Drama Reactions & Reviews
Korean Dramas & Family Relations
by | June 14, 2007 | 40 Comments

Lately, I’ve noticed something about the dramas I’ve been watching, which is that I’ve been finding — more so than the big dramatic romantic turns — that the most affecting, moving moments are family-related. There’s just something that Korean dramas do that captures family elements so well. They don’t try to make you cry with the SADNESS! and ANGST!, but with little heartfelt moments.

Whenever I read an article about the reason for the Korean Wave/Hallyu‘s recent popularity, there’s a mention about the focus of family in kdramas that set it apart from their more sensational, sexy Western counterparts. While not all kdramas are family-related, there often are very strong family undercurrents, even when the main story is about crime, about the workplace, romance, whatever.

It’s not exactly a drama, but there’s an episode of the sitcom Nonstop 5 (episode #244) that shows a perfect example of what I mean, in a bite-sized, 20-minute package. Watch it after the jump.

SONG(s) OF THE DAY

G.O.D. – “To My Mother” (어머님께): This one’s a repost from the mother-related Flowers For My Life episode. [ zShare download ]

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Tim – “To My Father” (아버지께) [ zShare download ]

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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A while ago, I started watching Nonstop 5 kind of by accident. I don’t usually watch sitcoms, partly because they’re daily and therefore more effort to keep up with (although I have started casually watching High Kick). Aside from usually topping out at more than 200 episodes, sitcoms in Korea haven’t quite achieved the stellar quality of their drama series, so they often feel a little awkward to me.

But after stumbling across Nonstop 5, I got hooked on the character relationships. It’s also a rather brilliant idea, marketing-wise. Put a bunch of attractive young, rising or B-level stars into a sitcom together, and their respective fans flock to the series, exposing them to the other stars. Furthermore, by using actors’ real names instead of fictional character names, we start to feel affinity for the actors as well as the characters. I started out being a casual fan of Lee Minwoo and Tablo, and came out of the series won over by every person in the cast. Brilliant marketing strategy. Americans should do something like that. And no, Laguna Beach does not count.

Anyway, although the show’s over a year old, recently the final stretch of episodes were completed with subbing and released over at soompi. Rewatching them, I remembered how much I loved this “Family” episode. No matter how many times I watch it (and you end up watching things a LOT when you sub them), it makes me tear up every. single. time.

(Picture features Nonstop 5 cast: Tablo, Park Jinwoo, Lee Jung, Lee Minwoo, Kang Kyung Joon, Han Hyo Joo, Jo Jung Rin, Hong Su Ah, Gu Hye Sun)

PART 1 (of 2)

PART 2 (of 2)

The G.O.D. song featured in the Su Ah portion (“To My Mother,” posted above) always makes me tear up despite seeming, on the surface, kind of frivolous. Basically, the song is about the rapper recalling his youth (not sure which one it’s about), when they were so poor they would eat ramen all the time. His father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to provide for him. One day, he was so sick of ramen that he begged his mother for something else, and she took out some money she’d saved away and ordered one serving of jjajangmyun. He was so thrilled, and wondered why his mother didn’t order any for herself, but she told him she disliked jjajangmyun. At the time, he didn’t understand that she was being self-sacrificing; he only remembered how happy his mother looked, watching him eat so excitedly.

Lee Seung Hwan – “Family” (가족). This song by one of Korea’s premier balladeers (old-school, late nineties) is used at the close of the Nonstop 5 episode, and was also used as one of the main theme songs of the SBS series Bad Family. [ zShare download ]

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Speaking of which…

In case you’re not big on “traditional” family stories — a valid complaint, because not everyone comes from a cohesive nuclear family unit, and it’s fair to feel disenfranchised if that’s all you ever see represented in the media — there’s 2006′s lovely, hilarious, heart-warming series Bad Family.

