Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to watching dramas. Maybe you prefer to exclusively watch fluffy romances and over-the-top comedies. Or perhaps you’re more about the heart-wrenching melodramas and tragic love triangles. Or you like the serious jargon-heavy medical or detective dramas. But how many times have you come away from a drama with more than just empathy for a tragic character or the second male lead? Or you end up wrapped up in confusion about believability of the whole story, such as the logistics of time travel, the viability of gender swapping, or why the main couple didn’t just straight up have an open and honest conversation?
In the interest of presenting to you top quality dramas that leave you feeling and thinking, here are some suggestions to engage your mind!
Have you ever watched a drama that made you rethink your entire existence? Now, perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but y’know, at least for me, there’s been times while watching a drama that I was struck by some sudden realization that made me totally reassess my beliefs and biases. Now, I’m here to help you join me on the train to enlightenment (not really, but if you do reach it, let me know!).
So there has been a huge influx in time-travel dramas, but usually, very little is ever really fleshed out in terms of the consequences of the time-traveler on history or the future. “Nine: Nine Times Travels” is the perfect answer to that. Television news anchor Park Sun Woo (Lee Jin Wook) has a bit of a complicated family. His older brother is a bit of a lost cause, his mother has dementia, and his father died in a hospital fire, under what he feels was suspicious circumstances. He somehow gets ahold of nine incense sticks that allow him to time travel for the length of time it takes to burn one stick. The twist? He will hold the memories of what would have happened with no interference, and also that of his new “reality.” It’s fascinating to see the choices he makes with this sticks.
I really liked “Nine: Nine Time Travels,” for multiple reasons. First, because it didn’t just go with “modern person time travels to ancient times” or vice-versa. Second, because instead of passively living in the past/future and trying not to alter history, one of the more common tropes of time-travel plots, it actually was about trying to change history. Third, and most importantly, because the drama actually took the time to realistically envision the consequences of someone trying to alter the future.
Beyond the Realm of Conscience
Any TVB watchers out there? TVB, or Television Broadcasts Limited, is a Hong Kong station that airs dramas, many of which feature fondly in my childhood memories. If you haven’t ever dipped your toe into the TVB pool, you should try out “Beyond the Realm of Conscience.” Lau Sam Ho (Charmaine Sheh) was the daughter of a jewelry maker who angered the Empress Dowager, and was beaten, and eventually succumbed to her wounds. Lau Sam Ho and her family servant Yiu Kam Ling (Tavia Yeung) later enter the palace as servants and get embroiled in court politics and power plays. If you only ever watch one TVB drama, I would wholeheartedly recommend this one!
What really struck me about this drama was the idea of morality. Lau Sam Ho’s mother had named her Sam Ho, or the three goodnesses (三好), and urged her to, “Speak good words, do good deeds, show good will.” Throughout the drama, we see Sam Ho struggling to uphold her mother’s message in the face of great personal suffering. Some people may consider Lau Sam Ho to be a bit of a Mary Sue, but I think Charmaine Yeh really manages to bring depth to the character. Has anyone else seen it? What do you think?
Oh my god, this 2011 Korean movie really gave me some feels. “Punch” is about the life of sulky and misunderstood high schooler Wan Deuk (Yoo Ah In) whose only talent seems to fighting. He lives with his hunchbacked father and his adopted mentally disabled uncle. His mother left when he was a baby. His teacher, and unfortunately also his next door neighbor, Kim Dong Joo (Kim Yoon Suk) is always on his case. Clearly, he doesn’t have much going for him. Then his teacher breaks the news to him—his mother is alive, not divorced from his father, and actually Filipino. This movie follows his journey to come to terms with his heritage and family, while also channeling his energy a much better pursuit, boxing. And for those of you who like going to church, he’s also got some great praying scenes.
This movie really gave me a sense of how difficult life is for non-Koreans in Korea, as well as a perspective on multi-cultural families. I actually lived in Korea for some time, in a more rural area. I saw stickers plastered everywhere, with the words “international marriage” and a phone number. I didn’t really give much thought to it then, as it wasn’t something that I personally witnessed happening, but after watching this movie, I definitely tried to pay more attention to the people around me.
Scarlet Heart (Bu Bu Jing Xin)
“Scarlet Heart” (also known as “Startling by Each Step”) is so popular it’s inspired a sequel, a movie version, and a Korean remake which will star Lee Joon Gi and IU! I absolutely fell in love with this Chinese drama about a modern woman, Liu Shi Shi time-traveling (I know, I know) to the Qing Dynasty, where she gets dropped into the body of Ma’ertai Ruoxi, the second daughter of a Manchu general, and gets caught up in the succession struggle. Ultimately, I think that she couldn’t have avoided being involved even if she wanted to, which makes it all the more tragic.
This goes a bit in the other direction from “Nine: Nine Time Travels” in that it’s about trying not to affect history. The best part about this drama is that it’s based on an actual controversial period of time. I can’t imagine if I would be able keep my mouth shut if I were in the thick of it. It is so tempting, as Ruoxi learns, not to give even a little hint.
I usually hate watching dramas full of politics, where this person is backstabbing that person, or that person is allying with that other person. But! I have seen the light! I realize now that what I dislike is not dramas with a lot of political shenanigans, but dramas with draggy drawn-out scenes and poorly conceived scheming. What made me change my mind? The following excellent tactically beautiful masterpieces!
Nirvana in Fire
“Nirvana in Fire” was one of the Chinese hits of 2015. Starring the ever capable Hu Ge as the physically weak but mentally brilliant Mei Changsu who works to not only outwit two different princes and a paranoid and suspicious emperor, but also put his childhood best friend on the throne and regain justice for his framed family. The drama starts out a little confusing—I initially was watching it purely for Hu Ge and Wang Kai. But after two episodes, I was hooked and spent hours watching the mental gymnastics play out on-screen. Gorgeous costumes, beautiful actors/actresses, and spectacular plotting, what more could I ask for?
