Despite the internet’s limitless reach, for the most part American audiences watch American shows — until, that is, they’re bought up and remade a la The Office or House of Cards. But with the growing popularity and accessibility of international hits, it's becoming clear just how much TV talent is hiding overseas. So The Verge is taking an international tour of television’s best and weirdest. This time, we're off to South Korea!
In the last decade or so, international audiences have become absolutely rabid in their love for Korean television. Korean shows are so popular in China that last year delegates met to wring their hands over why Chinese TV writers couldn’t write a script as fantastic as the extraterrestrial liaison My Love From Another Star. In North Korea, the government has created a task force solely dedicated to hunting down bootleg South Korean DVDs. (The fact that North Koreans appear willing to risk a whole lot to continue watching their favorite soaps speaks to how addictive these shows really are.) DramaFever, a streaming site that’s been subtitling South Korean shows since 2008, says that 80 percent of its viewers are coming from outside Asia. And here in America, tween-oriented Korean soaps attract significant press and extreme devotion from their fans.
The modern success of Korean TV dates back to the early ‘70s, when fierce competition between small commercial stations created a huge market for campy, romantic South Korean soaps. Rags-to-riches Cinderella stories were frequently rehashed, and government censorship coupled with the country’s Confuscian values ensured storylines stayed sweet and virtuous.
Since the ‘90s, relaxed regulations and increased financial support has resulted in higher-budget, more globally oriented television: the massive success of 2002’s Winter Sonata — a 20-episode tale set in rural Korea featuring brainwashing, illegitimate children, and secret identities — is often cited as ground zero for modern South Korean television. For the past decade or so, most of the attention on Korean television has focused on romantic soaps — or K-dramas — featuring drippy, chaste stories of affection, boy-meets-softly-lit-girl, and, often, time-hopping in the name of love.
But I kept wondering what Korean TV looked like when it was about, say, beating the shit out of bad guys. In the last few months I’ve fallen into a K-hole of my own and (no judgement, please, it’s the middle of winter) watched something like 30 Korean action movies. What I’ve learned is that directors like Jeong-beom Lee and Kim Jee-woon (see also: Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer and The Host) will make you believe in badass again. And seriously, if you haven’t seen The Good The Bad The Weird yet, please just stop right now and slide over to this tab instead.
Given the renaissance of Korean action and sci-fi movies, I thought I’d see what their small-screen counterparts looked like. I reviewed 20 Korean shows on Netflix, and in my extraordinarily scientific process, I ruled out shows whose titles included keywords like "love" and "kiss" (5), shows with sparkles on their covers (2), shows about teens (3), and shows where the covers depicted a dude and a girl gazing at and / or wistfully away from each other (7). What was left? A vampire, a queen, an ultimate fighter, a murdered child, and a surgeon.
Worst idea that is actually the best show: Vampire Prosecutor
Watch if you: want SVU,True Blood, and the X-Files rolled up into one show.
I had no idea Vampire Prosecutor was what I was missing in my life until it came looking for me. On the surface, it’s pretty much what you’d think: Min Tae-yeon is a vampire who uses his bloodthirsty ways to solves crimes. But in this punchy, fashionable crime procedural, the vampire’s breed is a shade more Only Lovers Left Alive than Twilight. Super-hip Tae-yeon stalks around Seoul in sunglasses and a skinny suit, sipping black-market blood in trendy nightclubs. He’s joined in the "special cases division" by a crime-solving team of mortal ruffians and misfits with few or no social skills, most of whom exude waves of nihilism and chic as if they were vampires themselves.
Stylistically, Vampire Prosecutor toes a fine line between campy barbarism and super-slick sci-fi. On one hand, Tae-yeon and his high-tech buddies have access to some truly awesome holographic tools; on the other hand, the show’s first 10 minutes take place in a military bunker where some Medieval-looking medical science is being performed on a guy wearing a crude leather muzzle. Crisp, funny, and featuring some fantastically well-conceived reverse-timelapse effects, Vampire Prosecutor contains spare moments that feel similar to some of South Korea’s more gorgeous gangster movies, e.g. The Man from Nowhere.
Most Light-hearted drama about human rights abuses: Doctor Stranger
Watch if you: want a lighthearted romance with all the surgical gore of The Knick.
Doctor Stranger, like a handful of other South Korean shows, has assembled an illegal yet passionate following in North Korea — last year The Guardian reported that the show, which opens with a South Korean father and son imprisoned in a North Korean medical facility, was being smuggled and widely distributed among the North’s students. Given that much of the drama rests on the North’s human rights abuses — and, for dramatic effect, a love story — it’s no surprise young people in the state are so keen to see their country reflected back to them.
