Beginner's guide: The K-drama starter pack

 

MANILA, Philippines – Allow me to begin with a disclaimer: I am a newbie, having begun watching Korean dramas just a year ago. I have yet to watch the classics, such as Winter Sonata, credited to be one of the dramas, if not the drama, that started the Korean wave in the early 2000s. I haven't even watched Goblin yet.

This starter pack is from one newbie to another. As beginners, you will learn that as soon as your titas and friends find out you're watching K-dramas, they will bombard you with their must-watch lists. Do not be overwhelmed and do not be intimidated by the veterans' wealth and breadth of knowledge which they will be all too willing to share with you. During my first few weeks of watching dramas, I relied on the recommendations sent to me. But as I got the hang of it, I learned to follow my gut feel on which dramas to watch.

My list contains mostly newer ones that I found interesting as a novice and got me hooked. So, are you ready to spare 16 to 20 hours of your life for a K-drama?

File photo from SBS International's Facebook page

Starring Jeon Ji-hyun and Kim Soo-hyun

Synopsis: An alien, Do Min-joon (Kim Soo-hyun) crash lands on earth during Korea's Joseon period where he discovers human emotions, strengths, and frailties. He gets stuck here for 400 years, witnessing how the world evolved throughout the centuries. Just as he prepares himself to return to his own planet, he gets entangled with a popular albeit ditzy actress, Chun Song-yi (Jun Ji-hyun), who appears to be the reincarnation of the young woman he fell in love with when he first arrived on earth. Someone wants Song-yi dead and Min-joon is the only one who can save her, thanks to his superpowers. They fall in love with each other, but he has to leave earth. For every moment Song-yi waited for Min-joon to come back, this was what she had to say: "Is disappearing without a heads up difficult to bear? Of course, it is! But it also makes me love him more. Because every moment that we're together could be our last. And that makes every moment precious." This line – for the win.

Why the drama stands out: It's a fantasy-romance-comedy, a common genre in Korean dramas (some even include action). The plot may sound heavy, even sad, but My Love from the Star has the right amount of everything – you get the complete package. Jeon Ji-hyun, one of Korea's biggest and most beautiful stars, will make you laugh and cry with her superb acting skills, especially when she starts pining for Do Min-joon, gets drunk one night, and thinks she must be getting literally insane. I'll talk more about Kim Soo-hyun later.

File photo from KBS World's Facebook page

Starring Ji Chang-wook and Park Min-young

Synopsis: Seo Jung-hoo (Ji Chang-wook) is a night courier and martial arts expert codenamed "Healer" who does anything for any client, except kill, for the right price. He managed to steel his heart from any emotion because the world was harsh to him when he was young. That is until he meets the intrepid Chae Young-shin (Park Min-young), an online tabloid entertainment reporter. They will discover that their lives are intertwined even during their childhood. They fall in love while they fight the political overlords who are responsible for the deaths of their fathers, who were both investigative journalists. 

Why the drama stands out: Korean dramas always have backstories which make the audience understand and appreciate the stories better. In Healer, an action-romance, the backstory was the time when South Korea was under martial rule and the lack of press freedom inspired 5 college friends to be guerilla broadcasters. The romance between Seo Jung-hoo and Chae Young-shin is beautifully woven into the storyline that it's the most kilig drama on my list. Of course, that actors Ji Chang-wook and Park Min-young have excellent chemistry and that both are gorgeous and talented reinforced my giddiness. The drama has funny and kilig moments even in the action scenes and they were done with so much class. Watch out for the snow kiss to know what I mean!

File photo from MBC's website

Starring Kim Soo-hyun and Han Ga-in

Synopsis: There are two moons and two suns, spelling tragedy, because there should only be one moon and one sun. This was the vision of a shaman who tried as much as she could to keep the moons and the suns – the queens and the kings – apart. But what can a shaman do when love blooms? Crown Prince Lee Hwon and Heo Yeon-woo, the intelligent daughter of aristocrats, meet and fall in love, young as they are. But the Queen Mother is too obsessed with power that she resorted to the supernatural just to ensure that the crown will remain on her side of the family. Tragedy strikes and tears the young lovers apart. Years later, the crown prince is now the King (Kim Soo-hyun) forced to marry another aristocrat. But he continues to love Yeon-woo, ignoring the Queen. Yeon-woo (Han Ga-in) grows up to become a shaman named Wol and has no recollection of her past. The King's half-brother and best friend falls in love with Wol but when the King and Wol realize the truth, they could not hold back their feelings for each other. Ultimately, good people will sacrifice their lives for the kingdom, the King, and Wol – the moon who embraces and protects the sun.

