From Gong Yoo, Lee Dong Wook to Jang Ki Yong, K-drama villains steal fans’ hearts

Their characters have been rewritten—and they have become fashion's head-turners

Lee Dong Wook: Underneath the calmly human facade of a gumiho lies a creature of retribution in 'Tale of the Nine tailed.' (Image by @leedongwook_official)

Think before messing around with a good-looking gumiho in ‘My Roommate is a Gumiho.’ (Image by @juanxkui)

“The bad boy: always more fun.”—Ian McShane, English actor

Antihero characters were never applauded as loudly as the protagonists because no one extolled villains. Well, not anymore. Now antiheroes bask in the adulation of female fans.

It’s telling that the villains aren’t human but mythical creatures disguised as humans, such as the Korean dokkaebi (goblin or demon), gumiho (nine-tailed fox), and jeoseung saja (grim reaper) in K- drama, or Loki, the Norse god of mischief, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Cinematic Loki, personified by Tom Hiddleston, is the favorite villain to date. He’s pulchritudinous from all angles, with his posh British accent amplifying his allure. The shape-shifting god is still wily and untrustworthy, but his drop-dead gorgeous looks trump his flaws.

Mythical creatures are no longer pernicious, butt-ugly characters. K-drama has rewritten their stories, concealing their outré backgrounds, and the horror they can unleash on the world behind their aesthetic features and affluence. Interestingly, they also elicit the viewers’ understanding and admiration.

Comparatively, ancient Loki was not likable. He was a giant, the destructive opponent of the gods, evil by nature and, thus, a natural-born killer, per www.norsemyth.org. He was the father of the monstrous enemies of the Norse gods—the Midgard serpent, the wolf Fenrir, and the goddess of death, Hel. He was hideous, too. An 18th-century image on the Norse myth website showed him with a bulbous nose and an elongated jaw, looking like a jester in his clothes and cap.

Neil Gaiman’s Loki has more appeal. In his book, Norse Mythology, Gaiman describes the trickster god as very handsome, likable, yet “the most wily, subtle, and shrewd of all Asgard. Interestingly, Gaiman steers the reader into seeing Loki as less of a god and more of a human, agonizing and angst-filled, his acerbic tongue let loose by his drinking.

“It is a pity…that there is so much darkness inside him: so much anger, so much envy, so much lust,” writes Gaiman.

Gong Yoo as the handsome ‘dokkaebi’ who cares is part of the allure of the reimagined mythical creature in the mega hit ‘Guardian: The Lonely and Great God.’ (Image by Netflix)

The trickster in Korean tales is a dokkaebi—goblin or demon in Western etymology—that dates back to the Goryeo and Joseon periods. It was created from cursed objects stained with blood. According to study.com, it’s not evil incarnate but a playful one-legged (right) creature with a passion for wrestling. Koreabyme.com says the earlier versions of the dokkaebi were more terrifying: horned face, fangs, brightly colored skin, a single eye.

Following Gaiman, K-drama reinvented the goblin as Kim Shin, a handsome general-turned-god searching for a bride to break his curse, in the 2016 series Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. The combined wealth and good looks of Shin, portrayed by Gong Yoo, mask his preternatural abilities and immortality (he’s 939 years old). His glow-up is jaw-dropping: chic suits and glass skin (Korea’s ideal skin, explains www.allure.com, which is pore-less, translucent, and luminous like a piece of glass).

In Guardian: The Lonely and Great God, the goblin’s glow-up is jaw-dropping: chic suits and glass skin

Paralleling this redo is the alteration of the demonic dokkaebi in the 2023 series My Demon. Jeong Gu Won, played by Song Kang, is a 200-year-old demon who grants humans their wishes in exchange for their souls. Gu Won is a head-turner, with his glass skin, fashion-model aura, and financial success. Like Shin, his sexy appeal cloaks his persona as harbinger of death with zero empathy for humans.

The dokkaebi has ceased to be frightening, with its human idiosyncrasies. Shin, for example, is into K-pop girl groups, while Gu Won is crazy about artisan cakes. When it comes to love, they’re both as dorky as high school nerds pierced by Cupid’s arrow.

