I haven’t caught much K-drama lately, but the nostalgia bug bit me and I found myself nomming through a handful of late 90s/early 2000s romcoms. I mentioned it to my friends, and was surprised to see how deep the love ran, so Paroma and I sat down to gab a little about some good ones.
Saya: They don’t make them like they used to, huh?
Paroma: No. The 1990s were definitely the heyday of high school romcoms. And maybe even romcoms in general.
Saya: You know, A Cinderella Story has been one of my favourites since forever—one of the few films that I’ve rewatched at least ten times over the years—so sometimes I forget about the others.
Paroma: For me that movie would be 10 Things I Hate About You. While I deeply dislike catfishing or deception in my romance, I loved everything about this adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew.
Saya: 10 Things really makes a lot of lists for best romcom, right? I forgot about it until you (and my local K-drama gang) cited it as your #1, so of course I had to go back and watch that again, too. For a film made in 1999, it is still disturbingly relevant, and weirdly subversive. Like, Mr. Morgan, the Black English teacher who I swear gets the best dialogue in the whole show. In one exquisitely scathing speech, he slams Joey for being a jerk to Kat, calls out Kat’s rich white girl angst, doesn’t even waste words on the stoners/wannabe Bob Marleys, but there is nothing truer or more real than his rage here as he delivers these hauntingly prescient-of-2020 lines:
Paroma: Absolutely. That whole scene was epic and everything I loved about that movie summed in one quote. Also, I really enjoyed how Kat was allowed to remain exactly how she was—bitchy and caustic—till the end.
Saya: Unlike She’s All That, huh?
Paroma: Yeah. That’s not a movie I got the appeal of. Except that the leads were ridiculously cute. Glasses and overalls did absolutely nothing to hide the gorgeousness that is Rachael Leigh Cook.
Saya: It’s the way Freddie Prinze Jr. looks at her! I actually set out to watch She’s the Man, but the predictive thingummy was like HEY DO YOU MEAN THIS. So I thought, well, okay, why not? I also don’t remember anything that happened in this one. I kind of love that that era of romcoms really fit into what we want and get out of K-drama romances as well, though. It’s like a natural progression.
Paroma: Yeah, and you can peel back the superficially pretty layers and get some pretty deep themes—especially in movies like Mean Girls. My god that movie had themes.
Saya: Ooo, tell me. It’s been a while since I watched that.
Paroma: Everything from body-shaming, to girls being raised to always compete with each other for the attention of boys, to the real challenges of friendships built on shallow grounds, and how it’s not just the popular kids who have ‘mean cliques’. The ‘good guys’ in Mean Girls were pretty demonic too, and that’s the brilliance of that movie.
Saya: For some reason I keep mixing up Mean Girls with John Tucker Must Die.
Paroma: Oh man, that one was a lot of fun to watch. But I can’t think of a single deep commentary I’d make on it. Except maybe, don’t piss off so many girls with your philandering?
Saya: Also that revenge is sweet. Amirite? Revenge romcoms should be a genre.
Paroma: Definitely! There was a Hindi adaptation of this movie that I also enjoyed (but didn’t do that great in the box office) called Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl.
Paroma: It’s got the same themes, except the guy here was a con man who entrapped women to get money out of them. And of course, since it’s Bollywood, the guy gets the girl he does fall in love with. But it’s really fun while the girls are bonding and plotting.
Saya: What does it say about what we really appreciate about these stories, that a lot of the best are adapted from classic literature? Also, I was surprised to find out that 10 Things and She’s the Man had the same writers! Apparently Karen Lutz and Kirsten Smith are a bit of a power duo – they’re also behind the excellent Legally Blonde.
Paroma: Huh, I didn’t know that. Seemed so different! Though I guess the fact that both had underage girls flashing their bare chest in public should have tipped us off? Actually, wow, I JUST NOW made that connection. The things we forgive in stuff we love. (At least Legally Blonde didn’t have any bare-chested teenage girls. Phew.)
Saya: I don’t remember! Also, ugh, why. And even though I watched both of those in close succession, I did not make that connection. But I guess Shakespeare would approve. I have to admit, though, that despite what we said recently about gender-benders (in a podcast episode which you guys will see soon!), I still fully love She’s the Man.
Paroma: I get that. Because in past decades, a girl dressing up as a boy was the only way she could breach the social gap between men and women and actually get to know the guy as a friend first. With no uncomfortable undercurrents of expectations. Which is why this trope was so SO popular with us.
