Race against time: how K-dramas use health crises as storytelling devices
Of the many tropes employed by K-dramas, there’s a significant number that relate to disease and health crises. From life-shattering diagnoses, to injuries sustained during the drama’s rising action, to everyone’s favorite Truck of Doom — it’s no secret that bodily harm is prevalent in K-dramas. Sometimes it’s incredibly powerful and compelling, sometimes it’s contrived and silly, and other times it sits somewhere between the two extremes.
We’ve looked at how vital organ transplants play an important role in telling stories and exploring themes around love and sacrifice, but there’s another common health trope that works for the story in a different way: brain-related injuries, tumors, and traumas.
As I mentioned in the transplant trope article, it’s easy to treat these topics lightly when we talk about dramaland. On TV, these issues are often thrown around willy nilly as plot vehicles, but we can’t dig into the topic without first recognizing that we’re talking about dramas, not real life. In the real world, there’s nothing entertaining about inoperable tumors or brain injuries or anything in between — but they sure make for a heck of a topic in dramaland.
This exploration of brain-related drama tropes is best looked at with terminal illness as the umbrella theme, and brain-related injuries and illnesses as a subset of it. Terminal illness on the whole is one of those topics that I have absolutely no desire to see explored. I’ve shunned dramas because of it, and I’ve stopped them mid-way because of it. But sometimes, under certain conditions, I’ll stick it out.
If my heroes and heroines have to suffer from the knowledge that they are dying, I find it’s much more bearable in an action or revenge setting. In stories like this, there’s less room for ruminating, aching, and heart-rending crying, which is what happened in dramas like Padam Padam and Scent of a Woman. They are both good dramas, but their main stories are both about lead characters learning they are terminally ill, and having to come to terms with that.
There are many other dramas like this too. You know, when your hero or heroine has their whole world shattered for you to watch. These dramas are message-centric and usually try to warm and console your heart at the end — after ripping it out in the rising action of the drama. Often, the message is that you can find peace and joy in any circumstance or situation because those are emotions that reside in your heart and your attitude, and are unaffected by the external world. While I believe this through and through, I can’t spend my precious recreational hours (carefully set aside for K-dramas) crying over these kinds of dramas. Life is indeed fragile, but I don’t require a reminder.
What about the terminal illness component when it’s used in more of a plot-driven way? For some reason the hero or heroine’s impending demise is a lot easier to handle when it’s sustained in the drama as a function of the plot and a part of the action. Perhaps this is because the attention is not on the emotional landscape of the person suffering from the injury or illness, but on how their impending demise affects their goals.
Dramas where the main characters are subject to life-threatening illness and injuries are frequently stories where the character has a meaningful mission to complete. This can take the shape of a revenge plot, solving a mystery, or serving justice. Among the many barriers that the hero or heroine may face, being mortally wounded is just one of many distractions along the way. Maybe it’s the lack of gravity that makes it less painful in this kind of story?
A drama like An Empress’s Dignity is the perfect example. Technically, the hero (played by Choi Jin-hyuk) has sustained a life-threatening injury and only has so much time before his body will fail. At least, that’s what happens in dramaland when you sustain a bullet wound to the head. Most people would die right there, but K-drama heroes often miraculously survive, at least in the short term. Choi Jin-hyuk’s hero doesn’t give a second thought to the fact that he has a bullet embedded in his head and is alive and functioning solely because of super-strong painkillers. Revenge is his goal and nothing much else matters. The bullet that will eventually kill him is no never mind.
This scenario in An Empress’s Dignity points out the main function of life-threatening brain illness and injuries in dramas: they create a sense of urgency. An unfolding plot without any restrictions of time lacks excitement. Our hero running through a doorway that is just about to close and lock him out while dozens of men hot on his trail is very different scenario from one where he can walk through a door he can lock down himself and take his sweet time walking through.
A sense of urgency is essential to a good story. While we see it most often in thrillers and melodramas, generally most stories use some element of a time constraint to up the ante — even in the rom-com world. Just think how many pairs of potential couples have run against the clock, or airplane, or traffic jam, or any other obstacle, to confess their feelings in the nick of time.
From the revenge/melodrama side, a great example is the 2018 drama Time. The drama’s title alerts us right off the bat that time (or the lack thereof) will be a major theme, and this melodrama used the brain tumor trope to seal the deal. The hero, played by Kim Jung-hyun in a fantastic performance, finds out he only has a few months to live when he is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He not only has to confront his own mortality, but he has a mystery to solve, a name to clear, and a damsel in distress to assist. Without this threat of the hero’s oncoming death, Time would have lost much of its punch.
Another hero with a few months to live, a bullet lodged in his head, and a revenge scheme to pull off, is So Ji-sub’s character in the classic 2004 drama I’m Sorry, I Love You. These few heroes I’ve mentioned (and there are many more in the annals of K-dramas) are the very kind of larger-than-life hero that I adore. They struggle and strive and endure, but they also have a level of nonchalance towards their physical state (and anything else that stands in their way) that is both refreshing and entertaining.
It’s interesting to compare dramas that use the organ transplant trope to those that use the brain injury and illness trope. Sometimes, dramas go all out and contain both of these tropes (I’m looking at you, I’m Sorry, I Love You), but more often the two are used differently, to bring out certain elements in a story. If we look at them thematically, organ transplant dramas tend to be more about love, sacrifice, and second chances, while the terminal brain injuries are often used to convey commitment to a mission, and a race against time. Either way, dramaland can sure be a treacherous place to be a hero.
We’ve looked at a few dramas that use the brain illness or injury trope to create a sense of plot urgency, and help tell the story, but there are so many others. Which dramas come to mind for you? Do you like a good sob fest, or do you prefer when a drama uses the illness/injury to create even greater plot tension?