Long overdue is the time to tip the nib of my (virtual) pen to those dramas and feature films to which I have been awarding my highest rating, three stars. If you wish to see a comprehensive list of titles I’ve explored since setting off on this adventure, you may find it in “Curio in KDramaland… (or, Through the Sageuk Lens)“. You will also find the key to the asterisk and numeric annotation.
All the titles listed here boast some of the most talented and skilled thespians on screen. Once I had compiled the list, I noticed that each of my 18 favorite actors appears in at least one of the titles with Lee Yo Won , Moon Geun Young , Jang Hyeok , Lee Byeong Heon  and Shim Eun Kyeong  in as many as three of the award winners recognized here!
You can watch many of these titles streaming online by clicking on the link where available. UPDATE: It’s been a year since the first publication and the list has stayed fairly consistent with a couple of additions.
[+] – you can find more articles on this site about the titles marked with [+]
The “Still Waters Run Deep” Award
Beautifully understated films that take their time to weave a fine yarn for a willing audience. The first four are stories of love discovered in epistolary magic, in accidental and voluntary seclusion, in the cycle of life and in self denial. The fifth glimpses a young gangster’s perfunctory life.
Each selected title rewards patience, offering subtle, yet moving twists that will leave you wistful yet profoundly satisfied.
★★★ *Il Mare
★★★ *Castaway on the Moon 
★★★ *Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, Spring
★★★ *Addicted 
★★★ *A Dirty Carnival 
The “Sageuk – Great Kings” Award
Here are some gorgeously crafted tales about notable monarchs of Korea of yore. We start with the founder of the northernmost of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Dongmyeong of Goguryeo whose legendary life is recounted in the blockbuster epic Jumong. Next, the first of only two monarchs in three millennia of Korea’s history to be formally recognized as “Great”: the mythical Gwanggaeto the Great, Military Mastermind Extraordinaire whose story is magically rendered in Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi. The epic tale of the rise of Queen Seon Deok of Silla is easily the most beautiful portrait of an incomparable strategic grandmaster, while that of Lee Seong Gye (Taejo of Joseon) in The Great Seer makes for a thoroughly engaging dramatization of the inception of the Joseon Dynasty whose fourth king, Sejong the Great, turns out to be one of that most rare of species – the genius king – a visionary whose intellectual prowess is celebrated in the superbly engaging dramatization of the invention of Hangeul, Tree With Deep Roots [+]. The hero of Daemang may not sit on a throne, but his story is a visually gorgeous and narratively impeccable allegory of what an ideal leader ought to be. Next, we have the brilliant portrayal of the enigmatic Gwanghae of Joseon who was deposed and in his time had so perplexing a personality that he apparently still has historians scratching their heads… This category is enriched by Yi San, a gently understated, yet thoroughly engaging account of the life and times of Jeongjo of Joseon, brilliant patron of intellectual life and easily the most widely celebrated monarch in KDrama so far, appearing as protagonist or prominent agent in at least nine of the titles on my “Curio in KDramaland” watch list. The category is made whole with Hyeon Bin’s brilliant, subtle and profound Fatal Encounter which frames Jeongjo’s political plight as the triumph of the perseverance of Hope against all reasonable odds. Superb storytelling all around.
★★★ (58 BC-19 BC) Jumong  [+] ★★★
★★★ (374-413) Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi [12, 17]
★★★ (632-647) Queen Seon Deok  [+]
★★★ ∞(1330-1374) The Great Seer
★★★ (1368-1444) Tree With Deep Roots [5, 14, 16]
★★★ (1550-1600?) Daemang  ★★★
★★★ *(1574-1641) Gwanghae (Masquerade) [9, 17]
★★★ (1752-1800) Yi San *
★★★ (1752-1800) King’s Wrath (Fatal Encounter) ★★★ 
The “Sageuk – Artistic & Intellectual Genius” Award
Ah… the thrill and beauty of watching a genius at work! Unfamiliar music, poetry or art means more when we know about and care about someone who does them well. And who doesn’t love music, poetry or art when they recognize the beauty of their craft and appreciate the artist’s genius. Whatever your taste, these dramas will endow you with more cultural wealth than most. Sejong the Great is already taking home a “Great Kings” Award for Tree With Deep Roots [+] and no “must-see” list would be complete without the legendary Dae Jang Geum. The other three are about brilliant women from the Joseon Dynasty who shine for their creatively poetic, analytical and artistic genius. Hwang Jin Yi is a veritable lesson in Joseon-era music, dance and poetry while Dong Yi packs an unexpectedly delectable brainy punch and The Painter of the Wind brings the painting of Hye Won and Dan Won to life right before your eyes. Prepare to get your Culture on, yorobun! For more on the poet and the painter, see the post about Hwang Jin Yi and Shin Yun Bok. King Jeongjo, an advocate of practical learning over abstract knowledge, also claims a place among the intellectual geniuses represented in this category.
