These Classic Romantic Korean Dramas Are a Must For Newbies & Longtime Fans
Yes, alien hotties and lovable grim reapers are great, but remember when Korean dramas were simpler, straightforward, classic? Which is why this Valentine’s Day, you need to check out some of these classic romantic Korean dramas that have everything you want in a good old-fashioned Korean drama — swoon-worthy leads, love-to-hate antagonists, a good wrist-grab or two. Oh, and don’t forget the box of tissues!
Valentine’s Day is here, and as someone who spent over 25 years single (yes, I am counting my infancy, OK), I get how it can be sort of a drag to see quite literally everyone and their mothers posting about how much they love their significant other. I’m in a long-term relationship and I still eye-roll.
But whether you’re single or not, I’m an advocate for a lowkey Valentine’s Day for everyone. The hassle of reservations and fighting the droves of people out and about is way too much for an introvert like me, and I can guarantee you that I’ll be spending the holiday at home with my SO talking about what clearance Target candy we’re going to be picking up the next day.
If you’re here for celebrating at home yourself, here are some classic romantic Korean dramas (and a movie, if starting a drama is a lot of commitment on a day about commitments) that y’all should check out, regardless of whether you’ve got someone to watch with or that someone is just your cat or dog who could not care less what’s on the TV, they love you for you. And for the treats you give them.
1. Secret Garden
Secret Garden is one of the first romcom-style K-dramas that I remember ever hearing about, and after it won a slew of awards, I decided years later to finally sit down and watch it. Y’all, it’s the definition of a Korean drama that gets way more complicated than the initial episodes suggest, and I can see how it set the stage for other successes like Goblin down the road.
The story begins simple enough with Gil Ra-Im (played by Ha Ji-won), who is a stuntwoman, and Kim Joo Won (played by Hyun Bin from Memories of the Alhambra), the CEO of a department store. Ra-Im was an awesome female protagonist to see introduced in this era of K-dramas — she was in pretty stark contrast to a lot of more quiet, docile female leads starstruck by their male love interest. Ra-Im doesn’t hesitate to tell people directly when they’re doing something she disagrees with and does not need anyone to fight her battles for her. There’s a scene I can never forget where a woman gets her purse stolen and Ra-Im literally chases them down, takes them out with her stuntwoman skills, and recovers the purse.
There’s a scandal that happens early on involving Joo Won’s cousin, Oska, which is how Oska and Ra-Im initially meet.
And then things start going 100 miles an hour, kicking off so many K-drama tropes that we know and love: bosses at work who are secretly in love with the leads, controlling moms who disapprove of all the relationships their successful son becomes involved in, deep family tragedies that we uncover along the way, and ridiculous fantasy elements like body switching (yes, you heard me, swapping bodies) to keep the mood from getting too heavy.
It may not seem like anything revolutionary now, but I think that if you’re a fan of more recent K-dramas, you’ll be able to see how much this drama influenced those that came after it.
You can catch Secret Garden here.
2. Boys Over Flowers
Boys Over Flowers is another one of the classic Korean dramas that I was introduced to in high school. I knew it was based off of a manga series of the same name, and that’s what drew me in to the universe of it as I was a huge manga nerd at the time. With Boys Over Flowers, we’ve got one of the most classic, well-executed examples of the “poor girl, rich guy” storyline that highlights how social class can play into familial expectations.
Lee Min Ho plays Gu Jun Pyo, who is the head of F4, a group of extremely rich and popular boys at the renowned Shinhwa High School. They engage in a vicious cycle of bullying one boy at their school, who is saved by Ku Hye Sun’s character, Geum Jan Di. Jan Di comes from a family that is far from wealthy and ends up attending Shinhwa High on a swimming scholarship.
Of course, Jan Di has no patience whatsoever for her classmates that have grown up in the lap of luxury and wastes no time in telling off Jun Pyo, which sparks his interested in her.
But you guessed it — she’s falling for one of the other guys in F4. A love triangle of sorts ensues, all wrapped up in a coming-of-age story of these characters navigating both who they want to be as well as who their families are, with an ending that isn’t necessarily original by today’s standards but definitely caught me completely off guard (i.e. sobbing) when I watched it through the first time. Bring tissues (and wine) for this one y’all.
