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Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Ghost Doctor to Guardian, The Tale Of Nine-Tailed Fox: How supernatural, fantasy powered K-drama

Korean shows have ghosts, witches, demons and deities too, but what makes them different from other run-of-the-mill fantasy content?

Written by Lakshana N Palat | New Delhi |
Updated: January 10, 2022 8:59:16 am
Lee Dong WookHere's looking at the supernatural K dramas (Photos: Netflix)

It’s January 2022, and a host of K-dramas have been promised to us, the Hallyu fans. Some of these dramas appear to be from the supernatural category, be it the medical drama Ghost Doctor, or the horror-survival show, All Of Us Are Dead. The synopsises look enticing at first glance — Ghost Doctor promises an unexpected switch between two bodies during a medical case, while All Of Us Are Dead chronicles the terrifying adventures of high-school students, locked in a crisis situation as a zombie virus spreads like wildfire.

Zombies, witches and ghosts are common plot devices, so common that we probably would know what to do if we saw them in the street—feed them vervain, or stake them through the heart. We grew up in the era of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, watched Nina Dobrev sob over two sultry vampires in The Vampire Diaries, and some of us had the patience to sit through 15 seasons of Supernatural. Even Walking Dead—there is only so much one can do in an apocalypse. Yet, the show has got spin-offs, and more in the running, apparently.

In most of these shows, witches, ghosts, demons came, enticed men and women, killed them and brought them back in the same season itself. It’s nothing new to be honest, the only thing that’s novel is the new fan-bases that are born owing to the romantic interests. It’s exciting in the beginning, and then it becomes like a dish that you just eat, because you’re used to it. After the fourth season, you just sigh when the new school-kid turns out to be a demon. You saw it from miles away, probably the first time they even said hello. Us back in India, don’t have much to boast about — the numerous seasons of Naagin are meme-fodder at best. The unthinkable happened when your typical saas-bahu drama, Sasural Simar Ka suddenly became filled with demons yowling at each other from a VFX-ridden hell, and then the daughter-in-law became a fly. There were even attempts at a werewolf story, with Karan Kundrra developing fur and fangs in one show. Shudder.

But what makes the Korean scene any different? How did they stand out with their fantasy shows? For starters, the relief about K-dramas is that most of them end with one season, which is usually 16 tight episodes.

It was in 2016 when Gong Yoo’s Goblin and Lee Dong Wook’s Grim Reaper emerged from the shadows to save a young girl, Eun Tak, played by Kim Go Eun. For the non K-drama lovers, it sounds like a peculiar combination—grim reaper teaming up with a goblin? What’s even more baffling is that a Korean goblin is not the same as the English one. For the unversed– goblins or dokkaebe as the Koreans call them, are magical and spiritual entities, expected to be dressed in traditional Hanbok.

Guardian A still from Guardian (Netflix)

This brand of magic, so unusual from the norms of witchery and wizardry of other shows, is what made the Korean show, Guardian: The Great And Lonely God one of the highest-rated shows in South Korea. The Goblin, played by Gong Yoo was once a strong warrior, who was betrayed by his king. For almost a millennium, he walks around with an invisible sword in his chest, something only his‘ destined’ bride can pull, played by Go Eun. Filled with deities dictating the ‘written futures’, a surly Grim Reaper who has a haunting past of his own, Guardian draws the audience into the heart of Korean folklore, juxtaposed with modern times, with a touch of magic. The Grim Reaper and Goblin become sparring flatmates, and then close friends, making delicious food for each other every morning. The Grim Reaper’s morbid business is actually like a corporate machine, with people dressed in suits and hats arriving for work. They’re not evil, and they do not wish to cause any pain to those have died, either. Guardian is a bittersweet show that espouses ideas of destiny, fate and death, without beating its audience on the head with the message.

K-dramas seem to relish their magical beings, bringing forth a host of new terms into a non-Korean’s vocabulary, such as the Gumiho — a nine-tailed fox, who isn’t a fox but a spiritual entity, who is known to love only one person in their lifetime.

There have been several shows on gumihos, such as the Tale Of The Nine Tails, starring Lee Dong Wook, My Roommate is Gumiho, and a completely different show called My Girlfriend Is A Gumiho. Steering away from constant romantic entanglements with other random people that other shows fall prey to, the storyline have a fixed aim in mind. In fact, in The Tale Of The Nine Tails, it’s Lee Dong Wook’s friendship with Kim Bum that’s actually more memorable than the romance.

Tale Of The Nine Tailed Tale Of The Nine Tailed (Photo: Netflix)

With tight storytelling, occasionally packaged as a romantic comedy with more than fair share of tensions and action sequences — these fantastical dramas stand out, more perhaps than the usual blend of romance and mush that K-dramas are well-known for. The unconditional love and romance is still there, but there is more action sequences and magic, than we would expect. The Hallyu fans pick up details about Korean lore as they go along. It’s the quality that sets them apart from other television series, because they delve into their own mythology and attempt to craft a rather unpredictable story. And more importantly, you know that there is an ending.

The K-dramas don’t turn away from the usual ghosts and supernatural fiction either, as 2019’s Hotel Del Luna showed. A hotel, run by ghosts — all of whom have disturbing pasts — come across a rather terrified human, played by Yeo Jin-Goo. Yes there’s a love story involved, but neither is it the driving force of the show. The hunt for peace is.

In most of these magical stories, they’re all looking for peace, and absolution — to end their cursed lives, and love is what heals them — as clichéd as it sounds, though it doesn’t feel that way. More often than not, there’s a happy ending to these stories.

It’s perhaps, why most of us would rather sit and watch 16 episodes on a nine-tailed fox, rather than a naagin cursing everyone while sitting in her cave.

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