A fantasy rom-com about a mythical creature who accidentally gets involved with a female college student in his attempt to become a human being. It’s so refreshing to see a super-nice and introverted male lead (Jang Ki Yong). He is also the perfect foil for Lee Hye Ri’s bubbly and straightforward character, probably one of my favorite female leads in recent years – it’s simply so much fun just watching her antics. Add to this one of the funniest second lead couples (Kang Han Na and Kim Do Wan, both from Start-Up) and you know you have a winner. Plot is generally fine but the last third has a little more angst that I’d like plus a touch of noble idiocy and an annoying male that can’t take no for an answer. In general: Light, fluffy, and lots and lots of cuteness. Excellent.
An illuminating drama about the pressure-cooker world of K-Pop. In an environment of merciless competition and cut-throat business decisions, where people are treated as commodities, romance is a dangerous thing. One wrong move or even a rumor can end an idol’s career. Director Han Hyun Hee (Rookie Historian) as well as writers Choi Sun Young and Kim Min Jung (Love in the Moonlight) deliver a tightly scripted and engaging drama about life as an idol beyond the fun and fame. One caveat, though: The much-appreciated happy ending feels rushed and overly rose-colored. Still, a good drama to watch, especially if you’re interested in the Korean entertainment world.
KBS2. Written by Choi Sun Young and Kim Min Jung.
An addictive drama about a middle-aged man (Yoon Sang Hyun, Secret Garden, My Fair Lady) whose body reverses back to how it was when he was 18. While it provides plenty of opportunities to laugh, this is not a straightforward comedy but rather a story about redemption: how the now younger-looking male lead (Lee Do Hyun) desperately tries to fix his mistakes as a husband and father by becoming friends with his children and a pillar of strength for his ex-wife (Kim Ha Neul).
Korean drama at its best: a fantasy premise, tight plot, superb actors, and a mix of comedy and melodrama that pulls on your heartstrings. Excellent.
JTBC. Written by Ahn Eun Bin, Choi Yi Ryool, Kim Do Yeon.
When you need some comfort food for the soul and that bowl of ramen just isn’t cutting it, this cozy family drama could be the answer. It’s a melodrama-free story about a family with three divorced children (and a fourth with a wedding disaster) who take 100 half-hour episodes to pair up again. Of course, there’s also a birth mystery.
Directed by Lee Jae Sang, it has a similar tone to his outstanding 2017 family drama Father is Strange but, unsurprisingly, doesn’t match its stellar quality – somehow the plot and characters in Once Again don’t draw you in as much. It’s one of those dramas that are fun and entertaining to watch once but not once again (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) Anyway, if you’re looking for a stress-free and pleasant family drama, this is a good choice.
KBS. Written by Yang Hee Seung and Ahn Ah Reum.
This ambitious drama shines a light on the Korean mental health care system and challenges current approaches to mental health. The hero is eccentric hospital psychologist Lee Shi Joon (Shin Ha Kyun, All About My Romance), who uses unconventional treatment methods and is not afraid to cross professional boundaries if it helps his patients.
Despite his sometimes controversial behavior – he gets romantically involved with one of his patients (Jung So Min, Father is Strange, Because this Life is our First, Playful Kiss) – the drama provides a thoughtful introduction to the world of mental illness. But what really draws in the viewer is the sensitive portrayal of Jung So Min’s character who so desperately struggles with her anger, her insecurity and her abandonment issues.
A very good drama with a low-key romance and another spectacular performance by Jung So Min. Why her character’s clothing choices are often so atrocious remains a mystery to the end.
Two scheming mothers, a family curse and a ghost are part of a story in which a chaebol heir (Lee Hong Gi, You’re Beautiful) falls for the lookalike impostor (Yang Jin Sung) of his intended bride. This is a strongly plot-driven drama with an abundance of twists and turns that keep you glued to the screen. Funny, romantic, suspenseful (but not scary) with a touch of fantasy like the best of classic K-dramas. After episode 13, it becomes more melodramatic and the female lead’s actions become less comprehensible. The road to the happy ending is much longer than it should be – like in other older K-dramas. Up to episode 13: excellent. Rest: good.
While I’m contemplating some rom-coms from 2020, here is an office romance from Taiwan with an exceptionally cute lead couple played by Aaron Yan and Puff Kuo.
