In K-drama Mr. Queen, body-swap comedy meets period drama, and scores laughs amid the royal palace scheming
- Shin Hye-sun stars as a queen from Korea’s Joseon Ero whose body is taken over by a male chef from the present day
- Comedic moments ensue as the character tries to adjust to rigid court decorum while asserting her/his masculinity, and seeking a way back to the 21st century
Mr. Queen, the latest Korean television drama to captivate viewers at home and around the world, brings together two of the medium’s most well-worn tropes: the treacherous and twisty royal palace period drama and the frothy body-swap comedy.
The tvN drama starring Shin Hye-sun and Kim Jung-hyun, which took over the slot in domestic TV schedules vacated by Start-Up, begins in the present with Choi Jin-hyuk, fresh from his leading roles in Rugal and Zombie Detective, playing Jang Bong-hwan, the cocky head chef for the president in the Blue House. One day, his arrogance gets the better of him and he finds himself without a job.
Questioned by detectives at his apartment, he slips from his balcony and falls into a pool below. In the water a mysterious woman swims towards him and he suddenly wakes up in a strange place. His hands look different, his muscles have disappeared and his voice has changed. He has become a completely different person.
Jang has in fact slipped all the way back to the Joseon Era and turned into Kim So-yong (Shin Hye-sun), who is just days away from marrying King Cheol-jong (Kim Jung-hyun) and becoming Queen Cheorin – the Korean title of the show. Jang, as Kim So-yong, has just woken up from a brief coma after having fallen – or was she pushed? – into a lake on the palace grounds.
Days away from marrying the king, “Mr. Queen” begins his uncomfortable adjustment to the rigid social decorum of the court, all while trying to find a way to refill the lakes – which have been drained by the Queen Dowager (Bae Jong-ok) – jump back in and return to his body in the present.
The new hit series benefits from the involvement of some old hands at period drama, with Yun Seong-sik (Hwarang) directing and Park Kye-ok, screenwriter of the films Sword in the Moon (2003) and Heaven’s Soldiers (2005), serving as one of the writers. The premise is an old one and the series seems to acknowledge this, with Queen Cheorin pronouncing to herself (or himself?) early on, “It’s like I’ve fallen into a time slip.”
The show is full of comic moments, with plenty of slapstick and appropriate sound effects, but also many allusions to the vast cultural changes between the Joseon Kingdom and modern Korea.
The simplest of these, and one which the writers constantly go back to the well for, is having Queen Cheorin use anachronistic expressions, especially a mountain of Konglish (English loan words, sometimes combined with Korean). A running joke involves a misunderstanding of the “no touch” rule Mr. Queen tries to enforce to keep free of the king’s roving hands.
Others are more topical, such as when Kim So-yong opts to go without a bra for her marriage, exclaiming in voice-over that she’s the first woman in Joseon to not wear one. Moreover, this seems like a cheeky jab at the Lee Min-ho series The King: Eternal Monarch, which got into hot water earlier this year when Jeong Chae-eun, playing a female prime minister, said “bras without wires can’t support the chest” – a line that was deemed to promote passé gender stereotypes.
On the other hand, while the show presents an opportunity to explore some queer territory, so far the writers seem to have gone to great pains to show repeatedly how virile and heterosexual the main character is.
Though trapped within a woman’s body, he manages to frequent a kiseang house (in the Joseon Era a place for courtesans to entertained upper-class men), where he’s branded the most depraved pervert to have walked through the doors. He even has waking nightmares where he imagines his present body, controlled by Kim So-yong, preying on handsome men in clubs.
Following her strong turn as a plucky young lawyer in this year’s legal drama Innocence, and her role in the hit crime caper Collectors, Shin makes a convincing return to the small screen with a versatile performance that is heavy on physical gags, but also sees her flex her dramatic chops in flashbacks to before the modern chef entered her character’s body.
The show’s best scenes take place in the royal kitchen, which the queen takes over from the royal chef – played by an amusingly flustered Kim In-kwon. Mr. Queen shows off his modern cooking skills and even invents a “food palanquin”, foreshadowing modern-day Korea’s obsession with food deliveries.
Beyond these diverting interludes, Mr. Queen spends most of its time mired in palace scheming, which is achingly slow in its progression, a little confusing, and not terribly engaging to begin with. Yet episode 6 ends with a real cliffhanger that threatens to add a new dimension to the show, and hopefully a more compelling narrative strand going forward.
Mr. Queen is streaming on Viu.
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