In case you missed it, we’re doing something special and different to end off the drama year this year! Guests posts, by patrons on Patreon!
You can read more details, and check out Shahz’s inaugural post, here. You can also find JJ‘s post here, Trent’s post here, and Sean’s post here!
After today’s post, there will be two more guest posts by mystery guest writers, whose identities will be revealed when their various posts go live. And then we’ll cap everything off with a poll, where you’ll be able to pick YOUR favorites for the year, from among the gems identified in these posts. How exciting! 🤩
Today’s post is brought to you by Martina, who is a psychologist by training, and is based in Italy. As a result, some of her insights are extra informed, like when it comes to how characters behave, and also, whether Song Joong Ki‘s spoken Italian in Vincenzo, is up to scratch. 😁
Speaking of Song Joong Ki, he happens to have been the first k-male lead to have stolen Martina’s heart, so I thought this screenshot was quite a perfect accompaniment to this post, heh.
I hope you guys enjoy!
~ KFG ❤️
The call to the k- world came suddenly in late 2017 when a younger friend invited me to watch “Descendants of the Sun“.
Although it’s not among my favorite k-dramas (although I have to confess I definitely fell for Soong Joong Ki 😉 ), that show was my gateway to k-ent.
Fascinated by the Korean language, I started studying it at the Institute of Oriental Languages in Milan, and now I know it quite well (I have reached B2 level).
Understanding the Korean language has made me become more and more fascinated by k-dramas.
I love rom-coms, healing dramas, sageuk dramas, stories of healing and redemption and slice-of-life dramas, but part of my interest is also dedicated to the stories that have to do with the military, NIS or police stuff. I also consider the way the writer (and director) has designed the story, or the way in which the actors play it, and whether these can hold the emotional journey of the characters well.
There are so many amazing actors and actresses with beautiful voices and diction, and the casting, in the best shows, is so precise and thoughtful, that you’d never stop watching them.
In 2018, I discovered KFG’s blog and started reading KFG’s reviews regularly, which are an artistic enjoyment per se, parallel to the show watching, and in May 2020 I joined Patreon. Since then, reading daily reviews, reflections and thoughts, episode by episode, has become my morning routine along with coffee and bread and jam, a sweet little moment before heading out THERE into the G-world (grey world).
2021 is the year of the triumph of kdrama on Western and Asian streaming platforms: Netflix, Viu, Disney Plus, iQIYI : this is both exciting and a little scary for me. What effect will this have on k-drama plots? An improvement? A flattening effect compared to the global market? We’ll see together, I think.
But here’s my top ten:
1. D.P. (Deserter Pursuit)
The character who is played by Koo Gyo Hwan and portrays a military police officer in the field says at one point, “There are only two kinds of deserters: those who are scary because they are unpredictable and those who are just scary.”
Who are they scary to? Certainly the two protagonists, two enlisted soldiers (in Korea where military service is compulsory and lasts about two years) who are in the military police and have to catch runaways with their bare hands (they don’t have any weapons at their disposal).
Deserters scare the military command too, because they often run away due to bullying and real abuse, and also because, in those two years, their safety is in the hands of the government. There is that risk of bringing corpses back to servicemen’s parents, because of suicides and the dangers of life on the run.
This is the first time we’ve seen the dark side of Korean military service, and it’s a very intriguing visual.
The main character of the series, An Jun Ho (really well played by Jun Hae In), is an anodyne and stoic guy who acts like the perfect soldier, so much so that he gets picked for the military police. [MINOR SPOILER] But we see from some flashbacks that he actually lives in a state of illness and dissociation and manifests symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. [END SPOILER]
His colleague in this adventure is Han Ho Yeol (Koo Gyo Hwan), who is a bit off the wall but is warm and caring, and will play an important role in the protagonist’s healing process.
[VAGUE HIGH-LEVEL OVERVIEW SPOILERS] An Jun Ho begins to “become himself” through his relationship with Han Ho Yeol, and even through the physical confrontation with the deserters that he seems to be actively “looking for,” and that awakens him from the numbness in which he has been living. [END SPOILER]
There is a call to the idea of justice, and we ask ourselves: Where will it take him? (We do have some answers, but let’s wait for the second series!)
I love the fact that a healing story is embedded in an action drama!
Jun Hae In is a candidate for best male lead.
2. Lost (Human Disqualification)
It’s a story that revolves around a 40-year-old woman and a 27-year-old man.
