Hi, kfangurl, thanks for your amazing and detailed drama reviews.
I’m currently watching Mr. Sunshine, and although I’m not loving the OTP, I have enjoyed learning about the time period in Korean history when the show is set. I’ve learned so much about Korean, Japanese, and U.S. relations at the time, and it’s fascinating!
Similarly, when I watched Crash Landing on You, I loved seeing the different perspective of North Korea so much that I started getting really emotional thinking about the separation between North and South Korea.
I was wondering, what dramas have you seen or recommend where you felt like you were getting a new or better understanding of history or culture?
Thanks for the interesting question!
Because of the creative license that dramas take when telling their stories, it’s safe to say that whatever cultural or history lessons we take away from kdramas ought to be processed with a grain of salt.
At the same time, it is also true that these dramas give us glimpses into culture and history that we might not otherwise get. I know I personally found the glimpse into North Korean life in Crash Landing On You very interesting, just like you did!
I tried my best to put together some titles that would offer you some options in terms of the various aspects of history and culture that you might be interested in, but I’m also acutely aware that there are a ton of dramas that I haven’t yet seen.
If you guys have more titles to add to the list, feel free to let us know in the comments!
A SAMPLING OF KDRAMAS WHICH OFFER GLIMPSES INTO CULTURE &/OR HISTORY
Reminder & caveat: ALL of these dramas use dramatic license to spice up their stories, so use your discretion to sift out the cultural & historical nuggets, among the narrative thrills. 😉
As One [Movie]
A cinematic retelling of the first ever post-war Unified Korea sports team which won the women’s team gold medal at the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan.
Update: Flash Review is here!
Bridal Mask [Gaksital]
An interesting look at the 1930s Japanese colonial era in Korea, via the story of a Robin Hood-like figure.
Review is here.
A look at resistance fighters during the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, via a fantasy story set-up.
Flash Review is here.
Crash Landing On You
As already mentioned, an intriguing glimpse into what life is like for regular folk in North Korea.
Review is here.
Because one of the two main families in this story is very traditional in its ways, a nice amount of traditional Korean customs and culture is showcased in the course of our story.
Fermentation Family [Kimchi Family]
A lot of careful food preparation is showcased in this story, including (but not limited to) the art of kimchi making, and the many varieties of kimchi that exist, aside from the usual cabbage and radish ones that we see in dramas.
Review is here.
Girls’ Generation 1979 [Lingerie Girls’ Generation]
A glimpse at what Korea was like for regular folks in the 1970s, when martial law was in force.
Flash Review is here.
Jewel In The Palace
I haven’t finished this one myself, but it is an icon of a kdrama, with extensive scenes of intricate food preparation in the palace for the first half, and then an interesting look at the use of traditional herbs in healing, for the second half.
Kang Deoksun’s Love History [Drama Special]
Our story is set in 1926, when resistance fighters are dedicating their lives to fight for independence for their country.
Flash Review is here.
Life On Mars
A look at 1988 Korea, via a fantasy story set-up. This is after Korea’s return to democracy.
Flash Review is here.
Modern Girl [Drama Special]
A look at what life is like in the 1920s, for both the regular folk and the so-called nobles, as things like modern ideas of education come into trend.
Flash Review is here.
A story set in the early 1900s, that features activists fighting for Korea’s independence.
Queen Seondeok reigned as Queen Regnant of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, from 632 to 647. She was Silla’s 27th ruler, and its first reigning queen. This series is a dramatization of her reign.
A heartwarming look at what life was like for regular folks in 1988, in all its retro glory. Key events, like Korea hosting the Olympics, get featured as part of our characters’ lives.
Review is here.
A heartwarming look at what life was like for regular folks in 1994, in all its retro glory. This period is significant because Kim Young Sam, the president at the time, was Korea’s first freely elected civilian president.
Review is here.
A heartwarming look at what life was like for regular folks in 1997, in all its retro glory. This was after Korea was admitted to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Review is here.
Sado [The Throne] [Movie]
Based on the true story of Crown Prince Sado, the heir to the throne who was deemed unfit to rule, and at age 27, was condemned to death by being locked in a rice chest, by his own father, King Yeongjo.