The second of SBS’s “Bad” series (the third being the recently premiered Bad Couple), Bad Family takes a group of seven motley strangers, all of whom lack a family in the traditional sense (and most of them in the literal sense, too), who are thrown together to act as a fake, surrogate family on behalf of a little girl. At the outset of the series, each person is terribly unsuited for their position, but they grow to be a family and heal the wounds each family member has been harboring, providing a place and a home that they’d been lacking.

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Bad Family OST – “Family” (가족). This is one of the series’ main themes, and is a remade version of the same Lee Seung Hwan song above, with the actors providing backup vocals in the chorus. [ zShare download ]

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

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Moving on.

I’d actually thought of writing this post many times, but lately, watching the criminally underrated Flowers For My Life pushed me to finally get around to it. On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be a drama focused on family — its premise is more about life and death — but family relationships have been taking the fore lately, and the series is doing a wonderful job presenting them in a way that tugs at the heart.

Episode 5, for instance, had two mother storylines (which always get me) about women who’d lost their sons, and offered peace and closure for both. In Episode 8, a normally brash, unsentimental woman goes to lengths to preserve her daughter’s opinion of her, which brings two women who’d been at odds with each other together as mothers. And in Episode 9, a young man abandoned by his birth father finally confronts the one who’d lived all his life trying not to dwell on his feelings of guilt for having abandoned his family.

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And for some reason, that Flowers For My Life pic made me think of this one in Dal Ja’s Spring. It’s another show that isn’t primarily about family, but still has its touching family moments, particularly between Chae Rim’s Dal Ja character and her mother.

The fact that Dal Ja is a successfully thirtysomething woman with a satisfying career and burgeoning romance with Lee Minki only underscores just how important her familial roots are, because after everything is said and done, her loyalty to her mother is what shakes her the most. It’s what forces her to grow a spine against the manipulative ex-wife of Eom Ki Joong (aka Crazy Wife), as well as being the one thing she will not compromise. People can mess with her, with her job, with her boyfriend, but you touch her mother and you will regret it.

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And, finally, last but not least, there’s the series that’s on my mind lately, 1994′s Feelings / Neukkim. As one of the earliest trendy dramas, the series was mostly about the lives and relationships of young twentysomethings, but at the core of the drama, even foremost above the romance plotlines, was the brotherly relationship between the three Han boys: Bin, Han and Joon (Son Ji Chang, Kim Min Jong, Lee Jung Jae). Despite the various things that threaten to disrupt their relationship, in the end the brothers remain unshaken.

There’s tons more I could say, but I’ll leave it here:

Happy Father’s Day all!

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40 Comments from the Beanut Gallery
  1. Jessica

    So would you say the portrayals of “family duty” in these dramas is accurate?

    I’m Chinese and we have our filial piety stuff as well, but watching k-dramas I see a vast difference in how much it’s respected.

    For example, we also give money to our parents (once we get of job :) ) but that whole daughter/son-in-law-duties and the total-respect-for-your-elders thing isn’t really followed anymore.

    Also, when the time comes for the child to take care of the parents, the parents start to listen to what the child says (rather than having some old person be the head-of-the-household).

    I haven’t seen many jdramas (and I don’t know many Japanese people) so I wonder what their families are like.

    Neat post :)

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  2. Bwitched

    I’m an malaysia who has been living in europe for 5 years. I can see the difference between how asians n europeans express their family love. They’re many but one thing that differs most is how asian sons/daughters being filial to their parents. We can see very well in those korean dramas, how family always number one.

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  3. mentality34

    I really love Nonstop 5 and was really excited that you mentioned it. It’s the only drama where I love every single character. Nonstop 4′s cast annoyed me [especially Han Ye Seul, I found her character more annoying than funny] and Nonstop 6′s cast had a few good and too many bad as well. I remember watching the episode you mentioned, it was heart wrenching and a tear jerker for me. I cried the entire 20 minutes and had to pause a lot to clear my vision. I’ve yet to see Bad Family and Flowers for My Life but I surely will.. when i get time. Dal Ja’s Spring is also a good drama for portraying family. I really love the daughter-mother relationship the drama portrays and how Dal Ja gets a lot of her strength from her mother.

