Friday, February 1, 2013

KOREAN DRAMAS: "School 2013" and "Alice in Cheongdam-dong," Two Recent Korean Dramas Worth Your Time

1. School 2013 (Hakgyo (학교) 2013)

I don’t usually watch Korean dramas because it takes up too much time to finish watching the full episodes and they are so addictive that once I start watching, it’s hard to stop and I’ll stay with it through to the final episode.  For the same reason, therefore, I had no intention of watching KBS’s 2013 drama “School 2013” at first.  But as my close friend Sun kept mentioning and quoting it ‘cause she is a high school math teacher herself in an inner-city neighborhood of Minneapolis, I ended up spending my last weekend and Monday watching it through. And I'm glad I did.

This drama portrayed the flawed South Korean education system and equally flawed parents and their children.  Alas, how schools mirror the society we live in!  As very realistically portrayed in a 2004 South Korean movie “Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do” (Maljukgeori Janhoksa; Click to watch the movie with English subtitles), South Korean schools under vile and brutal totalitarian regimes in the 60’s through the 80’s were miniatures of oppressed yet violent society. Police officers in plain clothes were on stakeouts in colleges and even army officers were present in schools.  

Scenes from “Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do”

On the other hand, modern day South Korean schools at a glance seem to function more democratically just as modern day South Korea seems to function more democratically compared to the old days. Teachers are no longer authoritative or oppressive; students are treated more humanely and respectfully and given more freedom of expression; and there’s no army officers present in schools any more.  Sadly though, materialism replaced totalitarianism and successism replaced a noble ideology in our schools as well as our society.  In our dysfunctional, flawed education system, teachers with less integrity and power, selfish and sick parents, and spoiled yet emotionally and/or mentally distressed students have become enemies against one another.  Wealthy, self-seeking, and preposterous parents have replaced army officers and become dictators in schools. No matter how well-meaning they are, they suffocate and exhaust their kids by driving them always to "be the best."

I would say “School 2013” was very realistic and at the same time eventually unrealistic in terms of depicting the South Korean education system and society in overall crisis.  For example, it suggested too naïve and sentimental approaches to school violence.  Of course, some school bullies come from dysfunctional or socio-economically disadvantaged families but there are others who are budding sociopaths or simply psychopaths. Yet it touched the deepest of my heart and brought tears to my eyes many times, like when Jung Injae (played by Jang Nara) wholeheartedly gave a sincere pep talk to her student, Minki, after his failed suicide attempt (I even memorized some of her quotes to use them when my son goes through puberty) or when she spoke in defense of her misbehaving yet shameless students after their failed cheating attempt. (Click to watch the drama with English Subs.)

Jung Injae (Jang Nara) consoles Minki after his failed suicide attempt.

Jung Injae speaks in defense of the students after their failed cheating attempt.

And I think I have to talk about Jang Nara.  Even though Jang is a pleasant singer/actor with a pleasant presence I adore, I haven't been this impressed with her abilities as an actor and I don’t think it was just me. So when she needed to be taken as a serious actor, she had her chance and made the most of it. What follows is excerpted from Jang and Choi Daniel's interviews with Ten Asia

Ten Asia: There was one scene that was very impressive where Jung Injae tossed a broomstick and smacked the palms of students with the palm of her hand. 
Jang Nara: Honestly, before filming that scene and the next scene where I spoke to Kang Sechan (played by Choi Daniel) in defense of the students, I could hardly understand her feelings for them. No matter how much I analyzed the character, it was impossible for me to empathize completely with her.  Once I started acting face-to-face with Sechan and the kids though, feelings began to flow out naturally. 
Choi Daniel: I had no idea Nara would act out that scene like that. The original script of this drama is very dry, rather than moist; according to the script, she was supposed to beat the kids badly with a mop in that scene, without even crying. (Laughs) 
Jang Nara: But I just couldn’t pull the pole away from the mop head…. (Laughs) / Translation: ONSEMIRO 

2. Alice in Cheongdam-dong (Cheongdam-dong Aeliseu (청담동 앨리스))

As I mentioned above, I don’t usually watch Korean dramas but when I do, I always try to pick the ones written by my favorite screenwriters, or directed by my favorite directors, or starring my favorite actors.  For example, in 2011, I was completely hooked on SBS’s “faction” drama “Tree with Deep Roots,” co-written by two of my favorite screenwriters, Park Sang-yun (JSAMay 18The Front LineQueen SeondeokH.I.T, etc.) and Kim Younghyun (Dae Jang GeumSeo Dong Yo, Queen Seondeok, H.I.T), and featuring my favorite actors – Han Suk-kyuShin Sekyung, and Jo Jinwoong).

Park and Kim also co-created and co-produced a 2013 SBS drama “Alice in Cheongdam-dong,” which aired its final episode last Sunday.  Unfortunately this time, as I was in the middle of watching “School 2013,“ I was able to carve out time to watch just the last two episodes but I think it is the best drama dealing with the "socio-economic strata" since “Something Happened in Bali”(2004). (Click to watch it with English Subs.)

In 1997, as the Asian financial crisis, aka the “IMF crisis,” which started in Thailand spread to South Korea, the country had undergone innumerable mergers, acquisitions, plant moves, plant closures, downsizing, cutbacks, and also large scale layoffs. As the working and middle class got laid off, downsized, or outsourced, they had no choice but to sell their properties at giveaway prices. And it was the upper strata of society (1 percent of the whole country) that purchased those properties as they had stable and abundant cash flows even in the crisis.

