The Rich As A K-Drama Fixture: A Couch Kimchi Roundtable
The rich are common in K-dramas; we can expect them to show up like soju, ramyun, and kimchi. However, why are they so prevalent? Regardless of the protagonists being poor and probably unlikely to run into them, they often find themselves flanked with the rich’s presence.
COMMON DEPICTION OF THE WEALTHY
Rinchan: I feel it is mixed. There are some with a god complex that stinks to high heaven and need a reality check. Then there are others that don’t seem too bad and are sympathetic.
Tessieroo: True, but the majority of rich people in the dramas I’ve watched are evil—just in varying degrees. Maybe it’s the weekend dramas that are skewing the numbers a bit for me? Rich families are usually owners of a major corporation, live in a huge mansion, and don’t like each other, or they do like each other but no one else does. Inevitably, one of their kids will fall in love with someone that doesn’t measure up to their standards; so, the rich, evil parents start sending that child on endless mat-seons (matchmaking dates).
This is what’s happening now in the weekend drama “The Legendary Witch“ and to a smaller degree, “Rosy Lovers.“ In both shows, the persons the rich children have fallen for are deemed inferior, and they are threatened to break up immediately by the influential family.
Goodange: My first introduction to wealthy characters in K-dramas were exactly what you described, Tess. That was years ago, and to this day, poor female leads run into chaebol heirs in K-dramas as often as real life people see their neighborhood Starbucks barista.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Common depiction of the wealthy in K-dramas
Why are there so many rich people in K-dramas?
Rich female leads vs. rich leading men
Old money vs. self-made millionaires
Rich folks are just like the rest of us & the writers’ message
Why are so many rich characters villains?
Rich behaving badly
Baddies who find redemption
Are all the rich really evil?
Worst rich character
Favorite rich character
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY RICH PEOPLE IN K-DRAMAS?
Rinchan: They satisfy some superficial necessities like the need to have a fashionista in each drama, and they have the means to get things done. Their presence also allows a presentation of two different worlds colliding and the chaos that brings.
Tessieroo: Very good point. I think that’s it exactly! Plus there’s the idea that people enjoy stories about the upper class. There’s usually an eldest son who is the CEO and ends up falling for the poor girl. Has there been a drama with the opposite happening? You know, rich girl falling for poor boy? I can’t think of any right off the top of my head because my brain is full of names of all the CEOs I remember: CEO Kim, CEO Lee, CEO Park, CEO Jang, CEO Cha, CEO Choi … someone stop me. LOL.
Goodange: I’ve never watched the drama, but Tess, I think “My Fair Lady“ is one of a few dramas that features a wealthy heroine falling for the regular, working man. There was also Kim Sun Ah‘s TV project, “I Do, I Do.“ She starred as a financially successful shoe designer who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand with a hard up, younger man with whom she eventually falls in love.
Tessieroo: Ah, thanks, Ange! I knew there had to be, but it’s certainly not very common. I haven’t seen “My Fair Lady” either, but I did watch “I Do, I Do.” It’s a tiny surprise how blank my mind went trying to think of wealthy female leads.
Goodange: I do agree that viewers seem to like watching the rich interact with the everyday middle and lower class. In real life, it’s rare to hear of a person be plucked out of obscurity and be invited to mingle with the financially influential at a lavish party, and in that regard, a lot of poor leads are living out the viewers’ fantasy.
Also, in dramas, it’s the rich that wields the power, which is often times used to drive the conflict in a story.
RICH FEMALE LEADS VS. RICH LEADING MEN
Tessieroo: For the life of me, I can’t think of any K-drama women who started out rich but decided to give everything up for a husband or family. In K-dramas, I would say over 90% of wealthy lead characters are male.
Rinchan: Since dramas are targeted at women, having the rich male lead is an allusion to Prince Charming who rescues the girl. It is pretty hard to find rich female leads though. There is the recent drama “Temptation,“ but Se Young (Choi Ji Woo) was born into her wealth. I also recall Lee Shin Mi (Lee Bo Young) from “Birth of a Rich Man,“ who, although born rich, was more practical. However, neither of the two were asked to give up their career for their boyfriends/husbands to support their work. Is it because their leading men weren’t rich?
As seen in the cases of Na Hong Joo (Park Ha Sun) from “Temptation” and even Sa Geum Ran (Ha Jae Suk) from “Birth of a Beauty,“ there seems to be a standard for the wives of rich successful men. They have to look glamorous, classy, and spend money as though they had bottomless pockets. The female protagonists aren’t used to this at all because they value frugality and hard work.
