Queen and I (also known as Queen In Hyun’s Man) is my latest kdrama discovery. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I blazed through it in a weekend. That’s a little pathetic on my part, but it’s also indicative of just how good the show is.
It’s a time-travel romantic comedy fantasy, and it has just about anything I’ve ever wanted from a kdrama. The sets, direction, art direction, and music are all beautiful; the soundtrack contains some of the typical kpop, but there’s also a lot of traditional Korean and instrumental music. The leads are adorable, and the show is devoid of most of the drama and tropes I’ve come to dislike.
Kim Boong Do is a nobleman living in 1694 in Korea. The king has exiled his former wife, In Hyun, in favor of another woman. Although Boong Do is loyal to the king, he’s also loyal to the former queen, and he’s seeking to expose her replacement’s corruption and restore In Hyun to the throne.
The process is dangerous, and so Boong Do is given a protection charm. It’s made by a monk, and is supposed to look after him any time his life is in danger. The charm’s peculiar method involves transporting him 300 years into the future any time he’s about to be killed.
In modern Seoul, Choi Hee Jin is an up-and-coming actress. She’s just landed a major television role playing the lead in a series about Queen In Hyun. They film at the old royal palace, where she encounters Boong Do, whose charm moves him through time but not through space. At first, Hee Jin thinks Boong Do is an extra on the show, if a rather dedicated one.
Before long, Boong Do manages to convince Hee Jin of his true identity. It helps that he’s able to disappear and reappear; the charm sends him to the future when he’s in peril, but he can return to the past at will, by reading the words off the charm. Boong Do’s dangerous life keeps returning him to the future, but he only meets Hee Jin by chance the first one or two times. After that, he seeks her out.
Unlike other shows with similar scenarios, Queen doesn’t try to derive too much humor from Boong Do’s fish-out-of-water situation. He’s quite intelligent (he went to Sungkyunkwan, after all), and once he accepts where he is, he conquers the modern lifestyle with alacrity. Most of the humor resulting from the time travel is of the romantic sort. The impulsive, passionate Hee Jin sometimes tries to take advantage of her role as Boong Do’s teacher; she swears to him, for example, that a goodbye kiss is a common form of farewell nowadays, that everyone does it.
She’s not able to fool Boong Do for long, but he accepts her exaggerations with a smitten smile on his face. I’ve rarely seen a kdrama couple flirt this much. Usually they start out hating each other, and while that bickering can be really fun, having a couple actually into each other from the beginning is refreshing and sweet.
Also refreshing is the fact that there is no real love triangle drama. The second female lead is Hee Jin’s best friend and manager. A woman in Joseon has a thing for Boong Do (she’s the one who gives him the charm), but he doesn’t return her feelings and she’s never an obstacle to the main pairing. Hee Jin’s ex-boyfriend is in the picture, but Hee Jin also never returns his feelings, and she only sort-of briefly and unintentionally dates him as a result of larger timey-wimey craziness.
Hee Jin and Boong Do flirt their way through the first half of the series; it’s totally cute, and it is balanced out by plenty of action. After all, Boong Do’s trips forward are the results of real danger in which he’s put due to the fraught political situation in Joseon. Then the romantic angst kicks in for the latter half of the show, but it’s totally earned. The conflict comes from the time travel itself.
Time travel is always a tricky plot device, because it rarely makes sense. Stories that try to present it in as realistic a manner as possible often end up dense, which works when that’s all the story is about (like in Primer), but that doesn’t really cut it when there’s more going on in the story.
I like how the writing in Queen handles it. The universe doesn’t make it easy for Boong Do and Hee Jin to be together, but why should it? They were born 300 years apart. The charm Boong Do uses for his travel wasn’t meant as a device for them to be together, but as something to save his life.
He begins to abuse it when he uses it as a vehicle to see his girlfriend, like a bus he can hop on and off at whim. But we can’t ride the bus for free, and so in the latter half of the series, it’s time for Boong Do and Hee Jin to pay up.
For many viewers, the series’ ending comes as a bit of a cop-out. I don’t want to spoil it too much, but I’ve admitted in the past that I’ll only watch kdramas that I know have happy endings. If I think about it too much, the device the show employs in the last episode to get the characters together doesn’t make sense. I know it, but I don’t feel it: I’m willing to sacrifice a lot for a happy ending, especially if I’ve just marathoned a show in a matter of days or hours. Just to give fair warning: if you don’t like endings that you feel are tied up too neatly, or that sacrifice some logic for the sake of characters’ happiness, be aware that’s where Queen goes.
But I didn’t care. I needed to see Boong Do and Hee Jin together. They were just such an adorable and likable couple. Boong Do is practically perfect in every way: he’s intelligent, strong, and loyal. He actually reminds me a lot of Westley from The Princess Bride.
Hee Jin, however, is a much better female lead than Buttercup: she’s really funny and full of personality. She’s impulsive and she stands up for herself. She’s very strong in the way that a normal woman living in the modern world would be; though due to the differences in their situations she doesn’t verge into heroic territory the way Boong Do does.
Although there’s a lot more to the show than just the romance (the political stuff at the beginning and the time travel questions at the end), Queen is at the end of the day a romantic comedy; it doesn’t have as many larger, overarching themes the way a show like Sungkyunkwan Scandal does. But that’s OK, because the show is for the most part thoughtful in handling what it does have.
At times I was worried that it verged too much into Time Traveler’s Wife territory. Hee Jin is stuck waiting around for Boong Do to appear. It worked for me in the end, though, because Boong Do wraps up his entire life in the past. He wants to make the future his present with Hee Jin, and once he’s there, he’ll be the one living off of her.
Besides, Queen sidestepped the creepier elements of Time Traveler’s Wife; Boong Do and Hee Jin are both adults when they share the same first meeting, and from that point on they’re set on the same timeline. Things might happen to them 300 years apart, but the same amount of time (hours, days, or weeks) passes for each of them when they’re not together. There are no chronological shenanigans to their relationship.
I loved Queen and I. It’s my favorite kdrama from 2012 (if not my favorite that I watched last year, though it’s in the top three). It had me at the genre description, “romantic time travel fantasy,” but it delivers in having an adorable couple, strong acting and writing (for the most part), and excellent production. It’s definitely one of the first romantic kdramas I’d now recommend to others, especially to those not familiar with Korean drama.
Things to watch out for (show warnings): I don’t really have any kdrama tropes to warn about in Queen and I, which is one of the reasons why I love it so much. There’s a brief bout of amnesia, but it’s really earned by the show, given that it has to do with the timey-wimey weirdness. Instead, I want to warn for a potential trigger for anyone watching the show: it has suicidal themes.
Warning: the following paragraph contains more specific spoilers for the show’s ending.
Boong Do’s method of time travel is, by nature, triggering. He has to be on the verge of death in order to travel, and in some instances he actively puts himself in that danger (and we see him do it). Once or twice he even takes his own sword to his throat, just so he can go forward in time to see Hee Jin. In the very last episode, Boong Do tries to commit suicide, and it’s an attempt to end his life, not to time travel. It ends up working as part of the vehicle that allows him to return to the future, but that’s not why Boong Do does it (though it doesn’t just have to do with his separation from Hee Jin, either). Just a warning for anyone who might find that triggering.
Stream Queen and I on Hulu.