javabeans: Sometimes it’s funny when you pick your favorite writers or directors, and go back into their early histories and find projects in there that surprised you.
girlfriday: I know, sometimes I’m genuinely shocked at the mix of projects people have in their filmographies, and that’s actually more the case with directors, because often times they’re salaried employees at a network who take on whatever is assigned to them.
javabeans: Yes, and it’s interesting to see how their careers developed the higher they rose and the more control they had over the dramas they chose to work on. The trajectory is similar with writers, but fundamentally different because a writer still, you know, wrote her dramas. I mean, a PD still had to direct his shows too, but he may not have had much choice in the content.
girlfriday: And he may have been a second PD who did very little, or a second PD who did everything—it’s sort of impossible to know unless you’re on the set, since it’s different with every single drama.
javabeans: On the flipside of this same argument, I find that once a PD establishes himself (or herself), their style becomes more apparent than, say, a writer across projects. A writer who works with new directors each time may surprise you with how different those shows feel from each other, but a lot of PDs retain certain qualities across projects, no matter how different the story content. (Say, for instance, how I feel like Introverted Boss is like alternaworld Oh Hae-young Again.)
girlfriday: Yeah, if it’s one thing our favorite directors on this list have in common, it’s that they developed a style all their own over the course of multiple projects.
javabeans: Sometimes that distinctive style isn’t a good thing—say, when you’re thinking, “Gargh, that director really needs a new camera,” or “Ack, that director really needs a new camera operator.” But when it’s consistently good, we often fall in love with them and put them on lists like this.
1. Kim Won-seok
girlfriday: Kim Won-seok is a director whose style always serves story, whose directorial choices never seem gratuitous or flashy for the sake of style alone. I’m always fully immersed in the fictional world and caught up in the suspense of the moment or the emotion of the characters in his dramas, and almost always so addictively that they stick with me long after they’re over. He made his mark with fusion sageuk Sungkyunkwan Scandal, which hit upon a witty sense of humor and a beautiful visual style that was youthful and fresh. His follow-up, the music-themed Monstar, was cleverly directed with fantasy musical interludes and some truly moving moments that integrated music and narrative seamlessly.
Of course, it was Misaeng that made Kim Won-seok a star director, for bringing a beloved manhwa to life with the devotion of a true fan. He captured the bleakness of the day to day and made the everyman’s journey so emotionally gripping and fraught with tension that I couldn’t believe sometimes how invested I got in a mock presentation or a test to sell socks. Time-warp thriller Signal, though stylistically very different from Misaeng, had a similar relentlessness with its dramatic tension. This one felt like I was riding an avalanche hurtling down a mountain at breakneck pace—I felt every twist in my throat, and I was as frightened as I was thrilled. After two back to back projects that are arguably among the best directed dramas in all of dramaland, it ensured that I’d be watching anything with Kim Won-seok’s name on it from here on out.
2. Shin Won-ho
girlfriday: Shin Won-ho is another of Na PD’s 1 Night 2 Days crew who worked in variety, and also co-directed the long-running drama series Old Miss Diary. After years in variety, it was the throwback youth drama Answer Me 1997 that shot him to fame, and the success of that project led him to create a whole franchise out of the concept with Answer Me 1994 and Answer Me 1988. I credit the director for making these dramas feel so lived in and genuinely celebrating each era portrayed, because it could be easy to focus on the trappings in a superficial way. But with this director, it’s abundantly clear that the stories are personal to him, and these are collective memories and songs of his youth that he himself treasures—there’s just no way to fake that kind of fanatical detail and tenderness for youth.
Now that he’s been through multiple casts with rookie actors who’ve gone on to less successful projects (enough to have created the so-called Answer Me curse), it’s clear that he’s the talent behind making unseasoned actors shine—he knows how to draw the right performance out and cut around their flaws. He moves in and out of side-splitting comedy and gut-wrenching drama with ease, and contrary to what I expected when I first heard that they’d be recycling the same framework for different eras going back in time, the series didn’t degrade in quality or lose its heart; instead the franchise just kept growing, and the audience along with it.