Goodange: I think it’s very true that the rich leading man aligns with our fairytale fantasy of the handsome, wealthy prince finding his Cinderella, but I also think it has something to do with viewers’ Mr. Darcy complex. With the popularity of the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary“ in the late 90s and early 2000s, I think many drama writers began to construct male characters in the likeness of Jane Austen’s hero. Many viewers, mainly female, like to see most of the rich, arrogant leading men develop into better beings as they begin to fall for the poor main girl.
Rinchan: True, a rich man is a better fixer upper than a poor one. The whole “I can change him” idea is a thought that plagues women consciously or not. When we see him become a different person for the girl, then we know she is the one for him. Because he shows his good nature only to her, then, she probably realizes she is special. It is completely different with a nice guy who’s good to everybody, and it’s probably a wonder to the girl if she’s any different from the others he meets. Also, when the guy is overly nice, it feels like she might have to share him all the time, which doesn’t work for many women.
OLD MONEY VS. SELF-MADE MILLIONAIRES
Tessieroo: I’ll admit I had no idea what a “chaebol” family was until I started watching K-dramas. Chaebol families might be snobby, but they are also fun. There’s usually a long line of males, going back generations, who’ve left everything to the oldest son when they died, like in “Fated To Love You.“ The wall of pictures of Lee Gun‘s (Jang Hyuk) male ancestors was hilarious, especially since they were all essentially his face.
The self-made families are usually—but not always—a bit more grounded and normal. The problem for them is that they’re not really accepted into the upper class since they’re new money, and because they’re no longer part of the lower class, they wander back and forth between the two groups.
Rinchan: In “Fated to Love You,” I think Daniel (Choi Jin Hyuk) could be considered a self-made millionaire, and he was wonderfully supportive. The self-made millionaires’ attitude seems to square with how they made their money. If they achieved their wealth by corrupt means, then it seems they stay shady, like Jang Do Hyun (Lee Deok Hwa) in “May Queen.” Also, the biggest influence isn’t always wealth, but the family and their greed. “Jang Bo Ri Is Here” had a cocktail of affluent families. Bo Ri‘s (Oh Yeon Seo) biological family was keen on pure values and treated others as human beings. On the other hand, Jae Hee (Oh Chang Suk) seemed to have been pitted against his brother because of the household environment. His father’s relatives, like his aunt, favored his brother over him. His mother, who lacked scruples, and his wife, who was even worse, enabled him to act against his own brother, and money was a tool.
Goodange: I guess Cheon Song Yi (Jeon Ji Hyun) from “You Who Came From The Stars“ would be considered a self-made millionaire. In many ways, she doesn’t possess the good qualities of the self-made millionaires that you both mentioned. She was self-absorbed and vapid and to an extent, indifferent to the problems of the underprivileged. She was even initially ignorant of the feelings of the people close to her.
I can’t offer anything substantial about the drama since I’ve never seen it, but the difference between the long-established millionaires and the nouveau riche is somewhat of a focus in “Empire of Gold.” The central character, played by Go Soo, was a self-made man and engaged in years of power struggle with a chaebol heir. From what I gather, though, he became ruthless and cold after he ascended to the top, definitely nothing like Daniel.
RICH FOLKS ARE JUST LIKE THE REST OF US & THE WRITERS’ MESSAGE
Tessieroo: Usually, the writers send a positive message with a moral: Just because you’re rich, it doesn’t mean you’re better than everyone else nor can you do anything you want willy-nilly. Rich families should still have the same morals and integrity as the regular people.
This past year, though, there have been a few anomalies of wealthy characters doing whatever they want and getting away with their wickedness. Not to beat a dead horse, but look at CEO Se Young from “Temptation.“ She was terrified that people in her social group would find out what she had done, so, she flat-out lied to everyone, including her own family. She got away with it because the writer chose to end things that way. It sent a horrible message, and there have been a few of those this past year, which I find a bit odd.
Goodange: I agree that some writers want to send a message that the rich are just like us. Many dramas reinforce our belief that the rich is held to the same moral standards as the less privileged, and just like many of us, there are rich folks who are sympathetic and kindhearted, like Lee Gun’s grandmother in “Fated To Love You.”
Rinchan: Writers also like to tell the story of the underdog, who, despite the interference of the evil, wealthy folks, becomes successful because he or she moved other people’s hearts.
WHY ARE SO MANY RICH CHARACTERS VILLAINS?
Tessieroo: Umm … Because they want to keep their riches?
Rinchan: Many are raised entitled. Some are forever starved for power, and they must get what they want no matter the means. Due to their status, there really isn’t a reason to fear the law because they own the judges, prosecutors, and they have a scapegoat. They believe that with money, everything can be bought.
Tessieroo: That’s exactly what I meant. LOL. You’re right about that last bit: They truly believe they’re above retribution because they can buy their way out of anything. Getting rid of the poor, female protagonist is no problem—just buy the whole building she lives in.
