Park Eun-bin and Rowoon in
(Photo : Via Netflix)
Actors Park Eun-bin and Rowoon in "The King's Affection" poster.

Enstarz is not quite known for personal essays. However, in celebration with SF9's "Rumination" mini album release, I wanted to talk about how SF9's Rowoon's latest Korean drama, Netflix's "The King's Affection," led to an internal rumination of my own regarding K-dramas, identity, and soft power cultural dominance.

Growing up Asian American in the U.S. meant always carefully threading the needle between American cultural references I needed to retain and which Asian pop culture knowledge to share in mixed company. Imagine my surprise when a simple question of "What have you been watching recently?" led to a bonding experience between me and my roommate that helped me reconcile my identity.

Some context: "The King's Affection" is a currently ongoing Netflix original K-drama about Park Eun-bin's Lee Hwi, a girl who ends up taking the place of her twin brother as Crown Prince of the Joseon Dynasty to hide his assassination. While serving as the Crown Prince, she becomes distant and cold to everyone around her, until she begins falling for her tutor, Jung Ji-woon, played by a very dashing Rowoon.

It's a very different show from "Squid Game."

When I first spoke to my roommate about this show, she expressed an interest in watching it. But, I genuinely thought she was being nice and wouldn't actually seek out opportunities to watch it. However, I was surprised when a few days later, my roommate stopped by my room and asked if I wanted to watch "The King's Affection" with her. I said yes, and that began my journey sharing my part of Asian American culture with her.

I will be the first to admit that I'm not South Korean. I don't speak the language, and my parents are from Taiwan. However, if you grew up Asian American in the States, there's a high possibility that you're used to consuming pan-Asian content due to the lack of Asian faces onscreen in American TV and film. So, watching "The King's Affection" wasn't a huge leap for me. I had watched K-dramas before, and the particular draw of "The King's Affection" was that I was already a fan of Rowoon and his K-pop band SF9. I wanted to see Rowoon in a new show after falling for him as Ha-ru in the K-drama "Extraordinary You."

On the other hand, my roommate, who is not Asian or Asian American, had not only never seen a K-drama, but she also had to surmount the fact that she had never seen a period drama. I imagine seeing the resplendent hanboks and hats was a novel experience, just as her surprise at the brutality of the royal family towards anyone seeking to uncover Lee Hwi's secret. Watching her react in real time to these new cultural elements and seeing how much they entertained her was a real delight. I was proud that a medium that I had before been seen as niche and primarily for Asian and Asian American audiences spoke to her and elicited such strong reactions. Stories truly can resonate across nationalities and language barriers - one-inch tall subtitle barrier be damned!

Additionally, my roommate's response to the male stars of "The King's Affection" brought more introspection. Other than Rowoon's perfect face and six-foot-three build, the show features rising actor and model Nam Yoon-su as Lee Hwi's dimpled cousin (and potential love interest) and fellow K-pop star Byungchan as Lee Hwi's handsome bodyguard.

 When these actors appeared on screen, I heard my roommate audibly gasp and wonder at how gorgeous these men were. She asked me how come we don't see Asian actors this beautiful onscreen in America, which led me to comment on how American beauty standards, especially when it comes to Asian men, are disparate from the standards in Asian entertainment. What casting directors search for when tasked to find an Asian leading man is a different look in each industry, with Western TV and film more often seeking out mixed race Asian men who are more muscular and "masculine." I advised her that if she was searching for more Asian leading men more similar to those in "The King's Affection" to crush on, there are plenty more in the K-drama world. Needless to say, my roommate now follows Rowoon's Instagram.

All of these discussions led me to rethink how I consider the TV, films, and music I consume. While I don't live in a bubble and only consume Asian content, I always considered the Asian content I do consume super niche and something others who aren't Asian may not be open to listening to me talk about. However, after exposing my roommate to "The King's Affection" (and hopefully, "Extraordinary You" next!), I'm feeling more comfortable about talking about what I like. There is a merit to these properties that communities outside of mine can also appreciate. I like what I like because I like it. I don't have to conform to what society tells me is "the next cool thing," if I don't want to. Perhaps, due to a rapidly globalizing world, America's cultural dominance is slowly losing its absolute grip. Soft power from other nations abroad can now seep in and potentially start changing how our society thinks about storytelling, romance, and maybe even masculinity and gender.

