I blame my neighbour Dougie. Yes, it’s definitely his fault. And yet, I thank him too.
Dougie and his wife Ali live at No. 2, and Frances and I live at No. 6. We’re close friends, and in our respective houses we spend the longueurs of our Covid-restricted daytimes eating too much fat and carbohydrate (scones and cake), washed down by too much stimulant hot beverage (coffee and tea). Then, in our evenings, we watch too much television prior to a few hours of disturbed and restless sleep.
Oh yes, it’s great to be elderly.
But now we have a new pastime – a passion that makes our evenings pass in a rush, and fills our daylight hours with purpose and excitement. All four of us have become obsessed with K-Drama.
Dougie and Ali have an excellent English/Chinese daughter-in-law, and she told them about K-Drama, and they told us. And now I’m telling you. But watch out: you only require a single dose and you’re an addict. The other thing you require is a subscription to Netflix.
K-Dramas are TV box sets made in South Korea. That’s all. There are dozens of them available on Netflix, mostly made in hour-long episodes, with anything from 12 to 200 episodes for each series. The story lines are entirely formulaic and could have been written at any time in the last 4,000 years: love triangles, personal and political conflicts, parted lovers, macho rivalries, hidden identities, over-the-top villains, hubristic heroes, slapstick minor characters, unlikely coincidences, supernatural interventions, and an alarmingly high body-count. There’s a lot of graphic tomato-ketchup violence, much eating and drinking, and almost no sex – in the final episode the heroic boy and ingenue girl come together with a chaste kiss and that’s about it. Sometimes, however, it’s a heroic girl and an ingenu boy; other times the heroism is matched feat-for-feat between boy and girl. Occasionally (in the tragic ones) almost everybody dies.
The vibe is poised delicately between classical epic and cheesy soap-opera, with the delicacy somewhat vitiated by generous dollops of commercial product placement.
The settings, too, are formulaic, and always evoke an environment for fierce competition. Dramas set in the present day take place in the cut-throat world of business, or in the cut-throat world of hospitals, or in the army, or in the hospitality industry, or in crime and policing, or any combination of the above, however unlikely. So Itaewon Class is about a rising restaurant chain hero fighting a market-leader restaurant chain villain. Strong Girl Bong-Soon is a superhero/murder mystery set in the computer games industry. Chocolate moves between high-tech catering kitchens and high-tech hospitals. Crash Landing on You combines the uneasy relationship between North and South Korea with a story line involving dirty dealings in the cosmetics industry. And so on.
And then there are historical series, featuring all the same colourful relationships, emotions and conflicts, but based loosely (very loosely) upon real-life characters and events in Korean history. Hwarang is about the period prior to the unification of the three kingdoms of Korea in the 6th century; the Empress Ki is about a former Korean tribute woman who became the Empress of China in the years before the downfall of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century.
You might well ask why Dougie and Ali and Frances and I are whiling away our dotage watching Korean TV drivel when we could be doing what normal people do – viewing home-grown British TV drivel like Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders and Holby City? You might also ask, as an aside, what place this paeon in praise of K-Drama has in a blog supposedly about antiques and other beautiful objects – but I hope to be able to establish a connection (maybe a tenuous one) in a few paragraphs’ time.
First reason for watching K-Drama: escapism. The plots are generally genial and undemanding, production values are exceptionally high, sets and costumes are astonishingly wonderful (especially in the period pieces), the incidental music is pleasant and tuneful, and you’re guaranteed perdition for the baddies and a happy ending for the goodies (except in the case of tragic stories when you get a good weep). And as for the actors – not only do they do their jobs competently, but the main roles are played by some of the most perfectly beautiful men and women you will ever see. Now, you can’t say that about Scandi Noir.
Second reason: it’s addictive. Once you’re a few episodes into your first series, you will discover that K-Drama possesses such a high bingeability quotient that you can’t get by without your daily fix – and that the fix increases in dosage over time. Yes, Frances and I confess to sometimes being three-episodes-a-day people. And then we discuss last night’s plot developments over breakfast with each other and by text with our neighbours. I search Wikipedia for facts about Korean culture and history; Frances (a retired university librarian) puzzles over the language and script and looks at Youtube videos of K-Drama stars appearing in chat shows; Ali (a well-known textile artist and teacher) studies the costumes and listens to soundtrack music; Dougie (a former deputy headteacher) does all of the above; all four of us have teenage crushes on the leading actors, regardless of gender. None of us can stop. K-Drama has taken over our lives.
You should try it: the cheapest and most wholesome narcotic available to make bearable the tedium of our coronavirus times. And it’s legal (but should it be?).
