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Clones, aliens, dystopia: Korean dramas go sci-fi

Fantasy, futuristic devices become weaved into the K-drama format, but without the pricey CGI flourishes

Genre dramas featuring increasingly supernatural elements, long seen as lacking mainstream appeal, are flooding Korean television recently.

Time slip has now become a staple device in both mystery thrillers -- last year’s hit tvN series “Signal” revolved around walkie-talkies that connected its users to the future -- and even in romantic comedies such as tvN’s “Tomorrow With You,” where the male lead was a time traveler.

KBS’ “Hit the Top,” which began airing Friday, focuses on a K-pop idol singer-songwriter transported to the future.

Dystopian worlds, aliens and clones have also begun popping up in Korean dramas, traditionally dominated by love stories and period pieces.

Actor Kim Kang-woo plays a detective living in the year 2037 in drama series “Circle.” (tvN)
Actor Kim Kang-woo plays a detective living in the year 2037 in drama series “Circle.” (tvN)

“Circle,” which began airing on May 22 on tvN, shows college student Woo-jin (Yeo Jin-goo) investigating odd cases prompted by the arrival of aliens on Earth in 2017. Detective Joon-hyuk (Kim Kang-woo) lives in the year 2037 in a “smart” Earth where human emotions are under strict control.

The show’s producer Min Jin-ki wanted to tackle a story that would be “refreshing to viewers,” he said at a press conference on May 17. The producer of sci-fi drama “Duel,” which began on OCN on Saturday, took on the topic of artificial intelligence in light of Korea’s growing interest in robotics. “I wanted to infuse clones with emotions,” he said.

In “Duel,” detective Jang Deuk-cheon (Jung Jae-young) chases two suspects who possess identical DNA and are divided into “good” and “evil” counterparts. In the coming episodes, the series will unravel who is human and who is a clone.

The new setups don’t necessarily indicate that the bulk of Korean viewers are over the K-drama formula of romance and family melodrama -- currently leading ratings is KBS’ “Lovers in Bloom,” about the life and love of a female cop. But they do hint that viewers crave new ways for time-worn stories to be told, according to culture critic Jung Deok-hyun.

“In Korean dramas, science fiction elements tend to become Korean-ized, juxtaposed with the melodrama,” he said. “It’s a way to overcome the tediousness (of K-dramas), but the themes of love and family still remain very attractive to Korean viewers.”

He gave the example of last year’s massive success of shows like “Guardian: The Great and Lonely God,” a love story between a supernatural and human being.

At the same time, the diversification of genres seems to reflect Korean dramas’ need to reach a larger international audience, especially in light of tightened restrictions on Korean content in China that began in 2015.

“American TV shows tend to become references for Korean thrillers,” said Jung, referring to crime-solving shows such as “CSI” and “Medium,” which aired on Korean cable channel OCN.

Actor Yang Se-jong plays a human and a clone with the same DNA in “Duel.” (OCN)
Actor Yang Se-jong plays a human and a clone with the same DNA in “Duel.” (OCN)

Last year’s crime thriller “Voice” received widespread international attention and was sold to North America, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxemburg, Monaco and numerous Southeast Asian countries, according to its network OCN. “Tunnel,” another OCN show, has been sold to North America, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines.

OCN, which started out as a movie-focused cable channel in 1995 and is currently owned by CJ E&M, has been steadfast in its development of genre dramas since 2004.

“As Korean crime thrillers and genre dramas increase in quality, international attention for OCN dramas is rising,” said an official there.

Some Korean viewers in their late 20s and 30s say they no longer find solace in saccharine love stories, and choose to de-stress through the thrill of mystery-solving.

“I am tired of dealing with interpersonal relationships in my everyday life, so I don’t want to see them in drama series,” said 29-year-old Lee Ji-won, a fan of American Netflix series such as “Sense8” and “Stranger Things.”

“It’s not predictable,” said 30-year-old avid drama viewer Choi Hyun-joo on tvN’s “Circle.” “The setting of a future world stoked my curiosity. I like the feeling of not being able to understand everything that’s going on and waiting to see how it will turn out.”

By Rumy Doo (