If You Like… Noona Romances
If you’re anything like me, your ideal drama hero isn’t the cold chaebol with the icy exterior or even the perfect Daddy Long Legs caretaker. He’s the hotheaded ruffian on a motorcycle with a busted lip and a one-sided love for an unattainable noona. Why always a motorcycle? I don’t know. Blame Jung Woo-sung (Beat, 1997). And James Dean.
Perhaps you recently finished I Hear Your Voice and you’re waiting for the next Park Su-ha to come around the bend. Aren’t we all. I spent the better part of the year finally watching the family sitcom Unstoppable High Kick from beginning to end, at a whopping 167 episodes (on the upside, the episodes are super short at twenty minutes each). The thing that kept me going was my tried and true dramaland kryptonite: the noona romance.
I could fill a whole post just naming all the tropes that I love, but noona romances hit my drama sweet spot, mostly because I love soonjung narratives—sweet, innocent love backed by earnest emotion, and a drama sensibility that comes out of a genre of comics called soonjung manhwa. It’s part and parcel of why I love high school stories.
But I find noona romances particularly satisfying because they’re filled with gender reversals. Obviously to have a noona romance, the woman has to be older than the man. But if that were the only reversal in the game, there wouldn’t be much to write home about. The fun part of a noona romance is a reversal in the power dynamic—for starters, the heroine is strong, but she’s also often the boss, the teacher, the one who (outwardly) has her life together. She’s either paired with a beta male (I Do, I Do), or an alpha male in a small pond—say, other nineteen-year olds—who has no power in the real world (Biscuit Teacher).
The hero almost always straddles the man-boy divide, but often the heroine has as much growing up to do as he does. He carries a torch for her, thinking she’s unattainable (my favorite kind of drama angst). Once they’re together, age presents a real-world obstacle. And the army is Hades itself.
All noona-killers aren’t rebels on motorcycles, but that’s the iconic dramaland image because they dare to go against the grain, even if it’s just by saying that age is just a number. Mostly though, you just have to be willing to chase the girl of your dreams with your heart on your sleeve, whether on two wheels or four, or using your student bus pass.
SONG OF THE DAY
Lee Seung-gi – “내 여자라니까 (Because You’re My Woman)” [ Download ]
Biscuit Teacher Star Candy (2005)
The premise: A high school delinquent grows up with dreams of becoming a teacher, and manages to finagle a temporary position at a school under the condition that she keeps the biggest troublemaker of them all in check. She wrangles the punk; he falls for teacher.
This drama is pretty much a soonjung manhwa come to life, with imaginary sequences featuring the heroine literally kicking ass and taking names. It’s one of my favorite noona romances in dramaland, and part of it is definitely the match-up between Gong Yoo and Gong Hyo-jin. Never mind that he’s actually older than her in real life; just go with the fiction. He’s the classically brooding rebel teenager who’s misunderstood and assumed to be a terrible troublemaker when he’s really just a lonely kid with no one to take his side. She’s a reformed misfit herself, and as his teacher she’s the first person in his life to stick to him like glue and tell him that she cares and that she’ll never give up on him.
It works, and he doesn’t just open up to her; he falls hard because he’s young and impetuous. Soon he’s running around declaring his love from the rooftops in what is maybe the cutest display of one-sided love ever. It’s the thing you think you wouldn’t ever root for—for the nineteen-year old to win over his teacher’s heart—but you’re on his side before you know it. How can you not, when he’s practically handing her his bleeding heart and asking her not to crush it?
What’s Up Fox (2006)
The premise: The boy next door returns from his travels abroad as a grown man in a hot body. The noona who’s known him his whole life struggles with this strange new sexual attraction, and the two land in bed one drunken night, beginning their hilariously backwards relationship.