2019 was a strange year for finding good romantic Korean dramas. I had high hopes for Yoo In Na’s new show, but while she was great, I thought the drama itself was a snooze. Anyway, here we are in October, and finally there’s a historical fantasy with an interesting romance that I can recommend. Below is a more detailed review. For the short version go here.
Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung
When the heroine not only entertains a crowd with a reading from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in the first episode, but also gives her sensible interpretation of the suicidally heartbroken Werther as a negative romantic role model, you realize that this is not your typical historical K-drama. And it’s a good guess that the romance portrayed won’t be of the Werther-like existential life-and-death kind. Yes, our Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung likes romance as much as the next person but it’s not the be-all and end-all of her life – or this drama.
The show is suffused with strong female characters, and genre-wise it is refreshingly multilayered: While there is the romance between the main character Goo Hae-ryung (played by Shin Se Kyung) and the young Joseon prince Dowon (Cha Eun Woo) and quite a bit of comedy, we also have the political intrigues typical of historicals (but thankfully only mild violence), birth-secret mysteries common in weekend family shows, and the power games we’re used to seeing in office dramas. Plus you learn about the role of historians in the Joseon era, which is actually really fascinating. These ingredients mix beautifully in this drama about four young women from an alternate Joseon era who break into the male work domain by becoming female historians.
Right from the start the drama undermines romantic tropes. In the first few episodes it makes fun of unrealistic romantic stories (and the largely female audience that adores them) by showing that the most popular author of romances in this Joseon town has absolutely no clue about real-life relationships. And then there’s Goo Hae-ryung: Even though she falls in love, her emotions don’t change her views on the practical aspects of relationships – atypical for romantic narratives. Her contemporary and rational attitude towards romance as well as the way she keeps crossing rigid social boundaries and following her own convictions mark her clearly as a real-life role model. And her unconventional actions provide plenty of suspense and comedy in a drama that’s supposed to take place in the Joseon era.
But there’s a twist to the character of the oh so reasonable Goo Hae-ryung: The man she falls for (and with whom she enjoys a happy ending) is the passionate, idealistic and romantic Prince Dowon, who is the embodiment of the unrealistic romantic ideals she rejects. What does this mean for Goo Hae-ryung as a role model? Is a super-romantic partner a much better choice after all? And does this mean that many of the uber-romantic tropes shouldn’t be disregarded – because they fulfill a useful real-life framework, at least for men?
Apart from these interesting twists about the typical romantic narrative, the drama stands out by portraying Westerners and Western culture in an unusually positive light. (Typically, American or European characters function as villains in contemporary K-dramas – or have minor roles and no personality to speak of.) We’ve already mentioned Goethe, whose story about Werther Goo Hae-ryung reads as a sensible corrective to self-destructive romantic relationship fantasies. Here, something can be learned from European culture and the last episode clearly shows how this new attitude towards romance can be realized. This portrayal of Western culture as something positive is further displayed in the character of a French national in search of his brother, who taught Koreans advanced medical techniques.
But enough of this intellectualizing: Light but thoughtful, this historical fantasy with contemporary tweaks is simply a thoroughly enjoyable treat. Love the funny modern ending. Excellent minus.
PS: Goo Hae-ryung’s unusual interpretation of The Sorrows of Young Werther was certainly not how Goethe’s book was read by the majority of his contemporary audience. See, for example, here.
While I’ve been watching (and re-watching) 2019 dramas to decide which ones should be on our list, I came across a fun Japanese drama, Pretty Proofreader.
It’s about a spunky twentysomething who dreams of becoming an editor for a famous fashion magazine but ends up working as a proofreader.
Here is the review.
After ploughing through quite a few dramas that were only so-so, I finally came across two more that I liked, even after watching them twice:
What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018) – A super fluffy, often hilarious office drama about an egocentric CEO (Park Seo Joon) who can’t understand why his trusted assistant (Park Min Young) wants to quit. Can there be a more pleasant form of existence than to work closely with him? Certainly not. So, what’s wrong with Secretary Kim?
Five Children (2016) – A well-done light family drama (54 episodes) focusing on the romance of two single parents who create a new big family with five kids. No melodramatic subplots!