[Escapism vs. Realism] Discovering the pain of realism in escapism
by Guest Beanie
It seems to be a common thread that people watch dramas to escape reality. This is not hard to figure out, considering the weariness of life’s burdens, and the pain of dealing with one’s struggles. With dramas chock full of fantasy, sorrows are halved and joy is doubled.
This was the common theme of my life when I was young and watching K-dramas. I will always look back on my first few dramas wistfully, like Goong and Sweet 18. The impossible circumstances of forced contract marriages and people who fell in love with each other after tussling with differences, and the roller coaster ride of emotions from love to hate appealed to me like it would to any heady 18-year-old teen.
The power of these dramas stay with me till now, when I’d wished to be a teenager forced to fall in love with someone (I actually wanted to get married at 18 before growing up and realizing how unwise that would be), and really having someone love me for my quirks and eccentricities.
But further along in my K-drama journey, I have found that there are dramas that have taught me realism in escapism. Signal is a show built on a fantasy premise; however, it also taught me the evil of human hearts, especially through the modeling of the Miryang Gang Rape case in Korea in 2004. As a university student studying psychology, it fascinated me to see the human condition being played onscreen, and the drama spurred me to read up on the horrific details of the real-life case, and even spurred me to watch Han-Gong-ju, a movie inspired by the infamous case. When the hero’s brother was framed for the gang rape case, it stirred a deeper emotion and fury in me at the injustice the real victims had to face in the world. For me, dramas break the fourth wall when they intersect with reality in such a true-to-life fashion.
The stories that break my heart the most are the most realistic ones that portray the simple things in life. This is the pain of discovering realism in escapism. As much as dramaland is all about escape, you always find those slice-of-life dramas that reflect life in the most painful of ways, reflecting universal fears, pains, struggles, and joys. Those are the dramas that produce the most tears and heartache, in the best of ways. I can scarcely contain my fervor and excitement for these dramas, and yet I hesitate to rewatch them because they are too painfully realistic and agonizing to watch.
One such drama that reflected an important portion of my life was Answer Me 1988. I love the entire Answer Me series because the nostalgia of youth always captures my heart in ways that are very dear to me, but I loved Answer Me 1988 in particular. Aside from the fact that Jung-pal had his heart broken, which I can never forgive the drama for (THAT SHIP SAILED IN MY HEART AND SUNK TO THE DEPTHS OF THE OCEAN), the family portions resonated deeply with me.
Answer Me 1988
Deok-sun’s imperfect family left me sobbing and clutching my heart because that’s what family is—full of misunderstandings, miscommunications, gruff dads, devoted mums, unresponsive sons and daughters. But at the end of the day, the universal truth about family is that even though they are the most irritating, they are also the ones who will love you unconditionally. The voiceovers at the end of each episode left me reflecting about the ways I connect with my own family.
There’s a moment when Sun-woo got mad at his mum for insisting on working, and Bora’s advice came at the absolute right time. Bora: “Loving someone isn’t just the room to give. It’s a desperate need to give because you have to. You love your mom, right? It’s really difficult to love someone.”
I took this advice and applied it to my own family, realizing that loving my family wasn’t about getting to be guilt-free, but loving them in ways that they would want to be loved as well, and I still treasure all the real-life advice that I got from this series. The way they loved one another was so imperfect, but in that way, it made them realize that they really did love one another even in the smallest of ways.
Dear My Friends
Another drama that reflected the reality of life and growing old was Dear My Friends. Getting into that drama, I knew I was going to reel from the magnitude of the pain, yet I was going to relish the pain of realism. And I did—it hurt so bad it was good. The ragtag bunch of women who were there for one another from the beginning till the end proved to me that genuine friendship was possible.
Their lives weren’t even that relatable to me, as I’m nowhere near these women in age. But we all grow old, face death and loss, and these characters seemed to me the ideal companions to grow old with. Hee-ja’s slip into Alzheimer’s, Jung-ah’s rediscovery of herself without her husband, Nan-hee’s possessiveness over her daughter—these various life stories taught me the imperfections of people, without excusing their behavior.
For me, their stories expressed the true human condition where everyone has a backstory that can be empathized with. Perhaps a little idealistic, but this has been my journey in K-dramas—these dramas bring out the optimism and hope that I can have in people. They ground me in realism, even through escapism, and the portrayal of these stories is something that will always wreck my heart in the best ways possible.