Before fans had the luxury to binge-watch K-drama on Netflix with its wide, cross-genre selection, K-addicts had to patiently wait for their favorite series to air on local TV. That is, if they weren’t already trying to download and watch it not-quite-legally on Korean fan sites. But, in the early 00s, even way before major networks rode the Korean wave, hardcore fans sleuthed for enterprising geeks who would sell one episode downloaded into one blank CD. An "order" then meant going home with at least 16 up to 50 discs at a time, for that's how technology was able to contain the series!
With more recent and successful Korean series now venturing into multiple genres (ehem, Crash Landing On You, Itaewon Class, Goblin, etc.), the old school Korean dramas preferred to focus mostly on topics revolving around romance and family—yet, guaranteeing buckets of tears with every episode. What makes these forerunners special, however, are the stories that paved the way for the Korean Wave to emerge on a global scale. Here are just some of the most unforgettable of them that made us fall in love with K-dramas way, way before it even hit the Gen Z consciousness.
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Autumn in my Heart (2000)
The first installment in the Endless Love tetralogy (which includes Winter Sonata, Summer Scent, and Spring Waltz), Autumn in My Heart is known as one of the most touching storylines to come out during that decade, making it a pioneer in Korean melodrama. Starring a then 18-year-old Song Hye-kyo (in her first starring role), Song Seung-heon, and Won Bin, the series tells the story of two people who grew up as siblings, only to be separated by a cruel twist of fate. They meet again after a decade in a heartbreaking series of events that tug at the heart with every episode. A true romantic tragedy, Autumn in Your Heart is still a must watch even if it leaves you hurting at the end.
Winter Sonata (2002)
Also known as Winter Love Story, this is the second series from Korea’s Endless Love series and is another tragic love story to remember. (This is why many fans consider it the series that started the whole Korean Wave worldwide!) Starring Bae Yong-Joon (now retired from acting and chairman of the KeyEast management agency) and and Choi Ji Woo (who got married in 2018), the series is about an introverted boy named Joon-Sang who gets amnesia after a car accident and forgets about his memories with his classmate Yoo-jin. Joon-Sang then moves to the US with his new name Min-hyung and becomes an architect; he returns to Korea and crosses paths with Yoo-jin already engaged. Yoo-jin, on the other hand, grows to believe that Joon-Sang has died in the accident—leaving her confused at the presence of her ill-fated first love. Winter Sonata became so successful it was adapted into an anime series in Japan, with the two lead stars voicing their characters.
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All In (2003)
Inspired from the real life story of a professional Korean poker player, All In is suspense, action, drama, and romance altogether—showing one man’s struggle to make it in the high stakes world of gambling while keeping the love of his life on his side. This series stars Lee Byung-hun and Song Hye-kyo as two orphans who grow up and find themselves working in the same casino. Their jinxed marriage is the turning point in the protagonist’s life as he decides to bet everything he has on becoming a successful gambler and win back his childhood love.
Lovers in Paris (2004)
With the opening and finale episodes both set in Europe's most romantic city, Lovers in Paris veers from the usually heavy drama seen right at the start of most Korean dramas at that time. Han Ki Joo (Park Shin Yang) pays his housekeeper Kang Tae Young (Kim Jung-eun) to pretend to be his girlfriend in order to make a good impression on a business partner. While going out on fake dates, the two find themselves attracted to each other albeit nothing out of the ordinary happening. While in Paris, Tae Young also crosses paths with Ki Joo’s nephew Yoon Soo-hyuk (Lee Dong-gun) who also expresses interest in her. The three stars eventually cross paths back in Korea and as Ki Joo and Tae Young start to get closer, Yoon Soo-hyuk attempts to keep them apart. Lovers In Paris was later adapted for Philippine television in ABS-CBN in 2009 and starred Piolo Pascual, KC Concepcion, and Zanjoe Marudo.
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Sassy Girl Chun-hyang (2005)
Sassy Girl Chun-hyang is the modern retelling of the Chunhyangjeon or Tale of Chun-hyang, Korea’s best known folktale. The romantic comedy revolves around high school students Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong played by Han Chae-young (the Barbie Doll of Korea and also the main antagonist on Autumn in my Heart) and Jae Hee, respectively. Chun-hyang and Mong-ryong come from different worlds only to end up married in order to save their family’s reputation and avoid a scandal in high school. In college, Mong-ryong gets into trouble after trying to save a woman from a fake assault. Chun-hyang gets blackmailed by a rich talent agent obsessed with her, and so divorces and disappears on Mong-ryong. After several years, Mong-ryong and Chun-hyang cross paths again, as they flourish with their own careers.
Princess Hours (2006)
Those who have watched new hit zombie series Kingdom may recognize Crown Prince Lee Chang as another prince from more than a decade ago. In Princess Hours' alternate 21st century, monarchy still rules Korea; when the emperor falls ill, the need for the prince's spouse also becomes more urgent. But Ju Ji-hoon as Crown Prince Lee Shin finds out his late grandfather had already promised him marriage to an unlikely bride—commoner Chae-kyong, (Yoon Eun-hye, one year before she had another hit series in Coffee Prince). Lee Shin and Chae-kyong try to get along despite being total opposites in personality and background.
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