Updated: Jan 28
The KBS2 20-episode rom-com sageuk (historical drama) The King's Affection tells the story of a princess disguised as a prince (Park Eun-bin), who falls in love with her teacher (SF9’s Ro-woon). While its title mentions affection only from the king, the k-drama shows the various forms of love among its characters that could either heal or kill.
The k-drama is written for the screen by Han Hee-jung (Clean with Passion for Now, 2018) and directed by Song Hyun-wook (The Beauty Inside TV series, 2018). It is based on the manhwa (Korean comic) turned into the webtoon Yeonmo written by Lee So-young.
A temporary swap of clothing (think The Prince and the Pauper) becomes a permanent full-time “acting” job for Joseon court maid Dam-yi, who is forced to live not only as a man but also as a prince.
Born a princess and a twin, Dam-yi is ordered to be killed at birth but is instead banished from the palace. She later returns as a court maid (portrayed by child actress Choi Myung-bin). Noticing he resembles her, her twin brother Prince Lee Hwi (also played by Choi Myung-bin) exchanges clothes with her. Unfortunately, he is mistakenly killed; Dam-yi, the target, luckily escapes death a second time. Forced to act as Prince Lee Hwi (adult portrayed by Park Eun-bin), she guards her deadly, treasonous secret. She vows to take down the corrupt and powerful using her wisdom and power, with the help of her loyal friends.
Despite the heavy opening, The King’s Affection is still a rom-com. Dam-yi falls in love with her teacher, the wise and upright (also handsome and brawny) Jung Ji-woon played by idol group SF9’s Ro-woon. Amidst keeping her identity and hiding her feelings, hijinks ensue. Will she reveal her feelings and risk the death of those who know her secret? Will her love life get in the way of her goals for her kingdom? How will she fulfill her other royal duty of producing an heir?
Beyond the romance, The King’s Affection shows the power of parental love and friendship. Dam-yi escapes death twice through the protective love of her mother, Crown Princess Han (Han Chae-ah), although the last save extinguishes her freedom and identity. Ji-woon is driven away by the suffocating love of his father, Inspector Jung Seok-jo (Bae Soo-bin). Left State Councilor Lord Sangheon (Yoon Je-moon) is not capable of love at all, as he sees his own daughter, Crown Princess Han, or his grandchildren, as mere tools for power.
Healthier love between friends, however, is abundantly shown. Lee Hwi leans a lot on her cousin and confidante Lee Hyun (Nam Yoon-su). Lee Hyun, in turn, has a strong bond with Ji-woon despite the class difference and love rivalry (second lead syndrome alert!). Shin So-eun (Bae Yoon-kyung) likes Ji-woon, who influences her to become a better person. No Hak-yung (DIA’s Jung Chae-yeon) likes Lee Hwi but suffers from the consequence of the well-guarded secret identity. The three casualties of the “forbidden love” between Lee Hwi and Ji-woon do not turn them into toxic monsters though. Worth noting is Kim Jae-chul (Yoon Hyeong-seol), the bodyguard of Lee Hwi’s father, who attempts to bring Inspector Jung back to the straight path, but Inspector Jung engages him in sword fights instead. Is there room for another character to be transformed by love?
These heartfelt and heartbreaking interactions were brought to life onscreen through brilliant casting and acting. The child actors were easily believable as younger counterparts of the adult performers. Even the consistency of physical details was considered. For example, both Kim Ro-woon and Nam Yoon-su, who portray Lee Hyun, have dimples. Kim Gun and Ko Kyu-pil, who both play Eunuch Hong, look like the young and older versions of each other, respectively. More importantly, the personalities of the child and adult characters were consistently portrayed overall.
Choi Myung-bin had a challenging dual role which required frequent transformations. In fact, she played four roles so successfully that one could tell them apart: Dam-yi, young Prince Lee Hwi, the prince disguised as a maid, and Dam-yi pretending to be the prince. Her older counterpart, Park Eun-bin, made the gender-bender more believable by deepening her voice and displaying her horseback riding, archery, and sword fighting skills. She embodied the Ice Prince who warms up only to a few people she trusts: Lee Hyun, Court Lady Kim (Baek Hyeon-joo), Eunuch Hong, and later, Jae-chul and her bodyguard Kim Ga-on (Victon's Choi Byung-chan). She had undeniable chemistry with Ro-woon. Together, they executed fun subverted tropes: Ji-woon mesmerized by her athletic skills, and tsundere (cold outside, warm inside) Lee Hwi catching the lovestruck Ji-woon in her arms.
Multiple layers of irony are woven into the plot. The female twin which Lord Sangheon, her maternal grandfather, secretly tries to eliminate not just survives, but eventually becomes king. At a time when women cannot be heads of households because of Confucianism, an unmarried woman becomes ruler of the kingdom. The bad omen who dares share the womb with her twin brother becomes the sole occupant of the throne. In addition, the character who should have protected Prince Lee Hwi and his lineage is the one who mistakenly kills the prince. Another irony emerges towards the end involving Lee Hwi and Lord Sangheon, however, it contains a spoiler. In an epic twist, she outsmarts her grandfather and finds a way out of the conundrum.
An abrupt scene transition, some disappointing action sequences, confusion between two nobles whose actors look alike, and the inexplicable survival from poison at times interrupt the viewing experience. Despite these few hiccups, The King’s Affection’s plot is infused with ironies and non-toxic romance, complemented by complex characters, and brought to life by skillful actors, making it one of 2021's highest-rated k-dramas.
Stream if: You like rom-coms with non-toxic romances and strong female characters; Available on Netflix
Skip if: You are looking for a sageuk with epic and consistently believable action sequences (Park Eun-bin, Kim Jae-chul, and Bae Soo-bin nail their action scenes though).