Kdramas probably have a long and storied history that ties into South Korea’s meteoric rise as one of the Pacific Rim’s economic powerhouses etc. etc. — but mostly what I know is that many years ago, predating DVDs’ commonality, when in Asia, all things came as a VCD, my father brought to our home (and probably regrets it each day he lives) a copy of Meteor Garden.
My mother and I resisted watching it for many moons, immediately dismissing it as “horrible,” and “totally lame,” and “Asian guys aren’t even hot.” But after caving during a long and lingering winter vacation, the rest was, essentially, history: like a casual coke user turned hardcore crack smoker, I went from Meteor Garden to Meteor Garden II to Huan Zhu Ge Ge to — and this is when ya’ll will want to check in — to something call All About Eve.
All About Eve was like black tar heroin to me, featuring rival newscasters and their many loves and frustrations — it was melodrama in its purest form: everybody cried and broke up at least three times, and there was one fake pregnancy, one fake abortion, one senseless and physically-impossible vehicle-related death, one suicide attempt that goes wrong, and some people who come together in the end for the most awkward, uncomfortable, and unrealistic kiss ever. I loved it. It burned like sugar and Jesus in my veins.
Guys — it was time to break out the spoon, lighter, and tourniquet.
â€¢ …You haven’t made these sound all that well-written, why should I watch them?
Because they’re somewhat poorly-written. They’re the visual equivalent of Harlequin novels, with predictable twists and turns but usually an ending that you want — with a sense of sweeping romance. They’re totally mindless, by turns funny and wonderful and charming. In fact, they share many of the same characteristics of fanfiction — if not the very best fanfiction. My current two favorites are Coffee Prince and Bad Couple — the first of which features a tomboy who is literally taken for a boy, and gets paid to act like a lazy, wealthy scion’s boyfriend (I’m not making this up or stealing the plot from an SGA story, by the way) to scare away potential suitors; the second features a woman who wants a baby and — after scoping out the best sperm in the country — finds it in a botany professor, and proceeds to roofie the baby juice out of him with hilarious results.
These stories are by no means perfect, but they are dear — they’re also wonderful good fun in packages of 24 hour-long episodes or less.
â€¢ But Pru, I just remembered: I don’t speak Chinese/Japanese/Korean!
Not to worry, dedicated teams of rabid fangirls fansub this stuff at an astonishing pace, meaning while you’re going to be listening to Chinese/Japanese/Korean, you’ll be reading English subtitles — many times those subtitles will outstrip the so-called “professional” ones.
â€¢ All right, fine, I’m sold: where do I get ahold of this stuff?
That’s where ya’ll are lucky: watching k/j/c/twdramas these days are a snap. Once upon a time, you had to go through the terrifyingly huge forums at either Soompi or D-Addicts to (a) download the torrents of the video and then (b) to download the soft sub of the episode. What that means, in English, is that you had to download the raw video (all foreign language, no English) and then download an srt file (a subtitle file) — make sure that the video and srt file had the same name (except for the file extension), and then were in the same directory — the subtitles would load automatically, but the stress levels were insane. At least for me.
These days, with the advent of YouTube and other online streaming , you’re lucky in that none of that is necessary for the most popular of the k/j/c/twdramas — usually, they’re available for you to watch anytime straight from the web. (Be warned, because of certain copyright restrictions, things may disappear and be rearranged fairly frequently — my constant hunt for the show “Goong” online will be discussed later.)
â€¢ Fine, drag me into the abyss. What should I be watching?
- Bad Couple – (watch it here) About fashion editor Dang Ja and her decision that — despite her disinterest in marriage, she is interested in having a baby, and the many shenanigans that get her to the maternity ward. Funny and sweet and horrible — guys, the two protagonists get attacked by a wild, horny pig that Dang Ja accidentally roofies, I shit you not — I fell fast and hard for this series. It’s finished airing in Korea now and the last few subtitle sets should be coming out soon.
- Coffee Prince — (watch it here) About a hardworking, tomboyish girl named Eun Chan who gets mistaken first for a thief, and then for a boy, and then finally gets roped into pretending to be a gay lover to Han Kyul (the scion of a coffee empire) — but what makes this story amazing is the wonderful tenderness that the characters play for one another: yes, this is a running joke about gender and homosexuality, but it’s not used for cheap laughs. Coffee Prince is about friends and learning not to quit — lovely and lovable.
- Long Vacation — (watch it here) Is a classic Japanese drama — about a struggling concert pianist and his flaky roommate’s fiancee…who said roommate dumped at the alter…and who bursts into the pianists’ life in her wedding kimono. Engaging and funny and enduring, this is one of the earliest dramas I watched and still one of the best — plus, guys, Kimura Takuya is in it. He’s hot like burning.
- Meteor Garden — (watch it here) I’M SORRY. I COULDN’T RESIST. Fair warning: it’s really really pretty terrible, but it does it with flair. F4 — the four rich boys as beautiful as flowers — slouch around their elite school treating everybody like dirt until one girl changes everything. It’s the show that introduced me to my one true love: Vic Zhou (you may look but not touch; we’re going to get married one day). It still holds a very near and dear place in my heart. Based on the manga “Boys Over Flowers.”
- Mars — (download it here) It’s based off of the manga of the same name, starring Vic Zhou in a really appallingly fake and fugly mullet — but it’s okay, because he rides a motorcycle. It’s actually good, telling the story of a bad boy and a broken girl and their unlikely romance — one of my favorites.
- Goong — (watch the first episode online) I BURN to find this entire series to give to you in a bow, because Goong is simultaneously the biggest kdrama blockbuster ever and one of my favorite dramas ever filmed. It is set in an alternate-reality 21st century Korea, where it was never fractured in two and is still ruled under the Korean royal family, which functions now like Britain’s constitutional monarchy. A girl, Shin Chaegyun, finds that she’s been promised in marriage to the sullen crown prince, and the rest, as they say, is history. There’re intersecting love stories, tales of past betrayal, questions of family loyalty, and the sets, the costumes, they’re so enormously beautiful. Watch the first episode, I promise you, it’s worth it, and as soon as I find where to show you the rest, that information will be yours.
Happy viewing, my friends, and God speed.
ETA: If you look at the comments for this post, you’ll see those who have chimed in already have loads of differing opinion — which is great, it just shows you what a wealth of options there are in Asian dramas — so! Happy viewing! (And if ya’ll go watch something (ie: My Name Is Kim Sam Soon) and hate it for the not-at-all latent misogyny and assorted bullshit that made my blood boil, DO NOT come crying to me — it was not on my recommendation.)