In Korea, there used to be a joke about how every story in the media, in Korea, revolves around romance:
- A TV series about doctors at a hospital? They doctor and there is romance.
- A story about lawyers in the courtroom? They lawyer and there is romance.
- A story about the police at crime scenes? They police and there is romance.
I say “used to be,” because it seems that the over-focus on romance has decreased significantly in the past decade or so. These days, when priests exorcise demons, they are more than capable of exorcising without romance; when drugs are sold, the thugs are more than capable of thugging without romance… so on and so forth. More so than in the past, at least.
Still, romance is hugely popular in Korea. And it’s a country where what is popular (or made to be popular, through PR) can be easily observed because of how centralized the culture is, both online and offline. (It’s only very recently that the idea of “real-time top search keywords” has been removed from NAVER. And, despite the absence of such a list, the spirit of being aware of what is searched the most frequently and with great intensity still lives.)
And that focus on romance is one of the reasons I do not usually watch K-dramas that imply that they are set in the “real world.” I will watch romantic fantasies and I will watch historical drama with romance, but “real world” romance–usually not. The over-focus on romance, combined with the creators’ need to convince the viewers that such over-romance in their story is a representation of the reality, is what confuses me greatly. I cannot empathize with the “real” challenges that the characters argue that they are facing due to “how the world is” around them. What they think their world is like is as imagined as a fantasy world or a historical background, but too frequently, contemporary stories with an over-focus on romance have characters that firmly believe that their challenges are “real.”
Ex: A character believes that they must perform calculations on when to respond to their crush’s text–say, wait 5 minutes rather than responding right away–because they imagine that “that’s how one succeeds in a relationship.” Not only do they perform such calculations–which, for anyone who finished the 1st or 2nd grade would take 5 seconds–such calculations create entire plot lines. Meaning, hours of the viewers’ time.
This need to use arithmetic when it comes to text conversations is more imaginary than any fantasy magic power. The need to make said arithmetic process the center of one’s life for more than 5 seconds is also imaginary. And yet, the need is sold as real. And along with that need, the over-focus on romance, overall, is sold as real.
So, it was extremely refreshing to watch “Crash Course in Romance” (일타 스캔들) (link to Netflix) (link to Wikipedia). There is the word “romance” in the title, and yet, this is possibly the K-drama in which there was romance while the rest of the characters’ lives also went on. You know, like, careers? And families other than the potential marriage material? And, like, neighbors? And, you know, eating and sleeping?
The romance in this story exists proportionally to everything else. The story doesn’t feel like a disproportionate monster with a giant head or fifty eyes. Romance exists while the characters are just fine living as individuals. That is the only time happy romance can exist anyway–when the parties involved in the romance aren’t so desperate to be in a romance that they must use arithmetic to ascertain when to respond to their love interest or not. (Friggin’ just respond, or don’t. For gods’ sake!)
And the idea of needing to use arithmetic, so prevalent in other romance stories, is amusing, because one of the main characters in “Crash Course in Romance” happens to be a math teacher in the private sector. (As in, not the public-school education system, but the private-non-school education system, which is huge in Korea.) If there is a character who could reeeeaaaaaally calculate his way to victory in the flirting game, then it would be him. He knows his math. Not just simple arithmetic, but, like, mathematics. But he does not use his skills for such senseless endeavors. What a relief!
Due to this proportionate role that romance plays in the story, it is capable of highlighting various aspects of the characters’ lives that do not exist separately from romance. As in, by not talking about romance incessantly, the story can talk about romance in a more effective way.
The aforementioned hugeness of the private education sector is a concrete manifestation of the main theme of the story: the obsession with imaginary desirabilities–such as attending a great school, getting a great job, having a good reputation, etc.
Since the story’s core is about the imaginary-ness of such an obsession, it is a relief that the creators had the good sense to keep the imaginary challenges to romance nonexistent. There is no senseless “flirting,” where what is actually happening is insecure calculations. The female lead in this story is so refreshing. I have never seen a character like her in any story in any country. I don’t get the sense that the creators tried to sell her as “perfect”–but the character knows what she wants, as well as what she wants for others in her life, so much so that she even knows when she doesn’t know. In which case, she just says she doesn’t know! What a charming character.
Thoroughly enjoyed this K-drama. Could also be useful for folks interested in seeing a representation of the craze around the private non-school education sector. I hear that the reality is far more intense than what’s depicted in fiction, both in “Crash Course in Romance” as well as in other K-stories dealing with education. Children actually die from being expected to study too much.
At the same time, I know people who live completely oblivious to such a “reality.” When they look back on their school years, they remember lots of fun, instead of stress.
So, as always: one’s reality is only real for oneself. “Crash Course in Romance” makes that fairly clear, while it shows a representation of challenges that feel so concrete to millions of people.