Lee Min Ho isn't enough to save the mess of The King: Eternal Monarch

Kim Go Eun (left) and Lee Min Ho in The King: Eternal Monarch, a fantasy romance drama on Netflix and SBS.
Kim Go Eun (left) and Lee Min Ho in The King: Eternal Monarch, a fantasy romance drama on Netflix and SBS.

The finale episode of South Korea’s latest (would-be) blockbuster drama, The King: Eternal Monarch, aired last week as the series fizzled to an end following poor ratings in the country.

On Netflix Singapore, however, the fantasy romance has consistently shot to the top of the daily Top 10 rankings since it premiered on 17 April. Netflix had been releasing two episodes weekly, instead of its usual full-season drop, as it had to follow the broadcast schedule on SBS in South Korea.

The contradiction between the show’s poor reception in South Korea and its popularity on Netflix is a little surprising, but I will offer my own theories for that in this review.

A co-production between Studio Dragon and Netflix, the 16-episode show’s low ratings in South Korea were unexpected, as there had been a lot of hype surrounding The King before its premiere.

The drama had quite a few things going on for it to justify the anticipation surrounding it.

A-lister Lee Min Ho, arguably the most popular male celebrity in South Korea, stars in the lead role in The King in his first drama role since he completed his military service – his last drama was Legend Of The Blue Sea in 2016.

The King also stars Kim Go Eun as the female lead, who shot to popularity for her role in the mega hit drama Goblin in 2016.

The King: Eternal Monarch was written by acclaimed scriptwriter Kim Eun Sook, who is known for other smash hits, including Goblin, Descendants Of The Sun (2016), and Mr Sunshine (2018).

The series was directed by Baek Sang Hoon, who also helmed Descendants Of The Sun.

For the above reasons, The King had been touted as a sure-fire hit. However, although the star-studded cast put in great performances, the storyline and pacing leave much to be desired. The fact that the show got embroiled in political and celebrity controversies also affected its ratings.

Lee Min Ho’s character, Lee Gon, is, well, the king of the Kingdom of Korea, an alternate version of the actual Korean peninsula that we’re familiar with. In this parallel universe, North and South Korea are united under a constitutional monarchy, where a prime minister rules the country on behalf of the king.

When Lee Gon was a child, his evil uncle, Lee Lim, tries to violently take the throne from Gon’s father, the king at that time. Lim fails, but not before killing Gon’s father. He escapes into our universe with half of a magical flute, Manpasikjeok, that somehow exists in the alternate Korea, which is capable of opening doors into other worlds. The other half of the flute was rescued by Gon.

Lee Gon then becomes the king in his father’s place. As he chases Lee Lim into our world, he meets police officer Jeong Tae Eul (Kim Go Eun), who he inexplicably falls in love with.

The first few episodes of The King were way too slow (and they’re long episodes, each episode being almost the length of a movie, which is normal for Korean dramas.) There was hardly any plot and a host of side characters who didn’t have much to do with the main story.

The pacing picked up slightly as the series progressed, but the overall plot is very confusing due to time travel and lots of jumping back and forth in time in the narrative of the story itself. The actors’ good performances could not make up for the poor storyline and slow pacing.

The fantasy element might make you think that it’s an action-adventure story, but this is first and foremost a romantic drama. There are a few action set pieces throughout the series, but a lot of time is spent on Lee Gon and Tae-eul talking and flirting and generally romancing each other.

I’m very impressed with the number of product placements that they managed to feature in the show. In every episode, products or services from specific brands featured repeatedly in the script include bubble tea, fried chicken, bottled coffee, lip balm/facial mist, food delivery, kimchi, a bakery, and some sort of space helmet spa device. The heavy-handed in-show advertising got quite ridiculous quickly; it’s very distracting for a viewer trying to follow the storyline.

Apparently, product placements are a common practice in Korean dramas, but even in South Korea itself, people criticised the show for being so blatant with its product placements.

I imagine, though, that this is a form of wish fulfilment for many viewers who swoon over Lee Min Ho. Lee is a very good-looking guy, of course – that hair! That skin! Those gentle yet firm eyes! I imagine that it’s one of the current top Netflix shows because of this.

The King performed poorly in South Korea due to some domestic controversies surrounding the show. South Korea doesn’t have very good relations with its neighbour Japan – so South Koreans were very offended when the king’s palace in the alternate-universe Korea incorporated Japanese architecture, and a Japanese warship in a maritime battle scene between Japan and the Kingdom of Korea looked similar to an actual Korean warship.

Actress Jung Eun Chae, who plays the prime minister in the alternate Korea, also got embroiled in a scandal about an old affair she had with a married singer when the show aired, which led to negative backlash.

That being said, the show has obviously performed very well on Netflix so far, based on the Top 10 rankings in Singapore. Perhaps audiences outside South Korea, oblivious to the controversies peculiar to South Korean society, tuned in each week just to stare googly-eyed at Lee Min Ho’s face.

This review is for those who know nothing about the show and, now that the full series has been released, are wondering whether to watch it. My advice: don’t.

Did you watch The King: Eternal Monarch? Tell us in the comments below whether you liked it or not!