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  • Anisa

Mr. Queen: Review

Updated: Jan 23

Mr. Queen just ended, and I find my head nearly exploding with thoughts, so here’s my manifesto review. I NEED to talk about that ending, but I’ll give my general thoughts on the drama before jumping into spoilers. (A note about pronouns: I’ll refer to Bong-hwan as “he”, So-yong as “she”, and So-bong, which is when the two sort of blend together, as “they”, because I feel that’s most accurate. Hopefully that won’t be confusing.)


This uniquely wacky fantasy time-travel fusion sageuk brings together a complex mix of elements, for the most part pulling it off. It weaves together pathos and humor, drama and romance, modern sensibilities and Joseon mores in a way that feels both organic and surprising. It’s a court drama, a fish out of water comedy, and a gender-bending romance all in one. Shin Hye-sun not only steals the show, she is the show, bringing her characters to vibrant and instantly recognizable life. Like Ji Sung in Kill Me, Heal Me, there’s never a moment when she switches from Bong-hwan to So-yong, or vice versa, that it isn’t instantly apparent who’s behind those eyes.



My most consistent feeling throughout the drama was this: I had no idea where the story was going or how it could possibly end well, but I sure was enjoying the ride. Every episode is packed full of funny hijinks and dramatic tension, with all sorts of subplots popping up and resolving as Bong-hwan adjusts to his new life in Joseon, cycling through the stages of grief for his lost self. I agree with the excellent point Paroma made in her video essay, that while Bong-hwan is struggling with his identity crisis in very real ways, the production team chose to play that for comedy without giving enough weight to what he’s lost, possibly forever. There’s a certain lack of empathy for Bong-hwan’s struggles that continues throughout the drama, and leads into my issues with the ending. Perhaps the production team felt that a real, deep exploration of his experience might be too upsetting for viewers who signed up for a goofy body-switching comedy. Although I kinda think anyone who watches a sageuk is already signing up for the “upsetting” part.


Shin Hye-sun’s performance is one for the ages; she is so good as Bong-hwan, whether he’s lamenting his lost “dragon balls” as he tries to enjoy the illicit pleasures of the gisaeng house, whacking himself with flowers trying to get “that woman” out of the body he’s inhabiting, or facing down the Grand Dowager Queen with French food and a steely gaze. And Shin’s dramatic chops are as robust as her comedic ones, playing love, betrayal, anger and grief to a perfect pitch that never tips over into overacting. She can express a multitude of nuances in a single moment, and the drama is endlessly watchable any time she’s onscreen. Her chemistry with Kim Jung-hyun is wonderful, as it transforms from comedic hijinks, to deep antagonism, to reluctant allyship, and eventually to a life-changing bond. Kim Jung-hyun is also very good, as a king who’s lived for years in an invisible cage, fighting to protect his people and his loved ones against stronger and more ruthless enemies.



It was only after I’d completed each episode that I would wonder where exactly this was all going. And the drama doesn’t allow that question the time it deserves—until it gives us a definitive and rather abrupt answer in Episode 20. I wasn’t satisfied with the ending, but I don’t regret watching it. The journey along the way was so entertaining, so moving and funny, full of hilarious side characters and gorgeous sets and costumes—anchored on this central relationship I was totally invested in. I wouldn’t shy away from recommending it, either, with the caveat that the ending fails to carry through on the drama’s amazing promise.


Mr. Queen is honestly worth watching for Shin Hye-sun’s performance alone. I loved So-bong’s growing bond with court maid Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi, their hijinks in the royal kitchen, those epic showdowns with the Grand Dowager Queen (kudos to Bae Jong-ok, who is excellent as always). Really, any interaction Shin Hye-sun had with anyone else sparkled as So-bong shocked everyone in the court with their modern speech, forceful bearing, and general who-gives-a-rat’s-behind attitude. Even the political drama had me invested, which is rare for me—I usually tune out immediately at any talk of court politics, which is why I’m not big on traditional sageuks. I loved the idea of making Cheoljong, a famously foolish puppet king, into someone who was hiding his true self and biding his time for revenge, and that whole storyline was well-done and properly resolved.


A CROSS-CULTURAL LOVE STORY


[Spoilers for Episode 8]



There’s one thing I really loved about this drama that I haven’t seen anyone discussing, though. When So-bong wakes up from their coma, losing Bong-hwan’s internal voice but gaining So-yong’s memories, they reference The Little Mermaid, which some scholars have compared to an immigration narrative. When you move to a new place where you can’t speak the language, as Ariel does when she goes from sea to land, you become like a child in regards to many aspects of daily life (and are often treated as such by others). As they say, the past is a foreign country, one Bong-hwan knows only through books—and being a child of educators helps, since he knows his history. But he certainly isn’t used to the social norms, and feels the whiplash of a 21st century Korean man suddenly being expected to behave like a Joseon queen.


What struck me about So-bong and Cheoljong’s relationship is how much it reminds me of an intercultural marriage. They have a common language (sort of) but their communication is still full of crossed wires and misunderstandings, especially early on. Cheoljong’s “Queen’s Dictionary” is an adorable nod to this—like most couples with different native tongues, they have one language in common, and one that’s a bit tough for the other to understand. So Cheoljong is constantly trying to figure out So-bong’s modern Korean with all its abbreviated terms and English loanwords, and the best thing to come out of this is the epic “No Touch-ie” running joke that honestly never gets old. I loved how they played this dynamic not just for humor, but as a way to show So-bong’s evolving relationship with their environment, with the king but also with Hong Yeon and Court Lady Choi, the kitchen staff, little Dam-hyang, even Jo Hwa-jin.


BUT THAT ENDING


[Here be major spoilers, beware!]



…Which is why the ending felt like such a bait and switch to me. We see our protagonist go through so much for nineteen episodes, as Bong-hwan becomes So-bong, struggling to escape but then finally accepting their new life as a queen, falling in love with Cheoljong and becoming a true ruler by his side, joining him in rooting out corruption in the court and forming deep and meaningful relationships with so many of the people who surrounded them in the palace. All this only to find out, twenty minutes into the finale, that So-yong was in there all along—and for her to suddenly become the protagonist of this story, after strong implications that she’s dead for at least ten episodes.

To be clear, I’m not mad that Bong-hwan ended up back in the present, as much as I’d have loved to see an ending with So-bong and Cheoljong living happily ever after, disgracing corrupt officials and raising their kids to give zero poops about what anyone at court thinks. But I never imagined that to be possible, given that Bong-hwan’s body would have to remain in a vegetative state indefinitely for him to remain in the past. I wasn’t opposed to a bittersweet ending where he came back to the present, but they should have taken an episode to deal with the repercussions of that choice for Bong-hwan, Cheoljong and So-yong.



The drama leaves us with SO MANY QUESTIONS that it sets up and then completely abandons. Will Cheoljong simply never find out that So-yong isn’t actually the person he fell in love with? That one scene of him looking at the Queen’s Dictionary and wondering if he’s missing something, and So-yong laughing off his question of why she’s suddenly so formal with him, implies that she hasn’t told him, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

More importantly, what about Bong-hwan? What happens to him when he gets back to the future? Not being in jail is not a satisfying ending for the character we’ve been watching and rooting for this entire drama. What about his career as a chef? Does he end up back at the Blue House, more in demand than ever? What about his feelings for Cheoljong? This is a chara