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YumCha! Picks: Best Asian Dramas of 2013

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For Part 2 of our year-end top tens, here are our picks for the best Chinese, Korean and Japanese TV Dramas of 2013!


Aftershock begins with the deadly Tangshan earthquake of 1976. On that day, one mother had to make the devastating choice of saving only one child from a collapsed building. She chooses her son but the daughter survives in the end. Taken in by adoptive parents, the daughter is unable to forget her mother's abandonment and chooses to not reunite with her family, unaware that her mother has never stopped searching for her. Just as the title implies, Aftershock is not about the earthquake but its indelible effects, 23 seconds that lasted 32 years for a shattered family. Feng Xiaogang previously adapted Zhang Ling's novel for the big screen in 2010; this small-screen version, also produced by Huayi Brothers, tells a deeper, longer story about the mother and daughter's separate yet inextricably intertwined lives.

Boys Can Fly
Before every poor child lies a dark road of no return, the opening voiceover tells us, and on your way to hell, heaven is never far away; the people living in heaven are right next to you, watching you fight to the death with another poor child. Set in the gray world of those on the fringe, the gritty Taiwanese social drama follows two opposing young gangsters who land in the same prison. There they meet a drumming instructor, a former convict himself, who guides them towards change. This is the part in most inspirational dramas where the boys would turn their lives around and start anew, but Boys Can Fly realistically throws them back into the streets for more hard knocks, gang politics and difficult choices as they fight and falter along with many others on their rocky road of reformation and redemption.

Winner of Best TV Series and Best Writing at this year's Golden Bell Awards, Falling needed only six episodes to paint a delicate yet vivid portrait of two very different women struggling with love, sexuality and their sense of self. Jade Chou's meek and suppressed heroine, long suffering under the weight of her inconsiderate family, moves out for a fresh start and becomes neighbors with Esther Liu's independent sex kitten, who has just broken her engagement with a man who matches her in bed but not in values. Their friendship opens each other to new thoughts and experiences as life gradually brings upon the realization that neither of them are as strong or as weak as they believe.

Huo Xian San Xiong Di
After the movie The Chef, The Actor, The Scoundrel, director Guan Hu and actors Zhang Hanyu, Liu Ye and Huang Bo stuck around and shot a 40-episode series on the same set. Charismatic performances are the order of the day with a cast like that playing idiosyncratic characters: the solemn and tortured sharp-shooting eldest brother, the quick-thinking middle brother working undercover as a Japanese chef and the crafty youngest brother who bumbles his way into the underworld. This wily wartime drama about three brothers pulled into the underground resistance movement may be patriotic genre material, but Guan shakes things up by deliberately undercutting the action and tension with his signature offbeat humor.

An Innocent Mistake
Zai Zai Lin essays a prickly young woman who was adopted by three club singers. Though never lacking in maternal love, she's always yearned to have a father, a yearning she projects into an older man (Jason Wang) she meets. He can't help seeing his late first wife in her while she views him as the perfect father figure, but in truth he's estranged from his own son (Morning Mo). Her ambiguous relationships with father and son awaken the painful misunderstandings and memories beneath their mild-mannered exteriors. An affecting relationship drama from the writer of In Time With You, An Innocent Mistake uncannily captures the hard-to-pin-down feelings of abandonment, longing and loathing that make and break a family.

Lanling Wang
If you're going to watch an idol period drama, then might as well go all in with Lanling Wang. Star and producer William Feng is all handsome charisma as the Prince of Lanling, a tragic general of the Northern Qi Dynasty famous for his battlefield exploits and beautiful face (it's historically documented). Nineties pop idol Daniel Chan challenges him in war, love and looks as the ambitious King of Zhou, and idol drama queen Ariel Lin takes on her first period role since Legend of the Condor Heroes as the willful heroine who changes the course of Lanling Wang's fate. Add to that a soundtrack from Mayday's B'in Music and gorgeous promotional stills by Ninagawa Mika, and this drama almost has too much for its own good. As calculated as this may all sound, it only shows that in an industry full of fast and shoddy cash-ins, Lanling is the rare effort made with time, care and budget, all of which you see onscreen in the strong visuals and production values that complement the epic love story.

