung is alive and well and reunited with his love in this epilogue, too.)
W – Two Worlds and City Hunter are two favorite dramas, so I don’t count these endings against them. But there’s still the question of why. Instead of serving a thematic purpose (as in the melodramas), in W – Two Worlds and City Hunter, the “deaths” of the heroes serve a purely dramatic purpose. We can all agree that life-and-death stakes are important for upping the ante in dramas. After all, drama (from ancient storytelling to the entertainment of today) is about distilling life into a cohesive and meaningful story. So in these examples, the “deaths” are used to further the play between alternate realities, or to solidify a message about the power of love.
But did these dramas really need the fake-out death device to finish strongly or to nail their themes? When faced with these kinds of endings, I often ask myself which alternative would have been the most satisfying. Would I feel more or less aggrieved if the drama ended with the hero actually dying? The answer depends on the story, or on how I’m interpreting it, but sometimes, I can’t even tell. Maybe K-dramas aren’t sure either, and that’s why they try to pull off both a tragic and a happy ending in one swoop.
When you think about it, it’s the ultimate crowd-pleaser. You get all the drama and catharsis from a story about heroes who have died while fighting the good fight, or while earning their forgiveness — all while getting a happy ending, too. These dramas want to take you on a rollercoaster, but they also want to prove that good triumphs over evil, and that love is more powerful than hate. After all, that’s the message that we really crave, and want affirmed. So, the next time your K-drama toys around with the “death” of the hero, just think of it as the sincerest kind of fan service.