K-Drama week: Yang Yun-ho, IRIS, and the current state of Korean drama

by Philip Gowman on 6 October, 2014

in Conference reports, Event reports and reviews, Film reviews and comment, Hallyu, Kim tae-hee, Lee Byung-hun, TV shows, Yang Yun-ho

The KCCUK’s K-Drama week included the opportunity to meet the director of one of Korea’s most successful TV dramas of recent years, IRIS, which has been screened in 26 countries and brings film-like tension to the small screen. Director Yang Yun-ho gave a talk on the current state of Hallyu at SOAS, and participated in a Q&A after a screening of the film-length edit of his famous drama.

Yang Yun-ho

Yang Yun-ho introduces the film version of IRIS on 24 September at the Curzon Soho (photo: KCCUK)

In his talk at SOAS he gave a background to the current state of the hallyu, highlighting the growing financial muscle of China in the drama industry: China seems to want to export its cultural content, much as Korea already does, and is learning TV production values from the more established Korean drama industry. Yang wondered what the Korean TV industry might look like in 10 years time given the increasing size of the Chinese industry and audience. He didn’t seem optimistic that the Korean industry could continue in its current form.

Yang also felt that Korea was unfortunate in lacking classic content: he identified the growing use of webtoons as source material for drama and film, compensating for Korea’s lack of “classic” literary source material (such as Shakespeare).

On the plus side, he also highlighted the “crazy” passion, energy and risk-taking attitudes of the people in the Korean drama industry, without which the content would not be nearly as vibrant.

When it came to the screening of the movie version of IRIS, you could tell that Yang Yun-ho’s heart was not in it. Before the screening he told the audience that having to make the movie was all part of the original TV deal. He apologised in advance if it was confusing, and encouraged us to watch the TV Drama version instead.

As the TV series runs to 1,250 minutes, I was quite happy to be able to sample the 120 minute version, getting enough of an idea about the drama not to need to expend more than 20 hours watching the full version. Yes, it was puzzling how one or two characters seemed to switch sides all the time (and there were three sides to choose from); and some characters didn’t get much of a look-in. For example, it was probably much clearer in the TV series why the Lee Byung-hun character would be so distraught when a Japanese girl is taken hostage, when the only way to secure her safety was to hand over a crucial USB stick. Younger viewers might also have been disappointed that T.O.P didn’t get much screen time in the film version. As is common with Korean TV dramas, the series was actually being filmed while it was being screened, so the plot could respond to audience feedback from week to week. After the first two episodes it was clear that while the middle aged audience was watching the drama in respectable numbers, the younger audience was missing. Accordingly, T.O.P’s role was boosted in subsequent episodes to attract the younger demographic.

T.O.P in IRIS

T.O.P doesn’t get much screen time in the movie version of IRIS

As a movie, IRIS works reasonably well. It’s not much more confusing than Berlin File or similar spy thrillers that rely on frequent plot twists to keep you hooked, so the brutal edits that needed to be made to the TV version did not make the film any more incoherent than the competition. The good looks of Lee Byung hun and Kim Tae hee provide good eye candy, and there are so many chases and shootouts that you can’t be bored for long.

There’s one feature that you can’t help noticing. Kia was a major sponsor of the project, and therefore wanted their products featured prominently and favourably, in whatever country the action was taking place. It was notable that during the course of many car chases in Hungary, not a single Kia got trashed: that indignity was reserved for the European cars. But when a car was needed to overtake a plane that was about to take off, it was a Kia limo that accelerates down the runway with implausible speed to do the necessary. Go, Kia!

Lee Byung-hun promoting the Kia K7 at an event in October 2009 (source: Chosun Ilbo)

Lee Byung-hun promoting the Kia K7 at an event in October 2009 (source: Chosun Ilbo)

Another feature of the thriller is one that is common to many Korean dramas: the romantic story line. IRIS’s creator, Chung Taewon of Taewon Entertainment commented as follows:

“Korean TV series have to have a love story. It has to have a strong, sad and anxious ending. That’s really tough because on the one hand I’m talking about spies, hostages and fighting, and on the other hand I have to carry on the love story line. That gets tiring for me to write. The Korean television audience is mostly ajummas. They make the decisions with the remote control. So if I can’t get their attention, it’s very tough to bring the ratings up.” (Interview with Euny Hong quoted on p175 of The Birth of Korean Cool.)

As it happens, the romantic attachment between the two lead characters works well, giving additional dramatic tension to the plot, particularly when they are acting for opposite sides.

Spoiler alert.

Those ajummas must have been on the edge of their seat when a character has to brutally interrogate their lover so as not to give themselves away.

The ending? Well, you don’t need Chung Taewon to tell you not to expect a happy ending in a Korean movie, and you shouldn’t in IRIS. And although Yang Yun-ho claimed Hitchcock among his influences for his directing style, the last few moments reminded one of the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The ending certainly leaves scope for a follow-up revenge drama to put things right, but IRIS II (KBS 2013) chose not to take advantage of the opportunity.

Altogether a fun way of saving 18 hours of your life.

Kim Kyoo-tae (김규태), Yang Yun-ho (양윤호): IRIS: The Movie (아이리스, 2010) SterneSterneSterneSterneSterne

Thanks to the KCCUK for putting together the entertaining week of drama.

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