Overcoming Subtitles: Watch these 5 Korean Dramas for good health [1/3]

by Sian Wilson

These 5 dramas are listed not in order of overall awesomeness, but rather in order of my own personal enjoyment.

1. “My Mister” (나의 아저씨) [2018]

Drama – 16 Episodes

Official My Mister Poster. Source: jtbc

A painfully human experience. A cross-generational reality. There is great comfort in getting caught in the spiderweb of lives woven by Park Dong-Hoon played by Lee Sun-Kyun and Lee Ji-An played by Lee Ji-Eun (aka IU). It is sticky and enveloping, and warm in its peculiar relatability. Even if one could struggle to get away, one wouldn’t want to.

“My Mister” is, simply, an ode to loneliness; the crushing, suffocating, inescapable human condition. The loneliest pair in the world, Dong-Hoon (or Lee Sun-Kyun of the Oscar-winning “Parasite”) who seeks only for people to know nothing about his loneliness, and Ji-An whose loneliness is painstakingly obvious but comfortably ignored, simply exist each day without truly living.

We begin the 16-episode journey with Park Dong-Hoon and Lee Ji-An’s fateful collision: he is a listless general manager at a structural engineering company, and she is a despondent temporary employee. 20 years apart in age, the audience is regretful to imagine an unsavory romance budding between the 40-something Dong-Hoon and the 21-year-old Ji-An. But, this is not that kind of love story. As the episodes melt into one another and your heart along with them, we become privy to two facts of life: first, suffering is not respective to age. Second, if nobody knows of your suffering, then “it’s no big deal”.

The story follows Dong-Hoon and his unwilling game of tug-o’-war with his archnemesis Do Jun-Young, the CEO with whom Dong-Hoon’s wife is having an affair. And Ji-An, by extension, uses her wit and grit to swindle them all out of everything (everything she needs, that is). To her, they appear as weak, incapable, careless adults and so when she sees an opportunity to make something of her own life, she seizes the chance to ruin the lives of the aforementioned three in particular.

What Ji-An doesn’t know, however, is that the man whose life she intends to ruin is one with whom she will grow to have a lot in common. He will bring her an unprecedented comfort and offer her uncompromising kindness. And she will truly know him. The story continues to follow both Dong-Hoon and Ji-An as they navigate their own thoughts, feelings, and mindless existences.

It is how Dong-Hoon’s innate goodness and quiet misery is written that wills Ji-An and audience alike to want to be there for him. And it is how Ji-An’s obscure childlike fragility is written that induces within Dong-Hoon and the audience a desire to help her survive beyond her already excruciating 21 years. The show’s writing is generally so good that we find so many ways to understand, empathise, and relate to each character. We are not trudging through life with them, but we are privy to the deepest, darkest recesses of their minds without boisterous voiceover narration. The nuance in their performances, from their sighs, their laughs, their swift glances, to their staggered footsteps and bursts of outrage, does so much to compliment the already gut-punching rawness of the dialogue.

There is so very much to be said about this drama, from the performances and sub-plots to the soundtrack, so take a look at my very long full review here.

2. “SKY Castle” (SKY 캐슬) [2018]

Satire, Drama, Mystery, Thriller - 20 Episodes

Official SKY Castle Poster. Source: jtbc

“SKY” Castle, referring to the three top universities in South Korea – namely Seoul University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – is a fictional neighbourhood home to four very different families with one thing in common: the children are all expected to make something of themselves, one way or another.

Grooming their children, and forcing them under the guise of encouragement, to become the best of the best, and the smartest of the smartest, is the neighbourhood sport of SKY Castle. The parents in the show take their children’s educations very seriously, which makes the drama, at times, quite difficult to watch. But the conversation around the extreme standards for South Korean students is one being had for years already as South Korea has been called the most educated country in the world. And the drama does a good job of embodying that conversation by on-screen performances from incredible actors.

Thrillingly, heartbreakingly, and interestingly, the show depicts the lives of these families as they struggle to ascertain what is important in life. Success or happiness? And, are the two mutually exclusive? Brilliantly, the writers tease who seems to be the obvious villain, the third-party – Kim Joo-young played by Kim Seo-hyung. Kim Joo-young is a professional coordinator for college admissions. As such, she is recruited by only the most elite families, and ultimately has the final decision of whether or not she will sacrifice her precious time rearing their children. Using extremely unorthodox methods for tutorship, Kim Joo-young is easy to hate, which is misleading. It is, in fact, because of parents like Han Seo-jin played by Yum Jung-ah that people like Kim Joo-young exist, writes journalist Kim Jae-ha.

