From Secret Garden’s Lee Jong Suk to Seo In Guk and Ahn Jae Hyun in K.Will’s All The Way: Evolution of queer representation in K-world

On the special occasion of the ongoing Pride month, let’s take a look at the evolving landscape of LGBTQ+ representation in Korean Entertainment.

Updated on Jun 19, 2024  |  08:06 PM IST |  143K
Lee Jong Suk (Image Credits- SBS), Seo In Guk, Ahn Jae Hyun (Image Credits- Starship on Youtube)
Lee Jong Suk (Image Credits- SBS), Seo In Guk, Ahn Jae Hyun (Image Credits- Starship on Youtube)

Depictions of LGBTQ+ characters and themes in South Korean film, television, and music have traditionally constituted a small portion of the country's media landscape. However, these representations have become more varied and frequent in recent years, reflecting a more positive trend. As Pride Month continues, let's delve into the evolution of LGBTQ+ portrayals in Korean entertainment.

LGBTQ+ representation in K-dramas

Secret Garden

The K-drama Secret Garden features one of the early gay plots in Korean drama. It revolves around four main characters, each grappling with their own personal challenges. Among them is Oska, portrayed by actor Yoon Sang Hyun, a carefree Hallyu star whose fame is waning. His life takes on new meaning when he encounters Han Tae Sun (played by Lee Jong Suk), a musical genius.

In the K-drama set over a decade ago, in 2010, witnessing an openly gay character was a refreshing experience. Even though the character was small and played by the now highly popular star Lee Jong Suk, it set a precedent for future developments in Korean dramas.

Secret Garden (Image Credits- SBS)

The Handmaiden

Set in the 1930s and inspired by Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, The Handmaiden features a lesbian couple from diverse backgrounds. Released in South Korea on June 1, 2016, the film received widespread critical acclaim and grossed over USD 38 million worldwide. At the 71st British Academy Film Awards, it won Best Film Not in the English Language. The Handmaiden is renowned for its complex plot twists, but what resonates with us the most is its portrayal of a romantic relationship between two women.

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As our protagonist, Sookee (Kim Tae Ri), and the heiress Hideko (Kim Min Hee) begin to fall in love, the film delves into how their relationship transforms perceptions. It becomes a story not only about their emotional connection but also about how the men in their lives manipulate and mistreat them. Love in this film is depicted as a transformative force that not only brings joy but also fundamentally alters their understanding of the world around them, making up for a powerful watch.


Be Melodramatic

In a more recent K-drama, Be Melodramatic, positive strides in LGBTQ+ representation are evident. The show follows three female best friends navigating their thirties, confronting changes in their personal lives and careers. 

The series also notably highlights Lee Hyo Bong, the openly gay brother of one of the characters, a drama producer in a committed and affectionate relationship with another male producer. While not specifically a gay-themed K-drama, Be Melodramatic captivates viewers with its heartfelt storytelling and three-dimensional characters that resonate deeply with its audience.

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Moment of Eighteen

This K-drama is a coming-of-age story centered on a young male student who chooses to be a loner after transferring schools. However, his life and that of his classmates are filled with turmoil and emotional mess. One significant subplot revolves around Oh Je, portrayed by the late ASTRO member Moonbin. Oh Je is athletic, physically fit, and admired by many girls. However, in episode 13, it is revealed that he is gay.

In an emotionally charged scene, Da Heen (Kim Bo Yun) finds herself in the infirmary, where Oh Je bravely confronts his truth. He confides in her, admitting that he likes someone who isn't a girl, a moment filled with raw emotion as he struggles with his feelings. This confession sets off a chain of events when another student overhears their conversation, propelling the rollercoaster plot of the show. Moonbin, a beloved K-pop idol portraying a gay character in a K-drama, highlights the positive strides in on-screen representation.

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Moonbin (Image Credits- JTBC)

Itaewon Class

K-drama Itaewon Class rapidly emerged as a 2020 sensation in its genre, partly due to its standout LGBTQ+ character, Hyeon Yi. Alongside its compelling storyline, viewers appreciated seeing Hyeon Yi as part of Sae Ro Yi's journey to realize his dream of opening a bar restaurant and overcoming his nemesis.

Hyeon Yi's journey wasn't without its challenges, but Itaewon Class skillfully portrayed the supportive environment around her and the acceptance of her true worth. She meets Sae Ro Yi at a factory where they both work and throughout the series, it's revealed that she is a transgender woman saving up for her sex reassignment surgery. As she grows more confident in her gender identity, Hyeon Yi's character resonates deeply with viewers, quickly becoming a fan favorite.

