Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Irritating Things on T.V.

I was watching "The World They Live In," a Korean T.V. show (the title in Korean is 그들이 사는 세상 and is sometimes translated as "Worlds Within"), last night. Well, my mom was watching it and I was trying to watch it, quite unsuccessfully.

The World They Live In,
그들이 사는 세상

(As a total aside, Korean T.V. shows are called "dramas." Because they're ... dramatic? Whatever the reason, that's what they're called, and the word is extended to three syllables- 'du-ra-ma.')

I actually watched all the episodes of "On Air" (온에어) earlier this year, at times sitting through excruciating scenes. (And yes, the title was in English, just phonetically spelled out in Korean. Odd? Sure. But very Korean.)

The thing that both "World" and "On Air" have in common is that they both take place in the entertainment industry. They're both shows about making dramas. "On Air" had four main characters- a director, a writer, an actress, and an agent. "World" has two main characters, both PDs (producer-director? production-director? Not totally clear on that).

The whole "this is an inside look at the world of making dramas!" thing is fine, whatever. But the complete and utter lack of reality ... it rankles me. I was one of the few people in the world that watched and liked "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," the NBC show that was somewhat about the making of "Saturday Night Live." Yes, it was glamorized, yes, it was pretentious at times, but it still had some semblance of reality. I could relate to the overworked assistant that was at the office until 2:00 in the morning, scrambling to keep the peace while the executives stressed out about the show right up until airtime. I could relate to that sense of panic that they were able to convey, and the sense of relief and victory when things (invariably) went well, if not ideally.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

My problem with "On Air" and "World" is that the shows are not based in reality. I can't believe that the people in Korea versus here in America are so different that they would react in vastly different ways to very similar situations. I refuse to believe it, because believing such a thing would be to admit that Koreans are ninnies that become absurdly terrified at any little hitch. (NO, we are NOT ninnies).

Also, it seems like the Korean dramas like to play up the drama- everything is a HUGE! PROBLEM! OH! NO! WHAT! WILL! WE! DOOOOOOOOOOO!

That is not realistic. People don't go running around, literally, while screaming in fear of some horrible thing happening. I mean, come on. Is this me, just being more American than Korean? Am I too Americanized? Have I lost touch with my Korean roots and my ability to panic and fret at a moment's notice?

Um, no, I think not.

In addition, one thing that I notice is that Korean dramas are not filmed on film. They're either filmed on some sort of tape, or filmed on film and then down-res'ed to video, because the quality is so unspeakably crappy that I don't even know what to do with myself. My eyeballs become unhinged at times, pained from watching such vileness.

The lighting never helps, either. There have been very few Korean dramas that I have watched and not cringed at because of the lighting. Everyone's either supremely over-lit, looking like there are a few dozen fluorescent light-bulbs pointed directly at them, or they're under-lit, like someone forgot to pay the lighting crew and they ran off, light-bulbs in hand. What is that about?? For me, lighting and music are the huge underrated things that can make or break a show, no matter where it's produced. People don't seem to give enough thought to either one. ("Coffee Prince," 커피프린스 1호점 (literally "The 1st Shop of Coffee Prince" but that kind of Konglish does not sit well with me, and I refer to it as just "Coffee Prince") is a notable exception to this- the music was superb, and it was the first Korean drama I had ever watched where I did not want to scream every time they played music. If you've ever watched a Korean drama, you know that they like to play their one theme song over and over and over and over and OVER again. The lighting on "Coffee Prince" was not too bad ... could have been better at times. They benefited from being mostly set in the day, and they filmed in the summer. In a Korean summer, heat + humidity = good looking show.)

The characters are a whole separate and large problem. For instance, the "Studio 60" characters are very layered and complex. Granted, it's not a miniseries. (most Korean dramas air for 16 or 22 episodes and then are done, forever. I do like that, quite a lot. These shows that endure for season after season can become so tiring). Since American shows are not mini-series, they have more time to let things develop and let characters grow. Seeing as how American shows usually debut at 13 episodes for the first season, though, I don't think it's much of an excuse. Korean dramas have enough time for complex and layered characters, they just choose to usually be caricatures- "the serious working girl," or "the tough guy with a soft heart" or "the fat girl that's warm and funny" or "the girl/boy who's so good that everyone takes advantage of her/him" or the (too) often used "beautiful girl/boy dying of cancer being spurned by the love of their life."

Yes, yes, I know, I'm being overly critical. Part of the fun and the entertainment of Korean dramas is the complete break from reality that they provide. When those dramas are about the type of work I do, however, I feel that I get to be overly critical.

I realize very well that I've only ever worked in America, and specifically in L.A. I'm used to working on big-budget films, with enough money to make any Korean drama 20 times over. I know that the amount of money makes a huge difference (I worked on "Superman Returns," which had a budget over $200 million, whereas "East of Eden" (에덴의 동쪽), a huge production in terms of Korean dramas, has a budget of just $14 - 19 million for 50 episodes). I know all of this, and yet somehow cannot divorce myself from the thought that if people just made different choices, the quality of Korean dramas could rise substantially.

Am I being snobbish? Possibly.

Am I being unreasonable? I don't think so.

I don't know what production standards are in Korea- perhaps they pay their crew really large fees, and have no money left for anything (light-bulbs, even). Perhaps they are limited to working very short hours and can't get anything in (unlikely, given the Asian continent's penchant for working non-stop).

I feel like going to Korea and somehow getting a job on a drama and just kicking people. I know, it's rude, and they'll all say that I'm one of those types of Korean-Americans.

Is it so wrong of me to want to improve one of the biggest exports that Korea has? I wish I knew how they worked, how things got done. Maybe then I wouldn't be so judgmental.

I had to vent because I can't watch "The World They Live In" anymore, and it makes me sad. I really like one of the actors that plays one of the main characters. But I can't take it.

Please, Korean drama people in general-- just get it together. Take the best of what American shows have to offer, leaving behind everything else, and combine it with the melodrama that only Korea can produce.

Then maybe I'll be able to watch a show now and again.


Chloay December 27, 2008 at 11:05 PM  

Ummmm, it might be ridiculous for me as a stranger to comment on your blog, but I really had to say something about this... I'm also a Korean-american that just moved here last year and still loves to watch korean drama! Well, its true that they are lil bit corny and non-realistic, but i believe that how they should be actually. Even though people say they are sick of so straight forward love or epic stories, ironically all the hero movies are still striking in the film industry, even "superman returns" that you worked on was one of it. Ummm moreover, it is just poor environment that leads to the low budget of Korean drama makers. It's really sad and i hope it to get better somehow, but that is REALITY. Well, that was just my idea... I wonder what you are working in the filming!:)

william December 28, 2008 at 4:41 AM  

i totally agree with you on the quality of korean dramas. i love korean dramas (am in the midst of beethoven virus), first off, but i do cringe sometimes as a result of poor lighting and overwhelming music. the storylines don't bother me as much because i understand that these dramas need to snap up viewers within the first five or so episodes; thus, the plot can be jumpy (and ridiculous) at times.

like you, i want to contribute to the korean film/tv industry with some great american sensibilities. i'd like to see a great family drama where a) nobody dies, b) nobody is sick, and c) and nobody is part of the mafia.

you can tell a great story with just 18 episodes, and i'd love to see a drama that is a-plus on the production, writing, and acting. my name is kim sam soon is close to perfection, in my opinion.