story by MICHELLE WOO
photographs by MIKE LEE
A man on a motorcycle zooms through the streets of Seoul, zipping past concrete buildings and busy market stalls. He looks into his rearview mirror—a cop is speeding toward him with blaring sirens. His hand twists the throttle. An alley appears, and he turns into it, dodging a crowd. He looks behind him—the cop has disappeared. Leaning back with swagger, he rides into freedom, his loose yellow jacket blowing in the wind.
Right then, a jazzy saxophone melody plays in the background.
“This music is terrible,” says Jen, dressed in pajamas and sitting on a couch in her Los Angeles home, her eyes glued to the video player on her computer monitor.
Sarah, perched beside her, laughs. “It’s not quite porno,” she says. “It’s like 90210, the original.”
On screen, the man hits the brakes, lifts off his helmet and runs his gloved fingers through his floppy, tousled hair. He slips on a pair of sunglasses as his poreless skin glistens in the sun.
“Oh my God, look at him,” Sarah says, letting out a sigh. “He’s beautiful. Do you see why I fell in love with him?”
“Oh, completely,” Jen says. “There was nobody in Korea who wasn’t in love with him.”
The women, both Korean Americans in their 30s, are watching Feelings (Neukkim), a 1994 Korean television drama about three brothers in college (Sohn Ji-chang, Kim Min-jong and the bad boy on the bike, Lee Jung-jae) who all fall for the same girl. It’s a nostalgic journey for Sarah and Jen as they revisit the first episode of the series that Jen says “turned us both into Korean drama addicts” sometime in their preteen lives.
Sharing a microphone plugged into a USB port, with glasses of soju within easy reach, they’re recording their commentary for their website, Dramabeans, the most comprehensive Korean television drama review blog in existence. Each day, K-drama fans across the globe flock to the page to catch up on episodes, patch holes in their understanding of Korean culture and terminology, and most eagerly, to find out what Sarah and Jen—two critics they know as javabeans and girlfriday, their respective Internet handles—have to say about the shows they swoon, cry and obsess over. (They declined to have their surnames published because they wish to separate their online personas from their real-life ones.)
“Oh, remember? She was a tomboy, so she called him hyung instead of oppa,” Sarah says, referring to the way one female character in Feelings addresses an older male friend. (It’s akin to her saying, “Yo, dude.”)
Jen replies, “Yeah, it was like, oooh, she broke convention.”
Their chatter is an effortless flow of giddy fangirl glee and film-school-level deconstruction, much like the thousands of episode recaps they’ve written since Sarah started the site in 2007. The Dramabeans archives encompass a vast catalogue of insightful, remarkably meticulous breakdowns of shows, from the pioneering 2002 drama Winter Sonata to 2007’s comical and addictive Coffee Prince to the 2009 megahit Boys Over Flowers to this year’s heart-slaying supernatural romance You From Another Star. Hardly a casual hobby, the site has logged more than half a billion pageviews, with its popularity allowing Dramabeans to be the pair’s day job—or rather, their night job, as they work on Korean time. They have written a book, produced a podcast and spawned a fanbase that organizes meetups across the United States, as well as in countries such as Germany, Egypt, Australia, Indonesia and India.
Sarah and Jen, who often complete each other’s sentences and then dissolve into laughter, have become the Internet’s tour guides for a genre that’s charging through race, age and gender lines. On the online streaming site DramaFever (think Hulu for Asian TV), 40 percent of the active users are Caucasian, 30 percent are Latino, and 15 percent are African American, according to the company’s co-founder, Suk Park. Though DramaFever also offers telenovelas and Chinese programs, it generates 70 percent of its profits from Korean dramas.
More people are discovering these shows through obsessed friends, Netflix recommendations, news of Hollywood remakes (Korean dramas Good Doctor, Answer Me 1997 and You From Another Star will all be remade for American television), and through sites like Dramabeans.
“People describe us as the ‘gateway drug,’ the entry point into a drama,” says Jen, during an interview at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, where she and Sarah just finished speaking on a panel for the mega K-pop convention KCON. “When you don’t really know what the world is like, we take you by the hand, help you pick out things to try.”
Sarah chimes in. “If you don’t have someone to weed things out for you, maybe you’ll give up,” she says. “This is how I feel about Bollywood. I’d love to love Bollywood, but I don’t know where to start.”
