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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Dramas of 2012

Written by YumCha! Editorial Team Tell a Friend

Our Best of 2012 countdown continues with the time-consuming pleasure that is Asian television dramas. Here's what our editors have picked as the Best TV Dramas of 2012! Making this list makes us feel better about watching too much TV.


BEST CHINESE DRAMAS


Ex-boyfriend
Love in the Buff's Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung aren't the only "Zhi Ming" and "Chun Jiao" of 2012; there's also Ex-boyfriend's Tony Yang and Gina Lee. A first love that began with Mayday's classic song "Zhi Ming and Chun Jiao" and ended in heartbreak gets a second chance years later, but will the ending be different this time? With two natural leads who aren't entrenched in the idol drama style of acting, Ex-boyfriend takes a bumpy route to a believable answer, albeit one that divided audiences. It's not often the finale of an idol drama so fittingly redefines the significance of the protagonists' journey. The drama's memorable soundtrack is also among the best of the year.



Family on the Go
In 1981, Zhou Wanshun (Li Li Chun) sells his ancestral village home to send his daughter to Italy, and then moves with his wife and son to the city to start over with nothing to their name. In the years that follow, the four members of the Zhou family walk different paths of hardship, pursue different business opportunities and meet different fates of their own making. Family on the Go is pitched as an inspiring story of entrepreneurship, capturing the time, place and spirit of the Wenzhou region which championed China's private enterprise development in the eighties and nineties. That's all well and good, but what really connects is the achingly realistic story of one small family over three decades of great change – how they parted ways at sudden crossroads, lost sight of each other amid misunderstandings, grew old before they noticed the years and yet remained a family to the very end.



Man.Boy
Chased by the police and bounty hunters, a murder suspect takes refuge in the mountains with his infant son. Throwing away the outside world, Man and Boy live peacefully in the wilds for five years until they're forced to return to society and face the past. This moody human and social drama from the writer of Justice for Love stays true to PTS's reputation for quality mini-series with its touching portrayal of an uncommon father-son relationship amid a nerve-wracking manhunt. Reuniting ten years after Toast Boy's Kiss, Lee Wei and Lee Kang Yi show how much they've grown since the early days of idol dramas.



Master of Play
After the critical success of When Heaven Burns, the creative team behind it served up another stylistically and thematically similar drama which is no less controversial and, sadly, punished with comparably low viewership ratings. But the criminally underrated psychodrama is actually more captivating, with crime and detective genre elements aplenty that would make even Milkyway proud. Veteran actor Adam Cheng is awesome as ever, but his co-star Moses Chan arguably steals the show with his award-worthy performance as a magician with a few dark secrets and several alter egos too many. The sand painting at the end of each episode adds a sublime touch to this rare gem from TVB.



Office Girls
The title may be Office Girls but it's Roy Chiu who emerged as the biggest star of the Taiwan workplace romance with his super charismatic turn as the cocky department store heir who changes for the better after meeting Alice Ko's mousy, persevering office girl. The character arc, as unoriginal as it may be, works on pure force of charm and entertainment. Even when the romance slows down, the series stays zippy thanks to the office setting filled with hilarious one-liners and amusing colleagues, most notably Patrick Lee who chews scenery like no tomorrow.



Rainy Night Flower
Part of SETTV's self-produced "Taiwan Best Drama" series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China, Rainy Night Flower stars singer Huang Pin Yuan as a triad leader in sixties Taiwan. Unexpected as that casting may sound, Huang hits the right emotional notes as a street gangster who makes a name for himself as the notorious Nobu, all the while hiding his identity from his mother and police officer brother. The distinctly local-flavored drama colorfully depicts the sights, sounds and temple-centered gang culture of a previous era in that passionate, melodramatic tone characteristic of Taiwanese-language period dramas.



Skip Beat!
The Taiwan idol drama adaptation of Skip Beat! can be held up as a stellar example of staying close to the source material. Produced by Doze Niu, the drama embraces the manga's original storyline, over-the-top personalities and numerous play-acting scenarios. Zaniness aside, much of Skip Beat! is about self-realization through acting, requiring the cast to portray good acting, bad acting, improvised acting and drama-within-a-drama characters. For better or worse, the cast and the production meet that acting challenge straight on, and Ivy Chen gives a positively animated performance as heroine Gong Xi/Kyoko, channeling enthusiasm and rage with the whole of her tiny body frame.



