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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Dramas of 2014

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

We dedicated way too many hours of our year to watching Asian dramas. Now here are our picks for the best Chinese, Korean and Japanese TV Dramas of 2014!


Bad Guys
Who needs good guys when Bad Guys are so much more charismatically destructive? OCN lives up to its genre reputation with this gritty crime action drama about a special unit of convicted killers tasked to hunt down criminals that elude police capture in exchange for sentence reduction. Bad guys teaming up to take down other bad guys is always entertaining, especially when the antiheroes are an interesting, terrifying bunch (Cho Dong Hyuk as a tortured contract killer, Ma Dong Seok as a gruff gangster with hard fists and a soft heart, and Park Hae Jin as a genius psychopathic killer) led by the forever awesome Kim Sang Joong as the mad dog detective who assembled the team. Putting a long line of reprehensible men through the action wringer, Bad Guys is dark, anguished and explosive from beginning to end, with a far meatier story than meets the eye.

It's Okay, That's Love
Writer Noh Hee Kyung and director Kim Gyu Tae, the team behind That Winter, The Wind Blows, Padam Padam and The World That They Live In, returned this year with a curious drama that tackles the serious topic of mental illness within the trappings of a chic urban romcom. Set in an aesthetically appealing world characterized by a light hipster soundtrack, yuppie set designs and casually classy wardrobes, this love story between a cool-headed psychologist (Kong Hyo Jin) and a glib author (Jo In Sung), both dealing with the aftereffects of personal traumas, undeniably feels novel and modern thanks to its sharp talky script and self-conscious characters who take ownership of their afflictions and attractions. Though at times the tone of the production does seem self-absorbed to the point of being oblivious to its own simplistic interpretations and distracting details, the drama's characters, conflicts and pains leave a deep and lasting impression, as does Jo In Sung's spectacular performance in the leading role.

The King of High School Manners
High School King wholeheartedly embraces its ridiculous premise – a rambunctious high school student is forced to temporarily pose as his older brother and take up a managerial position at a big company – and then runs with it with the speed and enthusiasm of a hockey player unafraid of injury. Needless to say, the double life leads to many laughs and mix-ups, but the story overflows with as much warmth as it does wackiness. A romcom, coming-of-age, family and workplace drama all rolled into one, the series, like its lovable teen hero, steadfastly lives in the now. Work adventures, family trials and burgeoning romance with a quirky secretary are confronted head-on with such refreshing energy and sincerity that it's easy to get swept along in the fun and sentiments. Taking on dual roles as the hot-headed younger brother and the cold older brother, Seo In Guk is so natural and infectious as an actor that it's easy to forget he's originally a singer.

Let's Eat
The title says it all. tvN's quirky drama lays on the food porn with multiple meals per episode, emphasized with split-screen close-ups of mouthwatering Korean cuisines and the actors' exultant chewing, plus amusingly detailed explanations of just what makes the food so delicious from smooth-talking leading man Yoon Doo Jun. Foodie drama aside, Let's Eat is also full of heart and humor (and some strange crime suspense) in its depiction of the dinner buddy bond that develops between Lee Soo Kyung's everywoman, a wary divorced legal assistant who loves food, and her two idiosyncratic neighbors. This breezy, enjoyable series just understands the importance of eating – and eating together – for solo urbanites seeking simple joys. Plus, Lee Soo Kyung has the best dog ever in the drama. We want more Barassi!

Liar Game
In a year that saw quite a few adaptations of foreign source material, Korea's take on Liar Game proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises. Setting itself apart from the well-known Japanese adaptation of Kaitani Shinobu's manga, tvN's Liar Game keeps the core characters and game rules while completely changing the context and enriching the backstory. Here, Kim So Eun's honest indebted college girl gets drawn not into an underground game but a nationally televised show with equally high stakes. Her genius guardian angel, Lee Sang Yoon, broods away as a less smirkingly invincible but more swoon-worthy master of deception who meets his match in a fascinatingly twisted antagonist played by scene-stealing villain Shin Sung Rok. More than the number games, it's the character development and the harrowing mystery tying the protagonists together that makes Liar Game so dark and compelling. Bring on Season 2!

