This series is a strong contender for my favorite K-drama for 2021. It’s like a Hanjeongsik or a full course meal that satiate all of my K-drama cravings.
The Amuse-bouche: Jang Bong-hwan goes to Joseon
Premiere weeks are like amuse-bouche of a full course meal. It’s made to amuse and intrigued us and to simply hint at what’s ahead of the story. Queen Cheorin had a good premiere week. It’s promising from the get-go. The body-swap premise alone is interesting enough for me to anticipate the next episodes but I never expected the full first arc of the series would be that good.
The story’s hilarious and mystery tone kick off as soon as cocky Blue House chef Jang Bong-hwan’s psyche got trapped inside the body of Kim So-young also known as Joseon Queen Consort Cheo-rin. Hilarious because well, one can produce a lot of funny scenes using the fish-out-of-water trope. Add the fact that Shin Hae-sun is once again outstanding with her portrayal of both Jang Bong-hwan and Kim So-young. I think we should also all applaud Choi Jin-wook’s special participation in the series. He created a whole persona of Jang Bong-hwan in the pilot episode that made it easier for me to imagine his spirit living inside So-young’s body. And Shin Hae-sun perfectly complemented Jin-wook’s version of Bong-hwan with the acting nuances she introduced. During her scenes where she needed to show that Bong-hwan’s spirit took over her, she would modulate her voice and made sure that her body movements were big and full of smug.
Hae-sun made sure we won’t forget that Bong-hwan has taken over her original character. She really looked like an eccentric queen and I wouldn’t blame Lee Won-beom / King Cheol-jong for getting side-tracked from his mission to fight the system and reform the monarchy. The first few encounters of Cheol-jong and Bong-hwan were more on the humorous side of the genre spectrum but Hae-sun and Kim Jung-hyun ooze chemistry onscreen that it already hinted the upcoming romance between the two. And how they’ll execute such three-way romance is something I’m very curious as I’ve said on my First Impression notes.
The well-used trope and actors gave the first act of Queen Cheorin the boost it needed. So when the main dish was served, everyone was already hungry for more.
The Entree: Jang Bong-hwan becomes Kim So-young; Kim So-young becomes Jang Bong-hwan
Our readers would have probably noticed by now that I do like to divide my K-dramas by their arc (haha). And for me, Queen Cheo-rin’s first arc ended when Bong-hwan lost his voice and recover Kim So-young’s memories. It shifted the story from how Bong-hwan would adjust to the period he was trapped in to how Bong-hwan would live as Kim So-young.
This is my take on what happened with Bong-hwan and So-young. I believe that during the first time Bong-hwan woke up in So-young’s body, the same happened in the present-day timeline. So-young’s spirit was also trapped in Bong-hwan’s body but he was in a coma so she didn’t change anything on the present timeline. I think this is the reason why he couldn’t remember anything about So-young and had to rely on other people’s anecdotes about her to get to know the body that he is in. Then Bong-hwan collapsed for the second time and viola, when he woke up, the memories came back as well. That I believe was because So-young’s psyche came back to her original body and left Bong-hwan’s body in a vegetative state. But Bong-hwan has a dominant psyche that why we didn’t really get to hear So-young’s voice. It was apparent, however, that So-young was aware someone has taken over her body during the final scene when she noticed that Bong-hwan was gone (something that I’d talk about later on this post).
But going back to the ending of the first arc, right after Bong-hwan lost his voice (or Choi Jin-wook’s voice over). I actually got more excited with this progress because I badly wanted to know what happened the night So-young fell into the lake. And the reveal didn’t disappoint.
We learned about So-young’s story through Bong-hwan. Bong-hwan understood So-young and her predicaments more than anyone else. And that’s what I really like about these two. Even though it was just Bong-hwan that we always hear, I think Jang Bong-hwan has helped Kim So-young get the voice she badly needed. He was able to say whatever he wants. Something that So-young couldn’t do because she was born in an era when women had no real power and always silenced by the patriarchs. So-young was a naïve victim of the system. All she wanted was to live happily with someone she has fallen in love with. But she discovered she didn’t ace the selection. She was put in that position so that she could be of use by her power-greed clan. The same family name that made Cheol-jong despise her. Truths that So-young couldn’t bear any more. She didn’t have anyone to turn to or she wasn’t raised to express what she felt. She became so vulnerable that she decided to take her own life by jumping into the lake. The same lake where she met Bong-hwan and intertwined their lives. And I believe that Bong-hwan understood all of this. He slowly changed from who-cares-what-happens to a “this is our life so I’d take charge” kind of attitude.