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  4. Eve

    Awww i Love NONSTOP 5! My favorite cast out of almost all of them.

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  5. Soraya_Latina

    I’m Mexican-American and I love watching Kdramas because of exactly that, the wonderful family dynamic. Latin culture is actually very similar to Asian culture in that we are taught to respect our elders and take care of the family. Family is very important to us as well! However, it is also true that some generations lose touch with this concept especially those that lose practice of their traditions. That is one of the reasons that I like my sister-in-law, who is from Taiwain, because she makes continue those traditions with her family and share them with us. (Love Chinese New years, the red envelops rock!)

    On another note: Thank you so much for your blog, I just love it. I hope you continue to do this especially blogin Bad Couple which has become my favorite after Dal Ja’s Spring.

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  6. deeta

    I agree. I think family element is one of the most appealing qualities of KDrama. I guess Western is more into living independently, and their take on family is usually along the lines of ‘drunk aunty’ or ‘butt pinching second uncle’ and stuff. True, some go out of their way to actually focus on family (like Brothers and Sisters, which I absolutely love), but in general, family isn’t really a big theme in Western entertainment, which doesn’t imply something is wrong. It’s just different, I guess.

    I, myself, is an Asian through and through, so there are many family things portrayed in dramas and movies that I could relate to. And I was wondering about the same thing as Jessica above. Are the things portrayed in tv pretty accurate? I’ve seen a lot of dramas where sometimes elders could be very stubborn and insisting. Do elders really have a big power over the younger generations?

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  7. gail

    I’m Filipino, and I also am drawn to the family dynamics and the “little heartfelt moments” about family in Korean dramas. Filipino families are generally tight-knit, and it’s always heartwarming to see that quality shared by families of other cultures.

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  8. Lovewls

    “deeta:Are the things portrayed in tv pretty accurate? I’ve seen a lot of dramas where sometimes elders could be very stubborn and insisting. Do elders really have a big power over the younger generations?”

    I’m wondering about that too, especially after I finished watching Be Strong, Geum Soon! Geum Soon’s in-laws had so much power in their hands and the children were all obedient and reluctant to do anything against them. sometimes I feel so frustated cuz the elders are super stubborn!

    I have yet to watch Bad Family, but I will soon. I enjoyed reading your entries!

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  9. Paula

    Thank you for posting such a profound post. i never watch Nonstop 5, but that shared episode was great :) thanks again!

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  10. 10 Gianie

    How true!
    What a great post, and collection of dramas~ The clips were lovely, and defintely so touching…thanks so much!
    It’s true that whether it’s handled seriously or in a campy way, the family themes do pull together dramas and make you remember the characters~

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  11. 11 javabeans

    Regarding the accuracy of family dynamics portrayed in kdramas… Just speaking for my own opinion and experience, I’ll say that that basic themes and issues are generally true. As in, most of that stuff is familiar to me in concept, and many of them I see in my own (large, extended) family. But I wouldn’t necessarily say that those are “typical” families — not every family has overbearing elders, for instance. Many things are taken and exaggerated for dramatic effect — just as you don’t always have a poor girl meeting a rich handsome man in real life, for instance. A type of person can be very common in real life (the strict patriarch, for instance) and therefore familiar to most Koreans, but people can be familiar with a concept without experiencing it in their own family.

    I think the “inability for elders to consider their children’s feelings” is pretty exaggerated in kdramas — because it’s such an easy source of conflict, dramas tend to overuse it. Just like not all pretty, nice girls are self-sacrificing and smart and perfect. That said, there is a tremendous emphasis placed on children obeying their parents that can seem kind of foreign in concept to Westernized audiences… But it’s not always the parents demanding things of their children, it cuts both ways — the children also feel a need to make parents proud, and family loyalty is definitely a strong precept.

