The Rise of Anti-Heroes in Korean Dramas

Korean dramas are a highly imitative genre. If something is successful once you will surely see many variations on a theme cropping up. How many “Boys Over Flowers” clones are there out there? Since the release of the critically acclaimed smash hit “The Innocent Man” in 2012 it’s no surprise that anti-heroes have become increasingly popular. In my opinion this is a move to be applauded.

Ma-Ru bullies the son of a man he drove to attempt suicide

Ma-Ru bullies the son of a man he drove to attempt suicide

Why do I approve of this recent trend? It’s simple: anti-heroes are by definition complex characters. They require deep character development, psychological drama, and moral quandaries to exist. Simply put, anti-heroes require stepping outside of the tired stereotypes that have weighed the drama down. The arrogant heir who needs the care of a poor but pure-hearted girl just won’t do.

The anti-hero has been lurking around in Korean media for a while. Lee Yoon-Sung (Lee Min-Ho) in “City Hunter” walks the line between hero and anti-hero due to his violent methods. Many of the iconic film director Park Chan-Wook’s films include anti-heroes such as “Thirst,” “Old Boy,” and “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance.” However in the world of the drama, no one can deny the extreme popularity and influence of “The Innocent Man.”

French Poster for Park Chan-Wook's "Lady Vengeance."

French Poster for Park Chan-Wook’s “Lady Vengeance.”

Complex motivations are what made Song Joong-Ki’s performance as Kang Ma-Ru riveting. His story begins where most dramas end: an endlessly optimistic, gifted young man overcomes tremendous difficulties. Despite his parents’ abandonment, crippling poverty, and his sister’s illness Ma-Ru becomes the star pupil at a top medical school. His long relationship with the fragile neighborhood beauty blossoms into love. End scene. Cut to black.

Except the show lets us know quickly and brutally that life is not that simple. As everything rapidly disintegrates for Mar-Ru, the drama boldly rejects the typical drama notion that once someone loves you back there’s nothing left to say. Ma-Ru loses everything and becomes increasingly bitter, cruel, manipulative, and even suicidal. Song Joong-Ki was widely applauded and lauded for his portrayal of an anti-hero running scams in a world he feels is impossible to survive in without scamming. Though, this initially morally gray world was thoroughly shattered by the sloppy deux ex machina ending. I suspect it might have been tacked on at the last moment to provide a “happy” ending.

The rise of anti-heroes in American television, which kicked off with The Sopranos in 1998, is associated with a rise in quality of television. Many refer to the first decade of the 21st century as a “golden age” for television and anti-heroes have led the way, creating increasingly darker, better-written shows driven by character development and psychological torment including Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire. I feel a similar trend in terms of this variety and quality could well be making its way onto Korean screens more often. Take Heartless City which many viewers (including myself) have already put in the running for best drama of the year.

Described as a noir thriller, Heartless City follows a cast of characters on both sides of the drug trade. The main criminal investigator is less sympathetic than “The Doctor’s Son,” a major drug distributor.

Promo poster for "Heartless City"

Promo poster for “Heartless City”

The breakout character definitely is Lee Jin-Sook (Kim Yoo-Mi) an unapologetic woman who runs prostitution rings and deals drugs. She forges her own moral code, attacking a business rival just as quickly as she gets revenge on a man who tried to rape her friend. When a business partner is murdered by another partner, she doesn’t even blink an eye. Yet she is by and large beloved by the audience and by key characters. Like many anti-heroes she has her own sense right and wrong that she staunchly upholds. When Jin-Sook decides she likes someone they have her support 100%. When investigator Ji Hyung-Min would have let leading lady Yoon Soo-Min (Nam Gyu-Ri) rot in jail, it is Lee Jin-Sook who springs her and makes sure she looks fabulous while doing it.

Kim Yoo-Mi as Lee Jin-Sook

Kim Yoo-Mi as Lee Jin-Sook

Leading man Jung Si-Hyun (Jung Kyung-Ho) never would have survived his life as an orphan without Jin-Sook’s protection and patronage. There is no doubt that this unscrupulous, morally ambiguous prostitute is far more interesting to watch than another uber-innocent, incredibly naïve good girl.

Many fans have lamented the increase in “dark dramas” and feel that the genre’s innocence is what sets it apart from Western media. Make no mistake, I enjoy a light-hearted, chaste first romance just as much as the next fangirl, but there is room for more than one type of story. Anti-heroes have an ability to breathe life into a genre that has become a factory of clone stories.

  • bgbbff

    I am in complete argeement…..this is the first good list of korean dramas(that have antiheros) that I have seen if anyone has any other recommendation id be happy to watch them im really tired of the whole nice guy gets the girl and falls in love the end bs

  • Malu

    This is a great article, I’m just discovering this kind of characters and they’re fascinating!