Thriller Korean Dramas That Will Get You Hooked On Hallyu
Issue 15, Volume 112
By Raisa Noha
Thanks to the ever-growing popularity of K-pop groups like BTS and NCT and the international recognition of Korean films such as Parasite, Korean pop culture is gradually becoming a mainstay in America. In 2021, when everyone was bored and stuck at home due to the pandemic, Korean dramas established themselves as engaging and addictive, with Netflix’s Squid Game achieving unprecedented international acclaim. It further opened Western audiences to the Korean wave, or Hallyu, which is defined as the increase in global popularity of South Korean pop culture. Now, if you are looking to discover what else Korean dramas have to offer, look no further, as this is a list of K-drama thrillers that will keep your heart pounding with anxiety and anticipation.
If you love crime and fantasy, Signal is the drama for you. It seamlessly meshes the two genres as it follows criminal profiler Park Haeyoung (Lee Jaehoon), who discovers a mysterious walkie-talkie that connects him to a person from 1989: detective Lee Jaehan (Choi Jinwoong). Back in the present day (2015), Haeyoung becomes a member of a police team and works with Jaehan to solve and prevent current cold cases that happened during Jaehan’s time.
Signal puts a unique spin on the time travel trope in the way that nobody physically goes through time. Instead, it examines the concept of cause-and-effect through the development of character relationships and shocking plot twists. The show alternates between the past and future, incorporating Jaehan’s life experiences and flashbacks from Haeyoung’s tragic youth into the present. Though the switch between time periods may seem jarring, this plot device is improved by the editing and cinematography. Transitions are effortless and allow the story to flow well while still maintaining a mysterious essence.
Though the show may be intense at times, there’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from the closure that the victims’ families receive, which is supported by Choi’s portrayal of Lee Jaehan’s sensitive personality. Signal is an invigorating and well-structured piece that will leave you speechless.
High school is not all about making friends and getting good grades for model student Oh Jisoo (Kim Donghee). Living alone with no adults to rely on, he financially supports himself by managing a secret business, under the alias “Uncle,” that provides protection services to a network of sex workers. However, one of his classmates, Bae Gyuri (Park Juhyun), discovers his illicit activities and threatens to expose him unless he lets her become his partner in crime. The stakes get even higher when the police trace their school to an investigation involving student Seo Minhee (Jung Dabin), who is one of the sex workers under Jisoo’s protection. The show follows Jisoo as he starts to unravel under the pressures of his work and his growing crush on Gyuri.
The series is propelled by consistent foreshadowing, morally gray characters, and unpredictable plot twists. It is well-paced, with each episode building on the harsh realities of life. Good writing is supported by amazing acting, directing, and cinematography that make sure to keep its audience thoroughly engaged. The palette of the show, muted cool tones and dark grays, creates an ominous mood that breaks away from the traditionally bright and airy aesthetics of typical high school K-dramas. Though it takes a bit of time to warm up to Jisoo and Gyuri, the dynamic portrayed by Kim Donghee and Park Juhyun is a driving force of the show, and viewers find themselves rooting for the two despite their flaws. Overall, the provocative approach to teen angst and crime that Extracurricular takes will keep your eyes glued to the screen and make you reflect on society and your own life.
Save Me (2017)
After her father’s business fails, Im Sangmi (Seo Yeji) and the rest of her family completely uproot themselves to move to the unfamiliar town of Muji. Here, Sangmi and her twin brother, Sangjin, attend a new school, where Sangjin is relentlessly bullied to the point of suicide. In their vulnerable and grieving state, the family is preyed upon by the Guseonwon cult, which harbors many secrets under the facade of being a peaceful church. Under the leadership of “Spiritual Father,” Baek Jungki (Cho Seongha), its followers commit fraud, torture, and murder under the impression that it will help them achieve salvation. Unaware of the church’s horrible actions, Sangmi’s parents become devout believers and stay at the cult’s offered housing, trapping Sangmi with them. After several failed escape attempts, she is finally presented with the opportunity to ask her high school friend, Han Sanghwan (Taecyeon), to save her. Sanghwan enlists the help of his closest friends, Suk Dongchul (Woo Dohwan), Woo Junghoon (David Lee), and Choi Manhee (Ha Hoejung).
Though the drama runs slow at times, the acting and well-written characters make up for it. The villains are absolutely despicable and will keep you at the edge of your seat. Their presence further adds to the sinister atmosphere established by the show’s strategic camerawork and well-developed suspense. In contrast, Sanghwan and his group of friends are kindhearted and even comedic at times; their friendship brings hope and light to a show characterized by darkness. The highlight of the series, however, is Seo Yeji’s incredibly heart-wrenching performance. She haunts viewers with her portrayal of Sangmi’s pain and frustration. “Save Me” can be difficult to watch due to the heavy topics that it tackles, but if you are looking to watch an intense psychological thriller defined by slow-burn tension, this is the show for you.
The Silent Sea (2021)
One of Netflix’s newest Korean dramas, “The Silent Sea” takes place on a dystopian Earth suffering from a shortage of water. The shortage shapes the social and political environment, with the government giving people unequal access to the available water supply based on their socioeconomic status. To solve this pressing issue, a group is tasked by the government to recover an important research sample from an abandoned space base on the moon. It is called Balhae Station, and had experienced a tragic accident in the past. The group is composed of astrobiologist Dr. Song Jian (Bae Doona), Captain Han Yunjae (Gong Yoo), Lieutenant Ryu Taesuk (Lee Joon), medical doctor Hong Gayoung (Kim Sunyoung), tech expert Gong Soochan, Officer Kim Sun (Lee Sungwook), Chief Gong Suhyeok (Lee Musaeng), pilot Lee Gisu (Choi Youngwoo), and Mr. Hwang (Yu Seongju). At the station, they experience a series of peculiar events and learn about Balhae Station’s confidential secrets that the government kept from the public.
The directors utilize breathtaking cinematography to help immerse viewers in the unfamiliar world of “The Silent Sea.” The VFX that is used is, quite literally, out of this world, with large-scale and moderately accurate views of Earth, the moon, and extraordinary space shuttles. The protagonists sport detailed, white space suits that visually define the series. Though there is a lack of character details and backstories to maintain suspense initially, throughout the show, the characters’ motivations and intentions in taking on the mission are slowly revealed. The series features classic science fiction tropes with a cast of notable actors and actresses to add intrigue to a plot that taps into real-life concerns about the government, social inequality, disease, and climate catastrophe.
Though countless other Korean dramas fall under the thriller genre, these are some amazing ones to start with if you are trying to become well-versed in the world of K-dramas or are simply looking for relatively short but impactful shows to binge-watch.