There are some scenes I would like to point out that somehow proves my point. Most of them were confrontational scenes between Cheol-jong and Bong-hwan/So-young. The first two scenes are still part of the first arc when Bong-hwan still has no idea of So-young’s reasons for jumping into the lake. The scene in episode 4 where Bong-hwan confronted Cheol-jong on the night he tried to kill So-young was the first hint of how Bong-hwan would change the relationship between Cheol-jong and So-young. Bong-hwan’s words shook Cheol-jong to the core. Although it wasn’t his original intent, Bong-hwan made Cheol-jong realized that So-young was just a victim in the scheming of the Andong Kim Clan. This was also the scene that set-forth both Cheol-jong and Bong-hwan on their quest to understand why So-young tried to die that night.
The next scene was the ‘no touch’ scene in episode 6 when Cheol-jong inadvertently stopped Bong-hwan from coming back to his real body. Cheol-jong, for his point of view, thought he saved So-young but of course, Bong-hwan was annoyed by it and lashed out that they should live their life separately. Something that Cheol-jong can’t do anymore because his past affection to So-young lit up again and he couldn’t stop it anymore from becoming a full-blown flame. And yes, I do believe that Cheol-jong took interest in So-young (as seen on the prologue special episodes) but he stopped himself from liking her because she was a member of the Andong Kim Clan.
The lake confession scene on episode 14 is already part of the second arc when Bong-hwan is trying to fend-off So-young’s feelings from mixing with his. When Cheol-jong told Bong-hwan about his change of heart, Bong-hwan answered him that the So-young who asked to love her doesn’t exist anymore. I interpreted this in two ways: (1) Bong-hwan is correct that the old So-young has already changed and he hasn’t realized it yet but he’s the reason the new So-young can swear all she wants now and express herself as she should (as seen on the ending after Bong-hwan left); and (2) Bong-hwan is also in-denial that he has fallen for Cheol-jong and mixed that with So-young’s feelings, then that’s like twice the feelings of any main leads in K-dramaland out there.
The Banchans: Unlikely Heroes
Before I delve into the series’ ending, let me appreciate the side characters that added spice to the whole story.
The trio of Bong-hwan/So-young, Court Lady Choi, and Hong Yeon is the first squad I stan this year. Cha Chung-hwa is an effective character actor that could change from one character to another. Her nagging and frustration with her Queen’s stubbornness were all on another level of hilariousness. She and another character actor, Kim In-kwon as Royal Chef Man-bok served as an unlikely loveline we didn’t know we needed.
Speaking of unlikely, the love triangle between Special Director Hong Byeol-gam (Lee Jae-won), Kim Hwan (Yoo Young-jae), and So-young’s loyal court lady, Hong Yeon (Chae Seo-eun) was confusing as heck. Kim Hwan likes Hong Yeon while Hong Yeon secretly admires Byeol-gam. Byeol-gam, on the other hand, is unaware of all of this and just continues to befriend Kim Hwan. I like that Hong Yeon didn’t choose between the two nor there was ever a competition between Kim Hwan and Byeol-gam. I like them as it is and it’s a good decision they stayed that way until the end.
Other side characters though underwent good character development. First off the list is Royal Consort Jo Hwa-jin (Seol In-ah). She went from good to bad to good again. I kind of felt bad for her when Cheol-jong was slowly drifting away from her. It was because I thought they were each other’s first love. My sympathy turned into annoyance when I discovered that she stole So-young’s childhood encounter with Cheol-jong that could have also changed the way Cheol-jong saw So-young from the start. Fortunately, she realized her mistakes before its too late and even helped Cheol-jong and So-young in their final battle. A bonus to her was that she still has Prince Yeong-pyeong (Yoo Min-kyu) on her side.
Consort Jo’s redemption arc is really good but I’m a bit torn about the fate of the Kim Byeong-in (Na In-woo). Unlike Consort Jo, Byeong-in’s redemption came in too late. I hate his character throughout the series. He was blinded by his love to So-young that he didn’t realize he’s doing her more harm than good. But I and grumpyahjumma agreed that we felt a tinge of pity when he realized that So-young wasn’t the So-young he fell in love with anymore. It’s just really unfortunate that the realization came too late and all he could do to save himself was to sacrifice his life so that So-young could live.
