Saranghae Forever... and Ever: Fate in Fantasy K-dramas
Hindu couples traditionally believe that all marriages are made in heaven and last for seven lifetimes. Seven is too long or too short depending on whom you’re married to. For some, it can pass no faster than time spent swiping through the newsfeed on social media and for others it can feel like a long, agonizing k-drama series that’s so bad it's only completed out of spite.
But the idea of reincarnation and finding the love of our lives, again and again, across space and time make for good storytelling and make hopeless romantics of us all. K-drama combines its deep love for history, long-held beliefs about reincarnation, and penchant for tragic romantic backstories to form the fantasy romance.
Many viewers are drawn to these epic romances perhaps because we all instinctively recognize the phenomenon of what one writer describes as “the love from which we never recover.” While we do not all believe in reincarnation, we might have a shared kinship with those who just could not make things work with someone they love and long for an alternate life where they can. (Also, because it would be fun to have supernatural powers!)
We take a look at some of the most recognizable elements of a fantasy romance.
For many a k-drama character, fate is not just about the cosmic forces bringing couples together and tearing them apart; fate is one’s duty that demands fulfillment. This may be an influence of the Buddhist concept of dharma (the right way of living) and karma (the positive or negative results of one’s actions). Resolution in a romantic fantasy is not always about gaining one’s true love. It is performing noble acts for which one is ultimately born. Selfhood, then, is the goal. True love is just a bonus.
The Unforgivable Sin
All k-drama characters are flawed. Some are more flawed than others. And then there are those that commit the unforgivable sin. These aren’t villains who were simply written to be bad. These are regular people who because of certain circumstances make one really bad choice (or break some strange law in the supernatural realm), the kind that in a Greek tragedy would get everyone killed. If fate is fulfilling one’s duty, then the unforgivable sin is a dereliction of one’s duty, which more often than not, is an act of selfishness—the ultimate betrayal in a communitarian society. Fortunately for k-dramas, reincarnation exists. And so the characters have another shot at atonement or justice (if they are the wronged party)—even if it takes hundreds of years.
K-dramas have no qualms about mixing native folktales
and myths with the ordinary world. This spices things up as powers wielded by the supernatural beings (e.g. god, goblin, mermaid, alien, etc.) are often imperfect, limited, and sometimes just downright petty (much to the other characters' annoyance and the audience's amusement).
The Great Battle and the Ultimate Sacrifice
As with any epic story, the k-drama fantasy romance culminates in one great battle. The battle may be an actual outright good vs. evil action sequence or a more interior battle that requires one or more characters to make an ultimate sacrifice. Whichever kind is involved, the cost is almost always the same: a) give up the one you love; b) give up your own life; c) give up a chance at redemption; or sometimes d) all of the above. For added dramatic effect of course, all of this turmoil must be undergone by the lover without telling the beloved. (If only characters would communicate, all of these dramas would average three episodes shorter and five slow-motion flashback scenes fewer.)
The Unexpected Ending
We’re all rooting for a happy ending. But just as life doesn’t give us what we want, neither does k-dramaland. The whole point of the ultimate sacrifice is that you can’t have it all. So if the hero or heroine completes his or her duty and fulfills fate--the reward is having a lifetime spent with the beloved or atonement or death. Or the ultimate k-drama writer's block scapegoat: selective amnesia! Or a combination of two or more of the above.
The following series make use of the elements in some way, shape, or form:
My Love from the Star (2013)
Credited with reigniting interest in Hallyu back in 2013 and 2014, this fantasy rom-com features an alien, Do Min-joon (Kim Soo-hyun), who enjoys enhanced vision, hearing, and speed while on Earth. His peaceful 400-year stay on the planet is disrupted when top actress Cheon Song-yi (Jun Ji-hyun) moves into the condominium unit next to his, and drags him into the craziness that her life is. If you haven’t seen this classic yet, check it out not just for the superpowers on display, but also to find out why it propelled Kim Soo-hyun into superstardom and earned Jun Ji-hyun the Daesang (Grand Prize) at the 50th Baeksang Arts Awards.
