Updated: Feb 5
If k-drama fans ever felt that female-centric dramas were too few and far between, 2021 seems to have made up for it in spades. From buddy comedies to murder mysteries, women shined in a variety of roles that diverged from the typical k-drama female lead. These characters were brought to life not just by veterans making their long-awaited comebacks, but by up-and-coming actresses determined to carve their own path in a fiercely competitive industry.
Here are the female-led dramas that made an impact in 2021.
The Lone Wolves
Action-packed dramas are usually reserved for men, so it was refreshing to see several series with women literally flexing their muscles, kicking ass, and taking names.
Jun Ji-hyun, Kingdom: Ashin of the North
Immigrant. Outcast. Woman. Jun Ji-hyun made her drama comeback through the third installment in Kim Eun-hee’s Kingdom zombie series. As Ashin, a Seongjeoyain Jurchen, she uses her knowledge of the resurrection plant to avenge the people who wronged her. At an early age, she learns archery, defending herself from boars in the forest and from “pigs” in the military barracks. Because the Pajeowi Jurchens have killed everyone she ever loved, whatever iota of emotion remaining in her heart has been devoured by revenge. Committed to eradicating her enemies, she has spent most of her youth spying on and plotting against the Pajeowi. Shunned by society, she eventually realizes that she holds dominion over nothing—except over a zombie horde. And that would change everything.
Han So-hee, My Name
Han So-hee takes on her most challenging role to date in My Name as Oh Hye-jin, a lonely student whose father—a gangster on the wanted list—is murdered in front of her eyes. This breakout star shines as a woman who gives up everything to seek revenge on her father’s killer, proving that a woman can lead a hard-core action series as effectively as a man. My Name offers itself as a fresh addition to Korea’s already vast trove of gangster shows with a simple twist: The lead character, whose thirst for revenge is strong enough to overpower dozens of other well-trained men and defy biological laws about how much torture the human body can take, is a woman.
Jang Nara, Sell Your Haunted House
Jang Na-ra leads the cast of horror/fantasy thriller Sell Your Haunted House as Hong Ji-ah, a mudang (practitioner of shamanism) and owner of Daebak Real Estate, whose clientele is mainly property owners looking to rid their buildings of unrested spirits. Although she is aided by psychic Oh In-beom (CNBlue’s Jung Yong-hwa), the drama is ultimately about Hong Ji-ah’s quest to send the unrested spirit of her mother to the afterlife. Our heroine's strength comes from a mixture of physical prowess, supernatural abilities, and modernized mudang gear. At the center of it is Jang Na-ra's fine portrayal of an aloof, jaded, but caring mudang. Going beyond her impressive acting skills– the physicality and emotional toll needed to be Hong Ji-ah makes it an even more impressive feat.
It’s hard enough being a woman in the modern-day but it must’ve been infinitely harder for a woman in historical Korea, regardless of her social class—especially for a woman who had a mind of her own and wasn’t afraid to assert herself. 2021 was a fantastic year for sageuks with strong female leads brought to life by former child actresses.
Kim So-hyun, River Where the Moon Rises
Kim So-hyun cemented her status as one of the most promising of her generation with her dual roles in River Where the Moon Rises, earning a Best Actress nomination at the Baeksang Arts Awards. Based on a popular folktale, the Gugoryeo era historical drama tells the story of assassin Yeom Ga-jin as she fights to reclaim her birthright as Princess Pyeonggang and save her country from malevolent forces. While the sageuk does feature a love line with the peace-loving On Dal (Na In-woo), the heart of the drama is Pyeonggang's courage and bravery as a warrior princess.
Park Eun-bin, The King's Affection
Park Eun-bin shows off her princely conduct in the sageuk (historical drama) gender-bender romance The King’s Affection. Born with a twin brother, her character as the twin sister is a bad omen during the Joseon era and is ordered to be killed. Luckily, she survives and later returns to the palace as the maid Dam-yi. Recognizing the resemblance, her twin brother Prince Lee Hwi switches clothes with her, but he is unfortunately killed. What was supposed to be a temporary swap becomes a permanent prison for Dam-yi, who, from then on, is forced to live not only as a man but also as a prince. Preoccupied with guarding her deadly secret AND improving her skills to keep up with her disguise, she cannot afford to be a damsel in distress. Instead, she uses her wisdom and power (while keeping her integrity) to take down the root cause of her people’s suffering — her powerful, corrupt grandfather — with help from her upright teacher (Ro-woon), her wise cousin (Nam Yoon-su), and a few other loyal friends.
Lee Se-young, The Red Sleeve
18th century Joseon was not a good place to be a woman, especially not one bound to a life of servitude within the palace walls. An actual historical figure is known for her intelligence and revolutionary thinking, court lady Sung Deok-im (Lee Se-young) was well-aware of the very few freedoms she had as a court lady and was determined to exercise the few choices she was allowed to make. While The Red Sleeve tells of the romance between Sung Deok-im and Crown Prince Yi-san (2PM's Lee Jun-ho), through the lens of its all-female team (PD Jung Ji-in and writer Jung Hae-ri), it is also the story not just of Deok-im's conflict but of the struggles of all the women in the palace, from "lowly" court ladies to powerful queens.
Female antagonists in k-dramas usually fall into two categories: second female leads who pose a threat to the main love line and disapproving (often wealthy) mothers. 2021 was a great year for actresses to be cast in meatier, more complex villainess roles, giving us some of the most memorable k-drama showdowns.
Honey Lee vs. Jin Seo-yeon,
One the Woman
The flawlessly hilarious Honey Lee led SBS action comedy One the Woman to ratings gold as she took on dual roles as two strangers who look exactly alike: the timid chaebol heiress Kang Mi-na and brash prosecutor Cho Yeon-ju. In this extremely fun, entertaining drama of mistaken identities, amnesiac Cho Yeon-ju struggles to navigate life as Kang Mi-na, and finds herself facing a formidable opponent: her look-alike’s sister-in-law Han Sung-hye, played deliciously by the cool and charismatic Jin So-yeon.
Go Hyun-jung vs. Shin Hyun-been, Reflection of You
Go Hyun-jung returns to the small screen as Jeong Hee-joo, a successful painter who has married into a wealthy family and who seems to lead an enviable life in high society. Her life would've continued to be rosy if it were not for the sudden return of a mysterious art teacher played by Shin Hyun-been. What is the explosive secret that threatens to upend both women's lives? When the past comes back to them, the series does a fair job of unraveling the mystery that haunts both artists. At the onset, the show sets both females up as talented and interesting characters; however, the second act takes a predictable turn and shows how women are undone by the men in their lives and dive into major melodramatic territory. Reflection of You is an interesting watch for those who prefer their female leads flawed and frustrating, but it does get a bit too frustrating and incredibly angsty that you sometimes wonder if anyone in the show has ever been a bit happy in their lives.
Lee Young-ae vs. Kim Hye-jun, Inspector Koo
A reclusive ex-cop in her 40s, Koo Kyung-yi (Lee Young-ae) overreaches her investigation of an insurance claim that turns out to be a complicated murder case. After confirming her hunch, her curiosity leads her further to the serial killer “K” (Kim Hye-jun), a college student who cleverly disguises her killings as accidents. Inspector Koo’s and K’s teams set off on a cat-and-mouse chase, even shifting alliances in the process. Their encounters shake their beliefs to the core every step of the way (even making viewers challenge their sense of justice).
In a genre where detectives and criminals are dominated by male characters, it is refreshing for JTBC to offer a mystery thriller that infuses in these roles female leads so strong and smart that they even impress each other. More importantly, the motivations behind their actions make more sense precisely because they are women.
Jeon Do-yeon vs. Park Ji-young, Lost
The slice-of-life melodrama Lost, directed by acclaimed film director Hur Jun-ho, marked Jeon Do-yeon’s highly anticipated small screen comeback. In it, she plays Lee Bu-jeong, a 40-something ghostwriter trudging through life after a series of heartbreaking, soul-crushing trials derails her plans. Quietly devastated and depressed, she channels her repressed anger towards her former client against whom she bears a deep grudge, Jung A-ran (Park Ji-young), an actress who is clearly battling her own inner demons.
If two’s company and three’s a crowd, this is a crowd we’d definitely like to be in the middle of. Women have complex, healthy, and unhealthy relationships with more than one woman in their lives. Why should dramas portray them any differently? In the company of powerful female characters, we subscribe to “the more, the merrier” route.
Lee Bo-young, Kim Seo-hyung, and Ok Ja-yeon, Mine
A female-led drama through and through, Mine is the story of what happens when strong, capable women band together to achieve a common purpose. Led by the all-female tandem of PD Lee Na-jeong and writer Baek Mi-Kyeong, the high society murder mystery featured Lee Bo-young and Kim Seo-hyung as sisters-in-law who navigate through the challenges of chaebol family life.
In a genre where women are all too often pitted against each other, it was so refreshing to witness the close relationship between the two female leads, portrayed with warmth and great chemistry by the veteran actresses. The groundbreaking role of the first lesbian lead character in a k-drama seems tailor-made for the formidable Kim, while Lee brought both sweetness and strength to her role as a woman whose seemingly perfect life comes crashing down. Relative newcomer Ok Ja-yeon made a strong impression as a mysterious tutor hired by the family.
Jung Eun-ji, Lee Sun-bin, and Han Sun-hwa, Work Later, Drink Now
One of the sleeper hits of 2021, the TVING web drama Work Later, Drink Now stars Lee Sun-bin, Jung Eun-ji, Han Sun-hwa as long-time friends as they try to get through their work, family, and men problems by discussing everything over incredible food and copious amounts of lukewarm soju.
Praised for its near-realistic portrayal of the angst, alcoholism, and joys of confused 30-somethings trying to make sense of life, Work Later, Drink Now is the refreshing comedy that isn’t built upon chasing men nor having relationships. Instead, it does a fantastic job of zeroing in on the shameless joys and pains of being a single woman and the gift of strong female friendship. The drama wisely avoids any one-dimensional pigeonholing and instead presents all three women as fully-formed and personable, with their own adorable (and even disturbing) kinks and flaws.
Kang Ye-won, Ahn Eun-jin, and Seong Mi-do (Joy), The One and Only
Described as the "Orange is the New Black meets Korean hospice life" by HanCinema, The One and Only tells the stories of three very different women with terminal illnesses who find themselves forming an unlikely friendship when they meet at a hospice. Ahn Eun-jin, Kang Ye-won, and Red Velvet's Joy realize that when you've got months left to live, you really have nothing left to lose, and so why not try their hand at carrying out revenge to those who have wronged them? As luck would have it, they also cross paths with a contract killer and strike up an alliance with him to carry out their vengeful plans. It may sound really dark, but there are some humane and light-hearted moments that are sprinkled throughout the show; after all, these women have merely been a victim at one point in their lives and are not hardened criminals.