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Korean Drama's Appeal Crosses Ethnic Lines : Multicultural Viewers Appreciate Soap Opera's Emphasis on Family Issues

January 16, 1994|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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"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, based in Koreatown, 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."

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 run for six months to a year, 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 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."

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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.

But Susan Yang, public relations coordinator for the Korean Cultural Center in Koreatown, sees Sin-hee in a different light.

"A lot of people think she's independent and career-oriented, but I see her as very selfish," Yang, 25, said. "She's taking advantage of the guy because he loves her so much and she's not a very good daughter-in-law. The reason she married her husband was not for love but because it would be easier for her to pursue her career with her mother-in-law doing the cooking and housekeeping."

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Sin-hee chose her husband over another suitor, Yang said. "The other guy didn't want her to work," Yang explained. "He wanted her to be a traditional wife. Korean women today don't have to be traditional wives; they can have a marriage and a career. But you have to balance the two, you can't be a superwoman."

Most younger viewers are 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."

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