★★★ (1368-1444) Tree With Deep Roots [5, 14, 16]
★★★ >(1500-1550) Dae Jang Geum
★★★ (1506-1560) Hwang Jin Yi [15, 17] [+]
★★★ (1661-1720) Dong Yi * [+]
★★★ (1745-1800) The Painter of the Wind [4, 13][+]
★★★ (1752-1800) King’s Wrath (Fatal Encounter) ★★★ 
* Dong Yi (1661-1720) and Yi San (1752-1800) will make a good double feature for the sageuk lover looking for a continuing epic that spans five generations. Dong Yi offers the story of King Sukjong’s romance with the humble water maid Dong Yi, leading through the birth of the future King Yeongjo. Yi San, meanwhile, starts of with the latter years of Yeongjo’s reign, leads up through his grandson King Jeongjo’s reign and concluding with his son Sunjo’s ascension to the throne following his death.
The genealogy below indicates fathers and sons in bold letters. Yeongjo’s older half brother Gyeongjong succeeded their father but died without an heir, making the former water maid’s offspring the ruler of the realm.
- Sukjong (1661  — 1720)
- Gyeongjong (1688  — 1724), Yeongjo (1694  – 1776)
- Crown Prince Sado (1735 — 1762)
- Jeongjo (1752  — 1800) [+]
- Sunjo (1790  – 1834)
The “Sageuk – Adrenaline Rush” Award
If you enjoy cliff diving, then you will love these beautiful, heart-pumping, cinematic odes to martial arts and the fugitive. You got virtuoso archery on the run; you got superb hand-to-hand Wing Chun style combat, serious athleticism and priceless bawdiness — on the run; you got mad swordsmanship and outrageous Wire Fu action — you guessed it — on the run… get the picture? And in all three you got heart-wrenching love stories, to boot. The key word here is fusion-sageuk.
Still not ready to take the plunge? How about I drop some names, then: Moon Chae Won in War of the Arrows; Ha Ji Won and Lee Seo Jin in Damo; Jang Hyeok, Jang Hyeok and Jang Hyeok with an assist from Han Jeong Soo’s no-nonsense washboard abs in Chuno.
★★★ *(1623-1636) War of the Arrows
★★★ ((1636-)1648) Chuno 
★★★ (1692) Damo
The “Sageuk – Eye Candy Galore” Award
While there are a couple of bonafide 3-star confections in this collection of fusion sageuk featuring preternaturally gorgeous players in the bloom of youth, it is also the only category where some 2-star titles are granted special admission. Granted, Jang Hyeok crashes this party, too, but how could he not as Prince Wang So?
Anyway, I don’t make ’em – I just watch them. Sometimes the young ‘uns just need a little extra help to be seen and heard. And they really are just so lovely to look at that their charm goes a long, long way to make up for any significant issues in storytelling finesse.
In summary, the list includes two historical fictions, a couple of manhwa adaptations, a folk tale, a time-travel fairy tale, a campus comedy and a fantasy. Young love abounds along with the obstacles it must overcome. You’ll be sure to cry aplenty for that sweet-n-salty goodness.
★★★ (918-975) Shine or Go Crazy 
☆★★ (1417-1468) The Princess’s Man
★☆★ (1632-1645) The Return of Iljimae [+]
★☆★ (1645-1649) Iljimae  [+]
☆★★ (mid 1600) Arang and the Magistrate 
★★★ (1694) Queen In-hyun’s Man
☆★★ (1776-1800) Sungkyunkwan Scandal 
★★★ Moon That Embraces the Sun 
The “I Dare You to Love Me” Award
The no frills charmer that does not beg for your love – you can take or leave it. You’ll be glad you took it. It’s a mixed bag (from melodrama to revenge drama to mystery/crime drama, some science fiction thrown in and a couple of romantic comedies) so at least you have some variety from which to choose.
