What to Watch after "Twenty-Five Twenty-One"

While most of us are still reeling from the Twenty-Five Twenty-One finale, the nostalgia, and all the online debates, why not hasten our healing by watching other related k-dramas?

A GwenchaNoona List: What to Watch after "Twenty-Five Twenty-One"; photo of Kim Tae-ri, Nam Joo-hyuk, Bona, Choi Hyun-wook, and Lee Joo-myung

Set in 1990s Seoul, Twenty-Five Twenty-One (2022) is tvN's 16-episode nostalgic melodrama that showcases different forms of love, as well as tales about achieving one's dreams in the face of adversity. Directed by Jung Ji-hyun (Mr. Sunshine, Search: WWW) and written by Kwon Do-eun (Search: WWW), it stars Kim Tae-ri, Nam Joo-hyuk, Bona (Your House Helper), Choi Hyun-wook (Racket Boys), and Lee Joo-myung (Kairos).

 

If you want more Kim Tae-ri...

Twenty-Five Twenty-One is only Kim Tae-ri's second drama (notwithstanding her cameo in the first episode of the 2016 TV series Entourage). All her projects, whether dramas or films, have been wildly successful. Some we highly recommend include:


Mr. Sunshine (2018)

In this epic historical drama about patriotism and loyalty, Kim Tae-ri transforms into Go Ae-shin—a noblewoman who could have stayed quietly on the sidelines while the rest of her country suffered under the looming Japanese occupation of Korea.

But she doesn’t. With the blood of patriots running through her veins, she trains as a sniper, disguising herself as a man to work with the guerrilla army fighting the invaders. Even when questions are raised over the righteousness of the country she is risking her life to protect, her resolve doesn’t waver. Even when a love interest—in the form of Korean-American soldier Eugene Choi (Lee Byung-hun)—threatens to distract her, she remains focused on the greater goal.


24 episodes; available on Netflix


The Handmaiden (film, 2016)

Kim Tae-ri burst into the silver screen as an ingenue ripe for eroticism. Korean directing legend Park Chan-wook chose the fresh-faced rookie actress from over 1,000 applicants, and immediately cast her across some of the most established names in Hallyu.


As the titular handmaiden Sook-he, Kim Tae-ri dove into one of the most erotically-charged and explicit movies in recent Korean cinema. Her risqué efforts paid off handsomely. For her role, she was awarded numerous trophies, including the Best New Actress win at the Blue Dragon Film Awards. The film also went on to clinch international wins, and in 2020 was ranked #1 in The Guardian’s list of the classics of Korean cinema.


Available on other sites

 

If you want more Nam Joo-hyuk...

Nam Joo-hyuk played memorable supporting roles in the film The Great Battle (2018) and in the series Cheese in the Trap (2016) and Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016). Our recommended TV shows or film with him in lead roles include:


Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016)

What happens when you ship a struggling weightlifter (Lee Sung-Kyung) to the Big Man on Campus (Nam Joo-Hyuk)? One of the funniest love stories around, of course. Much more than just a passing college love story, the show also delivers great side stories about friendship, college, mental health, and family.


It took a while for the seemingly carefree swimmer Joon-hyung to get around to sorting his feelings for fellow athlete Bok-joo. But once he did, he didn’t look back. You think being a teen in love is hard? Try being one with Olympic dreams in mind dating someone with the same pressures. But our boy is a quick study and learns to navigate the landscape of his new relationship, all while dealing with his personal demons, and trying to be there for Bok-joo as she deals with hers. Gold medals all around for Joon-hyung (and Nam Joo-hyuk for his brilliant portrayal)!

Weightlifting Fairy remains one of the better coming-of-age k-dramas around because it just hits you with all the right kilig feels at the right time. Even the soundtrack is as wholesome and as warm as the entire show.

16 episodes; available on Netflix and Viu


The Light in Your Eyes (2019)

While Baek Yi-jin had a loving relationship with his father in Twenty-Five Twenty-One (just thinking of that bus scene makes us cry!), Lee Joon-ha, Nam Joo-hyuk’s character in the melodrama The Light in Your Eyes, had quite the opposite.


In this highly acclaimed series, which won for lead veteran actress Kim Hye-ja the Daesang (Grand Prize) at the 55th Baeksang Arts Awards, Nam Joo-hyuk stars as a young man whose family’s financial problems drive him to work for a dubious elder care facility that takes advantage of its clients. This puts him in a difficult situation with Kim Hye-ja, an elderly neighbor with whom he has formed a special friendship. Han Ji-min also co-stars as the young Kim Hye-ja in this heartwarming drama about growing up and growing old.


