Korean TV period dramas of 2011

Written by on December 8, 2011 in Arts, Brands & Products, Lifestyle

In Korea, TV series with dramatic themes are simply called “drama”s. Generally starting from 24 episodes per series, the most popular series are sometimes prolonged for double or triple the usual allotted time. The high profile primetime dramas play after the 9 o’ clock news, 2 days in a row: Mon-Tue, Wed-Thu, and Sat-Sun. Fridays have the loner drama series or other special programming going on.

(Of course, all of this is redundant in the TV-on-demand era, but that’s how the “regular” TV broadcasting goes on.)

Period dramas or historical dramas are a big part of Korean TV series and with Korea’s history dating all the way back to 8,000 BCE (give or take a few 100 years), there is material to cover in abundance. For the major broadcasting stations, no scrimping on production costs mean incredible casting, scenes of cinematic proportions, lush costumes, and amazing soundtracks, all in one smooth package.

Among all the eras of Korean history, the Joseon Dynasty has been the darling of Korean period dramas for the longest time, quite probably because during its long history from the 14th to the 19th century there has been room for so many historic events laced with scandalous affairs that dramas were practically self-written. The exceptionally popular period dramas of the hallyu wave have mostly taken place in the Joseon Dynasty, such as Dae Jang Geum (대장금, Jewel in the Palace) and Hur Jun (허준).

2011 had its share of great period dramas based in the Joseon Dynasty:

The Princess’s Man (공주의 남자)
The drama’s tagline says, “Joseon’s Romeo and Juliet” and that basically sums it up. The title itself was quite unusual; the raw descriptive word “man” isn’t generally linked with “princess” : “Where is the prince?” would be the first reaction. Actually, the main character being a princess was something new. Of course, there are tons of princesses that show up in period dramas, but they are usually marginal characters who serve as love interests or the reason of conflict; it’s even more rare to have a princess in the Joseon Dynasty to be the main character as they weren’t able to do much, having very little freedom, unlike queens who wielded power, or maids of the court, who didn’t have to be scrutinized and suffocate from protocol.

Loosely based in the mid-15th century when Sejo usurped the young King Danjong in a coup d’etat to become the 7th king of Joseon, the drama focuses on the daughter of Sejo, Seryong, and the son of a slain noble who opposed to the coup, Seungyoo. The two lovers are caught up in family loyalties and historic events, resulting in so much inner conflict which is very convincing, thanks to the cast’s fine acting. Park Sihoo (박시후) and Moon Chaewon (문채원) portray the lovers without overkill, while the supporting cast of Hong Soo Hyun (홍수현) and Lee Minwoo (이민우, starred in period dramas since his child actor days) portray the love between Princess Gyeonghye and her husband with amazing poignancy and credibility.

Not surprisingly, this drama had many women solidly glued to their TVs for 3 months with ratings peaking near the end. If you like romance dramas with a historical background, this one is a sure hit.

The drama series has currently ended and episodes are available on the official site, but you need to be a member in order to view. Many reruns are being broadcast through cable TV stations, so check your viewing guide for more info.

http://www.kbs.co.kr/drama/princess

Warrior Baek Dongsoo (무사 백동수)
With the inspired casting of young heartthrobs Ji Changwook (지창욱, 24) and Yoo Seung-ho (유승호, 18) as the main characters, this drama could not become but a huge hit. The drama is set in 18th century Joseon during the reign of King Jeongjo, which happens to be the most popular era to depict in a Joseon Dynasty drama or movie, as it was the golden age of arts and culture, as well as being drenched in political drama. Baek Dongsoo was a highly skilled archer, swordsman, martial artist and King Jeongjo’s personal guard. He was also gifted in calligraphy and highly scholastic, and eventually participated in creating a book with an extensive study of the martial arts of Asia.

In the drama he is depicted as a loner with a great sense of justice, who has to overcome extreme hardships in his youth to become an excellent warrior. His childhood friend Yeowoon (YSH) becomes a top assassin, and the two try to deal with their friendship and rivalry within their chosen destiny, as political and diplomatic issues break upon the land. Although there is a love interest, it is the conflict between the two worlds in which they reside that holds this drama up right until the very end.

The supporting cast comprises of top star veteran TV drama actors Choi Min Soo (최민수) and Jeon Gwang Ryeol (전광렬, the Hur Jun), who play the mentors of the two leads, as master assassin and master swordsman, respectively.

Although being very well written, what with flashing sword fights, dance-like martial choreography, beautiful men with their long hair whipping in the breeze and rain as they fight, the drama provided so much eye candy that the plot didn’t really seem to matter.

The drama series has currently ended and episodes are available on the official site, but you need to be a member in order to view. Many reruns are being broadcast through cable TV stations, so check your viewing guide for more info.
http://tv.sbs.co.kr/baekdongsoo

Deeply Rooted Tree (뿌리 깊은 나무)
Or, a Tree with Deep Roots. However you interpret it, it is a famous phrase from the Yongbieocheonga (용비어천가, Songs of Dragons Flying to the Heavens, 1447), the first book to be written in Hangeul, the Korean alphabet. Until the 15th century, the Korean language was written with hanja (한자, Chinese characters), so much of the common population was illiterate, making reading and writing a privilege only for the nobles and scholars.

The Great King Sejong, the 4th king of the Joseon Dynasty, thought this wasn’t quite not right and set upon creating an alphabet that would be easy for the people, all people, to understand and learn.

Literacy for all! In this modern day and age, it’s just a given thought that doesn’t need much pondering, but way back then, when certain people ruled by severely oppressing other people? (There still were slaves in the Joseon Dynasty.) Some didn’t take kindly to the idea, such as most of the aristocrats who made up the royal court.

