Netflix K-drama Under the Queen’s Umbrella: Kim Hye-soo impresses in studious period court drama
- Also featuring Kim Hae-sook and Choi Won-young, historical drama fuses palace scheming with the popular K-drama theme of students pushed by unrelenting mothers
- Superb visuals complement Kim Hye-soo’s strong performance, but the show has typical period drama flaws, like underdeveloped characters with unclear connections
The recently concluded hit K-drama Little Women is a hard act to follow, but period drama Under the Queen’s Umbrella – also showing on Netflix – has just launched in the former’s slot on South Korean TV and achieved the highest ratings of any drama this year.
That is testament to Kim Hye-soo’s magnetism as one of the country’s biggest stars.
Kim plays Queen Im Hwa-ryeong, the mother of a crown prince during the rule of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) in Korea. When a sudden illness sidelines her son, a desperate race ensues among his fellow princes to become a cohort – and thereby second in line to the throne after the crown prince.
Hwa-ryeong is mother to four other “grand princes”, but these wayward sons have fallen behind the other, more studious princes in their classes. These other princes are the sons of royal consorts – concubines.
She is not impressed with Queen Hwa-ryeong’s grand princes, and works in the shadows to pit the various royal consorts against one another.
As part of her scheme, she hands each a prized manual that will ostensibly give their sons a leg-up in the contest to become cohort – little do they know that their competitors have all been bestowed the same “advantage”.
Things get sinister when it comes to light that the stricken crown prince is suffering from the same rare disease that claimed the life of the previous one.
In need of advice amid such uncertainty, Hwa-ryeong pays a visit to the banished former queen – who tells her to be careful, as the lives of the crown prince and her other sons are in danger.
Hwa-ryeong is unable to launch a formal investigation based on the former queen’s claims, but what she can do is push her sons to take part in the cohort selection competition and have them shape up, so that one of them may keep the line of succession in their family.
Everyone in the palace soon becomes obsessed with the looming competition, as concubines and palace ministers all conspire to push their princes to the front of the race.
The basic mechanics of the plot follow those of the usual palace court scheming that we’ve grown accustomed to in Korean period dramas, but this series finds a way to breathe new life into them with its focus on maternal education.
The main reason to watch the show is undoubtedly Kim Hye-soo, who, as always, commands the screen with her presence.
Period dramas come in many forms, but one element that typically defines them is their grand visuals – aided by resplendent costumes, head-turning hairstyles and opulent historical locations.
Under the Queen’s Umbrella excels at all this, with the colour palette and soft grain of the picture lending further elegance to the production.
The series’ tone is set at the outset when the camera swoops through the palace grounds, following a group of guards as they quickly make their way through a series of alleys carrying a palanquin – from which Hwa-ryeong emerges when the destination is reached.
The scene is brimming with thriller-like urgency – before being injected with humour, as it turns out Hwa-ryeong is just trying to scare off one of her son’s lovers.
Although Kim’s performance, along with the show’s visuals, are reason enough to tune in, the story unfortunately suffers from the drawbacks typical of period dramas. The broad strokes may be clear, but it’s hard to get a handle on all the characters and how, exactly, they connect with each other.
This extends to Hwa-ryeong’s five children, only two of which stand out at all. More time with the characters will eventually solve this problem, but the truth is most of the princes aren’t particularly well defined.
Until then, veteran star Kim will have to do most of the heavy lifting herself.
Under the Queen’s Umbrella is streaming on Netflix.