This post is part of Mashable’s You’re Old Week. Break through the haze of nostalgia with us and see what holds up, what disappoints, and what got better with time.
Korean dramas will always make me nostalgic for childhood New Year’s gatherings.
I grew up with a very large, very loud family. On New Year’s Day, anywhere from 40 to 60 members of that family (“clan,” as my mother calls it) would pile into my parents’ house for traditional Korean celebrations. I’d wake up to the sound of relatives pouring in through the front door and bustling through the kitchen, preparing a culturally blended brunch: bagels, coffee, and tteokguk, a savory soup made with beef broth and rice cakes. My grandfather would lead a family worship service and then the clan would resume eating. From japchae, a glass noodle and vegetable dish, to galbijjim, a sort of beef stew, to platters of Korean barbeque, eating was an all day affair, punctuated by passing around some cousin’s baby and watching TV together.
Generations of Sungs crowded the basement for a nonstop parade of movies and shows — which always seemed to be a toss up between whatever Michael Bay directed that year or a classic K-drama.
If you’re unfamiliar with K-dramas, here’s a quick rundown: They’re endearingly cheesy, they’re addictive, and there’s always a love story. Much like a telenovela or a soap opera, K-dramas take you on a 30-minute long emotional rollercoaster every episode. Since K-dramas are usually self-contained within 16 to 20 episodes, instead of multi-season story arcs, they’re also easy to binge. And in the past few years, they’ve become even more accessible.
“Ten years ago I was watching dramas through DVD or on a Korean TV website,” said my Aunt Sue, who I talked to on a three-way call with her younger sister, BJ, to get their perspective on K-dramas. She would buy the DVDs for around $2 per episode, or would scroll through a Korean cable channel’s website to find the episodes.
But as my Aunt BJ pointed out, access in the U.S. was limited because most non-Koreans wouldn’t know about the dramas in the first place. “Unless they actively sought for it or had some Korean contact,” she said.
“We are definitely seeing a demand for Korean shows and movies.”
Now with sites like Netflix and Dramafever, watching K-dramas and finding new ones (to fill the void in your heart whenever you finish a series) is easier for people whose interaction with Korean culture is limited. Since these sites also provide English subtitles, it’s also easier for people like me, whose limited grasp of the Korean language puts most of my family to shame.
Jessica Lee, Netflix’s Vice President of Communications for Asia, said there’s a strong market these days for streaming dramas. “We are definitely seeing a demand for Korean shows and movies,” Lee said. “Not just from Asia but from all around the world.”
She also nodded to Korea as an industry powerhouse: “Historically, the industry has always seen a good volume of quality content out of Korea, and a lot of content transcends borders.”
Much of the content from South Korea strikes a chord with its audience. My aunts enjoy watching K-dramas because of the easily digestible storylines. “Everyone likes the themes of unrequited love, surviving through hardship, and revenge,” said Aunt Sue.
But watching the same storylines play out can be tiring — Will Park, a friend who grew up in Korea and a recent film school graduate, explained that Korean culture is conservative, corporate, and often homophobic. After a long day at the office, he said, “they don’t want to watch something that challenges their views — they want a happy ending.”
Aunt Sue worries that the K-dramas’ portrayal of South Korea sets its audience up with an unrealistic idea of the country. “They’re showing the side of Korea that isn’t really true — [the characters are] always shopping, going to the spa, [doing] vanity things … it’s not real life.”
A lot of the themes that resonated with me as a teenager — crushes, gossip, drama — do come off as uninspiring. The shows rarely provoke a discussion, like confronting racism in an overwhelmingly monoethnic culture or discussing LGBTQ rights in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. Last year, the military (where service is mandatory for all of South Korea’s male citizens) sentenced a gay soldier to six months in prison for having consensual sex with another soldier in a private place.
Holland, the first openly gay K-pop idol, debuted his single “Neverland” this year without any record label or industry backing. The music video has a 19+ rating in South Korea because it includes an innocent (to American standards, at least) kiss between Holland and another man. “Neverland” is nearing 9 million views on YouTube. Koreans seem to be ready for more LGBTQ representation in pop culture. Will we see any of that representation in K-dramas?
K-dramas have dabbled in portraying LGBTQ relationships — in Coffee Prince, a protagonist questions his feelings for another man, but she turns out to be a girl whose ambiguous appearance lets her pass as a boy. In Reply 1997, a gay high schooler confesses his feelings for one of his closest friends. And in Seonam Girls High School Investigators, South Koreans were scandalized by the first broadcasted lesbian kiss. Despite the controversy, the drama’s producers said, “We don’t think it is up to us to decide whether they are right or wrong. We wanted differences to be accepted.”
Although K-dramas have a long way to go in portraying a diversity of relationships, at the end of the day my aunts believe their popularity is commendable. When they first moved to the United States in the 1970’s, South Korea wasn’t known as the modern country it is today.
Aside from CBS’ M*A*S*H*, there “really were no Asian, let alone Korean, influences to look up to,” Aunt BJ said. She added that the show, which revolves around an American army hospital during the Korean war, didn’t help her deal with the stereotypes of Korean immigrants while she struggled to assimilate to American culture.
