This film was all good fun, and managed to make a tried and true plot seem new again. In this ‘The Prince and the Pauper’ retelling, a young King Sejong inadvertently switches places with a peasant in an attempt to get out of being the crown prince. Serious and dramatic for the first five minutes, it quickly turns on the comic-works, and it’s mostly because of Joo Ji Hoon.
I’ll begin with I Am A King‘s synopsis. Prince Chungnyeong (Joo Ji Hoon) is the studious youngest prince in the family. He’s quite peaceful, and wants nothing to do with politics or ruling, but he is spoiled as well, having been spoon-fed all his life by his guards Hae Gu (Lim Won Hee) and Hwang Gu (Kim Su Ro). One day his father King Taejong decides to make a flying kick at his lout of a crown prince and disown him. Since middle son is a monk, the responsibility naturally passes on to Chungnyeong. On top of that, Taejong plans to abdicate and give the throne to him. One of the ministers, Hwang Hee (Baek Yoon Shik) opposes Taejong’s decision, which leads to his exile. Without a choice, Chungnyeong is crowned Crown Prince, and decides to run away that evening. Tricking his guards into thinking he wants to drink, he gets them all drunk and then climbs over the wall.
Meanwhile, outside the palace life, Deok Chil (also Joo Ji Hoon) is a slave who’s a bit of an idiot, but is under the care of the kindly Soo Yeon (Honey Lee). She treats him more like an annoying little brother who can’t get himself out of trouble than anything else. Unfortunately her family is also considered “traitorous” because of their connection to the Chinese empire and so her home gets raided. A fellow slave leads Deok Chil out to safety, but it also means he can’t save his love Soo Yeon. Unwilling to work for another family, Deok Chil searches for Soo Yeon. He hears that she’s been taken to the palace and goes to the palace walls – only to get some random prince fall on top of him.
Deok Chil passes out, and so Chungnyeong decides to swap clothes with him to throw off the guards. Hwang Gu and Hae Gu wake up in time to spot the “prince” outside the palace walls before the other guards can get to him and bring him back to his room before any further embarrassment occurs. They belatedly realize that their “prince” is a stranger that looks a LOT like the prince, but is missing a birthmark. Hae Gu is sent to search for the real prince, while Hwang Gu decides to train Deok Chil into being a stand-in. He also gets to stay in the palace and try and find Soo Yeon.
Chungnyeong gets mistaken for Deok Chil and is beaten by his new masters for running away. Of course, no one believes him when he insists that he’s the prince of Korea. No one has ever seen the prince to be able to prove their likeness. What ensues is a series of awkward events as Chungnyeong struggles with the slave life – including a moment where he asks a fellow slave to wipe his butt after a poop in the grass! (One thing he shares with his doppelganger is a need for pooping. Deok Chil is unfamiliar as well with the idea of pooping in front of a lady who wipes his butt.)
As for Deok Chil, he has a hilarious encounter with his “wife”, who wants nothing more than to consummate the marriage, but is jealous that he’d prefer an “ugly girl” like Soo Yeon! Deok Chil is forced to undergo training and lessons to make him a fitting ruler, and the change in his diet and demeanor spark the suspicion of a rival minister.
Hae Gu eventually finds the prince, but unable to fight off the soldiers escorting the slaves, he gets caught as well. They finally make their escape, and you’d think that because it’s just the two of them, Chungnyeong would be a little kinder to Hae Gu. Nope. He insists on being carried by piggy back and complains all the time. He doesn’t learn his lesson until he sees numerous people starving and a few slaves struggling to escape because a father was badly injured. He discovers that the exiled Hwang Hee actually provides food for these slaves, and gives a safe haven to the escaped ones. If guards come around, he pretends he owns them.
With Chungnyeong’s help, Hwang Hee tends to the slave father’s wounds and helps him heal. It’s only now that Chungnyeong starts to learn a lesson about his people’s plight. Hwang Hee also recognizes Chungneyone right away – that brattiness cannot be masked – and so he gives him a few good pointers, all while pretending he’s “Deok Chil.”
