The sweeping success of the South Korean show Squid Game is undeniable. The dark drama exploring themes such as capitalism and class disparities is Netflix’s most-watched series to date. But it is merely the crest point of “hallyu”, the Korean wave of pop culture – and there is more to this phenomenon than meets the eye.
For at least three decades now, South Korea has been gradually increasing its soft power by stepping up exports of its pop culture in the form of K-dramas, K-pop and K-beauty, among others. Pop culture is big business in South Korea, and the government invests heavily in cultural productions – earmarking $440m in 2021 to the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA), which funds and oversees shows, games for mobile and virtual reality platforms, fashion, animation and other endeavours.
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This has culminated with K-pop acts such as BTS, the biggest pop group in the world, and K-dramas such as 2019’s Crash Landing On You and Squid Game accomplishing success on an unprecedented global scale.
But for those familiar with South Korean cultural exports prior to the success of BTS and Squid Game, this global craze has not come as a surprise. Over the years, avid K-drama fans have seen the Korean wave grow exponentially. Two decades ago, the budget for one K-drama episode was estimated to be approximately $30,000. Today, this price tag can easily top one billion South Korean won (about $850,660). An increase in budget means more sophisticated production, better acting, impressive scores and huge improvements in cinematography.
Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning film Parasite is likely to agree that it is worthy of the universal acclaim it received, with a 98 percent approval rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. But South Korean series are not far behind feature films in terms of production standards.
Squid Game follows a legion of critically acclaimed K-dramas, some of which have gone unnoticed on the global stage. Here are six, hit K-dramas that are worth the hype.
1. Flower of Evil (2020)
Number of episodes: 16
Genre: Mystery, thriller, melodrama
Available on: Netflix
Cha Ji-won (played by Moon Chae-won) is a homicide detective who is happily married to Baek Hee-sung (portrayed by hallyu star Lee Joon-gi). But while investigating a series of unexplained murders, Ji-won begins to suspect that her perfect husband may not be who he says he is. Hee-sung watches his lies unravel as his wife digs deeper into his past.
While this K-drama keeps viewers guessing, an occasional sprinkling of comedic relief and romance ease the tension. The plot is carefully crafted and the show is pacey and suspenseful, with well-timed revelations and a haunting original score.
Visually beautiful, the show’s locations match its dark and mysterious themes, from Hee-sung’s eerie childhood home to the gloomy abandoned swimming pool where he meets his sister.
This moving, sometimes chilling, drama places an emphasis on emotion, because for Hee-sung, that is an elusive human trait he is yet to grasp.
Lee Joon-gi’s portrayal of Hee-sung, a character who struggles to understand the despair and anxiety he feels as his wife uncovers the truth about him, won him a 2021 best actor nomination for a Baeksang award for excellence in film, theatre and television in South Korea.
2. My Mister (2018)
Available on: Netflix
In My Mister, Park Dong-hoon (Lee Sun-gyun) is forced to admit that his life is not a happy one. A middle-aged engineer working at a company where a college junior is his boss, he lives with his mother and two unemployed brothers. Dong-hoon does what he can to help his struggling family, all the while feeling as if his own life is falling apart.
Lee Ji-an (portrayed by Lee Ji-eun, known professionally as IU) is a young woman who is heavily in debt and being harassed by a loan shark while trying to care for her elderly grandmother and work as a temp at the same company as Dong-hoon.
Ultimately, the two become friends and embark on a journey of hurt, hope and healing.
With its focus on financial struggles, family problems, loneliness and depression, the series does not attempt to put a filter on the human experience. Instead, it tries to show that no matter how monotonous or miserable life may seem at times, it can be just as riveting and intriguing as any film. It suggests that the fight to strike a perfect balance between our responsibilities and personal growth can be an incredible journey.
For viewers, the message that real life is, in itself, extraordinary, is strengthened by the parallels between IU’s past and the role that she plays. IU, one of the most popular K-pop stars in South Korea, like her character, lived for a time with her grandmother in a crowded, single room after her parents fell into debt.
