Romance, Zombies, and Magic: K-Dramas for SFF Fans

Did you watch Squid Game?

Millions did, and discovered K-drama for the first time. The appeal is understandable: a (usually) short season which gives viewers a solid chunk of story doled out in weekly installments. Then it’s on to the next story, which will likely be vastly different from the last. Because K-drama doesn’t just offer operatically bloody anti-capitalist adventures: there’s truly something for everyone. Suspensful murder mystery? Check. Office politics? Check. Tender rom-com? Check. Gorgeously realized historical court drama? Check and check. And then there’s my favorite, science-fiction and fantasy.

K-drama and SFF go together like chocolate and, uh, a different kind of chocolate, resulting in a layered and delicious experience with more oomph than you expected. If you’re one of the many millions who wasn’t too scared and squeamish to watch Squid Game (ahem) and think you might want to try another K-drama, here are a few SFF inflected to consider, ordered by the degree and intensity of the speculative elements these are mild, medium, and extra-spicy. And because once a bookseller, always a bookseller, I’ll match each description with a related book recommendation.

 

Pinocchio (2014–2015)

Imagine not being able to lie. Not being bad at it, or feeling conflicted about it, being utterly unable to. That’s the speculative premise of Pinocchio. The drama is set in a world exactly like ours, except that it is understood that a tiny percentage of the population cannot lie without an immediate physical tell. Called ‘Pinocchios’, those affected immediately and audibly hiccup if they lie to anyone, in any way.

Choi In-Ha (played by Park Shin-Hye) is one such Pinocchio. Matter-of-fact about her inability to lie, she wants more than anything to become a reporter, partly because her absent mother is one, but also so she can change the world with the truth. This causes some family tension, especially with her ‘uncle’ Choi Dal-Po (Lee Jong-Suk), who distrusts all reporters with a passion, particularly In-Ha’s mother, Song Cha-Ok (Jin Kyung). Dal-Po has good reason for his hatred. Born Ki Ha-Myeong, his heroic firefighter father was killed in a warehouse explosion. Cha-Ok spun the media narrative to make his father the villain and destroyed his entire family. Rescued from near death and adopted by In-Ha’s grandfather, Dal-Po is determined to pretend his past never happened.

But meeting Cha-Ok again as an adult spurs Dal-Po to join In-Ha in her quest to become a reporter, both for his own sake and because the woman is a bitter disappointment to her daughter. They find themselves at rival companies, Dal-Po at a principled news station, In-Ha chosen by a flashy and disreputable company in order to make themselves seem more honest. We follow their trials and tribulations as rookies, as they make friends, follow stories, and learn just how much more there is to the job than they envisioned.

Dal-Po learns how easy it is to stray off course when looking for a story, while In-Ha discovers that the truth alone is not always enough to make a difference. And both of them realize that they’re going to have to do something about their feelings for one another. Questions about family and what it can do for—and to—you run through every episode. But the lessons they learn, the examples of what to do and what not to do, help them navigate the emotional minefield to end up in a better place. But not before it hurts so good, because heightened emotion is one of K-drama’s strengths.

Book Recommendation: The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Faith Sunderly is intelligent and curious, passionately interested in science in a time and place where none of those are desirable qualities in a young girl. When her father dies, she knows it was not an accident. While hunting for clues to his murder, she discovers a strange tree that will grow a special fruit when fed lies, a fruit will reveal a hidden truth. So she spreads a careful net of lies to catch a killer, and discovers that truth can emerge from the most unexpected quarters. A spectacular, intricate read.

 

Happiness (2021)

The SFF element is more noticeable in Happiness, a K-drama set in a very near-future, post-Covid world dealing with another highly contagious disease. But the contagion in Happiness is of the zombie variety: victims lose cognition, gain strength, and develop a terrible thirst most easily quenched by biting throats and drinking blood. The origin of the zombie plague is a pharmaceutical drug intended to treat pneumonia. And of course anyone scratched or bitten in a zombie attack who doesn’t, y’know, get their throat torn out, also turns. But in Happiness, zombie is not a full-time position. At least not to start. Instead, victims have periods of unendurably intense bloodthirst: the faster they give in, the longer those periods last, and the more of themselves they lose.

Our leads, Yoon Sae-Bom (played by Han Hyo-Joo) and Jung Yi-Hyun (Park Hyung-Sik), are longtime friends pretending to be married so they can acquire real estate. Yes, it’s both a marriage-of-convenience AND a zombie story—that’s the kind of combo that makes K-drama so fun. Both are cops, though different kinds. Active, decisive, and always confident, Sae-Bom is in a counter-terrorism/SWAT-like team. She kicks down the doors and takes the names. Yi-Hyun is a detective: he puts the clues together and follows the trail.

