A Cinephile’s Guide to Korean Dramas

Sakhi Solanki

Sakhi Solanki

Staff Writer

Have you exhausted yourself from the same old American/European shows that start out oh so great but then they just ruin everything by derailing the plot and just ridiculing a well-developed character arc? (Yes, you know what I’m talking about, Game of Thrones!) Or are you just looking for something new, different? Well, look no further. I’m about to introduce (or reintroduce) you to the wonderful, ever happening world of Asian drama. And after the Squid Game phenomena, you know this world is going to be full of twists and turns and something that will never bore you. 

The Hallyu wave (Korean wave), which essentially refers to the rise of the global popularity of the Korean cultural industry, has taken over the world. K-pop artists like BTS (fellow army here!), Exo, Blackpink, Psy, and so many more are getting their due recognition. Korean dramas are becoming the new happening thing with their mesmerizing cinematography, shorter yet intriguing storylines (only 16-20 episodes around an hour each), and of course, for the most gorgeous and talented actors themselves!

So, if you’re a beginner and are just about to dabble into this wonderful K-drama world (essentially a maze with no exit!), I’ve got just the list for you! I’ve handpicked the most amazing and intriguing dramas from each and every genre I could think of (in no particular order). 

        

  1. Coffee Prince


Genre: Rom-com, Crossdressing

Synopsis:

Choi Han Gyul is the grandson of chairwoman Bang of Dong-in Foods, a company that has a thriving coffee business. He has never had a job and does not care for responsibility. Han Gyul is hung up on his first love, Han Yoo Joo, who only sees him as a friend. Go Eun Chan is a 24-year-old tomboy who is often mistaken for a guy. Her father died when she was 16 years old, and since then, she has taken over as the breadwinner in her family. When Han Kyul and Eun Chan meet, he, not knowing that she is a girl, decides to hire her to pretend to be his gay lover so that he can escape the blind dates arranged by his grandmother. After getting an ultimatum from his grandmother, Han Gyul takes over a rundown old coffee shop, later renamed “Coffee Prince,” to prove that he’s capable, both to his grandmother and to Yoo Joo. To attract female customers, he only hires good-looking male employees. Eun Chan, desperate for money, continues to hide her gender to get a job at Coffee Prince.

No of Episodes: 17

Personal opinion:

This drama aired in 2007, but it is still one of the best dramas. The storyline might seem ridiculous because a girl who’s mistaken for a guy starts working for Choi Han Gyul to pretend to be his gay lover – you know, the usual things that we do to avoid marriage! But the girl isn’t looking for love. She’s just trying to survive. She’s trying to find herself, and through the help of Choi Han Gyul, she does. But that’s just one aspect and a charming thing about this drama. The story has the one line where the guy goes, “I don’t care whether you’re alien or a guy,” and mind you, this is years back when homophobia was a thing. It was such a progressive storyline, and that’s what captivates you. Also, Gong Yoo (Choi Han Gyul) is just phenomenal. I mean, this guy deserves all the love!!

My rating: 4/5

  1. My Mister

Genre: Slice of life, Family, Psychological 

Synopsis:

Park Dong Hoon is a middle-aged engineer who is married to attorney Kang Yoon Hee. However, his life is not that happy, as he has two unemployed brothers, Sang Hoon and Gi Hoon, who rely on him. Moreover, his wife is secretly having an affair with CEO Do Joon Yeong, Dong Hoon’s college junior but the current boss. 

One day, Dong Hoon receives an unexpected bribe and notices that his co-worker, Lee Ji An, saw him. Ji An is a young part-time worker at Dong Hoon’s company who is drowning in debt and left alone to take care of her ill grandmother. Dong Hoon then gets entangled in his brothers’ struggle to get back on their feet and the company’s internal rivalry between the company’s CEO and the people opposing him, all the while not knowing that CEO Joon Yeong wants to get rid of him and that Ji An is working for the CEO.

