I watch a lot of Korean dramas—probably more than what’s good for me. I talked about this briefly in my American vs. Korean Dramas blog post. So today, instead of my usual Top Nines about books, history, or writing, I am doing something a bit different. A good friend of mine recently asked what Korean dramas I would recommend her to watch. I’m going to do just that, balancing different genres and lengths. Honestly, it was really hard to narrow this list down to nine. In the end, I couldn’t. So this list is going to be eleven instead of nine (which is pretty good since I started with over twenty). here goes.
11. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)
I will refer to this as Game of Thrones of Korea. Set mostly in the Goryeo Dynasty in 941, it tells the story of a young woman (played by talented actress IU) from our modern age who is transported back in time. She discovers herself in the court of King Taejo of Goryeo where his many sons fight over possession of the throne, and finds herself in the middle of the drama as more than a couple of the princes fall in love with her.
It’s an interesting drama with exceptional acting. Lee Joon Gi plays an dark male lead and Hong Jong Hyun plays a villain you have to love (and that black eyeliner)! While not very historically accurate, the costumes are exquisite, the hair is lovely, and the drama is heart-pumping. But be prepared, as there is a reason I compared it to Game of Thrones and that does not simply have to do with the fight for power. Pretty much every character you love and cherish dies by the end of this 20-episode drama. You’ve been warned!
If you like this drama, also be sure to check out Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015), The Night Watchman (2014), and Gu Family Book (2013) for similar fantasy/historical themes.
10. Fated to Love You (2014)
Starring Jang Hyuk and Jang Na-Ra (two of the best Korean actors out there), this 20-episode romantic comedy is one of the cutest you will ever watch.
A remake of the Taiwanese drama by the same name, it tells the story of a wealthy businessman and an average secretary who drink a love potion accidently and end up sleeping together one night. Super awkward, right? They part ways the next day and agree to never see each other. That is, until Kim Mi-Young (Jang Na-Ra) finds she is pregnant and they are forced by his family to marry.
The description may sound a bit strange, but it is one of the sweetest romances I have ever seen. The two leads play such unique characters, and—though the romance is bittersweet at many times—the ending is adorable.
If you like this drama, be sure to check out Successful Story of a Bright Girl (2002), starring the same acting pair twelve years earlier.
9. You’re Beautiful (2009)
No, not the song by James Blunt. This is another adorably sweet comedy, starring pretty much all the famous faces of Korean dramas: Park Shin-hye, Jang Keun-suk, Jung Yong-hwa of CN Blue, Lee Hong-gi of F.T. Island, and UEE of After School. I call it the pop idol dating simulator.
Park Shin-hye plays Go Mi-nyeo, a sweet girl with aspirations of becoming a Catholic nun who goes undercover is a boy for her twin brother to keep his place in K-pop band A.N.JELL. There, all three other members of the group start falling for her. Who will she choose: cold Tae-kyung, gentle Shin-woo, or optimistic Jeremy?
First of all, I’ll ignore the fact that Park Shin-hye is far too feminine to ever pass for a boy—either these people are oblivious or very, very stupid not to notice. Putting that aside, the drama is absolutely hilarious (though, like all Korean dramas, it deals with abandonment and disappointments as well).
Back in 2009, when this drama was first released, it blew up. Even now, it is one of the first dramas that get foreign fans interested in Korean dramas. In fact, it was only the second Korean drama I ever watched. If you like more Disney Channel type shows with a little more depth, this one is definitely for you.
8. Moon That Embraces the Sun (2012)
Back when this first came out, I was obsessed with it. Starring Kim Soo-hyun, Han Ga-in, Jung Il-woo, and Kim Min-seo, this Joseon era drama is a semi-tragedy. However, unlike a lot of historical Korean dramas out there, it does not end with everyone dying. Bonus!
This drama revolves around the romance between fictional King Lee Hwon and a shaman name Wol from their tragic childhood to their reunion years later. I won’t talk about the plot too much because it might give away some spoilers, but this drama is less of a romance and more of a mystery/court drama.
While it is in many ways extremely dark, the acting is brilliant and the romance is realistic. Even today, I often revisit this drama because of its re-watch value.
If you like this, be sure to check out Love in the Moonlight (2016).
7. Liar Game (2014)
Now, let’s leave romance (a hard genre to get away from in Korean dramas, honestly) and turn towards mystery. This 16-episode drama starring Kim So-eun, Lee Sang-yoon, and Shin Sung-rok is based on a Japanese drama by the same name (though the two are very different).
The plot goes like this. Nam Da-Jung (Kim So-eun) is a naïve student who is invited unto a reality game show called the Liar Game, a psychological survival game hosted by Shin Sung-rok’s character where contestants dupe each other out of their money in hopes of winning the grand prize: 10 billion won (about 9.3 million US dollars). She in turn recruits a genius ex-conman to help her (played by Lee Sang-Yoon).
If you like dramas that play with your mind and reality, this drama is for you. In a sense, it is a warning against the modern obsession with reality shows and just how far a television company might go to make money. The acting is exceptional, and you never know what is going to happen next. In a sense, it is a thriller (just with less death). I highly recommend it.
6. Ojakgyo Family (2011-2012)
This is a perfect example of a family drama (of which Korea has many). By family drama, I mean exactly what the name suggests: a drama about a family. This one is pretty long, being 58 episodes.
Set around an average family with four sons, there are several reasons this particular drama stands out from many family dramas I have seen. First, the acting is great. Uee (who also starred in You’re Beautiful) plays a young orphan who comes to live with the family after her father dies, as her father actually loaned the family their farm. At first the family despises her, but eventually they all come to love her. It is sweet, but realistic. The four sons have very different jobs and lives, and none of the characters blend together as in many family dramas.
