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.
During 2020 there was an increase in international interest and watching of these 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 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
I was one of these watchers.
Some things to know
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 romcoms, with lots of involvement from friends and family, and the occasional love triangle. The endings can feel somewhat rushed.
Despite pacing that can seem odd, South Korea’s offerings are still mainly three act structure. All of my recommendations are 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). Still, there it is. You’ve been warned.
And now, here are some of my 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 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.
Nobleman Ryu’s Wedding
AKA Scholar Ryu’s Wedding this newer 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.
This is a shorter drama that has a kind of fairy tale feel to it, and reminds me most of Shakespeare’s 12th Night meets Cinderella only hella gay. Eh, you kinda have to watch it to see what I mean.
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 hasn’t been picked up by any major international distributors yet) you might see it on WeTv or Netflix depend on your country, otherwise it’s on DramaCool.
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.
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.
Rookie Historian is about a girl who is one of the first group of women to become historians, aka the highly trained scholars responsible for chronicling the day-to-day doings of the royal court.
Along the way she meets and falls in love with a soft lonely prince who is kept isolated and trapped and has entertained himself by writing hugely popular romance novels.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
Honestly this is what I was trying to do with the Custard Protocol Books. Hospital Playlist does it better.
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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Ambush or Adore: Delightfully Deadly #2 – AGATHA’S BOOK
London’s best and most covert spy tries to escape the man who has always adored her. Out October 1, 2021
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