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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!