3. Ahn Pan-seok
HeadsNo2: PD Ahn Pan-seok has a special knack for creating frames that are both beautiful and economic—and he specially tailors his style for every show, whether it’s in the cutthroat medical world of White Tower, or the warm lighting and intimacy in Secret Love Affair, or the starkly detached, almost sanitized look of End of the World. One might call him a “prestige” director whose dramas garner critical acclaim; his shows display unmatched artistry in every shot while infusing the frames with purpose and meaning. He knows when to withhold secrets from the audience and when to let them in, and sometimes his handle on emotions (and how to make us feel them) is so good it almost feels manipulative. Here’s hoping that he continues to be unafraid to take risks, having proven himself not only capable of showing intricate family relationships (A Wife’s Credentials, Heard It Through the Grapevine) but also able to experiment and create something harrowing and unforgettable (End of the World).
4. Kim Byung-soo
javabeans: Kim Byung-soo has been a to-watch director from the start of his career, beginning with the small but well-received cable series Chosun Police (whose writer went on to pen Misaeng), and then really made a splash with the super-stylish, pulse-pounding Vampire Prosecutor. With time-traveling romance Queen In-hyun’s Man, his style started to grow more complex and intricate, often playing with multiple lines of story, manipulating time or space or sometimes both. Queen In-hyun’s Man built a world that felt cohesive and unified, even when jumping 300 years back and forth in time, a trait that carried over into thriller Nine, which was like Queen In-hyun on crack, as far as the time aspect went: Not only did he depict two timelines cogently, he managed to unfold alternate realities on parallel tracks without getting us hopelessly entangled in the many threads crisscrossing each other. And just when I was thinking that time-travel and genre thrillers were his main strength, he came out with the thoughtful, sweet contemporary romance-melo Bubblegum—although yes, that drama also played with two threads of time, as a mother’s Alzheimer’s progressed and flashbacks intertwined with the events of the present day. It’s a nifty talent to have, this ability to tell two stories at once and progress both lines concurrently; it’s impressive as an intellectual exercise, but he never forgets to back that up with emotional developments, packing in that extra punch.
5. Kim Seok-yoon
javabeans: Kim Seok-yoon has been around a while, directing Old Miss Diary back in 2004, its subsequent movie version in 2006, and the screwball period comedies in the Detective K series. Those projects garnered him positive responses, but it was with 2015’s JTBC series Awl that his work took on a weightier, more serious vibe; that webtoon-adapted series owes much of its appeal to the director’s strong, assured touch, somehow turning long labor union discussions into riveting drama. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to find humor in the darkest, bleakest of moments, sprinkling in surprising laughs amidst the bigger conflict. PD Kim followed that with last year’s This Week, My Wife Will Have An Affair, where that skill was again out in full force—never have I found scenes so simultaneously painful and uproarious to watch. He teased out the comedy in moments otherwise full of anxiety and heartbreak, yet never at the expense of the characters’ pain. It’s that ability to bring us into his characters’ emotional centers that makes these dramas so gripping; we’re not just in their minds, thinking their thoughts, but feeling their feelings too. You don’t get much more engrossed than that.
6. Lee Jung-hyo
HeadsNo2: PD Lee Jung-hyo’s credits list is long and varied, and spans multiple genres, from historicals to melodramas to rom-coms and thrillers. It’s perhaps his ability to tackle these disparate styles—and be good at them all—that’s most impressive about him. In romantic comedies, he has a knack for zippy editing and maintaining a cheeky, upbeat tone (I Need Romance 1 and 2, Witch’s Romance), but then he turned around and gave us something dark, stylized, and gritty with the hyperreal neo-noir thriller Heartless City. Then he captured the youthful innocence of falling in love for the first time in, well, Because It’s the First Time, and went on to helm one of the most successful American-to-Korean television adaptations with The Good Wife, which was full of some truly creative shots that were as visually interesting as they were effective, infusing scenes with passion or subtle nuance. While his dramas run the gamut of genre and tone, what they have in common is an assured style that’s adaptable no matter what story you throw at him.
7. Yoo Je-won
javabeans: Yoo Je-won is one of the newer PDs on this list—his first drama series as a main director is 2014’s High School King of Savvy—but there’s something to be said for repeat successes, particularly when in quick succession. He didn’t necessarily reinvent the comedic wheel, but he showed a genuine flair for zany situational comedy in Savvy, producing a string of unpredictable, laugh-out-loud situations. He followed that with more playful quirkiness in Oh My Ghostess, taking a fantastical premise (bawdy ghost possesses a timid wallflower and tries to seduce her boss) and finding a warm emotional center—it felt like rom-coms had just been reinvigorated with a fresh dose of energy. Being a lifelong fan of romantic comedies means that I’ve seen more than my share of them, and grown exceedingly familiar with the genre’s rhythms, cliches, and bag o’ tricks. It’s a relief to have someone come along and show you that not every joke has been told before, and that there are ways to make something familiar feel fresh again. That’s a gift, and not one I’ll be taking for granted.