    I will say that the one stereotype that is all too common in real life, which is sometimes not even exaggerated in kdramas, is the mean mother-in-law. Eek. Thank god for Korean women that many newlyweds are setting up their own nuclear family homes rather than living with the in-laws, because that can be one nasty setup for the daughter-in-law.

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  12. 12 jo

    I’m asian-american, and the thing that strikes me the most about family in kdramas I’ve seen is the inability for elders to consider their children’s feelings. It’s incredibly frustrating to see all the parents or family elders do stubborn, hurtful things to their kids and I wonder if the dramas are exaggerating things or being realistic?

    examples: Attic Cat, Hello Miss, My Name is Kim Sam Soon, Que Sera Sera …

    (Love your blog!)

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  13. 13 gail

    ahh, the MIL. I always find it refreshing to see kind-hearted MILs in dramas. there are just too many of the mean ones that they become caricatures.

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  14. 14 Turtlegirl22

    So I really have wanted to start Non-stop but there are so many episodes. If I start will I have to start with the first? Which episode do you think it would be okay for me to start with? Thanks. I love your posts.

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  15. 15 javabeans

    Turtlegirl, i know a lot of people started watching when Minwoo joined, around #195, and say the series is best in the last stretch. That’s also around when i started watching and i didn’t find it too hard to catch on. Nonstop 5 really does have a nice ending with good closure on all the characters, so i’d recommend you can watch the last fifty episodes or so (it ends at #257) and be fine.

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  16. 16 jo

    Thanks for the great explanation! I’d figured with the melodramatic qualities of these dramas, some of it had to be for show. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to watch!

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  17. 17 seyonida

    Wonderful and worthwhile post javabeans (as always)! It was definitely an interesting read ^_^. I noticed that the family theme does run strong in most of the kdramas I’ve watched, espeically when it comes to children’s obedience. At times, I find it really frustrating. Sometimes it can be touching; at other times, I just want to reach over and slap whoever’s obeying their overbearing parents just because they’re “elders,” especially when the elders’ demands are obviously selfish or in the wrong. Being an american, I wasn’t used to it, and I didn’t GET it. If you put in an overbearing kdrama parent in an american show, you’d get instant rebellion and move toward independence from the kids. So I often grew frustrated when I didn’t see the same thing happen in kdramas; the characters’ obedience made them appear weak. But I’ve slowly grown to understand a part of this is cultural, and its made it more tolerable. Also, its not always frustrating; there are a whole lot of dramas where I’ve felt the theme of family and family-bonds was admirable and inspiring. (Bad Family, Thank You, and, to a certain extent, Dal Ja’s Spring comes to mind…)

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  18. 18 pandapop

    Hi, Javabeans:

    Your comment (#12) was very informative. Since you have first hand information, may I ask you a question? It bothers me quite a bit, but I didn’t know how ( or dare to) ask a native Korean .

    Is Lying a common practice in the real daily life? It seems to me all the dramas that I’ve seen, honesty causes more trouble than dishonesty. Everybody lies constantly. Can you give us some insight on this topic? Thanks.

    I’m looking forward to in the near future that we watch a drama whose scriptwriter/ director is javabeans

    P.S. Do you know Gina Kim ? The director of the movie Never Forever? She is also very talented.

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  19. 19 jiangzemin

    thanks for the old drama recs, i just watched soulmate and it was great. the ost’s on heavy rotation now. btw, it’s not completely subbed, but the first episode of taereung national village with lee min ki was pretty promising. it didn’t feel like a typical kdrama either.

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  20. 20 kas

    The family video made me tear. It’s a beautiful thing.

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  21. 21 Marzy

    sarah, thanks for the insight. i also love the family aspect of kdramas. they are heart warming to me. one example for me in a recent one aside from flowers was that near end bit of hello miss when LJH showed that side of him that loved his grandpa so much. awww..

    i can say i can admire the filial piety they show, that they want their parents to be proud of them, to repay the goodness of the parents that they receieved and lessen the burden. i watch some documentaries and stuff sometimes and its interesting and touching. not all families are like that now but i wish more families can be too and even if not that strict. also, as mentioned I just saw this talk show the May lee Show, its like an asian version of oprah. she’s korean the host btw. she lives in singapore. hehhe she still keeps her korean values in tact which is nice to see. :)

    i love nn5!! the cast is just one of the best for me. also the other nn’s coz it had some of the budding stars, singers and what not. i feel the acting is real. i love nn5, coz of tablo, minwoo and lee jung. the girls han hyo joo and gu hye sun too.