Way Back Into Love
SETTV's other Taiwanese-language "Taiwan Best Drama" of 2011-2012, Way Back Into Love warms hearts with a story of family, love, reconciliation and the healing power of Hualien's beautiful blue skies and ocean waves. June Tsai is the estranged daughter who returns to her rural hometown with a young daughter of her own. Making amends with her old-fashioned father, she decides to stay and run the family guesthouse. Bryant Chang adds the romance (and the Mandarin dialogue) as the brooding Taipei transplant who takes up boarding at the guesthouse to hide from his city life problems. You may want to escape to Hualien too after watching this series filled with lively townsfolk and small town charm.



When Heaven Burns
"This city is dying, you know?" laments a character in the Hong Kong television phenomenon, which was aired to an unsuspecting audience exactly a year ago. Although largely shunned at the time by shocked viewers accustomed to TVB's assembly line products, the drama is recognized for capturing the zeitgeist of contemporary Hong Kong, and vindication was served when it was voted the Best Drama of the Year by the station's audiences. Filled with thought-provoking messages, some of them of a sociopolitical nature that were deemed dangerous to Mainland censors, When Heaven Burns dares the audience to look into the grim side of humanity – a must-see if you like your drama to rock you to the guts.



Xuan Yuan Sword
Chinese Entertainment Shanghai's 2012 offering does not reach the heights of last year's Bu Bu Jing Xin, but it is on par with the company's similarly themed Chinese Paladin franchise. The rollicking, RPG-based fantasy wuxia adventure rolls out another epic battle of good versus evil in a mystical land of sword- and sorcery-wielding warriors fighting the dark side with, er, beams of colored light in wonderfully fake CGI landscapes. It may seem like been-there-done-that territory, but Xuan Yuan Sword tweaks the formula, adding cheeky modern references to humorous effect and shaking up its cast lineup. Passing the bumbling young swordsman mantle to Jiang Jinfu, Hu Ge notably takes on an older, darker role this time around, as does Tang Yan.



BEST KOREAN DRAMAS


Answer Me 1997
Cable channel tvN made a pop culture splash with this little-drama-that-could about a group of friends, then and now. The then is nineties Busan and school days filled with friends forever, cute crushes, petty arguments and pop songs that defined a generation. All the nineties references make 1997 fun to watch for the nostalgia, while the poignant script hits home with well-timed humor and universal values of love, friendship and family. Though the leading storyline belongs to the will-they-won't-they first love pairing of singers Seo In Guk and Jung Eun Ji, both joyful revelations as actors, the series finds time to develop all the ensemble characters with affectionate familiarity.



Bridal Mask
Set in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation, Bridal Mask follows a masked freedom fighter's crusade for justice and independence. Based on a Hur Young Man comic, the story behind the mask is as intense, rousing and gut-wrenching as they come. Joo Won begins as a deeply flawed antihero, a police officer who doggedly hunts the very mask that he later takes up. His journey of redemption is mirrored by his Japanese best friend's descent into darkness, with both trajectories being unflinchingly lined in blood. Against a rich and harrowing historical backdrop rife with irreconcilable violence, conspiracy and nationalism, Joo Won and Park Ki Woong rise to the occasion with impressive performances as the most tragic friends-turned-enemies ever.



Ghost
Crime suspense thriller Ghost may be about cyber crime, but it sure does squeeze in a lot of real-world action and dangers to complement the computer hacking. The murder of an actress sets off a spiral of crimes and clues hinting at a massive conspiracy intricately linked to So Ji Sub, who plays a po-faced detective of the cyber crimes unit. An identity twist early on raises the stakes sky high in the nail-biting battle of wits between the equally enigmatic protagonist and antagonist (played by Uhm Ki Joon, who makes evil look charismatic).



The King 2 Hearts
King 2 Hearts isn't the first K-Drama to reimagine present-day South Korea as a monarchy, but it does up the ante by adding North Korea and potential war into the equation. Defying political hurdles to be together, Lee Seung Gi's immature South Korean royal and Ha Ji Won's bristly North Korean officer form a pretty epic couple. Their love story, like the drama's political landscape, starts light and turns serious as we witness the making of a king. There's a lot about King 2 Hearts that feels inexplicable, from the offbeat camerawork to the laughably bad foreign actors, but the process in which the whiny prince grows into a true king is one of triumphant character development. Lee Yoon Ji and Jo Jung Suk are also brilliant in their supporting roles.



