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[Escapism vs. Realism] When growing pains feel too real

Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-ju

By @janey

For a while, I stopped watching K-dramas. From watching three to four dramas at a time, there came a point when nothing could hold my attention for more than five episodes. There were months that I didn’t watch any, and I didn’t even try. The dramas I could have consumed in one weekend were abandoned. I’d been a fan for more than a decade, and I was starting to think that maybe I was just over drama-watching. I felt tired of chaebols and the formulaic rom-coms. But still, there were a couple of dramas that kept me watching until the final episode. And I soon realized that they all had one thing in common—they all had that slice-of-life feel.

While the godly romance of Eun-tak and Kim Shin in The Lonely Shining Goblin wasn’t doing it for me, and Heo Joon-jae and Shim Chung’s love story spanning centuries in Legend of the Blue Sea didn’t really pull me in, I was haplessly crying with Bok-ju about her first love and stupidly giggling over Joon-hyung’s childish teasing in Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Ju. When Chilbongie decided to confess his feelings to Na-jung in Answer Me 1994, it reminded me of the sweet taste of young love and the innocent pitter-patter of my heart when I was falling in love in my teens.

I used to think that fantasy was my forever favorite genre. But in K-dramas, I’m suddenly being lured in by ordinary characters leading ordinary lives, dealing with ordinary problems. I’ll never forget the image of Misaeng’s Jang Geu-rae and his ill-fitted suit, making me wonder how many Jang Geu-raes are out there. Young professionals just trying to fit in, who can’t no matter what they do. But they try anyway.

Answer Me 1988

Nothing felt more embarrassing than seeing Answer Me 1988’s Deok-sun think that Sun-woo liked her as much as she liked him, only to find out that he was actually head over heels in love with her sister. Nothing felt more painful than Jung-hwan’s one-sided love never being known to anyone but his friends. It all felt so real to me. These characters still feel so real to me. And even if the gang would just hang out for 20 more episodes, I’m pretty sure I’d still watch it.

Then again, Age of Youth offers just that—it’s 12 episodes of college roommates’ daily shenanigans. It doesn’t sound so exciting, but the relationships built and the growth of each character got the drama inching its way onto my list of favorites.

Aside from making me cry every episode and think of my parents, Dear My Friends made me wish that I’ll have a close-knit group of girlfriends once I get older, too. These characters are nearing the end of their lives, but I have yet to see another drama with characters bursting with life as much as Jung-ah, Hee-ja, Nan-hee, Young-won, and the forever youthful Choong-nam.

Dear My Friends

It’s usually the character-driven plot that does it for me. Well-written character development will always trump a story that’s full of twists and turns but filled with 2-D characters. For a moment, nothing can convince me that these characters aren’t real. What do you mean they aren’t living, breathing individuals?

In School 2017, Hyun Tae-woon grappling with his feelings and Dae-hwi finally standing up to his bully were more exciting than the revelation of X’s identity. In Shut Up: Flower Boy Band, Ji-hyuk struggling with selling out and losing his friends was more critical than his band’s rise to fame.

And for dramas that are not normally categorized as a slice-of-life, it’s the characters’ way too normal struggles that usually get my attention. Oh Hae-young Again was a romance with a supernatural twist, but it was Seo Hyun-jin’s brazen and outrageous Oh Hae-young that made me stay. Her journey of healing and finding herself was worth all of the tears, and I was glad to be along for the ride.

Oh Hae-young Again

There’s nothing ordinary about Cheese in the Trap’s premise when you’re dealing with a sociopath boyfriend. But for such a messy drama, I only had good memories of it. There were no grand couple events, and it’s neither an epic nor a sweeping love story. I remember the tender moments between Hong Seol and Yoo Jung and the longing stares between the two.

I haven’t experienced even a fourth of the things ordinary K-drama leads go through. But every single time a drama makes me think that I can relate, I’m all in. I’ll watch it from start to finish. Let’s Eat felt way too real when I watched Lee Soo-kyung eat dinner by herself in front of the TV, while I ate dinner watching her. It’s disconcerting when dramas mirror real life, but it’s heartwarming when our heroes discover their light at the end of their tunnel. It makes you believe that someday you’ll find yours, too.

Have I ever tried weightlifting or spent all my savings just to see my crush? Definitely not. But for a couple of hours, I feel like a professional weightlifter on my way to reaching my Olympic dreams, sidetracked by these giddy new feelings of first love.

After entering the real world of taxes and responsibilities, these slice-of-life dramas are the ones that make me unbury or keep alive all the emotions I cherished growing up. It’s the passionate chasing of dreams, cherishing friendships, overcoming awkward stages, falling in love for the first time, and trying to find yourself every day that these dramas highlight. It all feels so real, and I can’t help but love it. Granted, I have missed a couple of great dramas the past few years. But if in return I get to know characters who feel lived in, then I certainly don’t mind.


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