When it comes to women in the Korean entertainment business, two sisters play an active role in deciding the fate of others. Through their quirky yet fun storytelling style, the Hong Sisters have transformed not only the Korean drama industry. They changed the fate of their actors as well.
Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran started their careers writing for variety shows. But in 2005 fate favored them. They got a chance to write their first drama. They put a quirky spin on the famous Korean folktale “Chunhyangjeon.” “Delightful Girl, Choon Hyang” retold the story of a young girl who must choose between the man she loves and an older man obsessed with her. Without a doubt, their use of humor and willingness to laugh at character tropes created a show that delighted audiences. This new spin on an old trop set the stage to change the world of rom-coms.
I loved this show. The vignettes that bookend the episodes spin the various romantic tropes of the show within. In the show, Choon Hyang is torn between the love of two men. In the vignette, she’s the vixen playing the clueless men against each other. The show is set in modern times, yet the vignettes are set in the Joseon era. In all honesty, as much as I liked the show, the vignettes were hands-down my favorite part. I love when shows are willing to make fun of themselves.
Witty dialogue, puns and metafiction would become a hallmark of their writing style. Their characters often have a good bead on the ridiculousness of their situations. And they are more than willing to take you along for the ride.
In the 2008 drama “Hong Gil Dong,” the sisters spun another legend. The Korean title is “Sharp Knife/Blade/Sword Hong Gil Dong.” In the ending narration, the monk says, “The sword that looks the world in the face takes note of it and changes it. In any world, there must be a Hong Gil Dong.” That is, anyone who stands up against injustice is a sword, or anyone is Hong Gil Dong. So in this drama, Hong Gil Dong was more of an idea than a person. Interestingly enough, Hong Gil Dong is a placeholder name in Korea. (Think of it the same way we use John Doe.)
“Greatest Love,” which earned the sisters “Writer of the Year” in 2011, poked fun at the entertainment world. Cha Seung-wan, who played Dokko Jin, was known for his more serious roles. But he was able to return to his comedic roots and gain a bigger following. Another favorite in many Hong Sister dramas, Lee Seung-gi, had a funny cameo. Seung-gi played an arrogant version of himself. He and Cha Seung-won’s character had a fun go at each other. They would return to this playful banter when they reunited in “A Korean Odyssey.”
The many worlds the sisters created helped not only reboot the rom-com. It also helped boost the careers of the women who starred in them. Han Chae-young (“Delightful Girl, Choon Hyang”) and Shin Min-ah (“My Girlfriend is a Gumiho”) both had careers as models in advertisements. However, they rebooted their image when the Hong Sisters helped them show what good actresses they were. Gong Hyo-jin (“Greatest Love,” “Master’s Sun”) won Best Actress for her role in “Greatest Love” at the Baeksang Arts Awards.
Their last two dramas, “A Korean Odyssey” (my personal favorite) and “Hotel Del Luna,” beautifully played out the fantasy rom-com they have perfected. Korea has a rich background of legend and history. The sisters take these aspects and weave beautiful, and often funny, stories that delight audiences.
Not all of their dramas have been major hits. But most of them are solid stories that the savvy K-drama addict is going to have a few of in their favorites list. (Seven of their shows are on my list.) That’s enough for me to perk up and pay attention anytime I hear they are attached to a project.