How the Philippines is making K-dramas their own

Source: GMA Network.

This September, a different version of the hit 2020 Netflix Korean drama “Start-Up” (​​스타트업) premiered in the Philippines. Instead of Hallyu star Bae Suzy (배수지) portraying the story of the millennial entrepreneur “Seo Dal-mi” (서달미), it now stars the country’s very own actress, Bea Alonzo, in the role of “Dani Sison.” 

“Start-Up” captivated the Philippines when the country was forced into lockdown at the onset of the pandemic. The show topped local Netflix charts and Twitter trends for months, with Filipinos gravitating toward the story of Dal-mi, a young woman who dreams of succeeding in business. Along with this, Filipino audiences had heated discussions about the show’s love triangle, with many debates on who the heroine should end up with. 

The avid local reception toward “Start-Up’s” unique premise gained the attention of local network giant GMA, who decided to adapt the series and create a Filipino version. 

The Philippines has a long history of Korean drama adaptations, with many of the most beloved Korean dramas around the world being remade by Filipino networks. Original Korean versions of the dramas are first dubbed in Filipino when they are aired locally, and eventually the highly rated ones are adapted by local networks, casting popular Filipino actors and actresses in the main roles. 

Despite mostly focusing on love stories, Korean dramas were able to show Philippine audiences how to execute engrossing narratives using different genres. These dramas earned peak ratings at the time of local airing, while also sparking cultural trends and introducing Korean culture to the Philippines. 

In 2009, the original version of “Lovers in Paris” (파리의연인, 2004) even popularized the Korean cheer “Aja!” (아자) in the Philippines. Meanwhile, melodramatic love stories such as “Stairway to Heaven” (천국의 계단) were adapted by major Philippine networks the same year, starring love teams with established fan bases to reprise the roles of the Korean leads. 

Source: SBS.

The Philippine version of “Stairway to Heaven” received high primetime ratings during its run and was hailed the No. 1 drama for its time slot, based on statistics from local monitor AGB Nielsen. As viewers rooted for the two main leads to finally have their happy ending, Filipinos fell in love with Cha Sung-joo (차송주) and Han Jung-seo (한중서) as “Jodi” and “Cholo.” 

Many even named their pets, or sometimes children, after the characters. Couples joined a trend in recreating a scene from the drama, where the two main leads rode a bike together. Instead of the Lotte World carousel, the Philippine adaptation featured a local amusement park, Enchanted Kingdom, which also gained popularity at the time. The series was so successful that reruns of the Philippine version still aired in 2020.

Hallyu in the Philippines

Since the early 2000s, Korean dramas have cemented themselves as part of local Filipino television programming, with major cable networks airing these shows in primetime slots.

These dramas are largely credited as the pioneers of the “Hallyu” (한류) wave in the Philippines, or the rapid spread of Korean culture.

Philippine Hallyu researcher Jay-Ar Igna cites these shows, along with Korean dance, music, and fan clubs as the main actors of the Hallyu wave. 

Source: GMA Network.

When “My Love From The Star” (2013) first aired in the Philippines, many viewers fell in love with Cheon Song-yi’s (Jun Ji-hyun, 전지현) spunky personality and fashion sense. GMA Network, which was home to the show, started a hashtag series with #TheSteffiCheonOOTD, publishing daily breakdowns of “Steffi Cheon’s” outfits (Cheon Song-yi’s Filipino counterpart). 

Filipino K-drama fans then searched for the particular products used by the actress, with many attempting to copy her makeup and style. GMA Network also published selfies of fans who copied the iconic “sunglasses” look of Steffi, while her trademark phrase “Sarreh!” trended all over the country.

Local beauty bloggers started reviewing the luxury brand lipstick she was reported wearing. Among them was beauty expert Christine Fernandez, who even had to buy the brand from Singapore to as she was a fan of the show. 

Because of the Hallyu wave, Korean products became more accessible in the Philippines. Korean cosmetic brands now have flagship stores in the country, the brand that Cheon Song-yi advertised, AMOREPACIFIC, officially expanded in the country in 2018. 

