Beyond K-dramas: Chinese dramas and more

dramaroma update: In the last few years major changes have happened in the Korean dramaworld: The amount of dramas aired on the three big networks KBS, MBC and SBS has been massively reduced while the number of shows on cable channels has increased. As a result, currently more than twice as many dramas on Korean TV are available on cable channels as on the big networks. In addition, the recent expansion of Korean material on worldwide streaming sites like Netflix and Disney has made K-dramas more popular globally. And the growing importance of the global market is influencing the content produced in Korea.

The impact of these changes on the genre we like, romantic dramas, has been quite … mmh … dramatic. First, there’s a much smaller selection of new romantic Korean dramas available. And second: Some of those available favor the currently popular genre blending of romcom + murder (latest example, Crash Course in Romance), which we abhor. In short: Nowadays, it’s hard to find new Korean romantic dramas and even harder to find really good ones from the small pool that’s available.

So, we have done what a lot of other K-drama fans interested in romance have been doing – we’ve started to search more intensively for romantic dramas from other Asian countries. While we have reviewed excellent Chinese and Japanese dramas here and there for several years, we recently started to pay closer attention to the drama scene in China after coming across the great shows written by Wang Xiong Cheng (The Day of Becoming You, Hi Venus).

While we expect that the great romantic Korean dramas will still be center stage on dramaroma in the future, from now on we will review excellent romantic dramas made in other Asian countries more frequently – without any claim of comprehensive coverage, of course.

In the end, it’s all about showcasing great romances – no matter where they are made.

Non-Korean dramas reviewed so far:
Hi Venus (2023) China
Love Between Devil and Fairy (2022) China
The Day of Becoming You (2021) China
My Unicorn Girl (2020) China
Far Away Love (2016) China
Pretty Proofreader (2016) Japan
Boss & Me (2014) China
Just you (2013) Taiwan
99 Days with the Superstar (2011) Japan


New Review: Soul Mechanic / Fix You (2020)

Poster for the Korean Drama Fix You showing Shin Ha Kyun and Jung So MinThis 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.

Jung So Min star of Fix You - Soul Mechanic

New Review: Bride of the Century (2014)

Poster for Korean Drama Bride of the Century showing Lee Hong Gi and Yang Jin Sung.

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.

New Review: Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung (2019)

Shin Se Kyung and Cha Eun Wo in a scene from Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung.
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.

Shin Se Kyung and Cha Eun Wo in a scene from Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryung.

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.

New Reviews: What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018), Five Children (2016)

Park Seo Joon and Park Min Young fluffing it up in pink
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!

Ahn Jae Wook and So Yoo Jin with their five drama children