My babysis (I call her 'babysis' but in reality she's almost nineteen. Still, she's my babysis) and I just started re-watching our favorite KDrama, 'Faith.' (It can also be found under the title 'The Great Doctor.'). We watched it three years ago while it was airing, and re-watching it we were shocked to find that it's better the second time around. Why is this shocking? Because the first time around, it was still our favorite. It was still spectacular. It still beat out pretty much every other KDrama we've ever watched. Our typical experience with a good KDrama is: crying as soon as the 'previously' clips start playing, laughing in the middle, and crying again by the time the episode is over. (Plus, as I realized yesterday with slack-jawed shock, Choi Young is the one character whom I love more than Bellamy Blake. If that doesn't pique your interest, I don't know what will.)
Last night, in fact, we were so into the show that when a certain epic thing happened, we both screamed. When I say 'screamed' I don't mean 'squealed.' I mean we full-out, top-of-our-lungs shrieked. Now you have to understand that a) we've seen this drama before and b) we aren't really the screaming sort when it comes to television. We laugh and we cry but screaming bloody murder is a very rare happening. (In fact, it's so rare that we startled ourselves and spent the next five minutes in hysterics.)
By this point, you're probably wondering why on earth you should put yourself through such emotional and psychological torture, but I'm going to give you some very good reasons - and a few warnings, because Asian television is not like Western television, and is a little bit of an adjustment.
• It helps you learn another language. I kid you not - thanks to subtitles, my sister and I can speak a decent handful of Korean. We can communicate with the simple phrases, and there are times when we can understand whole phrases or conversations or songs without having them translated. I have learned more of another language (and culture, to boot) watching KDramas than I ever did with a program. Rosetta Stone's got nothing on KDramas.
• Asian television has a much stronger moral compass. I'm not saying it doesn't have a dark side - every country is going to have the inappropriate, porny side of entertainment - but it's much, much harder to find in Asian television. In fact, it's so clean, generally speaking, that you can begin a drama or a movie without worrying or wondering, because you are 95% certain it's going to be appropriate. The themes of honor, loyalty, nobility, selflessness, and determination are extremely high and can be found almost everywhere, which is a breath of fresh air after having to tunnel underground for it on American television.
• Sex really isn't something that happens on-screen. In Korean Dramas, you're way more likely to find a) a passionate hug or b) a very stoic kiss, in which two characters kind of bump mouths and stay there for ten seconds. In fact, whenever there's an actual, good kiss, my sister and I have a small celebration.
• There's another upside to the last point - because there's a lack of actual physical intimacy, the storylines focus much more on the actual relationship between characters. It delves, it searches, it breaks your heart, it mends it again. Crazy things happen and you feel every second of it, because they actually take the time to make you care, and make you believe that yes, these two people are in love and it can't possibly last because the world is against them, right? They make you hope against hope and they let you see every aspect of said relationship. They focus on the true, deep aspect rather than just the physical.
• Exaggeration. When you start watching Korean Dramas, be prepared for a bit of a mental switch - most things are a tad overdone. When people are surprised, they aren't mildly surprised - they're SHOCKED. When people are confused, they aren't just mildly bewildered - they're so freaking lost they don't know up from down. Believe it or not, it isn't annoying or even ridiculous (most of the time - there have been moments or specific dramas which are just /too/ exaggerated) - but it's different than American television. That's why there are a handful of Korean actors I really, truly love - because in spite of the dramatic storylines and impossible circumstances, they're believable. I'll list a few of my favorites down below.
• Subbing. Sometimes you have to put up with bad subs. Fortunately, this isn't the norm - subbing teams (especially at Viki) put in a lot of time to give you the best subs, but there are moments when you'll find yourself wondering if that translation really is correct, or if you're seeing things.
You're probably reading it right. And hey, on the upside, it gives you really great fodder for everyday conversation! But which drama should you start with? Let me share some of my favorites with you.
Faith a.k.a. The Great Doctor
This show is amazing. It's a sageuk - a historical/fantasy fusion drama about a plastic surgeon dragged back into the Joseon era by Woodalchi General Choi Young. It also stars my favorite Korean actor, Lee Min Ho. It's very clean, full of political intrigue and frustrating romance and action, and it has a colorful host of characters PLUS fantasy powers! How can you not want to watch it?
Gu Family Book
This is another sageuk, about a Gumiho-turned-Thousand-Year-Demon and his son, a half-Gumiho, struggling with his own nature. It's also full of politics, humor, and strong morals - honestly, Faith and Gu Family Book are very deep and very strong, morality-wise. Also, if you're concerned about the 'demon' bit, you needn't be - don't think 'hell demons,' think 'translation meaning something dark and terrible.'
