Friday, May 13, 2011

More Korean Drama and a Formula

So I've watched three more, and thankfully, they're not all the gut-wrenchers that Kumiho and Secret Garden were.

Coffee House was fun, about an asshole author who torments his gorgeous female publisher and his gawky younger assistant. The main female lead was lovely, but often wore ugly clothes. Ham EunJung as the assistant alternates between sweet and stupid. Her character is sometimes a bit too slow-witted, but I found myself really liking her by the end, to the extent that I wished the author had ended up with her instead of the more conventionally pretty one. And she does a nice bit of acting in her final scene with the author in the last episode. She starts to cry, stops, wipes her tears and gives a little smile to say, "See, it was nothing. I'm fine now." And starts to cry again, harder.

She also does some fine physical comedy; I think she just used the simple physical trick on swinging the same arm and leg when she runs, but it does an effective job of making her look totally clumsy. I was amazed to find out she's a member of a girl group whose videos show her as glamorous and sexual, two things she never is on the series.

Prosecutor Princess was okay, starting out as a sort of Korean Legally Blonde before descending into melodrama. And once again, I found myself liking the secondary female lead more than the main (I actually liked the secondary male more than the mains, too, though that doesn't mean I would rather have watched a show centered on them, if that makes sense). From a legal standpoint, it was pretty ridiculous, though I don't know how much of that is cultural difference in the Korean legal system and how much is simply bad writing.

And last night, I finished Coffee Prince, a Korean version of Just One of the Guys. There were some nice turns in the writing which were sold well in the performances. The pacing of the show slows to a crawl in the mopey middle, to the point where I started to get frustrated with it, but it picks up again in the last third. The performances are pretty good, too, though I think more than performances is the chemistry the cast members have with each other. The final episodes are full of playful, telling moments where you get the idea these people not only love each other, but are really comfortable with each other and having fun.

I had never really thought too deeply about the ways in which the Romantic Comedy both fits and deviates from the basic three-act story formula I learned back in screenplay class, but the Korean romances provide a fascinating study. Because unlike a feature film, with 16-20 hours to fill, every step in the progression gets its own in-depth treatment.

I plan to think more deeply about this, because one idea I'm noodling for my daughter's birthday present next year is writing her a book about writing, with all the story construction stuff that I wish they had taught me in high school instead of that simplistic "rising action/falling action" nonsense. I had the idea a few days ago, too late to write it up for her birthday yesterday. It was a good birthday nevertheless. I went by to drop off her present and ended up staying to grill hot dogs in the backyard. It was nice.

But back to the formula: It seems to go something like:

Two protagonists, call them A and B, each have a goal (feature films often focus on one as the main protagonist, while Korean dramas with more time to fill give both characters equal weight) and each face outside pressure forcing them into choices they don't want

They encounter each other while pursuing their goals, find each other interesting, though often also infuriating

End of Act One: The Pretext, or the Ill-Considered Choice - something happens that gives the two characters a reason to spend more time together as they continue to pursue their separate goals. This something is very often a lie.

They continue to pursue initial goals, but also get to know each other better. A is attracted to B, but resists.

Midpoint: The Flip - Character A realizes that he/she loves the other, and suddenly pursuit of the goal is less important than pursuit of the other character.

Tension rises as A waits for B to reciprocate feelings; this is often complicated by the Pretext, which helped keep them together early, but has now become a burden that threatens to ruin their relationship. B still resists feelings for A, until...

Character B professes love for A, just before...

End of Act Two: Truth or Betrayal - Either the truth comes out or there is a betrayal by a romantic rival. Often, both happen at once, as the rival reveals the truth.

Heartache, break-up, reconciliation.

Both characters have professed their love for each other privately, and in the climax must also do so publicly, while overcoming the outside pressures that disapprove of their love (romantic rivals, social class, age, race, religion, political affiliation, whatever). The story also circles back to the initial goals, as the characters either give up their goals for the sake of love, or find that their love gives them the wherewithal to succeed at their goals where they formerly failed.

One other interesting twist on the standard formula in a romance is that, though there is an outside force they must overcome, it is not the main antagonist for much of the story. Instead the two characters are each other's antagonists, pushing against each other. And in Korean dramas, especially, the characters are also their own antagonists, competing with each other to see who can sacrifice more for the other. This is the cause of much of the heartbreak, as they hide the truth from each other in the name of protecting the other person.

No comments: