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Your Starter Kit to Watching Korean Dramas
Korean dramas are all the rage in Asia. More savvy media content users in the western part of the world have also gotten hooked on dramas too. Why exactly are they so appealing to the western world and how do you get in on this? That's what I plan to tackle in this hub.
For the westerner, it's nice to watch something that isn't from the same culture you've been baptized into since you were a wee lad holding a remote before a television. Now, in the age of streaming television and instant Internet you can watch more television outside of your country. Isn't that nifty? Rather than dedicate your time to another American comedy or the latest reality TV show craze -- try changing it up and watching a Korean drama. In my opinion, Korea has us beat when it comes to romantic comedies. They don't try to rush the romance magic like we tend to in the States. They have a more conservative culture, which for me, I can relate to that a whole lot more and appreciate. They have their common threads from love triangles, Korean BBQ, pop singers doubling as actors, karaoke, disapproving moms, great fashion, rich guys hanging out with poor women, car accidents, and trips to the hospital.
It's easy to get hooked on a drama, especially when one series usually lasts about 15-18 episodes -- each around an hour long. You can watch many of these on Viki (no signup required, and free!) or some are on Hulu. You'll find it's easy to get invested in the characters' lives, you'll enjoy seeing Seoul, and you might start believing in Romance again.
What is the best K-drama?
Finding Actors You Like
So your first step entering the drama world is knowing the name Kim Sun-a. She's a fabulous, sought after actress in a number of hit shows. From My Lovely Sam Soon, City Hall, and Scent of a Woman. I recommend watching a series with her in it for your first drama experience. She's likable, an entertaining actress, and can portray a number of different personas -- from hilarious, shy, cold-hearted, to elegant, compassionate, and flirtatious. She makes a series fun to watch, and you know if she's in it, the scripts had to be good for her to agree. You'll quickly find yourself liking certain actors and actresses -- one tip I have is to find out what other dramas they have worked on. Sometimes Korean actors make their break in Seoul and then start working in Hollywood -- for instance, Daniel Henney has been in several shows and has now worked on Big Hero 6 and X-Men.
Finding the Right Series
Korean dramas come in a lot of different styles -- action packed, comedic, centering around a disease, light hearted, historical, horror, and magical. Korean dramas as soap operas are not like American ones, they're more like prime time television, except with more romantic storylines pushing the narrative. I suggest trying out a few different kinds before giving up on Korean dramas. There's a wide range for the mental palette. I hope you find Korean dramas that instantly click with you, but for some it's easier to find one that'll stick with than for others.
She Was Pretty
My latest favorite Korean drama is hands down "She Was Pretty." This is a brand new drama that just ended. Keep in mind, Korean dramas last about 15-18 episodes and one season. She Was Pretty focuses on a woman who as a child was considered beautiful, but as she got older her family's business fell to the wayside and Kim Hye Jin wasn't able to take care of her looks as she once could. As a child she was in love with her best friend, Ji Sung Joon, but he moved to the United States and the two didn't see each other for over a decade. When she finally got the chance to meet him again, she realized he had grown quite handsome as opposed to the once chubby boy he was. Kim Hye Jin has her best friend Min Ha Ri stand in for her to meet with her childhood love. Hye Jin hopes to disconnect with him so as not to tarnish their memories as kids.
Unfortunately, Kim Hye Jin doesn't get away that easily. She ends up working for him and pretends she's not the girl he once knew -- and he starts to fall in love with her best friend who pretended to be her, and a reporter-writer Kim Shin Hyuk starts to fall for Kim Hye Jin. The series perfectly has a love square dynamic that keeps you watching. The main characters are all endearing, especially Kim Hye Jin who plays a lovable, innocent, and goofy protagonist. Kim Shin Hyuk will steal your heart many times. In fact, you'll be rooting for the reporter to steal Hye Jin from Si Joon. The reporter falls in love with the protagonist on first sight -- he sees her wearing high white socks with black pants and it reminds him of Michael Jackson. He actually refers her to the main boss and that's how Hye Jin gets the job, and then she panics that she has to work with Si Joon.
This series is endearing. It refers back to many things you probably grew up loving like the Carpenters song "Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear?" The game of Tetris. Or Heath Ledger in "Ten Things I Hate About You."
Things you can expect from this series: a little bit of crying at some of the adorable moments, falling in love with Kim Shin Hyuk yourself, seeing what it's like to work at a big magazine company, being romanced by South Korea during autumn, an adorable ending, great fashion, instantly likable characters, and lots of Korean BBQ.
The King of Dramas
The King of Dramas is a great Korean drama to start out with because it covers what it's like to film a drama. The series focuses on the experienced producer's career, Anthony Kim, and the up and coming (and promising) writing career of Lee Go-eun. Anthony pushes his drama team too far and ends up losing his job -- he then starts his own production company and needs the help of the young writer to start a series that will help him get the ratings he deserves. The company goes through a number of victories and setbacks. Choi Siwon (who also plays in She Was Pretty) lends his acting abilities and tries to use the production company to make his career sparkle. His demands sometimes are crazy, obnoxious, and quite entertaining
Lee Go-eun is another endearing character. She almost gives up on her writing career and instead works with her mom at her BBQ joint. This is also an action packed drama -- there are fires, gangsters, divas, guns, 1940s costumes -- it's one of the best dramas by far.
This series ends in a completely different way than expected, but I think you'll enjoy how the pieces come together. You'll find yourself upset by some characters actions, wishing some of the actors had more screentime, and also wishing you could be a part of the production company and its antics. There's conflict that comes up from every angle including Anthony's old production company, running out of funds, health problems, and diva demands.
