Updated: Aug 4
Human beings are obsessed with time. We’ve divided our world into arguable time zones and our days into productive time and rest time. We structure our language with when things occur in the past, the present, and the future. We put clocks and other time-telling devices all around us and insist that we eat, sleep, and meet people according to schedule. We judge people when they’re late and reward them when they’re early. We’ve basically made ourselves slaves to a human construct that doesn’t concern any other creature on earth.
It’s no wonder then that we find so many time-related themes in k-dramaland where time can be bought, sold, questioned, manipulated, and ultimately bent to human will.
Right off the bat, let me be clear in saying I’m not about to argue with the scientists and their theories on whether or not time travel is possible. I will simply accept whatever flawed scientific or magical time traveling juju the k-drama writers throw at me. What I want to discuss is what time travel, alternate timelines, and nostalgia as plot devices mean for the k-drama characters and what it does for those of us who live vicariously through them.
You might have heard about an interesting cultural practice in Korea during a dol or a baby’s first birthday. In a fortune telling ritual called the doljabi parents and adults will line up several items such as books, piggy banks, paint brushes, stethoscopes and other symbolic items in front of the child. The first item the child will pick will determine his future. If he picks up a book, he’ll be an intelligent scholar; if it’s a piggy bank, he’s destined for wealth, etc. That’s a lot of pressure to put on the hands of a baby.
But it’s hardly surprising if you know a bit about Korean culture which places a lot of emphasis on one’s fate and destiny. This insightful entry from the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Culture reveals a lot about how Koreans grappled with destiny and their role in it even from the earliest times as revealed in Korean “destiny tales”:
“Destiny tales include many supernatural narrative elements including prophecies, eccentric beings, Taoist hermits, shape-shifting and journeys to other worlds, thereby sharing similarities with prophecy tales, tales of eccentrics, or hermit tales, but while prophecy tales focus on whether the prophecies come true, destiny tales examine the human responses to the prophecies of destiny. The significance of destiny tales also lies in the way they reflect the shifting views on human fate: Fatalist perspectives were basis of the first type of destiny tales… while resistance to fate and pioneering of one’s own destiny, are associated with the second type. Socio-culturally, destiny tales reveal the traditional Korean views on longevity, wealth, nobility, productivity and happiness.”
This desire to resist one’s fate can be found in many time-traveling dramas as well. While their circumstances are dressed in many different incidents and experiences, k-drama time-traveling characters will ultimately find themselves in conflict between what should be vs. what they want things to be. In their quest to change some tragic event in the past or prevent it from happening in the future, they will always find themselves seemingly powerless against fate. As characters in k-dramas manipulate time by traveling in and out of the past and the future, audiences are allowed to participate in the experience of defying the ravages of time and protesting against the inevitability of fate.
In Live up to Your Name (2017) Hoe Im (Kim Nam-gil) is a selfish money-loving acupuncturist with extraordinary healing skills who is able to travel back and forth to present-day Seoul. As he learns to enjoy his new life in Seoul and falls in love with a modern doctor, he is in danger of changing not just his personal history but of the fate of Korean traditional medicine.
In Tomorrow with You (2017), So Joon (Lee Je-hoon) can travel to the future but only until the date of his death. Crossing paths with Song Ma-rin (Shin Min-a) both in the present and the future makes him desperate to “cheat” his death to be with her. While So Joon does everything in his power to keep Ma-rin in his life, it’s quite the opposite for Na Mi-rae (Yoon Eun-hye) in Marry Him If You Dare (2013) whose future self keeps trying to stop her from marrying Kim Shin (Lee Dong-gun). Interestingly, the alternate title to the drama is Mirea’s Choice or Future’s Choice.
It’s less about love and more about solving mysteries in the suspense dramas 365 Repeat the Year (2020) starring Lee Joon-hyuk (Designated Survivor: 60 Days) and Nam Ji-hyun (Suspicious Partner) who return to the past along with a group of people in order to prevent tragic personal events and find themselves returning to the present where they mysteriously die one by one; and Signal (2016) where detective in the past Lee Jae-han (Cho Jin-woong) communicates with present-day profiler Park Hae-yong (Lee Je-hoon) and they help each other solve crimes.
In all of these k-dramas and in several others, characters find themselves changing a past event only to realize that doing so has changed the future forever. Ultimately though, it becomes less about the act of time traveling itself and more about learning to accept one’s fate or believing that human will is stronger than destiny.
