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.
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!
★★★ 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.
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:
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…