Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Unicorn Dramas: 2013 Wish List

I think I’ve finally found the perfect gateway Korean drama for people who don’t like romances: The End of the World, a tense medical thriller about fighting a deadly plague outbreak. It has danger, excitement, and intrigue (and even a little romance), but doesn’t dwell on the kind of things that can make our love of Kdrama so difficult for outsiders to understand. Instead of idling along with broad comedy or aegyo antics, The End of the World’s approach to storytelling is spare and swift, with a well-constructed plot and lots of conflicted, nuanced characters.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to actually recommend this drama to civilians. Like many programs that originally aired on Korea’s JTBC network, The End of the World is not widely available with English subtitles. It’s one thing to send someone to Netflix or Hulu to try a show, but I can’t imagine many people seeking out a relatively obscure fansubbing website, signing up for a membership, and then having the patience to watch the show on their computer instead of on their TV.

And The End of the World is by no means the only Asian series that’s effectively out of reach because of technical issues. My dramalist is full of shows I would like to watch but haven’t been able to find online.

This post is devoted to a few of these unicorn dramas—shows that are intriguing but currently unavailable through legitimate English-language streaming sites.

Meteor Garden (2001) and Hana Yori Dango (2005)
While even older Kdramas are relatively easy for North American audiences to find online, neither Taiwanese nor Japanese shows have a strong presence on legitimate streaming sites. This means that Taiwan’s Meteor Garden and Japan’s Hana Yori Dango aren’t as easy to come by as their cousin, Korea’s cracktacular Boys over Flowers. I can’t be the only fangirl who’s eager to earn her F4 merit badge by watching each of them: all three dramas were inspired by the same manga, and they’re all still titans in the dramaverse. The problem? You can only watch Meteor Garden and Hana Yori Dango in grainy low-res on trouble-prone pirate sites. (As an added bonus, Hana Yori Dango’s subtitles seem to be available only in a blue-bordered font that resembles curlz. Classy.)

Back when I had a higher tolerance for lower quality streaming options, I worked my way through Hana Yori Dango on Drama Crazy. This year I plan to watch Meteor Garden, even if I have to do it on a pirate site. I love the different dimensions each country brings to what’s essentially the same story—poor girl meets and is tortured by chaebol son until she finally falls in love with him. The Korean version is delightfully over-the-top, the Japanese version actually has a hint of logic here and there, and I suspect the Taiwanese version will bring the sex. (Those Taiwanese shows always do, bless them.)

White Christmas (2011)
This stylish murder mystery has received almost universal acclaim for its stellar directing, impressive performances, and unsettling, twisty plot. My only theory about why it hasn’t been picked up by streaming sites is its heritage: consisting of eight hour-long episodes, White Christmas isn’t a stand-alone drama miniseries—it’s actually part of KBS’s Drama Special series. Otherwise, it seems like a perfect fit for Kdrama’s prime online viewership: set in a posh boarding school and full of hot young actors, it’s like a blood-smeared version of tvN’s beloved Oh Boy series. I’d watch it in a heartbeat, if only it were easily accessible from a reliable streaming service.

Flowers for my Life (2007)
Nobody knows better than I do how hard it is to describe dramas, which is why I’m willing to overlook wiki descriptions like the following
“Na Hana loves money more than anything. she left her home town for Seoul. She decided that the only way she could be with money is to marry a rich man who will die soon. She soon meets Yoon Ho Sang, a young man who is a poor, troublemaker, and also loves money, but is in diguise [sic] of a very rich man who died. these two meet and soon love sparks but Ho Sang has a serious cancer problem which he first lied to a man who he owes money to.”
I get that there’s a lot of money loving going on, but how does the “serious cancer problem” fit into things? And aren’t most cancer problems serious? (Unless they’re referring to the zodiac sign, anyway.) But when Javabeans gives a show 10/10, I take note—especially when the grade appears with this assessment: “Criminally underrated. Witty with a touch of dark humor. Set in a funeral home, it gives lovely, quirky insights on life and death.”

Insight, dark humor, funeral home? Sign me up! Or not, because where would I watch it?

Goodbye Solo (2006)
Written by the woman behind the lovely Padam Padam, this grown-up drama is known as an intense character study with an indie vibe. It’s hard to find Korean dramas that live in the real world as we know it, so it kills me that this slice-of-life show is always just out of reach. (I won’t lie: another major draw is that that it stars sexbomb Chun Jung Myung just months before his ovary-exploding turn as the puppyish younger man in What’s Up Fox.) I’m not sure why none of the streaming sites have picked this one up—maybe its reputation as a flop when it was currently airing has scared them off. The scuttlebutt online is that it’s very much worth watching, and I have my fingers crossed that this show won’t be a unicorn forever.

