The Vincenzo Villain Saga: Part II

NOTE: This is Part 2 of a series on Studio Dragon’s Vincenzo. This article series has heavy spoilers for the entirety of the show, so please proceed with caution.

The series will be as follows:

1) Introduction + Acting

2) Writing – YOU ARE HERE

3) Other Character Interactions

4) Scene Analysis #1

5) Scene Analysis #2 + Conclusion

For those of you who haven’t watched the show, this is the last warning. I will be spoiling the entirety of Vincenzo in this character analysis.

Pronto? Andiamo.

PART 2: The Writing

NOTE: I had to get screenshots from YouTube videos, so please support the following YouTube creators: “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” and sophie야.


The Mystery – 1, 2, 3, 4

When they revealed Jang Hanseok to us, the audience, at the end of Episode 4, I was surprised. However, what surprised me more was how much sense the reveal made. Beyond Ok Taecyeon’s acting, the writing of the show – but especially in the first four episodes – is absolutely stellar. The way Hanseok’s identity is presented in the early episodes of the show is a mystery to be solved by the leads – possibly the main mystery of the show. However, Vincenzo isn’t a mystery show. It’s more of a race – each episode presents new challenges, and whoever beats the other to the punch effectively wins.

In the case of Hanseok’s identity reveal, it actually shows how much of a leg up Hanseok has on Vincenzo – he’s literally ten episodes ahead of him. He has enough time to get a grip on Vincenzo’s process and take him by surprise – which is, of course exactly what he loves. In Hanseok’s mind, surprise is a form of power.

Hanseok having a head start on Vincenzo means that by the time Vincenzo does find out about him (in Episode 11) Hanseok has already mentally prepared to deal with a mafia consigliere. Whether or not Hanseok is actually physically prepared, though, he generally leaves to the people around him to take care of. It’s not about being literally prepared, but psychologically prepared. And he is very, very prepared to deal with a mobster.

It’s important to note that the show actually seeds the Junwoo/Hanseok reveal very early on, so that it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Hanseok carefully sizes up Vincenzo upon meeting him, and asks him his name without butchering it, showing a degree of competence. He compliments Chayoung’s watch, which is relevant to a later reveal about his heinous actions. And, of course, there’s Hanseok and Chayoung’s first meeting with Han Seo – which we’ll get to in the next article.

The Core – “God enjoys making people suffer.”

There are two words that describe Jang Hanseok better than all others: Magnificent Bastard.

The Magnificent Bastard is a trope referring to a character – usually a villain – who is supremely intelligent, charmingly charismatic, and steadfastly driven towards a specific aim. To quote the description on TV Tropes:

  • They are brilliant and utterly devious, a smooth operator. They are also savvy and do not fall for obvious traps; bringing them down is no easy feat.
  • They have a goal, and they’re not going to stop until they’ve completed it. Even when the goal is suicidally over-ambitious, they succeed with style.
  • They are charismatic, often charming, their personality is like a physical force. While they exist on the darker end of the moral spectrum, they never take disgusting actions that undermine their magnificence, leaving them diabolical but in a way the audience can’t help but enjoy. And they are definitively not cowards. Ever.

Overly Sarcastic Productions on YouTube expounded upon this definition, explaining that a Magnificent Bastard (or “Charismaniac”, as it were) cannot be impulsive. They can be petty, but they have to be calculated. Because if the character loses control regularly, or has none to begin with, it implies that the character is acting entirely on a whim and is less intelligent than they let on. Therefore, they can’t be a Charismaniac.

If this were a test, Jang Hanseok would pass with flying colors. Hanseok is the epitome of the Magnificent Bastard. He has a goal that he will accomplish no matter what, no matter who he steps on. He’s unnervingly charming – the moment he’s on screen, you can’t look away. And I have never – never – seen a character as convincingly sadistic as him. But what cements him as a true Magnificent Bastard is his intelligence – nearly every moment on he is on screen, he’s calculating the correct play. No matter what hand he is dealt, he knows exactly what to do to maximize his advantage.

Jang Hanseok is the definition of a Charismaniac.

And his goal is power.

Hanseok being ominous.

Hanseok spends the majority of his time in the show leveraging his power as the secret owner of Babel and accumulating power via as many other means as he can. He started by removing familial threats – killing his father and abusing his brother Han Seo – to consolidate power in the most intimate social circle he had. Fortuitously for Hanseok, this social circle was the center of Babel leadership. Once Hanseok had his brother under his thumb and his father six feet under, Babel was effectively his. 

Let’s focus on Hanseok’s alter ego, Junwoo. “Junwoo” appears to be a manchild, an archetypical himbo. He has a number of tics that are coded to be perceived as juvenile, like getting overemotional, fumbling when he’s doing simple tasks like parking his scooter, and generally – and obviously – trying to impress people. He’s presented to the audience as a comic relief character. Then, at the end of Episode Four, the rug is completely pulled out from under us.

There is one scene that sells us on “Junwoo” being a comic relief character, thereby making the Hanseok reveal that much more insane. In Episode 2, Junwoo is cleaning up in Han Seunghyuk’s office when he overhears Seunghyuk talking about the demolition team coming to Geumga Plaza. He’s slightly more subdued than we’ve seen him before, but he still opens his mouth in shock when he realizes what’s being said. Since he is not being observed, he’s not as over the top as he could be, but because he’s still in the office with Seunghyuk, he is still technically in character as Junwoo. We catch a glimpse of the real Hanseok here – actively calculating the correct move, not showing his hand to the characters but subtly cluing us in that there’s more to this character than meets the eye.