My main reason for loving this show has to do with Lee Go-eun. She has a sincere interest in her writing abilities, but it almost feels as if the world doesn't quite fit for her. She's innocent and endearing the whole way through; she strives to do what she believes is the best choice while also doing what she believes is the best choice for her series that she created. It's nice to see this kind of artistry for a writer who is so vivacious and bold, especially when there's plenty of shows and movies about writers that focus on that role, but in quite a different way. You really want to see this writer succeed, she gets your empathy, and you get that she's more down to earth, friendly, and sure of herself than some movies about writers.
This is like Pride and Prejudice meets Freaky Friday. Rich Kim Joo-won falls for poor stuntwoman Gil Ra-im. Joo-won's mother doesn't approve of the stuntwoman's lifestyle choices, and Kim Joo-won has to overcome his prejudices of the lower class. He ends up going to the island Jeju to help his cousin Oska make a music video. Gil Ra-im's action school is selected to help with the choreography, and she wins a contest to have special time with Oska. This ends up with Oska and Joo-won competing over Gil until she gets lost in the forest... and then Gil and Joo-won end up meeting a potion maker. They take their drinks late at night and end up switching bodies. The body reversal complicates their lives while also teaches them about what it's really like in a different economic class.
It's one of the most popular K-dramas on the market. There's a lot of humor, romance, sadness, and action. Gil Ra-im offers a lot with her stunts and stunts' team -- something a little different in the romance genre. It's also fun to have different elements of magic thrown in there... and it keeps you on your toes. The cast is endearing, maybe a little cliche at some parts (like the barking mad mother of the son). Oska has his own problems as a musician -- he worries he is too old, that he's losing his touch, and an old flame comes back to confuse things.
What I liked about this series is it's variety -- the action school has lots of scenes where they are preparing for movies, doing crazy scenes from Feudal times, or just their sense of humor as a group. Gil Ra-im's roommate helps keep the show positive, is a nice a shoulder to lean on, and is thrown into the middle of the confusion when Gil Ra-im and Joo-won switch bodies. It's a series that makes you think of things from different angles and that love doesn't have to be solely based on mutual economic status or on your connections.
Scent of a Woman
And now for one of the most dramatic of all dramas -- Scent of a Woman. It's the, uh, drama that made me want to learn how to dance. I mean, if you watch the video, I just can't imagine why?
Lee Yeon-jae (played by the ever brilliant Kim Sun-a) learns that her time on this planet is limited. She's lived as a timid flower, being extra careful with her money and time, and coming off as incapable at her job. She learns that she has cancer, and along the way finds out that her doctor is a childhood friend and soon to be confidante.
Lee Yeon-jae decides to go on a vacation with her limited time. She wants to let her hair down, but she gets confused for someone else when Kang Ji-wook is looking for a tour guide. Kang Ji-wook is a rich man who is a big part of the company Lee Yeon-jae used to spend all of her time. The two hit it off beautifully, even though Kang is going to be arranged to marry someone else. Ji-wook becomes incredibly emotionally attached to Yeon-jae and she keeps trying to push him away because she doesn't want him to be hurt since she may only have a few months to live.
This brings up a lot for Ji-wook -- his own mother died early in life and there's a lot that's not resolved.
This drama is an emotional roller coaster -- sometimes a little too intensely so. There's a lot of problems, yet again, with economic class, deceptions, arranged marriages, diseases, and love triangles. It's beautifully weaved together -- again with a pop singer, a tango class, and vacations. The cancer journey takes over the course of the whole show and is taken sensitively and realistically -- if not painfully. You'll probably shed some tears if you watch this from episode to episode, even if it does get too melodramatic at some parts.
My Lovely Sam Soon
This was the first Korean drama I saw; it holds a special place in my heart. It's considered the Korean version of Bridget Jones' Diary. Kim Sun-a gained 15 pounds for the role of Sam Soon, a 30 something baker. The series begins with Sam Soon breaking up with her boyfriend on Christmas. Sam Soon then has to build up her confidence to find a new job, boyfriend, and all the chaos life throws at you when you're in your thirties.
Jin-heon is the son of a successful hotelier and manages his own restaurant. He ends up hiring Sam Soon in a series of bizarre events. He pretends to date Sam Soon to appease his mother; he at first believes Sam Soon would never meet up to his expectations and so feels safe with her. His previous girlfriend Hee-jin appears out of thin air and attempts to repair their relationship, but Jin-heon for mysterious reasons will not cave to her demands and pushes further into his fake relationship with Sam Soon.
Meanwhile, Sam Soon wants to get rid of her name because she thinks it sounds too weird. She goes through an identity crisis, grief over a lost parent, a series of job troubles, a nosy ex-boyfriend, and all the glamour of traveling to exotic far off places.
Hee-jin left South Korea years ago for a medical illness, but she never had the chance to explain her absence to Jin-heon. She travels around the country with her American doctor, Henry Kim. Jin-heon gets caught into a love triangle between the two female leads (and the ladies have their own triangles to deal with.)
The series was a huge success in 2005. When the series finale aired, over half of Korean TV sets were dialed in to see how the show would end.
Why you should watch the show: it's full of ridiculous moments from karaoke to drunken mischief, it has an actor from Big Hero 6, Kim Sam Soon is great with kids, pastries, there's a lovely rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," the show doesn't have a lot of dislikable characters, and the romance for this one is a game of cat and mouse.