What’s not to love about gender-benders and the hilarious chaos they lead to?
Mr. Queen is the clever sageuk (historical)/fusion show whose sly commentaries on gender and feminism belie its hilarious facade. Loosely based on the Chinese web drama Go Princess Go, it is about a present-day playboy chef who falls into a coma, then wakes up in the past as a... late Joseon era queen!?!
Despite the show facing controversy every week----after all, this is a playboy chef in a woman’s body gallivanting with courtesans in old Korea----it is the first major sageuk/fusion hit of 2021. The series finale is now the fifth highest in cable network's tvN ratings history. But how can you not rake in the ratings when you have major (and hilarious) chemistry, a non-stop conspiratorial plot, and some seriously amazing cooking scenes (McDonaldu!)?
If you enjoy gender-swapping shows...
Moonlight Drawn by Clouds (2016)
Based on a web novel of the same name, Moonlight Drawn by Clouds tells the story of Lee Young, Joseon Crown Prince Hyomyeong (Park Bo-gum), who falls for his "eunuch" Hong Sam-nom (Kim Yoo-jung). Unbeknownst to him, Sam-nom is actually a girl on the run from a difficult fate. They first meet outside the Palace: Sam-nom, working as a convincing love counselor and disguised as a man, and the mischievous Crown Prince, roaming the streets incognito, hunting for the writer of his sister's love letter (guess who?). A hilarious chain of events forces them to meet a few more times and they eventually discover their fates are intertwined in more ways than one.
Even though the drama deceptively starts out light and fluffy, it does have its dark and serious moments, making it more than "just" a basic gender-swap show. So popular was Moonlight Drawn by Clouds that it peaked at 23.3% viewer ratings nationwide (AGB Nielsen) and later received six Baeksang nominations. This comes as no surprise since the leads did have electrifying chemistry, backed by a solid supporting cast. The drama also had engaging storytelling, an emotion-stirring soundtrack, and stunning cinematography. Fun fact: The Grand Queen Dowager, Queen Sunwon, in Mr. Queen is the same historical character as the mother of Crown Prince Hyomyeong in Moonlight Drawn by Clouds.
Sungkyungkwan Scandal (2010)
Don’t let the title fool you: the only “scandal” in this k-drama is a woman trying to make it in old Korea when females are forbidden both education and employment. This adorable and utterly enjoyable gender swap is set in Sungkyungkwan University, the oldest university in Korea. Our main girl Kim Yoon-hee (Park Min-young) hustles by dressing as a man and does the odd----and illegal----job as a substitute test taker. She is caught by an upright scholar Lee Sun-joon (Park Yoo-chun), who is impressed by her brilliance, and encourages “him” to enroll at the school instead. But as her brilliance shines through her disguise, Sun-joon ever so slowly (and confusingly) starts to fall for him...or is it her?
Aside from the fun gender-swap premise for the main leads, SKK Scandal has a fun second tandem as well, with an incredibly dandy Song Joong-ki and a rather disheveled Yoo Ah-in reveling in great bromantic chemistry (sometimes, their bromance is even more fun than the main pair!) SKK Scandal was also quite progressive for its time----tackling feminism, LGBTQ, and education issues cleverly while avoiding the usual clichés. Other noteworthy points for this drama include strong cohesion from start to finish because it was based on a bestselling Korean novel, and a dazzling array of costumes designed by Kim Hae-soon, a famous Korean hanbok designer.
Coffee Prince (2007)
Someone should award Gong Yoo a trophy for k-drama evangelism. Before ushering the latest Hallyu wave with the smash hit Goblin in 2016, he converted many a k-drama skeptic into a fan with his sincere and conflicted portrayal of an alpha male falling for his own barista in Coffee Prince. Yoon Eun-hye is equally amazing as the girl who needs to disguise herself as the “male” barista he falls for, and is so convincing in her mannerisms and nuances that you’ll have to keep reminding yourself that you're actually watching a female dressed as a young male.
Although the visuals are a tad dated (check out the feathered hair, y’all) and it obviously lacks the k-drama gloss many of us are now used to, viewers who have only recently watched Coffee Prince are usually surprised to find that the story still holds up pretty well despite being made in a more conservative 2007. In fact, Coffee Prince is more than just a fun gender-swap skit----it’s a show that navigates the minefield of modern romance in a way that still feels relevant today. So iconic and loved was this show that a two-part documentary was made for its 10th anniversary, showing us the thoughts of the cast and crew on what made the show such an iconic hit (spoiler alert: they credit it all to real-life, off-cam friendship).
Secret Garden (2010)
If your introduction to Hyun Bin was via his oh-so-swoony performance as Captain Ri on Crash Landing on You, it will be extremely hard to wrap your head around the fact that it’s the same actor playing a quirky spoiled rich boy in a glittery track suit whose body is occasionally inhabited by a poor stuntwoman in 2010’s blockbuster body-swap rom-com Secret Garden. Penned by top writer Kim Eun-sook (Descendants of the Sun, 2016; Goblin, 2016), Secret Garden is an enduring k-drama classic and a regular fixture on must-watch lists.
Watch this for some seriously LOL moments, the superior OST, which remains popular to this day, and very charming performances from veteran Hallyu stars Ha Ji-won and Hyun Bin (who won the prestigious Baeksang Daesang/Grand Prize for this performance). Yoon Sang-hyung and Korean-American actor Lee Phillip provide some extra oppa eye candy as the second and third male leads, respectively.
If you enjoyed all the cooking in Mr. Queen…
Jewel in the Palace (2003)
Make way for the OG, the one that started it all for Korean food on mainstream television.
Jewel in the Palace is the 54-episode historical classic filled with sweeping montage shots of large royal kitchens, courtyard banquets, and nearly non-stop cooking that showcased the finest of Korean court cuisine. Jang-geum, our lead played by Lee Young-ae, is a talented woman who works in the palace kitchen and takes pride in her many culinary achievements. Together with other female chefs and cooks, they plate elaborate meals and traditional dishes such as Chinese cabbage soup, hotpot, pajeon (green onion pancake), dumplings, and even exquisite persimmon candy. In fact, so influential were the food and cooking scenes in Jewel in the Palace that not only did they propel the show into Hallyu-hit status for Asian audiences, but they also paved the way for more Korean food to be featured in subsequent k-dramas, whether historical or contemporary.
In this 2010 drama, Gong Hyo-jin plays Seo Yoo-kyung, a young hardworking cook who dreams of being a chef. In order to reach her goal, she trains under the head chef of an Italian restaurant, cocky and demanding Choi Hyun-wook played by Lee Sun-kyun. All this is, of course, just an excuse to throw two opposites in the kitchen so that they can turn up the heat and fall in love.
This light, romantic comedy is a bingeable watch. Gong Hyo-jin does what she does best----play a feisty underdog who rises to the challenge and charms those around her. Lee Sun-kyun, meanwhile, is great at playing an alpha male, who overcomes a past heartache and makes not just the female lead but the audience fall in love with him. If you’re here for the cooking, there are lots to go around. The chef’s specialty is pasta so there is an abundance of cooking tips and a strange fascination with perfecting vongole (pasta with clams). By the end of the 20 episodes, you’ll be craving pasta with a side of romance.
Oh My Ghost (2015)
Oh My Ghost is a fun supernatural drama about a low-ranking and extremely timid kitchen hand who turns into a cooking superstar with the aid of a carenderia-raised ghost. Yes, there’s a ghost, a perpetually confused chef, and an incredibly adorable romance that springs within the walls of “The Sun” pasta restaurant. When not making your mouth water with numerous cooking and plating shots, this drama also offers an entertaining study between the “lowly” eatery world filled with Korean comfort food, and the world of haute cuisine. Avoid watching this show on an empty stomach. After all, nearly every shot of Oh My Ghost is set in a pasta restaurant, and when the cast isn’t cooking in the said restaurant, they’re either eating at other places, buying ingredients, or competing in food shows.
If you adored the “queen,” Shin Hye-sun…
Still 17 (2018)
Woo Seo-ri remembers herself "yesterday" as a 17-year-old violinist about to study in Germany, but a tragic traffic accident has left her in a long coma. In the present time, she wakes up as a 30-year-old woman, in utter shock and disbelief.
Realizing she has been in the hospital for 13 years, now without a job and a family, how can she survive the modern day with the mentality and skills of a teenager?
Stranger S1 (2017)
As the young and idealistic prosecutor Young Eun-soo, Shin Hye-sun holds up very competently against veteran actor Cho Sueng-woo who plays her (eventual) boss, Hwang Si-mok. Her character is so adamant on exposing a corruption scandal that could bring down the national prosecutors’ office, that Si-mok struggles to mentor her aggressive spirit.
If you loved the "king," Kim Jung-hyun…
Crash Landing on You (2020)
Who can forget “Albertowww” from Britain? As half of the ill-fated second pair, Kim Jung-hyun plays Gu Seung-jun (or Alberto Gu, depending on who asks), a charming scammer who goes into hiding in North Korea.
In this melodrama, Kim Jung-hyun is a restaurant CEO who has a terminal illness. He falls for a rather upbeat woman, played by Girl’s Generation Seohyun, but when fate threatens to destroy the remaining months they have together, one has to ask how to wisely spend what’s left of one’s time.