The way Hanseok is written after the reveal also has to be internally consistent for this story to work – and it is. I talked about this more in the previous article on Ok Taecyeon’s acting, but the traits that make Junwoo endearing are the traits that make Hanseok terrifying. Both personas are relaxed, lackadaisical even. But those lackadaisical traits that make Junwoo seem like a youthful, sweet soul are the exact same traits that indicate Hanseok’s complete and utter lack of fear or self-preservation.

His apathy is our fear.

Part of the reason this works is casting. Casting a K-Pop idol, particularly a K-Pop idol who has done a lot of comedy, was an incredible misdirection on the part of the production. K-Pop comes with its own associations, one of which is aegyo. To paraphrase, the term aegyo is basically just “acting cute,” but generally refers to a series of gestures like finger hearts that can often be construed as childish. So when we see Ok Taecyeon, a famous K-Pop idol, behaving in a stereotypically “cute” manner connects the audience with this concept of aegyo. So when “Junwoo” does a complete 180 and becomes Hanseok, we are floored because it subverts our understanding of the behaviors expected of an idol.

However, Ok Taecyeon wouldn’t be able to act the role as well as he did if it weren’t for the way Hanseok is written.

Acting out the role of the dense-but-kindhearted Junwoo, thereby putting himself in the place of an intern, is the ultimate power play. “Junwoo,” being a law intern, is privy to all of the strategies that the lawyers for Babel are putting together. He can see exactly which knife is sharpest, and which one cuts deepest.

But there’s more to the decision to be a lowly intern. “Junwoo” is practically invisible in the eyes of Wusang Law. He’s an intern, assigned to do menial tasks like paperwork and picking up after the partners. Based on his position and his overall childlike demeanor, they never think anything of him. They barely talk to him.

And whenever he is not talking, Hanseok is listening.

Hanseok holds all the cards without anyone knowing. People trust him because they think he’s a dense intern. But he’s always observing and taking in information – information that he is very good at using against people. As an example: Hanseok got kicked in the back by Han Seunghyuk (the managing partner at Wusang and Chayoung’s former boss) while masquerading as Junwoo. After revealing himself as Hanseok, he kicks the table while looking at Seunghyuk – which immediately sets Seunghyuk off. And, since Hanseok knows Seunghyuk is a habitual butt-kisser who hates making powerful people upset, leveraging the fact that Seunghyuk had kicked a powerful person in the back when that person was perceived as powerless pushes Seunghyuk into a corner that he can’t escape from.

Junwoo’s modus operandi is incredibly effective.

The Fatal Flaw – Episode 12

One of the hardest lessons to learn in scriptwriting is that characters need to be flawed. Sometimes, the writer will get so invested in a character that the narrative as a whole will treat a singular character as the most important human being alive. Even if they’re the villain, they’ll seem to know absolutely everything, and get away with absolutely everything without much more than a handwave.

Vincenzo, luckily, doesn’t have this problem. Every character feels like a person. And that’s because they all have flaws. Vincenzo Cassano avoids letting people get close as guilt for everything he’s done, and his self-isolation is a driving force in his character arc. Hong Chayoung puts the assignment above her own feelings, which is great for taking down Babel and Wusang, but also means she has to compromise her own morals to do so.

However, it’s important to note that neither of these character flaws are inherently negative traits. Vincenzo’s private nature is part of what leads him to be so good at getting the job done – he is very good at bluffing and not showing his hand. Chayoung’s pragmatism lets her think of outside-the-box solutions (or, frankly, out-of-pocket solutions) that are almost always successful. These character traits are not flaws because they make them bad people – in fact, they’re generally good qualities. They become flaws when put in the wrong circumstances.

And Jang Hanseok’s drive for power, while being what makes him most compelling, is his character flaw. But, it’s not for the reason you think.

Greed – and being singularly focused on it – would theoretically beget the flaw of being blind to anything else. However, Hanseok is calculated, and a fantastic manipulator. Hanseok is not emotionally adept in the way Vincenzo and Chayoung are, but he is adept at figuring out exactly what makes people afraid. Han Seunghyuk is afraid of offending authority – Hanseok leverages that. Choi Myeonghee is afraid of endangering herself – Hanseok leverages that too. Han Seo is afraid of Hanseok himself – and yet again, Hanseok leverages that.

What makes Hanseok’s greed his flaw is not blindness to anything else.

No. It’s the circumstance.

How can you leverage fear on someone who has nothing to lose?

In the case of Hanseok, the only way to make him feel fear is to make him as powerless as his own victims. While power is what drives Hanseok as a character, it is also the source of his fear.

Hanseok talks about a nightmare he had in Episode 12, in which he is being buried in an unmarked grave, dying in obscurity, without anyone knowing who he is. On the surface, this reads like a fear of dying without fame, but in context, this is a dream of dying without power. Hanseok has, up until this point, gained power by selectively revealing himself – his true self, his sadistic self – to a few people with a lot of who he can manipulate for influence. Han Seo obviously knows who he is by default, but he reveals himself to Myeonghee and Seunghyuk with intent. There is a correlation for Hanseok between power and the security of his identity.

Hanseok confiding his fears in Myeonghee.

In the same scene, Myeonghee tells him that his greatest weakness, in fact, is his anonymity. If people don’t know who he is, they don’t know he has power. This comment is what prompts the decision to reveal himself to the Babel board. Interestingly, though, when he reveals himself to the Babel board, he doesn’t reveal his sadism outright. Rather, he triggers Han Seo and the chief prosecutor by revealing his sadism to them specifically – to Han Seo, he lets him know that the pain of being shot was excruciating; while to the chief prosecutor, all he has to say is “It’s ME!” and that’s enough to scare him. The triggering of these memories strikes fear into onlookers, as their normally relaxed colleagues are acting like they just saw their worst fears come to life – because, in fact, they did.

