If someone asked me to name two women who raised Korean heart rates in the past year, I would confidently say Kim Eun-sook, the television screenwriter. (Such a fan of Kim is the other woman that she used the name of one of Kim’s characters as an alias for hospital visits. As of March 2017, she’s also unemployed—former President Park Geun-hye.) With two huge hits—KBS’s Descendants of the Sun in February and tvN’s Goblin—the year 2016 was very much hers.
You would be hard pushed to find a Korean drama fan who hasn’t seen one of Kim’s. She is the writer of Lovers in Paris, a 13-year-old series still remembered for famous lines like “Baby, let’s go” and “You are in here”. Kim made her debut in 2003 with the drama South of the Sun and set remarkable viewership records in 2004 with Lovers in Paris: 56.3 percent of the country and 57.6 percent of Greater Seoul. Since then, all of her dramas have been fairly, if not wildly, successful, and Kim has become the most celebrated screenwriter in Korea.
Kim is known for her destiny-driven love stories of a billionaire who has everything except one true love (Prince Charming), a spirited and optimistic girl who has nothing (Cinderella), and lines that simply melt a woman’s heart. Despite criticism for reproducing the same old Cinderella story—that she was “cloning” her work—Kim’s dramas were beloved for the most part thanks to the flavorful dialogue. (In a past press conference, she spoke her mind on such criticism: “People always tell me I clone my own works. I try hard to avoid that, but why are they telling me to write something else? They’re not going to watch my dramas if I write [non-Cinderella] stories. Can’t I just keep on doing what I’m good at?”)
Most of the female leads in the Kim Eun-sook World are variations on Cinderella. There are a few that do not fit this stereotype—in Lovers in Prague, the female lead was the daughter of the Korean president while the male lead was a detective—but her success with Cinderella stories have left the greater impression on viewers’ minds. Also, the female leads in Kim’s dramas are always in trouble. That way, the male leads can show up like knights in shining armor to rescue them. At one point, Kim criticized herself in her drama On Air through the character Oh Seung-a. “Is that why your dramas are always full of Cinderellas and billionaires? I guess it’s fair enough. It’s a redistribution of wealth,” she says. But times have changed. Cinderellas can no longer just fish for men’s attention with glass slippers.
Let’s take a look at the 2004 SBS drama series Lovers in Paris. Penniless Kang Tae-yeong (played by Kim Jung-eun) goes to Paris for her studies and starts working part-time as a housekeeper at a luxurious apartment. The person she happens to work for is Han Ki-ju (played by Park Shin-yang), a billionaire. By chance, Tae-young accompanies Ki-ju to a lavish party for high society, and they dance. The two eventually fall in love, like all lead characters in Korean dramas.
According to Mun Yun-a, Tae-young’s rival in the drama, Tae-young is someone who “loves to laugh, is kindhearted, warm, doesn’t have a penny to her name but is brave, spirited, and determined”. But from the viewer’s perspective, she can be rather exasperating. In one instance, Tae-young is ridiculed by one of the characters. Upon witnessing the scene, Ki-ju drags Tae-young outside and reproaches her for not speaking up for herself. At his words, Tae-young says, “I wanted to yell at him. But he’s your friend. I put up with him because of you”. Then Ki-ju says, “Who said you had to put up with him? And why should you? Why couldn’t you say, he’s my man, he’s my lover?” Tae-young then answers, “How can I when I’m looking like this? How could I among those people? What would they think of you if I did? I can’t embarrass you just because of my pride. How could I do that?” She’s right when you think about it. It doesn’t matter how much she speaks up for herself. The people around her, born with silver spoons in their mouths, will never care. In the end, the best option for Ki-ju is to give Tae-young a kiss—in what is considered the best kiss scene in the history of Korean dramas.
Whenever Tae-young feels as though she doesn’t deserve what she has, she recoils inside. Day in, day out, she holds in her feelings and she can’t deal with problems by herself. For the sake of the story, Tae-yeong lands in trouble yet again. To help her, Ki-ju pretends to be her lover. Saying, “Hey, mister, don’t you see how scared my sweetheart is? Don’t move. You okay, honey? I’ll take care of it. Baby, let’s go!” Ki-ju becomes the hero who rescues Tae-yeong from her troubles. (After this scene aired, many Korean couples started calling their lovers “baby”.)
Kim Eun-sook finished her “Lovers” trilogy with Lovers in Prague and Lovers before writing On Air and City Hall, which focused on the worlds of celebrity and politics, respectively. Then in 2010 she returned with a mega-hit series, Secret Garden, aired on SBS. Yet another Cinderella—Gil Ra-im, played by Ha Ji-won—ends up falling in love with a billionaire Kim Ju-won (played by Hyun Bin). Up to that point, the plot is no different from her past work. Kim employs “body swap”, but it plays like a tired cliché. Yet the series gave birth to neologisms like “SiGa heartache” and ended with a viewership of 35.2%, its highest. The scene where the leads argue at a coffee shop and Ju-won, the male lead, wipes cappuccino foam off of Ra-im’s lips became famous as the “foam kiss” scene. After the series finale, cafés in Korea saw a rise in the sales of foamy coffee (cappuccino).
