Acting and the lack of love for individuals in Korean drama. Class 3 of Kdrama 101

This is a Korean in America. This the third class in my Kdrama 101 series. In this class, I will go over how Korean dramas attitude towards people influence the acting style in Korean dramas.

Have you ever noticed that the acting in Korean dramas is rather different from the acting in, let's say, US shows?

You cannot just dismiss it as bad acting.

It is correct to say that the general level of acting in Korean dramas is lower than its counterparts from other countries. However, this is simply because, for many of the actors in Korean dramas, acting is a second job rather than a primary one.

There is a reason why most of the actors are called “Talents” rather than actors in Korean Dramas.

For many actors on TV, acting in Korean dramas are the promotional tools for getting commercial jobs which are their primary source of income.

While this situation does contribute, it is not the reasons for the difference. It is because the general acting styles are actually different, Period!

The difference between the Korean and Western/American acting styles can be boiled down to the difference between stylized and simulated acting.

Stylized acting VS. Simulated acting

The western or American style of acting is highly focused on the inner naturalism of the character. In other words, it is trying to simulate an actual person via acting. The audience feels that the character is real and is an actual person in contrast to being viewed as just a character whether on stage, projected on the silver screen, or beamed through to your TV set. This is because the actor is trying to project the inner working of the character’s psyche through his or her own emotional memory.
The Korean acting style is to stylize a person into a character that performs a function within the story. It does not matter whether the character feels like a person if the audience reacts to the role of character as intended by the creators. Thus, when the creators want the character to laugh, the actor laughs whether or not the actor feels that the character is in a state of mind to laugh at the moment.

This confrontation between acting styles could be also characterizes as the confrontation between the classical style of acting evolved on stage and the modern style of acting developed for the silver and small screens. The defining movement of the modern acting style could be said to be the dissemination of “Method acting “during the latter part of the 20th century.

While both style of acting requires a lot of effort and talent to master, the western or American style of acting is seen to be a more evolved form of acting as it requires more effort on the part of the actor.

An illustrative example
This difference in acting style is very large and it is difficult for an actor to cross over from one style to another.

An illustrative example would be Baek Seon-Hwa or just “Sun” on “Lost”. She is played by Yunjin Kim who is a decent actress in general.

The character of “Sun” is a person with a static and vaguely defined image. She internalizes everything and does not respond to external stimuli in an active manner. As a Korean, I would not recognize the character as a Korean if the show did not say so.

The Korean couple on “Lost”, which include “Sun”, was not created to be actual Koreans. Rather, the couple is a caricature of how Koreans are perceived by westerners via Korean media.

And the word “media” is the point!

The creators of “Lost “mistook the Korean acting style to be representative of the Korean Character. To be more specific, I would have to say the creators of “Lost” saw some Korean movies as their perceptions skews more towards that specific form of acting.

As a Korean actress, Yunjin Kim, who had worked in that acting style before, was able to work with it to create an interesting character. Daniel Dae Kim, who is of Korean decent but was train as an American actor, struggled to work with an acting style that was alien to him. As a result, he always felt like someone who was sometimes erratic but always constipated.

This status changed as the show went on and the Korean couple they were portraying were being more and more written as western characters as the audience became more accustomed to them.  Daniel Dae Kim got much better with his role as he was not trying to imitate an acting style that he has not experience with. Yunjin Kim had the opposite outcome.

The underlining cause of the Korean acting style
While there are many reasons for why the Korean acting style is the way it is, a major reason is Korean society itself.

The western audiences are enamored/fascinated by the individual and its psyche. They want to understand the character and how he or she thinks.

A character study is a common word to western audiences.

Think of any popular TV show recently. For example, “Breaking bad” . It is a rather different with Korean audiences.

As members of a society that closely connects/controls its members through various and multiple relationships/ties, we, Koreans, are not that particularly interested in people not to mention individuals. People are entities that we brush up to and deal with on a minute to minute basis.

As we are constantly in a collision distance with other people, the inner workings of individuals beyond the context of their functions relative to ourselves are not an interesting subject to Koreans whether within or beyond the boundaries of entertainment.

In other words, we do not really like people in general!

The Korean acting style represents this psyche and tastes. Thus, Korean dramas focus on portraying outward actions by the character whether it be anger, sorrow, or joy. The causes/inner workings of the characters and their actions are barely inferred to since the audience is not interested in them.

Closing comments
So, that is why the acting in Korean dramas is the way it is.

Thank you for reading the third class of K-drama 101: Acting and the lack of love for individuals in Korean drama.

Have a great Holiday season!


  1. That was so insightful and helped to explain my frustration with characters sometimes. I think I can enjoy my dramas in a different light now.

  2. A Korean in AmericaDecember 27, 2013 at 1:55 PM

    thanks. all my articles are gold! Spread the word!

  3. That's an interesting perspective I hadn't quite thought out. I do see how in some dramas the characters are very flat, but then in some dramas I really feel that I get to know the characters, like in That Winter the Wind Blows or something. But then there are characters who I just can't understand, like most of the ones in Miss Korea.

  4. Verrrry interesting! I watched Lost a few years before I got into K-drama. But now that I look back I feel like the story of Sun and Jin is an actual K-drama within a Western show. LOL. Thanks for giving us more insight into the Korean mindset.

  5. Thank you for this article. It helped me understand a lot of what bugs me when I watch Korean dramas especially family dramas. So many characters feel like puppets being used to tell a story instead of real people with real lives. It seems to be more so with dramas that target older audiences, which I think happens in J dramas too.