Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Kimchi slaps, insane cruelty, and bizarre plot twists----there is merit in understanding the makjang drama, and its special brand of crazy.
We are no strangers to the absurd. The great Mexican telenovela wave of the late '90s filled Philippine television with rich hacienderos, winsome barrio lasses, fake pregnancies, lost diaries, and evil twins----tropes that haunt our local shows to this day. Korean television is no different, and in k-dramaland, this sort of outlandish show is called the "makjang."
One would think that modern audiences would have outgrown this kind of formula, or be happy with the usual melodrama, but Penthouse: War in Life (2020)----the latest addition to the genre, and a bona fide ratings monster----has easily proven that the makjang, like a notorious villain, will never die.
The Naver dictionary defines makjang as a drama form that is “difficult to understand and accept based on common sense and moral standards, usually made up of forced settings, tangled relationships, affairs, and birth secrets.” You know it when you see it: the evil rich, and the saintly poor, amnesia, blackmail, faux-cest (undertones of incest), power struggles, revenge plots, switched or mistaken identities, and death. Lots and lots of death. Some more dead than others.
"Makjang" is Korean slang that is often said to be the non-standard form of "kkeutjang," a word that means “an end." Kkeutjang is essentially a state where one can go no farther, and makjang is the drama form that thrives on its linings. It exists in a sort of event horizon for stories that push the limits of common sense and propriety. It is, as a paper put it, "the last blind end of a coal mine." In short, makjang (also called the "MakDeu," or "makjang drama") is the art of the extreme.
The Makjang Mindset
It is possible to enjoy the ridiculousness of makjang, but only if you come from a mindset that is more curious rather than judgmental, and corrective. Wondering how fictional people can “be so evil” will only raise your blood pressure, and stress you out needlessly. To truly enjoy makjang, you must make morbid curiosity your best friend. Gleefully asking “How much more insane can this drama get?” or “How long will it take before all these horrible rich people start suffering?" works so much better.
Makjang is notorious for polarizing audiences, invoking disgust on one end, and rabid fascination on the other. There really is no in-between. Rom-coms, crime procedurals, and most dramas largely dwell in the “real” world and operate under the normal rules of morality, making them enjoyable and rather pleasant. But makjang is the peak of dramatized fiction, and as such, has no time for preaching or moralizing. It doesn’t ask you to suspend your disbelief; it demands you simply do. After all, you are watching a grandma slapping her son-in-law with kimchi.
Surely, you can’t take this seriously:
The Making of a Makjang
Having seen my fair share of absurd k-dramas over the years, I’ve developed a couple of working theories on how to select and gauge a makjang drama.
The first is a personal and unofficial Makjang Theory of Inverse Insanity™: that the craziness is always inversely proportional to the number of rational people in the cast. Simply put, the fewer the characters with a working moral compass, the crazier the show will be. But before you get your hopes up, know that sanity or any semblance of mental health are incredibly scarce in makjangland, so it's best not to get your hopes up. Consider yourself lucky if a show has more than one sane character who lives long enough to see justice served in the end.
This is complemented by my second theory, the "Axiom of Greyscale." There is, and will never be, a silly black-or-white division in a good makjang. "Good" characters will have massive flaws, and villains will have incredible charm. Makjang players are never static: they either flourish or fall on a scale that positions them based on the strength or lack of their conscience, and how they respond to the crucible scenarios they can't weasel out of. Who was once a righteous and loving parent may do the unthinkable for their child midway through the series. A horrible character you've hated for most of the show may flip and become the hero instead. Basically, the more flexible and compromising the characters are on this amoral greyscale, the more outlandish----and the more entertaining---- a makjang drama will be.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Makjang World
Love it or hate it, the makjang is one of the k-drama’s most reliable workhorses, reeling in millions of viewers weekly and raking up impressive ratings at every finale. It is, hands down, is one of the best forms of escapism on TV. It’s both a stressor, and a stress reliever. After all, you can laugh at the ridiculous characters, cuss them out, and admire their gutsiness ALL at the same time. And because real life isn't fair, this genre offers a source of mental catharsis: we can internally scream with the victims, or mentally slap/argue with/run over the show's loathsome characters. These sorts of raw impulses would never be condoned in civil society, but they are celebrated in all their glorious honesty in the world of makjang.
Makjang is also an odd source of comfort, knowing that no matter how horrible or unhinged you think your family or your friends are, someone somewhere in k-dramaland will always be crazier. And that someone will soon be revealed as the amnesiac twin sister who was switched at birth, and now is about to be married to her own cousin who nearly murdered her. Wait for it.
Ready to give makjang a try? In Part 2, we help you get started on the insanity by recommending some classic makjangs for the weekend.