Our leads have only just moved into their new apartment when the creeping zombie infection becomes an actual outbreak, and their whole building complex is cordoned off by the army to prevent further spread. Leading the military response is Han Tae-Seok (Jo Woo-Jin), who has been quietly working behind the scenes to warehouse (and refrigerate) the infected in order to prevent mass contagion.

Sae-Bom and Yi-Hyun just want to help their new neighbors survive. But not everyone in their building shares the same co-operative agenda. The tenants on the higher floors are deeply scornful of their lower-floor neighbors. It’s not quite as simple as rich=bad, but the drama isn’t shy about pointing out that wealth makes people selfish, horrible to be around, and a detriment to society at large. As if the real world wasn’t proof enough.

Zombies are kind of hard to miss as both a dynamic (and unfortunately fast moving) plot driver and a platform from which to examine the failings of capitalism and the need for people to choose to do better. Because in the end it’s the connections that Sae-Bom and Ji-Hyun make, with their neighbors, with Tae-Seok, with each other, that gets them through. And turns a marriage of convenience into something much more profound.

Book Recommendation: Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion

R is a zombie, living amongst other zombies in an abandoned airport. He moves mindlessly through his days, shuffling, groaning, unable to sleep or really think. That’s why zombies seek out brains: the memories of their victims give them just enough energy to keep existing. After eating one brain, R is suddenly aware of the man’s girlfriend, whom he protects from the rest of the zombies. As they spend time together, R develops thoughts, and even language. It’s a stark example of how the lack of intellectual and emotional contact can lead to living death, and also how the forging of real connection can bring you back to life.

 

Hwayugi (aka Korean Odyssey, 2017–2018)

Magic is not merely a speculative element in Hwayugi, it is the environment in which the whole story operates. An updated retelling of the 16th century Chinese novel Journey To The West, almost every character in this drama is a supernatural entity of some sort—and all of them want to reign in the mischievous Monkey spirit, The Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, Son Oh Gong (played by Lee Seung-Gi). With the help of Jin Sun-Mi (Oh Yeon-So), a human woman who can see ghosts, Son Oh Gong is bound with a bracelet that causes him intense pain should he refuse her commands. Zaniness ensues.

Sun-Mi actually met Oh-gong as a child, freeing him from a prison spirits could not enter and ordinary humans could not see. He promised to come to her aid whenever she called his name but, being a self-centered amoral trickster, he then stole his name out of her memory and disappeared. Years later, Sun-Mi is a successful real estate agent, who made her fortune buying haunted properties cheaply, selling them after helping the ghosts move on. She encounters Woo Ma-Wang (Cha Seung-Won), a powerful bull demon who runs a successful entertainment company, who recognizes that Sun-Mi is the incarnation of Sam-Jang, an extremely powerful shaman destined to save the world from destruction.

Such a special soul needs protection, and there’s no spirit more powerful than Oh-Gong. Ma-Wang gives Sun-Mi the bracelet that forces Oh-Gong to obey her orders. What none of the trio expects is how it actually works: the bracelet plunges Oh-Gong—who actually wants to eat Sam-Jang to increase his own powers—deep into love with Sun-Mi, and saying no to her causes him incredible pain. Take that, immature monkey-brat!

The pair work together to subdue a plague of evil spirits, and constant contact with the hard-working, principled Sun-Mi turns Oh-Gong into a person as well as the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven. And of course there’s a Big Bad, a pervasive evil that threatens both the physical and the spirit world. It takes everything our heroes and their allies have, and then some, to defeat it.

Almost every character in this drama is magical in some way, for good or evil. They have varying levels of power, but most of them are stuck in an emotional holding pattern. Meeting Sun-Mi changes them, helps them become better versions of themselves. Even when that growth comes with pain they evolve, whether Monkey god, sorceress, or bull demon, and finally discover what it really means to truly live.

Book recommendation: The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

Another updated retelling, this time of ‘The Tale Of Shim Cheong’, the book follows Mina, whose country sacrifices a maiden to the sea each year, hoping to ease the Sea God’s wrath and end the storms that mercilessly batter them. This year, Mina throws herself into the sea, to protect the woman her older brother loves. She lands in the Spirit Realm, where everyone she meets is magical, powerful, or the soul of someone dead. But the Sea God is as bespelled as the world above, and Mina has to unravel a tangled mystery to save him, herself, and both worlds. Gorgeous storytelling, replete with complex world-building and wholehearted enchantment.

 

Originally published August 2022

Formerly the manager of Bakka Phoenix Books, the world’s oldest extant SFF bookstore, Chris Szego is a writer, editor, and K-drama watcher who lives in Toronto.

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