2022 Wrap: Best of K-dramas

From lines like “Worship Me” to decoding a kiss using tongue “cells” and exploring the minds of serial killers, this was a good year for K-dramas
2022 Wrap: Best of K-dramas

Conventional wisdom suggests that every entertainment industry has highs followed by lows. Since K-dramas have been on a high since 2019, you might have wondered if 2022 was inching toward a low with middling shows like Tomorrow and Thirty-Nine. Think again. This year has seen some of the most gripping K-dramas across genres, from coming-of-age dramas like Twenty-Five Twenty-One, thrillers like Little Women and crime shows like Through the Darkness. Even the less-than-perfect shows like the Korean remake of Call My Agent and Glitch had good performances and interesting ideas. Plus, in November, Song Joong-ki returned to our screens with Reborn Rich (which we haven’t included in our list because too few episodes have aired so far) and showed how the reincarnation idea can be used cleverly to talk about chaebol (conglomerate) culture. All in all, 2022 has been a good year for K-dramas. Here are our favourites, in alphabetical order. We’ll leave it to you to rank them in terms of preference.  

Alchemy of Souls (Season 1)

Director: Park Joon-hwa

Writers: Hong Mi-ran, Hong Jung-eun

Cast: Lee Jae-wook, Jung So-min

The Hong sisters made a comeback this year — their last show was the weird and delightful Hotel del Luna —  with a fantasy epic about a dreaded assassin whose soul finds itself trapped in a weakling’s body. Set in a fictional world where magic is an everyday affair, Alchemy of Souls introduced us to one of the most entertaining heroines in K-dramaverse. Naksu is an assassin who is known for killing powerful mages. When she goes up against the warrior wizards of Daeho, she’s seriously injured and in a desperate attempt to save herself, Naksu does a bit of forbidden magic: She switches bodies with a stranger. The plus side is that she’s now alive, but trapped in the body of a frail woman named Mu-deok (Jung So-min). Also, the authorities of Daeho are looking for Naksu/ Mu-deok and have Naksu’s body in their custody, which means Naksu is stuck being Mu-deok. Running parallel to Naksu’s story is that of Jang Uk (Lee Jae-wook), the black sheep of his family. He’s been cursed by his father, who was once one of the most powerful mages in Daeho but has since disappeared. Naksu and Jang Uk’s paths cross and they realise they can help each other. Jung is wonderful and chaotic as the grumpy Naksu who’s stuck in a body that refuses to work as she wants it to, which leads to some hilarious moments. True to K-drama tradition, Jang Uk is one of those dream male leads who is just the right balance of confidence, vulnerability and mischief. He is very much Naksu’s sidekick and student, and their relationship changes over the course of the season, deepening with every adventure and twist. The first season ended on a cliffhanger and we’re a little disappointed by how the second season seems to be all about the heroism of Jang Uk, but if you’re in the mood for fantasy and feisty women, Alchemy of Souls is the K-drama for you. Also, the visual effects are stunning. 

All of Us Are Dead

Director: Lee Jae-gyoo

Writer: Chung Sung-il

Cast: Park Ji-hoo, Yoon Chan-young, Jo Yi-hyun, Lomon

South Koreans seem to have a thing for zombies and they've done rather magnificent things with zombie outbreaks in the past (Kingdom anyone?). In All of Us Are Dead, the zombie outbreak takes place in a high school after a science teacher experiments on a hamster that goes on to bite a student. Soon enough a group of kids are trapped in a zombie-infested school. Outside, the government ends up imposing martial law for the first time in 41 years and cut off all communications, ostensibly to prevent the spread of fake news. All of Us Are Dead is a reminder of how cleverly the horror genre can explore our social dynamics. Plus, there's a twist in episode five that is guaranteed to make your head spin. Blood, gore and a whole of thought-provoking moments that explore social inequalities and contemporary teenage angst — what more could you ask for?  

