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Married couple Arrie Adi Nugraha (left) and Arien Karina watch the ending of the Korean drama The World of the Married. K-dramas were already popular in Indonesia, but lockdowns have seen even more people become addicted to them. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

From The World of the Married to Crash Landing on You, why Indonesians have fallen for Korean dramas – sometimes too much

  • Indonesians have increasingly turned to already popular K-dramas for relief from coronavirus-enforced isolation, as well as from the country’s own shows
  • A storyline about infidelity in one series hit too close to home for some in the conservative Muslim-majority nation

In the kitchen of her flat in a working-class Jakarta neighbourhood, Rochimawati chops garlic, onions and other vegetables. She is preparing the iftar evening meal for her family to break their fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

As she cooks, Rochimawati – who like many Indonesians has only one name and is usually just called Ochi – keeps an eye on the Korean drama she is watching on her mobile phone. It’s a habit she has only recently adopted.

The online media editor, 48, has spent two months isolated in her apartment since the local government in Jakarta enacted new rules on social distancing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. She used to watch Korean dramas for about three hours a day, she says. Stuck at home, she is now watching them for as many as five or six hours daily.

Rochimawati re-watches an episode of the Korean drama The World of the Married while she cooks at her home in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo: Agoes Rudianto
With the boredom of enforced isolation, and concerns about contracting Covid-19, Indonesians have increasingly turned to Korean television dramas for relief from the tedium and tensions of everyday life. The combination of good-looking actors and cleverly devised narratives is a magnet for locals bored with the standard, worn-thin fare of Indonesian soap operas.

World-class cinematography and cliffhanger plot lines keep the dramas fresh and fascinating for Indonesian viewers, as they do for millions of people around the world, and viewers become passionately involved in the stories’ twists and turns.

Ochi admits she was addicted to Crash Landing on You and watched all 16 episodes, each lasting one hour, in four days. The drama, which streamed on Netflix, tells the story of a South Korean heiress who accidentally crashes her paraglider over the border into North Korea and falls in love with her captor. Ochi’s binge-watching had painful consequences, however.

“Two weeks ago, my neck hurt, and I went to the hospital and got painkillers,” she says. “The doctor said it was due to the fact I was watching too much television on a mobile phone in a sideways, sleeping position.”

A still from Korean drama Crash Landing on You.

Fashion entrepreneur Arrie Adi Nugraha, 35, also turned to streaming K-dramas when his outdoor activities came to an abrupt halt more than six weeks ago.

“At first, I only watched US or European movies on Netflix,” he says. “Seeing my wife watch Korean dramas, such as The World of the Married, I finally became interested because it turned out to be a fun story. First I was curious; now I am addicted to it.”

The World of the Married , about infidelity and the ramifications of an illicit love affair, has become a viral phenomenon and much-talked-about show in Indonesia, a conservative Muslim-majority nation.

A still from The World of the Married.

Clinical psychologist Rena Latifa, 37, who is also a lecturer at Indonesia’s Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University, says the drama explores interesting questions about gender equality in terms of finances, as one of the story’s lead characters is a woman who has a more successful career than her husband. In the real world, she explains, it is common to see marital problems in a relationship when a woman is more financially secure than her partner.

“The storyline is very close to real-life problems. People are tired of being at home and they need entertainment, which led to this drama being discussed on social media and the story going viral,” she says.

The drama also portrays conflicts often seen in long-term relationships of a decade or more. At that stage of a union, Latifa says, couples are mostly stable and have adjusted to one another’s character, but that can also lead to boredom.

“This story relates to daily life. The ups and downs of marriage are so well portrayed in this drama,” she says.
Dr Rena Latifa talks during a Zoom live conference entitled “Korean drama: The World of the Married in psychological review”. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

The depiction of a partner having an extramarital affair in The World of the Married is a reflection of the difficulties besetting marriages in many nations, and Indonesia is no different, Latifa says.

“In Indonesia, the number of divorces resulting from the involvement of a third person keep rising,” she says, with the problem existing across all levels of society.

South Korean actress Han So-hee, who plays the mistress in The World of the Married, has been personally targeted by many Indonesians, among others around the world, who have difficulty differentiating between actors and the characters they portray.

A photo of Han that she recently posted on her Instagram account drew more than 86,000 comments, many of them from angry Indonesians. User @faniaorora commented “Don’t be a bad person, remember that karma is real”, while @batuaji.npo wrote “Damn you pelakor” in capitals, using a local slang word for a woman who steals another’s husband or boyfriend.

Some users felt the need to apologise on behalf of Indonesian internet users on actress Han So-hee’s post. Photo: Instagram

Some Indonesian Instagram users have reminded others that The World of the Married is fiction, and not a real story. User @tumblrmoodly commented: “It’s only a drama, take it easy.”

Others were quick to leap into the discussion in support of the actress. For example, @bunga_nada_puspita wrote in English to say that she apologised on behalf of Indonesians for inappropriate comments, pointing out that Han’s great acting had made people believe in the character she plays.

She asked the actress to ignore the small number of users who had made impolite comments, adding that a number of natural disasters that had occurred in Indonesia since January, and the ongoing coronavirus crisis, had stressed out many people. Those criticising Han were not indicative of most Indonesians, she wrote. “We are polite, respectful, highly educated and moral citizens.”

I had never watched Korean dramas before … Then a friend recommended I watch Korean dramas through several chat groups on Telegram for free … Eventually, I was ‘poisoned’
Housewife Amin Nastria

The flood of both negative and positive comments about Korean dramas on social media is a way for “damaged” people to identify with one another, Rena Latifa says, while others instinctively try to protect the targets – the actors. “In psychology terms it is called ‘collective identity theory’,” she says.

Many of the Indonesians weighing into the arguments, specifically in the case of The World of the Married, might have done so because their partner was having an affair, she adds.

“So they share their sense of group identity” and digitally lash out at a character they see as the reason for their frustration – “Han So-hee becomes the target, though she is only acting as a mistress,” she says.

In Indonesia, Korean drama-lovers use platforms that provide video-on-demand services to watch movies and television series. Several service providers, including Netflix, iFlix and Viu, offer streaming for a regular fee. Still, some viewers try to tune into the shows for free, or for the cost of downloading the programmes.

Housewife Amin Nastria, 29, who has a small business selling local products, says she watches Korean dramas via Telegram, a mobile messaging application that can be used to share videos.

Amin Nastria accesses a Telegram chat group that posts Korean drama video files to download. Photo: Agoes Rudianto

The widespread social restrictions have had a negative impact on Nastria’s business, she says. Many of the stores where she buys fabric for making clothes are now closed, and like many others in Jakarta, she can’t leave her house much. She spends some of this extra leisure time watching Korean dramas, which she finds addictive.

“I can only produce a very limited number of products, so I have more free time and I can watch Korean dramas,” she says, adding that she downloads the videos onto her mobile, which has pushed up her monthly phone bill.

“Unfortunately, my mobile phone credit expenses have increased significantly, from 200,000 rupiah [US$13.5] to 400,000 rupiah,” she explains.

“I had never watched Korean dramas before,” she adds. “I had also not subscribed to any streaming services. Then a friend recommended I watch Korean dramas through several chat groups on Telegram for free, but we had to download the videos. Eventually, I was ‘poisoned’ watching Korean dramas.”