This is less of a spoiler and more of a friendly warning to anyone who is contemplating watching Heartbeat — this K-drama (available on Prime Video) will leave you feeling betrayed and bitter. Don’t give in to the temptation of the drama’s quirky posters or a post-Vincenzo urge to see more of rapper-turned-actor Ok Taec-yeon, who plays a lovelorn vampire in Heartbeat. In the early episodes, there’s much light-hearted fun as Ok’s character wakes up from a century-long snooze to discover things like designer boutiques as well as credit card debt, while his vampire friends try to make a living from a snack shop but can’t keep up with a rival who starts selling tteokbokki dressed as vampires (how’s that for biting irony?). When the world of the drama includes the undead and boozy cats who drink makgeolli (rice wine) and turn into middle-aged men, a miracle to save the vampire hero is the bare minimum one would expect. No such luck. Heartbeat suddenly opts for a peculiar flavour of realism and lets its hero die.
It’s a dissatisfying end not only because it doesn’t give us a happily-ever-after, but because K-dramas have a long tradition of using supernatural elements imaginatively. These dramas are very different from the superhero culture inspired by American comics and made popular by the Marvel cinematic universe (though Moving, available on Disney+ Hotstar, has shown that K-drama writers can do the Marvel-style superhero story better than Marvel has managed in years). The stakes are much lower and more local, focusing on the individual rather than an amorphous notion of a greater good. Reincarnation, demon lovers, nine-tailed foxes who take on the shape of beautiful people, grim reapers, time travel, body swaps — these are all part of the everyday furniture of supernatural K-dramas. Removing the restraints of realism and logic, these K-dramas free themselves up to explore ideas without being weighed down by expectations of intellectualism.
Some of these shows take traditional elements and reimagine them in the modern world. In Revenant, available on Disney+ Hotstar, a spate of suicides in Seoul turn out to be the terrible consequence of demons slipping into our world. Possession has been a favourite narrative device of horror writers and here, it’s rooted firmly in Korean folklore. The show folds elements of paranormal horror into crime fiction to tell a story that is chilling but also, by the end, life-affirming in the way we expect K-dramas to be. Leading the show are Kim Tae-ri, playing a troubled young woman who becomes prey to an evil spirit, and Oh Jung-se as a professor who can see demons.
Unlike Revenant, most supernatural K-dramas are so cheerfully silly that one imagines a lot of soju went into the creation of their basic plots. For instance, A Good Day to Be a Dog puts a spin on the Cinderella story with a heroine who turns into an adorable little terrier at the stroke of the midnight hour and needs a kiss from Cha Eun-woo, who plays the male lead, to fix herself in her human form. However, Cha has to kiss her while she’s in dog avatar and he’s wide awake. The problem is that he’s also petrified of dogs. If she doesn’t get that kiss, then at the end of a month, our heroine will remain a dog till the end of her days, much like her uncle who couldn’t find the kiss he needed and is now a Golden Retriever. It’s entirely bonkers as a concept, but also gently urges viewers to be more open-minded and less judgemental.
Also in the romance genre, Netflix’s My Demon will have Song Kang playing a 200-year-old demon who has “prowled over this world like an apex predator” (as per the official summary) and is forced to play bodyguard plus fake husband to an icy heiress when he loses his powers. Perhaps the lesson here is that even in the escapist world of K-dramas, a truly swoon-worthy romantic hero is very much the stuff of fiction and requires an extra flight of fantasy.
As a contrast to Heartbeat, consider the arc of Doom At Your Service (available on Netflix and Viki). Within two minutes of the first episode, we learn that the heroine has cancer of the brain and is not expected to live beyond three months. Who should the hero of this drama be but a devilish grim reaper named Myul-mang who describes himself as the embodiment of doom.
It soon becomes clear that Myul-mang will have to give up his immortal life if our heroine is to survive her life-threatening medical condition, and he does in fact die — only to be reborn as a mortal, with no powers other than the endorphin rush of being alive and in love. As the drama hint-hint-nudge-nudged to us in the very first episode, the only way to find happiness in life is to accept the bad parts and make one’s way through the darkness (ideally with Park Bo-young’s flawless complexion and with a companion as cute and deep-voiced as Seo In-guk).
