What makes Korean dramas and K-content so popular?

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Back in 2017, people who Googled info on Korean dramas and acting asked questions such as “Why is the acting in Korean television dramas so horrible?” Back then, one explainer on Quora, who claimed to be Korean, offered this explanation: “The problem with Korean dramas is that they are too heavy on exposition. Also, Koreans don’t seem to understand the power of subtlety. If they want to get the point across, they’ll beat you over the head with it instead of subtly revealing important plot points through good storytelling.” –Oh, how things have changed.

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

The Evolution of Korean Content

What makes Korean dramas and K-content so popular?
Still 17

While, of course, there is still bad acting in Korean films and dramas, it’s now certainly no worse than acting anywhere else. A good case can be made that Korea now has some of the best – if not the best actors – in Asia (Note: the term ‘actors’ in this article applies to all genders). Unlike Taiwanese dramas, Korea has learned to tone down the overly melodramatic style that was previously the norm. Over the last few years, K-content has destroyed other competition from Asia in both the film and streaming series market. By 2019, people on Quora were asking the exact opposite question, “How are Korean movies and TV shows so good?”

If you haven’t gotten into a Korean TV drama on Netflix or some other streaming platform, or if you haven’t seen a highly rated Korean film such as the 2020 Oscar winner Parasite, we highly recommend you do. Korean content is fantastic, and now with a Korean drama app that has content subtitled in as many as 150 languages, no matter what language you speak, you can enjoy the acting powerhouse that Korea has become.

The boom in K-drama and film popularity is a phenomenon that has some wondering how and why it got hot so suddenly – the same questions people asked about the ongoing K-pop wave. Aside from a few English words common to non-English language songs all over the world such as “baby, baby,” “I love you” or, “yeah, yeah, yeah,” basically no one in the world understands a word of what a K-pop band such as BTS or Black Pink or is singing about, yet that doesn’t seem to matter one bit. Pre-pandemic days, K-pop groups were selling out arenas in places as different as Mexico City and Stockholm. 

Teddy Chu is a former Taiwanese pop music promoter who says that the key to Korea’s success has been government support. “The Korean government has invested heavily in subsidizing cultural products,” Chu says, “which they understand includes pop music, dramas, and more. In Taiwan, we haven’t gotten that level of support and so are still floundering.”

Amy Tanaka is a Japanese studio musician who says that in her estimation, the reason for Korean pop music success is simply discipline. “They work harder than anybody else in the business,” she notes. “They start when they’re young teens, and by the time they’re in their mid-twenties, they’ve danced and sung for untold thousands of hours… they know their stuff, and it shows.” This theory would be in line with the famous 10,000-hour rule from Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote that almost anyone could become a master of nearly anything if they spent at least 10,000 hours practicing that specific skill.

Transferring those observations back over to the Korean film and drama scene, those explanations appear to be only somewhat valid. Naturally, if the government of Korea is supporting directors and filmmakers, such support will be beneficial. But it doesn’t explain why the acting itself has gone from admittedly somewhat cheesy to thought-provoking and Oscar-winning. So why have Korean movies and dramas gotten so much better?

Why Have Korean Movies and Dramas Gotten Better?

What makes Korean dramas and K-content so popular?
Squid Game has become a very popular K-content show.

The truth is no one knows. However, some known factors have seriously contributed to the uptick in quality the world has witnessed in recent years. Modern Korean dramas tend to have unique storylines – witness the smash-hit Squid Game with its unique take on the ‘play-for-your-life’ genre, or the latest Netflix offering Juvenile Justice, a show with an unusual plotline featuring a judge – portrayed by Kim Hye-soo – who gets transferred to a division that hears juvenile criminal cases.

The twist? –Judge Shim Eun-Seok despises young offenders but finds herself assigned to a riveting case of a teen accused of murdering and dismembering an 8-year-old. The suspect’s defense is insanity, but Judge Shim isn’t buying it and digs deeper. Will she come around and agree the kid has mental issues? Or will she uncover a reason to keep the suspect she detests behind bars longer than the light sentences juveniles get under the law? –Exciting stuff! 

Korean dramas also tend to have a limited number of episodes, making them less of a commitment and easy to binge-watch. Not to traffic in stereotypes too much, but K-drama actors are certainly quite pleasant to the eye. More importantly, however, it appears that filmmakers in Korea have taken to heart some of the past criticisms, and directors and actors now dial things down a notch and are more introspective. Chinese, Thai, and Taiwanese movies and television have yet to embrace this more minimalist approach, and overacting is the rule rather than the exception.

This may come from a tradition of live opera, or it may simply be the current phase of those countries’ industries’ evolution…, and perhaps in a few years, we’ll all be talking about how excellent Taiwanese dramas are. One reason for K-success that isn’t subjective, however, is availability. Korean shows are wisely quickly subtitled into numerous languages and are available on more platforms than their Japanese competitors, for example. What’s more, the excellent translations in the subtitles are very often able to transfer sarcasm, humor, and nuance.

Such subtitles might better be described as ‘transcreations’ rather than direct word-for-word translations – and conveying the meaning behind the words is an essential step if you want people to connect to a show emotionally.

The K-roll shows no signs of slowing down. Whether you’re watching on Netflix or Hulu or whatever streaming platform or app, there are dozens of new shows to check out with themes as disparate as people trying to survive on a moon base to a romance drama featuring colleagues at the Korean Meteorological Administration who break up and get back together again with the same mercurial patterns as the weather. No one can give you a definitive reason why Korea is in first place among Asian nations for both popular music and popular dramas, but you know it when you see it: K-content is darn good.

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Last Updated on March 9, 2022.

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