It is no secret that the recipe to success for most Korean dramas is often the star-studded cast and fairytale-esque storyline that help viewers envision the perfect romance. Told with characters that usually meet in unlikely but predictable situations, these plots somehow always end up similar to one another – where the main couple has to jump hurdles such as difference in social status, family disapproval or jealous exes, to secure their happy ending.
However, in recent years, these small-screen treats have started to push the envelope in creating content that doesn’t just satisfy the average K-aficionado; but also help to modify the stereotype that has stuck with the genre. Instead of the usual dosage of romance, show writers are demonstrating a willingness to mix up their plots through tackling various existent issues that continue to plague society today, but are hardly talked about.
From tackling tough societal issues to the deep-rooted stigma of mental illness, our beloved guilty pleasure has steadily evolved to become something more than just sheer scripted entertainment. To give you a better understanding of how this emerging trend has revolutionised the drama-verse for the better, we’ve compiled a list of six K-dramas that are challenging the conventional and spearheading change – one episode at a time.
Clean With Passion For Now
Having mysophobia (a fear of germs) can often make a person’s life difficult, even more so when it’s paired with an obsessive compulsive disorder. This can lead to one getting stuck in a cycle of extreme anxiety stemming from irrational thoughts of contamination, amongst other complications.
Despite suffering from this double whammy, Jang Sun Kyul (Yoon Kyun Sang) views his traits positively and turns his unintentional quirks into a strength which he uses to start his own cleaning company. Despite being conscientious with all aspects of his life, he undoubtedly catches feelings for the ostensibly unhygienic new female recruit of his cleaning crew (Kim Yoo Jung), which pushes him out of his comfort zone in an attempt to be normal.
Described as a light-hearted romantic comedy, Clean With Passion For Now delves deep into the personal struggles of how Sun Kyul deals with OCD while giving us an insight of how he grapples with society and his family’s perception of his condition. Though the community may be more tolerant and accepting today, the older generation is still rather resistant in accepting the diagnosis as they regard this as something you can get over with sheer willpower. Nevertheless, it is inspiring to see how Sun Kyul uses his hidden afflictions to motivate himself to overcome his difficulties.
It’s Okay, That’s Love
What do you get when you put two successful and strong personalities under one roof? A complicated love story between a best-selling mystery author (Jo In Sung) and an ambitious psychiatrist (Gong Hyo Jin) – one that is riddled with issues arising from their own mental health issues.
As probably one of few Korean dramas that feature main characters plagued with mental illnesses, It’s Okay, That’s Love doesn’t shy away from exploring how they cope with their symptoms and the effects their conditions have on their daily lives. From the often destructive Schizophrenia to the incurable Tourette’s Syndrome, this melodrama attempts to shatter society’s perceptions of mental illness as a whole by shedding a positive light on individuals who suffer from such invisible conditions. Striving to create an open conversation with its imperfect characters, viewers are given a better understanding of this seemingly taboo subject that should encourage discussion and acceptance, instead of isolation and ignorance.
My ID Is Gangnam Beauty
They often say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But when you live in a society that already has a preconceived definition of what beauty is, it’s difficult not to find ways to conform to those standards. Due to her previously unattractive appearance, Kang Mi Rae (Im Soo Hyang) decides to get plastic surgery in order to escape being bullied in college. However, her new look causes her to be labelled as a ‘Gangnam Beauty’ – a derogatory term for someone who has undergone a number of plastic surgeries to look pretty. Little does she know that a person’s outlook isn’t all that matters, especially when it concerns her former high school classmate played by the dashing Cha Eun Woo.
Although My ID Is Gangnam Beauty does come across as one of those common romantic dramas, the plot deals largely with the brutal reality of Korea’s unrealistic beauty standards and its undeniable relation to plastic surgery. Though seen as a rather touchy subject, it is something that women still receive judgement for despite having to act on the idea out of societal pressures.
Aside from wanting to alter her outlook for the better, the drama also touches on insecurities that Mi Rae possesses which is the driving force behind her actions. Her longtime struggle with being bullied unfortunately ruined her self-esteem, inadvertently forcing her to believe in society’s standard of a good-looking person. In spite of the changes in Mi Rae’s physical appearance, it’s heartening to see that it conveys a positive message in self-acceptance as the key takeaway.
If you thought the Singaporean education system was the toughest out there, think again. Crowned as the current reigning Korean drama with a record-breaking viewership in cable network history, SKY Castle revolves around four elite families that live in a luxurious residential estate, and the lengths these parents go to in order to secure a bright future for their children.
Steering away from the typical romantic vein of K-dramas, this gripping series resonates with today’s society where academic performance is pivotal in defining the path an individual takes in life. Playing on the acronym of South Korea’s top three prestigious universities – Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University – SKY Castle aims to give an unflinchingly honest look at the pressures of its cutthroat education system.
Aside from casting a spotlight on the topic of education, it also makes an attempt to remind parents on the importance of loving a child for who they are, and not their accomplishments. Their goal is to emphasise the role that parents play in their children’s lives as pillars of support, rather then objects of anxiety amidst the high-pressured scholastic environment – and judging from its skyrocketing viewership, SKY Castle has achieved just that.
Strong Woman Do Bong Soon
As its name suggests, Strong Woman Do Bong Soon tells the story of a seemingly petite girl named Do Bong Soon (Park Bo Young) who is born with hereditary superhuman strength that is only passed down to the women in her family. Despite the amazing gift she’s been given, she finds her ability a burden and often tries to hide it. But when a series of kidnapping cases threaten the safety of her neighbourhood, she is determined to use her strength for good and catch the culprit before it’s too late.
In spite of the comedic moments, it also subtly discusses the overarching social issue that Bong Soon and almost every woman struggles with in this day and age. In a world where a patriarchal society has already identified how we should act and behave, it is easy to undermine the incredible strengths and abilities of a female when they don’t conform to the established mould of society. In Bong Soon’s case, her innate superhuman strength leads her to believe that this is an unattractive trait to have, and that she should keep it hidden in order to win the affection of her longtime crush Ahn Min Hyuk (Park Hyung Sik).
Unbeknownst to her, Bong Soon’s unconventional characteristics were what attracted Min Hyuk to her in the first place. His non-judgemental fascination and unwavering love for her demonstrates why we shouldn’t let society dictate the way we view others. Instead, we should empower one another to embrace our one-of-a-kind qualities – because that’s what makes us extraordinary.
The Beauty Inside
How would you feel if you had to live with a different appearance for a week out of every month? That’s what happens to Han Se Gye (Seo Hyun Jin), a popular actress who appears to live a mysterious life but actually suffers from this unusual phenomenon. Through a chance meeting, she meets Seo Do Jae (Lee Min Ki), who may look perfect in every way but is plagued with prosopagnosia, which renders him unable to recognise faces.
On the surface, The Beauty Inside looks very much a drama that’s filled with romantic fluff – but what makes it different from others is the addition of two flawed leads who struggle with their unusual disabilities. While the most common outcome for similar characters is to overcome their problems, the plot focuses on the theme of acceptance. In creating characters with such unique imperfections, it challenges viewers to see through the eyes of these two individuals who don’t have the luxury to judge by appearance. At the same time, it creates an opportunity for us to reflect on reserving personal judgements based off of looks, which is what the world really needs to develop a more kind and accepting society.