Samgyeopsal (삼겹살) chain restaurants can now be found everywhere in the archipelago because of its frequent appearances in K-dramas. Along with this, Korean food items are imported to local supermarkets. Places featured in dramas such as Korean convenience stores have also popped up all over Metro Manila. 

Hallyu’s tangible influence can be felt throughout the country, with K-pop being played on local stations, Korean food and cosmetics being patronized in the Philippines, and popular K-dramas reimagined in the Filipino local context. 

The birth of ‘Koreanovelas’ and ‘Asianovelas’

Local TV networks first took notice of the impact of Korean dramas when “Endless Love” (2003), acquired then by GMA, gained exceptionally high ratings when it was first aired. The show was dubbed in Filipino and was followed by other Korean dramas aired in the afternoon time slots of GMA. 

Major networks then started syndicating foreign dramas from Taiwan, China and Korea, airing blocks of “Koreanovelas” and “Asianovelas” dubbed in Filipino. Korean dramas were aired back to back, with ratings soaring as high as 50 percent, further strengthening the network’s belief in the impact of Korean shows. 

Award-winning Filipino Director Jose Javier Reyes attributes the Filipinos’ love for K-drama to nuanced plots and diverse themes, as compared to how Filipino soap operas have been limited to the same themes since time immemorial. 

Philippine dramas usually have long episodic arcs, with tried-and-tested plots of marriage, love triangles, family drama, or rags-to-riches stories. 

“K-dramas, because they are divorced from our cultural roots of defying romantic agony provide alternatives that do not only amuse but challenge our audiences. In other words, they offer something new,” Reyes said in a post. 

“The scripts are so well-written. More important, the plots vary. There is an assortment of genres to choose from and even if they are dealing with things we have heard and seen before, Koreans make them sound and look new,” he added.

The quality of Philippine dramas usually suffers because of its format. Shows are packed with commercial breaks, airing for only 30 minutes and lasting more than 50 episodes per season. The narrative arcs usually tend to move at a slower pace, as stories are dragged to maximize the production budget. Because of this, Filipino dramas are known to have formulaic and predictable storylines, with production quality dropping in the long run. 

Same values, different executions

For Hallyu content creator and K-drama fan Dave Guino, K-dramas are a source of comfort and joy during the most difficult times. “I love the fresh and unique concepts, unpredictable plots, superb acting and high production value,” he shares. 

According to Igna, Filipinos find a reflection of their own culture in Korean content. Filipinos associate with the cultural values depicted in Korean dramas, such as the sense of community, respect for elders, hospitality, and courteousness. Filipinos also enjoy the expressiveness and romantic characters of Korean dramas. 

Even if these values can be seen in popular local dramas, Filipino consumers tend to choose to watch Korean shows for quality in terms of cinematography, acting, and production. 

Catering to the Filipino taste

After seeing how the Filipino audience favored Korean dramas, TV networks then challenged themselves to take the success of the Hallyu wave in the Philippines to the next level. Both GMA and ABS-CBN, the country’s major networks, started remaking Korean dramas, top-billing them with popular actors to ensure ratings. 

The challenge to translate Korean narratives into a Filipino context was imminent for these networks, making sure to stick to the original plot while also ensuring that it caters to the Filipino audience’s tastes and preferences. 

In 2008, “Ako Si Kim Samsoon” (내 이름은 김삼순), one of the first Filipino remakes of a Korean drama, was aired on GMA. The remake could not change the Korean name of the main character, as the name is part of a major plot point. In an attempt to make the name fit the Filipino context, Samsoon’s name was explained as a combination of her parent’s names, something unique to Filipino families. 

For “Start-Up PH” (2022), the usual Korean street food cart that sells corndogs is now selling the Filipino snack “turon” (fried banana). The story, instead of being set in Seoul, is now set in the bustling streets of Manila, with the love triangle in the series being further highlighted to keep the Filipino audience guessing as to who the heroine will choose. Still, a major plot element, the leads’ relationship with their grandmother was still focused on, as Koreans and Filipinos both share filial values. 