Watch Boys Over Flowers here.
3. The Moon Embracing the Sun
No one does historical dramas quite like Korea. They’re a constant fixture on the drama scene, with amazing costumes and set pieces that give a pretty accurate representation of what Korea was like in ye olden times. The Moon Embracing the Sun stood head and shoulders over all the competition in 2012, winning Drama of the Year at the MBC Drama Awards, and it has literally everything you could want from a period romance drama.
Jang Young Nam portrays Ari, a mystical shaman of sorts for the royal court, who foresees a horrific event in a dream — the death of a prince. She rushes out to see if she can stop what she foresaw, but instead only bears witness to the event itself before getting caught in the process. She escapes by jumping off a cliff and somehow miraculously survives, and the events following set the stage for the start of the main story, focused on Heo Yeon Woo (played by Ha Ga In).
Yeon Woo, the 13-year-old daughter of a high ranking official, is on a family trip to celebrate an accomplishment of her brother and by chance meets the Crown Prince (played by Kim Soo Hyun, who will later play opposite Jun Ji Hyun in the mega-hit My Love From Another Star). She of course proceeds to fall in love with the Crown Prince. They begin a relationship, but the other political players in the game, who are all seeking to gain power for their families and more importantly themselves, don’t exactly like the idea of Yeon Woo becoming the Crown Princess.
This sets off a chain of events that are absolutely insane and make The Tudors look like absolute child’s play. If you don’t look too deeply into how ridiculous some of the events that occur are and allow yourself to get swept up in the fantasy, it really is a love story that takes you on a roller coaster of a ride.
Watch The Moon Embracing the Sun here.
4. Bonus movie pick: 200 Pounds Beauty
200 Pounds Beauty is one of the first Korean movies that I remember watching. I had seen something about it at the video rental store that my mother would frequent with her friends (anyone else remember the Korean video stores with bookshelves full of VHS tapes?), but the movie was literally always checked out. That was not about to deter me, so I did what everyone did in the early 2000s and downloaded a copy off the internet, and it remains one of my favorite movies to watch when I need a pick-me-up.
Based on a Japanese manga series, Kim Ah Joong plays Kang Hanna, the primary character of the movie. She starts off the movie as a heavyset woman who has a passion for singing but isn’t considered “pretty” in the traditional sense, so she spends her days subbing in as the voice of the pop star Ammy. Ammy’s got the looks and none of the talent; Hanna records all her albums and literally stands under the stage as Ammy is performing, singing all the songs while Ammy lip syncs to Hanna’s vocals onstage. Hanna is in total puppy love with Ammy’s manager, who she later learns does not share the same feelings or really has much respect for her as a person.
I don’t think it would surprise any of you that this doesn’t have a great effect on her self-esteem, which leads her down a dark path. Oddly enough, the thing that saves her is a timely call from one of her clients at her other job, an adult phone line operator. (Don’t worry, the movie isn’t super graphic about the details on that.)
Hanna then proceeds to transform herself into a “beautiful” version of herself through some crazy antics, and as the story goes on, it opens up into a dialogue about what it means to truly be beautiful and how changing yourself for society or someone else really doesn’t lead to any happiness at all (I’m lookin’ at you, Little Mermaid).
I think the message really is one that is universal for us all in an age of social media and Photoshop, and the Korean public seemed to agree as well — the movie made more than 10 times its budget at the box office and is even on Netflix now! (If it’s not showing in your region, check the full movie out on YouTube here.)
Learning that the story of Romeo and Juliet took place over the course of four days made me eye-roll into the next century, and while some of the classic Korean dramas I shared today could be considered equally as ridiculous, they’ve got a lot more substance if you ask me. I don’t think society will ever get tired of a love story, but I’m very happy to see that the relationships discussed in more recent years have a lot more diversity and truth to them.
Do you guys have any classic romantic Korean dramas that you like to revisit time and time again? Sound off below!