Parallel worlds collide in Kim Eun Sook’s newest fantasy-romance series that brings a King and a Police Lieutenant together.
Lee Gon (Lee Min Ho) is the heir to the Korean monarchy after the tragic murder of his father, committed by his uncle, Lee Lim (Lee Jung Jin) an illegitimate Prince who vies for the throne and seeks a royal treasure that will give him the power to overturn the empire on its head. A mystical bamboo flute, Manpasikjeok is passed down to Kings and Emperors during the Silla dynasty and contains the ability to force enemies to retreat, cure diseases, and put an end to drought and natural disasters. Desiring Manpasikjeok, Lee Lim assassinates his brother in a revolt against the empire, and almost kills Lee Gon in order to diminish the rightful lineage to the throne yet flees once an unknown gunman, thought to be a royal guard appears.
Lee Gon’s masked saviour leaves no traces behind except her Seoul Metropolitan Police badge, revealing the identity of Lieutenant Jung Tae Eul (Kim Go Eun) which he holds onto, hoping one day to find her and thank her for saving his life. The badge however, is astonishing since the year of birth stated is 1990 despite it being 1994 when Lee Gon ascends to the throne after the death of his father and becomes an artefact that shouldn’t exist. Lee Lim on the other hand, discovers the portal and divide between two worlds in the depths of a bamboo forest near the palace, transporting himself to 1994 of Tae Eul’s Korea from a broken piece of Manpasikjeok, arriving in the year of her birth.
Upon arriving, he discovers that identities are replicated, dual individuals living in his world and the ‘new’ world he steps into although lives are strikingly different, his dual counterpart being crippled and suffering from a mental illness. Deciding to put an end to his brother’s family and his lookalike in the new world he encounters, Lee Lim only leaves the wife of his brother alive to do his bidding, beginning an arduous crossing to gain back the empire he couldn’t have and wreck havoc with a powerful piece of divinity.
It’s only a matter of time however, before Lee Gon discovers the bamboo forest, crossing over with his piece of the mythical flute and encountering Tae Eul, determined to not part with her in the hopes of bringing her back to his world as his Queen.
Alright, so there is A LOT to take note of and retain during the premiere of this long awaited drama that marks Lee Min Ho’s return as well as Kim Go Eun’s return to the small screen. There is an exceptional amount of information acquired during the first two episodes that are lengthy, traverse back and forth between worlds, and establish some of the mythos and rules of fantasy and parallel worlds.
I think it’s important to understand what we know about Manpasikjeok first and foremost before delving into the two worlds contained within the same universe. The first episode begins right off the bat with Lee Lim discussing the Manpasikjeok, stating that it was given to King Sinmu by the Dragon King of the East as a gift and when played, had extraordinary power and led Sinmu to designate it as a national treasure. Manpasikjeok however, seems to mandate fate as the sound of the flute guided Lee Gon on the night of his father’s death as if mesmerised or in a trance, without any awareness of his surroundings, with gunfire sounding and the blood of fallen guards staining his clothes but the flute is known to not be able to make a single sound, suggesting that only a selective few and possibly those of royal descent are the only ones who can hear it.
This correlation between the flute and fate seems to embody a sense of ownership in order to active it in relation to blood since Lee Gon and Lee Lim both have droplets of their own blood spilt and absorbed by the Manpasikjeok and may be the reason why the portal materialises before both of them. Proximity to the portal however, still plays a role since they need to be in the bamboo forest, close enough for the portal between worlds to sense the presence of the flute.
In regard to the two worlds, there are stark differences but small technical ones as well in order to make either parallel realistic and believable, certain aspects mirrored. The primary distinction relates to the monarchy itself since Lee Gon’s Korea is still ruled by Kings and Queens, consisting of a Parliamentary government that’s run by a cabinet and Prime Minister. This of course is later cemented once Lee Gon comments on the fact that a Presidential system doesn’t exist in his universe, and implies a global power balance unlike the world as we know it.
