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-[Television Reviews]-, East Asian Cinema, Korean Cinema

‘The Crowned Clown’ (2019) & ‘Mr. Queen’ (2020-2021): Joseon Identity Crises

Created by: Studio Dragon1-2, tvN2 || Written by: Kim Seon-deok, Shin Ha-eun [1], Park Gye-ok, Choi Ah-il [2]

Directed by: Kim Hee-won [1], Yoon Sung-sik [2] || Starring: Yeo Jin -goo, Kim Sang-kyung, Lee Se-young [1], Shin Hye-sun, Kim Jung-hyun, Bae Jong-ok, Kim Tae-woo, Seol In-ah, Na In-woo [2]

No. of Episodes: 16 [1], 20 [2] || 1 = The Crowned Clown, 2 = Mr. Queen

Earlier this summer, my wife introduced me to Rakuten Viki, an obscure (to me, anyway) American streaming platform that specializes in East Asian (Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, etc.) media distribution. The service is a veritable goldmine for all sorts of Korean dramas and Chinese soap operas that sooner or later get buried by the endless content within larger, more mainstream services like Netflix, an especially useful tool nowadays for fans of the Korean Wave.

Two series we watched, The Crowned Clown and Mr. Queen, were both single-season political dramas adapted from other works (the former from the 2012 Korean feature, Masquerade, the latter from the partially censored Chinese web series, Go Princess Go [2015]) set in Korea’s Joseon Period (1392-1897), the last dynastic kingdom of the peninsula and an apparent popular choice of setting for most throwback period dramas in South Korea’s film industry.  The Crowned Clown, set entirely during the middle period of this era (early 17th century), follows the political career of Prince (later King) Gwanghae (Yeo Jin-goo) and Chief Royal Secretary Yi Kyu (Kim Sang-kyung) after the latter discovers a miraculous doppelganger of the former, also played by Yeo Jin-goo. This uncanny lookalike, Ha-seon, is part of a traveling performance group of dancers, singers, storytellers, and jesters, similar to Western vaudeville artists from the 19th-20th centuries. This commoner is also friendly, kind, charismatic, and relatively illiterate, the complete personality inverse of the true king, who is portrayed as paranoid, aggressive, sadistic, and a ruthless head of state. The Royal Secretary and Prince Gwanghae decide to use this clown as a decoy to reveal the crown’s political enemies and potential assassins, while the true monarch hides out of sight and indulges his opium addiction.

Prince Gwanghae (Yeo Jin-goo, right) shows commoner Ha-seon (… also Yeo Jin-goo, left) he means business in The Crowned Clown.

Much of the drama and humor inherent to this character-swap is what makes this series so entertaining. The tension over Ha-seon’s hidden identity maintains your attention throughout, while his goofy interactions with the Royal Secretary and the king’s primary assistant, Head Eunich Jo (Jang Gwang), who are in on the ruse, and all the palace staff and politicians who are oblivious, generate endless organic comic relief. Most dramatic of all, however, is the split-protagonist dynamic between Yeo Jin-goo’s double roles as both the sociopathic king and the likable underdog commoner. Yeo demonstrates Tom Hardy, Vincent Cassel, or Choi Min-sik-type acting range, here, as each role is believable, multifaceted, and engrossing. Yeo’s Prince/King Gwanghae begins the series as the main lead, but by episode 3 cedes ground to his Ha-seon character as the former succumbs to his drug addiction, paranoia, and eventual madness. The role of Gwanghae even transforms into a sort of secondary villain by the series’ midpoint (~episodes 7-9).

Mr. Queen features a similar fish-out-of-water protagonist and themes of identity conflict, but struggles more in its execution of those features. The series briefly introduces our quasi-lead, Choi Jin-hyuk, a professional chef living in modern day Seoul, who’s consciousness is inexplicably transported into the body of Joseon Queen Cheorin (Shin Hye-sun) from the mid 19th century after a wacky accident leaves his original body in a coma. What follows are the standard political intrigue, government power plays, and political maneuvering found in similar Joseon dramas like the aforementioned Crowned Clown and my personal favorite, Kingdom (2019-). All these shows appear to use the exact same sets, props, and locations for their period set-design, too.

Mr. Queen’s analysis of gender identity and sexuality are interesting for the first several episodes, but fall by the wayside once Choi’s narration is replaced by Shin’s and our protagonist’s original identity becomes less and less important. The only aspect of Choi’s contemporary lifestyle that’s fleshed out in detail is his culinary background, but that too feels somewhat unearned given how Choi is allotted only 10 minutes or so of screentime in modern Korea before we’re whisked back in time. For lack of a better description, Mr. Queen’s central gimmick feels underdeveloped because of how little the contemporary plotline matters, and seems more of an excuse to provide running commentary and fourth wall-breaks a la Deadpool (2016) than anything else.

In terms of direction and visual storytelling, both The Crowned Clown and Mr. Queen feature identifiable camerawork, decent if repetitive soundtracks, and occasional action flourishes. Clown uses slow drumrolls to heighten most every tense encounter and soft piano for romantic sequences, while Mr. Queen emphasizes its whacky humor with bizarre concert band music, eclectic sound-design choices that work more often than not. Mr. Queen likes its characters to spike the camera in close-ups, which works best when Shin is confronting her Joseon counterparts with his/her newfound 21st century personality. The action sequences in both series are well done, with greater variety of fight scenes throughout Mr. Queen, although I’d argue Clown better melds its interpersonal drama with its intermittent cinematic violence. Top to bottom, the cinematography of Clown is more consistent, using a wider variety of lighting setups, slow-motion, original music, and creative blocking to accentuate drama and character actions.

Queen Cheorin (Shin Hye-sun, center right), somehow imbued with the spirit of a 21st century culinary master, impresses Court Lady Choi (Cha Chung-hwa, far left), maid Hong-yeon (Chae Seo-eun, center left), and even Royal Chef Man-bok (Kim In-kwon, far right) in Mr. Queen.

Given my selectivity with long-running, narrative driven television series (i.e. non-situational comedies longer than limited or miniature series), the single-season length of The Crowned Clown (16 episodes) and Mr. Queen (20 episodes) enticed me given their intriguing high-concept premises. One thing to keep in mind with both shows, though, is that they average 60-80 minutes per episode, so in reality they are comparable to a contemporary Netflix, Amazon, or HBO Max original series that runs for 8-10 50-minute episodes over three seasons. They’re not small investments, in other words, so I would recommend the shorter, better written, and more tonally balanced Crowned Clown over Mr. Queen without hesitation, particularly if you’re a newcomer to the wild, unforgettable world of Korean dramas and the Korean Wave.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Korean dramas have long been the vanguard of their parent country’s rising soft power, and both The Crowned Clown and Mr. Queen help explain that broad appeal. Both feature memorable cinematography, soundtracks, and impressive production values to sell their effective, if weird period settings. That being said, I argue the former’s concept of class empathy and identity are far better executed than the latter’s intriguing but underutilized analyses of gender, sexuality, and time travel.

—> The Crowned Clown is RECOMMENDED, while I’m ON THE FENCE with regards to Mr. Queen.

? Seriously, do all these Joseon dramas use the same sets and sound-stages?

About The Celtic Predator

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