According to a 2021 poll by Gallup Korea, a majority of South Koreans identify with no religion and perhaps it is this irreligiousness that makes the national pastime of K-dramas embrace supernatural elements with a refreshing lack of reverence. There’s little obligation to acknowledge any existing tradition (though in The Heavenly Idol, we do see a hilariously camp version of Catholicism in the show’s Other World) and this frees up writers and directors to imagine magic lurking in the mundane. A hotel for ghosts in the middle of downtown Seoul, run by a powerful and somewhat malevolent spirit who is also a dumpling connoisseur? Sure. Welcome to Hotel del Luna, a boutique hotel that puts the “boo!” in boutique.
The idea of an in-between space where the dead linger because they haven’t been able to snap ties with the living is common to many religious schools of thought. Writers Hong Jung-eun and Hong Mi-ran (popularly known as the Hong sisters) imagine limbo as a luxury hotel, which is an inspired allegory in itself. Through the memories of its guests and staff, the drama travels to different moments in history. While Hotel del Luna has a mortal manager (Yeo Jin-goo), everyone else in the hotel occupies a different spot on the spirit spectrum, ranging from traditional ghosts to the ancient Man-wol (IU) whose 1,300-year long atonement gives the Corinthian king Sisyphus and his rock a run for his money. The Hong sisters also borrow strands from Japanese and Chinese folklore as well as some philosophy by Martin Heidegger to make the tapestry of their sprawling show. IU’s virtuoso performance as the greedy, furious, temperamental but still irresistible Man-wol holds Hotel del Luna together, giving a human heart to the show’s many intellectual ideas.
Sometimes, the supernatural elements help to ease the discomfort surrounding certain tropes, the way the international hit K-drama Guardian: The Great and Lonely God did with the stereotype of the ingénue. An endearing and long-suffering innocent woman who is saved by an older man has been a staple of the romance genre for centuries and one that has caused many a modern woman to roll her eyes. Guardian, available on Netflix, gave us a love story in which a 940-year-old immortal goblin falls in love with a teenager. Under normal circumstances, this is an age gap that should give most people nightmares, but wrapped in the tropes of fantasy and packaged in the undeniable charms of Gong Yoo who played the goblin, the relationship is romanticised into one that left most people in a puddle of longing. Immortality and a magically-fixed age for the goblin also made it possible for the older hero to patiently wait for the heroine to grow up.
Similarly, Mr. Queen also uses supernatural elements to present ideas that would otherwise seem radical, appear to be normal. The double whammy of time travel and body swap is used to woo the audience to fall for a love story that seems (relatively) straightforward, but is actually queer. When a celebrity chef from the present has to escape an assassin — in case you were wondering, this is just a side plot — he has an accident that leaves him in a coma. While his body is hooked up to monitors and drips in a modern South Korean hospital, his spirit time travels back to the Joseon era and enters the body of a miserable and mousy princess who feels trapped in the politics of the royal court and has been forced to marry the king.
Shin Hye-sun plays the woman who is biologically female, right down to the voice, but is a man in terms of temperament and sentiment. The crackling chemistry between Shin and Kim Jung-hyun, who plays King Cheoljong, is superficially a regular romance between a man and woman. However, when the chef finally returns to his body at the end, the drama makes it clear that this was very much a love story between two men. Without any lectures or preachy moments, Mr. Queen demolishes biological essentialism when it makes the point that rather than the body, what decides identity is the person inside the body. Both this argument as well as the hints of queer romance are articulated with supernatural elements, which help to keep the audience open to the ideas put forward through the story. The surrealism acts as a disguise and makes this show’s gentle championing of queer identity and romance an act of subtle resistance.
In a real world that seems to be spinning out of control and persistently reminds us of how little agency we have as individuals, the supernatural K-drama offers the comfort of not just escape, but also whimsy. The imagined magic is a shared secret between the storyteller, the story and its audience. It offers the assurance that when the practical feels soul-crushing, there is an invisible and intangible unreality to which one can retreat. Here, the most powerful are brought to heel before the human whose superpower is their ordinariness, empathy and their ability to love and be loved. Admitting defeat and surrendering to the chaos of the world gives the everyday hero the power to change their life and those of others. It takes the supernatural to give the ordinariness of being a good person the admiration it deserves. If there is a lesson to take away from supernatural K-dramas, it is that the only real superpower is the one that most of us have in abundance: The imagination.