Hansoek’s revealing of his identity is, theoretically, a way to control his circumstance and turn his flaw into his asset. However, his both figurative and literal bloodlust is what leads him to make mistakes. He assumes that everyone who fears him is loyal to him because of fear.

But, as Vincenzo reveals again and again, there’s always something or someone scarier than you.

The Psychology of Hanseok

As with any character who is purportedly insane, we do have to ask the question about the nature of Hanseok’s mental state.

In Episode 15, it is stated that he was diagnosed officially as a psychopath as a teenager. This frustrated me, to say the least, because of the way that word is thrown around in general. Technically speaking, there is no true diagnosis of a psychopath. What a psychopath is Hanseok does give the impression of being narcissistic, but since they just gave him a general categorization of “psychopath” we can’t fully analyze his narcissism as an actual disorder, merely a personality trait.

There is a very real concern about ascribing a character with a mental disorder, because it can perpetuate stigma against people with such disorders – especially if the person writing them isn’t writing from a place of copious research or personal experience. Neurodivergent people are not inherently violent, just as neurotypical people are not inherently violent.

The only saving grace with Hanseok’s character in the psychological diagnosis is that he actually has to have someone explain to him things that “normal people” understand more innately. Specifically, Choi Myeonghee has to explain to him that yes, normal people do care about their families. His actual confusion at the concept (and the way Myeonghee handles it by explaining) is one thing I can say is probably him having some sort of personality disorder, though we don’t definitively know what disorder he has. He clearly doesn’t care about normal people the same way he does about power.

I do think that the show does a good job of establishing Hanseok’s sadism as separate from his disorder. His disorder isn’t revealed until episode fifteen, after we’ve gotten to know him as a person and a villain. At that point, the framing is such that this isn’t the reason for his sadism – or even really an explanation for his behavior – but instead a new piece of backstory we have to understand as a part of him. So he’s not a sadist because of his disorder, but because that’s who he is. It narrowly – narrowly – avoids the pitfall of most “psycho stalker” movies, where the person is given a diagnosis to scapegoat fundamental problems with the story logic.

Hanseok sees people as toys, regardless of what diagnosis he might have.

A Toy Playing God

I find it interesting that a lot of people ship Hanseok and Chayoung, because that relationship never struck me as anything but cold manipulation on his part. Hanseok never sees people as more than pawns. It’s part of his goal of being a God on Earth. So to assume Hanseok sees Chayoung as anything but a tool or a toy is assuming he has more emotional acuity than we have evidence for.¯ Furthermore, when he confesses his love to her in the second to last episode, it’s a fairly flat confession and devoid of any genuine affection. He literally is holding her hostage in the scene.

And it’s then succeeded by her getting shot.

This scene doesn’t read as someone who is genuinely in love. In the localized version he describes himself as “madly in love” with Chayoung, but he does so emotionlessly: “You know I’m madly in love with you, right?” These aren’t the actions of someone who actually cares about a person. This is someone who thinks this may win over another person. It reads at someone who, backed into a corner, is saying what he calculated as the appropriate response. Actually, it’s the response he thinks will get him the right reaction – loyalty.

Notably, Chayoung is completely at odds with Hanseok. Chayoung has no respect for Hanseok, though he demands it of her. Regardless of his status or potential power, she doesn’t care about how he might see her. That’s on brand for her, considering how she’s willing to make a fool of herself for her own satisfaction, no one else’s. Hanseok, on the other hand, is entirely focused on his image. The joke Chayoung makes about Hanseok’s new hairstyle looking like a K-Pop idol’s is more than a cheeky joke about Ok Taecyeon’s other profession – she’s actively criticizing his emphasis on trying to seem approachable.

But what about Vincenzo? He’s always talking about the suits and the mafia. He’s focused on his image too, right? 

Well, not quite.

Unlike Hanseok, Vincenzo is honest to a fault. He can pull off a plan where he has to play a character – we all love the Episode 8 seduction – but when he’s himself, he can barely stop himself from saying he’s in the mafia in polite company. He wears the suits because he was practically born to wear them. He doesn’t care if he’s approachable, and frankly he doesn’t care if you respect him. He always gives the most honest answer he feels he can. He doesn’t even really care if people find out he’s in the mafia. He even taunts people with this information, using the Cassano C to lure Hanseok out.

Vincenzo also allows himself to play the fool when he has to. In Episode 15 he plays a shaman that channels the spirit of an antagonist’s dead brother, among others. It’s established that this is the last thing Vincenzo wants to do – he wanted Chayoung to play the shaman – but he gives it 1000%, as always. His shaman persona Yeo Rim is melodramatic, sassy, and wearing a white poppy in his hair. When “channeling” the spirit of the man’s dead brother, Vincenzo/Yeo Rim not only shivers and whimpers in his trance, but stands up and grabs the man and drags him across the floor.

Vincenzo being an absolute icon as the shaman Yeo Rim.

Not exactly the move of a dignified mafia member, but by God does it work.

The counterargument to this being unique to Vincenzo’s character is that Hanseok performs as the foolish Junwoo, up until he can’t anymore. He even tries to fool Chayoung after he knows she’s found out. Theoretically this would mean Hanseok is as comfortable as Vincenzo in putting on a charade for others.

However, there’s no way this is true. If we are to believe that Hanseok’s greatest fear is dying powerless and in obscurity, then this betrays an intense insecurity on his part. As we’ve seen time and time again, he has to be in control of every interaction. He has to be liked and/or respected by others. When Hanseok playing Junwoo, he’s using that role as a means to get the respect of others by subverting his own likeability. However, once he stops playing Junwoo, Hanseok is preoccupied with his image and his ability to be liked and respected by others, as well as hide his own illegal acts.

