I know. You think this list is going to look something like this: Stairway to Heaven-Autumn-in-My Heart-Winter’s Sonata-Spring Waltz. Sadly, I never got past the first few episodes of Autumn in my Heart and Spring Waltz, and I refuse to touch Stairway to Heaven with a ten-foot pole, so you’re getting something entirely different. To clarify, these are not the darkest dramas I’ve seen – there are many, many historical dramas, sageuks, and revenge stories that are much darker. I’m talking more the romantic tearjerkers, the ones which, while they may not have the highest quotient of tragic things necessarily, manage to tell an often sad tale while still keeping the viewer thoroughly involved.
1. 1 Litre of Tears-this Japanese drama is famously supposed to make each viewer weep a litre of tears. Based on the true story of a 15-year-old girl diagnosed with spinocerebellar degeneration (a degenerative, ultimately fatal disease), it would be heartbreaking enough if it was fictional, but the fact that it’s real adds that extra painful edge. The true tragedy of this drama is watching how much her disease hurts her family, how she is, ultimately, almost stronger than they are because they are so utterly undone by their inability to help her. By turns funny and wistful, 1 Litre of Tears can be incredibly understated, but the moments of pain are all the more raw in contrast, and it’s heartbreakingly realistic and straightforward as it tracks all the changes that happen in her life and relationships as a result of her disease.
2. I’m Sorry I Love You. Sneaky this drama is not – with “I’m Sorry” in the title, it lets us know straight up that we’re in for a tear-fested ride. As if that weren’t enough of a warning, however, Lee Kyung Hee, the mistress of angst herself (though she’ll always an apprentice to Yoon Suk Ho) and writer behind Will It Snow at Christmas? and A Love to Kill, penned this classic melodrama. Lee writes dramas that are often flawed but which seldom fail to hit those emotional buttons, and so it is here. The plot is rather hit-or-miss, but her two main characters, played by So Ji Sub and Im Soo Jung, are incredibly compelling, and by making us like them and then putting them in horrible situations the rest of the drama Lee ensures that hearts will be thoroughly wrenched.
Eun Chae and Moo Hyuk (So Ji Sub) are two of the most kind-hearted, good drama leads I’ve ever seen, which makes it all the worse as everyone around determinedly sets out to destroy them. The drama is giddily romantic and there’s a spark of utter, haunting magic about it, particularly about Eun Chae, whom Im Soo Jung portrays with an aching luminosity I’ve seen in no other drama character. But it can be devastatingly bitter.
3. Silence. I knew very little about this Vic Zhou vehicle going into it, except that it was reputed to be the one tearjerker/romantic melodrama that he ever did. The tragedies which dog its protagonists, the mute, stubborn Shen Shen (played unusually by a Korean actress, Park Eun Hye of Pink Lipstick) and the cold businessman Qi Wei Yi (Vic Zhou) become apparent early in the drama, and it’s then just a matter of watching them play out. Slow and beautiful and utterly gripping, Silence features not just one, but two, of the most heartbreaking scenes I’ve seen in any television series or film ever. The climactic scene, which the rest of the drama quietly builds toward, is utterly and completely devastating. Silence is by no means consistently sad – much of it is focused on romance and other issues – but when it does feature those scenes, it is pitch-perfect and heartbreaking.
4. Aishiteiru to Itte Kure. Japanese drama Aishiteiru to Itte Kure is stunningly acted, super romantic, and consistently well-written. It is also one of the most heartbreaking dramas I’ve ever seen – its pain is so real and raw and human. Take a proud, gifted, deaf painter with oodles of baggage and a forthright, loving, much younger aspiring actress, and mix them together. What you get is both an achingly beautiful love story and a shatteringly convincing portrayal of how much individuals can hurt each other. During one particular scene, I remember being forced to look away from the screen, the emotion was so real. The ending is not tragic and I highly recommend the drama, but be prepared for something of an emotional rollercoaster, especially in the second half.
5. Winter Sonata. And you thought you were going to get an entire list without any of the Four Seasons dramas. Winter Sonata is the only one of the Four Seasons dramas I’ve seen all the way through, and I believe it is generally known (along with Stairway to Heaven) as the motherlode of angst. The main couple, played exquisitely by future superstars Choi Ji Woo and Bae Yong Joon, meet in high school and have one of those magical, resonant high romances….which means the road they face before actually ending up together is extra long and arduous (melodrama law of angst: for every single scene of happiness, there must be at least four episodes of misery). This is a great drama, beautiful and involving and deserving of its fame, and part of its status as an early classic means that it hits at least half the Kdrama conventions listed in a previous DF post…most of which involve bad things happening to the protagonists.