Ah, fantasy K-dramas. What’s not to love? They cover most genres — from comedy to melodrama to romance almost seamlessly — making them quite compelling. But unfortunately, their formula doesn't always work.
Remember a couple of months ago when every K-drama fan was anticipating The King: Eternal Monarch? Aside from being K-drama king Lee Min-Ho’s comeback series after his mandatory military service, it also saw him being cast alongside Kim Go-Eun in an interestingly teased fantasy-romance plot from the same writers of 2016’s biggest K-drama hit Goblin. But now, with seven episodes in on Netflix, ratings had been… subpar.
Don’t get us wrong, it’s not exactly bad. However, for something that stars two Korean actors that are known for raking in hits, it's performing unexpectedly poorly. For one, viewers were quick to note the confusing treatment of the pilot episode, which showcases South Korea from two parallel universes: one where the monarchy still exists and one where it is a republic like we know of in real life. Even Lee Min-Ho himself acknowledged this confusion, though he assured fans that it will get better. Still, succeeding episodes frustrated fans, with issues like historical inaccuracy on traditional wear, controversial depictions of Japanese and Korean military tension, and generally, “awful CGI moments”.
It didn’t help that JTBC’s The World of the Married is soaring in viewership since it aired (and has now become the highest-rated K-drama in cable history). Yikes!
Now, whether you share similar sentiments or are still thinking of sticking with The King: Eternal Monarch till the end, here are other fantasy K-dramas you may want to consider.
Arthdal Chronicles (2019)
Still heartbroken about the Song-Song couple? We know it’s been a while, but hey, it still stings. So before you hit ‘Watch Again’ on Descendants of the Sun, we say reconsider and turn to Arthdal Chronicles instead, which features half of the couple. Song Joong-Ki stars with Jang Dong-gun (Friend, Taekgukgi: The Brotherhood of War) and Kim Ji-Won (Descendants of the Sun, Fight For My Way) in this drama set in the mythical world of Arth. Covering political dynamics between tribes, spiritual magic inspired by historical references, and of course, a love story, it’s quite a ride to watch. It also has cast members and incorporated languages from other parts of Asia, highlighting cross-cultural relationships despite being set in a made-up universe.
Why you’ll like it: While it got mixed reviews during its run, it’s undeniable that Arthdal Chronicles did a great job in not being swallowed up by the fantasy world it created from scratch. It also features a lot of strong female characters that add to the thrill of the story, without having the need to be either overly feminine or be too emasculating. A second season is also slated to arrive on Netflix soon, which means more K-drama time for us.
The Bride of the Water God (2017)
Since we’re on the topic of dramas from half of our (now broken) reel-to-real ships, let’s talk about The Bride of the Water God — also known as Bride of Habaek . Starring Nam Joo-Hyuk (Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo) and Shin Se-Kyung (Rookie Historian: Goo Hae-Ryung), this is another K-drama whose ratings dwindled during its run, suffering from expectations set right after Goblin aired and because fans couldn’t let go of Nam Joo-Hyuk’s chemistry with his Weighlifiting Fairy co-star-turned-girlfriend Lee Sung Kyung. Many also insisted on comparing it with its original manhwa (comic) material, which resulted in plummeting ratings.
Three years later, after our NamLee hearts have settled and a new wave of fantasy dramas have poured in, we revisited this K-drama and realised that it’s not really as bad as people made it out to be. It delivered laughs and some heart-tugging moments when it needed to, along with a fantasy narrative that’s also amusing in its own way.
Why you’ll like it: Aside from Nam Joo-Hyuk looking hella fine in this drama, it’s also not too shabby on the cinematography and scoring departments. Visual nerds will genuinely enjoy the aesthetics in this series, which does a lot, mood-wise, for any drama. Shin Se-Kyung’s character also has relatable moments that will surely get a lot of young working women saying, “same.” It’s not the most polished fantasy K-drama out there, but we’re definitely calling a re-watch on this one.
Hotel del Luna (2019)
Moving on to dramas where people actually agree on reviews, let’s talk about Hotel del Luna. Perhaps one of the most stunning fantasy K-dramas to date (and we’re not just talking about the CGI), Hotel del Luna is one of 2019’s most raved-about series, both in South Korea and internationally. IU (Moon Lovers: Scarlet Heart Ryeo) and Yeo Jin-Goo (Orange Marmalade) star in this drama set in the world between the dead and the living, with the titular hotel at its centre. Mixing supernatural storylines with romance isn’t exactly offering anything new to the table, but this drama aced it.
Why you’ll like it: From IU’s glamorous wardrobe as Jang Man-Wol to the side stories of the Hotel del Luna dwellers, there’s no watch time wasted with this fantasy K-drama. If you happened to skip over this because you chose to binge Crash Landing On You, here’s your reminder to backtrack and finally give it a watch.
W: The Two Worlds (2016)
Fantasy dramas, in general, are great and all but W: The Two Worlds takes the cake for (somewhat) breaking the fourth wall. The story revolves around Oh Yun Joo (Han Hyo-Joo) who finds herself in a mission to save rich king Kang Chul (Lee Jong-Suk), a character in a Webtoon her father created. Realising a fangirl’s dream to dive into the world of Webtoons or mangas or manhwas to meet ‘The One’, W delivers the story to its viewers on a silver platter with a mix of awareness and ingenuity to this specific genre.
Why you’ll like it: If you loved The King: Eternal Monarch’s initial concept of parallel universes, W: The Two Worlds makes for a great alternative. It separates its two worlds much clearly, allowing the viewers to really dissect which is which and feel an attachment to both without dealing with confusing maths or physics (sorry, Lee Min-Ho). Plus, can you really say no to a K-drama headlined by this series' stars? That's what we thought!
Goblin: The Great and Lonely God (2016)
Okay, okay. It seems like a cop-out to add this to the list but we can't help it. There’s no denying that Goblin: The Great and Lonely God upped the ante for fantasy K-dramas — and K-dramas in general — during and past its run. It took three years before Sky Castle took its spot as the highest-rated K-drama in South Korean cable history and four years before Crash Landing On You booted it out as TvN’s highest-rated network drama.
Starring Gong Yoo (Train To Busan) and Kim Go-Eun (who now stars inThe King: Eternal Monarch opposite Lee Min-Ho), this fantastical storytelling of a cursed love defying the rules of heaven and earth satisfies. Whether you're up for a re-watch or you simply skipped it in 2016, here's your chance to relive its much-deserved hype.
Why you’ll like it: Fantasy and romance aside, Gong Yoo and Lee Dong-Wook’s bromance really made this K-drama work. The second couple’s storyline is also one to root for, sometimes even more so than the main couple's. Even the side characters, big or small, waste no screentime. Top it off with amazing camera work and screenwriting and even non-K-drama fans will surely convert.
Next, if you love the second-lead syndrome trope, make sure you don't miss out on these Asian dramas.