Asian-American representation has come a long way on American screens — not only in the presence of Asian-American characters, but also in the diversity of stories told. Margaret Cho’s cringey All-American Girl portrayed a Korean-American family that fulfilled all of the stereotypes of Asian immigrants: a strict “tiger mom,” overachieving nerdy characters, and obedient children. Cho was the only Korean-American cast member. One critic called the 1994 show “ready canvas for all kinds of gibberish Orientalism.” It’s no surprise it only lasted one season. Compare that to Fresh Off The Boat, which portrays the experiences of a Taiwanese-American family without bogging them down with stereotypes. Although the show pokes fun at the Huang family’s cultural differences, unlike All-American Girl, it doesn’t make being Asian the butt of the joke.
Obviously, you can’t compare the storylines in K-dramas to ones about Asian-American experiences. But the popularity of K-dramas has made Korean culture accessible in parts of the United States where people wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it, and its popularity shows there’s potential for shows about Korean immigrant experiences. Kim’s Convenience, a CBC sitcom about a Korean-Canadian family living in Toronto, was just renewed for a third season.
Aunt Sue added, “They used to say, ‘You’re from Korea? Oh, there was a war.” Now, she said, she sees billboards for K-pop groups like BTS in Times Square and quotes from K-dramas on social media. “People are talking about totally different things: Kim Yuna (the figure skater who lit the Olympic cauldron during the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang), what’s happening with reunification … I feel great about that! I’m very proud of it.”
With that in mind, here are five K-dramas that will always make me feel nostalgic — whether they’re epic period pieces or teenage rom-coms, you’ll want to keep a box of tissues nearby.
Boys Over Flowers
Boys Over Flowers is cheesy. So cheesy. Just watch the opening credits — set up like a high schooler’s glittery scrapbook — and you’ll get an idea of how cheesy this teen drama is. It’s still worth watching though. The 2009 drama follows Jan-di, a poor student who gets into an elite private high school on a scholarship. Jan-di is bullied for her lack of wealth, but her bully quickly develops feelings for her. She meets F4, a group of four very hot, very rich boys who all have unrealistically large hair. Much like Gossip Girl, there’s everything you’d expect from a high school romantic drama: love triangles, absurd outfits, and not a lot of schoolwork.
Where to watch:
Boys Over Flowers is available to stream on Netflix.
Originally released in 2011, Dream High revolves around a group of six students at Kirin High School, a prestigious art school known for churning out K-pop’s most successful stars. They battle classism, body image issues, and teenage heartache. And a lot like Glee, the cast of Dream High has a thing for breaking out into musical numbers.
Each main character has some kind of entertainment industry talent — whether it’s singing, dancing, or playing an instrument — but they don’t quite fit into society’s strict standards for a K-pop idol. The band of misfits struggle to excel in their classes.
Just watch out for the crying — there is so much crying. In the scene above, a crying Jin-gook kisses a crying Hye-mi on the ferris wheel, while Sam-dong (who was planning on riding the ferris wheel with Hye-mi) watches from a nearby window and starts crying. If you can get through the tears and like a good underdog story, then you’ll love Dream High.
Where to watch:
Dream High is available to stream on Dramafever.
The Moon that Embraces the Sun
This 2012 fantasy series set in Korea’s medieval Joseon dynasty tells the story of a secret affair between the country’s king and a female shaman. They have to both conceal their relationship and work through political turmoil. The 20 episode series garnered such high reviews, it has a “National Drama” status in South Korea, and it won multiple “Best Drama” or “Best Actor” awards.
The political conspiracies! The shamanist magic! The costumes! There are multiple reasons why this K-drama is so well renowned, but the costumes in The Moon that Embraces the Sun definitely pulled me into the series. The traditional silk hanboks featured in this series are incredible.
Where to watch:
What isn’t there to love about a strong female lead who can out eat every other character? In Coffee Prince, Eun-chan supports her family with her two jobs as a taekwondo instructor and cafe barista. Han-kyul, an entitled heir to a massive coffee company, is ordered to work at the same neighborhood cafe because his caffeine mogul grandmother is tired of him galavanting around the world on his family’s money.
Since Eun-chan often passes as a boy, with short hair and baggy clothing, her appearance usually leads to some gender role-based confusion. Think Mulan — but instead of dueling with swords, Eun-chan duels with bowls of noodles and complete disregard for society’s traditional expectations.
Where to watch:
You can stream Coffee Prince on Dramafever.
Are you nostalgic for your high school days? Do you still dream about the crush you had in senior year? Do you have a burning love for JNCO jeans and VHS tapes? You might be a fan of Reply 1997, a 2012 drama about the start of South Korea’s K-pop industry and cultural shift to westernization.
The drama, according to my Aunt BJ through our group chat, was “sort of a comfort blanket” when it came out because “Korea as a country was so westernized and seemed to have forgotten the good old days.” It revolves around six friends in their 30s meeting up for a reunion and reminiscing about their high school days. Much like How I Met Your Mother, Reply 1997 has its audience wondering which characters ended up together.
There are also cheesy black and white montages of childhood photos, and how could you not love that?
Where to watch:
Reply 1997 is available on Netflix.