Because this is the time to revisit all-time favourites.
These are probably my all-time favourite Korean romantic/romantic comedy dramas. They are not entirely the ‘best’ ones (some even have red flags all over them), but the ones that I keep coming back to over and over again.
1. Emergency Couple (tvN, 2014)
Emergency Couple is my first love, as with Oh Jin Hee (Song Ji Hyo) and Oh Chang Min (Choi Jin Hyuk) with each other. The drama follows the rise and fall of Jin Hee and Chang Min’s relationships post-divorce – including the people around them – as the couple’s separation left so many unfinished businesses. There’s no excruciating push and pull in sorting out their unresolved feelings. No glorious wake-up calls and grand romantic gestures, only reflections and introspections in retrospect of their failed marriage. Their going back and forth came from confusion and uncertainties towards their own feelings. Their enlightenment appeared slowly as they find small awakenings along the way.
The beginning and ending show Jin Hee runs in the emergency room as patients come rushing in, but for a moment she stopped and paused to reflect on her life in the slow-motion of the emergency room’s chaos. Jin Hee’s life has come to a full circle.
2. Discovery of Love (KBS2, 2014)
I guess unfinished business always gives a spacious room for exploration. Or maybe it is the spot on depictions that makes the story feel so familiar.
Han Yeo Reum (Jung Yu Mi) has been dating Nam Ha Jin (Sung Joon) for a year when her ex-boyfriend, Kang Tae Ha (Eric), suddenly appears in front of her. As the three of them try to resolve their past and current feelings, they find the answers to their long unanswered questions.
“And… let’s break up. Let’s break up properly now. I didn’t know why we broke up, so I couldn’t break up with you. And you’ve hated me this whole time. While you still hate me, it hasn’t over yet.” – Kang Tae Ha, episode 10.
(By the way, still one of my favourite lines of all time)
“Can’t you be happy? Don’t think about lying, just because you’re doing fine. I know you’re not okay. Tae Ha, you said you wanted me to be happy. I too want you to be happy. But, why do you keep looking for me? Go and live your life. Why do you keep looking for me? If you keep looking for me like that, I’ll start waiting for you. Do you know how many times in a day I look out the window?” – Han Yeo Reum, episode 11.
“I realised it then why Yeo Reum acted that way. Why she said those mean things to me. Why I held back so much like an idiot. I’m the kind who can’t say, ‘let’s break up’. I don’t know how to break up properly. So I have nightmares, I take pills for headaches, Yeo Reum knew that’s how I was. That’s why Yeo Reum waited for me even when her heart already left.” – Nam Ha Jin, episode 15.
“Yeo Reum waited for me even when her heart already left.” Sobs.
3. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo (MBC, 2016)
Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo fooled us into believing that this cheery and youthful show was nothing more than the typical cute coming-of-age story, but it turns out to be so much more than that. Inspired by Olympic weightlifting gold medalist, Jang Mi Ran, teenage love story, the show initially gained criticism for its lookism.
Despite their age, Kim Bok Joo (Lee Sung Kyung) and Jung Joon Hyung (Nam Joo Hyuk) show what a mature and healthy relationship looks like. A quality that many dramas with supposedly more mature characters fail to achieve. Their relationship grows slowly but steadily from frenemies to lovers. The young love is sweet and supportive. No nonsensical demands and expectations, and misunderstandings only came from pure innocence and naïvety. Rather than projecting adults’ perspectives into her characters, writer Yang Hee Seung tried to explore what’s in young adults’ hearts and minds. Their search for love and identity creates conflicts and problems that for many of us who have passed that phase might feel familiar.
4. Fight For My Way (KBS2, 2017)
Though still beautified, Fight For My Way depicts quite a realistic portrayal of the lower-middle-class young adults, making it a refreshing and pleasant break from the overused middle-upper social class settings. Despite some unnecessary stories, the undeniable charming chemistry between Choi Ae Ra (Kim Ji Won) – Go Dong Man (Park Seo Joon) and Baek Seol Hee (Song Ha Yoon) – Kim Joo Man (Ahn Jae Hong) as romantic couples and the four of them as a group of friends make up for what the drama lacks.