Little Daddy
Wen Zhang makes his directorial debut with Little Daddy, and it's exactly what one would expect from him. Like Naked Wedding which the actor also had writing credits on, Little Daddy is about the trials of the urban working everyman, but this time in fatherhood rather than marriage. The protagonist is harried, sharp-tongued, financially strapped, goodhearted but often small-minded – basically a normal guy who doesn't really make for great television except when played by Wen Zhang. What happens when a man like him suddenly and reluctantly becomes the father of a bratty six-year-old? Like most Chinese dramas, Little Daddy runs too long for its story, but the heartwarming development of the father-son relationship, comedic diversions, on-point dialogue and cute kid factor carry to the end.

Longmen Express
Overtaking even My Own Swordsman in the nonsense department, writer Ning Caishen's latest wuxia sitcom is made for all the GIF-making, dialogue-quoting, weibo-posting Chinese netizens out there. The nonstop slow train of verbal, physical and visual gags includes wry winks to the audience, like a physical wall version of an internet commentary board, and good old slapstick. The script thrives on modern slang, hyperbole, double entendre and play on words while integrating pop culture references, song lyrics, English and a dizzying mix of dialects and accents, most notably Anita Yuen's propensity to break out in Cantonese profanity. There may be a story in there as well about a bodyguard service trying to rebuild after falling on tough times - and that story requires many, many celebrity cameos. As for the weak points, Ning Caishen proves to be the greatest troll of them all by waving away any flaws and flat jokes with the declaration that the aired series is meant to be a trial run for the final cut.

Orphan of the Zhao
CTV's Zhao Shi Gu Er takes some liberties with the source material, but otherwise offers a handsome and compelling adaptation of the famous ancient Chinese play. Some interesting twists in this version include a vengeful Lady Zhuang (Cherrie Ying) and villain Tu'an Gu (Sun Chun) having a son who contributes to his downfall, but the core story remains the same: Physician Cheng Ying (Wu Xiubo) sacrifices his own child to save the orphan of General Zhao Shuo's clan, who have been executed by cunning rival Tu'an Gu. Biding his time, Cheng Ying raises Zhao's child as his own right under the nose of the enemy. Revenge comes eventually in the final act, but the bulk of the drama goes to the biding as the unbending Cheng Ying withstands all to protect the secret of the Zhao orphan. Wu Xiubo and Sun Chun deliver enormous performances as mortal enemies yet kindred minds in a two-decade battle of wits and will.

Triumph in the Skies II
The Hong Kong television sensation of 2013, TVB's Triumph in the Skies sequel garnered plentiful fans who wanted to see Francis Ng in his TV comeback and Julian Cheung as the charming Captain Cool, or catch the romantic scenery of Paris and London, or vicariously experience the lives of pilots and flight attendants – or all of the above. Just like it did ten years ago, Triumph became a big hit with its airline industry lingo, diverse mix of personalities, beautiful overseas shoots, love triangles and many twists and turns of the plot that fall naturally into place.


Answer Me 1994
Answer Me 1997 is a hard act to follow but director Shin Won Ho and writer Lee Woo Jung have replicated the magic with a charming new group of friends - this time college students who form a makeshift family at a Seoul boarding house - and again a nineties timeline and present-day reunion gradually revealing who married the heroine (Go Ara). As with 1997, what makes Answer Me 1994 work are the little things: the period details, realistic characters, daily interactions and warm relationships that fill the episodes with humor, heart, nostalgia and occasionally sorrow and frustrations. With a slightly older set of characters, 1994 is less fun than 1997 but also more adept at touching on important larger events - the Sampoong Department Store collapse, the IMF Crisis - and portraying the subtle changes in life and friendship, particularly the way characters cycle in and out of each other's lives when circumstances, be it army, work or relationship fallouts, pull them elsewhere.