I Live in Cheongdamdong (2012)
Like The End of the World, this JTBC drama has yet to be subbed into English. In this case, there’s an excellent reason: it’s a sitcom that ran for 170 episodes. Even taking into account its 35-minute running time, that’s still almost 100 hours of drama to be subbed. I’m not even so sure about watching 100 hours of a drama, but the Korean-speaking Kdrama bloggers have all raved about this show. All I know is that it’s set in Seoul’s tony Cheongdamdong neighborhood, and that it tells the story of a community that forms around a rooming house. Will I ever know more? Only time will tell.


An update: Last summer I made a similar post. Since then, some of the dramas listed there have become available streaming. Both Delightful Girl Choon Hyang and Capital Scandal are now on Dramaver, while A Wife’s Credentials is on Mvibo.com. There’s still no sign of Love Story in Harvard or Seoul’s Sad Song, though. With Drama Fever’s recent focus on adding new shows rather than classics, I suspect these two might be lost to the legitimate world forever.


  1. I love how we aren't considered "civilians". Hah. I pat myself on the back for being a super pro.

    I'm attempting to watch Meteor Garden right now - however, besides the bad quality, there is also the horrendous sound quality from 2001 which I'm sure has gotten worse with bad uploads. I'm thinking it's worse even than Mars. It kind of takes the joy out of watching it, especially when I am only doing it for 'research'. P.S. Gooddrama is probably the best place to go for HYD. Wasn't overly bad on there. :)

    1. And now I want to make lists—Drama civilian versus pro.

      —Will watch a drama if someone suggests it, but never seek one out
      —Has never visited a drama blog
      —Thinks it's funny how people are always calling other people "bro"

      —Has watched an entire drama from beginning to end in less than 20 hours
      —Owns own drama blog, and sometimes contributes to others
      —Dreams in Korean

      Where are you watching Meteor Garden? I imagine all the streaming sites have the same files, but I've had good luck with other Taiwanese dramas at Sugoideas. This show is probably so old there's nothing better available :b

    2. Gooddrama. I might check out the other site though. It's so frustrating to watch, but if there's a chance it's any better someplace else, I'm certainly not attached to only one place.

      I look forward to the rest of that list! ;)

  2. Chun Jung-Myung! Ahhhhhhh.... I just finished What's Up Fox this month and it was the first I'd seen of him. Need I say it - I still haven't recovered yet. I keep playing the ost while I'm driving and remember how sweet Chul-Soo was. Do you know if there's even a crummy pirate version of Goodbye Solo?

    1. What's Up Fox is the only Chun Jung Myung drama I've seen. He was so wonderful in it that I'm not sure I want my memories of him sullied by a less than stellar performance.

      It looks as if Goodbye Solo is available on a number of pirate sites, including drama.net and Good Drama. Dramafever is sure to start carrying it the minute I break down and struggle through it elsewhere :b

    2. Of course they will, that's how our determined effort and countless hours are rewarded. After suffering through Koream films on youtube which were fuzzy and chopped into what seemed like 25 parts or on dramacrazy with dozens of failed downloads, I've usually ended up yelling at my television when I find that Netflix has JUST offered the same titles. Pft! Thanks for the sites though. If they turn out to be watchable at all, I'll let you know! I also didn't want to ruin my Chul-Soo experience, so I haven't gone near Cinderella's Stepsister yet. I've read some reviews that were negative about Chun Jung-Myung's part. I hope that was just the character and not his acting. :(

  3. I would feel remise if I didn't warn people that Love Story in Harvard has the worst English speaking actors I have ever had the misfortune to endure. Worse than a high school play. It was like a film student was making his first film in college and grabbed random friends and neighbors and paid them with pizza and beer.

    After discovering Attic Cat I went through a Kim Rae-won phase. That stopped when I watched Love Story in Harvard. Not that his acting was bad, but being associated with such a turkey production killed my desire to keep looking for things he acted in.

    Just one humble opinion, feel free to disagree.

    1. He really is a bad english speaker, but his other dramas are not bad. At all. Try it...

  4. By Amanda's description, I am beyond "civilian" but not yet "pro". I don't dream in Korean, but I have dreamed about a Korean. Woke up in shock the first time it happened, and I realized that it was probably the first time my brain had inserted an Asian into my dreams. I don't speak Korean, but I recognized Hangeul writing in Cloud Atlas. In fact, I just notice more Korean things in the world, which I don't know if that is because there are more Korean things because of the KWave or if I just now have the eyes to see them from KDrama watching.

    It seems strange that 2 years ago, if asked what Korea brought to mind, it would be the Korean war, North Korean dictators, and MASH. Now, my first thoughts would be romance, good looks, high tech, and fashion.

    1. I agree, I'm not civilian anymore but not pro yet either, at least not by those standards.

      Perhaps we could say it goes civilian, amateur and then pro?
      Amateur consisting of:

      -Will watch a whole drama in less than 48 hours
      -Will say "aish" and "chincha" without thinking
      -reads kdrama blogs and seeks out everything they can find that helps them better understand korean culture

  5. I've always wondered about the dubious Flowers for My Life description with such praise from Javabeans. The only reason I haven't tried it is cos Cha Tae Hyun kinda puts me off ><
    Gooddrama from what I know has one of the more complete collections, White Christmas, Seoul's Sad Song, Goodbye Solo and Flowers for my Life are all there. Though if you're ever desperate enough, torrent opens up a new world ;) ILCDD is subbed to Ep 24 it seems, so there's hope!

