Disney+’s new K-drama Snowdrop has all the ingredients of a surefire hit. To name just a few factors working in the show’s favor, we have: 1.) Blackpink singer Jisoo making her acting debut in 2.) a Romeo and Juliet-style romance set against 3.) a historically inspired political thriller from 4.) director Jo Hyun-tak and writer Yoo Hyun-mi, the same team behind the successful satirical thriller Sky Castle.

But despite its popularity in multiple Asia-Pacific markets, the series has been embroiled in controversy for weeks. The inciting offense? Its political lens, some viewers and scholars allege, disregards and, worse, distorts a crucial moment in South Korean history.

All 16 episodes of Snowdrop will become available Wednesday in select regions on Disney+. (The streamer has hit the ground running with plans to expand into K-drama ever since its platform launch in South Korea last November.) The series finds Jisoo starring as one half of the film’s central star-crossed couple, opposite popular South Korean actor Jung Hae-in.

Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, Jisoo’s Eun Yeong-ro and Jung’s Lim Soo-ho have more to worry about than petty family drama.

Snowdrop takes place in 1987, a tumultuous period during which South Korea transitioned from dictatorship to democracy amid mass protests. The characters’ lineages place them on opposing political lines: Yeong-ro’s father is the director of ANSP (the Agency for National Security Planning), and Soo-ho is a North Korean spy.

The show’s most compelling moments, at least from the two introductory episodes made available to critics, do not stem from the central romance, but instead from hanging out with Yeong-ro and her friends at the Hosu Women’s University.

The young student and her dormmates (played by Jung Shin-hye, Choi Hee-jin, and the late Kim Mi-soo) perfectly capture the volatile energy of young friendship; the group can be chattering one moment and shouting at one another the next, and their group lip-syncs are contagiously euphoric. The school itself feels, at times, like its own version of the fanciful boarding schools seen in films like Sarah Kernochan’s All I Wanna Do—replete with mischievous energy and run by a strict but good-natured (from the first two episodes, at least) headmistress.

It’s not that the core romance between Yeong-ro and Soo-ho is poorly written (it’s pretty standard but not disappointing so far), or that the stars themselves lack chemistry. (For the record, I blurted out the words, “Oh my God, please just kiss!” multiple times.) The issue is one of pacing. Each episode runs for roughly 90 minutes, and while some of the show’s interweaving plotlines can feel rushed, others plod along just a little too slowly. With each new perspective introduced, it’s hard not to wonder whether all of them are necessary. Having seen only two of 16 episodes, it’s hard to answer that question with any certainty.

But pacing issues are nothing compared to the controversy that arose following the show’s winter release on South Korea’s The Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting Company (JTBC), with detractors arguing that Snowdrop’s creative twists on history uphold the ousted military dictatorship’s version of history and essentially echo its propaganda.

As reported by Variety last month, some Korean viewers voiced their issues with the series immediately upon its release. Dozens of petitions have called for the show’s removalincluding one sent to the South Korean president with 325,000 signaturesand sponsors Teazen and Puradak Chicken withdrew their support while claiming ignorance of the show’s political scope. JTBC, the trade reports, has threatened to sue the show’s detractors. NME recently reported on a group of scholars in Korea who have written an open letter of their own to Disney+.

The letter, posted by Georgia Institute of Technology assistant professor of Korean studies Bae Keung-yoon, does not request that the show be removed from streaming. “Rather, we write to request that your company seek experts —there are many, well-qualified modern Korean history experts in Korea and all over the world—to carefully examine the historical references made in the show, and consider for yourselves the way those historical references are used.”

“[W]hile we understand the defense that fiction has a right to explore creative narratives,” the letter adds, “that defense can also feel hollow when a show uses numerous, specific details that reference actual people and incidents from recent history.”

Certain characters’ names and biographies in the series, the letter points out, appear to be inspired by real historical figures—and the creative flourishes used to render the fictional counterparts raise questions.

One example among many provided in the letter: Eun Yeong-ro’s original character name, Eun Yeong-cho, was almost identical to that of real-life student activist Cheon Yeong-cho—whose real-life husband, the letter states, “was arrested and tortured on suspicion of being a communist and a supporter of the North Korean regime.”

“In other words, the drama originally used the name of a victim of anti-communist propaganda in a narrative that actually echoes the propaganda—a narrative that affirms, ‘yes, there are North Korean spies among the students, and the students are too naive to realize this,’” the letter says.

The scholars’ overarching worry concerned the effect such narrative flourishes could have when introduced to global audiences who are not necessarily familiar with Korean history. As the authors put it, “[W]e believe that platforms should make an informed decision when globally broadcasting a show set in recent, still-relevant Korean history (1987).”

Such concerns seem valid, considering the popularity Snowdrop has already achieved with some audiences. Disney+ began streaming the series in multiple regions alongside its JTBC debut—and Forbes notes that despite the controversy that both preceded and followed its premiere, “Snowdrop was among the top five most watched titles in the majority of APAC markets on Disney+ in its first five weeks on the service.” NME, meanwhile, reports that the series became Disney+’s most-watched series in both Singapore and South Korea.

Snowdrop postures itself as a romantic historical melodrama, so it’s hard to predict how much of its messaging viewers might absorb as actual history. But given the show’s success so far, it’s easy to understand why scholars might be concerned that Disney+ is playing with fire.



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