When surviving the world isn’t enough
For this post I’m going to be completely myself and therefore extremely reductive.
I’ve said once before that the difference between Western and Asian narratives is that Western ones tell stories of changing the world, Asian ones tell stories of finding people with which to survive it. It’s not an original thought, nor even an original expression of it. And yet if you wanted a truly reductionist reason for why these two narrative traditions are different, here it is.
‘Western’ narratives are stories of doing. ‘Asian’ narratives are stories of being.
The quote marks are stories of generalising.
With the sudden, unexpected global phenomenon that was Squid Game this year, a lot of questions have been raised as to why it resonated so strongly outside of Korea. Many theories were given – usually around violence and sex and therefore showing an unfortunate lack of knowledge about the broad scope of Korean media generally.
Timing mattered, the pandemic mattered, Parasite mattered, Netflix mattered, climate change mattered, widening socioeconomic disparity mattered. All these things contributed. But if I had to posit a new theory, it is this: it was both a story of being and a story of doing.
A story in fact about trying your best to just be and in the end being forced to do. Because the alternative is watching injustice from afar and refusing to do anything about it. The alternative is living with a rapidly deteriorating status quo. You can try your best to just be but in the end you are going to have to do. Not to avoid getting shot by a giant doll in pigtails. But to help others avoid that metaphorical fate.
Korea, it seems, is ready for their protagonists to do rather than just be. And it’s something that international audiences find familiar.
The past few years have shown a definite shift toward stories where characters try to change things, rather than just survive or endure them.
Korean writers and producers are tired of writing stories about the unchanging (and unchangeable) status quo. They’re ready for things to be different, to be better.
Squid Game is not the only example for 2021, of course (although it is the most high profile). We have D.P.: a thoroughly Korean story written for a domestic audience about how things must change.
D.P. is devastating and pulls no punches. It doesn’t soften its blow for a second. If you want things to get better, it said, then things must be different. Not for a person or for an institution but for an entire system, even an entire culture. Things, they said, must be done.
In some cases, this call for action was brutal and violent and celebrated vigilantism and was even disturbing in its cynical use of violence against women (Taxi Driver) and in other cases it pulled its punches and didn’t land the necessary blow (Devil Judge).
But the trend is there as local writers clearly grapple with a world they believe is distorted and wrong – and a world that seems to be ending (Happiness, Hellbound).
This year saw the requisite number of romances and Makjangs and a big uptick in the number of both fusion and classic Sageuks. But in the midst of that, also, a considerable rise in stories of action, of fighting back. And not against an evil Chaebol or a single family or a corporation. Not against an individual who is betraying the principles of the system.
Fighting to change the system itself.
Even Beyond Evil had the courage to point its fingers at the interconnected, communal nature of corruption and concluded that social harmony was not worth the cost of buried atrocities.
As Squid Game told us – you can try your best to just be in an unjust system, you can try not to play the game at all. But in the end, if you can – if you have the means to change the rules of the game itself – then you must. You must do. Otherwise you’re complicit in a system that’s gone wrong. Surviving is no longer enough.
Like most drama watchers, I feel a certain wistful loss for the classic stories of being: of a rich and multidimensional discussion of life and how we can survive it together. But those stories are also conservative and even apologias for a status quo that can be brutal and unfair.
If Korean writers think that it is time to tell these new stories, these stories of standing up and changing things, these stories of doing and not just of being, then it’s a change that’s certainly resonates across the globe.
Surviving isn’t enough. It is time for change.
10 thoughts on “Stories of Being, Stories of Doing: 2021 The Year of Doing”
I believe that writers having more artistic license outside of the network system has been influential in this change and I welcome it. The serial disappointments from other dramas devolving into messes of missed storytelling opportunities makes me appreciate these well done and dynamic stories that much more.
Well done LT. Thank you.
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Thanks, egads. Although I admit the comment below about the sex of the writers of the different shows does give me pause. American TV in particular has an issue with men being in control of the creative process end to end. I’d hate to think that writers are breaking out of the strictures of the network system only to find that women writers have been sidelined as a result. It’s a sobering thought.
Wonderful post LT, it’s definitely a sign of the times we live in and how we no longer willing for injustices to be ignored and forgotten. I’m glad that finally kdramas seem to be challenging their characters, their audience to change the society we live in and I can’t wait to see more in the new year!
For what it’s worth, it’s such a shame this wasn’t posted on DB, I’m sure more of us would love to read it!
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Wait a second — this thoughtful piece of writing did not make a cut on Dramabeans? Whoa. What is wrong with you, DB? What is genuinely getting wrong with DB lately?
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No comment 😉😀
Fabulous commentary, Lee. I watch far too much tv, and always have. We can blame that on watching “Doctor Who”“The Banana Splits” and a number of dubbed Japanese shows in my pre formative years. The shows that led me to seek more and more great dramas: I, Claudius, The Pallisers and Wings. Then, decades later, when we stumbled across Deadwood, I let out a sigh of relief: great storytelling had returned.