Boys Over Flowers
This is the one that really got me hooked, to be honest, and it's completely ridiculous. This show stretches reality so much, and does so many insane things, and yet somehow every time it rips the heart out and smashes it under its boot-heel. This story is about an extremely poor girl, Geum Jan-Di, who, through an act of bravery, gets a scholarship to a school for the Rich & Snobby. Enter the F4 (featuring Lee Min Ho and Kim Hyun Joong) - the four guys who run the school and a good chunk of the world, to boot. Also enter a ridiculously painful love triangle and the realization that they're all actually huge and tragic marshmallows as well as idiots. Honestly, there are two songs I still can't listen to all the way through because they're from this drama and this drama brings back too many feelings. Watch it. (If you adore it too much to live, you should watch the Japanese Drama, Hana Kimi - which is the same story, just the Japanese version.)
Ah, another Lee Min Ho drama, and one of my favorites. (Basically, if it has LMH in it, it's automatically good. That's saying something.) It's a story of a young man raised in Guam, who leaves to go to Seoul when he discovers that he was part of a huge political plot. There's humor, romance, intrigue, politics, and awesome action sequences, as well as characters you absolutely love /and/ ones you detest. I highly, highly recommend this show.
When a prince and his friends are flung into the modern-day world and land metaphorically in a hapless girl's lap, hijinks ensue. Really. This show is worth every second of watching it. The elevator scene - honestly. Watch it. Laugh until you cry and gnash your teeth at the cliffhangers.
Think 'Boys Over Flowers,' but with the added twist of the main character pretending to be her twin brother for the sake of keeping his job.
That's a decent list to get you started, but what if you want something simpler? What if you don't have time for a 22-episode drama? Well, I can still help - here are some of my favorite Korean movies. Oh, but before I list the movies, I'm going to list my favorite actors - because otherwise you're going to notice a significant pattern here, if you haven't already.
Lee Min-Ho. He's my top favorite Korean actor and on top of that, he's drop-dead gorgeous. It's hard to go wrong.
Gang Dong-Won. This guy is amazing at making me cry - so imagine my shock when he executed a comedy movie flawlessly. He can do anything.
There you have them. My two favorite actors. Onward to the movies.
This is what I'd call a 'fluffy thriller.' Why fluffy? Because it focuses on the adorable relationship between a hardened, older secret agent and a soft-spoken man on the run. It's full of surprises and adorable moments and action sequences and intrigue, and it stars Gang Dong-Won.
No Korean movie has ever made me cry as hard as this one did. This may be the only thing I've listed that I might give an R-rating to because of adult elements and some language (rape and murder are large elements, although they're dealt with tastefully). It's about a convicted murderer and the damaged woman who - grudgingly at first - begins to visit him on death row. It's their journey toward forgiveness and healing and it did things to me. Things like my sister and I literally couldn't talk about it for weeks after because we started crying if we did so. It also stars Gang Dong-Won.
This movie is - like so many Korean movies - both painfully heartbreaking and perfectly adorable. It's the story of a young woman who discovers a strangely feral young man living in a former-scientist's barn, and the danger (and fun) that comes with their blossoming friendship.
This movie is hilarious. This is the comedy I mentioned - the one where Gang Dong-Won shocked me by proving that not only can he make me sob, he can make me laugh until my ribs hurt. This is about a wizard from history getting thrown into the modern age and fighting the bad guys while being completely nonplussed about everything he sees. It's a thing of beauty.
This is one of those movies that plays out exactly like a manga. The main character's brother's homeless friend ends up staying at the house under the condition that he acts like her pet. Does it sound weird? Yeah. Is it weird? Yeah, but not in a creepy way. More like, 'Wow. This whole idea is so ridiculous that it's like a hysterically weird trainwreck and I can't look away and I'm feeling strangely emotional about this entire thing.' (Bonus: It features a scene where the 'house pet' barks at the girl's boyfriend to scare him away. It's funny, I promise.)
Psychic a.k.a. Haunters
This is probably the darkest movie on this list. It's the story of an ordinary guy who seems to survive every life-threatening thing that happens to him, and a guy with psychic powers. Now, this movie is very special to me - even my sister loved it. In fact, we loved it so much that we watched it three times. This, I think, was Gang Dong-Won's best role (and he's been in some really good ones). The storyline, the characters, the cinematography, the emotions...this movie is a masterpiece, it really is. It takes a classic 'good guy vs. bad guy' and makes you feel very deeply for both the characters, but without making you question who is good and who is bad. Like I said before, the moral compass is strong with Asian movies, and I love it.
This may seem like a lot to take in, but it's only a brief guide and the best I could do to introduce you. I have to warn you, though - once you get into KDramas, there's no going back and you're hooked for life. The choice is up to you. Viki and Dramafever are good places to start.