Goodange: As I said, with money, there’s power, which is typically instrumental in creating problems for the destitute leads. Not all rich people are bad, but in the news, when you also hear/see some politically and financially influential figures demonstrate their complete detachment from the reality of the struggles of an everyday person, then, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch for writers to turn some affluent characters into the story’s villains. As you mentioned, Rinchan, they were raised entitled, and they want to expand their power to perpetuate the status quo.
Rinchan: The lengths they go to to get out of trouble is amazing, though. I don’t know how many dramas have shown the elderly chairman being pushed into the prosecutor’s office in a wheel chair so that he could avoid charges or get off with an affordable fine. Of the cowardly CEOs, Chairman Kang (Eom Hyo Seop) from “Big Man” takes the cake. He went all out and hired a makeup artist to make him look sick! LOL.
RICH BEHAVING BADLY
Tessieroo: For me, it’s going to be Se Young from “Temptation” again. This despicable woman believed she was so powerful, she could BUY another woman’s husband and wouldn’t suffer any consequences. She had no guilt and no shame. Nothing and no one else mattered except for her own desires, and no, she never redeemed herself. Instead she was struck with cancer, which was lazy on the writer’s part since it meant she got a pass for everything she said and did. Even her apology to the woman whose life she destroyed was phony; she only did that in hopes that the woman would stick around and be her personal nurse. She is the worst rich character I can think of.
Rinchan: I have a list that is too long to go over. LOL. In “Secret Affair,“ I often felt bad for Oh Hye Won (Kim Hee Ae), who had to clean up after the mess of her boss and his family. She had to hide his affairs and put a leash on his daughter Seo Young Woo (Kim Hye Eun), who was having her side fling. Meanwhile, Young Woo’s husband had set up living arrangements for his mistress. The job was obviously dangerous; aside from having mahjong tiles flung at her, she ended up in jail! However, that was mild compared to Kim Bong Goo (Yoon Je Moon) who tried to take over the world in “The King 2Hearts,“ or Chairman Yoon (Kim Byeong Ki) from “Triangle“ who ordered his son to kill his biological brother.
Goodange: I try to avoid makjang melodramas because I want to be spared from overly creative bad behavior by the rich. LOL. However, even in rom-coms, the privileged can’t help but create drama. In one scene in “Marriage, Not Dating,” Bong Hyang (Kim Hae Sook) hit a low when she schemed with her sister-in-law to leave Jang Mi (Han Groo) trapped and alone in her son’s clinic. So that Jang Mi couldn’t call her son, Ki Tae (Yeon Woo Jin), for help, mom made sure that she didn’t have her phone. Meanwhile, because she wanted to become pregnant with his child, successful doctor Se Ah (Han Sun Hwa) also acted desperately as she blackmailed Ki Tae about his fake engagement to Jang Mi.
I long would have ditched that show if it didn’t have the right amount of comedy to balance the actions of some of the rich characters. What was also great about it was that the female lead gave as good as she got, standing up to Bong Hyang and Se Ah.
Rinchan: Scene-maker Jang Mi could totally fit in with the rich crowd because of the wild antics she can pull off, like the scene where she trashed the death anniversary ceremony for Ki Tae’s grandfather; however, her actions were due to provocation, not because she was a brat or manipulative.
The rich parents can go overboard in managing their children’s lives, like Kim Tan‘s dad in “The Heirs.“ To make Eun Sang (Park Shin Hye) realize that she can’t be with his son, the dad sent her to a high school of rich kids, where she could experience hazing and bullying.
BADDIES WHO FIND REDEMPTION
Rinchan: More often than not, the redemption arc seems to go to the leading man. However, in those cases the leading man is a jerk but far from a criminal or evil. He tend to go from insensitive creature to loving and understanding.
Goodange: I’ve mentioned him already in our recent roundtables, but Kim Woo Bin‘s Choi Young Do moved me the most in “The Heirs” because of his growth. He was very committed to being the school bully, so much so that his victim transferred to a new school, but circumstances, his reunion with his mother, and in some small way, his interactions with Kim Tan (Lee Min Ho) and Cha Eun Sang naturally swayed him to be better. Apologizing to his former victim was a sign that he was a changed person.
Redemption arcs aren’t strictly limited to the leading man. Supporting character Bong Hyang, who worked hard to control her son and to protect her family’s upstanding image, was given ample screen time to develop in “Marriage, Not Dating,” and eventually, she gained the confidence to divorce her husband and accept Jang Mi as her son’s girlfriend.
Tessieroo: Having watched a huge number of revenge melodramas, I can tell you this is a major problem for viewers who love these kinds of stories. The “revenge” part is usually not well thought-out or is a complete failure, and redemption becomes the name of the game. Revenge drama lovers truly hate it when this happens, but redemption is a pretty standard thing.