Good Doctor
What makes a Good Doctor? An autistic savant surgeon – and those he touches – gradually learns the importance of this question as he goes through the ups and downs of residency, tackling not only medical emergencies but also doubts and discrimination, traumatic memories and the personality traits that hinder his ability to be a surgeon. Anchored by an impressive, empathetic performance by Joo Won, this medical drama simply has a big heart while also posing realistic questions and concerns about its idealistic premise and the medical profession.

I Hear Your Voice
One of the year's most interesting genre-blending dramas, I Hear Your Voice revolves around the bond between a high school student who witnessed his father's murder as a kid and the cynical public defender who once saved him. The two are brought back together as adults when his father's killer returns for revenge. There's so much going on in the story – the crime suspense, the courtroom drama, the age-gap cohabitation romance, and did we mention the hero can read minds? – but it all comes together seamlessly. Lee Jong Suk and Lee Bo Young share heart-tugging rapport and satisfying character arcs, and Jung Woong In is both terrifying and riveting in the antagonist role.

The Lord of the Drama
From changing casts to broadcast slot changes to eternal delays, K-Dramas are often surrounded by a confusing swirl of rumors during production. Thanks to Lord of the Drama, we now have a caricatured image of what's going on behind the scenes and the all important question: What would Anthony Kim do? Returning to the small screen after four years, Kim Myung Min follows Beethoven Virus's maestro with another awesomely memorable character: a calculating yet principled production company bigwig who lays out the cynical rules of making hit dramas. Idol Choi Si Won also throws image to the wind as the comedic foil, a hilariously vapid and materialistic top star.

Master's Sun
What can we expect from the Hong Sisters who wrote The Greatest Love and You're Beautiful? More of what we love in Master's Sun! Putting together the themes of ghost and romance, the drama gets scary and funny by turns and stays fresh and amusing throughout. A woman terrified by her ability to see ghosts ends up solving her problems with a stingy CEO, and naturally they fall in love despite themselves. Opening a new genre for Korean television, Master's Sun appeals even to audiences who usually stay away from horror. Of course, Kong Hyo Jin and So Ji Sub's great performances and cute interactions play a large part in the drama's success.

Nine: Nine Times Time Travel
The makers of Queen In Hyun's Man returned with another time travel drama this year, and it's even better than the last one. The suspense drama lays on the unexpected twists and turns as a stoic terminally ill newscaster (Lee Jin Wook) makes use of nine chances to travel back 20 years for 30 minutes at a time. He sets out to save his late father and brother but must face the fallouts of his time-travel maneuvers and discoveries. Smart, thrilling and unpredictable, Nine brings new ideas to a seemingly overdone narrative device and keeps you on the edge of your seat to the very end.

The Queen's Classroom
A remake of the Japanese school drama that arguably surpasses even the original, The Queen's Classroom paints an eye-opening portrait of cruel classroom politics and grade competition. That the setting is elementary school and the kids young and cute – until they turn alarmingly mean – makes the drama particularly poignant. It's certainly a cautionary tale for parents and educators. Two of Korea's best child actresses Kim Sae Ron and Kim Hyang Gi lead a young cast dealing with mature topics and Ko Hyun Jung never breaks character as the scariest inspirational teacher ever.

School 2013
KBS's 2013 reboot of their iconic star-making school drama franchise plops audiences into the stressful academics and tense classroom dynamics of high school. Jang Nara and Choi Daniel hold down the fort as different well-meaning teachers in a test-oriented system that piles pressure on the good students and leaves the bad students behind. But it's the believable class that steals the show, from the troubled bullies to the stressed-out model students to golden boys Lee Jong Suk and Kim Woo Bin in breakout roles as the misunderstood frenemies that everyone wishes would just hug and make up.

