How to Make a Korean Drama: Lessons From My Favourites

What happens when you are out of ideas for a post and have been sitting on some reviews? You steal from  get inspired by an article elsewhere and apply it to K-drama!

1. Start off on the right foot (Coffee Prince)

Coffee Prince ep 1 Choi Han Kyul steps out of the shower

Opening strong counts for a great deal. But sometimes a drama conflates ‘strong’ with ‘a lot’, and in a desperate bid to hook audiences throws every thing it can at the screen–a car chase here, a shower scene there, a flashback or three. All this frenzy of activity can seem disorienting and muddled instead of clear and assuring. In this light, I’m struck by how lean and efficient Coffee Prince‘s opening is. The first 6 minutes contains everything you need to know about the show in a nutshell. In quick, fun succession, the show introduces the two leads, tells us who they are, and even has them meet! We see Eun Chan zipping around on her motorcycle, and getting thrown out of the sauna when she’s mistaken for a boy–there’s our Candy (with a slight twist). Han Kyul is all playboy charm, toothy, bare-chested and sweet-talking (our resident man-child male lead). And with his brief glance at a photo and slight hesitance on the phone, we see our second leads, Han Seong and Yoo Joo, and get hints of Han Kyul’s complicated relationship with them. Voila! Characters, conflict and set-up all in 6 minutes. It’s a fabulous reminder of that old adage less is more. (For a recent example of the exact opposite, see the first episode of Warm & Cozy.)

2. Give us a real kiss (Coffee Prince)

A kiss, a really great one, is not just another kiss in a K-drama. It’s a culmination of a journey and no where is this better illustrated than in Coffee Prince.  There are many reasons why this kiss is a gold standard, not least because it is so hard-won–it is the pinnacle of Han Kyul’s journey of accepting his feelings for Eun Chan after so much emotional turmoil. The urgency of the moment, Han Kyul’s intense gaze, the sheer joy and the emotional release in its aftermath, the slight, sad little lullaby playing in the background, all these just bring me to my knees every time. It’s so smartly staged too, incorporating that familiar open-eyed WTF-is-happening face in a way that actually makes sense because it is the last thing Eun Chan expected, only to completely subvert this by having her kiss him back. As far as I’m concerned, this one can’t be beat. And I’m not just saying this because I love this show to death. 

Okay, maybe I am. I dunno, you tell me.

3. Build anticipation (Healer)

Healer ep 12: Jung Hoo and Young Shin's hands touch

Foreplay is everything, as you well know. In the realm of chaste K-dramas, rarely are we treated to an appetizer as delicious as the main course. How does Healer do it? Well, by withholding, and then teasing incrementally, and having the growing physical proximity signify character growth, just to make the skinship mean something more than just titillation. Embed that into a plot in which identities must be kept secret and you have sexual tension up the wazoo, which eventually brings you to a place where the slightest touch of palms is as electrifying as a lightning bolt from Mount Olympus.

4. Let the music serve the scene (A Wife’s Credentials)

We don’t need another ‘Almost Paradise’, or ‘Love Is the Moment’, songs so in-your-face that once repeated as is a must in K-drama, grow into monstrosities that suffocate everything in their path. A music director with good sense and some restraint will know what to do with a scene such as this one in A Wife’s Credentials, a meet-cute that’s full of surprise, gratitude, and the bittersweetness of an overcast winter’s day. The song’s lyrics (“To everything there is a season/And a time to every purpose, under heaven”) foreshadows what’s to come with gentle wistfulness. It’s also more age appropriate for this drama about middle-aged love. The song brilliantly amplifies the way PD genius Ahn Pan Seok shoots the sequence, in which as it draws to an end, we see the ‘hero’ as she sees him, gradually cycling towards her from a distance, entering into her life signalling that their time has indeed come. We see how much his kindness means to her, though he hasn’t a clue, but we know that this will be a season for something life-changing for both. It’s so simple, so beautiful! I weep!

5. Plot matters… (Thank You)

A drama about an HIV-stricken child and her devoted mother coping with societal ignorance doesn’t sound like it would be potentially riveting viewing in the plot stakes, but this drama manages to consider weighty social issues through an emotionally rich and rewarding plot. Like, stuff happens, pretty nail-biting stuff too. Stuff that doesn’t consist of people having intense conversations and crying about it later, which forms the bulk of what usually happens in a melodrama like this.