Each of the titles in this category upends some convention of the genre and will make you rethink your idea of ‘normal.’ In the mood for supernatural or hyper-natural romance? What about conmen, spies, undercover antiheroes, medical sleuths, genius hackers and aliens? Or maybe some mystical time travelers, gender benders or body swappers? Perhaps you just want to see Justice prevail and Love triumph? Check, check, check, and… check!
Melodrama (from Romance to Crime)
★★★ 49 Days  [+]
★★★ That Winter, The Wind Blows  [+]
★★★ Heartless City  [+]
★★★ Empire of Gold  [+]
Thriller (from Revenge to Mystery)
★★★ Iris 
★★★ City Hunter
★★★ Time Between Dog and Wolf [8, 11]
★★★ Sign 
★★★ Ghost [2012 w/ So Ji Sub]
★★★ Nine: Nine Time Travels  [+]
★★★ You are from the Stars
★★★ My Girlfriend is a Gumiho
★★★ Coffee Prince
★★★ Boys Over Flowers [+]
★★★ Secret Garden ★★★  [+] [+]
★★★ Fated to Love You (Korea) ★★★ [1, 5] [+] [+] [+]
The “Fabulously Absurd and I Can’t Get Enough” Award
Boys Over Flowers is so fabulously absurd that it is easy to overlook the rather deeply moving bildungsroman unfolding beneath the surface. And once you get started, it is impossible to stop watching – and not just for the first go around. It has been reported to be the “gateway drama” for many an unsuspecting passerby (and future kdrama junky). My gateway drama was Autumn in My Heart — a fact I understand to be true for many many many other KDrama aficionados… Anyhoo, watching Boys Over Flowers again nearly a year after it helped initiate me to KDramaland — my ear and my mind more sensible to the nuances of KDrama — I am discovering, under the veneer of broad ‘n breezy comedy a richer, more thought-provoking drama than I had originally seen, and happily so.
★★★ Boys Over Flowers [+]
★★★ Gaksital (Bridal Mask)
Equally over the top and just as perilously addictive is Gaksital, an über-patriotic salute to the Korean underdog set during the brutal Japanese colonial era.
It is a wild ride that inspired me to pay [closer] attention to the history of Easte and South East Asia of the early 20th Century and by so doing to better appreciate dynamics of contemporary Nippo-Korean politics. Here’s to KDrama: illuminating the shadowy corners of my cultural ignorance one fascinating drama at a time!
Incidentally, the near-ubiquitous, ever sublime Ahn Seok-Hwan is in both these dramas and he is, well, not shy in either!
A Certain Regard…
Deserving of special mention are the following titles especially selected for their sweet-n-salty combo. Both The Return of Iljimae and Iljimae proved inexplicably entrancing despite significant … um … issues, let’s say. For more on some of these storytelling issues, see the linked articles. If, however, you’re jonesing for a good cry (and I mean by the buckets-full), stock up on some tissues and settle in for the following Tearjerker Express titles selected from the ‘Seasons’ and ‘Lovers’ series:
Fusion-Sageuk Eye Candy
★☆★ The Return of Iljimae [+]
★☆★ Iljimae [8, 16] [+]
★☆★ Winter Sonata 
★☆★ Spring Waltz
★☆★ Autumn in My Heart 
It turns out that so far, I have given the three stars to about one third of all the KDrama titles I’ve watched [see “Curio in Dramaland… (or, Through the Sageuk Lens)” for the complete list with notes]. A 30% brilliance rate is not bad at all, especially since the two-star productions leave a lot of tinseltown hits in the dust and Hollywood’s best usually compare to the one-star dramas on my list in my opinion. Biased much? Mais, bien sûr!
Anyway, should your tastes tend toward any of the arbitrary categories listed above, I hope that the dramas and films contained therein prove as delightful and satisfying to you as they have done to me. I’ve also noticed that Jang Hyeok appears in almost every category. This leads me to suspect that at some point in the near future, he’ll have in each of the categories listed here. Now that’s something to look forward to…
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Excellent list. I have to say “Gwanghae: the Man who Became King” sounds very intriguing. (I’ve visited Wikipedia and he sounds like a fascinating figure even without the prince and pauper shenanigans.)
I ordered the DVD from Korea (I could not wait for the U.S. release) and watched it as soon as it arrived and man, Lee Byung Hun is beyond fantastic in this film! He has a talent more common in Korean actors than in American or European actors: namely, dramatic versatility that leaves even Meryl Streep (who I adore) in the dust.
