My favorite program on Netflix is 45 minutes of random previews before I give up and watch an Archer repeat on Hulu. I’m not the only one; “there’s nothing to watch on Netflix” is a familiar refrain. Apart from their own series — which appear with great fanfare and then vanish like heat shimmer on the road — finding something new is a real challenge. The Top Ten list is little help, usually full of bad children’s CGI, soapy dramas, and past-their-prime standup hacks struggling to recapture their relevancy.
But if you’re willing to look a little farther afield than the US, Canada, and Great Britain, you’ll find a world of new programs and movies available to you often ignored by American pop culture. To be fair, there’s a lot to choose from and it’s difficult to know where to start, particularly if you’re only fluent in English. Many great choices come from Mexico and Central\South America; Diablero, my personal favorite, is similar to and entirely different than Supernatural. Luna Nera and Curon are also solid genre choices. But more often than not I turn to South Korea and Japan for my entertainment fix. And in this area, Netflix excels.
A few caveats: My taste skews towards genre fiction. It’s not that I don’t think compelling dramas about the drug trade’s impact on families or small town disappearances and murders aren’t worth watching; they absolutely are. There’s just enough of that pain in the real world that it’s not what I turn to for entertainment. Give me monsters, gore, slapstick comedy, absurd situations, and bonkers action. And apart from some old martial arts movies, I don’t do dubbing. It doesn’t look right and it doesn’t sound right. I’d rather read subtitles than listen to a white dude speak dialogue like it’s a dinner menu. So I can’t tell you how the English track is for something like Alice in Borderland, other than probably not very good.
Below is a mix of live-action series and films from South Korea and Japan I enjoyed or at least found intriguing. Many of these are based on manga or anime series, but I’ve left out anything animated. Most of it has elements of science fiction, fantasy, or horror. All of it is currently available in the US and (I believe) Canada.
The Uncanny Counter (2020)
So Mun (Byeong-gyu Jo) is a physically disabled high school student in the fictional city of Jungjin. After surviving a car accident as a young boy that killed his parents and left his right leg crippled, he lives with his grandparents and keeps his head down. A guardian spirit chooses So Mun as a Counter, one of the few people physically empowered to defeat evil spirits residing in human bodies and return them to the afterlife for judgment. It also makes his hair curly, for some reason. So Mun learns to use his gifts with the help of Ga Mo Tak, Do Ha Na, and Chu Mae Ok at Ennoi’s Noodles, the restaurant that serves as their base and home away from home. Together they fight to keep their city safe from possessing spirits, a task made much more difficult when the spirits and local criminal element begin working together.
The Uncanny Counter is soapy, goofy, charming, and earnest. I’m a soft touch for entertainment that wears its heart on its sleeve, and TUC definitely qualifies. It is elevated by its main cast, all of whom are wonderful. Ga Mo Tak (Joon-Sang Yoo) is strong but sensitive, a lug of a man who cares fiercely for his chosen family. Chu Mae Ok (Yeom Hye-ran) mothers everyone around her but has a core of iron. And Do Ha Na (Se-Jeong Kim) keeps most people at literal arm’s length, but she’s powerful in both mind and body. It moves from absurd to thrilling to heartfelt and back again at a breakneck pace, and it can be a challenge to keep everything straight, but it’s all worth it.
Season 2 is confirmed but has no official release date. 2021 holiday season or early 2022 release isn’t out of the question.
Alice in Borderland (2020)
“It’s just like Battle Royale!” is the rallying cry for every American critic who doesn’t know how to describe an action show or movie from Japan. If you’ve got the depth of a kiddie pool then yes, AiB is exactly like Battle Royale, except in all the ways it isn’t. In this series based on a manga by Haro Aso, longtime friends and (by Japanese cultural standards) losers Ryōhei Arisu (Kento Yamazaki), Chōta Segawa (Yūki Morinaga), and Daikichi Karube (Keita Machida) are wasting the day together when they’re suddenly yanked into an empty Tokyo. Along with young mountain climber Yuzuha Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya) and dozens of strangers, the trio must play a series of challenging and deadly games, determined by playing cards they receive. Refuse to play, die by space laser. Should anyone gain all 52 cards they may receive their freedom, but can anyone get there when all the games are rigged?
