The Korean term ‘saegeuk’ refers to historical dramas, including plays, films or television series.
Most ‘saeguk’ dramas, however, like many other period television series, are not always historically accurate.
While the characters may be inspired by real-life people, events are often romanticised or exaggerated to more spectacular effect.
More exciting reimaginings of history have seen a number of ‘saeguk’ dramas injected with a dose of fantasy.
If that is your cup of tea, here are 10 South Korean historical fantasy dramas you should watch:
1.Scholar Who Walks the Night (2015)
Kicking off the list is a Korean historical fantasy drama based on the webtoon Bameul Geotneun Sunbi by Jo Joo-hee and Han Seung-hee.
The story follows Jo Yang-sun (Lee Yoo-bi), a daughter of a noble family.
After her family falls into disgrace, she disguises herself as a man to sell books for a living.
While walking at night, Yang-sun comes across an attractive scholar. Little does she know that the handsome scholar Kim Sung-yeol (Lee Joon-gi) is actually a vampire.
The drama earned Joon-gi a ‘Top Ten Stars’ Award at the MBC Drama Awards.
2.Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo (2016)
Based on the Chinese novel Bu Bu Jing Xin, this series is a time-travel romance drama.
During a total eclipse, Go Ha-jin (Lee Ji-eun) is somehow transported from the 21st-century to the Goryeo Dynasty.
She wakes in 941 in the body of Hae-soo, among the princes of the ruling Wang family during the reign of King Taejo. Historically, he was the founder of the Goryeo dynasty.
Ha-jin initially falls in love with the eighth Prince Wang Wook (Kang Ha-neul).
However, the rebellious fourth prince Wang So (Lee Joon-gi) slowly wins Ha-jin’s heart.
The drama circles around the politics and power struggle happening within the royal court.
3.The Moon Embracing the Sun (2012)
While most of the characters on this list are inspired by real life people, here is a story between a fictional king during the Joseon Dynasty and a shaman.
Adapted from the novel of the same name written by Jung Eun-gwol, the series won multiple awards including Drama of the Year.
Heo Yeon-woo (Han Ga-in) is destined to be the queen but the queen mother and the prime minister have their own plans.
Before her wedding to Crown Prince Lee Hwon (Kim Soo-hyun), Yeon-woo mysteriously dies.
The truth is she has lost her memory and becomes a shaman named Wol.
Eight years later, Wol returns to the palace and Lee Hwon is now king. Will both of them rekindle their relationship?
The king and queen of this Korean historical fantasy drama is based on real-life King Gongmin of Goryeo who married the Yuan princess, Noguk.
The Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368) was a successor state to the Mongol Empire established by Kublai Khan.
The marriage between King Gongmin and Queen Noguk was a practice established by Kublai Khan where female members of the Yuan imperial clan were married to Goryeo princes in order to maintain Yuan hegemony on the Korean peninsula.
Unlike other arranged marriages between the two dynasties, Noguk’s marriage to Gongmin was a happy one.
In Faith (2012), King Gongmin (Ryu Deok-hwan) and Queen Noguk (Park Se-young) are attacked on their return to Goryeo. The queen ends up injured up during the attack
On the advice of his royal adviser, the king orders Captain of the Royal Guard Choi Young (Lee Min-ho) to pass through a mystical portal and find the so called heaven’s doctor.
As it turns out, the portal brings Choi Young to the future. He then kidnaps Yoo Eun-soo (Kim Hee-sun) a modern-day doctor from Seoul to treat the queen’s life.
One thing after another, Eun-soo is now stuck in the Goryeo dynasty unable to return to the present-day.
She eventually falls in love with the man who kidnapped her.
The drama marks Kim Hee-sun’s first TV appearance in five years after her marriage and childbirth.
5.Mirror of the Witch (2016)
Heo Jin (1546-1615) was a court physician during the reign of King Seonjo of the Joseon dynasty.
In this drama, Heo Jun (Yoon Si-yoon) is the illegitimate son of a slave and a rich master.
He falls in love with a forgotten, cursed princess who becomes a witch named Seo-ri (Kim Sae-ron). She is the daughter of Queen Sim.
Before she was born, Queen Shim (Jang Hee-jin) is unable to conceive so he seeks the help of a shaman.
The shaman used black magic to enable the queen to conceive. Queen Shim is finally pregnant with children but there is a price to pay; one of the twins is cursed.