Flash Review is here.
Six Flying Dragons
A dramatization of the foundation of the Joseon dynasty in Korea.
The King’s Letters [Movie]
A cinematic retelling of the story of how King Sejong worked to create the Korean alphabet, Hangul, as a reading and writing system that would be accessible to everyone.
The Red Teacher [Drama Special]
A story set in 1985 Korea, where, even though martial law has ended, the government continues to act strongly to prevent dissent.
Flash Review is here.
Tree With Deep Roots
A dramatization of how King Sejong created the Korean alphabet, Hangul, as a reading and writing system that would be accessible to everyone.
Youth Of May
A look at the Gwangju Uprising, which happened in May 1980, via the various stories of our main characters.
Review is here.
I hope that this list gives you some ideas of what shows you’d like to check out, as you explore Korea’s history and culture!
Like I said earlier, if you have other titles to add, or if you’d like to elaborate on any of the titles I’ve mentioned, or if you know where to watch some of the rarer titles, feel free to share in the comments!
Thanks, you guys.
1. If you feel that I missed anything, or if you have your own insights that you’d like to share with the rest of us, do tell us about it in the comments!
2. Do you have a question of your own? Drop me a comment here or on the Dear kfangurl page, or send me an email!
I’ve only watched Crash Landing On You and Youth Of May from this list, both are shows that are dear to my heart and sent me down rabbit holes of researching Korean history.
I watched Youth Of May after I finished Healer, which is now one of my two favorite Kdrama shows (alongside Vincenzo).
While Healer itself wasn’t a show where I learned a great deal about Korean history on screen, its frequently revisited backstory took place in 1981 during the Fifth Republic of Korea. So I descended down that rabbit hole a bit, and learned that the political turmoil of the time was closely related to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising.
So when I randomly clicked on a Youth Of May review and found that it was set in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, I knew I had to check it out. It’s a melodrama that’s a lot more mellow than my typical drama tastes, but I came to find this delicate tale of love and loss in an emergency state of martial law thoroughly emotionally gripping.
It was by watching the unraveling of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising in Youth Of May that I came to understand the gravity of Healer’s backstory, where the fantastic five friends risked their lives running this pirate radio station that advocated for democracy. Watching the former has given me a newfound respect for the political context of the latter.
I recommend watching Youth Of May and Healer together, in that order. Because in addition to them, IMO, being historically complementary to one another, they also provide this thrilling contrast of emotions and sensations that make for a delightful watching experience.
Unrelated to Youth Of May and Healer, another historically insightful show I’d like to mention is the miniseries Hymn Of Death, which is a 3-episode biopic of soprano Yun Sim-deok and her lover, playwright/poet Kim Woo-jin.
Hymn Of Death is set in both sides of the Strait during the 1920s Japanese occupation of Korea. This colonial history is embedded through every twist and turn of the main story, as well as our main characters’ fight to negotiate their Korean identity amid the encroachment of Japanese superiority and the enlightenment promised by Western arts. It is a very aesthetic show in every way: the looks, the cinematography, the music, the words and down to the emotions.
Lots of great dramas on this list. I’m a lover of historicals for both the glimpse into Korean history as well as the epic stories they tell. Such a wonderful genre with a lot of variety even within itself 🙂
@BE – Oh! So you found somewhere to watch it? Please share?
@BE – Sorry. I’m asking about Sandglass.
Thanks for answering my question! I have lots of new dramas to add to my “to watch” list!
Great post Fangurl!
Of all the above The Throne inspired me to actually buy ‘The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong’. The book contains her memoirs starting from her childhood, her life in the Palace, her marriage to Prince Sado, his disturbing mental state, his death in the box, and ends with her son trying to vindicate his father. There is a lot of information on Palace protocol. I found the read fascinating. I think Yoo Ah-in’s performance was riveting – I could not stop watching even during its most difficult scenes. I think it is his best role to date.
I agree that Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs are really fascinating – it’s rare to get a detailed look at life inside the palace from a female perspective and the events she’s describing are definitely dramatic – I get why so many shows and films focus on Sado and his father.
