The summer after I received my diploma in Romance Languages and Literatures and struck out into the world as a Medievalist, I happened upon I know-not-what Korean Drama on hulu and I could not take my eyes off the 16-episode tale so woeful that it wrung from me every last tear my lacrimal glands could produce, leaving me quite spent. Then I discovered DramaFever and for six months after that I drank in more KDramas than I can count on fingers and toes (several times over) — all with the greedy thirst of a parched wanderer at an oasis. Ah, yea! the draught was sweet, and oh so addictive!
I imbibed morning, noon and night, wherever there was a laptop or a handheld and wireless internet to stream. I, who have never owned a television, took in comedies and romances, revenge dramas and chaebol sagas, thrillers and procedurals, sageuks of all manner and period. I could not get enough!
And almost immediately, I started to learn. First about Korea today: etiquette and mannerisms, diet and cuisine, trends and sensibilities (oh, and the fashion – the men, especially, are positively fearless!); then about Korea in yesteryear: Kingdoms and Dynasties, periods and eras, history and culture.
Eventually I found myself learning the language; first the masterfully logical and intuitive alphabet, and then about the visionary 15th century King Sejong the Great who developed the script (Hangeul, 한글) for the Korean language (Hangukeo, 한국어); next about the history and politics of Hanja (漢字) , the Chinese script used in Korean, and its philological kinship with Hangeul; and finally about the centuries-long fallow Hangeul underwent before being appreciated and revived following the brutal and much reviled early 20th century Japanese occupation and colonization of Korea. I learned to read and write and speak Korean. People and places and their once exotic-sounding names gradually became a part of my everyday world.
Back in KDramaland, experience revealed that there are fewer than six degrees of separation between any two bona fide KDrama stars, a class of master thespians and charismatic entertainers so engaging that they are simply radiant at the center of their respective solar systems in the KDrama galaxy.
I, who still do not own a television, developed a healthy (and I believe still-growing) DVD library of KDramas and films, especially treasuring the ones with closed captioning in Hangeul. Among my favorites: a generous portion of sageuks starting with the Goguryeo era: Jumong, Kingdom of the Wind, Emperor of the Sea (all three starring Song Il Guk) and The Story of the First King’s Four Gods (aka Legend, starring Bae Yong Jun and dramatizing the legend of King Gwanggaeto the Great); Joseon Era odes to art, music, poetry and all manner of intellectual enterprise: Deep Rooted Tree about King Sejong the Great’s development of Hangeul (starring Jang Hyeok, Han Suk Kyu, Shin Se Kyung and featuring Song Joong Ki), Jewel in the Palace, Hwang Jin Yi and Painter of the Wind (also known as Garden of the Wind, starring the masterful Moon Geun Young and possibly one of the most beautiful showcases that I have ever seen on film of artists at their craft and the brilliant works they create). Also set in the Jeoson Era and once again starring Jang Hyeok, Chuno — an adrenaline rush of a drama that reads like a visual poem to martial artistry.
In feature film I sought out and was captivated by The King and the Clown [evidently I am partial to period pieces], and two quietly fantastical contemporary allegories of love in the modern age that both claimed a special place in my heart: Il Mare and Castaway on the Moon with Jung Ryeo Won, another thespian genius. Much as I love historical dramas, I took in many more contemporary fictions and I simply had to add Hotelier and Winter Sonata to my DVD library. (Winter Sonata, in particular, made Bae Yong Jun an international superstar — especially in Japan where he is adored by throngs of Japanese women, a fact which apparently caused some welcome waves on the Nippo-Korean political landscape)! DramaFever and Viki.com provided a steady supply of melodramas and histories and comedies, including a gently subversive little gem going by the name Cheongdamdong Alice that turned rom-com conventions on their heads. Along the way, it sealed my admiration for Moon Geun Young and demonstrated that Park Shi Hoo was not just another pretty face…
And then I stopped. I am not sure what happened – I may have reached a saturation point beyond which I could drink in no more. I don’t really know why I stopped. I just know that I no longer hurry home just so that I can continue my latest marathon of an historical saga like the blithe agasshi I thought I was becoming. The thirst to imbibe yet another chapter, the need to know what happens next, the desire to see the hero overcome his travails, to see the heroine triumph despite the circumstances – all of that is gone. I’ve even tried rekindling the passion by turning to the works of actors I know and love – nada.
Curiously enough, I don’t even miss it at all. What I thought was an oasis turned out to in fact be a vast ocean surrounding the little island of what I know about popular culture. Should I wish to partake of its waters at any time, it will always be just a click and a stream away. And should the internet go down, I’ll just fire up the old DVD and go old school, disk after disk after disk…