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Falling In Love With The Amazing World Of Korean Dramas aka K-drama (Part 2)

Falling In Love With The Amazing World Of Korean Dramas aka K-drama (Part 2)

Tiffany Vogt

In my earlier article, Falling In Love With The Amazing World Of Korean Dramas (K-drama) (LINK), I gave recognition to eight South Korean drama series that I discovered on Netflix, including: Cinderella And The Four Knights, Mystic Pop-Up Bar, It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, My Shy Boss, Another Miss Oh, Crash Landing On You, When The Camellia Blooms, and Memories Of The Alhambra.  

For this follow-up article, I want to give recognition to eight more K-drama series that I fell in love with that deserve more attention: The King: Eternal Monarch, Goblin: The Lonely And Great God, Descendants Of The Sun, The K2, Hospital Playlist, Itaewon Class, Vagabond, and Mr. Sunshine. (For those looking to watch online: The King Eternal Monarch, The K2, Hospital Playlist, Itaewon Class, Vagabond,. and Mr. Sunshine are available on Netflix; while Goblin: The Lonely And Great God and Descendants Of The Sun are available to watch/stream online at Viki.com.)

No matter how or when you discover the amazing and rich world of South Korean drama television shows, there are so many outstanding series that you may be a bit overwhelmed at where to start, so I have provided a quick reference list of K-drama series that I recommend.

For those looking for pure romance, I recommend:

Cinderella And The Four Knights, Her Private Life, The Secret Life of My Secretary, What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim.

For science fiction/sci-fi, I recommend: Alice, Melting Me Softly, My Love From The Star.

For fantasy, I recommend: Goblin: The Lonely And Great God, The King: Eternal Monarch, W – Parallel Worlds, The Legend of the Blue Sea, Secret Garden.

For military drama, I recommend: Descendants Of The Sun.

For medical drama, I recommend: Hospital Playlist, Doctor John, Doctor Stranger.  

For police procedural/mystery, I recommend: Alice, Tunnel, Flower of Evil, When The Camellia Blooms, Suspicious Partner, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon.

For courtroom dramas, I recommend: Suits, Suspicious Partner.

For action/thriller, I recommend: The K2, Vagabond, Man To Man, Descendants Of The Sun.

For historical Korean drama, I recommend: Mr. Sunshine.  

For adventure, I recommend: Crash Landing On You.

For gamers, I recommend: Memories Of The Alhambra.

For graphic novel stories, I recommend: W – Parallel Worlds.

For a series addressing variety of mental health issues, I recommend: It’s Okay To Not Be Okay, The Bride Of Habaek, My Shy Boss.

For revenge tales, I recommend: Itaewon Class, Vagabond.

For a series that is “unexpected and worthwhile” to watch, I recommend: A Piece Of Your Mind, Prison Playbook.

For a series focused on news reporting, I recommend: Healer, Finding You In My Memory, Melting Me Softly.

No matter what type of story you crave, K-drama has it: thrillers, action, family drama, slice of life, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, detective/police procedural, medical drama, military drama, espionage/spy, space drama, time-travel, horror, mystery, and so much more.

NOTE:  For those of you still hesitant to watch a South Korean drama series (aka K-drama) simply because it requires you to read subtitles, you are missing out. One day, you will give one a try and be happier for it.

The secret of success behind K-dramas is that they all reveal “life lessons” that resonate in the soul, and it makes you appreciate spending your time with each series as you learn something, it speaks to each of our life circumstances, and you feel better having watched it. I like to say that K-drama is “good for the soul” as it helps your body since your mind is filled with soothing thoughts and your breathing settles and heart pumps more steadily. It is a fantastic stress-reliever.

Another key aspect of K-dramas is that most are only one season, comprised of 16 to 20 episodes (although a few are as short as 12 episodes and some are as long as 24 episodes). That seems to be the magic number for a binge-watch that lasts either one or two days, or as long as you want to take to watch the series.  