When Misaeng is depressing, it exudes a spirit-crushing defeatism that drains all energy and emotion from life. When Misaeng is uplifting, it fills the screen with the purest, fuzziest feelings of hope and happiness. And it's all just about going to work. Based on Yoon Tae Ho's webtoon, this sublime series about the daily ups and downs of office workers turned into Korea's cable sensation of the year for good reason. Misaeng's depiction of workplace dynamics is sometimes so close to real life that it hurts to watch. This is a drama that understands how an offhand comment or a PowerPoint presentation can make or break your day – but either way, you still have to go to work the next day. It also understands what it feels like to be an outsider looking in, a greenhorn learning the ropes and an individual trying to find one's place in society. Creating real people out of office archetypes, the wonderful script and perfect ensemble cast deliver conflicts that audiences can readily identify with and characters that we wish the best for. No love story can compare to the gradual camaraderie of our struggling office newbies, the life-affirming solidarity of Sales Team 3 and the heartwarming bond between awesomely righteous Chief Oh (Lee Sung Min) and his guileless charge (Im Si Wan).

Lee Jong Suk reunites with the writer and director of I Hear Your Voice for this companion piece about rookie reporters seeking difficult truths and learning the grave responsibilities of their profession. Pinocchio is comparable in tone to Voice with its deft blending of crime suspense, romance and human drama, not to mention its wistful Every Single Day theme song and main character with a "special ability" (Park Shin Hye, in her spunkiest performance as a reporter who can't lie due to a fictional syndrome). Pinocchio is less thought out than it could be as evident in its underuse of some key actors (Kim Young Kwang, Lee Yoo Bi, Lee Pil Mo), but that is offset by surprisingly realized supporting characters in Jin Kyung's ruthless journalist, Lee Joo Seung's cop buddy and especially Yoon Kyun Sang's older brother who tragically strays. Voice is the stronger drama overall, but Pinocchio confidently stands on its own with its media manipulation angle, emotionally resonant fight for justice and Lee Jong Suk's fine portrayal of a conflicted reporter confronting the news story that destroyed his family.

Secret Love Affair
On paper, an illicit relationship between a poor piano prodigy and his much older married mentor, who hails from a wealthy and corrupt circle of arts patrons, sounds like it could be daytime soap fodder. On screen, however, Secret Love Affair turned out to be one of the most artfully presented Korean dramas of the year. The beautiful cinematography, measured script, classical soundtrack and slow-burning story consistently create an encompassing mise-en-scene of melancholic decadence and sophistication not often seen in present-day dramas. Twenty years apart in the story and in real life, Kim Hee Ae and Yoo Ah In bring great dignity, vulnerability and intensity to their roles and romance. The piano duet scenes in Secret are more scorchingly passionate than most K-Drama love scenes.

You Who Came From the Stars
For a few magical months, this phenomenally popular drama was on the tip of everyone's tongue and making us desire everything from long winter coats and pink lipstick to beer and fried chicken. Star executed your typical odd-couple romance formula to near perfection and also made it fresh again, not only with the fantasy twist – a centuries-old hero from outer space with special powers whose Kryptonite is kissing! – but also with interesting storytelling details like interviews and epilogues. As the stiff alien and flighty actress who fall in love despite themselves, Kim Soo Hyun and Jeon Ji Hyun deliver star power, charm, angst and chemistry in spades, along with the bewitching ability to make audiences want to buy everything they wear, eat, read, hold...

