Thursday, August 25, 2016

Television: Three Korean Dramas

When Tasha suggested Korean dramas would be very much in my wheelhouse, I assumed I was in for quite the time commitment. A quick Netflix search showed me how wrong I was. Yeah, Korean television produces a fair number of shows on the same model as UK and North American TV--ie, 10- or 20-episode seasons of 40- to 60-minute episodes—but I was surprised to discover that many of the series in my Netflix list were refreshingly short by my standards. And as an added bonus, each of them was a complete story with a proper ending.

I dove in, and quickly discovered Tasha was right. The Korean drama industry knows exactly what I want from my television. If you, too, are looking to experiment with K-Dramas, I highly recommend the three I started with:

Lucid Dream banner, featuring two Korean people gazing whistfully in opposite directions, surrounded by pink and green watercolour blotches.
Lucid Dream (aka Snow Lotus)
8 episodes ranging from 18 to 25 minutes

Every night, Lee Soo-hyeon dreams he’s a student from a thousand years ago, desperately in love with the man who saved him from bandits. He’s so obsessed with these visions that he breaks away from his family’s electronics business to found Lucid Dream, a video game company that’ll bring his dream to life in playable form.

Every night, artist Han Yeon-hee dreams she’s a noblewoman who disguises herself as a man so she can become a student and spend more time with her new fiance--and with the bookish young man she once saved from bandits during an evening excursion. Yeon-hee draws scenes from her dream over and over again, including at the Lucid Dream Drawing With My Daddy contest, which she attends disguised as a man so her fatherless niece can participate.

Soo-hyeon sees Yeon-hee’s drawing, recognizes the source material, and hires her as a game designer, unaware of her true gender. They continue to dream as they work together, each gaining more pieces of the overall story until they reach a point of no return.

LUCID DREAM was my very first Korean drama, and it blew me straight out of the water. It’s funny, gasp-inducing, tense, scary, uplifting, heartfelt, and beautifully scored. The dream sequences are suitably surreal even as they deal with very real emotional landscapes, while the bits set in the waking world push each character in about a thousand fascinating directions, all at once.

The series’ main tension comes from the differences in what each character knows about their shared dream. While both Soo-hyeon and Yeon-hee dream the same events, they don’t dream in sync with one another or in chronological order. Yeon-hee routinely dreams the end of their story; Soo-hyeon relives the beginning again and again. Each of them recognizes their dream in the other’s work, but since they’re approaching the story from opposite angles they’re often frustrated by the bits the other person gets wrong--and the things they get horrifyingly right.

Because these points of connection make it impossible to ignore that this is happening to them. They’re really reliving a love story they first played out a thousand years ago. They’re really bound together by fate, even as they each find things about the other absolutely insufferable. It hits them both in different ways and threatens to tear them apart as often as it brings them together.

Each of the leads has a jealous, family-imposed finacee, too; Soo-hyeon in the present, Yeon-hee in the past. These alternate relationships play out in parallel, leading them down a perilous road that’s already ended in tragedy once and looks set to play out in the same manner all over again.

I’m so glad I started here. LUCID DREAM was absolutely fantastic, and I recommend it to any TV fan who’s looking to see what Korea has to offer.

Never Die banner, featuring a Korean woman seated on some stairs close to the camera, hands on hips. A Korean man appears several steps up from her, his hands on his pressed-together knees.
Never Die (aka She Is Two Hundred Years Old)
5 episodes ranging from 9 minutes to 15 minutes

Lee Jeong-hoon feels terrible when a young woman dies saving him from a traffic collision. She’s completely without family, so he figures the least he can do is give her a funeral and keep vigil beside her the night before the ceremony. He gets the shock of his life when she rises from her coffin after midnight. Min Se-yeon may look twenty, but she’s actually a two-hundred-year-old woman whose body resets itself every day at the hour of her first death. She cuts her hair, it grows back. She breaks her leg, it heals. She dies, she returns to life.

The two of them become friends, despite Se-yeon’s reservations about getting attached to anyone without her particular disadvantage, and their relationship soon morphs into something else--with potentially disastrous consequences as new elements of Se-yeon’s curse kick in.

