oh! … the choices

Ignore the noise and follow your own choice

Unknown

 

So, you got this far! Glad to have you along for the ride.

There is more to the ‘drama scene’ than just what is coming out of South Korea in a steady and reliable flow. Honestly, the vast majority of the drama’s that made my list (maybe hyperlink here to the actual list?) are South Korean, but I have also include decent choices from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand.

You may find as you go along that you prefer the drama’s coming out of one country over all the others, or one type of genre more than another, so to help you better understand your choices, let’s take a look at what drama is depending on the country it comes from and what genres (maybe hyperlink here to the genre descriptors?) are typically available.

 

China

It’s not known when exactly Chinese drama first started, but what I have learned is that the earliest of ceremonial dances and displays pre-Confucius era were the beginning of what would become Chinese pantomime and theatre. These displays and theatrical performance portrayed civil and military accomplishments for the most part and encompassed much pomp and symbolism. They are still continued today.

You can learn about the Origin of Chinese Drama and more about The Early History of Chinese theatre if you are so inclined.

Until a few years ago, almost every good drama coming out of China was more than likely coming from Taiwan and their films coming from Hong Kong, but that doesn`t mean Mainland China wasn`t producing great pieces themselves.

These days, the dramas available from China mostly fall into two categories

Historical subdivided into historical re-enactment (Tchhouen-Khi, Hi-Khio, Yuen-Pen and Tsa-Ki, Wuxia, Xiangsheng, historical fiction, historical fantasy, nationalist-rallying etc.

Modern drama, including Huaju a spoken play, political, crime, detective and/or police, horror, comedy, and the most common family conflicts.

As was the custom back in the day where almost every theatrical performance taught at least one lesson (morals) or had a meaning, many of the modern dramas follow along with the same lines. There are common themes among historical dramas – superstition, absolute sacrifice, piety, the discovery of well-kept secrets or guilt, proof of innocence, love comedy, love triangles etc. In modern Chinese drama, you have all of the latter and then others added in for amusement – evil ex`s, wicked step-mothers, romance overload, obsessive-compulsive relationships of all natures and intensity.

The importance of music to a drama has not been overlooked by the Chinese. They have scored theme music for their long-playing dramas. Let`s face it, Chinese drama episodes are longer and more in number compared to say Korean dramas.

On my list, there are both historical and modern drama and film in every possible genre you might want to watch.

Hong Kong

Television Broadcasts (TVB) Hong Kong`s largest free TV station with its TV City Studios is the origin of Hong Kong drama. It runs five free-to-air television channels. It first started broadcasting in 1967 and the first drama that I could find was called The Great Vendetta and was a modern drama with 67 (yes, 67) episodes.

While it is now waning in popularity, the locally produced dramas out of TVB contributed to the unique cultural identity of the Hong Kong population as subject content and themes often reflected the ideals and attitudes of the general population of Hong Kong.

As is a constant among many Asian countries, Hong Kong dramas fall neatly into two categories – historical and modern. Genres of Hong Kong`s historical dramas include imperial Chinese themed serials and modern day dramas include but are not limited to comedy, crime, martial arts, fantasy and supernatural.

There is a fairly complete list of dramas which have aired on TVB, by year dating as far back as 1977, available for additional reference.

 

Japan

Japan credits the origin of their drama to the introduction of a dance called Sambâso which apparently was used as a charm against the volcanic depression of the earth occurring in 805. However, the introduction proper, of Japanese drama is attributed to Saruwaka Kanzaburô who opened the first ever sibaïa (theatre).

Earliest Forms of Japanese drama included Noh (Nogaku), Kyôgen, Kabuki, and Bonraku.

Much of Japanese historical drama is by nature exceptionally fantastical with fairies, demons, circuses etc. The more modern day drama, also called ‘dorama’ is almost a Japanese staple and includes the typical genres — romance, comedy, detective, horror etc. Dorama is comparable to western sitcoms and as such will be aired in a three-season run.

Interesting fact about dorama — each episode is typically shot only a few weeks before it is aired and it is common knowledge where filming takes place (fans can actually get to see the progress and stars featuring in the dorama even as the show is being aired on television).

Another interesting factor particular to dorama is the style of screenwriting applied —‘trendy dramas’. The `trendy’ formula was developed in the late 80s to address real life in Japan and improved in the 90s. Much of Japan`s dorama success is because they have continued to use the `trendy dramas` formula, or so they claim.

As much as some people like to include Super Sentai, Tokusatsu and Anime into the drama mix, they are all in a category of their own, in my humble opinion.

