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Best Korean Dramas of 2019

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our editors' picks for the ten best Korean dramas of 2019!

Beautiful World
"Children should not suffer from adults' faults." Last year, Sky Castle explored the intense college entrance exam process for high schoolers; this year, Beautiful World discusses the effects of school violence, bullying, parenting and family. Beautiful World starts with the shocking mystery of student Sun Ho (Nam Da Reum), who becomes comatose after falling from his school's rooftop. After the school and police pass over his case, Sun Ho's parents (Choo Ja Hyun and Park Hee Soon) decide to investigate themselves, and they discover that Joon Seok (Seo Dong Hyun) and his parents (Jo Yeo Jeong and Oh Man Seok) are hiding something. Besides reflecting on the roles of teachers, police and the media in such incidents, Beautiful World also shows that the behavior of parents can affect their children's development, just like how Joon Seok's dad negatively impacts his son. Holding their own alongside more experienced actors, the teen stars of this series, including Nam Da Reum, Kim Hwan Hee, Seo Dong Hyun and Lee Jae In, all shine with potential and bring their own characteristics to their roles.

What are you living for? Perhaps for your dreams, your family and your friends? Or are you living simply because you're breathing? JTBC's Dazzling may guide you to an answer. Han Ji Min stars as Kim Hye Ja, who owns a golden watch that allows her to time travel. Unfortunately, there's a drawback: she grows older every time she uses it. After saving her father (Ahn Nae Sang) from a car accident, she wakes up as granny Hye Ja (veteran actress Kim Hye Ja). She fears, she worries, she grieves, but she never regrets her choice. Gradually accepting reality, Hye Ja lives in the moment as a 25-year-old soul trapped in a 70-year-old body, and stays by the side of her crush Joon Ha (Nam Joo Hyuk), who struggles to live his miserable life. By focusing on the daily lives of the elderly, Hye Ja's transformation sheds light on the meaning of life and aging. Somber in tone and plot, Dazzling somewhat resembles last year's award-winning series My Mister, but presented in a slightly brighter and more encouraging way. Little did we know there would be a plot twist. Dazzling is not merely a fantasy romance but a touching family drama that teaches us about life and growing old.

Designated Survivor: 60 Days
After a terrorist bombing in the National Assembly, Park Moo Jin (Ji Jin Hee) suddenly turns from the Minister of Environment into the Acting President of South Korea, the "designated survivor" who can change the country with a single decision. Despite being a political amateur with no ambition for power, he has no choice but to deal with cunning veteran politicians, media outlets that only care about viewership ratings, infighting among government officials, and most importantly, anxious citizens. With the help of his team at the Blue House, Park tackles challenges and crises one by one, while constantly weighing the dilemma between taking a political position or a moral position. Meanwhile, the scale and conspiracy behind the terrorist attack is beyond what anyone could have imagined. Over 60 days, apart from completing his duties as Acting President, he also needs to make a final decision – whether to run for President or not. Though the Korean adaptation of Designated Survivor started off shakily with a pilot episode that packs in too much background information, the political thriller impresses overall with its slick editing and unpredictable plot, not to mention the ensemble cast of talented actors like Heo Joon Ho and Bae Jong Ok.

Hotel Del Luna
Enter Hotel Del Luna to heal and overcome your regrets in life – oh wait, sorry, ghosts only! Owned by the cold and elegant Jang Man Wol (Lee Ji Eun), the grand and luxurious Hotel Del Luna serves as an accommodation for departed souls to rest and let go of their grudges before proceeding to the afterlife. After a thousand years as a hotelier, Man Wol finds her world shaken for the first time by new manager Koo Chan Sung (Yeo Jin Goo), who came because of a deal between his father and Man Wol. As the two begin to develop feelings for each other, the seemingly dead Moon Tree starts to bloom again, causing Man Wol to worry about both of their lives. Meanwhile, every resentful ghost has a sorrowful story that brings tears to our eyes, such as the hotel's most vengeful ghost who was a victim of spy cam. The Hong Sisters ace it again with a fantasy-themed story, along with flashy costumes (especially Man Wol's!) and cinematography that elevate the drama. Besides the enthralling plot and aesthetics, Hotel Del Luna also dominated Korean music charts with its original soundtrack, which includes the award-winning "Remember Me" and "All About You."

Netflix jumps into the K-Drama game in style with a period zombie thriller about an undead epidemic during the Joseon era. Directed by A Hard Day director Kim Seong Hun, the six-episode season is packed with thrills, intrigue and a rapidly growing legion of zombies who emerge from slumber to feast at night. Ju Ji Hoon and Bae Doo Na play the crown prince and a physician who encounter the mysterious virus outbreak at a village, and team up to hold off the zombie plague as it advances towards the capital. Inside the palace, the king has become a monster while the scheming chief councilor (Ryu Seung Ryong) engineers a coup. Kingdom utilizes its period setting for inventive set pieces, and impressively swarms the screen with zombies that pile upon each other and devour all in their paths. Bring on Season 2!

