*I’ve been meaning to post this since I finished the bulk of it the day of the series finale. But unfortunately, my timing has never been my strong suit so here’s a long-ish essay on that series*
Duty. It’s a word that can mean different things depending on the context and the speaker. What stays the same, however, is that duty may represent the values of the speaker. That is not to say that people who work for the government or for the military have set their duties to honor or uphold either institution. Indeed, history has shown that people often misrepresent their true motives with the duties that they publicly espouse and follow. But despite that, the duties that people say they have are abstract values that determine their overall personhood and identities.
The question of personhood—how we identify ourselves—and the notion of duty are the two most important themes explored in the drama The King 2 Hearts. The drama, set in a modern-day fictional Korea where the country is led by a monarchy, engages the audience with difficult concepts not as readily accessible as duty, paraplegia, and identity as well as concepts that strike close to home for many viewers like nationality and Korean unification. All of these ideas are weaved into a storyline that, the poster and title of the series indicate, that centers on the romance between a hapless South Korean prince and a North Korean military girl. Lee Seung Gi plays the South Korean prince Lee Jae Ha who then becomes king while Ha Ji Won plays the North Korean soldier Kim Hang Ah.
What is fascinating about this improbably-fated romance is that the complications that arise from such a union do a spectacular job of incorporating all the themes without once feeling forced or unsustainable in the long-term aspect of the drama. The story tackles such thorny issues as Korean unification without so much as giving an easy solution. This is best captured in the South Koreans’ hostile reaction to the idea of a North Korean becoming a princess as well as both Hang Ah and Jae Ha’s own uncertainties about their impending union. Further making a point is the fact that the drama illuminates on the differences between the North Koreans and the South Koreans without feeling imbalanced or bias at all. We see the positive of each region: the North and South’s emphasis on nationalism, honor, and family, as their unflinching negatives: the North’s rigidity and ludicrous media as well as the South’s condescending attitude and cruel public reaction. The drama wisely avoids any sort of caricature between the North Korean characters and the South Koreans.
Yet the most interesting detail in the storyline for me is the fact that both the North and the South are even cooperating at all. I love the beginning episodes of the drama because it shows how the relationships between the North Korean soldiers Kang Seok (Jung Man Shik), Yong Bae (Choi Kwon), Hang Ah and the South Korean soldiers Shi Kyung (Jo Jung Suk), Dong Ha (Kwon Hyun Sang), and Jae Ha. The culture shock between the two camps is apparent at the beginning and the deep misunderstandings are all there but what makes a bold political statement is their ability to work together. That these men and Hang Ah represent a united Korea in the WOC championships and even managed to work together is a bold declaration of what is possible between the two states. The political statements make it seem like this drama is about politics, which indeed makes sense. There’s a lot of interesting details about the political nature of South Korea, even if the monarchy itself is fictional. The drama depicts the somewhat corrupt and inept nature of Korean politics from both the North and the South.
But the drama itself isn’t just a political drama even as it is set in the political world. This drama is of identity, first and foremost. At each point in the drama, most, if not all, characters go through some sort of identity crisis. Jae Ha struggles to define himself as a prince with ability given that he constantly calls himself trash. Hang Ah is conflicted about her identity, particularly her North Korean nationality in a country where she is maltreated and hated because of her heritage. Jae Shin (Lee Yoon Ji) tries to find a place for herself within the family after her accident. Even Shi Kyung struggles to be himself considering he believes himself to be the shadow of his father.
But no one is as representational of this quest for an identity as the villain of the story, Kim Bong Goo (Yoon Je Moon). Here is an egomaniac social psychopath that is unflinchingly terrible, with no sort of underlying motive except to satiate his giant ego. Bong Goo’s identity crisis is quite fascinating; here’s a man whose identity seems to be made up of contradictions. For instance, he detests his Korean name, preferring to be called John Mayer, his girlfriends and accomplices are all white, but he speaks Korean the whole time. He giddily reveals his identity and evil actions to Jae Ha in their confrontations but shies away from controversy with the public. He has no feelings toward his workers, even going so far as to kill them when they’re useless, but he craves “people” who support and believe in him. Bong Goo’s actions are all because he wants to be King—to be admired or feared, whichever one doesn’t matter to him. He isn’t guided by some duty for the world or some promise he made to his father. It’s all simply his craving for attention.
But above all these complicated mess, this drama is a sort-of bildungsroman since our main character, Lee Jae Ha, grows up tremendously from a spoiled brat to a world-class leader. The only reason that Jae Ha feels different from all the other man-child characters we’ve encountered in other dramas is the depth that Lee Seung Gi imbues in his portrayal. Of Lee Seung Gi’s three drama roles, this is his absolute best, combining the easy charm and charismatic draw in “My Girlfriend is a Guminho” with his conflicted inner turmoil in “Shining Inheritance” without the stilted mugging that he sometimes offered. Lee provides a beautifully multi-dimensional character for us to watch and as the stakes get raised, we watch him unravel beautifully onscreen as he face every challenge with deeply felt fear and uncertainty.
Elsewhere, Ha Ji Won is fine although not reinventing any wheel in her role as Kim Hang Ah. Jo Jung Shik is wonderful as Eun Shi Kyung, gifting the screen with wonderful one-liners, scene stealing facial expressions without coming off as a cartoon or a caricature. Instead, he gives us a plausible character full of layers waiting to be peeled. Lee Yoon Ji got off to an incredible start, poised with strength and effervescence but later ate the screen up with her beautiful portrayal of a desperate Lee Jae Shin. Yoon Je Moon makes me uncomfortable, which is the point, as the egomaniac John Mayers while the rest of his henchmen, led by that scarily stilted Dragon Tattoo-inspired Bon Bon suffer from some of the worst line readings I’ve ever encountered in any program EVER. Seriously, the only time I ever felt out of touch with this drama is whenever one of the white characters are forced to utter lines without giving us a hint of any meat or thought behind them.
Despite some kvetching I have with regards to minor characters, The King 2 Hearts is a wonderful show because it feels so well thought out and well-acted that all the kinks in it are well put away. But its biggest success, apart from providing a showcase for Lee Seung Gi, is its ability to give a satisfying political story while delivering on all the romance and family drama that Korean drama is known for.