Best k-dramas of 2021

Having watched around 30 k-dramas in 2021, and started about 20 more, the only way to possibly redeem myself is to share a little of what I’ve learned.

Among the dramas (which by the way, is just the Korean word for TV show and doesn’t concern the genre) were some delightfully old-school romantic comedies, lots of interchangeable crime thrillers (I still can’t tell the difference between Beyond Evil and Mouse), the new crop of for-Netflix made shows, some very disappointing sci-fi (I cannot forgive Sisyphus for ruining Cho Seung-woo for me), and one horror (because Im Siwan was in it of course).

I’ll go through some favorites because that’s the easiest way to organize my thoughts about them, though I think it’s more interesting to consider the overall trends and what I’ve learned about life/love/art, but that’ll be for another post.

Run On One of the most thoughtful and mature romantic dramas I’ve seen, Run on is what Koreans classify as a melo, which is quite different from a melodrama. It’s basically a slow moving love story that shares some elements of romantic comedy (fate brings two people together, something keeps them apart, eventually they overcome it all to be together) but is closer to slice of life. 

In Run On, a professional athlete and an independent subtitle translator meet and form a relationship over the course of career bumps, family trouble, and some class issues. There is a second couple—the CEO of the agency that representes the athlete and a student artist—that I found less interesting. 

What makes Run On so great is that central couple in the story, Ki Son-gyom and Oh Mi-ju, are fully fleshed out characters who exist outside of their relationship with each other. Mi-ju has fought her whole life to become the independent woman that she is, though she’s not satisfied with where she is in her career, while Son-gyom has has always followed his tyrannical father’s wishes, and thus never really developed a real idea of who he is. While Mi-ju is unapologetic about putting herself first, Son-gyom copes by letting life happen—until his values are truly tested. Over the course of the story, Son-gyom blossoms into his own person with Mi-ju’s guidance, while Mi-ju allows herself to lean on someone. 

The show is far from perfect, and the plot drags for the second half of the show. And while it has some of the beset female characters in k-drama land, Mi-ju doesn’t really have much of a storyline at all. Which is such a shame, because the setup is all there. We meet her at a film festival where she’s humiliated by an old teacher, and meets an ex who has surpassed her in her career. But then nothing happens… she just keeps taking part time jobs as they come. I would have loved to see her go to Cannes and show up the dude in the beginning, or learn that her true satisfaction is from the work itself — whatever, just giver her a story. 

Vincenzo – This was so much fun. Vincenzo is about a Korean-born mafioso who returns to Korea to search for missing gold, but gets roped into protecting a motly group of tenants from evil new landlords, because the gold is buried in the basement of their building. In other words, it combines the best of what Korean cinema is known for: mixed genres and creative brutality.

The show is as absurd as it sounds and essentially revels in all of its excesses: the villains are unapologeticaly ruthless, the tenants get up to the most ridiculous antics, and the entire thing is led by a hero who is only masking his search for gold with a moral crusade.

The show’s non subtle message is that it takes a villain to defeat a villain, but honestly, it hardly matters. The real point is that it’s stupendously fun to watch Song Joong-ki run around in tailored Italian suits destroying his enemies and enjoying it tremendously, occasionally getting saved by a bird, and sharing the joys of being an evil mafioso with his new partner in crime Jeon Yeo-been.

D.P. – A limited series based on a webtoon by the same name,  D.P. follows An Jun-ho, a private who is assigned to a small unit that’s charged with bringing back military deserters. Ostensibly a buddy cop show, it quickly becomes apparent that it’s really about the bullying and  abuse embedded in the military. While the show is extremely heavy at times, there’s levity to balance it out (in the form of Jun-ho’s partner), and Jung Hae-in’s performance as the resigned but moral An Jun-ho is stellar. 

The webtoon came out after the death of private Yoon Seung-joo at the hands of bullies in 2014, an incident that rattled Korea and led to some changes in the military, such as allowing privates to have cellphones. Far from being shunned as totally exaggerated, the D.P. series seems to have restarted the conversation within Korea about bullying in the military—though most seemed to claim that things had changed since the case of Yoon Seung-joo. While I have zero personal knowledge, I’m basing this on articles by Koreans for Koreans. What I most commonly heard was Korean men saying that while they didn’t personally know someone who experienced the bullying depicted in the show, it wouldn’t surprise then in the least to hear of it. 

I think the show did a great ob of showing how in a system that’s corrupt to it’s core, there are no good guys. Sure, individual compassion can patch things here and there, but as long as the system exists to protect itself and not the people in its care, it will perpetuate itself.

