Staying high on K-drama

Staying high on K-drama
Mafia lawyer Vincenzo Cassano returns to Korea and locks horns with a conglomerate head in "Vincenzo." —SCREENGRAB FROM Netflix

These days it’s either you watch K-drama or you don’t. The latter is an unpopular stance but some are unfazed, like Harriet Limbo who just isn’t keen on watching. This sentiment runs counter to that of K-drama fans. 

Fistri Abdul Rahim is, like me, a relative newcomer to K-drama, tuning in only in August 2020 (I followed suit last October). But Ni Kadek Eta has logged in for more than 10 years, followed by Carl Javier with eight and Mario Giovanni with five.

K-drama—whether TV series or film—is part of the hallyu (Korean wave) that was ushered in by the popularity of K-pop band Seo Taiji and Boys in the late 1990s. Holding tight to their coattails was the K-drama that captured the attention of viewers in China where “What is Love?” premiered in 1997, and in Japan and the Philippines where “Winter Sonata” and “Bright Girl” aired in 2003, respectively. 

Formidable wave

More than two decades later, hallyu remains strong. A survey of 116 countries by Korea Foundation (KF) showed that hallyu fans reached 156.6 million as of December 2021, which is a quantum leap from when the survey was first done in 2012 with fans numbering only 9.26 million from 85 countries. In its 2018 survey, the Philippines recorded the highest growth rate in terms of hallyu fans in 113 countries.

“The pandemic has led to the renewed global competitiveness of the Korean wave [as] shown by the recent successes of Korean video contents on global platforms,” said KF in a report in The Korea Herald.

In a separate survey, Twitter listed the Philippines as having the third highest number of K-pop fans and the most active tweeters based on its 2021 K-pop data. Japan came in second, Indonesia first; South Korea fourth, and the United States fifth.

Hallyu reached the Philippines through K-drama (aka Korean novelas) in early 2000, sealing its fame with the local TV networks’ remake of “Descendants of the Sun” and “Miracle in Cell No. 7.” That the rage continues is evident in the release of the localized “Flower of Evil” on Viu and ABS-CBN’s channels A2Z, Kapamilya, and Jeepney TV on June 23. With K-drama’s popularity, other streaming services have joined the bandwagon, like Disney+ premiering “Snowdrop” last December, “Crazy Love” and “Soundtrack # 1” last March, and “Kiss Sixth Sense” last May. It will release “Big Mouth” at the end of July.

With travel restrictions lifted, the wave “carried” three popular oppa (a Korean term used by females to address older men, but which is also an endearment) to their Filipino fans. Clothing brand Bench endorser Kim Soo-hyun of “My Love from the Star” fame was the first to say  “Annyeonghaseyo” to his fans at Mall of Asia (MOA) last June 10. 

Next was BYS beauty ambassador (and former Davao resident) Hwang In-youp of “Why Her” streaming currently in Viu. His fan meet was at New Frontier Theater, which will be the same venue when he returns to the Philippines on Aug. 20 for the penultimate leg of his Asia Fan Meeting Tour

The last is Rowoon, K-pop boy band SF9 member and lead actor in “The King’s Affection” and “Tomorrow.” His fan meet, organized by Globe Kmmunity, the online K-pop community of Globe, was at MOA last June 26.

Global resonance

Ex-con Park Saeroyi and friends fight to stay in business in Seoul in “Itaewon Class.” —SCREENGRAB FROM Netflix

What lies behind its success? 

Impressive storytelling is one of the factors, particularly, as Rahim noted, its “tight storyline” be it rom-com, fantasy, thriller, or sci-fi. “[There’s a] universal appeal to everyone’s daily struggles, hence it’s never crucial that the lead be young and handsome or pretty,” she added.

The narrative likewise captures “the differences between the rich and the poor,” and the verisimilitude to daily life in Indonesia, pointed out Giovanni, who lists “Kingdom,” Extracurricular,” and “Itaewon” as his Top 3 K-dramas.

