Recently Kim Eun-sook announced her new drama, Mr. Sunshine, which is scheduled for a late spring early summer 2018. It is safe to say that it is currently the most awaited drama of 2018. Since Secret Garden, the national phenomenon of a drama in 2011, she has been on a great run of success. Her most recent drama, Goblin, is the second most watched cable TV drama of all time and this year she was voted the most talented TV writer in a poll survey by TV report writers and officials from the entertainment industry. But she is a controversial writer at times with her constant use of cliches, cheesy sense of humour, and flimsy female characters.
The question of how she is so successful, rising from being a struggling creative writing student at Seoul Institute of Art to becoming the most well known writer in the business is hard to answer. At first glance, she does not seem very different from the average drama writer using similar techniques to draw in viewers — like heavy usage of tropes — but if you take a closer look, there are some notable differences.
The main reason for her success is her awareness of what the viewers want. In an interview this year, Kim Eun-sook stated “if the viewers can’t accept it then it isn’t a good script. Dramas should be pleasing to their viewers.” This realisation marked a turning point in her career after City Hall, her lowest rated yet a highly praised drama. Kim Eun-sook said that she “contemplated on whether to write a drama that benefits the world or one will garner good ratings” and decided to “abandon the depth showed in City Hall”. Instead, she decided to write “an easy, light drama for the whole family”. She wanted it “to be fun”. That drama was the extremely successful Secret Garden.
For Kim Eun-sook, it is about the viewers and their feelings and opinions rather than depth or critical praise. Her dramas since have all displayed this belief but the best example of this is her 2016 drama, Descendants of the Sun. In a country with conscription and the threat of North Korea next door, the military theme resonated with the people and tapped into patriotic feelings, leading to the show being a major success with a peak audience share of 38.8%.
A reason for her success, proposed by some, are her male leads. Certainly in the industry, there is great emphasis placed on having attractive, popular male leads. But Kim Eun-sook’s male leads are pivotal to her dramas. This is displayed by her pursuit of Gong Yoo — the star of Coffee Prince — for five years until she was able to cast him in Goblin. Her characteristics skew very heavily in favour of men over women leading to dramas where the heroes are often glorified, to the point in Goblin where the male lead was a god. Kim Eun-sook with her “Prince Charming-like” male leads creates boyfriend fantasies strictly targeted at women. And looking at the statistics, it is clear that the majority of her viewers are women. The largest proportion of viewers for Descendants of the Sun and Goblin were women in their 40s accounting for 29 and 19.2 percent, respectively.
Her dramas are often described as Cinderella stories, and in an interview she said that “there is always a Cinderella in my work. Cinderella is the most entertaining story. [I know this because] my non-Cinderella plots had low viewership rates.” Her female leads are often much poorer than the male lead and, due to this, they tend to be lacking in agency and independence. This of course is a source of controversy particularly in the case of Goblin with the fact that the female lead of tends to be unable to escape the Cinderella stereotype particularly due to her male partner being such an almighty. But the Cinderella story remains effective since it is well received by female viewers because viewers are generally drawn to escapism in times of social and economic woes.
Although some might say it is another unrealistic story, a drama is a drama. I just want to make people enjoy the fantasy.
This creation of a fantasy, as stated by Kim Eun-sook in an interview, extends to other parts of her dramas in particular — the display of wealth through characters and settings. The majority of her dramas are preoccupied with the lives of the rich and wealthy. In Heirs, we see the lives of wealthy teenagers; in City Hall, we see the lives of the political elite; and of course the very wealthy male leads in the majority of her dramas. In this, she has been a pioneer, setting a trend for having foreign locations being featured in dramas with her Lovers trilogy. All of this provides escapism for the viewer drawing them into a world that very few live.
It is also notable that her writing is punctuated by wit and fast flying talk and she is famous in the industry for producing quick scripts under pressure and giving them to actors with only a short window before shooting. Moreover, she is notorious for her cheesiness, something that she embraces as her specialty. It does sometimes make for uncomfortable viewing and there are many stories of embarrassed actors.
One interesting story comes from Lovers in Paris, her 2004 drama. Park Shin-yang shared his experience with the famous line that hit South Korea in 2004, “Let’s go, baby”. In an English speaking setting, calling a loved one “baby” is a very common thing to do. But in Korea, it was a fresh new term. It was unthinkable. The actor said,
Honestly, the first time I read that line, I was like, “What? What in the world is this?” I really thought it was a joke at first… I was quite embarrassed.
But the cheesy nature of her writing has not stopped her from getting the biggest actors and stars like Lee Min-ho, Song Jong-ki, Gong Yoo and Lee Byung-hyun in her casts. Furthermore, her shows often become pop culture sensations where catchphrases and memorable scenes are parroted and parodied endlessly.
Over the years, she has created a distinct brand for herself in a competitive industry, making dramas that are distinctly hers. You know when you are watching her dramas and you know that when her new drama comes out, everyone will be talking about it, whether they like it or not. In one interview, she summed up her philosophy quite nicely. “Drama is not an art but an hour long entertainment. I don’t believe I should try to do art with other people’s money.” This philosophy is what has brought her the success she has today.
This was a guest post written by Kabejja. Interested in writing for Seoulbeats? Email us at recruiting[at]seoulbeats.com if you’d like to see your work published on the site!
(Koala’s Playground, otayamin, Han Cinema, Drama Fever, Drama Beans, Korean JoongAng Daily, Yibada, International Business Times, My Drama List, The Strait Times, Naver, Images via TvN, KBS, SBS)