Their non-privilege start inevitably leads to mediocre jobs. Go Dong Man was a former high school Taekwondo hotshot, but now works as a pest exterminator while going after the UFC title. Choi Ae Ra always dreamed of being a TV anchor, but after failing too many times, she gave up her dream. Now, she works as a customer service representative at a mall information desk. Both Baek Seol Hee and Kim Joo Man, who have been dating for six years, work at a home shopping network. Seol Hee as a customer service and Joo Man as a buyer. They call themselves the Fantastic Four Knuckleheads. No victorious end for these four, but they do find love in the end. And that’s enough to get them to go through their ordinary lives.
But I have to admit that the strongest attraction of this drama is the pairing of Park Seo Joon & Kim Ji Won. They look great together from the get-go. Their strong chemistry and adorable portrayal of (what I like to call as) dumb and dumber couple are probably their best and most favourite performance of them I’ve seen so far.
5. Ex-Girlfriends’ Club (tvN, 2015)
The idea of four ex-girlfriends lives become entangled in the same ex-boyfriend’s present life can really be a turnoff, but Ex-Girlfriends’ Club managed to (kind of) dodge the bullet.
Kim Soo Jin (Song Ji Hyo) is a producer at a film production company. Her failing company decides to make a film based on a popular webtoon. Only later did Soo Jin find out that the webtoon writer is her ex-boyfriend, Bang Myeong Soo (Byun Yo Han), who writes about his ex-girlfriends. As the movie starts shooting, the project also brings Myung Soo’s other ex-girlfriends back into his life all at the same time; Jang Hwa Young (Lee Yoon Ji), Na Ji A (Jang Ji Eun) and Geun-hyung/Ra Ra (Ryu Hwa Young).
Interesting storyline, good execution, quirky narrating style, catchy tunes from South Korean indie scene, and its casts’ wonderful chemistry are some of the show’s charms; but it is probably Byun Ho Han’s stellar laidback performance (in his first leading role) and his chemistry with Song Ji Hyo that makes it one of the most memorable (though way too underrated) romantic comedy dramas. Sadly, the drama was abruptly cut short because of the low rating, making the ending felt rushed.
6. Just Between Lovers/Rain Or Shine (JTBC, 2017)
Ha Moon Soo (Won Jin Ah) and Lee Gang Doo (Lee Jun Ho) are both survivors and also the family of victims of a mall building collapse. Though the world around them seems to have moved on, their lives; along with the lives of the deceased families; are still somehow trapped in the past. Today, Gang Doo suffers a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a liver malfunction, while Moon Soo seems to suffer amnesia, where she selectively erased some part of her past memories. Through a series of coincidental encounters, present Gang Doo and Moon Soo slowly enter each other’s lives. Jun Ho and Jin A’s relationships feel so real, organic and sincere that my heart is shattered too as they crawling out of the hole of despair. Their relationship feels sincere and is built gradually upon candor and empathy.
Not all stories have to end with a happy ending. Some relationships have to end to give new beginnings a chance, and some resume with a lot of struggles and require hard work. Nothing is binary in Just Between Lovers. And that’s how life is. Suffering shows you that you are still alive, whether that means good or bad depending on the circumstances.
7. Personal Taste (MBC, 2010)
Park Gae In: “Your back is really warm. I wonder if my father’s back was warm like this too.”
Jeon Jin Ho: “Hasn’t your father ever carried you on his back?”
Park Gae In: “This is the first time I’ve been carried on anyone’s back. I always thought that people’s backs were just cold.”
Personal Taste has all sorts of classic Korean drama clichés, from ridiculous misunderstandings to toxic masculinity and false wokeness. But it was lines like the above, the chemistry between Son Ye Jin and Lee Min Ho (despite Lee Min Ho’s flat expressions) and the underrated amazing performances of Jo Eun Ji (as Lee Young Sun, Gae In’s best friend) and Jung Sung Hwa (as No Sang Jun, Jin Ho’s colleague/fake boyfriend) that stole my heart and making me keep coming back to it despite all its cringes and cheesiness.
8. Familiar Wife (tvN, 2018)
It was inevitable that K-drama fans instantly compared Familiar Wife to Go Back Couple with the latter being aired almost a year ahead. Both dramas told a story about married couples struggling to keep their marriage alive and suddenly one day they find themselves travelling back in time.
But that’s as far as it goes. Though sometimes touching and heartwarming, but most of the time Go Back Couple feels immature and juvenile. Plus Jang Na Ra and Son Ho Jun are pale in comparison with Han Ji Min and Ji Sung. True that both couples portray their characters very well, but Ji Min and Ji Sung’s versatility as actors create much more realistic and nuanced characters, hence a more believable portrayal of struggling and tired married couple who is given a chance to re-examine their relationship to eventually re-discover their love for each other.