A second key aspect is each K-drama series has an ending.  It is very appealing to know, going into a series, that it will have a definitive ending — the story ends and the characters all find a way to conclude their issues and stories — all in one season.  It is like watching a “good book” since K-dramas have a beginning, middle and end, within one season. Every viewer loves to know in advance that what they are watching has a definite ending.  With the majority of U.S. television series lasting many years or being cancelled before a proper ending can be written and filmed, watching K-dramas is vastly superior in that it is an easy binge-watch and has a guaranteed ending, and, better yet, the ending is written specifically to make viewers and fans as happy as possible.  

The “people pleasing” aspect written into K-dramas is also a third key aspect.  South Korean television shows are written specifically to be one season, with an ending, and the ending usually gives viewers exactly what they want.  Having watched 45 K-drama series in the past 4 months, I can verify that this formula holds up.  

Having been a television critic for the past decade, I have watched a large number of television shows from the U.S., U.K., and Canada.  However, this year, that all changed. Due to the worldwide pandemic and suspension of U.S./Canadian/U.K. television productions for a good portion of 2020, it gave me a chance to seek out and sample television series from countries, such as Spain, France, Germany, Russia, India and South Korea.  It has been a fun opportunity to see what other countries have to offer in television series, in particular, series that are available to U.S. audiences through the online platforms and streaming services, like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Viki.com.

While thoroughly enjoying international series, like Money Heist, Control Z, Better Than Us and The Good Karma Hospital, I found that what really spoke to my soul were the K-dramas coming out of South Korea, as the one-season format with guaranteed endings — and endings that I enjoyed — won my heart. With the guidance and recommendations of the enthusiastic K-drama fans, I now have a long list of K-drama series that I am working my way through, and I am having the time of my life in the process. I remain grateful to all the generous and cheerful fans who have aided me.

So, in order to highlight a few more outstanding K-dramas that I think are worthy of more detailed description and recommendation, I have chosen the following:

THE KING: ETERNAL MONARCH

Released in April 2020 on Netflix, the K-drama series The King: Eternal Monarch stars Kim Go-eun and Lee Min-ho portraying star-crossed lovers from parallel worlds, where she portrays a police detective in our modern world and he portrays the reigning monarch of Corea in a parallel world. Written by acclaimed South Korean screen writer Kim Eun-sook (who also wrote Secret Garden, The Heirs, Descendants Of The Sun, Goblin aka Guardian: The Lonely And Great God, and Mr. Sunshine), The King: Eternal Monarch is a complex time-travel, fantasy series with layered characters and an intricate tale of a love the transcends time and crosses over from another world.  With an explosive and deadly introduction, The King: Eternal Monarch starts off its series at a fast-pace and does not slow down throughout. It requires the viewer to pay close attention to the stories occurring simultaneously between the two parallel worlds and the tricky timeline differences for the characters — but it is worth it.  

Setting up the series, a young heir to an empire is bequeathed a magical flute that is broken in half during an brutal attack that leaves the young boy on the brink of death and holding an ID badge for a woman police detective — who is not from his world and who is clearly from the future.  With the knowledge that there is an alternate world and a way to travel there, and that time can be manipulated, the young king studies to be a science scholar and mathematician.  The King: Eternal Monarch delves quite deeply into math and physics to explain how time-travel and travel between parallel universes is possible. So math, science, and sci-fi aficionados should be pleased with how the story plays out.

Time travel and parallel worlds aside, embedded at its core, The King: Eternal Monarch is a love-story. It’s about a young man who finally discovers how to cross between parallel worlds to meet his destined love and how he tries to convince her that he is genuinely from an alternate world and that they were fated to meet and fall in love.  Watching the characters, portrayed by Kim Go-eun and Lee Min-ho, you cannot help but fall in love along with them. In spite of the great obstacles of time and space, let alone their own unique destinies and responsibilities in their own worlds, as a viewer, it is easy to see the pull of attraction and lure of fated-destiny tugging at the characters’ heartstrings and souls. You will be rooting for them throughout and will fervently wish, along with them, that there is a way for the characters to stay together in spite of the great obstacles.