“To be or not to be, that is the question” – the fearful uncertainty. I do get the feeling that the Writer Nim Association is saying “our constitution is 38 years old and here we are still apologising for no one taking on board it’s key principles. We have had enough, as have the younger ones, so it’s time to change the narrative.”
Even after watching “The Silent Sea” the other day, I was pleased with the overall result. Kdramaland has bridged the sci-fi gap in a most convincing way – and done it in a way that has left many more recent western movies and dramas of a similar ilk, far behind.
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Nice piece, LT, thanks for putting this together! I’d say that this is a trend that’s been happening for a few years, and it’s getting traction. And I concur with egads, that this wave of change is probably influenced by the opportunities offered for Korean scriptwriters outside the traditional network system. (I also agree with Ayan, it’s a shame this didn’t go up on DB. It would have been a great conversation starter there, with a larger audience)
At the same time, even though I’m not as much of a veteran drama watcher, there’s a certain nostalgia that sometimes creeps in for older kinds of scripts, primarily because they were usually less dark, dystopian and depressing. The newer stories are too real, and too close for comfort. A dose of escapism, where even if it means just “being” but with a guarantee of an HEA, is sometimes what I still want from my stories. (My apologies for the plug, but) I thought my personal favourite of the year – “On the verge of insanity” – tried to bridge this gap between old and new in interesting ways – it was very much about fighting the system, and acknowledged a particularly 21st century problem (an aging workforce), but still retained an old school feel in finding its way to resolution and closure. I’d love to see more such.
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“‘Western’ narratives are stories of doing. ‘Asian’ narratives are stories of being. ”
Is it a difference between Western and Asian cultures, or a difference between stories told by men and stories told by women? Kdramas have had a high prevalence of female screenwriters, which contrasts with the male-dominated TV industry in the West. But of the dramas you mention in this post, only Beyond Evil has a female lead writer.
Squid game – man
DP – man
Taxi Driver – man (but switched to woman for final episodes)
Happiness – man
Hellbound – man
Devil Judge – man
Compared to some of the popular, more conventional dramas of the past year that were written by women: Hometown Cha Cha Cha, Move to Heaven, Navillera.
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It might be a matter of gender (conventionally, and I stress, conventionally, girls are more interested in romantic OTP stories, just like boys are more interested in superhero action stories) but I also wonder if this is a matter of the gender inequality ingrained in our society. For the longest time, females were not allowed to read, let alone to write some “serious” pieces of literature. That of course shaped us. Even when women were recognized as equals, we were functionally still prevented from getting paid / paid substantially less due to male monopoly on virtually every aspect of media. I feel like females got a true sense of their own earning capabilities when the romance novels, that narrow slice of a pie, exploded in popularity back in 80’s-90’s, and everyone began to realize that conventionally female-centric stories can actually be a money-making freight train. This also shaped females too. Humans tend to work harder on stories that get paid, that’s just simple economics, and a lot of females went into this “romantic comedy” sphere because it was selling. This is of course changing. More females are now TV show runners, and their stories appeal to both males and females and them. But a lot more can be done. I am 100% convinced that given more opportunities to females (and I mean substantially more due to their burden of motherhood, childrearing and jobs), they can “contemplate” a more universal themes in general.
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I have so many thoughts on this! I don’t even know if I can encapsulate all of them in one post, I’m not such a good writer after all, lol. This is such a great post to have so many discussions. First (and it’s kinda strange) it reminded me of my deep fascination when as a child I watched Die Hard. I didn’t understand half of the story, but what tickled my brain bone (and it keeps tickling it after at least a hundred viewings), it this idea of a random cop, marinating in his miserable BEING, forced to DO something to save both his lives and marriage. (I keep choosing to ignore all the subsequent sequels.) At the time, to me, it seemed like such a groundbreaking thought, that instead of that omnipresent, paternal, God-like Rambo-esque purpose-filled hero, we actually have a rather downtrodden “commoner” just trying to figure out how to do this thing, living, and put in quite unusual circumstances to take decisive action. Ever since, I loved finding these stories of the “status-quo” “commoners” (e.g. Bourne Identity, Notting Hill, etc) who are conditioned by their own mental distortions or the society/system they live in but break all these barriers but not because they are filled with some sanctimonious rage / deep understanding of the issue facing them (this is normally the end result of their “journey”) but because they HAD to survive. I think the reason why I loved these stories is because they are very real, very human, in a sense that everyone goes through phase or circumstances in our life like these but actually very few of us take decisive DO, and not because we are cowards, but because we are integral part of this system, we are conditioned to think a certain way through societal/generational norms, we are traumatized perhaps to think a certain way and develop distortions, that we fail to take action. And there are so many exciting developments right now, like focus on diversity of opinions and trying to find a common ground (the timing of such and the civility of such is still under a question mark, unfortunately), more attention to mental health, more tearing down of “communal nature of corruption” (well at least our thinking around it) that it makes me hopeful that it will not just benefit our society but US, in a sense that we can make better decisions so we can can live the way we really meant to live without constraints placed upon us by our own distortions. Great, great piece of writing, and I have so many more thoughts. Definitely, one of my most favorite overarching meta things to discuss!
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