For viewers (this writer included) looking to broaden their familiarity with Korean dramas, Netflix's Love Like a K-Drama offers a helpful primer. Over the course of the 12-episode season, eight actors pair up and audition for lead roles in "mini K-dramas" that emphasize different aspects of the popular genre, including its romantic storylines, original soundtracks (or OSTs), and ruminations on class differences. The short films, all of which end with a kissing scene, are shown in full, and each is followed by a behind-the-scenes segment, giving the audience a closer look at how these stories are made and the emotional response producers are looking to tease out from the actors.
But Love Like a K-Drama isn't just a making-of series about a group of people looking for their big break; it's also a dating show (and at times, a competition series) that explores whether the actors' connection blossoms when the cameras stop rolling. Does filming a passionate kissing scene create those feelings in real life? Do the same love triangles and jealousies playing out on-screen manifest within the group's shared apartment?
These are intriguing questions, but there's one key detail that prevents the show from effectively answering them: The male, Korean actors and the female, Japanese actresses don't speak the same language. As a result, what should be an interesting investigation of the fine line between fiction and reality becomes a limp cross-cultural exchange. How can these cast members be expected to make meaningful connections, let alone fall in love, when they're struggling to communicate their order at a restaurant?
As the 90 Day Fiancé franchise has demonstrated, it is possible to overcome a language barrier, but doing so requires a level of commitment and investment of time that Love Like a K-Drama's cast simply doesn't have. The actors are paired up within the first few minutes of the premiere, and they're immediately thrown into rehearsals for an episode filmed entirely in Korean. (In fact, all six mini K-dramas are in Korean, leaving the women at an obvious disadvantage.) That gives the men an opportunity to help their partners learn the script, strengthening their bonds early on, but it also adds an extra level of stress for the women, whose success hinges on their ability to sell the story in an unfamiliar language.
Often, this leads to tension, not romance, on set: In the first batch of episodes, Rio Yamashita and Honoka Kitahara are so focused on perfecting their lines — and showcasing their acting skills in order to book future jobs in the industry — that they keep to themselves as they work through their internal struggle.
Despite communicating primarily through translation apps on their phones, some of the actors begin to form connections. Kim Dong Kyu and Nozomi Bando, who remain partners for the first three auditions, go on a few dates, including a soju-soaked dinner that ends with a walk to a scenic overlook. Later, Dong Kyu slips away from their lunch date to buy Nozomi flowers, a universally romantic gesture if there ever was one. Song Ji Hyuk and Kim Won Shik also develop feelings for Rio and Honoka, their respective scene partners, though their relationships are a bit more one-sided than Dong Kyu and Nozomi's.
But what little momentum or excitement there is in these relationships — and the reality show built around them — is halted when it comes time to have a real conversation. After completing production on their short film in Episode 3, "Two Kisses, One Love," Won Shik attempts to confess his feelings for Honoka by expressing his desire to pair up with her again. Honoka doesn't feel the same (she's interested in Lee Tae Gyun) and she slowly types out a tactful message informing him that she plans to "choose someone else" next time.
The scene is positioned as an emotional breakup: Honoka and Won Shik have only partnered with each other up to this point, and the slow theme music kicks up to let viewers know something important is happening (as is common in K-dramas). But because Honoka and Won Shik are glued to their phones, unable to communicate their feelings in any other way, it instead plays like an uncomfortably long, nearly silent moment between two people who clearly aren't a good fit.
Though Dong Kyu and Nozomi seem better suited for one another, their big moment of vulnerability fails to convey their chemistry. After the two are passed over for another K-drama, making them the only ones yet to win lead roles, Dong Kyu apologizes for "causing [her] so much trouble" by being "too nervous" in auditions. He explains that he "lack[s] confidence" in his acting abilities, and Nozomi comforts him by sharing some insecurities of her own. "In the end, you have to believe in yourself. That's what matters most," she speaks into her phone. "So, I don't want you to apologize or to have any regrets. You didn't do anything wrong. I just want you to try your best." Nozomi's words are incredibly kind, but the communication delay prevents Dong Kyu from absorbing them in the moment, undercutting their power.
On a more basic level, Nozomi and Dong Kyu's reliance on their phones limits their eye contact, one of the most common indicators that two people are hitting it off. They exchange a few glances, but they're not sustained — and in some cases, their translation apps offer an excuse to avoid looking directly at one another, as when Dong Kyu stares into his screen as he explains that in Korea, the sunflower signifies, "I have eyes only for you." Once again, the music informs us that this is a weighty moment, but rather than watching two people lock eyes and begin to fall in love, we're left staring at the top of their heads.
The problems caused by the cast members' language barrier become even more apparent when contrasted with the dramatic encounter between Rio and Ji Hyuk, who speaks Japanese, in the second batch of episodes. Ji Hyuk was hurt when Rio chose a different partner a few days prior, but when he voices those feelings to Rio — after she's just returned from a drunken dinner with her crush, Dong Kyu — they get into it. "I didn't want to give you up, Rio," he says. "Well, they say you can't always get what you want," she replies with a cold laugh.
For the first time, a male and female cast member are able to speak their minds in a language they're actually comfortable with, resulting in a brutally honest conversation that flows more naturally than anything we've seen up to this point. In this moment, when Rio and Ji Hyuk are firing quick responses back and forth and expressing their frustration with one another, Love Like a K-Drama feels most like an actual dating show, rather than an experiment in which people from two different countries are made to live and work alongside one another.
But perhaps the biggest sign of Love Like a K-Drama's missed potential comes from the films themselves, which, despite weak performances from some of the men — the women are almost always better than their male scene partners, even though they're acting in Korean — succeed as engrossing love stories. It's not just that the actors are speaking the same language; it's also that they're able to build on that shared understanding by effectively communicating via nonverbal cues and making eye contact, things that have to happen for viewers to believe in a relationship. That kind of romantic connection can be understood in any language, but if the Netflix series is any indication, selling it requires the actors to be on the same page, in the first place.
New episodes of Love Like a K-Drama drop Tuesdays on Netflix.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.