TV / Movies

Korean Dramas: 2012 Best of the Best, Part 1

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When we talk about the Hallyu Wave, our immediate thoughts jump to the spread of K-pop worldwide. However, while popular Korean music is making strides in global awareness with mega-hits like Fantastic Baby by Big Bang and sensational magnetism of Gangnam Style by PSY, the Korean drama and worldwide fascination over it has become a cornerstone of the Hallyu movement.

K-dramas run the gamut of every possible scenario, from amnesia and assassination to love triangles and time travel and everything in between. As the K-drama industry has grown in creativity and suspense over the years, so has the world’s addiction to it. Every year, dramas produced in Korea get more dramatic, complicated, heartwarming, heart-wrenching – and more popular.

Cinematography and sound techniques have taken a step up in recent years and continue to bring an element to Korean dramas that seems more on par with major motion pictures. With filming locations that span all over Korea, including destinations like Jeju Island and Bongeunsa Temple, the Korean drama has not only brought to the worldwide stage the wonders of Korea and Korean culture, but has also increased tourism to the country by an estimated 3.8% – 4.2% in just the last year, according to the Korean Tourism Organization. With ever-growing interest in the Hallyu wave and the spread of K-pop and K-dramas, it’s safe to say that Korea has become a beacon of interest around the world and within the global entertainment market.

Just like ice cream stores that boast that they have every flavor under the sun, Korean dramas do as well. Dramas, just like K-pop, have a little something for everyone. Some K-drama fans prefer fantasy-based dramas like this year’s big hit, Faith, which starred the highly talented and sought-after actors Lee Min Ho and Kim Hee Sun, while others prefer romantic comedies like A Gentleman’s Dignity starring veteran actors Jang Dong Gun and Kim Han Eul. No matter what your favorite flavor, this year’s drama releases definitely had you covered. While trying to narrow down the best of the best K-dramas of 2012 is quite a daunting task, we’ve selected our top 10 dramas of the year (in no particular order.)

K-dramas and K-pop often go hand in hand, as is the case with our first three “Best of the Best” dramas of the year. First up is Rooftop Prince, which became an international sensation overnight before even the first day of filming simply because of the cast. Boasting one of the biggest K-pop fandoms in the world, former TVXQ member and current JYJ member Park Yoochun stars in this time-shift romantic comedy/mystery alongside actress Han Ji Min as Park Ha.

In the drama, Crown Prince Yi Gak (Park Yoochun) finds himself transported from the Joseon Dynasty to the present day after the mysterious death of his young wife. Accompanied by his three retainers – scholar Song Man-bo (Lee Min-ho), personal bodyguard U Yong-sool (Jung Suk-won), and palace eunuch Do Chi-san (Choi Woo-shik), Yi meets Park Ha (Han Ji Min),  a strong self-determined reincarnation of the prince’s sister-in-law and owner of the rooftop apartment. With an overwhelming sense of compassion, Park Ha decides to help the weary time travelers adjust to their new surroundings and gives them a safe place to stay. Through a miraculous twist of fate, the Crown Prince comes across the reincarnation of his dead wife Se Na (Jung Yoo Mi), and decides to try to solve the mystery of his wife’s death in the present day while also trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of his own reincarnated self: namely, Yong Tae Yong, the heir to a multimillion-dollar company.

Rooftop Prince blends mystery, fantasy, crime solving, revenge, and complicated love stories with a seamless flow that leaves fans begging for more. The mystery of the queen’s death in the past and the disappearance of Tae-Yong in the present are at the heart of this time travel drama. This part of the plot pulls the viewer in as the story begins to unfold from both sides of each mystery, and as a viewer, you find yourself playing detective in your own right. Mysteries are always a fun addition to any drama and Rooftop Prince hits it out of the park. Even though you already know what happened to Tae-Yong, thanks to a scene at the beginning of the drama, when it comes to the mystery of the queen’s death, you are left in the dark until the very end. And may I say, what an ending!