Once we understand Hanseok as an insecure character, the name of his company begins to make sense. Babel. The tower of Babel – the tower of mortals who fancied themselves as powerful as God. It might as well have had an Icarus Division, if they wanted to make it clearer. Hanseok wants nothing more than to be a god, playing with people like they’re toys, building towers out of Legos and knocking them down as he pleases.

But it’s the man Hanseok fancies as a mortal who is able to play him.

Hanseok is the toy.

Vincenzo is the god.

Part 3 Arriving Soon

K-Pop is Art – let’s take it seriously.

When I was fourteen, K-Pop was starting to pop up in western reaction videos. Random YouTubers would either post on their own channels or congregate with bigger names like the Fine Bros., where they would react to videos such as “Fantastic Baby” and “I Got a Boy”. One of the things I noticed repeatedly through these reactions is how much the videos were played up as a joke. People would look at the brightly colored hair and hear the English choruses mixed in with the Korean and laugh because the phrase “Fantastic Baby” seemed like a stupid non-sequitur compared to everything else going on.

Obviously, being a fourteen year old, I thought the videos were hilarious as well. Nevertheless, when I finally took my deep dive into K-Pop during high school, I began to actually look at the videos more closely. I noticed the burning cars in “Fantastic Baby” and remembered that one of the members, Daesung, had been in a car accident where someone had died, and had taken a break from singing for almost a year out of guilt. He was chained to a wall, like a prisoner. That got me wondering what was going on in the video as a whole, and I started looking into it more closely. I found very few analyses that covered it in any detail – which is actually one of the reasons I started this blog.

Fast forward about seven years later. I’m complying with the stay-at-home order and working on some personal projects. I tend to listen to music while I work because it keeps my brain from wandering too far. In this case, I was listening to a lot of 4minute, and I stumbled across their song “Whatcha Doin’ Today” and started listening to it.

I got incredibly distracted because I didn’t know what on earth was going on.

Sohyun was cleaning a carpet, Gayoon was playing with the Disney Channel wand, Jihyun made men make out with magic candy and has their heads inflate like balloons, Jiyoon was sitting on a toilet with her pants around her ankles, and HyunA was…being HyunA I guess. (Ironically she may be the least weird in the whole video.) Everyone’s wearing shiny dresses and bows, up to childish antics or over-sexualized antics, and partying like it’s the end of the world. And there’s no clear story to any of these scenes, so it’s really unclear what’s going on at any point. For all we know this is a day in the life of 4minute, though I doubt any of us would be surprised.

I wasn’t going to write the video off, though. It was weird, but K-Pop usually uses weirdness as a thematic device to communicate something. Even the most bizarre images are done with very specific intent. After way too many viewings, I can infer that “Whatcha Doin’ Today” is probably a satire of various traits of masculinity and femininity. It’s not necessarily making a statement on whether or not those traits are bad or good, but it’s exaggerating those stereotypes, both among the female characters (the members and their backup dancers) and the male characters (more backup dancers.) The various members of 4minute are not dressed conservatively, but their outfits are comparatively everyday than the outfits the male and female backup dancers wear. They also act as the dominant characters in every scene they appear, picking on men and being attended to by women. The other characters, regardless of gender, are objects of attraction, dressed homogeneously and obeying the members (or being teased by them.) In short, the video is satire about the ways we objectify both sexes.

As for the various weird images, like school hallways with lockers and bathrooms and parties, these are actually very literal interpretations of the lyrics. Gayoon asks for an Americano and some guy comes out from under a table to present her with one. Sohyun talks about being at school and doing housecleaning, with those lines directly corresponding to her locations. The bathroom isn’t explicitly mentioned but Jiyoon’s corresponding rap verse correlates with the choreography: when she says that people watch boring shows on TV and laugh, all the backup dancers turn towards her. The images of people partying usually correspond with someone announcing a party or saying “have fun!” However, because of the language barrier between Korea and the west, a lot of that is lost when people aren’t motivated to turn on subtitles. What is directly connected to the song seems irrelevant because people can’t actually tell what is or isn’t connected.

This train of thought got me thinking more broadly about what we in America qualify as weird when it comes to K-Pop, and why we’re so ready to write K-Pop off as bizarre without trying to understand it. And why the answer seems to be obvious – culture barriers between the east and west – I’m more interested in understanding the specifics of what we classify as weird. My focus with this blog is filmmaking, so what are the filmmaking techniques specific to K-Pop that people in America actively avoid understanding?


The big feature of K-Pop is that it’s very rare that a K-Pop music video gives you all the information at face value. Even if you have the lyrics to go off of, usually the videos get meta with their symbolism. Often this is done through production design, where details about the world are what communicate things to the audience. Even narrative-based videos will often have some sort of a reversal at the end that changes how you view the whole MV.

For the sake of this analysis, we’re not going to talk about videos that are intentionally dark or serious. We’re going to keep it on the happier end of the spectrum, because lighthearted music videos tend to have the most “weirdness” potential. Furthermore, serious videos tend to be more overt about when they’re making a statement (regardless of what culture or genre the video is from) whereas things that are meant to be consumer-friendly have room to be discreet.