This is one of the great quintessential noona romances that you shouldn’t miss. It’s less zippy than My Name Is Kim Sam-soon (they come from the same writer), but it has one of the more realistic noona romances that could work in the real world. Go Hyun-jung and Chun Jung-myung have a cute rapport that walks the line between too familial and sexually charged, which is the point because theirs is the problem of being TOO close. She’s literally the noona next door who used to change his diapers (or so she claims), so his struggle is to get her to see him as a man.
This drama deals with sexual attraction in a really frank way, which sets it apart from the other usually innocent noona romances. (And the heroine writes erotic romance stories for a porn magazine as her day job, so there are some hilarious fantasy reenactments of her stories that pepper the drama.) We find out that she was his first crush as a boy, but more importantly the object of his sexual awakening; as adults she’s in denial about him being a man, but can’t hide her attraction to him. This drama tackles the tough questions and doesn’t give the couple any easy outs, making their relationship feel earned. It’s also a nice ordinary story about two middle-class people (notably a commonality among many noona romances though not at all a necessary part).
Unstoppable High Kick (2006-7)
The premise: This is the first of the High Kick series of popular family sitcoms that feature multigenerational households full of wacky hijinks and lots of heart.
There are too many storylines to name, and a great deal of them were addictive in their own right, but none so much as Jung Il-woo’s (when he was nineteen!) as the maknae son of the main family, constantly overshadowed by his smarter hyung and blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world. He lives up to the rebel moniker to a tee, fistfights and motorcycle and all.
Much like Biscuit Teacher, this troublemaker meets his match in homeroom teacher Seo Min-jung, who takes an interest in changing him for the better. He spends a good deal of time making her life miserable, but when she refuses to give up on him, he falls head over heels and proceeds to do all manner of adorable puppy things for the teacher he secretly loves.
This romance is mainly thwarted (as is Biscuit Teacher’s, oddly enough) by an uncle who’s sweet on the same girl. He’s everything the rebel isn’t—a grown-up, her equal, and her ideal. It’s more heartbreaking in High Kick’s version because the uncle has the dominant love triangle in this show, not to mention the fact that this kid loves his family. But it also pulls the angst strings a little more because of it, to great effect. Here the one-sided love feels more doomed, and therefore plays up the achingly sweet gestures of affection that go unnoticed by the heroine, that only the hero and the audience are privy to. I dare you not to become a puddle of goo. High Kick is just a good family show anyway, though it’s worth mentioning that you wouldn’t be left completely in the lurch if you picked it up for the noona romance. It isn’t the main story by any stretch, but it can (and will likely) become the thing you end up watching it for.
The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry (2010)
The premise: Three thirtysomething girlfriends tackle dating, work, friendship, and love with a sense of humor. The heroine strikes up a relationship with a man ten years her junior, though in some ways he’s the one who schools her on romance.
I’d recommend this drama for the girlfriend camaraderie and the comedy alone, but it’s also one of the better noona romances of the non-high-school set. Kim Bum and Park Jin-hee play a significant age gap, but the problems are also those of adults who have dated, not the undying first love of a teenaged rebel. It’s as much a story about the start of romance, with all the cute, awkward, confusing, and swoony things that characterize a new relationship. It just also happens to then deal with the specific struggles of dating a noona, from the basic (What do I call her?) to the complicated (How do I explain this to my mother?) and everything in between.
This is one of the more mature noona-killers in this set, by which I mean he’s pretty adult for a man-boy. He’s in a rock band, so he’s by no means buttoned-up, but he strives to act very adult around his girlfriend (which is just not the case for the average noona-killer, who is mostly childish, and on a good day gets his act together to do something manly). If you’re iffy about noona romances, this is a good one to start with.
Baby-Faced Beauty (2011)
The premise: An unemployed but talented aspiring designer gets mistaken for nine years younger (she’s 34, they think she’s 25) and keeps the lie going to work for a design company, where she is treated as the lowly grunt by snotty sunbaes who are years younger. She gets off on the wrong foot with the hero, but they eventually become workplace friends and confidantes. He assumes he’s the oppa and enjoys playing the part, so when the truth finally comes out, the jarring reversal puts the brakes on the developing romance, until they figure out a way around the mindfuckery of her going from rookie kiddo to a noona seven years his senior.
