It’s been five years since I fell down that rabbit hole called K-drama and during the pandemic I pretty much doubled my watching. Korean dramas have great aesthetic, brilliant performances and are beautifully shot. Its compelling stories, well-sketched out characters that are flawed yet fascinating really draw you in. So these are my top 20 recommendations.
No 20: The Moon Embracing the Sun
Like all historical dramas, The Moon Embracing the Sun is rife with political machinations only here since it has supernatural elements, there is shamanistic intervention when ambition needs to be furthered. The young Crown Princess, Heo Yeon-woo is ‘killed’ just before her marriage is officiated. The Royal Concubine Yoon Bo-kyung is put in her place but the devastated Crown Prince Lee Hwon refuses to consummate the marriage and falls into a psychosomatic illness. The young girl however, now an amnesiac, grows up ironically trained as a shaman, till fate places her before her betrothed, the King.
While the last two episodes sort of lose steam, I love how the series successfully portrays the anguish of the lovers, the cruel ambition and blind passion that puts them on this path. They really have to struggle to come to terms with their memories and reconcile with what has been done.
No 19: Nevertheless
Na-bi is a Fine Arts major who has closed herself off emotionally after a rather toxic relationship. Her chance encounter with Jae-eon, an enigmatic college mate, has her irresistibly drawn into a passionate label-less relationship. Nevertheless through four different pairings including Na-bi and Jae-eon look at commitment, toxicity in relationships and cynicism in the world of dating.
It works because it is well-crafted, does not become overlong and keeps the tension in the narrative palpable, aided by the haunting OST. With its intelligent storytelling, it doesn’t over-explain situations, leaving it to the viewers to understand the characters and their motivation.
No 18: Misaeng
Misaeng is a workplace dramedy about a washed out Baduk player (Game of Go) who for various reasons was unable to go pro. Armed now with just a GED, he gets into a corporate workspace and has to prove his mettle. And just maybe, baduk may become useful.
The term ‘misaeng’ means an incomplete life and it is accurate in how it presents workplace politics, colleagues who are frenemies but still there for you and how you may have to work against the inevitable judgement that comes with being too incompetent and sometimes too competent. Based on a webtoon, the realism of the story is because the writer drew on actual interviews with people in the corporate life.
No 17: SKY Castle
A dark comedy about education and material accomplishment, SKY Castle follows the lives of the residents at the eponymous housing society for the prestigious graduates of Seoul University, Korea University and Yonsei University. Behind the glamour, the pleasant faces and the gorgeous cutlery lies ruthless murderous ambition to be better than everyone else. No one wants it more than Han Seo-jin who lives her life hiding her less than accomplished past.
SKY Castle is that series that works against every expectation a viewer may have. Midway through when you think you have an idea of where it’s going and you begin to wonder, ah this is predictable; it drags the carpet right under your feet. One of the most beautifully shot television dramas, the camera tells a captivating story.
No 16: Two Weeks
Jang Tae-san, a low-level gangster finds his life in a tumult when he his former girlfriend, whom he abandoned, that they had a child. The child is undergoing treatment for cancer and he is a bone marrow match. Him being a match seems like a shot at redemption, that is till he finds himself framed for murder and possibly eliminated to keep the truth from coming out. He now has two weeks to prove his innocence, stay alive and make it for his daughter’s surgery.
Except for the first two episodes that set the framework of the story, the next 14 episodes are literally a nail-biting day to day record of Jang Tae-san’s life. If you are familiar with the profile of the lead actor Lee Joon-gi who is a known action star, Jang Tae-san inability to fight competently can nearly give you an aneurysm.
No 15: Boys Over Flowers
Based on the famous shoujo manga Hana Yori Dango by Yoko Kamio, Boys Over Flowers is a Cinderella-inspired story. Geum Jan-di joins Shinhwa School on a swimming scholarship and ends up targeted by the F4 – the four senior boys who run the school like a power hierarchy. Power, class divisions, bullying and violence feature in this series about a plucky Cinderella who tames the four ‘princes’ by getting them to access their vulnerabilities, rethinking the world they inhabit. An emotional rollercoaster, Boys Over Flowers never lets the tension drop.
Hana Yori Dango has been remade many times and in manga, it has established many shoujo conventions. It also happens to be my first Korean drama since I had read the manga, knew how brilliantly messed up the story was and it more than fulfilled my expectations. It does however, divert on some points from the original manga. What makes the female lead so much fun is that she does not suffer fools and she has no qualms in making her opinions known.
No 14: Hyde, Jekyll, Me
Like the name implies, it is a series about dissociative identity disorder (DID). Goo Seo-jin is a cold-hearted amusement park owner who lives unwillingly with his kinder personality Robin. The two are aware of each other’s existence and leave video messages so that a façade of normalcy can be maintained, for his prominent family’s public image. Their identities seem to be tied to the new circus manager Jang Ha-na, who might end up evicted from the amusement park if Seo-jin has his way. With Seo-jin’s psychiatrist kidnapped so close to his possible complete recovery, there might be something more sinister afoot.