Yoo Na's Street
Yoo Na's Street welcomes audiences into a bustling multi-family house filled with various tenants with checkered backgrounds. Though pitched as writer Kim Woon Kyung's 2014 update of the 1994 classic Seoul Moon, Yoo Na's is more of a sincere and down-to-earth makeshift family drama populated by earnest small-timers who find it hard to change old ways while living on the fringes of society. Despite having quite a few characters and very few name actors to play them, the low-key ensemble drama paints a realistic and complete world for all the different stray sheep in the pack. As the hardheaded Yoo Na, a gifted pickpocket with her own set of principles, Kim Ok Bin is the kind of straight-talking, no-frills heroine we don't see often enough in dramaland. Lee Hee Joon wins the best man ever title as the conscience of the series, the good-natured, upstanding and endlessly sensible resident handyman who tries to set those around him onto the straight path.


Another Way to Heaven
One of China's main engines for economic growth, Shenzhen is the first destination for many young people looking to go big or go home. Based on Murong Xuecun's novel Turn Left for Heaven, Turn Right for Shenzhen, this melodrama chronicles a decade in the lives of a group of college friends who head to Shenzhen in the early nineties to seek employment. After pursuing American Dreams in China on the big screen, Deng Chao essays a bittersweet Shenzhen success story on the small screen as a poor but proud man who starts with nothing and turns himself into the boss of a listed company over an enterprising decade filled with trials and tribulations in both business and in love with his college sweetheart (Dong Jie). Set in a modern China growing and changing at breakneck speed, Heaven explores what it is that people are chasing after and what really matters in the end.

Cosmetology High
Known for his costume melodramas, hitmaker Yu Zheng surprised audiences this fall with a comedic period procedural about a disgraced court beautician in the time of Empress Wu Zetian who uses his incredible cosmological skills to solve a variety of problems for the citizens of the capital city. Along the way, he must contend with the romantic advances of a kindhearted but simple-minded ex-courtesan, as well as the challenges served up by his social-climber former pupil. The series marks a slight departure for the drama-concocting Yu Zheng, as it maintains a light tone throughout most of its run. It also features fantastic performances by its charismatic lead actors, who include Jin Shijia, Yang Rong, Zhang Zhehan and the inimitable Sheren Tang. Jin Shijia, in particular, proves to be a revelation. He ably hits the emotional beats when asked to, but it's his stellar performance in comedic scenes that assures him a bright future in Chinese entertainment.

High Heels and a Scalpel
PTS's medical human drama starts from an oft-used premise: a headstrong city-girl surgeon returns to the countryside after her grandfather's death. Though she didn't intend to stay, she reluctantly takes over her grandfather's clinic and is gradually won over by the villagers. Beyond the country doctor story, though, is a deeper conversation about unvoiced fears and unresolved traumas as she confronts the reality that she has likely inherited Parkinson's disease, the disorder that slowly took away her mother's faculties and haunted her grieving grandfather. Understated and affecting, High Heels is carried by a strong yet vulnerable performance from Megan Lai, and Tender Huang is effective in one of his characteristic sensitive brooding roles. Many Taiwan dramas are too long for their own good, but we wish this one was longer than six episodes.

In A Good Way
SETTV's wistful love letter to nineties Taiwan revolves around a group of friends navigating the ups and downs of college life and evolving relationships in the big city. As a nostalgic coming-of-age drama, In A Good Way charms audiences with memory-evoking period details and music, lively campus adventures and a sweet lead pairing in Lego Lee and Kirsten Ren. The cute romance alone would have been enough to carry the story, but from the very beginning, this drama had a more important pursuit: freedom. Touching on grave issues and historical scars amid the youthful etudes, In A Good Way seriously follows through with its ongoing discussion on the meaning of freedom for a hot-blooded, doe-eyed generation coming of age in the mid to late nineties.

