Saturday, October 22, 2011

Korean Cable Television - A Mirror World

God's Quiz Still
OCN's "God's Quiz"

Up until a few months ago, when I first caught sight of "God's Quiz", I was not aware of cable channels in South Korea. Not even of their existence, let alone the works they produce. Which meant that the aforementioned series came as quite a shock to me. For one thing, it wasn't a melodrama, a romantic comedy or a sageuk, as it feels that public television does not know any other genres, save for the occasional exceptions. Or at least they don't get promoted as well as the same ol' same ol'.

This was a crime/medical series. Not only that, but it didn't feature a cast comprised of hot men and women sporting the most expensive and fancy clothes and being the center of everything simply because of their looks. It had insert and soundtrack songs which weren't pop or some fashionable western hits. There was no big crying and yelling extravaganza by everyone on screen or anything melo about it and cops aren't all useless gangsters or bums. All the clichés we have become so accustomed to in other series seemed to have disappeared in this.

On the other hand, it did not feel like a western "CSI-style" series either. For all the elements it borrowed from them, it also adapted them and made the whole thing feel very "Korean" without including the image of Korea we keep seeing in other series. It was like a movie, but on television.

I later found out that OCN is a cable channel and that explained quite a lot of things. Private funding, the need for something different to draw paying viewers and also the lack of certain backwards thinking and limitations public television is riddled with. Like showing off women in skimpy clothes and 12cm heels and then not letting them kiss like adults in fear of "over-sexualizing" them. Hypocrisy, anyone?

After considering the potential of cable television for quality dramas, I decided to check out other series to see if this was something consistent or just a fluke. To my delight, I discovered that cable television is indeed a very solid ground for quality works.

Vampire Prosecutor
A whole new way of investigating crimes in Korean works

I have been following OCN's Vampire Prosecutor (pictured above) since it started airing and again, I was pleasantly surprised. Good quality visuals, impressive CG and filming/directorial techniques (we all know those are also a dire matter in public television), solid acting, high production value all around and freshness.

In the latest episode, we even had a brief shot of a woman's bare behind in the shower, which came as quite a shock to me for Korean television. And I frankly loved it. No, I am not saying it's good to use women as sex objects, but I appreciated the honesty in it. This is far less sexual than promiscuous clothing which seems to be "ok" in other series exercising this pseudo-prudishness the Korean television (and celebrity in general) industry seems so hell bent on. This was also a scene where a burglar and a sex fiend was watching her, so it was important to see exactly what he is looking at. He had a mask on, so these scenes and his other reactions were necessary for the viewer to understand that he's not just there to steal her jewelry. It was necessary so they openly used it. And that is what is often lacking from public television.

Having liked 2 out of the 2 cable series I started, I also took a swing at Secret Investigation Record, which has turned out to be one of my favorite Korean series in general. It's engaging, appropriately confusing and mysterious, the quality is excellent and I coudln't take my eyes off of it or pause when it was playing. Which is a good indicator that a work is immersive and intriguing.

It is also featuring supernatural themes which I would expect to see more of in Korean television, but don't. At least not as often as the other genres. And I think we all know, Asians are good with horror.

Joseon X-Files
Political turmoil and intrigue are taxing enough without having to deal with the paranormal

I mentioned earlier that cable television might be solid ground for quality works and this conviction of mine is only getting stronger as I watch more and more of what it has to offer. Cable television has quality that public television sometimes lacks. It has stories and genres that public television often lacks.

It also has a very important difference from the television we are used to. There is only one episode per week, lasting 45 or so minutes and a lot of the shows are pre-produced. That means that stories get to remain solid and not change the minute netizens start whining about someone's make up not being to their liking. It also means that actors have time to acquaint themselves with the script and prepare their performances. Not only that, but the shorter duration ensures they are well rested and able to give 100% in each episode.

Lee Soon Jae talked about this recently and the man is right in everything he says, I feel . When you overwork someone, they cannot give you their best. That includes cast and crew. Cable does not seem to treat its actors and crew like mules who should just limp their way up a mountain with 5 tons of bags on them.

Joseon X-Files

When your lead actor falls asleep mid-scene, you know your schedule is messed up

When things are done hastily and in such a flimsy manner, quality and people suffer. Cable channels offer quality and they know skimping out on costs and overworking people will not achieve that.

I therefore feel that cable is a good place for someone who wants to do some quality television without working themselves into a coma, drugs, depression or car accidents. It allows actors to give their best and I hope it will gain more momentum in the future. Because public television seems, for the most part, too stuck in their own ways to think about modernity and quality. Because what they give sells. It sells to those who cannot appreciate or even distinguish quality. But South Korea is not only made of fangirls. Cable television is good for those seeking something different and in many aspects, better.

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