Saya: I think that’s what I like about them. There is less a violation of privacy so much as there is closing a gap—of communication and understanding, and eventually, the emotional gap that is so difficult to bridge with all of the obstacles society places between genders.
Paroma: Yes, and then there was the added benefit of the girl getting a real shot of proving herself without having to battle with preconceived notions about what she was capable of.
Saya: Exactly. Like, it gives you a chance—it gives them a level playing field on which to approach and see each other.
Paroma: Coming to K-dramas for a minute. Coffee Prince’s Eun-chan could never have had a chance of becoming a barista if she hadn’t been employed as a male server at Han-gyul’s cafe.
Saya: Right? That’s probably the best use of the premise, because not only is it entertaining, it’s also essential to the heroine’s journey.
Paroma: (I feel some irony in making these arguments after I complained so much about the gender-bender trope in our Representation episodes in the podcast.) 🙈
Saya: Haha, we are allowed to disagree with ourselves!
Paroma: Also, yes, the heroine’s development definitely gets a jump thanks to the opportunities she suddenly has access to, which she didn’t before.
Saya: I think that’s also at the heart of why I love A Cinderella Story so much, and that trope in general—the hidden identity/correspondence romance—because it cuts away all the external stuff and people get to be real with each other, even as they know completely different versions of the other person in real life—and ne’er the twain shall meet. Also, I’m still waiting for a K-drama version of You’ve Got Mail.
Paroma: Which honestly is a movie I didn’t like much at all. Even without the epistolary angle, I thought Serendipity or Sleepless in Seattle did a much better job of creating a fated romance between two people. While You’ve Got Mail just got on my nerves. What did you like about it?
Saya: Meg Ryan. She’s so…alight and twinkling. Panjjak panjjak. And her bookstore. But I kind of hated Tom Hanks with his big ugly chain-bookstore takeover and then that they asked us to root for them? But the secret email romance, the early days of the social internet and the new…possibilities? it opened up for having deep relationships with people, all in writing. So…aaahhh!
Paroma: Ha. I remember how excited everyone was about the internet opening up a new way of meeting your soulmate at that time! You’ve Got Mail totally tapped into that. But speaking of Meg Ryan—this woman made me watch a lot of movies I wouldn’t have picked up otherwise. She also gave me Kate & Leopold. The one movie that mixed my love for historicals and modern 90s romcom to a perfect blend.
Saya: I’m taking notes, by the way. All of these films I haven’t watched! I knew you were the right person to consult, haha.
Paroma: You haven’t watched Kate & Leopold?!!! How is this possible?
Saya: *hangs head in shame* Was probably busy rewatching A Cinderella Story.
Paroma: You will adore Hugh Jackman as the recently transplanted Englishman with a love of engineering and exquisitely polite manners which he doesn’t lose even after time travelling to a very rude 20th century.
Saya: Wait, time travel? I AM IN. I mean, I was already in, now I am…more in. Smart, Saya, very smart.
Paroma: Ah, S. When will you sleep? XD
Paroma: But you’re so right. There was something about the romcoms of the 90s that transitioned beautifully to the current day K-dramas for us.
Saya: Do you think maybe that was the tail-end of a time of uncynical romance? I feel like around 2006/7, we took a sharp turn for hard edges and blunt force. Not necessarily a bad thing, but romance felt like it got more complicated. Maybe as our times did. Is it our nostalgia speaking when we say this particular era of romcoms somehow outdid and outshone anything that came either before or after?
Paroma: It was certainly the end of uncynical romance for the West. I can’t imagine a Notting Hill being made today. Even though I enjoy romances like One Day, I think these movies feel an obligation to have a certain ironic edge to them. And then you have modern day high school romcoms like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or The Kissing Booth, and something just feels very by-the-numbers about their trajectory and format. Whereas a movie like French Kiss—which was a wish fulfilment for women travelling abroad about the rustic French countryside—had so much dynamism in the interactions between the main couple. They felt alive and real. So, maybe it was just an era where romcoms had better writers and directors working on them.
Saya: I really liked To All the Boys, though. It felt a bit like a throwback to that “golden era”, but less unrelenting whiteness, which is always welcome. P.S. I had to look up French Kiss. I am a heathen. Educate me, sabunim.
Paroma: Come young grasshopper, let’s get your Kung-fu on.