Filial obedience, love, cultural norms, and justice, together with the accompanying tension and plausible outcomes, are the other relatable subjects tackled. This relatability is what Netflix recognized and harnessed in its Asia-Pacific market, which “accounts for 15% of its 221.6 million global subscribers, and is forecast to be the biggest driver of further expansion,” said a report in  Netflix is predicted to add about “6.8 million members for the whole year, with 79% from the Asia-Pacific.”

Of the K-dramas released in 2021, global hit “Squid Game” broke every Netflix record for any previous shows. The other most-viewed shows from January to December 2021 included “Hellbound,” “My Name” and “Vincenzo.” This year, newly released “Money Heist: Korea—Joint Economic Area,” a remake of the Spanish series “Money Heist,” placed ninth in Netflix’s Top 10 shows in June.

Unpredictable, unique

Gong Yoo is Han Yun-jae in “The Silent Sea,” who leads the mission to the moon to retrieve samples from an abandoned research facility. —SCREENGRAB FROM Netflix

The plot further enriches the storyline’s appeal. Javier found it “very unusual and different from Philippine dramas that revolved mostly around the involvement of third parties.” He’s partial to the rom-com genre because he’s  charmed and entertained, yet considers the drama-fantasy “Goblin” one of his Top 3 K-dramas.

For Eta, the “unpredictable and unique” plot is something she’s never seen in a British or US series. She finds, for example,  “The Good Detective”—the third on her Top 3 K-dramas—engaging because she’s never able to guess who the culprit is. “Hospital Playlist” and “Reply 1997” complete her Top 3 list.

The unpredictability is pushed to new heights with the inclusion of marginalized characters in the storyline, like a transgender cook in “Itaewon Class” and an adult with autism in “It’s OK not to be OK.”

Talent is a major pull-factor, with “great acting from the lead and supporting actors, [and] even the extras,” said Rahim, who names “Goblin,” “Happiness,” and “Mystic Pop-up Bar” as her top three favorites.

Penurious contestants try their luck in playing perilous children’s games to win the hefty cash prize in “Squid Game.” —SCREENGRAB FROM Netflix

Actors shine through with their stellar performances, like Gong Yoo who morphed into straight-laced Captain Han in “The Silent Sea,” having previously portrayed warrior-turned-god Kim Shin in “Goblin” and a sadistic salesman in “Squid Game”. Song Joong-Ki reigned supreme as the debonair Korean-Italian consigliere in “Vincenzo.” 

Kim Soo-hyun and Seo Yea-jin blazed through their portrayals in “It’s OK not to be OK” of a psychiatric hospital employee and guardian of his autistic brother, and a children’s book author with an antisocial personality disorder, respectively.

That the actors are gorgeous more than helps. Bucking the stereotypical beauty standards of Greek-deity proportions, Korean actors are your pretty boys—and girls—next door with disarming smiles and irresistible charm. Completing the star allure are the sartorial elegance of, say, Lee Min-ho in “The King: Eternal Monarch” and the fashion chic of Gianna Jun in “The Legend of the Blue Sea.” However, Giovanni isn’t keen on “the men wearing too much makeup.”

The people behind K-drama keep winning audiences over because they’re the consummate hosts. The actors have no airs, only graces, gamely participating in meet-and-greet fan sessions or playing jenga, like what “The Silent Sea” and “Business Proposal” cast members did in their promotional rounds. Viewers are also made privy to everyday life in Korea, cuisine, fashion, changing seasons, and picturesque locations that are cleverly woven into the narrative, serving like a subtle invitation to Come, experience Korea!

Dismissing K-drama as another “telenovela” fad is folly. It has withstood people’s fickleness amidst hits and misses, growing from strength to strength with numerous TV series in the pipeline and streaming online. The legions of K-drama fans will remain because they’re assured that their binge marathons have impressive storytelling, talented actors, and meticulous production.

This is an updated version of the article that first appeared in the weekly Opinyon ( in January 2022. —Ed.

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