The King's Face - Korean Historical Drama - Review


The King's Face
왕의 얼굴 (2014-2015) KBS 23 Episodes

Historical Melodrama
Masterpiece, Grade: A+

Korean Historical Drama Review by Jill, USA


What else can you do when you hear that so many of your favorite Korean drama actors are being placed in the same drama? Watch it, of course! You have no other choice! Thank goodness The King's Face (2014-2015), which I enjoyed immensely and was never once bored by, was only 23 episodes and not like many of the more well-known Korean historical dramas that run 60 episodes or more. I am the type of person who simply cannot sit still for a 60 episode epic because I tend to marathon K-dramas, and such a long time sitting down to watch anything would not be good for my health. Often, even during the short dramas, I have them on the TV through my ROKU device while doing my housework or cooking at the same time, so I am killing two birds with one stone: enjoying a great show while at the same time doing necessary chores.

Anyway, I am a huge fan of darling actor Seo In Guk (Master's Sun) and I knew as soon as it was announced that he would be in this show that I would watch it. The story is about the early life of one of Korea's most popular kings, King Gwanghae
(1575–1641; reigned 1608–1623). I am also a huge fan of actress Yoon Hee Jo, having loved her in the time travel romance Nine: Nine Time Travels (2013) and a beautiful, haunting short drama called Love In Memory (2013). I had a good feeling about the casting of these two thespians as the main couple in this drama, and my hunch was proven correct. I loved their romantic chemistry together - it was potent, bittersweet, challenging, and fun to watch.


Along for the ride as a good guy idealist turned villain was another favorite: tall and unique character actor Shin Sung Rok, who can play good guys (Trot Lovers, Thank You) or evil villains (My Love From Another Star, Liar Game). He always adds so much intensity to any drama he is in and he's simply a joy to watch, and he earned a Best Supporting Actor Award at the 2014 KBS Awards for his performance here in The King's Face. Then, as Gwanghae's imperious, mistrusting father King Seonjo, is an actor I always get a kick out of, Lee Sung Jae, who is amusing and interesting to watch too: I had loved watching him play the evil villain in Gu Family Book and the morally weak father in The Suspicious Housekeeper, and he was equally fantastic in this drama, even though his character was so frustrating sometimes that I wanted to throw pillows at the TV screen when I saw his petty behavior toward his own flesh and blood sons!


This show is really a great and thought-provoking ensemble piece, loosely based on a film called The Face Reader, but which differed from it in enough ways that a court challenge by the producers of the film failed to prove that any copyright violations had occurred in the television drama. It's awfully difficult to prove plagiarism based on events that happened hundreds of years ago. Gwanghae has had a lot of shows and films devoted to him, so it wasn't unexpected that at some point some writers could believe their work was being plagiarized. I deliberately didn't do any reading up on the life of King Gwanghae before or during the run of this show, which I watched as the series was ongoing. so that I would be surprised by the twists and turns in the story. Only afterward did I read up on him, to compare his life to how it was written up for this drama. Of course some dramatic license was taken by the writers, particularly in regard to romances, but overall many of the facts of his life were detailed well in this sageuk. The man did become Crown Prince despite many impediments and challenges, and he did eventually become King after his father died. This intriguing drama details that process, and it really seemed to me that fate was on Gwanghae's side all along and the best man won out in the end.  

Handsome actor Seo In Guk was delightful as the young Gwanghae
and won the 2014 KBS Best New Actor Award for his role
The Story: The drama focused mostly on the early years of Prince Gwanghae (Seo In Guk) and on face reading as the foundation for much of the intrigue, jealousy and superstition that abounded during the reign of his father King Seonjo (Lee Sung Jae). A book on the art of face reading was highly regarded as essential for determining which man was the best candidate to be King. Certain men were trained in using this book to make proclamations on this subject, which of course resulted in a lot of competition between the sons of King Seonjo, including Gwanghae's rather weak of character, supposedly alcoholic brother Prince Imhae (actor Park Joo Hyung, whom I quite enjoyed watching during this show). Imhae's mother Gwi In Kim (Kim Gyu Ri, whom I also quite often got a kick out of during this show) of course wanted to promote her son as the next Crown Prince / King after King Seonjo would pass away, and she was never fond of Gwanghae, who was the son of a concubine.

Even though in intelligence and temperament Gwanghae was the best choice out of Seonjo's sons to take the throne, and proved it many times over the years, Imhae's mother would stop at nothing to prevent this from happening. Even when at one point Gwanghae saved the life of his brother Imhae this too was soon forgotten and she still plotted to get rid of Gwanghae whenever possible, even going so far as plotting with royal enemies. Near the end she mellows somewhat, which really amused me, because I could still sense her claws ready to come out at any time, if necessary. 