* * *
Since the Japanese Colonial Period, following dramas—on the radio and later on television—has been an unofficial national pastime in Korea, a way to collectively get lost, laugh, dream and sometimes mourn the woes of reality. (The popular 1954 radio drama Cheongsilhongsil, also made into a film and TV drama, tells the story of a woman widowed during the Korean War.) Thanks to the phenomenon known as Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, by the turn of the 21st century, K-dramas, along with Korean pop music and films, were sweeping through Asia—and soon after the world. According to the Korea Creative Content Agency, dramas accounted for 90 percent of Korea’s broadcasting export revenue in 2012—with receiving countries as diverse as Japan, the Philippines and Brazil. Famously, the historical drama Jumong attracted an 80 percent viewership in Iran.
Today, more than 30 dramas may be airing in Korea at any given time. The sheer variety of K-drama plots and settings is dizzying (“To say you like Korean dramas or don’t like Korean dramas is like saying ‘I like books/I don’t like books,’” Sarah explains), but the most famous ones outside of Korea often center around a love story fueled by chaste. Euny Hong, author of the The Birth of Korean Cool: How One Nation Is Conquering the World Through Pop Culture, tried to explain the shows’ universal appeal to Vice.com, saying that American girls yearn for “long, drawn-out romance that for whatever reason cannot be consummated,” and the dramas provide “that perfect storm of Puritanical separation of the sexes.”
But Sarah and Jen have a simpler explanation for the worldwide, meteoric rise of K-dramas. They believe it comes down to the fact that each series has a set number of episodes (usually between 16 and 24 for weekday prime-time miniseries), meaning there will always be a beginning, middle and end. “I think people want the answer to be Confucianism and family values, and we’re just like, ‘It’s format, buddy,’” Sarah says.
“People like complete stories. As viewers, we give these dramas a lot of trust. We give them our hearts. We give them our tears. We don’t want to be jerked around. If we’re investing our time and faith into you, we are trusting that you’re going to repay us with a happy ending or a maybe a sad ending. We want payoff.
That’s the appeal that American shows cannot and will not give you. They do the will-they-or-won’t-they dance forever. Season 3, the cousin jumps in! And, oh! They have a secret baby somewhere! You know from day one that Meredith and McDreamy are supposed to be together, so why do they spend so many years apart? You just feel strung along.”
“It’s like, this is why you came to the island?!” Jen says with a laugh.
Another reason they’re so popular, the women say, is that people like a good cry, and K-dramas, if they achieve their mission, will make viewers sob. “You’re really not successful if you haven’t moved somebody,” Sarah says.
She grows emotional just thinking about a wrenching scene from Bridal Mask, a 2012 drama that takes place in Seoul during the Japanese occupation. “[The Korean independence fighters] might die in the next two seconds, but it doesn’t matter,” she says. “They know this is a fight worth fighting. It was just the emotion and the swelling music and the grandeur of the scene, and ahhhh, I’m getting all …” She takes a moment to compose herself.
For Jen, You From Another Star had her reaching for the tissues. In the supernatural romance, an alien, played by K-drama heartthrob Kim Soo-hyun, falls in love with a human, but realizes that staying on Earth means he will slowly die of cancer—and the longer he hangs around, the sicker he becomes. “There’s one part when somebody asks him something very basic like, ‘Are you going to miss her?’ and he doesn’t answer,” Jen says.
“He just breaks down.”
“Oh, he’s such a good crier!” Sarah says.
“Nobody cries like him!” Jen says.
They both laugh.
While non-Korean viewers soak in such dramas in a similar way, they often stumble upon certain cultural cues. That’s where Dramabeans steps in. On the blog, there’s a glossary of commonly used terms that crop up in K-dramas, from ajumma to yeobo. Last year, they published the e-book Why Do Dramas Do That? to “help demystify the world(s) depicted on screen.” There, Sarah and Jen answer many of the most common questions they get on the Dramabeans site: What is so romantic about head trauma? (“In its simplest form, amnesia can be a window to the soul—stripped of memories, painful roadblocks, the notably idiotic things that keep a couple apart.) What’s with all the back-hugs? (They apparently indicate a disparity in feelings within a romance. “The hugger invariably feels more for the huggee, and the crux of the gesture is to dramatize that inequality,” they write.) Why do guys like being called oppa so much? (There’s an extensive, three-part explanation for this one, and we won’t even try to sum it up here.)
* * *
Though Sarah and Jen didn’t meet each other until after Dramabeans was created, they say they “lived parallel lives” growing up in Los Angeles. Their journeys with Korean dramas began the same way: halfpaying attention to whatever show their first-generation parents were watching on TV, usually a historical drama, or sageuk. It wasn’t until 1992 that a drama called Jealousy captured their hearts. The series centered on a group of just-graduated college students out in the real world. Feelings followed in 1994. “That was the first drama where we were like, ‘Are you watching this? Are you watching this?’” Sarah recalls. More popular dramas were released, and soon, Sarah and Jen were dragging their mothers to the video store to rent the VHS tape of the latest episode on the day it landed in stock. Once they got their hands on it, they would make their own pirated VHS copy, which Jen describes as “literally a copy of a copy of a copy.”
