Made Up: Mythical Characters in Korean Dramas & Why I Love Them
Korean dramas have a way of putting a supernatural twist on your typical love story that is so, well, oddly relatable. Here, some memorable mythical characters in Korean dramas that we’ve fallen in love with.
Vampires. Mermaids. Foxes with nine tails. Fantastic creatures have been thriving in Korean dramas for decades. Audiences’ love for IU’s ghost hotel owner in the currently airing Hotel Del Luna reminds me of all my favorite dramas featuring figures from popular folklore. IU’s beautifully-costumed sajangnim joins a growing roster of actors who have labored to embody the fantastic on our screens. The following mythical characters, with their particularities of makeup and apparel, embody otherness in intricate ways that make us laugh, sob, and wish they were real.
IU in Hotel Del Luna
This drama will make you want to dress up as ghost hotel caretaker so badly. IU’s perfectly coiffed hair, dramatic ballgowns, and daily late-Victorian/early Edwardian-meets-21st century outfits perfectly complement her character, a human who tragically cannot die, and her subsequent collisions with Yeo Jin-gu, the human manager she wrangles to do things ghosts cannot (boring stuff like registration and taxes).
IU’s ensembles could be dramas themselves: Everything is perfectly positioned, from her pearl earrings to her heels to the peach eyeshadow and dramatic red lips. If anything, her makeup sets her up as a formidable protagonist, an Ice Maiden with a deeply-buried past.
Shin Mina in My Girlfriend Is a Gumiho
In Korean folklore, gumiho are fox spirits who take on guises as women and feast on human flesh after seducing them. Imagine Cha Dae-woong’s horror when he realizes a gumiho has latched onto him.
But Shin Mina’s effervescent portrayal of what is traditionally a sly and dangerous character has forever altered my perception of gumiho. Her Gu Miho is so lovable, innocent, and blunt, especially her courage and desire to explore induced zany shenanigans with our beta-male and perpetually-terrified hero, played perfectly by Lee Seung Gi, that I couldn’t help falling for her on the spot.
Unlike the seductress image of lore, Shin Mina’s makeup was kept simple and innocent. At one point, she even gets a perm, which highlights her lovableness in Dae-woong’s eyes. Mi Ho’s frankness and vulnerability touched my heart and she remains my favorite legendary dramaland character to date.
Lee Jun-ki in The Scholar Who Walks the Night
Lee Jun-ki doesn’t even look human. Those cutlass-sharp cheekbones, those almond eyes fringed with long lashes … ahem. He played the vampire scholar who falls for a cross-dresser with the perfect blend of intensity and restraint.
And his makeup, heavy on the eyeliner, merely accentuated his otherworldly features. The drama itself might have constituted a roller coaster of emotions, but Lee Jun-ki never wavered from his portrayal of a tortured vampire.
Seolhyun in Orange Marmalade
I admit that when I heard an idol was headlining a vampire drama, I was skeptical. But I was pleasantly surprised by Seolhyun’s portrayal of teenage vampire Baek Ma-ri, a portrayal that captured the angst of hiding a vital part of one’s identity while in the prime period of self-discovery.
In keeping with her high-schooler character, Seolhyun’s makeup was restricted to clean and youthful skin and a light use of eyeliner and lip tint, which served to heighten the disjunct between her vampire side and her human face. Orange Marmalade not only bent stereotypes by focusing on romance between a female vampire and a human, but it also wove in questions about the nature of identity and how we are more than the boxes we and others place ourselves in.
Shin Mina in Arang and the Magistrate
That Shin Mina happens to be on this list again testifies to her powers of playing otherworldly characters. That she plays mournful ghost Arang, determining to solve the mystery of her own murder, opposite Lee Jun-ki’s righteous magistrate, is another reason why I love this drama so much. And did I mention it involves mystery as an added element? Sold. Shin Mina has a gift for making supernatural characters appealing and — dare I say it — human.
In keeping with the ghostly element, Arang’s makeup consists of pale foundation and minimal color, with strong brows, highlighter, and minimal lip makeup to heighten Arang’s ghostly pallor.
Jun Ji-hyun in Legend of the Blue Sea
Mermaid out of water: Haven’t we seen this before? But Jun Ji-hyun’s Shim Chung is so goofy, lovable, and earnest that you can’t help rooting for her, like you can’t help rooting for every character Jun Ji-hyun plays. The drama explored the difficulties of two very different beings trying to make a life together and the sacrifices each has to make when confronted with these differences.
Proving herself the Trendsetting Queen once again, Jun Ji-hyun’s lipsticks in the drama from Korean brand Hera (147 Supreme Pink and the Sensual Lip Serum Glow in shade 1 Love Blossom, if you want to know) became insanely popular.
Park Bo-young in Strong Woman Do Bong-Soon
Technically Park Bo-young isn’t an otherworldly character, but she is gifted with otherworldly powers. The visual comedy of a petite and adorable girl with the strength of Superman was only the icing on the cake of a drama where Bong-Soon struggles to accept her powers as a facet of herself.
Bong-Soon’s doll-like makeup — peach eyeshadows, pink blush, and long lashes — masked the depth and range of her strength. As a female, I’ve often fallen into the trap of hiding certain aspects of my personality that don’t conform to stereotypical portrayals of femininity, and this drama helped me embrace these aspects just as Bong-Soon eventually embraces her powers.
Mythical characters in Korean dramas aren’t merely exotic phenomena. In articulating the struggles they face in reconciling aspects of their identity and in embracing their otherness, they not only help us accept the parts of ourselves that seem strange but encourage an openness towards those whom we regard as very different from ourselves. And while their elaborate makeup and costumes may serve to highlight aspects of their personality or conceal their powers, it certainly makes it fun come time to select a Halloween costume — I’ll have a range of mythical K-drama characters to choose from.
What mythical characters are your favorites in Korean dramas? Share with me below!