With comedy that runs from utter silliness to situational, obvious to subjective, and reoccurring themes to great one-liners, Rooftop Prince repeatedly leaves the viewer in stitches. Many of this dramas iconic scenes are centered around the comedic aspects of the story. From the beginning when our time travelers first arrive in the present day, they have to adjust to the oddities of their new surroundings, deal with social and language differences, and learn a new way of thinking and even dressing. Like the proverbial fish out of water, our four heroes experience situations that delivers comedy as well as poignancy. The elevator scene has become an iconic scene from Rooftop Prince, and as any fan of the drama will tell you, it’s absolutely hilarious.

The onscreen chemistry between Park Yoochun and Han Ji Min is palpable, causing the viewer to be drawn into their love story and making one want to scream “Just tell her you love her already!” and “Please let this drama have a happy ending!” Park Yoochun has been quite active in acting in the last year or so, and every time he picks up a new drama we get to delve further into his acting abilities and potential.  As a fan of his music, I cannot say I didn’t go into this drama unbiased; but as I took a step back and analyzed this drama as a K-drama watcher and not as a K-pop fan, I found that I was seriously impressed with how well Yoochun’s acting has improved in the short amount of time from his last drama. Han Ji-Min gives an excellent performance as Park Ha and brings to the screen her great emotional acting alongside great comedic timing.

The underdog smash hit of 2012 definitely belongs to tVN’s  flashback-centered drama Answer Me 1997 (Reply 1997). Set in the present day, the drama tells the story of Yoon Yoon-je (played by solo vocalist Seo In Guk), Sung Shi-won (Jung Eun-ji), and four of their friends from Pusan who reunite in 2012 and reminisce over their times as high school students.

Flashing back to the 90’s, the era when artists like H.O.T and Sechs Kies were the kings of the K-pop movement, the drama examines the extreme nature of the emerging fan mentality of first generation K-pop fans while telling a great story about how the six friends have changed and evolved since their high school years. Yoon-je and Shi-won have been close since early childhood. Always together, always having each others back, they each consider one another as their true siblings.

As they begin to grow and mature into their teenage years, Yoon-je realizes that Shi-won has now become his first love, and even though she doesn’t feel the same, Yoon-je pursues her. After a disagreement and misunderstanding between the two, they go their separate ways and reunite years later. More mature yet still harboring his latent love for Shi-won, Yoon-je starts trying to just ignore her, but as time passes he can’t help but be drawn back to her.

Answer Me 1997 is a veteran K-pop fan’s dream. Incorporating true-to-the-period set designs and props, paired with a phenomenal soundtrack, this drama brings back the memories of K-pop in its infancy, and makes the viewer remember and miss those times with a renewed passion that is rarely seen this day and age. Touching base on the idealism and raging passions of K-pop fans from that era, the drama brings to the screen an accurate depiction of the fiercely loyal fans of H.O.T and Sechs Kies and all the rivalries and fan wars that constantly occurred between even the best of friends.

The fact that Answer Me 1997 has flashback motif is definitely a huge draw. The flashbacks show how each character grows and matures in the realms of careers, personal relationships, and love. While ever hinting that the main leads Yoonje and Siwon will eventually end up together, the writers keep you guessing until the very end. This type of suspense-building writing is one of the cornerstones of Korean dramas and Answer Me 1997 wins, hands down, as the best drama of the year to make the viewer go “OMG are they going to end up together?”

The drama also touches base on a secondary, over-the-edge bromance relationship between Yoon-je and his best friend Kang Joon-hee (played by INFINITE‘s Hoya), where Joon-hee has fallen in love with his best friend and must deal with the implications of his feeling and the ultimate choice of letting him go. The dramas secondary character arcs are quite complex and leave the viewer, at times, more interested in their progression than the main characters’.

The second of this year’s time travel based dramas, Time Slip Dr. Jin quickly became a worldwide fan favorite and one of hellokpop’s most beloved dramas of the year. Unlike Rooftop Prince where the main character was transported to present day, Dr. Jin tells the story of neurosurgeon Jin Hyuk (played by actor Song Seung Hun), who, after removing a strange fetus-like tumor from the brain of an unknown man, falls off a rooftop and is transported 150 years into the past. Waking up to find himself in the Joseon Dynasty, lost and alone in the woods, Dr. Jin must find a way to get back to his time.