I consider it the nemesis of the noona-romance because, although so full of sadness and despair, it is a moving and emotional meeting of two outliers; two individuals who are detached from the main body or system, and their encounter perhaps will change their lives.
Lee Bu-Jung (Jeon Do Yeon) is a ghost writer whose writing has been stolen and who has achieved nothing in life, while Lee Kang Jae (Ryoo Joon Yeol) is a disillusioned and tired gigolo.
[MODERATE SPOILERS] Lee Bu Jung is trolling a famous actress who stole a book written by her. Her words are so fascinating to me; so well-written and vulgar at the same time, “In this country of rage that’s full of anger, in which there’s so much ridiculous obscenities, you do horrible things in secret and act like you have a wise character in public….”
Lee Kang Jae does not show the despair that he feels; it all remains confined in an intimate and inaccessible area, and he proceeds in life, apparently self-confident. [END SPOILERS]
At some point, their paths cross, and a hunger for intimacy and connection sets in. Slowly they grow closer, and their story is told through their inner speech and their most deeply personal thoughts.
All the secondary characters are so wonderfully intriguing, and the actors so terrific, that the cast of Lost is a candidate for “best ensemble”.
Jeon Do Yeon is a candidate for best actress and Ryu Joon Yeol for best actor.
3. Youth of May
It was so exhausting for me to watch this drama. You all know it’s inspired by a bloody historical fact set in May 1980 during the turbulent times of the Gwangju uprising, but, oh you guys!, Lee Do Hyun is such a mesmerizing actor that I couldn’t even stop watching, or pause to think.
It’s a love story, but set in a time in history when private choices have a public impact, and a weight that makes the difference between life and death.
It is very engaging to see how the various characters decide to react or submit to the unjust impositions of the dictatorship power group.
Lee Do Hyun and Go Min Si have an amazing chemistry, and their characters are deep, so shot through with contradictions, fears, passions and tragedies.
Lee Do Hyun expresses all these emotions in a perfect and precise way that truly hypnotized me.
4. She Would Never Know
An interesting workplace love story between a female sunbae Yoon Song Ha (played by Won Jin Ha) and a male hoobae Chae Hyun Seung (played by Ro Woon).
[MINOR SPOILER] Our female lead leaves a dysfunctional relationship thanks to the love, patience and care of her young hoobae with whom she finally falls in love. [END SPOILER]
I always find it interesting to see a Noona romance set in the workplace. In k-ent (I don’t know if also in reality), the destinies of many people are at stake in the workplace, and there is a very strict etiquette between sunbae and hoobae, and a rigid and rather chauvinist work ethic to boot, so telling a story of a romance between an older woman and a younger man means handling a taboo subject. I was curious to know how the show would resolve this issue.
Ro Woon plays a young man, at the same time so virile and protective, but also sweet, soft, and understanding; even too wise to love, certainly the woman he is in love with.
His stunning beauty, and that soft charm fit the story well: to me he is like a jar of honey… how can you not dip into it?
This kind of male appeal seems entirely Asian to me; I don’t see anything similar in the Western world (I may be wrong, it’s a completely personal consideration), and it’s one of the reasons I stopped following Western series altogether.
5. The King’s Affection
Here’s Ro Woon again! This time, in a fusion sageuk in which we see all the typical tropes turned upside down.
Due to a series of events, the heir to the throne Prince Lee Hwi (played by Park Eun Bin) is a woman who has to conceal her identity and pretend to be a man, while Ro Woon plays Jung Ji Un, Lee Hwi’s teacher.
He doesn’t know that Lee Hwi is actually a woman but finds himself in love with him/her.
Swapping identities and disguising oneself as a character of the opposite sex is one of my favorite tropes. It’s used extensively in the plots of operas from the Sixteenth to Seventeenth centuries (of which I’ve always been an avid fan, attending La Scala in Milan). As unlikely as these plots are, they offer exciting developments, if you’re willing to let your emotions carry you away and suspend disbelief.
Ro Woon’s breathtaking beauty and softness really suit the plot, and so we can see the roles reversed in the main characters, slowly adjusting until, by the end of the story we have a happy traditional couple. I really loved the process of slowly unraveling the truth and and the true self.
I also found the first two episodes played by the young version of the two main characters incredibly well acted and interesting. Choi Myung Bin playing Lee Hwi as a teenager and also Lee Hwi’s twin sister Dam-I is simply amazing.
