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k-drama is the frontier of romantic fiction

7 minute read

When I was ten, I watched my my first romcom: Just Like Heaven. Reese Witherspoon played a doctor trapped in a coma, her spirit wandering around as a wraith. Mark Ruffalo played a lonely man who could, by some kind of plot magic, see and speak with Witherspoon’s wraith form. I watched this movie every day after school for a week. I invited friends over to watch it with me, who were confused by my interest in it.

In scifi there’s a saying, “The golden age of scifi is twelve.” As in, the first few you read, before you know all the tropes, are the best. Something like that was at play in my appreciation for Just Like Heaven, and when combined with being ten and having underdeveloped tastes in general, I was defenseless against this middling film.

But whatever its quality, it revealed a path, a path I have followed. In my search for romantic drama, I have gone through phases obsessively consuming American chic flics, French arthouse films, Malaysian web serials, silent monochrome Spanish films, 600-episode Bollywood serials, Meiji-era Japanese literature, and other fiction clusters that aren’t coming to mind. At first I thought I was simply wandering, aimless, but in retrospect I see the path was leading somewhere all this time.


Joongang Tongyang’s channel, Tuesdays at 9:30PM Korean Standard Time.

There are many kinds of romantic story, but the mother of them all is the rivals-to-lovers love triangle. It emerges as the dominant plot shape in every culture, in every time period, and looks like this:

Because rivals-to-lovers love triangle plots always progress from meet cute to the establishment of the protagonist and first man lead as a couple (happily ever after), their relationship cannot develop smoothly. Otherwise, what tension would the story have?

There are three basic solutions to this, to keep tension high while the relationship develops.

  1. Subordinate the relationship plot. e.g. the protagonist and first man lead are coworkers on a legal team and every episode gets a new case and story external to the relationship to hold the tension, meanwhile their intimacy develops in a healthy way.
  2. Make the relationship very messy indeed. e.g. Colleen Hoover.
  3. Give the relationship an antagonist. e.g. set it in an oppressive, patriarchal culture where everyone gossips and even small displays of affection threaten great consequences to reputation.

Mode 1 can be cozy and fun, and have rewatch value. Mode 2 usually just disturbs. It’s only mode 3 that has a chance at reaching peak romantic tension. The focus remains on the relationship, but the writers don’t need to introduce abuse or hot/cold behavior to create tension.

A friend of mine, who is now married, told me it’s best to do all dating under a quasi-religious conviction that you will never marry. That way, if you do make the decision to marry, it will have overcome that barrier of conviction with a tidal wave of certainty.

Growing a romance in an oppressive social system is similar. When it’s taboo for a woman to have had a boyfriend in the past, when that mere fact will make her future romantic life harder, what does it take to hold hands? What does it take to kiss? A tidal wave of certainty.

And of course, tidal waves don’t come out of nowhere. A feeling would arise first, followed by a suppression response. You’d say to your heart: “No, let’s not fall in love him please. That would incur costs both in lifestyle and reputation.” And push the feeling down. See if it can fight back. See if it’s got hands.

It’s because this internal strife is such a strong drama engine that romances so often star noble women in patriarchal cultures. This is the common thread between European period dramas, The Sea of Fertility, and k-drama.

If Americans remade a k-drama shot-for-shot in Seattle it wouldn’t make sense. West coast Americans do not hold their tongues on issues of love and sex. Try, just try, to imagine two American adults who are single, thirsty, and hot for each other and everyone knows it, but for years they do nothing while the tension builds until it consumes both of their lives.

It’s hard to imagine, because in America no one cares what you do. Most American adults don’t even have five friends, let alone a social network to gossip about them. Everyone is alienated from everyone else so there are no social stakes. You need the repressive patriarchy to make the story work.

But period dramas have this already, and both western countries and China produce those in mass quantity every day. So why is k-drama the frontier?

Most k-dramas aren’t worth five minutes of your time. Most of those that are still aren’t worth a full episode. Most of those aren’t worth a second episode.

But for the sake of my argument I want to conceive of k-drama not as a set of films and shows, but rather as a giant factory. A huge media enterprise, where thousands of people spend their whole careers, devoted to a single plot type: the rivals-to-lovers love triangle.

Never in history have we have so much of humanity’s resources devoted to perfecting a single plot type in a single format. While 99/100 attempts fail, the 1/100 that doesn’t is incredible, riveting, far beyond what would have been possible if only 10 scripts were written, in writers rooms afraid to fail. Then, in the next generation, not only do all 100 writers learn from the 1 success, the viewers remember the success too, so writers can use those expectations.

By now, it’s common to see the rivals-to-lovers plot as the base, and heaps of other plots resting on top of it. Mr. Queen is a rivals-to-lovers time-travel comedy political thriller period piece. Marry My Husband is a meta plot where a character who already lived through their rivals-to-lovers story is isekai’d back to the past and chooses the other man. These dramas assume viewers posses deep knowledge of the genre tropes and can use them as shorthand to tell a bigger, more complex story.

I am reminded of Donald Barthelme’s stories, the way they tell jokes for people who have read too many books, by referencing patterns they’ll be able to predict. It’s through this self-digestion that genres evolve, and the scale at which it’s occurring in Korea at 9:30 PM on Tuesdays is unmatched.

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