As the middle class started turning into poor, their children has been deprived of high-quality education, which has led to much less opportunities to go to prestigious universities, which has led to much less opportunities to get better jobs in the society where highly specialized, high-end white-collar workers earn more money, respect, and power. In short, the IMF crisis created an endless vicious circle of poverty and the South Korean society no longer produces gaecheon-e yong (개천의 , “a dragon risen from  a shallow stream), which translates to "a person risen from a humble family."  And as the 2011 Korea National Statistical Office survey shows that 58.7 percent of respondents say they don’t think they will ever move up to the upper class, Gangnam (the affluent Seoul neighborhood) in the 21st century epitomizes the upper strata of society, i.e., off limits to the rest of the country. 

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The main characters include (i) Han Sekyung (played by Moon Geunyoung), a gaecheon-e yong wannabe who believes in the aphorism that says, “L'effort est ma force” (Hard work is my strength) and later turns into a gold-digger; (ii) Cha Seung-jo/Jean Thierry Cha (played by Park Sihoo), a second-generation chaebol who believes in the aphorism that says, “Hard work always pays off,” but doesn’t believe in love; and (iii) Seo Yoonjoo (played by So Yihyun), a fallen princess turned gold-digger turned rich man’s wife - her family fell into poverty when her father’s business failed in the midst of the “IMF crisis.

In this drama, everyone “was” like “Alice” in a dream. Just like Alice follows White Rabbit with a pocket watch down a rabbit hole into Wonderland in her dream, Sekyung follows Seungjo, dreaming of fitting into Cheongdam-dong which is one of the most affluent Gangnam neighborhoods. Seungjo lives in his own world, dreaming of finding a pure, unconditional, and unselfish love and deluding himself that he’s no different from other people like Sekyung. Yoonjoo is also under the delusion that she’s finally become one of those Cheongdam-dong people. They all believe in their own way that Cheongdam-dong is a wonderland where they can work wonders but it turns out it’s indeed Wonderland where people just fantasize about working wonders. So, near the end of the drama, they all awake from a dream just like Alice does.

Everyone awakes from a dream....

However, the story ends with Alice’s sister falling asleep with eyes half open/half closed in “Alice in Wonderland,” which means she half-heartedly believes that she is in Wonderland in her dream, knowing she’ll snap back to reality when awake from a dream.  Just like that, the drama ends with everyone facing reality and dreaming at the same time.  Both Sekyung and Seungjo choose not to cling to the true nature of her love for him anymore.  She chooses to stop being guilt-ridden about loving him because she needed him and he chooses to stop wondering if she loved him or needed him.  While watching this part, I was reminded of this quote by Jenny (to Oliver) from the movie “Love Story”: “I love not only you, but also your name and your numeral. After all, it's part of what you are.”  Yoonjoo also faces up to reality while regretting divorce from her wealthy spouse from time to time.  And I think this coming of age drama has something for everyone living in the material world.  (Click to watch the drama with English Subs.)

BTW, as follows are the links to the English subbed Korean dramas, which I wouldn’t call the best dramas of my life but are still worth watching:


  1. There is a slight homoeroticism in school2013. What are your thoughts on that?

  2. Well.... I'd rather say that's just part of Korean culture, In Korea, close friends of the same-sex bonding through physical contact such as holding hands or hugging or even sleeping in the same bed are not considered queer or even weird.

  3. Hi Onsemiro,

    We love Korean Dramas too! We are a little unique since we aren't Korean. We decided to make a spoof mash-up of our three favorite Korean Dramas - I Miss You, Big and Coffee Prince. Its short and fun, if you like it feel free to post it.

    I'm the white guy - struggling with the Korean...



  4. (Hilee Enamored)

    Thanks for the interesting post on these dramas.

    I've always questioned the formula that is used for standardized public education--which for better or worse has nearly become universal now around the world.

    Among other things, it can be quite de-humanizing and destructive of individual personalities, as a one-size-fits-all mass production educational system is used to produce standardized end products.

    I started to better understand my own negative views of modern schooling systems when I did some research and discovered that most modern educational systems are modeled on the 19th century Prussian military school system.

    These military school roots of modern public schooling can still be clearly seen in Japan and Korea, where many schools still have military-style uniforms for school children. Even the style of those uniforms--many of which continue to be used in the 21st century--date back to the 19th century (e.g. the "sailor" uniforms still worn by many Japanese female school students).

    Korea has fortunately been moving away from those uniforms--perhaps more rapidly than Japan. But that's just one outward manifestation of a system that still subjects its captive students to the abuses of authority and other pathologies that inevitably arise in an excessively hierarchical and controlling environment.

    If you're interested, here's one article on the Prussian school system roots of modern educational systems:

    Here's one key quote:

    "The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army;2 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed."

  5. Hilee Enamored, S. Korean school system was more like the Prussian school system up until the mid 90's. But the problems it has today resulted from too much freedom to students with no systematic disciplines to control them inside the school. It has gone from one extreme to another, if you will......

    BTW, thanks for the link. It was a good read! the Prussian school system

  6. i enjoy watching Alice in Cheongdam-dong too,but some people said it's,i thought i'm being weird for liking it though. glad that you enjoy it too~

  7. syakila eleeza, even though I just watched the last two episodes only, I totally agree with you the drama was great as well as enjoyable. I think many others found it boring probably because the female main character is way too realistic (when seemingly materialistic), just like the character Ha Jiwon played in Bali, for them to connect with.

  8. I so love these two series. They are both great!


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