I’ve been watching too many Asian dramas recently, Gentle Reader.
I thought I might suck you into my madness, so here are some reviews and suggestions for (mostly) K-dramas (Korean dramas) that might appeal you specifically, my dear reader.
One of the things Korea has been doing consistently for years now is produce long running single dramas (16-20 45 min episodes) which are essentially heroine’s journeys, most of which would fall under the umbrella term of “romances.” This is something that Hollywood simply does not do. There was an increase in global viewers in 2020 and after (for reasons I discuss at the end of this post).
I was one of these watchers and these are my 10 favorites:
Probably my #1 most recommended K-drama. I LOST MY MIND over “W.”
Because it’s a hero character on a hero’s journey arc who becomes self aware, decides he wants a happy ending and tries to become a heroine on a heroine’s journey instead. But the hero’s narrative keeps trying to self correct for this. It’s flipping brilliant!
The plot is confusing to describe but the concept is genius. Basically it is the hero of an online comic web series who realizes he is a fictional character but doesn’t want the inevitable fate that’s in store for him, so he tries desperately to move into either the real world, or different narrative arc, or both. A real world woman falls in love with him and tries to help.
Once you know this, and the two different journeys, the series is SO MUCH FUN. It basically becomes a dialogue between the inevitability of the two journeys plus how to satisfy reader expectations if the POV character is sentient and wants to change the narrative beats of his own fate. Very meta. I LOVE meta.
W is on Viki and might be available elsewhere as it’s from 2016.
2. Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding
AKA Scholar Ryu’s Wedding this K-drama is a historical set story of a man who accidentally ends up married to the pretty brother of his intended bride. He is such a good natured sweetheart he gets suckered into the farce of keeping his “new wife’s” real identity a secret. Along the way the two men fall in love.
It’s soft and sweet and somewhat atmospheric, as well as being cute and bit farcical and fluffy.
If you like my Supernatural Society books you might like this short series.
Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding is unfortunately difficult to find (as it was never picked up by any major international distributors) you might see it on WeTv or Netflix depend on your country.
3. Sungkyunkwan Scandal
I have said before that one of the tropes I LOVE more than anything is when a girl cross dresses as a boy in fantasy or historical fiction. I’ve never written one of these myself but Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Rampant series started me on this madness and I’ve never looked back.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal is Korea’s version of this story. (Actually they have quite a few. They like me love this trope.)
A poor desperate young woman disguises herself as a male scholar who specializes in plagiarizing on the sly for a local bookseller, in order to raise enough money to feed her family. She’s brilliant and has a great memory for words and lists.
A rich upstanding young man catches “him” in the act of cheating and forces/blackmails her into take the entrance exam to Sungkyunkwan, the top university for scholars. This rich boy wants to prove that the poor can also become major intellectuals, not realizing they’re also about to prove a woman can do it.
They form an uneasy alliance along with an older boy who is a ninja-type warrior with a chip on his shoulder and (eventually) the school’s brilliant Lord Akeldama style fop (he’s not gay but yeah…). The four of them take on political factions, bullying, and eventually the system itself which uses education as a mean’s of classism and ostracism. Oh yeah and they also fall in love. All while she tries to keep her identity hidden from her crush, her friends, and everyone else.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal is on Viki, and if possible I recommend watching it before this next show (and as a companion piece to it) as it helps this next one make more sense.
4. Rookie Historian
Rookie Historian is about a girl who is one of the first group of women to become royal historians, aka the highly trained scholars responsible for chronicling the day-to-day doings of the royal court.
Their sweet gentle relationship underpins what is essentially a story of female empowerment and the deep cultural need to honor and respect librarians, scholars, reporters, and all those who write, keep, and teach the truth ~ protecting the historical record from politicians and swindlers.
There a pretty fun (if predictable) mystery of past plots and evil deeds to be uncovered, and although the story itself isn’t groundbreaking its a wonderful historic use of certain classic tropes. If you’re as big a Tamora Pierce fan as I am then this is the Protector of the Small to Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s Lioness Quartet.
5. The Uncanny Counter
This is about about a high school kid with disabilities and a tragic backstory who suddenly develops supernatural powers and becomes a demon-fighting grim reaper. I know it seems trite, but honestly it’s really good.
Our newly minted superhero gets defacto adopted by the local band of crotchety older demon hunters who operate out of a noodle shop. It’s a classic heroine’s journey adventure about found family and righting old wrongs.
There’s no romance thread and the action sequences can get a bit martial arts violent, but it’s still an absolutely charming story. I really enjoyed it.
You’ll like this if you enjoyed the Finishing School series, or generally like reading superhero stuff or coming of age self actualization narratives where the plucky good guy overcomes the odds and finds hope and friendship along the way.
