I have many dramas that I like, but The King Loves was the first one to creep into my soul like this.
Gradually, episode by episode, without much anticipation and without any extraordinary element catching the attention from the very beginning. Just through a very powerful story that unfolded naturally, uncovering great characters and very deep emotions. I am not even into historical dramas that much. But I find this drama truly amazing, and I will explain a few reasons for that.
…which is one of the most well written I’ve seen for a drama. That is no wonder, since we are talking about Song Ji Na here, who was also the script writer of Healer (one of my personal all time favorites). What I liked the most is that this script goes well beyond those tropes you meet in all historical dramas to the point you can guess each move of each character and also how it will end, straight from episode 1 (this is the reason I could never watch a sageuk from start to finish, take it seriously, and also enjoy it. Until now).
Here, the story follows a completely different path: all the storylines are intertwined logically, they all develop gradually, and right when you think you are sure about the course of action, the big twist steps in and ruins everything. It basically slashes most of the sageuk clichés we are used to see in such dramas. And it does that in a brilliant manner.
Rarely have I seen a story that unfolds so simply and naturally, yet with very profound and complicated undertones. It is essentially a story about love in different forms: motherly love, a friend’s love, love for one’s country, and ultimately romantic love. All these kinds of love, and how they influence and complete each other, are beautifully conveyed and you can just rewatch the show focusing on just one of them, to discover new and even deeper meanings.
I could write a whole full essay about the characters in The King Loves, because all of them are memorable, starting with the main Won-Rin-San trio, and up to the pair of villains that look rather like a pair of buffoons. Each has a strong personality and unlike many dramas where the supporting characters end up forgotten, here all characters make a long-lasting impression. Each character is complex in their own way, and each has their own powerful reasons for the actions they decide to take.
But the ones who truly stand out are indeed the three main characters. Song Ji Na did an amazing job, and what I find even more amazing is that she adapted the characters to the actors after meeting the actors and discovering them, not the other way around like they usually do in dramas. They felt at ease while portraying them because their characters were shaped according to their own personality.
My personal favorite is Rin and, surprisingly, I found myself thinking that he is my favorite character not only in TKL, but in all dramas I’ve seen so far. I have only one word for this character: beautiful. From all points of view.
Show me a character who is more selfless, more noble, more righteous, and ready to sacrifice his own happiness for the happiness of his dear ones. He stays in Won’s shadow and supports him unconditionally not because he has to, or because he has no choice, but because this is what he wants and what he thinks it’s right. It was completely his own choice, as he himself points out later in the drama.
Yet, he is by no means a submissive and ready-to-accept-everything character. When the time comes, he also shows that he can be as assertive and determined as he was gentle and reserved. He is far more complex as he initially lets us see, and he ultimately fully deserves what Song Ji Na had in store for him.
He and San are strikingly alike from many points of view, so together they definitely are a sight to behold. Visual match aside (which is incredibly powerful), they are so tuned to each other that it’s basically impossible not to strike your sensitive chord whenever you see them.
Visuals and cinematography
The King Loves is, among other things, a visual feast. In terms of backdrops, costumes, and overall aesthetics, it’s a drama hard to beat. I started watching it for a very petty reason: it was filmed mainly at MBC’s Dae Jang Geum park, which I visited this summer. I missed the place and felt the need to watch a drama that put all those houses and palaces in context. And I was rewarded far more than I initially expected (nonetheless, it was a pleasant feeling to know that I actually strolled around 90% of those beautiful filming spots).
The costumes deserve a separate praise and I must say that the designers were incredible. All outfits are just amazing, but Rin stands out also from this point of view. Put him on a catwalk, all gorgeous in those clothes of his, and even the most sophisticated fashion lover from nowadays would cower in shame. His costumes are royally beautiful and contribute a great deal to turning Rin into the most dazzling man of the entire Goryeo fandom.
Also on the visual chapter, this drama gives us some scenes that seem to be cut straight from an art movie. The one in the later part of the drama (episode 15 of the one-hour episode version), with the paintbrush held by San’s trembling fingers steadied by Rin’s soothing hand is my favorite scene in the whole dramaland. Ever.
It is a very emotionally charged scene that silently speaks volumes. The music, lighting and chromatic also add to the overall effect, and the result is glorious. I could rewatch this scene over and over again without being bored, just for the simple aesthetic pleasure of seeing such amazing visuals.
Before The King Loves, I’d seen Hong Jong Hyun and Yoona in only one drama before. I saw HJH in Scarlet Heart (which, regardless how much I like Lee Joon Ki, I just couldn’t finish – I have yet to see the last three episodes), where he was so much in character as Wang Yo that it was almost impossible not to hate him deeply and wish he would just disappear in the pit of hell.
And I saw Yoona in K2 (and didn’t like her one bit). Or better said, I tried to watch her in K2, but that whole drama was such a crap that I just couldn’t watch more than a few episodes (not even for Ji Chang Wook. No. Never.) So it might have been just because of the insipid character she had to portray. In other words, I started watching The King Loves quite biased regarding those two.
And… it was one of those fortunate situations where I was extremely happy to be proven wrong. Their chemistry as Rin and San was simply off charts. If indeed the book’s characters came to life this very second, I am 100% sure they would come to life as Hong Jong Hyun and Yoona portrayed them. The entire cast was stellar, and Im Siwan’s depiction of Won was unparalleled, but I have the feeling that TKL just wouldn’t have been the same without HJH and Yoona as Rin and San.
As for the title, there are two different translations circulating for the English version: The King Loves and The King in Love. I would settle for The King Loves not because it is the most accurate translation (the exact translation of the simple present tense Korean 왕은 사랑한다), but because it is the only translation possible, the only one that resonates with the general idea of the story.
It’s not about Won’s romantic love for San. It’s ultimately about him learning selfless love. Towards Rin as a real friend, towards San romantically, towards his father as a son. It’s a story about coming of age, and it’s enough to mirror the childish bickering in the first episode against the last scene with the three of them in the last episode, with Won in king attire, to see how much the three characters have evolved.
For now I am completely immersed in this drama and I am currently rewatching it (it is available on Viki) paying a lot of attention to Rin’s storyline. And it’s just incredible to see how many hidden hints and details you can discover based on the angle you are watching. In any case, it will stay very dear to my heart and, most probably, in the future I will revisit it from time to time. Because it’s almost impossible to get tired of it.
Co-founder and former editor-in-chief of CosplayGEN Magazine, editor at CollectiKult, and a translation industry professional.