[Spoilers through episode 8!]
Queen In Hyun’s Man is gorgeous. Yes, like most kdramas, and TV in general, it has good looking actors, but it’s more than that. It’s wonderful to look at, so much so that it makes taking screencaps difficult because you want to capture every frame. The simple act of looking at what is in front of you is pleasing. The camera and cinematography for this show make it that much more enjoyable. The colors are vibrant, like some Monet landscape or glossy comic book page, and the direction isn’t vague or anonymous. It is stylized, with quick cuts and split screens and cornered angles, and it does it in such a way that you aren’t distracted from the story, but are surprised and delighted, like tasting a little bit of salt in a cookie. Sometimes it does what great directing can do: it actually acts as an author, giving us the story through the controlled delivery of images, which gives us structure (which can give us meaning) as opposed to a passive, static direction that just shows us what is happening. And this drama is a fusion, time traveling sageuk, which means we get the best of both worlds: flowing, billowy hanboks, hats perched just so, and intricate hairstyles during the Joseon era; boy band haircuts, manga hair color, and bright pink fishnet stockings with high heels in the 21st century. The director, Kim Byung Soo, who also directed Vampire Prosecutor, takes full advantage of these visual differences. He makes the drama cinematic, in that he gives it definition, like a Jane Campion or a Joe Wright. You know what their films look like, but their style doesn’t dictate the film itself (unlike, say, Tim Burton.)
So far Queen In Hyun’s Man hasn’t really been about the plot so much as it’s about these two characters and the atmosphere they create with their interactions. Kim Boong Do and Choi Hee Jin are so well realized, both in terms of how they’re written and how they’re acted, and are so. damn. cute. that they fill up the drama with their presence. It isn’t that the story isn’t interesting or is besides the point–far from it. But the story isn’t linear; it’s told in these little snippets, in a complex series of time jumps (from 2012 to 1694) and flashbacks, so that what ties them together is our main couple, and not the progression of the story itself. It’s not one sweeping, relentlessly forward moving story, like The Princess’s Man, but more like a series of connected vignettes. In that sageuk, the revenge plot and the romance were intertwined and dependent on one another, a development in one propelling the other. So far, the hero’s time jump to the future in Queen In Hyun’s Man hasn’t had that much of an impact on the past or on the heroine’s present, nor do we really know what “the point” is. (It’s actually something the hero keeps wondering, is it coincidence or fate?) For example, in this episode one my favorite scenes (it’s actually embarrassing how many times I watched it and squee-ed) is when the plane takes off: Boong Do is in his seat, sitting straight up and gripping the armrests because this is his first time flying and he’s scared. Hee Jin turns in her seat to face him and makes silly faces and gestures to distract him. He, in turn, relaxes and smiles while cocking his head to the side, like he’s looking at an adorable puppy that’s barking at its own reflection. It isn’t a moment of plot or character development, not a moment of suspense or even romance, really, but it shows us how Hee Jin cares for Boong Do. It is indicative of her nature and the dynamics of their relationship–a tiny moment that resonates with us and does wonders for our understanding of their relationship.
This show’s got romance, comedy, cuteness, political machinations, action, and magic. It’s a charming, darling thing.
On Meta and Performance
Ok, let’s get the hipster speak out of the way: this show is so meta.
Meta’s one of those words I know and understand but am hopelessly incapable of explaining to others. It’s like when something references itself, a hyper self awareness; when something, a medium, brings attention to itself by pointing to the fact that it is created and structured. The best examples I can come up with are 30 Rock or Atonement (both the novel and the film) or Infinite Jest. The opening credits of Queen In Hyun’s Man shows a script being flipped through to produce moving images of the characters. First is Boong Do with a Joseon era background, then Hee Jin with Seoul behind her, then Dong Min on a red carpet with flashing lights, and finally Soo Kyung. They all progress from black and white sketches to ones blossoming in red. Then we have sketches of Hee Jin in a car and (what I assume) are character descriptions, and finally, the script closes and we’re left with the title page.