It is a refreshing depiction of DID in that the two alters do try to communicate with each other. It looks at trauma, childhood abuse and unreasonable parental expectations.
No 13: My Love from a Star
Do Min-joon is an alien, who due to certain circumstances, ended up stuck on Earth, 400 years ago. The planetary event that might send him back home is finally nearing. But when his life gets entangled with the temperamental movie star Cheon Song-yi, who might have ties to his past, he may not feel inclined to leave. Especially since, she seems to be somebody’s target for murder.
Alternating between comic and thrilling, it is a rollicking watch. The opposites attract trope is used well in how straight-laced Do Min-joon can be to Cheon Song-yi’s dramatic responses.
No 12: Coffee Prince
Coffee Prince is a gender-bender romance drama. Choi Han-Kyul has to take charge of a failing café if he wants his grandma’s approval and financial support. He decides to start a prince-style coffee shop and hire good-looking men to attract female customers. When he accidentally hires tomboyish Go Eun-chan, she hides the truth because of her family financial constraints. When feelings get involved, the whole equation gets a lot more complicated. A mature series, Coffee Prince effectively handles complexities in relationships that stem from commitment and desire.
Gender-bender stories inevitably look at queer romance even if it gives it a socially acceptable conclusion. But its ambiguity is fascinating, especially since it does not follow the route of mocking that desire but faces it head-on. The female characters are strong, independent and want to be the ones to make decisions regarding their bodies and career – that’s a huge plus.
No 11: Mr Queen
Jang Bong-hwan is a talented, arrogant playboy chef who after a drowning accident ends up swapping his soul with a young noblewoman Kim So-yong, who about to be is crowned Queen in the Joseon era. His anachronistic and unfeminine actions add to the comedy of the series as does his attraction to the King’s concubines. His decision to stay apolitical doesn’t work in a world of political intrigue. So he uses his extensive knowledge of history as a weapon to protect himself and gets unwittingly drawn into his ‘husband’, the King’s life.
It is Shin Hae-sun’s convincing performance in playing a woman, and a man trapped in a woman’s body that make it gold. The tension of the story is deftly handled in that it constantly switches between intrigue, humour and romance.
No 10: Signal
Detective Lee Jae-han makes his last transmission to his friend and colleague Park Hae-young before he is killed by an unknown person. His colleague? A young profiler in 2016 and these transmissions start in the 80s. The two detectives across time, united by a walkie-talkie, need to solve some deadly cases and possibly get insight into why they are being targeted.
The drama uses real-life criminal incidents including the Hwaseong serial murders (which have incidentally featured in many films and series). Since it is also a time narrative, what is bound to occur is that tampering with time, will have consequences.
No 9: Iljimae
Iljimae is a popular Chinese folklore about a Robin Hood figure from the Joseon-era. This is an origin story of a young nobleman Lee Gyeom who loses his memory after witnessing his father’s brutal murder, and the selling into slavery of his mother and sister. Renamed Yong and raised by a former thief and a woman connected to his father’s past, he is a Machiavellian figure who will do whatever it takes to survive. But when Gyeom regains his memories, will it only be for personal gain that he dons a mask?
What makes this story great is that the characters, even if they are romantically inclined towards someone, they do have something of their own that matters to them. The female lead for instance, isn’t reduced to just some damsel in distress, she is her own person.
No 8: It’s Okay to Not be Okay
The series explores emotional and psychological healing for the three main characters from their traumatic past. Moon Gang-tae, as the main caretaker of his older autistic brother Moon Sang-tae, has been living emotionally repressed. His chance encounter with an anti-social children’s writer Ko Mun-young sets off a series of events that take them back to their hometown. Each episode uses a different fairytale to express trauma, affect healing and peel away another layer of the story.
Not only are the episodes titled after different fairytales (a couple of them are originals, written for the series) but it uses the story of the fairytale, the darker side of it and ties it up with the plotline. The drama uses animation in some instances to tell the tale, blending different cinematic techniques.
No 7: Vincenzo
Vincenzo is like an upgraded dark comedy take on Lawless Lawyer that pits an unsavoury corporation with a not so upstanding lawyer. Vincenzo Cassano is an Italian mafia lawyer who is in Korea to take care of some ‘personal business’ (getting the gold stashed under his building – Geumga Plaza). While at first thwarted by the strange residents of the Plaza, he ends up butting heads with the unscrupulous conglomerate Babel Group. The group wants the building for their expansion project and will get rid of anybody to achieve that. Vincenzo sides with the residents but he is a consigliore that imparts amoral justice according to the mafia code. What then occurs is a devil against devil thriller.
