“The King’s Face” is more than just a pretty face. And alas, beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.
Genre: Historical, sageuk, politics, romance
Synopsis: The art of face reading plays a significant role in Joseon politics, and it is believed that only a person with the face of a king is able to rule over the country. Gwanghae (Seo In Guk), second son of King Seonjo (Lee Sung Jae), is born with kingly features, which causes him to have an uneasy relationship with his father whose facial features are believed to be less than ideal for a king. The drama tells of Gwanghae’s journey to becoming crown prince and king of Joseon.
Comments: (may contain spoilers)
I placed this drama in my list of dramas to watch once I saw the teaser and heard the OST, but the numerous negative reviews about this drama made me hesitant to start on it. After seeing Seo In Guk’s performance in the drama “I Remember You” (which I liked very much), I decided there was even more reason for me to watch “The King’s Face”. The drama did had its flaws, but I thought it was a good watch on the whole and I was glad that I followed my heart instead of the critics!
What stood out a lot for me were the impressive visuals throughout the drama. Whether it was a kiss scene, a chase through a field of tall golden reeds, a wide shot of a lone prince defending an empty palace, or leaves being swept up from the ground by a gust of wind as soldiers rush in to make their arrest, there were many scenes that were beautifully shot. Scenes of nondescript matters were given added beauty and symbolic meaning because the director or cinematographer bothered to give more thought into how they should be filmed. Even as the drama progressed, there was no noticeable drop in the quality of the visuals, so I can easily say that this drama was a visual feast for me.
Adding on to the arresting visuals were the beautiful songs and instrumental tracks composed by acclaimed composer Oh Joon Sung. These days, a lot of sageuks try to go fusion by including rap and rock music in their OSTs, but “The King’s Face” did not try to be ambitious with that and stuck to piano and orchestra music to bring out the melancholy and grandeur of a sageuk. This is one of the few dramas where I actually like the whole OST album. Here are some of my favourite tracks.
^That was some epic sageuk music!
^The tune is so sad and beautiful ㅠ ㅠ
A lot of the story dealt with serious matters revolving around palace intrigue and war, and these could potentially become boring with scenes of old ministers discussing politics in court. But a clever use of instrumental tracks and fast-switching camera angles added some tension and excitement to these. I found myself very moved by Gwanghae’s speeches and also engrossed in the political debates. I even felt sympathetic for King Seonjo, who is depicted as an incompetent king. Watching politics play out in this sageuk was like watching a ping-pong match some times.
As the story tells the history of how Gwanghae became king, it had to inevitably cover a period in history where Joseon was invaded by Japan. It costs time and money to film elaborate battle scenes, and to make things worse, “The King’s Face” was not doing well in the viewership ratings when it was airing. I would assume that sageuks generally receive less sponsorship money since a lot of product placements for modern items such as handphones and refrigerators wouldn’t be possible. Despite that, I thought the team did a good job to make do with what they had. Although a lot of the war was “skimmed through” by using voice-over narration to describe the events of the war, I thought this was also a good thing as it helped the story progress faster. After all, the main focus of the story was on Gwanghae’s growth, and not the war.
The part about the Japanese invasion was actually one of my favourite story arc in this drama as I found it quite exciting to see how Gwanghae fended off the invaders on his own and how he earned the respect of his people in the process. Kind of reminded me of those zombie flicks where you are the last man standing and you have to overcome the crisis on your own. However, this part of the story also came across as overly patriotic, till it seemed like part of some government propaganda that was trying to tell you how brutal the Japanese were. I remember feeling the same way when watching “Bridal Mask” some years ago. I get it that Japan and South Korea are not exactly the best of friends, but it makes me a little uncomfortable seeing how this animosity is being played out in a seemingly harmless Korean drama.
Regarding the cast’s acting, I don’t think anyone was particularly remarkable. The lead actress’ (Jo Yoon Hee) acting was widely panned by many. While I didn’t find her outstanding, I didn’t find her all that unbearable. The romance didn’t have much spark either, and I’m not sure if that has to do with her lack of chemistry with the actors or because the story itself was not centered on the romance. As for Seo In Guk, I thought he did decently well despite this being his first sageuk. I wouldn’t have imagined him playing a king because it is a demanding role that requires gravitas and a commanding aura, and Seo In Guk didn’t seem like someone who would be able to pull this off since he previously played schoolboy roles. It took me a while to get used to his diction though. I think he has problems articulating his words because of his “duck lips” (don’t bash me for this please!), but it was good seeing him try his best and not letting this hinder him from delivering a convincing performance.
My major gripe of the show was how some parts of the story didn’t seem to add up together. I can’t remember exactly which were the problematic parts since I’m writing this review months after watching the show, but I did recall having difficulty trying to understand why certain characters behaved in a certain way and how issues were “resolved”. In particular, I couldn’t understand Kim Do Chi’s (played by Shin Sung Rok) motivations and how he ended up as the villain. He started off as the good guy, and I thought he would merely be the third party in the love triangle, but I never understood why he kept going against Gwanghae. If he was that good at face reading, he should have known the consequences of becoming an enemy of Gwanghae.
There was a particular scene of Gwanghae gambling that tried to mimic the style of actual sporting events or game shows seen on TV in our modern age. It might have been a creative idea for a fushion sageuk, but I thought the style of this scene didn’t quite gel with the rest of the show, especially the use of English words in a sageuk. I did not understand the rules of the game either, so I thought this scene was unnecessarily long and given too much emphasis.
As for the ending, I don’t have many complaints about it as I didn’t really care about the romance between the two leads. I just thought that the way Gwanghae treated Ga Hee in the end was rather harsh, given that she sacrificed so much for him. I thought she deserved some happiness too. Also, I was left rather confused because the ending didn’t turn out in a way I had expected, partly because I was misled by a clip that was played in the special episode that aired before the drama even started its run. There was a particular scene in the special episode that seemed to have been edited out from the drama itself. Strange that they spent so much effort filming that scene, only to throw it into the bin. So it made me wonder if they had changed the ending at the last minute.
^ Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this scene was never aired in the actual drama?
As a whole, I think what I liked most about this drama was taking the long arduous journey with Gwanghae. He started off as a prince without much ambition, who would have gladly let his brothers take the throne and lead a simple life with his beloved. But his face revealed that he was destined for greater things, and he was unwillingly pushed nearer towards the throne by circumstances. It was also thrilling to see how he used his wits to overcome all the political struggles and preserve his life. A shrewd move that he frequently used was to turn his enemies into his allies (totally brilliant). When he finally set his heart on becoming king, he had to make many sacrifices, and gaining the throne came at the cost of losing the people around him whom he treasured. The drama ended off with Gwanghae being a respected king, but the knowledge that he would shift to the dark side later on in life scares me. This is why I cannot bring myself to watch “Hwajung”, the MBC drama which basically continues Gwanghae’s life history from where “The King’s Face” left off. While the image of Gwanghae the hero is still fresh in my mind, I don’t think I’m ready to see Gwanghae as the villain yet.
This drama is not without its flaws, but the visuals and music score compensated that, and the story of Gwanghae’s journey to become king was an engaging one that is both sad and uplifting. One will be disappointed if you are watching this for romance, but the drama offers interesting insight into Korean history and the art of face reading.