Sageuk is the Korean term for historical period films and dramas. From the classic Jewel in the Palace, my personal favorite Empress Ki, to last year's epic Six Flying Dragons, sageuks have been a staple of South Korean entertainment.
However, this genre is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. Watching sageuks requires time and attention, with most of them being 30, or even more than 100 episodes long. The dialogue-heavy scripts are full of political intrigue, unexpected reversals and reveals, and heart-wrenching tragedies.
I like my sageuks long and serious, but for those who prefer a more lighthearted tone, then here are some popular titles that may pique your interest.
1. Sungkyunkwan Scandal (2010)
Starring Park Min-Young, Park Yoo-Chun, Yoo Ah-in, and Song Joong-Ki, Sungkyunkwan Scandal is based on the novel The Lives of Sungkyunkwan Confucian Scholars. The drama centers on plucky heroine Kim Yoon-Hee, who dons men’s clothing to do various jobs to make ends meet. At a time when women are not allowed to work and study, she bravely takes her sick brother’s identity to support their fatherless family. Her innate intelligence and passion for learning allows her to sit the exams and she soon becomes a student of the country’s most prestigious institute.
Will Yoon-Hee be able to continue hiding her real identity amid the troubles that are occurring in school and her developing feelings for dishy Lee Sun-Joon?
2. Arang And The Magistrate (2012)
A sageuk list is not complete without Lee Joon-Gi in it. Ever since his role in the 2005 movie The King and the Clown, he has become one of the most sought-after actors for #perioddramas.
In this supernatural comedy, Lee Joon-Gi plays Eun-Oh, a nobleman who has the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. He tries not to meddle in their otherworldly affairs, but things change when he meets Arang, a wandering virgin ghost who’s wearing a binyeo (traditional Korean hairpin) that is exactly the same as the one Eun-Oh gave his mother. Eun-Oh agrees to become the town’s magistrate so that he'll be able to investigate Arang's death.
3. Gu Family Book (2013)
Gu Family Book is a highly rated fantasy-martial arts period drama starring Lee Seung-gi and Bae Suzy.
Gu Wol-Ryung is the legendary gumiho — a mythical nine-tailed fox — who lives deep in the mountains. He falls in love with Seo-Hwa, a woman of noble descent who escapes from a gisaeng house. Wol Ryung decides he wants to become a human by spending 100 days without revealing his true form, but when Seo Hwa gets into a dangerous situation, he rescues her using his gumiho powers. Their love story ends in tragedy but Seo Hwa gives birth to a son, Choi Kang-Chi, who is later adopted by a nobleman named Park Mu-Sol.
As he grows up, Choi Kang-Chi discovers his origin and hears about the Gu Family Book, which holds the secrets to becoming fully human.
4. The Three Musketeers (2014)
Featuring South Korean rock band CNBLUE’s frontman Jung Yong-Hwa, The Three Musketeers is a loose adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic 1844 novel.
Park Dal-Hyang leaves his remote hometown and sets out to Hanyang to take the civil service examination and achieve his dream of becoming a soldier. At the same time, he plans to meet Yoon Seo and ask for her hand in marriage. After a long and tiresome journey, he ends up penniless and starving in the crowded capital. When one of his roommates gets beaten by unidentified men, Dal-Hyang runs after the attackers and encounters the mysterious men who introduce themselves as the Three Musketeers.
5. Scholar Who Walks The Night (2015)
Starring Lee Joon-Gi, Lee Yu-Bi, and Lee Soo-Hyuk, Scholar who Walks the Night is based on the #manhwa, or Korean comic, of the same name, written by Jo Joo-Hee and illustrated by Han Seung-Hee.
Gwi is an evil vampire who tries to control the entire country by using his powers to manipulate the king. When Crown Prince Junghyun becomes the new king, he must obey the vampire’s orders, but he refuses to do so. With the help of his close friend and scholar Kim Sung-Yeol, the prince devises a plan to defeat Gwi. However, Gwi is one step ahead of them.
One hundred and twenty years have passed and the bloodthirsty Gwi still rules the land by controlling politicians. Jo Yang-Sun is a girl who cross-dresses so as to earn money as a bookseller. She meets Kim Sung-Yeol, who asks her to find the record books of Crown Prince Junghyun, which contains the late prince’s detailed plans to vanquish Gwi.
6. Love In The Moonlight (2016)
This coming of age TV series based on the novel Moonlight Drawn by Clouds proves the undying popularity of gender-bender shows.
Hong Ra-On (Kim Yoo-Jung) disguises herself as a boy to make a living by dishing out relationship advice for a price. She ghostwrites a love letter for a client, unaware that the recipient is the princess. On the day of the couple’s supposed meeting, the client backs out and asks Hong Ra-On to meet the princess on his behalf. Hong Ra-On agrees. Meanwhile, Prince Lee Yeong (Park Bo-Gum) intercepts the love letter and leaves the palace disguised as a nobleman to meet his sister’s suitor. What could possibly go wrong!
7. Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth (2016)
Hwarang is the elite group of skilled and attractive young men who are tasked with protecting the throne of the hidden King of Silla. As this elite group of boys undergo mind and body training, one day they learn that one of them is actually Sammaekjong, the future king. They try to work out who the hidden king is among them, but they are confused between Kim Sun-Woo, a man of low birth who proves his strong leadership, and Ji Dwi, the sophisticated "nephew" of Hwarang’s chief.
Despite finishing with single-digit ratings and receiving criticism for its weak storytelling, Hwarang: The Poet Warrior Youth still captures the audience’s attention thanks to the captivating performances of the leads, the strong bromance among the good-looking cast, and the presence of idols-turned-actors with solid fandoms (Shinee's Choi Min-Ho and Bangtan Boys' Kim Tae-Hyung).
8. My Sassy Girl (2017)
Based on the famous 2001 South Korean movie My Sassy Girl, Joo Won plays Gyun Woo, a scholar who has made a name for himself in the Qing Dynasty. He returns to Joseon and, after a night of merriment, meets a drunk woman, helps her, but she ends up accusing him of being a pervert. The two meet again and the woman demands he return her precious jade ring. Tired of being misunderstood and wrongfully accused, Gyun Woo vows to never see her again, instead choosing to focus on his position as the newly appointed teacher of the young crown prince.
At the palace, he meets the infamous princess who is the subject of rumors around town due to her misbehavior. To his surprise, the feisty woman who has been making his life miserable is actually the princess.
Sageuks are known for their adventure-filled plots, fleshed-out characters, detailed costumes, and gorgeous cinematography. Don’t miss out on these good things just because of the impression that dramas like these are too heavy and boring.
Have you seen the historical dramas on the list? What are your favorites? Sound off in the comments below.