'Under the Queen’s Umbrella' combines drama, determination and some distortion
“A crown prince is not born. He is made.”
The line is murmured, full of determination by the Queen Hwa-ryeong, portrayed by Kim Hye-soo in tvN drama series “Under the Queen’s Umbrella.”
In the most recent episode, Queen Hwa-ryeong loses her eldest son, the crown prince, portrayed by Bae In-hyuk, to an illness. She casts her sorrow aside to prepare her remaining four sons to become kings.
Set in a fictional period within the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), King Yi Ho, portrayed by Choi Won-young, opens up an era of peace and prosperity thanks to his sage ruling.
However, he has more than 10 wives and a total of 13 sons who all have the same purpose — to become the next king.
With such fiery competition, grace and royal dignity is a luxury for Queen Hwa-ryeong who has no time to rest due to her trouble-making sons and the fear of them losing the title of crown prince to other concubines’ sons.
“Under the Queen’s Umbrella” is screenwriter Park Ba-ra’s debut drama, while producer Kim Hyung-sik behind SBS’s “Sign” (2011), “Ghost” (2012) and “Secret Door” (2014) took helm of the series.
The series, which kicked off with a viewership rating of 7.6 percent, jumped to 11.3 percent for Episode 6 and ranked No. 10 on Netflix’s Global Top 10 chart in the non-English TV category from Oct. 24 to 30, having been streamed over 8 million hours during the week.
Its success is in part due the fusion of historical drama with elements of entertainment as previously seen in SBS’s “Ladies of the Palace,” which revolves around palace politics between the concubines.
The scene where the princes gather to study at Jonghak, a royal educational institution, is reminiscent of JTBC’s modern satirical drama “SKY Castle” (2018-19), which saw packs of students holed up in hagwon, or private cram schools. To achieve the honor to study alongside the crown prince, the concubines compete to secretly hire the most proficient private tutors to prep their sons, using all sorts of home remedies in the hopes of improving their sons’ chances. Queen Hwa-ryeong, who cannot bear to resort to such illegalities, instead goes through the study books herself and makes a list of expected questions to help her sons.
Queen Dowager, portrayed by Kim Hae-sook, is Queen Hwa-ryeong’s mother-in-law who fuels the already-competitive palace atmosphere by deciding that not only direct heir, but the most intelligent among the 13 princes should be crowned the next king.
Queen Dowager, who was a concubine herself, is well-known on the palace grounds for her cunningness and ruthlessness, which is how she made her son the king.
“The series distinguishes itself [from other similar works] not through objectifying female characters, but instead placing them as protagonists who lead the narrative with the desire to make their sons the next king,” Professor Yun Seok-jin of Korean Language and Literature in Chungnam University told the JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
“Although Joseon was a strictly feudal society based on blood heritage and hierarchy, it’s interesting that the protagonists do not accept their already-fixed destinies and believe that they can change through struggle and hard work.”
The show initially sparked interest among the public for the reunion of top actors Kim Hye-soo and Kim Hae-sook, who appear on screen together for the first time since director Choi Dong-hoon’s movie “The Thieves” in 2012. Queen Hwa-ryeong’s wayward princes — Prince Seongnam, Prince Muan, Prince Gyeseong and Prince Ilyeong, portrayed by Moon Sang-min, Yoon Sang-hyun, Yoo Seon-ho and Park Ha-jun, respectively, have also garnered attention.
“The show also differs from other historical dramas as it does not merely use Prince Gyeseong’s secret of putting on makeup and dressing in women’s clothes as entertainment, but instead highlights Queen Hwa-ryeong as a mother who understands her son’s sexual identity,” drama critic Gong Hee-jung said.
Although the show succeeded in distinguishing itself from other historical dramas, it failed to avoid criticism regarding factual inaccuracies.
In Episode 2, the phrase “Mul Gwi Won Ju,” which roughly translates to "missing or stolen objects gradually come back to their owner," showed up in the subtitles in simplified Chinese characters instead of hanja, which were the characters that were actually used during Joseon.
TvN quickly responded to the issue saying “the subtitles were a mistake which we fixed right away."
Some historians have also pointed out scenes where princes compete for the throne are not plausible because Joseon was a society that was strictly based on direct blood heritage.
“[The controversy surround the series] is different from SBS’s ‘Joseon Exorcist,’ which was canceled after just two episodes due to historical distortion,” culture critic Jeong Deok-hyun said. “In ‘Queen’s Umbrella,’ there are no real characters in the story. The Korean title of the series, pronounced “syurup,” is an old Korean word for umbrella which highlights a mother’s sacrifice, who will hold an umbrella over her son’s head instead of hers. However, it is true that local drama series should be careful when bringing a specific historical context to their narratives as they are being seen worldwide through global streaming platforms.”
BY MIN KYUNG-WON [firstname.lastname@example.org]