Yes Wonhwa – it is amazing that she took the time to do this as well, as this was not the norm during that era. I believed her recount of events.
@phl1rxd – hmmmmm. I wonder…. I mean, Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs may be real but, and I’ve never thought of this before when the subject of her memoir has come up, but by you and Wonhwa mentioning how rare it was for a woman to publish anything, well now it’s got me thinking that there could be a *conspiracy in the court* 😉 to release these “memoirs” to cover up a misguided king’s mistake. (Of course, my suspicions could totally be because of watching the Emperor in NIF and the one in Rise of the Phoenixes trying to cover up their stupid mistakes.) 😆
@beez – from what I recall of the memoirs she verifies that Prince Sado was not a ‘nice guy’. It has been a few years since I last read the work. Best part of the book is reading about her youth and going into the palace. We may be watching too many Palace conspiracy dramas Beez LOL!
@Jiyuu – good list. I’ve seen all except Shining Inheritance. The reason that I didn’t include King2Hearts on my own list is that since its a fictional kingdom, I wasn’t sure if it stuck with actual court protocol, etc. But I ❤ it though.
I fully agree with the mentions for Crash Landing on You for its loving portrayal of regular life in the north, Tree With Deep Roots for giving me a better perspective on the importance of Hangul, Chuno (The Slave Hunters) for being the only sageuk I remember that barely revolves in court politics, and Gaksital (Bridal Mask) for the hope and patriotism it stirs in its viewers. It had some repetitive plot points and could have been shortened a bit but still a highly-recommended watch.
The dated-looking drama Shining Inheritance (Brilliant Legacy) is not an international favorite but got high domestic ratings probably because of its consistent portrayal of characteristics that the Korean viewers value: hard-work, kindness even in the face of trials, taking care of elders and family.
I think the movie 26 Years is a good, short introduction to the Gwangju Massacre. The action-romance Healer touches briefly upon this topic too.
It’s not much but The Crowned Clown is a reimagination on the missing 14 (?) days in the official journal of the palace (the movie is short and concise but Yeo Jin Goo is phenomenal in the drama). The first season of Netflix’s Kingdom is based on an intriguing historical entry about hundreds (or thousands) of people dying mysteriously in Joseon before.
Much maligned female historical figures are given a fresh perspective on The Empress Ki and Jang Ok Jung, Lives in Love.
The King 2Hearts (found it slow the first 7 episodes but more compelling after) and Designated Survivor: 60 Days are about reimagined politics in Korea and uses actual laws in place to mitigate conflicts.
For school issues, School 2013 seems pretty realistic. I heard Angry Mom and Sky Castle are good also (lined them up in my to-watch list).
For time-travel romance, Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo and Faith (The Great Doctor) uses fascinating historical figures of Goryeo and certain key events into the story. Both have huge directorial/editing issues but have a solid fan-base. Surprisingly, Faith has turned me into a Kim Hee Sun fan and is probably my most favorite work of Lee Min Ho.
I am beginning to wonder just how much merit everyone can accrue simply by posting CHUNO on this blog site.
@BE, it is like a secret handshake!😀
@Shamrockmom3 – thanks for this list of mostly never-heard -ofs for me. I’ve added all to my watch list.
I’ve tried to list shows that I haven’t seen anyone mention yet. Note: the asterisk * indicates something of historical significance or cultural learning.
Damo: The Legendary Police Woman* (women police officers in ancient times)
The Dirge Singer* (Girl stuck in profession/trade because that’s what her family does)
Empress Ki* (ancient Korean-Chinese relations)
Jang Ok Jung, Live in Love* (how the many wives/concubines are ranked and live)
Maids* (Noble woman demoted to servant class so we see some of the drudgery of the lower class)
Rebel, Thief Who Stole the People
Warrior Baek Dong Soo
Greetings from another fan of Damo and Rebel!
@Snowflower – Chuno!
@beez – CHUNO!!!
