After all the starts and stops, the JTBC drama Snowdrop was highly anticipated among BLINKs who couldn’t wait to see the real acting debut of BLACKPINK Jisoo, sharing the small screen with one of K-drama world’s hottest leading men, Jung Haein. But then, thousands have also protested the show, accusing it of historical revisionism, with Jung Haein’s character coming under fire as it has been reported that the actor will play a North Korean spy disguising as a student protestor in the 1987 university protests.
If you binged Snowdrop already, here are four dramas based on modern Korean history. Trust us, these shows are good!
The Hymn of Death
Initial TV run: November 27 to December 4, 2018, for 6 episodes on SBS, currently available on Netflix
Cast: Shin Hye‑sun as Yun Simdeok, Lee Jongsuk as Kim Woojin, Park Seonim (as Woojin’s wife), Ko Bo‑Gyeol (as Simdeok’s younger sister)
What’s it about: When Korea was under Japanese occupation, a love story blossomed – drama writer Kim Woojin (played excellently by Lee Jongsuk of W and While You Were Sleeping fame) falls in love with Yun Simdeok (played by Shin Hyesun of Mr. Queen fame) when they met in Waseda University in Japan as participants of a play. They start off as two people who don’t really get each other’s vibes, but as with any other K-drama couple, they started getting to know each other more and eventually liking each other, and then fall in love.
Sounds like your typical k-drama, right? But wait; there’s a catch: Simdeok discovers that Kim Woojin is already married. So, Simdeok decides to avoid Woojin and nip their relationship in the bud.
To add to the love story’s complications, Woojin’s wife is not your typical female antagonist everyone loves to hate. So, instead of people fully rooting for the Woojin-Sindeok couple, the audience may also feel slightly guilty.
Fast forward to a few years, the two led sort of compromised lives, with Woojin foregoing writing to attend to the family business and Simdeok shifting from classical to pop music to cater to the masses. They meet again and rekindle their romance, as Simdeok cannot help but fall for Woojin’s advances while Woojin thinks Simdeok’s rags to riches story of perseverance makes her the ideal woman for him. But with still quite conservative 1920’s Korean and Japanese societies they had to contend with, their story had an inevitably tragic ending.
Trigger warning: Viewers triggered by the topic of suicide are advised to skip this drama.
done watching hymn of death! it was only short but i definitely enjoyed it. arts, hope, and love can serve as our light through the darkest times
"the fact that we're trying something with hope is what matters" pic.twitter.com/SADCeUedlI
— marziଓ (@youthfmay) April 7, 2022
How is it related to real-life events: The characters and the circumstances of the drama are all based on real-life characters and events. In 1920’s Japanese-invaded Korea, esteemed playwright Kim Woojin and soprano Yun Simdeok actually lived! The song Simdeok recorded that was inspired by their doomed romance, Praise of Death (of the Hymn of Death, to which the show got its title from) is considered the first Korean pop song in 1926.
Initial TV run: 20 episodes running from November 2015 to January 2016 on tvN
Cast: Hyeri as Sung Dukseon/Sung Sooyeon, Ryu Junyeol as Kim Junghwan, Go Kyungpyo as Sung Sunwoo, Park Bogum as Choi Taek, and Lee Donghwi as Ryu Dongryong
What’s it about: From a very heavy melodramatic show, let’s move to one that just spells feel-good all around. I’m sure all of us K-pop and K-drama fans may have heard of, if not binge-watched the entire Reply series, particularly Reply 1988. This family show tells the story of five families living in the same neighborhood. The kids practically all grew up together and are in the same school.
There’s a bit of a conflict with the kids as they grew up when naturally, they started to experience adulthood, particularly falling in love. This starts off with Deoksun (played by Girl’s Day Hyeri) expressing her attraction to Sunwoo (played by Go Kyungpyo of Strongest Deliveryman and SNL Korea fame), who as it turns out, is actually attracted to her older sister Bora (played by Law School’s Ryu Hyeyoung). After we see Deoksun getting rejected and Sunwoo trying his best to muster the courage to tell the rather stern character Bora how he feels, we discover that it is Junghwan (played by Lost’s Ryu Junyeol, who has been Hyeri’s boyfriend IRL since 2017) who likes Deoksun.
BUT WAIT! Deoksun develops feelings for quiet and dedicated Taek (played to perfection by Park Bogum), who hasn’t regularly hung out with them since he is a professional Baduk player and doesn’t even go to school because he goes on these international tournaments.
Warning: The scene where Junghwan sees Deoksun and Taek outside a concert venue while he was stuck inside his car with the red traffic light is the biggest mood in the world. He goes, “But fate and timing aren’t just coincidences that find you. They are miraculous moments made from numerous choices arising out of earnestness. Surrender and decision, without hesitation, that is what makes timing. He (Taek) was more ardent. And I should have been more courageous. It was not the traffic light’s fault. It was not timing. It was my many hesitations.”