There are other metacinematic elements: the show has a drama within it, and so it comments on drama culture as well as the nature of celebrity, particularly through the character of Dong Min. But what I’m interested in is what all this meta stuff means for the story. Boong Do keeps asking why the talisman sent him to the future and why he keeps on meeting Hee Jin. Is it coincidence or is it fate? We may have to wait till the end of the drama to work out an understanding, but when we pair these meta flare with the pointed directing style I have to conclude that it isn’t fate or coincidence. It’s choice. Boong Do asks Hee Jin the question in this episode, and it goes over her head. But of course it does. She doesn’t get a replacement ID from another person, drag Soo Kyung along, fly all the way to Jeju, pay for three tickets, and then fly back to Seoul because of coincidence or fate! She does all those things because she chooses to do them for Boong Do, because she cares for him. He explains cause and effect to her, but she then turns it around on him, leaving him speechless.
The show also addresses performance. It’s not the dense stuff Judith Butler turns out about gender, but there is a complex interplay between what is real and what is performance. It’s epitomized in costuming and dress. In the first episode we see our main leads getting dressed: she puts on her make up, he puts on his hat. They are both preparing themselves for their day, and I think it’s trying to say that 1694 and 2012 are not all that different: in both times how you dress is a way of representing who you are to the public, even in 2012 with all our postmodern inability to differentiate class based on clothing alone. Hee Jin wears a costume on set for her drama, of course, (which ties into the metacinema; all these actors in all these shows are in costume) but Boong Do is wearing a costume whenever he’s in the future/present. And it must seem to him that everyone else is wearing a costume. Furthermore, the palace is a double. Hee Jin and Dong Min are doubles in that they’re actors pretending to be real people from Boong Do’s time, but the palace is exactly the same, which only adds to the cognitive dissonance Boong Do experiences upon first arriving in 2012.
Anatomy of a Scene
The moment that best illustrates this comes at the very end of this episode, when Dong Min spots Boong Do on the plane and immediately decides he needs to save the day. Dong Min is this meddling, self absorbed, Hallyu star man-child who positively staggers under the weight of his own ego. It’s so large he needs his brother/manager to help him carry it. He has a habit of calling Boong Do a “psycho stalker,” when really he’s the one who arrives at Hee Jin’s apartment unwanted and unannounced, calls her and is ignored, and builds up a relationship with her (starring mostly him, of course) that has more existence in his imagination than anywhere else. In this fevered imagination he is irresistible, and it’s only a matter of time before Hee Jin, who he’d dumped because she wasn’t as big of a star as him, will return to him, so he basically turns the plane into his personal stage. He casts himself as the hero, Boong Do as the villain, and Hee Jin as the damsel in distress, the girl to be won. The thing is, he thinks and acts as though the drama is about him when it actually isn’t. So after he alerts the plane authorities to the presence of a “psycho stalker,” he jumps out of his seat and leaps into a flying high kick–this is on a moving plane, mind you–and lands in a crouched position. It’s hilarious, and the drama’s self awareness just makes it more so. While Dong Min is in House of Crouching Tiger Hidden Matrix mode, Boong Do, in his measured, self assured way, simply steps back. But the authorities on the plane grab hold of him while Dong Min addresses the other passengers, turning them into a crowd and letting them know his identity, as well as Hee Jin’s.
Boong Do is being pulled away to be brought to the police, but then Hee Jin stands up and she tells the now audience that he isn’t a “psycho stalker”–he’s her boyfriend. They’d been sitting in separate rows so as not to draw attention to themselves. She totally screws with Dong Min’s narrative. With her declaration she turns him from the hero to the fool. She divests him of his illusion and does it in front of the crowd he created for himself. She’s not a prize in his story, he’s the comic relief in hers.
Hee Jin then marches towards Boong Do and holds his hand by intertwining her fingers with his. She’s defending Boong Do, but she’s also confessing to him. So her romantic feelings for him are sincere, but they come out in a performance. She’s using romance to protect him. It’s a moment of performance, but also a great instance of the direction actively telling the story: notice that when she locks her fingers with his the airplane attendants immediately remove their hands from his arm. She already’d explained that if they go to the police and she explains their situation, it would be seen as a violation of her privacy, meaning the airline will be at fault, but they don’t let go of him. It is her touch that releases him.
