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Drama at Its Best – Little Known Asian Gems to Help You Navigate the Genre

24 July 2020

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Drama at Its Best – Little Known Asian Gems to Help You Navigate the Genre

If you are anything like me, then the genre of drama might leave you a little confused, to say the least. It’s one of those things that you understand somewhat but not enough to know the specifics. Well, lucky for you, I’ve spent hours researching what drama means and the different types of it.

As long as actors represent characters to achieve a form of narrative, that is considered drama. In that sense, the umbrella of the drama category is incredibly large. However, the category can be further broken down into subcategories to really help differentiate the films. Ranging from musical dramas to period dramas to family dramas, there is literally something for everyone. 

Due to its ambiguous and fluid nature, there is no hard and fast way to explicitly categorise the films. But of course, we at Sinema.SG will always try – here’s a look at some critically acclaimed drama films from around the region.


Survival Drama – Tunnel 터널

Director: Kim Seong-hun

We’ve seen it before – disaster strikes and the main character(s) have to navigate their way out of a very sticky situation. Somehow, amidst their flight or fight response, they still conjure up time and aptitude for relationship management and nostalgia. That is the basic premise of every survival drama out there. I’m not complaining; this subgenre has a massive appeal. I guess there’s just something about watching someone desperately try to escape death that we all cannot get enough of. 

Tunnel is a Korean film that embraces the genre – and how! Lee Jung-soo, played by Ha Jung-woo, is driving home for his daughter’s birthday when a poorly constructed tunnel caves in on him. Hold the waterworks; he survives the crash, only to be trapped underneath tonnes of concrete and debris. All he has is his cellphone and the trusty voice of the head of the rescue team Dae-kyung, played by Oh Dal-su.

The issue with survival dramas is their tendency to downplay the actual disaster and overplay the melodramatics. However, with Tunnel, viewers get a good balance of the two. The bond between Lee and Dae-kyung is heartwarming and a much needed breather from the intensity of the disaster at hand. The characters are also very likeable (the good guys, at least), propelling the film forward despite it occasionally pushing the boundaries of logic. With an underlying commentary about the political shortcomings of South Korea, Tunnel is a survivor drama that is well-rounded and has a host of award nominations to prove it!

Catch Tunnel on Amazon Prime here.

Adventure Drama – OKJA

Director: Bong Joon-ho

Unchartered territories, fresh surroundings, an unwavering goal and some lovable characters  – this is usually the set-up for successful adventure dramas. Amidst the backdrop of a journey, there is scope for relationships and conflicts to develop along the way, which is what lends to its dramatic effect. The amalgamation of two often makes for a riveting watch as it has the suspense of a goal-driven journey with pockets of sentiments along the way.

Okja is a film that banks heavily on heart and emotion – its main characters are a child and an animated superpig, after all. Just before Parasite, director Bong Joon-ho created a marvel with the Netflix original, Okja. The story follows Mija, brilliantly played by Ahn Seo-hyun, and her gigantic friend Okja who is a “superpig” – bred for the greed of the Mirando Corporation. Okja is separated from Mija and the young girl goes on a journey to rescue her best friend. What’s not to love?!

The film has everything from larger than life villains to the cutest CGI creature. While it may seem like fantasy to some, Okja is a film with many layers of social messaging – the greed of conglomerates, the need for environmental consciousness and most importantly, that friendships come in all shapes, sizes and species. As with the adventure drama genre, there are many lessons to be learnt throughout the journey and perhaps that’s what makes this type of drama so captivating.

Watch Okja on Netflix here. 

High School Drama – The Kirishima Thing 部活やめるってよ

Director: Daihachi Yoshida

Don’t cringe and look away just yet – high school dramas are actually the guilty pleasures of many around us, you just don’t know about it. Also known as teen dramas, the genre focuses on teenagers as they navigate the intricate social web of high school. Often, the backbone of the plot are topics like social acceptance, budding romance and bullying. For the younger ones, the genre is a huge appeal because of its realistic portrayal of their life experiences. Similarly, for the older audience, high school dramas have a way of stirring up nostalgia that no other genre has.

Based on a novel by Ryo Asai, The Kirishima Thing is playground politics at its best. Kirishima is your typical school jock, who is number one in everything from sports to popularity. He is never physically shown on screen but his absence from school is what causes the social hierarchy to collapse like dominos. What ensues is the fall of the “cool” kids and the blossoming of the not-so-cool ones. Trust me, it is nowhere near as superficial as it sounds.

The Kirishima Thing is a festival film (some may call it arthouse). To tackle high school complexities (or the lack thereof) in this style is a truly bold endeavour by director Daihachi Yoshida. His vision paid off with the film winning several awards that year, including the Japan Academy Prize for Picture of The Year. The beauty of this high school drama comes from taking somewhat superficial subjects and transforming them into artful social commentaries.

Revenge Drama – Oldboy 올드보이

Director: Park Chan-wook

As the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold. In film, revenge is best served packaged with all the dramatics. The genre was established way back in 1587, with its origins in stage play. Since then, it has been adapted and twisted to fit almost any narrative because of its versatility. Viewers are naturally drawn to revenge dramas because it is human nature to feel unrest with injustice and root for justice, no matter how convoluted or unconventional that justice may be. 