Within K-Pop there are four general categories for videos that sit on the lighthearted end of the spectrum. These are Coolness-Driven, Narrative-Driven, Performance-Driven, and Statement-Driven. These categories are not mutually exclusive, as something narrative-driven can also put a strong emphasis on making a point, coolness-driven videos can have a strong emphasis on the dance. With that in mind, let’s get into the various categories:

Coolness-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Orange Caramel’s “My Copycat”

The number one category that drives western scrutiny of how “weird” K-Pop can be is the Coolness-Driven (CD) category. CD videos basically center around how cool the artists in question are. G-Dragon’s videos circa 2012, “Crayon” especially, are usually in this category. It’s largely about spectacle, but generally there to drive the point that this singer is just so cool. Looking back at “Crayon”, G-Dragon is literally wearing a hat that says GIYONGCHY, which is a pun on his name (Kwon Jiyong) his stage name (G-Dragon) and the fashion brand Givenchy. That is some SERIOUS pun game with the only purpose of making G-Dragon seem like the coolest person around – not only can he afford Givenchy, he’s so rich he can probably own his own fashion house. This of course assumes that you associate wealth with coolness; the two are not mutually inclusive in my opinion, but it works in “Crayon.”

What drives the CD category is a lot of aesthetic shots that are seemingly unrelated to anything happening in the story, assuming there even is a story. In girl group videos, this is largely centered around sexy, expensive outfits. In men, it’s…well, it’s about the same. But CD videos heavily emphasize the members themselves, so that you can both see yourselves in them and and see the members as especially cool. The dance, which is always a primary feature of K-Pop as a genre, is more secondary in this category. It’s more about holding up the singers as a desirable ideal, wherein the dance functions primarily to achieve that.

Screenshot from G-Dragon’s “Crayon”

Western audiences tend to conflate this attempt at establishing coolness as showy or tactless. In some cases they’re right, the flashy visuals can be dialed up to an extreme that doesn’t sit well. But that’s not K-Pop’s fault, that’s the artist’s fault. G-Dragon went too far with “MichiGo” (don’t look it up, trust me) being extremely flashy and provocative to the point of being creepy. But that’s not a reason to write off K-Pop as a whole. It’s an extreme example. There are plenty of instances where western media artists do the same thing. So why is K-Pop exposed to more scrutiny?

Examples of CD videos include: AOA’s “Miniskirt”, NU’EST’s “Action”, Blackpink’s “Boombayah”, miss A’s “Hush”

Narrative-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Girls’ Generation’s “I Got A Boy”

Narrative-Driven (ND) videos are videos where a story features primarily, acting as a vehicle for us to get to know the members of a band. The story can be extremely simple, like a bunch of nerdy girls learning how to be sexy to win a contest (T-ARA’s “So Crazy”) or falling in love with a girl but being so shy that you panic every time she approaches you. (Seventeen’s “Nice”) Sometimes the story is vague, but the setting is prominent, so you get a sense of a story while the plot is reduced to only a few moments of action. (TWICE’s “Like OOH-AHH”, EXID’s “L.I.E”) But even when the story is simple or implicit, the video is incomplete without it.

On the other hand, there are videos where the story is a major part of the experience. The best example I can think of is C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”. The video is at first glance very serious, but quickly becomes anything but, which is why I count it as a lighthearted example. There are two versions of the video, one with the other members of C-Clown and one with just Kangjun. The solo version, however, is the one we’re talking about, but the other one (the “Member Version”) is totally worth watching anyway. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for people, please watch it. I beg of you.

Screenshot from C-Clown’s “Far Away… Young Love”

The point is everything in the video is played up for comedy, but because we spend so much time with Kangjun and get to know his character in this video, we get the sense that we know him. (Even though we don’t really. Please beware the dangers of parasocial relationships.) ND K-Pop videos are meant for us to have a very direct relationship with the singers in them. We see how the members react to the various changes in their environment, what relationships form, and most importantly, what actions they take, if any, to change their situation.

Sometimes this actually trickles into expanded universe territory, as narratives will form across videos and you learn about the members as if they were characters in a TV show. BTS is the example everyone thinks of, and they did establish the connected universe as a viable option for K-Pop bands. But I want to bring up VIXX’s “Conception” series, which had an implicit narrative explored through different aesthetics. LOONA, which has the LOONAVERSE, is also worth mentioning. I honestly don’t know much about the LOONAVERSE, but the wiki has a very good breakdown of all the different theories surrounding it.

Last but not least, Dreamcatcher has at least one connected universe in its music videos. Which I promised I’d cover a year ago. I am sorry. It will happen soon, I promise!

The story delivery is what confuses people in America. This may be because a K-Pop video is drawing specifically on Korean cultural norms that are virtually unknown to western audiences, but I honestly can’t think of too many examples of that. It may come down to a difference in storytelling technique – again, K-Pop largely relies on “meta” details to communicate something to the audience. There are also issues that plague music videos in general: people mistaken melodrama for a lack of quality, or see the implied story as incomplete rather than implied. However, it’s worth noting that many western artists of VERY high acclaim make story-based videos that are over-the-top, melodramatic, and lack background detail to balance it, but get millions if not billions of views. Food for thought.

Examples of ND videos include: EXID’s “I Love You”, MAMAMOO’s “gogobebe”, SHINee’s “Married to the Music”, Super Junior’s “Black Suit”

Performance-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from Solar’s “Spit It Out”

Performance-Driven (PD) K-Pop is when the dance is more at the forefront than the members themselves. This isn’t as big a thing now, but it was really big in the early 2010s. SM Entertainment nailed these videos with bands like f(x) and EXO, with “Electric Shock” and “Overdose” respectively. miss A and T-ARA, while not from SM Entertainment, also nailed dances with such titles as miss A’s “Bad Girl Good Girl” and T-ARA’s “Sexy Love”. It has made a bit of a resurgence with bands like Momoland and Stray Kids, where the dance is the most primary part of their videos in many cases.