Daebak! I did not expect at all Song Joong Ki aka Vincenzo Cassano to be speaking Italian in the first twenty minutes of the series. Nobody warned me! After a moment of shock I really enjoyed it. Even though the pronunciation is not perfect, Song Joong Ki did a good job, even with the Italian gestures. A great job!
I have to say that Rome (which we see in the first scenes), with its decadent, nostalgic and gloomy charm, suits Song Joong Ki perfectly.
All my eyes were on the main character, a glorious anti-hero, who shows his most helpless and tender self at times. This is where Song Joong Ki’s physique helps.
7. Beyond Evil
Shin Ha Kyun and Yeo Jin Go skillfully play two detectives who have well kept secrets and are working on the same case in which they are each personally involved.
I consider this kdrama to be the tale of the dark side of a bromance. Although the two seem to hate each other, they actually value each other’s opinions, and they esteem each other, even though they would never admit it, and in the course of the plot, they learn to work together. Like any self-respecting couple, they are two opposing but complementary characters: Yeo Jin Go plays the systematic and rational detective, while Shin Ha Kyun plays the more impulsive but intuitive one.
What captivated me in the viewing was not only the uncovering of secrets and the search for the culprit, but the unfolding of their relationship.
8. On the Verge of Insanity
I don’t remember in which kdrama I saw this, but at a certain point, a character says that being fired is the “Korean death.” Well, here we see the protagonist Choi Ban Seok (played by Jung Jae Young), an engineer in his fifties, trying to avoid being fired from an electronics company in crisis.
His fistfights with Dang Ja Young (played by Moon So Ri), the head of human resources, who does not hesitate to fire employees on the instructions of superiors, and is very ruthless in her efforts to get ahead, are legendary.
It’s not a romance and it’s not a mystery drama, and yet the cliffhangers and suspense are irresistible. I watched episode after episode without being able to stop.
Here is the other bromance, in my opinion. This is between an elderly man who wants to accomplish his unfulfilled dream of learning to dance, and a young classical dancer in crisis and in conflict with his ambitions.
Perhaps more than bromance, I should say that a filial relationship is established between the two. When the young dancer has to teach the old man to dance, we get a moving and hilarious version of bromance.
It’s also a story of healing; of the young boy’s broken heart and ambitions thrown to the wind because of financial problems, and of opposition from the old man’s wife. [MAJOR SPOILER: HIGHLIGHT TO READ] It’s also a story of acceptance of a very serious illness like Alzheimer’s. [END SPOILER]
It’s poetic, heartbreaking and moving.
10. Yumi’s Cells
I confess that as a psychologist, I couldn’t help jumping up and down in my chair in excitement, the entire time I was watching this drama.
Finally being able to see the conflicting and incoherent motivations we act out, when we are in love! Seeing the cells of the two main characters at work was a feast! “You see, you see” – I was saying to my husband who doesn’t even care about dramas – “that’s just how we are; men and women are so different and there are all these misunderstandings, and exciting twists and turns, because we are dominated by such different emotions at the same time… Daebak!”
I have to say that I recognized with some shock, the fogginess typical of my youth: when I fell in love with a man at first sight my mind would become completely foggy, and I would enter a state of muteness mixed with silly remarks. [MINOR SPOILER] In this, my cells are similar to Goo Woong’s (played by Ahn Bo Hyun), too man-like? [END SPOILER]
🍓 Razzie Award 🍓
I have a lot of respect for Namgoong Min as an actor. I admire his incredible physical transformation to make himself believable as a NIS operative officer, and the first five episodes are splendid, and full of twists and turns, and then… then the plot goes mad and everything becomes unintelligible and finally boring because the game of “Chinese boxes” whereby each event leads back to another, and each alleged culprit has someone above him manoeuvring him, becomes obscure.
Too bad, because I would have liked to know more about the mysterious life of the officer Han Ji Hyuk; why he became so tough and efficient; what are his emotions and his backstory. The relationship with his hoobae Yoo Je Yi, a relationship that appeared filial at times, could also have been developed better, and could have been more touching.
Best Female Lead
Jeon Do Yeon in Lost (Human Disqualification)
She shows herself to be sorrowful, depressed, desperate, naive, defenseless, honest, ruthless, in love, cynical, disappointed, alone. Her sweet, tiny, mute and sharp voice takes us on this moving journey through her inner dialogue.
