The Not-So-Secret Formula of Korean 70s TV Dramas

Over the last couple years, I’ve watched three Korean TV series set mainly in the 1970s.

Light and Shadows (빛과 그림자 [EXPIRED LINK REMOVED:], MBC) (64 episodes at 70 minutes each)2014-01-04 오후 6-27-46

Samsaengi (삼생이, KBS) (120 episodes at 35 minutes each)

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Eun-Hee (은희 [EXPIRED LINK REMOVED:], KBS) (140 episodes at 35 minutes each)

One way or another, this genre has turned out to be particularly interesting to me, and I’ve sometimes attributed it to the idea that these shows give me some insight into how Koreans remember the decades before I arrived in Korea, which I’d like to think gives me a better understanding of the culture as it is today. (I referred to Eun-Hee in an article I wrote a few months ago: “Reflections on Face…“)

However, having watched these three shows in succession, I’m starting to wonder if I’m mainly just getting to see the basic template on which the writers are taught to base their stories (not to mention nearly about every building at Hapcheon Image Theme Park, where all three shows were filmed in part, and which we visited in 2012 – photos here, here and here.)

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So now yet another 70s show is starting next week on KBS called Sungeum’s Land (순금의 땅). Sungeum is the name of a girl and literally means “pure gold”. Samsengi and Eun-Hee were also named after girls who grew up to become women on the show, so we can assume some similaries just from the naming. This is, however, the first to choose as its promotional graphic an image of a single person, rather than the set of four people (two males/two females) of the other three; I wonder if they’ll change this once the story gets underway.

I’m not privy to any special information about the new series other than having watched the preview, but by pulling out my crystal ball (and analyzing my notes from watching the previous shows), I predict that Sungeum’s Land (or Land of Pure Gold or whatever they call it in English) will include the following story elements.

1. Hidden Parent/Child (and Sibling) Relationships

Samsengi and another girl were switched at birth so that Samsengi grew up thinking she belonged to a family she didn’t. Eun-hee was raised by an aunt whom she thought was her mother. In Light and Shadows, one of the leading parts grew up as an orphan but was actually the long-lost daughter of a rich Korean businessman in Japan.

2. An Almost Justifiable Act of Original Deceit by a Person Trusted by the Main Family Who Then Ends Up Ruined

Samsaengi was switched at birth by a man who worked for her father and continued to live in the home of her father even as Samsaengi grew up and learned the truth. Eun-hee’s father was accused of murder by a close friend who was the actual murderer. Both of these acts of deceit laid the basis for the plot of their respective stories and the persons committing the deceit did so for reasons that could be somewhat justified, having not started out as bad people. The perpetrators though spend the length of the show trying to keep the secret hidden, even resorting to murder to maintain the lies, but ended up committing suicide or going crazy.

I don’t recall a key act of deceipt like this in Light and Shadows, but a childhood friend of the main character went into politics and turned against the family that raised him, and finally killed himself and another evil character in the end to redeem himself.

3. Basis in the Korean War

The elements of #1 and #2 above all started during the Korean War; without the war, these terrible lies would never have gotten started.

4. Families Moving from the Countryside to Seoul

The main characters of Light and Shadows came from a small town with a made-up-name, but Samsaengi’s family was from Daegu and the families of Eun-Hee were originally from Kaesung. In all three cases, they ended up in Seoul (or in Eun-Hee’s case, Incheon, next to Seoul).

5. Underworld Figures, Corruption and Politics

All three stories involve gangsters, corrupt political figures, borrowing from moneylenders (with the main protagonists losing or almost losing everything) and torture of one or more main characters by the Korean CIA at “Namsan”). At least two of the shows included political demonstrations against the government and references to actual political events of the times.

6. At Least One Character Spending an Extended Time Overseas

In Light and Shadows, the hero spends a couple years in exile in Japan. Samsaengi’s friends study abroad in Europe. And Eun-Hee’s husband-to-be leaves for the US on at least three occasions to get away from it all.

7. A Faked Injury by Someone

I’m not sure why, but women in these shows like to fake injuries to manipulate others to do what they want. It happened in all three shows; no reason to expect otherwise on Sungeum’s Land.

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