This can actually be a very positive thing for a band, because PD videos focus almost entirely on the members’ talents. It also makes departures from this format that much more noteworthy, such as f(x)’s “Red Light” and “4 Walls”. This format can also be picked up by any band with ease, since most K-Pop bands put a strong emphasis on dance. That said, I wouldn’t say this is picked up by all groups. BIGBANG’s videos generally lack choreography, focusing almost entirely on the vocal performances. (Arguably, these could indeed count as PD videos because the vocal performances feature so prominently.) That said, I’d argue that this is the most uniquely K-Pop category, as dance and other modes of onstage performance are so important to the genre as a whole.

The “weirdness” factor comes in when you consider that western videos don’t really emphasize performance in the same way. Whereas most K-Pop idols are strong all-around talents, western artists tend to focus on one category or another. Just because you’re a specialized singer does not mean you have to be a specialized dancer, and vice versa. It’s also my impression that westerners think idols who don’t perform on instruments are somehow not artists, just performers…as if not playing a guitar or the drums devalues the agonizing amount of time and training required to get the dance right. Art comes in many forms. K-Pop deserves to be recognized as such.

Examples of PD videos include: Red Velvet’s “Red Flavor”, GFRIEND’s “Glass Bead”, Pentagon’s “Shine”, 2NE1’s “Fire”

Statement-Driven K-Pop Videos

Screenshot from GOT7’s “Just Right”

This last category is the hardest to pin down, but it’s the most effective. Sometimes, K-Pop videos try to make statements about other forms of media. A lot of these tend to be serious, but as stated earlier, we’re explicitly talking about lighthearted videos that align more closely with “Fantastic Baby” and “Whatcha Doin’ Today”.

The driving aspect of Statement-Driven (SD) K-Pop videos is that there is an underlying theme or message that transcends the video, and it is communicated through the various filmmaking choices. This is intentionally vague on my part, precisely because there are so many ways this can be implemented. The thing that separates this from other categories despite the overlap, is that the other categories can exist without an SD component. SD, meanwhile, has to rely heavily on the other categories in order to subvert them. You can’t get on a soap box and scream your thoughts at people unless you’re in Washington Square Park, and no one will listen to you there. In spite of potential coolness-factor, narrative, or performance, the statement aspect will supersede the other categories.

Let’s look at EXID’s “Ah Yeah”. There is a narrative aspect and a performance aspect, in that there is a pretty clear concept and implicit story, along with dance breaks and recognizable dance moves. But rather than being connected by a setting or an explicit group dynamic, they’re connected by the central theme. The theme in this case is sexualization and censorship, as you think the girls are being censored for heavily implied lewd content but it turns out they’re doing fairly innocent things. Even so, through most of the video, the girls’ hips are censored when they’re dancing, and the only guy we ever see in the video is plagued by two EXID members – Hani, who’s playfully seductive, and LE, who’s angry and violent. The video is making a statement about the autonomy of women, particularly from a consumerist standpoint.

Orange Caramel’s “Catallena” has a similar theme. The three members of Orange Caramel represent themselves as cuts of fish for sushi, ones that were once free in the ocean, then get put in a grocery store to get sold, then are repeatedly discounted because no one wants them. They get made into simple nigiri sushi for easy consumption and basically go neglected until some human girls (also played by the members) eat them and have what effectively amounts to a religious experience. This video is completely over the top, with repeated cutaways to mermaids, a mean octopus lady, and CGI tears.

It’s worth noting that KBS thought the “Catallena” music video “disregarded human life” by having the girls wrapped in plastic and styrofoam to be bought. But…did it? Consider “Catallena” as a metaphor for the commodification of women – of people – in entertainment. Being taken out of their natural habitat, put on display for people to buy into, eventually cheapened and cut down into something easily consumable – it’s pretty clear what the intent is. I’d argue that it’s notably effective because the images sit with you for a long time, and when you consider what it might mean, it clicks internally.

Let’s look at an example of a male group, specifically SHINee. Their music video “View” takes at least two viewings to really understand because, like most K-Pop, it really hides it’s story in the details. Most of the video surrounds the members hanging out with a group of girls who seduce them in some cases and just generally play around with them in all cases. They sneak into people’s pools, rob a bodega (I guess?) and go clubbing. However, if you watch the video closely at the beginning, there’s one detail that’s not given as much screen time or emphasis as is due.

The girls kidnapped them.

With that in mind the video takes on a very weird message. It’s clear that the members are more or less okay with their kidnapping, which is really weird. (DON’T KIDNAP YOUR IDOLS. PLEASE.) They never make any attempt to escape, in fact they avoid being recognized. It’s fairly clear from the opening scene that they’re idols in this universe as well. There are a lot of weird details like pictures of the members on the walls of an abandoned building and various moments where people try to record them on their phones.

So what gives?

Well it’s simple.

The members don’t want to be found.

The girls function symbolically in this story, hence why we barely see their faces. They represent a reality the idols are no longer a part of, and the desire the members have to go back to that reality. So as they’re up to fun shenanigans and avoiding responsibility, it basically shows what a world devoid of idol pressure would be like for them, and how liberating that would be. And since the death of Jonghyun came two and a half years later, posthumous context makes this reading that much more sad.

And yet, in this video, the song is lighthearted. The activities are fun. The members are happy. The cuts are so quick you can easily miss the sad moments if you just turn your head to ask your mom for a sandwich. But the video and song are lighthearted and serene, and more than anything, it’s memorable. Even if you don’t get the story, it will sit with you just because you remember it well.

The reason these kinds of K-Pop videos get written off so frequently is because a statement or symbol runs the risk of flying way over your head if you’re not looking actively for the subtleties. And that’s not a bad thing, because if you keep going back to a video, you have a better chance of finding the subtleties on your own. Yet many western audiences watch the videos and laugh or aww for one reason or another, because they don’t want to find subtleties. It doesn’t matter if “Ah Yeah” is about censorship, “Catallena” is about commodification, and “View” is about escapism.

