The shadow of death seems to loom large on Korean soap operas these days, with multiple homicides on desert-fringed beaches, hinted-at suicides and an emerging "death code" providing the necessary tonic for a Korean public starved of jobs and feeling the economic pinch.
SBS's recently aired "Sorry, I love you," which achieved record ratings of almost 30 percent, ended with two tragic deaths. After the much-anticipated passing away of the male main character Moo-hyuck (actor So Ji-sub) from a bullet to the head, heroine Eun-chae (Lim Soo-jung) committed suicide in classic Romeo and Juliet tradition. Although the death of Moo-hyuck was predicted early on, Eun-chae's suicide came as a shock to the majority of viewers.
SBS's rival soap 'Love Story In Harvard" will also feature a tragic death scene to keep viewers hooked. Protagonist Soo-in, played by Kim Tae-hee, will lose her life while volunteering as a medical worker in Mexico. The production team recently disclosed that the disease afflicting her character is Lymphomatoid Granulomatosis, which typically destroys the lungs and central nervous system.
Traditionally, trendy Korean soaps were full of suds and happy endings, but these days, tragedy has established itself as the new cliché of Korean drama. In "Stairs of Heaven," which was aired in the beginning of the year, main character Tae-wha (Shin Hyun-joon) killed himself to donate his eyes to Jung-seo (Choi Ji-woo), who was suffering from eye cancer. In 'What Happened in Bali," Jae-min (Zo In-sung) takes his own life in the sub-tropical Indonesian island after committing a double homicide by shooting Soo-jung (Ha Ji-won) and her lover In-wook (So Ji-sub).
Since the days of Greek tragedy, scholars and playwrights have cottoned on to the fact that the audience feels a sense of cathartic pleasure in seeing their favorite characters die, and this so-called "death code" now seems to have taken a stranglehold on generic Korean soaps.
Some production companies are even tipping off the audience ahead of time of characters' impending deaths. Experts say that young viewers feeling the brunt of the economic recession, which is fast creating a legacy of social instability, have a psychological need to identify with the tragic stories.
Broadcasters have clearly realized that sharpened drama and a dose of death is boosting ratings as the audience develops a morbid fascination with the subject. And more is sure to follow. "What could be a better topic than life and death?" asked script writer Kim Jung-soo, who is working on a new soap opera for MBC.