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  22. 22 javabeans

    pandapop, hm, i’m trying to think of what you mean by lying. do you find lying more common in kdramas than other types? i admit that thought hadn’t really occurred to me… if you mean when a character lies to “protect” a loved one from a harmful truth, i’d say (and this is just my opinion) that’s a pretty common korean thing, although of course in real life it’s normally about a much smaller issue than, say, the life-threatening illness that usually occurs in dramas. koreans tend to be very social and love their gossip, and that ties into it sometimes — if you want to keep a secret, sometimes the only way to do it is to lie about it. i don’t know, i’m speculating to an extent as well. is that what you mean?

    and i haven’t seen gina kim’s work, although i have heard of her. i’ll have to look it up.

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  23. 23 pandapop

    Javabeans:
    Thanks for your response (#23..).. My impression was that not just lying about big issues ( i.e. medical conditions) which I can understand, but also everyday conversations from are you hungry? to do you love me?Most recent example was the K-drama Pure in heart. In it, lying is a daily occurrence in most of the episodes. Does anyone here feel this way too?

    I’ll try to be more specific next time. Thank you Javabeans.

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  24. 24 zeram

    I don’t think anyone has mentioned it but I also thought 1% of Anything was a very family centered drama. It wasn’t some over the top love hate relationships. It was just a show depicting run of the mill family and the daily occurrences…work life, sitting down to dinner, chatting amongst each other, arguing etc.
    Most telling was the eldest brother’s statement about family not being made by blood (since that is just what we are made of) but being made how much family members care for each other and the concern they show for one another. This in response to someone questioning how another character could be his sister if they are not related by blood. I thought this was a wonderful statement.

    Its the same thing we see in Bad Family isn’t it? None of these people were related by blood but they all showed care and concern for one another…even if they denied it :)

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  25. 25 thunderbolt

    More Beautiful Than a Flower is a wonderful family drama with top-notch acting. Criminally underrated. By the same writer of Goodbye Solo. Gosh, I’m tearing up just thinking about MBTAF, aigoo.

    I enjoyed 1% of Anything but MBTAF is way better in terms of scripting and acting. At the center of the drama is a mother (Go Doo Shim) who seems dim-witted and too self-sacrificing for her own good. Her estranged husband (played brilliantly by Joo Hyun) is someone you want to clobber but as the drama unfolds, you realize things aren’t so black and white. I love Korean dramas but only a few have touched/affected me deeply and MFTAF is one of them. It changed the way I viewed my parents and siblings. The sort of affecting, moving and heartfelt moments that Sarah mentioned in her first paragraph… MBTAF is filled with them.

    I love Kim Myung-min in Bad Family but my most enduring images of him are still the ones in MBTAF, especially a scene where he wept with so much sorrow I felt my own heart was breaking.

    Thanks for this entry, sarahbeans. I love it when you depart sometimes from your recaps and give us something to think about.

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  26. 26 ivenxubi

    Your screen shot of Dal Ja’s Spring above is perfect. I felt exactly the same when watching this scene in Dal Ja’s Spring: that some of the most affecting moments in this drama are family-related. The mother-daughter bond seems genuine and affecting in this scene, as though the actresses are really mother and daughter.

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  27. 27 mawee

    i love nonstop series~ and korean sitcoms aint bad, like high kick and recently kimchi cheese smile is good ^^

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  28. 28 Maisya

    yeah…i like “Bad Family”… So touching…and i think the story is not the same like the typical Korean dramas,hehe…

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  29. 29 rose ann☺

    wow

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  30. 30 rose ann☺

    heechul of super junior is back………….i was amazde because i saw him………….wow…………..

    what happen to me….what’s wrong with me……………………….
    heechul….heechul….hechul….heechul…heechul…..

