I loved this show so much. It’s not groundbreaking or original, but what it does, it does well. Don’t Dare to Dream, also known as Jealousy Incarnate (SBS 2016) is about TV news, family, love, jealousy and…cancer. It’s well acted, hits both light humour and real emotional moments in every episode and the credits feature cartoon aliens. It truly has everything.
Pyo Na-ri (played by Gong Hyo-jin) is a weather broadcaster who is frustrated by her TV station refusing to give her a permanent job and treating her as a general dogsbody, but can’t risk quitting as she needs to earn good money to support her younger brother Chi-yeol, who is still in high school. At work she is always professional, but at home she’s a bit of a mess, constantly behind on rent and shouting at Chi-yeol.
She jumps at an opportunity to work on a shoot with news reporter Lee Hwa-sin (Jo Jung-suk, who was the lead man in Oh My Ghost –another K-drama that I rate highly), who she used to have a crush on. She had hoped this was finally her chance with him, but instead meets another man who takes Hwa-sin’s place in her affections – businessman Go Jeung-won (played by Go Kyung-po, who I swear looks like Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is Hwa-sin’s childhood best friend. Na-ri and Jeung-won begin dating, much to the despair of his mother, who is hoping to use his marriage as a business deal.
At some point I will have to stop calling the set-ups of these Japanese and Korean dramas odd. I’m sure a lot of my preferred English-language TV sounds just as strange when you summarise the basics. Maybe that’s just my taste in TV generally. But I did find the tone of Kimi Wa Petto (Fuji TV 2017) quite strange to begin with.
This show is based on Yayoi Ogawa‘s Japanese manga Kimi wa Pet serialized from 2000 to 2005. The comic won the 2003 Kodanisha Manga Award. It’s a largely predictable, slightly cheesy romantic drama, but enjoyable all the same.
Our heroine Iwaya Sumire (Noriko Iriyama) seems very serious and capable, but she is struggling to maintain a professional front after being dumped by her boyfriend of five years and then demoted after rejecting advances from her boss. Drunkenly stumbling home, she finds a young man (Jun Shison) on her doorstep who reminds her of her childhood pet Momo and offers to adopt him. He is homeless and has just been beaten up, so he gladly accepts.
Their relationship is initially cringeworthy (Sumire gets “Momo” to beg for food and other dog-like tricks) but when she learns that he is in fact Goda Takeshi, a ballet dancer of some renown, their relationship changes to…roommates? Friends? Siblings? They quickly become very affectionate and comfortable together.
Like everyone else, I was devastated (in a good way) by the ending of Fleabag. Unlike (I’m guessing) everyone else, my reaction was to seek out the most cliched happy-ending romance I could find. And where better to find that than K-drama? This was one of the titles recommended to me early on as a K-drama classic, so I figured it would have the necessary ingredients.
Oh my. This was the most addictive K-drama for me since Boys Over Flowers. It’s from about the same time and covers much of the same territory, so that makes sense. In Secret Garden (SBS 2010) our leads are stuntwoman Gil Ra-im (played by Ha Ji-won) and CEO Kim Joo-won (Hyun Bin). As these tales always begin, she is poor but badass; he is rich and a total douche.
They cross paths when Joo-won steps in to help his cousin U-yeong (Yoon Sang-hyun) – who is a Hallyu star better known as Oska – escape a thorny romantic entanglement with an actress. When Joo-won tries to collect the actress from a film set, he accidentally ends up with her body double – Ra-im. The two immediately have a sparky, catty back-and-forth and it’s clear that hate will turn to love.
This Japanese TV show exists in many versions – largely with the same actors – but I am here referring to the Netflix series Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories (which is arguably season 4 of the show originally aired on MBS). Tim and I love this show so much.
It’s a simple concept: at a late-night diner (open from midnight until 7 a.m.) in Shinjuku, the chef-owner cooks whatever dish his guests request. The camera lingers on the cooking, but this is a drama about people. Each episode takes as its subject one of the regular customers. In this way, the episodes are largely separate stories.
Midnight Diner has a wonderful atmosphere – warm, cosy, but within the confines of reality. The acoustic background music adds to the sensation of being in a friendly backstreet bar where there is always gentle hubbub and subdued lighting.
I have come full circle from a year ago – from Japanese TV dramas to Korean shows and now back to Japanese ones. Aside from confusing myself language-wise (I had just started to pick up some words in Korean), I found it really interesting to watch a similar teen drama to many of the K-dramas I binged last year, but set in a city I have actually visited.
Good Morning Call originally aired in 2016 on Fuji TV and a second season Good Morning Call: Our Campus Days was made a year later by Netflix. It’s a light-hearted romance set in Tokyo, where teenagers Yoshikawa Nao (played by Fukuhara Haruka) and Uehara Hisashi (Shiraishi Shunya) are both looking for an apartment to live alone for their last two years of high school. They are scammed into leasing the same apartment and, realising that they could not possibly afford such a nice place individually, agree to secretly live together.
Nao is a sweet, scatty, popular girl who feels things deeply and is incapable of hiding her volcanic emotions. Hisashi is a distant, clever loner who is good-looking enough to be fawned over by all the girls at school but has no patience with most people. They are not an obvious pairing and initially they fight a lot. But of course they learn each other’s virtues as well as flaws, not to mention their secrets. Enmity becomes friendship becomes…romance?
