There are many tropes I adore that frequently pop up in kdrama: arranged marriages, found families, cycles of betrayal and revenge, etc. One that shows up with surprising amount of frequency (compared to my standard U.S. television fare) is characters with secret identities, whether that’s a heroic alter-ego, an undercover cop, or even cross-dressing.
Sometimes the secret identity is a long-term game born out of necessity; other times convenience is what initially sparked the eventual deception. Regardless, one of the best things about secret identities is how it makes a character question their relationship between themselves and
their love interest the rest of the world.
Oh, and the angst. Don’t forget the glorious, glorious (frequently romantic) angst.
#1 – Healer
Seo Jung-hoo not only has a morally gray alter ego who will do almost anything for the right price (AKA Healer), he also forges himself a bumbling reporter persona in order to get close to/keep an eye on heroine Chae Young-shin. Jung-hoo frequently resorts to disguises to get his missions done, but as newbie reporter Bong-soo, he is impossibly close to perfect. Watching him in romantic competition with himself (Clark Kent vs. Superman-style) is a delight, but my favorite part is the fact that he doesn’t try to gaslight Young-shin once she figures out that Bong-soo and Healer are one in the same. Jung-hoo has a great character arc around his identity and humanity in general, and his decision to abandon his earlier dreams in order to right old (and new) wrongs is great.
#2 – Coffee Prince
Coffee Prince is a bit of an anomaly on this list simply because Go Eun-chan didn’t intend to create an alter ego. Her androgynous appearance and comfortable clothing style frequently gets her mistaken for a guy and is occasionally useful in chasing off her younger sister’s unwanted suitors. But it isn’t until she meets Choi Han-kyul that Eun-chan starts pretending to be a guy in earnest. Han-kyul first hires Eun-chan to be his fake gay lover in order to get himself out of the matchmaking dates his grandmother arranges for him, and then he hires Eun-chan to be one of the “princes” at his coffee shop. Eun-chan keeps up the masquerade because she needs the money, but things start getting tense between them when feelings start to develop. There’s some amazing romantic angst out of this one, if you haven’t seen it already.
#3 – Heartless City
Heroine Yoon Soo-min goes undercover in order to find and bring to justice the elusive Doctor’s Son, the sharply dressed gangster and main suspect in Soo-min’s older-sister-figure’s murder. Normally that would be more than enough secret identities for one kdrama, but you would be gravely mistaken on that point. It’s like the writer channeled their inner Oprah: You get a secret identity! And you get a secret identity! Everyone gets to take one home today! Keeping track of who knows which identity for which character can be as difficult as keeping track of the ever-shifting alliances between the gangsters, corrupt cops, and good-guy cops.
#4 – City Hunter
After Lee Jin-pyo’s comrades are betrayed and murdered by their government, he kidnaps his dead BFF’s son (Lee Yoon-sung) and raises him to avenge their deaths. Jin-pyo and Yoon-sung return to South Korea, where the two of them assume false identities (rich businessman and playboy I.T. genius, respectively) in order to begin their investigation. Yoon-sung ends up being dubbed the City Hunter for his extrajudicial methods in bringing down the powerful and the corrupt, but he and Jin-pyo quickly end up on opposite sides of the vengeance divide: Jin-pyo wants the men’s blood, and Yoon-sung wants the men punished by society for their crimes. Things get complicated when they are pursued by a prosecutor who is keeping a few secrets of his own about his identity and when Yoon-sung falls in love with Kim Na-na.
#5 – Sungkyunkwan Scandal
Kim Yoon-hee assumes her sickly brother’s identity in order to earn money for their family so they can survive. Normally, Yoon-hee does easy things like copying books or doing scholars’ homework for them, but she gets caught taking someone else’s place in the Sungkyunkwan entrance exam. Through a ridiculous series of events, she is forced to attend Sungkyunkwan and ends up rooming with two other guys. Yoon-hee has to protect her true identity in close quarters, yet she frequently takes a stand for the poor and the weak, which puts a target on her back. She isn’t the only one with a secret identity, either–the Red Messenger roams the city streets at night, distributing leaflets about the corruption of the chief political party, while another mysterious figure tries to stop him.
What are your favorite kdramas involving secret identities? Are there any you think should have been on my list that I missed? Let me know in the comments!