A Korean cult classic, Oldboy is Oh Dae-su’s pursuit of answers and ultimately, vengeance. He is trapped in a room for 15 years, without knowing the identity or intention of his captor(s). When he is released, he discovers that he is entangled in a web of conspiracies and vows to get to the bottom of it while avenging his years of suffering. 

Oldboy is not your average revenge drama because it features many subplots and is far from a linear storyline. Choi Min-sik who plays Oh is an absolute legend who puts up an extremely dedicated performance. The twists of the film are brilliantly perverse and no one sees them coming. With revenge dramas, the curve balls thrown into the plot are the massive pull and this film never lets up. For proof, look no further than the Grand Prix the film won at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival.

Crime Drama – Cyclo 

Director: Tran Anh Hung

Crime drama is a massive subgenre with numerous million-dollar franchises thriving from it. The narrative usually involves crimes, perpetrators, law enforcement officers and their cat-and-mouse chase. They offer a peek into the elusive world of what goes on behind the scenes in both the crime and the detection of it. Otherwise, the closest access we get to the layered world of crime is through reports which, understandably, sucks the “life” out of the actual story.

Cyclo is the film that put Vietnamese cinema on the map, way back in 1995. Set against the hustling and bustling Ho Chi Minh City, the film is about an 18 year-old cyclo (a type of bicycle taxi) rider. After his cyclo is stolen, he is forced into a world of crime – a fate that is not uncommon for the poorer citizens of Vietnam of that time. As things take a turn for worse, his family gets embroiled in the mess and everyone’s life is threatened.

The film possesses a dark, primal power that is captured brilliantly with expert camera work. The tone alternates between being beautifully tender and ruthlessly unsentimental – a stark contrast which leaves the audience feeling like they are playing a round of tug-o-war. While the main plot revolves around the crime underworld, there is ample exploration of family dynamics to make this a crime drama. The successful portrayal won Cyclo the Golden Lion Award at the 52nd Venice International Film Festival. The abstract and wordless scenes may not be for everyone but it will leave you reeling from the experience.    

Family Drama – The Last Reel ដុំហ្វីលចុងក្រោយ

Director: Kulikar Sotho

Similar to high school dramas, family dramas often hold a mirror to society and leverage on the familiarity and connection that the audience feels. Topics of contention are taken from real-life experiences and blown up on the big screen. This genre typically places importance on emotions and sentiments, with relationships being at the forefront of the narrative. 

Touted as the comeback of Cambodian cinema, The Last Reel is a rebellious-daughter family drama that centers around Sophoun, played by Ma Rynet. The young woman struggles to find her identity in spite of an overbearing father in a patriarchal society. When she runs away from home, she stumbles across old theatres and discovers her mother’s face plastered across its dilapidated walls. She sets off in pursuit of the truth while navigating her oppressive and exasperating family dynamics.  

To fully understand this film, one must have some requisite knowledge about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and their systemic wiping out of almost two million people – most of whom were artists, filmmakers, performers and intellectuals that were specifically singled out. The Last Reel is homage to the golden era of Cambodian cinema in the 60s and 70s, and a strong reminder about the bloody past. 

Director Kulikar Sotho is the first Cambodian woman to direct a film since then and she succeeds brilliantly. Her efforts allowed the film a very successful festival run with eight major international awards and Cambodia’s official entry into The Oscars. This family drama is not just about mindless melodrama – it is amongst the elite of the genre.

Musical Drama – The Overture 

Probably the most niche amongst its peers, musical dramas are a very specific type of presentation that might not be for everyone – a narrative that consists of a dramatic plot with strong elements of music. However, just because something is niche does not mean that it cannot be widely successful – just look at films like Amadeus which are highly regarded.

A fictionalised account based on Thai palace musician Luang Pradit Phairoh, The Overture is a period film about a Thai classical musician and his eventful life. From his early years and the struggles he faced to be accepted for his craft, to his later years where he meets his nemesis, the film has it all. Despite having several subplots, at the heart of it all sits music and one man’s passion for his craft. 

This official Oscar selection for Thailand is widely praised for reviving the lost art of piphat, which is an ensemble of Thai classical music. Regularly flip-flopping between past and present, this sepia-toned masterpiece artfully captures every aspect of a musician’s life – from the birth of his passion to his fight in preserving the art. It unapologetically focuses on showcasing music, which is not often seen in films from the genre. Unsurprisingly, it swept the Thailand National Film Association Awards and had a very successful showing at film festivals around the world.

Watch The Overture on Amazon Prime here.


Feeling inspired yet? Try your hand at a submission for Sinema.SG’s screenplay competition: The Inciting Incident. This edition’s theme is drama so bring out your inner dramatics and start writing. Hurry, submissions close 9 August 2020 at 11:59 (GMT+8)!

Read More:
An Abridged Initiation to Modern Thai Cinema
Turning Back Time – Iconic Asian Films We Want to See Back in Theatres
Bringing Truth to Light – Films That Delve Into Asian Politics

Stacy is a self-proclaimed wordsmith who tries to see the good in the world.