What I learned about Koreans after watching my first K-drama series
The drama diary
I've never been a fan of anything Korean. Not its music, entertainment, food or male specimens — somehow feasting on jjimdak (braised chicken), bobbing my head along to Korean rap and melting at the thought of a tousled-haired, porcelain-faced Korean heartthrob isn't my idea of a good time. That's not to say I reject anything Korean. I've had early introductions to its entertainment scene by way of Daniel Henney — the half-Korean amuse bouche before you go full-on — in Seducing Mr. Perfect, a cheesy chick flick in 2006. Then there's Psy of course, and the 'Gangnam Style' goodness he bestowed upon the world in 2012. The last time I religiously followed an East Asian television series was the Japanese tearjerker, One Litre of Tears, in 2005. It's a region whose pop culture I just didn't gravitate too.
When I was tasked to come up with a few stories for our Korean special (timely to the recent Seoul Fashion Week shenanigans), I have to admit I struggled. What would I write about? I figured I could cover Seoul's cool concept stores done by both local firms and the likes of Peter Marino. Done. I could barely tell the difference between my Taeyeons from my Taeyangs, so I thought a digest would work. Done. Korean dramas couldn't be ignored, so I figured I could pen a few thoughts after watching my first ever episode — in case anyone cared. Done. Like any true-blue Singaporean, I spent my morning commute in the train glued to my mobile screen, trying to make sense of the hit television series, Goblin.
Why Goblin? Well, it's only one of the most successful Korean drama series of all time. It's backed by substance, too, written by Kim Eun-sook, who also wrote the television hit Descendants of the Sun (DOTS). Director Lee Eun-bok is also behind some episodes, and is also from similar DOTS stock — although self-professed K-drama critics might be splitting hairs over how good DOTS really was. Goblin's lead is Gong Yoo, who I vaguely recognised from Train To Busan's marketing campaigns that successfully infiltrated into this non-subscriber's social media feed. The premise of this fantasy-drama sounded promising, as it didn't have that clichéd rich boy meets not-so-rich girl, star-crossed lovers nonsense.
Instead, two accidental roommates just happened to be a 100-year-old goblin and a grim reaper (Lee Dong-wook), shacking up for the first time. The Goblin (Gong Yoo) wanted to end his immortality by falling in love with a mortal. Then there's Kim Go-eun as Ji Eun-tak, an orphaned teen who could see spirits, and also happened to be the goblin's bride... whatever that was. If everything I've learned about Americans are through my unhealthy consumption of Friends, Frasier, Scrubs, Boston Legal, Californication and The Office, then surely Goblin could teach me a thing or two about Koreans.
1. Romance has some bloody beginnings
I was not expecting that much blood from the get-go. What the hell, Gong Yoo? Just after the five-minute mark, we see the Goblin in full warrior mode, slashing everything in his sight in a war that happened some 900 years ago. I dropped my jaw at each bloody frame, and even flinched when bows and arrows were utilised.
2. Goblins and grim reapers aren't all vile-looking
What did I know about Korean goblins? Next to nothing, apparently. Western pop culture had prepped me to expect a menacing, foul-mouthed monster, dripping in green goo and with a pair of pointy ears for added effect. Think: Willem Dafoe from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy (which is, ahem, still the best version of the comic book hero). I was not expecting the beautiful creature that is Gong Yoo, whose eyes crinkled at each unexpected gesture, and whose steady gaze can make you disloyal to the men you've indulged in before. As the grim reaper/angel of death, Lee Dong-wook takes it to the next level with a charm that's almost deadly. Also handy are his pillowy, full lips, which can inspire the likes of Pablo Neruda to wax lyrical on.
3. The damsel in distress trope needs to die
Alright, so three women died in the first episode alone. Sure, a couple of warriors did too, but two out of the three women were pretty pivotal to the story — the first was a royal who I can only assume had an affair with the Goblin when he was a mere mortal (the intense eye contact was a huge clue). The third was the mother of the Goblin bride, who not only died once, but twice, just for good measure. Meanwhile the female protagonist is a whiny, naïve excuse for a woman in love — yes, she's only in her late teens, but surely a bit of backbone could have been written in. Reality check: A boyfriend is not going to make your problems magically disappear. It's not the '60s.
4. Don't underestimate the powers of a felt hat
Or a well-tailored jacket. Or a snug cashmere sweater. Man, can Koreans dress. I was immediately taken to the cream pullovers, grey turtlenecks and subtle hues donned by the Goblin, while the female characters eased themselves in casual separates. A grim reaper has never looked this good — well suited in black (fashion's favourite hue) and in a hat that'll make any Maison Michel fan jealous. Those Twilight folks need to up their game. When a member of Korea's underworld dons a Dolce & Gabbana beaded crown brooch while he's giving out death cards, you know he means business.
5. Goblin's a tourism board's dream come true
Destinations never look as pretty as when two dramatic leads are within in to fall in love for the first time. Quebec through the eyes of Koreans is quite the charmer, as are other filming locations within Korea. Gangwon Province's Jumunjin Gangneung is the respite where Ji Eun-tak meets the Goblin for the official first time, while a street off Deoksugung Doldam-Gil is the perfect backdrop for a slow-mo shot. Further into the series, you'll discover other gems like Hanmi Bookstore in Incheon, as well as the Château Frontenac in Quebec.