Disney+'s Snowdrop Fail
Updated: Feb 12
After many trials and tribulations, Snowdrop has finally come to North America. The series comes from the screenwriter-director team, Yoo Hyun-Mi and Jo Hyun-Tak, known for the popular 2019 Korean drama SKY Castle. Snowdrop is a show from the cable network JTBC and takes place in 1987 during South Korea’s transition to a democracy. It stars the Kpop idol Jisoo of Blackpink in her long-awaited debut performance as Youngro, a student in a women’s college. Her co-star is one of my favorite actors, Jung Hae-in, star of the movie Tune into Love and Kdramas like Something in the Rain and more recently, Netflix’s DP.
Much like Netflix with Squid Game, Disney finally realized what billions of people around the world have known for a long time: Korean dramas are very popular. They are similar to Kpop, which has expanded beyond Korean and Korean immigrant communities, due in no small part to Black stans on social media, Kdramas are already a global sensation. In October 2021, Disney announced that they would release Snowdrop on their new streaming service, Disney+. This was certainly a traditional route that other streaming platforms such as KOCOWA and Viki have been using for years. This is different from the Netflix model, which streams Asian dramas and creates new content; as major Covid restrictions plagued the Korean film industry, Netflix threw heaps of money at Korean movie directors to film series without the heavy-handed state regulation of network and even cable tv. As a result, more Americans gained exposure to the “Netflixication” of Kdramas with original content almost exclusively of a more dark, sordid, and violent dark nature like Squid Game, My Name, and Hellbound.
Popular in many countries, including ones as linguistically and culturally diverse as India, China, the Philippines, and many others, South Korean dramas have been a global phenomenon for decades. Much like Kpop, Kdramas have been moving beyond Korean immigrant communities to have a significant yet growing presence in the Western hemisphere and Europe. They cover a wide variety of genres from romantic comedies and crime procedurals to Joseon-era historicals (saeguks) and “slice of life” workplace dramas.
However, it is unlikely that Disney+ was prepared for Snowdrop.
In early 2021, Joseon Exorcist had been abruptly ended after two episodes due to historical inaccuracies and Chinese production influences. Months later, JTBC received major backlash about its depiction of democratization in South Korea and delayed the release of Snowdrop. This was due to several factors, including the circulation of tone-deaf summaries suggesting a romance between a female college student and a North Korean spy disguised as a university student who met after a protest. Koreans argued that this diminished the large numbers of people who were labelled as North Korean spies and tortured at the hands of South Korea’s authoritarian government. South Koreans also critiqued the show suggesting a top-down transition to democracy involving a compromise with North Korea while downplaying the real-life activism by university students. In one of the most blatant issues, JTBC originally named Jisoo’s character Young-cho, which was the real name of a prominent activist in the democracy movement.
These were only a few of the controversies surrounding Snowdrop’s release. By the time Disney+ made its announcement in October 2021, there had already been multiple Blue House petitions to South Korea’s government with over 200,000 signatures. JTBC made a number of changes over several months, including re-writing and re-shooting several episodes as well as changing the name of the female lead to Youngro.
Most Kdrama fans are not cognizant of Korean history. (I’ve ashamedly only recently learned where to place it on a map as the large peninsula between mainland China and Japan’s archipelago.) Many fans, especially in the global BLINKS nation, looked forward to Snowdrop’s global release on December 18th on Disney+.
This was despite the over 300,000 signatures, several Blue House petitions, and even attempts at a court injunction from the Korean Civic Rights Group against JTBC’s airing Snowdrop. But, to the chagrin of many in the Western hemisphere, December 18th came and went without this special treat. As Disney+ subscribers in India, Singapore, and Malaysia posted their favorite movements in show, I lamented with my US and Canadian friends over the lack of a North American release. To deal with the public pushback, JTBC and Disney+ released the first three episodes over the same weekend. Two weeks after the show’s initial release, the Seoul court threw out the case and JTBC aired the remainder of the show.
Still, there was no clue of when Snowdrop would be available in the United States. For over a month, there was no mention of a release date for Kdrama fans who were not on the right continent. Instead, a number of websites recommended using VPNs for those of us outside of Asia who wanted to watch Snowdrop. On the other hand, those in the know watched the show on the plethora of questionable websites streaming Kdramas alongside Chinese, Japanese, and Thai dramas. As someone who would have started a Disney+ subscription just to watch the show, I’m certain the platform lost out on customers. Instead, I installed a good ad-blocker and watched the show alongside with my few brave friends who did the same.
Watching the show, only the first episode showed protestors in a couple of different actions. However, rather than the movement for democracy, Snowdrop focuses on negotiations between North Korea and South Korea’s authoritarian government who is about to face open elections for the first time. However, the main focus was a hostage situation lasting several days, not the romance that was emphasized in a lot of the promotion for the show. The hostage-taking throws a wrench in the plans for the elections that reveals the extent of corruption in the fictional depiction of South Korea. Viewers see the government manipulate the media, torture journalists and citizens labelled as spies, as well as embezzle public funds for nefarious purposes. Snowdrop does not paint the pre-democracy government in a positive light at all. Yet, I was perched on my seat every week to see how things would turn out.
As an American watching Snowdrop translated into English I was surprised by anachronisms such as references to Germany, a country that did not exist at the time, despite the show being set during the Cold War. It was off seeing a Korean American speak fluent English, yet hand a bank document entitled “Bank of Suisse [Switzerland]” to an important character. The love story was quaint, but it was not the most important part of the story by far.
Unfortunately, Americans will be late to the Snowdrop game, trying to avoid the English-language spoilers that are already rampant on social media thanks to fellow Kdrama lovers in Singapore, the Philippines, India, and several other countries with large English-speaking populations. The United States is already behind East Asia due to time zones and technology. I’m just disappointed that, perhaps by underestimating the soft power of South Korea’s influence, Disney+ has also placed us behind in terms of global media.
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