AiC may be more properly compared to Squid Game, though there are significant differences. Arisu and the others seem to be in a Tokyo that’s lost its nearly 14 million residents, but everything else remains, from cars to food. Death is still the penalty for refusing to play, but it comes by way of a mysterious laser shot from orbit - no word on whether it’s a Jewish space laser or nondenominational. Some players are focused entirely on getting home; others revel in their freedom as they embrace the chaos and violence. No character is safe from death; only a few episodes in we see several characters who seemed destined to ride it out get graphically murdered. The show is well-acted and uncompromising in its action. Shows like this are much more in wheelhouse than my wife’s, but even she was captivated.
Season 2 of Alice in Borderland is currently in production, with a 2022 release expected.
Squid Game is on everyone’s list right now, which is why I didn’t place it first. I’m stubborn like that. Chances are you’ve already heard of it, even if you didn’t watch it. 456 deeply indebted South Koreans are invited to play a series of children’s games. The winner gets billions in won. Everyone else dies. Unlike Alice in Borderland the players are volunteers. Even when offered out after the first game, in which hundreds are murdered, the players choose to continue. Call it an exploitative cash grab or a scintillating critique of capitalism and Korean social inequity; either way it’s Netflix’s biggest series launch and is worth almost $900 million, using math I do not understand. It’s insanely popular, will certainly have a second season, and is already a new source of parental hysteria (more on that soon).
A favorite of Tori, Sweet Home is an apocalyptic horror series from South Korea. Cha Hyun-soo (Song Kang) is a suicidal young man who moves into the Green Home apartment building after his family is killed in a car accident. Soon after, monsters appear out of nowhere and start murdering people. The residents of Green Home are trapped inside and every attempt to escape leads to a brutal death. Hyun-soo becomes a reluctant hero when he gets superpowers from one of the monsters.
The CGI effects are a weird mix of effective and something out of one of the lesser Resident Evil games. It was the first South Korean series on Netflix to break into the Top 10. Sweet Home does a pretty solid job of alternating between monster action and human drama, as the residents struggle to survive. It’s well worth trying out.
Space Sweepers (2021)
The only film on this list, Space Sweepers is also one of my favorite entries. Captain Jang leads her small crew of sweepers as they collect junk like obsolete satellites from orbit and deeper space. Earth is virtually uninhabitable thanks to pollution and evil industrialist James Sullivan (Richard Armitage) wants to terraform Mars. Ex-soldier Kim Tae-ho (Song Joong-ki), ex-gangster Tiger Park (Jin Seon-kyu), and former military robot Bubs (Yoo Hae-jin) are out to make a buck for their own selfish reasons until they discover Dorothy, a childlike synthetic being/weapon of mass destruction they can ransom for a fortune. It’s not “Korean Serenity” but that at least gets you in the right ballpark. Like The Uncanny Counter, it wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s a blatant critique of billionaire space adventures during a time of peak economic disparity, and a startling (but very welcome) exploration of trans healthcare and acceptance. The action and effects are top-notch, and it’s simply a blast to watch.
Song Joong-ki turns in another strong Netflix entry with Vincenzo, in which he plays the adopted child of an Italian family. He joins the mafia as a lawyer and is betrayed after the Don dies. He flees to Seoul and tries to recover 1.5 tons of gold hidden under a building. In the process, he comes up against a real estate corporation and finds himself fighting for the tenants of the building.
Song Joong-ki excels at fast emotional shifts, from cold consigliere to affable goof and back again at the drop of the hat. It’s intelligent and fun and really, what more do you need?
My Name (2021)
I can’t exactly recommend this one yet, because I haven’t seen it. But it looks great and is next on my list. Yoon Ji-woo (Han So-hee) is desperate for revenge after her father’s murder. She joins a local gang for information and then becomes a cop under the crime boss’s direction. It looks intense, violent, and has a number of very attractive stars. It’s all I need to give it a shot!
That’s just a start. The live-action movie adaptations of Bleach and Rorouni Kenshin get a shout-out for being decent as well, and there’s Kingdom, Hotel Del Luna, and dozens of others. These are a few of my favorites; drop some of yours in the comments!
Header Image Source: Netflix screenshots