6. …But characters matter more (Beloved)

Beloved: Hyung Jong Hyun and Park Mi Sol sit apart

Those melodramas I was just talking about, the ones that consist mostly of people having intense conversations and crying about it later? Well, Beloved is one of those dramas. This is one of those shows where the plot could easily be summed up in one sentence, but what it’s really about could fill up the pages of a novel. The meat of the matter lies in what’s going on inside the hearts of five characters caught up in an emotional maelstrom that none of them can fathom. Plot here serves character, or rather, the characters drive the plot, because the best drama is found in how people struggle to relate to each other. No where is this more on display in this tremendous, criminally underrated show.

7.  Create a world (Flower Boy Next Door)

Bringing a story to life requires attention to detail and Flower Boy Next Door’s production design–everything from the sets to the wardrobe to hair and make-up–is a masterclass on this front. A story in which space tells us so much about who their characters are and what they mean to each other, the apartments in FBND are rightly, all-encompassing living breathing environments that don’t require a human being to feel inhabited. Just look at the post-it notes, the stacks of books, the postcards and pictures, in Dok Mi’s apartment–all of it points to a place of refuge (and a place of work) for our lonely writer heroine. And those windows! As the story progresses, pay close attention to them.

8. Give actors a script that’s worthy of their talent (Misaeng)

Assemble a good story and a good creative team and then unleash your actors to do the rest. Ensemble casting at it’s finest, Misaeng is what happens when a script gives its cast something to sink their teeth into–careers get launched! (See Byun Yo Han).

9. It’s okay to get a little weird (Evasive Enquiry Agency)

Any show that dares let Lee Min Ki look like this:

Lee Min Ki dressed as a pirate in Evasive Enquiry Agency

…is doing something right. An oddball comedy about friendship that isn’t adapted from a Japanese novel or drama, or a popular webtoon, EEA stands completely outside and apart from most, but still feels resolutely like K-drama. This drama isn’t self-consciously quirky or try-hard, it is just completely comfortable in it’s own unique skin. It’s gags are broad and even surreal, but it’s so confident in its story and sticks to its vision in a way that is sadly missing in too many dramas.

10. Give us a pair worth rooting for (Queen In Hyun’s Man)

Kim Boong Do and Choi Hee Jin! They put the capital ‘R’ in Romance! I love a couple that fights to be with each other tooth and nail, and when it’s an epic fight across time and space, well, SIGN ME UP. They were so adorable, and swoony, and so resolute, and the show didn’t insult your intelligence so that you cared about their fight and wanted them to triumph. And when Boong Do, Mr Joseon Swordsman Scholar, shows up in a beanie, I like, legit died.

11. Make us laugh  (My Name is Kim Sam Soon)

Sam Soon’s and Sam Shik’s toilet wars. ‘Nuff said.

12. Recycle and refresh (I Hear Your Voice

 

Tropes and clichés are there for a reason, and their familiarity makes for generic, comforting pleasures. But that doesn’t mean you can’t play around with them. I think at this point, it should be an obligation. IHYV was a show that had a truckload of tropes but its best one was its twist on amnesia, which instead of separating a pair as one would expect, actually brought them closer together. Quite ingenious.

13. Be brutal (Que Sera Sera

Que Sera Sera: Elevator Kiss

It’s dark in here for a reason

Not as in bloody, but as in treat the audience like the adults we are. Not every drama has to be a wish-fulfilment fantasy and QSS is about as far away as you can get from a rosy romance. It’s raw and frequently appalling. Love here is hurtful, twisted, violent and caustic. It’s characters don’t exist to be liked. And it helps to have a PD who knows that and shoots accordingly. There’s some fine visual treatment here, from steadi-cam shots gliding around drab apartment corridors, to an oddly sinister flickering light in an elevator during a kiss scene. Right from the opening sequence (I’m a fan of strong openings, if you can tell) along a dark highway set to a smoky jazz tune, QSS announces itself as an agent of the dark, grimy underbelly of adult relationships.