Another wonderful aspect of The King: Eternal Monarch is the care given to the supporting characters, fantastically portrayed by co-stars Woo Do-hwan, Kim Kyung-nam, Jung Eun-chae, Kim Yong-ji, and Lee Jung-jin. As can happen with parallel worlds, it means that each world has a doppelgänger.  So characters in one universe have a doppelgänger in the other universe. Thus, every character you see has a “double.” The fun and twisty part will be keeping track of the doppelgängers and never really knowing which one that you are watching.  It leads to a lot of fun comedy and a bit of terror from time to time.  It definitely ratchets up the intensity of suspense that never quite subsides throughout the series.

In the end, The King: Eternal Monarch delivers on its 16-episode one-season series with a conclusive ending.  However, if you are like me, you will wish and hope for a continuation of the story as it feels like there are more stories to tell in those mirrored-universes, especially with so many characters’ stories that could still be potentially explored. (Hey, Netflix, give us a second season of this great series!)

GOBLIN aka GUARDIAN: THE LONELY AND GREAT GOD

Released in 2016 and also written by Kim Eun-sook (who wrote The King: Eternal Monarch, Secret Garden, The Heirs, Descendants Of The Sun, Mr. Sunshine), the K-drama series Goblin: The Lonely And Great God stars Kim Go-Eun and Gong Yoo.  This earlier collaboration between writer Kim Eun-sook and actress Kim Go-eun is award-winning and magical; thus, it is easy to see why they were paired to work together again in The King: Eternal Monarch.

Goblin is the tale of an ancient warrior who is cursed to wander the world helping people in need until he can find his “bride,” who will be the only person who can lift his curse and let his soul rest in peace. After 400 years of fruitless wandering and assisting countless people who were in need or in pain, the warrior (known as a “Goblin”) crosses paths with a young woman, who claims to be his foretold bride. Gong Yoo portrays the “Goblin” with such empathy, pain, and delicate humor that it is easy to fall under his spell. In turn, Kim Go-eun as the young woman, who not only sees restless souls who have not passed over after death, is simply effervescent and charming. Her youthful exuberance paired with Gong Yoo’s world-weary, spirit traveler is magic on screen.  

I will quickly address an issue that some fans have voiced online about how Kim Go-eun’s character, who is 19 going on 20 in the K-drama series, is set up to be a “bride” for a 30-something character who has lived for hundreds of years. To allay those concerns, the series does a good job at showing deference and respect to the age-difference and distinguishes quickly that “bride” does not actually refer to a marital-sexual relationship, but rather a label used to identify the person who can cure the curse and it adds a layer of comedy as the much older “goblin” flees from being paired with a much younger woman. Ultimately, the “bride” relationship and age-difference is addressed beautifully and is delicately handled throughout the series and should not deter anyone concerned in advance from watching this incredible series about destined-love and the importance of a “good death” in one’s life, so that one can move on to the after-life.

Goblin: The Lonely And Great God is a story about the consequences of life-choices that may affect your soul’s chances of moving on to the after-life and whether you get a chance to be reborn or reincarnated again to make up for past-mistakes or granted a better life as a reward for living a good life.  Modern day South Korea subscribes to both Buddhism beliefs and Catholic-Christian beliefs, but for the purposes of the story in the K-drama series Goblin: The Lonely And Great God, it offers a look at Buddhist beliefs of multiple lives after death.  In addition, another primary character introduced right away is a Grim Reaper, who is in search of the Goblin’s “bride” as one of the soul’s that got away that he has been tasked to find.  The intertwined fates of Goblin, Grim Reaper, and a “bride” who sees ghosts/lost souls is a phenomenal and heart-warming tale of love, friendship, destiny, fate, and a person’s need to ensure a better death in order to move on to the next-life.

Cast as the lead in Goblin: The Lonely And Great God, Gong Yoo is an inspired and wonderful choice. From the start, writer Kim Eun-sook wanted him for the role and pursued him relentlessly until he finally accepted. Previously known for his heartthrob role in the 2007 K-drama series The Coffee Prince, about a wealthy entrepreneur who falls for a young waiter at his shop — not realizing the “boy” is actually a girl, Gong Yoo is perfect in the role of a perpetually-tormented in search-of-his-destined-bride Goblin. Pairing Gong Yoo with Kim Go-eun is simply magical.  They are wonderful to watch on screen and your heart will melt and leap with joy with them and break each time destiny cruelly intervenes.

Then, for the second pairing in Goblin: The Lonely And Great God, co-stars Lee Dong-wook as Grim Reaper and Yoo In-na as Sunny, are also magical on screen. Watching Grim Reaper fall in love is hilarious and yet heart-breaking at the same time. Plus, the reluctant friendship that developes between Goblin and Grim Reaper remains a highlight.  (To this day, co-stars Gong Yoo and Lee Dong-wook remain steadfast friends, much to the delight of fans.)

Goblin: The Lonely And Great God is one of the highest-rated and most-awarded K-drama series in the history of South Korean television and absolutely deserves to be.  Recommended by hundreds of fans, I was not sure what to expect from this series and, thus, was blown away by it.  I recommend not reading about this series and simply watching it all the way to the end.  The less you know, the more fun it will be. So watch, enjoy and feel your heart burst with happiness at the end.  (Goblin: The Lonely And Great God is available to stream and watch on Viki.com.)

DESCENDANTS OF THE SUN

Also written by Kim Eun-sook (who wrote Goblin: The Lonely And Great God and The King: Eternal Monarch), the 2016 K-drama series Descendants Of The Sun is a modern, military drama series that revolves around a medical doctor who volunteers to serve in a medical unit deployment overseas, who meets for a second time a special ops soldier that she briefly dated before they went their separate ways due to career demands.  Starring Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo, as the special ops captain known as “Big Boss” and the cardio-thoracic surgeon nicknamed “Beauty”, Descendants Of The Sun is about missed-chances and, how when a second chance comes around again, maybe this is fate ensuring that you do not miss out on love for a second time.  

As a precursor to dramas like SEAL Team, which currently airs in the U.S., Descendants Of The Sun, is a riveting and thrilling story of how medical units work with local military, special operator teams and native people in the areas that they operate overseas for joint military/government-aid endeavors in times of covert ops and natural disasters.

With credit due to brilliant script writing and rich characters throughout the script, as well as perfect casting for each character, Descendants Of The Sun is highly addictive, which makes it a fast binge-watch as events happens so quickly that you do not want to miss a single second.

The on-screen chemistry of leads Song Joong-ki and Song Hye-kyo is palpable, and upon reading more about the series, it was no surprise to find out that they ended up getting married after filming  Descendants Of The Sun. In the television/film world, it is rare that actors who share the screen end up actually dating or getting married in real-life  — even when they have magical on-screen chemistry — so this is one of those rare occasions and it makes their scenes together feel that more infused with meaning and love.

Descendants Of The Sun also offers some very realistic military conflict scenes and maneuvers, which ads to the realism in watching the series. It will make your heart stop at times and heightens the tension as these characters deal with medical trauma and military injuries/conflicts that echo what we see around us in the world today or in the news in areas of war, conflict and disaster. That realism makes this drama a must-watch along with the amazing characters portrayed from the leads to all the supporting cast that are delightful on-screen as well.  I dare say that you will wish you could spend a lot more time with them and full credit goes to co-stars Jin Goo, Kim Ji-won, Park Hoon, Choi Woong, Ahn Bo-hyun, Onew, Lee Seung-joon, Seo Jeong-yeon and Park Hwan-hee for bringing their characters to life on-screen that you feel this way by the end of the series.

In Descendants Of The Sun, the series very accurately portrays the choices, dilemmas, life-saving/split-second decisions that both military and medical personnel are called upon to make.  It is chilling and yet I am grateful every day that those who are called to serve as doctors and medical personnel, as well as military personnel, who are willing to step-up and step-in to provide that aid and assistance when needed. Without them, every nation around the globe would be lost as our peace and security is dependent upon those who answer the call to serve and our gratitude should be given every single day. (Descendants Of The Sun is available to watch on Viki.com and Hulu.)

THE K2

In a similar vein, the 2016 K-drama series THE K2, stars Ji Chang-wook as a soldier-on-the-run sought by the Korean government for a war crime that he was framed for, and how he meets two women that will irrevocably change his life: the first, is a powerful woman in charge of a company that owns an artificial intelligence system that accurately predicts outcomes and how every wealthy person on the planet wants to get their hands on that A.I. system; the second is a woman with fragile mental health who he meets through a series of misadventures.  All three of their fates are intertwined and lead to a thrilling and climatic conclusion by the end of the series.

THE K2 is the name that is code name assigned to the soldier-on-the-run. In this role, Ji Chang-wook is flawless. He pivots between the three roles of: proud solider to disillusioned, tormented man trying his best to hide from a government intent on hunting him to reluctant-hero and protector. After having portrayed a similar protector-role in the K-drama series Healer in 2014, THE K2 was the perfect fit role for Ji Chang-wook. In fact, his four roles as courier-protector in Healer, soldier-protector in The K2, lawyer-crusader in Suspicious Partners, and as an investigator-reporter in Melting Me Softly, Ji Chang-wook has established himself as a classic “white hat” hero that melds seamlessly into his various roles and, after seeing him perform all his own stunts in The K2, many of which looked intense and terrifying, it is impressive watching him shift on-screen between multiple personas in each K-drama series. He is like a chameleon that shifts right before your eyes and it is riveting watching him.

In The K2, Ji Chang-wook is magic-on-screen with his two female co-stars, portrayed by Song Yoon-ah and Im Yoon-ah.  Song Yoon-ah portrays a politician’s wife and owner of the company with a powerful A.I. system and Im Yoon-ah is her adopted-daughter who she protects at all costs.  The scenes between Ji Chang-wook’s character and Song Yoon-ah were perhaps intended to be more of powerful woman employs dangerous bodyguard, but thanks to their electric on-screen chemistry, their scenes come across a lot more erotic and infused with an undercurrent of unspoken emotion that you will be fascinated watching them together.  Both are dangerous, powerful characters that align together out of circumstance and, yet, it feels like their mutual understanding is based on fair amount of emotion that both know is dangerous and best left alone.  However, the risks each takes to protect each other is breath-taking. I was in awe watching their scenes and remain awestruck at the on-screen chemistry between Ji Chang-wook and Song Yoon-ah. If you could bottle that up, it would be worth a fortune. Interestingly, there is a very different chemistry between Ji Chang-wook’s character and Im Yoon-ah’s character, who end up being romantically-paired in The K2. It is almost like watching Ji Chang-wook portray two different characters in the same series, and his soft, tender side towards Im Yoon-ah’s character will make your heart melt as they fall in love. As a viewer, I felt very conflicted by the two relationships his character has in this series and which relationship I was supposed to be rooting for.  (I am happy to discuss it further with anyone who wants after watching this incredible series.)

Another remarkable aspect of The K2 is its intricate and mesmerizing cinematography combined with extensive stunt-action sequences. From explosions to death-defying stunts, The K2 crafts the most gorgeously-filmed action-rescue sequences that I have ever seen on-screen.  So much so, that I have deemed The K2 is “visual art” as I have been contemplating setting up a virtual museum with walls lined with scenes from The K2.  The “umbrella scene” that occurs during a prominent funeral that plays out over 5 interwoven sequences is stunning. My jaw just dropped at how exquisitely that entire “umbrella sequence” was written, crafted, performed, executed, edited, and then put together in post — from taking the umbrella out of the vehicle, to using it to get past a large array of antagonists, to then using it to create one of the most erotic-romantic scenes on screen. The pure elegance and power it portrays throughout is astounding. I have deemed it “visual art.” Those sequences say so much through action and visuals rather than through dialogue. There is a well-known saying in television: “show, don’t tell”  as visual imagery is a vital and powerful tool of storytelling. Television is about using words combined with visual images to bring a story and characters to life.  Both are essential, but if something can be shown, it usually resonates louder than any words can convey. The K2 uses visual imagery exceptionally well.  It then makes every word count when words are woven into its story.  

I remain a huge fan of this unexpected series.  Make the time and watch The K2.  It’s available to watch on Netflix and Viki.com.

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HOSPITAL PLAYLIST

Released in March 2020 on Netflix, HOSPITAL PLAYLIST is a medical drama that invokes so much joy while watching it. Through expert casting, brilliant writing and clever use of music, HOSPITAL PLAYLIST speaks to and soothes the soul. It is infectiously joyous and is really just something that was perfectly timed to be released in 2020, a year of global uncertainty and a pandemic that has kept many of us at home more than we are used to.  After seeing the immediate viewership numbers, Netflix quickly ordered a second season of HOSPITAL PLAYLIST, which is reassuring since the first season ends on a tiny cliffhanger involving two main characters. So, in that sense, HOSPITAL PLAYLIST is the exception in two ways: it does not have an ending at the end the first season and it ends with a small cliffhanger. That said, it is absolutely worth watching right now.  The characters in HOSPITAL PLAYLIST are ones that will embed themselves deep in your heart and make you feel grateful to have met all of them.  

The core cast of HOSPITAL PLAYLIST is an ensemble of five surgeons, portrayed brilliantly by Jeon Mi-do, Jung Kyung-ho, Jo Jung-suk, Yoo Yeon-seok and Kim Dae-myung, who meet when they are applying to medical school and remain life-long friends 20 years later.  The series begins present day at a point that they all reunite and end up all working together at the same hospital, with flashbacks sprinkled throughout the entire series so that we get to know these five characters and how their fates and friendship became so intertwined that they are steadfast, loyal friends that will do anything for each other years later. It may seem odd to start in the present and look backward, but the series is so well-written that it is actually a lot of fun learning about each of the five characters in bits and pieces.  The love and laughter between them, and how lovingly they are introduced, showing that they remain friends throughout the series, is heartwarming.  In addition, getting to know their patients and the support staff revolving around them and the family members that pop-up through the series is also a lot of fun.  I ended up rewatching this series a few times because I ended up falling in love with all the characters. Even small roles are a lot of fun on re-watch.

Finally, there is the music and performances woven through HOSPITAL PLAYLIST. Like the name of the series indicates, music is a key component to the five characters’ lives.  Early on in medical school, they all form a band so they would not only have a reason to get together, they would also have an emotional-outlet for all their struggles through medical school.  Watching these high profile surgeons and life-long friends return to their musical roots and reunite their band in present day is hilarious and you will find that every song that they sing is addictive, which will quickly send you searching for the OST releases on iTunes to download the entire playlist of songs for the show. Because it was one of the most frequent questions about the show, the cast does sing and perform as their characters in the show and even performed a live-stream performance for fans, which is available to watch on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/ujQHh5xFtA4

 

Humor, love, affection, solace and solidarity “no matter what they face” is really the core concepts that make HOSPITAL PLAYLIST such a success.  Even the more dire hospital cases will speak deeply to your soul.  There will be wins and losses and, yet, you are invited to be a part of the joys and heartbreaks, as that is what life is.  It is because we have each other that we endure the hardships and losses, and the love and support is what makes it all worthwhile to endure.  That is true in HOSPITAL PLAYLIST as well.  So this feel-good, heartwarming series will be a bit of a roller-coaster for your emotions, but it is worth it.

Just in case it needs to be said twice, Netflix has ordered a second season of HOSPITAL PLAYLIST and it is scheduled to be released in 2021, after the show resumes production in the new few months in South Korea.

ITAEWON CLASS

Another completely unexpected and amazing K-drama series released January 2020 on Netflix is Itaewon Class. At first, I hesitated to watch this series as I mistakenly thought it was a high school or college drama, which it is not.  Itaewon Class is very much a tale of revenge, along the lines of the classic tale of “The Count of Monte Cristo,”  where a hero and villain meet and square off in high school, which leads to a series of tragic events that culminates in a life-long feud between them extending over a 15 year time period. So, while the first episode starts in high school, the story quickly picks up at a later date within that same episode.  Itaewon Class actually refers to the name of a company formed by the protagonist in order to continue his rivalry with his old foe.  Itaewon Class is focused on its hero Park Sae-ro-yi, portrayed by Park Seo-joon, a determined and tenacious young man who serves time in prison and vows to avenge the wrongs inflicted upon him and his family by establishing a rival bar-restaurant to compete against an established bar-restaurant chain owned by the ruthless father-son duo who will do anything and everything to ensure his dream and quest for vengeance fails.

Itaewon Class smartly adds to its cast by surrounding its hero with key characters that will aid in his quest and help create his business empire that he has dreamed of.  Co-stars Kim Da-mi, Kim Dong-hee, Ryu Kyung-soo, Lee Joo-young, and Chris Lyon are the “dream team” that get swept up Park Sae-ro-yi’s business and quest, and who stand by him to ensure that no one can touch their friend since he was the one that gave them a chance when no one else would. The friendship and loyalty among the Itaewon Class bar-restaurant employees is wonderful and cheer-worthy.  The series shows exactly how deep their friendships and loyalty go with test after test; yet, no challenge is strong enough to defeat those bonds.

The slight wrinkle in this scenario is a young woman, portrayed by Kwon Nara, who straddles both sides of the feud. A high school friend of Park Sae-ro-yi that he will never turn his back on, she now works at his rival’s company and is ensnared there through a complex set of corporate “golden handcuffs.” Being his first love, Park Sae-ro-yi promises to free her one day and their complicated relationship provides some tension throughout the series.

The pursuit of vengeance is not to be taken lightly, and for Park Sae-ro-yi, there is a terrible price to be paid. Yet, even then, you will hope that he succeeds as there must be some kind of justice and reward in this world and, if anyone deserves it, it is Park Sae-ro-yi.  Itaewon Class offers one of Park Seo-joon’s best performances as he conveys the many layers of his character Park Sae-ro-yi’s tormented soul, masked by a cheerful persona that only reveals his pain to those closest to him. You will be riveted watching him, especially his interactions with each of the characters as he shifts his performance ever so slightly to create a sense of subtle relationship changes.

In classic K-drama fashion, Itaewon Class wraps up nicely at the end of its first season. So the entire series is a great tale of revenge intermingled with a love story that will surprise and delight by its end.  Itaewon class is available to watch on Netflix.

VAGABOND

Released in 2019, VAGABOND is a complex action series that leans into the duality behind its name of “vagabond” — which refers to a person who wanders from place to place without a home, and yet is also a play on the word “bond” — which refers to a  relationship between people or groups based on shared feelings, interests, or experiences.  I like to described the K-drama series Vagabond as an excellent James Bond-type series as it begins and ends in classic James Bond-fashion. (Another play on the word “bond.”)  Clearly, the writer and director are fans as they used a similar cinematic introduction and ending in the James Bond spy films.  So, if you keep that in mind, Vagabond makes a lot more sense and you will know what to expect.

Vagabond is a mystery-revenge tale after a plane explodes claiming the life of a beloved family of the series lead character Cha Dal-gun, an out-of-work stuntman who flies to the Middle East with the surviving plane family members to find out what happened.  While abroad seeking those answers, Cha Dal-gun inadvertently stumbles across a global conspiracy that could take down some of the most prominent politicians and businessmen across the world.  Phenomenally portrayed by Lee Seung-gi, the character of Cha Dal-gun is the hero “everyman” just wanting to know what happened and who is responsible.

With powerful people obstructing his way, Cha Dal-gun relies on a local government liaison Go Hae-ri, portrayed by Bae Suzy. Their team-up throughout the series is “pure gold” on screen. Their interpersonal chemistry is wonderful and you believe in their portrayals of characters whole-heartedly, especially as they encounter obstacle after obstacle and yet seem to come out the other side together and better for it. Vagabond is a complex, political tale with no easy resolution. The choices made by Cha Dal-gun and Go Hae-ri always seem against the odds, but you will love cheering for them throughout.

That said, watch out for a sudden ending to the series that will leave you wondering where the second season is.  Apparently, there are some discussion, behind the scenes, where Netflix is contemplating a second season.  Vagabond absolutely deserves a second season and, hopefully, Netflix will green light a second season soon.  So, as the first season ends suddenly, think of all the James Bond endings, and it will made a lot more sense.

I remain conflicted about Vagabond as I desperately wanted to see more of where each characters’ stories go.  I enjoyed the entire first season thoroughly and remain a champion of it. Yet, without a second season, it does feel a bit unfinished.   So fair warning on that.

 

MR. SUNSHINE

The 2018 K-drama series Mr. Sunshine (written by Kim Eun-sook who also wrote Goblin: The Lonely And Great God and The King: Eternal Monarch) is exceptional.  It is a historical drama about the early 1900’s in Joseon aka Korea before the fall of the Korean monarchy due to market and political manipulations by Japan, Russia and the U.S.  Loosely based on actual historical events, the series introduces an array of characters that come together at a pivot point in Korean history where a young noblewoman crosses paths with three men who will literally do anything and everything for her to aid in her rebellion to preserve Korea’s independence.  

Starring Kim Tae-ri as the young noblewoman, along side Lee Byung-hun as the U.S. military officer who she befriends, Byun Yo-han as the noblewoman’s betrothed fiancé who has returned from 10 years abroad, and Yoo Yeon-seok, as the Korean samurai determined to win her heart, the series sets-up an epic tale of love, longing, national pride, perseverance and resistance — because, if you do not take a stand, then what was a point of living your life.  Best of all, the series offers one of the best bromances between the three men as they become reluctant allies and friends that I have seen on screen.  

Another amazing performance is by Kim Min-jung, who portrays the impressive Hina Kudo, a half Korean-Japanese woman who owns a prominent hotel that becomes the central meeting place for all the characters as their lives and destinies intersect and bond them irrevocably together in their fight against the outside forces looking to crush and dominate Korea.  While not the lead role, Kim Min-jung’s performance was outstanding.  It will be seared in your brain long after the series is over. Definitely, one of her finest roles.

The hard part about historical dramas is that, while telling an amazing and awesome story, the risks and death toll is realistically high.  Mr. Sunshine is not a series that will end on a “happy ending” with all its characters left standing for the next fight.  In spite of the hard-on-the-heart death toll, I still recommend watching this extraordinary series.  It is absolutely worth watching and you will appreciate it more for having watched it all the way through as it is so inspiring and cheer-worthy.  Heroes live and die, and yet the memory of who they were and what they meant to the people they loved and sacrificed for, is a legacy that deserves to be lauded and remembered.  (Mr. Sunshine is available to watch on Netflix.)

As I conclude this article, I want to emphasize that there are dozens more K-drama series that I have now watched and loved.  Each K-drama seems to have its unique story and characters and each is remarkable — some are swoon-worthy, some are heroic, some are comedic, some are examples of who were should all aspire to be, and some are just wonderful to watch for who they are and what they want to share with us.  The more K-drama series that I watch, the more I am astounded by the richness and diversity of the stories and characters.  Combined with the alluring elements of one-season stories, guaranteed story-endings, and nearly 100% fan-pleasing endings, K-dramas are addictive and easy to recommend.  

I heartily recommend that you take the time to watch a few K-drama series, beginning to end. Watching just one or two episodes of a K-drama is not enough as that is like only reading two chapters of a book. You barely scratch the surface of the story and are likely missing out on the “heart” of what that story is, which typically gets revealed around episode 7, and sometimes later.  In addition, for some of the more “silly” K-drama series, those tend to tone-down the silliness and reveal a much more sensitive and thoughtful story than you may expect at some point after episode 4.  I have now watched quite a few K-drama series that I thought were going to be completely irreverent and silly, only to find myself surprised at where those stories ultimately went and ended. K-drama has a lot to offer and I hope that you will jump in and discover for yourself all these wonderful series.

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