The k-drama phenomenon that ushered in a whole new age for the genre, Goblin has everything an epic series about the afterlife would have: a romance that defies time, a fate that spans centuries, and one of the greatest soundtracks in k-dramaland. Hallyu heavyweight Gong Yoo plays Kim Shin, is a decorated Goryeo general wrongfully cursed with immortality. Like many beings who have grown tired of living, he looks forward to meeting his Bride (Kim Go-eun), not for the romance, but for her sole capacity to end his suffering. But as soon as he meets her, sparks fly, which make it terribly inconvenient for one who is bent on ending it all. Adding to the inconvenience is the presence of a Grim Reaper (played by another Hallyu megastar, Lee Dong-wok) as his supernatural housemate, and the bromance that ensues can sometimes be more interesting than the main romance itself.
Legend of the Blue Sea (2016-17)
In another award winning role, Jun Ji-hyun plays an adorably cooky centuries-old mermaid who falls for the charming conman played by Lee Min-ho. (Seriously, it doesn’t take much to suspend disbelief that Min-ho can sweet-talk middle-aged women out of their millions). With solid performances, an interesting story, and witty script, it’s no wonder that this show ranked high in the ratings not just in Korea but in Asia.
Bride of Habaek/ Bride of the Water God (2017)
In order to assume his throne as king of the divine realm, Habaek (Nam Joo-hyuk) must complete a quest in the human world. Along the way he meets Yoon So-ah (Shin Se-kyung), a psychiatrist who struggles to overcome a painful past. Based on a popular manga, the series is strong on world-building and special effects. It suffers a little in terms of writing and plot but ticks off almost every element on the fantasy starter pack list. Those who aren’t looking for anything too intense and who like the sulking male lead (with great eye makeup) and the damsel-in-distress trope may enjoy it.
Hotel de Luna (2019)
In one of her most iconic roles, Lee Ji-eun (IU) plays the cold and mysterious Jang Man-wol, the cursed CEO of a strange and curious hotel in Seoul, visible only to departed souls en route to the afterlife. Hired to help her run the place is hotelier Koo Chan-sung (Yeo Jin-goo), a perfectionist who takes time to warm up to his cold clientele. Beneath its overarching theme of cosmic atonement, this show delivers heart-tugging tales of love and loss, regret and forgiveness, and—yes— epic romance.
Mystic Popup Bar (2020)
Heavy on the fantasy and light on the romance, Mystic Pop-Up Bar still has enough elements going for it to be included on the list. Strong acting and an interesting plot make this underrated show a bingeable watch. Wol Joo (Hwang Jung-eum) manages a pojangmacha (an outdoor drinking establishment) along with Chef Gwi (Choi Won-young). Between the two of them, they help people resolve their issues with magic and unorthodox solutions. Things get interesting with Han Kang-bea (Yook Sung-jae) comes into the bar and joins their magical life-changing operation.
Scripting Your Destiny (2021)
This little gem of a webseries manages to pack a punch even in its ten 25-minute episodes. It has all the elements of a fantasy drama but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Shin Ho-yoon's (Ki Do-hoon) job as the god of destiny is to write in detail, the future of people who are under his jurisdiction. One of those is Go Chae-kyung (Jeon So-nee) who makes a living writing the hottest makjang k-drama of the season. Feeling inadequate to write about love, Ho-yoon starts copying from a story Chae-kyung wrote in a high school literary publication. (Does that count as plagiarism or fanfic?) Real fans of k-drama will find many nods to famous scenes and tropes that the series parodies for comic relief.
Even if we could unpack every single element in a fantasy romance, k-dramas writers still keep us guessing. We don’t know what awaits our hero and our heroine. But we continue to watch, achieving some form of catharsis in the process, knowing well that sometimes, not all good stories need to have a happy ending, they just need to be told.
What fantasy epic romance are you still recovering from?
If you enjoyed this article, you might want to read our other Saranghae Series articles: