I’m enjoying the end-of-year wrap-ups at Dramabeans, but the new format this year got me thinking about the 2015 K-dramas that won’t get a mention. While my favorites Kill Me, Heal Me, I Remember You and Healer get plenty of love, there were a few mediocre shows that also came up with memorable scenes. I don’t want to forget the things that did work in these dramas, even if they won’t make my all-time favorites list.
The building block of the Korean drama is the individual scene. Whereas American series still tend more towards tightly constructed individual episodes (despite recent changes), K-dramas have loosely structured episodes. That makes it important for individual scenes and sequences to stand out. Fans don’t talk about episodes. We talk about scenes: Healer’s elevator rescue scene. Kill Me, Heal Me‘s “10 p.m., the time I fell for you.”
A good scene follows its own narrative arc. We know what’s at stake, and the conflict gives us insight into the characters. We can watch a good scene again and again, enjoying every dramatic pause and subtle expression. And a scene that yields striking screenshots can draw us into the most simple-minded shows (exhibit A: The Lover‘s amorous-looking Takuya and Joon-Jae, pictured above).
Here are ten scenes that grabbed my attention this year. Scenes that made me glad I watch K-dramas—even the shows that weren’t otherwise stand-outs. I admit I have yet to watch a couple of the year’s best, including Twenty Again, so please don’t be mad if I omit a favorite of yours!
I’d like to include clips, but my site can’t handle too many video clips, so instead I provide time details and links to Viki. Enjoy! And let me know about your favorite scenes of the year in the comments.
We’ve seen women disguised as men in plenty of K-dramas. Here, as often happens, the heroine is unmasked by the hero’s best friend, who can immediately see what the hero can’t—that man is a woman!
So far, so Sungkyunkwon Scandal.
But the scene plays out almost realistically. This isn’t a comedy, after all. No weird plot devices occur at the last minute to re-confuse the hero and hide the heroine’s identity again. Hwajung gives us the unmasking scene I’ve always wanted to see—one in which the heroine just sighs and says, “Dammit.”
Perhaps because our heroine is a dispossessed princess who has already survived assassination attempts, capture by pirates, slavery in a Japanese sulfer mine and at least one volcanic eruption, her expression suggests all this gender nonsense is a distraction from the important things (revenge, etc.). If the hero is going to make a big deal of it, she’ll find someone else to work with.
The hero gives us a hilarious double-take, but it’s second lead Han Joo-Won who really shines here, as the hero’s best friend. (Confession: I stopped watching Hwajung partly because the heroine didn’t pick him. What was she thinking?)
Han Joo-Won is a relatively new actor, whose only weekday drama appearance prior to Hwajung was as second lead in Joseon Gunman. But this scene highlights his chemistry with Hwajung’s lead actress Lee Yeon-Hee. With his unusual gravelly voice and man-of-the-world swagger, he’s front and center as his character goes from suspicion to sly knowingness to bafflement.
For me the most memorable scene in this series comes in the first episode, when its teenaged hero and heroine get together and (accidentally) make a baby.
Heard it Through the Grapevine wasn’t as artsy and emotionally minimalist as this director-writer team’s previous outing, Secret Love Affair, but this scene showcases their distinct style. The camera lurks at a distance at first, showing the couple voyeuristically. The bare hallway of their study camp dormitory is empty and echoing. The heroine’s small dorm room looks cozy and inviting.
The dialogue and acting are low-key and undramatic, inviting us to notice different things about the characters every time we rewatch. Sometimes I find it touching, the way the lonely, virginal hero (Lee Joon) begs for a little more time with his girlfriend (Go Ah-Sung). Sometimes I find it disturbing, the way the normally confident heroine goes along with her boyfriend. Is this boy a little pushy? Yes. Is he also pathetic? Yes.
The mix of awkwardness and affection in this scene engages us in the hero and heroine’s lives without asking us to approve of their decision. Korean society, like most societies, generally disapproves of teen sex and sex before marriage. But here, we get a straightforward portrayal—a small, intimate window into these two lives.
Another scene that takes a familiar trope and gives it a new spin. Park Hyung-Shik and Lim Ji-Yeon played second leads in this disappointing summer romance. As the lead couple played by Sung Joon and UEE grew more and more boring, these seconds leads earned more and more screen time.
Here in episode 10, the couple almost break up. Only they don’t. And by the end of the scene, they’re on their way to a hotel together. The real tension in their relationship isn’t that they want to break up, it’s that they want to sleep together.
This is a standout partly because of two masterful man tears from Park Hyung-Shik. The young actor plays a conventionally arrogant chaebol heir, but gives the part a certain amount of depth. Here, as his girlfriend tells him they should break up, he coldly agrees. But he’s struggling to look cool, and eventually a couple tears sneak down his face.
The deliberately banal dialogue, the mix of emotions on Park Hyung-Shik’s face, the light indie music as the rain starts, and finally, the sexy kiss in the car at the end—it makes for a great scene in an otherwise forgettable show. And a reason to be glad Park Hyung-Shik is making the move from supporting characters to leading roles.
This under-rated drawing room farce was more comedy than romance, but it had a heart underneath the zaniness. We see the heart clearly in this scene.
The hero Myeong-Soo (Byun Yo-Han) and heroine Soo-Jin (Song Ji-Hyo) were once best friends, but never dated. Now, the heroine is producing the movie version of the hero’s memoir about his ex-girlfriends. Thanks to various hijinks, the hero and heroine have lied and told the movie’s director that they’re dating. In this scene, the director (a delightfully snarky Do Sang-Woo) interrogates them about how they started dating.
But the director’s suspicions backfire. He wants to make them squirm (and they do), but then Myeong-Soo flips the tables by revealing a very personal story. As he speaks, we see in flashback just how close he once came to telling Soo-Jin he cared about her. And now, hearing Myeong-Soo tell his story for the first time, Soo-Jin realizes her crush on him wasn’t as one-sided as she thought.
There are several levels of irony in this scene, but it’s unpretentious and sweet. Here we see average, insecure people who would rather not make grand love confessions. Ex-Girlfriend Club was ultimately a K-drama about two people who didn’t want to be in a K-drama. That paradox is most obvious when Myeong-Soo declares his love semi-honestly by lying about a first kiss that never happened.
Even though Healer ultimately annoyed me by cutting back on plot to make room for fan service, the show delivered a lot of K-drama joy on a scene by scene basis. For many fans, the favorite scenes are doubtless romantic. But the scene that really sums up what I loved about Healer isn’t romantic at all. It’s this scene halfway through episode three, in which our hero (Ji Chang-Wook) channels his inner Douglas Fairbanks and spends three minutes just running across rooftops.
Because really, the most distinctive thing about Healer was the parkours-style running stunts and the rooftop settings. The hero spends a lot of time on rooftops—not just for his day job on the fringes of the law, but because he likes the distance from people. Healer’s emotionally rich romance gets its electric charge from these high-up settings and the hero’s alienation from street-level society.
In this scene, the hero is following someone who is traveling on the ground by car. I’m not sure if running across rooftops is really the most practical way to cover territory. Ostensibly, I think he’s trying to avoid Seoul’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras. But the best excuse for him to travel by rooftop is that it looks like so much darn fun. It sure is fun to watch.
He leaps, he swoops, he does forward rolls and flips. He balances on cornices and charges full tilt down precarious tile ridgelines. He literally climbs walls. And he makes it look easy (with the assistance, presumably, of a few energetic stuntmen). These rooftops are everyday places—laundry hangs on clotheslines, weeds sprout from cracks, we see families eating dinner. But with that cheerful Healer theme music playing, our hero turns these out-of-the-way spaces into his playground.
All of the fun energy of the series is in this exuberant dash. Does this scene tell a story? Well, maybe not (arguably, the series eventually gave up telling a story as well). But damn, it’s joyful. And somehow he keeps up with that car.
I’ll post my final five tomorrow, in time for the New Year. Meanwhile, what were your favorite scenes this year? ♥