Vincenzo is peppered with fun references, my favourite being the comic recreation of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
No 6: Memories of the Alhambra
Memories of the Alhambra is an AR game designed by the 18 year old Jung Se-joo, who after a frantic call to Yoo Jin-woo, the CEO of a game developing company, disappears off the grid. Jin-woo comes to Granada to meet the developer and try out the game. Incorporating actual locations and historical elements, it becomes a fascinating live experience for him. Everything goes great that is till, a strange glitch results in an overlap between the real world and the game world with nightmarish results. Pro-tip: run as soon as the guitar starts.
The series takes up till the third episode to establish the setting and then hurtles forward.
No 5: Flower of Evil
Do Hyeon-su is hiding his past by forming a picture-perfect family with his wife and daughter. But his assumed identity Baek Hee-sung comes under threat when his detective wife starts to investigate a cold case related to a serial killing in the past. And the truth behind the case might be closer than she thinks. Flower of Evil is a heartbreaking suspense thriller about trauma and processing emotions.
No 4: Reply 1988
The Reply series recreates South Korea in the year it is set and of the three, 1988 does it best. It is a heart-warming story of five friends and their families, growing up in the same neighbourhood in Seoul. The socio-political and economic upheavals of the country are examined in the microcosm through the five families. Reply 1988 shifts between 2015 and the past, with the adult versions of Duk-seon and her hitherto unnamed husband narrating the story. It keeps the viewers in suspense to the characters’ future. After all, Duk-seon, the only girl in the group marries one of her friends, but which of the four boys ends up as her husband?
No 3: Crash Landing On You
Star-crossed lovers’ stories have always been popular. So when you get a South Korean heiress whose paragliding accident has her crash land onto a North Korean soldier, you know there is an epic romance waiting. That is if the volatile relationship between the nations doesn’t bring danger and death to the characters. With a host of fascinating characters, it is a gripping story that is both thrilling and romantic.
One of the most relentless villains in a drama, the pace of the story does not stop from the go.
No 2: Hospital Playlist
A story by the writer of the Reply series, Hospital Playlist is a realistic portrayal of the medical profession and the emotional and physical demands on its personnel. It is about five friends, now in their forties, who met 20 years ago at medical school. Circumstances ensure that they are working together at the same hospital after so many years. Workaholics, each with different demands upon them from their personal and professional spaces, they jam together in a band. The series delves into adult friendships – its whimsical and petty side while growing together as people.
Watch it for the humour, the music and the truly heart-warming stories. The second season seems slower in comparison but it continues from exactly where the previous stopped.
No 1: Moon Lovers: Scarlet Hearts Ryeo
Based on the famous Chinese novel Bu Bu Jing Xin, Moon Lovers explores the ill-fated relationships between the children of King Taejo as they vie for power in the Goryeo period.
Go Ha-jin drowns during a total eclipse and ends up a thousand years in the past, in the body of her ancestor, a noblewoman Hae Soo. Living in the house of King Taejo’s son the Eight Prince Wang Wook, she becomes acquainted with the other princes especially the Black Wolf of the family, the scarred Fourth Prince Wang So. While there are some instances of anachronistic humour, the story delves into the twisted palace politics which is further complicated when Hae Soo starts to have visions of the future.
Why does this become my number one? Incidentally, it did badly when it released, eventually becoming a cult hit. There are good reasons for that. Despite being a historical fusion, it tries to stay as close to history as possible. Brilliant characterisation is what fuels this story. And the epic romance of the story is raised to great heights by the incredible OST (both songs and background music).
The K2: Snow White meets disavowed secret agent. But honestly, the Evil Queen is far more interesting.
Goblin: A Goryeo general is made into a Goblin, a mythical figure, as punishment and reward. The catch? His bride is the only one who can release him from eternal life but she may also be his first love. The pacing is rather slow but the bromance is just great.
When the Camellia Blooms: Serial killer targets people he thinks are a joke; unfortunately he seems to have turned his attention to the single mother who runs the town bar. Probably one of the best screenplays, also watch it for Kang Ha-neul’s performance.
Oh My Ghost: An amnesiac virgin ghost and a timid chef who sees ghosts get entangled. Worse still, they happen to be in love with the same man.
Something in the Rain: A woman in her late thirties, grappling with workplace harassment finds love with a younger man, who happens to be her best friend’s brother. The melancholic setting of the story can be a little draining even though it is a beautifully told narrative.
The World of the Married: What’s worse than finding out that your husband is cheating on you? That everyone else may be in on the secret.
Stranger 2: A continuation of Stranger, a series that delves into political corruption in the upper echelons of society.
Descendants of the Sun: A star-crossed lovers pairing – a soldier and doctor reunite in a war-torn land.
Love in the Moonlight: A young woman forced to live as man to hide her identity, ends up moonlighting as a eunuch in the Crown Prince’s palace.
Hwarang: A riotous fun with great bromance and comedy. The story is interestingly complex but becomes a little predictable towards the end.
A Korean Odyssey: A modern day adaptation of Wu Cheng-En’s Journey to the West. It is about a woman who can see ghosts and the self-serving God who is her unwilling protector.