The monarchy in Lee Gon’s world continues from Sun Jong, the last king to reign in modern Korea of Tae Eul’s world or the real Korea in other words. There doesn’t exist a Japanese invasion during WWI or a separation of North and South either, meaning no Korean War or World Wars in general. Another thing to note is that King and Emperor, kingdom and empire are interchangeable and essentially mean the same thing within the drama for Lee Gon’s position and his Korea. So that’s either a technicality that will be clarified later on or glossed over for the sake of fantasy and romance.
As a result of these historical and political differences, Lee Gon’s Korea looks different as well and contains a lot of the artefacts and devices that have ceased to exist in Tae Eul’s, from royal crests to streetcars (1900s-esque inspired by imperial Japan) that contrast with the minuscule cultural differences like fried chicken and bread samples of the real Korea. Despite these micro-elements seeming insignificant, they each contribute to the overall effect of a plausible and convincing other world, speaking volumes of the intricacies of constructing dual domains. And oddly enough, the two histories of the parallel worlds are homogenous until a specific time and moment, suggesting that the use of Manpasikjeok has altered history entirely, leading to a world divide if not aiding in its creation.
Lee Gon’s characterisation falls along the lines of regal and peculiar as he has no doubts of his identity as a royal, acting the part with an air of dignity but that also makes him withdrawn emotionally. Most of his appeal comes out once he crosses over to the other side, freely able to unleash his curiosity and weaknesses, and feeling entirely comfortable around Tae Eul because she feels like a long lost friend rather than a stranger. His peeves and likes are also manifested through his relationship with Jo Eun Seop (Woo Do Hwan) who’s Captain of the Royal Guard and his childhood friend. We also need to hand it to the Writer for developing another unforgettable bromance no doubt.
Tae Eul however, is extremely good at her job and devoted to it but basis everything on hard, cold facts, believing in the tangible. She’s irked by Lee Gon to say the least but she plays a central role within the Police that will close the gap between Lee Gon and Lee Lim, her investigation of a murder guiding her to Lee Lim whose managed to stay concealed and under the radar. Her defences already begin to slowly wane from Lee Gon’s unbreakable and adamant claim that he’s from another world and with a type A personality of sorts, she stands her own ground and comes to terms with the truth at her own pace with her skills as an investigator guiding her. Tae Eul’s ability to somehow time travel to the day she saves Lee Gon’s life is shrouded in mystery and raises plenty of questions about the grey areas of time travelling and teleporting since her double leads Lee Gon to the portal and causes a commotion in the world of a Korean Empire.
An Alice in Wonderland theory of following the rabbit down the rabbit hole is a motif and theme for the drama in general and is explicitly referred to as well but depicted with Lee Gon being Alice and the only one of his kind that follows Luna (Tae Eul’s double) into the bamboo forest. I’m not sure if the Writer is suggesting that audiences can expect a fantasy world built on the rules of Lewis Carol’s Wonderland since we might only get glimpses or features of it but it is a means to make sense of the drama’s take on fantasy, and functions as a guideline.
Interestingly enough, in Kim Eun Sook fashion, our villain gets to slaughter quite early on and instigates fear that only evolves as he becomes more manipulative as time goes by. Lee Lim’s actions are still highly confusing even if his end game is clear but he might want to be King of both worlds, who knows? And with a female Prime Minister who seems less interested in the politics of her empire, and more invested in becoming the future Empress, we might have more than one villain to worry about.
The show is ambitious and grand and I think we can all expect a fun ride from one of the most acclaimed Korean drama Writers of our time. The actors speak for themselves while a fresh new take on fantasy worlds that mirror one another is founded on a historical, mythical tale. As the most anticipated series of the year, The King: Eternal Monarch is out to make a name for itself among the greats and Kim Eun Sook’s previous achievement that left its mark on the drama world.
Release Date: April 17, 2020 (Eng Sub available on Netflix)