tvN’s new weekend drama “Mr. Queen” promised all kinds of body-swap fun with its premise: a man from modern-day Korea landing in the body of a Joseon-era queen. Its premiere last week delivered on these expectations and more, with outlandish (and raunchy!) humor, awesome performances, and just the right amount of intrigue to keep us hooked. After two episodes, it’s clear that “Mr. Queen” is not your typical historical drama or your typical body-swap drama.
Warning: some slight spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 below.
“Mr. Queen” earned immediate brownie points when it started off by gracing us with a special appearance by Choi Jin Hyuk! The actor plays main character Jang Bong Hwan, a chef in modern-day Korea’s Blue House.
Bong Hwan does not last very long in this form before the body swap goes down, but in the short period we get to know him, we learn that he’s suave, cocky, and a total womanizer. These traits, we soon find, make it all the more hilarious when the man ends up in the body of Kim So Yong (Shin Hye Sun), a soon-to-be Joseon Dynasty queen. Bong Hwan is not just any man — he’s a huge playboy — and So Yong is not just any woman as she’s a royal who must comport herself with the utmost femininity and decorum. Transfer all of Bong Hwan’s oozing confidence and hyper-masculinity into the body of this Joseon lady, and the result is utter hilarity. It’s worth mentioning that the reason the comedy works so well is thanks to Shin Hye Sun’s genius acting, particularly her uncanny ability to portray male mannerisms.
It’s delightfully jarring and endlessly amusing to watch a woman in 19th-century royal robes acting like a modern bro. This is also where we get our first hint of how overtly raunchy “Mr. Queen” is, as a man who clearly prides himself on his manliness loses just that:
Bong Hwan fully anticipates returning to his real body and time period ASAP, so he doesn’t think twice about trying to blend in by following palace rules or ladylike decorum. Cue multiple scenes of Bong Hwan in So Yong’s body running around the palace with her skirts up, jumping into mud, and throwing herself into every body of water she can find — this is, she thinks, the way to return to modern times, given that the body swap happened via water: Bong Hwan fell into a pool in Korea, and So Yong mysteriously fell into a lake on the palace grounds.
It’s every bit as hilarious as it sounds, especially coupled with her court ladies’ exasperated reactions. The best part of all of this is that we hear Bong Hwan’s thoughts in Choi Jin Hyuk’s voiceover, and it’s astounding how perfectly Shin Hye Sun’s every action and facial expression match up with Choi Jin Hyuk’s voiced thoughts. The two nailed it!
The racy fun continues when we meet King Cheoljong (Kim Jung Hyun), Joseon’s representative sex addict:
There were multiple laugh-out-loud moments in the first two episodes, and “Mr. Queen” knows how to amplify its humor with some well-placed slow-motion and sound effects. The background music in this drama is awesome, and it draws on the type of sound you’d hear in old Western cowboy movies to add to the comedy of Bong Hwan struggling against his new body, new rules, and new stuffy royal family.
However, the sexual humor did start to wear thin after a while. This is largely because there was a missed opportunity here to give it some depth: Bong Hwan-as-So Yong ditching her bra for her wedding, or her uncertainty over whether she and Cheoljong consummated their marriage on their wedding night, could have prompted a little reflection on Bong Hwan’s part about what it’s like to be a woman: some of his experiences in So Yong’s body are not too far off of modern times. These scenes could add meaning without compromising the humor, but instead, the show uses them for laughs only.
Thankfully, “Mr. Queen” is not all comedy, and has put several other issues on the table. First and foremost is Cheoljong himself. The royal has a reputation for being slow-witted and appears to be a puppet for the Grand Queen Dowager (Bae Jong Ok) — but there may in fact be more to this king than meets the eye. And we certainly hope so, because for much of this week’s episodes Cheoljong did a whole lot of reading upside-down and not a lot of, well, anything useful. One could complain about the first two episodes wasting Kim Jung Hyun’s talents, but Shin Hye Sun is so excellent that we’ll let it slide. Plus, it’s clear that Cheoljong’s role will soon expand in exciting ways.
But wait, there’s more! First of all, there’s a mystery afoot: how did So Yong end up in that lake? Did the king’s beloved concubine Jo Hwa Jin (Seol In Ah) extend a hand to push So Yong in or to stop her from falling? And as with every sageuk, there are palace power dynamics at play. Here, it’s two noble families vying for influence: the Pungyang Jo family and the Andong Kims. The Kims have more power (So Yong is a member of this clan), but the Jos hold some sway, not in the least because they back Hwa Jin, whom the king seems to actually love. Lest you’re worried about being confused by these court politics, don’t fear: “Mr. Queen” does us the service of taking a minute to draw out a cute little family tree on screen. Thank you, drama!
Bong Hwan is going to have to play by the palace’s rules if he wants to get his life back, and to do so, he’ll have to navigate not only these vying families but also the already-messy personal relationships that surround him. This includes whatever love triangle is going on among Bong Hwan/So Yong, Cheoljong, and Hwa Jin. Little do Cheoljong and Hwa Jin know that this love triangle has been inverted: So Yong may have been Hwa Jin’s erstwhile female enemy, but Bong Hwan totally has the hots for Hwa Jin. While Bong Hwan is clueless when it comes to Joseon life, clearly palace pickup lines are no problem:
So far “Mr. Queen” has struck a good balance between comedy and intrigue, and hopefully it can maintain both of these elements throughout. It will have to rely less on the gender-swap humor as Bong Hwan grows more comfortable in So Yong’s body, but Bong Hwan has a strong enough personality that there should be plenty of comedic fodder. That being said, I wish we had gotten a little more background on Bong Hwan at the beginning of the drama (and not just because one can never have too much Choi Jin Hyuk). His storyline as a chef in the Blue House was interesting in its own right, and “Mr. Queen” could flesh out this character more by circling back to the plot in modern Korea. But perhaps it will also achieve this by giving us more insight into Bong Hwan in the Joseon age — probably by bringing out his inner chef.
Finally, “Mr. Queen” may be a comedy, but there’s the potential to include some really interesting, deeper content with Cheoljong’s character. Here’s a king who everyone writes off as a dumb, controllable puppet, which has got to be frustrating and hurtful if Cheoljong is aware of it. And he seems to be, given that he’s apparently trying to perpetuate this image. While we’re laughing at Bong Hwan, we’ll hopefully also get to learn more about Cheoljong, what he cares about, and how he’s created agency for himself and tried to make meaning of his reign when everyone around him wants to use him.
Start watching “Mr. Queen” here:
Hey Soompiers, did you watch the premiere of “Mr. Queen”? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!
hgordon stays up way too late on weeknights marathoning K-dramas and trying to keep up with the latest K-pop releases. She was also thrilled to see B.A.P’s Youngjae make an appearance in “Mr. Queen”!
How does this article make you feel?