“We retained iconic scenes in the [K-drama version], but we also tweaked and added Filipino elements to it. We also wanted ‘Start-Up PH’ to be recognized as a Filipino product,” says Alden Richards, who plays Tristan, the Filipino counterpart of Han Ji-pyeong (한지평), played by actor Kim Seon-ho (김선호) in the original version.

A way to improve our own

Hallyu fan Guino also observed that K-dramas were inclined to showcase Korean culture. “I am always amazed at how they highlight their food, history and beautiful places. This is a very good strategy to attract tourists, which may also be the reason why many Filipinos dream of visiting Korea,” he says. 

In the age of Netflix, Filipinos are also starting to export their own adaptations of Korean dramas, showcasing Filipino culture instead. “The Broken Marriage Vow,” a Philippine adaptation of the highly rated K-drama “The World of the Married” (부부의 세계, 2020) was broadcast on the streaming platform Viu, which has a catalog of various Korean dramas. 

The show gained rave reviews because of the cast’s performance, the well-written script, and most importantly, the incorporation of Filipino landscapes and products in terms of cast styling and cinematography.

Source: Dreamscape Instagram.

Jodi Sta. Maria, who stars as Dr. Jill Illustre, Kim Hee-Ae’s (김희애) Ji Sun-woo (지선우) in the original, wears exclusively Filipino brands on the show. Traditional Filipino patterns and dresses embroidered by Filipino indigenous communities were showcased in her dresses, while her bags and purses were also inspired by cultural staples such as the jeepney. The whole cast costuming was inspired by the “urban Pinoy” aesthetic with artisan products proudly made by local designers.

Along with this, the story is set in the cultural city of Baguio, showcasing the country’s natural landmarks through cinematography.

As the Filipino media industry looks to the Korean industry’s success in exporting world-class shows, adaptations present a way to improve our own way of creating local dramas.

Slowly evolving

The Hallyu wave’s influence on Filipino culture can not be denied. Filipinos continue to patronize Korean media, as well as its cultural exports and products. Creating adaptations of these dramas is a way for both cultures to touch base, with Philippine media companies learning the best practices introduced by Korean production firms.

For longtime fan Guino, this shows how local dramas are taking into account the pulse of the Filipino audiences. “I personally think our local dramas are slowly evolving, and this is coming from a lot of factors, such as the rise of K-dramas and the advent of social media,” he says.

Adaptations present an easier way for local companies to ensure the success of the dramas they produce. Placing lead actors in narratives that have already captured the hearts of local audiences ensures high ratings, and in turn, profit. 

Guino also observes that the rise of digital platforms, offering Filipinos with a wide array of content, has challenged Filipino producers to keep up. Philippine adaptations then have to deliver in terms of cinematography, color grading, and production in general. This means that budgets for Korean remakes tend to be much higher compared to locally produced dramas, as there are certain standards already set. 

A successful example of a high-budget adaptation that succeeded in the international scene is the Philippine remake of the iconic K-drama “Descendants of the Sun” (DOTS). It managed to win in the 15th Seoul International Drama Awards as the Most Popular Foreign Drama of the Year. The remake of DOTS is the first Philippine program to ever win in the drama festival, showing that Korean adaptations can also be considered a Philippine product as well. 

“I have faith in the capabilities of our local creatives,” Guino shares. “With enough support and funding, I believe that Filipino content has the potential to take over the world just like Korean content,” he says. 

About Inna Christine Cabel 6 Articles
Inna Christine Cabel has been writing and telling stories her whole life. After graduating with a degree in journalism, she now understands how stories can change the world. To further develop her journalistic skills and intuition, she is now pursuing a master’s degree in Global Studies at the Yonsei Graduate School of International Studies. Her interests include women’s rights, music and pop culture. She wishes she could eat the Filipino dish kare-kare every single day.