- If you like this kind of narrative in general you might also enjoy The Gifted which is a Thai YA “high school students with supernatural powers” drama available on YouTube. The best students in Thailand are recruited to a special school and then segregated into those that are just smart, and those that are Gifted. Then the Gifted start to change. I’m a huge fan of this ones ending: I couldn’t predict it and it had not one, not two, but three twists and STILL managed to be satisfying. As someone who studies tropes and archetypes for a living, this was very exciting to watch.
6. Color Rush
If what you want more than anything is a gay romance with some supernatural elements, like my San Andreas Shifter series, than this short series (made into a movie) is for you.
In an alternate South Korea, kids are being born without the ability to see color and called monos. They remain completely colorblind unless they meet their perfect match and mate: their probe, another human whose face can turn on the world for them in a single moment of color rush. Only around this person will they see color. As a result, monos have the reputation for becoming obsessed with their probes to the point of criminality and monstrosity .
This show cleverly uses the fated mates (AKA soulmates) romance trope and the simple premise of mono/probe to have a dialogue with viewers about queer awakening, burgeoning sexuality, and gay identity using the allegory of color rush. When the main character, a mono, meets his probe in high school he is convinced he too will turn into a monster and he will do anything he can not to fall in love. His probe, on the other hand, is ALL IN.
Some of the acting is a little stiff but the allegory is so brilliant I forgive this show it’s flaws. Also, it’s not very long, so definitely worth your time. Trigger warning for attempted suicide.
If you like Color Rush, I also recommend two Thai dramas.
- He’s Coming to Me on YouTube, a Thai paranormal romance mystery drama about a ghost, Mes, and the one boy who can see him. They team up to find out who murdered Mes and slowly fall in love. It’s sweet and yes it manages to have a happy ending.
- Or if you’re willing to go a little darker, there’s Until We Meet Again on YouTube which, like Color Rush, features the fated mates trope and suicide, but is one of my all time favorite Asian dramas. Two boys meet at university and feel instantly connected and fall deeply in love. But they are plagued by a lingering sadness from their past selves. They must uncover and come to terms with the horror of what happened in their previous lives, and the secret of their intertwined fate and family’s legacy of trauma and forgiveness. It does have a happy ending (for the modern day couple) but it’s hard fought. It’s also about Thai desserts, so yummy food porn!
These two above are also discussed in my massive post on the tropes and nuances and breakdowns of Thai BL. You can read more about them and this particular genre of cinema in this blog post.
7. The Devil Judge
Its Judge Dredd x Dexter + a light sprinkling of homoeroticism/kink = a DARK DELIGHT. I am oddly taken with this drama as it’s way grittier then I usually enjoy, but I guess I get wild sometimes for the right formula. Unlike the other stuff on this list it doesn’t end happily. It doesn’t end tragically either. It’s sort of left up in the air but still managed to be very satisfying.
Warning, it has some serious feminist issues in terms of gendered archetypes but the story is an absolute blast, literally and figuratively. I forgive it everything because I absolutely could not predict the ending and the performances are killer. I was riveted the whole time it was airing.
It isn’t really like anything I’ve written (yet) because I don’t do dark. Vixen Ecology is about was dark as I have ever gone.
8. Hospital Playlist
Look this is one of the best found family friendship support group dramas I have ever seen.
Yes it’s het centric and has some other issues, but it’s so unbelievably comforting. Especially if you are someone like me who likes a procedural (medical or otherwise).
Also all their bonding is done around food (not really music as is suggested in the title – although music is there.)
It’s about a group of surgeons who have been friends since college. They all have completely different personalities and specialties but end up working together at the same hospital. Their love lives, work lives, and families intermingle in fun and mostly low drama ways but really this is about their very endearing long term friendship, and gentle understanding of each others eccentricities and foibles.
Their friendship sets the kind of tone I strived for with Phex’s pantheon in the Tinkered Starsong series. So if you like that kind of friendship dynamic you will probably enjoy this show. And, fo course if you like medical dramas this is one of the very best.
9. Dali and the Cocky Prince
Honestly one of my favorite romance series ever. It takes a lot of archetypes endemic to K-dramas and flips them, playing with and subverting classic tropes. Korea… this a good look on you!
- The girl is the cool competent reserved personality.
- The guy is the clumsy bunny brash little bit of a lose bad boy.
- The chemistry between the pair is on point.
- The sex scenes aren’t explicit but they are there and they are GREAT.
- There’s lots of kissing in this one.
- There is a spectacular scene where they negotiated language use (both linguistic registers and pet names) that is one of the cutest sexiest things ever.
Come to think of it, their dynamic is not unlike Alexia and Conall in Soulless. Huh. No wonder I like these two so much.
