INTRO TO KDRAMA & SAGEUK
KOREAN DRAMA AWARDS
WHERE TO WATCH KOREAN DRAMA
SUBTITLES & DUBBING
WHAT IS THE NAME OF THIS KOREAN DRAMA??
MORE NEWBIE RESOURCES
KDRAMA WEBSITES & BLOGS
KOREAN DRAMA RECOMMENDATIONS
JUMP TO COMMENTS
INTRO TO KDRAMA & SAGEUK ^
Korean drama differs from American TV series in several significant ways. First of all, most dramas are produced as a complete series with a fully developed storyline for a specific number of episodes (1-100+), after which the series ends and the actors move on to a new one. Occasionally, extra episodes or even an additional season is added to extend an extremely popular drama, but this is unusual. Dramas are typically aired at the rate of two episodes a week, on back-to-back nights, although there are also weekly and daily series.
If you hate characters whose personalities change depending on who wrote the episode this week, not to mention storylines forever unfinished due to abrupt cancellation, you’ll find a lot to like about this model. It also reduces the lag between production and air date, so that Korean dramas often reflect recent events that are still in the news in their storylines.
You will notice a lot of American music in Korean dramas, especially during restaurant scenes. A LOT of American music. And the selections may surprise you (70s pop songs seem to be particularly popular). Background music is almost always western in style as well. Kpop songs may also be featured, and OST (original sound track) releases are common for hit dramas.
KDrama episodes are longer than US TV programs, from 40 minutes to an hour of actual episode time, with limited commercial breaks. The bulk of the commercials may be played in one long session before or after the episode, depending on your viewing venue.
This allows you to fully engage with the magnificent acting. Even young actors (of which there are many) have a mastery of nuance and expression that is rarely seen in US TV. The depth and realism this brings to Korean drama (even with the most makjang storylines) is instantly recognizable to viewers all over the world, regardless of their culture, gender, age, or native tongue. If you visit some of the blogs listed below, you will read over and over “one episode and I was hooked.” If you haven’t tried Korean drama yet, remember, you were warned :)
There is plenty of genre variety within Korean drama, although you will also begin to recognize certain character types, plot twists, and familiar phrases after you have watched for awhile (see 5 signs that you are watching a Korean drama, 7 familiar characters in Korean drama, and 10 Obstacles to Love in Korean Drama). Sageuk refers specifically to Korean historical drama. Makjang refers to extreme and colorful plot developments (thanks to dramabeans for the definition).
Whatever the label, most dramas combine serious and comic elements, and the versatile actors manage whatever the script throws at them. There is a lot of crossover between entertainment genres in Korea – drama actors may also be KPop stars, fashion models (men, too, possibly even more often than women), film actors, and/or emcees.
Before I loaded my mp3 player with Korean lessons, I listened to books read aloud by volunteers, compliments of Librivox.org. Since these books have to be in the public domain, many are 100+ years old, which means I have listened to far more than my share of Victorian-era novels.
I don’t know if eastern and western literature influenced each other or if the elements of a good story transcend culture, but KDrama and Victorian popular novels have a lot in common. Both feature Dickensian storylines full of birth secrets, sudden changes of fortune, abductions, vengeance, barely missed connections, statistically impossible coincidences, labyrinthine subplots, myriads of colorful secondary characters, and episode-to-episode cliffhangers. If you enjoy Korean drama, you should also check out Librivox – makjang is by no means limited to Korean TV!
KOREAN DRAMA AWARDS ^
If you research Korean actors, you’ll often notice a list of the awards they’ve won at the end of the entry. You’ll also notice that these awards are network-specific. Yes, that’s right, each network makes its own awards, to the actors in its own series.
WHERE TO WATCH KOREAN DRAMA ^
If you have cable or satellite TV, check for Korean channels. The major Korean broadcast networks are KBS, MBS and SBS. There are also a number of cable networks. KBS America is specifically targeted to US viewers, and most programs (except, mysteriously, news) are English subtitled. KBS is government-owned, and in some ways resembles US public television, with documentaries about the lives of working-class Koreans, travel, music and other cultural programming, but with dramas, talk, comedy and game shows, it is more mainstream in its approach than its American counterpart.