Best Male Lead
Lee Do Hyun in Youth of May
He is an actor who mesmerizes the viewer, who can portray the roles of the most diverse characters, while letting their emotions and thoughts shine through. I’ve loved every project I’ve seen him in so far, including Melancholia which I’m watching these days. Of such an actor, one can only say that he is a born talent.
Won Jin A and Ro Woon in She Would Never Know
I loved the chemistry between the two actors.
Both she and he shine on screen; they have a lot of charm and charisma. I like how their relationship develops, slowly and in a healthy way. Even the crisis between them that leads them to separate (typical trope in the second half of a romance drama) serves their growth as a couple to bring Chae Hyun Seung (Ro Woon) out of the roles of savior and protector, and emotionally balance the couple.
Also, the significant difference in stature makes them lovely and appealing.
Best Female Supporting Actor
Wang Bit Na in She Would Never Know
She plays the role Ro Woon’s sister; she’s beautiful, kind and smart and caring – the noona (but also the unnie) everyone wants.
Has she ever played a lead role, and if not, what are they waiting for?
Best Male Supporting Actor
Oh Man Seok in Youth of May
I find Oh Man Seok really fascinating, but he is always assigned the role of the villain (indeed the psychopath) who is really scary.
Sometimes I wonder: does he enjoy playing these characters? Or is he used to it? Is he resigned? When they send him a script, does he roll his eyes, thinking: I still have to make the audience hate me. Or is he amused? I’d love to ask him.
The Red Sleeve
I would have liked to talk about The Red Sleeve but I’m too emotional to write about Lee Jun Ho. He is too cool and hot for me to manage…
Thanks, Martina! It’s great to hear you thought Song Joong Ki’s accent was good. My Italian is woeful but I did live there for a summer and thought it ‘sounded’ unexpectedly authentic, and like you say, the gestures too. I love him for that attention to detail 😍
Grazie Molto, Martina! Loved your style of reviews. I have often wondered about Oh Man Seok playing villans, too. He is so good at that sneer, ha! Loving The Red Sleeve and Lee Jun Ho’s deep voice. Happy New Year!
Su San thanks for the italian “thanks” 💛.and appreciation! happy New Year
We liked a number of the same dramas! Loved your list. And completely agree on Lee Jun Ho, that man really knows how to do intense gazes right lol
Thanks for sharing, Martina. And congrats on your Korean language accomplishments! I am very jealous of all who are talented with languages 🤢
Thanks for noting Navillera, too. For me, the two leads of this show were the OTP of the year.
Evviva Navillera OTP ,😍
Lost and She Would Never Know are hard to find in Italy (no Viki e no Netflix). How did you manage to see them?
I notice that no one has favorited Backstreet Rookie. I invite everyone to give it a chance.
Usually we agree on things but Backstreet Rookie is one of the worst shows ever. At least to me ^^
I found it really funny. It’s really rare to be able to laugh with a show these days. Maybe only Waikiki made me laugh so much.
Also I find FL incredibly beautiful so for me it was one of the top shows of 2021 🙂
Devil Judge is also very underrated in my opinion.
Overrated (in my humble opinion) OTVOI, DP and Mad of Each Other that everyone seems to like. So boring…
Ah I see. Well Backstreet rookie didn’t make me laugh at all. But I agree FL is kind of beautiful.
Haven’t watched any of those. Because usually hyped and overly liked shows are quite bad ^^
And I guess you agree on that 😀
On this list I only watched one drama.
And I also don’t know a lot of these actors.
So thanks for the insight ^^
Martina that Red Sleeve screenshot and what happens next 🔥🔥🔥🔥 has made day. JJ and I needed to rewatch to ascertain what herbs were placed in the bath a few times🤣 purely for research purposes I add!
And really reading your post. Thank you so much for sharing!
I’m a researcher too!! 😅😂
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and love for these shows. Also, kudos to you for taking up a language that sounds pretty complicated to my ear!
I especially appreciated your thoughts on Oh Man Seok: you are right, I have only seen him playing the really really evil Villain and the thought crossed my mind too: do actors that get typecast like that feel bad about it or do they enjoy it or maybe they don’t even care?
Also, you must be the one able to tell me: Song Joong Ki did an amazing work with his Italian (extra kudos for coming from such a different mother tongue) but it must have been pretty slow talking, right?
Anyway, your list was an excellent read for this Christmas Eve, thank you and enjoy the holidays!