If we are speaking of culture as opposed to political history:
I think the salary man phenomenon is dramatized well in Misaeng and to a lesser degree My Mister, and much more currently, the terrific and vastly under heralded On the Verge of Insanity. The continuous over the shoulder spying on employees, the office culture, the afterwork drinking, the bureaucratic politics, the pushing people out of long held jobs because of aging, and all around workplace paranoia that consumes the daily lives of the professional and sales workplace in large corporations.
Certainly Sky Castle and to a lesser degree Secret Love Affair pull the curtain up over the higher education system, the pressure on young people to succeed academically in the higher economic classes, and how wealthy families try to manipulate admissions, and it is a bit interesting to know that the law that made adultery a felony for which women were sent to prison was written off the books the year after Secret Love Affair aired. And Secret Love Affair also, imo, struck me as the best series I have seen for realistically presenting a picture of cheobol corruption without making its examples into extreme caricatures, as well as by embodying it in its two lead characters the vast gulf between working and upper class lives that almost every contemporary Korean drama at least touches upon.
I do not know how accurate it is, but The Stranger series seems to give a very interesting picture of how the administration of justice works in South Korea, especially vis a vis the power of prosecutors and the turf war between prosecution and police.
Slice of life dramas such as Dear My Friends and My Unfamiliar Family give an interesting set of portraits of the generation, the every person life, of South Koreans who were children in the aftermath of the Korean war, which experienced almost none of the cultural phenomena taking place in the US and Europe during the sixties, and actually appear much more like the generation that preceded the baby boom in such locales. Also highlighted in several such dramas is the resulting generation gap between those characters and their children who experienced something much more like what Americans and Europeans experienced in the sixties during the social upheavals of the eighties and the modernization and growth of wealth in the ensuing years.
The social issue of bullying rearing its head today in contemporary South Korea, is presented somewhat tangentially in two sports series, Run On and Racquet Boys.
And one can certainly read between the lines watching a number of shows concerning the tension being built up around the corruption and cultural disruption being created by property development, a stock theme of many melodramas across the genre spectrum.
That is to say, one can infer at least some cultural predilections watching a great number of dramas largely unconcerned with what one typically associates with historical events.
A number of historical dramas have been mentioned by K and other posters so I will limit myself to those as yet unmentioned, and mostly concern myself with films rather than serial drama.
First, I would like to mention films with some of my favorite actors:
The Fortress which takes place during the Qing invasion of 130,000 troops into Korea in 1636, and King In Jo’s defense at a fort near the northern border in wintry conditions. Lee Byung Hun and Kim Yeon Seok deliver phenomenal performances as ministers politically opposed to one another each trying to convince the King of the most appropriate way to deal with the overwhelming crisis. And Jo Woo Jin (he played the translator for Eugene Choi in Mr. Sunshine) puts in a devastating performance as a traitor to Joseon motivated by the extreme injustice of the life of the peasant class, which is quite clearly elucidated throughout the film, during this time in the Joseon Empire.
Another iteration of the King Sejong saga is Forbidden Dreams, concerning Sejong’s relationship with the astronomer, Jang Yeong Shil, and the political price both pay for that relationship. Han Seok Kyu reprises his role in Tree With Deep Roots as Sejong, and is upstaged by the magnificent Choi Min Sik who enacts Jang Yeong Shil. When Choi Min Sik is good, he is great, and he is great in this.
Another Choi Min Sik historical dramatic film that is simply an epic piece of cinema, is Admiral, Roaring Currents. The entire film chronicles just one battle at sea, the legendary 1597 sea battle in which a formerly imprisoned Admiral Yi Sun Shin with twelve small ships defeats an invading Japanese naval force of three hundred. While it did not have the same far ranging effects as the defeat of the invading Spanish Armada by the British, it was a far more miraculous victory. And imo the naval battle scenes taking up the final hour of the film may well be the best such scenes ever made in a movie.
On a smaller scale, another Han Seok Kyu vehicle, albeit he played the second lead in this, is The Royal Tailor, concerning the flamboyant life and design innovations of Lee Gong Jin for the courtly garb that today is ubiquitous in sageuk drama during the later Joseon era, who emerged from the streets to vie with the ensconced Royal Tailor, Jo Deol Seok, and the tragedy that resulted for both.
