The King Eternal Monarch opened with high expectations, given that it was Lee Min Ho’s first return after his national service and written by Kim Eun Sok (KES) who gave us excellent drams like Descendants of the Sun and Goblin. The show has also been mired in various controversies to date, in the first episode due to the Japan-like architecture and in the sixth episode due to its portrayal of Korean warships as Japanese. These controversies have been serious enough that the producer has had to issue public apologies.
Besides these bigger controversies, the show has also received rather mixed reviews but the general sentiment is that the romance between the king Lee Gon (Lee Min Ho) and detective Jang Tae-Eul (Kim Go Eun) is unconvincing. Moreover, as a show about parallel universes, both universes are very similar, taking place at the same time period. As such, it is sometimes difficult to tell which universe we are in and thus confusing.
Having watched 7 episodes of the show, I agree that the romance is unconvincing, but I’m not one who requires a good romance to enjoy a series. Besides the romance, I have to say I’m really enjoying this show. What I enjoy about KES’s dramas is her ambition and her desire to tell stories that are larger than life. That was clearly evident from Goblin, where she told a story that transcended not just time periods, but explored deep concepts of life, death, faith and spirituality. As a writer, she is stronger at planning her major plot points, which often fit together beautifully after a few episodes, but the individual episodes can sometimes feel slow or boring.
For The King, KES once again shows her ambitious storytelling as she attempts to tell a story about two parallel universes with different histories. We have modern day Republic of Korea, a world familiar to us where Tae-Eul lives, and a Kingdom of Corea – an alternate universe where the invasions and wars of the 20th century did not take place, and the King continues to rule. This is all revealed in the second episode, in a conversation that takes place at BBQ Olive Chicken, a very familiar venue from Goblin. In Korea, Prince Sohyeon passed on early, but in the Kingdom of Corea, Prince Sohyeon continued to live and stopped the Qing invasion.
The Kingdom of Corea thus serves as the writer’s fantasy of what the political landscape would be like if the monarchy still reigned and had a female prime-minister, Seo-ryung, played by Jung Eun-chae. The scenes in Corea are filled with pomp, clearly aimed to highly exalt the King and his work for the people. Lee Gon is at the forefront of conflict and a hero for the nation, a message that hammered in so strongly in the sixth episode with an intense battleship warfare sequence between Japan and Corea. For history and politics geeks, the show should be quite fascinating.
However, beyond just history, the show also brings both science and liberal arts. The parallel universe is sometimes explained using Einstein’s Quantum mechanics, but also sometimes described using literary allegory, namely Alice in Wonderland. There’s a repeated line about being beheaded, clearly referencing what the Queen of Spades says. But there’s also reference to Tae-Eul being Alice, going down the rabbit hole into an alternate fantastical world. We even get treated to some poetry from Azaleas by Kim Sowol,
At this point, you might think that this is a heavy-going show that can only be enjoyed at the cerebral level. But it certainly isn’t – there’s enough light banter, funny moments and characters as well as warm relationships to keep the story going. I definitely love Jang-mi, the bumbling new police officer, in the world of Korea and the Noh Ok-nam in Corea. Animal lovers will also be charmed by Maximus the horse and the adorable foal version that appeared briefly in the earlier episodes.
The central conflict between Lee Lim (played by Lee Jung-Jin) and Lee Gon is also strong enough to hold the story together. As the show opens, we see Lee Lim murdering Lee Gon’s father. He stabs Lee Gon too and as Lee Gon is on the verge of dying, a mysterious person appears, holding on to Tae-Eul’s police tag. As the mysterious person takes down Lee Lim’s men, suddenly the music of a flute, the Manpashikjeok, is heard and Lee Lim disappears. The world thinks that Lee Lim is dead, because his body is found. However, what has happened is that much earlier on, Lee Lim has already uncovered the parallel universe and he goes to Korea to kill the version of himself there, then brings the body back to Corea. Now, Lee Lim is recruiting his own army in the world of Korea, while also killing off the alternate versions of people there.
One way to enjoy “The King: Eternal Monarch” is to see it as a KES spending time to let us as viewers explore the worlds she has created. Having spent so much time to build the worlds, she’s just having fun now by allowing her characters cross from one universe to the next, orienting themselves to both worlds and getting into awkward, funny situations. In episode 7, Gon brings his guard Jeong over into Korea, and that first encounter between him and Eun-sop (his Korean version) is hilarious. KES is not just trying to tell a story; she’s bringing us into her parallel universes in her shows and the lush, sweeping landscape and beautiful cinematography certain helps to make this show a visual feast.
Just like Goblin, The King Eternal Monarch is not the kind of show that will keep you at the edge of your seat, but is the kind of show you sit down to and savour at a leisurely pace. It is by no means perfect, but certainly a drama that has the potential to be a masterpiece.