No of Episodes: 16

Personal opinion:

To be honest, I don’t know where I should begin with this one because I started watching this one with no expectations at all. The first episode wasn’t the best or the most intriguing, but as the story progressed, I seemed to realize the magic of it all. There’s nothing extravagant, and that’s where the charm lies. I was mesmerized by the characters because they were all too real; their lives were as realistic as could be: People being unhappy with their life, with their jobs, wanting to run away, wanting to break down, but surviving everything for the family!

 

It takes a toll, but you can’t take your eyes off the screen. The relationship between the three brothers and the entire neighborhood just strikes a chord with you. You yearn for such belonging.

The cinematography is top-notch, and the soundtrack is haunting – the sounds are so beautiful. There are certain scenes where Dong Hoon is just breathing, but you feel all the emotions he’s feeling. You resonate with him – you understand it. That’s how wonderful this drama is. The melancholic vibes and the nostalgia that it brings is too overwhelming at times, so you will have to be in the right mindset to watch this one. However, when and if you do watch, I promise you won’t be disappointed.

My rating: 4.8/5

  1. Goblin

Genre: Fantasy, Romance, Melancholy

Synopsis:

Kim Shin was once an unbeatable general in Goryeo’s military who died a tragic death. He now possesses immortality but is tired of living while everyone else around him dies. For 900 years, Kim Shin has searched for his bride, a mortal who can pull out the sword and end his life. One day, he encounters Ji Eun Tak, a positive, upbeat high school student who can see the dead and has gone through tragic events, yet still stays strong. She claims to be the Goblin’s bride who can end his immortal life, but what appears to be an easy task, only gets complicated, as the two fall in love.

No of Episodes: 16

Personal opinion:

The synopsis might not exactly be the best one, and it might not compel you enough. So, let me explain why this is a good drama. 

Beautiful Cinematography? Check

Original soundtrack? So, so, so good!

Acting? Top-notch. (The visuals are just too good!)

Romance? Yes, of course! But even better than that is the bromance between Goblin and Grim Reaper.

Storyline? It started out slow, but got interesting, funny, cute, adorable, frustrating, sad…

Well, you get it – it was a basic rollercoaster, but what I loved in this drama was the interactions. You can clearly notice the vulnerabilities of the characters, and you root for them. Yes, the story has some plot holes, but they weren’t that off-putting. 

And the bromance is so good that it even (kind of) put the romance to shame. The most appealing part of it is the way they talked about the deity, death, and how miracles work in our lives. Even the secondary ghost characters had such a unique storyline! 

Also, I dare you not to fall in love with Gong Yoo! I mean, you can’t take your eyes off the screen because his acting is so so good. Also, Kim Go Eun became my girl crush because how could I not fall for that innocent smile?

My rating: 4/5

  1. Laughter in Waikiki

Genre: Comedy, Friendship, Bromance

Synopsis:

Three very different young men – Dong Goo, the bad luck incarnate who dreams of becoming a film director, Joon Ki, an eccentric actor who performs to make a living, and Doo Shik, a freelance writer who fiddles around doing nothing most of the time – open a guest house named “Waikiki” in Itaewon where many foreigners come to stay.  Although they have no clue how to run it, they’re eager to earn money to pay for the production of their upcoming film.

They are joined by Dong Goo’s younger sister Seo Jin, who actually manages the household in Waikiki; single mother Yoon Ah, who has made an unexpected landing in the guest house with her mysterious baby; and Dong Goo’s ex-girlfriend Soo Ah. In this context, they all start living together in an uncomfortable and suspicious atmosphere.

No of Episodes: 20 

Personal opinion:

This is one of the funniest dramas out there. From the first episode, you’re hooked because it’s so weird, interesting, and embarrassing! You’re left wanting more of the eccentric characters, and the comic timing is so well executed that you feel your stomach is hurting from laughing too much. Yes, some scenes are exaggerated at times, but that’s where the charm of the series lies. Also, like any drama, it gives those fluttering emotions because the romance and the bromance are just so subtle and beautiful!

This is a must-watch for people that love sitcoms; it is such a lighthearted fun drama that just keeps you smiling from the start till the end!

