2020 has been unpredictable — both with the good and bad — with the world enveloped in a shared and terrifying pandemic that has derailed social norms and business across the globe. For the entertainment realm, it has been nothing short of paralyzing for film, television and other entertainment productions. Yet there has been a few remarkable bright spots — one of which, was the discovery by the U.S. audiences of the treasure trove of excellent Korean films and television series (known as K-drama) being released out of South Korea.
The ascent of director Bong Joon Ho’s film “Parasite,” which was crowned Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes in early January 2020, and then went on to sweep the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best International Film Feature as well as the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance By A Cast in A Motion Picture and Writers Guild Award for Best Screenplay, has been nothing short of astounding and well-earned. “Parasite” was awarded in excess of 100 awards from film festivals and prominent award bodies across the globe in just 10 short months. “Parasite” was not even released in the U.S. until October 2019, but it quickly became a breakout international sensation as its award domination continued from May 2019 all the way into February 2020.
At the January 2020 Golden Globes where director Bong Joon Ho declared: “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” It may not have seemed like a lightning strike, but Boon Joon Ho’s quiet challenge was like ringing a bell to all those listening that, it was time to not only recognize the superior screen art of Korean film and television, it should be savored and enjoyed just as much as any U.S., U.K., Canadian, or other international on-screen work.
Picking up Boon Joon Ho’s metaphorically thrown gauntlet, I have embarked upon a journey to watch more Korean films and television shows, and I am eternally grateful that I did. While my journey into the world of K-drama has only just begun, the South Korean films and television shows that I have watched have been outstanding. Everything from the carefully-crafted script writing of the stories and characters, to the superb casting, to the nuanced directing and production, to the song choices and musical scores, and breath-taking cinematography has yielded a masterful work of on-screen art. As a critic and as a viewer, it has been a joy to discover such a rich world of on-screen entertainment.
To share a bit of the remarkable films and series that I have discovered in my journey into the K-drama realm, and to aid those who may be venturing into the world of South Korean K-dramas, I want to showcase a few that I have enjoyed and recommend.
Released in 2016, “Cinderella and The Four Knights” is a charming self-contained series consisting of 16 episodes, which will make you feel you are consuming a box of chocolates — each sweeter and more delectable than the last as the story and characters come together to create an on-screen candy confection. After “Parasite’s” historic and monumental awards haul, it seemed like an advantageous choice to start with a K-drama series that starred Park So-dam, especially after her riveting performance in “Parasite.”
“Cinderella and The Four Knights” was an excellent choice for my introduction in the K-drama world. It provided easily introduced characters set amongst the classic tale of Cinderella, albeit recreated as a modern-day story with many humorous twists. Not being fluent in Korean, watching “Cinderella and The Four Knights” also was a great way to acclimate to reading English subtitles and training my ear to recognize familiar Korean greetings and phrases that are used throughout K-drama films/series. There is a bit of a learning curve adapting to reading subtitles, but for the adventurous, it is entirely worthwhile and rewarding. The bonus being that you get to watch stories that will dazzle and dance through your soul — at least, that is what I discovered, as watching each K-drama has been like falling in love each and every time, and it seems that each South Korean film and television series is deliberately crafted that way — the goal is to make you fall deeply in love with the characters and their stories. It is a remarkable and laudable achievement that, each and every South Korean film and show that I have seen, so far, do exactly that. Thus, it has been one of my greatest joys as a critic and fan to find an on-screen world so richly developed and crafted that I keep falling in love over and over again.
So what about “Cinderella and The Four Knights” did I fall for? Park So-dam was just the beginning. Cast as a Cinderella who finds herself employed by a grandfather hoping to reform his 3 rebellious grandsons so that one can step up and take his place as helm of his corporate empire, Park So-dam’s character is the Cinderella that sweeps them all off their feet to varying degrees — and the audience’s hearts along with them. Park So-dam is simply effervescent in this role. As if watching her was not treat enough, the show is infused with comedic moments backdropped by a confection of candy-colored settings and cinematography. So much so that when watching “Cinderella and The Four Knights,” it really does feel like you are slowly eating a box of chocolates as the delicious story unfolds on-screen. Combining its dreamy settings and cinematography with sweeping musical scores and lush love songs, the entire series is a deft blend of humor and romance, tinged with poignancy through the teary-eyed moments of yearning and revelation.