Another small film with a big star is The Last Princess starring Son Ye Jin as the last Joseon Empire princess Deok Hye that was taken hostage in Japan during the colonial period in the early twentieth century. Not one of her more famous roles, for me it is my favorite of Son Ye Jin, a complexly rendered character drama.
The Age of Shadows, a thriller set in the Japanese colonial period starring the absolutely masterful Song Kang Ho with support performances from Gong Yoo and Lee Byung Hun, is a bang up film covering the more violent and tension filled atmosphere of that era.
Director Lee Jon Ik’s black and white biopic Dongju: Portrait of a Poet traces the life of the rural born, poverty stricken, and unknown during his lifetime poet Dong Ju, who grew up during the colonial period preceding World War 2, educated both in Korea and then Japan and died in a Japanese prison during the war. All of Dong Ju’s wonderful poetry was published subsequent to his death, and in its wake, he has become a national hero. Plays, books, and this film have made about his life. And this film clearly depicts the oppression of the times in which he lived. There is, by the way, a bit of irony snuck into the series Money Flower, wherein Jang Hyuk’s character gifts the old corrupt cheobol don a collection of Dong Ju’s poetry for the time he will spend in prison.
The Man Standing Next, featuring Lee Byung Hun in what I consider to be his most powerful performance, covers the immediate period preceding and during the assassination of South Korea’s third President Park Chung Hee by his intelligence chief and former comrade in arms, Kim Gyu Peong (who is based on the actual assassin Kim Jae Gyu).
One historical mini series no one has mentioned is the tragic Hymn of Death, taking place during the Japanese colonial period of the star crossed lovers, famous opera singer Yun Sim Deok, played by the inimitable Shin Hye Sun, and her paramour Kim Woo Jin, a son of a wealthy Korean family forced into an arranged marriage. The title does say it all, powerful, and one can see why their tragic lives became the stuff of legend, but uncompromising.
Both Sky Castle and Secret Love Affairs are excellent picks, BE.
The movie selections you list above are excellent BE. I just finished Forbidden Dreams which was great. I have yet to see The Fortress and The Man Standing Next but I shall push these two to the top of my list because both sound very interesting. Totally agree with Admiral, Roaring Currents – a very impressive movie.
Also – did not know about the adultery laws! I learn something new every day.
Yes, and knowing it was still an imprisonable offense, not to mention as clearly presented in the drama subject to lawsuit, during the time in which SLA was aired adds even more tension the their liason.
Secret Love Affair was brilliant from start to finish but one of the scenes that really stood out was when Kang Joon-Hyun barged into Sun Jae’s house and took him and Hye Won to the police station.
Kang’s anger and humiliation and his customary pomposity yet not being completely sure of himself in this situation was brilliantly acted, and then when Hye Won asked if she could phone a lawyer, the bored police officer’s contemptuous “what, just for this?” (a charge of adultery with no evidence and no chance of succeeding).
Also, Seo Young Woo rushing to the police station to gloat over the drama and being disappointed when it all petered out with no charges being brought. Plus a poignant moment when she said as Hye Won and Sun Jae hugged, “gosh they must really like each other’.
I don’t know exactly what it is about K dramas but they’re just better than any other dramas. (In my opinion, anyway)
Ones I’d add:
Giant – sweepingly epic portrayal of the period from the seventies to 2009, told through the often brutal but remarkably fascinating lens of the construction industry. I had no idea road construction and building permits could be so interesting. Has a fantastic ensemble cast.
Nokdu Flower – while it has fictional elements, it provides a pretty accurate look at the social turmoil of late 19th century Korea – not always an easy watch, but a good one, and the rare sageuk that focuses on ordinary people, not nobles and royals.
The Great King Sejong – a much more historically accurate look at Sejong’s reign than other saguek versions – it’ s really long, and not always a fast watch, but for once all of the various ministers and court figures are actually complex, compelling human beings, and it provides a nuanced look at how best to wield power for the common good.
Sandglass – has one of the first and most realistic depictions of the Gwangju uprising/massacre in kdramas
Capital Scandal – not highly realistic, but one of my favorite shows set during the Japanese occupation – despite its rom-com framing, it does a remarkably good job at looking at the various ways ordinary folks survived the occupation and the complex moral decisions they were forced to make.