8. Kim Sung-yoon
girlfriday: Kim Sung-yoon is part of a group of directors at KBS who’ve collaborated on a number of dramas in varying pairs: Kim Sung-yoon and Baek Sang-hoon worked together on the hit fusion sageuk Moonlight Drawn By Clouds and the addictively dramatic Who Are You—School 2015, and Kim Sung-yoon and Lee Eung-bok (who went on to direct Descended From the Sun and The Lonely Shining Goblin) directed the thoughtful contemporary romance Discovery of Romance and the wonderfully earnest Dream High together. I almost feel like they come in a set, since you can’t talk about one without mentioning the others.
Kim Sung-yoon’s dramas are ones where I always took note of the amped up directorial style and editing skill—everything looks beautiful, every scene lasts juuuuuust the right length (seriously, that timing is a skill), and the music cues up my emotions in the ideal way—it’s textbook, but the drama is so good at the thing it’s supposed to do, every time. This was never more evident than in Moonlight Drawn By Clouds, where I felt like every directorial choice landed perfectly, and made me feel exactly the right emotions in any given scene, whether it was sweeping grandeur or cheeky wit. It’s the kind of style that heightens drama without being flashy, and uses music so effectively that I want to run out and get the OST so I can relive it again and again.
9. Jang Tae-yoo
HeadsNo2: PD Jang Tae-yoo is no stranger to popular dramas, starting his career off with light, funny dramas like Bad Housewife and 101st Proposal before hitting it big with the slick underdog drama War of Money, which garnered several awards and nominations. He went on to direct the beautiful, thoughtful Painter of the Wind, which stirred buzz throughout its run, which he followed with perhaps his most artistically assured venture yet in Tree With Deep Roots, which was both a cerebral mystery as well as an unconventional character study of one of Korea’s most famous kings.
There’s a very polished look to PD Jang’s work—he has an incredible way with lighting, and he has an excellent grasp on how to use style to create a sense of epic grandeur. He knows how to use his shots for maximum dramatic effect, whether he’s showing us something grandiose or incredibly intimate, and is never afraid to let his audience in on the story that’s being told. Those skills served him just as well in the realm of wacky rom-com; he gave You From Another Star emotional grounding (those Joseon scenes!) as well as its sparkle and flash in its zany comedy, turning it into one of the biggest global hits Hallyu had ever seen.
10. Na Young-seok, aka simply “Na PD”
javabeans: Na PD isn’t technically a drama director—he’s a Variety God, who’s churned out so many hit series that it’s hard to keep track of them all: 1 Night 2 Days, Grandpas Over Flowers (in Europe, Taiwan, and Greece), Youths Over Flowers (in Peru, Laos, Iceland, Africa), Three Meals a Day, New Journey to the West, Newlywed Diary. However, his genius at crafting narrative rivals the best of ‘em in the drama sphere, so he’s earned his spot on our list. (Not to mention that many of the crew who grew up and learned under him have since spread their wings in scripted series—and some of dramaland’s best, at that (the Answer Me series).
Na PD’s magic at weaving together compelling stories out of practically thin air is so consistent and strong that I go into all of his shows expectant of excellence, and yet am amazed when he delivers yet again. His greatest strength has always been in finding the emotion and the story—the human element—buried in hours of footage, whether that’s seven guys camping overnight and playing grade-schooler games, or a group of friends touring a foreign locale, or people sitting around and cooking. He’s turned random snippets of pets playing into full-fledged story arcs, and even though I know it’s entirely fabricated, it’s riveting nonetheless. Heck, the entire promotional tour for Three Meals a Day was everybody on the show predicting how badly it would fail because the concept was so boring, only to have it break records and become a smash hit. He’s so good at this one very specific but utterly crucial skill (making stories from nothing) that even when he’s built an entire format and has his trusted crew take over a known entity, the results are somehow missing his special spark—that touch only he has, in finding exactly how to appeal to us through the most mundane and universal slices of life.
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