@Natalia, thanks! Yes, Doing Joong Ki speaks Italian a bit slower but the pronunciation is quite good. Consider that for Koreans it is a challenge to pronounce the ‘r’which in their language, depending on the position in the word is pronounced ‘l’ or ‘r’ (but also ‘r’ sound is a bit different) and the ‘f’ does not exist as a sound and they tend to pronounce ‘p’ instead. Song Joong Ki pronounces italian words quite well.
Song not “Doing”
Hi Martina – I love the way you explained the dramas and why they appealed to you. Very insightful indeed! 💖
I especially enjoyed the Yumi’s Cell portion, as these were my feelings exactly. What an interesting drama. I consider it a real ground breaker in KDramas – in fact I cannot think of any drama that is similar. As humans, we can all relate. It was a lovely surprise. It was kind of like a package wrapped in plain brown paper. You expect one thing but you open it and out pops a 3D kaleidoscope of “yes that’s me!” accompanied by glitter, confetti and the truly delightful naughty cells.
I also thought Song Joong Ki did a good job with his hand gestures because that was the first thing I noticed. 😂
@phl1rxd thank you! I like your comment that “as humans we can all relate” even if we seem so different and distant….❤️
@Martina — there are some really good, worthy dramas on your list, and great comments and insights about all of them. Thanks for sharing!
I think your comments on the The Veil are pretty much right on (although I didn’t like that Namgoong Min got so muscled-up for the role. I thought he could have been a “tough guy” agent even at 10kg lighter…)
@Trent, thanks! Yes Namgoong Min is a bit too muscled-up, sometimes he is not flexible… Quite hard to watch…
What a thoughtful and poetic post, Martina. I thoroughly enjoyed your explanations for each show. I also admire that you have taken the Korean language under your wing. Lol re Lee Jun Ho 😂😂😂 He was awesome in Good Manager, which stars Namgoong Min (he was a tour de force in this and extremely funny).
thanks for the tip!
@Martina, I totally understand your attitude towards Jun Ho. I have never seen him before, but his performance in The Red Sleeve is mesmerizing…
@Snow Flower, yes…and what about his voice and diction? I totally fell…😅
Lee Jun Ho certainly staged a great comeback from military service with The Red Sleeve. I find him almost feline-like (think big cat not little). I enjoyed his performance in Good Manager.
@Martina – This was a fantastic Post! Bravo!
Congrats on learning Korean and getting to level B2, I understand that is no easy feat, Daebak!
I feel ya about Red Sleeve’s Lee Jun Ho. Shahz and I have had many a discussion about him 🙂
I love that Yumi’s Cells in on your list as well !!! Wasnt that so much fun. Your Writer Cell must have had so much fun writing this post 🙂
Have you seen Woo Jin A and Lee Jun Ho in Rain or Shine (Just Between Lovers) ? Is pretty special, I think 🙂
Yay for more love for On the Verge of Insanity AND Lost (Human Disqualification) ❤️
Hope you had fun writing your post 🙂
@jj what a perfect title 😂😂😂 i haven’t seen yet Rain or Shine, i run to watch it 😁. Thanks
@Martina – Come join us on the Drama Exchange and we can talk all about the Title.
KFG wrote a beautiful review on Rain or Shine. I have seen the Show now 4 times. I think its a beautiful commentary on grief in only a way a Kdrama can do 🙂
Sure I’ll come! 😁😍
@Martina – YAY!!!
Did you know Lee Juno is a singer? I think that has something to do with his voice and diction 🙂
Not yet i run to watch 😁😅
@Martina – Yes! Run!!! We will run with you 🙂
Here is KFG’s review
Here is one of Lee Jun Ho singing by and in his group the Kpop Band – 2pm 🙂
Omo! Omo! had never seen him sing and dance, my heart missed a beat….
@Martina – you can find so much more on You Tube..its a fun rabbit hole to go down. 🙂 I think thats why his voice and diction are so good in his acting.
I really think he is amazing in Rain or Shine. I cant wait for you to watch it especially since you understand Korean.
yes, now I understand why his voice and diction are so amazing, but also the way he dances is…eh!….
i’m going down to the rabbit hole on you Tube and Rain or Shine…bye bye
KFG, i really appreciate the bonus picture of Song Joong Ki…you are a very kind host! 😍😍
@Martina Conte Glad you like it!! Song Joong Ki is the main reason I managed to finish watching DOTS, so I totally feel you! 😉
Martina – I agree! What a perfectly lovely shot of him! 🔥💥🧨