Coffee prince – Of the old school shows I watched, I think this is one of the few that I would recommend, even though it’s one of the oldest of the bunch. The leads had great chemistry, and for a 15-year-old show, it addressed some of the issues of gender that come up way better than expected. And Gong Yoo. Basically, that’s the reason. And the “Japanese” bartender.

Worst show?

Probably The Devil Judge, or My Roommate is a Gumiho.

I don’t know what it is with Korean dramas and supernatural beings that fall in love with helpless or quirky damsels, but creepiness doesn’t go away if the guy you love/loves you is an alien/gumiho/goblin/angle of death or doom itself. I watched My Love From the Star, attempted to watch My Roommate is a Gumiho, Tale of the Nine Tailed, and Doom at Your Service, and to my everlasting shame, finished Goblin. I’m not about watching shows to decide whether or not they’re “problematic,” but it’s just not entertaining for me to watch a 40-year-old man (who is almost 1,000 years old in the show) fall for a high schooler, or even a college student, particularly when he holds her life in his hands!

/endrant

In fairness, some of those shows are just bad, it has nothing to do with the power dynamics. It’s just interesting that it’s such a recurring theme, though I guess that’s a staple of non-superntaural dramas too: many seguks, and any of the shows with a chaebol male lead (ahem, Heirs) or bosses (My Shy Boss, What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim,  She Was Pretty), so all of them?

Run On study guide

I’ve been using the show Run On to study Korean for a while now, so I wanted to share some resources and techniques.

If you haven’t seen it, it’s a pretty slow burn romance/melo, in which a relationship blossoms between a track athlete and an interpreter. It’s one of the more mature and relatable relationships I’ve seen in a kdrama, which is one reason I wanted to study the dialogue.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Im Siwan is the male lead. I’m 100 percent obsessed with Siwan’s Korean—it’s so clear! The female lead is fabulous but she does not enunciate.

In short, I use exported subtitles from Netflix to study new vocab and grammar points, make Anki decks to study/review all the sentences, and listen a million times to clips of the show, so that everything I’m learning has context and is tied to the sound of the language.

Setup

  • Clips. I made a playlist of all The Swoon clips available for the show on YouTube, one from each episode. Playlist.
  • Subtitles Using Language Reactor, I exported the subtitles from Netflix for each episode, which includes both Korean and English, found the sections that correspond to the clips, and cleaned them up in a spreadsheet. Spreadsheet.
  • Anki. I then made an Anki cloze deck using the subtitles, using only sentences with at least four words that made sense without (too much) context. The front of the card has Korean, with one deleted word, and the English. The back has the deleted word. I used some coding to help with this, but in the end, it’s a very hands-on process, which is part of the learning process. Anki deck.

Study

  • Vocab. After watching the show with English subtitles, I downloaded and studied all the subtitles, adding vocab I didn’t know to my monster vocab list. (I’m pretty arbitrary about this, often adding words only after seeing them a second time, or if I happen to like them.)
  • Grammar. I used Mirinae or Papago to try to understand any grammar or colloquialisms that I was missing. (Aka where I knew the words but didn’t understand why they meant what they meant.)
  • Anki. Reinforce what I had learned through the Anki cloze deck. Some sentences have new vocab, but many others are great practice for word usage/conjugation even if I already know the word.
  • Listening. I listened to the clips over and over again, just playing them while I was making dinner or cleaning or something.
  • Shadowing. I tried to shadow the actors, using the Language Reactor addon on Netflix, which lets you move through the subtitles and repeat each one as many times as you need. (Tbh I gave up on this pretty quickly, because I found that the easier sentences I could do, and the harder ones were just impossible, no matter how many times I tried.)

Full Episodes

I used the same method for the entire episode 1, and plan to keep going. I exported the subtitles, made an Anki cloze deck, and ended up studying them that way rather than line by line. This was actually way more efficient then the clip method—but you learn as you go. Best part is that you can download Netflix episodes to your phone, so I’ve listened to entire episodes on road trips/long runs etc. It’s amazing I’m not bored yet!

Itaewon Class is capitalist propaganda and I love it

I have spent an inordinate amount of time with the Korean drama Itaewon Class because I’ve been using it to study Korean*, so I know it way better than anyone has any good excuse to.

What I find wild is that while it’s structured as a morality tale, it is actually basically propaganda for the system it purports to criticize. The basic premise is that a standup guy, who suffers tragedy and injustice, vows to take revenge on those who’ve abused their power by—wait for it—building the biggest and best food company in Korea.

