Anatomy of Kim Eun Sook’s Brilliance

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After giving constant blockbuster dramas throughout her career, drama writer Kim Eun Sook is no stranger to any K-drama fans. She has been in the industry for quite a long time, giving mega-hits project after project, appealing to a wide age range and creating a pop-culture buzz across the nation. Although I wasn’t introduced to this “king-maker” until 2008, her history with high-rated dramas is no news to me. Despite not having watched her first three hit shows – The Lovers trilogy – I was aware of the popularity each show held and being newly appointed Korean-drama devotee back then, I was destined to cross paths with her works.

The first drama I watched of this incredible writer was On Air in 2008 that tackled behind-the-scenes of television productions and the lives of four different characters working in the world of entertainment. Being a Lee Beom Soo fan, it didn’t take me long to dive into this show and that was how I was first introduced to the literal world of Kim Eun Sook; A world of over-the-top romances, beautiful performers, stubbornly complicated characters, captivating soundtracks and numbers… just a whole lot of numbers. On Air concluded with 19.5% of total ratings and despite my doubts, I did enjoy the show that ended up winning many prestigious awards. However, my skepticisms still remains on the fondness for the show, had there been a different cast.

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Kim then wrote City Hall in 2009, a show revolving around romance among government officials. As serious it might sound, it surprised me more with its humor; Kim Sun Ah-as witty as always and Cha Seung Won’s portrayal of an ambitious man who you just can’t hate. I thoroughly enjoyed this show and with the grace of dramaland forever favoring the writer, City Hall too concluded its 20 episodes with a reasonable 16.5% ratings.

By now I was convinced that Kim Eun Sook was pretty much running out of luck and I feared her next drama wouldn’t live up to the expectations. My anxiety hastened after reading the synopsis: a Cinderella-esque story that would revolve around two protagonist switching their bodies. I mean the screen was filled with good-looking guys falling head over heels in love with an ordinary girl after Boys Before Flowers and You’re Beautiful galore, and here we had the writer with her body swap humor? I almost opted out of her new project until Ha Ji Won (aka the gorgeous/perfect/extraordinary one) signed up for the female protagonist. What resulted was me completely obsessed with the show and watching each episode three times. Three times! In my defense, I had very little understanding of the language and subtitles were added pretty late back then. So it seemed quite reasonable that I would watch each episode once with my limited Korean, the second time after the subtitles were added to see if I understood what I had presumed and the third time… well the third time was to just enjoy the episode without worrying to have to understand whatever they were saying. By the time Secret Garden ended, I had already watched the show 3 times. But I guess I might not be the only lunatic to have been crazy about this show as the drama recorded 24.3% of viewer ratings with the actors internationally recognized, soundtracks ruling the charts and scenes reenacted as puns and satire in every forms anywhere possible. Moreover, It was this drama that made Kim Eun Sook from a hit drama writer to a blockbuster creator.

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I mark Secret Garden to be the turning point to the writer’s career despite her successful Lovers-trilogy and its glorious ratings because I believe the 2011 drama was the first of her writing to get such global attention. Surely the trilogy was triumphant in its home country, but it was not until Secret Garden that made Kim a bestseller in the drama market. Her works that followed after were much anticipated, not for the actors, but for the writer herself. She casted the famed Jang Dong Gun next in A Gentleman’s Dignity, whose return to the small screen after 12 years was already a winner and whilst The Heirs was all K-fans could talk about in 2013, I wasn’t as invested in either of the following shows as I had done for its preceding blockbuster. Perhaps I was quite sick and tired to go through another push-and-pull romance and a sappy Cinderella tale. But yes, I could see the ratings still beating every other contemporary shows and viewers obsessed with Kim’s fantasy on love.

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A discovery emerged in me when Descendants of the Sun was announced: Kim Eun Sook loves high-profile names in her team. It’s not immoral to have big names involved in your crew; popularity is already certain before the pilot airs. After all those big-shot names earlier, she had two Songs’ romancing in a war-torn imaginary country. Come on! You wouldn’t skip it even if you wanted to, would you? Lords were so gracious to Song Joong Ki that his project right after his military duties was such a success that people completely forgot he had ever left! And what a wave it spread across the world, not just Asia, but I think the whole world went crazy over Captain Yoo. The chart-topping ratings, immense popularity entitled to every actor involved with the show and the abundance of awards was another gold in the writer’s resume. There has to be something that Kim was doing right that the rest of her contemporaries hadn’t figured out. How could anyone bring so much glory in each project she was entitled to? She must have the touch of Midas, or else there was just no other ways to fathom her triumph after each show.

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I would’ve sworn our romance writer to be a celestial being with tremendous sorcery abilities had I not been a keen observant in her recent works and after having relentlessly enjoyed her shows for almost ten years, I could see through the magic. The motif behind all that appealed to the eyes of the viewers started getting crystal clear to me and suddenly it all started making sense.

