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Friends and Korean shows

Many people I know are rabid Korean film fans. Even my mother watches Korean shows—this, after watching all the American and British shows in Netflix. Detached from the outside world, holed up inside her room for most of the day, she recommends to me what shows I should watch next. She recommended Yong-pal and My Country to me. Hannah, Uncle Toto’s eldest daughter who lived with us when she went to school in Marbel, recommended Goblin. I watched these shows with a steady fascination and a kind of detached cluelessness.

Yong-pal is about a surgeon who tends to injured gangsters in secret, so he can pay off his debts. My Country: The New Age, a period film, is about two friends—I never got past the second episode. To my mother’s disappointment, I watched Kingdom Season 2 instead. It is about a raging pandemic spreading across ancient Korea. “What pleasure do you derive from watching those zombies?” my mother asked. “These zombies are the fastest runners I’ve seen!” I said.

Goblin is about two otherworldly individuals. As ghosts who possess extraordinary powers, they meddle with the living. I never got past the fourth episode. The story line was too cheesy for me, but Hannah adores it. In the arena of drama and love stories, I still prefer Descendants of the Sun, a story about a soldier and a doctor who meet during a war-time medical mission. It took me a while to realize that Koreans are fascinated with doctors, hospitals, and tycoons. There’s bound to be a powerful man referred to as “chairman” or “director.” A more serious drama I liked is Misty—I don’t know why that’s the title. Misty is about an ambitious journalist who, for her career, sacrifices her marriage but never her principles. She once married her husband—a rich, well-connected lawyer—to leverage her ambitions. Her husband loves her unconditionally. She falls in love with him years after they'd been together.

Clearly, this is the golden age of Korean cinema. My friend Chevs, a doctor based in the States, pointed out that this so-called golden age may have begun since our college years (circa 2000). I remember that, as freshmen in Kalayaan, the Basement Boys gathered inside Luther’s room to watch a pirated DVD of My Sassy Girl. Chevs recommended Reply 1988, which is about friends who grow up in the same neighborhood during the time when Seoul hosted the summer Olympics. Nothing much happens in it, but I enjoy watching an episode a week for the nostalgia. Those were simpler—and arguably, happier—times.

This fascination for Korean films must be so pervasive that even one of my father’s closest friends, Tito Bong, mentioned that he watches those shows in Netflix. Kuya John, based in Sydney and who celebrated his birthday this week, recommends It’s Okay Not To Be Okay, about a morbid children’s book author who meets a caregiver. It may well be a commentary on mental health, brotherly love, and so on, but what appeal to me the most are the graphic designs. Like me, Kuya John also watched The King: Eternal Monarch as each episode was rolled out weekly. Don't confuse this with Kingdom since it is not about zombies but about parallel worlds: the Republic of Korea and the Kingdom of Corea. There’s a love angle in it. The king meets a clumsy police officer. They kiss and embrace while snow is falling in slow motion. It took me a while to realize, too, that Korean shows like flashbacks and slow motions, usually with snow or falling leaves, with heart-wrenching pop music in the background, highlighting a limited string of English lyrics in the chorus.

Of all the genres, I love the Korean political shows most of all. I think Korean shows particularly excel when they are serious. I also don’t get Korean humor. I rewatch episodes of Designated Survivor: 60 Days. It begins with the bombing of the Korean seat of parliament, killing all the top government officials. As mandated by the constitution, the environment minister—a lowly scientist—is next in line to succeed as president. He grapples with a broken nation and political opposition. With integrity, love for country, and well fitted suits, he rises to the office and stirs the nation forward. I love Chief of Staff, too. It’s about an ambitious man who climbs his way to the top to become an assemblyman. To achieve the greater good, he compromises, strikes deals with seedy politicians, but he stands by his general principles. You may disagree with his methods but not his intentions. The protagonist, Jang Tae-Jun, uses a fountain pen once owned by a late friend and mentor. The fountain pen is a constant reminder for Jang Tae-Jun to honor his friend’s memory: by standing up for the poor and oppressed. These political dramas are good for the soul. They remind us that goodness prevails in the end. Good leadership seems like a rare commodity during these times.

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