The primacy of revenge is not the strange part, because it can be framed as a quest for justice. In the hero’s origin story, all his problems stem from the abuse of power by a Chebol family that owns Korea’s number one food conglomerate, Janga Group.

First, Park Seroyi is expelled from school when he tries to stand up to the bullying of the Jang family’s oldest son, Jang Geun-won, and Seroyi’s father, who works for Janga is fired. Then, his father dies when Geun-won accidentally hits him with his motorcycle and fails to call the hospital. When Seroyi finds out that Geun-won is at fault, but that Janga paid off an employee to take the blame, he assaults Geun-won, which earns him two years in prison.

In prison, Seroyi vows revenge/justice, and comes up with a 15-year plan to surpass Janga Group as the biggest food company in Korea.

The next chunk of the show/webtoon focuses on Seroyi’s growth from a plucky entrepreneur with a single pub to a wealthy and successful businessman while facing adversity from Janga Group. Of course, Seroyi does all this while being exceptionally focused, principled and non-judgmental, and alongside a team of outcasts to whom he gives a chance, and to whom he’ll owe his success.

If you focus on that part alone, the darkly capitalist throughline is less obvious, since it’s a fairly typical arc of overcoming adversity. But it eventually becomes hard to ignore that the underlying message is that Seroyi can only get justice through the same means that brought him down: power and money.

When Seroyi is in prison waiting for his sentence, Geun-won’s father—the Janga chairman and Seroyi’s real nemesis—offers him a way out. All he has to do is apologize to Geun-won, essentially acknowledging his place in the hierarchy. Seryoi angrily says it’s Geun-won who should be doing the apologizing. To which Chairman Jang responds:

“소신. 패기. 없는 것들이 자존심 지키자고 쓰는 단어. 이득이 없다면 고집이고 개기일 뿐.”

“Principles. Ambition. Those are words used by those who have nothing but their ego. If you gain nothing, that’s just stubbornness and foolishness.”

In other words, what good are principles and ambition without the power to act on them?

That message is a recurring one within Korean dramas: that those with power will use it as they please, and those without it should get some of their own if they want things to change. The point isn’t necessarily that a system where the powerful control justice, policy and pretty much everything for their own benefit, is good, but that it’s a fact of life—the natural order of things.

Itaewon Class heartily endorses that view. Seroyi can only win by joining the system that destroyed not only his family, but the Jang family too. One way you see this is that Seroyi’s actual success in getting justice, when Geun-won is taken to account for his crime, is treated almost as a side plot to his true crusade against Chairman Jang.

About halfway through the season, Seryoi’s love interest and sidekick, Jo Yi-so, records Geun-won confessing to killing Seryoi’s father. When the news comes out, Chairman Jang chooses to protect Janga Group over his son, and lets him take the fall.

In my mind, this should be the climax: Chairman Jang betrayed his own family, and is basically left alone in the world—his oldest son is in prison; he’s rejected his second illegitimate son; and his remaining allies are only there because of his money.

But no, Itaewon Class treats that victory as minor compared to Seroyi’s true plan to take Janga down. Seroyi wasn’t even trying to get Geun-won to pay for his crimes — it was Yi-so!

At the actual climax of the story, Geun-won has been re-arrested for attempted murder, and more importantly, Chairman Jang is about to lose control of his company because of his son’s misdeeds as well as allegations of fraud. There’s only one buyer willing to acquire Janga Group when it’s in such a mess. Who might that be? None other than Park Seroyi, now CEO of IC Group, the second best food conglomerate in Korea.

Oh how the tables have turned. The old and dying Chairman Jang kneels down before Seroyi, apologizes for everything he’s done, and begs him not to take his company. Seroyi responds that after hating the Jang father and son for so long, he truly has no more anger anymore.

“So you forgive me?” Chairman Jang asks hopefully.

“Do you take me for a pushover?” responds our supposed hero. “Do you think I’d be satisfied with an old man kneeling just before he dies?”

Pregnant pause.

“I,” says Seryoi, “am a businessman.”

Cue the victory music. That’s where the story really ends, the rest just wraps up some loose ends for the other characters, and caps it all with a happy ending for Seroyi and Yi-so.

Everything that’s happened, all the pain and injustice, the sacrificing of Geun-won who is really just a product of the Chebol system, the years of his and Yi-so’s youth given to building an empire, all of it climaxes in the moment when he can buy his rival’s company? when he’s proved his mettle as a businessman?

It’s such an absurd and rather heartfelt endorsement of Korean-flavored capitalism.