9. It’s Okay, That’s Love (SBS, 2014)
As banal (and possibly misdiagnose and misrepresent) as it might be, It’s Okay, That’s Love is one of the very few dramas that specifically address mental health issues. Jang Jae Yeol (Jo In Sung) is a bestselling mystery fiction novelist and radio DJ. Because of his troubled past and obsessive–compulsive disorder, Jae-yeol can only sleep in his own bathtub. Ji Hae Soo (Gong Hyo Jin) is a psychiatrist in her first year of fellowship. She self-diagnosed herself as having insecurity/anxiety issues, a fear of commitment, and sex phobia due to an incident where she saw her mom cheating on her dad with another guy. Together, they go through a tumultuous relationship to eventually heal each other’s deep-seated wounds and face their own battles.
Said to be the first Korean psychiatric drama, as expected, Hae Soo and Jae Yool are not the only ones with mental health issues. Most people around them are also dealing with their own psychological problems, which in a way gives solid backgrounds for their actions and behaviour.
Just like in most of Noh Hee Kyung’s dramas, the heavy subjects are balanced with wits. Gong Hyo Jin and Jo In Sung’s sassiness is a fundamental trait in carrying Hae Soo and Hae Yool endless bicker and banter, making them the coolest couple in romantic K-drama land.
10. Fated To Love You (MBC, 2014)
The ridiculous plot and overdramatic storyline did not hold Jang Hyuk from delivering one of the most iconic performances (and hairstyles) of his career and probably in the history of K-drama.
I don’t think anyone else can pull off portraying the eclectic Lee Geon better than Jang Hyuk. He makes the character looks like it is made and tailored just for him. Sometimes comic-y, extravagant, over the top; especially with the laugh; and even unnecessarily bizarre, Lee Geon is also warm and fragile. Jang Hyuk flawlessly glides from one emotion to another. One wrong step can turn Lee Geon into a despicable character, but instead, he makes Lee Geon’s flaws (kind of) understandable and even makes us empathise with him.
Lee Geon’s antics is in contrast with Kim Mi Young’s unassertiveness, even submissiveness, which suited Jang Na Ra’s melancholic face perfectly. So great their chemistry is, they were paired up for the third time later that year for a one-episode drama special, Old Goodbye.
11. Something About 1% (Dramax, 2016)
Almost everything about the show screams political incorrectness. The toxic masculinity is quite disturbing, moreover, in this age of #MeToo. Many K-dramas have been criticised for romanticising rape culture and this one ticks so many alarming boxes. The story is also a conservative cliché with too many unnecessary sub-plots (it is a remake of 2003’s same-titled drama starring Kang Dong Won and Kim Jung Hwa. And apparently the writer didn’t bother to update some of its outdated aspects).
Lee Jae In (Ha Seok Jin), a rude, mean, and arrogant heir of a wealthy family, is forced to get married in order to inherit his grandfather’s fortune. Unable to escape his command, Jae In engages in a six-month contract for a pretend relationship with Kim Da Hyun (Jeon So Min), an elementary school teacher chosen for him by his grandfather. Predictably enough, both Jae In and Da Hyun slowly fall for each other and it is Da Hyun who softens his heart and transforms his attitude. This ‘bad boy turns into a good boy with the help of a good girl’ and arranged marriage (without the woman even knowing!) formula is rather appalling in this age of gender equality and female empowerment.
But Ha Seok Jin and Jeon So Min save this drama with their wonderful display of emotion shifts which helps us get through the lousy story. Not to mention Ha Seok Jin’s sexy flirt. If only their sincere chemistry is shown in a more woke drama, their sweetness will be so much more worth watching.
12. You Drive Me Crazy! (MBC, 2018)
You Drive Me Crazy was almost out of K-drama fans’ radar when it aired. Maybe because it was a filler (drama special) in between dramas with only 2 episodes, there wasn’t much anticipation about this drama.
Han Eun Sung (Lee Yoo Young) and Kim Rae Wan (Kim Seon Ho) are friends for years, but a few months ago they slept together. Now, though nothing changes on the outside, but it seems that they never really get over it as the incident affects their present relationship.
Short, sweet, and cute. A classic ‘friends or lovers’ dilemma. It would be perfect if only it was longer.