In addition, the Japanese have created a niche market in support of dorama – it is the theme music associated with each dorama. Most dorama produces original soundtracks to accompany the production – even if it is just music that is played during the opening and runs during the credits. They release the compact disc a few weeks after the start to a dorama.

South Korea

South Korea has a long history in the development of drama and film. It all started with sageuk (historical period dramas). The first, The Story of Chun-hyang, which was filmed in 1923, was a popular element of Korean folklore. Simply put, a sageuk is a drama with historical elements from the period before the country split into North and South Korea. Most of the historical drama’s centre around two specific eras in Korean history:

Proto–Three Kingdoms (Gorguryeo, Baekje and Silla)

Joseon dynasty

Sageuk is fun to watch, some of them for their factual history and others for their outright difference to western television. They are much more than just historical drama — there is almost always politics, behind-the-scenes machinations, intrigue, lavish costumes and sets, fantastical twists and plots, mythical creatures, awesome fight scenes with parkour that will make your knees weak with anticipation, exotic foods (if you`re a foodie this will appeal), and of course all the small details that pull everything together – amazing locations, breathtaking footage and scenery, awesomely intricate headdresses and hairstyles for both men and women, and anything and everything in between.

Since their first sageuk, Korea has come a long way with thousands of dramas created over the years. The first historical television series in South Korea (Gukto malli) was aired in 1962. But sageuks were not popular with the younger generation so writers had to further develop their drama formats.

I think probably the best feature and one of the main reasons why Korea has had so much success and has such a large following for its drama, is the fact that the screenplay writers don`t blindly echo historical facts in sageuk, they reimagine and reinvigorate the actual stories – sometimes they even have characters travel forward in time to modern-day or back in time to a former life – commonly referred to as fusion sageuk.

Enter the age of the ‘kdrama’ – contemporary drama that appeals for the most part to all generations – there’s a little bit of everything for everyone.

There are repeat characters in many of the dramas:

The spirited heroine typically holds a secret or two but is optimistic in spite of (sometimes) crippling adversity.

The damaged gangster or thug who typically is expressionless, smug and/or arrogant but who inevitably is the most appealing character.

The hero is typically an attractive, personable, mostly uncomplicated, potentially deeply loyal person who always saves the day.

The antagonistic woman (women) typically is guilty of creating obstacles that the heroine and/or hero must endure or overcome and conspires or plots against the main characters repeatedly. She often has influence over the men in her life who are weaker-willed or have the weaker character so give in and assist her. She can be rigid and abusive.

The bully is typically a male who is very ambitious, remorselessly violent, determined, can be misogynistic, and often involved in political and business conspiracies.

The spoilt brat who for the most part is a female, but can be a male. She will be petulant, self-entitled, and hostile for many reasons including but not limited to jealousy and compete for affection. She does come around and sometimes grudgingly accepts whatever irks her or when it is a male him

The clown, typically a male (though not always) and can be in a place of influence (though not always). This individual can bring humour and comic relief through unexpected behaviour and silliness. He/she could be a major character or play a smaller role. When playing a major character, this person will be a manipulator using humour to cover their tracks. In a smaller role, his part may have a larger effect on the overall story. Typically, the clown character is respected affectionately by the hero, or heroine, or both.

The orphan who has lost a parent(s) to tragic circumstances or has been abandoned and has issues.

Alongside the repetitive characters, are also recurring situations – one of the characters killed a family member or committed a horrendous crime, characters find out that they are related creating angst and guilt, unrequited love by one, two or three characters, parental or family disapproval, a former relationship where a partner cannot or will not let go, obsessive suitors, criminals, non-human characters, rich versus poor, boss versus employee and many, many others. A combination of these and sometimes all of them can be included within one drama, making it all, well, very, very dramatic!

A kdrama mostly runs just for a single season with between 16-24 episodes and is filled with conflict and angst with tender moments to balance it all out. Genres of kdrama include Romance, Comedy, RomCom, Melodrama, sageuk of course, fusion sageuk, Crime and Thriller, lots of medical dramas and then every now and then you find a drama that has no specific genre.

It was not typical for Korean women to expose themselves in dramas, except for their legs (don’t ask me it is just something I noticed!!) But, times are changing and things are becoming a little freer for actresses. Men, on the other hand, are sexualized regularly, sometimes overtly. I’m not complaining!

I have never found a kdrama yet that has a gay or lesbian character, not surprising, but sometimes you find nuances that a character may be, is contemplating his sexuality or is gay.

Public displays of affection and open-mouth kissing are frowned upon so that awkward mouth-to-mouth resuscitation-kind of kisses are normal. However, in the more modern kdrama, things are changing and open-mouthed kissing and overtly sexual displays of affection are appearing slowly but surely.

