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Auds in lather over sexy sudsers

Korean primetime heats up, pushes boundries

SEOUL — Cheating husbands, vengeful wives and “bad” single women are dominating primetime TV in Korea as once-traditional family dramas now tell tales of highly romanticized extramarital affairs.

And while storylines are hardly racy by standards in the West, here they shock critics — and fascinate auds.

Each of the three main broadcasters is airing a drama about adultery — “Unstoppable Love” on KBS2, “Confession” on MBC and “Bad Women” on SBS.

MBC’s ratings winner, “Man in Crisis,” ended June 4 at episode 18 rather than 20, curtailed by coverage of the Korea-Japan 2002 World Cup soccer finals. The hit series featured a woman betrayed by her husband when he rekindled romance with his first love. Although the theme was sexually charged, the content was still relatively tame.

In “Crisis,” husband and wife run into each other at a hotel, each on the arms of their lovers — the first such scenes on primetime drama.

The last two episodes drew 27.1% and 30.7% viewership, respectively, and more than 4,000 fans logged onto the drama’s homepage to voice their opinion on the show.

“Confession,” about a man who mistreats his wife because he cannot forget his first love, has been slammed by critics for its coarse dialogue and indiscrete bedroom scenes — but viewers love it.

The drama raised eyebrows from the first episodes when one of the characters blurted out “Did you do it with her right away, you son-of-a-bitch?”

The station’s online bulletin board was flooded with criticisms denouncing the language the next day.

Just as controversial is “Unstoppable Love,” about two adulterous couples. The main character, unappreciative of his career-oriented wife, has an affair with a 31-year-old “old-maid” in his office, eventually divorcing his wife and deserting his son.

“Bad Women” focuses on housewives who, sick of their mundane lives, find boyfriends.

Local critics are getting hot under the collar.

“There is nothing wrong with frank, in-depth discuss of adultery on television, but the question is: Are evening dramas the right medium for such analysis?” asks Choi Yang-soo, media critic at Seoul National U. “The success of a drama is supposedly judged on how realistically it portrays life. If the dramas constantly show such immoral situations, it may encourage real-life adultery.”

Another media critic, Yu In-kyong, laments: “Where did all the nice women go? Primetime TV is polluted with bad women who cheat on their husbands, seduce other women’s husbands and intentionally spit on all traditional values of marriage.

“The drama producers should become more ethical and stop writing in steamy, controversial scenes just to attract more viewers.”

Responding to criticisms, “Man in Crisis” scribe Lee Sun-mi says: “Sincere love is very important. The story was about exploring such love and not about exploiting the holiness of marriage.”

The new dramas continue a trend that started two years ago. Last year SBS raked in awards with its “Traps of Youth” about a man who deserts his bride-to-be for a wealthy, powerful woman.

The cinema also produced two box office toppers, “Happy End” (2000), about a cheating wife murdered by her husband, and “Crazy Marriage” (2002), about a woman who marries for comfort and cheats for love.

“In the end, all these stories may just be illustrating that middle-aged Koreans are under a lot of social stress today and that engaging in illicit love affairs is one of their ways of dealing with the pressure,” says “Man in Crisis” producer Lee Kwan-hee.

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