I enjoy pretty much every type of KDrama (or JDrama, or CDrama); but if I had to choose, I would choose sageuks; particularly ‘fusion sageuks.’ A sageuk is a historical Korean drama, usually set in the Joseon or Goryeo periods (medieval Korea up through the late 1800s). I often recommend them to people, especially history buffs who enjoy political intrigue and power play, but then I usually get a blank stare and a, “What’s a sageuk?” Simply saying ‘a historical drama’ doesn’t cover enough ground, so here are a few things you’ll probably find in a sageuk beyond the usual.
• Politics and intrigue. Korean dramas never shy away from the nitty-gritty of behind-the-scenes machinations. This can be heartbreaking, especially when the sageuk is about real people. (Hint: if you watch Faith, do not look up Choi Young, Gongmin, or Noguk. It will spoil the happy ending. I shed actual tears, got angry, and watched Faith again.)
• Historical dramas tend to center around actual people who really lived, and events that really happened. Are liberties taken? Of course they are! It’s entertainment, after all – but Asian dramas have a larger sense of duty and preservation than most Western dramas, and try harder to show respect to their ancestors by telling the truth about things – even if they take artistic license.
• Fantasy twists. You’ll often find fantasy in sageuks – even when it takes a back seat. In Faith, there’s a time-jumping portal and people with special abilities (like the ability to generate electricity, or generate ice, or kill people with music) – but these take a back seat to the main story that unfolds. In fact, sometimes they don’t use any fantasy for episodes at a time. It lends an air of believability to the story, because they aren’t completely focused on showing you how cool their special effects are. In Gu Family Book, you have gumihos (basically Korean kitsunes) and thousand-year demons, but the main focus is on politics.
• Fight scenes are the best in sageuks, whether they have a fantasy twist or not. Swords, knives, parkour, hand-to-hand, poison, fans, spears – you name it, you’ll get it.
If you’re interested in watching a sageuk, you can find them at Viki, Dramafever, or Hulu. My favorites are Faith/The Great Doctor (literally translated ‘The Divine Doctor, but nobody seems to care), Gu Family Book, and Warrior Baek Dong Soo. If you start one, let me know what you think! (And if you need more incentive to watch Faith, let me just say – General Choi Young spends more than five episodes fighting in medieval Korea with a modern-day police shield. In fact, police shield-wielding Choi Young is my phone wallpaper. Why does he have a police shield? You’ll have to watch it to find out.)