I will take into account that the show highlights that Seroyi believes that business is all about people. And that its message might be that Seroyi is a good Chebol, because he cares about his staff, and he knows that his success is not due to his own work alone. But honestly, that doesn’t really undermine the deep-seated support of structural capitalism, only that there is a slightly kinder way to administer it.

What’s funny is that because it’s a Korean drama, everything carries such enormous emotional weight, scaffolded by unself-consciously blatant symbolism. I can still watch the scene between Seroyi and Chairman Jang at the prison, and feel all the feels for and from Seroyi; or the final scene where he remembers his father’s words about the alcohol tasting sweet, and like Yi-so, all I want is for our hero’s night to be sweet.

Like, it works. Which makes it even more absurd.

///

*How I’ve been using Itaewon Class to study Korean:

I watched the show in March, then once I knew the story, read the webtoon over the next nine months, as my Korean got progressively better. Some chapters I skimmed, others I studied intensively.

Recently, I found an amazing set of lessons from YouTuber KSTYLEYO who goes through about 10 short clips from the show, and goes through the text and explains each and every word/phrase. I have a playlist of the lessons, and the clips that they’re based on, a spreadsheet with all the info here, and a flashcard set here.

A few notes: Netflix unfortunately does not offer Korean subtitles, and I haven’t been able to find them elsewhere. And the webtoon is no longer free on Daum, and non-Koreans can’t access the paid version, but you can get the whole thing (with watermarks and flashy ads) here.

Lemmatizing Korean in R for language learning

I must begin with a disclaimer that I am absolutely not a coder, or anything of the sort, just someone obsessed with language and vey rudimentary R skills.

The truth is that I’ve been certain for a long time that there’s some NLP magic out there that can be really helpful in language learning, especially in figuring out the most efficient way to approach a new text in a foreign language.

It’s a super practical question. In Korean, where I’m an absolute beginner, I’m most interested in finding the most frequent words in very short texts, or in kdrama episodes I’m about to watch. In Spanish, where I have a basic command of the language, I’m looking for the most topical words, or two-to-three word phrases, in a book like Harry Potter.

I recently discovered LingQ and Learning with Texts, both very great tools that keep a library of words or phrases you know, so that when you input a new text, you can immediately see what you don’t know.

But it quickly became apparent that those tools don’t help with a most basic problem: that words take on a zillion forms. If you know the word “eat,” you know the words “eating”,”eats” and “eaten.” Things get way crazier in a language like Korean where particles get added directly to words; verbs have basically infinite forms thanks to verb endings and politeness levels, and there’s a wonderful tendency to bric-a-brac all of the above. It’s fabulous and fascinating, but makes it impossible to use simple frequency to get a sense of the text.

So all that being said, my first goal was very simple: strip each word of a new text to its stem, and then use the frequency of the stems (or lemmas) to choose vocabulary words.

Luckily, I found the answer super easily using the udpipe package, which produces a table with tokenized text, creating a row for every word with associated data, including its lemmatized form, which looks as follows (plus way more columns):

TokenLemma
강한강하+ㄴ
공기가공기+가

Here’s the code I used to get from the raw text to a list of vocab words to accompany my study of the text:

install.packages("udpipe")

library(udpipe)
library(tidyverse)

#load text and remove punctuation
txt <- readLines("my_text.txt")
txt <- gsub('[[:punct:] ]+',' ',txt)

#apply udpipe to text
tokens <- udpipe(txt, object = "korean") 

#separate lemma column by '+' to produce a new column of stems
tokens <- tokens %>%  separate(lemma, into = c("lemma1","lemma2"), 
            sep="\\+", extra = "merge", fill = "right") 

#find top stems
top <- tokens %>%
  count(lemma1) %>%
  arrange(desc(n)) %>%
  top_n(10)

#merge back into tokens list to find vocal words
vocab <- top %>%
  left_join(tokens, by="lemma1") %>%
  select(token, sentence, lemma1, lemma2, upos, xpos)

One thing to note is that you’ll need to remove ‘stopwords,’ aka very common words in your language/text, so that your top words/lemmas aren’t ones you already know. (For example, I ran this on the transcript of an episode of the kdrama Flower of Evil. Out of 3,119 words in the transcript, 369 were associated with the 10 most common roots, including 있다, 없다, 아니다, 하다, 나, 그, and 것.) I downloaded the stopwords list provided here and then filtered those out.