So while one could simply describe “Cinderella and The Four Knights” as a magical-modern fairytale story of a young woman who gets a life-changing job offer, that is a simplified description. What I really appreciated while watching “Cinderella and The Four Knights” was that, throughout the series, there is a delicate balance of female-empowering challenges offset against traditional Korean family values, as this particular Cinderella-tale is about a determined young woman who will do whatever it takes to achieve her dream of going to college and honoring her family along the way. In addition, the life-lessons that she shares with the grandsons, as well as the ones she discovers for herself, are all lessons that we can all benefit from. “Cinderella and The Four Knights” has so many great teaching moments and it makes you feel inspired to learn and benefit from those same lessons in your own life. There is a great saying about love: it makes you want to be a better person. That’s what I learned most of all from “Cinderella and The Four Knights” — that I want to be a better person. So falling in love with the show and its characters were a part of it, but in addition to falling under its spell, it is also aspirational and inspiring.
So make a date with “Cinderella and The Four Knights” (currently available for viewing on Netflix), and discover a world of female-empowerment and inspiration. Your heart will be full after watching it as it leaves you with a warm and cozy feeling in your heart and soul, which is something we all need more of in our lives.
After being swept off my feet by “Cinderella and The Four Knights,” it set a high bar for the next K-drama series that I watched. Recommended by fellow critic and K-drama afficionado @jenn_wilson who reviews K-dramas for @TheKThree on Twitter, “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” was the perfect segue series. “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” is a 16-episode series just released on Netflix. Similar to “Cinderella and The Four Knights,” “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” is a book-ended story, so viewers do not have to worry that the final episode will leave any of the characters or stories with a cliffhanger ending. Apparently, many South Korean television series are written to have a specific end-point at around 16 to 20 episodes. That is reassuring to me, as a viewer who has watched many television series that did not have a proper ending. So feel reassured venturing into the Korean television world that K-drama series are going to take you to an end of the story.
“Mystic Pop-Up Bar” starts off as a tale of young man who seeks help from a mystic to stop people that he inadvertently touches from blurting out their secrets to him, which turns into this amazing series about the search for connection, belonging and destiny. “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” is at its essence a heart-warming show with heaping dose of comedy infused throughout. As I discovered from “Cinderella and The Four Knights” and while watching “Mystic Pop-Up Bar,” many K-dramas use slap-stick, wacky comedy to help balance stories of trauma and dark drama. In “Mystic Pop-Up Bar,” a young man who has virtually no family has this curse hanging over him where, if he mistakenly bumps into or touches anyone, that person then starts telling him all their secrets. It haunts him and worries him, as he would like to be able to have more meaningful connections with people around him, including his wacky co-workers. Fortunately, he meets a mystical woman at a nearby pop-up bar, who is coincidentally trying to work-off a curse of her own where she has lived 500 years trying to help 100,000 people overcome any regrets in their lives so that she can save her own soul. “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” leans heavily into the supernatural world, but it is a fun place to visit as joyfully depicted in the series. It successfully weaves its supernatural elements in our real-world in many fun and humor-filled ways.
At first, I thought “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” was just going to be all silly and fun, but that just overlays a deeper tale of the search for family, solace and destiny. By the end of the series, you will feel overcome by the love and sacrifices that each character achieves and makes. It also has powerful life-lessons to share and yet, for each one of those, you will feel grateful for being reminded what really matters in our lives. We all get distracted by the dreams of wealth and comfort, when really what matters are the people in our lives that we share connections with as well as who we share our lives with, will always be more rewarding than all the money in the world.
“Mystic Pop-Up Bar” is a heartfelt delight to watch. You will laugh and cry, and yet feel so much better having watched it. Any show that makes you feel grateful and blessed by the end is a work of visual art. So definitely add this wondrous series to your watch-list. You will be happy you did.