My rating: 3.9/5 

  1. Signal

 

Genre: Thriller, Crime, Murder mystery

Synopsis: 

Fifteen years ago, a young girl was kidnapped on the way home from school, and Park Hae Yeong, who was an elementary school student at that time, witnessed the crime. A few days later, the girl was found dead, and the police were not able to find the culprit. As time went by, Hae Yeong started distrusting the police. 

Fifteen years later, Hae Yeong is now a police officer and criminal profiler. One day, he finds a walkie-talkie that allows him to get in contact with Detective Lee Jae Han, who is living in the past. Police officers Hae Yeong, Jae Han, and Cha So Hyun then set out on a journey to solve cold cases.

No of Episodes: 16

Personal opinion: 

Another criminal show? Oh yes, but it’s so much more than that, and dare I say, much better than a couple of American shows out there? 

This drama had such an intense feel (given the fact that it’s based on real crime stories that went unsolved) that it made me forget about everything else. I needed to know about the cases, the criminal, and even the walkie-talkie! Even though I’ve watched so many crime shows, this one was different. It keeps you hooked; you’re hanging onto the conversations at hand, the subtle changes in the background, and the music. You feel everything in a heightened sense. The actors did a terrific job. The thing that really inspired my curiosity was the walkie-talkie that allowed Hae Yeong to speak to someone in the past. I needed answers about it. 

My rating: 4.5/5

  1. W: Two Worlds

Genre: Action, thriller, Rom-Com, Fantasy

Synopsis: 

Cardiothoracic surgeon Oh Yeon Joo’s father mysteriously went missing while writing the last chapter of his webtoon W. Yeon Joo goes to his office and is shocked to see a scene of a bloodied Kang Cheol, the main character of W, on her father’s monitor. While reading something left behind by her father, a hand from the monitor pulls her into the screen. She finds herself on the rooftop of a building, next to a man lying down in blood. She manages to save him and realizes that the person she saved was Kang Cheol. She later discovers she can only enter and leave the webtoon depending on Kang Cheol’s feelings.

No of Episodes: 16

Personal opinion:

This was actually the drama that hooked me to this world of K-dramas. I was sucked in by the story, the acting, and the intrigue of asking what’s going to happen. The main lead is actually a fictitious character in a webtoon, and the female lead is a doctor in the real world. It’s the classic “in love with the fictional character” story packed with decent action and thrills.

I’ll be honest; it’s as flawed as it can be. The story started out so well. It was well-paced, but then it slowly derailed. So, you may ask, why am I adding such a drama to this list? Because as flawed as it was, it also is engaging. You realize it doesn’t make any sense. It feels ridiculous, but you want to know how it ends! And that’s the power that most dramas lack. Also, I’m a little bit biased because it was the drama that started my obsession with K-dramas.

My rating: 3.6/5

  1. Reply 1988

Genre: Slice of life, Romance, Comedy, Friendship

Synopsis:

Five childhood friends, who all live in the same Ssangmundong neighborhood of Seoul, lean on each other to survive their challenging teen years and set a path for their futures. Sung Deok Sun struggles for attention as the middle child in her poor family while also carrying the burden of her 999th ranking in school. Kim Jung Hwan only has a one-track mind for soccer, even after his family becomes rich overnight. Sung Sun Woo is the perfect student, student council president, and a caring and dependable son in his family. Ryu Dong Ryong knows more about girls and life than the rest of his friends, but his poor academic score prevents him from being able to go to college. Choi Taek is a genius baduk (Korean board game) player who dropped out of school to go professional. As the group of friends gets into and out of mischief around the neighborhood, what experiences from these memorable times together will they carry with them into their future lives?

No of Episodes: 20

Personal opinion:

This is one of the best dramas, and I’m not even exaggerating. The show starts, and you’re asking, “What’s so great about this?” However, as it progresses, it brings back all the feelings of nostalgia for the friendships we had when we were kids – actually going out on the streets and playing, parents shouting to come back home and eat. The characters, all of them, have such unique personalities, and what makes them great is that your first impression about them changes because that’s how deeply the characters have been developed. Each and every family had their own set of struggles and their own charm, and when you see them interacting, it’s just pure bliss. I laughed and I cried at each and every episode. (Stupid, I know, but I can’t help it. It’s just that great!) The soundtrack also is just beautiful. I still listen to it, and  it transports me back to the  Ssangmundong neighborhood. 