This was another random Netflix recommendation, and it was a really good one. Hello, My Twenties! (also known in English as Age of Youth) cuts through a lot of the tropes of Korean TV. The lead characters are all women and they’re not lame! Some of them have sex before marriage and it’s not a big deal! There’s not even one overarching storyline, but instead several intersecting ones!
This show is also unusual among K-dramas in that it’s had two seasons and is in discussions for a third, and that doesn’t spoil it at all. Both seasons one and two wrapped up some storylines while leaving others open-ended and each time this felt right as both an ending and a possible opener for more to come.
The basis is a shared house in Seoul called Belle Epoque and the five women who share it (one of whom changes for the second season). Over the short seasons (12–14 episodes) we get to know the women – their friends, their love lives, their taste in food and clothes – and we watch them becoming friends with each other. As this is a typical flatshare, the women didn’t know each other before moving in and are very different. They probably wouldn’t have met, let alone become friends, without this house. In season one, each episode largely concentrates on one of the women, so their secrets are revealed gradually – and they all have secrets.
As all K-dramas, no matter the genre, seem to have a heavy dose of romance, I decided to check one out that is 100% romance. And oh man, I certainly got what I asked for. Uncontrollably Fond (2016) is overblown, overwrought, over-serious melodrama. But it looks beautiful. And it isn’t pretending to be anything it isn’t – the warning signs were there from the start.
The opening scene is peppered with shots of a blossom petal floating gently to the ground – a recurring motif so cliched I almost laughed out loud. But then this is a series full of cliches: secret relatives, arranged marriage, super-rich people using the poor to gain advantage, critical illness, blackmail and lots of lies. A surprising amount of this information is revealed in the first two episodes, meaning that a quick plot summary can’t be all that quick.
Sin Jun-young is a major star – actor, pop idol, model (much like Kim Woo-bin who plays him) – and we meet him refusing to film a death scene, which we shortly after learn is because he is dying of an inoperable brain tumour. He of course hasn’t told anyone this, but he has started searching for his ex-girlfriend No Eul (Bae Su-ji, better known as Suzy from K-pop group Miss A), who handily turns up on his doorstep trying to persuade him to take part in a documentary series. Directing this show will save her career, which is faltering thanks to a bribe she accepted to stop investigating a corrupt company – a bribe she desperately needed to keep loan sharks at bay.
I think this might be my favourite K-drama so far. It’s another one recommended to me as having a kickass female lead, and this time I actually agree. It’s not perfect, but it has a lot going for it.
The setting is Haneul Sports University in Seoul. Our lead characters are 21-year-old athletes from three of the university’s sports teams: swimming, rhythmic gymnastics and weightlifting. There’s swimmer Jung Joon-hyung (Nam Joo-hyuk) who would be the best swimmer on the team but he keeps getting panic attacks at competitions. There’s his ex-girlfriend Song Shi-ho (Kyung Soo-jin) a rhythmic gymnast who has just come back from the national training centre after losing her place on the national team. And of course Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung), the star weightlifter in her year.
Bok-joo is quickly established as a good daughter, a good friend and a defender against bullies. She helps her father and uncle at the fried chicken restaurant they run and goes to as many of her father’s dialysis appointments as her training schedule allows. She spends her free time with besties and fellow weightlifters Jung Nan-hee, a very girly girl, and Lee Seon-ok, a straight shooter who tends to hide her emotions. Bok-joo herself is a tomboy, which is working well for her until her first big crush, when she becomes self-conscious about the fact that she weightlifts and doesn’t have a traditionally feminine appearance.
No, I’m not reviewing the soap opera set in Birmingham that’s been running since 2000. This Doctors is another K-drama, which might be my new favourite thing. This time it’s a 2016 series starring an actress everyone recommended I look out for: Park Shin-hye.
This is pretty much Grey’s Anatomy transplanted from Seattle to Seoul, but with what I am starting to recognise as K-drama characteristics. The thing that possibly attracts me the most is that they all appear to be a single season. They’re long seasons – in this case 20 episodes that are an hour apiece – but they are complete stories where everything gets wrapped up, unlike the usual pattern in TV where storylines get changed, delayed or sped up each time a show gets renewed.
The reason I picked Doctors for my second K-drama was that my main problem with Boys Over Flowers (aside from its addictive quality meaning I stayed up far too late watching it) was the lameness of the main female character, so I looked up lists of K-dramas with kick-ass female leads. This show quite literally opens with its female lead kicking ass, which seemed promising.
I love the BBC. It’s not perfect, but it produces a lot of great stuff, especially for lovers of music and books. This weekend has been the BBC’s #LoveToRead weekend, with a deluge of book-related programmes, articles and partnerships with schools and libraries, to promote the importance of reading for pleasure. It’s a campaign I can get behind.
I first knew this was coming thanks to (best radio station in the world) 6 Music‘s new series of Paperback Writers, in which bestselling writers talk about the music that inspires them. Today’s writer was Zadie Smith, who I think is even more awesome now I know that her music of choice includes Lauryn Hill and Bob Dylan.