Lee Joo Young (Image Credits- JTBC)

A Time Called You

It’s well-known that Ahn Hyo Seop and Rowoon share a close friendship, often delighting fans with their heartwarming interactions. Their bond, enriched by their talent and striking visuals, is truly special. However, in the time travel K-drama A Time Called You, the duo took on a unique BL (Boys Love) storyline. 

The series revolves around a young woman (played by Jeon Yeo Been) grieving her boyfriend's death (portrayed by Ahn Hyo Seop). Transported back in time to inhabit a high school student's body, she encounters someone strikingly similar to her lost love.

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Episode eight of the K-drama begins with Ahn Hyo Seop's character attending class when he encounters Rowoon's character, Tae Ha. After class, Ahn Hyo Seop heads to the roof, contemplating how to confess his feelings to his friend. 

Meanwhile, Rowoon's character seems to hint at his own feelings as he discusses traveling far for a cram school, hinting he is the reason why Tae Ha travels so far. The scene transitions to a road trip where Tae Ha practices driving, leading to casual conversation and a moment of intimacy when their hands touch while searching for CDs. Ahn Hyo Seop’s character tentatively reaches for Rowoon's character, Tae Ha's hand, initially met with uncertainty. However, after a brief pause, Rowoon's hand relaxes, and they share a smile, signaling their mutual feelings for each other, which are becoming more evident.

Unfortunately, the characters' story took a tragic turn as they were involved in a car accident. Despite its briefness, netizens were captivated by Rowoon's unexpected cameo and the unique BL role he portrayed in the drama. In an exclusive interview with Pinkvilla, too Ahn Hyo Seop revealed he felt a little awkward filming this scene with his friend but still said he had fun. Even though brief, the scene was emotional for him as an actor, too.

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Where Your Eyes Linger

Where Your Eyes Linger delivers everything fans of top romantic K-dramas desire: amazing chemistry, captivating romance, and unforgettable kisses. Kang Gook (Jang Eui Soo) and Han Tae Joo (Han Gi Chan) have shared a 15-year friendship, yet Kang Gook harbors deeper feelings for Tae Joo, yearning to confess but unable to do so.

Tae Joo, in contrast, has had numerous girlfriends, yet there's strong unrequited sexual tension between him and Kang Gook. The arrival of a female student threatens to disrupt their dynamic, pushing both friends to emotional extremes. This unique plot twist contributes to Where Your Eyes Linger being celebrated as one of the finest gay K-dramas with significant LGBTQ+ representation, earning praise from viewers. Its notable screenings at the 24th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival and the 80th Venice International Film Festival underscored its impact within South Korea and beyond.


K.Will’s upcoming track All The Way

On June 18, K.Will released the music video teaser for No songs can express me, the title track of his upcoming seventh mini album, All The Way. This comeback is particularly significant as it marks K.Will's return after a hiatus of over six years. The teaser also revealed a special reunion: actors Seo In Guk and Ahn Jae Hyun, who starred together in the 2012 music video for the popular song Please don’t…, appear together again in this new music video.

In 2012, K.Will's song Please don’t… caused a sensation online with its major plot twist with its LGBTQ+ representation. The music video centered around unrequited love, surprised netizens by revealing Seo In Guk's character harboring feelings for Ahn Jae Hyun's character rather than the female lead. Nearly 12 years later, fans still vividly remember this moment. Therefore, the announcement of K.Will's comeback featuring both actors sparked considerable excitement, with many speculating whether the new release would continue the storyline from the iconic music video.

During Pride Month, the collaboration of two iconic actors in K.Will's comeback marks a significant moment of LGBTQ+ representation. The teaser began with Seo In Guk portraying a typical office worker's life, followed by Ahn Jae Hyun's entrance, creating both heartwarming and dramatic interactions between them. Their scenes depicted contrasting spectrums of love and emotions—calm and secure versus passionate and intense. The teaser leads to a final scene that sets the internet abuzz, hinting at a near-kiss between the two men, intensifying anticipation for the music video's release.

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ALSO READ: Seo In Guk makes unexpected cameo in Byeon Woo Seok, Kim Hye Yoon’s Lovely Runner; Know how

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About The Author

Pratyusha Dash is an English Literature Graduate from Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies with a deep passion for Korean

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