When they went off to college and their lives became busier, their K-drama obsessions tapered off. After graduating with a degree in Asian Studies, Sarah wanted to be a successful television writer in Hollywood, but in the process, felt “berated at every turn.” She says she would be denied jobs if there was already another minority on staff and, over time, just felt “burnt out by the Hollywood machine.”
Then, by what she describes as the “serendipity of the Internet,” she stumbled upon Korean dramas on YouTube and kept hearing about what people were calling the “Korean Wave.”
“That’s when I realized, oh my God, there are Americans who actually know who Rain is? And they like him, and they’re singing his songs? This is really weird.” She started tuning into the K-dramas of the day—All About Eve, Winter Sonata, All In—and just “got sucked in.” In a “very dark time” in her life, watching dramas became her solace.
Of course, she needed to talk about the characters and stories that invaded her head all day, but when she looked online for a place for real discussion, say, a Television Without Pity for the K-drama fanset, she couldn’t find anything. “There was nothing in existence in the way I wanted to talk about it, which is the way I would want to talk to a friend about Veronica Mars. Like, oh my God, the film noir and evil versus corruption! I wanted to talk about themes and dissect characters. Nobody was doing that online. The only thing you got was maybe, ‘Oh, this actor is really hot.’ So I was like, OK, I’ll build it then.”
In 2007, she launched a WordPress blog called Javabeans, a nod to her love of coffee, and started writing episode recaps of Korean dramas, her first being the hit romantic comedy Dal-ja’s Spring. K-drama fandom, at the time, was fractured, with non-Korean speakers dependent on ragtag teams of volunteer subtitle writers, known as subbers, to translate the shows, a process that could take weeks or even months. But Sarah attracted an audience almost instantly—one that found her detailed play-by-plays, laced with personal commentary, thrilling. Finally, there was someone writing what viewers were thinking, or at least wish they had thought of.
In recapping episode 15 of Witch Amusement, she wrote about a scene where a woman named Yoo Hee storms into her fiancé’s office after she finds out from his ex that he’s using her.
To my disappointment, Yoo Hee doesn’t slap Joon Ha, or call him out on his behavior, or otherwise verbally castrate him. Instead, she asks leadingly, “Before we marry, is there anything you want to tell me? Why did you pick me? Of all people, why did you decide to marry me?”
Joon Ha guesses she probably wants to hear something childish like, “Because I love you.” (You THINK, Joon Ha? The girl’s marrying you in a day, and you think she’s not going to want to hear that sometime soon?) She asks if he does love her, and Joon Ha takes a moment to answer, “Well. Do I have to answer that in words?” No, Joon Ha. You can answer that with your long, awkward silences and frowny faces.
About six months after Sarah launched the site, it became so popular that she decided to move it to its own domain—Dramabeans.com. At the time, she was working as a newspaper copy editor, while doing some freelance writing on the side. But she soon started earning a bit of advertising revenue through Dramabeans, which allowed her to turn down freelance jobs.
“I loved that I didn’t have to cut the hobby,” she says. “I could cut the work. It just built from there.” A couple years in, the ad income was pretty steady, so she was able to run Dramabeans full-time.
As Dramabeans was taking off, Sarah would receive multiple emails from writers who wanted to contribute to the site, but the one that stood out was from a woman named Jen, a K-drama devotee who had left film school as she felt “trapped in academia.” Sarah says she could tell they had similar sensibilities, and decided they needed to talk more. The two met in a coffee shop in L.A. in late 2009, and Jen says, “It was just like a weird brain meld.” Jen signed on as Sarah’s partner and righthand woman. She chose the online moniker girlfriday because she’s always felt a connection with the Girl Friday character in classic detective movies—she’s trusty and a jack-of-all-trades. Sarah adds, “And sometimes, she knows more than the hero.”
The two writers describe themselves as “crazy, perfectionist overworkaholics.” Sarah now lives in Seattle and communicates with Jen in Los Angeles via Skype during their work hours, which, because they run on the Seoul news cycle, usually starts at 5 p.m. and ends at 2 or 3 a.m. (On days when they write recaps, they begin around noon.) Each day, Sarah and Jen, along with their “minions” (the name for their two long-term interns who go by gummimochi and HeadsNo2), pore through Korean entertainment headlines and decide what to write about. In addition to K-drama recaps, Dramabeans also features entertainment and casting news, along with reviews of films and variety shows. They’ll watch the first episode of about 90 percent of all dramas that come out of Korea, and then decide if any are worth writing 10,000 words a week about.