What did King Sejong have to go through to get Hangeul out to the nation? The alphabet was created in 1443 but it took 3 years until it was officially announced. What political conflicts lurk between the aristocrats and the scholars who are working on the project? What sort of evil plots simmer in the court; who are friends and who are foes?

This is the basic premise of this drama, with an added touch of the main character being a slave-turned-guard planning revenge for his father’s death played by Jang Hyuk (장혁) and a maid played by Shin Segyoung (신세경) who has inside information of all the happenings of the royal court. King Sejong is portayed by none other than the fabulous film actor Han Seok-gyu (한석규), who headlined all of the important movies of the 1990s and returns to TV for the first time in 15 years. The supporting cast is filled with high profile character actors who have been stealing scenes for the past several episodes and trend on search sites during and after the drama airs. The drama also incorporates light comic touches that are quite welcome in such a serious historic storyline.

The drama is currently being broadcast with an incredible reception, renewing its ratings with every episode. Wed-Thu on SBS at 9:55 pm.
http://tv.sbs.co.kr/root

Not all 2011 dramas took place in the Joseon Dynasty:

Great King Gwanggaeto (광개토태왕)
One part of the Three Kingdoms, founded in 37 BCE and falling in the 7th century, little had been explored in TV-land about the kingdom of Goguryeo until the 2006~2007 season, when the drama about the founding king of Goguryeo, Jumong (주몽), became a smash hit, with the series being extended to a whopping 81 episodes.

More dramas about Goguryeo have been made since, and in 2011, another famous king became the main character of a series: Great King Gwanggaeto. Like Great King Sejong of the Joseon Dynasty, Gwanggaeto of Goguryeo (R. 391–412 CE) was always called daewang (대왕) or taewang (태왕). Although little detail is known of his personal life, his accomplishments as a great warrior and monarch are well-known, having been inscribed in a huge stele centuries ago. He expanded Goguryeo’s territory to almost the entire Korean peninsula (both Baekje and Silla were tiny in comparison) and all the way up to south Manchuria, even annexing the Wa kingdom overseas.

These facts alone make for a great drama already, but like most period dramas, the scenario takes fictional license and derives from historical fact, adding in an older brother (played by period actor extraordinaire Jeong Taewoo (정태우), who has played all the prominent princes and kings in Korean history since he was a kid), and of course, a romantic interest to dilute all the fighting scenes, making the drama quick-paced and interesting. Inner personal conflict, politics, battles and wars all create obstacles as Gwanggaeto embarks on the road to become the Great King.

Lee Tae Gon (이태곤), who had already played another Goguryeo general Yeon Gaesomun several years ago, takes on the role of the Great King quite effortlessly and convincingly and is joined by an amazing cast.

The series started in June and currently shows Sat-Sun on KBS at 9:40 pm.
http://www.kbs.co.kr/drama/greatking

Gyebaek (계백)
“History is written by the victors.” When the Three Kingdoms collapsed in the 7th century, it was Silla who came up victorious. Therefore, among the Three Kingdoms, it was usually Silla that got a lot of attention until Goguryeo started to stand its ground, thanks to Jumong. Consequently, Baekje tended to be a bit ignored in the TV department, like the little brother trying to play with his older siblings and never getting his say. In fact, I can remember from the top of my head only one other drama, Geunchogowang (근초고왕), that had Baekje as its main theme, and it’s only because the drama was on the first half of this year.

Somehow Baekje showed up in the second half this year with Gyebaek. Gyebaek is the ill-fated general whose loss to Silla in the Battle of Hwangsanbeol brought upon the collapse of Baekje. Very little is known about the general except for his colossal loss which gives much fictional license to writers and directors; the drama used this to its advantage in full, starting with a depiction of his childhood that was brilliantly displayed by a cast of child actors. In the drama, Gyebaek’s childhood greatly affects his outlook of life, and establishes his relationship with the future King Uija with an interesting and complicated twist.

Although King Uija was known to be a wise and benevolent king, power struggles between the aristocracy and in-country conflict soon corrupted his court and he is infamously immortalized in ancient documents which describe his “3000 courtesans” all committing suicide by falling in the river when the kingdom fell.

Gyebaek, played by the formidable Lee Seo Jin (이서진, Yi San in 2007 ~2008), tries to deal with the slowly deteriorating King Uija, played by the incredible character actor Jo Jae-hyeon (조재현, who has more movies under his belt than TV series), all the while vying for the love of Eungo, who is played by the popular Song Jihyo (송지효, of variety show “Running Man” fame), who manages to pull off a character so different from her usual persona. The supporting cast is also of high caliber, but I personally thought the drama sort of lost its oomph near the end and wasted the amazing acting talent that was offered.

It’s still a drama worth watching, though. It was also interesting to see the other side of the spectrum in the portrayals of Silla royalty and generals, who are usually depicted in a favorable light in the dramas about Silla.

The drama series has currently ended and episodes are available on the official site, but you need to be a member in order to view. Many reruns are being broadcast through cable TV stations, so check your viewing guide for more info.
http://www.imbc.com/broad/tv/drama/gyebaek

* All photos from the official sites.

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About the Author

Suzy Chung

Suzy Chung is a multilingual writer, editor, and translator with a marketing background. A coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, K-pop enthusiast, and occasional painter, she has been online since the mid ’90s when the internet wasn’t really the internet but a blue screen with text only discussions. She has lived in three continents but truly believes that Korea is the place to be and is willing to convince anyone who will listen!