Unpacking the K-Drama Craze With Netflix’s VP of Korean Content, Don Kang

In an exclusive conversation with MILLE

Since the record-breaking hit series Squid Games came out in September 2021, it’s safe to say that televised Korean productions, more commonly referred to as K-dramas, have been having their moment. Going from being a niche that only a fair few knew how to enjoy to now everybody literally being obsessed with them after being catapulted into the mainstream, these shows have gained the attention of audiences from all around the world. And if there’s one driving force that can largely be credited as responsible for the sudden surge in popularity, it’s undoubtedly going to have to be streaming giant Netflix. 

With their deep pockets and unparalleled reach, the US-based website and app has indeed taken the lead in investing, developing, and promoting Korean stories to the world. Genuine and clearly keen on capitalizing on the Asian country’s current momentum, the pay-to-watch platform went as far as adding 34 Korean titles to its already rich and diverse catalog, with a slew of original productions and fan-favorite series to hit our screens throughout the year. According to representatives, the strategic acquisition will represent Netflix’s biggest-ever lineup of Korean productions ever made available though their portal.

“This inclusion is a great opportunity to bring Korean cinema to the world, which was previously only known and talked about within the film festival circuit as there never really was any straightforward access to our productions,” Don Kang, VP of Korean content on Netflix, told MILLE. 

“There have always been these pockets of fandom for Korean content, but now, that status quo is changing as our stories are generating higher numbers and appealing to larger audiences, and with Netflix on board, we can only see ourselves take it to the furthest,” he continued before stressing on how much it makes a difference for screenwriters as they are finally provided with the right platform to showcase their work to the largest pool of people despite having their native Korean audience in mind at all times.

“Traditionally, Korean creators don’t artificially try to assume what type of shows will work outside Korea or what type of character or narrative will compel the most people. What makes the industry so special here is that we first have to be true to ourselves and to our audience in Korea and if it resonates outside of Korea, it’s great, and it is even better if goes beyond our borders but I wouldn’t say that it is the main objective,” he added.

In recent years, a real shift has been taking place within the world of entertainment. As the Internet has now become humankind’s agora, public court, auditorium, you name it, the everyday user now seems to have more say on where our focus should be and most importantly where it shouldn’t. Traditionally, Hollywood was often looked at as the ultimate beacon of cinema and culture, nurturing a privileged position no one could really justify or explain but that was consensually agreed upon and accepted. In its century or so of existence, it sometimes felt as if no other place could shine as bright as the Californian neighborhood that has, with time, grown into becoming synonymous with a whole industry. Its Indian iteration, namely Bollywood, or equivalents in Mexico, China, and Japan, were, more times than not, often deemed as pale copies that could only barely compete with Hollywood’s aura, despite similar budgets and overall popularity. 

When taking a look at the numbers, in terms of both the volume of movies produced per year and worldwide viewership, Bollywood actually reigns supreme over Hollywood. On average, Bollywood produces around 1,000 movies annually which are watched by a global audience of 3 billion, whereas Hollywood produces around 500 movies that are viewed by approximately 2.6 billion people worldwide. Since 2004, Bollywood continues to be the leading industry for movie audiences worldwide, yet, it is not consensually agreed upon it carrying that title.

As mentioned above, things are indeed taking a different direction with the international community finally seeming keen on paying close attention to what is happening beyond the Western World’s navel-gazing. For the sake of the presented argument, let’s take film festivals as a unit of measurement that can testify to a title’s potential success, and the first thing you’ll notice is that since 2015, more and more non-English language productions snag prizes, taking home decorations and accolades, which proves that there is a strong demand for new and different narratives to exist and prosper. And, according to Kang, having them at the center of the world’s stage primarily relies on investment and focus. 

“In the past two decades, the traction that we saw outside Korea was mostly limited to the APEC region — especially Japan and China. But ever since Netflix took serious interest and hired a local team here, it has provided the world with a window into our culture that now resonates with the entire globe,” Kang explained. “It’s a real revolution that streaming has instigated. The high standard and quality has always been here, but with Netflix, we are focusing on bringing it to the world in the right way. I think that is what makes a lot of the difference today as well as the fact that our productions are subtitled in over 20 languages which really proves how great stories can come from anywhere and be loved everywhere.”

As the Korean craze continues to sweep the world, it seems that more and more people are joining the bandwagon, pledging their allegiance to the captivating titles that are gaining widespread popularity and becoming cultural references of their own. It’s impact cannot be overstated at this moment, and as time goes by, it’s becoming clear that what we are today referring to as a trend will sooner rather than later become a fixture in mainstream entertainment as the industry continues to evolve and expand by the day.

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