Experience Parallel Universes in Melodramatic K-Dramas

By Jennifer Kerr

Does this sound familiar? Our heroine is caught in a sudden tornado and dropped into a strange world where escape is unknown until she meets new friends who make her a better person and help her get back home. 

If you, like me, spent a childhood obsessively reading the 14 L. Frank Baum books and watching the movie, you’re probably thinking Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz. But no, this parallel universe is North Korea in a modern K-drama.

As you search for fresh entertainment these days, take a look at the K-dramas on Netflix. What are K-dramas? They’re wonderfully entertaining and beautifully filmed television series from South Korea. They can take you to parallel universes, immerse you in gorgeous clothing and sword-fighting history, treat you to modern chicken and soju meals and introduce you to evil villains and heroic women (yes, women) and men.

They can also be quite melodramatic, so keep tissues handy.

I’ve long been a big fan of world cinema, the best of which not only entertains you but delightfully teaches you about other cultures. Since travel is so out of the question these days, movies and TV series from other countries are a great way to get our heads out of our newly restricted environment.

Netflix, which has a wide array of foreign flicks and TV series, has been offering K-dramas since November 2008. 

Here are the main attributes of K-dramas (at least the ones I’ve watched): There are strong conflicts between good guys and bad guys, usually involving a sordid history and evil ambitions. Women characters are tough, independent and strong; they might not be historically accurate but are written for modern audiences. There are lots of emotions and tears (men, too). There must be crew members dedicated to spraying realistic tears on cheeks and reddening eyes as well as splotching fake blood on the faces of good guys who have just offed the bad guys. Good guys and gals seem to get injured but always recover amazingly quickly. There is lots of taekwondo, which was developed by Korean martial artists; one heroine is a taekwondo teacher. There are always supporting characters who offer comic relief but are at heart sweet and lovable.

Quite a few of the K-dramas I’ve watched have very similar, very modern endings: the two lovers don’t get married, but lead independent lives, coming together for travel and companionship. Quite refreshing!

I’m going to focus on three of the best (and include a list of other good ones at the end). The three all have parallel universe elements. I will only briefly describe these, not to give away too many details.

Mr. Sunshine

This is the first K-drama I watched two years ago, and I loved it. I was drawn to its historical period, the early 1900s, when the long Joseon period had ended and a weak kingdom was ruling. Japan, the United States and China were vying for power and influence and a rebel group was trying to thwart them (Japan took over Korea in 1910.) The history is very real; the plot is fiction, of course! It mainly takes place in Hanseong (the old name for Seoul).

The five complex and wonderful main characters all have feet both in Korea and somewhere or something else (thus parallel identities): A slave watches his parents being murdered and escapes to be taken to the United States; he returns as a U.S. Marine. An upper-class woman has a secret identity as a rebel and a crack sniper (an English word she learns with relish). An orphaned son of low-class parents goes to Japan and becomes a yakuza samurai. The daughter of an evil high official is married off to a Japanese mogul and after his death returns wealthy to run a hotel. An upper-class man engaged to the upper-class woman spends most of his privileged life in Japan before returning to Korea.

The King: Eternal Monarch

This came out this year. It was written by the same woman, Kim Eun-sook (Korean family names come first), as Mr. Sunshine but the two K-dramas are dramatically different.

This is the true parallel universe one: One universe is the Republic of Korea, just like today’s South Korea. The other (in the same time frame) is the Kingdom of Corea, which of course has a (handsome, charming) king. It turns out almost everyone has a doppelgänger in the opposite universe. A really bad guy in the Kingdom figures out how to go between the two and cause havoc. The young King accidentally crosses into the Republic and meets a delightful woman homicide cop whose ID badge the King was given when he, as a boy, was almost murdered by the really bad guy who also murdered the boy’s father, the King. The bad guy, of course, must be stopped.

Note for today: Black face masks play important roles in both Mr. Sunshine and The King! Nuff said.

Crash Landing on You

I really loved this 2019 one and just finished watching it. An aloof woman tycoon from Seoul goes paragliding and gets pulled by a freak tornado into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). She is found hanging in a tree by a taciturn North Korean Army captain who decides to help her get home. 

The heroine is very unsympathetic when we first meet her, but we learn of her awful family making her the tough broad she is. The hero seems at first to be a simple soldier but turns out also to have a sad family past. And there is a very very bad guy, of course.

Like The King, the man and the woman must deal with being unable to live together in either of their worlds. This time, the two countries are no fantasies, but oh so real: South Korea and North Korea. We see the North through South Korean cinematic imagination, possibly the closest look anyone gets.

Here are a few other K-dramas that I’ve enjoyed; these all take place in Joseon times. All are still on Netflix.

Rookie Historian Goo Hae-ryong, delightful and funny about an unusual woman.

My Sassy Girl, charming rom-com amid palace intrigue. My Country: The New Age, three childhood friends (two guys and a girl) and a bloody court battle.

Jennifer Kerr was a reporter for the Associated Press for more than 40 years, based in the California Capitol Bureau in Sacramento from 1977-2001, mainly covering the state Legislature. She previously worked in AP Bureaus in West Virginia and Los Angeles. She produces the Renaissance Society website and is offering Daring Women War Correspondents this fall, a course that shares the stories of the intrepid women correspondents who defied those who thought they should stay home instead of risking their lives to tell the truth — particularly what war does to women and children.

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