Is Sandglass available anywhere?
I don’t know – I started watching it on DramaFever, but didn’t have a chance to finish it before the site disappeared. I’d love to see it pop up on a legal streaming site again.
@BE – Sandglass is available Where No Man Dare to Tread (DC)
A big yes to Nokdu Flower! The historical events are depicted very accurately through the point of view of mostly fictional characters.
I also want to see Sandglass, but don’t know where is it streaming legally.
I managed to find episode 10 on line. It’s terrific.
@snowflower: Brutal, devastating, epic. Utterly phenomenal. The acting, the characters, the moody ost, the tragic sweep of history. A heavyweight classic.
I am speaking of Sandglass.
Oh, and two excellent films that showcase traditional Korean performing art forms are The King and the Clown and Sopyonje They incorporate namsadong and pansori respectively and are also great films in general. Sopyonje can be streamed legally through YouTube, although King and the Clown is currently harder to find.
Just wanted to add that I heard they got actual North Korea defectors as consultants for Crash Landing on You, so they did try to do research into life in North Korea. I like how they showed many kinds of North Korean characters rather than stereotyping into a single enemy. I agree I felt the longing Koreans have to reunify their country after watching that show.
In terms of books, Pachinko was an amazing, heartbreaking read, starts during Japanese occupation of Korea and you follow one Korean family through to emigrating to Japan and they go through World War 2, the Korean War. The historical events are a backdrop to their ordinary lives.
Definitely interested to see the drama adaptation of Pachinko, supposedly coming later this year(?), headlined by …. Li Min-ho! and Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung! and a bunch of other actors that we dedicated drama fans will recognize!
(and also Jin Ha, who I thought was amazing as Annas in NBC’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar several years ago, and is apparently taking the role of Aaron Burr in the Broadway production of Hamilton when it reopens next month(?))
Elaine – I just bought the Kindle version last week and have yet to start, so it was great to see how much you enjoyed it!
I submit the following dramas/ movies for inclusion:
“Waves, waves”–140+ daily drama episodes from 2017. Excellent view of postwar Korea 1953-1968, not a typical time frame but fascinating nonetheless. Accuracy level high as the Korean pastor at my church grew up in Korea during that time and corroborated many things I had questions about!
“Gosanja” aka The Map against the World. Movie from 2016 about the man who walked the entire Korean peninsula and mapped it with woodcuts. Highly recommended.
“Jang Yong Sil–the Greatest Scientist of Joseon” TV Drama 2015-2016. King Sejong’s Court Scientist who accurately predicted eclipses and an amazing performance by Song Il Kook make this one a must-watch.
Honorable mentions include the movie “Taxi Driver” for its portrayal of the 1980’s Gwangju uprising, and “Default” (same time frame).
Not explicitly Korean history, but for a 2nd generation Korean American take on the April 1992 LA Riots, check out Justin Chon’s movie “Gook”. Has a few dissonant moments, but does pack a good story into a 90 minute film.
I will be checking a few of these shows too!
We should also make an alternative list, with shows that one should not trust when it comes to learning about Korean history, such as Love in the Moonlight, Moon lovers or, the champion of inaccuracy, Empress Ki!
Another excellent post on interesting topic.
I find that most sageuks give a lot of information on Korean history and culture. Here are some additions to your list:
Chuno – mostly fictional story set in 1648, with references to real historical events and figures. What sets it apart from other sageuks is the memorable depiction of the life of the lower classes.
Jejungwon – an unfairly underrated sageuk dealing with the beginnings of Western medicine in late 19th century Joseon. The characters are fictional, but inspired by actual people.
The Painter of the Wind – an excellent (somewhat fictionalized)introduction to the work of two celebrated 18th century artists.
Hwang Jin Yi – the life and art of a 16th century gisaeng.
Jumong- the legendary beginnings of the Goguryeo kingdom.
Thanks for the additions, Snow Flower!! ❤️ I knew you’d have some great ones to suggest, considering your love for sageuks! 😉