I am just amazed at how much Korean dramas have evolved over the last twenty years. I can’t remember the title of the first one I saw, but I do remember crying my eyes out and my dad sitting next to me doing the same. Mom thought it was hilarious seeing the two of us with bloodshot eyes and grabbing for Kleenex, and said she couldn’t watch anymore because we were distracting her.
I’m a binge watcher. I go through a few days of marathon-watching and then stop for a few weeks before I let myself watch a new series. In between dramas, I like to read JavaBeans’s posts on what’s coming out, as well as episode recaps on current dramas (which help me decide on whether or not I want to watch them later). Some of the recaps alone are just as good as watching the episodes, especially as they provide the backstory or a brief analysis of a scene in context of story/character development. I prefer to wait until a series is complete before I watch it because nothing’s worse than having to wait for the next episode.
Romantic comedies are my favorite and next are tear-jerkers, but I can’t watch too many back-to-back because I wouldn’t be able to open my eyes the next day. Like Jay’s Potato Chips, you’ll find that you can’t just stop at one. Although nowadays you can watch a series while it’s going on, I’ve found it’s better to start after a series is all posted. The suspense can get quite brutal.
What’s the appeal?
For me, it’s the delicious combination of humor and drama, which appears in both the romantic comedies and melodramas. I love rooting for the underdog to fight great odds and find happiness, success in life, true love/get revenge/get parental approval or public recognition. Common themes in the melodrama/tragedies—Fate is a cruel mistress, who likes to waggle her finger and say, “Sorry, not in this lifetime” (as in the dramas in which two people go through hell and back to taste a bit of happiness only to have someone die); or the other, which is “You’ll get what’s coming to you” or “Karma’s a bitch” especially when you try to make/take something/someone that’s not meant to be; then there’s the theme/idea of “there’s no greater love than to sacrifice oneself;” and “you can’t mess with destiny/fate” (people who are meant to be with each will find a way back to each other—if not in this lifetime, then the next). I also like the lessons they have—such as, sometimes it’s worth putting aside your pride/family (?!) for something greater—like true love; don’t give up—the sweetness of success is worth all the hardship; don’t let your past/present keep you from your future; and so much more.
My non-Korean friend talks about the general wholesomeness and innocence in the Korean dramas (i.e., no explicit sex scenes or nudity); even the kissing scenes are generally tame. Every now and then you might come across a memorable kissing scene or scene filled with so much sexual tension that the screen is steaming up—usually the newer ones. However, I must say that I like the growing trend of seeing male actors showing off their choco-abs.
This is not to say Koreans aren’t passionate; they sure know how to fight/hold a grudge. And sometimes, it’s best left to the imagination what happens behind closed doors and dark rooms, right?
I also like taking a peek at what life in Korea is like (it all depends on one’s financial standing, of course). Some of the shots from the seaside, mountains, and countryside are just amazing; it makes me want to go visit. Then there are food/eating scenes that just make me want to lick my monitor—so yummy-looking my tummy hurts.
But then I see the dramas in which a female protagonist is considered fat (what I would consider healthy/my ideal body size) and I think to myself, “I can’t go to Korea quite yet—at least not until I’m old enough so that it’s forgivable to be not skinny (as if it’s ever!).” Koreans are obsessed with body image/skinny-ness to the point many people (both men and women) have eating disorders. And don’t get me started on plastic surgery. Think LA, but a hundred times worse.
After you watch a few, you’ll definitely notice some plot similarities and character stereotypes: Clueless Dad, Evil Stepmother, Back-stabbing Girlfriend, Self-sacrificing/Martyr Hero/Heroine, Virago Mother who means well but often causes more trouble than good, Dipso/Debt-ridden/Get-Rich-Quick-Scheming Dad who means well but often causes more trouble than good, Evil Plotting Mother who puts Lady MacBeth to shame, Housewife trying to reinvent/find new identity for herself (and sometimes new love), Wingman/Wingwoman who helps hero/heroine but is not good enough to win hero/heroine, Bitter Woman who wants to make the world pay for lover’s betrayal. But it’s still fun to see how the writers try to change things up a bit. I especially like the ones in which the antagonists/villains redeem themselves or shift to neutral, so they’re not all evil.
Common k-drama shots/scenes: a trip inside a Korean sauna/bath house; karaoke bar or old folks gathering around karaoke machine at home; family sitting together and eating; food wars (seeing who can finish eating first/outlast competition); BBQ eating and soju-swigging; drinking in tents; the back hug; the last minute arm-grab just as girl is ready to leave the guy for good; piggy-backing a drunk, sick, or hurt friend/love interest/family member to home or hospital; the bitchslap and battle of the stank-eyes (between women); the fist fight (between men); guy speeding off while checking out woman he’s leaving behind through rear-view/side-view mirror; retail therapy/shopping trip a la Pretty Woman; baby switched at birth/mistaken identity; star-crossed lovers missing (or almost missing) each other at airport; glass of water being splashed on nemesis while at cafe/restaurant; confrontation between maternal head figure with female protagonist as she threatens to destroy everything/one she loves if she doesn’t leave male love interest (maternal head’s son/grandson).
