Locked down in quarantine and exhausted your usual binge watching options? Take a dive into the wonderfully weird world of Asian historical and fantasy TV, with these top picks from critic Travis Johnson.
Honestly, if the phrase “Game of Thrones with kung fu” doesn’t do it for you, you may be beyond help. East Asian historical fiction and fantasy fiction (the lines are blurred) has a flavour all its own. And thanks to the streaming world’s hunger for plentiful content that crosses cultural barriers, there’s a veritable banquet awaiting the curious viewer.
These shows have the lot: courtly intrigue, fascinating mythologies, sumptuous production design, labyrinthine plots, weird magic and lashings of extraordinarily well-choreographed action.
The second season of this South Korean historical horror epic just landed on Netflix, so now is a perfect time to get on board. Set in the early 1600s, it follows the exploits of Crown Prince Lee Chang (Ju Ji-hoon), who must contend with not only the usual plots against the throne, but a plague of zombies threatening to overwhelm the country.
Suspenseful, action packed, sweeping in scope and at times shockingly gory, this is basically a better version of The Walking Dead—but Korean.
You know what would have made the espionage series 24 better? Setting it in medieval China. When rumours of terrorist strike in the titular capital city on a major festival day are uncovered, a disgraced cop (Lei Jiayin) is pulled from death row and set on the case. If he solves it, he’s free—if he doesn’t, he’s a dead man.
This is a fast-paced, twisty conspiracy thriller that moves like a modern action series, but thrums with the pageantry and colour of high historical drama. And it’s 48 episodes long so you get a lot of bang for your buck.
This Bronze Age dark fantasy discards actual history to set its scene in the mythical land of Arth, where an uneasy alliance of rival tribes is carving out a higher form of civilisation. With its intense, complex politicking, cascading betrayals, and big battles, this Korean series plays out like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Clan of the Cave Bear. Also make time for the historical epics Six Flying Dragons and Deep Rooted Tree, from the same production team.
Historical vampire romance, anyone? The daughter of disgraced nobleman Jo Yang-sun (Lee Yu-bi) teams up with a mysterious scholar, Kim Sung-yeol (Lee Joon-gi), to take on the evil vampire lord Gwi (Lee Soo-hyuk), who is hatching a plan to conquer Jeon-era Korea. The only thing is, Kim is a vampire too.
Melancholy brooding, tortured love triangles and much supernatural conspiratorial nonsense ensues. This is a series where Twilight fans and Anne Rice fans can meet in the middle, but with more martial arts than either set are used to.
This HBO Asia production takes all the familiar tropes of urban fantasy drama and drops them into the bustling cities of South East Asia, which is a nice change up from John Constantine’s London or Buffy’s Sunnydale.
Season one saw Sarah (Salvita Decorte), a Jakarta street artist, drawn into the hidden world of the demonic “Demit” who live alongside humanity, while in the second season researcher Juliet (Tia Tavee) goes down a similar rabbit hole in Bangkok, with each season populated by creatures from that country’s native mythology. A third season, set in the Philippines, is in the offing, too.
In 1890s Malacca, a young woman (Huang Pei-jia) enters into an arranged marriage with the scion of a wealthy family (Kuang Tian). The catch is that he’s already dead and marrying him means being haunted by him for the rest of her life.
Based on the bestselling novel by Yangsze Choo, his Taiwanese-Malaysian Netflix Original mixes star-crossed love with a supernatural murder mystery and plenty of period and cultural detail. All the overcooked emoting does take some getting used to, though.
Easily the most challenging series on the list for Western eyes, this sprawling, intricate fantasy soap opera follows martial arts prodigy Lin Dong (Yang Yang), who most use his magical, ancestral Emblem Stone to battle hordes of demons while at the some time navigating a love triangle with mystical Princess Ling Qingzhu (Wang Likun) and reincarnated ice spirit Ying Huanhuan (Crystal Zhang).
Full of histrionic emoting, nigh-impenetrable mythology, beautiful photography, and intricately-staged combat, this is a dazzling, often overwhelming experience, but it takes a lot of effort to plug into.
Cult director Sion Son does The Masque of the Red Death (sort of) but with vampires in this delirious nine part series in which a young woman (Ami Tomite) finds herself targeted by rival vampire clans and holed up at the titular ornate flophouse. Sexy, stylish, violent, and not too concerned with making sense. It’s a bit like hanging out in Akihara with goths on ketamine.