Kiss Me, Mom!
Based on Giddens' semi-autobiographical novel, this heartwarming drama follows a family of five and how they cope and grow together after the mother is diagnosed with leukemia. Over a year of many changes, the three sons – played by Danny Liang, Evan Yo and Alan Kuo, in the Giddens role of a chatty free-spirited writer who wears his heart on his sleeve – also reach important turning points in their relationships and careers. With family and friends coming together and adjusting their life patterns to care for Mama Ko, Kiss depicts the serious problems faced by a normal family in a slice-of-life manner without getting too heavy-handed. Requisite tearjerking moments are balanced by the drama's light affectionate tone and commitment to maintaining good humor through tough times.

Line Walker
TVB has long been overtaken by mainland China and Taiwan productions in many areas, but the Hong Kong broadcasting stalwart still does police and triad dramas best. Sweeping most of the top prizes at this year's TVB Anniversary Awards, Line Walker takes on the ever popular subgenre of undercover cops. Michael Miu is an inspector trying to locate five undercover officers, whose files have been deleted, and coordinate a dangerous operation to root out a police mole and take down a triad from the inside. Raymond Lam, Charmaine Sheh and Sammy Shum play three very different officers who end up undercover in the same crime ring under a ruthless yet likable mob boss played by a scenery-chewing Hui Siu Hung. Many implausible coincidences and plot devices are at work here, but the more undercovers and moles, the more action and excitement. The writers also bring in other timely Overheard-inspired topics of interest, like surveillance, police corruption, stock speculation and New Territories real estate, to keep the story moving at all times.

Lovestore at the Corner
A woman (Tracy Chou) goes hiking one day and never returns. Her disappearance leaves indelible effects on her family as well as her cheating boyfriend (Lee Wei). A few years later, her younger sister (Nikki Hsieh) encounters the boyfriend again, only he has lost his memories and is living as a completely different person. She begins working at his secondhand bookstore to help him remember her sister. A romantic drama that's more about healing and atonement, Lovestore is adequately thoughtful and moving within its artsy idol drama designs. What really sets the drama apart, though, is that it's also an ode to literature and bookstores. Each episode is bookended by literary quotes, many literary works are referenced throughout the series, and the most sentimental message of the drama just may be the realization that books carry not only the stories between their pages, but also the stories of their owners.

Perfect Couple
The ever-busy Wallace Huo ascended to the rank of producer this year with the Ming Dynasty-set romantic dramedy Perfect Couple. Besides producing the drama, Wallace Huo shows off his comedic chops as an arrogant rich kid who also happens to be a brilliant constable. The drama has him pairing up again with Tiffany Tang, playing a rough-and-tumble tomboy who marries Wallace Huo's character due to a case of mistaken identity. Starting out as an adorably funny romantic comedy, the drama changes in tone towards the halfway mark, gradually incorporating more melodramatic elements. This shift in direction is deftly executed thanks in no small part to the mega-watt chemistry between the leads who create a lovely couple you can't help but root for.

The Stand-In
Based on the 2009 blockbuster Bodyguards and Assassins, The Stand-In greatly expands the turn-of-the-century story of revolutionaries rising against Qing rule. The first two episodes recreate the famous decoy rickshaw chase through Hong Kong's Central district to lure Qing assassins away from a visiting Sun Yat-sen. Though obviously not as grand scale as the film version, the small-screen chase, shot on the same set, is impressively perilous (they even brought in Fan Siu Wong for a fight cameo). From there on, the series enters new territory with the street-urchin rickshaw driver (Wallace Chung) getting roped into posing as his passenger who didn't survive the chase. Pulled into a dangerous tussle over the fate of his family and homeland, the simple-minded stand-in grows into his role as the son of a prominent Guangzhou clan and a revolutionary leader. With veteran period/wuxia director Kuk Kok Leung at the helm, Bona Film's TV extension of Bodyguards may start with a cliched twist, but it proves to be a worthwhile and entertaining epic.