Taking a bit of a darker turn, I selected “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” on Netflix as my third K-drama series to watch. It was good to have started with lighter stories in “Cinderella and The Four Knights” and “Mystic Pop-Up Bar” before dabbling in a series like “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay,” which is much more dark in tone and story. Interestingly, “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” is actually based on fairytales, or rather it uses fairytales to shape and describe events that happen in real-world situations.
When I first began watching “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay,” I was immediately struck by its unique visuals and cinematography as it looks like literal art, like something found on museum walls. The colorization, settings, set dressing and props, and the placement of each character in those stunning visuals is magnificent. There is no other word for it: magnificent. Just watching “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” will take your breath away.
What is even more amazing is that the characters themselves are so richly written and portrayed in “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay.” Your heart will ache with the longing, desire and pain that each feels in every scene. Do not get the wrong idea, this show is a dark drama of childhood fears haunting each character and how they are barely coping when all their lives intersect amidst a tale of horror in a mental hospital. The show’s beating heart is a young man who cares for and provides for his autistic brother, who encounters a famous children’s author cursed by her tragic past, and how all their lives collide in a dark fairytale. Delicately and hauntingly portrayed, the characters’ pain and healing is felt throughout, then infused with a slow-burning romance, as well as a few more humorous love-connections, “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” is a multilayered tale of trauma, horror, and how love of all its magnificent varieties (familial, friendship and romantic) help these fractured people heal and move on.
Currently, airing 2 new episodes each week on Netflix, “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” will come to its final conclusion next weekend. But with 16 episodes used to unveil its incredible story, it is worth investing your time to watch and discover why “It’s Okay To Not Be Okay” is taking the entertainment world by storm right now.
Released in 2017, the 16-episode series formerly called “Introverted Boss” is currently available to watch on Netflix. “My Shy Boss” at first glance sounds like a light-weight concept series. But let me assure you, it’s not. It’s very first scene opens with a shocking and graphic suicide. That said, “My Shy Boss” an exceptionally well-done series that explores how multiple lives are affected when a young woman takes her own life, inspiring her younger sister to investigate her death and take up a new career, and how in the process she helps her new shy boss heal too.
The “My Shy Boss” story is full of layers and complexities of all the different pressures that add up to the point where a young woman would feel that she had no choice but to take her own life. It’s not easy to watch the building pain and misunderstandings, but the journey will oddly enough make you grateful that you got to watch all these nuanced characters come together after such a horrific tragedy. It also smartly employs humor in generous amounts to deflect from the darker moments. It is a credit to the phenomenal writing, casting and portrayals that makes this series so worthwhile. You cannot help but feel charmed by, seduced by and entranced by these characters who are just yearning to be loved. That ache for connection and understanding is at the core of each of us. To see that on screen is astounding. I was moved and affected by this series so much that I feel a bit haunted by it — but in a good way.
For no matter how dark or difficult the subject matter, “My Shy Boss” was written and portrayed in a way that you will appreciate watching it. That is tricky to do and I am impressed by how skillfully it was done. Plus, it’s “Phantom of the Opera”-esque inspired love-story is beautifully and touchingly portrayed.
For my 4th K-drama, I chose to watch “Another Miss Oh,” which I also thought would be a light-weight story to watch and was surprised to find it also explored deeper themes of trauma and loss. As I am discovering in the world of K-drama, they excel at wrapping up their darker stories with loving and comedic characters that you cannot help but fall in love with. The art of seducing a viewing audience into watching stories of pain, loss and redemption is not easy and is rarely done with such finesse. Yet I am seeing more and more of the K-drama shows employ a wonderful balance of addictive characters with just enough comedy to keep the darker stories from being consumed in pain and suffering.
“Another Miss Oh” is an 18-episode bookended series that first aired in 2016, and is now currently available to watch on Netflix. “Another Miss Oh” is told from the viewpoint of a young man who has visions of a woman with the same name as his ex-fiancé, who left him at the alter, and how their lives spark a romance that transcends time. It is bittersweet romance with crazy comedy mixed in. The visions seem a bit supernatural in nature, but the series is actually grounded firmly in our modern world and uses psychiatry as a way of exploring how and why the visions keep coming true.
Watching fate intervene to bring two people together out of the deepest pain of their lives: being stood-up at the alter, is fascinating. The series does not shy away from the emotional and mental scaring, pain and betrayal that a person would experience from that kind of shocking event. “Another Miss Oh” works through all that pain on a remarkable journey of self-discovery and connection. It also illustrates how all of our lives are interconnected and we have so many missed connections with people who may or may not be a part of our larger destiny every single day.
“Another Miss Oh” is exceptionally well-written, portrayed and will take you on an emotional journey that, while painful, takes you to a miraculous and rewarding ending. It also acutely portrays the unusual burden of having the same name as another person and how that can have long-reaching positive and negative effects throughout a person’s life.
My favorite out of all the K-drama series that I have watch so far, “Crash Landing On You” is extraordinary. Truly it is every inch of the word: extraordinary. It was just mind-blowing watching it. I will admit that that some credit goes to the two leads Son Ye-jin and Hyun Bin, whose chemistry ignites on-screen as you watch them in scenes together. But it is more than just sizzling chemistry that makes “Crash Landing On You” such a phenomenal series. The entire series is master-craft excellent — the writing, the editing, the sound mixing and music, the cinematography, the location shoots, the interior set dressings, the costuming, the multi-tiered casting and amazing character portrayals, the nuanced layers added to every level of character on screen, the over-arching ambition to the story being told is that it spans three continents and will make you yearn for the opportunity to travel to all the amazing locations it features — there is so much embedded in this story in its 16-episodes that your jaw will just fall open with amazement. I have since watched several more sensational K-drama series, and yet “Crash Landing On You,” is the one that captured my heart. It is filled with so much love and laughter.
“Crash Landing On You” starts off as a story of a South Korean business woman who accidentally paraglides across the border and is rescued by North Korean soldier who does everything in his power to return her safely home. The show is about all their misadventures in that endeavor and how it irrevocably affects their lives. Set in our modern world, it is not something to be taken lightly when someone accidentally finds theirself to be in North Korea. It is a dangerous, politically volatile and precarious position to be in and the show makes sure that threat is handled with precision and care. What I loved, was how the series infused so much love and appreciation of life on both sides of the border. This was not a tale of which country is good and which is bad. It is an exploration of the differences while trying to beat the ticking-clock of discovery before a safe return, if even possible, and how love bonds arise out of the most impossible and improbable of situations. After all, what do you do when you find your soul-mate living in a country that you can never go to? Fate intervenes for these star-crossed lovers, but it takes a few unexpected turns along the way.
In watching “Crash Landing On You,” I also appreciated how there was no simple answer and resolution. I am not promising the classic happy-ending as these characters are all living in our real-world, but I was very happy to take this love-filled, thrilling journey with them. Every love story should be about the journey and not the ending. For the better the journey, the more exquisite it is to experience it with them.
Released in late 2019 and airing into 2020 on Netflix, “Crash Landing On You” is one of the highest rated and viewed Korean drama series of all time. It deserves to be. It is a story that builds and builds and builds, adding layers to its characters so that by the end, you will fall in love with each and every one of them for a variety of reasons. Love is something to be shared and reveled in by all. “Crash Landing On You” smartly remembers that we should love all the characters and each’s own journey, not just the central characters. That kind of care into supporting characters is what elevates this show. It takes its world-building and character depths to levels that many shows do not normally go to. That loving care is felt in every scene. The show is built out of love and you should feel immersed in love by the end. It’s a “happy place” that will leave you yearning for more. And trust me, you are not alone in that feeling. There is a vast, happy fan world that exists to welcome you if you want to visit it online.
“Crash Landing On You” right now is my “happy place.” I remain awed by it.
When you have thoroughly enjoyed a series, it can be hard to find another show to rise to the occasion to watch next. Thus, I was very pleased to find “When The Camellia Blooms,” which just competed against “Crash Landing On You” at the recent 56th Baeksang Arts Awards. “When The Camellia Blooms” is a 20-episode series that aired in 2019 on Netflix.
“When The Camellia Blooms” focuses on the story of a single mother determined to raise her 8 year old son as a healthy, happy young man, who encounters a young policeman on trail of serial killer that has been stalking her. In Korean society, unwed single mothers are shunned as outcasts, so there is a huge social stigma attached to her and her son. But “When The Camellia Blooms” shows that, through the love of a determined young man who will do anything to win her heart and keep her and her son safe, love can blossom and grow.