My exhaustive watching of K-Drama and googling about Korea means, of course, that I now know everything worth knowing about that region, both North and South, both in the present and in the past. Moving only between my comfy sitting-room chair and my rather less comfy desk chair, I have established myself as an expert, at least to my own satisfaction. For additional authenticity, I watch on a Korean Samsung television, and I browse on a Korean Samsung smartphone.
Thus I demonstrate that there is no need to go to the trouble of visiting a foreign land or learning its language in order to become an authority. Which is probably just as well, because in these times of pandemic, there isn’t much travelling being done by anyone, and as a vulnerable old geezer in my seventies my prospects of undertaking future international travel are diminishing daily. For example, under today’s regional Covid restrictions for my part of Scotland, it’s illegal even for me to travel the 7 miles from home to the nearby town of Musselburgh. What chance have I of ever reaching Korea?
In addition to all of its other marvels, K-Drama provides a bonus. For a collector like me, television viewing gets even better when it includes reference to my favourite pastime of collecting. This is not to say that I spend my daytimes looking at programmes about antiques: in fact I generally find such shows deeply unappealing and rarely watch them. Series such as Antiques Road Trip or Bargain Hunt have virtually no basis in reality. If professional antique dealers actually behaved as they do on these programmes (both those who buy and those who sell), they all would go out of business rapidly. Moreover, the objects bought and sold are invariably neither beautiful or interesting, and nor are the dealers who feature in the shows.
By contrast, K-Drama delivers superbly well by providing not only a sumptuous visual feast replete with sublimely beautiful faces, sets, backdrops and costumes, but also a high profile for Korean ceramics. In countless scenes both in contemporary and period dramas, the characters interact in fabulous interior and exterior spaces featuring carefully curated displays of pots, vases, jars and bowls. What a treat! And, better yet, potters find their way into story lines.
Mr Sunshine is a K-Drama series in 24 episodes set in the early 20th century when foreign powers – America, Britain, Japan, China, France, Russia – are tussling for power and influence in Korea in the final years of the corrupt and dying Joseon empire. One of the main characters is an old potter, maker of magnificent and highly-prized moon jars and vases, who leads a secret double life as captain and main strategist of the underground rebel army. Chocolate (12 episodes) is set in the present day, moving between a hospital operating theatre and a hospice kitchen, and between urban Korea and rural Greece. The brother of the hero is a conflicted neurosurgeon who would much rather be a potter, and who regularly sneaks away from the operating table to make pots and sit contemplatively in front of his kiln. You don’t get plotlines like these in Casualty.
Ceramics are prominent in K-Drama because they have been an important part of Korean history and culture for at least 2,000 years. Originally much influenced by the Chinese, Korean potters developed and refined their wares, and during the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392) the technical perfection and beauty of celadon-glazed Korean pots was unrivalled: “even the Chinese considered Korean celadon the best under heaven and more valuable than gold” . Later, during the Joseon Dynasty, (1392–1910) royal pottery workshops produced the very finest white porcelain, while artisan potters made popular painted and inlaid buncheong stonewares. In 1592 Japan invaded Korea and many Korean potters were captured and taken back to Japan where they permanently transformed both the aesthetics and techniques of the Japanese ceramics industry.
More recently, Korean celadon, porcelain and buncheong pottery has been hugely influential on the development of the studio pottery movement throughout the world. If you click here, you can see a magnificent Korean moon jar which Bernard Leach added to his personal collection on a visit to Korea in 1935. He gave it to his friend Lucie Rie in 1943, and she kept it in her studio until her death. It’s now in the British Museum.
After this big build-up, you might expect me at this point to provide images and descriptions of some spectacular Korean pots in my collection. Sorry, I can’t. Here’s another K-confession: I’m rather ashamed to say that I don’t own any pots from Korea. They just don’t turn up very often, and when they do, I can’t afford to buy them. Over three or four centuries, millions of pots have been imported to the UK from China and from Japan, and you see the residue of them all the time in charity shops and auction sales. But not many came here from Korea. This might be because the Koreans kept themselves to themselves; or perhaps because Korea was a perpetually weak nation used as a pawn in conflicts between great powers; or perhaps because Koreans weren’t interested in making pottery designed to appeal to a western aesthetic; or perhaps even because the best pieces of Korean pottery were buried in the tombs of their owners and mostly haven’t yet been excavated. I don’t know the true reason. But I can’t recall ever having identified a distinctively Korean pot in all my years of searching for Random Treasure.
You can, however, see collections of Korean pots in most good western museums. You find them in a showcase in the remotest corner of the Far Eastern Ceramics Gallery. But by the time you arrive you have already exhausted yourself looking at the Chinese and Japanese displays, and you tend to pass briskly by the Korean pottery on your way to the café. Next time, go to the Korean pots first. You won’t be disappointed.