3. Healer (2014)
Genre: Action, thriller, romance
Available on: Netflix
In the 1980s, during South Korea’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy, a group of five students running an illegal pro-democracy radio station stumble upon a major scandal, which leads to the killing of one student in 1992. Another student ends up in a wheelchair and another in jail.
Decades later, an illegal night courier with the codename Healer (Ji Chang-wook), a famous broadcast journalist (Yoo Ji-tae) and a second-rate tabloid news reporter (Park Min-young) come together to uncover the truth about what happened to the students.
The series starts slowly, taking time to introduce the many significant characters before the well-crafted plot picks up the pace with some jaw-dropping twists in the later episodes.
It is worth watching for the unique storyline, gripping action scenes, and development of characters who, as they discover more about the five students, become inspired by their bravery to dig deeper into their investigation even if it might cost them their lives. There is also a healthy dose of humour and romance and the presence of veteran actress Kim Mi-kyung in the role of Healer’s hacker partner gives the drama a final seal of approval.
4. Mr Queen (2020)
Genre: Historical drama, romantic comedy, fantasy, body swap
Available on: Viki
It would be difficult to come up with something more absurd than the plot of this series about a man, Jang Bong-hwan, who finds himself trapped in the body of a queen from the late Joseon era, around 1850 (the Joseon period began in 1392 and ended in 1897), and yet it is the seventh highest-rated drama in Korean cable television history.
Shin Hye-sun portrays the main character brilliantly, in a role that could have easily bordered on caricature, and the show is worth watching for her performance alone.
She flawlessly relays Bong-hwan/Queen Cheorin’s character growth while serving as one of the main comedic elements in the series.
Kim Jung-hyun, who was previously in the hit series Crash Landing on You, plays Queen Cheorin’s husband, King Cheol Jong, in this period drama full of palace intrigue, scheming concubines and queen dowagers.
Narrated by Choi Jin-hyuk, who is known for his roles in the zombie horror film Train to Busan, and dramas such as The Last Empress and The Heirs, Mr Queen has gone somewhat unnoticed among an English-speaking audience. But those looking for light relief should give it a try.
5. The Crowned Clown (2019)
Genre: Historical drama, romance
Available on: Netflix
Set during the mid-Joseon era in the early 17th century when upheavals and royal power struggles reached a peak, The Crowned Clown tells the story of a king who, fearing assassination, orders his doppelganger, a clown named Ha Sun (Yeo Jin-goo), to take his place on the throne.
When he was a child, Ha Sun’s parents died during an epidemic. He almost starved to death but was saved by a group of jesters, eventually growing up to become one of them. When the jesters performed, Ha Sun played King Lee Hun due to the similarities in their physical appearance.
The story takes inspiration from Mark Twain’s novel The Prince and the Pauper. A visual feast with sumptuous costumes and picturesque landscapes, this historic drama is an intense and riveting tale of romance, palace intrigue and politics. The well-knit yet unpredictable plot keeps the viewer engaged until the very end.
As the clown, Yeo Jin-goo’s performance is sincere and moving, but his portrayal of the egotistical and almost repulsive character of King Lee Hun is similarly noteworthy and will make it hard to believe that it is the same person playing both roles.
6. Navillera (2021)
Available on: Navillera is a Netflix original
Seventy-year-old retired post office employee, Sim Deok-chool (Park In-hwan), has harboured a lifelong dream of learning ballet. But life got in the way, and he put his dream aside – until now. Despite a lack of support from his family, he signs up for ballet classes where he meets 23-year-old Lee Chae-rok (Song Kang).
Chae-rok has a talent and passion for ballet but his decision to become a dancer has estranged him from his father. Struggling financially and emotionally, he considers quitting. But things begin to change when he meets Deok-chool and becomes his ballet coach.
The story of their friendship elevates Navillera from an easy-going and heartwarming watch to an inspirational tale that mostly steers clear of stereotypical sentimentality.
Navillera explores relatable, human issues such as how we cope with the reality of old age while showing that it is never too late to start doing what you love.