Netflix: South Korean TV and film are at their zenith – and we're all in

After a $2.5bn pledge for content, executives reveal to The National how, and why, the streaming platform is betting big on K-dramas

From left, Park Hae-soo, Lee Jung-jae and Jung Ho-yeon in Squid Game. The South Korean show became a global success for Netflix. Photo: Netflix
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There’s no denying the worldwide appeal of South Korean dramas.

From recent shows Extraordinary Attorney Woo (2022) and Squid Game (2021) to older titles such as Boys Over Flowers (2009) and My Love from the Star (2013), the genre has had a meteoric rise in popularity over the past decade.

Last month, Netflix co-chief executive Ted Sarandos said more than 60 per cent of users have watched at least one South Korean title.

Speaking to The National, Don Kang, the company's vice president of content, and Wooyeon Yang, director of content in South Korea, discuss the global appeal of programming from the country, how content is chosen and the debate over subbing versus dubbing.

Kang says Netflix has experienced a 90 per cent viewership of K-romance from outside of South Korea.

This is evidenced by shows that came out last year such as Twenty Five Twenty One, which spent 10 consecutive weeks in Netflix’s global top 10 (non-English) chart, and Business Proposal, the first series produced by a Korean company to top the Netflix charts.

Yang adds that the reason why such K-dramas are so popular is probably due to the slow way they typically display romance.

“It doesn't always have to be all spiced up for Korean dramas, but they have this very detailed, nuanced portrayal of evolving emotions and how relationships evolve across time," she says. "So I think that is something that Korean romance shows do well."

In April, the streaming platform announced it was investing $2.5 billion into South Korean content over the next four years showing great confidence in the films and television shows from the country

“We really plan to spend it wisely. That means we're going to invest in a variety of content that obviously includes a lot of romance series but also on non-fiction slate and on films,” says Kang.

“We see an enormous opportunity in those films, but also as well as really helping and partnering with the local producers, local vendors and trying to create a sustainable ecosystem for creative works so we can do this for a long time and benefit Netflix as well as the local industry.”

When it comes to the general appeal of such shows, Kang says it all begins with the storyline and creating characters that people are interested in.

“I think what makes K-drama interesting is that there are layers of stories and there are sub-stories and strong characters that people can resonate with,” he says.

“A great example is Crash Landing on You. It has that North Korea-South Korea interesting plot going on and a soldier saving an heir of a big conglomerate, and then her life in North Korea and back in South Korea. So, it's not only romance but there are other stories that people can follow.”

Diving deeper, Korean romance has also been particularly successful with global audiences with many even travelling to South Korea and other countries to visit the spots made famous in shows and films. For example, it was recently reported a Swiss village in the Alps has seen a tourist influx because of a romantic scene filmed in Crash Landing on You.

But with so much out there, how does the streaming platform decide on which projects to take on and which ones to pass? According to Kang, projects come to the platform at various stages but there is one constant they look for: how well it would do with South Korean audiences first.

“I think the Korean creative community has, for a long time, built its own style and its own skills in developing great, fun stories that our members can enjoy around the world. And by around the world, I mean it has to start from South Korea.

“We know our audiences, we understand our audience in South Korea, and for us to try to imagine the taste of people outside South Korea, that's a risky bet. What we fortunately very often see is that when a show is loved by Korean audiences, it has a very high chance of being loved by our members outside of South Korea.”

And while shows are tailored-made for Korean audiences first, the language barrier hasn't necessarily stopped people from watching.

However, there has been past criticism over Netflix’s subtitling with some viewers claiming context gets lost in translation. This was notably pointed out during the height of Squid Game's popularity. Kang says that it is something the company is working on.

“We are in the search for better subtitle quality, better dubbing quality," Kang says. "We do this together with our vendor and people who work with us globally.

"I think there are many technical ways you can approach this, very practical ways."

This has also led to debate over whether it is better to watch with subtitles or with dubbing. However, Yang offers her simple solution on the best way to watch without losing too much from the original context.

“For some of the original Korean shows, I watched it with dubbing,” she says. “What I thought was very cool was that the voice of the voice actors was actually quite similar to Korean actors.

"I recommend you watch it with dubbing first and then you watch with the original sound plus subtitles so you can watch it twice.”

Updated: July 13, 2023, 2:26 PM