There are lots of things I love about Asian dramas.
Key among them is a willingness to tell stories about love. The American television I grew up with doesn’t really do this—instead, it’s full of serialized stories that follow characters living through years of their lives. The extreme length of these shows prevents them from focusing on something as ephemeral as falling in love, and the fabled American “mainstream” doesn’t seem so interested in romance, anyway. To succeed here, a television series needs to please the whole family, a feat TV executives don’t seem to think is possible for an unvarnished love story.
Asian dramas, on the other hand, are just the right length for love: In 16 or 24 episodes, a world is created, a love story told, and a happy ending found. And it seems there’s less prejudice against the topic of love in Asia. So when I read an Entertainment Weekly article about the best American television scenes of the past year, I got to thinking about my own version of their list. It wouldn’t be about the best scenes in general. (Who has the memory for that?) Instead, it would tally my favorite couple moments in Asian dramas.
Which is exactly what follows the cut.
Coffee Prince beach scene, episode 9 (38:00)
For a show about something so silly—a girl who pretends to be a boy to get a job in a cafe—Coffee Prince is a surprisingly understated, homey drama. It’s full of couple cuteness, but no scene is more intense than the night Eun Chan and Han Gyul spend on the beach. Over the past eight episodes, their characters have become best friends and found themselves fighting off an overwhelming physical attraction to each other. This is the moment when everything between them changes—they both realize that they’re in love, even though they believe it’s impossible for them to be together. Han Gyul still thinks Eun Chan is a boy, and he’s unwilling to stand up to prejudice and embrace his “gayness.” Eun Chan, for her part, thinks that a rich, successful (and smoking hot) man like Han Gyul could never love someone like her, who’s so different from culturally ingrained ideals.
The dim, end-of-the-world stillness of the beach makes Eun Chan and Han Gyul feel like the only two people alive. Surrounded by mist, they’re cut off from everything and everyone they know, free to act however they feel. They share secrets to a soundtrack of rolling waves and tender, sleepy music. Instead of a Kdrama wrist-grab, they hold hands for real, their fingers laced tightly together and expressions somewhere between uncertainty and defiance on their faces.
The scene’s execution is perfect, but it’s the work of the actors that pushes it over the edge into truly heartbreaking territory. Their longing is palpable.
In Time with You, make-up remover, episode 14 (40:00)
You know you’re watching a great drama when a moment this intimate happens between two characters who aren’t actually in the same room. You Qing and Da Ren know each other inside and out—now approaching thirty, they’ve faced the world together as best friends since high school. The only thing they’ve never done together is dated, at first because of a silly miscommunication and later because they were afraid to jeopardize their relationship. But they’re as close as two people can be, and this scene brings them even closer.
After a terrible day, You Qing is so upset and exhausted that she’s almost in tears. Stretched out on her bed, she answers her phone—it’s Da Ren, who has recently moved for his job from their home in Taiwan to Singapore. During the sleepy conversation that follows, You Qing barely bothers to open her eyes. They speak in a soft whispers, as if there’s nothing in the world between them; no distance, no noise, no distraction is capable of pulling them away from this connection. When Da Ren suggests that You Qing should just go to bed, she say’s she can’t. “It’s such a bother to be a woman,” because she has to remove her make-up first. In response, Da Ren asks for a tutorial in make-up removal, which he’ll use to help his wife someday. As You Qing explains the procedure, he’s suddenly at her side, acting out every step with quiet reverence.
This is a scene about the comforts of a longterm relationship, about having someone to share the weight of real life with. In it, Da Ren is not only allowed to see behind the mask that You Qing shows to the world, he’s also given the ability to remove it himself. In You Qing’s bedroom, surrounded by her most private belongings, he’s given glimpse into what it’s like to be a woman. It’s also opportunity for him to see his best friend as the bare-faced person she really is when you subtract all the cultural differences between men and women.
With the delicate strains of a sparse piano notes in the background, this scene is as quietly, intimately engrossing as any Kdrama moment.
Sungkyunkwan Scandal, the elevator kiss, episode 17 (1:03:00)
Sungkyunkwan Scandal is a breezy, color-soaked fusion sageuk that’s just right for summer viewing. And along with Coffee Prince and Painter of the Wind, it’s a member of my holy triumvirate of gender-swap dramas. Like noona romances, these shows allow relationships to exist outside of traditional gender roles. Their characters come to know and respect each other as human beings before they become romantic partners, a refreshing change from dramas that spend their entire running time keeping their leads apart rather than exploring what they’re like when they’re together. And Korean drama doesn’t get much cuter than Sungkyunkwan Scandal—the leads are adorably besotted partners in crime trying to solve a royal mystery.
Korean dramas love an ambush kiss, which involves one character charging at another, lips first. (See, for example, the infamous Game Over kiss in Personal Preference.) But Sungkyunkwan Scandal takes a different tactic. There’s nothing fast or impersonal about its skinship—every touch, every kiss, is slow and thoughtfully tender. The finest example of this is the elevator kiss.
Jostled together by a malfunctioning elevator, the eyes of the lead couple lock in a meaningful gaze. Ever so slowly, male lead Sun Joon removes his love interest’s wide-brimmed hat, which has proven to be an excellent barrier to kissing. He could have kissed her right then, pulling her under the brim of his own hat. But that would have been awful—in a complete return to expected gender roles, he would have been a mighty Confucian scholar and she would have been nothing more than his woman. But instead, Sun Joon carefully removes his own hat, leaving them both bare-headed and retaining their equal status in the relationship.
The whole time, both characters know exactly what all this undressing is leading up to, and the scene is incredibly charged with the intense chemistry shared by the actors. Unlike all those ambush kisses, this is skinship that both characters clearly want. There’s no uncertainty, no hesitation, no wide-eyed stare that only disappears midway into the kiss. Before he even approaches her, Yoon Hee closes her eyes and leans in close to Sun Joon, both patient and fully present in the moment.
Secret Love Affair, the handholding, episode 10 (31:00)
Arty, serious entertainment tends to be too dark to allow for sweetness, but Secret Love Affair is an exception. Beautifully directed, written, and acted, this is a drama about sin and redemption, art and mundanity, lies and truth. At the heart of all those big ideas is a single couple: a married forty-something arts executive and her husband’s dream student, a twenty-year-old piano genius. Hye Won and Sun Jae may be separated by social class, age, and marriage, but it’s when they’re together that they seem most alive.
I’ve probably seen thousands of drama skinship scenes at this point, but very few have been as moving as this simple moment. When drama couples touch one another, it’s usually evidence of tenderness or a desire to protect. But this scene is different—it’s about physical closeness as a goal, not a means. Try as they might, these characters are drawn together by a gravitational pull. It’s not necessarily sexual or chaste, and it doesn’t show the powerful protecting the weak. It’s just a hunger for connection.
In this scene, we are voyeuristic interlopers, pulled into the story by the constant, serene glide of the camera. It’s filmed more as a joint experience than a straightforward window into a story. The way the actors look at each other without daring to make eye contact, the cautious way they move incrementally closer, and the looks of ardent happiness on their faces are perfectly complemented by the cozy lighting and quiet soundtrack.