Han Seo-jin is the wife of a super important doctor, and mother of two daughters. Her eldest, Ye-seo, is the smartest student in her class, and utterly unlikeable. Han Seo-jin’s purpose in her family is to ensure that Ye-seo gets into the best medical school in the country, to become the family’s third generation of doctors. As such, everything from what Ye-seo eats to the lighting in her torture-device-esque study cubicle (placed in the center of her own bedroom), is monitored by Han Seo-jin.

Han Seo-jin’s debut as a villain can be attributed to a myriad of events, of course. But patriarchy is obviously a major influence. The heads of the households are all men; hardworking, everything-I-do-is-for-the-good-of-the-family men, either doctors or lawyers or professors, each with their own reputations and ideals for family-hood. The wives and mothers are the stay-at-home kind, an honorable role to hold, and their overt responsibility is homemaking and child-grooming. The patriarchal environment plays into the behaviour of their children; yet none seem as grotesquely affected by their own parents as Ye-seo. Filial obligation, peer pressure, societal standards and expectations, childhood and parenthood, marriage and divorce, mental health and friendship. All of these narratives are integral to understanding the interpretable message of the drama: success isn’t everything, but family sometimes is.

3. “Kingdom” (킹덤) Season 1 [2019]

Zombie Thriller, Political Drama, Historical Drama – 6 Episodes (12 overall)

Official Kingdom Season 1 Poster. Source: impawards.com

Another thing South Korea seems to continuously thrive in doing is making zombie thriller masterpieces. First, it was the unprecedented must-watch hit “Train to Busan”, and then the awkwardly charming Netflix Original “#Alive”. “Kingdom” season 1 from 2019 was a 6-episode gory zombie slasher masterpiece, and season 2 is just as good.

The drama is set in Korea’s Joseon period, as all South Korean period dramas are. This time, there are zombies. Really good, terrifying zombies. The king of the time falls gravely ill, and his wry and conniving young wife and her snaky family elect to keep him alive using a fabled “resurrection plant”, which becomes the catalyst for the story as it rapidly – and rabidly – unfolds. The doctor who treats the king returns to his rural homestead, swarming with starving patients, with his recently deceased young assistant’s body in tow. The king had bitten him and killed him, but the consequences of the event are not realized until the starving patients cook the assistant, and eat his infected flesh. Desperate times… results in a mass outbreak as all the patients die, and return as the undead.

The Crown Prince of the creepy undead king is due to inherit the crown, albeit unwillingly. He returns upon news of his father’s failing health, unaware that he is actually just a well-robed zombie chained to his royal bed. On arriving back in town, the Crown Prince played by Ju Ji-hoon discovers the nurse of the now-dead doctor, and together they team up to eradicate the fast-spreading zombie plague. What makes the show so brilliant, is the era in which it is set. There are no guns for headshots, nor tall concrete buildings to take refuge in. Rather, it’s up to deft swordsmanship, decapitation, teamwork, and lots and lots of running in order to survive. As every good zombie feature has its defining detail (in “Train to Busan” the zombies couldn’t see in the dark making timed escape an option), in Kingdom the zombies are greatly affected by sunlight and lay dormant during the day (Spoiler: it was actually heat that they hated and as winter approaches… well…).

The political edge is also what contributes to the masterful production of “Kingdom” overall. The Royal Court is a snake-infested environment as official betrays official, and the fate of an unborn baby can either mean a new reign or an outright civil war. It’s through maintaining the balance between the arches of the approaching zombie horde and the political strife that makes for an impressive binge. Originally a Korean Webtoon by Kim Eun-hee, the drama adaption of the first season is remarkable and rejuvenating as it pits the starving commoners turned ravenous zombies against the power-hungry noblemen of the Joseon kingdom.

4. “Strangers from Hell/Hell is Other People” (타인은 지옥이다) [2019]

Psychological, Thriller – 10 Episodes

Strangers from Hell Official Poster. Source: dramamilk.com.

“Strangers from Hell” is another South Korean hit drama based on a popular webtoon of the same name by Kim Yong-ki. There aren’t too many slasher/psychological thrillers in the K-Drama realm that are as gruesome and well-executed as “Strangers from Hell”. The drama is dreary and claustrophobic, artistically shot to make the audience as uncomfortable as protagonist Yoon Jong-Woo played by Im Si-wan.