Otherwise it’s a pretty classic romance: boy meets girl due to mistaken identity while traveling, they enjoy an idlic moment, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again because her dead dad owes him lots of money and he’s a bit of a gagster. As ya do. Girl gets into more and more trouble trying to pay him back… drama ensues. There’s a truly evil corporate type, possible murder, complicated back story, but the zing is all about the leads who are marvelous. It’s a solid romance.
10. The King’s Affection
This is a classic historical K-drama in that it is FULL of politics and machinations and drama and the romance takes a back seat but… it’s a GREAT romance.
A queen gives brith to twins, but twins are very back luck so one of them must be killed. Of course, they choose the girl. Gutted by this decision but well aware that it was going to happen the queen is prepared and manages to save her daughter who is sent into hiding as a commoner. (I know right, it’s so fairy tale!)
Meanwhile, back at court the boy is raised to be the next king.
Circumstances transpire and he is killed so the girl (who looks just like him) is brought back and has to disguise herself not just as a boy but as the heir apparent and eventual king.
A few trusted advisors and, eventually, two boys her own age know her secret. But the drama is all around how she manages to hold power, play politics, and keep the empire as safe as she can while hiding this huge secret.
In many ways this series reminds me of one of my all time favorite epic fantasy series, similarly about a girl playing power politics and meeting all challenges with brilliance, the Daughter of the Empire series.
One of my favorite things about this show is that the main love interest falls in love with her thinking she is a boy. He has the strength of his convictions to admit to himself (and the viewers) that this means he’d queer. In other words, there is a true full on bisexual awakening and crisis depicted on screen. (Usually K-dramas only allow boys who know the crossdresser’s secret to fall in love with her). In other words, he falls in love with him and this is admitted to the viewers.
10 Korean BL dramas that I love!
I used to read yaoi back in the day so when BL came along I was ready for it. Korea is relative late to the game with this sub-genre of gay romance and there are tons of issues with the dramas from a queer and narrative perspective.
This is in addition to Color Rush & Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding (which are already mentioned above).
- Our Dating Sim – the most charming reunion romance featuring nerds in love (Viki)
- Semantic Error – classic enemies to lovers university prettiness (Viki)
- To My Star – famous actor (human puppy incarnate + bundle of neuroses) has to shack up with grumpy af chef (Viki)
- Blueming – complicated college kids and social struggles (Viki)
- The Eighth Sense – like your boys damaged and struggling and angst riddled? This one is for you. (Viki)
- The New Employee – friking adorable office romance, rainbow rice cakes! (Viki)
- Wish You: Your Melody in My Heart – sweetheart musicians pining gently (Netflix)
- Light On Me – high school romance love triangle (Korea = here Twilight, hold my hat) (Viki)
- Choco Milk Shake – a young man’s 2 beloved pets (cat & dog) are reincarnated as humans, romance ensues – yes it’s weird but also oddly charming (YouTube)
- A First Love Story – this is a short series of 2 installments each only c.8 minutes, but it’s so worth your time. It’s from a Korean queer production studio called Strongberry and I really love their work. (The are behind Choco as well.) (YouTube)
I talk at length about various BLs in this blog post. It’s older and a bit out of date – Korean BLs hadn’t really come on the scene much when I wrote it. Now they are among my favorites.
In 2020 there was an increase in international viewers watching of K-dramas for many reasons:
- the target demographic (women ages 25-60) was sitting still in one place and less distracted by life for the first time in maybe… ever
- like most heroine’s journeys these narratives offered primarily comfort and escapism which many desperately needed during 2020
- streaming services provided access to a large back catalogue that could be binged, and there are tons of these, so watchers could move quickly from one series to the next
10 Things to Know about K-dramas
- K-dramas tend to be paced differently then western fare.
- You’ll find the romance is generally a slow burn with less physical touch than western romcoms.
- Expect lots of involvement from friends and family in main characters love lives and the occasional love triangle.
- The endings can feel somewhat rushed and they will often separate characters for a year (proof of the endurance of love) before reuniting them in the last 5 minutes.
- Despite pacing that can seem odd, South Korea’s offerings are still mainly three act structure.
- All of my recommendations will be captioned rather than dubbed (apart from anime, I prefer not to watch dubbed stuff).
- These dramas (whether queer are not) are all typified by glorification of sexual purity and benevolent sexism. (But then, so are a lot of romance novels and TV shows in the western world.)
- To me, romantic K-dramas almost feel like a Jane Austen film adaptation – concerned with society’s strictures, social roles, and THE mannerly circumvention of both (for love, of course).
- All the tension over A HAND HOLD. *gasp*
- Frankly? The only thing that swells is the music.
So, there it is. You’ve been warned.
Let me know if you liked any of these and would like more recommendations? Or if you have any K-dramas you’ve loved and want to recommend!
Yours in dramaland,
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