I loved how, in the end, “When The Camellia Blooms” is a heartfelt, infectious tale of love overcoming the many obstacles to true love and happiness. Yet it is also not just a romance. This is a tale of diligent police work aided by an entire community to root out a serial killer that has spent years stalking his prey. With ample doses of humor and comedy infused through the darker tale, “When The Camellia Blooms” shows how resilience and tenacity makes each character stronger when faced with prejudice, societal pressure, bullying, and family responsibility. The character growth explored through a dozen characters is remarkable and layered. You will find yourself as torn, conflicted and worried along with all these characters and yet, as they grow, your appreciation and love for each will grow as well.
Similar to “Crash Landing On You,” “When The Camellia Blooms” offers master-craft storytelling and character development. Yet it is content to keep its tale within a small world of a back-alley community, making it will feel bigger, in the end, just because it took you on a deep exploration of each person in that tiny corner of the world — the heart of “When The Camellia Blooms” will feel bigger because it welcomed you deeper into its embrace.
Thanks to some great suggestions by the fans as I continued to discover the world of Korean drama, next up in my K-drama discovery was the series “Memories of the Alhambra.” The 16-episode series “Memories of the Alhambra” aired initially in 2018 and is currently available on Netflix. After watching “Crash Landing On You,” which also co-starred Hyun Bin, watching “Memories of Alhambra” was like falling right into a warm “happy bubble.” (In all fairness, the fans had turned me onto watching the Korean films “The Negotiation” and “Confidential Assignment,” which helped fine-tune my appreciation of Hyun Bin in a variety of roles: North Korean military officer, hostage taker and arms smuggler, police detective, venture capitalist. Hyun Bin is exceptionally charismatic in all these roles.)
“Memories of Alhambra” is very different from all the other Korean drama series that I have watched as it is set in an augmented reality (AR) world where gamers play out fantasy duels in the real-world. But in “Memories of Alhambra,” those fictitious duels start to have horrific repercussions as the players begin dying off one by one. So there is a distinct fantasy-element throughout the series and, in most scenes, that will leave you, as a viewer, wondering if what you see is real or AR-fantasy. That question of “what is real?” plays out fantastically through the entire series.
The “Memories of Alhambra” story starts off as a simple business transaction between a venture capitalist seeking to buy a newly developed AR-game, but who gets swept away in its duels-to-death scenarios and desperately seeks to find the creator of the game who has gone missing. How time passes and sheer scope of time involved over the course of the series will be bigger than you may anticipate. The virtual-world and real-world time components make for an interesting element to the classic tale of racing against the clock to save someone caught up in a rogue AR-game. Also thoroughly immersed in this story is the star-crossed love of a young woman desperate to find her missing brother and the venture capitalist whose fate she becomes entangled with. Their unusual love-story will also leave you breathless and wondering where it all goes.
Throughout its 16-episodes, “Memories of Alhambra” will challenge your perceptions of reality, perception of time, and perception of who to trust and why. Fortunately, using love as a guide proves to be the key in this story and how it unravels is a complex and intriguing story. With a few dangling story-threads, there is potential to continue this story and I, along with the fans, fervently hope that it is continued at some point in the future.
As I wrap this article, what I have found incredible, as I continue to discover the world of Korean dramas, is really how each series truly excels at making you fall head-over-heels in love with their unique worlds and characters. For me, it has been a rich and rewarding experience getting to know each show and appreciate the stories each has to tell. In addition, each show has lingered with me and made me feel appreciative that I had the opportunity to watch it. It is akin to opening Christmas presents one by one and feeling more grateful and blissfully happy with each one. For there is a bigger world of television than what we have previously been exposed to and it is really great to see that the online streaming platforms, like Netflix and Amazon Prime, are making these previously inaccessible series available for international viewing. So I invite you to venture into the Korean drama world and, not only watch these series, but to discover other K-drama series that you will fall in love with.
(This article was first published at Seat42F, August 6, 2020.)