You can use the same script as above, just download the list and add this:

stopwords <- "stopwords-ko.txt"

top <- tokens %>%
  filter(!token %in% stopwords) %>% #remove stopwords
  count(lemma1) %>%
  arrange(desc(n)) %>%
  top_n(10)

And that’s it.

Of course, there’s way more to all of this, first and foremost using the if-tdf algorithm to find words that are more common in your specific text than in a comparison corpus, suggesting they’re the most topical/useful to be familiar with. But to do that, you have to have something to compare your text against. But that’s for another time.

I wait for the bus

I was standing at a bus stop today. My phone was dead. So I started making sentences in Korean as a way to fill the time. 

저는 버스를 기다려요 – I wait for the bus

저는 버스를 기다리고 있어요 – I am waiting for the bus

발이 다져서 못 걷기 테문에 버스로 왔어요 – I came by bus because I hurt my foot and I can’t walk 

It took me a good few minutes to piece together that let sentence. I kept stopping and rearranging the pieces in my head: conjugating 다지다, ordering the sentence, deciding whether to use the subject or object particle for 발, applying the ㄷ irregular.

By the time I had constructed the sentence, the bus arrived, and I was pretty discouraged.

I still wasn’t sure if it was correct, and even if it was correct, if it was the most natural way to say it. And regardless, I realized that there was no way I would have made myself understood to someone else. Not only did it take me forever to arrive at the completed sentence—the person would have been long gone by then—but my pronunciation is atrocious so any mistakes would have thrown the listener off completely. 

I tried to be happy with what I was able to make the sentence at all, and to have more reasonable expectations. That sentence has three clauses, and about 6 or 7 grammatical principals in it at least!

But it made me wonder if I’m okay with progressing in my reading/writing much faster than listening/speaking, and potentially having that always be the case. I could very easily see a scenario in which I can read a Korean news story, but can’t even ask for teokkbokki without freezing. 

When I started studying Korean, I told myself I wasn’t trying to become fluent, because that’s ridiculously hard, and I have nowhere in my life where I can hear or speak Korean without significant effort. But now that I’ve put in the work for a few months, I wonder if I should embrace my read-only approach, or I should be more intentional about speaking. 

Because as much as being able to passively take in Korean culture is amazing, I wonder if it’s cowardly to engage in a language completely alone. I can improve my reading/writing/listening sitting alone in my apartment. But the only way to improve speaking is to have an audience, and that’s requires a whole different set of skills.

Anyway, I don’t have the answer yet.

생각해 볼거요.

괜잖다

I’m on a Lee Jung-suk kick, which started when I watched W on Viki, then moved on to School 2013, then Doctor Stranger, which is awful, and now I’m in the midst of While You Were Sleeping, which apparently is super beloved, but I’m finding pretty boring.

I shouldn’t have liked School 2013 as much as I did because it’s a pretty unsophisticated high school drama, but I’m a sucker for teen dramas anyway, especially when the teen in question is Lee Jung-suk standing up to bullies, and being too cool for school as well a super nice guy. (I basically skipped all the teacher parts, because that really was boring.)

There’s a scene in the beginning of episode 2, where Lee Jung-suk’s character, Ko Nam-soon, arrives home from school. In the space of two days he’s been wrongly accused twice of wrongdoing by the school, and he’s been beaten up twice by the school bully. He’s also had to pick up his drunk, deadbeat Dad, and work a nighttime gig as a delivery boy.

When he arrives home, after being beaten for the second time, he enters his room, lies down on the bed, clearly in pain, and just repeats to himself a few times:

“괜잖다. 괜잖다. 괜잖다.”

“I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.”

It makes your heart go out to him. And it’s actually one of the few times we see the toll that his life is taking on him, since he usually pulls off the super cool, nothing bothers me, attitude.

Besides for obviously pulling on your heartstrings, I personally liked the scene because of the word he uses. 괜잖다 is used so frequently in Korean (or at last Korean dramas)—mostly in the 괜잖아/요 form in dialogue (as in I’m okay/are you okay?/it’s okay)—that it actually started to mean that in my brain. And I love that feeling when a word in another language stops being a foreign symbol to memorize, but actually starts to mean the thing that it means, if that makes sense.

Also, he uses the word in the infinitive form, and I’m not sure why or if it conveys something different than if he’d conjugated it somehow. The subtitles translated it as “I’m okay” but I think it could just have easily been translated to “It’s okay” because there’s no subject, and It’s making me wonder if there’s actually a distinction to a Korean speaker. Obviously, he wasn’t translating in English in his mind, so what did he mean, did he mean “I’m okay” or “It’s okay” or would he not differentiate?