I have a confession to make. I have a soft spot for Korean love dramas. Most times, they feel fresh in their innocence and honesty in contrast of the Western dramas that often rely on the main characters lying to each other to create tension, but of course, as a dedicated fan of everything speculative, I prefer my love dramas with a pinch of fantasy or science fiction, so here are three shows to check if you’re looking for something romantic and speculative at the same time that will last you long past February 14th.
Oh My Ghost!
Set in contemporary Korea, the series tells a story of Na Bong-Sun, an assistant chef who’s fallen in love with the chef of the restaurant she works at and who gets possessed by a ghost of a girl. Shin Sun-ae had committed suicide, and her ghost can’t move on until she resolves her regret… which is that she died a virgin. With each episode, the simple story of a shy girl who suddenly becomes outspoken as the ghost takes over her body and they both vie for the attention of the handsome and brilliant chef becomes more and more complex, and slowly various plots and characters become connected, revealing the truth that binds all of them, including the real reason of the girl’s death and her true grudge to be resolved. It’s one of those stories that proceeds at a steady, unhurried pace, slowly introducing piece after piece to unveil a thrilling plot, so if you love series that put seemingly unfitting pieces together in a big reveal, this one is for you. At the same time, at its core, it’s still a warm story full of cooking and humor, seamlessly linking romance, mystery, and a ghost story.
Another contemporary setting that can feel similar to many urban fantasies out there: hidden from our world, demons and gods and other creatures exist, and Jin Seon-mi, a woman who sees ghosts, gets tangled in it. All that because when she was a little girl, she was tricked into releasing Son Oh-Gong, a supernatural being imprisoned for his misdeeds. Fate binds them together again as Son Oh-Gong is trying to become a deity and Jin Seon-mi is trying… well, to live a normal life. Their budding feelings don’t help, and neither does the fact that one of them is destined to kill the other…
Despite the heavy weight of the destiny over the main characters, the series is light-hearted and fun for the most part, and the cast of supporting characters is amazing, including siblings, Summer Fairy and General Winter, who share the same body and are played by one actor, and a poor zombie girl whose undead life is as dramatic and sad as was her death.
It’s definitely worth watching, though be warned: there will be some tears shed, and the ending is bittersweet: it gives hope for the future, but not an immediate happy ending, and because of that the last few episodes might feel a bit heavier.
Mystic Pop-Up Bar
This one is a real gem: lovable characters, interesting and complex storyline, and enough humor to keep things on the lighthearted side of a story that is grim at times.
The story follows Weol-ju, a shaman’s daughter who can enter people’s dreams and who had fallen in love with a prince. Betrayed, she took her own life and damaged a sacred tree, bringing misfortune to her lands. For that, in her afterlife, she has to settle 100 000 grudges, and accompanied by Chief Gwi from the Afterlife Police, she’s been working on atoning for her sin for the past 500 years. But her time is running out, and it’s hard to make people confess their worries in a contemporary Korea. Meeting Han Kang-bae, a young man whose touch compels people to share their true thoughts with him, is a chance for both of them. Weol-ju needs people to talk, so that she can settle her grudges. Han Kang-bae wants his supernatural ability gone, so that he can live a normal life…
It’s a lot of fun to watch Weol-ju on screen: she’s a mature woman who has a realistic approach to (after)life and who, despite her mission, seems quite bitter and selfish… after all, her life and death had left her disillusioned. Yet, over the time, she starts to care about Han Kang-bae, and both she and Chief Gwi help him more and more. The interactions between the three are hilarious, and the cast of secondary characters also doesn’t disappoint.
But what makes Mystic Pop-up Bar such a wonderful experience is not only the cast of characters you’re going to love but also a great story. The events from 500 years ago aren’t only a pretext for Weol-ju’s predicament. They play a crucial role in the plot that unfolds slowly and in a masterful way, linking all seemingly unrelated side plots, events, and characters. And the heartwarming ending will leave you fully satisfied.
Rookie Historian Goo Hae-Ryung
This isn’t an actual fantasy genre since aside of a few convenient dreams there aren’t any supernatural factors, but because of the historical setting in a visually striking Korean period that might feel fantasy-like for the Western viewers, I decided to include it.
It tells a story of Goo Hae-Ryung, a rebellious girl growing up without her parents who loves books and decides to become a historian to escape an unwanted marriage. Fate puts a secluded prince Dowon on her way, and the literature connoisseur like her suddenly has to deal with the secret author of popular romance books that have no literary value whatsoever. But as the story unfolds, it delves more into the deeper themes which are duty, the need for a proper and unbiased chronicling of the events, and secrets that come from manipulating history, setting the love story against a bigger historical scope full of betrayal, lies, and manipulation.
As often is the case, the cast of supporting characters, though a bit over-the-top and not always with sufficient depth, is quirky and lovable, and you end up cheering all of them on as the story progresses, ignoring the little shortcomings of their character building or minor plot holes.
Have you seen any of these series? Did you enjoy them? Or maybe you have another series worth noting?
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.