Spoiler alert: It takes more than familiar plots and love teams. It's thinking ~light years~ ahead.
As Filipinos fell deep into the rabbit hole that is 2020, fans also fell deeper into the Korean universe, as new titles are streamed on Netflix. With new additions such as Itaewon Class, It's Okay To Not Be Okay, and A World Of Married Couple, it seems there's no turning back since Boys Over Flowers and Winter Sonata got Filipinos hooked for over a decade.
The same adoration can't be said for Filipino dramas. Sure, there are the memes from afternoon soaps but nothing that inspires love for samgyupsal or travel goals to Seoul. The problem is in the creative and business process, said a Korean studies scholar. "South Korea's film and TV industry is light years ahead compared to the Philippines. In scriptwriting, in production quality, in distribution quality, in a lot of aspects throughout its supply and value chains," said Erik Paolo Capistrano, a faculty member at the UP College of Business Administration whose research interests include the study of Korean culture and its many industries.
It's the chemistry.
South Korean productions are not afraid to take risks, he said. They're always looking for new ways to conceptualize, produce what is essentially the same boy meets girl love story.
"The Philippine industry is totally opposite. We stick to 'tried and tested' means and we milk what is successful more than dry," he said. For instance, there's always that element of love teams in Philippine dramas. The likes of KathNiel, LizQuen, and JaDine have their careers built from the ground up, starring in TV shows and movies. It will take years, or until their fans cross puberty, that these pairs are broken up.
That inseparability of leading man and leading lady is very, very rare in South Korean dramas, according to Erik. Take for example, Song Hye Kyo and Song Joong Ki in Descendants Of The Sun. The drama became a huge hit, even without public knowledge of their real-life ties, which after the show ended in short-lived marriage. Nonetheless, the pair did not prevent viewers from taking interest in Hye Kyo's partnership with actor Park Bo Gum in her next drama. The same thing happened with Hyun Bin who was Park Shin Hye's love interest before ending up with Son Ye Jin for Crash Landing On You.
The inevitable comparisons that audiences would make afterwards is something that keeps South Korean dramas appealing as well. Apart from shunning love teams, the refreshing experience that Korean dramas offer make them "very appealing," he said.
The latest string of dramas that proved to be a hit among Filipino audiences each brought something new to the table. There was Crash Landing On You with its modern-day Tale of Two Cities which gave a glimpse of North Korean life that not many people are aware of, and then there's A World Of Married Couple, which started off as a typical "hell hath no fury than a woman scorned" situation but had viewers all confused on who's on the side of good or evil as the show progressed. In most Filipino dramas, viewers are almost always sure who to root for from start to end. These fresh takes and unpredictable plot lines continue to draw in a Filipino audience that has long been fed by the same formulaic stories. For the case of It's Okay To Not Be Okay which recently topped Netflix Philippines' charts, it revealed South Korea's ability to tackle taboos.
"It's refreshing in the sense that in South Korea, the issue of mental health, especially among men, isn't really a topic being discussed enough. In fact, in some traditional circles, it's still a bit taboo to talk about it, and here you are, with one of South Korea's highest paid actors, in a lead role on it," said Erik.
ALSO READ: 10 K-Dramas That Tackle Mental Health
While these themes appear "fresh" to the Filipino audience, they are also highly aspirational, according to film scholar, Roland Tolentino. "Korean characters, lifestyle, professional, and leisure goals are fantasy aspirations, too. For Filipinos, even simple professions like being a secretary or prosecutor are molded into a first world Asian setting," he said. Also central to the success of K-dramas is the dominance of pan-Asian beauty among lead actors, which is a type of Asian beauty that doesn't look particularly representative of any nationality. All these themes resonate with Philippine audiences so much, and South Korean dramas happen to be really good at touching on them.
It has an ending.
"Overall, watching South Korean dramas doesn't get old. You got a wide array of genres, themes, and topics to choose from. One won't easily get tired of watching, since there's so much content with different takes and approaches to choose from, despite some common similarities and characteristics that we've seen over the last twenty plus years since Winter Sonata," said Erik.
But the creative freedom that these productions enjoy wouldn't be possible, if not for the industry that sustains it which makes the most glaring difference. According to Erik, the fixed broadcast life of South Korean dramas do so much in ensuring their quality. "That to me says a lot about planning, production, and distribution. Regardless if the drama becomes a hit or not, the number of episodes are fixed," he said.
The rarity of South Korean dramas extending their broadcast run puts pressure on the cast and the production crew to always give it their best, because each episode counts, he said. It also makes planning and management easier, because you know your budget and your resources are only good for 16 to 24 episodes.
In the Philippines, TV dramas too often have indefinite lifespans that result in unnatural plot twists. "You don't know when a drama will end, so there is that uncertainty of resources, budgets, and schedules of the cast and crew. That to me is detrimental to the production house and to the broadcast distributor, because they cannot efficiently manage their respective resources under this very big cloud of uncertainty," he said.
It's on streaming.
The recent influx of South Korean dramas in Netflix also points to their forward looking mindset, particularly in exploring other means of distribution, which is "a conscious effort and a concrete part of the production planning." The reputation these dramas have built led to a demand which obligates them to reach out to more platforms where they know they would be wanted.
As a result: "They don't have to rely solely on TV ratings anymore as a measure of success, but they're also looking at the long tail impact that streaming sites like Netflix allows," Erik said.
Enter the Hallyu wave
The Hallyu or the Korean wave is a term that has been widely used to refer to the country's global cultural domination. Its massive influence is seen not only in the popularity of Korean dramas, but also in the aspect of skincare, makeup, food, and of course, music more popularly known as Korean Pop (K-pop).
As reported by business strategist Martin Roll, the Hallyu effect's tremendous impact has contributed to the Korean economy, with an estimated $12.3 billion boost in 2019. "People don't realize that when you watch Korean movies, when you watch Korean TV shows, they're also selling you Korean cars. They're also selling you Korean electronics. They're also selling you 'Visit Korea'," said filmmaker Pepe Diokno in his TEDxADMU talk. He said that the Korean government's recognition of Hallyu's impact to the economy paved the way for massive government support in the form of incentives, which encouraged producers to experiment and take risks.
The Philippine film industry used to be one of the fastest-growing in Asia. The 1960s was considered "the golden age" for achieving multiple artistic breakthroughs with our country producing an average of about 140 movies per year according to a report by the National Statistical Coordination Board.
However, producers were later "forced" to compromise the quality of films, which gave way to a huge decline by the 1980s. According to film academic Nicanor Tiongson, this was because producers were obsessed with the immediate and substantial return on their investment and so they resorted to sticking with tried-and-tested formula plots of the genre movies. They blamed various factors including onerous taxes, rising production costs, competition with foreign films, and eventually piracy due to the advent of digital technology. Like many young filmmakers, Diokno is taking this as a challenge.
"My dream is that in ten, five, fifteen, twenty years, it will be the Koreans who watch our movies and our TV shows, and listen to our music. And it will be the Koreans who say, 'Hey I wanna buy that Filipino car, I wanna buy that Filipino cellphone, I wanna go to the Philippines'," he said.