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K-Drama’s sexlessness is the most intimate thing on TV

This year in contrast to the growing nudity of American and British hit shows, I got hooked on restraint, sexlessness... tension.

19 Dec 2022

Having unsuccessfully tried to date with life repeatedly getting in the way, Mo Yeon holds out a bottle of wine to him to share with her. He keeps his eyes on hers, it confuses Me Yeon. What could he possibly want? He kisses her. Finally. I’m five episodes deep into Descendants of the Sun, a Korean drama that follows a special forces officer and a doctor who fall in love while providing aid in their fictitious world called Urk. In the opening episode, our leads have already proven that they are brave, honourable, and attractive, putting their lives on the line to protect citizens who are victims of the destruction caused by the political unrest. While it is clear that a romance is blossoming between our leads, Si Jin and Mo Yeon, from as early as the pilot it is on this fifth episode in the fifth hour that the sexual tension between them gives way. It will not be until episode eight that they finally kiss again. 

When he won his Oscar for Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho gave a powerful message to English-speaking audiences: “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” It was a watershed moment for Hallyuwood, the so-called Korean wave of native language cinema. The shift towards non-English artwork that he was persuading the film community to embrace had already taken place in the music scene with K-Pop exploding globally. (in 2019, BTS alone contributed £3.5 billion to South Korea’s GDP).  But beyond its economic impact, the result of this is a reconfiguration of what popular culture looks and feels like, and the depiction of love, romance and sex is one key departure, bucking the sex-sells dogma of the West.

More recently Decision to Leave was lauded for its erotic yet sexless plot, while Netflix’s Love Island-style reality show Single’s Inferno had contestants that spent less time having sex under the covers and more time building up to small milestones like kissing each other on the cheek and subsequently blushing. K-Drama is the term used to refer to any television series of any genre that is made in the Korean language in South Korea. In 2021, Regina Kim wrote for ELLE magazine that K-dramas consists of “more PG-friendly fare than western TV shows… rendering K-dramas more palatable for a wider range of age groups and countries, especially those that are more socially conservative.” Yet, what K-dramas lack in graphic sexual content they make up for in intimacy and romantic expression – one of the driving forces behind its dedicated viewership in the UK.

As time has moved on and censorship laws have relaxed it is easier than ever for filmmakers and TV makers in North America and Western Europe to display naked bodies and have graphic depictions of sex on our screens. Arguably, we presently experience two kinds of this content: the sexy, glamorous kind and the realistic, messy kind. For the former think Insecure (2016) and Elite (2018), for the latter it’s something more like Industry (2020) or Fleabag (2016). They offer an almost fantastical sexual experience with the most sculpted bodies and relatable experiences that make us feel not-so chaotic, respectively. The emphasis on creating the perfect sexual performance is not limited to the actors, other roles like Intimacy Coordinators or Intimacy Choreographers have become more common on set, with the objective of coaching the actors to perform the most effective intimate scenes where nudity is concerned. In such productions, the intimacy is dependent on the act of sex itself and not necessarily the sustained storytelling across the episodes of the television show.

Conversely, South Korea has censorship laws around nudity (and smoking and tattoos) being shown on television which means directors have to find other ways to build intimacy. Min Joo Lee writes that the Korea Communication Standards Commission censors “bed scenes” as they believe not doing so would “destroy Korean moral sensibility and ethics”. She explains that the 2017 regulation states that shows cannot depict “motions and sounds associated with sex acts” nor can they use “sex as a marketable commodity or sensationalizing sexual intercourse”. As a signal for eroticism, romance narratives focus on the minutiae of characters’ interactions, for example in Dokkaebi, the wedding night intimacy consists of a bride’s face being caressed as she falls asleep fully clothed.

“This is a reconfiguration of what popular culture looks and feels like, and the depiction of love, romance and sex is one key departure, bucking the sex-sells dogma of the West”

It’s Okay Not To Be Okay was South Korea’s most-watched Netflix drama of 2020 and if you ask the average fan what it’s about they will say “mental health”. The story follows Moon Gang-tae, who works in a psychiatric hospital and cares for his autistic older brother, and Ko Moon-young a famous children’s book writer who is rumoured to have a personality disorder. I was hooked on the show as it focuses on their grief and their growth which gives the love story so much more depth.

Esther, 29 from London, says that K-dramas are appropriate for those who are trying to take a break from the darkness of real life. She said: “Shows in the West are becoming more and more dystopian, graphic –which I actually love as well. At the same time, it’s good to have something that’s escapist.” While the drama itself in these shows can be difficult topics like mental illness, K-dramas are offering a space where characters work together to improve their overall quality of life. This optimistic view of love creates room for joy. This could be seen as a direct contrast to some of the pessimistic dramas we have seen about relationships in recent years in the West like Malcolm and Marie, Marriage Story, or Don’t Worry Darling to name a few. It’s more likely Hollywood’s films aimed at adults will highlight the impossibility of or the battle to love than the healing process of learning to love.

Popular Netflix drama Love in the Moonlight is a period comedy-drama which is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. It features a Viola-esque character, Hong Ra-on who is a woman disguised as a “eunuch” who eventually falls in love with the crown prince, Yeong Lee. This show is a return to our classic understanding of romance, and is easy to consume because of the chivalrous culture with which we have seasoned the past. Where Bridgerton (2020) goes down the route of injecting raunchy scenes into the English period aesthetic, Love in the Moonlight retains its innocent stance with a slow-burning romance between two characters, our romantic leads do not share a kiss until the end of episode seven, which is over six hours of television. Love in the Moonlight’s nature forces us to truly indulge in the realities of the relationship, not just the way it looks (although the period style is very present in this show). The eunuch and prince’s relationship between the lead characters carve out space for the potential of queer love.

Tania, a 43-year-old fan from London, agrees with this. The insignificance of gender expression in their relationship and indeed with romantic love not being central to their connection we witness a more authentic fairytale love. Tania adds: “He loved her even before [her gender was confirmed]. He wasn’t looking for your average court lady, he was just looking for companionship.”

With laws that have relaxed over time, in the West, this expansion of raunchy rights might be moving us away from the romance blockbusters we grew up with in the 90s. Korean creators are constrained but the growing fanbase shows that there is an appetite for delayed gratification.