China may have cracked down on television shows that depict time travel — but meanwhile, in Korea, journeys through time became the hottest trend on the small screen.
No fewer than five Korean dramas started featuring characters who journeyed through time in 2012 — mostly on a quest for love. But why were there so many time travel shows this past year?
The time travel genre has been having something of a renaissance in Asian media generally over the past few years, even after China's famous ban. And popular Korean TV shows, like Dr. Jin, are actually a reworking of a Japanese show and manga for Korean sensibilities, importing concepts from Japan, where time travel storylines have been popular for years.
Also, these time travel shows combine two of the most popular genres in Korea: historical drama and romantic melodrama. It seems as though the makers of these shows hope to capture the typically older audience for the more stuffy historical dramas, along with the hipper set who are more interested in modern love and angst.
While the shows all share a similar premise of lovers connected karmically through time, each has a different tone and point of view. So if you are looking for something different from the normal Western fare, check out some of these. It is refreshing and disorienting to watch something where you don't share the cultural touchstones. You'll need to wrap your mind around the new tropes, stereotypes and clichés. And if you are like me — woefully ignorant about the history of Korea — puzzling out context and figuring out the details of the world is part of the fun. As a foreign viewer, you also have the advantage of suspense and surprise when watching characters visit historical figures, because you have no idea how things turned out in reality.
So here's our quick guide to recent Korean time-travel shows. All these shows have either hit Hulu or Netflix, and are complete runs with English subtitles (except Queen In Hyun's Man, which is on viki.com).
This is a fun adventure show that combines fantasy, history, wire-fu and romance into an entertaining package. A modern woman and plastic surgeon, whose dream it is to open a clinic in Gangnam, is abducted by a warrior from 700 years in the past to heal an injured Queen. She becomes trapped in the past and is embroiled in the politics of the court. This show has way more going on than just a love story. The visuals and occasional use of animation are captivating. The Big Bad of the series might as well be an over-the-top Bond villain, and his cronies look like they stepped out of a manga. Faith also maintains a fantastic quality with magic and some crazy fight scenes that defy gravity.
The show is just a flat-out romantic comedy that happens to feature a love triangle from across time. The Crown Prince and his men from 300 years ago are zapped to present-day Seoul, while investigating the murder of the Crown Princess. He ends up living with the doppelganger/reincarnation of his sister-in-law, and wacky hijinks ensue as he tries to cope with modern technology and the sudden drop from a privileged lifestyle. The formula is familiar but the show is still charming and really plays up the physical and situational humor. Compared to the period set shows the production value is low and more in keeping with a sitcom.
This show takes itself very seriously, as it tries to capture the feel of a straight-up medical drama. The gifted but arrogant neurosurgeon, Dr. Jin, is mysteriously transported back to 1860 after removing a fetus shaped tumor from a patient's head — a tumor that seems to be talking to him. Just prior to his time slip, his girlfriend and fellow doctor is nearly killed in a car accident and is hovering at death's door. When he gets to the past, he unsurprisingly runs into another version of her. Despite this rather insane premise, there isn't a drop of levity in this show. It is all very sincere and delivers lines like "You're a doctor, not God!" completely deadpan. A word of warning: Dr. Jin has graphic and extended surgery scenes.
This is sort of the Quantum Leap of Korean melodrama — if Quantum Leap featured a guy that just kept going back in time to fix his own life and win the girl. This show is solely about regret and fixing past mistakes to find love and happiness. Kang Baek Ho has been in the "friend zone" for twenty years with his best friend, because he was always too much of a coward to confess his feelings or act on them. On his friend's wedding day to another man, he realizes he really screwed up. A mysterious man called the "Time Conductor" shows up and gives him a chance to go back and try to fix his mistakes. Throughout the series, he makes several trips back and forth in his own history to tamper and see the results.
Queen In Hyun's Man does a good job at combining the seriousness of a period drama and the light-heartedness of a romantic comedy. Kim Boong Do is a scholar from 1694 who supports the deposed Queen In Hyun and is caught up in the violent politics of his time. When he's nearly being killed in combat, he is transported by a magical talisman to 2012 Seoul where he meets Choi Hee-jin, an actress that has just made her first big career break by landing the part of Queen In Hyun on a Korean drama. The show is interesting, because the scenes that take place in the past play as serious drama and the present day scenes have a more rom-com feeling. It heightens the feeling of two different worlds meeting. You get sword fights, and a professional woman trying to make it in a tough world, all in the same show.
The above time travel shows got great ratings in 2012, so it's not surprising a new one is already on the way. The creators of In Hyun's Man have just cast their next show — Nine: Nine Time Travels, in which the main character acquires nine mysterious potions that allow him to travel back in time by twenty years. The big difference here being that there is an actual limit and rules governing the amount of time travel he can do.