When the rival minister comes upon the truth that the prince has a doppelganger, Chungnyeong and Deok Chil find themselves in danger. Chungnyeong is hunted by the guards; Deok Chil is threatened to keep his mouth shut and be a puppet for the minister when he ascends the throne. Chungnyeong sees the slave father and the slave daughter be pulled apart, to be separated by the guards forever and he learns the pain that the people must bear. He gives himself up pretty much, and returns to the palace.
Finally it’s time for Chungnyeong and Deok Chil to swap places as the rival minister in the palace closes in on Deok Chil’s true identity. They both appear in front of the rival minister, who then drags Chungnyeong off to greet the emissary from China, thinking that it’s Deok Chil. (Who so happens to want Soo Yeon as his nighttime pleasure.) Chungnyeong greets the emissary – but calls him out on his disrespect towards their nation. The rival minister (who’s loyal to China) is aghast, but Chungnyeong makes such good points on what a true leader is that his father turns against that rival minister.
Turns out – Chungnyeong really is Chungnyeong! He managed to switch places with Deok Chil just in time. Deok Chil fights against the guards with Hwang Gu and Hae Gu, and they eventually free Soo Yeon as well!
It’s a happy ending for all, as Chungnyeong becomes the new king Sejong, and consummates his marriage with his wife. Deok Chil escapes to the countryside with his wife Soo Yeon, where he finally gets to assuage his desires for her by producing 5+ children with her.
There’s nothing quite terrible about this film that I can think of, other than the pacing. It was quite long at 2 hours, and I wish it went at a zippier pace. The scenes with Chungnyeong as a slave were quite draggy, as he never learned his lesson until the last third of the movie. But it is also because Chungnyeong is portrayed as a book smart scholar who prefers to learn about life through books. I appreciate that they showed him gradually growing and becoming a better person, as he was suddenly thrust into the “real world” and it must have come as a shock to him. But for the sake of movie watching, I do wish it happened a bit sooner.
Joo Ji Hoon is the best thing in this drama, hands down. I never knew he could do such slapstick humor like that or that many facial expressions, as most of the roles I saw him required him to be stoic and serious. (I haven’t seen Five Fingers, but I’m willing to bet it was a serious drama.) To see him in this light was refreshing and made me want to see more. Could he please do a romantic comedy next time around on TV? And not be the “cool chaebol heir”? My favorite scenes were the pooping scenes for both Deok Chil and Chungnyeong, as they both had to deal with the differences between how poor people and rich people take a dump.
But he’s not the only thing that’s funny – supported by an amusing cast and set in a comical tone, this film overall is funny. His guards were great sidekicks, because while you thought that both would be great fighters, Hae Gu admits early on that he wasn’t a good fighter at all. That additional depth to his character was a nice foray into the “not everyone is who you think they are” theme. As for Hwang Gu, Kim Su Ro is a master at comedy so there was nothing wrong with him on that front. What was unexpectedly funny was when we got a glimpse into “royal family life.” Chungnyeong escapes to his middle brother’s room at one point, asking advice on how to avoid the burden of being crown prince. When older brother comes stomping into his quarters, wielding his sword, the two of them cower in fear, and middle brother starts chanting prayers as if to remove himself from this mess. Hah! And the fact that King Taejong kicks his sons around makes the lack of decorum within the family even funnier – especially with everyone else bowing at their feet respectfully to the royals.
It’s not meant to be historically accurate, but certainly only meant to entertain. I’d love to think that King Sejong was actually an idiotic scholar that got a personality makeover when he discovered the plight of his people. And they even introduced a lowly, nameless peasant with marvelous inventions that never quite work (a refillable ink brush!), only to finally reveal that he’s Jang Young Sil, the famed scientist from Joseon whose career blossomed under Sejong’s reign (and who did come from the lower class). It’s hilarious that Hwang Hee calls him an idiot.
Verdict: This film is full of golden moments that make the overall experience enjoyable, even when it starts to get serious. Oh and you get to see Joo Ji Hoon smile stupidly over a girl. 8/10