    1. I've seen Flowers for My Life. I enjoyed it, but did find it a bit depressing and sad. Wouldn't watch it again. I would say 7/10.

  6. i have always wanted to be a true F4er too. sat thru the grainy reload them a million times to get thru them meteor garden and hana yori dango. very hard but very worth it. thank you for this list which goes on my soooooo long" to be watched" and hope they will make it to dramaland with subs. should be proficient in korean by now cause of all the ones i've watched but don't but a bit more practice would not hurt :)

  7. I am a big fan of K-dramas. I watch them a lot. But I just watched taiwanese drama In Time with You...
    Oh. My. God. I must share this ecstatic delight with someone...
    I know it's not a K-drama but...
    Such a good show... I cried my eyes out on some episodes, but also laughed out loud many times.
    Beautiful story, innocent and pure and, at the same time, complex and mature, deep and emotional.
    It's a "MUST WATCH" drama... I highly recommend it!!!

    1. Oh,I just saw an A+ for this drama in your review. We must have the similar taste in dramas. Now I must watch all yours A drama. Thanks!

  8. Meteor Garden is worth the watch. It's not perfect, and it meanders. The second season is WAY meandering and drawn out. As the k drama could have been more concise, so could have this version. What it has though, after you get past the violence and anger in the beginning, is a lot of heart.

  9. Don't forget "Let's watch a Meteor Shower." It's the mainland China drama "inspired" by Hana Yori Dango becuase it didn't have the rights from the Japanese manga.
    Something you'll notice in the Meteor Shower, is that Van Ness Wu is an exceptionally greasy actor for the majority of the show (props to him for finding the talent buried in there and becoming a pretty good actor and very entertaining pop singer.) Something I've noticed from all the TW dramas I've watched,(Destined to Love you, Drunken to Love you, Sunshine Happiness, etc) is that TW dramas do really well at creating family connections in a believable sense, in that the audience both sees and feels the familial connections. Unlike Kdramas, where parents fall into one of only a few tropes, TW drama parents often seem more dimensional than the typical good-parent-dies-early or bad parent comes back to haunt you/ruin your life. There's a sense of realistic familial connection between the actors, which isn't surprising because I've seen the same actress play a mom in three separate dramas with the same kid lol.
    The actual production quality of TW dramas has steadily improved, with the dubbing and background music steadily improving. There's often a tiny quality to the live recorded dialogue, but the interweaving of music and dialogue is getting better. TW dramas also usually seem to really get the OTP right on. Sometimes, in Jdoramas and Kdramas the romantic couple sounds good on paper but don't really read as attracted to one another. In the TW dramas I've watched I'd be hard-pressed to find couples without chemistry.

    1. I knew about Let's Watch a Meteor Shower, but for some reason thought it was a sequel to Meteor Garden. (I can't imagine why, when their titles were clearly created for exactly that effect.) Shower is even on Viki, which will make it easier to add to my F4 collection. Thanks for the reminder!

      I definitely agree with you about Taiwanese dramas featuring more believable family relationships. The gold standard for this is In Time with You, which is actually one of my favorite dramas ever. Its production values are just as good as any of the Kdramas I've watched, although it does seem to have taken longer for high-quality filming practices to develop in Taiwan.

  10. Unfortunately, the producers of the Meteor Garden sequel weren't as creative as that. It's simply listed as Meteor Garden II :/
    I've never really been able to connect to Ariel Lin in terms of her acting. Then again, I've only ever been able to sit through her in Love Contract which may be half the problem lol. It Started With a Kiss just didn't click for me in the first twenty minutes, and since I could only get through the Korean version once all the way, that may have been a story problem as well. Like a lot of the early youth-directed dramas, the story line is a little...hard to swallow at times. It was nice to watch LC after watching The Devil Beside You, though, because I could appreciate Mike He's acting development a bit more, current drama choices not counting.
    I honestly find myself leaning towards TW dramas when it comes to the personal interactions between characters, especially between the romantic couples. That's the other thing TW dramas do well, they set up more than just one couple as the focus of the show. Unlike Korean dailies which are usually family centric and therefore you have a broader (sometimes to the detriment of the show) focus. In TW dramas, often there are other couples that develop over the course of the show, so even if you as the audience cannot back the OTP, there are other alternatives. Same with parental relationships. I tend to watch Kdramas with compelling lead couples, with chemistry I believe, because otherwise you're left with the machinations of 2-dimensional side characters to carry you through.
    Jdoramas, or at least the ones I've watched, are often more episodic in nature with some arcs carrying through in ways to push the OTP together. Sometimes, it's better than the millionth Kdrama where boy(ie Darcy/Man-boy/Damaged inner child) meets girl (ie Candy/Amnesiac/female Darcy), and drama must therefore ensue.

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