Swords of Legends
Following Chinese Paladin and Xuan Yuan Sword, another drama adapted from an online fantasy game has become an unstoppable ratings juggernaut. Swords of Legends fever swept China this past summer, and it's hardly slowed down since. Based on Shanghai Aurogon's hit online game Gujian Qitan and its tie-in novel, Swords of Legends inevitably has its share of silly elements, but this hasn't stopped audiences from being consumed by the tale of a kindhearted young orphan, whose fate is inexorably tied to a powerful but evil sword, going up against nefarious forces with a group of loyal friends. The show has broken several online viewing records, and it's easy to see why. Featuring a cast of bright young things like Li Yifeng, Mini Yang, William Chan, Ma Tianyu and Zheng Shuang, the engaging tale brings a beloved game to life while keeping the sensible mindset of not taking itself too seriously.


Ashita, Mama ga Inai
One of Japan's most controversial mainstream television dramas in recent years, NTV had to air two-thirds of the series without any commercial sponsors due to criticism about the way it depicted a children's group home and the parentless children who lived in it. All the furor is a bit overblown, as the Matsuda Saya-penned drama was meant to be set in an alternate reality in which a crippled middle-aged man (Mikami Hiroshi) who puts children through emotional hell with an oddly cold deputy (Kimura Fumino) can actually be placed in charge of a group home. Those expecting a dark exposé of the children's welfare system in Japan will instead see a darkly funny but ultimately heartwarming drama about parenthood and family. In a complete reversal of her adorable persona, Ashida Mana owns the screen as the group home's mighty leader.

Gomen ne Seishun
Kudo Kankuro's long-awaited follow-up to Amachan – about a Buddhist boys' school and a Catholic girls' school merging into a co-ed school due to financial troubles – is another manic mishmash of pop culture references (be sure to look up "Kabe-don" before watching the show), irreverent humor and over-the-top acting. Like a gift that keeps on giving, Gomen ne Seishun is brilliantly inspired comical madness that Kudo fans will love, and its grand lessons about the nature of youth may even earn the writer a few new fans. Nishikido Ryo is a strong leading man as the timid high school teacher hiding a huge secret from his past, but it's Mitsushima Hikari who owns the series as a Catholic school teacher who takes no nonsense from anyone, especially her fellow teachers.

Gu Gu, the Cat
Director Isshin Inudo adapts Oshima Yumiko's pseudo-autobiographical manga for a second time, this time as a five-episode television series for WOWOW. Replacing Koizumi Kyoko (who played the lead role in the 2009 film), Miyazawa Rie gives an adorable performance as a manga writer who learns to pick up the pieces of her introverted life after bringing home a new stray cat. Given more breathing room to expand Oshima's universe, Isshin and his writers apply a loose episodic structure that fits the story far better than the limited length of a feature film (the final episode even takes a huge leap forward in time that may surprise many viewers). The result is a gently quirky drama with a relaxing charm, just like the famous Tokyo neighborhood the story is set in.

Kindaichi Shonen no Jikenbo N
After taking on the role of the famous high school detective in a series of specials, Hey! Say! JUMP's Yamada Ryosuke returned for his first full series as Kindaichi. Co-starring Kawaguchi Haruna, Daiki Arioka (also of Hey! Say! JUMP), Yamaguchi Tomomitsu and Narimiya Hiroki, this 2014 incarnation of Kindaichi returns to the spirit of the manga's first drama adaptation starring Domoto Tsuyoshi, as it features the same background music and school uniforms as that much-loved series. Kindaichi Shonen no Jikenbo N presents a litany of interesting cases that are made all the more entertaining by its game cast. Yamada Ryosuke, in particular, embodies the role of Kindaichi perfectly, ably portraying the brilliant detective mind that rests inside the high schooler who likes girls just a bit too much.