Some people just don’t care.

Examples of SD videos include: BTS’s “Dope”, ITZY’s “ICY”, Stray Kids’ “MIROH”, MAMAMOO’s “Hip”

Screenshot from SHINee’s “View”

In film school, a teacher told us to watch a video for the first time to enjoy it but the second time to understand it and analyze it. There’s nothing wrong with watching a K-Pop video purely for the enjoyment of it. But enjoying something consumer-friendly doesn’t make it bad. Marvel movies are mainstream but those can be amazing. TV shows that are high in melodrama are beloved by many. We watch America’s Got Talent and revel in seeing talented singers and dancers, so why is it bad when someone listens to a band where all members are more than competent at both?

K-Pop is an art form. It’s a medium. It provides unique challenges but unique opportunities. But it’s not just consumer-friendly, it’s consumer-challenging. The best videos are the ones where they sit with you. Maybe it’s because they’re flashy like “Catallena” or you want to learn the dance to “Shine” by Pentagon or maybe you just think G-Dragon looks really good in hats. But the more they sit with you, the more they challenge you to think about them. However “weird” they may be, don’t write them off because they were funny that one time you watched at a friend’s house.

Music videos are art.

K-Pop is art.

And art is beautiful.

Screenshot from VIXX’s “Dynamite”

K-Drama Special – Blood

When I was growing up, I watched telenovelas with my mom. It started because my grandmother (her mom) came over when I was fourteen. She doesn’t speak English very well, so we spent our days watching Univision soap operas instead of CBS cop shows for late night entertainment. Our house became quickly addicted, and we spent our days binging Un Refugio para El Amor and Por Ella, Soy Eva.

While I do not aspire to make soap operas, I respect them for their compelling characters and storylines. This is where Korean dramas come in. I started watching Korean dramas around the age of fifteen, when I was getting into K-Pop for the first time. There was this intensity to the experience and while some plot points didn’t make sense to me I still was drawn into this world that had been created for me, the viewer. The heightened emotions of the characters helped with that, because I could see everything they were feeling, and if they were feeling complex emotions, I could see those complex emotions. Say someone was feeling happy and sad at the same time, or happy and angry – I could see that, in full, and understand that character in a different way. This speaks nothing of the production value, which was above and beyond American serial dramas I was watching at the time.

Which brings us to Blood, the 2015 vampire doctor crime romance. I was following the show while it was coming out, and was absolutely engrossed in it. I am a sucker for vampire shows and movies – I admit, without shame, that I was a part of the Twilight craze. So watching Blood and seeing this K-Drama spin on vampires was perfect for me. But as I got older, I realized, for a soap opera, it was surprisingly well written…and I am here to explain why.

Goo Hye-Sun as Rita, a human, and Ahn Jae-Hyun as Ji-Sang, a vampire.

Blood follows the story of Park Ji-Sang, a young man who was born infected with a virus that makes him a vampire. Originally born in America, Ji-Sang was brought as a child to live on Jeju Island, the island just to the southwest of mainland Korea. He lives in complete isolation with his mother, struggling with his abilities and thirst for blood, when he meets Yoo Chae-Eun, a girl on vacation with her family who is mysteriously attacked by wolves. He saves her and decides to dedicate his life to saving others.

Ji-Sang’s mother is mysteriously killed, setting Ji-Sang on a dangerous course. He becomes a surgeon who saves lives in war-torn countries with very little self-preservation and only one friend, Hyun-Woo, who acts like an in house nurse (and comic relief.) He gets a lead about the origins of the vampire virus – and potentially how to cure it – so he begins to work at a cancer hospital. His new subordinate is one Yoo Rita, an outspoken, abrasive surgeon with a lot of baggage about a boy who supposedly saved her as a child…

In a twist absolutely no one saw coming, Rita and Chae-Eun are the same person. What starts out as hatred between Rita and Ji-Sang turns into friendship and then love. However, the main conflict of the show revolves around the supposed cure for vampirism, and the people who want to use the vampire virus to create a cure for all diseases – whatever it takes to get to that point.

From left: Goo Hye-Sun, Ahn Jae-Hyun, and Ji Jin-Hee. I still don’t fully know why there are two of Jae-Hyun.

Blood is, at its core, about ethics. Vampires, much like zombies, are used to show an underlying problem. In this case, the problem is “What matters more, steps taken to solve a problem, or the end result?” There are two factions at play in Blood, those who want a cure for vampires (Ji-Sang and his parents) and those who want to use the virus as a cure (the villain, Lee Jae-Wook, and his host of subordinates.)

Ji-Sang runs lots of tests on himself to minimize outside impact, but in doing so self-isolates from the rest of the world. He takes suppressants for his thirst so that he is not motivated to drink blood, but then when he’s off the medication, his desire comes in full force. He tries to keep his emotions out of his work, but in doing so hurts the feelings of terminally ill patients and their families needlessly. In the end, he does win in finding a cure, but this journey takes away many of the people he loves. Was it worth it to go on this journey if he lost the people who made him happiest?

Jae-Wook, meanwhile, uses unwitting victims, often the poor and terminally ill. His justification for this is that these people will die anyway, why not have the chance at improving their lives? There are a number of reveals about Jae-Wook’s character, particularly that he got into this line of work because he became close to a foster child with cancer, and that child’s foster family rejected her when the treatment became too expensive. The child then threw herself off the hospital rooftop. While Jae-Wook’s actions are beyond reprehensible, we can empathize with him – he simply doesn’t want people to suffer.