Secret Love
Ji Sung is the rash, stalkerish lovesick chaebol (of course) who falls for the poor heroine with a heart of gold (of course). The conflict: he's supposed to hate her because she killed his girlfriend in a hit and run. The twist: she actually took the rap for her boyfriend, the prosecutor who sent her to jail. Yup, sounds like a Korean melodrama. What makes Secret Love better than the usual is a direct narrative that lets the complicated relationships play out without springing an abundance of backstories and secrets. Plus the great chemistry between the leads, some great crying from Hwang Jung Eum and a great conflicted bad guy in Bae Soo Bin.

Two Weeks
A lot of things can happen in two weeks, especially if you're a fugitive on the run from both the law and the mob. Lee Jun Ki stretches his acting and action muscles as a framed murder suspect desperately doing everything he can to stay alive and out of enemy hands for two weeks so he can make an important appointment – a bone marrow transplant surgery to save his adorable daughter. The taut, nerve-wracking thriller is more complicated than it needs to be with multiple cases merging into one conspiracy, but at its heart is the compelling fight for justice and the redemption of a wayward father.


The biggest project of Kudo Kankuro's career is a coming-of-age story, a sly satire of the idol world and a heartwarming ensemble comedy all rolled into one. 20-year-old Nounen Rena gives a career-making performance as a young girl who has enough aspirations to fill 156 15-minute episodes. Kudo fans will naturally find plenty of his signature pop culture humor (the show is also a love letter to 80s idol culture), but they will also find a cleverly constructed saga about three generations of women who embody the fighting spirit of northeast Japan. Not only did the drama – aired over the course of 26 weeks on NHK – become a national sensation ("JeJeJe" has been voted as one of the most popular phrases of 2013), it also boosted tourism in the northeastern coastal areas that are still reeling from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Bread and Soup and Cat Weather
Not bound by a typical seasonal schedule of network television, pay television network WOWOW can produce short-length television series that look and feel different from typical television dramas. Featuring many of director Ogigami Naoko's usual cast members and the filmmaker's minimalist style, Bread and Soup and Cat Weather by Tokyo Oasis director Matsumoto Kana (who did the making of Ogigami's Glasses) naturally looks like a distant cousin of Ogigami's films. Even with only four episodes, the pacing is slow, emphasizing the story's message that a simpler life is better. Kobayashi Satomi is solid as always as a former book editor who turns her late mother's restaurant into a sandwich café, but the star (and the rest of the cast) is soundly beaten by her feline co-star.

A Chef of Nobunaga
A Chef of Nobunaga combines four great staples of Japanese television entertainment: based on manga, Sengoku, Johnny's and food. Kis-My-Ft2's Tamamori Yuta stars as the modern-day chef who inexplicably time travels to the Warring States Period and joins the company of Oda Nobunaga (a dignified Oikawa Mitsuhiro), who is on his quest to unify Japan. His dishes ingeniously transplanting contemporary Japanese and Western cuisine to the 16th century are so tasty they're used tactically by Nobunaga to deliver messages and change political tides. The unlikely fusion blend of foodie drama and Sengoku intrigue cooks up fun new twists in history and gourmet for every episode. We wholeheartedly agree with the persuasive powers of yakitori and hamburg steak.

Family Game
One of the most disturbing mainstream Japanese dramas of the year, Kazoku Game spends much of its story slowly destroying a dysfunctional suburban family until it literally falls apart. In the darkest role of his career, Sakurai Sho is deliciously wicked as the family tutor who instigates the collapse with his intricately constructed game. Muto Shogo's twist-filled script keeps the audiences guessing from beginning to end, and the direction by Sato Koichi and Iwata Kazuyuki shows that there is room for style when directing for television (the dialogue-less seven-minute opening in episode nine is downright masterful). Despite being the third adaptation of Honma Yohei's novel, Kazoku Game pulls off the rare feat of having its own voice without losing the original work's intention.