TELL ME YOU DIDN’T FEEL THAT?
Reply 1988. pic.twitter.com/KzAMbRbCjN
— 🐈⬛حَبِيبة (@v__995) April 6, 2022
(Well, we did say that Reply 1988 is more of a feel-good show than The Hymn of Death. It is a tearjerker, all right, but not a tragedy like the first show we mentioned.)
How is it related to real-life events: The families in the series weren’t really real people who lived in Ssangmu-dong. But there are two things in the series that were based and inspired by real life. One, there’s is really a Ssangmu-dong neighborhood located in the southwestern part of Seoul. Two, the character of Taek is based on Lee Chang Ho, a professional Baduk player known in South Korea for starting a professional career in the sport at the young age of 16. So, there, Choi Taek is based on a real-life Baduk prodigy.
Crash Landing on You
Initial TV run: 16 episodes from December 2019 to February 2020
Cast: Son Yejin as Yoon Seri, Hyun Bin as Ri Jeonghyeok, Seo Jihye as Seo Dan, and Kim Junghyun as Gu Seungjun / Alberto Gu
What’s it about: Yoon Seri (played by Son Yejin) is a South Korean chaebol heiress who is hated by her family, namely her half elder brothers and her stepmother. So, instead of being involved in the family business, she creates her own fashion and beauty company. Before the launch of her brand’s latest line of extreme sportswear, she tests it herself by going paragliding and unfortunately gets caught in a sudden tornado, which blows her over the Korean Demilitarized Zone and into North Korea, where she encounters the impossibly handsome Captain Ri Jeonghyeok (played by Hyun Bin).
So throughout the drama, we see Seri trying her darned best to go back to South Korea, Captain Ri and his four patrol officers trying to help her, and Seri’s evil stepbrothers scheming to replace her while she is still nowhere to be found. On their first attempt, they failed as they were spotted by the coast guard, only to escape by pretending to make out. On their second try, Seri joins a North Korean sports team that was going to Europe for a tournament. In between these efforts, she makes friends with the people in Captain Ri’s village who thought she was his new fiancee from Pyongyang. She also starts to be more appreciative of the simple way people in Captain Ri’s village lives, which was a far cry from the overly sophisticated hustle and bustle of her lifestyle as a CEO in Seoul.
But then, the second plan also gets foiled, so Capt. Ri’s dad helps him (also to appease the family of Capt. Ri’s real fiancee) by staging a fake border patrol search for a deserter, which actually served as a cover for Seri to cross the DMZ.
But even if Seri has already successfully left North Korea, the show doesn’t end there as Cho Cheolgang, an intelligence officer who has always been at odds with Capt. Ri discovered the entire operation, so he managed to sneak into Seoul to find Seri, knowing that he may extort money from her. Upon knowing this, Capt. Ri and his four loyal officers went to Seoul to find Seri and protect him from Cheolgang. Everyone eventually finds everybody and Cheolgang’s plan to kill Seri and her stepbothers’ schemes to take control of her company by merging it with the family’s conglomerate were all foiled.
How is it related to real-life events: No, there’s really no Captain Ri or Seri in real life. Even North Korean defectors who were interviewed later by South Korean media to vouch for the show’s veracity were the first to admit that unfortunately, you would be hard-pressed to find a military man in Pyongyang as handsome as Hyun Bin. Moreover, a lot of them commented on how Hyun Bin’s accent was not North Korean at all, but that’s not the issue here.
Crash Landing On You is THE best kdrama of all time pic.twitter.com/z7Cee0HmJb
— fatine (@Iwjkook) April 13, 2022
Park Jieun, the writer for Crash Landing on You, did reveal that she actually drew inspiration for the show, particularly on Seri’s quirky North Korean adventure, from a real-life event involving the South Korean actress Jung Yang.
Jung Yang made the news in 2008 when she and her friends rode a leisure ferry boat and sail across the shores of Incheon and were led astray by inclement weather to crossing the Northern Limit Line that separates South Korea and North Korea.
However, unlike the events in the series where Seri actually landed in North Korean territory, Jung Yang and her friends turned their boat around upon hearing North Korean fishermen speaking in a North Korean accent. Panicking, she sent an emergency message to the South Korean coast guard who went on to rescue her boat. She got away with paying a fine of 400,000 won for sailing beyond five miles without a report, though the actress’ party denied deliberately trying to cross over while asserting that they actually got lost in the fog that enveloped their boat.
