Siblings of dramaland
The most important relationships featured in K-dramas are arguably the romances. In fact, I think I could count on one hand the dramas that have not been romances, or featured a loveline of some sort. In comparison, while siblings are common in dramaland, there are not many dramas that have siblinghood as the focal relationship of a drama. And as much as I want to separate sibling relationships from drama romances, and think about them as two separate dynamics, they often get woven together in a variety of ways.
The first way that comes to mind almost automatically is the trope around fauxcest, with all of its Greek tragedy-level drama. Sometimes it’s the concept of the entire drama, like in Autumn Fairy Tale where siblings mix-ups rules the plot, and sometimes it’s an element, like in Hundred Million Stars From the Sky, where the fauxcest wound up wrecking the world of our leads, and leaving the story in shreds.
Other dramas have capitalized on the fauxcest concept with a different frame. Instead of two lovers mistakenly being told they are long lost siblings, another use of the trope features siblings who are not actually biological siblings falling in love. Well, at least one of them. In That Winter the Wind Blows, Jo In-sung pretends to be Song Hye-gyo’s prodigal brother. During his grand masquerade, falls head over heels for her, which, understandably, gets sticky.
Dramas love to play with hidden, unrequited, and pseudo-forbidden love, to the point that if there’s a drama where one sibling is adopted, it’s pretty safe to say there will be some playing around with this dynamic.
In Kill Me, Heal Me, Park Seo-joon’s character was eventually revealed to be the adopted, not biological, brother of Hwang Jung-eum’s character. Consequently, his closeness and protectiveness of her as an oppa took on a whole new edge (and a new meaning to the word). The same goes for Jin Ki-joo’s oppa in Come Here and Hug Me — their relationship featured the same dynamic and the same reversal.
While I can see the dramatic appeal of this dynamic, I would have much rather had these characters remain as real brothers. This is not because I’m against the trope (I secretly enjoy this one), but because I loved them so much as siblings I didn’t want anything to cloud that. That goes especially for Park Seo-joon and Hwang Jung-eum, going for walks with the dog, making fun of each other, and continuing to do the weirdo things they did as kids. The details made it feel like a real-life brother/sister relationship, and dramaland needs more of this!
One drama I can think of that didn’t use this angle was Hundred Million Stars From the Sky. The relationship between Jung So-min and Park Sung-woo remained a devoted sibling bond, even after we learned that they weren’t biological siblings. (Phew!)
Another common K-drama sibling dynamic is a heroine and her younger brother. Shin Se-kyung in When A Man Loves, Han Ye-seul in 20th Century Boy and Girl, and Park Shin-hye in Memories of the Alhambra — all three heroines had sweet younger brothers that were an important part of the family unit, but not so much the plot.
Have you noticed these younger brother characters are often played by K-pop idols? All three of the dramas above feature idols in the younger brother role, and it begs the question of whether they are there for show, for acting practice, or because they’re actually wonderful (yes, that’s an option!).
There are many more dramas with heroines and younger brothers, but most of them are equally on the tangential side. They can stir the pot (like the best of little brothers) and push a love line forward, they can be ill or endangered, or they can have a problematic best friend (like Sohn Ye-jin’s dongsaeng in Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food).
There are a few dramas where the sibling bond was evocatively conveyed, and my favorite of these is in The Good Wife. Yoon Hyun-min cameoed as the brother of the heroine, played by Jeon Do-yeon. Both brother and sister were in a state of upheaval in their lives, and watching them reconnect and support each other added a wonderful depth to the story, even though it remained tangential. In a favorite scene, they are sprawled out on the couch late at night, talking and sharing their stories with each other in a way that only siblings can.
Another sibling relationship I really enjoyed was with JB (a.k.a. Im Jae-beom) and Shin Se-kyung in When A Man Loves. This was not a great drama by any stretch, but JB backed up Shin Se-kyung’s struggling noona heroine nicely, giving her emotional support and a shoulder to lean on. He even helped her dance some stress away at the studio where he practiced as a trainee. Sure, it was a shameless plug for what was then JYP’s JJ Project, but their relationship worked for me, I think because the drama successfully showed their support of each other as family.
Let’s not forget the sisters of dramaland, which is where I think K-dramas do some of their best portrayals of siblinghood. Whether they are rivals in love, or just sisters that need to squabble and fight and struggle to co-exist, dramas like Answer Me 1988, Temperature of Love, Empress’s Dignity, and High School King of Savvy (to name just a few) all had a strong component of bickering but loving sisters.
The sister trio in What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim might be my recent favorite, though. The sisters acted as a support and sounding board for Park Min-young’s character, and rather than stir up the plot, their presence grounded it beautifully.
But siblings relationships can also be used for contrast, and to set apart our hero or heroine from the characters around them. Think of the dichotomy between Seo Kang-joon and Lee Sung-kyung (as Baek In-ho and Baek In-ha) in Cheese in the Trap, or between Lee Min-ho and Choi Jin-hyuk (as Kim Tan and Kim Won) in Heirs. Their characters, their goals, their willingness to sacrifice, and their ideas about love, were all purposefully contrasted through their sibling relationship.
While there’s no shortage of siblings (biological or not) in dramaland, to me there’s a shortage of exposition around this relationship. Rather than using siblings or sibling fake-outs as fodder for the drama’s romance, I’d love to see them explored more — even as a side plot — just because stories about siblings are worth telling. I’ve named a few dramas that stood out to me with their sibling elements, and while I’m sure there are more dramaland siblings in shows I haven’t seen yet, I also hope there are some in dramas yet to be written.
- Memories of the Alhambra: Episode 1
- Hundred Million Stars From the Sky: Episode 1
- What’s Wrong With Secretary Kim: Episode 1
- Come Here and Hug Me: Episodes 1-16
- 20th Century Boy and Girl: Episodes 1-2
- Answer Me 1988: Episode 1
- Kill Me, Heal Me: Episode 1
- Heirs: Episode 1
- When A Man Loves: Episode 1
- That Winter, The Wind Blows: Episode 1
- Adapting early Hallyu hits for the big screen
Tags: 20th Century Boy and Girl, Answer Me 1988, Autumn Fairy Tale, Come Here and Hug Me, Heirs, Hundred Million Stars From the Sky, Kill Me Heal Me, Memories of the Alhambra, That Winter the Wind Blows, What's Wrong With Secretary Kim