Hanzawa Naoki
There must be something about Hanzawa Naoki that made it leap from a Japanese drama to initiating a television craze across Asia. Based on former banker-writer Ikeido Jun's novels, the drama traces a banker's survival and fearless confrontations against the corrupt upper management of Tokyo Central Bank. Challenging Japanese corporate values at its core, the office drama also deals with family wounds and grudges, social hierarchy and personal dignity in a way that stunned audiences like no other. Shying away from TV dramas' usual romantic and comedic plots, Hanzawa Naoki focuses solely on its mind-boggling boardroom showdowns and hot-blooded speeches that brought Japanese dramas to a whole new level of rating success.

Legal High 2
The world's most cynical lawyer is back! The second season of Legal High – arriving right after star Sakai Masato's star-making turn in Hanzawa Naoki – takes a few episodes to get going, but it comfortably settles into its new rhythm by the third episode. With idealistic young lawyer Hanyu (a hilariously earnest Okada Masaki) trying to please all sides on the other side of the courtroom, it's become considerably harder to root for Sakai's greedy, fast-talking Komikado. However, Kozawa Ryota's script is as sharp as ever, lampooning the absurdity of today's society and the judicial system with plenty of humor. This season also features memorable guest appearances by Matsudaira Ken, Kunimura Jun and especially Hirosue Ryoko, returning from the drama special as the stern judge with zero tolerance for Komikado's theatrics.

Mahoro Eki Mae Bangaichi
After 2011's Tada's Do-It-All House, Moteki writer-director One Hitoshi takes the baton from Omori Tatsushi in the first television adaptation of Miura Shiwon's novel series. In One's hands, the new Mahoro Eki-mae story becomes a series of surprisingly crude tasks that will tickle and sometimes shock audiences (it is, after all, a late-night drama). The series turns too serious for its own good in the final episodes, but the screen chemistry by stars Eita and Matsuda Ryuhei and the funky score by former Yura Yura Teikoku frontman Sakamoto Shintaro make this return to Mahoro a trip worth taking.

Saiko no Rikon
The concept of a divorcing couple forced to continue living together is one of the oldest sitcom tricks in the book, but writer Motoki Yuji (Tokyo Love Story) turns it into a smart exploration of love, marriage and fidelity. Motoki shatters the cliché of happily ever after with this cynical anti-romantic comedy about two dysfunctional married couples in Tokyo and their complex web of relationships. Motoki's consistently clever script (a rare original creation) is complemented by quirky direction from its team of four directors and a top-notch cast comprised of Eita, Ono Machiko, Maki Yoko and Ayano Go.

The second television adaptation of Shigematsu Kiyoshi's novel is a well-constructed coming-of-age story of two men: a thickheaded, stubborn grunt who becomes a widower and his son. In addition to developing a group of well-drawn supporting characters, screenwriter Morishita Yoshiko (Jin) cleverly constructs single episodes using incidents from the book, each furthering the growth of the two men. Unlike most father-son dramas, Tonbi is refreshing in acknowledging that parents are often as lost about what to do as their children. Parenting may be a noble profession, but it's also a lifelong process of trial and error filled with obstacles.

After kicking off the year with Saiko no Rikon, scriptwriter Motoki Yuji returned three months later with this thematic follow-up to Mother. Mitsushima Hikari gives a career-high performance as a single mother struggling to raise two young children after the accidental death of her husband (Oguri Shun). The plot thickens as the heroine's estranged mother (Tanaka Yuko) and stepsister (Nikaido Fumi) enter the story, bringing back old family secrets that change the characters' worlds. Motoki's narrative seems deceptively simple at first, but it gradually reveals the writer's carefully constructed tale of guilt and loss with unbearable dramatic tension and great emotional resonance. If you watch only one tearjerker a year, Woman should be your choice.

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Published December 28, 2013

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