Age is most definitely the central conceit, challenge, and conflict in Baby-Faced Beauty. So while it’s not your standard noona romance, our couple definitely bumps up against the noona issue over the course of their courtship. The numbers screw with his mind in a confusing, head-spinning way that almost feels too mean to enjoy, except that it’s really enjoyable.
The lie goes on for long enough that the dynamic is firmly established by the time it gets all shaken up and needs to be redefined. Suddenly Daniel Choi goes from talking comfortably in banmal with Jang Nara to stuttering in jondae, catching himself in fits and starts and feeling terribly uncomfortable with how everything is suddenly backwards. Nothing’s changed for her, yet when the perception of the power dynamic is suddenly different, there’s no fooling yourself that things are still the same. Plus, the hero has been stepping in frequently to help her (although the drama avoids the damsel in distress quagmire, thankfully) which means that he gets to feel that he’s the manly man, the older and wiser oppa taking care of his younger girl. Then one day the world flips and he’s stuck in a noona romance without even knowing it. Muahaha.
Flower Boy Ramyun Shop (2011)
The premise: A teenage boy is raised in a bizarre bubble of wealth and privilege, wanting for nothing in the world except the ability to understand human emotions. The heroine is the first person to ever challenge him, and he mistakes love for anger and heartburn before realizing that he’ll have to come down from his ivory tower to chase the girl he loves.
This drama has no realistic characters whatsoever. It only barely has one foot in the real world, but that’s kind of its wacky charm. There’s no question that Jung Il-woo is in his element here as the noona-killer, and this character has all the trappings of adulthood—money, status, a laissez-faire attitude about casual dating—that make him seem more grown up. It’s all smoke and mirrors though, because he was raised with such kid gloves that he needs an interpreter to explain things like “jealousy” and “feelings.”
Lee Chung-ah does start out as a student teacher, but this drama isn’t really among the teacher-student set like Biscuit or High Kick. They soon move to a ramyun shop that becomes the main backdrop for the series, and the rich hero takes up a part-time job there just to be closer to the heroine. There’s a fun to the reverse-Cinderella-ness of the series, because while most chaebol heroes bring the girl into his world of privilege, here the average heroine brings the hero down into her world, where he learns how to live among the people. There’s zingy chemistry and the show moves quickly, though you really do have to embrace the comic-book feel to get into the show. Or yunno, you could just check your brain at the door and watch it for the kisses. Mmmm, Jung Il-woo kisses. Wait, what was I talking about?
I Do, I Do (2012)
The premise: An aimless slacker has a one-night stand with a successful bossypants shoe designer. She gets pregnant and doesn’t tell anyone about the baby daddy, and then one day he shows up as the rookie employee on her staff.
The setup is better than the execution in this drama, but it does feature a unique pairing between an alpha heroine and a beta male, no qualifiers, no hedging. She’s the boss in the workplace and in the romance. We do find that sometimes her control freak perfectionist nature is to her own detriment, and to some degree it makes Kim Sun-ah’s heroine cold. But Lee Jang-woo makes up for the warmth in the pair with his adoring noona-loving ways.
The pregnancy takes up a good deal of real estate in the story, even more than the romance, and the workplace drama adds even more filler. It’s not a drama I regret watching by any means, but there are no surprises, and I would’ve gladly traded all the workplace stuff for a meatier romance with more development. There’s so much good conflict to mine in a noona romance with a baby on the way! Alas, everything remains a little undercooked for my liking, despite the couple being really cute whenever they have a chance to let their feelings show. The fast-forward button is your friend.
The premise: High school rebel gets body-swapped with grown man, who happens to be his teacher’s boyfriend. He falls for her thinking she only sees the man on the outside, while she struggles to figure out if she’s in love with Soul or Body.