Although I can’t show you any Korean pots of my own, I’ve sorted out a selection from my collection which show some Korean characteristics, albeit for the most part mediated by the British studio pottery tradition.
- A large (34 cms diameter) celadon-glazed bowl made by Young Jae-Lee, who was born in 1951 in Seoul, and moved to Germany to study in 1972. Since 1987 she has been director of the Keramische Werkstatt Margaretenhöhe in Essen, which was founded on Bauhaus principles in 1925. She and her team hand-make simple, straightforward porcelain and stoneware vessels in the Korean tradition. Young Jae-Lee has pieces in museums and galleries all over the world, and in recent years has become well-known for her large installations of multiple pots. My bowl was bought for me as a surprise present by Frances from a gallery many years ago – long before I started getting interested in this type of pottery. It remains one of my favourite objects.
- A small stoneware moon jar – a mystery object because I can’t make out the potter’s seal mark and the style isn’t immediately recognisable. However, it’s a well-made piece from an accomplished potter, probably from around the middle of the 20th century.
- Another moon jar, this time in porcelain with splotchy underglaze marks in cobalt and iron. It has a seal mark which might be KS, but is at present unidentified.
- A globular jar with lugs on the shoulders, in heavy stoneware covered with a dull glaze which is so dark brown as to be almost black. This piece is by Sylvia Hardaker, who trained in the 1960s with Bernard Leach at St Ives and later opened her own pottery at Kenilworth, Warwickshire.
- A shallow celadon-glazed earthenware dish on a raised foot, made in the 1950s by the eccentric Scottish potter Alastair Macduff. In his extremely long and detailed unpublished autobiography, Macduff says that his inspiration as a self-taught potter came mainly from China in the Song Dynasty, but I fancy I can see a strong Korean celadon influence in this particular piece.
- A small porcelain moon jar by Adam Buick, who is based in Llanferan in West Wales, and who “has imposed on himself the strict discipline of the simplest and purest of geometric forms … white porcelain moon jars as chaste in their beauty as the old Korean dal-hang-a-ri vessels that first inspired him”. Buick makes these beautiful objects in a very wide range of glazes and in several sizes, from very small (like this one which belongs to Frances) to very large. It would be very pleasant and very easy (funds permitting) to get into the habit of collecting more and more and more of them.
- A stoneware moon jar by Janet Adam, whose Edinburgh pottery is quite close to my home. Janet has run the pottery for many years and this simple globular vase with its gorgeously thick flambé glaze is, to my eye, an example of her best work. While the glaze is distinctly Chinese, the shape of the pot is altogether Korean.
- A huge 45 cms tall stoneware jar by the celebrated potter William Plumptre. He was trained in Japan by Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), who was the second potter (after Bernard Leach’s colleague Shoji Hamada) to be designated as a Japanese Living National Treasure. Shimaoka cited two main influences in his work: the Japanese rope-marking technique developed in the prehistoric Jomon period, and the Zogan process of slip inlay from Korea. While my big pot only displays the former of these techniques, it’s clear that there is a strong Korean influence on all of Plumptre’s pots.
- A small guinomi or sake cup by Phil Rogers, whose pottery is in North Wales and who is generally recognised as one of the finest potters working in the UK today. Phil has lived and worked in Korea, and this cup is an example of his interpretation of the buncheong tradition of dark clay, white hakeme slip decoration and clear glaze. He has written an essay about the Korean influence on his work which you can find here.
- A small ovoid cup by Bernard Leach. This badly-damaged piece is a recent addition to my collection, and displays, I think, some of the simple and elegant characteristics of Korean pottery that Leach observed in his collecting visits to Korea from around 1920 in company with his friend Soetsu Yanagi. In his introduction to Leach’s A Potter’s Book, Yanagi relates how Leach’s visit to Korea “nourished his sense of that imaginative beauty which is so delicately manifested in the pottery of that solitary country”
This short quotation brings me neatly back to K-Drama, because, above all else, I think it is the delicate beauty of K-Drama which is currently keeping Dougie and Ali and Frances and me so obsessively attached to series after series. Today, as every day for a few months past, we plan to get a substantial fix of our current epic, Mr Sunshine. The best thing about this particular series is that every so often, usually at the end of an episode, viewers are treated to a stunningly-designed set-piece tableau which is so intensely beautiful as to be almost literally breathtaking.
Today’s a special day. In order to intensify the impact of our K-Drama hit, Frances and I have ordered a new ultra-high-definition TV. It’s made in Korea, and it arrives this afternoon. If this K-confession turns out to be the last-ever entry in the Random Treasure blog, you’ll know the reason why.
 Bernard Leach, A Potter’s Book, Faber and Faber, London 1940, p.xix