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Korean Soap Opera Wins Fans Across Ethnic Lines : Culture: Viewers are won over by the 'fresh approach' that relies more on family issues than the American formula of violence and sex.

January 09, 1994|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE REGION — There are no explicit bedroom scenes, evil twins or ex-husbands back from the dead in this soap opera. Instead, the audience is transfixed by mothers-in-law tribulations and the trials of being a modern young woman in a traditional, male-dominated society.

Welcome to "Missing You," a Korean television daily drama that bears only a remote resemblance to American TV soaps. It airs weeknights with English subtitles on Korean Television Enterprises Channel 18.

The nighttime drama has little violence, racy language or passionate kissing.

But what "Missing You" does have is a surprising number of non-Korean viewers, who have stumbled across the show by accident or tuned in on the advice of Korean friends and gotten hooked.

"I really like the fresh approach that gives you some sense of drama and romance without having overlying sex and violence. The main focus tends to be on relationships and on changes going on around the people and their society," said Pasadena attorney David Mans, who watches the show nightly with his Korean-born wife, Sunhee.

"I find that the American soaps are much more obsessed with sex and violence and they treat it in a titillating fashion. The Korean drama deals with sex in a very straightforward manner."

Korean Television Enterprises airs the show with English subtitles so that young Korean Americans (many of whom speak limited Korean) can watch television along with their Korean-speaking parents and grandparents.

But the subtitles have also served a group other than the target audience since "Missing You" started airing last year.

When the Korean network broadcast the show without subtitles one night, the station was hit with dozens of calls the next morning from non-Koreans complaining that they had missed their favorite show. "A lot of English-speaking people like this program. They all called to complain--Mexican people, Japanese, American, Chinese," said Seung Lee, a network official.

Phuong Nguyen Sovan, a Covina manicurist born in Vietnam, started watching "Missing You" when it came on after a Japanese movie. "I don't speak Korean. I just watch the subtitles, but I love it because the story is the same Oriental story as in my country. It's like the same as our family--love, family, problems. Just like in Vietnam."

For Penny Causley, it was the ability to discover another culture that got her hooked on the show after she started reading the subtitles.

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"It was a way of really being able to step into another life and lifestyle. By watching the show I found I could almost experience what being Korean was like," said Causley, who moved from the San Gabriel Valley to South Carolina last year and has searched in vain for the show on her satellite cable system.

The story line of "Missing You" centers around a young couple starting their life together in downtown Seoul. Other Korean daily dramas--which don't have subtitles and are not popular with non-Koreans--concern historical drama, family dynasty and even farm life. The dramas typically run for six months to a year and then they conclude their story lines and are replaced by new shows.

For a Korean drama, "Missing You" is surprisingly modern in its treatment of the changing role of women in society. After all, heroine Sin-hee is a working woman with a strong individualistic streak who wants to continue her interior decorating career after her marriage. Her husband, Myong-jun, is willing to stand up to his dowry-grubbing mother to defend his beloved.

"Most Korean males like their wife to belong to them," Lee said. "He has enough self-confidence in his own character to let his wife have her own identity. He does not want to be influenced by his family structure."

In Korean society, where feminist ideals are only slowly taking hold, this is tantamount to revolutionary.

"This Sin-hee is very smart and she sort of knows how to make things come about for herself. In the old times, I don't think they could get away with that," said Korean-born Carolyn Choe of Downey, who watches the show along with her parents.

The younger generation is fascinated by "Missing You" because it deals with modern challenges to the traditional Korean social structure. But many of their elders are not so accepting.

"For my parents, they can't accept the woman trying to control the man," Choe said. "I don't think they like that drama for that reason."

But David Ree, 17, of La Crescenta likes it precisely for that reason. "Sin-hee's very pretty and she's so smart. The guy, all his life all he's been doing is studying. He's really smart but he's such a nerd. I just hate him," said Ree, who has lived in La Crescenta since his family emigrated from Korea 14 years ago.

Like Mans, Ree likes the Korean dramas better than their American counterparts. "It's nice and clean, innocent and lots of fun," he said. "It's even rare to see people kiss--hold hands is really the farthest they do."

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Helen Choo, 18, of La Canada said the Korean culture and marriage traditions are especially interesting to her. "It's more modern than most of the dramas and I think it's more realistic. In Korean culture, traditionally, the man is the master and the woman is more dependent. But women are more independent these days."

"Missing You," like all Korean dramas broadcast in the United States, is produced in Seoul, Lee said. After each episode is broadcast in Seoul, the costly English subtitles are supplied by a Hawaiian television network. The show airs in the Los Angeles area about a week after it is first broadcast in Korea, said Kwan Kim, a producer at Korean Television Enterprises.

Asked why he thinks the story of Sin-hee and Myong-jun has attracted such a following, Kim laughs. "It's a love story--that's why people like it."

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