“We’re eternal optimists,” Jen says. “No matter how many bad shows we encounter, we always hope and know that there’s going to be another good one that comes along.” They have an informal rule that they won’t write about a drama just to snark on it. “We have an aversion to people who just want to hate-watch something,” Jen says. Sarah adds, matter-of-factly, “I’m not that insecure about myself.”
Other K-drama review blogs exist, but Sarah says they “actively avoid reading other people” because they want their commentary to be pure. They spill out their opinions, and then invite readers to form their own. It’s a model that helps distinguish the site from others, according to scholar Regina Yung Lee, who notes the phenomenon of the fansite having “its own dedicated fans, readers who come specifically to the site and trust its work above others,” in the 2014 book The Korean Popular Culture Reader. “Dramabeans.com gives often far-flung Kdrama fans somewhere to congregate, where their interests and obsessions can be part of normal, non-niche, watercooler-level interactions, with all the possibilities of informed commentary and mutual exchange,” observes Lee.
Sometimes, the number of comments on posts can shoot into the thousands with fans speculating who they think will die or debating which guy the main character will marry. Sarah remembers one discussion that got particularly heated. The post was for Secret Garden, episode 13. She describes a scene of the 2010 romantic fantasy where Kim Joo-won (played by actor Hyun Bin) “tricks a woman, forces his way into her room, ignores her repeated protests, shoves her onto a bed and restrains her body while holding her close.” He ends up kissing her, and she reciprocates, and then all of a sudden, she’s no longer angry at him.
“We had really big problems with the way the scene was portrayed, and it had nothing to do with the character being an asshole,” Sarah says. “If a character’s an asshole and he’s portrayed as an asshole, that’s fine. We’re not saying everybody has to be a paragon of virtue. Just don’t condone bad behavior and say it’s romantic. ‘No’ means ‘no.’ ‘Get your body off of my body’ means ‘get your body off of my body.’ I remember in the comments we had some people very happy we said that, and we had some people who said, ‘They’re just hateful feminists.’
I said, ‘Well, I’m OK with that comment because I’m a feminist. It’s not an insult.’”
Fans appreciate their voice. David Choi, a 40-year-old New York lawyer who’s known in the Dramabeans universe by the username sansooki, was introduced to the site by his wife after he watched the seminal My Name is Kim Sam Soon in 2005 and “really started falling for Korean dramas.” For him, Dramabeans became “the translator, the guide, the narrator and the analytics” to a world that empowered and connected him to a culture he never knew. Growing up in Connecticut as the only Korean guy in his neighborhood, the images he saw of Asian males were reduced to kung fu characters on TV. “It was a shock to me to see that, in dramas, Koreans can be more than people who just study and become doctors,” he says. “We can be funny and smart and strong and desirable. We can be seen as sex symbols. In dramas, we’re everything. We can be anything.”
Korean dramas, Sarah and Jen say, have a way of connecting people across borders and generations. They see it when grandmothers and grandfathers come together to their fan events. They also see it in their own lives. “I have a very reticent Korean father,”
Sarah says. “A lot of our phone conversations would be like, ‘So what did you eat today?’ Ever since I’ve been doing this, our conversations are like, ‘So what drama are you watching?’”
Sarah says that while Dramabeans continues to expand its readership, they “don’t make enough money to ever rest easy.” So they continue to push themselves, staying relevant, passionate and always honest. “We could cut back or we could just work harder and be tired,” Sarah says, describing their dilemma late at night when they’re about to go to bed, but there’s always more content to cover. “It’s not about money. It’s not about pageviews. It’s just like, ‘But there’s a story I want to write! And if I don’t write it, I’m gonna be mad I didn’t write it.’”
Both women say they feel lucky that they’ve been able to invent their own dream jobs, and appreciate that their fans keep coming back to read what they have to say. “If you run a marathon just to run a marathon, what do you do when it’s over?” Sarah says. “If you don’t like to run, what’s the point? It’s similar for us. You have to enjoy the day to day, otherwise, it just becomes a burden.”
“We’re not doing this for some sort of end goal,” Jen says.
“We just like the process.”
“Maybe the process is the end goal,” Sarah says. “Hmmmm.”
They both laugh.
This article was published in the October/November 2014 issue of KoreAm under the title “Drama Queens” Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the magazine issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).