Maybe we'll even get to see Rowoon in an American TV show or film sometime soon. I would watch the shit out of that!

If you're intrigued about this essay, but aren't sure where to start when it comes to watching K-dramas, here are five recommendations I have that are the gateway drugs into the genre.

5 Gateway K-Dramas to Watch for the Uninitiate

1. "Squid Game"

The way I see Netflix's "Squid Game" is the same way I saw Psy's "Gangnam Style" way back in 2012. Both the show and the song are wildly popular globally, but aren't representative of their respective mediums. However, it's hard not to admit that "Squid Game," a show about a group of debtors playing life-or-death style children's games to win a large sum of money, would be considered many's first encounter with the K-drama medium. With its slick designs and gratuitous head shots, "Squid Game" stunned the world and is now Netflix's biggest show ever, so take that what you will.

2. "The King's Affection"

Considering that "The King's Affection" is the catalyst for this essay, this romance drama deserves a spot on this list. The show's story is reminiscent of "The Prince and the Pauper," but shown in a lush Joseon-era setting. This show is pretty standard for a romantic drama with the slow-mo saves and freeze -frame endings for each episode. However, the charismatic leads, including Park Eun-bin's convincing portrayal of the Crown Prince, intriguing exploration of homoerotic subtext, and soaring soundtrack elevate "The King's Affection" to a fun watch.

3. "Boys Over Flowers"

"Boys Over Flowers" is the prototypical Asian drama. Based on Yoko Kamio's iconic Japanese manga of the same name, this story has been adapted over five times by Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, and Thailand into dramas and films. Released in 2009, the South Korean remake was hugely popular at the time of its release and launched the career of its lead actor Lee Min-ho into a bona fide worldwide Hallyu or Korean Wave star. The show centers around Ku Hye-sun's Geum Jan-di, a poor girl whose life becomes entangled with that of the F4, a group of four handsome and obscenely wealthy male students that rules the elite academy she attends.

4. "Itaewon Class"

Another Netflix original K-drama, "Itaewon Class" is another K-drama to watch if you're not super into romance stories. The show follows Park Seo-joon's Park Sae-ro-yi, a young man whose life is turned completely upside down by the family that runs the Jangga food conglomerate. Park embarks on a 14-year journey of revenge à la "The Count of Monte Cristo." Led by a charming cast, "Itaewon Class" features world-class storytelling and character work that hooks you. You may recognize Park Seo-joon from his blink-and-you-miss-it cameo in Bong Joon-ho's "Parasite," but even if you don't, watch "Itaewon Class" in preparation for Park's role in "The Marvels!"

5. "Extraordinary You"

For those who enjoy high-concept shows with a fantasy element, "Extraordinary You" is the K-drama for you. Starring Kim Hye-yoon and Rowoon in his first leading role in a drama, "Extraordinary You" is about Kim's Eun Dan-oh, a girl who finds out that she's actually a side character in a romance manga. Driven by a desire to change her fate due to her character's terminal illness, Dan-oh enlists the help of Rowoon's Student Number 13, whom she renames Ha-ru, an "extra" who has the power to change the manga's events. Full of twists and clever storytelling mechanics, such as the show's iconic "page flip" sound, "Extraordinary You" executes a fascinating concept to perfection and poses questions regarding free will and destiny that are sure to draw you in. When Dan-oh and Lee Jae-wook's Baek Kyung make a cameo appearance in "True Beauty," they even recreated the page clip sound and played the "Extraordinary You" theme song!

After reading this essay on K-dramas, are you looking forward to dipping your toe in the K-drama pool? Let us know! SF9's "Rumination" mini album dropped November 22, 2021 and is available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.

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