The “fantasy” genre is one hardly seen on regular television. The genre is difficult to produce because of how complex it is; from things like having to conduct extensive research to plotting multiple dimensions and timelines in a clear and entertaining way — producing a diegesis that is able to support the “fantasy” genre really isn’t the easiest.
Given the constraints that television faced in terms of air time and budget, high-budget screenplays and complex genres were traditionally a game for filmmakers — up until recently! With the emergence of cable TV and online programming, non-Hollywood players like HBO, BBC and Netflix were able to produce TV shows that looked almost like movies! Shows like Game of Thrones, Dr. Who and Stranger Things swept award shows and re-conceptualised what “television” looked like, generating a new wave of content in what various academics have termed “quality television”.
Korean television is following suit, and has been experimenting with “high concept” TV shows for a while now. However, I still think that complex plots are a rare find in the area of “regular broadcast” drama — which is why when I first saw the promo for The King: Eternal Monarch, I couldn’t contain my excitement.
In April 2020, South Korean production studio TvN released their K-drama blockbuster, The King: Eternal Monarch
Yi Rim (Lee Jung-jin), younger brother of the King, turns the Kingdom of Corea over to chaos as he assassinates his brother for the possession of the magical flute, the “Manpasikjeok”. The young Yi Gon (Jeong Hyun-jin/Lee Min-ho) stumbles upon the assassination, and in a struggle with Yi Rim, he accidentally slices the Manpasikjeok in half. While Yi Rim escapes from the royal guards, he enters a forest, opening the gate to other dimensions. Yi Rim steps into the Republic of Korea for the first time, while the citizens of Corea presume him to be dead. 10 years later, Yi Gon accidentally opens the gate while riding on his horse, and he too enters the Republic of Korea out of curiosity. Yi Gon begins the realise the power he wields — while his uncle Yi Rim stealthily plots his revenge.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?
Judging by the pilot episode alone, The King: Eternal Monarch seemed to be the makings of a 2020 top-rated K-drama — even potentially surpassing Crash Landing on You.
- As mentioned, a time/space-travel drama is a rare find
- Screenwriter Kim Eun-sook, who was dubbed as “Queen of melodramas” or “god scriptwriter”, has written K-drama hits such as Secret Garden (2010), The Heirs (2013), Descendants of the Sun (2016), Guardian: The Lonely and Great God (2016–2017), and Mr. Sunshine (2018).
- The drama attracted a star studded cast: Lee Min-ho, Kim Go-eun, Lee Jung-jin, and rising stars Woo Do-hwan and Kim Kyung-nam. Not to mention, Lee Min-ho’s fans were extremely excited for his first project since he completed mandatory military service in April 2019.
- The drama is in partnership with Netflix — so maybe they had a bigger production budget? (This is just my assumption, so don’t take my word for it)
Where did The King: Eternal Monarch go wrong?
Despite how the pilot episode went, those familiar with The King: Eternal Monarch would’ve experienced first-hand the disappointment in later episodes.
It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either.
See, genres are like guidelines meant to steer the audience’s expectations in the same direction as the screenplay. Although we live in an era where genres are being experimented on and paradigms are being pushed, the underlying intention of a genre remains true. You wouldn’t typically walk into a supernatural-horror movie hoping to experience the emotions you would feel when you’re watching lovey-dovey scenes in a sappy soap opera.
The trailer and pilot episode sets the tone for the drama — we can kinda say it’s a promise to the viewer. In the same way, The King: Eternal Monarch was a letdown because it pitched the drama as a fantasy drama with a side of organised crime, and garnished with a healthy dose of romance, but ended up putting all its eggs in the “romance” department. It didn’t help that the loose plot also had to support badly designed visual effects and product placements that bombard virtually every scene.
The drama that we should be watching
Local broadcaster SBS is currently airing a drama titled, Alice (2020). The synopsis initially appealed as quite similar to The King: Eternal Monarch; both dramas discussed space/time-travel, involved some sort of espionage, and invested into visual effects to suit the visual of the “fantasy”genre (e.g. the digital-visual effects when time freezes, camera angles and lights when something spooky is happening).