Don’t forget to check your local broadcast stations, especially if you live in an area with a sizeable Asian population. I first encountered Korean drama on a Chinese station, and it is also occasionally aired on a local public TV station. If your TV was made after 2004, you can probably receive these channels over the airwaves just by adding a good antenna (if it’s older, you may also need to purchase a converter box).
Of course, many dramas can also be streamed online. There are official venues such as DramaFever, Viki, CrunchyRoll, and MVIBO. You can watch dramas with commercials for free, or pay a monthly subscription fee for ad-free viewing (typically about $10/month or less, depending on the subscription period). Amazon.com has a few Korean titles (mostly mediocre films), and you can stream some of DramaFever’s content through Hulu (which may work better for viewers with older computers. Downside: more commercials) and Netflix. Online viewing can be hazardous, as there is nothing to stop you from engaging in whole-series marathons!
Viewer-shared episodes are also available on sites such as Drama Crazy and EPDrama. I have no idea what the legality of streaming shared Korean TV in another country is – inform yourself before partaking. The video and subtitling quality on shared sites are highly variable, and pop-up ads on these sites sometimes contain malicious bugs, so good antivirus software is a must for anyone who plans to explore them. Each episode is usually broken up into 4 to 6 short segments, which may or may not all be available, and the same episode may be divided up differently by different hosts. Links that claim to be English-subtitled often lead to videos that aren’t really subtitled. As you may gather, the use of these services can be frustrating and risky, so there is not much to recommend them if the same drama is available on a legit service. More about subtitles in the next section.
There is a large and organized community of drama fans who not only share “raw” (unsubtitled) video of dramas, but who create and provide subtitles for the drama-sharing community, a true labor of love. In an interesting evolution, networks that once regarded these communities as pirates have entered into license agreements with online providers such as Viki (and DramaFever in its startup phase), which utilize the fan subs to save the prohibitive expense of creating their own.
Here’s a 5-part interview with DramaFever’s co-founders from 2009 which describes their role in bringing Korean drama to the US. Their analysis of the market demand and the improvements they could offer over shared drama is right on, and their vision for DramaFever has largely come to pass. In the couple of years since I became aware of them, their selection has mushroomed, shall I say, dramatically :) Korean networks are also reducing the lagtime between broadcast in Korea and online licensing in the US, as international fans clamor for hit series like Vampire Prosecutor.
SUBTITLES & DUBBING ^
Bad subtitles can destroy the viewing experience, but home subtitles supplied by video sharers can also add dimension that was absent from “official,” squeaky clean subtitles. Once you learn a few Korean swearwords, you’ll laugh when they are translated as “darn.” Because nobody swears in the US, right?
Avoid dubbed dramas if you possibly can. Dubbing undermines the acting and Korean flavor of the drama. Drama can be both dubbed AND subtitled – the first sageuk I saw was dubbed in Chinese, and although the drama was set in the 9th century, the English subtitles were phrased in hilariously inappropriate urban American slang. Watching the same episodes with Korean audio was a completely different and vastly more satisfying experience, even before I understood a word of Korean.
WHAT IS THE NAME OF THIS KOREAN DRAMA?? ^
Small local TV stations may not have accurate listings, or may list timeslots by network rather than program title. It’s possible to watch a drama for days (or even weeks) without knowing what it is. Credits are rarely subtitled. Most of the time, neither is the name of the show. Even if you can read Hangul, the title of the program is often a handwritten scrawl that flashes on the screen far too briefly to decipher. Episodes may also be aired in partial segments to fit the local viewing schedule or make time for commercials, so the station’s episode numbers may not reflect the original numbering.