A lot of the k-dramas have OSTs (Official Soundtracks) that they play over and over; which can get annoying at times. But I guess the appeal is similar to Bollywood movies which people enjoy watching familiar song/dance numbers time and again. Oh, and it’s pretty hilarious when they use Australian or Eastern European actors to portray evil Americans, or when some of the characters who have “studied abroad” throw around English words/phrases.
Where to Watch
DramaFever has an excellent selection of Korean dramas with subtitles. You can watch entire episodes free and sit through a few short ads, or pay a small subscription fee for slightly faster downloads and no commercials, plus immediate access to new episodes to current dramas. The great thing about DramaFever is that they have licensing rights with the Korean networks KBS, MBC, and SBS to show the programs, and the image quality is generally good since it’s not pirated (though sometimes the streaming isn’t always the best—I blame that on Comcast).
Now that MySoju has been taken down, you’ll have to try your luck on the various video hosting sites such as Viki, Dailymotion, YouTube, Hulu, JooVideo, and Veoh. However, episodes are broken down in chunks (which can be annoying, but at the same time, good for bathroom/water breaks), and sometimes the links are broken because the videos are taken down (due to copyright infringement). Also a number of these sites do not have English subtitles.
Korean grocery stores often carry an amazing number of videos (the older dramas tend to be on VHS, while the newer ones will be on DVD—though sometimes the quality is so-so). Downside is no subtitles. However, if you happen to find an actor/actress that you really like and want to see some earlier dramas which are not accessible online, this is a great resource.
Netflix is now streaming a number of Korean dramas. Best of all, no commercial interruptions.
K-Dramas I’ve Enjoyed (Highly Recommend)
City Hall (so much to love in this one; interesting insights on politics/government, too)
The Greatest Love (great storyline, fast-paced, addictive, and wholly satisfying; I love Doko-Jin!)
Hotelier (beautiful people, beautiful story; neat peak into the hotel/service industry; memorable kissing scene)
Boys Before Flowers (nutty/choppy story line with beautiful rich boys and gorgeous locales—Papua New Guinea esp.; very addictive)
Scent of a Woman (very inspirational, heart-lifting; tear-jerker with funny moments; made me want to learn how to tango, too!)
9 end 2 outs (cute movie; great lines about love/relationships)
My Name is Kim Sam Soon (wonderful blend of comedy and tears; go full-figured women!)
Rooftop Prince (even hubby loved it for humor, romance, and OST)
The Master’s Son (for those who love supernatural/horror, comedy, romance—Korean Sixth Sense)
Oh My Venus (love the chemistry between the two main characters)
Miss Granny (great comedy with some very moving scenes; catchy tunes)
Secret Garden (body-swapping, beautiful estates/cars, chance to laugh at crappy attempts to incorporate English to show off metropolitan-ness, appreciation for stunt actors)
My Girl (very cute)
Coffee Prince (hilarious gender-bender; some food porn)
I Really, Really Like You (great comedy with sad moments; food porn)
Phoenix (tear-jerker; great storyline)
Autumn Tale/Autumn in My Heart (tear-jerker; beautiful actors and cinematography; love the music)
Spring Waltz (tear-jerker; beautiful actors and cinematography)
Summer Scent (tear-jerker; beautiful actors and cinematography)
Winter Sonata (tear-jerker; beautiful actors and cinematography)
Thank You (tear-jerker; beautiful cinematography; love the music)
200 Pound Beauty (cute/funny/sad story; some good, catchy songs)
Dancing Queen (cute story; love the characters)
Seducing Mr. Perfect (cute story)
Last Scandal of My Life (cute story)
Attic Cat (cute story)
Couple or Trouble/Fantasy Couple (cute story)
Bad Couple (hilarious, but gets choppy toward end)
When It’s At Night (easy/fun to watch; good peek into Korean historical treasures)
What’s Up Fox (go cougars!)
I Do, I Do (another Kim Sun-ah drama—can you tell she’s one of my favorite actors?)
To Pass Time (“meh”)
Stairway to Heaven (major tear-jerker, but gets tiring after awhile)
Full House (love the house; characters get annoying after awhile)
Sweet Spy (for eye candy and campiness; some good tear-inducing scenes and a couple of good kissing scenes)
Witch Yoo Hee (for eye candy and campiness; food porn; I want her kitchen)