By Stephanie Hai (’22) and Katrina Sun (’22)
For those of you unfortunate enough to have never experienced watching a Korean Drama—commonly referred to as K-Dramas—this guide will provide a comprehensive overview of the genre’s most important elements. From May to September, Stephanie and Katrina have become certified K-Drama connoisseurs, bingeing every series possible before their dreaded grade 11 year. With their wisdom and accumulated knowledge, they will be rating four shows in this guide: Crash Landing on You, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, GOBLIN, and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo.
For amateur viewers unfamiliar with K-Drama, it is imperative to note that the length of each series rarely varies. Contrary to western television shows, which can span from one season to nineteen, K-Dramas strictly consist of 16 episodes as a singular season. While it may be hard to imagine how a director could create a sufficient plot arc in this limited time, we advise you to never doubt the creativity of Korean Drama creators. With no time to waste, each moment of the shows are action-packed and absolutely invigorating.
Yet, there are many more factors which separate Korean Dramas from other genres. The integration of tear-jerking romances, dramatic plotlines, heart-warming friendships, and beautifully crafted original soundtracks (OST) is what makes K-Dramas truly spectacular. In a sense, the genre is magical due to its ability to evoke emotions, even in the most emotionless people – i.e. Stephanie Hai.
As the Oscar-winning director, Bong Joon Ho, has said: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”
Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (GOBLIN)
Iconic, invigorating, and heart-wrenching. An ‘OG’ of all Korean Dramas, Guardian: The Lonely and Great God—referred to as GOBLIN—revolves around an immortal god who must meet his ‘Goblin Bride’ in order to peacefully rest and die. When he meets his Ji Eun-Tak, the designated ‘Goblin Bride’, he becomes conflicted with romance once mortality is within reach. With the help of the grim reaper, the Goblin and Ji Eun-Tak (the Goblin bride), must face and overcome challenges thrown by fate and the strict path of destiny.
Before watching this, I pictured it as a historic and older K-Drama — something my mom would potentially like in line with the fantasy trope. However, while in Tofino over the summer, my sister and I binged the show in a week (terrifying, I know). The show is largely driven by the theme of universal fate, and how the beauty of life can often be found in the unexpected. In the show, the Grim Reaper is in charge of leading the deceased into the afterlife, while the Goblin is ironically immortal. These two become frenemies, and later develop into brothers, an extremely unique companionship in the K-Drama realm. Notably, Korean Dramas often involve a “side relationship” which involves the side characters being engaged in a relationship in addition to the “main characters’ relationship”. Through true fate, the Grim Reaper meets Sunny and must also battle his own conflicts in order to find peace with her.
Throughout the bittersweet scenes, the OST (Official Soundtrack) plays beautifully in the background. The audience will find themselves with a sudden tear rolling down their cheek just as the piano beat drops. Hush by Lasse Lindh will unconsciously play in your head for hours following the series finale. Without their successful OSTs, K-Dramas would lack the depth needed to cover and trigger all emotions. GOBLIN nails humor, companionship, and romance, while simultaneously dealing with larger themes, such as the meaning of life and unwavering love. If I were to go back, I would definitely appreciate the special plotline and chemistry between the characters more while watching the show. GOBLIN leaves you wondering: “Am I secretly destined to become a GOBLIN bride? Do I have more than one life? Will I ever find love?” For those who question their life choices and attempt to fill the void of their love lives with distractions, GOBLIN is highly recommended.
“It made me feel like a teenager again, but even more small-feeling. I would live all my four lives for Gong Yoo [The Goblin]. Don’t forget to watch the special behind the scenes of GOBLIN on Youtube!” – Samantha Hai ‘17, WPGA Distinguished Alumni
Its Okay to Not Be Okay
Before beginning my summary and commentary, I must announce that I am in love with Kim Soo-hyun. If anything, please watch the show just to stare at him for over 1000 minutes, he is simply too beautiful.
The most recently released drama on our list of recommendations, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (IOTNBO), shares the story of an unusual romance between two vastly different people. Flawlessly balanced, IOTNBO maintains traditional K-Drama clichés while introducing fresh elements and new styles. The show has been praised for the unique pairing of the orphaned caregiver, Moon Gang-tae, and popular children’s book author with antisocial personality disorder, Ko Mun-yeong. As Desmond Chen (’22) states, the drama is “so different from stereotypes” as “one character’s personality is at an extreme while the other is not.”
A first of its kind, IOTNBO provides a realistic representation of mental illness and neurodiversity. I was not only stunned by Gang-tae’s good looks, but also shocked by the openness and acceptance of mental health issues in the show. In fact, the core focus of IOTNBO is healing. Each character, including the side characters, begins the series as complicated and hurt people. Since their mother’s death, Gang-tae has taken care of his autistic brother, Sang-tae, while simultaneously working to provide for the both of them. Though these actions are well-aligned with his personality, Gang-tae struggles to find a sense of independence, and often neglects his own needs. Enter Ko Mun-yeong. With a troubled past and seemingly more troubled future, the renowned children’s author quickly becomes obsessed with Gang-tae. As she pursues him, the inner mysteries of Mun-yeong’s traumatic childhood are revealed, resulting in satisfying plot twists and self-discovery. Slowly throughout the series, Mun-yeong and Gang-tae grow dependent on each other. Gang-tae calms Mun-yeong down from her temper tantrums, and Mun-yeong always urges Gang-tae to unwind and fulfill his own wishes. IOTNBO leads up to each of the characters finding peace and recovery, a feat only possible with help from each other. In the end, we see how Mun-yeong and Gang-tae have formed a true symbiotic relationship, something so heartwarming it still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.
Of course, no review is complete without mentions of the side relationships. The most moving side-plot of all time is the genuine friendship that develops between Mun-yeong and Sang-tae, Gang-tae’s brother. Starting as a pair with little opinions towards each other, the two eventually become “best friends”, having a relationship that rivals Mun-yeong and Gang-tae’s romance. Near the conclusion of the series, you will notice that the characters cry A LOT while the main OST track plays. Do not fret, this will likely not trigger you to cry every time you hear the song, that would be excessive. Ultimately, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay is highly recommended for those that need a good laugh and a good cry—which is all of us.
Crash Landing on You
As the very first drama we both watched, Crash Landing on You—better known as CLOY —holds a very special place in our hearts. With its swoony scenes, whirlwind romance, and our favourite male lead Hyun Bin, the show swept us in upon our viewing of the first episode. The series tells the story of two star-crossed lovers: South Korean chaebol heiress and fashion entrepreneur, Yoon Se-ri, and captain in the Korean People’s Army, Ri Jung-Hyuk. When Se-ri gets swept up in a tornado while paragliding, she crash-lands in the North Korean portion of the DMZ. As fate allows it, she meets Captain Ri there that day, beginning the story of their whirlwind romance. Initially, Se-ri comes off as shallow and frivolous, carelessly dismissing her dating scandal in the first episode. Meanwhile, Captain Ri seems like a strict leader, taking his role in the army very seriously. At first, I questioned how these vastly different characters would come to fall in love, but as the show went on, the chemistry between them became evident. With the combination of mysterious side plots and hilarious supporting characters, CLOY is a show to be revered.
As most of the show is set in North Korea, I appreciated how the show’s creators consulted North Korean defectors to accurately portray scenes of the country. CLOY featured aspects of daily North Korean life, including the typical power outages, 10-year-long mandated military service, and village ladies preparing kimchi. Se-ri’s new life as part of the village lady gang leads to the fostering of one of the most important themes in the show—community. With her siblings plotting against her return to South Korea and a difficult relationship with her mother, Se-ri finds companionship with the village members and Captain Ri’s comrades. A side plot includes the love story between Seo Dan (the daughter of a wealthy North Korean department store owner) and Alberto (a South Korean criminal hiding in North Korea). Their story plays out the familiar frenemies-to-lovers trope which left me with a debilitating heartache.
These dynamics were what made the show so dangerously addicting. A perfect mix of angst, drama, and romance, Crash Landing on You explores the difficulties of escaping North Korea while also teaching viewers how to purchase illegal South Korean contraband. The most important thing to note is CLOY’s legendary OST—the viewing experience is improved exponentially when Flower by Yoon Mi-rae plays each time Se-ri and Captain Ri have a special moment. Crash Landing on You is life-changing and harrowing. And I must warn you: upon finishing the show, you will be left emotionally crippled and unable to return to daily life.
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo
Cheerful, earnest, and perfectly fulfilling, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo deviates from the vulnerable-girl-and-head-strong-boy trope. By far the most unique storyline in the 2016 K-Drama realm, the show, which is based on a true story, showcases Kim Bok-Joo as a weightlifting champion and her poignant coming-of-age evolution. Her love interest, Joon Hyung, is a fellow competitive swimmer at a sports university they both attend. Through relatable plots of first-loves, insecurity, and familial values, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo is an authentic testament to the friends-to-lovers plotline.
Usually, Korean Dramas follow a storyline where the female lead is heroically ‘saved’ by the male lead, sparking a flourishing romance. However, Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo largely plays with the idea of beauty, serving as a wholesome ode to the rivalry between the university’s weightlifters and gymnasts. The weightlifters are characterized as tough tomboys, whereas the gymnasts are represented as symbols of femininity. Near the end of the show, both groups unite, despite their differences. Moreover, the show also perfectly tackled the ‘slump’ athletes struggle with. Surprisingly, a rising theme in K-Dramas has been mental health, connecting realistic struggles to the idealistic deception of on-screen lifestyles.
The romance between Kim Bok-Joo and Joon-Hyng is a far better Troy and Gabriella plotline from High School Musical, if the two are even comparable. Both characters heavily advance each other’s development, while simultaneously remaining as independent and headstrong characters. Even Kim Bok-Joo, who strays from typical female standards as a weightlifter, remains insecure about teenage issues such as boys and her appearance. Joon-Hyung continues to like Kim Bok-Joo for who she is, and discourages her from succumbing to the society’s standards. All in all, this show had perfect elements of romance, friendship, family, and actual aspirations, which Western shows don’t particularly fulfill. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-Joo is recommended for those who crave a sense of authentic companionship in romance instead of artificial desires.
Korean Dramas give us a comforting sense of stability in our rapidly changing world. The similar plotlines throughout the genres feed us with endless shows to watch. They can be found primarily on Netflix or Viki TV. Korean Dramas will either invoke novel emotions or drain all preexisting ones. Either option will leave you feeling satisfied and relaxed after a long day in our bustling and tiring Western world.
To conclude, this quote sums up our thoughts perfectly: “ From the depths of my bedroom that I never leave, K Dramas remind me of the crazy life I sometimes wish I had. ” – Desmond Chen, ’22.
I never watch k-dramas during the school year because it literally takes over my entire life and I do nothing but sit in bed and watch. – Betty Pan ’21, School Co-Captain
“I love K dramas! They give such an interesting insight into Korean culture!” – Justin Jia 21’, School Prefect
Goodbye! Or, 안녕!