Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Teaching Korean Culture through Korean Dramas

I lose track of time a lot. I live in that weird academic reality where time is governed by classes and semesters and grading periods. But somehow since I got to UBC, and certainly this semester as I taught a class that had a substantial drama component, I watched more Korean Dramas (TV dramas) than I ever did before. I used to have a rule about not starting a Korean drama more than a couple times a year, as it generally turns into a binge, sooner or later, interrupting your normal life and sleep patterns for what... escapism, I guess.

Right now I am just finishing teaching a class on Contemporary Korean Culture. To try to make it more engaging (and to avoid reading final papers that were Wikipedia influenced reports), each student signed up to be part of a group that watched an entire drama (start to finish), blogged on each episode, and incorporated that drama into their final paper (on any topic they could bring their drama into). Students had a choice of 17 TV programs, not all dramas, but signed up for the following 8 (all dramas):

Age of Youth (season 1)
Forest of Secrets
Fight for My Way
Chief Kim
Reply 1997
IRIS (season 1)
Descendants of the Sun

Originally I had not watched all of these dramas, I relied on the recommendation of friends to pick dramas with solid analyzable content. After the class started I quickly finished watching Reply 1997 because I had always planned to watch it, and just hadn't gotten to it yet (it's one of the two older dramas on the list). I planned not to watch the remaining two (Age of Youth and Chief Kim) but soon found that my feedback for those two groups of students was not as good as for the other six groups. Now in the last week of the semester I am finishing Chief Kim.

How did these dramas work for students? The links below take you to the blogs the students made. Feel free to give them feedback if you want! As the student papers come in, you can judge for yourself how the class format worked to advance their understandings of Korea.

Age of Youth. This drama includes themes and content related to the tribulations of youthful college students, part-time workers in Korean society, gender discrimination, abusive relationships, sexual attitudes in Korea, parenting (or the lack thereof), sex work, body image/cosmetics/plastic surgery, the importance of education, class advantages, and educational networks

Misaeng This drama is famous for its realistic depiction of the life in a medium-large sized Korean company, particularly the difficulties of contract (not permanent) workers. Educational and personal networks, difficulties of working mothers, entertaining and drinking culture in the Korean company world, sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and more makes an appearance.
Image result for misaeng
Forest of Secrets.  Watching this drama, I immediately knew I wanted to include it. On one level it's a detective story as the leads try to catch a murderer. But more importantly its a story of the corruption in Korean society-- the two main leads are a prosecutor who is only believably honest as his backstory is that he had a part of his brain removed, robbing him of any empathy and leaving him a complete stickler for the rules, incapable of being corrupted. The drama also stars Bae Duna, and she is a reason to watch just on her own. It is the darkest of the 8 dramas, with sex work, blackmailing, corruption of the legal and law enforcement professions, corporations controlling politics, gender discrimination, and of course, murders.
Image result for bae doona, stranger

Fight for My Way. This drama is somewhat unique in that it does not follow the ideal successful young person, but rather four friends from more disadvantaged backgrounds who are struggling to overcome poverty (or at least get by in the world) while staying true to themselves. It's clearly a parable of "Hell Joseon" -- a new term for Korea popular with youth feeling the intense pressure of living in this society. The drama brings in issues of class, the importance of networks, the pressure in the workplace, the expense of marriage, fidelity, changing attitudes towards pornography, and so on.
Image result for fight for my way
Reply 1997. This drama swings back and forth between the past (with a lot of emphasis on 1997 and 1998 when the main characters are in high school) and the present (2012). Actually I had really looked forward to watching this drama, but was fairly disappointed. It has a historic K-pop and K-pop fandom connection, and addresses the importance of education in Korean society. It touches on corruption, the development of internet companies in Korea, regionalism, and much more. The same production/writing/directing team is also responsible for Reply 1988 and Reply 1994, but the stories are totally different.

Descendants of the Sun. This drama was a huge hit, one of the biggest. It was even tremendously popular outside of Korea. The drama deals with themes of nationalism, patriotism, professionalization of the military, sexual harassment in the workplace, networks and class and their impact on job opportunities, and even international peace-keeping. It is also a romance of the first order, with a stunning male lead who embodied almost every item on any woman's checklist.
Image result for descendants of the sun yoo shijin

Chief Kim. This was the last of the dramas that I watched myself. Friends strongly recommended it, but it hadn't seemed that attractive to me-- however, I ended up thinking it is one of the best of the eight. It is somewhat of a comedy, which actually works well to lighten up the dark dark dark topics addressed. The drama is another version of Misaeng in one way, except that the main characters all work for a major jaebeol (conglomerate like Samsung or LG or SK). The drama demonstrates the prioritization of the greed of owners and executives over the plights of irregular workers, contract workers, and of course the good-hearted team in Business Operations who are uncovering massive corruption that others continually try to hide using overseas paper companies, mafia-style shake-downs (the drama begins with someone being forced to commit 'suicide'), scapegoats and influence peddling. It just has to be the only drama in the history of the world with a bunch of accounts as the heroes and heroines.

IRIS. IRIS has a much more stereotypical hero-- a secret government agent cast down and falsely accused of being a traitor who is trying to avenge himself.  The actor who plays that agent, Yi Byeonghyeon, was at the height of his popularity when the drama came out-- a total heartthrob who has since seen his star tarnished. The plot includes secret talks between the DPRK and the ROK, and some of the main characters are northerners. Other than Descendants of the Sun it is the only drama to include Korea's international standing/position and international politics as a major theme. At the time it was made (2009) it was the most expensive Korean drama ever-- shooting in Hungary and Japan in addition to Korea.
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I posted some of my thoughts on teaching the class as it was going on the main clearing house for the class, here, if you're curious.

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