I was in South Korea during the last presidential election and so when I heard about “President” I was intrigued. Jang Il Joon (Choi Soo Jong) is a lawyer who decides three months before the presidential nominating committee to run for president of South Korea. In the process of the campaign, many truths are unveiled and brought to light that both strengthen and destroy relationships.
One of the major appeals of this drama for me was how it strongly featured politics and family. Running for president is hard on both the candidate and their family, and this drama was realistic in that aspect. Also, I loved the fact that the couple, Choi Soo Jong and Ha Hee Ra, is actually married in real life! If that’s not enough of a reason, why don’t we throw in that their son is played by Super Junior member Lee Sungmin!
“Three Kingdoms” is the dramatization of the Chinese classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” which is based on an actual historical text called “Records of the Three Kingdoms” (confusing, right?). The 95 episode drama is set at the end of the Han dynasty, where the three feudal states of Cao Wei, Shu Han, and Eastern Wu are struggling for power. This complex drama is incredibly realistic in its depiction of what actual struggles for power are between feudal lords, and once you start, you won’t be able to stop!
Growing up, I have always been fascinated by the story and characters, especially Zhuge Liang, the foremost strategist of the time. This drama is worth watching if you have any interest in Chinese culture or history at all, as it is an incredibly influential work. Suffice to say there have been many versions of the story, but if you only have the time to check out one of them, watch this 2010 version. You won’t regret it.
For a more lighthearted drama with the same kind of craftiness, check out “History of the Salaryman”! This 22- episode Korean drama is a bit….crazy, but in a hilarious way. Clueless Oh Yoo Bang (Lee Beom Soo) is a man whose life dream is to be a gainfully employed salaryman, and he finally gets his chance! Oh Yoo Bang desperately tries to keep his head afloat among the cutthroat competition, all trying to get a slice of the pie that is the new age-defying drug that is being developed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work out to well for him and he, along with Chun Ha chairman’s granddaughter Baek Yeo Chi (Jung Ryeo Won) get framed for murder. Now that is a whole ‘nother can of worms…
Whenever I pick up a book and I can’t decide whether or not I want to read it, I flip to the end of the book and read the ending. Yes, I’m that person. I feel that this gives me closure, and helps cement my decision on whether or not to read it. With dramas, I am the same way. I am notorious for googling the end of a drama, especially when it’s suuuper long, before deciding on whether or not to start. In general, it doesn’t matter to me if the ending is a happy ending, or a sad ending, or even an ambiguous one. I just want to know if it’s satisfying. But, I know for a lot of you out there, there is nothing worse or more controversial than a drama that is open-ended. Perhaps it’s about the closure, or maybe because it’s usually unexpected, but it can definitely feel like you were in a movie theater and someone knocked you out right before the end and no one will tell you what happened!
So, to spare you that trouble, and for those of you out there who want to know which dramas end ambiguously, but are still worth watching, read on at your own risk. I will do my best not to overly spoil anything. Ye have been warned!
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Out of all the movies and dramas I’ve seen, I think “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” strangely is what sticks out to me the most when it comes to good movies with vague endings. Perhaps it came to mind so quickly specifically because of the recently released sequel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny” (10/10 would not watch again). When “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was initially released, many hailed it as a visually astounding film, and it revolutionized the world’s view on martial arts.
The story revolves around the sword “Green Destiny,” which belongs to Wudang expert Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun Fat). Li Mu Bai gifts the sword to a friend, Sir Te, and asks his friend Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) to deliver it. The sword ends up stolen, and a glorious chase ensues. I have many thoughts on the ultimate ending, but choose to see it as positive. Any readers out there see it as tragic?
Go Princess Go
“Go Princess Go” was a hilarious comedy that took me on a pretty long ride that ended in a rather open manner. I would categorize this incredibly funny drama as a “not-your-average time-travel.” Playboy Zhang Peng falls into a pool (thanks, ex-girlfriend) and wakes up in the body of Crown Princess Zhang Peng Peng (Crystal Zhang)! He adapts surprisingly quickly to the new circumstances and goes about taking full advantage of her new body (hellooooo, harem!). But her husband, Crown Prince Qi Sheng (Peter Sheng), is a bit of a problem…
I highly recommend this drama, but have to caution the viewer about the ending. So what’s wrong with it? Well, there’s three of them. Yes, that’s right, they decided to make three different endings in order to satisfy the audience. To be honest, I don’t know which one I prefer the most, but it certainly made me think! Adding to the titillation is the fact that China actually banned this web-drama, perhaps for being too racy and having LGBT themes.
Mmmm, Lee Joon Gi. How does anyone say no to your face? Perhaps, when it’s cast in a drama with an ending that leaves us morally torn. “Iljimae” is a Robin Hood-type story about a thief who steals from the rich and gives to the poor, always leaving behind a single plum blossom branch. The branch, his signature gives him the moniker of “Iljimae” (Lee Joon Gi), which literally means plum blossom branch. And of course our thief has a tragic backstory: Iljimae was originally an orphaned young nobleman who saw his father brutally murdered in front of him, and was later taken in by a thief who trained him in the art of stealing. Iljimae slowly regains his memory of that fateful night his father dies and begins to try to hunt down the killer, setting loose a chain of events…
To me, the ending is about what constitutes good and moral, versus what is technically the law. What do you think is more important, standing up for your values, or letting things go?
Do you have any suggestions about good thought-provoking dramas? Lay it on me!
kingkongna is just a girl trying to spread the drama love. Favorite genres include wuxia, historicals, and fantasy.