Rinchan: The thing about revenge is that it is not truly a fulfilling thing as we would like to think. It is something that can consume and twist the person seeking retribution. It is great to have justice met; however, it is even greater for people to not solely learn the error of their ways, but actually correct their behavior. I recall Lee Jung Soo (Lee Hye Sook) from “Don’t Hesitate“; she very bad. Her was unapologetically evil, having no qualms about trying to take the liver of her son’s girlfriend, Jang Soo Hyun (Lee Tae Im), and dumping her like trash. When Soo Hyun’s achieved her revenge, Jung Soo lost everything. However, Soo Hyun was remorseful as well, especially since her actions hurt her ex-boyfriend who was innocent. Towards the end, Jung Soo acknowledged her crimes and apologized to Soo Hyun. Eventually, everyone was in a better place and Jung Soo even became an organ donor, granted this may not be a satisfying ending for all. The redemption arc shows us that humans grow to be better, and I feel it is better to save a soul than condemn it forever.
ARE ALL THE RICH REALLY EVIL?
Tessieroo: In “My Lovely Girl,“ everyone was convinced Hyun Wook‘s (Rain) father was not only having an affair, but that his infidelity produced an illegitimate son. It wasn’t until the end that we learned he had been protecting and taking care of this young woman and her son (who was not his) for many years. He did this because she was a rookie in his music company, so he was essentially looking out for all the young kids who worked and trained under him. It was a sweet revelation.
Rinchan: In “My Spring Day,“ Dong Ha (Kam Woo Sung) was part of a wealthy family and he lived upright. He was known to give money to charity and his mom offered to try and save Bom Yi‘s (Soo Young) family hospital in the end. Dong Ha had money, but he was down-to-earth. He seemed like a regular guy.
Goodange: I find that there are a lot of wealthy grandparents in dramas who are a refreshing screen presence. When the shows are already inundated with rich and selfish people, there are the much more influential and respected grandparents to school them. The most recent example would be Lee Gun’s grandmother in “Fated to Love You.” When Mi Young (Jang Nara) became pregnant with Lee Gun’s kid, his grandmother immediately treated her as a member of her family; she often took Mi Young’s side over Lee Gun’s. LOL.
WORST RICH CHARACTER
Tessieroo: I mentioned Se Young, but I’ll also throw in CEO Park (Lee Jeong Kil) from “The Greatest Marriage”. He’s a monster! He not only physically beats his grown son, he also verbally abuses both his wife and daughter. He’s a staunch believer of Confucian rules and a defender of the patriarchal society he lives in, meaning women belong at home, serving tea, bowing to their husbands, and keeping their mouths shut.
Rinchan: Ugh, I totally dislike him, too. He and that whole entire news station have male chauvinism problems.
Goodange: Bong Goo (“The King 2Hearts”) is among my least favorite rich baddies. He was not a stand-out villain. He was the typical bad guy that’s akin to Lex Luthor, but I hated him for making me cry when he had King Lee Jae Gang (Lee Sung Min) and his wife killed. He essentially killed off one of my favorite things about that show, which was the relationship between the king and his brother.
FAVORITE RICH CHARACTER
Tessieroo: Since Ange mentioned this character earlier, I do remember how much I liked Ji An (Kim Sun Ah) from “I Do, I Do.” She’s one of the very few rich, powerful female leads who didn’t look down on the poor, young leading man she ended up with. I loved her, but maybe I was just envious. LOL.
Rinchan: “Fated to Love You” has a cast full of wonderful wealthy, people, from Lee Gun to his awesome grandmother. I loved Ji An as well because of her shoe closet! Although she started off like Miranda from “The Devil Wears Prada,“ I admired her dedication to her craft and to the growth of her business.
Goodange: I hate to be redundant, but again, the wise and compassionate rich grandparents in any drama would make my list. It’s a long list, but here’s a few worth mentioning: Lee Gun’s grandmother, Cha Ji Hun‘s (Ji Sung) grandmother from “Protect The Boss,“ Grandpa Cha Poong (Byung Hee Bong) from “My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho,“ etc. You often get funny scenes with them, especially when they’re pwning their imbecilic, self-absorbed progenies.
Rinchan: Whether you love them or hate them, the rich add to the glamour and chaos in K-dramaland. Even though they don’t always play by the rules, they indulge our fantasies and keep us intrigued with the story and the development of the lead characters, who are sometimes their victims. They satisfy the vicarious nature of the viewers while effectively making us want to pull their hairs out.
Thanks for catching this week’s round table! Let us know your thoughts on rich people in K-dramas, and we hope to you’ll join us again next time.