It ain’t a food worth eating if it doesn’t look beautiful… said no-one. But it has been a general belief that to make your food taste good, it must look appealing to the eyes as well. After all, it’s the eyes that devour what’s in the plate way before it reaches the tongue. Kim is well aware of that and that’s why she always has the most alluring actors in her shows. Who wouldn’t want a bunch of good looking people portraying perfection in your screen, no matter the irrelevance? Would you believe someone as pretty as Song Joong Ki would manage being a team leader for an elite special force unit without a single scar on his face? Or an army doctor as frail-looking as Kim Ji Won would ever endure the harsh weather of this imaginary war torn country? Also, the last time I checked on with Tolkien’s work, goblins looked like straight-outa-hell, and here we are provided with a goblin in the form of Godly-handsome Gong Yoo. I’m just saying, but if there was a Grim Reaper as chic as Lee Dong Wook, I’d be happy to leave this world and follow that goddamn hunk to the other side. And why would any director in their sanity would cast as stunning as Ha Ji Won only as a stunt person and not the lead actress? Just look at the woman! She’s dedicated, can do her own stunts and has been pretty since last year! There is no notions as to why such absurdity would always happen to be in Kim’s work. What really matters is that these actors are pleasing to watch with their gorgeous features flaunted in the screen on their own. Mix them with a couple (or a dozen in regards to The Hiers) of equally good-looking people and… Voila! Exquisity created… if that’s even a word!

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Romance is another main factor to Kim’s streak of success. Whatever the condition, we can expect there to be a lot of sweeping-off-the-floor love that blossoms quite early in the show followed by a constant push and pull between the characters. The protagonists unite towards the end with some awfully cringy lines (that you won’t notice how cheesy they are then, only after a few months of hiatus and you go back to that same scene) and everything ends well. We as viewers are so invested in enjoying these push-and-pull, the corny lines, the pretty protagonists and irrational romantic scenes that we no longer care wherever the hell the plot has drifted to. The infatuation heightens to the summit where we are least bothered about the story and we just want our dear Goblin to be happy. In short, the characters become the central highlight rather than the story itself. Consider a country with chaotic incidents like earthquakes, wars and endemic diseases and all we are focused is the romantic moments between Song Joong Ki and Song Hye Kyo… is humanity extinct or are we just victims of Kim Eun Sook’s compelling skills to bring out the shallowness in humanity?

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Over the years of watching Korean shows to quench my thirst of drama-hunger (A rare illness with the type of hunger so intense, that it can only be satiated by consistently devoting a certain amount of your eyesight to the screens that displays the prominence of dramaland), I have realized that although I might have preferences over watching certain types of shows, I haven’t prejudiced dramas due to any specific reasons, making me intolerable to nonsensical scenarios and incomprehensible plot lines. And yet, every time Kim Eun Sook announces her next project, I cannot help but be a bit hopeful on how the odds would turn out to be. This has made me sit through some praiseworthy performances, outstandingly creative ideas, crackling chemistries and above all, bewitching soundtracks that somehow always ends up in my playlist. Despite that, do I argue that Kim Eun Sook might just be a force to garner popularity instead of an impressive writer? Most probably, in terms of the direction this review is going. But in my defense, I have watched some great shows that I do believe was worthy of equal appreciation as did her dramas. I could easily argue that Circle was more intense than Goblin; I Came in Search of a Flower had much compassion than Descendants of the Sun; Kill Me, Heal Me had a better engaging storyline than Secret Garden; Dear My Friends had much more adorable squad in comparison to A Gentleman’s Dignity and the character development of It’s Okay, It’s Love was way more appealing than The Heirs. And yet, none of the formers were as popular as the latter pointed shows.

This is because there is always a certain blend of every kind of genre in Kim’s writing and although it looks like there is depth in the show, we are only seeing the surface, a bit of everything this clever lady has in her mind. So yes Circle was intense than Goblin, but it focused on sci-fi and there weren’t any other aspects to focus apart from solving the main mystery in the dystopian world. Whereas Goblin on the other hand, had mythical characters, romance, mystery and humor to add on its resume. I can clearly see the larger population interested in a bit of everything than a few dystopian sci-fi fans. And this is something Kim is skilled at. She is aware of the larger number of people willing to watch a simple body-swap quandary over a multiple personality disorder drama that just complicates over time. And yes, sitting through these ecstatically delusional shows sometimes gives us a mediocre ending. But hey, why would that matter when the girl ends up with the guy, am I right?

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I always stray in the borderline of being a devotee and a cynic of Kim’s works. But you wouldn’t find me bashing about them because firstly, that would be hypocritical and secondly, since I am caught inside the looking glass created by the writer herself, I cannot help but to just fall for her shows hook, line and sinker. After all, to quote the great Kim Joo Won of Secret Garden,

“In Alice in Wonderland, there is a mental illness. Because of looking from the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, it is as if you are living a fairytale. It is an interesting and a sad syndrome. I am sure that I have that syndrome. If that’s not it then why the heck does my every single moment with this ordinary girl feel like a fairytale?”

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