The Netflix Squid Game series caused a stir last month with its dystopian premise where people, pushed to the brink of despair, play deadly children’s games for money. It’s a brutal and austere nature and the whole concept seemed to resonate globally – paving the way for it to become Netflix’s Biggest Launch, with approximately over 111 million homes connected to watch. Squid Game, however, is not the streamer’s first Korean hit, nor has it been responsible for fueling the Korean wave globally. Squid Game is not a flash in the pan for Korean dramas, it is a pawn in South Korea’s ambition to make its culture known.
The Hallyu wave
The Hallyu phenomenon (a Mandarin term used to describe the growing popularity of the Korean entertainment industry) did not happen overnight. It has gradually spread since the 1990s – long before BTS formed their ARMY, before Hyun Bin and Son Ye-Jin crashed into our hearts with Crash Landing On You and Parasite won the Oscar. The Hallyu wave was born out of the Asian financial crisis that hit South Korea in 1997. The country was in debt after borrowing from the International Monetary Fund and had to use the money to restore its depleted foreign exchange reserves. Amid the financial turmoil, President Kim Dae-jung realized that the entertainment industry could serve as an economic engine. The Ministry of Culture has been restructured and funds have been injected into the Korean Film Council to spread pop culture, while ensuring that universities produce talent. Several government departments, including food, foreign affairs, sports and tourism, have invested heavily in the entertainment industry.
Today, Hallyu is one of the top exports, as the government spends over $ 500 million a year on its promotion through the Ministry of Economy and Finance. Yet the wave is not only limited to Korean popular culture, it has also generated a deep interest in Korean cuisine, products and lifestyle and created more opportunities for tourism. Hallyu has grown exponentially since 1999 and is now considered a global cultural phenomenon.
So the puzzled expressions of longtime Hallyu fans could now be understood, when they see audiences having the epiphany that Korean dramas are actually so “good.” South Korean culture, through its dramas and music, has been making “waves” since the late 1990s and early 2000s. Korean dramas have enjoyed commercial success in Asia and Latin America, as well as in the United States, even before the days of Netflix, and fans had subscriptions to Viki as well as DramaFever.
Popularity of ‘K-dramas’
There are several reasons why “K-dramas” (a term used to refer to the romantic melodramatic format of shows) found their audiences. Along with the storytelling, visual appeal, themes, and stellar acting, there’s healthy rom-com energy, a taste of all-consuming romance in most shows, rather than the predictable pattern of relationships. fragmented shattered and constant partner change, a trope the more the shows fall victim to. In short, they seem to have perfected the romantic format, which is perhaps why their audiences love to watch a frenzied season in a week. While romances are engaging, family relationships also add to the fun factor of the show. K-dramas don’t limit their stories to just their tracks, they spill over onto surrounding neighbors or friends, producing engaging stories and a multi-layered spectacle, most of the time. If romances are sweet, thrillers keep you going, with their tense and daring premises. K-Dramas are typically short, ending a story in one season of 16-20 episodes, or sometimes three seasons, rather than one endless streak of eighteen plus seasons.
Over the course of two decades, dramas have explored various themes, and possibly revolutionary themes as well in a time when people weren’t ready for these kinds of discussions. Among the many K-dramas, in 2007, Train to Busan actor Gong Yoo and Yoon Eun-Hye’s Coffee Prince explored the concept of sexual identity, gender role reversal in a clear, concise, and sensitive. In 2009, fans flocked to Boys Over Flowers, a show that made actor Lee Min Ho a household name, and the series is still beloved today. It was also one of the first shows that spurred the Hallyu wave westward. With a teenage romance set against the backdrop of a high school, it also reportedly sparked a fashion and grooming trend among Asian men. The series was praised for a nuanced premise: it was more than just academics and romance, it was known for its realistic portrayal of teenage obstacles.
In 2013 and 2014, Lee Jong-suk emerged with his revenge-focused dramas I Can Hear Your Voice and Pinocchio, which portrayed a realistic glimpse into court proceedings and news outlet desperation to sensationalize TRP coverage. He later moved away from the dark, nervous hero and became a leading lover of Romance Is A Bonus Book, which in addition to focusing on romance, also delved into the details of a publishing house. .
In 2019, Crash Landing On You became the talking point of all Korean dramas, as it saw the love affair between a North Korean military officer and a South Korean heiress. In 2020, It’s Okay To Be Okay addressed parenting issues and mental health frailties, and quickly made its way to Netflix’s Top 10 Dramas. Even in 2021, before the release of Squid Game, Hospital Playlist, a medical show focused on friendships between doctors who are also group mates, ended its run with the second season. The series was so popular that people were hoping for a third season, which unfortunately won’t happen.
K-dramas didn’t just stop at heartfelt romances; they tapped into their Korean mythology, something that gave their shows a delicious flavor. Gong Yoo’s Guardian: The Lonely God introduced many to the “dokkabe” – Korean goblins, which is a far cry from English terminology. Dokkabe are natural deities and spiritual entities, and this formed the knot of Guardian. Guardian viewed Gong Yoo as a goblin and Lee Dong-wook as a “Grim Reaper,” who struggles to share a home, while also dealing with their complicated love life and even more complicated and intertwined pasts. This freshness and unusual storytelling found an audience and the show became one of the most watched series in Korea, and also found fans around the world. The Korean fantasy series introduced us to Imoogi, Gumihos (the nine-tailed fox), a concept that has caught on in several shows. Supernatural fantasy dramas had addictive premises: for example Hotel Del Luna, a hotel run by ghosts who had yet to make peace with their traumatic past, or The Tale Of The Nine-Tailed Fox, where a Gumiho searched for his past. love.
So Squid Game isn’t the first show to ride the Hallyu wave, and it won’t be the last either. Netflix has an impressive collection of Korean dramas and has been actively investing in the Korean entertainment industry since 2016, investing 700 million over the past 5 years. There are other great successes to come.
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