‘The King: Eternal Monarch’ Promises Syrupy Romance and a Fascinating World Well-worth Digging into
The emperor of a constitutional monarchy Korea gets transported to democratic Korea in a parallel world after a portal opens between the two worlds. In an effort to protect his loved ones from danger, he teams up with a feisty detective to shut the door that connects them.
Director: Baek Sang-hoon
Cast: Lee Min-ho, Kim Go-eun, Woo Do-hwan, Kim Kyung-nam, Jung Eun-chae, Lee Jung-jin
Country: South Korea
Runtime: Average of 70 minutes per episode
Note: This review was written before the release of episode three and four.
The King: Eternal Monarch 더 킹：영원의 군주 is my first trek into the intimidating world of Korean dramas. My only knowledge of them was that they were all sappy love stories starring idols that look far too good to be relatable. The King (as we’ll be referring to it from here on) is a pleasant surprise. In two episodes, it creates a world (or worlds, rather) that is definitely filled with tropes but set against a vast and engaging backdrop.
The series looks to wrangle in a diverse audience with its interesting premise, over-the-top action sequences, and trademark syrupy romance. However, the net seemed to have cast too wide based on the first two episodes; each feels like an episode from two entirely different genres, leading to the pair widely varying in personal enjoyability.
Whether this polarising tone will continue as the series rides on is still indeterminate. Nevertheless, The King bakes in fascinating worldbuilding with palpable chemistry between its two leads that should be able to tide anyone over its sizable flaws.
The King presents a tale of two worlds. On one hand, there is the Kingdom of Corea, an alternate universe where modern Korea is a constitutional monarchy, with Lee Gon (Lee Min-ho) as its king. Years ago, his father was assassinated by his half uncle, Lee Lim (Lee Jung-jin), before escaping into the Republic of Korea – the South Korea of our world, that is. That fateful day, the young prince was saved from his father’s fate by a hooded figure, suggested to be police officer Jung Tae-eul (Kim Go-eun). Things get pretty convoluted fast.
Never would I have ever thought that my love for John Woo would have any relevance to my first experience with Korean dramas. The first episode of The King is fantastic, opening with a flashback to the assasination of Lee Gon’s father. The killing, led by a villainous, blood-drenched Lee Lim, is deliciously over-the-top. It is all captured with generous use of slow motion, over-stylized framing, and over-dramatised set pieces – very John Woo.
While the episode doesn’t build on its violent start, it does ride the momentum to introduce the audience to the fascinating world of Corea, where its cityscape sports an intriguing blend of tradition and modernity. Meanwhile the treachery of Lee Lim is heightened. After escaping to Korea, the first thing on his list is to dramatically monologue to his alternate world-self before killing him off and dispatching the rest of his family. It’s great cheesy fun.
Although the first episode is gripping as it bounces back and forth between exciting worldbuilding and delightful villany, the second episode sees the series take a hard nosedive into the pool of Korean drama tropes. Lee Gon, the titular king, follows a portal into Korea and immediately finds Tae-eul, whom he believes saved his life all those years ago.
Tae-eul is a hardboiled, no-nonsense detective that doubts everything that the lofty monarch describes to her. While the chemistry between the two is magnetic, the episode suffers from its oversaturation, dedicating most of its runtime to the two’s banter and Lee Gon’s incessant flirtations.
In the background, there are brewings of a love triangle as the feisty Seo-ryung (Jung Eun-chae), Prime Minister of Corea, looks to have Lee Gon to herself. Other than the aneurysm the political implications of such a union would cause to anybody privy to how a constitutional monarchy works, the triangular tension is frankly something I’m looking forward to in the coming episodes to add much needed spice to the main vanilla romance.
What kept me going were the oases of lore tidbits. With the king being a fish-out-of-water, he notes the fascinating differences between the two worlds. These snippets aren’t heavy-handed as well, blending together into the interactions between the two love birds. Something as innocuous as Lee Lim having never tasted Korean fried chicken, for example, works naturally to the series’ worldbuilding, subtly suggesting that the Korean War never happened in his world. These moments are far and few between, but just enough to keep me invested.
The series made history with its premiere setting records for South Korean national broadcast network SBS. A lot of the buzz stems from the return of superstar celebrity Lee Min-ho in the leading role after his hiatus due to military service. Lee carries the role with an air of frat boy confidence. He is all too aware of his good looks and his kingly status but there is just enough to keep him loveable. Lee walks the well-trodden line well, with more than enough charisma to back his boyish good looks.
Go-eun’s performance as Tae-eul does a great job in being Lee’s foil, with charms far more understated than Lee’s flashy bravado. She stands on her own as an interesting character taking charge of every situation that comes her way – even when an otherworldly prince appears on horseback out of nowhere next to her.
The performances of the surrounding cast are equally impressive whenever the camera does take the time away from the star couple. Most notable is Jing-jin’s performance as the series’s villain, relishing every moment with his unnerving cold stare and measured deliveries that both inspires his lackeys and terrorises anyone in his way.
The most notable flaw of The King has to be its runtime per episode. Each episode feels like they overstayed their welcome – for different reasons. Yes, the use of slow motion in the first episode was cool the first few times but it got tiresome after it’s repeatedly used to drag out the most mundane of actions.
The second episode, with its heavy focus on the lead couple, offers no dramatic tension with nothing carrying it along other than two attractive stars giving googly eyes to each other. Less would have been perfect on both counts, and the daunting commitment of time required out of each episode would probably be what would most keep me from coming back.
Still, The King does sport an arsenal of shots to ease the pace from dutch angles to creative transitions signifying the passing of time. While the transitions between worlds are usually mundane with wide establishing shots of the cityscapes, the interiors of Corea are separated by visual treats of lush, Gothic-style sets and whimsical knick knacks. It’s a series that definitely flaunts its budget right down to the luxurious costumes and apparels.
To judge a series solely based on its first two episodes would be unfair; the more pressing question to answer seems to be if the hype train is worth jumping on. Being a complete stranger to Korean dramas, the sappy romance is perhaps not my cup of tea. Yet, there is still a lot to love with the series – most notably with its premise and worlds. The way I see it, the series can only go up from here.
Catch up on The King: Eternal Monarch on Netflix, with episodes three and four out by the time this review is published.
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