Although a number Korean movies have been well known for a focus on darker themes, most audiences not too familiar with Korean dramas may easily believe that everything in this category falls under the stereotype of generic rom-com soap operas. However, Korea has had its share of mystery and thriller-themed projects as well.
Since the mid-2000s, producers have often planned out and presented thriller series such as The Devil, Iris, Athena: Goddess of War, and Ghost. There are also many dramas crossing over between the thriller and romance categories, like City Hunter and Shark. Even including these, however, there seem to be a limited number of action-based projects every year.
If you take a look at the currently airing dramas, there are quite a few melodramas and rom-coms. Unlike in the past, however, we also have a variety of revenge, mystery, crime, and thriller themes, namely a disappearing president in 3 Days, a kidnapped and murdered daughter in God’s Gift – 14 Days, an underground society in Golden Cross, and even a group of four Conan-esque child detectives solving village mysteries based on their intellectual reasoning skills in Pluto Secret Society.
Prior to this group of dramas, there were plenty of twists and action in the past year in series such as Iris 2, Heaven’s Will: The Fugitive of Joseon, Incarnation of Money, Secret, Two Weeks, and, most recently, Inspiring Generation. In fact, the three dramas that immediate preceded God’s Gift – 14 Days — One Warm Word, The Strange Housekeeper, and Empire of Gold — all fall under the thriller/action category.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FchHgPK5DyA]
As for upcoming dramas scheduled to begin airing within a few weeks, no need to worry about a break in the trend. Audiences can continue attempting to solve mysteries in front of their screens with Doctor Stranger, You’re All Surrounded (though this may lean more toward the comedy category), and Big Man, amongst others.
Obviously, the number of mysteries and thrillers in the Korean drama industry has increased over the years. An easy explanation? We all need change.
Cheesy romances and comedies have flourished all over Asia, and worldwide, in the past decade, combining forces with Japanese manga and anime to push the flower boy trend. As a result, we often face-palm over exaggerated clichés like evil mothers and birth secrets as well as predictable (and almost always happy) endings. Despite the repetition of storylines and themes, the formula makes money, and that’s what matters to production teams.
Therefore, even while venturing into other settings, dramas often insert some form of romance between its main characters. A Korean netizen commented on the difference between Korean and Western series in the following way:
In American medical dramas, the doctor cures the patient.
In American investigative dramas, the investigator solves a crime.
In Korean medical dramas, the doctor falls in love and goes on dates.
In Korean investigative dramas, the investigator falls in love and goes on dates.
I probably wouldn’t list Grey’s Anatomy as an example here, but overall, the comparison seems pretty accurate. And for this reason, viewers are increasingly becoming tired of the same love-lines that pop up at the portrayed workplaces.
However, dramas are supposed to be just like books in the sense that they take their audiences to a different world. The situations in the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series were developed by their authors, and even though inspiration was taken from real life examples, their stories are not supposed to be completely relatable for anyone on Earth today. So, technically, Korean dramas are allowed a certain leeway in terms of representation, whether in the romantic or crime-related direction.
Unfortunately, none of the currently airing thriller dramas have viewer ratings anywhere near those of, say, one of last year’s most anticipated dramas, The Heirs, with all of them failing break the 20% mark so far, while the rom-com almost reached 30% by its finale. This may be partially due to the fact that The Heirs boasted some of the biggest names in the current drama industry, but there’s also the important factor of the rom-com prevalence.
There are undoubtedly viewers who don’t mind watching fairy tales come to life, and perhaps rather enjoy the surreal aspect. I personally thought that The Heirs had one of the most generic storylines in K-drama history, but the series was extremely well received in Korea and throughout Asia.
After all, at the end of a busy day of work or study, many people — especially individuals living in the intensely competitive society of Korea — may be likely to prefer something light or funny. Just like when some Western teens (ok, let’s make that female teens) choose a chick flick for a movie night, a tired Korean student may easily go for Boys Over Flowers version 1000 even though the plot of a murder mystery is probably more sophisticated and intellectually intriguing.
Besides, thrillers usually have complicated backstories that can make a scene difficult to understand if you haven’t paid close attention to the previous episodes. Recently, viewers of God’s Gift – 14 Days have even complained about the intricate plot. In contrast, for many rom-coms, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of what’s going on whatever episode you happen to jump in on.
Nevertheless, the same romance-styled dramas get repetitive for some of us after a while. We all know that the guy will get the girl despite the intense hatred they initially felt toward each other, though we’ll need a few misunderstandings and wrist grabs before the confession.
I would still definitely say that I enjoy watching the cheesy plots in rom-coms, but the increase in mysteries and thrillers has made me turn my attention to them momentarily. The wider variety of dramas to choose from simply elongates my to-watch list, which is a bittersweet situation.
Readers, are there any action dramas that have caught your eye recently? And do you have any strategies in balancing them out with lighthearted rom-coms?