Then what is the difference between Kang Tae-yeong and Gil Ra-im? The first thing is a real job. Gil Ra-im is a stuntwoman. (Some of Kim’s previous women leads had jobs, such as scriptwriter, actress, or civil official. But for this article, let’s keep to the dramas that were huge hits.) Ra-im has a dangerous occupation that requires skill, in contrast to Tae-yeong who eked out a living with part-time jobs. Ra-im is also a much stronger character. A major cliché in Korean dramas is the mother of the billionaire male lead telling the female lead to “take the money and stay away from my son”. The same scene pops up in Secret Garden, but there’s a twist, and the key is in the hands of the female lead. Ju-won’s mother hands Ra-im an envelope with money inside, telling her to break up with her son. “You probably know what this means, even if you didn’t go to college,” says Ju-won’s mother. “Stamp your finger, and let’s just wrap it up here. Or else…” Ra-im answers, “Or else you’ll throw water in my face?” When the mother says, “You think I won’t?” Ra-im takes the envelope. A female lead who ends her relationship for money?! But Ra-im’s next words are gratifying—“Okay, well, let me take a look. Gee, you’re stingier than you look. Or is this going to be a monthly thing?”
Ra-im is also unafraid of expressing her thoughts. “Silly, what kind of woman will fall in love and keep a beautiful, happy relationship going just to have it all come to nothing? No woman in the world falls in love with the end in mind. That’s why it won’t work for us. There’s nothing we can do.” It’s impossible to imagine Kang Tae-yeong saying those words. “Now get out of my sickening reality. Get out and go live in your beautiful fairytale life”—something else Ra-im says to the male lead. In Secret Garden, The Little Mermaid fairytale symbolizes the relationship between Ra-im and Ju-won. Ju-won tells Ra-im that he likes her but doesn’t intend to marry her, and says, “Mermaid Gil Ra-im will always be somewhere in between. I mean you’ll stay by me as if you don’t exist and then disappear like foam. That’s obvious to a man like me.” Later, Ra-im searches out Ju-won at a party and tells him, “I thought it’d be easier to cope with the difficulties of being with you than the difficulties of being without you. I came to see you. That’s my answer. But I’m not going to be a little mermaid. So now it’s your turn to answer me. Am I only good enough to be a mermaid still?”
In 2016, Kim Eun-sook’s female leads became smarter and stronger. They don’t frustrate viewers or turn them off. Previously teased for being an “SBS official”, Kim chose 2016 as the year to grace KBS and tvN with her presence. It was also a year of dramatic transformation, both for the female leads of the Kim Eun-sook World, and for Kim herself.
Descendants of the Sun, aired in 2016, was much-needed rain for the barren land that was KBS dramas, which had suffered from low viewership ratings and advertisements for years. This was a story about the love and values of Captain Yoo Si-jin (played by Song Joong-ki) of the Korean army and Doctor Kang Mo-yeon (played by Song Hye-kyo). It was set in Korea and the fictional warring nation of Uruk. KBS sold the drama to China for a total of 4 million dollars. It gave wings to Song Joong-ki’s career as he made a great comeback after mandatory military service, provided Song Hye-kyo an opportunity to change her image which had been tainted by a tax evasion scandal, and helped the supporting actors Jin Goo and Kim Ji-won to star in major commercials. They were all beneficiaries of Kim Eun-sook.
Co-written by Kim Eun-sook and Kim Won-suk, Descendants of the Sun was not the usual love story of a Cinderella and a billionaire but of a soldier and a medical doctor. The scale of the production (around 11.2 million dollars) was also larger than Kim’s previous works. It was based on a story titled “Doctors Without Borders” which received an excellence award at the 2011 Korean Story Awards. In the original story, the male lead Yoo Si-jin was also a doctor, but in the drama his occupation was changed to a soldier in the Special Forces. Even in the drama industry, people said it was rather unusual for a celebrity screenwriter such as Kim, who receives over 50 million won per episode, to work with a younger writer. This shows the longing Kim had for a change in her work.