The Moon That Embraces the Sun
From the cinematography to the costumes and art direction, The Moon That Embraces the Sun is simply beautiful to look at. Reaching near national drama status with ratings exceeding 40%, MBC's megahit takes thwarted fated love to the next level with romantic symbolism about two suns and two moons in a world where there can only be one. Mixing palace intrigue with shamanism and black magic, the period fantasy follows a young king's struggle for power and his super angst-filled love for the late crown princess who reappears at his side years later as a shaman. Breaking out just last year with Dream High, Kim Soo Hyun sealed his leading man status this year with a surprisingly mature performance as the unpredictable, lovelorn king. The other big draw is the rise of the child actors; laying the foundation of the drama for their older counterparts, Moon's trio of Yeo Jin Gu, Kim Yoo Jung and Kim So Hyun turned into name stars in their own right this year.



Ojakgyo Brothers
KBS's weekend drama invites us into a loud, kindhearted family with four sons of different personalities and an unexpected guest who becomes like family. Idol UEE is sincere and lovable as the stuck-up landlord's daughter who, with nowhere left to turn, pluckily moves in with the Hwangs. Her slow-brewing romance with "ajusshi" Joo Won, the third son, attracted a loyal following for good reason. Most important though is her character's growth as a person and the relationships formed with the family as a whole, with the surrogate mother-daughter bond with Kim Ja Ok being especially touching.



Ordinary Love
Years ago, a murder tore apart two families. The suspected murderer's daughter carries the stigma of her fugitive father's crime. The murder victim's brother bears the burden and misunderstandings of a mother who refuses to move on. When the two meet, they unexpectedly fall for each other, kindred spirits with a shared pain and a shared yearning for an ordinary love. At four episodes, this KBS drama special is almost too short, toning down a potentially sensational premise into a low-key, moving relationship drama about solace and reconciliation.



Queen In Hyun's Man
Time travel seemed to be the trendiest topic for K-Dramas in 2012, and the one that traversed time best was tvN's Queen In Hyun's Man. Placing a reusable talisman into the hands of a Joseon scholar trying to affect history, the drama turned time travel into a thinking man's journey, smartly jumping back and forth in time between political dangers in Joseon times and budding love in modern times. Ji Hyun Woo's decisive, quick-thinking hero and Yoo In Na's impulsive heroine make great protagonists, their contrasting personalities aligning into a proactive love that defies time and tide; plus their romantic chemistry is through the roof.



Shut Up Flower Boy Band
If ever a drama deserved a better title, it'd have to be Shut Up Flower Boy Band. The coming-of-age series about high school rebels in a rock band called Eye Candy may sound like light fare, but the drama takes its brooding protagonists seriously. Shut Up creates a believable world of catchy rock and adolescent anguish – independent-minded youth simply trying to get by on their own terms as they grow up, figure things out and hold onto friends with all they've got. Shut Up is especially remarkable for its consistency, maintaining its pitch-perfect tone, pacing and narrative heart for the entire series.



Wild Romance
Wild Romance sells itself short as a sassy romance between a short-tempered baseball player (Lee Dong Wook, who is oh so good at being cranky) and his tomboyish bodyguard (the refreshingly vanity-free Lee Si Young) when it's far more than that. The rom-com antics are there and frequently snort-out-loud funny, but the romance feels secondary to the perceptive characterizations that gradually reveal the insecurities and inner demons of a circle of friends – something that writer Park Yun Sun has a knack for as seen in her previous works White Christmas and Alone in Love. Things do get messy near the end when the stalker suspense takes over and people start falling off the deep edge, but chalk it to another way the series subverts genre expectations.



BEST JAPANESE DRAMAS


Going My Home
While it's common for film directors to make television dramas for pay television platforms like WOWOW, it's rare for an arthouse auteur like Kore-eda Hirokazu to write, direct and edit an entire ten-episode drama for primetime network television. Any fan of Kore-eda's gentle film work (like I Wish and Still Walking) will find plenty to like about Going My Home, a leisurely-paced dramedy about an ad executive's search for small creatures named Kuna in his father's rural hometown. Unlike traditional television dramas, plot turns come few and far in between, and viewers have to pay extra attention to catch Kore-eda's storytelling nuances. However, the interaction between cast members (including Abe Hiroshi, Miyazaki Aoi, Nishida Toshiyuki and Yamaguchi Tomoko in her first television role in eight years) and the heartwarming tone throughout make Going My Home worthy of Kore-eda's distinguished filmography.



Hungry!
Foodie dramas are all the rage right now, and Hungry shows you why. A lighthearted drama about a rocker/cuisine wunderkind who struggles to continue his family's French restaurant by relocating it to a rundown warehouse, Hungry! delivers on its title with gratuitous shots of both delicious French food and star Mukai Osamu. In addition to the popular male star, Takimoto Miori is likeable as the spunky heroine and SMAP's Inagaki Goro seems to relish in playing a villain who unintentionally speaks in innuendo far too often.