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  31. 31 yo

    i really love family based dramas. The one that hit me right at the heart was More Beautiful Than a Flower (or Beauty Beyond Expression) about a pure Mom who’s first mindset is for her children (which most of them have already grown into adults). Incredible acting and just a wonderful, but heart-wrenching, plot. and i believe the main guy from Bad Family was one of the characters in this drama as well (was when i first started to love him~).

    Haha just wanted to give my two cents here about this series ^^ cause it seems that it is so underrated. (wish i can find a site that have uploaded this series T__T).

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  32. 32 katy rose.

    that nonstop episode made me tear up so bad. bahh. i blame YOU for my ruined eye makeup. and i’m at work too. crap, crap crappity crap crap crap. oh well. it was full of a million and one total “aw” moments, so that more than makes up for how gross I look right now.

    now i’m wondering…can i slip into the bathroom to fix my face & come back without anyone noticing? hm…

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  33. 33 Sevenses

    The second Bad Family song is here. Don’t have the other ones, sorry. :D

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  34. 34 Michael J

    OMG!!! My TOP 2 DRAMAS are featured in this article!!! DAL JA’s SPRING and BAD FAMILY!!! I love those dramas soooo much! Chae Rim, Lee Min Ki, Nam Sang Mi & Kim Myung Min are the BEST!!! <3

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  35. 35 Michael J

    Dal Ja’s Spring and Bad Family SOUNDTRACKS are AWESOME too!!! Loved it!

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  36. 36 CAGi

    wow..the episode of NONSTOP 5 about family really captures my emotions..i couldn’t believe tears would fall…nice EPISODE..

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  37. 37 sunny

    yeah, one of the only things that make me cry in a drama is the family moments…..even if a character dies, I sometimes don’t bawl like I would at a cute family moment (like the kind where a dad and daughter get on better terms after years of fighting etc etc etc) ….whch might be why in american dramas, i NEVER cry. American dramas lack family moments (for the most part) and usually focus heavily on romantic stuff..so its like…yeah ok..? not going to cry at that lol.

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  38. 38 reglest

    Ah..and I’m stumbled back at dramabeans while searching & browsing about Korean Family :)… Not I hate to, but this is a delightful discovery among your old posts, this post, javabeans.

    I think yes, that’s what make you hooked in kdrama longer. I was initially jdorama fans, and previously I don’t wanna give a damn about kdrama at all, 2 reasons: it is long (comparing with Jdrama) and it’s lame (talking about the makjang!). But after stumbled upon Shining Inheritance, I felt some invisible magnet to make me watch it again and again, I still don’t understand what, until I read your 1st sentence in this article, ye that is, the family.

    Let me compare it to jdrama first, past jdrama has the same heart feeling parents but it is fading away nowadays, while kdrama maintain this element -though I’ve seen some deviation where ur parent now become the obstacle of . . . But yes, they still have the parent love & element, no matter how evil they are.

    This is maybe why I’m so loving TK2H where the parent is serving their function as parents, lovely -and I’m still back into that- :p And the most heartwrenching scene is not when the lover dies but when ur parents/brother/sister passed away *cough TK2H/gaksital*

    I love how the commenters here comparing it with american community. Not I despise American, but I just remember when I read review of ‘Please Looking After Mother’ in NPR site. I was like.. “Woa…seriously you don’t touched at all?”-to the reviewer-, the reviewer is an american. And while I’m thinking the heartfelt connection and the act of the mother, the NPR reviewer called the novel: anti feminism, guilt-laden-morality for such a weak mother. This maybe just a picture about the wide cultural gap between Asian & America. And for thus, I’m really glad to be born as an Asian, because I can appreciate the love, and it touch my heart so good.

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  39. 39 morgana

    This film is very good. and staff of this film are excellent.

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