Jang Ki Yong and Hyeri: It’s not surprising that students fall for the charms of ‘gumiho’ Shin Woo Yeo, a nattily dressed university professor in ‘My Roommate is a Gumiho.’ (Image by @juanxkui)

Per koreabyme.com, a gumiho was traditionally a young and beautiful female who tricked men so she could eat their liver and retain her immortality. But other stories have the foxy lady taking only their energy using her yeowu guseul—a fox bead that holds their essence and power—that she transfers to the human, then gets back with a deep-throated kiss, says sg.style.yahoo.com.

The 2010 series My Girlfriend is a Gumiho kept to this storyline, but added a romance angle with the two falling in love at the end. A wily female gumiho with the eponymous name Ko Miho, portrayed by Shin Min ah, manipulated a college student into releasing her from the painting she was trapped in, and threatened to eat his liver every so often.

Fascination with the gumiho rose when K-drama reimagined it from a female liver-eating fox into an attractive misunderstood male. Humanizing the nine-tailed fox means he is no longer abhorrent and, instead, is worthy of a second chance in life and love. The romance between gumiho—with his emotional baggage—and human has popularized the fantasy of interspecies relationships among fans.

A male gumiho with the new characterization was the subject of the 2020 series Tale of the Nine tailed. Lee Yeon, portrayed by Lee Dong Wook, is a millennium-old gumiho hunting down rogue supernatural creatures, who falls in love with a reporter who uncovered his true identity. He has a complicated relationship with his estranged half-brother, Lee Rang, played by Kim Bum. Yeon is assisted by Goo Shin-joo, a gumiho veterinarian, in navigating life with humans, including stocking up on Yeon’s favorite mint chocolate ice cream.

The reimagined creature took centerstage again in the 2021 series My Roommate is a Gumiho. Shin Woo Yeo, played by Jang Ki-yung, is a 999-year-old gumiho university professor with a bevy of female student admirers. He’s close to becoming human, but he loses his fox bead to a college student who swallows it after they accidentally bump into each other. Woo Yeo, in trying to get it back, gets entangled with her and other humans, as well as their emotions.

Grim reapers have never been drooled over until K-drama updated their version of Death. The ancient jeoseung saja escorted souls to the afterlife, like its western counterparts, but it wasn’t a robed skeleton. It was a towering, sharp-eyed, and pale human with black lips, dressed in matching black hanbok and hat, says koreabyme.com.

Lee Dong Wook, being the natty fox that Lee Yeon is in ‘Tale of the Nine tailed,’ dressing up in stylish suits his second nature. (Image by @leedongwook_official)

The K-drama writers morphed the jeoseung saja into good-looking fashion mavens. Lee Dong Wook overhauled its image in Guardian: The Lonely and Great God. Instead of the black hanbok and hat, Wook’s grim reaper was a vision of sartorial taste in a suit and fedora. He would have been picture-perfect if his fedora was smaller (it was too floppy to look debonair). The wide brim, which serves to hide the wearer’s face, was unnecessary because Wook’s character had the power of invisibility. A better hat choice would have been the Sinatra Fedora with its trimmer 2-inch (or, per millerhats.com, 2-1/8-inch) brim that “Ol Blue Eyes’ would wear.

Lee Sooh Hyuk as Park Joong Gil always comes out looking like a million bucks even after fistfights with runaway souls. (Image by @leesoohyuk)

Strutting like a supermodel is all in a day’s work of a grim reaper. (Image by @leesoohyuk)

The job calls for being fashionable grim reapers while chasing down souls in ‘Tomorrow.’ (Image by @leesoohyuk)

Goo Ryeon’s pink hair belies a feisty and fiery spirit in the series ‘Tomorrow.’ (Image by Netflix)

Lee Soo Hyuk was the paradigm of jeoseung saja sartorial splendor in the 2022 series Tomorrow. Playing Park Joong Gil, the leader of the Grim Reaper Management team, he wore suits that were a perfect fit. Even minus the fedora, his stylish suits matched his confident strut and swagger, further enhancing his aesthetic aura. Rivaling him as the underworld’s clotheshorse was Goo Ryeon, played by Kim Hee Sun. The head of the Crisis Management team had more pizzazz with her pink hair, makeup, and brightly matched clothes.

Lee Soo Hyuk was the paradigm of ‘jeoseung saja’ sartorial splendor in the 2022 series Tomorrow…Even minus the fedora, his stylish suits matched his confident strut and swagger

“Ghastly” can’t describe the stylishly dressed jeoseung saja anymore. It has the human traits of its archaic counterpart such as sympathy for the souls, compared to its western peers, says koreabyme.com. It helps souls with unfinished business and even gives them grace periods before their imminent capture. Also, being imperfect like humans, accepting bribes to extend a soul’s life isn’t beneath a jeoseung saja.

Ryeon and her team were sympathetic, and more. She was a maverick among the straight-laced grim reapers, like Joong Gil who didn’t brook any argument. Her subordinates were as human as human could be. Choi Joon Woong, played by Rowoon, was a bumbling fool big on empathy, while Lim Ryung Gu, played by Yoon Ji On, was hilariously human with his nose-picking habit.

Byeon Woo Seok as an impeccably dressed CEO like Ryu Shi Oh can’t be a villain, can he? (Image by @byeonwooseok)

Byeon Woo Seok’s Ryu Shi Oh can go from charming to murderous, especially when he’s betrayed. (Image by @byeonwooseok)

Byeon Woo Seok as Ryu Shi Oh is so disarming that it’s difficult to see him as a baddie in ‘Strong girl: Nam-soon.’ (Image by @byeonwooseok)

Mortal bad boy Ryu Shi Oh showing up on screen as a gorgeous Korean villain stopped netizens from pressing the snooze button on Strong girl: Nam-soon, a disappointing spinoff of the 2017 Strong girl: Bong-soon, with its convolution of superfluous subplots.

The CEO of Drogo company, played by Byeon Woo Seok, was statuesque, and looked snappy in dark suits. His disarming smile was a welcome bonus. Yet his charming facade belied a killing machine raised and trained by a Russian mobster with no compunction for murder, whether employee or beloved.

Where lies the appeal of Shi Oh, a brutal, murderous villain, and the rest of the mythical creatures? Dr. Ali Fenwick, a Netherlands-based behavioral scientist, attributes this to people finding fictional characters—good or bad—perfect, and thinking that, unlike humans, they are incapable of inflicting hurt on others.

Given this, the charisma of villains has had viewers romanticizing them, which, Fenwick argues, isn’t actually “all that bad.” This is the result of seeing or experiencing that “good behaviors don’t get you anywhere in life or, at least, not the results you want to see,” he explains in his IG @modern.day.psychologist. “Villains are more complex characters…[who] often are portrayed as more sly and intelligent, and therefore attractive,” he says. “The bad boy allures the mind in so many ways. The underlying belief [is] that it’s dangerous, but will keep you safe, mysterious and exciting.”

Shi Oh’s backstory blurred his murderous impulses, making liking him acceptable. His villainy, as his admirers pointed out, was nurtured by a mobster who kidnapped him as a child. Upon returning to Korea, he met Nam soon and made an effort to get back on the straight and narrow, but her betrayal pushed him to quickly revert to his old ways. (Nam soon’s treachery have had netizens labelling her, not Shi-oh, as the monster.)

Siding with villains isn’t considered foolhardy these days, especially when they undeniably have more rizz than the heroes. They’re more real, angst and all, than the flat, archetypal evil characterization they’ve been relegated to. Unbothered by what people would say, they actualize and verbalize the suppressed feelings of people, and live life according to their rules.

Obviously, reality is far different from fiction, and favored villains always end up ostracized and persecuted. Still, they provide momentary release to pent-up feelings and, per Fenwick, a chance “to activate [the] wild side because society puts so much pressure on… [being] the good person.”

About author


She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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