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MBC: Korea's Kingdom of Dramas

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Rome wasn't built in a day, nor was the Kingdom of Korean Dramas. For most of the late 60s, TBC ruled the airwaves, but a little station in Seoul opened its doors in the summer of 1969. Its name was MBC, or Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation. The station struggled for the first few years of its existence, with rivals KBS and TBC dominating the ratings war with shows like Lady. Back then, people thought MBC dramas were cheap and uninteresting, but they soon changed their minds.

With the combination of two mega hits, Frog Husband and then the first of many Jang Hee Bin, the surging popularity of the station alerted competitors of MBC's arrival. When landmark police procedural The Chief started broadcasting in 1981, the first of 18 hugely popular years, leads Choi Bu Ram and Jo Kyung Hwan became big household stars. Coupled with Country Diaries, the most legendary family drama Korea ever produced, the station started a rush of incredible hits, with ratings often reaching 75% to 80%, numbers impossible to reach nowadays with the proliferation of different media outlets. 1987 saw the birth of the first mini series, the original Phoenix, adapted from the same Choi In Ho novel that inspired the 2003 MBC drama starring Eric Mun and Lee Eun Joo. Famed PD Kim Soo Hyun continued to produce hit after hit, the most shining of them all being 1986's Love and Ambition, which was recently remade by SBS using the same writer/PD combo.

MBC seemed set for an easy ride, but everything changed with the founding of SBS in 1991. The new commercial station threw money left and right trying to attract the biggest stars, writers, and producers, and essentially broke the old studio system that had been in place for decades. MBC's answer? Perhaps the best Korean drama of all time, Eyes of Dawn. Broadcast from October 1991 to February 1992, the show brought back the legendary combo of writer Song Ji Na and producer Kim Jong Hak and starred top names like Choi Jae Sung, Chae Si Ra, and Park Sang Won. More importantly, it was the first Korean drama ever to be completed in its entirety before broadcast. It was a spectacular epic, with battle scenes rivaling films of the period. Eyes of Dawn did not sugarcoat the violence, becoming one of the most controversial works ever made in the country. With the era of blockbuster dramas starting in the early 90s, MBC's one-way domination came to an end, and the station had to square off with new faces like SBS and old rivals like KBS. This fierce competition created a Golden Age for television, the shiniest of them all.

Trendy dramas found their pioneer with 1992's Jealousy starring the golden couple, Choi Su Jong and Choi Jin Sil, who were responsible for the majority of MBC's mega hits in the 90s. Even though Kim Soo Hyun left MBC in the early 90s, the station was left in good hands with family drama queen Kim Jung Soo creating wonderful works like You and I and historical drama maestro Im Choong adding new energy to a genre which had been stale for years. Everything seemed to be going well, but ratings started to go down slowly and inexorably towards the end of the decade. However, when Ahn Jae Wook's Star in My Heart was exported to Chinese-speaking countries in the late 90s, along with a couple of pop groups like Baby VOX and H.O.T., a new movement took form, the so-called Hallyu or Korean Wave.

Although KBS was doing great thanks to the enormous success of Yoon Suk Ho's A Tale of Autumn (a.k.a. Autumn in My Heart and Endless Love), MBC was struggling in ratings around the end of the millennium. Other than a few exceptions, like Lee Byung Hoon's fusion historical drama Hur Jun, the throne of Drama Kingdom seemed to no longer belong to that station which started small in 1969 and expanded into a powerful national network by the 1980s. Something new was needed, something which would set the station on a different path than its rivals.

Starting in the early years of this decade, MBC experimented with new and creative shows. By mixing the excitement of Hong Kong wuxia (martial arts fantasy) with Korean sentiments, the landmark fusion historical drama Damo was born. The period from 2001 to 2003 was full of vitality and creativity, with talented writers such as In Jung Ok emerging with masterpieces like Ruler of Your Own World and the Lee Byung Hoon/Choi Wan Gyu duo continuing to push the boundaries of historical dramas. When veteran PD Lee Byung Hoon changed writers and started working with Kim Young Hyun, their first collaboration was a huge success. Mixing traditional historical drama elements with a new vibe and a significantly bigger focus on female figures (compared to the male-centered world of older shows), Dae Jang Geum not only proved to be a massive hit at home, it was also one of the major catalysts of the Korean Wave throughout Asia.

2004 and 2005 weren't easy years for the station, which was mired by declining ratings and internal problems, but MBC still proves to be the most consistently interesting station in Korea, mixing creativity with good writing and production values. They might not be the Kingdom of Dramas anymore, but you can be sure they'll always be there where it counts, near the top of the mountain where all the best dramas come from.

Many of the best shows MBC produced will probably never be released, and some have been released without subtitles. But here are five great shows with English subtitles you can start with, an eclectic mix of what the station had to offer in the last few years.

