K-pop has placed more skilled singer-dancers and image makers on world stages than anything since old-fashioned variety shows. But look out! Korea isn’t only gaining fame from BTS and BlackPink. Korea has it goin’ on in the screen world, too.
Lock-down has been a prime time for mining entertainment options and perhaps discovering shows that set the imagination tingling and the popcorn popping. Without traveling overseas, new worlds opened up when I stumbled upon Rakuten Viki, a globally accessed streaming service wildly popular for its Asian programs. Through heart-pounding action flicks and riveting tales of ancient times, many have become hooked on Asian dramas, rom-coms, historical series and Hyun Bin.
The uninitiated will find quirky cultural elements sprinkled throughout the films and episodic series (running from 12-50 episodes): grown women jumping up and down waving their hands out of embarrassment, lots of bowing to elders and authority figures, and a little too much drinking for my taste, but the well-acted, well-written plot lines deliver enthralling tales.
In the romance department, Korean dramas change things up, focusing on intimate relationships that develop gradually, without French kissing, nudity or gratuitous sex. Well, one is likely to feast on the occasional six-pack, but not technicolor boobs or butts. One light-hearted example of a love story that takes its time is What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim, a Korean call out to “Two Weeks Notice” but with a twist of childhood trauma and obsessive compulsive behavior thrown in. Running 16 hours over 16 episodes, WWWSK unwinds the nine-year relationship of a narcissistic CEO and his hyper-efficient secretary after she declares she’s quitting.
A military-themed action story line might drop the Korean characters into a fictional medical-defense unit serving in a mythical Afghanesque landscape (Descendants of the Sun) or, as it does in Crash Landing on You (Netflix), into North Korea itself. CLOY features top stars Hyun Bin as a North Korean soldier and Son Ye-Jin as a South Korean fashion CEO. a captivating pairing of opposites which also reveals the life and culture in a semi-fictional North Korea with a benign eye. Through 16 episodes of perilous moments, injury, friendship, and moments barren of hope, the two leads and cast negotiate a tender meeting across cultures.
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (Netflix), another recent favorite, tells the story of a budding romance impacted by autism, child abuse, and mental illness. The performances throughout are stellar with additional kudos going to Oh Jung-Se playing an older brother who is on the autism spectrum, struggling daily to participate in society and to manage communication while coping with powerful fears.
The male and female leads in IOTNBO, Kim Soo-Hyun and Seo Ye-Ji bring in powerful portrayals as a mental health care-worker and a slightly wacky children’s book author. Seo Ye-Ji, a best selling author of slightly ominous tales is gently unmasked as woman dealing with a mantle of hidden trauma. Both Ye-Ji and Soo-Hyun’s layered characterizations are deftly unveiled episode by episode until the viewer feels a strong bond and fascination for each one, rooting for a positive outcome in the face of almost certain doom.
With not stinting on production values, costumes, or entertainment standards, Korean dramas present life lessons and cautions, fantasy and action with a peculiar, resonant cultural twist. Easily found on Netflix, Amazon prime, Youtube, and Rakuten Viki, many shows are available free. Whether film or serial, these are adventures worth taking and are so plentiful that finding something new to watch is never a problem.