The great Mexican telenovela wave in the late ’90s introduced us to rich hacienderos, birth secrets, fake deaths, lost diaries, and evil twins. It shows that we are no strangers to the absurd. The Korean wave is no different, and in k-dramaland, this sort of over-the-top storytelling is called the “makjang.”
One would think that modern audiences would have outgrown this kind of formula, but the hunger for these drama tropes is just as strong. Makjang, like a notorious villain, will never die because it is a bona fide rating monster.
Anatomy of a Makjang
Makjang is not an officially recognized term but rather a non-standard form of the word kkeutjang, which means the end or the conclusion. A kkeutjang represents a state of having reached the extreme where further continuation or the end having been reached. In pop culture, the term makjang refers to the art of the extreme.
In the context of dramas, makjang is a type of drama that is difficult to understand or accept based on common sense or the moral standards of an average person. It chooses to play up outrageous storylines to hook viewers in despite how ridiculous the story goes. These dramas feature things such as forced situations/settings, tangled relationships, affairs, and birth secrets.
Other hallmarks of makjang dramas include switched identities, revenge plots, power struggles, death, incest, memory loss, blackmail, and evil rich people.
So many K-dramas utilize emotional and over-the-top plots to create a highly watchable makjang series.
Let’s look further into some famous recommendations…
Types of Makjang
Makjangs come in different doses. Some come with minimal elements of drama, while some can definitely stretch the imagination. So we roughly arrange them from lite to heavy makjang.
This is a story of a successful career woman (Jang Na-ra) who appears to have a happy home and a wonderful husband. However, everything changed one day when the wife received an anonymous text message telling her that her husband is having an affair with someone she works with. The rest of the series follows how the wife tries to uncover the truth while struggling with her suspicions against her female workmates.
A female-led drama that stars Lee Bo-young and Kim Seo-hyung as strong, capable women who married into the Hyowon chaebol family and are responsible for raising its heirs. With a murder opening the entire series, the story revolved around everything that led to this tragedy. This opened a whole can of worms that involved chaebol business drama, a fixed marriage, secret lovers, and an evil alter-ego.
Penned by no less than the famous Im Sung Han, one of K-dramaland’s famous makjang writers, this drama centers on three married couples in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. The series depicts an array of marital troubles as the characters experience love, marriage, and divorce. It comes with the usual drama tropes such as a dwindling marriage, affairs with younger women, and children getting caught in the firestorm.
- Secret Affair
“Secret Affair” stars Kim Hee Ae and Yoo Ah In and tells the story of how a 40-plus year old married career woman Oh Hye Won fell in love with her prodigy piano student Lee Sun Jae and began a whirlwind secret affair. Risking her marriage, reputation, and job security, Hye Won carried on with this relationship even though her husband works in the same school.
Penthouse is practically a checklist of makjang hallmarks presented in a series that delights in its over-the-top storytelling. It’s about the twisted lives of rich folks who live in the tallest building in Seoul. Then makjang elements take over which starts out when a bloodied teenage girl appears to drop from the sky into the arms of a classic sculpture. This unraveled into a series of revelations such as babies being switched at birth, a secret torture chamber, and secret affairs.
- Love in Sadness
Yoon Ma-Ri’s (Park Ha-Na/Park Han-Byul) marriage made her like a bird caught in a gilded cage. Her chaebol husband Kang In-Wook (Ryu Soo-Young) looks like the perfect husband, but it soon became very clear that he holds an unhealthy obsession for her which pushes him to be violent. Her husband is right on her heels pushing Yoon Ma-Ri to seek help from a plastic surgeon Seo Jung-Won (Ji Hyun-Woo) to change her face thoroughly. Just like a fierce cat-and-mouse game, this drama keeps you on your toes and the tension is addictive.
- I’m Sorry, I Love You
Mu-Hyeok (So Ji-sub) is a con-man who is rough-around-the-edges. As far as he knows, he was abandoned at birth and grew up in Australia with abusive adoptive parents. He ran away from home and returned to Korea, where he hatched a plan to get revenge on his birth mom for abandoning him. But she didn’t really abandon him! She was only led to believe that her baby died at birth. She adopted a baby boy, who grows up to be an idol. When he finally meets his mom, she is rude and dismissive until she asks Mu-hyeok to donate organs to her adopted son.
In an alternate present day South Korea, the country is governed by a constitutional monarchy. Oh Sunny (Jang Na-Ra) is a musical actress who married Emperor Lee Hyuk (Shin Sung-Rok). She then uncovers the dark secrets in the palace and goes on to work with Na Wang-Shik (Choi Jin-Hyuk), who entered the palace as a palace bodyguard to take revenge on the person responsible for his mother’s death. Almost satirical, this makjang is written to mock other mainstream tropes. It involves murder, blackmail, birth secrets, and some power struggle.
Why people love makjang
I personally love makjang dramas because they are larger than life and often amplify human emotions and ambitions to the extreme — providing the utmost amount of escapism. More than any other genre of fiction or drama, makjang dramas allow me to let myself go emotionally as I curse at the characters on screen for their actions and motivations. So if you are having a bad day, consider putting on an episode of a makjang drama and letting yourself go completely as you curse to your heart’s content.
Many are drawn to makjang dramas because they are larger than life. By amplifying human emotions and ambitions to the extreme, these dramas offer the best form of escapism. Imagine kicking back after a long day at work, binging on an episode or two, and allowing yourself to ball your eyes out, curse at the TV, or break your neck shaking your head at the absurdity of it all!
Here’s how you can enjoy it too
Makjang is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you want to explore this genre, you need to leave judgment at the door. It’s possible to enjoy the ridiculousness of makjangs with a mindset that is curious more than being hypercritical.
Constantly berating how fictional people are so evil or stupid will only stress you out and raise your blood pressure needlessly. The fewer the characters with a working moral compass, the crazier the show will be. So, better employ a morbid curiosity of how much more insane the drama can get.
It may invoke disgust on one end, and rabid fascination on the other—no in-betweens. The experience doesn’t need you to suspend your disbelief, it simply demands that you do. The world of makjang doesn’t operate under the normal rules of morality which makes it so enjoyable. Remember that it is the peak of dramatized fiction, hence it makes no time for moralizing or preaching.
Now that you know the details, do you think you want to give makjang a try?