There are so many reasons I wanted this drama to work, because what a fun twist on the noona romance—the body-soul confusion is the quintessential man-boy conflict of all noona romances made literal by drama magic. The problem is that it doesn’t answer many of the questions it raises, and instead of trusting that the audience could buy the relationship it had been selling all series long, it copped out and sort of glossed over its own central conceit.
That aside (and it’s a huge aside), it does play with all the notable recurring themes in a noona romance, and does a good job of using the body swap to ask the heroine if she can look beyond the trappings of the external—a man who’s age-appropriate, with money, status, parental and societal approval—or can look beyond that to the heart of the person on the inside, no matter his (very young) age. It’s the usual love triangle of noona romances squashed into one mystical and admittedly head-spinning conundrum, often to amusing effect. Just don’t blame me if you smash your hand through the TV at the end. Consider yourself warned.
I Hear Your Voice (2013)
The premise: A super-powered boy who can read minds nearly dies witnessing his father’s murder. A brave young girl saves him and testifies to put the killer away, solidifying the hero’s undying devotion to her. Ten years later, he finds her again when he’s a high-schooler and she’s a jaded public defender. This time he vows to protect her when the killer comes back for revenge.
It’s actually difficult to sum up this drama’s premise because it’s so many different things (suspense, comedy, romance, law drama), but the emotional through line is the hero’s endless quest to protect the heroine at any cost. Lee Jong-seok is puppy love incarnate, and has an achingly sweet one-sided love for a good portion of the show’s run. My heart still hurts when I think about it, and I mean that in the best way.
Lee Bo-young has never been so sparkling as she is in this drama, where she plays a deeply flawed, petty, cynical heroine—she’s the object of a ten-year-long first love that’s been built up on such a pedestal that no human woman could live up to it. But what’s great about her is that she shatters that fantasy in one fell swoop only to build it back up again, one reluctant caring gesture at a time. If ever there was a noona romance where a boy lived and died with each thing the heroine said or did, it’s this one.
Their relationship takes on many forms, from idealized first love to familial, supernatural, self-sacrificial, and finally romantic love, and the heightened emotion is backed by the life-and-death circumstances of the narrative. This is also a cohabitation noona romance, which is a rare bird, given that most noona-killers don’t usually get this kind of ’round-the-clock access to their crushes. They start out living together because the hero has to protect her from a killer, and that constant threat of ever-living terror is what keeps them attached at the hip. Serial killers be good for something, y’all.
Z.I.N (D-Unit) – “군대 보내기 싫은데 (I Don’t Want to Send You to Army)”
[ Download ]
Bottom of the 9th With 2 Outs (2007)
The premise: Two BFFs take the long way around to love. In the meantime, they’re roommates who give each other relationship advice, and the heroine dates a young baseball player who struggles to make their noona romance survive in the real world.
I’d recommend this drama for the main pairing—that’d be Su Ae and Lee Jung-jin—but I actually liked the noona romance early on with Lee Tae-sung too, even if it’s a secondary couple. It’s the non-fantasy version of the noona romance, where real life problems get in the way, and introducing your new older girlfriend to your friends and family is an awkward affair. They discover in a realistic, bittersweet way that a man who’s just starting out in life and chasing his dreams is in a different place from a woman in her thirties who’s searching for that big life-altering love. But they still put their best efforts into making it work, and they change each other for the better.
My Sweet Seoul (2008)
The premise: A thirtysomething careerwoman navigates love and career and friendships in this low-key, thoughtful trendy.
My Sweet Seoul isn’t a rom-com in that it’s not very funny, though it has a lot of the trappings of romantic comedies with the light touches and focus on the heroine’s love life. The noona romance between Choi Kang-hee and Ji Hyun-woo is not the main loveline but it does take up a significant amount of the drama and is often very cute. Still, be forewarned that if you’re watching for noona-lovin’ funsies, this one may be more likely to leave you with a bruised heart.
