I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with this show. On one hand, I really appreciate the historical lesson I received while watching this drama. The acting was solid and the storyline relatively straightforward. However, if you were expecting something as good as the film The Face Reader, which it’s supposed to be based off of, then… this didn’t exactly deliver.
The drama follows Prince Gwanghae (Seo In Guk) and his rise to the throne while battling his father, King Seonjo (Lee Sung Jae), and his brothers because of his supposed kingly face. It takes place over 100 years after what happens in The Face Reader, which dealt with a different king.
Gwanghae, as his name implies, is a bright prince with great filial duty to his father even though he is technically an illegitimate son because his mother was a concubine. His brothers are all equally illegitimate, as the queen never gives birth to a proper heir. Unfortunately, he also has the face of a king as the ‘Secret Book of the King’s Face’ suggests. This book is quite important to Seonjo, who views it as something like the Bible rather than a suggestion or guideline. He believes that he’s a terrible king because his face isn’t good, and wants to change Gwanghae’s face so that Gwanghae won’t be a good king either.
And here we get to the complexity of the characters. Seonjo is both pitiable and frustrating, and I hate seeing Lee Sung Jae act out a role such as this even though he did it so splendidly to evoke such a strong reaction from me. It’s pathetic to see a king who chooses to listen to books and his manipulative advisors rather than to listen to his own wisdom to make decisions. Sometimes his reasoning makes the most sense, but he would then act against it. It becomes really frustrating then to see him mistrust his son so much when in his heart he knows his son wouldn’t do anything traitorous against him. He has admitted such to others, but still acts as if his son is betraying him. It’s exhausting to see Seonjo continuously make the wrong decisions, but at the same time it is completely necessary to show the rise of face reader Kim Do Chi (Shin Sung Rok, in a deliciously evil role not too unlike his role in Liar’s Game) and Gwanghae’s excellent statesmanship.
The drama takes a bit to get its bearings, in my opinion. At first there’s a bit of an illicit romance and comedy between Gwanghae and Kim Ga Hee (Jo Yoon Hee), who must dress up as a man for the success of her family and to get ahead career-wise. Do Chi also starts off as a relatively good guy with aspirations for a more democratic world. But when Do Chi’s leader is named a traitor by the king and killed, and Ga Hee’s family is likewise murdered for being associated with “rebels,” the two of them take on a darker and more rebellious path. However, you know that Ga Hee needs to end up in the palace because she’s part of a complicated love triangle between a father and a son, and it takes her a very long time to finally get there and be the king’s concubine. As for Do Chi, he disappointingly becomes completely evil. I think it was good for his character to be evil, but it was disappointing for me because he lost complete sight of his goals and also forced Shin Sung Rok to be an evil antagonist for the third time in 2014. (I’m so over it!) It felt very scattered in the beginning because we couldn’t just focus on one character or one location. There was even a strange comedic interlude where Gwanghae quits being a prince and tries to be a face reader. I was wondering whether the show was going to go down that quirky route, but it was quickly abandoned.
When Gwanghae finally gets his father to name him the Crown Prince so that he can act as a decoy against the invading Japanese, the drama becomes a bit more exciting. We get to see Gwanghae grow into a man and become his own, to earn the respect of his people, and to truly become a leader. That storyline carries through to the end of the series, and made it a stronger and more interesting drama for me. Even with all the manipulations and conspiracy that surround him, Gwanghae has the successes of the war against the Japanese to protect his merits and really give him the confidence to take down his half-brothers and his stepmother, the frightful Queen Inmok. Speaking of whom, she comes off as a young, power-hungry queen whose naïveté also makes her an idiot; she isn’t smart enough to know the right people to ally with, and that leads to her downfall in the drama.
In the end, at episode 23, Gwanghae has a wonderful quote:
“What you should care about is not a king’s face, but your people!”
This line sums up everything I felt about this drama. Seonjo was on his way to be a good king, but he certainly became inept. History says it’s also partly because of the battling factions – represented by Do Chi and other advisors and concubines jockeying for power over the succession line – and wars, but the drama also points to his obsession over his face. At the end of the day, Seonjo goes back to his face and wonders whether his son is a better king because of his face, and searches to be reunited with Ga Hee for the sole reason that her face will complement his. I never once thought he could truly love her; I felt his “love” stemmed from the fact that many people told him she’d make him a better king. He was selfish and shallow-minded, and that allowed Gwanghae become the good leader he grew to be.
This drama has also made me incredibly curious about Hwajung, which stars Cha Seung Won as Gwanghae and Lee Yeon Hee as his half-sister, and daughter of Queen Inmok, Jungmyung. It’s a known fact that her brother, Prince Yeongchang was the preferred heir, but because Seonjo died before announcing his heir and Yeongchang was but a child, Gwanghae assumed the throne. In The King’s Face, Gwanghae is portrayed as the winner and the rightful leader, a good guy. In Hwajung, he is to be portrayed more evilly, and I’m very curious to see how these two dramas take one king and show the two sides of history and opinions about him.
Verdict: 6/10 – I generally liked the drama, but it was far more complicated than I think it had to be, and the king was incredibly difficult to watch.