Everyone has different expectations when watching tv and movies. Some people want mindless entertainment. Others want something that’s exciting or surprising. Some just want to see their favorite stars. I suppose for me, at heart I’m a writer. I want shows that are well written. I want the characters to be interesting, the plots to be tightly designed, and the story line to be satisfying, but not too predictable. Full disclosure: I haven’t watched too many dramas in the past year or so because adulthood (getting married, international move, new jobs, etc) keeps me quite busy. My husband, though half Korean, doesn’t really enjoy much Korean tv, so when we’re looking for something to watch together we usually end up with British or American offerings.
However, when I first moved to Korea I watched quite a few shows in the interest of language practice and found some great ones. Here are a few I recommend for language learning or just enjoyment. Each one hits a specific note or genre that makes it unique and it will give you a nice sampler if you’re starting out watching kdramas or if you want to find some you may have missed.
Historical dramas aren’t the best for learning a new language as they tend to use older styles of the language. But this drama is pretty enjoyable with no ulterior motives. It’s about a young woman in the Joseon era who lives her life dressed as a boy to make money for her family. She’s very clever and writes stories for a local book seller. When she gets hired to take the university entrance exam for a spoiled rich boy she aces it and accidentally finds herself accepted as a student and living in a dorm with three male students.
Though the classic girl-disguised-as-a-boy trope lends this show a rom-com feel (and it’s actually done fairly believably), there’s also plenty of mystery and political intrigue to keep the plot interesting. All of the characters are interesting and have their own story. This makes the plot richer and keeps you engaged even after the main romance plot line is more or less tied up
My Girlfriend is a Nine-Tailed Fox:
If you’re looking for a quirky, slightly bizarre rom-com, then this may be for you. When a jock-ish college boy accidentally releases a gumiho (nine-tailed fox spirit) from an ancient painting, she saves his life and he becomes saddled with her long-term. Gumihos traditionally were said to shape shift into pretty girls to feast on the livers of men so he’s a little uncertain. The Gumiho (called just Mi Ho) wants to become human and live as a woman and she needs the student’s help to do it. A veterinarian/monster hunter volunteers his help along the way, but is not exactly trustworthy.
Mi Ho is funny and charming with a sense of childlike wonder at the world. She’s also very honest about her needs and desires (asking if the boy wants to “mate” with her). There’s a bit of angst, but it’s fairly light overall and it will introduce you to some Korean mythology.
It’s Okay, That’s Love:
This drama is one of my favorites for several reasons. First, it’s well written with emotionally engaging characters, second it touches on a subject that desperately needs touching on. Having a mental illness is still stigmatized in South Korea. It’s something that most people hide and even avoid seeking treatment for because it can effect them at work and be shameful to their families. This drama gives us a male lead who suffers from a mental illness due to past trauma. He’s a successful, attractive, charming man and he’s mentally ill. One of the head writers said her main goal in this series was to break the prejudice against mental illness in Korea and I think it does a great job, though of course deeply rooted issues in society take time. Shows with a social conscious can help open the dialogue.
The show delves into the emotional issues of several of its characters all with the aim of showing that anyone can carry emotional baggage and trauma. Seeking therapy and treatment is good for you and you can still have a successful career and relationship. Sexuality and repression are also discussed quite frankly and maturely in the series. The support and honesty shown by the lead couple makes you care about them and their relationship. It’s a show about adults, not teens, and it covers topics accordingly.
I Need Romance 3:
If you always feel like “nice guys finish last” in kdramas, watch this one. It’s frank and mature in its treatment of relationships and sexuality and gives us a sweet, kind romantic lead. It also has pretty compelling subplots that deal with contemporary adult issues. The heroine is all grown up (33 years old–gasp!) and the main romantic plot involves her with a younger man.
She’s a career woman and her relationship with other women also take a large role in the series. It’s a classic romance with cute, funny, and sexy moments. Also, it’s important to note that it’s not a sequel. The series is just an exploration of modern romance and this is the third installment, completely standalone. It’s fun, enjoyable, and the characters are easy to care about.
Descendants of the Sun
This series was pretty notable for several reasons. First, it was all filmed before going to broadcast. Many kdramas finish filming mid-broadcast so any negative fan reactions can completely rewrite the show. Characters or plot lines that people don’t immediately warm up to can be axed prematurely because of that formula. Second, this show also attempted to have a real international feel. And I don’t just mean one or two white girls in bikinis or an “international business client” shown in one scene. It largely takes place in “Uruk” a fictional country based around Iraq and most of the shooting was actually done is Greece.
The show is about a military team and a medical team that are both working in Uruk. They interact with each other and also with the locals. The show introduces issues such as difficult life and death decisions made by doctors, human trafficking, natural disasters, business corruption, and military intrigue. The plots are interesting beyond the central romance, there’s quite a bit of English spoken in the series (a good effort, if not completely perfect), and it indicates a big shift in the production style of contemporary kdramas.
Others that I’m fond of:
My Love From Another Star– scifi romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously
Warm and Cozy aka Jeju Island Gatsby– an underappreciated romcom that gets out of Seoul for once and shows the character of Jeju island
Healer– suspense/thriller meets warm and fuzzy romance
Coffee Prince– one of the original cross-dressing girl romcoms with a great performance by Gong Yoo
Kill Me Heal Me– another show dealing with mental illness and with some intriguing plot twists
FantastiC– a cancer story that’s actually not terrible and a jerk-leading man who completely redeems himself, good subplots as well