The plot follows country boy Yoon Jong-woo as he relocates to Seoul in pursuit of a job. He lands an unpaid internship at the company of a grossly unlikeable college senior, who takes it upon himself to constantly remind Yoon Jong-woo to “stop frowning”. Hell really is other people, as a series of events begin to unfold around the 20-something aspiring crime thriller writer. He is constantly thrust into uncomfortable, unaccommodating environments. On arriving in Seoul, he must traipse the streets in sweltering heat, looking for a small apartment/dormitory, or goshiwon, in his minimal budget. Everything is ridiculously overpriced, so he settles for the run-down obviously foreboding Eden goshiwon atop a hill in a sketchy neighbourhood. Immediately one should remark, “That could never be me.” But, a house is a house.

The landlady played by the remarkable Lee Jung-eun (the housekeeper from award-winning “Parasite”) is horribly invasive and nosey, with a forceful sweetness that could rot a tooth of gold. She has a penchant for serving rotten eggs to the tenants. Yoon Jong-woo soon meets the other tenants; each character as alarming as the next. There’s a pervert, out on parole as his ankle monitor would suggest, always looming in the doorway with something sharp hidden behind his back. The twins are the worst; one with a stutter and a habit of brutally killing neighbourhood cats whose antagonistic giggles echo down the halls, and the other the sadistic brains between the two. The suave dentist, played by Lee Dong-wook of “Goblin”, is the Hannibal Lecter of the bunch. Taking to calling his prospects “babe” or “honey”, he also collects a tooth as a souvenir after each murder.

The overall mood is depressive, and the direction utilises great artistic skill in keeping Yoon Jong-woo in a suffocating embrace of darkness and paranoia. It soon becomes known that the band of creeps in Eden are hosting murderous kidnappings in the storey above the dorms, with the dentist Seo Mun as their coy leader. And soon Seo Mun seems convinced that the unsuspecting Yoon Jong-woo is a likeminded closeted killer, and proceeds to nurture and befriend him, worming his way into Yoon Jong-woo’s mind. The big question looms: will Yoon Jong-woo succumb to his influencers? The moments leading up to the answer are hair-rising and rely heavily on not simply the obvious villains, but also the “ordinary” people surrounding our protagonist in his every-day life. What pushes a person over the proverbial edge? Other people.

5. “Goblin: The Lonely and Great God/Guardian: The Lonely and Great God” (쓸쓸하고 찬란하신 – 도깨비) [2017]

Fantasy, Romance - 16 Episodes

Official Goblin/Guardian Poster. Source: hancinema.net

Dokkaebi, or “Korean goblins”, are deities of nature or powerful spirits roaming the natural plane, using their supernatural abilities to interact with humans, either playing tricks on them or guiding them through life. In Korean mythology, goblins take a myriad of forms with various purposes; and in writer Kim Eun-shook’s 2017 drama adaption, there is yet another colourful personification of the classic Korean myth.

Gong Yoo plays the magnificent, lonely goblin Kim Shin. Repenting for his sins, Kim Shin has been coasting through 900 years of his pseudo-life after being granted immortality as atonement for his mass murders when he was an undefeated military general. As all tragic love stories should go, Kim Shin’s only hope for happiness - and salvation - is through the discovery of his one true love: the Goblin’s Bride. In this case, Kim Go-eun who plays Ji Eun-tak, is one such bride. Significantly (and debatably grossly) younger than Kim Shin, the introduction of Ji Eun-tak as the unassuming bride comes as a bit of a shock. She’s in high school, and he’s 30-something and 900 years old. And yet, there seems to be no better written love story than the one between the two fated lovers.

The drama plays out remarkably tastefully, while maintaining the magic of the genre of fantasy intertwined with romance and awesome sub-plots. One such sub-plot is the charming love-hate bromance between Kim Shin as our lonely deity, and the Grim Reaper played by Lee Dong-wook. Their relationship is as ill-fated as Kim Shin’s and Ji Eun-tak’s, but only as far as Kim Shin is responsible for the pile of soul-based paperwork the Grim Reaper has to deal with. Ji Eun-tak was fated to die; in fact, she was never supposed to be born. But as her mother lay pleading for mercy on a snowy winter evening after being beaten and abandoned by, assumingly, an awful boyfriend, Kim Shin saved her and the unborn Bride. The Grim Reaper will forever hold that particular abuse of omniscience against Kim Shin, and it’s hilarious to watch.

Without giving too much away, it is fair to allude that the thrill of this particular story can be likened to the age-old tragic love story of Romeo and Juliet. The audience is made aware, very early on, that who lives is determined by who dies. Tried, tested, and tragic, “Goblin/Guardian” is as familiar yet refreshing as one could hope from the genre.

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