It’s absolutely brilliant. Also: get it, girl, get it.
On Boong Do & Hee Jin
I love everything about these two. They make this adorable (and hot) couple. They have so much chemistry, and they genuinely like each other. How revolutionary is that? Two folks who enjoy each other’s company and smile like a couple of dorks whenever they’re around each other?
I think the best way to illustrate the beauty of their relationship is to look at what they say to each other. Some of the first words these two say to each other are “sincere” and “honest.” Be still my shipper heart.
But their first conversation in this episode is even better. Hee Jin is distraught because she thinks the person she may be in love with is dead and there was nothing she could do about it because he died 300 years ago, and Boong Do has been learning how to navigate in a Hangul instead of Hanja world. When Hee Jin finally picks up her phone Boong Do’s first words are
“Have you been well?”
Hee Jin: You’re alive? You didn’t die?
Boong Do: How did you know I was going to die?
Hee Jin: How could I not know? It’s written in the books. You were supposed to have died three days ago.
Boong Do: Oh, I escaped! How could I just die like that? Impressive, isn’t it? While on my own, I’ve been learning how to use the phone. It took me three full days. That’s how hard it was.
In this exchange we see how much they care for each other. She took the time to learn about him, and the first thing he wants to know–this is the guy who just survived an assassination attempt on his life–is how she’s been. There is no love triangle in this drama. Hee Jin could not care less about Dong Min, and so far Boong Do sees Yoon Wol as nothing more than a friend. But what is great is that Dong Min does what the third person in most love triangles is supposed to but almost always fails to do. The third wheel ideally strengthens the main coupling through contrast, by showing how much better it is that the heroine is with the hero, or by proving how much she must love him by rejecting this (supposedly)perfect second lead man. What usually happens instead is the audience gets second lead syndrome and we scratch our heads as to why our heroine chooses the abusive, emotionally stymied lead over the guy who, you know, doesn’t give her and aneurism every time they speak. But Dong Min is so hilariously beside the point that all his antics just add to the dynamic of Hee Jin and Boong Do’s relationship. It’s delicious: it makes it that much sweeter that they really do respect each other and don’t have to go through a period of mutual loathing to understand the other person. And Soo Kyung. Everything about her is perfect. I would watch a spin off about her running around, all harried and exasperated, trying to keep her one and only client in check.
They are also wonderful as characters on their own. Boong Do is this upstanding, noble, well-read scholar who has a gentle sense of humor about himself and the world. He understands Confucius and applies his teachings to his life. He’s methodical in his understanding of the world, making choices based on logic and reason. So when he arrives in 2012, he doesn’t freak out or have a break down, but deduces that it must be the talisman that brought him there, that he needs to dress to look like everyone else, and that he should go to the library to find out what happened in his time.
What is it about Hee Jin that I adore so much? I think the best way to put it is to paraphrase a mediocre film I never the less watch whenever it’s on television: The Holiday. Hee Jin has gumption. She’s the heroine of her own life. She knows what she wants and she goes for it. With some drama heroines, that’s not the case. When Dong Min keeps pestering her about getting back together, she makes it clear that she has no intention of doing so. Hee Jin may seem “dumb” at first, especially in contrasts to Boong Do, but I think she’s pretty cunning. She isn’t interested in books and learning like Boong Do, but she’s good at her craft, and she’s worked on it for years. She has this thing she does where she accepts people telling her she’s stupid and uses that to her advantage. A telling moment is in episode 5 when she gets Soo Kyung off her trail by telling her she’s too dumb to find her way from the bathroom, but really she was just making out with Boong Do. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of her tactics of getting through the world is letting people think she’s dumb, just so she can do as she pleases. And she’s managed to help navigate Boong Do through the modern world pretty well. She’s his teacher. Boong Do is a Sungkyunkwan educated Joseon scholar, and Hee Jin is his teacher.