A still from All of Us Are Dead.
A still from All of Us Are Dead.

Bloody Heart

Director: Yoo Young-eun 

Writer: Park Pil-joo

Cast: Lee Joon, Kang Han-na, Jang Hyuk

It’s been a good year for sageuks (historical K-dramas), beginning with The Red Sleeve, which ended at the start of 2022. Like in The Red Sleeve, there’s a hamstrung prince and a fiercely independent woman powering Bloody Heart. Lee Joon plays Lee Tae, the heir to the throne of Joseon who is keenly aware of the power of the court. He’s seen his father trying to break out of the ministers’ clutches, but to no avail. For Lee Tae, his mission is to secure power for himself as the sovereign ruler of Joseon. Standing in his way is Park Gye-won (Jang Hyuk) who is a member of the court and far more powerful than the king. Yoo Jung (Kang Han-na), the daughter of an idealistic nobleman, finds herself in the middle of the two men’s politicking when she gets married to Lee Tae. Although there is a thread of romance in Bloody Heart, this show is mostly about power and the complexities of leadership. Much of it is a deliberation on who should have the authority to decide a country’s future and what are the political measures that safeguard not just a nation’s present, but also its future. The power balance shifts with the slightest change in circumstances, making for a tense and gripping show. Jang Hyuk is mesmerising as the ruthless Park Gye-won who seems reprehensible at first, but is slowly revealed to be far more nuanced as a character. The half-hearted romance between Lee Tae and Yoo Jung frustrated many viewers, but those complaints should be directed to writer Park Pil-joo who is clearly more interested in politics than romance. Also, this is one of the most beautifully-filmed K-dramas of the year.    

Extraordinary Attorney Woo

Director: Yoo In-shik 

Writer: Moon Ji-won

Cast: Park Eun-bin, Kang Tae-oh

Park Eun-bin created something of a sensation as the brilliant, rookie attorney Woo Young-woo who is on the autism spectrum. Her Woo Young-woo has a few noticeable tics and struggles to understand the way people around her communicate, but Park made sure her character never felt like a caricature. It helped that the supporting cast was excellent and the show’s format — every episode was about a case that Young-woo is working on with her colleagues at a prestigious law firm — allowed us to learn more about not just Young-woo, but also some quirky details of the Korean legal system. Through the cases, the show painted a portrait of contemporary society and tackled many controversial issues, including queer love, women’s rights and sexual harassment in the workplace. Sure, there were some details that didn’t land well, but by and large, Extraordinary Attorney Woo was an endorphin rush. Young-woo’s endearing friendships, particularly with her loudmouth best friend, were an added attraction. Extraordinary Attorney Woo went on to become one of Netflix’s most successful shows, racking up more than 69 million views in a span of a few weeks. There are talks of a remake in English and though it will be delayed since one of the show’s leads has entered his mandatory military service, there will be a second season for Extraordinary Attorney Woo.  

Little Women

Director: Kim Hee-won 

Writer: Jung Seo-kyung

Cast: Kim Go-eun, Nam Ji-hyun, Park Ji-hoo, Wi Ha-joon

Undeniably the most original Korean drama of the year, Little Women crackles with wit, suspense and sharp writing. The series is directed by Vincenzo’s director Kim Hee-won and written by Jeong Seo-kyung, who is known for being director Park Chan-wook’s writing partner. Among their most famous films are The Handmaiden (2016), Lady Vengeance (2005) and most recently, Decision to Leave (2022). Loosely based on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, the 12-episode series follows the three Oh sisters – In-joo (Kim Go-eun), In-kyung (Nam Ji-hyun) and In-hye (Park Ji-hoon) – as they battle poverty and structural corruption. Within the first few episodes, Little Women establishes enough threads to hook the audience and if you haven’t watched it, then revel in the fact that you won’t have to wait for episodes to drop the way we had to when it was initially aired. The Oh sisters, particularly In-joo and In-kyung, find themselves in the middle of a labyrinthine mess when a colleague of In-joo’s leaves a rucksack of KRW 2 billion for In-joo. Dead bodies start dropping — including one adorned with only a fur coat and scarlet heels —  we’re introduced to a politician whose ruthlessness knows no bounds and whose family home has a greenhouse for a curious and rare orchid. That same orchid shows up each time a dead body is found. Eerie, ambitious and exquisitely shot, Little Women is a masterpiece that surprised us with its scale and included scathing commentary on the fickleness of today’s media, elitism, secret societies and the monstrosity that is bad parenting. The performances are terrific all around, but special mention must be made of Kim Go-eun and Uhm Ji-won, the latter pouring complexity into her depiction of a dangerously unfulfilled woman. 