Ruler of Your Own World (2002)

The story was simple: a poor man, a rich man, and a girl in between. Dinner for three? No, love triangle. Since the first trendy drama, Jealousy in 1992, the Korean drama sphere walked the same path hundreds of times, presenting variations on the same theme, but essentially always ending up with the same old soup. People couldn't take trendy dramas anymore, and something new was needed. Here's when Ruler of Your Own World came along. It started just like any other trendy drama, but it quickly became obvious this story wasn't dealing with a simple love triangle. With unique characters who felt like walking, breathing human beings for once, dialogue which felt like street poetry, and an amazingly captivating atmosphere, coupled with a brilliant soundtrack, Ruler of Your Own World rose above the genre. But this show wasn't just elevated by fantastic writing, it was the magnificent performances of Lee Na Young and particularly Yang Dong Geun which made it memorable. The show became a cultural phenomenon, enjoying incredible popularity online and bringing mania dramas to the mainstream. In a way, it's the best trendy drama ever made. Looking at current efforts, it is also perhaps the last. If that's the case, then it's a very sweet end.

Dae Jang Geum: Jewel in the Palace (2003)

When PD Lee Byung Hoon started a revolution in the historical drama genre with Hur Jun in 2000, the ratings hit the roof, often touching 60%. At the foundation of this new approach to an age-old genre were three simple rules: back to the basics, remembering that the characters are more important than the accidents; focus on single figures, often operating completely out of the palace, unlike older shows; and last but not least, the RPG mode. Starting with a character from a poor or disadvantageous background, the story builds the character step by step towards success. The same happened with Sang Do, and the formula proved successful once again with 2003's Dae Jang Geum. The show made Lee Young Ae a huge star not only in Korea but all over Asia, and the cultural elements emerging from the show (particularly royal cuisine) helped the Korean Wave gain a more meaningful drive than simply selling T-shirts with Bae Yong Joon's face. This show, along with Damo, is a perfect introduction for those who feel a little intimidated by the length and apparently impenetrable charms of historical dramas.

Damo (2003)

To older viewers raised on sober historical dramas with old men debating palace issues inside the comfort of four walls, the first 15 minutes of the revolutionary fusion historical drama Damo must have felt like a slap in the face: frenetic action, plenty of wire work and cinematography perfectly taking advantage of the HD format. As the first few episodes started rolling, something was pretty obvious even to novices of the genre - this show was completely different from anything anyone had ever tried in Korea. Love triangles, melodrama-perfect dialogue, and the kind of cinematic humanism most works of the genre could only dream of was mixed with the action, intrigue, and historical relevance of traditional historical dramas. Vibrant with passion for the genre while at the same time distancing from it, Damo became incredibly popular, making its leads Ha Ji Won and Lee Seo Jin two of the biggest stars of their generation. It's the cult which developed thanks to Damo that brought us new and exciting shows like Ju Mong and Shin Don, and it's the perfect way to get a little closer to this often underappreciated genre.

My Lovely Sam-Soon (2005)

In an increasingly materialistic and superficial world, many people see only weight and appearances and fail to recognize the true beauty of a woman. Our heroine Kim Sam Soon (Kim Sun Ah) is a talented, slightly chubby pastry chef with a gift for throwing temper tantrums and getting dumped by her dates. But then fortune knocks at the door, in the form of a job at a French restaurant in town. It's only a matter of time before the pretty, arrogant, and most importantly rich young owner (Hyun Bin) falls for her. Sounds predictable? Sure, but this is one of those rare gems able to overcome seemingly stereotypical characterization and actually say something important about today's women in their thirties. Kim Sun Ah's striking performance brought the show to incredible heights, recording an impressive 50.5% rating on its last episode, 2005's best, and helping make a star out of her partner Hyun Bin. Cinderella/Candy trappings or not, this is just a whole lot of fun.

Lawyers (2005)

Courtroom dramas have never exactly been popular in Korea, save when added to certain shows, like the classic Sandglass. The reason might simply be down to the legacy left by the various Republics and their dealings with the law, but the genre was never well represented on TV. Bringing back writer Jung Sung Joo and PD Lee Tae Gon for the first time since their 2001 drama Ajumma, 2005's Lawyers is one of the few highlights of the genre, giving space to the usual love triangle but never losing its central focus about a slush fund case involving very powerful and corrupt figures. Lawyer Seo Jung Ho (Kim Sang Kyung) refreshingly distances himself from the usual Mr. Justice roles which populate Western series, and Kim's assured performance shows struggles anybody can relate to. Kim's acting, the excellent mise-en-scene, actress Chu Sang Mi, and the participation of older veterans make this one of the most refreshing shows of 2005, complete with a shock ending. Hopefully, the rumors of a second season will come true.

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Published November 6, 2006

  • Region & Language: Hong Kong United States - English
  • *Reference Currency: No Reference Currency
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