Skip to the final section for a quick, spoiler-free rating.
In Mr. Queen (Korean title: 철인왕후), Jang Bonghwan is a sharp-witted, carefree chef working at the Blue House who gets framed for endangering the life of a foreign ambassador. In his attempt to escape the authorities, he falls into water and transmigrates back in time into the body of Kim Soyong days before her marriage to King Cheoljong, who’s known to history as an incompetent puppet king under the control of the Kim clan. The new Queen Cheorin, with his twenty-first century cooking skills and slangs, confuses everybody with his erratic behavior and, strangely enough, captures the heart of his previously unloving husband, who’s not as incompetent or resigned to being a figurehead as he appears.
If the premise sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s based on the 2015 viral Chinese web series, Go Princess Go, about a modern day playboy who transmigrated back in time into the body of the crown princess of an unspecified Chinese dynasty. I’ll go into more details later, but in general, Mr. Queen is a vast improvement upon its predecessor, and a drama that more than deserves to be judged on its own merits first.
Queen Cheorin and King Cheoljong Are Made for Each Other
Queen Cheorin/Jang Bonghwan has one brain cell, and it only works for five minutes a day, by the looks of things.
King Cheoljong, one the other hand, is very intelligent when it comes to everything but his queen.
Combined, our protagonists make for a hilarious couple whenever their storylines remotely involve each other. From the numerous instances of miscommunications (“no touching” in particularly invokes a second layer of mirth, as it reminds me of that one Arrested Development gag) to them being horny on main for each other (AKA that scene in episode 17 where they faked public sex), their antics throughout the drama are endless. They’re ridiculously perfect for each other.
They’re amazing characters individually as well. Bonghwan’s lighthearted storyline remained independent from King Cheoljong’s more serious and suspenseful one for much of the earlier episodes. This not only heightened the misunderstanding-based comedic moments, but did the job of establishing them as distinct individuals with personal agendas before their fates lined up later on.
So Many Scene-Stealing Characters
In other dramas, there might be one or two outstanding breakout characters worth mentioning alongside the main leads. In Mr. Queen, everybody fits that bill.
I mean, do I talk about Queen Cheorin’s devoted maid, Hong Yeon, and her weird love triangle between Hong Byeolgam and Kim Hwan, who are two idiots who also have a weird, homoerotic thing going on?
Or Court Lady Choi’s magnificent facial expressions and awkwardly repressed sexuality, and her budding romance with Royal Chef Man Bok, the owner of the most stylish mustache in all of Joseon?
Or the dimensions that make up the Grand Queen Dowager, who’s simultaneously a petulant but adorable old lady and the cruelest, most vain person ever?
Or Jo Hwajin, who defies all my expectations and emerges from the story a better, more confident woman who sees her life extend beyond obtaining King Cheoljong’s love?
Or how devoted Kim Byeongin is to Kim Soyong, and how despite him coming off as pathetic and pitiful in the story, his actions make complete sense when you look at events from his perspective?
Or how terrifying a villain Kim Jwa-geun is despite him literally not emoting for most of the time he’s on screen?
For Mr. Queen, getting through a scene with no interesting characters is not a problem. The drama gives even the minor characters distinct personalities and traits—nobody’s boring!
How Mr. Queen Improved on Go Princess Go
A large part of why the original Chinese web series, Go Princess Go, blew up as it did was due to its abysmal costumes and set designs, as caused by budget and time constraints. That, contrasted with the series’ sharp comedic timing, abundant pop culture references, and an actually good story exploring the taboo themes of gender and sexuality, made it the viral hit it was.
Mr. Queen lost none of the humor—only adapted it for a Korean audience—and improved on everything else.
This drama is visually stunning. Everything is flawless, from the female characters’ hair ornaments, to the food, to the clothes, to the designs of the sets, to the cinematography, to the performance of every actor. The production quality is top-notch, and the team behind it deserves all the accolade for it.
Mr. Queen basing its story on a real life king from Korean history also added a sense of inevitability for the audience. I spent a good chunk of the drama wondering if our protagonists can overcome fate, or if we’re doomed to an unhappy ending. Having historical context really helps newcomers unfamiliar with the culture of Joseon-era Korea too. (Relatedly, a disclaimer about historical accuracy at the beginning of a drama does wonders. Why China can’t just require time travel dramas to have that instead of banning the genre altogether is a mystery to me.)
The Gender Question
Perhaps Mr. Queen‘s most notable contrast to Go Princess Go is its handling of Jang Bonghwan’s identity crisis.
In Go Princess Go, the main character’s identity crisis is purely a gender-based one. The Original Good no longer exists once Zhang Peng transmigrates into her body.
That is not the case in Mr. Queen. Kim Soyong, as it turns out, remained dormant within her body when Jang Bonghwan takes over. Remnants of her muscle memory, her actual memory, and her behavior bleed into his personality. They become one person during the duration of his stay, and the drama is both better and worse off for it.
Making Kim Soyong a part of the equation serves a lot of narrative purposes. She’s not only there to provide a mystery for Jang Bonghwan to solve, but she’s the key to several plot points and story elements crucial to achieving satisfying and guilt-free pay-offs, most notably, those related to her father and Kim Byeongin.
Her memories and her personality blending together with Bonghwan also drives his story along. Without them, he’d be happy just living out his days as the queen of a country instead of doing what he needed to do to change the course of history.
Lastly, having her back wraps up the story nicely in some ways, given that it all started because of her figurative wishes. In the beginning, she kills herself over love, happiness, and freedom, all of which she could not have. In the end, through Bonghwan’s guardianship of her body—and he is like the guardian angel she never asked for—she gets everything she wants.
Where this deviation from Go Princess Go fails on a story-level boils down to a simple question: Who did King Cheoljong fall in love with, Jang Bonghwan or Kim Soyong?
This is a question with no real answer. The sad truth is, he never knew either of them. He came to know Jang Bonghwan in the context of Kim Soyong, and Kim Soyong only after Jang Bonghwan has colored King Cheoljong’s experience of her with his personality. Although both inhabitants influenced each other, they’re separate people at the end of the day. The way Mr. Queen chose to end their bizarre, three-person romance is probably the most disappointing aspect of the entire drama.
In the context of the real world, Jang Bonghwan’s identity crisis being a crisis of personality allows the drama to gloss over a huge part of what made Go Princess Go so controversial and interesting in the first place: gender and sexuality. Every one of Queen Cheorin’s feminine inclinations can be explained by the presence of her original self in the body. Jang Bonghwan’s attraction towards King Cheoljong? Kim Soyong caused it. He didn’t really love him, at least, not in a gay way. That was all Kim Soyong. When their inner voice switched from male to female? Kim Soyong. There’s no bisexuality or transgenderism here. No, sir!
I get it. South Korea is conservative. I don’t blame the team behind Mr. Queen for this decision. Still disappointing though.
Final Rating and Recommendations
Do you want laugh-out-loud antics? Subtle jokes and running gags? A protagonist who’s the smartest idiot alive? A romance interwoven with political intrigues? A plot that builds just right? Then Mr. Queen is twenty hours of your life you’ll not regret.
Based on the viral 2015 Chinese web series Go Princess Go, Mr. Queen is a improvement on its predecessor in almost every way. It’s a fast-moving, whip-smart, and utterly addicting series about transmigration and time travel with a talented cast, wonderful set designs, and great costuming. I cannot say enough good things about this drama.
My Rating: 9/10