Se-yeon (played by actress and pop singer Nam Ji Hyun) absolutely made this drama for me. The second she rose from the dead, I was sold. She’s so old that she’s she’s already cycled through all the expected responses to her situation. She’s rushed madly around, trying heaps of scary things because she knows that even if it hurts in the moment, her suffering won’t be permanent. She’s had a ton of fun. And she’s traveled down through the depths of despair as she’s engaged with what living forever means in terms of the sorts of relationships she can nurture.

By the time we meet her, she’s reached a point halfway between these two extremes. She has a sense of humour about her immortality and about the world in general, but she’s also very careful not to let anyone get close enough that she’ll be hurt. I’m so, so glad I got to spend an hour or so with her.

Jeon-hoon is also pretty great. He’s a cute, sincere, well-meaning redheaded boy with an adorable habit of running off to immediately implement whatever advice his best friend has just given him, whether or not the guy is finished talking. Awwwww.

I grinned and laughed my way through the whole thing and had no choice but to devour it in one sitting, but it’s got low ratings pretty well everywhere so maybe I’m a weirdo with questionable taste.

Banner for Dramaworld, featuring a wide-eyed white woman with two Korean people on either side of her, kissing her cheeks.
10 episodes ranging from 9 minutes to 18 minutes

Claire is a North American K-Drama fan who wishes life could be more like the shows she mainlines on her phone when she’s supposed to be working. When a workplace accident sends her into Dramaworld--a place where every current drama happens simultaneously--she’s thrilled at the chance to direct events and get her favourite show back on track. (It’s episode thirteen, and the leads haven’t even kissed yet. What the hell is that about?) Dramaworld isn’t as peachy sweet as it first appears, though, and Claire soon finds herself on the trail of a murderer determined to twist this romantic restaurant saga into his personal happy ending no matter the cost.

This show is a trope-lovers dream. Claire knows every turn your average K-Drama is bound to take, making her uniquely qualify to manipulate the narrative. She’s well aware of how and when certain plot points need to come up, and what characters are liable to do when pushed in certain ways. As she gets more comfortable in Dramaworld, she learns to wield her knowledge to help the characters finally, finally make it to the closing credits.

While I’m new to K-Drama myself, I’ve got a lot of experience with trope-laden TV. I got a huge kick out of contrasting Claire’s knowledge of K-Drama with my own grasp of the CW Network. I’m sure every other viewer who’s spent time mapping common plot twists and oft-repeated story elements will feel the same.

The characters who live within the drama itself delighted the hell out of me, too. They’re all gloriously overblown without quite stepping over the line, with their ingenue eyes and their perfect hair and their tortured head tilts, not to mention their utter obliviousness whenever they encounter anything you or I would think was odd.

Ain’t nothing suspicious about how everyone around you stares longingly into the distance while they ride out a flashback. Of course you’re gonna feel oddly compelled to sing karaoke sooner or later. That archer taking aim at your friend from a nearby rooftop is no biggie.(This one overlaps with the CW, actually.)

It’s funny and dramatic and just a little bit heartbreaking. I had a marvelous time with it, and I’d totally watch an S2 if one emerged. (The creators provide a satisfying ending, but do leave things open to further adventures.)

Tell me about your favourite Korean dramas so I can search for them on Netflix Canada!


  1. Ahhh I need to watch Lucid Dream! I know I wrote a note to myself to check it out but it got thrown away, clearly. Suspects will be questioned. :p

    I'm so glad you're enjoying K-Dramas! I knew you would!

    1. I'm so glad you told me to try them! Netflix Canada doesn't have many of the ones that appear on all the recs lists, but I've still got a ton sitting in my list, waiting for me to dig in.

  2. OH WELL FINE THEN. I was all set to ignore this and be like "I don't need more TV in my life" which is certainly true, but now you have sold me. Can I start with DramaWorld, which sounds the most up my alley and which I've heard of before? Or will I appreciate it more if I've watched a few other ones first?

    1. You can indeed start there! Even though it focuses on K-Drama, it's got plenty of appeal for anyone who's gotten really, really into any type of TV show (or book, or movie, or whatever).