Ji Hyun-woo is absolutely adorable and wonderful as the devoted young twentysomething; she’s certainly his noona, but he’s mature and thoughtful as a boyfriend. The obstacles they encounter feel realistic and mundane (in a good way); it’s not makjang twistiness forcing them apart, but real-world concerns of what it is to be in different places in your life. You can’t hate the heroine for breaking puppy boy’s heart… only you kind of hate the heroine for breaking puppy boy’s heart. Still, the drama has its lovely moments, and Mr. Voice Lee Seon-kyun is always a draw, especially when he gets to be the hero.
I Need Romance (2011)
The premise: A thirtysomething woman ends a decade-long relationship when her boyfriend cheats on her, and searches to redefine herself as a single woman. She discovers that what she needs is a little old-fashioned romance, and strikes up a relationship with a doting younger man.
This is a drama that has a really strong secondary pairing—some would argue stronger than the main pairing—that you can’t help but want to root for. Choi Jin-hyuk might have something to do with that. Just a little. He has great chemistry with Jo Yeo-jung, and plays a character who’s painfully aware that he loves her more than she loves him… which of course makes us love him more. The age gap isn’t hugely at play (she’s his noona and superior at work, but he’s secretly loaded, which ends up being a problem for her down the line) so this isn’t your average noona romance, but it’s one worth checking out. I won’t promise you’ll be happy about the outcome, but the couple does get its chance in the limelight. The drama also features a great girlfriend trio and a contemporary view of singletons looking for love, sex, and everything in between.
Ojakkyo Brothers (2011-2)
The premise: The youngest son in this family weekend drama has an unconventional noona romance with his sister-in-law’s aunt, which is less weird than it sounds (okay maybe it’s still weird). The couple has two obstacles to overcome: age and their contentious in-law relations.
This isn’t a secondary coupling as much as a secondary storyline in a family drama with a large cast. It’s not the most prominent couple (brothers Two and Three are the ones you watch the show for), but Yeon Woo-jin makes for a good noona-killer any day of the week. All the other romances on this show come with more dramatic downturns, but this one is mostly cute, cute, and more cute. It sort of gets to sidestep the bulk of the angst because that’s not their storyline’s burden, which means you can get to a lot of the hallmark rom-com moments—awkward non-dates that turn into dates, and blind-date interruptions with a “She’s my woman!”—without having to cash them in for tears down the line. She’s also his boss, and he grows up a good deal over the course of their romance, from an aimless slacker who skated by on his looks, to a young man with dreams and a plan. I’d hardly recommend this show for the noona romance since he’s got three older brothers to compete with for screen time, but I love the drama as a whole anyway; it’s one of the more satisfying and addictive family dramas in recent years.
My Name Is Kim Sam-soon (2005)
The premise: An sassy foul-mouthed pastry chef starts a bizarre contract relationship with her assy restaurateur boss. Insults, curses, and sparks fly.
I actually don’t think of Sam-soon as a noona romance, mostly because the power dynamic goes the other way for much of the drama. He’s the boss and she’s the employee, and it’s not so much the gap in their ages that’s at issue between these two. It’s true that she’s older and it does add to the long list of reasons why he would never, ever, ever (snerk) fall for her, but the drama’s conflict doesn’t really stem from their relative ages, beyond the fact that she’s now north of thirty and feeling less desirable because of it. It’s not a drama I’d reach for if I were in the mood for a noona-killer, though obviously I love this classic for a million other reasons.
Exhibition of Fireworks (2006)
The premise: Not strictly a noona romance, this one gets the main couple off on the wrong foot with the misunderstanding that the heroine is 20 when she’s actually 30, and the immature hero treats her thusly—talking down to her, rapping her head, calling her kiddo. She puts up with it as they both join the same company as new hires, mostly ’cause he’s also the CEO’s son. Then the truth comes out, he realizes she’s his noona, and then she’s promoted above him. HA. Yay for reversals.