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21 thoughts on “How to Make a Korean Drama: Lessons From My Favourites

  1. Fun read, DDee! Way to go for someone purportedly out of ideas for a post! 😄 Extra big yes to building anticipation – that’s a big part of the experience, and many dramas don’t bother, preferring to just jump to key skinship scenes via romantic shorthand. Now if only all of dramaland’s writer-nims would read this and take note 😉

    PS: Don’t mean to be nosey/preachy/naggy/all of the above.. I noticed that you’re hotlinking to the images from DB & Koala’s Playground. Because each time this page is loaded, it eats into their photobucket bandwidth, perhaps it’d be better if you hosted the images yourself? You could still credit them as your sources 🙂

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    • As the guiding force of the K-drama blogosphere, THANK YOU. Mea culpa. I have a photobucket! Why did I not use it this time?! I was rushing and I got lazy! SHAMMMMMME. Hugs KFG, and thanks for reading, as always.

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  2. “Not as in bloody, but as in treat the audience like the adults we are. Not every drama has to be a wish-fulfilment fantasy and QSS is about as far away as you can get from a rosy romance. It’s raw and frequently appalling. Love here is hurtful, twisted, violent and caustic. It’s characters don’t exist to be liked.”

    OMG everything you wrote here about QSS are the words I’ve struggled for many years to describe the show. LOVE.

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    • PS I’m prolly the anomaly in that I don’t like Coffee Prince (not outright dislike, but the show does nothing to me) but all your points here are on-pointtttt.

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    • QSS! Too few have written about this show! Too few have seen it! Too few dramas are like it. I want to watch it again, even though I felt so conflicted after I finished it the first time.

      Looking forward to meeting on Sunday!

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  3. Love your blog!

    I would add to your kdrama list, “Be sweet and pure,” because the antithesis will be pretty awesome when opposites meet on the battlefield… muhaha. hehe!

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    • OMG. How could I forget sweetness and purity, and their twin elements warmth and heart, the very reason I love dramas to begin with?! FOR SHAME!! And thanks so much for reading and commenting. Like, really I’m verklempt right now. Your recaps of Kim Sam Soon on DB were one of the first recaps I ever read of a drama, and I learned SO MUCH about K-culture because you wrote with such great detail and loving care about stuff like drinking etiquette, and you did it with such good humour too. They were such a joy to read, that I have to say a huge THANK YOU for writing those! And if you ever consider finishing those Chuno recaps on DB, I’ll be first in line to read ’em. Hands down, those were some of THE BEST recaps on DB ever (You, Dahee,what great team of writers!), and it’s a shame they were never finished.

      Okay, I’m done gushing :). Thanks again!

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      • I think the best part of recapping is how people share their feelings and sometimes you get in sync with people. Then its awesome coz you got a connection.

        Like I how I loved Coffee Prince, and my heart was thumping all. the. time. and especially during the scene you pointed out. My heart was pounding and I just started at YEH’s face the whole time.

        There has never been another Coffee Prince. That’s how special it was.

        And see? We just shared it together, again. And that rox. And thank you so much for giving me a moment of happiness that lights up one’s soul. =)

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  4. Misaeng never felt like a drama. Well, a tiny bit. But it certainly it felt awesome.

    I think that good dramas are nearly self evident. If so then shouldnt drama writers learn from watching?

    Hope so.

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    • I LOVE IT. But. BUT. Are you squeamish about infidelity? I know lots of people are, so if that’s a deal breaker, then this drama is a no-no. The infidelity here is emotional though. But still. If that isn’t an issue, then give it a go. Ignore the Dramafever comments. And if you’re like me, you’ll get past the low-production values in a flash. Cos, the story, too wrapped up in it to care!

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  5. I agree with everything, and I have a basketful of old drama recs now, thanks! I don’t think I’ve heard of A Wife’s Credentials before but that use of music was so perfect tbh, I was smiling the whole time.

    In my personal experience of watching stuff (not just dramas, but anything) I’ve found that characters (+ relationships) tend to trump all. Get me invested in your characters, make me care about their relationships and I will essentially sit through any garbage plot you throw @ me (with the caveat that the characters themselves don’t go off the rails, which is asking for a lot I know).

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    • Oh that meet-cute in AWC is <3! And because of where she's just come from and what she's experienced just before this, it's doubly impactful and you get the full meaning of her face lighting up like that. Which you will no doubt understand when you watch it. Because that's what you are going to do, right? Right?! Because it will change your life ;). If you're looking for a meaty story that's accessible, one that has a brain yet is full of heart and soul, look no further than AWC! Watch eeeet!

      Like

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