Much like Indian Bollywood movies, there is a pecking order. With kdrama, it is typically the older you are the more respect you are given. People are rarely called by their given names unless they are younger. You’ll quickly learn the terms of endearment and the difference between an honorific and plain speak. Believe me! Etiquette is very important, even when a character is angry with someone, especially someone older, and more so when that person is a parent or grandparent. Which brings me to the importance of sons, or male characters – Korea is a very patriarchal society.

Another thing you will notice in the kdrama is the food and alcohol. Rice and kimchi appear to be eaten at every single meal, alongside soup. And the noodle slurping! Or just slurping in general … you better prepare yourself if you haven’t seen this before. Koreans come off on drama as being very noisy eaters! Soju is also a common feature. I’m thinking its western counterpart must be vodka. Soju has a high alcoholic content and characters are often drinking large quantities and getting drunk or tipsy.

As you can see, Korean drama, be it sageuk or kdrama is very involved and can be quite complex, but it is also the most prevalent, easily and readily available drama on the Asian market.

If you’ve never watched a kdrama, you must read some of my reviews and try one or two.

 

Taiwan

Due to the success of the Hong Kong television industry, Taiwan decided to also get into the drama-making business. They call them ‘tdrama’ or ‘twdrama’, depending on whether you are in the business or a fan.

Tdrama is typically produced in Mandarin and infrequently in Taiwanese Hokkien. Taiwanese actors pepper their dialogue with Taiwanese or use a Taiwanese accent.

Tdrama favours romance as a genre more than any other, although recently crime and judicial types are becoming more common. There is a lot less violence in tdrama and almost no sexual content. Popular singers feature in ‘idol drama’ types of tdrama and really appeal to the younger audiences.

As is the case with all Asian drama, the love triangle plays an important role in the type of themes for tdrama. And unlike Chinese drama, there is little to no drama that is based on nationalist sentiment or politics.

A small, but important piece of knowledge to have about tdrama, is, that many of the popular dramas are based on Japanese manga (comics), particularly the ones marketed at girls, for example, Meteor Garden is based on Hana Yori Dango and It Started With a Kiss is based on Itazura na Kiss.

Thailand

Thai drama, otherwise known as Lakhon (sometimes spelt lakorn), is more like a western soap opera than say, a drama with seasons and/or episodes. Because lakhon is played during prime-time slots on Thai television, the episode of a series can last about two hours long with commercials and each series is a complete story. A series only lasts about three months long with at most two episodes per week.

While some lakhon stray from the distinctive formula of character and narrative conventions, the majority stay true to Thai form. In every single lakhon, the goal is the perfect ending, so, the main characters will marry their soulmates and live happily ever after.

The two main characters are always singled out from the very beginning – the industry has taken away all the mystery and guesswork. The presence of at least one ‘bad’ female character is commonplace and this woman is usually head-over-heels in love with the male lead character and will place any and every obstacle in the way of the fairy-tale ending.

Surprisingly, in contrast to other dramas from Asian countries where a female character can impersonate a male, the Katoei in lakhon is a male character who impersonates a female, mostly for comic relief. By the end of the lakhon, all conflict must be perfectly resolved – everyone forgives the other(s), the criminal(s) get their justice and the bad character(s) their punishment. The good character(s) get their reward(s). There is the odd lakhon that ends with unsolvable issues, but this is not the norm.

Lakhon can be overtly melodramatic – I think the writers believe the more dramatic the better, but this is not the case and could be a reason why lakhon has not gained the same levels of popularity as other Asian countries drama. The grossly exaggerated and overly theatrical performances are more of an annoyance and draw attention away from the storyline.

Lakhon is one of the few Asian dramas where sex (both the good kind and bad kind) are to a degree, exploited. Rape has been romanticised in more than a few drama series and in 2014 approximately 80% of all lakhon had depicted rape in their series. Astounding! No? It seems odd then that there are strict laws governing censorship of nudity, sexual intercourse, drugs or addiction and religion. It doesn’t quite add up, right?

Most, if not all, lakhon are based on novels and there are some historical lakhon available, but they mostly delve into the spirit world and Thai folklore. The majority of lakhon are from the romance genre, some comedy and of course horror.

While I have added some lakhon to my list, I must be honest and say right up front that I am not into romanticised rape or overtly sexual dramas where sex and sexual orientation are exploited, so I have limited what I have chosen. We’ll just have to see how my choices play out, right?

There are other Asian countries offering film and drama choices, but I prefer these countries where the options available are easy to find streaming online and readily subtitled.

Written by