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Whether or not you have a trip planned in the near future, one of the best ways to get an introduction to the culture and customs of a foreign country is to watch TV shows or movies from that country. Today, it’s easier than ever to access these foreign shows. Streaming services, such as Netflix, are introducing their subscribers to a diverse array of options. You’ve probably seen a few of them show up among the recommendations based on what you’ve already watched, but perhaps scrolled passed them in favor of English-speaking selections. Maybe it’s time to rethink that, especially if you’ve got some K-dramas on those lists.
K-dramas (short for Korean dramas) are Korean-language television series from South Korea that delve into a wide variety of topics. As with American TV series, K-dramas cover both contemporary and historical stories, some with a focus on drama or comedy and others on fantasy or romance. But K-dramas are different from American TV in many ways. Generally, there’s only one season—the series has a beginning, middle, and end; so, you don’t have to worry about cliffhangers and long hiatuses. Although you may desperately want more, you’ll appreciate the fully-rounded and well-planned story. Also, K-dramas are helmed by one writer and one director for the entire series, unlike American shows, which generally have multiple writers and directors taking the lead every episode. Having one writer and one director means the series’ style is consistent from start to finish. It also means storylines are tighter and well thought out, so you don’t have to worry about loose ends or erratic characters, the way you do with some long-running American series.
As a non-native watcher, you’ll learn a wealth of information about the country and its people. You’ll gain greater knowledge about South Korean history, politics, customs, and daily life. You may also be so curious about a cultural aspect that you do some extra research and discover something you never knew. This is how I learned about Korean Age–a traditional system that used to be practiced throughout East Asia, including in China and Japan, but is now largely prevalent in only South Korea. Unlike the International Age system we are accustomed to, where we age once a year on our birthday, Korean babies are considered one-years-old at birth. Then, instead of aging each year on their birthday, they will age on New Year’s Day. So, if a baby is born on December 30, it will be one. And then on January 1 (only two days later), that baby will be considered two-years-old. In essence, everyone born in a calendar year will age on the same day. It’s an interesting concept to wrap your head around but intriguing all the same. Because of this system, Koreans have two ages–Korean Age and International Age. Through foreign shows, you can discover these fun differences but you will also see how similar we all really are.
Even if you’re not thinking about visiting the country now, your wanderlust will be stoked by immersing yourself in these foreign shows. Ever since I started watching these K-dramas, South Korea has moved up to the top of my must-visit destination list. So, be warned, your future travel plans may change!
Here are three incredible K-dramas (in the order I watched them) to get you started:
This eight-episode series was my first K-drama. For several months, I had seen Argon popping up in multiple recommended lists, and I finally decided to stop scrolling and take a closer look. I’m so glad that I did. Argon goes behind the scenes of an investigative news show struggling to get to the truth despite working for a news organization that is increasingly corrupted by the government and outside influences. It’s an excellent look into how Korean news is structured and a great introduction to workplace culture and daily life in Korea. The cast is great, anchored by Kim Joo-hyuk (a popular Korean actor who tragically died shortly after this show aired).
This being the first K-drama I watched, I was pleasantly surprised by the content and the way in which it was filmed. I was under the mistaken impression that K-dramas (and other Asian series) were over-the-top and melodramatic. I’m sure this is the case for some of the shows from these countries (but when you think about it, there’s a lot of melodrama in American television, too). However, I was pleasantly surprised by the realism and how strong all of the actors’ performances are in this drama.
- Watch the trailer for Argon here: https://www.netflix.com/title/80214115
Trailer for TVN’s Stranger. Don’t worry; you’ll get subtitles on Netflix!
This suspenseful crime thriller features a solid story, beautifully shot and fantastically acted. Each episode will have you itching to start the next, and there’s not a weak link in the cast. Stranger (sometimes referred to by its literal title Forest of Secrets) stars Cho Seung-woo as Hwang Shi-mok (you’ll notice some discrepancies in the spelling of the names based on the translation), a prosecutor with an unyielding commitment to justice, spurred largely by a brain injury that causes him to leave emotion out of his decisions, meaning he’s not corrupted as easily as many of his colleagues. He teams up with Han Yeo-jin, who is played by Bae Doona, an actress who may be familiar to American audiences thanks to her role in the Netflix series Sense8. Han is a police detective who isn’t afraid to go against Command to catch the criminal. The rest of the cast, anchored by Shin Hye-sun and Yoo Jae-myung, are also incredible and if you watch Argon or Life, you’ll be happy to see some familiar faces.
The 16-episode season is an intriguing look at how the legal system in South Korea is set up. It’s interesting to see the similarities and differences. For example, the police and prosecutors aren’t always working together, as the prosecutor’s office appears to have the authority to pursue and arrest criminals on its own. It’s also fascinating to see how the moving parts—prosecutors, police, government, and private corporations—have a role in whether or not justice is served. And outside of the criminal justice aspect, you learn a lot about Korean culture and daily life.
This K-drama quickly became my favorite. I can’t wait to watch it again! And unlike many K-dramas, there may be a second season released later this year!
- Watch the trailer for Stranger here (the theme song alone will have you itching to start this one!): https://www.netflix.com/title/80187302
As mentioned, Korean dramas share a lot of actors between them largely because, unlike in the US, Korean dramas rarely run more than one season, so actors are not tied to multi-year contracts. In fact, if you find a favorite actor, you may be able to go from one drama to the next by just following their career. That’s what led me to Life for my next K-drama: my new favorite actor, Cho Seung-woo. Cho stars in Life as Koo Seung-hyo, the new president of a university hospital who is constrained by his boss’s desire to make the hospital as profitable as possible no matter the cost to healthcare, which means some wonderful drama between Koo and the hospital staff. This K-drama was written by the same creator of Stranger, Lee Soo-yeon, and shares about seven actors between the shows—so, it’s basically a reunion.
Life is a great way to learn more about the hospital and university system in South Korea, but there’s even more of an introduction to culture and history than in the previous K-dramas (though the presence of corruption is still prevalent). The 16-episode series also focuses a little more on romance and daily life, as well as the realities of life for the disabled in South Korea. Life also features some great, wanderlust-worthy shots of the country’s beautiful scenery.
- Watch the trailer for Life here: https://www.netflix.com/title/81011508
If you want to give your wanderlust a treat or plan to travel somewhere soon, definitely look to foreign dramas. You won’t be sorry if you start with these K-dramas. And once you’ve finished them, you’ll be asking, “what’s next?” Luckily, Netflix seems to have an endless supply of these gems.
Have you watched any of these K-dramas or others that you’ve enjoyed? What about series from other countries? Let us know your recommendations for K-dramas or other foreign series below!