Why the drama stands out: A sageuk, or historical drama, is a huge part of Korean dramas, reflecting Koreans' pride in their long, interesting past. We get to learn about the Joseon era, the last and longest imperial rule in the Korean peninsula that spanned 500 years. We will always hear 전하 (jeon-ha) – the King, 저하 (jeo-ha) – the Crown Prince, and 마마 (mama), the Queen or Queen Mother. From start to end, I felt that I was reading a book while watching Moon Embracing the Sun because of its lyrical screenplay, then I found out that this was adapted from a book. The strengths of this period drama are the storyline itself and the superb acting of its cast. How the power hungry and the power struggle within the palace got in the way of the love of the two protagonists will make you really angry and root for the lovers.

Kim Soo-hyun also showed his acting chops here. You feel his pain and you could find yourself crying with him. He had a stoic expression as Do Min-joon in My Love from the Star, being an alien who must conceal himself from humans. Kim Soo-hyun showed a wider range of emotions in Moon Embracing the Sun, proving he's not just a pretty face.

Note: A close runner up is 2017 drama Queen for Seven Days, starring Park Min-young and Yeon Woo-jin. The drama is based on a true story. I'm still on Episode 8 of the 20-episode series, and couldn't binge because of work duties, but already, I am blown away by this drama.

File photo courtesy of Netflix

Starring Joo Ji-hoon and Bae Doona

Synopsis: The King was infected with a virus that turned him into a zombie. He eats his doctor's assistant, whose body was eventually turned into stew by a mysterious but helpful man for patients in a sanitarium neglected by the government. Suffice it to say, this was how the zombie virus spread throughout the kingdom. Adding to the mayhem are the opportunists in the palace that include the young Queen, all of them waiting for the right time to unseat Crown Prince Lee Chang (Joo Ji-hoon). Lee Chang has to outsmart not only the power hungry in the palace but the zombies as well who could, for some reason, outrun even Usain Bolt.

Why the drama stands out: A zombie attack in a sageuk? Kingdom proved it can be done, and it was done absolutely well. Kingdom is based on a webtoon called Land of the Gods by Kim Eun-hee and Yang Kyung-il. Kim Eun-hee herself wrote the drama's script. Director Kim Seong-hun brought to life the suspense and thriller with his artful use of low-key lighting that you would find yourself so drawn to it, you would want to run with the Crown Prince and everybody else once the zombies jerk back to life. Korean dramas are often steeped in social commentary and Kingdom is no exception. The contagion happened because government officials were selfish and they left the common people to starve. Crown Prince Lee Chang saw all these and vowed he would be a different leader. He proved this time and again in several scenes, you'd wish you could import him to the Philippines and make him president. Season 1 ends with a most excruciating and heart-stopping cliffhanger. If anyone from Netflix is reading this, when's Season 2?

File photo from KBS' website

Starring So Ji-sub and Shin Mina

Synopsis: Kang Joo-eun (Shin Mina) was called the Venus of Daegu (a Korean province) when she was young for her sheer beauty. Fifteen years later, she's a lawyer, some 20 pounds heavier, and waiting for her high school sweetheart to ask her to marry him. But he dumps her for another lawyer who's svelte and sophisticated. Kim Young-ho (So Ji-sub) is the reluctant heir to his family's empire. Afflicted with a bone disease when he was young, Kim Young-ho devotes his life to keeping fit and eating right, even becoming a physical trainer to Hollywood stars. A showbiz scandal forces Kim Young-ho to return home to Korea and Kang Joo-eun discovers his secret. She promises not to reveal Kim Young-ho's identity if he helps her lose weight. Kim Young-ho agrees but reminds Kang Joo-eun that true beauty emanates from within and that weight loss should be more for health reasons than vanity. They end up helping each other deal with their internal conflicts and discover love through the laughter and tears.