These factions consist of vampires, but the human characters all exist in gray areas. Rita is career oriented but also highly emotional, which means she makes may decisions based on her personal biases as opposed to the hard facts. Hyun-Woo is also incredibly emotional (he invents a robot named L.U.U.V.Y. to “give love to people”) and dedicated to Ji-Sang, to the point where he doesn’t have a reason for existing outside of his friend. Rita’s uncle, the chairman of the hospital, has made a number of shady decisions, but he opens a free ward for people who can’t afford insurance. Furthermore, his actions are motivated by self preservation, as he has a life threatening disease.

Ji Jin-hee as Lee Jae-Wook, the villain of the show.

Perhaps the only character who you could argue is purely ethically sound is Jung Ji-Tae, a doctor who works in pathology and becomes an ally to Ji-Sang. Ji-Tae is human and on the sidelines for the first half of the story, simply hanging along the sidelines. The second half of the story he becomes an incredibly important character in the plot, helping Ji-Sang make a number of hard decisions.

However, Ji-Tae is the most important character. He is the grounding character, the one closest to the viewer. Morally, he’s comparatively good, with proper decorum but boundaries that he will not cross emotionally. He is a mentor to Rita’s best friend Soo-Eun, but also learns from Ji-Sang and is willing to admit what he doesn’t know. He is the character who is along for the ride – just as we are along for the ride.

With the exception of Ji-Tae, the characters all put themselves in morally difficult situations. While Ji-Sang and Jae-Wook are obvious, Rita is interesting in this regard – largely because it’s much more subtle. Rita, as I said before, makes many decisions based on personal feelings, be it love or spite. In this way, she’s very similar to Jae-Wook, who makes decisions based on his own personal beliefs. She and Ji-Sang frequently butt heads over how Ji-Sang outright refuses to comfort people, even children. However, her version of comfort could be construed as lying, as she tends to skirt around the truth to minimize the damage. Similarly, Jae-Wook treats information as strictly need-to-know, to make sure he appears as the best possible version of himself to everyone. Rita does much the same – except rather than trying to seem agreeable, she tries to seem strong and unaffected.

Building on that, Rita and Ji-Sang both try to seem unaffected. Both pretend like their trauma doesn’t exist, to the point where it comes out in intense outbursts. They do such a good job of suppressing their feelings that they can’t acknowledge them anymore. In knowing each other, however, they are able to actually recognize their own pain and deal with it appropriately. Without spoiling anything, in the final few episodes of the show, we actually see two characters who have grown considerably in being able to acknowledge their pain. Rita asks Ji-Sang to list things he wants to do before he dies, a symbol of complete trust and honesty. Rita also uses Ji-Sang as emotional support when dirt about her family is revealed.

The show is not just about vampires falling in love with humans, it’s about how far we go for the people we care most about. Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? And does “the few” include or exclude us?

Ji-Sang holding Rita in one of the most pivotal scenes of the film.

Melodrama – the essence of the soap opera – is the conduit to a theme in its rawest form. Everything is over the top, but because the world within the story is over the top. And often, the over-the-top reveals complex and powerful emotions. Melodrama does not mean bad, it means heightened.

There’s a lot that can be learned from melodrama, particularly because it cuts to the chase emotionally with its characters. Shying away from melodrama is like shying away from superheroes. There are perfectly justifiable reasons as to why you wouldn’t want to go there, but it’s also just fashionable in the film community to aim for realism/naturalism instead of melodrama or superheroes.

Melodrama does not equal poorly written. Melodrama is a style in of itself. It is very much a difficult balance to master – too much means your characters come across as fake, too little means that your characters come across as flat. But the right amount creates a heightened experience where there is just enough distance from reality that you don’t get torn down by the bitterness of reality, but close enough to reality that you feel immersed in the world they’ve created.

One of my film school professors had us watch The Miracle Worker. The Miracle Worker is a movie about the deaf/blind Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, that was made in 1962. It’s based off a play and uses many of the same actors, which means the reality of the film is incredibly theatrical. In fact, the very first scene quickly devolves into panicked, ear splitting screaming, as Helen’s parents realize that she can’t see or hear.

However, this insane display of emotion creates the universe that we will be taking part in, and for the rest of the film, the acting doesn’t bother us. Because the heightened standard of emotion is set, we actually get to experience the whole movie on its terms. And it makes the ending hit that much harder – starting at such an intense low for Helen’s parents means that the high, the elation of the finale is so much more hard hitting. This put The Miracle Worker on the list of my favorite movies of all time.

From left: Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller

Blood, in turn, follows a similar pattern. The first episode starts with a high stakes surgery in a war zone, and is quickly followed by an action sequence, and then some intense exposition on the part of Ji-Sang. This tells us everything we will need to know for the rest of the show through what this character goes through on his worst days. Furthermore, the exposition ends with Ji-Sang stating that he isn’t human, which establishes his ultimate goal – to become human.

There are a lot of scenes in this that break the illusion of reality – at least, our reality. The world of Blood works because it has clear rules and establishes that everyone feels emotions at 1000%, all the time. And that’s okay! It’s not only part of the charm of the show – it’s what makes the show work. You can’t have a serious version of this show where everyone takes everything with a straight face, or the occasional brooding stare. This isn’t Twilight.

Blood is riveting in how deeply emotional it is, even with vampire rivalry. Its intensity is part of what makes it so lovable, but also so proficient in its ability to tackle different things. It’s not a perfect show, and it’s not for everyone, but if you’re like me and run headfirst into melodrama, then this show will be perfect for you. Don’t just take the melodrama at face value – try to think about what the melodrama accomplishes. With any drama like this, if it resonates in spite of the heightened emotions, try to see if the heightened emotions are why it works. And to the filmmakers and writers out there, never shy away from writing melodrama – it can pay off in the long run!

Goo Hye-Sun as Rita and Ahn Jae-Hyun as Ji-Sang.