Kagi no Kakatta Heya
When someone dies in a locked room, who do you call? Arashi's Ohno Satoshi stars as a humorless security system expert and lock enthusiast who specializes in cracking locked room mysteries in this clever and effective drama. Streamlining its mystery to the crime scene, the series directs the puzzle to the audience to join in the deduction game, making it more engaging than the typical murder-per-episode drama. Sato Koichi and Toda Erika are a bit wasted but nonetheless amusing in peanut gallery roles as lawyers who offer up incorrect conjectures.



Kekkon Shinai (Wonderful Single Life)
Happiness and (not) getting married are on the tip of everyone's tongues in this pleasant anti-romantic drama from the writers of 2011's Watashi ga Renai Dekinai Riyu. Through the lives of three single urbanites – a landscape designer-turned-shopkeeper, her aspiring painter employee and her new roommate – Kekkon Shinai examines why modern people are abstaining from marriage in their pursuit of happiness. With birth rate and employment security going down (two of the protagonists work in non-permanent contract jobs) and average age going up in Japan, Kekkon Shinai cleverly captures a socially relevant topic without feeling the need to preach traditional values to its target audience.



Kodoku no Gurume
Each 25-minute episode of Kodoku no Gurume follows the same structure: The hero goes to a Tokyo neighborhood, runs into a mini-adventure that gives him a major life revelation and he ends his day with a delicious meal at a local restaurant. It may sound boring, but seeing how the showrunners twist the formula in each episode of Kodoku no Gurume is pure joy, from Matsushige Yutaka's deadpan performance to the delectable close-ups of local Tokyo cuisine. In season two, the showrunners even decided to expand each episode to 35 minutes for more food shots and a longer narrative. Shot in real restaurants throughout the Tokyo area, Kodoku no Gurume is a must-see for anyone planning a foodie trip to the Japanese capital.



Legal High
Legal High would be worth watching simply for Sakai Masato's hilarious turn as the most cynical lawyer in the world (his angry tirade in episode eight is surely one of the best acting moments in his career) and his rapid-fire banter with co-star Aragaki Yui. However, Kosawa Ryota's script – featuring cases based on real events – also brilliantly lampoons the Japanese legal system, successful child stars, dubiously prolific music moguls and even bored senior citizens. For some reason, the creative team also decided to use this irreverent legal comedy to pay homage to classic Japanese films like The Inugamis and Seven Samurais. This is a rare case of a television drama that kept getting better as it went along.



Penance
Pay television station WOWOW has been making five-episode mini-dramas with reputable film directors for years, but none have been as high-profile as Penance. Based on a novel by Minato Kanae (Confessions), director Kurosawa Kiyoshi's drama masterfully weaves together a multi-strand narrative about four women consumed by their need for redemption and the woman determined to make sure they keep their promise. Thanks to the pay television platform, Kurosawa is able to take the story to places so dark that no network television would dare touch it. The result is a gripping slow-burn thriller crafted by a great director who just happens to be working in television.



Priceless
The concept and the execution are so far off from reality that people will have a hard time swallowing it, but Priceless may be the most purely entertaining Kimura Takuya drama since Change. This lighthearted comedy about an eternal optimist who loses everything he owns and ends up in a house for the impoverished gets by almost purely on the chemistry between the cast members, especially Kimura, Karina, Nakai Kiichi and the two child stars. With a positive message, a lighthearted pace and likeable characters, Priceless is the closest thing to a modern fairy tale.



Rich Man Poor Woman
If parts of The Social Network were written as a romantic comedy, you may get something like Rich Man Poor Woman. In a role that Kimura Takuya could've done in his sleep ten years ago, Oguri Shun is pitch perfect as an arrogant tech start-up founder who only cares about innovation and finding his long-lost mother. Adachi Naoko's script drags slightly in the middle episodes with its focus on corporate politics and frustrating romantic rivalries, but that's only especially notable because the show gets off to such a great start in the first four episodes.



Strawberry Night
Over a year after the Strawberry Night SP aired in 2010, Takeuchi Yuko returned as tough-as-nails detective Himekawa Reiko for a full season of gritty crime-solving, police station politics and emotionally stunted relationships. Himekawa faces not only interconnected crime cases but also gender discrimination at work, discord at home and past trauma that continues to haunt her. The unrelentingly dark and brooding tone of Strawberry Night sets it apart from other police suspense dramas, drawing viewers into the anguish and woes of the detectives' lives.






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Published December 31, 2012


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