I remember being taken aback when I saw his self-effacing character in Addicted after having fallen in love with his Jason-Bourne-esque spy from IRIS – same face, same body, completely different person! In fact, in Addicted he plays a character who changes personality after a near-fatal car crash and extended coma.
Well, in Gwanghae: the Man who Became King, the king and the clown Lee Byung Hun has to portray are so different in personality despite being physically identical (duh!) that I got to the end of the film having forgotten that they were played by the same actor! It’s weird, but there you have it.
However biased I may be, the fact remains that I cannot think of a single American or European actor who can so seamlessly create the illusion of being completely different people who just happen to look alike from one film to the next, let alone within the same film. ‘Cause y’know, Bruce Willis is always Bruce Willis and even Meryl Streep is always Meryl Streep (with or without accent, but with a standard, recognizable set of tell-tale twitches). I have come across a couple of exemplary non-American, non-European actors who fit the bill though: Canadian Tatiana Maslany in the BBC America’s Orphan Black and Australian John Noble a little in Fringe.
And it just could be that as actors go, Lee Byung Hun is just mad talented and very hardworking… And, oh, did I happen to mention, Bew-tea-full!
Boys Over Flowers: aka ‘The Education of Gu Jun Pyo’
I was looking for Jan Di’s beautiful and halting 사랑밖엔 난 몰라 when I suddenly found myself watching the whole thing from the top! Wow. I had no plans to come back to this and yet here we are, eight episodes along and thoroughly enjoying it!
I look forward to writing up something about this fabulous and unexpectedly rich piece of comedy bling.
Very Interesting! It isn’t easy to find quality stuff.
I agree! And yet, as much as I wish more people could discover the beauty of KDrama, especially the really good ones, I am glad that it is has not been diluted into the Western mainstream.
Now that I say that I realize that it is somewhat paradoxical since so much about the most popular dramas is Occidento-normative, or at least aspires to it. There is enough cultural distinctiveness though for even the trendiest rom-coms and melodramas to be specifically Korean. My preference in this regard is therefore naturally the saguek, all for reasons I have articulated elsewhere on this blog.
In any case, whatever your cultural and aesthetic taste, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!
“The “Sageuk – Eye Candy Galore” Award” 😀 I think I might watch these first!
wow, what a list and now im truly fascinated. in fact my first kdrama was Da Jang Geum and that got me started to be hooked a little to k drama but not to addiction levels. in the past, i have selected dramas based on actors or actresses whom i think are good and i like to watch. your list have “inspired” me to venture beyond this test mode and go further. out of your list i have only watched Da Jang Geum, Hwang Jin YI, Chuno, Sungyukwan Scandal, That Winter The Wind Blows, You Are From The Stars, Fated To Love You and Bridal Mask. 30% for me would be Fated To Love You, Chuno and Da jang Geum. The 1st i wld like to watch which i have not done is Tree w Deep Roots. You can see im obviously a jang Hyuk fan. lol
Hello, fellow Jang Hyeok fan! You and me both on that one! Strangely, I never even thought about whether or not I was a fan but then I saw Fated to Love You and now I am watching (or rewatching(!)) everything Jang Hyeok!
I love Tree With Deep Roots especially for the way it dramatizes a conscientious king’s internal and external conflicts in wanting to bring some practical innovation to his people. I love how the drama takes this particular genius and tries to tell the story of his human struggles. I really hope you enjoy it.
Both the TWDR and Chuno DVD Box Sets are a part of my growing personal library – one which now includes nearly a dozen(!) Jang Hyeok titles. After seeing him in Fate to Love You, it became clear to me that I wanted to see everything he has every done—and that’s when I realized I was a fan! 🙂
I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I have not yet watched Dae Jang Geum, especially given how iconic it is. In fact, I think it was the second KDrama DVD box set I ever purchased (after Tae Wang Sa Shin Gi) and it has been sitting on my shelf for nearly two years now. I don’t know why I keep postponing seeing it. Maybe it’s because it is guaranteed to be great and I want to save it for that day when I want to watch something which is guaranteed to be great… Oh who knows… maybe…
Anyway, I hope you do enjoy Tree With Deep Roots. I finally put Jang Hyeok (along with Lee Yo Won and Hyeon Bin) in the principle menu because I anticipate writing quite a lot about them so one day, I think – well, I hope, to write something about TWDR when I have watched it again. Someday…
Oh its so good to meet another JH fan. i think at least JH fans go quite logical when we comment on his acting, lol. Im like you too, converted to be a fan after FTLY. Ironically i have watched Chuno and Iris 2 before FTLY, but somehow other than the fact that JH is v good looking and his acting was pretty good, i didnt think much of him until FTLY. I suppose becos in FTLY, he had more opportunity to show his ability to deliver the range of emotions created for Lee Gun. I watched Da Jang Geum over cable, then got impatient and got the box set..thats how good the show was. I also wld like to watch Gwanghae, given your review. Also, i started to watch early productions of Hyun Bin (Secret Garden, Millionaire’s 1st love, Daddy Long Legs, Im Happy) but i couldnt help but compare him w JH esp in Secret Garden. So unfortunately i have yet to find someone who could really be on par with Jang Hyuk for now. Hahahahaha.