My Liberation Notes

Director: Kim Seok-yoon

Writer: Park Hae-young

Cast: Kim Ji-won, Son Seok-ku, Lee Min-ki, Lee El

At the end of a particularly exhausting day, Yeom Mi-jeong (Kim Ji-won) stands before Gu-ssi (Seon Seok-ku), a reticent and alcoholic tenant, as he downs his daily soju. “Why do you drink every day? Would you like me to give you something else to do?” she asks, tears pricking at her eyes. “Worship me,” she orders him. This is the beginning of their strange contract, one that hinges on the courageous belief that if they worship each other – not just love; love isn’t enough – until the end of spring, they will transform one another. My Liberation Notes is a patchwork of such aches and joys. At its centre are three siblings – Mi-jeong (Kim Ji-won), Chang Hee (Lee Min-ki), Yeom Gi-jeong (Lee El) – each battling shades of shame, loneliness and indignity. Over the course of the series, however, they find gradual liberation through the fleeting connections around them, finding solace in their renewed understanding of the same, dreary existence. My Liberation Notes, written by My Mister’s Park Hae-young, weaves such a rich tapestry of perspectives and experiences into its narratives that it seems like a loving ode to life itself – random, frustrating and freeing. 

Through the Darkness

Directors: Kim Jae-hong, Park Bo-ram 

Writer: Seol Yi-na, Kwon Il-yong

Cast: Kim Nam-gil, Jin Seon-kyu, Kim So-jin

Through the Darkness’s Korean title translates to “Those Who Read the Hearts of Evil” – a telling title. The series is loosely based on a non-fiction novel of the same name, co-written by South Korea’s first-ever criminal profiler Kwon Il-yong and former journalist Ko Na-mu. Sounds familiar? If you’re still upset about Mind Hunter being cancelled, you might find some solace in the similarities this Korean thriller series shares with its American counterpart. Directed by Park Bo-ram and written by Seol Yi-na, the show is set in the late Nineties. We meet Song Ha-young (Kim Nam-gil) and Guk Yeong-su (Jin Sun-kyu) as they labour to create Korea’s first Behavioural Analysis Team, dedicated to understanding the minds of serial killers instead of simply prosecuting them. Unlike the slow burn that is Mind Hunter, Through the Darkness moves at breakneck speed, placing the narrative at the centre of the crimes that unfold in real-time. While this makes for episodes that do not overstay their welcome, the gory visuals lead to the occasional fetishisation of violence. Still, Through the Darkness remains one of the best Korean dramas of 2022. It shines in its multi-faceted depiction of a nation gripped by violence: The sexism in the police force, the horrors of child abuse and the role of the media in its portrayal of these cases.  Special shout-out to Kim Joong-Hee as the serial killer Nam Ki-tae, his performance managing to look both deranged and achingly vulnerable. 