Kang Mo-yeon, the female lead, is a doctor who has convictions about the importance of human life. When Si-jin asks her, “You’re a doctor, so I guess you don’t have a boyfriend? Too busy,” Mo-yeon answers with a question: “You’re a soldier, so I guess you don’t have a girlfriend? Your job’s too hard.” The main characters even break up at the beginning of the series, not because someone opposed their relationship but because of the difference in their values. Si-jin says, “I’m a soldier. Sometimes what I believe to be ‘good’ does not mean the same thing to others. I fulfil my duties as best as I can,” to which Mo-yeon replies, “I’m a doctor. I believe that human life has dignity and there are no other values or ideologies greater than life. I’m sorry, but this isn’t the relationship I expected it to be.” Then the two meet again in Uruk. When the life of the chairman of the Arab League is in danger, Mo-yeon argues that there is no time to wait for his doctor. Si-jin willingly takes the risk of disobedience and stands by Mo-yeon. “Forget about all the explanations and just tell me whether you can save him or not, as a doctor,” Si-jin says. “I can save him,” replies Mo-yeon. Of course, it was then the male lead’s job to shout “Then save him!” and point his gun, making every woman swoon. But the emergence of a female lead who has a strong passion for her job was certainly a welcome change.
Immediately after the series ended successfully, Kim Eun-sook hit another home run in the winter of 2016 with Goblin. In 2012, Kim had tweeted, “I really want to try my hand at period dramas, but I’m so good at the modern ones (I know I’m vain… hehe), people have been telling me not to. *sob* Including my boss and the network… *sob*.” It seems that she was able to get her wish, albeit just a taste, through Goblin. And the viewers expressed their delight and resentment saying, “Why didn’t Kim do period dramas sooner?”
Kim Shin (played by Gong Yoo), the male lead of Goblin, is more than a billionaire—he has supernatural powers. A military official in the Goryeo dynasty, he dies tragically at the sword of his lord, and becomes an immortal goblin at the words of a god: “Only the goblin’s bride may pull the sword out, and may you then return to nothingness in peace.” At times Shin uses his super powers and enjoys wealth beyond that of a billionaire. On the other hand, Ji Eun-tak (played by Kim Go-eun), the female lead, is a typical Cinderella: a high school student and orphan mistreated by her aunt and cousin. At one point she even loses the house she’d lived in and comes to live with Kim Shin. The only thing special about Eun-tak is that she’s a goblin’s bride and can therefore see ghosts.
Due to the unique circumstantial characteristics, there is a limit to comparing Ji Eun-tak with other female leads in Kim’s previous works. I mean, there’s not much an orphaned high school student can do to a man who has money and power (and super powers). On top of that, gods, Grandma Samshin (goddess of birth), goblins, grim reapers, and evil spirits all make appearances, giving Eun-tak even less room to take charge of situations. Yet Eun-tak is different, even from Cha Eun-sang (played by Park Shin-hye) who was also a high school student in Kim’s previous drama, Heirs. Eun-tak cries far less, is more honest about her feelings, and more forward than Eun-sang. She actively approaches Shin. “Marry me,” says Eun-tak. “Shin, I love you.” After she finds out that she can summon a goblin when she blows out a candle, she does so all the time. Kang Mo-yeon in Descendants of the Sun saved people through medical treatment, but Ji Eun-tak takes care of ghosts’ problems through her ability to see ghosts. Although she’s busy with a part-time job, she doesn’t neglect her studies and receives top scores in the 2017 college entrance exams; Cha Eun-sang in Heirs was ranked 53rd in her grade. Eun-tak also gets into the college she wanted and becomes a producer for a radio show, her life-long dream. Despite the fate she was handed, Eun-tak is always the one to “decide” that fate.
Born as the first daughter into a family that wasn’t very well off, Kim Eun-sook spent her youth in difficulty, just like Kang Tae-yeong and Ji Eun-tak in her dramas, and made her own fortune. When a friend asked her, “Do you want to write a script for a drama?” Kim, who had been an aspiring writer, said, “Does it pay well?” Perhaps because of Kim’s own background, traces of her own life can be found in the lives of the female leads in her dramas. They are full of passion and effort, just like Kim, who went to an army base to cast Song Joong-ki in her drama on the day he was released from his mandatory military service, and worked hard for five years to cast Gong Yoo in Goblin. And the characters of the Kim Eun-sook world are evolving as well, from a girl who tagged along after the male lead when he said “Baby, let’s go” thirteen years ago, to one who blows out a candle to call on her man; from a girl who was hesitant to express her feelings (“How can I say that he’s my man?”) to one who innocently says, “Marry me. I love you”.
Kim has politely refused interviews most of the time, busy trying to get some rest after her dramas finished. But I found traces of her twitter conversations with fans in early 2010. “Imagination is more important than experience. Do you think I wrote my dramas based on my past relationships? The relationship I want to be in, not the one I’ve experienced, becomes the drama.” “I don’t write with inspirations. I throw everything into creating my characters and stories. That’s why I tell younger scriptwriters that dramas are not “literature” but rather “mathematics”. “There aren’t many dramas that are based on experience. We all make them up. I get more excited in my imagination that I do in real life.” These are all Kim’s words. And her viewers continue to root for her fantastical world, and for the ever-evolving female characters who will captivate them.