Smart AND sexy: K-drama has it all

The Hallyu Wave (Korean Wave) has been a part of Thai culture for decades. Whether it’s the pretty-faced K-pop stars and their catchy music, hilarious variety shows, amazing skincare secrets, or their unisex fashion style, there’s really no stopping the cultural influence of South Korea — not only in Thailand and Asia, but throughout the world.

And ever since we were all forced into lockdown by the pandemic over a year ago, their power has only grown in force and number.

Why? It’s really all thanks to streaming giants like Netflix that are helping to overcome that “one-inch barrier of subtitles,” in the worlds of Oscar-winning director Bong Joon Ho, for us to escape into another world, a world away from the pandemic and away from our fears: the world of K-dramas!

If you’re not aware of at least one K-drama, then you have probably been living under a rock. The storylines will leave you breathless at the end of every episode, and will make you swoon, gasp, and cry at their twists and turns, often all at the same time. 

From the historical tropes, feel-good rom-coms, family dramas to crime thrillers, here are the fan-favourite, zeitgeist-y, unmissable K-dramas on Netflix right now. (In no particular order, of course.)

  • Crash Landing on You (2019-2020)

A cultural phenomenon, to say the least. Aired on Netflix worldwide December 2019 – January 2020, this rom-com about two star-crossed lovers from separate worlds really marked the beginning of the K-drama whirlwind during the pandemic, with many people finding it their first introduction into that universe. 

Crash Landing on You, or CLOY, tells the story of successful South Korean heiress Yoon Se Ri (played by Son Ye Jin) who, while paragliding, is swept by a storm, forcing her to crash land in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, where she meets the handsome captain of the North Korean Special Forces Unit, officer Ri Jeong Hyeok (played by Hyun Bin). As the captain heroically tries to hide her identity and bring her back to South Korea safely, the two quickly fall in love. This forbidden-love story of a modern Romeo and Juliet grew wildly in popularity thanks to its clever casting and unpredictable twists to become a cult classic. 

CLOY is currently the highest-rated drama on South Korean paid network TVN, and the third highest-rated South Korean TV drama ever with a total of 1.75 billion online views. Its leads, popular Hallyu stars Son Ye Jin and Hyun Bin, have also found love offscreen and are now dating in real life.

  • Itaewon Class (2020)

The author’s favourite. Adapted from a popular webtoon, Itaewon Class tells the tale of high-school drop-out and ex-con Park Sae-ro-yi (Park Seo Joon) an idealist, who, in an effort to overcome his rocky past and seek revenge on a powerful business family responsible for his father’s death, opens a street bar in Seoul’s Itaewon district, naming it Danbam (Sweet Night). He opens the doors of Danbam to former prisoners and other misfits, giving them (and himself) another chance in life, and vows to live his life honestly and earnestly while putting people over profit.

It is a classic tale of good versus evil, of an underdog tenaciously fighting his way to the top, but Itaewon Class goes beyond that mark. The storyline is richly packed with moral lessons, wisdom, and exceptional acting, so that it never feels clichéd or cringey.  

Itaewon Class is currently the 8th highest-rated K-drama in history, and went on to win Best Drama Series at the 25th Asian Television Awards. It was South Korea’s most searched-for drama and entertainment programme in 2020, according to Google Trends, and country’s fourth most googled term overall.

  • Reply 1988 (2015-2016)

Another cult classic, Reply 1988 is the third installment of the tvN series after Reply 1997 and Reply 1994. Much like its predecessors, Reply 1988 is a coming-of-age story that takes you on a nostalgia trip to the late 1980s. It revolves around the lives of five childhood friends and their families living in a small neighborhood in Seoul during the 1988 Summer Olympics, as they trip and tumble on their way to adulthood. With its simplistic and rather slow-paced storyline, Reply 1988 is all about finding beauty in the little, mundane things. 

Applauded for its performances, soundtrack, and emphasis on the importance of family, Reply 1988 is currently the fourth highest rated K-drama in Korean cable television history, described by one critic as a “well-researched production full of humor and heart.” Get ready to be left feeling a little bittersweet as you reminisce over cherished younger days through the series.

  • Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (Goblin), (2016-2017) 

If you loved Gong Yoo in Train in Busan and Coffee Prince, you will love him even more here. Goblin tells the story of a 939-year-old Goblin Kim Shin (Gong Yoo) searching for a human bride to end his cursed immortality. In modern times he meets the bubbly high-school student Ji Eun Tak (Kim Go Eun), who is also able to see ghosts. 

Goblin, despite its unusual plot of a fantasy romance tale that spans centuries, has won the hearts of millions of viewers, especially internationally. The Korea Times attributes this to its “creative plot,” and the “twist and complexity of life and death” that make the story more interesting. Viewers also fell in love with the all-star cast, especially the male leads, played by Hallyu stars Gong Yoo and Kim Dong Wook. 

Goblin is currently the fifth highest-rated K-drama in television history, and has swept numerous awards, including the Grand Prize (Daesang) Awards for writer Kim EunSook and Best Actor for Gong Yoo at the 53rd Baeksang Arts Awards. It is consistently regarded as a cultural phenomenon in South Korea.

  • Start-Up (2020)

Not ranked among the highest-rated, but definitely one that deserves to be on the list. Start-Up is a television series based on a fictional Silicon Valley-type tech community in South Korea called Sandbox, and revolves around the lives of young entrepreneurs trying to find success and love in the competitive world of the tech industry.

Starring K-pop star Bae Suzy as the main lead, it also tells the story of Seo Dal Mi and her love triangle between a computer-science nerd and a venture capitalist. 

It’s a pretty cliché and predictable tale, but definitely worth watching. Start-Up manages to uplift its viewers with its fresh storyline that will leave us feeling good for days, and has made its way into everyone’s favorite most recently.

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