Asia Life

Hints From a Korean Blockbuster

“Descendants of the Sun” offers some interesting insights into what makes a hit show in Korea.

Hints From a Korean Blockbuster

The third Korean wave is upon us. With the blockbuster viewership of KBS’s “Descendants of the Sun” (DOTS), South Korea has shown that a combination of Chinese investment, politically neutral script-writing, and positive yet sexually innocent characters could resuscitate a media-scape and pull Korea’s content market closer to the Chinese audience. iQiyi shouldered 40 percent of the total cost of production with its $4 million investment in return for the exclusive broadcast rights of the show. From the get-go, DOTS was designed to be the vanguard of a new wave of Korean media in the Chinese market. A recent estimate had 400 million views were made on the iQiyi media platform. Success has been palpable.

Korean drama scripts are known to draw from the sophisticated mix of political, economic and social conditions on the Peninsula. DOTS is a classic example of this. Here are some of the elements of its winning formula:

1. The nomenclature is designed to resonate with the post-Sunshine Policy generation of millennial Koreans. For the post-90s audience spanning the transition between the pro-reunification position of the Kim Dae-jung administration and the more aggressive stance of the government of Park Geun-hye, the theme of DOTS would resonate. The show is about consistently working towards a prosperous peace through surgical military intervention via engagement with the international community.

2. The North is not painted as a bogeyman. The typical image of North Korea is dominated by Kim Jong-un and his purges of the North’s elite as well as his belligerence towards Japan and its U.S. ally. The South has had to live with Pyongyang since 1953 and has a complicated relationship with its leadership and chain of command. DOTS tries carefully to illustrate this, by depicting the North as fellow Koreans with a vastly different ideology and the chains of corruption and nepotism present in BOTH Seoul and Pyongyang. Military men are portrayed as fundamentally honorable with political operatives and the bureaucracy manipulating the armed forces to their own benefit.

Reunification – whatever the modern Korean audience’s views on it – is taken as a cherished state goal in both Pyongyang and Seoul.

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3. This is a love letter to the Korean Right. Career politicians, with their duplicitous nature, are frequently mentioned in DOTS. Yet from the perspective of the financiers, DOTS becomes a state-affirming media piece which encourages the audience to maintain trust in absolute leaderships. If we remove the encoding of ideology (democratic or otherwise), this would be an easy and effective sell anywhere in East Asia at the moment (including Japan).

5. The South Korean military is depicted as closely aligned with U.S. international foreign policy, within limits. American forces are closely linked with the South Korean command structure in DOTS. The message is so affirming that the Korean public is debating the pro-militarist aspect of the show. The irony is that this sort of discussion is usually reserved for Japan’s wartime behavior.

The romantic situations, anti-terror action sequences and civilian rescue operations are all designed to shine a sympathetic light. The closest U.S. media comparison would be Tina Fey’s new situation comedy on Iraq.

But there are at least two episodes in which compliance with American military and diplomatic might is questioned. In one, a former U.S. special operations captain turns rogue but assists the U.S. in the black arms market, to support a dictator. The other occurs when South Korean troops are forced to act alone before the U.S. gives a green light to a rescue operation. DOTS is not a Washington Consensus propaganda piece. There’s a certain evenhanded approach to depicting Seoul’s relationship with the U.S. There are episodes where American technological and logistical power are crucial to neutralizing disease epidemics and securing ground-based intelligence. Indeed, there is quite a bit of depth in the storyline.

6. This is a no holds barred advertising vehicle for South Korean ICT heavy industry and overseas investment. From the numerous depictions of hardy Samsung phones in anti-terror operations, Hyundai cars with automated self-driving modes, and the solar panel plants built as part of overseas development aid, this is a major promotion vehicle for the South Korean economy. Korean melodrama has always relied on endorsement deals with domestic manufacturers like Samsung, but DOTS raises this to a new level.

7. Korean identity is now globalized, yet historically rooted in other parts of East Asia. Ye Hwa, the Korean-Russian oriental medicine woman in DOTS, was born in the Russian Far East and was a victim of separatist militants. In numerous episodes, her fluent Korean and understanding of traditional medicine evokes the historical presence of numerous Korean aristocratic states, which span the borders of Russia, China and the two Koreas today. And its a reminder to the Korean audiences that there are repercussions from the political decisions made in Moscow, Tokyo and Beijing.

Daniel, the Canadian-Korean international aid doctor who ventures to hot spots to provide assistance, is Ye Hwa’s guardian. His flawless North American English and Korean helps to bridge the DOTS Korean cast and the international aid community. He represents the “international” face of Korean identity which is closely linked to the Washington Consensus and the international community.

But that didn’t prevent the producers from smuggling dissent into the script. The last episode shows Daniel protesting against pharmaceutical intellectual property rules under the Trans-Pacific Partnership and its impact against humanitarian aid abroad.

Dickson Yeo is a research associate at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.