One beneficiary of the coronavirus pandemic has been the video streaming service Netflix. Stuck at home with free time on their hands, many people, rather than finally clean out the attic or write that book, turn to effortless pastimes. Binging TV serials is custom-made for these times.
The South Korean romantic melodrama “Crash Landing on You” is the one that has received the most attention, at least in Asia. As far as “Korean Wave” exports go, it’s standard fare: True love beset by extraordinary forces arrayed to keep our protagonists apart. Fate figures decisively in every episode. Plot twists are the rule rather than the exception. Dei ex machina run riot.
What makes “Crash Landing” generative of not only gushing fan tributes and magazine profiles but also scholarly analyses is its high-concept premise. Yoon Se-ri (Son Ye-jin), an heir to a South Korean conglomerate, goes paragliding and is blown into North Korea, where she lands in a tree and is discovered by Ri Jeong-hyeok (Hyun Bin), a handsome army captain and the scion of a powerful political family.
Forbidden love was never so forbidden, and the show runners play up this aspect exhaustively — 16 installments, each between 70 and 112 minutes in length. It’s become the must-see TV series of the pandemic, even for viewers constitutionally averse to the kind of contrived storylines and hyperbolic presentation typical of South Korean dramas.
For Japanese viewers, it’s no big deal. A cursory scan of satellite TV schedules reveals an appetite for South Korean drama that’s insatiable, and in line with the parallel Japanese affection for K-pop. What’s interesting about Japan’s love affair with South Korean exports is that domestic media, while recognizing its popularity, rarely gives them their proper due.
Almost 20 years ago, when the drama “Winter Sonata” was a genuine phenomenon, the Korean Wave couldn’t help but generate media scrutiny. Since then, however, there’s been a zero-sum aspect to the coverage. Whatever attention the Korean Wave receives is seen to be at the expense of Japanese pop culture.
However, “Crash Landing” is irresistible. Hyun, the series’ heartthrob, graced the cover of the June 26 issue of the Shukan Asahi magazine, which contained a section showcasing the best Korean dramas to stream at the moment. It leaves out one of Netflix’s top-rated Korean offerings, “Mr. Sunshine,” which would seem to hold more interest for Japanese viewers. For one, it stars Lee Byung-hun, an older male heartthrob who has been popular in Japan for years. It also has a Japanese subtext in that it takes place during the years just before Japan annexed the Korean Peninsula and involves the local resistance movement.
Many Korean dramas and movies are set before and during the colonial period, and sometimes these depictions offend Japanese nationalist sentiments, which hold that Japan’s control and annexation was, on the whole, benevolent. These depictions are not shy about the brutality of the era, but it has been my observation that Korean dramas tend to be harsher on Korean collaborators than on their Japanese overlords.
A drama about a romance that bridges the gap between two countries that are still at war comes with its own interpretive pitfalls, not least of which is the reality that it was Japan’s control of the Korean Peninsula that led to its division by the Allies after World War II. But “Crash Landing” doesn’t address history. Any portrayal of North Korea in a sympathetic light is going to be problematic in Japan given the still unresolved matter of Pyongyang’s abduction of Japanese citizens in the past, but just as “Mr. Sunshine,” despite its overwrought romantic premise, can teach Japanese viewers something about their history, “Crash Landing” gives them a glimpse of North Korean life they’re not going to find elsewhere. Viewers literate in the grammar of Korean dramas will see through the exaggerations, and North Koreans become relatable as people, or, at least, relatable as Korean drama characters.
One Japanese commentator sees how this aspect could conceivably offend viewers. Journalist Renge Jibu, writing in the Asahi Shimbun, admits that at first she thought there was something improper about setting a work of entertainment in North Korea. The drama only hints at the suffering North Koreans experience with regard to human rights and doesn’t indicate the fierce resentments many feel toward South Korea and the West as a result of the carnage of the Korean War. But everyday hardships, like frequent power outages and shortages of medical supplies, are carefully, sometimes comically, built into the plot, and, more significantly, while the writers do gently mock a group of North Korean soldiers as rubes when they infiltrate Seoul, they never look down on them. In the drama the good guys and bad guys in North Korea are no different from the good guys and bad guys in South Korea.
Another writer, Minori Kitahara in the magazine Aera, credits the Japanese popularity of the series to Hyun. Kitahara acknowledges that Jeong-hyeok is too good to be true, and, as a feminist, she finds the idea of a man who does everything to protect the woman he loves depressing, since “protection” tends to go hand-in-hand with “domination” in a patriarchal society.
However, watching the show during a pandemic has had its own effect. Kitahara thinks the Japanese government has failed in its promise to “protect” its people from the physical and economic scourge of the virus, so she finds comfort in Jeong-hyeok’s humanistic attitude toward everyone he comes into contact with, and not just the object of his desire, though she credits that attitude to South Korea, which produced the drama, rather than to North Korea, which supposedly produced Jeong-hyeok.
A running joke is that whenever Se-ri becomes indebted to a North Korean who helps her, she says she will repay them “after reunification,” a line she invariably delivers in a weary tone. Such idealistic pronouncements have become empty over the years through overuse, and it’s unlikely, even within the extreme fantasy parameters of the tale being told, that North and South will settle their differences anytime soon. But it’s nice to imagine the possibility, if only for 16 episodes.