Most of us are already very familiar with Korean dramas, especially when there are plenty of online streaming channels – from Netflix to Viu to WeTV and more – to watch them on, some of them for free without subscription.
If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you probably already know some of its most popular K-drama titles like Crash Landing On You (2019), It’s Okay to Not Be Okay (2020), Start Up (2020), or even Hometown Cha Cha Cha (2021). The stories are all unique, but at their heart, they’re all romance stories. Crash Landing was about a businesswoman and a North Korean army captain, It’s Okay was about a psych ward nurse and an antisocial author, Start Up was about a budding entrepreneur and successful technopreneur, and Hometown was about a dentist and a handyman.
While they were all very popular on the streaming channel, Korean dramas really hit big time viewership when they flipped the switch to focus less on romance and more on human struggle and social commentary.
Squid Game: The desperation of class issues
Consumers of Korean dramas and films know that many Korean directors and filmmakers have used film to address the country’s inequalities and struggles. Parasite – which won the Oscar for Best Film – addressed issues regarding class divide, as did Train to Busan.
Squid Game is by far the most-watched series in the history of Netflix, and the first Korean show to top their global most-viewed chart. In the first 28 days since its release, it was watched in over 142 million households.
On its surface, Squid Game is a dystopian horror fantasy using a series of Korean children’s playground games as the setting of cutthroat competition where one winner gets the prize, and the rest die. It’s an illuminating social commentary about social divides and human immorality.
Part of what spawned its popularity are the famous memes and TikTok challenges that have infiltrated the internet. Oh, and the now-famous costumes – the green track suits and the red overalls.
Hellbound: Power in the name of religion
Hot off the heels of Squid Game, Hellbound was a six-part dystopian horror that topped Netflix’s global TV series list within 24 hours of airing (Squid Game took eight days to reach the same spot).
Hellbound tackled another social issue: the power of religious groups. This series shows a dystopian Korea pitting manmade justice – where criminals walk free – against divine justice, served by scary demons who purportedly kill sinners. One new religious group cultivates its power by capitalising on the religious zealotry, supported by those who wield their superiority by spewing “righteousness.”
Hellbound is satirising what the public perceives as “fanatics.” In a country where protestant evangelicals in South Korea exert a powerful influence on government policy, Koreans who believe that religion helps society plunged from 63% in 2014 to 38% this year. The growing backlash against religion is linked to the depiction of religious organisations that Hellbound depicts, which are mostly new religions that share common features like messianism and millenarianism.
While the show’s premise is based on Christianity, it has been characterised as “anti-Christian” because the “God” doesn’t clearly distinguish good from evil or clearly defines what justice is. Hellbound – and the webtoon it’s adapted from – was created by Yeon Sang Ho (Train to Busan), who also wrote and directed The Fake (2013), an animation that tackles this subject.
My Name: Revenge is the game
Another Korean series that topped Netflix’s Korean series was My Name, which is a much simpler story about revenge and betrayal.
The high-octane action drama follows Yoon Jiwoo, who’s determined to hunt down and kill her father’s murderer. She joins a mafia gang who train her up to be a killer, and then goes undercover in a narcotics unit as a mole to find her father’s murderer. What stood out about the series was the action – particularly the fight scenes, since 99% of the stunts in the series were done by the actors themselves.
While Squid Game was criticised for its misogyny – with elements like the naked women in the VIP room and the absence of women from positions of power – My Name seems to ignore gender stereotypes. Jiwoo doesn’t need to fight in heels or be dressed seductively to get what she wants, which is what a lot of female characters in fighting roles usually fit into.
Silent Sea: In space, no one can hear you scream
On Christmas Eve, Netflix will release Silent Sea, a scifi story set in a future (2075) where Earth has undergone desertification. The story revolves around members of a special team sent on a secret 24-hour mission to secure a mysterious sample from an abandoned research station on the moon, called Balhae Base research station, nicknamed “the silent sea.”
The team is plunged into danger from the start – they crash-land at the edge of a cliff due to a fuel issue, and have to traverse the silent landscape of the moon to get to the abandoned lunar base. The series’ headliner is Gong Yoo, who found widespread international fame following Squid Game despite having a small role, and Bae Doona (who’s no stranger to Hollywood).
Money Heist: Remake of a Spanish classic
Netflix has also officially announced the Korean remake of Money Heist! And like Silent Sea, it also stars a Squid Game alum: Park Hae-soo who played Sang-woo.
The Spanish series La Casa de Papel, or Money Heist, hit the jackpot as the most-watched foreign series on Netflix when it was streamed. A decade after the financial crash, the show resonated with the Spaniards. It was about a group of robbers – named after cities, dressed in red jumpsuits – attacking capitalism at its source. The plan was to take 67 hostages and print billions of Euros before escaping through a tunnel. For all its silliness, the show was a striking allegory of revolt against capitalism and the robbers consider themselves revolutionaries against an injust system.
It would be interesting to see it reflect the Korean version of capitalism in the remake which is due next year.