After a scathing New York Times piece regarding the racially problematic bias of the Criterion Collection, the ongoing conversation of the unfortunately disregarded talent of people of color suddenly was given a little more spotlight (now that it is safely trendy to do so). Clearly unapologetic Francophiles, the Criterion Collection has consistently acted to disregard the unparalleled talents of non-Western auteurs, and with some seeming reluctance, they are set to correct that wrong to what I expect will be a minor degree.
Not long before the conversation focused on black American artists, Korea’s own gifted filmmakers were just beginning to get their past-due. While the Criterion’s interest in Asian film is primarily Japanese, Korea produces a plethora of entertainment and film that is finally taking the world stage and receiving the recognition it has long deserved. With the success of films like Parasite, directed by Bong Joon-ho, and—not to mention—the boy band craze of acts like BTS, America and the rest of the world are now more than happy to import whatever Korea is selling.
As someone who can quickly deplete a streaming library with my constant consumption of film and television, I cannot afford to have a regional bias, and since I’m no stranger to subtitles, anyone in the world with digital distribution can gladly have my views. A few years ago, after watching a few Asian language films in a row, my Netflix algorithm presumed that I was Asian myself, and suddenly all my recommended content was Asian language film. The television categories were suddenly populated by romantic Chinese and Korean drama series. I watched one out of curiosity. It was absurd, but I got hooked on its style and emotional storytelling and finished it—all FIFTY episodes. The Asian drama formulas, unique to the rom-coms of American film, were entirely new to me. So all the cliches, the second love interest trope, the awkward product placements, the tediously slow-motion leaning into kisses, the overwrought and emotionally-manipulative soundtracks, it was all new and exciting, and I wanted more.
That’s when I stumbled upon the work of Ahn Pan-seok. No stranger to television K-dramas, Ahn navigates the Korean rom-com formula with artistic precision, progressive integrity, and emotional depth, unlike anything I’ve seen in my Asian drama binges. My first foray into his work was through the series Something in the Rain, a minimalist story of reconnected childhood friends, whose age difference and economic backgrounds cause concern for their friends and family. From there I discovered an earlier series, Secret Affair (the English title varies depending on the source), about an underprivileged prodigy receiving the tutelage of an older pianist and with the majority of their initial romantic exchanges being solely through musical expression (cue ecstasy and swooning while listening to grandiosely performed arpeggios).
Contrary to the old-fashioned and sexist sterotypes and gender roles of many popular K-dramas, Ahn constructs immersive worlds run by strong women—worlds where the men in leadership positions are clueless incompetents who rely on the tact, wit, and efforts of their superiorly capable female peers. Ahn writes women as fully realized, nuanced, awful, incredible, and in charge of their destinies.
The atmosphere of his Korea is minimal, hushed, and lucid. His characters traverse lonesome residential corners of Seoul, with dark and rainy evenings lanterned by distant neons and fluorescents. Viewers experience these environments along with the characters, they get lost with them, wander home drunk and confused with them. We curl up beside them in their modest apartments.
But probably Ahn’s greatest strength is his integrity with storytelling. He pulls no punches and takes no easy exits. He writes Shakespearean obstacles that challenge his character’s independence but grants his character’s limitless tenacity with which to face them. He doesn’t write tragedies, but nor does he write tidy, unrealistic happy endings. There are always sacrifices that have to be made for love in his unkind worlds, but there are also, satisfyingly, always clear victors. And there is certainly always beauty.
There’s an election coming up, and there’s a lot of incompetent but nonetheless audacious men trying to steal it. Watching Ahn’s antagonists is an almost too apt and triggering sensation. Scenes of cowardice man-children throwing subordinate women under the bus to cover their own misdoings paint an accurate and awful picture that resonates in America now more than ever. Hopefully, as in the arch of Ahn’s dramas, we will see—though not without some scars along the way—something that resembles a little bit of justice, followed by a little bit of love.