Korean dramas and their Pakistani audience

March 7, 2021

For the Pakistani audience, Korean dramas are distinct enough to be charming yet familiar enough to be comforting

The wave of Korean dramas that have gained popularity overseas, also known as Hallyu, took Pakistan by storm during the pandemic, when the hit show Crash Landing on You (CLOY) took off. Many people were introduced to South Korean content by their family and friends with this show. I was pushed onto this bandwagon by my cousins and before I knew it, I had binge-watched the whole series.

CLOY is a rom-com centred around a love story between an upper-class South Korean girl, Yoon Se-Ri, and a North Korean army captain, Ri Jeong-Hyeok. While testing her new paragliding equipment, Se-Ri, is caught in a tornado that carries her to North Korea. She “crash lands” on Captain Ri and his friends’ camp. They try then to smuggle her back to South Korea.

CLOY was well liked in Pakistan, the reasons for which are fairly evident. Despite its more prosperous economy, South Korea shares a lot of cultural and social similarities with Pakistan. CLOY checks all the boxes on what a Pakistani audience may want in a TV show: melodrama, romance, action, a well-defined villain and protagonists to root for and fall in love with.

An underlying theme in CLOY is the border tensions between North and South Korea that are comparable to those between Pakistan and India. Many people in North and South Korea (like their counterparts in Pakistan and India), while resembling each other in appearance and language, see each other as the enemy. The subject of these tensions is treated with sensitivity and empathy in CLOY, with the suggestion that there are good people on both sides of the border – just as there are bad ones.

Se-Ri befriends Captain Ri, his friends and women of the village, all of whom have distinct personalities and well-defined characters. The village women in CLOY are similar to some neighbourhood aunties in Pakistan: very hospitable and polite but also extremely intrusive and scathing. The villain in this story is Cho Cheol Gang, a State Security Department officer, whom Captain Ri clashes with right in the beginning and who later exposes Se-Ri as an illegal resident in North Korea.

Another aspect of CLOY that resonates with its Pakistani audience is its subtle approach towards love and intimacy, allowing development of platonic as well as romantic relationships. Platonic love is shown through acts of kindness: the women of the village maintain Captain Ri’s food rations, and Captain Ri and his comrades go out of their way to make Se-Ri feel comfortable. Unlike Western shows, in which the apotheosis of romance is love-making, Korean dramas are more conservative in their treatment and moments of on-screen physical intimacy are rare. This makes them better suited to the sensibilities of a Pakistani audience. Instead, the protagonists show love through other gestures. For example, Captain Ri risks his life for Se-Ri and ends up badly wounded. Se-Ri, in-turn, prepares food for him and looks after him.

South Korea, like Pakistan, is a collectivist society, where people find and cultivate meaning through their relationships with other people. CLOY is a fantastic example of that collectivism; characters are known for who they associate with. More than the individual characters, it is the relationships that are highlighted; Se-Ri’s step-brothers and their wives, Captain Ri’s parents and Se-Ri and her fiancé are all known in relation to one another. In that way, the values of honour and family are also emphasised, especially with regard to women.

Pakistan’s fascination with South Korean dramas goes back in time. In 2016, a South Korean drama dubbed in Urdu, Nageen, was aired on PTV Home in an attempt to strengthen cultural ties between the two countries. Nageen (originally titled Dae Jang Geum) was about a poor orphan girl who grows up to become the king’s first female physician, after years of struggle. She learns cooking and medicine to cure the ailing king in an era when women weren’t allowed to partake in activities outside the domestic sphere. Nageen resonated with the Pakistani audience because of its reasonably conservative approach; it had strong (and ‘moral’) female characters, respect towards authority and emphasised the significance of social issues.

In 2020, we saw a similar approach to the blockbuster Turkish TV series Ertugrul. Like Nageen, Ertugrul is a historical fiction drama. Unlike Nageen, Ertugrul is full of Muslim characters and heroes of the Ottoman Empire. Korean dramas (including Nageen) have no Muslim characters and yet, they are loved by much of the same audience. One of the primary reasons for this popularity is the growing availability of content from regions other than the US. OTT platforms like Netflix, featuring subtitles and sometimes even dubbing, have also eliminated the language barrier, thereby increasing the global reach of TV series. Netflix hosts shows and movies from around the world, including Spain, Turkey, India and South Korea.

South Korean media, in general, has gained a lot of popularity in recent times; the world’s most liked and followed band on social media is BTS and the movie Parasite won several Oscars in 2020. The region’s content has garnered a cult following, with people acknowledging the intellectual and creative potential of South Korean artists the world over. A new show, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, destigmatises the taboo topic of autism and mental health in a lighthearted romance. The New York Times called the show “one of the best International TV shows of 2020.” Among other things, the growing attention of Western media towards K-pop has resulted in its mass popularity. For the most part, audiences in Pakistan (and elsewhere) are influenced by the Western media, consuming most content from the UK and USA.

Zoha, 23, a sociology student at LUMS, especially enjoys the melodrama of Korean dramas. She maintains that their plots are not rushed, that they have interesting premises and depict various possibilities in intimacy. She attributes the burgeoning popularity of these shows in Pakistan to a similarity of cultural and social values of the middle and upper-middle classed in both regions. This is especially evident in CLOY, with Se-Ri’s upper class family uncannily resembling the Lahori elite; they are wary of social standing, host extravagant supper and dinner parties and indulge in the materialistic and superficial.

Fareeha, 22, an undergrad medical student, was introduced to Korean dramas through CLOY and speaks about it with the utmost enthusiasm, saying that the story was lighthearted, delightful and a good way to unwind after a stressful day. When asked why she thinks people in Pakistan are embracing the Hallyu, she considers them a welcome diversion from our local dramas that do not go beyond the usual saas-bahu and husband-wife conflicts.

Korean dramas make for an uplifting and lighthearted watch, while also being sensitive and nuanced. CLOY has frequent moments of laughter amidst the political and familial tensions, with Captain Ri’s friends stealing the comedy spotlight. Much like the valleys and mountains of Hunza and Swat, the bucolic landscapes of Mongolia and Switzerland (locations where the show was shot) are pleasant and reminiscent of a rustic, though rather complex, rural life.

For the Pakistani audience, Korean dramas are distinct enough to be charming yet familiar enough to be comforting. We can relate better to these characters than to the ones in American shows, given our shared values and cultures. One recognises it when one sees it: Captain Ri always takes his shoes off before entering his home.

The pandemic, if anything, has taken this wave to an unprecedented level. With so many of us confined to our homes, there was little else to do other than to distract ourselves with TV shows. In this time, a lot of us turned to art and entertainment, consuming content at an alarming rate. Especially during these desolate times, Korean dramas, with their light-heartedness and positivity, come as a welcome escape, letting one indulge in the hope of an improved world.

The writer is a student at LUMS

Korean dramas and their Pakistani audience