Twenty-Five Twenty-One

Directors: Jung Ji-hyun, Kim Seung-ho 

Writer: Kwon Do-eun

Cast: Kim Tae-ri, Bona, Nam Joo-hyuk

Twenty-Five Twenty-One is, first and foremost, a tale of passion. Not between a man and a woman – although we get plenty of that, too – but between two fencing rivals: Na Hee-do (Kim Tae-ri) and Ko Yu-rim (Bona). The sport brings them together and drives them apart, the push-and-pull making space for sparkling chemistry and eventually, a once-in-a-lifetime friendship. Set between 1997 — when Na Hee-do was a naive 19-year-old – and 2022, when she’s the mother of a sulky teenager, the drama looks back at Hee-do, at that messy past when she became a champion fencer and grew out of childhood. Through the flashbacks, we learn of Hee-do’s friendships and her first love – all brilliantly embodied by the effervescent and perenially-watchable Kim Tae-ri. Written by Kwon Do-eun (who also wrote Search: WWW), the series stumbles in its last episode but for the most part, Twenty-Five Twenty-One remains a charming ode to youth and dreaming big. 

Under the Queen’s Umbrella

Director: Kim Hyung-shik

Writer: Park Ba-ra

Cast: Kim Hye-soo, Kim Hae-sook

One of the most interesting interventions in K-drama is the reimagining of historical political stories in a way that shows the role that women may have played. Fusion sageuks like Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung have done this particularly well. Under the Queen’s Umbrella might be the first one that completely sidelines the men — including the King — and sets the power play in the women’s domain. Queen Im Hwa-ryung (Kim Hye-soo) is a power walker, pill-popper and nothing like the demure, elegant creature that royal women are supposed to be. She’s also the mother of a brood of princes, who are all mischief makers in their own way, and has a hive of concubines and other royal wives to contend with for power in the palace. Hwa-ryung’s one source of comfort is that her eldest son is the ideal son and the crown prince — until she discovers he’s suffering from a mysterious ailment and may be dying. Determined to protect her sons, Hwa-ryung starts investigating who might be behind her son’s suffering and finds clues that point to Hwa-ryung’s mother in law, the Queen Dowager Cho (Kim Hae-sook). Also circling like vultures are the king’s other wives and concubines who realise that if the crown prince dies, then their sons have a chance to ascend to that position, which would make them all-powerful. Kim Hye-soo and Kim Hae-sook are on fire in their roles and the women’s machinations make for some terrific plotting. While remaining cognisant of the conventions of the Joseon era and the restraints that would be put on women at the time, Under the Queen’s Umbrella finds ways to sneak in modern, progressive thinking (mostly through Hwa-ryung’s decisions). 

Yumi’s Cells (Season 2)

Director: Lee Sang-yeob

Writer: Song Jae-jung, Kim Yoon-joo, Kim Kyung-ran

Cast: Kim Go-eun, Park Jin-young

In the first season of Yumi’s Cells, we were introduced to the idea of each person having a cell city in their brain — cells being animated cuties who guide the person’s behaviour. There’s a cell for love, there’s a cell for fashion, there’s a cell for sleep … you get the picture. This storytelling device ran the danger of feeling forced and juvenile, but director Lee Sang-yeob managed an excellent balance between the animated and live-action parts. In the second season, we get more of the same but with a stronger storyline. Kim Yu-mi (Kim Go-eun) is now a novelist and she has a new love interest: Yoo Babi (Park Jin-young). One of the strangest but also cutest bits in this second season of Yumi’s Cells is when Babi and Yu-mi kiss, and we see it from the perspective of their tongue cells (in case you were wondering, it’s Babi’s tongue cells that knock on Yu-mi’s tongue cell’s door first). Trust K-dramas to turn tongue-tangling French kissing into something cute. The show has a lot of well-observed bits about how people — particularly women — react to heartbreak and what it takes to gather themselves.  Although Yumi’s Cells initially seems like a standard romance, it’s actually about the protagonist learning getting to know and love herself. The ending broke a lot of viewers’ hearts, but we’d argue that it’s the happiest ending that one can imagine for a novelist. Also, we did get that scene with Babi in the shower so really, what’s to complain about?

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