The emotion of the ocean
Location and setting are used in powerful ways to help tell stories. Korean dramas in particular often capitalize on foreign settings or location changes to give depth and context. But there’s a particular location featured in almost every K-drama that’s become a familiar part of each story: the trip to the ocean.
Because the ocean trips are so omnipresent, it’s easy to grow numb to them as viewers. But there’s more going on in these scenes than great cinematography, the beauty of nature, and pretty people frolicking on the sand. There’s a metaphor going on, too.
So often in life we crave a change in scenery, and getting out of our usual environment often perks us up, and brightens our mood. In K-dramas, trips to the ocean serve a similar purpose. They can break up the monotony of what we’re seeing as viewers on the screen, since scenes usually rotate from interior sets, to neighborhood walks, coffee shops, and bus rides. Ocean scenes can also break the more metaphorical monotony for our characters as well. And when characters are brought into a different setting, they are able to act differently, too.
But it’s not only the change of scenery that’s important here — it’s the emotional and psychological impact of where our characters are, as well. Finding solace (or “tranquil restoration” as poet William Wordsworth called it) in the majesty of nature is also a big part of the ocean metaphor. There’s a reason so many important discussions, decisions, break-ups, make-ups, and realizations happen at the sea. It gives everyone scope to think.
The idea of nature acting as a comfort, and as a place to reflect on life, is actually a part of the tradition of Romantic literature. Many poets and writers of the time told stories or shared thoughts that were triggered by being alone in nature. Romantic literature often features the ponderings of narrators as they gaze at vistas, oceans, and landscapes. What do all of these places have in common? Wide open space that you didn’t realize you were craving. Room to think, even if you don’t know you’re thinking. And space to make decisions, even if there wasn’t one on your conscious mind.
In K-dramas, the ocean has become the place where this happens for our characters. They’re so often drawn, dragged, or called to the sea. Though it sometimes seems tangential, I think there’s something important that happens on a certain level of the story. It can be as simple as a kiss, as structural as a break in the action, or a heavy-handed metaphor on the desire for freedom. Either way, the ocean scenes are there to tell us something.
Park Shin-hye’s heroine in Flower Boy Next Door found a sense of space and freedom when she was at the seashore. A shut-in by choice and out of fear, she slowly starts to interact with the world again, and the scenes of her seeing the ocean are quite moving. The ocean trip in Flower Boy Next Door signals an important shift in the story geographically (getting her out of her apartment), emotionally (she’s highly impacted by the experience and even tears up), and logistically (the hero, played by Yoon Shi-yoon, proudly declares he is going to force her back into the world from now on).
In ocean scenes in The K2 were also used to express freedom for the heroine, played by Yoon-ah. Her character was finally beginning to experience freedom from her fears and phobias — not to mention the elation of falling in love with Ji Chang-wook (can’t blame the girl). Silly though it be, watching her run around the beach in a flowy white dress getting play-chased by Ji Chang-wook provided a nice break in a story that capitalized on the sense of capture and confinement.
The ocean acts as a place of refuge and consolation as much as it does a place of freedom and space (it’s amazing that there are places in nature that can provide all of this!). In Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju, our heroine (Lee Sung-kyung) is taken to the ocean by the hero (Nam Joo-hyuk) in an attempt to cheer her up from the humiliation of her situation. With the help of a beautiful ocean vista, meaningful conversation, and a good companion to share it all with, our heroine’s trip to the sea does her a world of good.
Of course there’s the romance of being at the ocean, as well. In many dramas, it serves to bring lovers together, and offers them a playground. Whether it’s a place where they first confess, where they enjoy each other’s company, or where their relationship recognizes its challenges, you don’t have to look far to find a drama example. Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food, Boyfriend, While You Were Sleeping, Shopping King Louis, Strong Woman Do Bong-soo, and hundreds more — the genre is irrelevant. It’s the place that’s important. Our characters need the ocean as a backdrop for their stories.
If the ocean often acts as a place where couples are drawn together, it can also be a place where they start to pull apart. In Nice Guy, leads Song Joong-ki and Moon Chae-won meet up at an idyllic beach location, but it becomes a place where painful truths are revealed. After all, the ocean is a good place for heartbreak and tragic goodbyes, as well.
Speaking of goodbyes, the ocean can also be the place where stories draw to a close — because what says rom-com happy ending like a smooch overlooking the ocean (like in Lie to Me), or your cast of characters staring out into the sunset, as did F4 + Jan-di in Boys Over Flowers.
I always found it interesting how the ocean was portrayed again and again in K-dramas as such a special place. How many drama characters have shouted out in utter excitement, “Look! The ocean!” (like the college crew in Go Back Couple), and how many more characters have carefully orchestrated visits there?
For a country that is a peninsula with quite a bit of water frontage, there’s this innate sense of awe around the sea that I love. (Maybe because I share it?) No one ever arrives there with disinterest. And, no one ever leaves empty-handed. There’s always some sort of emotional shift in the story that happens, no matter how subtle.
The ocean, as a K-drama location, can encompass so much. It can serve as everything from a break in the action, to a turning point in the story, to a place where characters confess their feelings, or seek refuge. But regardless of how the scenes function in the plot or relate to the story, clearly there’s something special that’s evoked by the ocean. It goes beyond being a cinematic location for a drama shoot. The expanse of the sea taps into an emotion that everyone understands.