Reality bites: Economic anxieties, work-life focus key to K-drama popularity


NEW DELHI: At first glance, the appeal of Korean dramas may lie primarily in never-before-seen locations with good-looking actors giving life to gentle romances and taut thrillers.

But the addictive ‘K-drama’ pill encases a centre of sobering reality, that of job insecurities and unconventional careers in a world of economic disparities.

Given that the popularity of Korean shows peaked during the long months of the pandemic, when many businesses big and small folded up or trimmed operations and many thousands lost their jobs, it is this mirroring of everyday realities that seems to have really hit home.

Bengaluru-based data insight specialist Vaishnavi said the practice of part-time jobs, for instance, shown in many shows reflects the “widening gap” between the rich and poor.

“It’s the same even in our country. Also, the way we have entrance exams and too many people vying for the same job. How cutthroat all this is,” the avid watcher of Korean shows told PTI while explaining why she is so drawn to them.

Instead of old family money, the dramas, which show the way to unconventional jobs and also cast a light on everyday difficulties, are now focusing on hardworking people who don’t inherit companies but rise through the ranks.

“This is temporary, right?” the ambitious dentist from Seoul, played by Shin Min-a, asks in the popular show “Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha” that ended on Sunday night, echoing as it were the bewilderment of an entire generation.

She is asking the question of an odd-jobs expert and graduate of Seoul National University, played by Kim Seon-ho, who insists on earning by the minimum wage rate.

Much to her dismay, he doesn’t plan to do anything more stable as he has come to respect money that has been earned through hard labour.

In “Squid Game”, the blockbuster hit from Netflix inspired by the children’s game in Korea, 456 desperate contestants compete for a 45.6 billion Won (approx USD 38 million) prize money in a “Hunger Games” like survival competition.

The show, with its themes of class inequality, debt, desperation and raw greed, seems to have touched a chord among viewers already reeling from the pandemic-led economic divide that has resulted in many losing their jobs and small businesses getting ruined.

Life in South Korea, especially in the capital Seoul, is very expensive, said Shruti Jargad, a student of China Studies from Peking University, Beijing.

That’s why, she said, unemployed people are working many part-time jobs, called ‘arabaite’ in Korean, even in dramas.

“There has been a rise in individualism in the last 40 years. Once that happens, people want to move out of their parents’ house and achieve financial independence.

There is also a rise of the middle class who already don’t have a lot of family money to pass on to the next generation,” the Jaipur-based Jargad told PTI.

Saipriya, also a student, said many dramas show that people take up part-time jobs in coffee shops and eating joints to pay their school fees or support their family.

“They also do part-time work to earn some extra cash for expenses and to pursue their field of interest. It teaches us the importance of financial independence from a young age,” she told PTI. K-dramas, which find new addicts everyday, also challenge gender stereotypes.

A man is shown as a professional caregiver in “It’s Okay Not To Be Okay”, the International Emmy nominated series, and “Navillera” has two men — a 70-year-old and a 23-year-old — doing ballet.

“I don’t think we have seen a Korean show specifically on men who are ballet dancers or who want to pursue this form of dance,” Jargad said.

A global leader in information technology, South Korea is a market that takes to trends like fish to water and when the new wave of feminism surfaced in the 2010s, the country’s patriarchal and conservative society started opening its doors to progressiveness, she argued.

This has also resulted in a transformation of the portrayal of the working woman on screen — from the feisty poor woman getting help from her rich love interest in “Coffee Prince” (2007) and an understated efficient worker battling sexism in “Misaeng” (2014) to calling out abuse at work in “Something in the Rain” (2018) and the trial and tribulations of women in a search engine company in “Search: WWW” (2019).

Korean series tend to move with the times even as they take creative liberties to create drama.

So, there is increasingly more emphasis on different professions, not just medicine, law and management.

“They also motivate us to choose our passion over society’s expectations.

When we see the characters chase their dreams, it gives us the courage to do the same,” said Saipriya.

“The Family Man” star Priyamani, also a K-drama fan, said different roles bring variety to the actor playing the character.

“It’s a good thing they are tapping into the different aspects of a character given the love story or the main premise of the show.

There are other sides to the role than just being the romantic interest,” she told PTI.

According to Vaishnavi, people in real life do work as stunt artistes (“Secret Garden”), interpreters/subtitle writers (“Run On”), pharmacists and librarians (“One Spring Night”) exist but rarely have these professions taken centre stage in dramas.

“Watching ‘Prison Playbook’ made me think a lot about correctional officers in jails. There are guards in prisons but finding out what that job entails was really new. How challenging a job it is.”

These shows also show a lot of variation in a profession that can be niche, she added.

“Like a chef in a restaurant in ‘Itaewon Class’ was different from a chef in an old-age home as shown in ‘Chocolate’. We don’t end up having a stereotypical idea of a profession. These details make the audience get more interested in the show.”

Aakriti Narang, a French student at Institut Français de Slovaquie, said unconventional professions add a layer of cultural richness to the shows.

“The choice of unconventional professions for the protagonists adds an additional layer of cultural richness to a genre of drama.

It also gives an insight into the cultural values at a faster pace than any conventional profession would,” she said.

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