Okay, I’ll confess, I loved the movie PARASITE but it wasn’t the greatest South Korean movie I’ve ever seen.
As part of a growing number of viewers eagerly devouring the slew of Asian — mostly, South Korean and Chinese movies and tv series — on Netflix and Amazon Prime, I was excited, but not at all surprised at PARASITE’s major wins at the Oscar in 2019. And, I was even less surprised by the producer’s announcement to make PARASITE into a 6 hour HBO series.
As a huge, if relatively new, fan of South Korean tv series, I can tell you the series format is perfect for these genre breaking master storytellers. A two hour movie is not enough time to meaningfully tell an entertaining story while exploring the depth and complexity (yes, all the romance, humor, horror, drama, and suspense) of life within it. While the acting, production, and directing are all outstanding and equal to the best of Hollywood, after watching dozens of South Korean tv series in an attempt to figure out my own fascination with them, I can honestly say it is the heart and humor of the storytelling that has me obsessed.
So what do I mean by heart and humor?
At the heart of South Korean tv series there seems to be an underlying commitment to show love, caring, and human decency as the glue that holds our lives and societies together. At the same time there is a determination to tell stories of value — exposing the social/economic issues that painfully diminishes all our lives but are not impossible to change if we choose another way. And, if love is the glue, humor provides that elasticity that allows us to stretch across the dark chasms and survive our worst moments. Perfectly timed and executed comedy/humor that can take one seamlessly from drama to comedy and back again is truly an art form and something many of these series have developed in spades.
Here are a few of my favorites (so far) with heart and humor. I hope you’ll give them a try:
BEATING AGAIN (2015) – 16 episodes
A ruthless corporate raider, given only months to live, and a loyal executive secretary are on opposite sides of a hostile business take-over that goes from cut-throat to brutal. But the ground between them begins to shift when, unbeknown to either, his heart-transplant gave him her murdered fiancee’s heart and one of the side-effects includes cellular memory syndrome.
Besides treating the viewer to a heartwarming romance, compelling murder mystery, laugh out loud comedy and excellent acting, BEATING AGAIN delves into the moral aspects of worker and business rights/responsibilities as well as the slippery slope of destruction that is greed, corruption and chaebol power.
THE K2 (2016) – 16 episodes
A former mercenary soldier wounded and on the run after being framed for his fiancee’s murder in Iraq, encounters a desperate woman in Spain and tries to help her escape her pursuers. He fails, but back in Korea he becomes embroiled in a ruthless political fight that involves the desperate woman he didn’t save and the man who ordered the execution of his Iraqi love. A gentle but awkward romance builds, as political corruption and chaebol power threaten to bury all in its wake.
THE K2 thoroughly entertains with a top-notch action-packed romance/political thriller/murder mystery with just enough humor to keep the viewer from being consumed by the breathtakingly deep surveillance state/personal privacy corruption. And it doesn’t hurt that the beautifully choreographed, physical feats during hand-to-hand combat are just way too fun to watch.
KILL ME, HEAL ME (2015) – 16 episodes
After living in the US for over a decade, a third generation Chaebol returns to South Korea under pressure to take over the family business. But, he’s hidden his Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) from family & friends. And now his other personalities are getting stronger, especially after one of them falls in love with the psychiatric doctor who is helping him uncover dark secrets from his family’s past.
It’s hard to believe that cutthroat family business dynamics, child abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder could be heartwarming, heart-wrenching, and hysterically funny, but this is the magic of South Korean TV series. They know how to go there, and make us thoroughly enjoy the ride.
VAGABOND (2019) – 16 episodes
A South Korean airline crash kills 211 people and abruptly alters the lives of a struggling stuntman, who lost the young nephew he was raising, and an underachieving NIS covert operative who was in charge of cultural exchange visit the nephew was a part of. As the many threads of corporate conspiracy and government corruption start to unravel, the cover-up gets even more deadly. But so too does their determination to not give up or give in.
While the violent twist and turns in this action-packed thriller seem never ending, the gentle sweetness of the budding romance seems all the more precious. And the dramatic ending will leave you demanding a second season.