Why this drama stands out: Many Korean dramas are based on ordinary life experiences and issues that make them relatable. Korean screenplay writers seem to have perfected the art of turning them into very interesting stories. Oh My Venus is one such drama, even if my friends and I had some discussion about some of the references to weight and beauty. I'm certain you'll have your opinion, too, but I was too caught up with the romance and comedy of this drama to dwell too much on political correctness. It wasn't definitely love at first sight for Kang Joo-eun and Kim Young-ho. They, in fact, get on each other's nerves. But as they get to know each other better, they realize that they are meant for each other. As someone who's had to deal with weight all her life, I'm just happy there's a drama that tackled this issue without trivializing it.

Note: Close runners-up for ordinary life experiences-turned-extraordinary stories are 2018's What's Wrong with Secretary Kim, starring Park Min-young and Park Seo-joon, and 2015's She Was Pretty, starring Hwang Jung-eum and Park Seo-joon

File photo from Lee Min-ho's official Facebook page

Starring Lee Min-ho and Park Shin-hye

Synopsis: Kim Tan (Lee Min-ho) is the teenage son of a business tycoon with his mistress. Tan was close to his older half-brother who suddenly exiles Tan to the US out of fear that he would try to seize control of the family business. A year younger than Tan, Cha Eun-sang (Park Sin-hye) is the daughter of a mute housekeeper who ends up working in the Tan household. Tan and Eun-sang meet in the US under stressful circumstances but they develop feelings for each other. Back in Korea, their different social backgrounds keep them apart. Eun-sang's character is one of only two poor students in the entire story because the rest are born into wealth and privilege, hence the title, The Heirs. But in the end, the love of Tan and Eun-sang wins, young as they are.

Why this drama stands out: The Heirs, a coming-of-age drama, is the Korean equivalent of Pinoy teleseryes, with its numerous subplots and the buckets of tears shed by its female lead. Unlike its Filipino counterparts, however, the subplots are not too complicated to follow and they tie up with the main story, which is the love story of Kim Tan and Cha Eun-sang. This is also the only drama that I've so far seen with several characters, and remarkably, each one is significant in the story. Credit this to the impeccable talent of acclaimed scriptwriter, Kim Eun-sook, who also penned the more recent hits, Descendants of the Sun (2016) and Mr. Sunshine (2018). The Heirs is also known as The Inheritors, and interestingly, its literal title is He Who Wishes to Wear the Crown, Endures its Weight. When The Heirs came out in 2013, Lee Min-ho and Park Shin-hye were the Hallyu stars. But also in the cast were Kang Ha-neul, Kim Woo-bin, Kim Ji-won and Park Hyung-shik who are now stars in their own right.

File photo from KBS' website

Starring Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki

Synopsis: Army special forces Captain Yoo Shi-jin (Song Joong-ki) and hospital emergency surgeon Dr Kang Mo-yeon meet and fall in love, but they couldn't get their relationship off the ground because of their demanding schedules and seemingly contradictory professions. As a soldier, Shi-jin finds himself having to kill to save lives. Mo-yeon is focused on saving lives. Just as when they decide to part ways, they are brought together by a natural disaster in a country called Uruk where they have to work together to save as many people as they could. They both realize that their lives and their duty to others are intertwined and that they could make their love work amid all the challenges.

Why this drama stands out: Before anything else, it's just sad that the Song-Song couple were unable to survive the challenges to their real-life romance. They are divorcing after less than two years of being married. But Descendants of the Sun will always be remembered as the remarkable drama that brought Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki together. Descendants of the Sun is said to have revived the Korean wave after a two-year void in successful dramas since My Love from the Star aired in 2014 and hit the Chinese and other Asian markets by storm. Korean dramas often tackle politics and Descendants of the Sun dared to include security issues in the Korean peninsula. It had North and South Korean soldiers fight each other, but also help each other in the end.

What's in your own K-drama starter pack? Let us know in the comments section below! – Rappler.com

Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.

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