In Doctor Stranger, the pixie-like, mischievous, and stubborn Park Hoon and his father (a talented heart surgeon), are conned into visiting North Korea, only to be trapped in a lab where they are forced to perform mysterious, terrible procedures in the interest of saving the North’s dictator and his failing heart. Hoon, obsessed with finding his lifelong sweetheart Jae-hee, eventually returns to the South, where his trouble with North Korean agents has only just begun. For a show with such dark themes and particularly nasty surgery scenes, Doctor Stranger is surprisingly lighthearted and, yes, soapy; expect, in addition to firing squads and tense, floodlit scenes, extended bike rides through the flowery fields and ample tearstained goodbyes.
Weirdest genre pastiche: City Hunter
Watch if you: want a comedic Homeland filtered through the gauzy, rose-colored tint of teenaged dreams.
City Hunter, which first debuted in Korea in 2011 and only ran for one season, is based on a Japanese manga of the same name and stars the extraordinarily dreamy, pillow-lipped Lee Min-ho as the titular "City Hunter," Lee Yoon-sung. (Lee actually got his first starring role in a feature film in the recently released gangster-noir Gangnam Blues.)
The show opens close to Yoon-sung’s birth, as his father and his father’s best friend — both basically secret service — are betrayed by South Korean politicians during a classified mission in retaliation for a North Korean bombing of a presidential envoy in Burma (based on the Rangoon bombing of 1983). Yoon-sung’s father is killed, and all records of the mission are purged. The father’s best friend, Park Moo-yul, survives and does just the sort of thing grieving military men are wont to do: steal the infant Lee Jin-pyo from his biological mother and spend the next 18 years or so stomping around a makeshift boot camp wearing twin shoulder holsters, training the young Lee Yoon-sung in the art of fighting until his hands bleed, and plotting vengeance.
But that’s all backstory. The meat of City Hunter takes place once Lee Yoon-sung grows up: despite being raised by drug lords and paramilitary wackos, he is a polite and well-adjusted young man who even finds time to star in playful slow-motion scenes with his pet / best friend, an elephant — and hunt down the politicians who betrayed his father.
One of the things I love most about Korean movies is how they manage to nestle moments of slapstick physical comedy into otherwise super-serious or action-packed moments. City Hunter, similarly, treats many of its fight sequences as if its characters were throwing pies instead of punches. In City Hunter, the camera angles are madcap and the colors super-bright. For an action show about a man-turned-killing machine taking down corrupt politicians, it’s actually pretty loopy.
Best tear-stained monologue promising violent motherly vengeance: God's Gift: 14 Days
Watch if you: want a shadowy tale of abduction in the key of Top of The Lake with a time-hopping, Lost-like mash-up of magic and sci-fi.
God’s Gift opens with a lushly animated fable about a mother trying to save her child from the grips of death. At one point, she claws her eyeballs out and throws them into a lake in order to retrieve her child using occult means; if God’s Gift at times veers into saccharine territory or tacks on some graceless coincidences, keep that tale in mind. The show stumbles at times, but it usually finds its way back to the spooky and at times violent paranormal activity foreshadowed in its first episode.
The protagonist of God’s Gift, Kim Soo-hyun, is a high-profile writer for a successful TV show in which its hosts tackle unsolved crimes in something that resembles an NBC segment crossed with Maury. Beautiful, driven, and unforgiving, Soo-hyun’s character is the cliché of the neglectful working mom: for all her love for her bubbly kid, Saet-byul, the show indicts her for being alternately absent or wildly overbearing. But when the adorable Saet-byul is murdered by a (legit pretty terrifying) serial killer in a live-streamed torture spectacle, Soo-hyun loses it — first at home, then on live television in an awesome, extended monologue delivered through wrathful tears.
By the third episode, some of the foreboding symbols — creepy old ladies, weird coincidences, omens — start to pay off, and we learn that Soo-hyun possesses the power to slip back in time, a talent that allows her to try to make good on her promise to the serial killer: to "look for you to the ends of the earth, and to kill you."
Most intrusive magical realism: The Great Queen Seondeok
Watch if you: want Game of Thrones in the style of Ricos y Famosos.
I had high hopes for The Great Queen Seondeok, which, since its 2009 debut, has won a raft of awards for its condensed and fictionalized account of its titular character’s ascent to the throne. The IRL Queen Seondeok was the first woman to rule the Korean kingdom of Silla, from 632 to 647 AD; this show begins in 572 and narrates the infighting, backstabbing, and prophecy-mongering that preceded her rein. It also, dubiously, portrays the queen (then Princess Deokman) as being raised partially in the Taklamakan Desert and slipping back into Silla disguised as a boy — a righteous, if totally untrue, backstory.
In the show’s pilot, King Jinpyeong — a ruler so brimming with honor he gets about 10 minutes of screen time to explain how he killed a tiger with something that resembles a switchblade — kicks the bucket, leaving the rest of the kingdom’s court to alternately grieve and scheme their ascent to power. All the usual players are there: a demonic couple plotting evil between heavy petting sessions; a set of pure-as-the-driven snow twins; and a power-hungry concubine. As a guilty pleasure this show could probably hold up, but the combination of soft telenovela-level lighting and predictable writing turned me off somewhat — not to mention the glowing, floating magical egg-orb that was pretty much the star of the first episode.