Through his relationships with Young-rae (played by Park Min Young) and Lee Han-eung (played by Lee Beom Su), Dr. Jin is quickly drug into the messy world of Joseon politics and finds him self in many sticky situations that put his life in danger. As Dr. Jin and Young-rae’s feelings for one another begin to blossom, they find themselves having to deal with Young-rae’s own personal destiny, namely military officer Kim Kyung-tak (played by JYJ‘s Kim Jaejoong), who is Young-rae’s betrothed and illegitimate son of Minister Kim (Kim Eung-soo), the drama’s villain.

Trying to adjust to an era where medical practices were rudimentary and sometimes barbaric, Dr. Jin tries to fit in as best he can and begins treating the medical needs of the poor people of Joseon with the help of Young-Rae. In a time where medical procedures and instrumentation are in their infancy, he is forced to develop tools and medicines that haven’t come to existence yet to treat his new patients, and slowly begins to realize that his actions in the realms of medicine and politics are gravely affecting history.

Time Slip Dr. Jin’s intricate storyline, paired with its phenomenal costume designs and breathtaking cinematography, make it not only one of the greatest stories of the year but one of the most beautifully shot dramas as well. For fans that love Joseon era clothing and sets, Dr. Jin is definitely a great drama to watch.

All the actors give a fantastic performance and exude the very essence of each character’s complex personalities and story arcs. Song Seung Hun brings a heroic and admirable context to the character of Dr. Jin, accurately portraying not only the characters internal struggle between right and wrong but also showing the desperation in his desire to return back to his time. Park Min Young as Young-rae was probably the best decision that the casting director ever made. Her demure and innocent looks paired with her impressive acting skills make the viewer fall in love with her from the very beginning. You become interested in Young-rae’s interactions with her fellow characters more often than with any other character. My favorite character from Time Slip Dr. Jin has to be Lee Ha-Weung (Lee Beom Soo), a distant member of the royal family and social outcast. His character not only is Dr. Jin’s partner in crime but brings a comedic aspect to this drama that is quite refreshing. Lee Beom Soo does an excellent job in this roll and through his performance as Ha-Weung, he has gained our attention as an actor to look out for in the future.

We have to admit that Kim Jaejoong looks absolutely spectacular in this drama and delivers a performance to make any Cassiopeian proud. His character, Kyung-tak the son of a corrupt politician, has been madly in love with Young-rae for a very long time, and when he is granted permission to marry her, he goes out of his way to make her happy. When Dr. Jin enters her life, her feelings of duty – the betrothal to Kyung-tak – becomes a hindrance to her growing feelings of love for Dr. Jin and her new purpose in life: to become not merely a wife but a great doctor. Kyung-tak picks up on her feelings, feels threatened by the doctor, and becomes more adamant to keep Young-rae all to himself. Kim Jaejoong gives a depth to the Kyung-tak character that surprised us. With his limited acting history, it was rumored that his placement in the role was simply to draw in the K-pop fan crowd – with or without any real acting talent. However, those rumors were quickly destroyed after the drama began airing. We were pleasantly surprised by not only his onscreen presence but his acting ability as well.

With sweeping camera shots of the surrounding landscapes and overhead shots of the village and palace, the drama takes the grand visual aspect that is synonymous with historically based dramas and kicks it up a notch. The beauty of this drama is quite reminiscent of other great historical dramas like Warrior Baek Dong Soo but brings an element to the screen that is not only breathtaking and spectacular but also symbolic and poignant as well.  Nowhere in this drama does the cinematography fall under the category of filler material.


Did you watch these dramas? What did you think about their stories? Did your favorite drama make our top ten list? Stay tuned to hellokpop for our next installment of Korean Dramas: 2012 Best of the Best Part 2, coming soon.

Sources: [Video] – YouTube (1, 2, 3); [Photo] – (1, 2, 3)

Collages created by author.

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