When comfort is a K-drama 

S. Poorvaja

When comfort is a K-drama 
How shows like ‘Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha,’ ‘Reply 1988’ and others have perfected the ‘comfort’ genre and changed the landscape of Korean entertainment  The 2015 Korean drama series Reply 1988 opens with five teenage friends sitting in front ...
How shows like ‘Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha,’ ‘Reply 1988’ and others have perfected the ‘comfort’ genre and changed the landscape of Korean entertainment 

The 2015 Korean drama series Reply 1988 opens with five teenage friends sitting in front of a TV, stuffing their faces with snacks. As they proceed to bicker and banter, the resounding sound of their mothers' yells echo through the street calling them back home for dinner. The neighbours all part ways, and are shown entering into houses all on the same street. It is evident that this is an everyday routine; the loving familiarity, and almost a clockwork precision about how it all unfolds.

There’s something about an opening sequence like this that hits a viewer like a ton of bricks; the heady mix of nostalgia, warmth, and familiarity that envelopes you from the get-go.

Comfort of community

Hollywood rom-coms have for long, taken precedence when it comes to ‘comfort’ watching. For years, we’ve all turned to Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers’ extensive filmography for an array of options. Over the last three years, we’ve probably ignored a lot of the new content available, and picked watching You’ve Got Mail or 10 Things I Hate About You for the tenth time.

This is a genre K-dramas have also excelled at, and these swoon-worthy, frothy romances were in the forefront when they had a massive breakthrough a couple of years ago globally. At present too, Business Proposal, starring the terrific Kim Se-Jeong and Ahn Hyo-Seop remains on Netflix India’s top shows list even a month after its release.

There’s a whole other genre though, that K-dramas have made their own and excelled at: relatable comfort that goes beyond romance. This comfort revels in the everyday realness of its characters, is unhurried in pace, while exploring friendships, sisterhood, dreams, ambition and so much more.

Five comfort K-Dramas to check out:
Hospital Playlist: Five doctors in their forties who have been friends since medical school, reunite at Yulje hospital where they navigate life, work, and relationships, all while indulging in their love for music on the side
Be Melodramatic: The lives of three best friends in their thirties — a documentary filmmaker, a TV show writer, and a marketing professional — who have each other’s backs as they try to figure out their lives, careers and relationships
Reply 1988: Wholesome comfort with loads of nostalgia, as we follow five friends and their families in the same neighbourhood
Run On: A slow-burn drama where a former track star whose life has been thrown out of gear finds an unlikely source of support in a film subtitler
Navillera: A septuagenarian decides to pursue his lifelong dream of learning ballet and strikes up a friendship with a young dancer as they encourage each other

There are parental relationships, friendships, sporting ambitions and the very relatable teenage indecision about the future that Reply 1988 follows through five friends and their families who reside in the neighbourhood of Ssangmun-Dong, While there is romance, what makes it truly wholesome is how it celebrates community bonding, support, and kindness, harkening back to an era where neighbours felt like a part of the family. “A time when we didn’t have much, but people’s hearts were warm,” muses Lee Hye-Ri, who played the immensely likable Deok-Sun.

The sense of community here is also brought alive by the women; the mothers and homemakers who sit together outside the colony as they gossip and prep for dinner, constantly sending food to each other’s homes, quietly helping out a friend in need financially, and even signing up to compete in a national singing competition.

Comfort of friendships

We seldom see such stories on-screen, that go beyond milking the nostalgia factor and give so much weight to the humans who drive the show forward. It is this slice-of-life perfection that writer director duo Lee Woo-Jung and Shin Won-Ho also drive home in the Hospital Playlist series.

The protagonists here are five doctors in their 40s and much like the Ahjummas or older women in Reply 1988, there’s genuine warmth, camaraderie, and bonding here as they navigate their everyday routine at the hospital, all while bickering over food and coming together to form a garage band. Jung Kyung-Ho in particular, who plays cardiologist Jun Wan, has you ‘relating hard’ as all those memes on adulthood put it especially when he tiredly tells his colleague, "I’m old. I can’t do two different things on the same day."

There’s comfort in the authenticity of the friendships in both these shows, and the fact that you don’t need to be road-tripping somewhere exotic, or conquer conflicts that feel forced to drive home a point about your affinity for one another. It is this refreshing departure which makes these shows appealing, all while transcending language and culture barriers. Hospital Playlist was not just a ratings success when aired in South Korea. It also enjoyed a strong viewership on Netflix where episodes were released simultaneously.

Comfort of sisterhood

Going a step beyond friendships, the sisterhood that the protagonists of Search WWW and Be Melodramatic share is something we need to see more of on-screen. If Search WWW brings the women together in shared solidarity as they pursue their career ambitions, Be Melodramatic has them support each other through relationships, grief, and their creative pursuits.

The women in both these shows are unabashedly themselves as they go up against the many curveballs that everyday life throws at them, often reacting to it with deadpan humour about their age and circumstances. There’s much to empathise with and think about, especially since we’re often left wanting more for women in our local cinema content.

It's the people, places, and even the mundane every day that many K-dramas deal with, which one can’t help but seek comfort in. In last year’s smash hit Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha, the focus might have been on its lead couple, but there’s an overarching theme of healing and discovering oneself.

For the uninitiated, Korean entertainment for the longest time was represented by cult favourites such as Train to Busan, Oldboy, The Handmaiden, and of course, most recently, Parasite.

The art of making comfort films

But the 'hallyu' wave and its sudden breakthrough over the last three years however has steadily opened up the world of K-dramas to several viewers globally. Platforms such as Netflix and Rakuten Viki have an extensive library of shows with Amazon Prime and Disney+ Hotstar beginning to catch up as well.

What is it that they manage to get so right about this brand of comfort? Most often, feel-good-entertainment has to dangerously toe the line to ensure it doesn’t veer into a cloying, saccharine sweet territory. On the other side is content that attempts to hold up a mirror to society. The fact that several K-dramas manage to strike a balance between both is the reason why these shows are evocative, often relatable, empathetic, and most importantly, fun to revel in.

The latest in this line is My Liberation Notes which follows the lives of three siblings played by Lee Min-Ki, Kim Ji-Won, and Lee El as they try to break free of the shackles of monotony that has seemingly consumed their life. Despite the themes the show deals with, it has been far from dreary so far. There’s something about the languid pace and the constant wonderings about life that its characters indulge in, that one can’t help but root for it.

The likes of other Korean thrillers such as Squid Game and All of Us are Dead might have been bigger hits, but with enough worries in the real world that double up as our own personal brand of monsters, shows that instead feel like a warm blanket on a cold, dreary day are more than welcome.

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