Youth of May
Initial TV run: 12 episodes from May to June 2021 on KBS
Cast: Lee Dohyun as Hwang Heetae, Go Minsi as Kim Myeong-hee, Keum Saerok as Lee Sooryeon, and Lee Sanyi as Lee Soochan
What’s it about: Youth of May is a romantic drama about a fateful meeting between medical student Hwang Heetae (played by 18 Again’s Lee Dohyun) and nurse Kim Myunghee (Go Minsi of Love Alarm fame), who fall in love during the political upheavals of May 1980, a historically significant time period in South Korea. Though those protests became rampant throughout the entire country, the one that became the biggest and most prominent was the Gwangju Uprising, when initially, there were student protests that later morphed into a violent armed uprising that involved other sectors of society that clashed with the military that was on the side of the government. Amidst this rather tumultuous setting, the show’s characters get entangled in a complicated relationship.
Our female lead, Kim Myeonghee is a nurse who was bound for Germany to complete further education. However, she lacked the money to purchase her plane ticket to go abroad. Enter Lee Sooryeon (Keum Saerok, best known for her performance in The Fiery Priest), her best friend who comes to the rescue by lending her some money in exchange for Myeonghee’s agreement that she replaces Sooryeon on a blind date.
Myeonghee does stand in for her friend on the date and meets Hwang Heetae, a medical student. What started off as a blind date ended up with the two falling in love with each other. However, their budding romance will be challenged by the brewing destabilization of Korean society as students started expressing their dissatisfaction at the military-backed political regime.
Myeonghee started having second thoughts about pursuing her studies abroad because she wants to spend more time with Taehee and the unstable peace and order situation in Gwangju, and as their city is being taken over by the military, she may regret her decision of staying as she died from a gunshot wound from a martial law soldier.
Or did she? The drama then shifts to fast forwards to present-day Gwangju and flashbacks as Heetae, now forty years older in present-day Gwangju, continues to look for Myunghee, who he still believes survived the encounter.
How is it related to real-life events: The characters may not be based on real-life personalities, but the entire drama was based on one of the most historical events in contemporary Korea – the Gwangju Uprising, which as mentioned earlier, happened in the city of Gwangju. It actually only happened in nine days, but the effects were shattering and have up to this day, continued to affect the fiber of Korean culture. It may be because ordinary citizens, who were initially university students opposing the martial law government were pitted against soldiers and police of the Korean Government.
— dominsi pics (@dominsipics) April 7, 2022
When the dust settled, the government downplayed the casualties to around 170, although other reports range between 600 to 2,300 deaths. During the presidency of Chun Doohwan, which the protestors were demonstrating against, the incident was described as a rebellion that was initiated by Communist sympathizers who may even have been linked to the North Korean government. However, investigations conducted decades later proved that it may have not exactly mattered if those who protested were communist sympathizers or may have gotten support from the North Korean government, as it was proven that the South Korean military and police really committed major atrocities and used excessive force to control the uprising.
Move to Heaven
Initial TV run: 10 episodes released on May 14 this year on Netflix
Cast: Lee Jehoon as Cho Sanggu, Tang Joonsang as Han Geuru, Ji Jinhee as Han Jeongwoo, and Kim Juyeon as Min Jiwon
What’s it about:This show is about Han Gaeru (who was in Crash landing on You, playing one of the Capt. Ri’s allies in Company Five) whose father suddenly died and was left under the care of his estranged uncle Sanggu (played by Taxi Driver’s Lee Jehoon) to be part of this company called Move to Heaven. Their job was to clean up houses of those who died only recently and in the process they discover how they lived and they further understood their stories.
The duo started out as a very odd couple, as Gaeru has difficulty understanding the world around him, having been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. On the other hand, Sanggu, who has had brushes with the law as an ex-convict and also living as an underground MMA fighter, isn’t really comfortable with the responsibility of restoring order and cleanliness in people’s lives and prefers chaos and lack of order.
The drama packs a lot of heart-wrenching scenes guaranteed to make even the hardened fan get teary-eyed in almost every episode. Although the first few episodes can be a bit dry as they lay the entire storyline and the characters, the audience gets the opportunity to know the nature of their work better before getting further attached to them as their shadowed pasts get revealed slowly.
move to heaven (2021) dir. kim sungho pic.twitter.com/iCL0zcD6in
— jehoon archive (@jehoonarchive) March 25, 2022
How is it related to real-life events: The show Move To Heaven is actually based on a nonfiction essay Kim Sae Byul, a real-life trauma cleaner entitled Things Left Behind. Thus, most, if not all stories in the episodes are based on the real lives of the people who have passed away and the living spaces Kim has cleaned. Viewers will relate to a llot of the scenarios, like one story where a janitor and his wife died without anybody attending the funeral since they don’t have any living family left, so the Move to Heaven guys figured a way to give the couple a proper, not too depressing sendoff.
Another episode showed Geuru’s dad being present in Sampoong Department Store when it collapsed, which actually happened, causing hundreds to lose their lives and be injured. This incident was also shown in an episode of Reply 1994.
Did these dramas whet your appetite after Snowdrop binge? We have more suggestions for historical dramas of a different period here