A side character that is often overlooked is the Queen’s Father Kim Moon-geun (Jeon Bae-soo). Bong-hwan/So-young helped him to change his corrupt ways and be part of Cheol-jong’s reform plan. Aside from this redemption, I also like how Bong-hwan’s honesty helped So-young and his father understand each other.
Some of the most satisfying scenes in this series happened when Bong-hwan decided to take revenge on those who pushed So-young to the verge of dying. If it was just So-young alone, she wouldn’t be able to stand up to these bullies who tried to use her in their power play. Bong-hwan satisfyingly slapped both Queen Dowager Jo (Jo Yeon-hee) and Grand Queen Dowager Queen Sunwon (Bae Jong-ok) with her vengeful antics. The most satisfying act of revenge, of course, was when they finally stopped Kim Jwa-geun (Kim Tae-woo) from using the throne for his self-serving plans.
The Dessert: The Not So Sweet Ending
Now, let’s talk about how Queen Cheorin was wrapped up. In my First Impression post, I already expressed my qualms on how this series could end. As I’ve predicted, So-young and Cheol-jong did end up together and it was just a bit sad that Bong-hwan only witnessed this through history books. BUT I’m okay with this kind of ending. They didn’t butcher it and they left everyone in their right place. And yes, even Bong-hwan.
At first, I thought Bong-hwan could have just stayed in the Joseon era. And then I realize it would also be unfair to him because he has his own life in the present time. He has his parents and career going on there. I just wished Bong-hwan could have met the reincarnation of Cheol-jong. Because in my mind right now, I do believe that So-young is Bong-hwan’s past self. My theory is that the reason why he was very self-assured is because he couldn’t act like that in his past life. And I repeat, they could have used just a few seconds of the finale episode to show Bong-hwan meeting Cheol-jong in the future. And I don’t mind whether he was reincarnated as a man or a woman or in any gender. After all, Bong-hwan was the reason So-young and Cheol-jong had their happily-ever-after so he deserves one too. For now, I would just comfort myself with the fact that Bong-hwan seemed satisfied with how he changed Cheol-jong’s legacy and is now moving on with his life with a fresh perspective on things.
Going back to So-young and Cheol-jong, I love that after Bong-hwan left, So-young became confident about herself and knows how to fight for her place in the palace (again, thanks to Bong-hwan). It was just a passing scene but that moment when Bong-hwan left So-young’s body made me realized that So-young was conscious about everything all along. She might not have been able to overturn Bong-hwan’s psyche’s dominance but she was there. Her feelings for Cheol-jong were so intense that Bong-hwan couldn’t suppress them. And that fact has removed all my reservations about why So-young and Cheol-jong deserved their happy ending.
Allow me to repeat my praises about the actors from this series. Hae-sun was just so good from start to finish. And she definitely deserves a daesang at year-end ceremonies. Kim Jung-hyun, for his part, complemented Hae-sun’s performance perfectly. This is the first time I’ve ever looked at Kim Jung-hyun as a real romantic love interest. He’s good in his past roles but his portrayal as Cheol-jong deserves the top spot. Jung-hyun could be funny when he wanted to and turn serious when needed. And I repeat, Jung-hyun and Hae-sun have explosive chemistry that I wished they could do another project together. K-dramagenies jebal!
From the hilarious first week’s episodes up to the finale week, Queen Cheorin offered us a full course meal we couldn’t resist. It has everything that we’re looking for. The series was at its best in any type of scene. It’s hysterically funny up to the last few moments. It has a good build-up that the climax and final battle were very satisfying. It has the characters that would most probably stay as our favorite Kdrama characters for the next decade or so.
– This kiss scene!!!
-Dam-hyang-ah~, I hope you grew up well. For some reason, I imagined Nam Ji-hyun as the older version of Dam-hyang. Oh well, I probably just miss her and DO ㅋㅋㅋ.
-I’m not being biased but Xiumin’s OST is my favorite.
-This scene made @grumpyahjumma‘s cranky temper change into a full-blown rofl mood.
-I’m really curious about you (yes you, who’ still reading up to this last note) and your theories and thoughts about this series, so let me know in the comment section. You can tweet it to us too! Okay? Okay.
>> First Impression: Queen Cheorin
Image Credit: tvN