After giving birth to Seo-ri and her twin brother Crown Prince Soonhwae (Yeo Hoe-hyun), the queen abandons the princess.
If you are into magic, curses and witchcraft, this Korean historical fantasy drama might be for you.
6.Arang and the Magistrate (2012)
According to Korean folklore, Arang was the daughter of a magistrate during the Joseon dynasty.
One day, her evil nanny schemed to have her servant – Baekga – rape her.
Arang managed to fight him off at first but Baekga stabbed her to death.
Her father, somehow believing that she had eloped and run away, resigned from his position in shame.
From then on, whenever a new magistrate took up the position, it was said that Arang’s ghost would appear before him seeking justice.
Eventually, nobody was willing to take the job out of fear.
Finally, a brave man named Yi Sang became the magistrate.
When Arang appeared before him, Yi Sang successfully avenged her and had Baekga executed for murder. Arang’s restless ghost could finally rest in peace.
Arang and the Magistrate (2012) follows this folktale, and follows Arang (Shin Min-ah) whose spirit is unable to rest until she finds out the cause of her death.
One day, she accidentally appears to a nobleman named Kim Eun-oh (Lee Joon-gi).
Conveniently for Arang, Eun-oh has the ability to see and hear ghosts. When she discovers this, Arang begs for Eun-oh’s help.
Overall, the drama was a success and became the most expensive drama to be sold to Japan by its airing channel MBC.
7.The Night Watchman’s Journal (2014)
This story follows the adventure of Prince Rin (Jung Il-woo), the legitimate heir to the throne. Chaos ensues in the palace after the king, his father, kills the queen while under a spell, and subsequently commits suicide.
When he gains the ability to see ghosts, Rin becomes one of the Night Watchmen. It is a group of soldiers, at the time of his father, in charge of fighting monsters and spirits.
In the meantime, Do-ha (Ko Sung-hee) is a shaman who is imbued with supernatural energy from Mount Baekdu. This gives her the power to communicate with nature.
Rin and Do-ha along with Kang Moo-seok, a swordsman who does not believe in the supernatural and Jo Sang-heon, the former captain of the Night Watchmen are now facing evil spirits while searching the truth behind the deaths of Rin’s parents.
While chasing ghosts and helping people, Rin learn how to become the people’s prince.
8.Gu Family Book (2013)
Here is a Korean historical fantasy drama with some martial art action for you to watch.
It follows the story of Choi Kang-chi (Lee Seung-gi), a half-man, a half-gumiho who longs to become fully human.
In order to do that, he needs to find a centuries-old book that contains the secret to becoming human.
While searching for the book, Kang-chi falls in love with Dam Yeo-wool (Bae Suzy). She is a skillful archer who works as a martial arts instructor at her father’s school.
The drama served as a breakout for actor Choi Jin-hyuk who later went on landing lead roles in dramas such as Emergency Couple (2014), Tunnel (2017), The Last Empress (2018) and Rugal (2020).
Now, how about a Korean historical fantasy drama with endless supply of zombies chasing the main characters?
Kingdom (2019) is set three years after the Japanese invasions of Korea during Joseon period.
There are two seasons so far. The first season follows the story of Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon) who investigates the spread of a mysterious plague. As it turns out, the suspicious plague is also a plot to threaten Lee Chang as the current heir to the throne.
Then the second season continues with Lee Chang trying to save his people from the spread of the plague which is now able to withstand colder temperatures.
The much anticipated special episode, Kingdom: Ashin of the North is set for release in 2021. It will focus on the supporting character Ashin which is played by Jun Ji-hyun.
The drama is straightforward horror, suspense and thriller story so there is no cheesy romance or melodrama scenes here.
10.Mr Queen (2020)
Jang Bong-hwan (Choi Jin-hyuk) is a normal guy who works as a chef at the Blue House (Korean version of the White House).
However, one day he finds himself in the body of Queen Cheorin (Shin Hye-sung).
According to history, Queen Cheorin (1837-1978) was a Queen consort of Korea married to Cheoljong of Joseon.
In the drama King Cheoljong (Kim Jung-hyun) is a puppet king used by Queen Dowager Sunwon (Bae Jong-ok).
Mr Queen (2020) is based on the original Chinese web drama Go Princess Go. To date, the series is the seventh highest-rated drama in Korean cable television history.