12 episodes; available on Netflix


The School Nurse Files (2020)*

Students have been falling ill and behaving weirdly in the school where nurse Ahn Eun-yong (Jung Yu-mi) works. Fortunately, Eun-yong can see the invisible jellies that have been ailing them. While most jiggly critters look cute, blown-up microorganisms, they can also be deadly. Wielding a rainbow lightsaber to fight against them, Eun-yong eventually teams up with Chinese teacher Hong In-pyo (Nam Joo-hyuk). Nam Joo-hyuk may have been made to look ordinary because of his unfashionable look, but his character is special—his protective aura shields him from the monster jellies and he joins the fight despite his physical disability. Going to the nurse’s office takes on a whole new meaning in this quirky fantasy series The School Nurse Files.


8 episodes; available on Netflix

*Trigger warning: clusters of small holes and patterns (not for the trypophobic)


Start-Up (2020)

This rom-com enjoyed some success in Korea with moderate ratings, but thanks to streaming giant Netflix, it enjoyed a huge following with international fans. The plot follows young people trying to make it big in a Silicon Valley-like fictional environment, Sandbox. Bae Suzy’s character is a scrappy entrepreneur torn between the shy math genius Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) and the charming but tough-talking venture capitalist Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho).

The completely believable world of Sandbox was well crafted and researched and made for a fascinating setting where the show’s young protagonists could come of age while introducing the audience to key concepts in the start-up environment. It set a good pace and kept the stakes in both the business world and the characters' personal lives high and engaging, and it was an all-around feel-good watch with a high-energy OST.


16 episodes; available on Netflix


Josée (film, 2020)

There is something about a well-told, slow-burning love story that still makes suckers of us all, and Josée is a fine example. This film is gorgeously shot, never overbearing, and lovingly made. Nam Joo-hyuk stars as a young man who falls for an older woman (who's also wheelchair-bound). Shades of Baek Yi-jin can be found in his restrained acting and scant dialogue. The film teeters on the edge of melancholy but never collapses into a nihilistic pity party, mostly because Han Ji-min (who plays the titular Josée) and Nam Joo-hyuk (as her lover) have harnessed the nuances of their roles so well and have used them towards simmering—always simmering—beneath the surface.


Available on other sites

 

If you want more coming-of-age stories...


Our Beloved Summer (2021)

If opposites do attract, how long can they stay together? In this coming-of-age romantic comedy, two polar opposites—ambitious and hardworking student Kook Yeon-su (Kim Da-mi, Itaewon Class) and laidback artist Choi Ung (Choi Woo-shik, Parasite)—fall in love while filming a documentary. Ten years later, long after they’ve broken up, the documentary’s producers bring them together again for a sequel, unearthing unanswered questions and unresolved feelings.


Beyond being a story of romance, the show is also about growing up, about forgiveness and second chances, and about getting to really know yourself and having the courage to make mature choices. Read our full review here.


16 episodes; available on Netflix


Reply 1988 / Answer Me 1988 (2015)

If you want a drama that tells you who ends up with whom in the present timeline, the Reply Series does exactly that, with all the requisite nostalgia and precious chaotic friendship. In particular, Baeksang-nominated Best Drama Reply 1988 follows the lives of five friends growing up in the 1980s and their families living in a Ssangmun-dong alley in Seoul.


The slice-of-life series steers clear of the usual tropes to deliver the right balance of the bitter and the sweet experiences of the squad—the poor but caring daughter (Lee Hye-ri), the stoic but sweet son (Ryu Jun-yeol), the model student and responsible son (Go Kyung-pyo), the famous baduk (Korean abstract strategy board game) player (Park Bo-gum), and the hilarious but wise friend (Lee Dong-hwi).


20 episodes; available on Netflix and Viu


Extraordinary You (2019)

Based on the popular Kakao webtoon, July Found by Chance, Extraordinary You is a fun and unique k-drama that will have viewers laughing, as it makes fun of the most used tropes and stereotypes found in rom-com manhwas (Korean comics).

The stage is set when Eun Dan-oh (Kim Hye-yoon) enters the story. She’s pretty, rich, and popular with the boys. She takes being a manhwa character all in stride... until she realizes that she's not the main lead! In denial about the story the writer has planned for her, Dan-oh vows to change her fate with the help of another supporting character, Ha-ru (Rowoon). But along the way, Dan-oh and Ha-ru discover that their story does not begin and end in just one book. The chemistry between the leads and the meta-level humor definitely make this a series an easy binge.


32 episodes; available on Netflix and Viu


18 Again (2020)

Faced with a seeming dilemma, teenage dad Hong Dae-young (Lee Do-hyun) chooses his young, growing family over his dream of becoming a college basketball player. Nineteen years later, Dae-young (Yoon Sang-hyun), now a 37-year-old salaryman and family man, becomes unemployed and estranged from his family. In the midst of this crisis, he transforms into his 18-year-old body.

18 Again ties together several themes, such as regret, honesty and sacrifice. Could fluttering feelings ever turn into resentment? Yes, and the k-drama shows you how—slowly and steadily, one secret at a time. Does the "secret" have to be an extramarital affair? No, but it could be as harmless as a bad day at work, or as consequential as a personal sacrifice.

16 episodes; available on Netflix and Viu


Rookie Cops (2022)

Ko Eun-kang (Chae Soo-bin) and Wi Seung-hyeon (Kang Daniel) are college freshmen in the prestigious Korean National Police University (KNPU). Ko Eun-kang’s last-minute entry into KNPU shakes the decades-old hierarchical and patriarchal system. Seung-hyeon, Eun-kang, and their cohorts come of age in what can only be described as a police-themed university experience—complete with hazing, difficult professors, on-the-job training, crime-busting, loss, disillusionment, and, of course, romance.


The show tackles crime and systemic corruption but without the trademark gritty undertones that make other police procedurals unbearable for some. In true Disney fashion, Rookie Cops offers hope and positivity in the face of a corrupt system and proposes kindness, friendship, sheer determination, and spunk as the antidote to the ills of Korean society.


16 episodes; available on Disney+

 

If you want more nostalgia...

All the coming-of-age k-dramas listed above (except Rookie Cops) are nostalgia-inducing. Add to that list Go Back Couple.


Go Back Couple / Couple on the Backtrack / Confession Couple (2017)

Troubled middle-aged married couple Choi Ban-do (Son Ho-jun) and Ma Jin-joo (Jang Na-ra) find themselves going back in time and reliving their lives as university students when they first met. They both take the opportunity to pursue the what-if’s of their youth, but when the what-ifs suddenly get real, life begins to rain on their youthful parade.


But it isn’t only their romance that Ban-do and Jin-joo get to relive, it’s also their long forgotten dreams and relationships that they have a chance to pursue and mend. When the nostalgia of the past no longer colors their experiences, they find themselves wondering if their future is still worth fighting for. This short, heartwarming drama is a must-watch for all those who’ve ever wondered what might have been.


12 episodes, available on Netflix and Viu

 

If you want more sports...

If you want more romance-focused sports dramas, Run On, Fight for My Way, and Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo are for you. Otherwise, watching Racket Boys or Hot Stove League could help your heart recover.


Run On (2020)

Run On was marketed as a romance between an athlete who attempts to look for meaning beyond his sport and a translator/subtitler who just wants more people to appreciate good films. Run On’s charm, however, was not just in the mature, realistic, and slow-burn romance between the two protagonists Ki Seon-gyeon (Im Si-wan) and Oh Mi-joo (Shin Se Kyung) but in the great chemistry of its four leads. Yes, FOUR! It’s one of the few k-drama romances that focus on two couples that (surprise, surprise) are NOT in a weird love-triangle-square whatever. The drama gives as much importance to the developing romance as the growing friendships among the four leads and the people around them. It’s a leisurely and lovely watch for those who want more than just meet-cutes and grand gestures.


16 episodes; available on Netflix


Fight for My Way (2017)

Ko Dong-man (Park Seo-joon) plays a former taekwondo champion who struggles to make ends meet and who wants to make a comeback as a mixed martial arts fighter. His childhood best friend Choi Ae-ra (Kim Ji-won) has dreams of a career as a TV host. As they navigate the complex world of adulting, they realize that their feelings for each other aren’t as simple as they used to be either. These two are thisclose to sealing the deal, but an old girlfriend could ruin the timing again, or she might just be the push these two need to finally confess their feelings for each other.


Part romance, part sports, part coming-of-age drama, Fight for My Way is a light hopeful watch with plenty of chemistry from its main leads.


16 episodes; available on Netflix and Viu


Racket Boys (2021)

A surprisingly engaging series on small-town teenage badminton players with big dreams, this 16-episode sports drama touches on puberty, family dynamics, young love, and personal challenges.


Light and easy-to-watch, the show manages to make badminton interesting with its cast of quirky characters and lots of feel-good moments, and a plot that doesn’t need a diagram to understand. Read our full review here.


16 episodes; available on Netflix


Hot Stove League (2019)

The Best Drama winner at the 56th Baeksang Arts Awards in 2020, Hot Stove League is a romance-free series focused on the wheeling and dealing that happens behind the scenes of Korea’s favorite sport: baseball.


Namgoong Min (Good Manager) plays a general manager hired to tank a loss-making baseball team, but proceeds to fight for its survival instead. The drama turns contract negotiations into something heartbreaking, comedic and heist-like at the same time, with each character given space to be human, coming together to create a brilliant show. Just like in baseball, it’s not the star players but the team that wins the game.


16 episodes; available on Netflix and Viu

 

If you want healthy platonic heterosexual friendships...

Unfortunately, we couldn't find a TV series or film that portrays platonic friendship as beautifully as Twenty-Five Twenty-One did through the characters Sung-wan (Lee Joo-myung) and Ji-woong (Choi Hyun-wook). Maybe you can help us out? ;)

 

Which one will you watch next?

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