If you are trying to identify a drama, your best bet is to search on the name of one of the characters as it appears in the subtitles + Korean drama. Bear in mind that that there is no single “correct” way to romanize (phonetically represent using the western alphabet) a Korean word or name. If your search isn’t bringing up any clues, feel free to leave a comment below with the spelling of the character’s name as it appears in the subtitles. I’d be happy to provide some alternate spellings for you to search on.
MORE NEWBIE RESOURCES ^
Useful Stuff – This page on the ocdramadee blog lists essential resources for new Kdrama fans, including some streaming sites that may be of interest to SE Asian fans (she is based in Malaysia). The fact that my Intro page is the first link has absolutely no bearing on the page being linked here :)
Glossary – The Fangirl Verdict’s glossary goes beyond the usual basics to include Korean slang used in dramas, and fan slang used about dramas. Very illuminating. Only drawback: no Hangeul.
KDRAMA WEBSITES & BLOGS ^
There are a LOT of English-language blogs and websites partially or completely devoted to Korean Drama. Every time I look up anything related to Korea, I stumble across more.
Outside Seoul – Offers a very organized reviewing and rating system. I like Amanda’s blog because she’s not afraid to use the “the other F word” (feminism). She also provides an extensive and regularly updated list of KDrama blogs and resources (including Mihansa, bless her 마음) that puts my scrawny list to shame.
DramaBeans is the Queen of Korean Drama blogs – if not for their glossary, I might think all that makjang was for real! The Kdrama reviews and recaps go back for years. It can be a bit difficult to find things on such a large site (not their fault – blog platforms have notoriously lousy search engines). Sometimes it works better to do a Google search on “dramabeans – whatever you are looking for.”
Thundie’s Prattle – Another long-running, well-stocked and widely loved KDrama blog, which Thundie shares with several regular guest bloggers. As of January 2013, Thundie is fighting cancer. Stop by and wish her well.
Electric Ground – This blog by two Korean-Americans features cultural information along with drama reviews, and a great directory, with links to fansub and download sites as well as to other drama blogs. Also offers a fabulously in-depth discussion of honorific levels (with drama video examples!), which will clear up a lot of questions for students of Korean.
Asian Wiki and Drama Wiki (wiki-d-addicts) – are invaluable resources for looking up cast and credit information. I prefer Asian Wiki, as it includes cast pictures. WARNING: both of these sites can include spoilers in the plot synopsis (which, unfortunately, is at the top of the page), and sometimes even in the series photo, so blur your eyes and look away as you page down. Also, they are wikis (content comes from users), so the material is not always accurate. I have seen entries that had incorrect or even switched character names, or had errors in the plot description.
Modern Korean Cinema is a great Korean film website with reviews, box office figures, and film-related news, such as festivals, upcoming releases, etc.
HanCinema is a more commercial site, but it’s a good resource for finding particular actors or dramas (also films), and it shows titles and names in Hangul as well as romanized. There’s a community forum section, which I have not joined. If you know anything about it, please share a comment.
Dahee’s Plastic Castle – Korean drama (mostly) blog by a Korean (/American?) feminist. Covers music, film, entertainment news, and other related topics as well. As of February 2013, is posting translations of essays by a Korean drama writer which are a fascinating read.
Kaede + Jun – Another blog – he covers other Asian drama too, but it’s primarily about KDrama.
Lady Puddingpost is perhaps less of a deconstructionist about her drama than I am, but she also sees the Victorian connection, and her episode reviews of Honor Man|Glory Jane are a hoot (I contributed comments to the last few). The link is to her KDrama section, but she also has other interests – anime, film, manga, early 20th century children’s books, and Masterpiece Theater, to name a few. No posts since October 2012.
KoreanWiz.org – This Hawai’ian blogger offers an alphabetized list of Korean Dramas, and a list of US TV stations that air KDrama, as well as links to KDrama discussion forums and fan clubs for KDrama actors.
Koreanfilms.org – This page of their website features reviews for selected TV Dramas (dating from 1995-2007).
Leonard Norwitz’s KDrama reviews – Don’t forget to check out his “Introduction to Korean Drama” for another “How I fell in love with KDrama” story.