My rating: 4.8/5

  1. Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo

Genre: Historical, fantasy, time travel

Synopsis:

When a total eclipse of the sun takes place, Go Ha Jin is transported back in time to the start of the Goryeo Dynasty of Korea during King Taejo’s rule. She wakes up in the body of 16-year-old Hae Soo and finds herself in the house of 8th Prince Wang Wook, who is married to her cousin. She soon befriends several of the princes and meets the ostracized 4th Prince, Wang So. Although she knows she should not get involved in palace intrigues over the succession to the throne, she inadvertently becomes a pawn in the struggle, as several of the Princes fall in love with her. 

No of Episodes: 20

Personal opinion:

This is one of my personal favorites. The main reason for this was the characters. The story may have dwindled a little with its execution, but the characters were the ones who kept you hooked. The female lead seems naive, childish, and at times, ridiculous, but her growth is unparalleled. She transforms into this sophisticated lady who learns to be calm, and it leaves you a bit sad because you realize the changes were the result of the hardships that life throws at her. Even the fictional characters can’t maintain their innocence. The princes, ahh, my heart goes out to most of them because their characters were that good. There wasn’t a great villain, and if I were to say what was the evil of the story, then I’d say it was greed and ambition for the throne. This story had such potential. I feel sad because it felt rushed, and at times, the story seemed awkward because the editing was done in such a manner. But if you keep all those thoughts aside, you’ll find such a beautiful story here with just mesmerizing characters. Fair warning: you will be haunted for a while because of this drama.

My rating: 4.5/5

    9.Because this is my first life

Genre: Friendship, Romance, Comedy

Synopsis:

A poor man and homeless woman become housemates in a drama that examines the institution of marriage and the problems that young people face today.

Nam Se Hee is a single man in his early 30’s. He has chosen to not marry. He owns his home, but he owes a lot on his mortgage. Meanwhile, Yoon Ji Ho is a single woman in her early 30’s. She does not own a home and envies those that do. She has given up on dating due to her financial struggles. Yoon Ji Ho begins to live at Nam Se Hee’s house. They become housemates.

No of Episodes: 16

Personal opinion:

This is a slow-paced drama with mature content. The 3 relationships that it showcased were well developed. And the dialogues! My, my, the quotes were so beautiful. I would suggest this drama to anyone who’s looking for a more mature, sophisticated take on relationships. Also, the original soundtrack is amazing!

My rating: 4/5

    10.Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo

Genre: Rom-com, youth, sports

Synopsis:

Bok Joo is a weightlifter who is pursuing her dream of winning the gold medal, but she then finds romance for the first time in her life. While she is a woman who trains with heavy steel weights, she is also very feminine when it comes to relationships. To focus solely on weightlifting would jeopardize her relationship, but leaving her weightlifting career for love would keep her from attaining her dreams. Can she find a way to have love as well as glory at the age of 20? The characters within this drama are elite athletes in weightlifting, swimming, and rhythmic gymnastics who work hard to reach their goals in life. It covers their coming-of-age stories and relationships through their hectic lives.

No of Episodes: 16

Personal opinion:

This is one of those cute comings-of-age dramas that depict the struggles of the youth, from falling in love to being part of unrequited love to realizing the sweet innocence of friendship, and finally, to trying to chase dreams of the future. It has fluff (by that, I mean it has its cheesy, corny romance), but you don’t mind it because it’s lighthearted and charming.

My rating: 3.8/5

—————————————————————————————————————–

I hope you enjoy the dramas on the list. If you have watched the dramas here, how’d you like them?  Also, which drama was the one that got you hooked to this K-drama world? Let me know in the comment section below!

(This is your future once you begin K-dramas)

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