If you are fond of more slow-paced stories about families, this drama is for you.
5. Kill Me Heal Me (2015)
This 20-episode drama centers around the romance between psychiatric resident Oh Ri Jin (Hwang Jung-Eum) and business heir Cha Do Hyun (Ji Sung). Oh, but you thought it would be a sweet romance. Nope.
What’s interesting about this drama is that Cha Do Hyun has dissociative identity disorder (a.k.a. split personalities) and has a total of 6 very different personalities which come out at the most inconvenient times. Oh Ri Jin comes to treat him and, together, they unfold a dark mystery of his family and try to heal him of his disorder.
In many ways, this drama has everything. It is a romance, a thriller, a comedy, a downer, a mystery, a drama. When I first saw this series, I was highly impressed by Ji Sung’s performance of—in a sense—7 different characters.
If you are sensitive to topics about disorders and child abuse, this drama may not be for you. Otherwise, I highly recommend it.
4. Boys Over Flowers (2009)
So here we come to the first Korean drama I ever watched, and the drama that caused most men in Korea to first become more fashionable (America could use a little bit of that influence). Anyway, this 25-episode drama is based on Japanese shōjo manga series Boys Over Flowers (Hana Yori Dango). If you are into anime, odds are you have heard of this manga as well. It kind of overtook Asia and, since the early 2000s, there have been multiple live action dramas of it in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, China, and India (not to mention several more dramas “inspired” by it).
However, this particular adaptation is my favorite. Not only did it skyrocket its leading stars to stardom, but it remains today as one of the most beloved Korean dramas by both domestic and foreign fans alike.
Ku Hye-sun stars as the spunky Geum Jan Di, who attends the posh Shinhwa High School through a scholarship. There, she encounters the rulers of the school, a group of four wealthy young men: arrogant Gu Jun Pyo (Lee Min-ho), reserved Yoon Ji Hoo (Kim Hyun-Joong), charming So Yi Jung (Kim Bum), and flirtatious Song Woo Bin (Kim Joon).
After she witnesses them bullying other students, she stands up to them and Gu Jun Pyo begins to direct his bullying at her. So starts a strange love triangle as Gu Jun Pyo falls for Jan Di just as Jan Di crushes on Ji Hoo.
It is a hilarious drama, but it also shows a strong contrast between wealth and power. In a sense, this drama is a symptom of the Asian fascination of romance between a rich man and poor woman. While not one of the best dramas I have ever watched, there is something endearing about this drama that has me watching it again and again. In K-drama sense, it is a classic.
3. City Hunter (2011)
This drama also stars Lee Min-ho, but is very different from the previous entry. This political thriller centers around Lee Min-ho’s character, a highly trained vigilante, and the man who raised him to be a killer. The father-figure, played by the brilliant Kim Sang-joong, wants to use Lee Yoon-sung (Lee Min-ho) to seek revenge on high, corrupt political figures in Korea’s government by assassinating them. Yoon-sung, however, has a stronger sense of justice as he fights to bring these men to be judged for their crimes. In the meantime, he falls for security officer Kim Na-na (played by the gorgeous Park Min-young).
If you like cool fight scenes, thrillers, and political dramas, this 20-episode series is for you. One tidbit I thought was incredibly cool was that Lee Min-ho did all his own stunts, as the production could not find a stunt double tall enough to stand in for him.
If you like this drama, be sure to check out Healer (2014), The K2 (2016), and Gap Dong (2014).
2. White Christmas (2011)
No, I’m not talking about the Christmas classic from the fifties starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. In fact, odds are even if you are a Korean drama fan you have probably never heard of this mystery drama.
This is the shortest series on my list, going only 8 episodes. Set at an elite high school in the mountains over spring break, it deals with several students who stay over winter break with one of their teachers, only to have someone murdered and a mysterious stranger force them to be detectives. Not only is it a brilliant mystery that makes you question the motivations of everyone involved, but it also deals with very real issues that students, especially Korean students, face every day: pressure to succeed, depression, suicide, bullying, violence, etc.
This drama was also the start of many young actors’ careers in Korea who are now household names, such as Kim Young Kwang (from Pinocchio, D-Day, and Sweet Stranger and Me), Lee Soo Hyuk (Scholar who Walks the Night, Valid Love, and High School King of Savy), Hong Jong Hyun (Dating Agency: Cyrano, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo), Sung Joon (Madame Antoine, High Society, and Gu Family Book), and probably most famous Kim Woo Bin (School 2013, The Heirs, and Uncontrollably Fond).
It is a great drama and a nice place to start in watching dramas because it isn’t super long.
1. Empress Ki (2013-2014)
Set in the Goryeo Dynasty, it tells the true story (mostly) of Empress Ki, the very real empress of the Chinese Yuan Dynasty. Born in Korea, she rose to prominence by marrying the emperor of Yuan and, after he died, she ruled until her son was old enough to rule.
While the drama is hardly accurate, it is incredible in acting, costumes, and script. The Chinese palaces are beautiful. I just like the drama because it is one of the few Korean dramas where the second male lead gets the girl…yes, I know I have issues.
Starring Ha Ji-Wan as the title character, Ji Chang Wook as the emperor of Yuan, and Joo Jin Mo as the king of Korea, the story is a political, romantic drama. While there are comedic times, especially early on, get ready to be sobbing your eyes out at the end. Like Scarlet Heart: Ryeo, this series is about power struggles and most everyone dies by the end…again, we’re back to Game of Thrones (sorry, Korean historical dramas is way ahead when it comes to killing off your favorite characters).
Have you seen some/all of these on the list? Do you agree with my list? What are your favorite Korean dramas? And how did you get introduced to this genre of foreign TV series? And, as always,
Best wishes in your life filled with adventure,