My First Korean Drama

I just finished watching a Korean drama – all 16 episodes of it. 

No one is more shocked by this than I am. I’ve long scoffed at Asian soap operas regardless of their national origin, having watched a handful of episodes while overseas and glimpsing others on Asian TV channels here. They’re so over the top! From their maddeningly slow-burning, tear-drenched romances (always backed by gut-wrenching dirges about mismatched love) to the pristinely clean-shaven men who all look the same, Asian dramas have been anathema to me.

But one Korean drama has revealed to me my arrogance. It’s still got too much romantic angst for my taste – they’re talking about their relationship AGAIN? – and sad songs that I’d rather put on mute. Yet this K-drama really won me over.

It’s called Search: WWW, and though I don’t understand Korean, I caught it on Rakuten’s with English subtitles. (Rakuten is kinda like in Japan.) The story centers on three women, each ranking in the top echelon of leaders at massive South Korean internet search companies similar to Google. It’s a world I have some familiarity with through my contract work a few years ago as a website content writer. 

Actresses Lee Da Hee as Cha Hyun (a.k.a. Scarlett), Im Soo Jung as the primary protagonist Bae Ta Mi (a.k.a. Tami), and Jeon Hye Jin as Song Ga Kyung

I learned of this series through the YouTube channel of my favorite K-pop group, Mamamoo; their new song “WOW” featured in several episodes. You can see the official music video, consisting of clips from the show, here (but be forewarned, there are minor spoilers):

I don’t know how Search: WWW compares to other K-dramas, but it feels quite feminist to me. I’ve heard that in the past, Korean dramas tended to be quite male-centric and even misogynistic, though things have improved in recent years. But the three lead characters in this series are women doing things that we don’t often see them do in film or on TV, even in supposedly more egalitarian Western media. For instance:

  • They’re among the top corporate officials in an industry dominated by men
  • They’re cutthroat when it comes to getting an edge over their competitors
  • They have no problems bluntly putting people who work under them in their place, regardless of gender
  • They’re cocky and don’t apologize for being brilliant
  • They advocate boldly and persistently for themselves and their points of view
  • Basically, they don’t take crap from anyone
  • One of the leads thoroughly enjoys taking out her anger through physical aggressiveness, especially when it comes to men who’ve behaved badly
  • One of the other leads, though in her late thirties, rejects any and all pressure to get married 
  • The three leads all insist on their personal boundaries being respected

Really, these characteristics most frequently are associated with male protagonists in popular TV and films; the epitome of this in my generation is Han Solo from the original Star Wars trilogy (Episodes IV – VI). So it’s refreshing to see the female main characters in Search: WWW depicted like this, especially because women who embody these qualities in real life are widely condemned as too aggressive, overly masculine, or just plain bitchy.  

But in this series, they’re the romantic leads. And over 16 episodes, a complex portrait of each emerges:

  • They wonder about the wisdom of their actions, both professionally and personally
  • They share their deep insecurities with their confidants
  • They’re willing to ask for, and receive, comfort when they’re hurting
  • They go to great lengths to support their friends who are going through hard times
  • Two of the three leads get visibly giddy over the blossoming romances in their lives

What’s more, these romantic leads become the she-roes you root for, as the overarching narrative takes on a bit of the flavor of a Michael Crichton techno-political thriller. The three women become drawn into a struggle with corrupt officials, both within their corporations and at the highest levels of government, that are trying to manipulate their companies’ technology for political and financial gain. It’s a very believable crisis with the potential to affect almost every internet user in South Korea, and in real life, it very much reminds me of the current U.S. administration’s strongarm attempts to intimidate internet content providers.   

It’s this larger story that I enjoyed the most. Next to that, I liked the interactions between the three leading women, even those that were bitterly contentious from betrayal. (This show passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, with the three leads’ conversations with each other almost never being about a man.) And I confess, I did like the romantic stories overall – though, as I’ve said before, the background music was sometimes on the cheesy side and the relationships took forever to develop. (More than once, I said out loud, Can you just kiss him already???) 

Cha Hyun, can you just kiss him already???

Oh, and I laughed quite a bit, too, especially watching actress Lee Da Hee’s character Cha Hyun. She’s fantastic, and from what I’ve seen on K-drama blogs, a lot of other viewers apparently feel the same way.

Yes, I read K-drama blogs.

And as a further confession, I’ll admit that I almost cried watching the series. But just once.

Will I watch another K-drama in the future? Most likely, but it’ll be hard to top Search: WWW, which sets the bar really high!

(Click here to start watching Search: WWW. For really good episode-by-episode recaps of the series, check out blogger LollyPip‘s posts over on K-drama blog Dramabeans. And for some of my favorite Mamamoo songs, check out my unlisted YouTube playlist, “When the News Sucks.”)