I think her competence and intelligence will be even more evident in the upcoming episodes. Boong Do has changed history, but Hee Jin, the dumb one, is the only one who recognizes it. She knows the truth; she’s the only one in the modern world who is carrying around “true” history with her. Not only does she know the “real” (or is it alternate at this point?) history, she is also the one who knows what happened during the two months that Boong Do loses after he’s hit in the head and the talisman is cut in half. So he’s going to be depending on her even more. What does it mean that a person with Boong Do’s almost photogenic memory has lost that memory?
It isn’t just Boong Do who goes back and forth in time, our story does too. Flashbacks are a device used over and over in this drama, so while we’re moving from 1694 to 2012 and back, we’re also moving from now to an hour ago and back.
I find it so interesting how the two different eras are different. The Joseon era is portrayed as dark and dangerous. The only way for Boong Do to leave it is to almost die. How many times has he been within a millisecond of dying? Each time someone else is about to kill him he has to be willing to die (the very first time he was transported he closed his eyes as if her were accepting his death). Each time he decides to go to the future on his own he has to trust this magic (that he doesn’t really understand) that he won’t die—that he won’t commit suicide. That’s a lot of faith to have. For someone who takes so much joy in knowledge, who is so analytic about his surroundings and makes a point of understanding things, Boong Do has a surprising amount of faith. In 1694 everything is dark: the politics, the darkness of the cinematography, the blood that’s split when a sword slices through another person, the King’s power being constantly attacked by the people who are supposed to serve and advise him, the King himself being manipulated by those people, and Boong Do being banished by the King he’s trying to help. It’s all deep darkness at night and grey coolness during the day.
But 2012 is bright and shiny: Hee Jin’s jewelry and smiles, her playful banter with Soo Kyung, the way real blood and a real corpse just vanish, the huge library where anyone can walk in and find books (knowledge, and in Boong Do’s case, weapons), the past being turned into a narrative for people to enact and watch (what is a story for Hee Jin is a current reality for Boong Do), Boong Do saying, “What a wonderful world this is!” Horses run around free. There are no sword wheeling men ready to kill him.He has a certain kind of freedom. Boong Do doesn’t have to risk death in it in order to travel back to 1694. And it’s a real difference in world views between our leads. Boong Do’s family has been murdered. His wife was pregnant when she died as a result of Min-am’s machinations. He has killed many people, and he’s willing to kill more. He’s prepared to die. Hee jin, meanwhile, stops him and chirps, “You can’t kill someone!” when he speaks of revenge. Boong Do replies that it’s quite common where he comes from. It’s another way that the drama is calling attention to itself. It’s making us question just how violent the Joseon era is. But even in it’s bright and shiny-ness it doesn’t let us forget that 2012 has it’s own problems: Boong Do remarks how they seem to have absolutely no privacy, with surveillance cameras watching their every move. So is the “wonderful world” of 2012 gotten at the expense of the privacy afforded in 1604 that gave folks such ability to plot behind the King’s back? One similarity in the two time periods is that in 1694 Yoon Wol and Boong Do trust and protect each other and in 2012 Boong Do and Hee Jin are the same way. So the danger in both times is navigated by trust and love.
So in episode 6 Boong Do returns to 2012, lying on a dark road with the bright headlights of a car speeding closer and closer to him, but he moves at the last minute and doesn’t get hit. But, what if he had? I mean, how does the magic of the talisman work? He doesn’t have much control over it during the Joseon era. If he is in mortal danger and he has it on his person, it will transport him to the future. But in the future he has almost total control over it. All he has to do is say the spell/incantation to take him back to the past. So what happens if he’s in mortal danger in the future (2012)? Does he die? And if he does die, will his body disintegrate and fade away like the body of that guy he killed?
But though Boong Do has to be in mortal danger in order to travel to the future, he can still be hurt, hence the wound from the arrow coming with him in 2012. So he could be tortured for a good amount of time before the talisman would transport him. Also, does he have to be aware of his death in order to time jump, or will it work if someone tries to stab him in the back?
Will Hee Jin ever travel to the past? Imagine what kind of research she could do for her acting roles!