One Spring Night
Director Ahn Pan Suk and writer Kim Eun improve on the formula set forth in last year's Something in the Rain, and bring another thoughtful romantic drama starring Jung Hae In. This time, the actor plays a pharmacist and single dad while Han Ji Min plays a strong-minded librarian who is already in a stagnant long-term relationship. Despite the unfavorable timing and uncertain circumstances, the two take a leap of faith in this naturalistic love story that not only gently flutters hearts, but also challenges the stigma of single parenthood and the cliché of disapproving parents by having a reasonable heroine who stands her ground. Like Ahn Pan Suk's previous works, One Spring Night has a distinctive look, lingering feel and beautiful soundtrack that permeate the screen and encompass the viewer in a warm and artsy mood.

Pegasus Market
Welcome to a supermarket with arcade games, aquariums and aftersale services based on the principle of "employees are the kings, not the customers"! What better workplace could you ask for? At Pegasus Market, you'll find unbelievable yet unexpectedly successful marketing strategies that you've never seen before! Pegasus Market did not start off this way; indeed, it was originally a supermarket with no customers and only indolent shopkeepers. While manager Seok Goo (Lee Dong Hwi) tries his best to revive the failing business, demoted CEO Bok Dong (Kim Byung Chul) comes into the picture with the desire to ruin the company. Bok Dong makes plenty of ridiculous decisions to execute his revenge – pouring money down the drain, hiring on a whim, allowing people to be human shopping carts, changing to energy-saving doors that require customers and staffs to run before entering! – but these tactics gradually bring a turnaround to the business. Beyond the hilarious plot and scenarios, Pegasus Market also comically channels the negative side of Korea's work culture and senior-junior hierarchy, as well as the harsh realities faced by the unemployed.

Search: WWW
In the era of social media, fake news and internet manipulation, tvN's drama about the inner workings of rival web portal companies couldn't be more topical. Within the framework of a trendy workplace and relationship drama, Search: WWW interestingly explores how search engine results and real-time trending topics influence and shape public knowledge and perspective – and how powerful and dangerous of a tool that could be if controlled by government and corporate interests. Even without collusion and conspiracy, real-time trends can become suspicious or contentious because of industry protocol, algorithm quirks and misinformation. Besides the fascinating subject, Search: WWW stands out for its strong and complex female characters in highly positioned roles. While all three are proud and competitive web portal executives, Lim Soo Jung, Lee Da Hee and Jeon Hye Jin's characters each have a distinctive presence, personality and set of principles, and they share a wonderfully multifaceted frenemy dynamic. The production also does interesting things with the editing and visuals that match the story's fresh, fast-paced and modern environment, even if the drama does sometimes looks like it's being presented through an IG filter.

The Crowned Clown
Remaking an acclaimed film into a TV drama is a double-edged sword. While the benefits of name recognition are high, it's also that much harder to impress the audience when your point of comparison is a blockbuster that swept the Daejong Film Awards. The Crowned Clown, however, achieves the formidable task of adapting Masquerade's Joseon-era The Prince and the Pauper tale into a compelling series that stands on its own. Peaking with double-digit ratings on cable, the tvN production does a fine job of reinterpreting the historical context and characters into a differently stirring story. Yeo Jin Goo takes on the dual roles of the neurotic, opium-addicted King and his guileless lookalike Ha Seon, a clown brought into the palace to act as a decoy for the King. With each day he poses as the King under the guidance of the royal secretary (an excellent Kim Sang Kyung), the clown becomes an increasingly natural fit for the throne. Yeo Jin Goo, as well, is a natural fit for the role of Ha Seon, with the series focusing on the naïve young man growing to understand the weight of the crown amid the dangerous power struggles of the palace. The young actor, still only 21 at the time of filming, surprises yet again by showing new depth in the darker role of the King.

When the Camellia Blooms
When the Camellia Blooms is so many things. It's a romantic comedy about an earnest cop who falls head over heels for a kind single mother with emotional baggage and a famous ex. It's a family drama about a mother's love for her son, and her reconciliation with the mother who abandoned her. It's a small-town drama about the slice-of-life conflicts and camaraderie between neighbors. And it's also a mystery thriller about the search for a serial killer who is connected to this quiet neighborhood. As a testament to screenwriter Im Sang Choon's storytelling talents, every one of these parts works. Gong Hyo Jin and Kang Ha Neul are a surefire combo for strong acting and likability, but it's not just the leads who shine. When the Camellia Blooms provides stories, lives and personalities for all its supporting characters, such that their troubles feel real and relatable – however ridiculous some of them may be. It also makes the realization that the killer must be among them especially chilling.

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Published December 18, 2019

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