Actress Kim Gyu Ri and actor Park Joo Hyung added a lot of delicious suspense
to the question of who would take the throne after King Seonjo died

In the show we see Gwanghae as a child developing a sweet romantic interest in a young maiden named Ga Hee Kim (Yoon Hee Jo) and then later as a young man he meets her again in a marketplace where she has been dressing as a boy for protection, encouraged to do so by her father. Actress Yoon Hee Jo was an excellent choice to play a boy because she does have a slight tomboyish look to her when her hair is cut short and she's wearing boy's clothes. At first Gwanghae is intrigued by this "boy" but eventually he figures out the ruse and confronts her. He had never forgotten his childhood playmate Ga Hee and he still loved her.

However, she is told by an old face reader expert named Baek Kyung (played by veteran actor Lee Soon Jae who played the oboist in Beethoven Virus) that she is destined to be a consort to King Seonjo because her face matches best with his. This prophecy rocks her world but she isn't about to listen to it immediately because of her love for Gwanghae. Tragedy strikes her family when her parents are killed after her father is accused of treason. Ga Hee takes up with a band of idealists who want to get rid of King Seonjo, newly led by a revolutionary named Do Chi Kim (Shin Sung Rok). He teaches her how to become an expert with the bow and arrow and for quite some time she joins the revolutionary group, mostly out of revenge for what happened to her parents. Do Chi fancies himself in love with Ga Hee and supposes they will always be political soul mates, but as time marches on that assumption is proven false. First and foremost Ga Hee remains in love with Gwanghae --- even when she is ordered to kill him!

Wonderful actress Jo Yoon Hee is perfect as Ga Hee Kim,
Gwanghae's first love, whether she dresses as a boy or a girl!
King Seonjo has many worries, not just about the political state of his country, his pressing family matters to decide who should be the Crown Prince, but he also has to worry about foreign invaders. Part of him is quietly impressed by his son Gwanghae for proving himself wise in the defense of his country, but he rarely comes out and says anything positive to this son, who continuously professes his love and loyalty for his father despite their often contentious relationship. Seonjo is not the type to be sure of himself on any matter, and he vacillates this way or that way depending on what his advisers say at any given time. This character flaw often makes him a weak king, and fuels bitter jealousies in his court. When a concubine or his queen dies he is appropriately sad looking -- for a day or two -- and then he is back to blowing in the wind in his decision making skills.

He also fails numerous times to see security challenges coming his way, and several attempts are made on his life during the run of this drama, and he just stands there like a fool and lets others defend him. The actor Lee Sung Jae is just perfect for this role, and often I found myself rolling my eyes at him or giggling at him. This actor knows exactly what he wishes to convey with every facial twitch! When Ga Hee finally leaves the revolutionary group and becomes the King's woman, despite the fact that he essentially was responsible for killing her parents, it never seems to occur to him that she might have an ulterior motive for getting close to him and wanting to win his trust and love. This relationship with her eventually puts his life at stake, and all the time I am thinking, "This King lacks all logic!"

Actor Lee Sung Jae with his shifty eyes and sometimes deadpan manner
was a perfect choice to play easily swayed King Seonjo

Gwanghae eventually gains a wife and future Queen and becomes Crown Prince, but that doesn't stop him from secretly loving Ga Hee, even after she becomes his father's woman. An addition to the court is the secret revolutionary Do Chi who presents himself as an expert face reader and defends the King's life (even though he hates him) and thereby wins his trust. Do Chi's real secret ambition is to knock off both King Seonjo and Crown Prince Gwanghae eventually and become King himself, and he almost pulls it off, but fate intervenes. I loved the dramatic fight between Do Chi and Gwanghae at the end. Great film-making in these scenes!

Actor Shin Sung Rok as Do Chi, who perhaps changes
the most out of all the characters in this drama

I see The King's Face as more than just a story about kings and princes; it's about people who, as they age, give up their childhood dreams of personal happiness and readjust their lives to seek alternate ways to achieve their own far more selfish political goals. In part their new goals, with elements of revenge, destroy them, and ruin any chance of happiness they might have achieved, but then again, when you're dealing with the cut-throat royals, it's not very likely you'll ever have things go exactly your way.

Watch Out For That Tea!!!

I won't reveal any more, you'll simply have to watch this great show for yourself, enjoy its spellbinding intrigues, its many interesting supporting characters, and its romantic twists and turns. I think there is some amount of poetic justice by the end of this drama. Watch, and see if you agree with me.