Hahaha! 🙂 I find what you say about Hyeon Bin so funny because I’ve been having similar thoughts. There’s a time in 2013 when he was promoting Rogatis men’s wear when he wore his hair like Secret Garden’s Oska and pre-divorce Lee Geon [I’ll embed the video below]. I remember wondering, when FTLY first started, what Lee Geon would be like if he had been played by Hyeon Bin instead of Jang Hyeok.
I’ve seen a considerable number of Hyeon Bin’s dramas and films (including the ones that you mention) and I really like and admire him as an actor. He seems to go out of his way to select characters with a special kind of damage in their lives and I find myself wondering why he is drawn to that as an actor… In any case, I think he would have done a wonderful job as Lee Geon – different, but wonderful all the same.
That being said, I would not trade Jang Hyeok’s Lee Geon for any other fictional character in the world! He is one of a kind – a gem, really and I simply love him. I think you are absolutely right that he allows Jang Hyeok to manifest a greater range of psychological and emotional experiences than any of his previous characters alone have given him the opportunity to do. In fact, going back over Jang Hyeok’s dramas and films, I think I see a little bit of some of his most iconic characters in Lee Geon. But then again, I could just be imagining things… 🙂
Anyway, I really feel inspired to write about the works of the three actors for whom I created categories on my menu bar. I don’t really know how that will work out… I am about to finish the third piece on FTLY so I hope its completion means the beginning of a new productive phase of planned writing… [*fingers crossed*]
And with that, here’s Binnie in all his be-dimpled beauty and ethereal elegance. [*Okay, but seriously, just looking at him makes me a little light-headed!* – be sure to watch this on ‘full screen’ for the full effect 🙂 ]
Hi, you are such a darling. Thanks for sharing. Binnie is cute..to me, like a neighborhood oppa.. He is not as “cheeky” as Jang Hyuk – even though Hyukssi is v polite and courteous in all his variety shows/interviews, i sense a bit of cheekiness in him. Perhaps its bcos of Hyukssi sense of humour. On screen smile/close up captions, Hyukssi wins hands down for me. That being said, i think if Binnie played LG, it wld also have been interesting but perhaps not as OTT (mind you i recall the sequinned track suit he wore in Secret Garden which made me laugh like crazy). Looking forward to your 3rd piece on FTLY.
I jumped into the KDrama ‘pool’ from the deep end…and became so excited to find good clean entertainment rarely found on American broadcast TV….so refreshing to see these young entertainers plying their craft…they train so hard to be cross-over icons on screen and stage, making their dreams come true while giving all of us GREAT quality offerings.
Although I do enjoy a contemporary tale…the truth is, I’m a ‘Sageuk Geek’ and cut my teeth on Empress Ki and Jumong, Iron Empress and Chuno….I have such a long list of ‘must see’ dramas, I know I’ll never have the time to see them all. I have really enjoyed your choices and commentary as well as the organized listings….thank you for the work you put into your interesting blog.
I know just what you mean – both about the quality and wholesomeness of the storytelling an about the allure of sageuk!
I, too, finally realized that American TV shows suffers from the very off-putting extremes of either vapid crassness or vulgar brutality when it is not being insipidly maudlin. Ever since I discovered KDrama it pains me to see how much effort, technical talent and resources are squandered on the meaningless spectacles that glut American TV, especially primetime and cable… ok – I think I’ve vented enough [!]
I, too, have found that the richness of KDrama makes it hard to keep up with a to-watch list. I enjoy marathon watching although sometimes new dramas pull me in… The great thing here is that KDrama offers so many great choices you never have to watch anything else for entertainment unless you really want to.