The Long Goodbye
Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel The Long Goodbye gets transplanted to postwar Japan for this five-episode period crime series about a private detective entangled in a complicated murder case. NHK's adaptation is admirably committed to the source material and to the noir form. The drama's art direction, lighting, cinematography and music all set the stage for an attractive, amplified old-fashioned noir. Our hardboiled hero is perennially shrouded in shadows and silhouettes while making his tour of cabarets, pubs, dusty offices and dirty backstreets, and uncovering the dark secrets, war scars and corrupted values of high-society folk and the story's resident femme fatale (Koyuki). Asano Tadanobu, in a rare and welcome renzoku drama appearance, embodies the world-weary, street-smart man of integrity from a bygone era.

Mosaic Japan
Pay television network WOWOW slapped an R-15 label on this five-episode mini-series penned by Sakamoto Yuji (Saikou no Rikon, Woman) which is absolutely graphic enough to be adults-only. The journey of a former stockbroker who returns to his hometown and discovers that the entire town now works for a pornography empire, Mosaic Japan is a surreal adult comedy that isn't just an exposé of the adult video industry. Beyond the raunchy humor and graphic sex scenes, Sakamoto uses his absurd premise as thinly disguised social criticism that will make you never look at mosaics the same way again.

A co-production between major television conglomerate TBS and pay television network WOWOW, Mozu is a game changer in Japanese television dramas. Despite its convoluted plot (told over 15 episodes spread over two seasons), this adaptation of Osaka Go's novel series is a gorgeously filmed show that looks unlike anything made for Japanese television before. Series director Hasumi Eiichiro (Umizaru) and his cinematographer Ezaki Tomoo have great fun using the ARRI Alexa camera (used on major Hollywood productions like Iron Man 3 and Skyfall) and creating film-like images that make even the most violent shots look like the most gorgeous views of hell on earth ever created. Despite the disappointing ratings, Mozu will change the way Japanese television dramas look for years to come.

Nobunaga Concerto
Based on the award-winning manga written and illustrated by Ishii Ayumi, Nobunaga Concerto is a historical comedy-drama that finds aloof high schooler Saburo transported back to the Sengoku era. What's more, he turns out to look identical to Oda Nobunaga, the famous warlord who would one day unite Japan. Saburo quickly finds himself having to impersonate Nobunaga – despite barely being able to recall the most basic of what he was taught in history class. Boasting an exceptionally star-studded cast that includes Oguri Shun, Shibasaki Kou, Mukai Osamu, Yamada Takayuki and Fujiki Naohito, the drama is a delight through and through, delivering laughs, tears and a few history lessons to boot. Especially commendable is Oguri Shun's versatile performance as the kindhearted, hilarious Saburo and the cold Nobunaga, which shows the actor's impressive range (even though it's hard to buy him as a high school student).

Oyaji no Senaka
This anthology of ten single-episode dramas about fathers isn't 100% successful, but several episodes in the collection are so strong that one can easily overlook the few bad apples in the bunch. Okada Yoshikazu's series opener starring Matsu Takako and Tamura Masakazu is a sublime Ozu-esque story about one father learning to let his daughter go. Kizara Izumi's episode about a policewoman (Horikita Maki) and her actor father features a refreshing comical performance from character actor Endo Kenichi. Finally, Yamada Taiichi's episode about a blooming middle-age romance is worth seeing just for the extended scene between Watanabe Ken and Yo Kimiko. Even a few of the comparatively lackluster episodes – such as Sakamoto Yuji's comedy-drama about a female boxer and her loser father/coach – are good enough but would be better off elsewhere as longer series.

River's Edge Okawabata Tantei Sha
Like his take on the Tada's Do-It-All House series last year, One Hitoshi's 2014 late-night drama is another trip into the eccentric and downright odd corners of Japan. Odagiri Joe – who pulled off the difficult juggling act of starring in two dramas the same season – is just right as the sleeping private detective, and Ishibashi Renji lends a quietly commanding presence as his boss. Unlike with Mahoro Eki Mae Bangaichi, One and his writers come up with enough odd characters and curiously strange cases this time to keep the series' momentum up until its final episode.

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Published December 29, 2014

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