Last April, I wrote about my first foray into anime. I had a great time with it, and my successful venture had a of couple unintended side-effects. For one thing, I enjoyed that first series so much that I tried another, then another, then many more (which led to me finally figuring out how to make Netflix play it in Japanese. Hurrah, technological success!). And then, when my choices narrowed down to only shows I didn’t want to watch, I began to read manga instead.
I’ve read a lot of manga since then. A LOT. It was a boon to my local library, since I signed out a dozen of volumes every couple of days for months. [NB: the TPL has a pretty good manga collection] One series I couldn’t get the timing right with was Boys Over Flowers, by Yoko Kamio. So when Netflix coughed up a Korean television adaptation of the series, I was chuffed.
Boys Over Flowers is the story of an ordinary girl at a school for the super-rich elite, who comes to the notice of the school’s four most beautiful/ influential/ sought-after boys, otherwise known as F4. She accepts neither their bullying nor their detachment. Gradually, they become friends (and even more), and eventually adults. It’s bildungsroman wearing the party clothes of Korean melodrama, and I was hooked.
I enjoyed the series so much that when I finished, I decided to check out some of Netflix’s other recommendations. Which is how I ended up watching Secret Garden. It has nothing in common with the similarly-titled book by Frances Hodgson Burnett — except that I loved it. The K-drama version is about the relationship between a stunt woman and the scion of a super-wealthy family who owns, among other things, a department store. The two, who occupy the opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, shouldn’t have met. But once they do, they can’t seem to stay away from each other. And that’s before they begin switching bodies every time it rains.
Soul-swapping! Stunt wire-work with the wires left in! Swords and makeovers and excellent physical comedy! This series really has something for everyone. Post-series letdown sent me back to Netflix for something to fill the lack.
What I found was Scent of a Woman. This is a more serious drama, about a quiet, hard-working woman who discovers she has six months to live. She decides to live those months to the fullest and generally do everything she has ever wanted to do. She quits her job; travels; steals a dog from an abusive owner; and tries to make amends for past offences. Along the way, she falls in love (with her rich, handsome boss) — a tricky proposition for someone without much time left.
Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I learned from watching K-dramas.
1) Rich people are assholes.
I’m not talking about the institutionally jackassery of the Wall street elite, here, but the personal failings of a group of people (the heroes) who have had every opportunity to learn better behaviour. The F4’s wealth and status have insulated them to the point where they have no idea how to interact with other people. The department store magnate has better manners, but uses them to devastate everyone around him. Only the hero of Scent of a Woman is exempt — and that’s because he remembers what it was like to be poor. But all the other rich people in his life completely fail the tests of basic humanity.
For each of these series, that’s part of the point: money alone won’t make you happy, or a good person. What makes all these rich assholes even remotely bearable is that the heroines by their very ordinariness teach them how to become part of the world. And the heroes actually learn.
2) Establishing shots can be a cultural marker, or a personal one.
I wanted to fast-forward through many of the establishing shots. They drove me crazy with their slow, sloooooow advance. If the series wanted to show someone climbing a hill, for instance, it showed the whole climb in a long unbroken shot… So long, in fact, that it interrupted the flow of the story.
But that made me wonder. Was that true? So I started timing some other establishing shots in similar North America movies. And I realized that the damn hill was usually just as long — the only difference was that the shot was broken up into several shots. Showing the same scene from different perspectives implied more movement than was actually there. Huh. Good to know. This probably wouldn’t have seemed like a revelation to me if I knew more about film making in general, but I don’t, so it did.
3) The attitude towards working mothers needs to change.
Working women were common and acceptable in the series I watched. But working mothers? Were eeeeeeeevil. When the leader of F4 decides he needs to stop dicking around and get serious about work, he is presented as misguided but noble. When his mother says the same thing, she’s a horrible horrible person. The department store scion’s mother wouldn’t dream of doing anything so plebeian as having a job. And the mother of the terminally ill woman just wants her daughter to get married and have a child, so she can finally stop working. Because working mothers are just icky and wrong.
It’s not quite that simple, of course, but that’s the emotional residue. Here in North America we still struggle with what we want from and demand of working mothers. In much of Asia, those bars are set much higher, and in increasingly unrealistic spots.
4) That early-Beiber-esque haircut with the side bangs? Looks good on NO ONE.
Let us erase that ‘do from our collective tonsorial practice.
5) I need to travel more.
I used to travel a lot. I’d be gone for months at a time with only a passport and backpack, far enough away that even the stars were unfamiliar. Watching these K-dramas reminded me of what it was like to discover that “the way things are” is a phrase that only works exactly where you’re standing. Everywhere else, things are different. It’s a small — but vitally important — lesson to learn.
It can be scary to leave the familiar; try something totally new; to be lost somewhere you can’t even read a road sign, let alone ask for help. But it doesn’t have to stay frightening. Surviving that kind of fear makes you realize… well, that you can survive it. That it’s not such a big deal. That fear doesn’t get to be the force that draws the limits on your life.
Wonder is the other half of the equation. For all that we’ve done to it, the world is still an indescribably beautiful place. There is so much out there to see. So many things you can’t imagine until you’re in the middle of them, until the colours filter in, so powerful that you can’t talk about it except in terms of the surge in your pulse, the lightness in your step. That remind you of the beauty present in your own life.
I’m a little annoyed that it took three K-dramas to remind me of that feeling: that the whole world is out there, and that I should be too.
Chris Szego is hopefully off to Iceland next. Because Iceland.