What Can ‘New’ Nollywood Learn from Korean Drama? The case of Shanty Town
First off, before we go too far, I must clarify that the above question is not an inverted or a reverse Nigerian way of saying there is not much Nollywood can learn from what I’ll call Korean drama (covers films and TV series). Because, believe me, “what can Nollywood learn from Korean drama?” in Nigerianese can soon turn to the way we say: “Who are you?” (Who you be?) or “Who is your father?” (Who be ya papa, sef?). All of which points to a lack of respect because ‘who are you’ is another way of saying ‘you’re a nobody.’
On the other hand, I am also not asking these questions simply to engage in Nollywood-bashing or to present Nollywood as being deficient in one or many areas although there will be times it’ll sound like I’m trying to do just that. I know that Nollywood bashing has become like a fun sport, a hobby of sorts. At least once every month, the Nigerian film industry trends for the reasons invariably because someone would mouth off about how trashy Nollywood is or just how unworthy of attention it is. It’s difficult to comprehend how one or even a few movies can cancel an entire industry because all it takes is one not-so-good movie…
And ‘new’ Nollywood in this sense doesn’t necessarily refer to the new Nigerian film industry that was popular sometime during the last decade. At the time some young Nigerian filmmakers sought to distinguish and differentiate themselves from those from the not-so-old Nollywood. As Nollywood became popular so did its cast and crew. Many of the producers, directors, and other participants were seen as not being professionally qualified to operate within the industry. I won’t repeat the degrading history used to tear down directors. Suffice it to say that with the myriad of complaints against older Nigerian films, newcomers felt a need to position themselves as people who were better qualified, who didn’t stumble into filmmaking, and people who understood the art of filmmaking. In fact, this piece could easily be: What ‘new’ Nollywood can learn from old Nollywood. After all, old Nollywood it is that made giant strides and generated interest around the world.
But I digress. This write-up focuses on where Nollywood or Nigerian drama fits in, in comparison to some other countries on global platforms. I won’t dive into any ancient history, but the immediate reason for this is the January 20, 2023 premiere on Netflix of the much-awaited Shanty Town, directed by Dimeji Ajibola. I say much-awaited because the 6-episode limited series packs on quite the who’s who of Nollywood: Richard Mofe-Damijo (RMD), Chidi Mokeme, Ini Edo, Shaffy Bello, Nancy Isime, Sola Shobowale, Ali Nuhu, Zubby Michael… Throw in Peter ‘Mr. P’ Okoye (PSquare) for the extra pull.
At a glance, Shanty Town seizes one’s attention. But then it also tries to do too much, trying to marry the gritty with the subtle and more emotional. There are a few things I like about Shanty Town, the obvious being: Chidi Mokeme’s performance as Scar. The way he switches and moves into different parts of his character. From a menacing pimp to the subservient Aboderin who grovels at the feet of his master Chief Fernandez (RMD), to the sniveling jellyfish when he’s snatched by Shaffy Bello’s character (Her excellency, Governor?) and back to making life hell for Shanty Town’s sex workers. I also like how the Ibibio dialect (from Akwa Ibom) is woven into the story of Ini Edo (Amanda/Inem) and Nse Ikpe-Etim’s (Ene) relationship.
I could probably add a few more things that I like ‘but that’s not why we are here’ as the slang goes. The issue isn’t how many more things I can add to the list of what to like but to express the general feeling of emptiness I felt watching the series so much so and I wanted to ask: So, what’s next? The Shanty Town story is one of crime, sex work, and contending power gladiators. Ok, where have we seen that before, or rather, where have not seen that before? What could’ve made the difference is the story being better grounded in something more recognizable as Nigerian. This would come through in the dialogue, mannerisms, and other outlets. This is the one thing Korean drama does very well: Take a not-so-new idea and root it into the Korean way of life.
To summarize for those who have not seen Shanty Town, it is as the name suggests, a sort of ghetto populated by the suffering masses who are at the mercy and whim of men like Scar. Scar rules Shanty Town and he in turn answers to Chief Fernandez. Ene handles the female sex workers some of whom are working to pay off their way to freedom even though no one goes free. After working – to pay for their freedom, the newly freed are soon hacked to death for their organs as that’s a side hustle for Scar. Enter Amanda, an undercover detective who’s pretending to be Inem. Pause here a moment. This is supposed to be an FBI-esque team with Uche Jombo as the boss although Ini’s in undertaking undercover work, she’s never in any real danger of being discovered, I mean there’s never any heightened tension or any real suspicion of her not being who she says she is.
Something else that’s needed and hopefully, if ever there’s a second season of Shanty Town it would be treated, is the provision of adequate back story for some key characters. Perhaps if Shanty Town had 2 extra episodes it might’ve been able to answer some questions about key characters like Chief Fernandez and his son Femi (Peter Okoye). We are given mere snippets, but nothing definite as to why the two of them are living together but the older Fernandez considers his son to be useless. Where is his mother? And I don’t know how to feel about the contrived ‘relationship’ between Shalewa and Femi Fernandez. Perhaps, their storyline needed some space to breathe. Then, did a whole governor really need Scar to bring Chief Fernandez in? Are we to also believe that Shaffy’s character couldn’t get to Chief Fernandez by herself?
There are quite a few needless scenes in the films. There’s this protracted fight scene that really does drag on for too long. If violence and gore are a film’s unique selling point, I’m not sure I’ll pick a Nigerian film over a Hollywood film: Sound effects, and fight scenes, are bound to be more realistic. Except, of course, there’s a way to make all these original to Nollywood. Which is why perhaps the emphasis ought to be on how to be an improved version of old Nollywood. Because old Nollywood, whatever it lacked, it had stories that had audiences across the world glued to their TVs.
Where does Korean drama come in? Is it because Korean drama is superior that I am suggesting that the stakeholders in the Nigerian film industry can take some lessons from there? No. Especially not in the way some people like to use it to trash Nollywood. But there are some similarities: Story-wise, Korean drama has its own ‘Babalawo’ things just like Nollywood and our other ‘woods.’ More importantly, acting is down-to-earth They have those stories that involve movement between worlds, reincarnation, and all that. Like Nollywood (Kannywood and Yoruba films included), Korean drama sometimes mixes the serious with the not-so-serious. There’s always that one comic character no matter how serious the story is.
To cut a very long complicated story short, if Nollywood really wants to operate at the highest levels, Nollywood must start being comfortable in its own skin. This means telling our own stories without apology. Or affectation.