Other time-travel dramas: Nine: Nine Times Time Travel (2013), Somehow Eighteen (2017), Blue Birthday (2021)
Many studies show that those who read fiction are more likely to practice empathy in real life. People all over the world have credited good books with changing their lives. But what do literary characters do when they need to have a conversion? They can't just be shown reading a book in an episode. Lucky for them though, they’re not limited by the laws of time and space and they can actually explore alternate timelines.
In another time-bending plot device, k-drama characters suddenly find themselves in an alternate timeline, giving them a chance to live their might-have-beens. The alternate life that they are allowed to get a glimpse of in a very real and concrete way often leads them into a conversion. They suddenly find that the life they had taken for granted was in fact beautiful or they find that the life where they spent time chasing useless pursuits was empty. The life-changing experience where they become both protagonists and spectators of their lives helps them live their present life more deeply—so long as they can go back to it.
In Welcome 2 Life (2019) hot-shot, unscrupulous lawyer Lee Jae-sang (Rain, Ghost Doctor) gets into an accident and wakes up to a life where he is a prosecutor and married to his ex-girlfriend. He struggles with being on the other side of the law and having a wife and child, but soon enough learns to embrace his new life.
In Go Back Couple (2017), middle-aged couple Ma Jin-joo (Jang Na-ra, Sell Your Haunted House) and Choi Ban-do (Son Ho-jun, Was It Love) find themselves stuck in a loveless marriage. They get a chance to relive their college days for a do-over. But even when they try to avoid each other and the future that they will inevitably have, they find it’s not that simple.
Alternate Timeline k-dramas: Familiar Wife (2018), Feel Good To Die (2018)
Everyone these days would mostly agree that nostalgia is a fairly pleasant experience. It wasn’t always so. In 1688, a Swiss medical student first coined the term “nostalgia” (a combination of the Greek words “nostos” meaning return home and “algia” meaning a painful condition) to describe the symptoms of soldiers fighting abroad. In Literature, Greek warrior Odysseus longed to return home after fighting and surviving the Trojan War. Towards the end of the 18th century in Europe, the word had come to mean a “pathological attachment to any faraway place, and later, to distant times and persons.” But by the second half of the nineteenth century, it stopped being used as a medical diagnosis.
Our current concept of the positive feelings of nostalgia are tied mostly to this definition by Hollbrook and Schindler: "a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favorable affect)
toward objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or
widely circulated) when one was younger (in early adulthood, in adolescence, in childhood,
or even before birth).” But what purpose can this preference have, especially in terms of k-dramas?
Interestingly, psychological research shows that nostalgia helps counteract negative emotions, increases feelings of social support, reduces loneliness, improves self-esteem, and maintains self-continuity. In other words, nostalgia helps us feel better about ourselves and helps us make meaning out of our lives. Nostalgia as a theme in k-dramas helps characters process their feelings and experiences. In reliving their past, they’re able to come to terms with certain realities in the present.
Unlike a flashback scene that merely explains a particular plot point, nostalgic k-dramas often spend more time in the past than in the present. However, unlike time travel and alternate timelines, this plot device simply relies on human memory and not in any science-fiction or magical elements.
In accompanying the k-drama characters in the past, audiences are able to indulge in collective nostalgia. For a brief period in time, the show allows us to glorify the past and create feelings of social connectedness. We don’t even need to have experienced the historical time ourselves. It is enough to know that other people experienced it since we are experiencing the show together anyway. And simply through the power of memory and good storytelling, we can become time-travelers ourselves.
In the Reply Series (Reply 1997, Reply 1994, Reply 1988) directed by Shin Won-ho and written by Lee Woo-jung, audiences are taken back to the adolescence and early adulthood of a group of friends. The story is narrated in such a way that is meant to keep the audience in suspense about which among the characters in the co-ed groups will eventually end up together. The series recreates the times in which the characters come of age and highlight the pop culture references of the era, creating a nostalgic viewing experience for all.
In Twenty-Five Twenty-One (2022), Kim Min-chae (Choi Myung-bin, The King's Affection) finds the high school journals of her mother Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri, Mr. Sunshine). Through her eyes, the audience gets to relive the late ‘90s and the effects of the IMF financial crisis on a group of high school kids and their young adult friend played by Nam Joo-hyuk.
Regardless of the plot device used, time-focused k-dramas will almost always point to the same insight—there’s no time like the present. And today is a good day to be reminded of that age-old advice.
If you enjoyed this article, check out our other deep dives in the Gwenchanoona Saranghae Series: