Countless numbers of western viewers are riding the Hallyu wave on streaming sites like Netflix – we break down our favourite shows to watch, including Kingdom, Stranger, and Crash Landing On You
It starts with an innocent scroll through Netflix. Perhaps you’ve bloated yourself on too many true crime documentaries or maxxed out on trashy reruns of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Or maybe you’re a fan of Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, keen to overcome the “one-inch barrier of subtitles” as per the director’s Golden Globes acceptance speech, and see what else is out there. You put something on. Next thing you know, it’s been five hours. Suddenly, you’re five forgotten chance meetings, ten dramatic piggyback rides, and five drunk protagonists deep. You’ve entered the thrilling, highly-bingeable world of K-dramas.
South Korea has already been enjoying a cinematic renaissance, with directors like Bong Joon-ho, Kim Jee-woon, and Park Chan-wook pick up countless international awards, but it’s not only limited to film. In recent years, we’ve seen a rush of South Korean dramas, known as K-dramas, sweep across streaming services like Netflix or Amazon Prime, with hundreds of thousands of western viewers riding the wave known as Hallyu (the Korean “flow” of pop culture).
In this seemingly lawless universe of gripping character arcs, pulpy relationships, and extreme catharsis, genre-hopping plot lines appear to ricochet from tragedy to comedy at the drop of a hat. And you’re just as likely to see a hilarious chase scene followed by an unexpected dance routine, as you are a heartbreaking tragedy transformed into a Cinderella ending. Plus, unlike American shows, K-dramas are almost always one season, meaning they’re easily consumed and rarely suffer from multiple season fatigue.
Whether you want to chill with a detective thriller, a romantic drama, or even a good old-fashioned zombie period piece, we’ve selected our favourite picks of K-dramas for every mood.
CRASH LANDING ON YOU
After a freak tornado and a paragliding mishap, South Korean heiress and K-beauty entrepreneur Yoon Se-ri accidentally crosses the border into North Korea, where she’s immediately discovered by Ri Jeong-hyeok, an officer in the North Korean army, who also happens to be extremely hunky. Instead of turning her in, Jeong-hyeok decides to secretly help her return home – and, of course, falls in love along the way.
Admittedly, the relationship between North and South Korea is a touchy subject, especially in the context of a star-crossed lovers melodrama. But the show, which has a North Korean defector on its writing team, deals with the background politics sensitively, with several defectors praising the drama for its accuracy and attention to detail in depicting North Korean life. A tale of love, friendship, and many beauty products, Crash Landing On You is addictively odd, heartbreaking, and hilarious all at once.
For fans of: Star-crossed lovers, dramatic plot lines, and K-beauty
STRONG GIRL BONG-SOON
Somewhere in between a superhero film and a rom-com, Strong Girl Bong-Soon follows an unassuming girl with superhuman strength and a penchant for smashing up bad guys. But Bong-Soon’s hulkish strength only works when she’s using it for good, so she tries to live a normal, boring life – that is, until she gets enlisted to form a crime-fighting team to counter a wave of neighbourhood kidnappings. Along the way, she also has to deal with two men who’ve fallen hopelessly in love with her. Life is hard.
For fans of: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja and The Host, Kiss-Ass, and generally absurd yet hilarious shows
Starring Bae Doona, who starred in Sense 8 and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host, as a detective who investigates murders and high-scale corruption, Stranger is a fan-favourite on Netflix. Having featured in the New York Times best TV shows in 2017, with season two slated for release later this year, has everything you want from a crime thriller – serial killers, government corruption, and secrets, lots of secrets. Tune in.
For fans of: True Detective, Killing Eve
Kingdom is a zombie epic that takes place in the Korean Joseon dynasty circa the 1590s. Set in the heart of a pandemic (sound familiar?) that transforms those infected into raging cannibals, Crown Prince Lee Chang is stuck between a rock and a hard place – the rock being a zombie apocalypse, and the hard place, a political coup threatening to depose him from the throne. A strange, heady mix of historical drama, political intrigue, and horror, Kingdom is a delightfully gory series about how the effects of corruption and greed trample the powerless in times of crisis.
For fans of: Game of Thrones, Chernobyl, but honestly, there’s something for everyone
DESCENDANTS OF THE SUN
Nearly 40 per cent of all South Korean viewers tuned in to watch the finale of Descendants of the Sun, an intimate, heartbreaking look at love on the battlefield. It follows a young surgeon, Kang Mo-yeon, who falls for a captain in the South Korean army, Yoo Si-jin, before realising how incompatible their views on life and death are. Kang Mo-yeon saves lives while Yoo Si-jin kills, yet both find themselves in Iraq, confronted head-on with each other’s lives. Across 16 episodes, the show explores the shifts in South Korean culture and the clash between the post-Korean War generation, who tend to strongly support militarism, and the millennials, who are increasingly becoming anti-nationalist.
For fans of: This one’s so hard to compare to one particular thing, but this is definitely for lovers of high intensity dramas with the high-paced backdrop of, say, Breaking Bad or Homeland, but enough longing stares and tension to equal Normal People
HELLO, MY TWENTIES!
For fans of Lena Dunham’s Girls, Hello, My Twenties! follows five young female roommates navigating the ups and downs of adulthood, as they struggle to balance traditional values with the desire for self-fulfillment hinted at by capitalism. Of course, in proper K-drama style, there’s also a side-plot about the ghost of an ex-roommate and physical fights over borrowed clothes. But there’s also themes of sex and relationships, alcoholism, body image, and life outside the traditional scope of family.
For fans of: Girls, Insecure, Freaks and Geeks. Bonus points if you’re mid-way through a quarter life crisis, like me.