Rebecca Inoue-Palmer writes: Being able to watch contemporary Asian TV shows at home, legally, is a departure from the previous decades of Anglo-centric shows that New Zealanders have enjoyed.
OPINION: A construction company CEO is stabbed in his living room, and discovered by a prosecutor who turns up just minutes later. A TV repairman is seen fleeing the scene, and the prosecutor tracks him down. He’s joined in the chase by a determined female cop. But is the TV repairman really the murderer? Or could it be one of the prosecutor’s very suspicious colleagues?
While everyone else seemed to be watching season two of Stranger Things last year, I was hooked on a Korean crime drama called Stranger. I spent my days looking forward to an evening foray into the world of emotionally repressed but heroic Prosecutor Hwang Shi-mok and his detective buddy Han Yeo-jin as they battled rampant corruption amongst Seoul’s most powerful.
I fell in love with both Prosecutor Hwang and Detective Han (played by Dae Boo-na, one of Korea’s most internationally-recognisable actors). I wanted to learn to speak Korean and join them in their late night noodle-eating, soju-drinking discussions. I wanted them to hook up (though, refreshingly, that isn't the point).
I’d stumbled across Stranger (also known as Secret Forest) quite by chance on Netflix and got addicted after a couple of episodes. After a few weeks of prattling on about it to anyone I could, I finally managed to convince someone else to watch it – the accountant at work. She polished off all 16 episodes in quick succession.
The New York Times named Stranger one of the best TV shows of 2017. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in New Zealand who has heard of it.
Netflix is in fact packed with North Asia viewing options: Anime galore, documentaries, reality TV shows, cop shows, mysteries, horror (Lightbox sadly doesn’t have the same offerings). But I hadn’t even realised contemporary Asian-language shows were available in New Zealand until a couple of friends started talking on Facebook about Japanese series Terrace House.
Terrace House, as I later discovered, is a gentler and more charming version of Big Brother. It is now in its fourth season.
While Korean and Japanese TV shows are well-represented on Netflix (thanks to partnerships in those countries), shows from other parts of Asia are scarcer. There’s a back catalogue of shows from mainland China (for instance, 2014’s All Quiet in Peking), Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In the case of India, you can catch back-catalogue films like Airlift – a 2016 action-drama that features a character based on Sanjiv Kohli, the current Indian High Commissioner to New Zealand. And earlier this year Netflix released Love Per Square Foot, its first original Hindi movie. But it’s slimmer pickings when it comes to TV shows. Amazon Prime Video is beating Netflix’s subscriber base in India.
I’ve been eagerly looking forward to the July release of Sacred Games – the first Netflix original series for India – based on Vikram Chandra’s thriller novel.
Obviously, not everyone has Netflix. But being able to watch contemporary Asian TV shows (with subtitles) at home, legally, is a departure from the previous decades of Anglo-centric shows that New Zealanders have enjoyed. We’ve also seen encouraging signs of change in terms of Asian-New Zealand representation in the media, including from the team at Flat 3 Productions, but that’s a topic for a whole other story.
New Zealand viewers can also access English-language programming from Japan, South Korea and China free through WorldNet TV, and Freeview has several Chinese channels (though most are limited to Auckland viewers). Dedicated viewers can also pay for subscription services, such as Sky TV’s Hindi, Mandarin and Tagalog channels, available to subscribers for an additional fee.
May more options come. Until then, here are just a few shows worth checking out on Netflix:
Midnight Diner (Japanese)
Based on a manga of the same name, this gem is set in an intimate izakaya pub in Shinjuku, Tokyo, run by a scar-faced chef, “The Master”. Episodes of Midnight Diner are structured around dramas encountered by The Master’s customers. Just like Cheers did back in the 1980s, this is bound to make you wish for a good local.
Admission: I haven’t actually watched this. But it’s on my viewing list since it’s the first Netflix drama from the Philippines. Released in early April, Amo has already attracted criticism for “glorifying” President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on drugs, a move that has already killed more than 4000 people, according to official figures. Amo is directed by Brillante Mendoza, the country’s best-known film director, who has filmed and telecast both of Duterte’s state-of-the-nation addresses.
Samurai Gourmet (Japanese)
All members of our family quickly warmed to Samurai Gourmet, a show with a delightfully simple formula. Every episode, a retired salaryman explores a different cuisine for lunch and encounters some sort of existential crisis that is solved by the arrival of an imaginary samurai (his inner warrior?) from centuries earlier.
My husband and daughter have now moved on to drooling over the desserts in drama-comedy Kantaro the Sweet-Toothed Salaryman. Personally, I find the scenes of Kantaro’s orgasmic delight at parfait and shaved ice a bit too bizarre. But if you thought Japanese people only ate sushi, these foodie shows will come as a wake-up call. Plus, Kantaro’s dessert destinations are actual places in Tokyo – perfect if you’re planning a trip to Japan.
A Korean Odyssey (Korean)
You may have been watching The New Legends of Monkey, showing on TVNZ2 as well as Netflix. A Korean Odyssey is another, albeit very loose, retelling of the famous Chinese legend Journey to the West – a story many New Zealanders know best from the 1970s show Monkey Magic. A Korean Odyssey is set in contemporary Seoul where the characters – whether god, human or zombie – hang out in ridiculously beautiful homes, and communicate by group chat on their mobile phones. Escapism at its best – but you need some serious binge-viewing stamina to get through this epic romance.
And a warning: The theme song is a powerful K-pop ear worm.
– Asia Media Centre