This drama starts off hilarious and zippy, enough to suck you in with the hopes of rom-com zaniness. The heroine is spurned by her longtime boyfriend, whom she worked her tail off to support in his lean unemployed years, only to be kicked to the curb the moment he starts his upward climb. He’s upgrading his life and she just got traded in. She decides to get “revenge” and spies on the new woman in his life, gets caught up in a bickering relationship with the hero (who’s in love with the new woman, of course), and finds herself twisted up in unforeseen complications.
Unfortunately the show loses its center pretty quickly and the rest just gets messier and angstier with characters who do things that make little sense. If there is one reason to watch this show, it’s to see Kang Ji-hwan being present and compelling in the role even as everything falls apart around him, though it’s a bit jarring when he’s the only one still acting by the end of it. Not really recommended, but sometimes you can’t help rubbernecking at the site of a trainwreck.
Queen of Reversals (2010)
The premise: A headstrong woman who’s used to getting everything she wants in life finds her life turned upside-down when she goes from top dog at work to low woman on the totem pole, and from happily married to divorced and single again.
This Kim Nam-joo drama features a romance with a younger man, but they’re both too adult to consider it a traditional noona romance. He’s her boss, and she’s scarred from her divorce—these things are the source of conflict, not so much age. The hero does chase her with puppy-like affection though, so you might find enough noona love there to warrant a watch. It’s mostly a workplace drama and very heroine-centric, with a focus on life after divorce. You could even just skip the first half of the drama, which features the first loveline with her husband who ends up not her husband anymore. The heroine is also more likable if you pick it up after she’s shoved off her high horse, though I’ve never had a problem liking Kim Nam-joo.
Oh My Lady (2010)
The premise: When a selfish and spoiled movie star finds out he’s got a young daughter, his first instinct is to deny, reject, and run away. He gets saddled with a new housekeeper who also becomes part of his management team, and an unlikely rapport springs up between them as she helps raise his child and pushes him toward growing up and learning what it means to be a real father.
Given the ages of the characters, Oh My Lady doesn’t really qualify as a straight noona romance; Siwon’s character is in his late twenties (though he often acts like a sullen teenager) while Chae Rim is solidly in ajumma territory as a divorced mother of a grade schooler. The age difference is present in their relationship, but it’s almost like their circumstances negate whatever power she would have had as the elder, because he is the celebrity and she’s his employee.
The drama has its merits, though it’s not for any sort of noona-ness that Oh My Lady is appealing. Its draw is for the heartwarming moments of growth as Siwon finally starts to take his responsibilities seriously and bonds with his adorable daughter. The romance that develops is less about passion or even attraction, and sometimes feels like it was forced in because it was the neat option for the star to fall for the housekeeper who taught him how to love. Though maturing and embracing commitment aren’t bad themes to end on.
My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho (2010)
The premise: A fraidy-cat slacker frees a gumiho from a mystical scroll, and she terrifies him into being her boyfriend. Her dream is to become human, and he helps her both mystically and socially to shed her nine tails and become a real girl.
If you want to get technical, the gumiho is some centuries the hero’s noona. But she’s basically a kid (not that he’s any glowing example of maturity, but yunno). I wouldn’t call this a noona romance either, though mathwise maybe it’d be more like a great-great-great-great-granny romance, which is a little unsettling. It does have a beta male hero though, who’s extra gutless, so it taps into some of the elements that are characteristic of noona romances, but with a supernatural twist. Maybe we’ll revisit you two when we get to Lovers With Nine Lives, or Interspecies Romance.
Okay, that’s it for noona romances. Feel free to add to the list with your recommendations. I’m sure I’ll be the first in line to check them out!
Tags: 1 show to rule them all, Baby-Faced Beauty, Big, Biscuit Teacher Star Candy, featured, Fireworks, Flower Boy Ramyun Shop, I Do I Do, I Hear Your Voice, I Need Romance, If You Like, lists, My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho, My Name Is Kim Sam-soon, My Sweet Seoul, Oh My Lady, Ojakkyo Brothers, Queen of Reversals, The Woman Who Still Wants to Marry, Unstoppable High Kick, What's Up Fox