The time is somewhere in 1992. A book referred to as “the Prophesy” is being sought after by different entities. A company named “Alice” sends Yoon Tae-yi (Kim Hee-seon) and Yoo Min-Hyuk (Kwak Si-yang) to secure the Prophesy, where after a bit of jostling and some killing, they retrieve it. However before they travel back to the future, Tae-yi finds out she’s 12-weeks pregnant. She takes the Prophesy and flees to a far-away suburb, living under the alias of “Park Sun-yong”. As a consequence of the radiation, her son Park Jin-gyeom (Joo Won) is born with Alexithymia (the inability to perceive emotions). Tae-yi showers him with love nonetheless and they seem to live a decent life — until Tae-yi is killed because she possessed the prophesy. The year is now 2020; Jin-gyeom is a police officer who is trying to get to the bottom of strange abductions and murders. In doing so however, Jin-gyeom is increasingly exposed to danger as he becomes entangled in the mysteries surrounding his mother’s identity.
A’ite, so they’re pretty similar dramas thematically. Why watch Alice if you’ve already seen The King: Eternal Monarch?
While Alice is similar to The King: Eternal Monarch in terms of their world-building techniques, their use of digital effects and of course, the whole cinematic aestheticism when people are crossing space and time, I find that Alice has produced a far superior screenplay that has kept me on the edge of my seat (so far, up to episode 6).
- When we think about time-travelling, we think about futuristic technology that can do almost anything. That includes things like “Time travelling technology and gadgets?”, but also “A perfectly concealed facility in the middle of nowhere that nobody except ‘Alice’ knows about?”.
- Visual effects were made not only to stun, but to immerse the spectator into the diegesis of the drama and make the plot believable. I would say that Alice goes as far as to specially design futuristic objects (e.g. the drone) and also offer reason about why the objects are fantastical. This really shows how invested the production team was in conceptualising Alice.
- While the cinematic-aesthetic style of Kim Eun-sook’s dramas are quite consistent (Shallow depth-of-field, vibrant colours, oriental or glamorous set design and trendy costumes), what’s the function of an action sequence that doesn’t look like an action sequence? The scenes where Lee Min-ho charges through the snow is beautiful, so it fits into the romance sub-genre. But is it fitting for the fantasy or action genre? A good action sequence requires careful choreography of talents, thoughtful placement of lights, camera movement and post-production editing. It’s really a lot more than just a pretty face in slow-motion.
- From the start, there are very clear “plants” (or “set-ups”) that hint about the plot’s development. If you’re like me and you don’t use your phone while watching your shows, tiny details appeal like Easter Eggs, and they make me more and more invested in the drama. I’m surprised I actually need to mention this, because storytelling has always been this way — even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle does it. Having clear “set-ups” and “payoffs” is an age-old strategy to create a more active viewing experience for the audience. But for some reason, many K-dramas begin on a solid foot, only to lose sight of the “set-ups” midway and fail to deliver satisfactory “payoffs”.
- Alice offers another layer of complexities that we didn’t see in The King: Eternal Monarch: ethical issues encountered by physicists in their quest to attain knowledge of the universe. This reminds me of the German folklore of Dr. Faust, a professor who is so bored with his life and the limited knowledge of the Earth that he decides to make a pact with the devil. In most dramas, moral ethics is usually very nuanced. We’d usually see it when, for instance, their greatest enemy was falling off a cliff and they could either walk away or save them. The complexities of the fantasy genre opens Alice to discuss these themes in a more overt and academic way, and I dare say that it’s a unique experience that you wouldn’t get in any regular K-drama.
A trailer is supposed to give us an idea of what to expect, and the pilot episode gives us a taste of the quality of production, and the intricacies that the plot will aim to unravel. While both The King: Eternal Monarch and Alice are similar in their fantastical concept, only Alice was true to the genre in terms of visual aestheticism, overall tone, main focus in the storyline, and the “plants” in the plot-points that guide us through.
We live in an age where TV episodes are about 60-90 minutes long. Given the amount of time we’re investing into it, I find that it’s only fair that we spend our time on TV shows that are worth it. The next time you check out a drama, watch it in earnest to measure if the drama is worth the 60-90 minutes of your day. Don’t be entrapped by the fallacy that a drama is good just because it’s “rated number 1 on Netflix”.