In regurgitating old tropes, “XO, Kitty” shows the limits of the K-drama imagination

Posted on : 2023-05-30 17:15 KST Modified on : 2023-05-30 17:15 KST
How is it that K-dramas are supposed to be all the rage, but the rules incorporated in them have not changed?
Both “Dramaworld” (2016) and “XO, Kitty” (2023) repeat the same “rules” of K-dramas. (courtesy of Netflix)
Both “Dramaworld” (2016) and “XO, Kitty” (2023) repeat the same “rules” of K-dramas. (courtesy of Netflix)

Let’s say that you’ve lost your balance while walking, or while straining to grab something slightly out of your reach. Chances are you might topple over and fall flat on your face.

But no such catastrophes are permitted in the world of Korean dramas! No, the moment you begin to wobble, someone’s going to turn up out of nowhere to sweep you off your feet.

Nowadays, the roles can be reversed, but it’s usually a woman who falls and a man who’s ready to hold her. It’s a common trope in shows that act as the catalyst for infatuation, whether it\'s one-sided or mutual.

This kind of scene has become so recurrent that it now feels like one of the key rules in K-drama storytelling.

It’s become a tradition that you can see in “Lovers of the Red Sky” (SBS), and even in shows with gender-bender storylines, such as “The King’s Affection” (KBS2).

In 2016, the early days of Netflix’s Korean service, “Dramaworld,” a Korean-Chinese-Japanese collaboration, made use of this cliché.

Claire watches a K-drama on her smartphone and literally falls into the story. She uses the various rules of K-dramas with her sidekick, Seth, to keep the story going. Some rules that are mentioned are as follows. If a woman falls or faints, a man must be there to hold her before she hurts herself. The male lead must be a chaebol, and the female lead must be kind-hearted, but poor.

Then, the male lead’s fiancée and mother come into the scene to wreck the couple’s relationship. There should always be a scene showing the male lead taking a shower, and product placement is also a must. The “kimchi-slap” scene, which was made famous by recurring in daytime soap operas, also gets a mention.

The fact that an entire series can be borne from mere K-drama clichés signifies that K-dramas overuse the same recipe over and over again. But at the time, getting the opportunity to make an appearance in a series that would be released worldwide was rare, so many top stars made special appearances in the show, regardless of the quality of the work.

Season 1 featured Han Ji-min and Choi Si-won, while Ha Ji-won and Lee Jung-jae made appearances in Season 2, which was a collaboration between South Korea and the US in 2021.

There were calls for content creators to reflect on the fact that more and more clichés were becoming apparent to the point that viewers who were not Korean also noticed that some storylines were too repetitive.

The “catch-you-before-you-fall” trope has been repeated in K-dramas to a point where even non-Koreans recognize it as a rule for storytelling. (courtesy of various broadcasters)
The “catch-you-before-you-fall” trope has been repeated in K-dramas to a point where even non-Koreans recognize it as a rule for storytelling. (courtesy of various broadcasters)

Now that seven years have passed, surely the ever-so palpable “rules” of K-dramas have disappeared, right? “Squid Game” won six awards at the Emmys, a prestigious American television awards ceremony, so of course things must’ve changed. Sadly, it seems we were mistaken.

The American TV show, “XO, Kitty,” which was released by Netflix on May 18, shows the reality of K-dramas. It’s a story about an American girl named Kitty, whose mother is Korean, who comes to Korea and attends an international high school.

Apart from the fact that it is an American TV show with a Korean American protagonist, the show seems to follow the rules that non-Koreans expect from K-dramas.

This show follows the same formula that Claire and Seth of “Dramaworld” believe is key to K-dramas. Kitty (played by Anna Cascarte), is about to fall backward when the male lead, Dae (Choi Min-young), catches her.

Enter the chaebol’s daughter, who “unintentionally” gets in the way of Kitty and Dae’s romance. Yuri (Gia Kim)’s parents, who own 300 hotels around the world, don’t want their daughter dating Dae, who is the son of their chauffeur. Also, Kitty happens to have to live in the boys’ dormitory due to an administrative mistake.

Another common trope in K-dramas is to throw a bunch of characters into one location for one reason or another, even if it doesn’t make sense. There is also a scene in which one of the male cast members appears topless, and the secret of one character’s birth turns out to be a major plot point.

Both “Dramaworld” and “XO, Kitty” feature Korean Americans. Both shows were probably made in the hopes that Korean content would be recognized widely and receive love from all around the world. And this is indeed happening.

“XO, Kitty,” was the most-watched TV show on Netflix in 47 countries, seven days after its release (May 25, local time). Compared to “Dramaworld,” “XO, Kitty” is getting a better reception.

Why does this success give me mixed feelings? “XO, Kitty” seems to have been borne from a genuine affection for South Korea, and the work seems to claim that K-dramas have succeeded due to these formulas, and that stuff like this does happen in South Korea.

How is it that K-dramas are supposed to be all the rage, but the rules incorporated in them have not changed? Is it because we believe that certain features sell in foreign countries, so we keep them? Is it because we’re so focused on looking good for our streaming capital that we’re neglecting the important things that make up a compelling story? Whatever the case may be, isn’t it time to rethink how we want to tell our stories?

By Nam Ji-eun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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