What makes a K-drama successful? Is it their storylines, mushy love stories, soul-touching OSTs by your favourite K-pop stars, or that they reflect our daily life struggles? Perhaps it’s all of these. And while one might triumph in a series, it’s about time we spoke about enchanting cinematography which are a whole character when it comes to K-dramas. When it comes to cinematography, K-dramas tend to be less flashy than western productions. Most of these shows communicate the thematic elements and emotional rhythms of the story through aesthetic colour schemes, strategic frames, and subtle lighting.
When I first dove into this K-drama world, I was mesmerised by how everything appeared to be straight out of a fairy tale, whether it was through a stunning skyline, snow-covered mountains, or a character simply sitting as the camera pans. One of my personal favourites has to be the Bokeh lighting technique. A simple technique of blurring the background with little hazy circular lights sets the perfect vibe for a heartfelt confession sequence between the leads. Some of the K-dramas have also taken a cute turn on it with a little heart light in the background, creating a similar effect without taking much away from the scene. A notable mention can be given to Strong Women Bong Soon’s cinematography where the background lighting played a major role.
While we often love K-dramas for their rich content, in the case of the dramas below, we stayed still and may have even watched them again just for the stunning cinematography:
1. Squid Game
A haunting masterpiece. Squid Game’s cinematography was done by Emmy-winner Lee Hyung-deok. The show’s main theme was engaging enough for people to stick to their seats for 8 hours, but the cinematography was one of the key highlights for lovers of visual symmetry. Squid Game contains many CGI cuts that had to be represented realistically to explain the emotions and foreshowing on screen. The constant colour palette and symmetry led the story’s flow for its viewers.
2. Twenty Five – Twenty One
From its trailer, people thought this was going to be another lighthearted rom-com, but when the story started unfolding, the drama’s realistic approach towards adulthood made people question different things. The cinematography is remarkable, especially the tunnel sequences, which play a major part in the character’s love life. The tunnel shot was referenced in Kogonada’s critically acclaimed 2017 movie Columbus. A fitting choice of filming locations to explain the narrative, to suit the mood, or to serve as a visual metaphor for partition, growing up, and life changes
3. Annarasumanara (The Sound Of Magic)
This K-drama’s tagline says, “Do you believe in magic?” If not, this musical K-dramas’s cinematographer would make you. In this drama, two high school students dealing with personal struggles—Yoon Ah-Yi and Na Il-Deung—tell the tale of how they meet a strange magician who transforms their lives. The DP Jin Ho Jung was tasked with utilising the ALEXA Mini LF’s broad colour palette and excellent dynamic range to create scenes that artfully blended enchanting graphics to bring the character’s emotion to life. Each character had their own colour palette. For Yoon Ah-Yi, they used a light brown tone to capture the misfortunes that she has to live through, while Il-Deung’s was set in a cold blue tone, and they went with a bit cooler greenish aurora for the magician Ri-Eul.
4. It’s Okay To Be Not Okay
A human healing story, this K-drama sparks questions about how the world sees people dealing with mental health or differently abled people in society. The visuals of It’s Okay To Be Not Okay consist of some stunning stop-motion animations, illustrations for fairy tale books that come to life in the show, high-value production sets, and aesthetic colour schemes, making it a beautiful series to watch. There are some notable arc shots of the lead characters, helping the portrayal of emotions.
5. Alchemy of Souls
This drama’s visuals, cinematography, and editing are impeccable. Mythical or fantasy shows are always fueled by great VFX and cinematography. The narration is mixed with visual motifs to signify the story’s tension, crisis, or danger and to keep up with the drama’s mythology of the Ice Stone and Hwansu (fire and water). There’s also some focus shots that are almost like breaking the 180-degree rule or “crossing the line” with bilateral symmetry to radial symmetry.
6. Goblin: The Lonely God
This show’s cinematography is now a benchmark. The level of detail-orientedness is unmatched. More than a show, it felt like poetry was being performed. Goblin’s cinematography was done by award-winning cinematographers Park Sung-Yong and Kang Yoon-Soon. This series consists of paintings in every frame. You can’t quite place the similarity, but the exquisite symmetry and colour scheme remind me of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic.The cinematographers of Goblin, in contrast to Anderson, used a far more tranquil colour scheme that draws inspiration from the hues of the natural world, a bit far away from Andreson’s pastel tones.
7. The King: Eternal Monarch
This drama captured everyone’s interest in its first two episodes for a number of reasons, but mostly because of its stunning visuals. The King: Eternal Monarch has some magnificent settings and locations that are both visually stunning and artistic. And if you dig a little, it appears that a significant portion of the production team’s budget went towards creating the sets, outfits, and props. Together with a logo, currency, palace, and other items for the parallel universe, they created a whole ensemble for Lee MinHo’s portrayal as the monarch. You will notice multiple colour tones used to define each parallel universe for the audience to understand the time leap.